The Best Anime of 2018
Nick Creamer and Mike Toole
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2018 has been another year full of milestones for anime. This was the year that Netflix's courting of the medium really started bearing fruit in earnest; not only did the flow of licensed shows continue with fare like Violet Evergarden and Last Hope, we saw more shows debut on the platform worldwide, like B: The Beginning and Aggretsuko. Here in North America, we've seen major players increase and expand their dubbed offerings. Most of all, each season has continued to yield a good forty or fifty productions, which is still way, way too much, an absolute embarrassment of riches. It's become a real challenge to try and winnow a list of good stuff down to a mere five entries! This year, I feel like I owe Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Golden Wind, SSSS.Gridman, Golden Kamuy, Revue Starlight, Today's Menu for Emiya Family, and a whole host of others an apology for not quite making the cut. But now, it's time to congratulate the ones that did make my list—here's my 2018 top 5!
I am very leery of any production that's an anniversary project for a beloved classic, because the likes of G-Saviour and Yamato 2520 are anniversary projects. For every longed-for sequel and spinoff, there's a well-intentioned piece of junk that, if anything, diminishes the work it follows. In that sense, Megalobox, TMS's 50th Anniversary celebration of legendary boxing tale Ashita no Joe, is an outrageous and wonderful surprise, a series that is blazingly original, but still roundly evocative of its source material. What puts this show over the top isn't just its excellent writing and characterization; the whole show moves with incredible confidence, going from strength to strength in its new story of an underdog in the future boxing world.
4. Devilman Crybaby
It was simple enough to set your expectations high for Masaaki Yuasa's latest TV project; the original Devilman manga is one of the medium's great classics, and the director had already given us the fine and excellent Kaiba and Kemonozume in the past. Devilman Crybaby still manages to be surprising in how well it preserves the form and structure of the original manga, but both modernizes and shifts its focus subtly. Yuasa's team well understands that Go Nagai's manga wasn't just crazy demonic ultraviolence, it was a well-crafted tale about the chaos of puberty, about struggles with sexual identity and unrequited love. But here, we have more time not just for Akira's conflicts, but for his would-be girlfriend Miki, and their other friends trying to figure out who they're gonna be as they undergo terrifying metamorphoses. Just summarizing what Science Saru accomplishes here is making me want to watch Devilman Crybaby again—both to soak up its rich characterization, and to enjoy the classic Nagai-esque slide into visions of the apocalypse.
3. Lupin the 3rd Part V
2014's Lupin the 3rd Part IV was a superb re-introduction of some beloved but stale characters. In this series, their continued modernization is nothing short of miraculous, a smart, action-packed, and hilarious master class in making classic characters new again. We're long used to the old Lupin the 3rd formula of our randy protagonist using clever gadgets and his gang's skills to swipe treasure from people even worse than them, but Part V kicks off with nothing less than Lupin stealing the goddamned blockchain, incensing rich technocrats all over the world. The full fury of the internet is turned on our hero, and here he speaks one of his greatest, most astute lines ever: “Now, I get it… on the internet, everyone's a cop!” The resulting caper sees Lupin and his faithful gunman Jigen adroitly distracting social media and fooling facial recognition algorithms, as they team up with a precocious computer hacker named Ami. The story takes episodes to address Lupin and Jigen's durable friendship, Lupin's long-promised final duel with Jigen, and his eternally off-again romance with Fujiko. There are sly nods to the old Maurice Leblanc stories and character cameos for longtime fans, and the narrative is occasionally broken up by episodes that celebrate the best parts of earlier Lupin TV installments. Part IV looks a little better, but the writing and pacing on this installment is explosive, more than enough to thrill old and new viewers. This series is perfect as both an introduction and a re-introduction to a cast of beloved characters.
2. Planet With
Ever since I read Satoshi Mizukami's manga Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer, I've been waiting for the artist to get his due in anime form. I was figuring we'd see a Biscuit Hammer TV series, but instead we got Planet With, a new series that Mizukami created for the small screen. Part of what made Biscuit Hammer fun is that its heroes are a pack of burnouts, losers, and kids trying to save the world. This time, a similar set of powerful, well-meaning dopes are the adversaries for Soya, an amnesiac with alien roommates and a powerful robot. Here, JC staff delivers an action-packed, 36-episode super robot potboiler somehow crammed into one third of the running time, giving the show a deliriously breakneck pace. Soya and his friends are magnetic and fun; I'm particularly taken with his maid Ginko, a character I wouldn't have had any time for in 2002; she takes the old maid catgirl stereotype and dumps it out the window. Pulling the strings of Soya's adversaries are mysterious aliens in silly animal costumes, who menace the city with giant, creepy versions of household knick-knacks. This is good and fun, but what makes Planet With one for the ages is that, in the final battle, even in the face of extinction and death, Soya and his allies don't just push defeat on his enemies—they offer forgiveness and redemption. We could all use a little more of those things.
1. A Place Further than the Universe
When I met Atsuko Ishizuka in 2013, I was struck by her background—she wasn't an animator by trade, but an art school kid with a rare appreciation for design and color. This background informed her work well, on shows like the superb (and unloved in the west) Aoi Bungaku. In No Game No Life, certainly her biggest hit prior to this series, she easily took the rote, queasy otaku-bait framework of the original novels and transformed them into a much more accessible candy-colored action/fantasy/comedy. A Place Further than the Universe feels like the kind of project that really suits her talent; her creative team just takes four girls and sends them on an adventure. One of them is bubbly and curious, and just needs an excuse to go on an adventure. One of them is fixated on coming to terms with her relationship with her frequently (and now permanently) absent mother. One of them is a burgeoning TV starlet who struggles to make real friends. And one of them quit school due to both internal and external pressures, and is watching the rest of the world pass her by with growing unease. This quartet's trip to Antarctica isn't fantastic in any way, but it's the kind of experience that, to the characters, feels almost magical—and thanks to Ishizuka, we feel that magic, too. Beyond that, A Place Further than the Universe is a story about how warm and sincere friendships can overcome grief and isolation. It's the kind of show you'll catch yourself thinking of months later, just wondering how the characters are doing.
It's been a sort of lopsided year in anime, at least from my perspective. After barreling out the gate with close to half a dozen winter shows I loved, both spring and summer felt essentially barren to me, with only the constancy of My Hero Academia and occasional bright spots like Planet With to keep me company. Then, as if to answer the drought, fall arrived with another pile of great shows, leaving me with plenty of new favorites to choose from. In the end, this has turned out to be a very fair annual crop, and I'm excited to start off with…
5. Laid Back Camp
It was genuinely agonizing to narrow down the final pick of my top five, but in the end, I had to give it to Laid Back Camp. Most slice of life shows don't appeal to me that much - I find their common modes of comedy a little too predictable, and their idyllic worlds not terribly convincing. But through its beautiful settings, terrific soundtrack, and general emphasis on atmosphere, Laid Back Camp won me over and kept me gripped from first episode to last. The show's smart choice to partition itself between Nadeshiko's goofy club activities and Rin's solo adventures meant it offered a uniquely balanced slife of life diet, pairing funny club shenanigans with expeditions that perfectly evoked the bracing freedom of the wilderness. Its episodes are simultaneously cozy and refreshing, and its focus on an unabashedly introverted heroine felt like a natural validation of the need for and unique pleasures of time spent alone. Laid Back Camp is a charming and evocative production, making the allure of camping feel as accessible as stepping outside your door.
4. A Place Further than the Universe
Atsuko Ishizuka has long struck me as a great director in search of the right project. Though her strong eye for color and generally exuberant direction did their best to elevate shows like The Pet Girl of Sakurasou and No Game No Life, the ultimate weakness of those shows' narrative material kept her from truly shining. With the beautiful and poignant A Place Further than the Universe, it feels like Ishizuka has finally arrived. Universe excels at conveying a sense of longing for something beyond our daily lives, and its sympathetic, small-scale drama builds its cast into one of the most likable and convincing groups of friends this year. Equally adept at conveying giddy adventure and somber grief, Universe is a beautiful journey peppered with moments of stark, wordless wonder. It's thoughtful, uplifting, and absolutely one of the best anime of the year.
3. Planet With
They can't all be the quiet ones, right? In contrast with my first two picks' relatively low-key drama, Planet With is brash and absurd from moment one, presenting a world where humanity is under attack and that's maybe a good thing. Penned and heavily supervised by genius mangaka Satoshi Mizukami, Planet With is a thrilling testament to his humor, his insight, his creativity, and his ultimate, resounding empathy. In spite of centering on characters like a humanoid cat and a space princess maid, Planet With offers consistently sharp commentary on what it is to be human, the true nature of strength, and what we ultimately owe to each other. Combining a remarkably sensitive human tale with an action-packed escalation to fate-of-the-universe stakes, Planet With is a show like none other.
2. After the Rain
After the Rain turns a potentially exploitative premise into a thoughtful and consistently moving meditation on the distance between the people we are and the people we wish we could be. Frustratingly few anime center themselves on the relatable, mundane dramas of actual adults, but After the Rain's Kondo stands as a welcome counter to the trend. His feelings of life passing him by are etched with painful grace throughout this production, and his slow movement towards remembering his love of literature was one of my favorite journeys of the year. Meanwhile, our heroine Akira's feelings of adolescent malaise and mis-aimed affection are conveyed equally well through After the Rain's vivid visual storytelling; like in his similarly strong Mysterious Girlfriend X, director Ayumu Watanabe conveys the lived experience of young, oversized emotions with sympathy and detail. After the Rain's two protagonists are each abundantly sympathetic in their own way, and this production absolutely does their story justice.
1. Violet Evergarden
I've seen plenty of great character dramas this year, but none touched me so deeply nor dazzled me so consistently as Violet Evergarden. Centered on a traumatized orphan of war as she attempts to adjust to a world of peace, Evergarden builds its titular character across melancholy, heart-on-sleeve vignettes rich in beauty and wonder. As Violet transcribes the desires of various forlorn customers in her work as a typist, her growing vitality as a person and brilliance as a writer are made abundantly clear, culminating in small episodic dramas that find resounding beauty in our attempts to truly reach one another. Evergarden's visual merits are second to none - the show stands among the most beautiful that Kyoto Animation have ever constructed, and each episode presents a new and self-contained aesthetic world for Violet's next adventure. And all that beauty works in service of dazzling fairy tale love stories, last regrets, and hopeful paeans to the future; odes to communication and renewal, stories that all echo Violet's own journey. Astonishing me with its visual strengths while also happily tearing my heart apart, Violet Evergarden is a truly remarkable achievement.
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