The Best Anime of 2018
Paul Jensen, Amy McNulty and Lauren Orsini
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I've found that there's rarely enough time to keep up with all the new shows airing each season, much less go back and watch anything a second time. In fact, out of everything I watched in 2018, there's only one title I went out of my way to revisit: Laid-Back Camp. Other shows may have told more emotionally gripping stories or done more to innovate within the medium, but this slice of life series had the kind of relaxed, unassuming charm that so many of its genre stablemates aim for but never attain. With its unexpectedly strong character writing, often beautiful background art, and obvious enthusiasm for its subject material, Laid-Back Camp hit all of the points that make this kind of series enjoyable. While I have zero interest in camping for real, I'll happily watch Nadeshiko, Rin, and company geek out over camping gear any day of the week.
A teenage girl develops a crush on a middle-aged restaurant manager. With a premise like that, After the Rain could have easily been a blazing dumpster inferno. Instead, it's occupying a comfortable spot on my “best of the year” list, and that's all thanks to excellent writing and direction. Instead of wallowing in the potential scandal of its central relationship, After the Rain used that spark of misplaced affection to get inside the heads of some believably flawed and deeply human characters. The series did a great job of examining how well-meaning people can stray from their intended paths in life, and how getting back on track can be a slow and sometimes painful process. Even if you've never been in any of the characters' exact situations, the show's themes of regret, loneliness, and deferred dreams are universal enough to strike a chord with most viewers. Combine that insightful character development with a distinctive and effective art style and you get a great drama series.
I enjoyed Megalobox as a standalone series when I watched it, but it wasn't until later in the year that I gained a full appreciation for it. As a spiritual successor to the classic boxing series Tomorrow's Joe, Megalobox borrowed many of its characters and plot points from its predecessor and adapted them into a new setting. While the finished product is more than good enough to stand on its own, it's all the more impressive when placed in the larger context of the franchise. The new, near-future setting mixed things up just enough to make those old character arcs feel fresh and relevant, and it was all presented with an effortlessly cool sense of style. Gearless Joe, his allies, and even his rivals played their parts well, making for a compelling underdog story. Watch Megalobox if you're looking for a top-notch sports series, and read up a little on its predecessor if you want to get even more out of the experience.
This series essentially came out of nowhere; as an original production with no connection to any established franchises, A Place Further Than the Universe had little to recommend it except the premise of four teenage girls going to Antarctica. Despite that humble beginning, this turned out to be one of the best coming of age dramas I've seen in quite a while. Its protagonists were ordinary to the point where they were immediately relatable, yet their journey was presented with enough depth and nuance that they were anything but bland. This show hit a sweet spot for its genre where it was able to take an insightful look at adolescence from multiple perspectives, and in doing so it delivered moments of powerful emotion without ever sacrificing its positive tone. If you are (or have ever been) a young person facing uncertainty over what to do with the rest of your life, you'll find plenty to connect with in A Place Further Than the Universe.
Normally, if a series manages to surprise me once or twice, I'll call it a success. Hinamatsuri surprised me nearly every week for a full season. This show put on an incredible balancing act between heartfelt drama and off-the-wall comedy, bouncing back and forth between them as if juggling two genres was the easiest thing in the world. Plenty of titles promise to make viewers laugh and cry, but Hinamatsuri actually found a way to do both equally well. On top of that, it displayed a creative streak that refused to be contained; week after week, the series went far out of its way to break the rules of storytelling. Dramatic peaks were swiftly turned into punchlines, throwaway jokes became the starting points of full character arcs, and somehow it all worked better than it had any right to. Hinamatsuri is insane in the best possible way, and it offers the kind of wild unpredictability that makes anime such a fascinating form of entertainment.
One of the funniest anime of the year pairs a member of the yakuza with a taciturn alien girl and focuses on the way their personalities clash as supernatural alien Hina gets used to life on Earth. Hinamatsuri is a series that succeeds on the strength of its characters, with a secondary cast as memorable as the main duo, including a reluctantly financially successful middle schooler and a homeless alien tsundere girl who follows Hina to Earth. Though his heart is usually in the right place, Nitta never quite becomes the ideal father figure to his alien charge, but that's what makes these amusing slice-of-life stories so hilarious.
The banality of office life clashes with the grunt work necessary to make villains' wicked plans succeed in Mr. Tonegawa. Without even having seen the series it spun off from, I'd say the hallmarks of the typical fictional evil organization are clear enough, particularly the generic way the “men in black” dress. It's endlessly amusing to find the same kind of bureaucracy one might encounter in the average company at work even amongst those who are engineering illegal death games and forced labor for their debtors. The second season, which introduces the perspective of one of the forced laborers on his rare “days off” from his hard work, add some much-needed variation to the show and serve to make the series a wholly amusing look at the average lives of those responsible for and caught up in outrageous, over-the-top cartoonish villainy.
Already a dark show, The Ancient Magus' Bride enters some thought-provoking territory when the relationship between Chise and Elias becomes irrevocably broken. Even accepting that Elias never quite fully understood what it means to be human, his callous actions toward young Stella prove too much for Chise to stick with him, and they spend the climax of the season apart. Chise grows as a character, learning to feel, to care again, even if it means conscientiously rejecting the person she cares about most. In addition to being consistently visually ephemeral, this series takes some unexpected twists this season and kept me riveted until the end.
2. A Place Further Than the Universe
This series is both educational and emotionally gripping, complete with full-dimensional characters and stunning visuals of the frozen tundra that will stick with you long after you finish the last episode. A Place Further Than the Universe is a unique entry into the “teen girls having fun” genre, showing that with determination (and more than a little luck), youngsters can find purpose and make their dreams come true by stepping out of their comfort zones and exploring new worlds. The series doesn't downplay the dichotomy of the alternating danger and monotony of their mission, but that in and of itself makes those bigger, more memorable moments at the ends of the Earth all the more meaningful.
With Gintama kicking off its final arc, 2018 marks the end of an era—or rather, the beginning of the end of an era. The final entry in the show's quadrilogy of endgame arcs, Silver Soul is chockfull of edge-of-your-seat action, high-stakes drama, and the anything-goes comedy for which this series is famous. Although certain portions of the story feel condensed, this arc manages to incorporate nearly every major character and supporting player from the show's enormous cast, dish out a number of emotional gut-punches, and deliver one of the most frenetic battle sequences in the series' history. Of course, this being Gintama, the proceedings never take themselves too seriously, with fourth-wall breaks, overblown physical comedy, and toilet humor still flowing like water.
Silver Soul marks a number of turning points for Gintama, but taking the story two years into the future is arguably the most notable. Prior to this, the series had utilized a floating timeline in which the characters remained the same age, making the unexpected time-jump feel like even more of a game-changer and driving home the fact that things will never be the same for our favorite Kabuki District denizens. The latest season also concludes in the most Gintama-ish manner possible, with Gintoki and the gang holding a mock trial in which they act as mouthpieces for the anime staff and bemoan the parent manga's lack of a concrete end date.
Four well-designed and deeply expressive main characters navigate work, love, and being giant nerds in this startlingly polished indie manga turned anime. Its homegrown concept gives it a “for fans by fans” vibe while its slick, polished visuals make it easy on the eyes. Narumi and her friends each fit into a different recognizable subset of otaku, but it is their dialogue and the antagonistic banter that comes with it (it should be surprising to nobody that these fans have powerfully held opinions about their hobbies) that bring them to life. To top it all off, “Fiction” by sumika is perhaps the catchiest opening song of the year while the accompanying character dances make it mesmerizing.
It's not often that a short makes it into my top five, but Aggretsuko's Millennial misery sets the perfect tone to combat the nihilism that has characterized 2018. Like many twenty-somethings, Aggretsuko has been put in a tough situation and she's rightfully mad about it. Her creative reaction, death metal, is fun to listen to in both the English and Japanese dub. Aggretsuko builds a believable world parallel to our own in half the time it takes most shows. Cute and clever character designs (they even made the office secretary a Secretary Bird!) combine with a thoroughly realist comic critique on the drudgery of modern young adulthood. It's universal enough to be the one anime you can recommend to non-fans this year and still be assured they'll enjoy it.
The story of a psychic lab rat and her yakuza dad sounds like a trope combination made in hell, but an aggressively effervescent storytelling format makes it the comedy hit of the year. Hina and her friends haven't been given the best hand of cards in life, and this show deals with several dark themes as a result. However, the show keeps things upbeat with comedic timing that's no less than perfect—too silly and it'd be offensive, too dark and it'd be depressing. A soft, watercolor-like art style further lightens the mood. As a result, I was left in hysterics throughout sketches about themes as dire and bizarre as gang violence and child labor.
2. Laid Back Camp
A lot of anime about cute girls or boys indulging in a mutual hobby focuses far too much on sterilizing the shared activity in favor of making the characters seem like attractive potential dates. Laid Back Camp is instead about making its characters seem real. As a former teen girl myself, Rin's texting conversations with her friends ring true while her real motivators for winter camping (eating, lounging in a blanket, practicing deep introversion) are refreshingly relatable. This low-tension show instead uses enviable travel porn to keep viewers' attention. Any time you hear the show's joyful opening “Shiny Days,” you know you're in for a relaxing good time.
A pulp classic got a masterful revival this winter. Talented director Masaaki Yuasa (perhaps best known for Ping Pong The Animation) lends his knack for breezy character design and fluid animation to a franchise many fans (like me!) were exposed to this year for the first time. Its gratuitous sex and gore won't make this a good pick for everyone, but its more explicit aspects make it terrifying—if it'll show us this, then what will happen next? However, this is not the kind of show that numbs you to violence; it only hurts more as the body count climbs. It's that unsettling, lingering impact that ensures this show's legacy will outlast the year.
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