The Best and Worst Anime of Spring 2019
The summer season has arrived, but it's not too late for our reviews crew to file their picks for the best and worst anime of the Spring season - and don't forget to let us know what your picks are in the forums!
Best: GeGeGe no Kitarō 2018
Raise your hand if you're surprised by this answer from me! What, no one? Well, I suppose I have gotten predictable. But the fact of the matter is that the 2018 reboot of Shigeru Mizuki's GeGeGe no Kitarō remains one of the best shows almost no one is talking about, and despite a slight downgrade in plot quality and one very tone-deaf episode, this season was no exception. As an added bonus, two of the episodes – 54 and 56 – are adapted from source material available in Drawn & Quarterly's newest translations, so English-speaking fans can see the way the show has been working with Mizuki's manga first-hand. This is both fascinating and important to the way we read the show itself and the timeless qualities of the series in general, not just in terms of how we understand Mizuki's work, but also because it does give us insight into why stories like episode 55, which is perhaps the least immediately relevant of the bunch, still make it to the screen.
But more importantly, GeGeGe no Kitarō continues to address important and relevant topics in a way that doesn't make them feel like after school specials. If things are bad, the story acknowledges that without trying to sugarcoat it for younger audiences – the Dorotabo episode is a good example of this, but so is the one about the man who preys on gullible women; that he had to be stopped was never in question, but neither is the fact that the way the yokai he fooled was also in the wrong for her methods of trying to get him to return to her. Her ignorance is not an excuse for her own predations, and the only reason she gets off easier is because her activities were caused by his lies – but the clear parallel between her selfish behavior and Mana's selfless actions when she throws herself into the yokai cactus to save everyone demonstrates this without ever having to say it outright. As I've said before, the series trusts its viewers to understand its messages free of the sledgehammer of symbolism, and if bad things need to sometimes happen to good people, well, that's life, unfortunately. It's how we handle those upsets that matters – and that's not only a message that's going to be important for Rei's overarching plot, but also one worth hearing.
Runner-Up: Bungo Stray Dogs season 3
This was nearly tied with Kitaro, but ultimately didn't because it seems destined to leave us hanging and it also has a few too many conveniently forgotten pieces. The most recent episode as of this writing (36) has some serious continuity issues as far as Atsushi's speed goes (he can run fast enough to avoid high-tech security systems but can't catch up with a minecart?), and that's the sort of little detail that isn't a problem in the moment, but when you sit back and think about it definitely is. Fortunately the show is still very engaging and a lot of fun – whether it's nonstop action or character development or the sort of literary references that makes me incredibly happy (I love the manifestation of Natsume Soseki's ability), this is a show that's not only exciting to watch but also enjoyable to analyze. That Fyodor Dostoyevsky is absolutely living up to his promised role as a particularly crafty villain is a large piece of it – watching him manipulate everyone is impressive, and the thought that Soseki and Dazai might actually be working together to out-manipulate the manipulator is a heady thought. Simply put, this is the perfect wedding of literary analysis and action, and that's total catnip for me.
I do want to give an honorable mention to Midnight Occult Civil Servants as well. While it doesn't look great and never quite goes beyond “Another of the Week” in terms of plot, the fact that it doesn't limit itself to strictly Japanese supernatural beings and even delves into some interesting issues of what happens to gods when their religions become the stuff of folklore really endears it to me. (Plus Coyote in all of his various incarnations is my favorite trickster.) It's just been nice to watch every week, and with the year I had, that's nothing to sneeze at.
Worst: Wise Man's Grandchild
There's nothing worse than going into a series fully expecting to enjoy it and then ending up dreading it every week. That's what happened to me with Wise Man's Grandchild. I was looking forward to a nice, mostly-by-the-book isekai series about a reincarnated guy with zero common sense swanning around his new fantasy world, which is what the first few episodes seemed to indicate. Things went downhill, however, when it became clear that someone equated “nice” with “zero setbacks for our hero” and “romance” with “saw her big boobs.” Everything just comes too easy for everyone labeled as “good” by the story, and there's no tension once the first bad guy is killed. The show takes its overpowered protagonists to a terrible plateau and just leaves them there, robbing the story of anything that might have made it compelling. That's a crime against narrative in my opinion, and when you can find more problems for the hero in your average Dick and Jane book from the 1930s, there's a major problem with a work's storytelling. That, in a nutshell, is where Wise Man's Grandchild went wrong. It's too battle-oriented to be comedic slice-of-life and too dull to be a good fantasy war story. What we're left with is just mush.
Best: Fruits Basket
I have to be honest with you: I was so excited for 2019's Fruits Basket reboot, I marathoned the 2001 anime andread the entire manga in order to get ready. As a result, I was especially primed to notice even slight directorial changes to this latest installment. What I found was a more cohesive story with increased awareness of what it is and where it is going: “Fruits Basket Brotherhood,” if you would. The show maintains a lighthearted vibe with a rewarding emotional payoff that made it stand out so much when it first aired, but it still doesn't feel dated. Visually, it didn't take much to make the new anime look better than the old one and its '00s-typical googly eyes. Not only do the characters look more modern and consistent, the detailed background art gives more dimension to Tohru's world than the previous anime or even the manga ever could. The new voice cast for the Japanese dub is spot-on, including the decision to give Yuki a more masculine voice and Akito a more feminine one. (At the same time, for nostalgia reasons, I'm happy the English dub cast got an encore.) We'll never replace “Let's Stay Together” as an opening, but the show made some impressive compositional choices. I especially love “Lucky Ending” and can never, ever skip it. The music, visuals, and genuine voice acting all combine to create a version of Fruits Basket that isn't so polished that it loses its warmth, that doesn't exchange its original gooey center for a more contemporary coolness. I'm thrilled that there will be 63 episodes for TMS Entertainment to give Fruits Basket a final, thorough sendoff in what will probably be the new standard for this IP.
Osamu Tezuka's 1957 manga got a beautiful, emphatic modern retelling in studio MAPPA's 2019 production. Dororo has been a manga, an anime (back when anime was black-and-white), a live-action film and a pretty darned good video game, but MAPPA still managed to innovate on the story in ways none of its prior incarnations did. For example, while Hyakkimaru has usually been able to see, hear, speak, etc. even before regaining his body parts because Magic, this story gave those abilities to him slowly and deliberately. Although the story primarily tackles Hyakkimaru's story of revenge, it stays true to its titular character, the little thief who remains the story's—and Hyakki's—moral center. The music is unusually fantastic—I can't recall a time that I've added both opening songs and both ending songs of a show to my personal playlist. Plus, the in-show soundtrack is a master class in creating powerful moods, from tense to warm, using what sounds like exclusively era-appropriate instruments. Visually, the story is conveyed in limited palettes that use splashes of color (most frequently, striking red), to make an impression. Framed by sylvan backdrops of Warring States Japan reminiscent of ukiyo-e paintings, these color choices have even more of an impact. There's plenty of incredible-looking action with well-animated fight choreography, but Dororo shines brightest in the little moments that express the two protagonists' humanity. While I wasn't particularly wowed by the ending, which didn't mesh with my understanding of the series' portrayal of Hyakki and Dororo's bond, I can't deny that Dororo the way it is will still be one of my top anime of 2019.
I gave AFTERLOST another try after learning that it dealt with some really cool topics, like quantum mechanics and the existence of parallel universes. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to save this overly narrated mess. It's only 12 episodes, but it tackles so many topics that it would need at least 24 to address them all. In the midst of this sci-fi thriller, there's even one episode that's just about idol singers! Speaking of which, there are far too many characters for us to get to know them all or even keep their stories straight. Even the extremely neat quantum theory aspects are glossed over in order to further an emotional conclusion that struck me as, frankly, stupid. (Really Yuki? You're going to choose the universe full of suffering instead of the one where we can literally bring dead people back to life? Because of something something ethics with zero justification?) Combine that with cookie-cutter background art and C-average character design and animation, and there's not much here to recommend.
I'll be honest; when I began this spring season, I really didn't expect to be working so hard to come up with my “best of the season” picks. In a season populated with new productions by anime legends like Shinichiro Watanabe and Kunihiko Ikuhara, the fact that I'm now struggling to find much enthusiasm for anything beyond JoJo's Bizarre Adventure feels like a terrible tragedy. But this season did have its highlights, and the first among them is the reliable, bombastic, ever-ridiculous JoJo.
JoJo's Golden Wind arc has had its ups and downs over the past few seasons, but ever since Bucciaratti's team made the terrible mistake of once again stepping onto a plane, the show has been pulling off highlight after highlight. While Golden Wind's detailed character designs have at times limited the fluidity of its animation, the benefits of those design choices have come through clearly in grotesque bouts like Risotto's battle with Doppio. And Doppio himself has proven to be a terrific addition to the JoJo pantheon, offering a style of menace and absurdity that clearly sets him apart from old foes like Dio and Kira. Couple all that with the clever, inventive battle concepts of the approach to Rome, and you end up with a fleet of JoJo episodes that can stand proudly beside any of the series' highlights. You can always count on JoJo.
Though I could easily just pick one of the season's worst premieres for my worst choice of the season, it feels a little unsporting to further dump on something I only watched for one episode. In light of that, my worst pick of the season falls to Demon Slayer, which started with great promise and has subsequently squandered as much of that promise as possible. Though ufotable's production has regularly elevated this show's fights into thrilling spectacles, the production team can't really make up for the fact that Demon Slayer's writing is bad even by shonen standards. Not only is the show's narrative a clear hodgepodge of genre influences with no sense of momentum, its line-by-line dialogue is weighed down by characters constantly explaining themselves, simplistic repeated jokes, and just-plain-clumsy stabs at characterization. Additionally, every time the show seems like it might actually be making some sort of thematic point, it fumbles through the dismount, lacking the coherent messaging of stories like My Hero Academia or Naruto. I'd like to stick around for the cool fights, but Demon Slayer's writing has made that a pretty exhausting prospect.
Best: Isekai Quartet
A chibi gag/parody series hardly sounds like the kind of fare that should be topping a “Best of Season” list, but this series of half-episodes earns this spot by exploiting its sublime premise – the principal casts from four isekai series are thrown into a second-stage isekai situation by being transported to a modern Japanese school – to the maximum possible benefit. Maintaining an excellent balance between four popular franchises was a feat unto itself, but the series also doesn't miss an opportunity to mine its character interactions for jokes and has a plethora of funny but also sensible exchanges between the casts. The better you know all four franchises involved, the more entertaining it is, and it even has catchy theme songs. Honestly, I can't imagine the concept being done any better.
Runner-Up: Demon Slayer
This one was a much closer call. I was half-tempted to put Fruits Basket here, as even though I think the first anime version handled some content better, this one still shone brightly on many occasions and definitely benefits from dramatically-upgraded technical merits. However, Demon Slayer could well be a budding phenomenon. Studio ufotable turns in a premium technical effort in producing maybe the best-looking shonen action series in years. Spectacular action sequences pair with a story which at times shows a lot of heart and superb use of musical score. The result is a series which can turn even some of the hoariest of shonen action tropes into thrilling affairs. It certainly also doesn't hurt that the demonically-infected Nezuko, the series' Best Girl, is utterly adorable, even when in attack mode.
Worst: Fairy gone
To be clear, I don't actually think that Fairy gone is a truly bad series, and qualitatively speaking there were definitely worse titles this season. However, it merits mention here as easily one of the season's biggest disappointments and underachievers. The series somehow takes a solid visual effort by P.A. Works, one of the season's most likable new heroines (Marlya), and involved world-building and storytelling and fails to generate any real zest or compelling narratives out of it. Given the director's strong pedigree with action titles, this is a shocker. The foundation is definitely still there, so recovery in the second half this fall is hardly out of the question, but how many current viewers will actually come back?
What I've come to love most about Kunihiko Ikuhara's anime series is how, no mater how obtuse or theatrical or concerned with deeply felt and often heavy themes they become, they never fail to put a giant grin on my face from episode to episode. Even in his stories' bleakest moments, it's obvious that the director and his crew are having a total blast getting to tell their weird and wild stories to the world. Sarazanmai is no exception. This breezy, compact fantasy chronicles the emotional journeys of three troubled young men whose very real problems become entangled in a generations-long war between the mythical kappa and their otter enemies, where the battles come down to the boys being crapped out of a kappa prince so they can dive into the assholes of havoc wreaking “zombies” and eat the soul gems that live in their rectums – you know, a typical coming of age story. What makes Sarazanmai great is that, while it contains all of the gonzo imagery and surrealistic symbolism that Ikuhara shows have become famous for, it's a surprisingly straightforward story that even the uninitiated can enjoy.
While viewers who like to plunge deep into the Wikipedia Chasm to research the many allusions Sarazanami makes to other myths and cultural artifacts, it isn't necessary to appreciate the deeply funny (and deeply moving) journey that Kazuki, Toi, and Enta go on over the course of eleven episodes. The show gives you everything you'll need to parse the gist of what's going on (pretty much everything Wikipedia could tell you about kappa is explained in visual gags in the premiere, for example). Studio MAPPA also makes sure to pull out all of the stops to make sure the show's energy of spirit is matched by visuals that are as lush as they are moist. The gross-out sight-gags and aggressively theatrical presentation won't be for everyone, but this otterly delightful anime is a nonetheless refreshing and delightful work of art, and a perfect jumping on point for anyone that's wanted to dive head-first into an Ikuhara joint, but never knew where to start.
Runner-Up: Demon Slayer – Kimetsu no Yaiba
Demon Slayer takes characters and story beats that anyone familiar with the Shonen Jump forumla will recognize from a mile away, and then it douses them in a heaping helping of gore and gorgeous animation. Fate/stay fans will be the first to tell you that if you want action done right, you go to Studio ufotable, and what they've done in adapting action-horror manga is nothing short of spectacular. The story revolves around a young boy named Tanjiro whose family is slaughtered by the blood-sucking demons that are running amok across turn-of-the-century Japan, except for his sister Nezuko. Though she survives the massacre, she is turned into a demon herself, and Tanjiro devotes the next two years of his life to studying the ways of the Demon Slayer Corps so he can take vengeance for his family and undo his sister's curse. It's pretty standard fare that is elevated by the strength of Gotoge's character writing, and the drop-dead-badass presentation ufotable has committed to. You come to really care about Tanjiro, Nezuko, and the allies they meet in the first half of Demon Slayer's 26-episode run, and that makes it all the more exciting when the swords are drawn and the blood starts hitting the walls. Demon Slayer represents the work of a studio that has really hit its stride, capable of delivering cinema-quality production that makes the show's action and drama hit like a brick, more often than not. It isn't a perfect series – Nezuko has been criminally underdeveloped so far, and some of the attempts at inserting comedic relief characters into the ensemble have been divisive to say the least – but Demon Slayer has continued to deliver the most bang-for-your-buck popcorn entertainment all Spring. Here's to hoping that the series' second half will be just as strong as its first. +
Worst: Fairy gone
I don't make a habit of hatewatching bad anime these days unless I'm getting paid for it, which means Fairy gone wins the “Worst Show that I Watched More than a Couple of Episodes Of” Award for Spring. It's not a terrible series, per se. Marlya Noel makes for a likable heroine, and there are some promising threads for her to pull on in the world of political intrigue and battling fairy spirits she's come to occupy as a Dorothea agent, especially her relationship with her childhood friend, the enigmatic Veronica. Unfortunately, this P.A. Works production suffers from the same core issue that so many dark fantasy anime do: It has gotten so bogged down in encyclopedic world-building and track-laying for its needlessly meandering plot, which is total bore to watch. It's the kind of series where 90% of the dialogue is exposition, and all of it relates to big picture plot shenanigans we can't be bothered to care about because most of the characters are cardboard cutouts with exceedingly goofy names. I'm not kidding about how silly the characters names are, either – One of our main heroes is called Free Underbar, the first season's scary antagonist goes by Beevee Liscar, and one of Marlya's mafioso mentors is unironically named Mr. Jingle. The first two sound like brands of ultra-organic soap you'd find wrapped in paper and twine at a Whole Foods, and the other guy is just the mouse from the Green Mile. It's a shame that hearing these dumb names has been one of the only consistently entertaining things Fairy gone has had to offer so far – with any luck, the second half of the season will wise up and start telling a story worth getting invested in.
It was gracious of Carol & Tuesday to get itself locked in Netflix Jail, butting out of the season to leave Sarazanmai to reign over it. But even with everything else bringing up the rear, it's not damning with faint praise to say that Ikuhura's tale of Kappas and butt stuff was just a kick-ass series. I could take a crack at penetrating all the themes and metaphors of the show, but this really isn't the space and people far more qualified than me already have (Jacob, as always, makes for a brilliant Ikuhura read-along guide). So instead, I'll be cheeky and just remark on what a clear joy this series was to rush home and watch every Thursday. It's a lusciously-animated musical delight stuffed with juicy fun, and even as these poor Kappa-boys were tearing my heart out as things went along, it was too easy to find myself falling ass-over-teakettle for them. About the only thing I can dump on this series over would be that the finale was maybe too nebulous, too simply-resolved for an Ikuhura series by my standards. But even lacking a tight end, this series filled the hole I needed this Spring, putting everything else at the bottom.
Runner-Up: Kakegurui xx
This season honestly wasn't as entirely dry as it seemed at first glance. I was actually all set to give this spot to the adorable charmer of a series that was Hitori Bocchi no Marumaru Seikatsu, but then Netflix went and unloaded a whole new season of Kakegurui on me. Good thing I didn't take that bet too early, right? Seriously though, Kakegurui is everything I live for as a series, a concept-driven row of screwed-up game mechanics that make each mini-arc a delight to follow, second-guessing all the way. Like some sexed-up Yu-Gi-Oh!, seeing Yumeko (who I remain convinced is the Actual Devil) bluff and beat her way through opponents made for incredibly compelling television, exactly the kind of thing Netflix wants you to polish off in a night or two. In fact, my only issue is that by the end of this season it seemed our nominal hero hadn't actually made comparatively much progress, with plenty of this prospective story arc still ready to go. But the possibility of even more Kakegurui? That's not something I'd want to bet against.
Worst: YU-NO: A girl who chants love at the bound of this world.
A lighter season as usual means less singling out something I thought was the ‘worst’ and more simply ‘most disappointing’. But YU-NO is hard to pinpoint even as that. Truth be told, I actually still find myself quite intrigued by this series for what it is, a modern reimagining of the kind of bowdlerized ero-game adaptation that clogged up my formative early-2000's anime years. But just because it's nominally interesting doesn't mean it's actually good, and that was especially clear in the show's second arc of the season. The storyline supposedly focusing on least-interesting love-interest Mio was one of the most infuriatingly dragged-out sections of anime I've seen in a while, utterly refusing to even entertain the story's various exciting time-travel conspiracies until the end, and even then just barely. Combine that with the whole series exhibiting an agonizing willingness to recreate walls of world-building visual-novel text in dialogue form, and I was left wondering if I wouldn't have been better off watching the twenty-year-old literal-pornography version instead.
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