The Best Anime of 2018
Rose Bridges, Jacob Chapman and Zac Bertschy
This is it - the results of our 2018 Mega Poll! Look forward to the Winter 2019 Preview Guide, which begins Saturday, January 5th!
When I picked up the first manga volume of Bloom Into You, months before the anime's release, I thought it was a sweet, but overly slow and forgettable romance. It felt like a lot of yuri that either hems too chaste and childlike or too ultra-sexual and melodramatic to be relatable. Little did I know how wrong I was. Yes, it takes a while for Touko and Yuu's romance to get going, but that's part of what made it so great, reflecting the awkwardness of real-life first love. It's hard to build a relationship with someone else when you don't even know who you are, which is true for both of the story's protagonists in different ways. Then it kept continuing to avert romance clichés, especially in terms of the rival character, who is fleshed-out and sympathetic in her own right. It's a story with a lot of empathy for the struggles of real gay teenagers, but never in a way that feels cloying or preachy. Whether you're looking for more quality queer anime storylines or just a really sweet and authentic teen romance, don't sleep on Bloom Into You. It might grow into something more than you expected.
Has there ever been an anime as #relatable as this one? While "f*** I'm in my 20s" seems to be a popular theme these days, from fantastical takes (One-Punch Man) to slice of life (Wotakoi), Aggretsuko captures the rage of the quarter-life crisis better than any other. Retsuko has a job she hates, can't find a guy she wants to date, and overall just feels stalled in life. It's the occupational stuff that forms the heart and soul of this show, with a cast composed of basically every type of annoying coworker out there. From the incompetent brown-nosers to the gossips to the parents who won't shut up about their kids, I've either worked with or heard friends complain about working with all of these people. Retsuko still manages to triumph in her own ways, finding friends and even romance in all this mess. What made Aggretsuko for me was the reminder that as much as life can suck, there will always be people there to keep you laughing through it.
The best description of Masaaki Yuasa's latest film is that it's a distillation of the most joyous parts of The Tatami Galaxy. While that great series was often fun, it was also neurotic and gloomy at other times, but The Night is Short Walk On, Girl mostly leaves that behind for just one raucous night in the life of its characters, some carrying over from Tatami Galaxy. I'm counting it for this year because that's when it got its theatrical release in the U.S., but I first saw it in 2017 at Dallas' AnimeFest, before watching a single episode of Tatami Galaxy—so I can certify that it's fully engaging and comprehensible for newbies. Of course, it was more fun revisiting this year after seeing The Tatami Galaxy, so I could get the references. But I'll always come back to that first premiere, where I was just so raucously entertained through its whole short runtime, something I desperately needed on that stressful weekend. I love how despite all the movie's surreal and supernatural weirdness, it captures so well the experience of going out on the town with your friends, drinking and reveling and laughing together. I'd been a Yuasa skeptic before this, and this was the year that made me a believer.
What would your favorite childhood action heroes do in the world of smartphones and the Internet? That's the question at the heart of this latest installment of Lupin III, which pits its famous globetrotting thief against social media, cryptocurrency, the dark web, and power-hungry tech moguls. That high-tech focus allows for lots of wild fast-paced capers alongside interesting ethical questions about identity and privacy in the digital age. Most of all, it shows what other TV shows and movies could be sleeping on by working around our modern media-scape instead of embracing it. There are also many fun nods to earlier Lupin III series for longstanding fans like me. That makes it a little less newbie-friendly than the previous Blue Jacket series, and none of its new characters are as good as that series' Rebecca Rossellini. But overall I would say it surpasses its predecessor, which is no easy feat. It's both more tightly focused and yet also freewheeling, keeping viewers constantly on our toes about what will happen next. It's by far the most fun I had both watching and writing about anime in 2018.
I'm struggling with where to even begin to talk about DEVILMAN crybaby, Yuasa's best work and the year's best anime by a long shot. The series is just top-to-bottom perfect, from its character drama to its loose art style to its pumping soundtrack to its tragic yet inevitable conclusion. It gets even better on rewatch, as you see more fully how everyone and everything slowly fell apart. DEVILMAN crybaby is so firmly situated in the sins of our modern world—like how the mass media and technology that should bring us together can instead enable our most judgmental impulses. Then that judgment can destroy people internally, symbolized by the demons destroying them from the inside. Yet others can harness their inner turmoil for good and make it their strength. Like a lot of other queer people watching this show, DEVILMAN crybaby felt like it spoke to me personally. I saw a lot of my younger self in its LGBT characters, Miko in particular. The series understands so well the destructive nature of the closet, but also the way that accepting who we are against all odds can toughen us up against our cruel world. That's the hopeful note I took from this pessimistic show, as it raged against a system that gobbles people up and spits them out purely for being different—and even if its characters don't fulfill their dreams, the show still emphasizes why we should fight for something better. Even if you don't have that personal connection to its story, DEVILMAN crybaby is a frenetic, gorgeous show that's impossible to look away from. It kept me on the edge of my seat through all 10 episodes, which is getting harder and harder for anime to do these days. I love when I get a show like this that both feels like the year's most complete artistic statement, but also something I can recommend to anyone—provided they have a strong stomach for nudity and violence. It's the sort of anime that reminds you why you came to love this medium in the first place, provoking you and entertaining you at all once.
This was a pretty outstanding year for anime, and it'd be easier than usual for me to fill a top ten or even top twenty with the coolest stuff I saw this year, but I'll spare you too much of a bloviating intro and just make it clear that if Castlevania could fairly be called anime, it would definitely have a place in my top five. (The only Japanese thing about it is the source material, but it was otherwise produced in America, written by a Brit, and animated in Korea, so anime it is not.) From the caustic yet heartfelt dialogue to the beautifully realized art design to the unabashed love for its source material that came through in every jaw-dropping action scene, Powerhouse Animation's Castlevania came closer than any non-anime production I've seen to capturing what I love about anime specifically, and I can't wait for more episodes starring Sad Dracula and his lovable frenemies next year. Now without further ado, here's the rest of my top five!
5. Lupin the Third: Part 5
The legendary gentleman thief has had so much many movies and TV shows produced about him over the years that it seemed impossible for any new ground to be broken in this latest batch of episodes taking place in the scoundrel's native(?) France. So I was pretty floored when this season that promised to take Lupin the Third into the 21st century actually followed through on its ambitions by diving deep into the impact that social media and late-stage capitalism would have on the now-quaint spirit of adventure embodied by Lupin and his motley crew. Somehow, without breaking the irreverent and mischievous tone that makes his escapades so much fun, Part 5 was able to push Lupin to his limits, forcing him to reevaluate all his important relationships and rediscover what being a gentleman thief means to him in a world where he's out of date. And through all this introspection, the series remained clever and exciting, never failing to surprise with its intrigue, action, and warm sense of humor. With both Parts 4 and 5 being such top-shelf entertainment, there's never been a better time to get into Lupin III.
Since it was mostly a setup season before the more ambitious arcs to come, this continuation of Gen Urobuchi and PILI's joint effort to bring the beauty of Taiwanese wuxia puppetry to the world stage didn't shock me as sharply as the first season, but even a more restrained round of Thunderbolt Fantasy is bigger, louder, and so much damn cooler than any other fantasy series out there. Even if they're filmed in real life instead of inked on a page, these magical puppets are more animated than most anime, and Urobuchi is truly a gifted wizard of prose, serving up a perfect balance of puzzlebox intrigue and affectionate character chemistry, and busting out great lines of dialogue in every episode that smolder with both passionate musings on the meaning of life and a delightfully self-aware sense of humor. Even if the writing wasn't so stellar, I would still be enamored with the intricate artistry on display when these gorgeous puppets express themselves through subtle gestures and dazzling swordfights alike. Every time a season of Thunderbolt ends, I'm immediately left drooling in anticipation for the next one, and I'm sure the amazing artists at Nitroplus and PILI are excited to show us more of their small but stunning world.
JJBA series director Naokatsu Tsuda once said in an interview that Giorno Giovanna was his favorite Joestar, because he had grown up with Golden Wind in high school and that part of the story meant a great deal to him. I would later discover that Golden Wind is one of the most beloved arcs in Japan at large, even if it never found much foothold in the States due to poor translations of the manga. Only a dozen episodes into its run, I feel like I already understand why. Golden Wind retains all the bombast and insanity of previous Jojo's arcs but leaves behind most of the coy winking and sillier subplots to focus on powerfully raw and sincere emotions instead. While Araki's incomparable creativity has always come through in his wild adventure stories, this was the first time that I felt like I was breaching an understanding of his work as an artist and getting a glimpse of his heart as a human being who's experienced his own unique hardships and came out the other side with strong feelings to share. And if that weren't enough, this adaptation is constantly improving on its '90s source material through the anime's strongest stylistic execution yet, not a feat to sneeze at considering how fantastic Diamond is Unbreakable looked. His story has only just begun, but Giorno is already my favorite Joestar too, and even if it's too early for me to quite pin down why, his story speaks to me deeply as a nerd who's always had a little sympathy for the devil in genre fiction, especially when those villains want to become heroes instead. I can't wait to spend a whole 'nother year with these Gang-Stars.
If you'd told me a year ago that my second favorite anime of 2018 would be a flash-animated short series made by Sanrio to sell character goods to working women—well, I'd probably ask if you'd brought any winning lotto numbers or something else more useful from the future, but I'd also have a hard time believing your assertion. And yet, here we are. Aggretsuko delivers such raw and relatable emotions through such perfectly paced punchlines that it's almost impossible not to watch all ten 15-minute episodes in one sitting. Despite its humble production values (and its transparent commercial goals), Aggretsuko strikes an inspired tone, riding the line between deep existential dread and empathetic optimism so well that you'll be saying "it me" about something in basically every scene. Retsuko deals with sexism in the workplace, flaky coworkers, and the woes of mediocre romance by keeping a stiff upper lip until she just can't handle it anymore, and that's when the fun (and rage) shoots into the stratosphere. But what impressed me most about Aggretsuko was its palpable sense of tension. Retsuko's anxieties are relatable not just in their verisimilitude, but in how well they're edited for maximum possible impact. Episode 7's climactic rap battle had me as far on the edge of my seat as any action series this year, while the tragic anticlimax of its final episode had me on the edge of tears. For a series that could have just felt like empty cute animal marketing for the millennial women of the world, the world of Aggretsuko oozes humanity, and I'm thrilled that we'll be getting even more of this heavy metal office comedy in 2019.
1. DEVILMAN crybaby
I was definitely not primed to love this show as much as I did. I had no experience with Devilman beyond an at-the-time "ironic" viewing of the first OVA (I still love saying "I Don't Give a Shit" in dub-Ryo's hilariously bad cadence), and I'd never been too keen on Yuasa as a creator—his animation had always astounded me, but his choice of story material had never cut through to my heart underneath all that style. But for whatever reason, DEVILMAN crybaby found the perfect alchemy to leave me a hyperventilating husk after every single episode. And yet I couldn't pace myself either! I consumed the entire show in one sitting simply because I could not look away. The passion, anger, fear, love, and imagination that was always lying dormant in Go Nagai's original manga came to life for me like nothing I'd ever seen before in Crybaby. Without spoiling too much, this show completely fulfills its lofty ambition to tell the story of how the apocalypse taught Mephistopheles Himself how to love another person, alongside a dozen other beautiful stories of the so-called wicked of the world learning to accept themselves and love each other, even if it costs them absolutely everything to do so. Yuasa's dreamlike animation style turns Nagai's vision into a beautiful bleeding nightmare, full of filth and terror and occasional beauty, a feast for the eyes at all times while your heart is overwhelmed by the ideas behind all this powerful imagery. It's a work of art that takes the kind of ugly, painful emotions people may be afraid to express and weaves them into a warping ocean of color and sound, where characters shout to the world "I'm going to let everyone know that I'm a Devilman!" It's up to the viewer to determine what those words mean to them, but DEVILMAN crybaby overflows with so much meaning that it's hard not to take something powerful away from the experience. When I finished marathoning the series at about 4 AM in the second week of January, I had to laugh at how weird it was that the first anime I watched in 2018 was probably the best anime I was going to see all year. Now that we've cycled back around to January again, maybe I'll be ready to relive the incredible experience of watching DEVILMAN crybaby again.
Like all American 90s kids, I remember hearing Tim Curry's lovable voice during most every episode of 1994's SUPERHUMAN SAMURAI SYBER-SQUAD, which makes it extra surreal that one of the best anime of 2018 was a resurrection of that ancient, corny-ass story. SSSS.GRIDMAN is special, though - it functions as the best sort of re-imagining, imbuing what might feel like fairly pedestrian tokusatsu tropes with emotional intelligence and urgency, along with what feels like not just a genuine appreciation for the inspirational, burning heart of GAINAX, but a nearly-profound understanding of what those guys were trying to accomplish, and how they made us all feel. I was absolutely not expecting SSSS.GRIDMAN to hit me as hard as it did, but I'm so glad it did. TRIGGER does it again.
4. JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Golden Wind
Ever since David Production started blessing the Earth with a lovingly-animated adaptation of Araki's enormous manga, the internet – or at least my social media bubble – has embraced it with the kind of jealous love that defines true cult phenomenon. I enjoyed the early seasons and thought Stardust Crusaders was wildly entertaining, but I don't think I really truly felt that deep-down love until Golden Wind. We're only 13 episodes in but it feels like this material is Araki having recognized his real power, manifesting itself in a bombastic, gloriously queer story about the bastard son of the devil corralling a makeshift family of broken dirtbags together to ascend to the heavens as Gang Stars. The heat just radiates off this show – I can't wait to see where it finally winds up.
I think my impression of Pop Team Epic before it aired was just “well, here's an adaptation of a memetic 4-koma shitpost with some clever gags and some inspired designs, and not much else going for it” and I could not have been more wrong. Pop Team Epic is easily the best comedy I've seen this year, anime or not – it is imbued with so much heart, a collaborative, inspired outsider perspective that bursts off the screen in every episode. There's so much giant, passionate art in this show, tempered beneath the steady hands of a showrunning team that kept it dedicated to a singular, cohesive tone that never relented. It's glorious.
I will never stop thinking about Hellshake Yano. Ever.
2. Thunderbolt Fantasy: Sword Seekers 2
For my money there was nothing I looked forward to more in 2018 than each new episode of the second season of Gen Urobuchi's elaborate, gorgeous and brilliantly-written puppet Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Urobuchi has a way of writing characters – like in Psycho-Pass or Fate/Zero – as the avatars of a specific perspective, carefully tailored writing that slowly reveals to you just how much Gen has dug in and dismantled the way this character thinks and feels, to devastating effect. Thunderbolt Fantasy: Sword Seekers2 gave me some of the most thrilling and hilarious ideological battles I think he's ever written – these characters bellow their perspectives in unbelievably satisfying dialogue before beating the living snot out of eachother, with my boys Shang and Lin (and now Yang, the unstoppable bard with a talking biwa) hanging out, grinding through authoritarian shitheads. Urobuchi makes absolutely certain that the scum Shang and Lin fight deserve what they get, and even though this season ends with little more than a “Next time, on Thunderbolt Fantasy” I couldn't be happier with it. I could watch Shang and Lin wander the earth, totally owning all these clown-ass bitches, together, forever.
1. DEVILMAN crybaby
Lucifer sits up beneath a twinkling, primeval sky full of diamond stars, glances over at the disembodied torso of the only man – the only thing - he ever loved. His eyes betray kindness they've never shown, and he admits – maybe love is real. Maybe being cast out from Heaven doesn't mean that love isn't real.
But his beloved Akira is dead. He's gone. An uncaring God resets the world again, and it's over, just like that.
I think DEVILMAN crybaby isn't just the best thing I saw in 2018, it might be the best thing I've seen in a really long time, period. My favorite stories are all about emotional apocalypses – my heart has always bled, and the reason things like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Revolutionary Girl Utena speak so much to me is that they use explosive, surreal imagery to articulate exactly how all that overwhelming adolescent emotion feels. DEVILMAN crybaby isn't just an adaptation of Go Nagai's raw original manga, it elevates the material into something else entirely, a spectacularly gay firestorm, a screaming, crying apocalypse that takes hold of you the moment it starts and never lets go. I turned on episode one and my pupils dilated, my head leaned into the TV and I didn't stop until all 10 episodes had passed in a single sitting. I came out the other side of that with my breath taken away, my heart pounding.
DEVILMAN crybaby is at once terrifying, funny, brutal and deeply, deeply affecting. Maybe one of the most violent, disgusting, upsetting and downright Satanic things I've ever seen, which somehow makes it even more beautiful to behold. It's an experience, one I don't think I'll ever forget, or ever really get over.
This show will be in my “Top 5 Anime of All Time” list until I'm dead. If you haven't subjected yourself to it yet, take a deep breath and click play. You'll be different on the other side.
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