The Best Anime of 2016
James Beckett and Jacob Chapman
5. Mob Psycho 100
Author ONE and Studio Bones’ follow up to 2015's smash hit, One-Punch Man, could easily be called the more cerebral companion piece to that hyper kinetic action manifesto. Though Mob Psycho 100 contains its fair share of bombast and spectacle, it also has quite a bit to say about what it means to find yourself in the strange and tenuous days of young adulthood. Anime has turned the super powered coming-of-age story into a cultural touchstone in and of itself, but Mob Psycho 100 still finds a surprising amount of heft in exploring these familiar themes. Its gorgeous, idiosyncratic art style and willingness to push its animation to the limits certainly help elevate the material beyond its admittedly pedestrian trappings. While I'm not yet sure of the series will have the staying power of the medium's more enduring successes, Mob Psycho 100 was an entertaining and occasionally even moving romp, and I enjoyed every minute I spent with it.
4. 91 Days
91 Days was just excellent, and it may have well have been called “An Anime Made Specifically for James”. I'm a sucker for pretty much any kind of period piece set during the United States ’ Prohibition era, and making it a mob drama/revenge story only sweetens the deal. 91 Days hits every checkbox on the List of Things I Like to Watch, and while it doesn't do anything groundbreaking or revolutionary as far as its writing or directing is concerned, it is remarkably and consistently good at taking a story so familiar to American culture and putting just enough of a spin on it to keep it fresh. Director Hiro Kaburagi and his crew are so confident and clear in their vision for the story. They're falling back on familiar tropes most of the time, which helps, but the story remains focused and entertaining from the first episode all the way to the end. Angelo Lagusa's mission of vengeance is told with such a moody and assured grace; it's one of the few series from 2016 that I'm immediately eager to rewatch from the beginning.
3. Re:Zero - Starting Life in Another World –
Re:Zero had a lot of things stacked against it, at least for me. It's a light novel adaptation, which can be incredibly hit or miss these days, and it operates in that most well worn and overplayed of scenarios: Real World Otaku Gets Sucked Into a Fantasy World and Has to Save the Day. So imagine my surprise when Re:Zero wasn't just good, but great. While Subaru isn't the most compelling hero to grace the anime stage this year, his Groundhog Day-esque predicament makes for an immediately compelling conflict, and brings out shades of gray in his characterization that make him genuinely interesting, if not always the most likable. And while the fantasy world Subaru finds himself in isn't the most creative or concrete of fantasy settings, author Tappei Nagatsuki and studio White Fox have populated that world with characters that transcend their clichés, ending up as well rounded and endearing as any other cast this year. We will see if another season will arrive to fully live up to the series’ potential, but as it stands, Re:Zero was some of the most fun I've had watching anime all year.
2. Flip Flappers.
Putting Flip Flappers so high in this list could very well be a big mistake. Not only is it unfinished as of the time of this writing, but the last handful of episodes have suffered a marked decline in quality from the excellent first half of the season. While things have picked up as of episode 13, it's technically possible that Flip Flappers could totally flub the landing and walk away more a fascinating waste of potential than anything else. None of that changes the fact that I absolutely adore this show, warts and all, so putting it any lower on the list, or leaving it out entirely, was simply not an option. So much about Flip Flappers just works so damn well that I know there will be just as many brilliant moments to remember as there will be stumbles. Pure Illusion works both as an excellent science-fantasy conceit and and excuse to offer some of the most gorgeous, lush, and feverish animation of the year. Cocona and Papika are also two of my favorite characters of the year, exploring the angst and ennui of adolescence with the weird, romantic, and dichotomous combination of wonder and unease that anime pulls off so well. Is the plot occasionally a hot mess? Yes. Does the animation and direction take a dip in the shows back third? Sure. None of that matters, though, compared to the pure, unbridled magic Flip Flappers’ manages to evoke week to week, so it's place near the top of this list is secure.
1. Yuri!!! on Ice
Is Yuri!!! on Ice a predictable pick for Number 1? Maybe, but I make absolutely no apologies for it, because this series absolutely floored me, not to mention a good portion of the anime-viewing Internet population. Hands down, no other series was so relentlessly and exquisitely joyous to watch this year as Yuri!!! on Ice, and it deserves all of the praise it has been getting. Sure, it's moment to moment storytelling often works better than its Big Picture plotting and pacing, but man, do those moments absolutely sing when they occur. Throughout its twelve episode run, Studio MAPPA managed to generate more genuine suspense and heartfelt pathos than most other series of the year combined, and it worked in some incredible animated skating routines to boot. Writer Mitsuro Kubo and Director Sayo Yamamoto should be commended for crafting a sports anime that does justice to the craft, and giving us a love story that breaks a lot of ground on how LGBT characters are depicted in anime. A lot of people seem to have expected more explicit confirmation of Yuri and Victor's feelings for one another, but I for one am beaming with just how much we've already been given. Victor and Yuri have been given one of the most fleshed out and compelling relationships I've seen on television this year, anime or otherwise, which is a victory not only for queer representation, but just plain good writing. Simply put, no anime made me happier this year than Yuri!!! on Ice. It offered hope and love and optimism in a cultural climate that so often felt filled with fear and uncertainty and doubt. It is a series that doesn't just dream of a better world for its heroes, it demands one, and creates it for itself when nobody else will do so. It contains as much passion and artistry and stubborn resolve as I've seen in anything else this year, anime or otherwise, and easily earns the title of Best Anime of 2016.
5. JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable
Jojo The Fourth was easily the most ambitious and impressive JJBA adaptation yet, with inspired production and pacing choices, a clearly deep love for the material baked into every frame, and a finally perfected color scheme after many episodes of experimentation in adapting Araki's gaudy and ever-changing palette to television. Battle Tendency and Stardust Crusaders already stood out as two of the most affectionate and exquisite anime adaptations I had ever seen, so David Production topping themselves yet again was impressive all on its own. That said, Diamond is Unbreakable is less like one story compared to previous Jojo's arcs, more like a dozen little story experiments and sideroads that weave through one city and eventually come back into a main conflict. So I'll admit that its lack of focus and cohesion made me less enthusiastic about the show through its middle third (so I still prefer Stardust Crusaders if I had to choose between them), but its outstanding final act absolutely drove home what people love so much about Josuke's bizarre summer. Even if its meandering momentum and overstuffed cast dampened my affection compared to previous parts, I can't deny that Diamond's high points blew all previous Jojos out of the water in creativity, humor, and tension. JJBA p4's place on my list only represents about 60% of the show's glut of episodes, but that 60% was 200% brilliant.
4. Thunderbolt Fantasy
I went back and forth pretty hard on whether I should include this Taiwanese puppet show on a list of best "anime" of the year, but if full 3DCG anime is eligible now (and there are plenty of CG monsters in this show too), I don't see why other mediums doing a flawless imitation of anime style shouldn't be considered, and few things this year were more emphatically "ANIME!" than Thunderbolt Fantasy. With anime screenwriting legend Gen Urobuchi, anime music composer powerhouse Hiroyuki Sawano, and the incredibly otaku crew at Nitroplus helming production on this one-of-a-kind creation, it's hard not to consider Thunderbolt Fantasy a new breed of anime entirely. Using elaborate puppet character designs that would be almost impossible to animate otherwise and a heap of ufotable-esque visual effects layered over immaculate action choreography, Thunderbolt Fantasy delivered the most pulse-pounding, jaw-dropping fight scenes of the year over twelve episodes of tightly paced storytelling that took sly jabs at tabletop roleplaying tropes and mythic tales alike, without ever detracting from the bombastic fun. If you come to anime for spectacle, novelty, and surprising wit that doesn't force you to take the adventure too seriously, don't be fooled by those serene puppet faces on the poster. Thunderbolt Fantasy was hands-down the best action-adventure of the year, and I can't wait for season two!
3. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu
Most of the time, it feels lame for me to slip on my monocle, pull out my bubble pipe, and tout an anime series as "For Adults Only," but Rakugo made me want to tear off my monocle, slam my bubble pipe down on the table, and just gush praise about how very FOR ADULTS this ambitious project was. While its subject matter might seem inaccessible at first, the incredibly potent character drama that unfolds speaks volumes on so many different levels of analysis and experience. You can talk solely about Rakugo's portrayal of complex human emotions, you can look at it as an analogue for the troubled time periods it covers, you can delve into its ideas on artistic expression as an outlet for individuals and reflection of society, you can sink deep into its explorations of gender and sexuality, and layer after layer of meaning down deeper. Almost every scene in Rakugo works on multiple levels to tell an understated tragedy of dreamers who are only able to express their true selves through art when society denies them any other path. It's a rakugo competition, history lesson, tragically tangled romantic triangle, and so much more. And it's only half over. I can't wait to see how Kikuhiko's story concludes as the show's second half leaps forward to the twilight years of his life, where a new young whippersnapper refuses to let him take his mountain of regrets silently to the grave.
2. your name.
I've already talked for like an hour about your name. on ANN, so I probably shouldn't blather on forever about how you should totally see this movie the second it's in your local theater, even if you don't like Makoto Shinkai movies, just go see it seriously. I will say that your name. has something in common with my #1 pick that just happens to be important to me personally as an anime critic: cultural penetration. It's extraordinarily hard for non-Ghibli productions to garner recognition outside of the "anime ghetto" that even other nerds try to toss all Japanese animation into, much less mainstream audiences. While I really don't care for slapping that "next Miyazaki" label on Shinkai myself, with Miyazaki's inevitable resignation and the ensuing slowdown of feature production at Ghibli, there was definitely a quiet concern that no one else was yet ready to produce animation that would speak to a global audience, introducing more people to the unique beauty of anime through early experiences like Spirited Away or Kiki's Delivery Service had done. your name. is both unmistakably borne from the specific time in which it was made and the pet fascinations of its unique, firmly un-Miyazaki-like director, but it's also a universal love story that people from all ages and cultures can enjoy. It's a great movie all on its own, but I'm also excited by what its success might mean for anime films in the future.
1. Yuri!!! on Ice
Just like my #2 pick, I've already blabbed volumes about this wonderful surprise hit on ANN already, so rather than talk about what made this anime so special on its own for the billionth time, I'd rather talk about the incredible impact it had on its viewers. Anime fans are used to occasional megahits busting out into the mainstream, like Attack on Titan or One-Punch Man, but those titles usually have something in common: they're Western-friendly, spectacle-driven action shows that basically anybody can appreciate on a simple visceral level before even getting into the meat of their story and characters. So on paper, there was basically zero chance that an extremely emotion-driven gay romance about professional ice skaters, made predominantly by women for women, would end up being one of the biggest and most beloved series of the year within anime fandom, much less bursting outside of it.
And yet, here we are. If Yuri!!! on Ice's goal was to bring the world together in a mutual celebration of love and diversity, it achieved that more wildly than any anime I have yet seen. I saw fans from Southeast Asia and Kazakhstan elated to see themselves represented in an anime with respect and nuance, along with latino Americans rejoicing that the US champion, Leo de la Iglesia, was a guy who looked like them instead of another blond-haired-blue-eyed stereotype. I saw many world-class ice skaters who don't otherwise have time for anime excitedly shotgunning the series over a couple days, including gay athletes like Johnny Weir and Adam Rippon who were elated to see their work reflected in its cast. I remember when these rare anime like Space Brothers would air, and I wished that non-anime fans who loved space exploration or even worked at NASA could be introduced to it more easily, despite knowing that the "anime ghetto" so often kept gems like this from reaching a wider audience. In a world where this only seems to happen for the occasional teen-aimed action series, Yuri!!! on Ice finally broke through to tell a mature and thoughtful story about love and artistic expression around the world, and I got to see people from all walks of life embrace that message in a year that threatened to overwhelm many people with grief and fear. I saw so many people say that watching Yuri fight his way out of self-doubt and learn to love himself and others week after week saved them from depression in 2016, and even if the show wasn't a beautiful and heartwarming character drama on its own merits, that spark of hope it gave people would be more than enough to make it my #1 anime of 2016.
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