The Best Anime of 2018
Theron Martin and Rebecca Silverman
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For the first time in years I actually struggled to find titles worthy to fill out my Top 5 list rather than struggling to figure out which titles to cut. There certainly wasn't a lack of entertaining series in 2018, so maybe I just ended up not following the quality shows this year? Whatever the case, this was also the first time in many years where my #1 pick was clear-cut; the other four are all at least a full step below.
This one isn't on the same level as the others in my Top 5 in terms of technical merits, but no anime series I've ever seen has produced anywhere near as thoughtful, involved, and insightful a look at the relationship between humans and technology in a next-century setting, so this one is here primarily for conceptual merits. Its story involves a deceptively powerful and special artificial human becoming a “tool” to pursue a future of peaceful human/AI coexistence desired by a high school boy, and that opens up a window into examination of heady issues like what might actually happens when AIs outstrip human intelligence, how people can be manipulated by psychological gimmicks, the way the disenfranchised might see AI-controlled artificial humans as a threat, and so forth. It's a series where battles are sometimes more tense duels of philosophy than actual physical conflicts, and I respect that.
4. Overlord II and III
Since these two seasons aired like a split-cour title, I'm considering them one series for purposes of this exercise. With that in mind, the series earns its place here more for the second part than the third, though it remains a very solid power fantasy throughout. It achieves this ranking primarily by smartly acknowledging that the titular character usually works better as a background character while a diverse and involving array of secondary characters and guest appearances take the limelight most of the time. That it almost never misses in doing so – whether those characters are lizardmen heroes, a martial arts-specializing butler, a devilishly-witted yandere princess, doomed adventurers, or a village girl thrown into the role of being leader – is a remarkable accomplishment, and it has its share of humor amongst its very dark elements, too.
3. Attack on Titan season 3
While I've always found the franchise to be entertaining, I have also been reluctant to give it much credit as a quality series. This season, to my surprise, changed that. It took the daring move of mostly eschewing fighting Titans to examine the conflicts between humans inherent within the setting and the grand plots concerning rulership which had little to nothing to do with the Titans. Remarkably, it pulled that off far better than I would have imagined, in part by linking current events to the backgrounds of several established and one new character. The franchise's best technical merits to date and another great opening theme certainly didn't hurt.
Easily one of the funniest series of 2018, this one was a constant delight in its story about an empowered girl from another world suddenly ending up in the home of a successful young yakuza and falling under his care, a task that the yakuza had decidedly mixed feelings about given Hina's lazy attitude and difficult personality. It regularly introduced great supporting characters, from a middle school classmate of Hina's who winds up as a bartender, a fellow empowered girl who winds up in a homeless camp before being taken in by an older couple, and another empowered girl who winds up stranded on a desert island. Its greatest charms, though, are the way it mixes absurdity and humor with occasional poignant moments and the way it makes its characters colorful without being too over-the-top.
1. Maquia – When the Promised Flower Blooms
This was title to beat from the time I saw it during its U.S. theatrical release, and nothing else which came out since even approached it. The basic underlying story about a 15-year-old girl who has lost her home struggling to raise an orphaned baby boy is compelling on its own, but that she's immortal and ever-young, and the way her relationship with her adopted son changes over the years because of that, adds multiple additional layers of depth. Meanwhile her fellow immortals deal with their own problems relating to the attack which flung Maquia out of her sheltered world, sometimes in poignant fashion and sometimes in devastating ways. It's a well-animated and sometimes emotional production which is easily believable as an examination of writer/director Mari Okada's own evolving relationship with her mother, all while being a satisfying fantasy story, too.
As far as “cute and sweet” goes, it's hard to top this little charmer. But there's also more than mere cuteness here, as the tiny little monsters make their homes with high school students who uniquely need their special gifts – whether that's a friend to take away the nightmares, a source of comfort for both monster and human, or just someone to lavish attention on, each of the kids and their unusual pets find themselves better off for their new partnerships. Add to this the truly adorable sounds made by the creatures (I still think about the bitty oni saying “guh” a ridiculous amount) and this is just the kind of feel-good show that I needed this year.
Coming close on How to keep a mummy's heels in the “cute” department, School Babysitters goes a little deeper into its relationships. Where the former is about friends and pets as family, this show is about the emotional ties that hold a family unit together and all of the entanglements that come with them. Protagonist Ryuichi has been recently orphaned, and he now has to play both brother and father to his toddler brother Kotaro…except that he sort of doesn't, because they do have a new guardian in the form of an old woman who lost her family in the same plane crash that killed his. But Ryuichi can't quite reconcile his feelings – he isn't sure he can, or even wants to, allow someone else to help him care for his brother, or that adults are even worth fully trusting at all. While there are plenty of just plain cute and silly moments with the toddler squad (and a realistic amount of baby drool and snot), the emotional core is what makes School Babysitters stand out as it encourages us to hope that everyone is ultimately going to be able to find their peace with life – together.
While there were plenty of reverse harem series this past year, Phantom in the Twilight stands out not only for having a heroine who takes no garbage from anyone (and doesn't freak out when face-to-chest with a shirtless guy), but also for its action-based story. Ton and her friend Shinyao's relationship forms the core of the series as well, rather than any romance Ton might have with her hot supernatural protectors, and it is Shinyao's kidnapping(s) that drive Ton's actions. While there certainly is a romantic element to the show – both a tragic one and a happier one, just to cover all bases – it's secondary to Ton's determination to rescue her friend. When you add in the fact that the guys are all interesting in their own right as well (Toryu helped restore my faith in the manservant archetype), this has an impressive cast of characters carrying out its plot. Add in some nice attention to folklore and literature, and Phantom in the Twilight becomes the reverse harem show for people who don't like the genre or who want to see it do something new. And did I mention Ton is awesome?
2. Kakuriyo ~ Bed and Breakfast for Spirits ~
Another winner in two of my favorite categories (aimed at females and involving folklore), Kakuriyo – Bed and Breakfast for Spirits – is a much more down-to-earth story than either my number three or number one picks. Despite the fact that it follows Aoi, a young college student whose grandfather “sold” her in marriage to the Oni Master of an ayakashi inn in the spirit world, the story is based in Aoi setting her own terms for the life she finds herself in and forging a relationship with her fellow workers at Tenjin-ya, the inn her fiancé manages. Rather than simply accepting that she must follow her late grandfather's wishes, Aoi determines to work to pay off his debt in cash rather than her body, and instead of just falling into the handsome oni's arms, she sets out to befriend and try to understand the other denizens of her new world. This makes her slow romance with the Oni Master sweeter and more grounded than it otherwise would have been, while allowing for a little potential competition between he and Ginji, the kitsune Young Master of the inn, which motivates the second half of the show when Aoi follows him to a rival inn. That the story basically resets at that point with Aoi having to start over from scratch in the same basic way as before, and that and the fact that the production values really are very uneven is largely what keeps this from being my number one, because as both a fantasy and a romance with a strong heroine (actually strong, not just a “strong female character” archetype), this truly is wonderful.
1. GeGeGe no Kitarō 2018
If you've been paying attention to my season picks this year, you probably saw this coming. Hands down, GeGeGe no Kitarō's 2018 reboot has been the show that has the most consistently impressed me and made me look forward to each new episode. This is because it not only doesn't talk down to its intended child audience, but it does great things with that, treating its viewers like intelligent people who deserve and can handle some tough topics. Starting with episode seven, which casts an unstinting eye on the consequences of bullying, it later covers such topics as enslaving desperate immigrants who are just looking for a better life (episode thirteen), beauty standards and self-image (episode fifteen), and one of the best World War Two stories I've ever seen (episode twenty), which looks at the human cost of the war rather than anything ideals-based or patriotic. In fact, despite featuring yokai (and in the most recent story arc, Western supernatural beings), GeGeGe no Kitarō is ultimately a story about being human, not in the sense that you are scientifically categorized as a “human being,” but in terms of the follies, foibles, and strengths of being a living, feeling creature. With a few exceptions, almost none of the villains have truly bad intentions (Rat Man is a good example of this as he bumbles into one disaster after another because he's not great at thinking things through) and Kitaro has spent much of the series learning and teaching others that it's always better to get along, even with someone totally different than you. That's a lesson many of the yokai learned the hard way when Blackbeard's henchmen wiped out the Malay hantú before their eyes in another one of the series' striking scenes, and it's underneath almost every story the show has to tell, and it's done more to promote acceptance than any number of much cornier shows and books. GeGeGe no Kitarō trusts its viewers to be ready to absorb and learn from these messages. That's not something you can say about a lot of series, whether aimed at children or not. It would be nice if we could, but until then, this is both a fitting homage to the late creator of the original manga and a series worth watching.
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