The Best (and worst) Anime of Winter 2019
The birds are singing, the flowers are blooming, and the Spring 2019 anime season is right around the corner - which means it's time to thaw out our picks for the best (and worst) anime of the Winter 2019 season just as it draws to a close! We asked our critics to pick their favorite, their runner-up choice, and their least favorite anime of Winter 2019. Once you're done perusing their choices, head on over to our forums and let us know your picks for the best and worst anime of the season. Don't forget to check out our Spring 2019 Preview Guide, which starts April 1! Without further ado, here are our selections:
Best: Run with the Wind
One of the clearest signs of a great sports anime is its ability to appeal to an audience that isn't normally interested in the sport it depicts. I'm the type of person who only runs if something's chasing me, you'd have to tie me to a chair to get me to watch a marathon, and yet Run with the Wind was far and away my favorite show of the season. What's so impressive about this series is that its strengths are deceptively simple: it understands that characters are more important than competition in this genre, and its writing and direction are good enough to give the cast depth and charisma in equal measure. The strong groundwork laid down during the fall season certainly helped here, but this cour marked the point where all that training and character development paid off. With each step towards the Hakone Ekiden and each stage of the actual marathon, it feels only natural to get wrapped up in the highs and lows of each runner. Crucially, these guys all feel like real people; their athletic abilities are grounded firmly in believable territory, and their personal struggles are relatable and compelling. Run with the Wind may not have the over-the-top flair for the dramatic that defines many of the genre's most popular titles, but it doesn't need it. It's simply an excellent show across the board, and that's more than enough to propel it to the top of my list.
Runner-up: Kaguya-sama: Love is War
This season featured several strong comedies, but from where I'm standing, Kaguya-sama: Love is War is the best of the bunch. It's a rare example of a comedy that starts off with a good idea and actually improves on it over time, instead of coasting along on a gradually thinning supply of fresh material. Remarkably consistent in its ability to integrate new twists into the basic formula, this series never really had a “bad” episode, and I can point to a long list of scenes that stand out as being outrageously funny. There's also a surprising amount of heart hidden behind the distinctive visual style and the constant barrage of jokes. At its core, this show has an understanding of the fear of romantic rejection that most people struggle with at some point in life, and it succeeds in letting us connect with the characters even as we laugh at their harebrained schemes. Always funny and occasionally heartfelt in its depiction of romantic tension, Kaguya-sama is an early contender for the best comedy of the year.
Rather than “worst,” it'd be more accurate to call this the season's biggest fall from grace. That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime felt like a breath of fresh air for isekai stories when it began last fall, but something went wrong in this second cour. The show's sense of adventure fizzled out as Rimuru spent week after week dealing with the mundane tasks of running his new nation, and not even Milim's introduction as a charming agent of chaos could relieve the tedium. The season's final story arc took a perfectly good premise and wasted it on low-stakes fetch quests, which culminated in a rushed and sloppy ending to the main storyline. I genuinely enjoyed this show's early episodes, but by the end of this season the fire was all but extinguished.
Best: My Roomate Is a Cat
There were a number of really good anime this season, so it was difficult for me to narrow the “best” down to just two. I also debated whether to prioritize a more objective view of what was the best over my feelings, but truth be told, My Roomate Is a Cat is the anime I looked forward to the most each week. There are a number of cute cat anime out there, but I love the dual POV format of this one, where the audience gets half the story from the humans' POV and then sees most or all of the segment from Haru the cat's. Subaru also makes for an interesting protagonist. On the surface, he's not that likable, but if you can empathize with the struggle with anxiety, depression, and/or social awkwardness, he grows on you over time. I especially love how owning a pet makes him take better care of himself as he learns to take care of her. (He used to get so caught up in work, he often forgot to feed himself.) He also begins to step out of his comfort zone, spending more time interacting with people with and without his cat along. Of course, Haru's sweet-natured misunderstandings and motivations prove the highlight of the series, and I'm particularly fond of her kind and caring nature, too.
Runner-up: Kaguya-sama: Love is War
Wickedly funny, over-the-top, and amazingly animated, Kaguya-sama: Love is War is much better than I even expected it to be. At first, you might wonder if the singular concept will be able to sustain itself over the course of an entire series, but the show never fails to find innovative ways to turn the titular “war” into high-stakes madness. Kaguya Shinomiya loves Miyūki Shirogane and vice versa, but both are too proud to be the first to admit it, assuming that if they're the ones confessed to, rather than the confessor, they'll hold all the power in a relationship. Trivial matters become inner-monologue-heavy battlegrounds for manipulating a situation into getting the other to admit or at least hint that they might be interested in pursuing a romance. The vibrant, red-and-black art and special effects make everything from arguing over a piece of cake to a sharing a ride home as seemingly important as any battle with life-or-death stakes. Despite their inner arrogance, both characters are surprisingly likable for the most part, too. With a quirky secondary cast that's just as fun to root for as the titular two characters, Kaguya-sama is the must-see comedy of the season.
Worst: Pastel Memories
Pastel Memories has an intriguing concept for the anime, manga, and game lover: girls with magical abilities traveling through the worlds of thinly-veiled parodies of some of the most popular series over the past few decades, including series as diverse as Evangelion and Hamtaro. However, the execution leaves much to be desired. For starters, there are twelve girls involved, each of whom seems to get a starring episode (maybe—I don't remember most of them) as they travel in packs of three to alternative dimensions in an effort to “save” the pop culture from being forgotten. That's far too many in too few episodes for any single girl to establish more than just surface-deep characterization, so it makes it difficult for the audience to empathize with them. The huge cast is the show's biggest weakness, though a repetitive concept and wonky animation on occasion don't help matters.
Best: Run with the Wind
Last season, this show was my runner-up pick, no pun intended. But in its second cour, Run with the Wind has exceeded my expectations for rich character development and relationship building, constructing a team of individuals anyone would want to root for. While the premise—an underdog team works to qualify for Japan's famously challenging relay marathon—is a bit unbelievable, the team itself could not feel more real. Just when I think we've learned all there is to know about a character, more growth occurs. With one episode to go, we have fully realized everyone on the team, from the face they show the world to the layers of depth we've discovered right along with them as they train. The storytelling feels natural but is more orchestrated than I originally thought, as its final act is seeing payoff from building blocks the narrative placed back in the first few episodes. Paired with a dynamite soundtrack and fluid, cinematic racing, this show has motivated me to go out for a run more than once. It's all leading up to a truly memorable end. Whether it finishes on a high note or a low one, saying goodbye to this show will be heartbreaking no matter what.
Runner-Up: The Promised Neverland
Unlike manga readers, I went into this show completely blind. I wasn't prepared for a show with child protagonists to become such an irresistibly tense thriller. No episode of The Promised Neverland feels like the half-hour it's supposed to be; between unsettling Dutch angles and claustrophobic camera shots, there's always the feeling that these characters are a half-second away from danger. In the second half of the season, the stakes have risen dramaticallty. The soundtrack has expanded to match this increased action with some jazzy numbers that shouldn't work with it, but do. From the deeply emotional friendship between Emma, Norman, and Ray to the twisted family dynamic of the House and the threads of ambition that lurk in the most unexpected characters, this show is a psychological adventure of the most terrifying kind. After an explosive tenth episode, Neverland has at once created a fully realized world while utterly concealing what direction it will turn in next. I will absolutely be picking up the manga (legally available on Viz Media) when the season reaches its inevitable cliffhanger end.
It's a wonder I even watched this series after hearing the initial premise, but I was intrigued by Shield Hero's unwarranted hype which lingered like a bad smell. This is a fantasy world adventure, but without the self-aware humor of KONOSUBA or the upbeat tone of That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime. Instead, it's is a strawman revenge fantasy that inexplicably uses human slavery as its primary plot mechanic. The story of Shield Hero is inextricably tied to the in-universe slave trade, and protagonist Naofumi's codependent relationship with the vulnerable women he owns and compels to fight for him is uncomfortable, to say the least. The most frustrating part of the show: how everyone continuously hates Naofumi for seemingly no reason—especially considering he's the one cleaning up their idiotic messes. This continued hatred is used as justification for Naofumi to remain a slaveowner, and the miserable cycle continues. The show has some real promise in its premise of multiple dimensions colliding into one, but spends very little time contemplating the incredible fantasy implications of that concept. Instead, it's about a forgettable everyman who only seems smart and kind because of the show's extreme efforts to make everyone else look worse.
Best: Mob Psycho 100 II
Going into this season, my own guess for the show that would end up here would be Mob Psycho 100. As we near the end, I'm happy to revise my answer to “Mob Psycho 100, but harder.” I genuinely loved Mob Psycho's first season, but its second season has actually eclipsed the first, and offered a story that builds on its predecessor's finest qualities to offer what is simultaneously one of the most visually staggering and emotionally poignant shows in years.
Mob Psycho's “no one is naturally special, but that ultimately means all of us can choose who we aspire to be” theme was compelling enough as illustrated in season one, but the continued process of both Mob and Reigen's maturation has given that theme a great deal of nuance, as they each struggle to become someone that they and the people they love can be proud of. Standout episodes like the journey into Mogami's mind are their own dazzling reward, while the gaps in between those visual highlights are full of charming character beats and gentle coming-of-age insights. Over time, these collective vignettes have built a world full of richly drawn, sympathetic characters whose mutual affection feels truly earned, and reflective of the joy inherent in acknowledging that you are one among many, that we are all fallible, and that we all need each other. Mob Psycho feels to simultaneously be the best-written and best-executed show of the season, and an absolute classic in the making.
Runner-Up: Run with the Wind
As for my runner up, I have to give it to the utterly reliable Run with the Wind. From the beginning of fall all the way through the end of winter, Run with the Wind has been offering beautiful, thoughtfully observed, and often thrilling adventures with a rich cast of college dormmates. The show spent its first third carefully building up every member of its ten person relay team, along with the various bonds between them, and this steady foundational work has meant the whole second half has basically been one long and creative series of dramatic payoffs. The strengths of these friendships, the thrill of the race, the glory and terror of throwing yourself utterly into a team like this… Run with the Wind embodies what makes the best sports shows so great, and I'll be sad to see it go.
Worst: The Rising of The Shield Hero
Every anime season features some pretty dubious productions, but it feels almost like this season's Rising of the Shield Hero is a low water mark for pop entertainment altogether. I really didn't think anything would make me miss the relative innocence of the “I want to shack up with my little sister” craze, but it turns out replacing little sisters with slaves as the loving, utterly subservient female prizes does the trick. Shield Hero is bad in all the ways common to modern isekai, from its lazy worldbuilding to its ham-handed exposition and shallow character writing, but those conventionally negative qualities feel like nitpicking in the face of its overarching sense of bitterness, and its binary evaluation of the world as composed of a few righteous Us and a deceitful, overwhelming Them. Shows this angry at the world, and this deluded in their reckoning of their own place within it, feel genuinely hard to watch.
Best: GeGeGe no Kitarō
So Toy Story made you cry over dolls and action figures? Big deal; those are things we all already have an emotional attachment to anyway. GeGeGe no Kitarō makes you cry over a straw sandal, an old mug, and a host of other random non-sentimental household items. I'm not trying to set up any sort of fandom war here; it's just another way that the 2018-19 adaptation of Shigeru Mizuki's classic children's manga continues to go above and beyond what we typically see in its horror/fantasy genre, for kids or otherwise. It does so without any gooey sentimentality as well, which also helps to elevate it in terms of children's storytelling, which often relies on the sledgehammer of symbolism to tell its audience what they ought to be feeling. Not only the zori (sandal) episode steers clear of this, but also the major plot twist that happens in episode forty-seven – we feel shock and horror, but the animation and dialogue itself isn't overwrought; instead the strength of the characters we've been following and the slow build of the Nanashi plotline (which has been ongoing since the series began, including during the Western Yokai Arc) are what makes the episode's point and impact. The show trusts that we've been growing attached to the characters and involved in the plot, and that really pays off. It also continues not to shy away from topics that even adult-oriented entertainment has a tough time dealing with, such as the episode about suicide or another about intellectual property theft. From an education standpoint, either could easily be used to start a discussion, but that doesn't take away from their entertainment value, which is no small feat. I'm consistently impressed by this show and the way it takes the time to build its overarching plot while still remaining faithful to the feel and look of Mizuki's original, and if you still haven't checked it out, you really ought to.
Runner-Up: Meiji Tokyo Renka
My reaction to this show is basically the way four of my cats react to catnip (cat number five throws up): stupid excitement. It's got a cast of historical figures recast as largely nonthreatening hot young men including authors, artists, and the inevitable Hajime Saito (in his guise as Fujita Goro) and a time-travel romance plot, along with delightful little historical details that just sort of exist without being harped on, not to mention a heroine who isn't a total nonentity. It's like they mined my eighth- grade fantasies for this one. But beyond that, it's just a fun ride. Part of what really works is the way that the show has clearly just chosen one character route from the original game to follow, with Mei romancing Ougai Mori (who you may know as the leader of the Mafia in Bungo Stray Dogs) and the other guys being interested but basically out of the running early on. This means that the plot is able to develop more than if Mei was flitting around trying to pick a suitor while still allowing artist Syunso to pine over Mei as part of his own character development. This doesn't mean that there aren't still issues with the large cast and aspects are clearly underdeveloped, such as Mei's “tamayori” powers, and the less said about the electricity song, the better. But I'll be sad when this ends because I've just had a really good time watching it. Now someone needs to license the game so that I can have the Syunso route.
Worst: Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka Loses its Way
To be clear, I don't hate this show. It's more that I feel like my dad whenever I did something stupid – I'm disappointed in it. At the outset, Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka was set to delve into the consequences of war on the soldiers' psyche. Asuka, in her magical girl identity as Rapture, fought in a bloody, vicious war and now in her late teens is suffering from PTSD. She's trying to distance herself from her experiences while still struggling with them, and it made for a really interesting difference from other dark magical girl shows. The balance between Asuka and her fellow magical girl survivors – War Nurse Kurumi is totally unhinged – was thoughtful, and if that had to be balanced out with fanservice, that was okay. The problems came when torture scenes began to be used for titillation and too-easy answers were provided for other characters' trauma. While there are still shining moments through episode eleven (twelve hasn't aired as of this writing), the glee with which the series depicts torture and torment overshadowed its original exploration of the effects of war. Yes, Kurumi conducts the torture as the sum of her experiences as well, but the problem comes from the way the show frames it, not the acts themselves. Simply put, Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka forgot where it was going. I'm disappointed in it.
Best: Mob Psycho 100 II
This series was already one of my favorites of the past few years, making my top five list of 2016. I expected this new season to be equally fun, but it somehow managed to go even further than its predecessor. The second season found new emotional depths to its main character, developing him beyond his cool powers and stoic exterior, to find what really sets Mob apart from everyone around him—even beyond his astounding powers. Reigen became even more ridiculous than he already was, reaching new memetic heights, up to and including a real-life version of his Geocities-esque personal webpage. The show also pushed the artistic envelope further, with an even greater variety of animation and art styles than the previous season. They could come completely out of nowhere, like the time Reigen and Mob wait for a bus and the colors suddenly turn to black and white, or when battles play out with manga panels or with HP meters like a fighting video game. It's that sense of always having new tricks up their sleeves that makes Mob Psycho 100 such a rollicking good time to watch. The fight at the end of episode 5, between Mob and the various red demons exploding from Mogami's mind, is one of the coolest sequences I've ever seen in animation of any kind. Overall, Mob Psycho 100 was just the most fun I had watching anime this season. While other shows proved difficult to keep up with during what turned out to be a stressful winter for me, Mob Psycho 100 never disappointed. I was on the edge of my seat and thoroughly entertained through every moment. It's eye-popping to watch, crazily hilarious, and even oddly heartwarming through it all.
Runner-up: Boogiepop and Others
I knew very little about Boogiepop and Others going in, besides it being based on a renowned light novel series; I had never even seen its previous anime adaptation, Boogiepop Phantom. It turns out that may have been for the best, because going in fresh and letting this show take you for a ride turned out to be the right way to experience it. While it often involved digging into fan wikis to remember who was who in its sprawling cast of characters, Boogiepop and Others always nailed its emotional and thematic beats. And it's ultimately that which made it so interesting to dissect every episode. Boogiepop and Others clearly has Something to Say, but it plays its cards close to its chest, letting its story seep out bit by bit through the emotional arcs of its characters. It's easy for anime to go for thinky, bold-faced Messages at the expense of creating an otherwise compelling story. But Boogiepop and Others never forgot about the human drama, the people in its story, in fact making that a key part of its theme. In the midst of all the supernatural forces vying to control humans toward their own ends, its titular shinigami fights to help humans discover their true selves and unique destinies. That's what made Boogiepop and Others such a stand-out in this packed season—and its excellent animation, music and other aesthetic bells and whistles certainly didn't hurt, either, in creating such a compelling, watchable package.
I didn't watch that much of W'z, but I watched more than enough of Hand Shakers, its first installment. (Which is to say, I sat through more than a few minutes.) I can't imagine a single reason to "enjoy" either except to marvel at its horrible animation and bargain-basement writing. The fact that it was popular enough to warrant a sequel is astounding to me. It can't just be the hatewatchers, can it? There has to be an actual "fandom" buying this series. Why? Who are these people? What anime god did we take a W'z on to put us in this position? In a winter season full of both thrilling sequels and hotly-anticipated adaptations, I guess it makes sense we'd have something this astoundingly terrible, too, to balance out the cosmic forces. And yet the whole situation still feels so cursed.
Best of Season: Mysteria Friends
This wasn't an easy pick at first because I didn't end up following any of the series that are probably going to commonly show up on these lists, but the more I considered my options the more I realized that this was the series that most consistently impressed me this season. Week-in and week-out, these 15 minute episodes were an absolute delight as they portrayed various snippets from the school life of two princesses – one a prodigiously magically-talented human and the other a statuesque dragon girl – who become close friends (and maybe more?) in part due to how their natures and statuses isolate them. I know some were disappointed with this series because it doesn't play at all like a traditional high fantasy series, but I was enchanted by how the fantasy elements were seamlessly woven into the slice-of-life-style approach and completely won over by the energetic Anne and the more reserved but still very emotive Grea. Though occasionally punctuated by humor, action, and fan service, the series mostly took a languid approach which emphasized the sumptuous visuals and light, graceful musical score (this is easily one of the season's top titles on technical merits), and I thought that worked perfectly.
Runner-Up: Boogiepop and Others
This series was never my priority view on a loaded Friday schedule – in fact, it was usually only the fourth Friday title I got to – but no other title I watched at any point during the week felt like it was aiming higher or more thoroughly achieving its goals. For all of its supernatural elements and occasionally-stark graphic content, the whole series is actually much more a succession of very involved and often cerebral case studies on human psychology and philosophy, all loosely tied together by perhaps the most delightfully smarmy titular character that anime has ever seen. Its somber artistic style, the way it both depicts and handles its characters, and even the way it constructs its stories are all markedly different from anime norms, making this a wholly different and richer-feeling viewing experience. It also features easily the season's best and most distinctive Japanese voice work in Aoi Yūki's sublime performance as Touka/Boogiepop; the way she varies her voice to take on the more masculine characteristics of the latter sounds like no other performance you've probably ever heard. This was my most-anticipated series of the season, and it mostly paid off.
Worst of Season: Dimension High School
I was tempted to put The Price of Smiles here for how badly it face-planted its final episode, but I liked the rest of the series enough that pulling such a stunt didn't seem fair. I also considered Girly Air Force, but that was more a case of the series failing to be compelling than actually being bad. Hence I'm going with the show that I gave the lowest rating to in the Preview Guide. This mix of live-action, cheap CG, and even cheaper special effects was awful in an almost campy way as it spun a ridiculous tale about a group of high school boys and their teacher having to do puzzles to save themselves and/or the world. I suppose I can see the appeal of the puzzle-solving aspect, and the actors do at least try, but everything else seems thoroughly half-assed.
Best: Mob Psycho 100 II
This is another one of those seasons where there were not a whole lot of shows I absolutely loved, but the ones I did are both so close to being my favorite that I've been flip-flopping their placements in this ranking for days. Both Mob Psycho 100 II and The Promised Neverland have managed to embody so much of what I love about anime, albeit in completely different ways, and I would absolutely recommend both of them to anyone with any interest in the medium.
I ended up giving the edge to Mob Psycho 100 II, because it is such a triumphant expression of the kinds of themes, stories, and visual artistry that is only possible in animation. Its fifth episode is the one that many fans have rightly heralded as one of the most impressive pieces of spectacle ever depicted in televised anime. For that alone, MS100 II deserves a place in the Anime Hall of Fame. The work done in this episode by industry wunderkind Hakuyu Go is nothing short of miraculous, able to capture all of the feverish heart, intensity, and youthful ennui that makes the series such an effective work of art, all in the span of just twenty-three minutes.
Beyond that one watershed chapter, though, the entirety of MS100 II is worthy of respect and admiration. Form it's earnestly sweet premiere to the heart-stopping developments that have filled out the final episodes of the season, I cannot think of a single episode from this season that has not been a winner. Mob's worldview has been expanded, and his characterization has been filled out so much that he has become a damn near perfect embodiment of all the joy and turmoil that comes from being young, and in a way that feels shockingly fresh for a medium that is perhaps a little too obsessed with this kind of subject matter. More than anything, Mob's tale is a powerful testament to the ethos that has come to define my own worldview as a writer and educator, which is that the quest for self-improvement is as challenging and rewarding a journey as any that can be undertaken. What Mob's friends and family have taught him is perhaps the most important lesson a young person can ever learn: No matter the ups and downs you face in life, it's always worth fighting as hard as you can, every single day, to be better.
Runner Up: The Promised Neverland
I've taken plenty of time over the past season to sing the praises of The Promised Neverland, which has taken one of my favorite Shonen Jump manga of all time and transformed it into a thrilling ode to the power hope and love in the face of impossibly monstrous cruelty. Where Mob Psycho 100 has always been an intentionally rough-edged manifesto for the power of animation's elasticity and endless potential, director Mamoru Kanbe and the team at Studio CloverWorks have given themselves the challenge of using The Promised Neverland's very moody and stylized source material to create a show that is exactingly crafted, and polished to an almost eerie sheen.
None of the manga's internal monologues are to be found here; instead, The Promised Neverland revels in silence, and uses its excellent character animation to show the audience the kinds of emotions and schemes that are better left unsaid. The extensive use of CGI to create interior sets of Grace Field House have been criticized by some for looking cheap, but they serve the purpose they need too, and they allow the digital “camera” to pull of some truly sublime feats of cinematography. The show is so exquisitely directed that it has even managed to recapture the all of the The Promised Neverland's inherent drama and suspense for a viewer like me, who has already read the manga. Emma, Norman, and Ray are endearing, engaging, and supremely intelligent, yet they have never crossed over into the dangerous waters of precociousness. Their fight to escape their devious Mama, and the world of demons in which they have found themselves, is easily one of the most entertaining stories to come out of Winter 2019.
Was there ever any question? Outside of the inane and chaotic nonsense of the first episode of VIRTUALSAN –LOOKING, no anime caused me more distress, confusion, or mind-numbing boredom this season than W'z, aka “Hand Shakers 2: Because 2019 Doesn't Get to Have Nice Things”. I don't usually enjoy hatewatching stuff – there just isn't enough time in the day to justify it – but my painful journey of reviewing the first Hand Shakers remains one of the more bizarrely memorable experiences of my young career as a critic. So, when GoHands revealed that their innocuous anime about magical DJs was actually a direct continuation of literally the worst anime I have ever had the displeasure of watching all the way through, I was filled with enough morbid curiosity to see how it turned out.
And what did I find? To perhaps nobody's surprise, it turns out the sequel to Hand Shakers ended up being just…more Hand Shakers. Sure, the virtual camera doesn't induce as much motion sickness as its predecessor, but that's mostly because the show barely has any action to speak of whatsoever, and while Yukiya and Haruka are technically more interesting protagonists at the start of W'z than Tazuna and Koyori were in their series, that's not exactly a high bar to be reaching for. The color composition and use of CGI in W'z are as hideous and cheap looking as ever, and the story is still meaningless hokum that is lacking in even the basic outline of a plot. and I'm pretty sure you could replace all of the show's dialogue with random sound clips pulled from recordings of busy construction sites, and not much would be lost in translation. W'z is ugly, and boring, and it somehow managed to be an even bigger waste of time than Hand Shakers was. Please, learn from my mistakes, and avoid this one at all costs.
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