The Best And Worst Anime Of Summer 2019
It's that time again! The Fall Anime Preview Guide is right around the corner, so we asked our reviews crew to file their favorite (and least favorite) anime of the summer. Don't forget to let us know your picks in the comments!
The summer 2019 anime season offered plenty of great new shows, but it turns out my own favorite “summer show” wasn't actually from the summer at all. Though it's been airing since spring, this summer saw Netflix at last releasing the first half of Shinichiro Watanabe's Carole & Tuesday, which has felt like a much-needed shot of joy in what has turned out to be a pretty difficult year.
Watanabe's shows are always centered in large part around their diverse, distinctive soundtracks, and a show about two girls attempting to make it as musicians plays into all of his many strengths as a director. The first half of Carole & Tuesday is stuffed with charming episodic vignettes and likable characters, and nearly every single episode is topped off by some number of terrific musical performances, featuring excellent original songs and fluidly rotoscoped performance animation. Carole & Tuesday is one of those shows that spoil us; most TV productions just don't possess the resources to even operate on this level of visual and aural cohesion, and the fact that all this great music, animation, and art design is attached to a story as heartfelt and charming as this makes me feel incredibly lucky. Watanabe has absolutely still got it.
Trailing directly behind Carole & Tuesday, I've been enjoying the also music-oriented but less visually charmed given. Though given cannot match Carole & Tuesday's animation or volume of songs, what it lacks in aesthetic bounty, it more than makes up for in acuity of dialogue and characterization. I can easily say that given has the most impressive script of any new anime I've seen this year; its characters' fears and hopes are captured with remarkable grace, and their conversations feel convincing and emotionally rich at all times. given's frank approach to youth, grief, and coming to terms with your sexual identity kept me hooked from start to finish, with the show's intelligent layouts and sound design consistently elevating its raw character drama. I'm fairly certain given will end up being my favorite romance of the year.
And finally, scanning back over all the premieres I checked out this season, I can confidently say that Arifutera stands as my worst show of the season. Not only was Arifutera's premiere awful in all the ways endemic to modern isekai (clumsy exposition, unconvincing worldbuilding, unlikable woe-is-me protagonist, etcetera), it was also just hideous, and so dark and poorly shot that you couldn't even see what was happening. Granted, when you could see what was happening, the answer was generally either staggeringly ugly CG fight scenes or the protagonist whining about how unfair everything is, so perhaps the darkness was actually a mercy.
Best: Fruits Basket
While I still think that the first adaptation handled some things better and achieved a stronger emotional resonance, and while the series has stumbled in big ways upon occasion, I can't deny that this has, on the whole, been a very good series. (It also doesn't hurt that I failed to keep up with Vinland Saga.) The technical merits have consistently been strong, but the development of character backgrounds, the way they affect each character's attitudes, and especially the way they fit into the overall story have been what has made this season's episodes shine brightest
Runner-Up: Lord El-Melloi II's Case Files: Rail Zeppelin Grace Note
Also deserving of mention here are Black Clover (for providing two of the year's most spectacular action episodes) and Demon Girl Next Door (the season's best comedy). However, this series was a more consistently strong performer. It deserves recognition here for the way it uses some of the best aspects of the franchise while avoiding its major pitfalls. An older version of fan-favorite character Waver Velvet is a delight as a stern, detective-minded magic instructor who can be surprisingly expressive when annoyed, but it also has a lot of other appreciable characters, including guest appearances from across the breadth of the franchise. Mysteries which involve intricate and creative applications of the franchise's magic system stand side-by-side with flashy action sequences, but the series also does an exceptional job of balancing its serious elements with humor, mercifully light philosophizing, and wistfulness. Back it with another great Yuki Kajiura musical score and you have a highly entertaining package being offered up here.
While I actually found more entertainment value in this series than in some of the other bland, low-rent isekai titles which came out this season, that was more because I became oddly fascinated with how the series seemed to be trying to make an edgelord variation on GATE than because anything the series did was good. I do think the series works better on the occasions where it gives up any pretense of being serious and just rolls with its oddities, but it doesn't do that often enough to offset its nasty CG, the ridiculous outfit the main character wears when he gets back to the surface, and the crippling decisions the series made at the beginning about not properly establishing the backstory. At least the other isekai series this season didn't make me cringe or have recap episodes.
Best: Vinland Saga
With Wit Studio taking a break from its biggest action franchise, Attack on Titan, and with Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress shifting over to movie production, its up to Vinland Saga to make sure the small-screen viewers can get their fill of the studio's trademark blood-soaked battle scenes. What those unfamiliar with Makoto Yukimura's historical Viking manga might not have been expecting, however, is the thoughtful, gorgeously drawn tale of revenge and lost childhood that Vinland Saga has provided. Sure, there's plenty of ridiculous action to be found – Thorkell and his superhuman strength make sure that not too many episodes go by without a flurry of dismemberments and disembowelments, but for my money, Vinland Saga's most rewarding stories are the ones that focus on the pain and growth of its traumatized hero, Thorfinn, who has had to endure surviving the bitter frost of the northern lands and the gory battlefields of the Dane-Saxon Wars since he was a boy, and all the while striving to avenge the death of his father, Thors, who was once considered the greatest of the Viking warriors. Vinland Saga's lush background art and often beautiful animation carry the weight of Thorfinn's struggle just as well in the dramatic scenes as the action-packed ones, and for those who need a little more bone-breaking and blade-clashing to spice up their anime, the folks at Wit have you covered there too. Vinland Saga is never as earth-shatteringly epic as Attack on Titan, nor does it get as gobsmackingly gonzo as Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, but it just may be the most consistently satisfying and nuanced of Wit's action anime. If you have any love for historical drama, coming-of-age stories, or good old-fashioned Viking Age warfare, then Vinland Saga is a must-watch.
Runner-Up: Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba
Another standout work from a powerhouse studio, ufotable's adaptation of Koyoharu Gotōge's Shonen Jump horror-action series remains as entertaining and visually stunning as ever. The introduction of new cast members Zenitsu and Inosuke resulted in some mid-series growing pains, but the extended Mount Natagumo Arc saw Demon Slayer delivering some absolutely top-tier monster mashing. The Spider Demon Clan proved to be the show's most interesting and diverse villains yet, and the climactic battle in the show's 19th episode, “Hinokami”, set the anime fandom on fire with praise, reminding everyone that nobody does spectacle quite like ufotable. While I didn't love that chapter quite as much as a lot of other fans did, I was certainly impressed, and the final episodes o the season have done a decent job of mixing the show's usual blend of horror and shonen tropes with surprisingly effective comedy. If the writing were more consistent, and if Nezuko was allowed to be a character in a story that is ostensibly about her, then Demon Slayer might have easily taken the top spot of the summer. As it stands, second place isn't too bad at all.
Most Disappointing: Fire Force
I didn't really watch any outright terrible anime this summer, though Fire Force came so perilously close to being bad often enough that I couldn't help but name it as my biggest disappointment of the season. It's such a shame, because there have been a smattering of episodes throughout the past weeks that have almost captured the blistering magic that we saw in Fire Force's first couple of weeks, and I really do believe the show can right the ship and become truly good again. Alas, it's weak scripting and pacing, along with how much it indulges in some truly lame and juvenile fanservice, has been holding back Atsuhi Okubo's story for some time now. Even if we ignored how often its female characters were debased and humiliated for the sake of cheap laughs or drama, we'd still have to contend with weak character development (Princess Hachibana's two-episode stint as a villain comes to mind), not to mention some seriously dubious writing (the less said about the Company 1 Investigation and literally any scene involving Tamaki, the better). I wanted to love Fire Force, going in, but these days it's difficult to tell how much I'll even like the show on a week-to-week basis. I'll keep watching, of course, and I'll try to have faith that Fire Force will indeed get better, but I've been burned before, so I don't think anyone will blame me for keeping my expectations in check.
I didn't have high hopes going into Granbelm as I wasn't the biggest fan of RE:Zero, and didn't know where that team was going with their new original anime. While I was happy to hear they were working from scratch I was unsure if their new show being original meant it would avoid the formula of two-dimensional characters and LN plotting that had found them success. Especially when Granbelm itself is a bit of a conglomeration of oft tread concepts smashed together. You've got your mage war, your chibi Gundams, and of course the dread specter of a Madoka-like looming over it in both aesthetic and story. There's a lot to be said on the stealing/borrowing side of things for all of those, but the fact of the matter is execution wise they totally nailed it. The character writing elevates stock archetypes to memorable individual characters, the magical robot fights are beautiful and dangerous in a way you wouldn't expect from such cute designs, Aoi Yuki is there, and the overarching plot is woven between everything wonderfully. It took a few episodes for it to all get rolling for me, but once it did it never stopped. At this point I'm honestly shocked that you can browse twitter and somehow not be spoiled on this show every week, and for as sad a sign that may be for how many people are watching, it's also a big ol' blessing for anyone to hop into it right now just in time to enjoy the finale together. This was a strong season, and I slept on Granbelm while indulging on the other great shows, but a lot of those I expected to be good and got just that, so in the end I'm giving my best to an original that defied my expectations and turned out to be the surprise of the season.
Runner-Up: Demon Slayer
Boy does UFOTable have a talent for making things look pretty. It's also really nice to finally see them free of spending so much time animating FATE exposition and instead bring Gotoge's art to life. I know there's plenty of folk who dismiss basic shonen stories but Demon Slayer shows why that role deserves to be filled every now and then. Basic structures can still contain plenty of variety and inventiveness, and that's what's going on here in spades. The focus on empathy alongside quirky characters, like my pig son who I am so glad has turned into a full on meme hashtag at this point, is paired wonderfully with UFOTable's top talent giving eyes a feast of beautiful fight scenes and honestly some pretty heavy gore for a shonen show. Though the thing that matters most with these shows is the heart, and if I had to choose a single moment of this season to be the best it would probably be Tanjiro and Nezuko's combo attack. Seriously, a round of applause for how wonderfully matched the feelings and animation are in that moment. The only reason this show doesn't take my top spot is that I knew it would be good coming in, and while I am very glad it was, it turns out me being surprised is enough to barely push it out of that slot.
Worst: Fire Force
It's odd that the thing I found the worst this season has something in common with ones I found the best. It's even odder that it's the animation quality. Where other shows may use their writing to prop up some limitations or production troubles, but Fire Force defies this by being a complete waste of beautiful animation that fails to cover up its more egregious flaws. The show moves at a pace that cares little for its characters or any interesting plot points, extremely shallow character writing, some of the most intrusive and tone breaking fan service I've ever seen, and absolutely no ability to ever establish empathy or stakes puts all of David Production's hard work to waste. It turns out the only thing more off-putting than inserting forced groping fanservice of an abused character into the middle of a fight scene is to do so in even more loving and tone-breaking detail. Coming into the season I honestly expected Fire Force to be hanging up with Demon Slayer and Vinland Saga near the top, but apparently that was due to my unfamiliarity with the source material. There's the old saying about makeup on a pig, but I find the comparison insulting to the pig, which has the potential to be delicious, while Fire Force quickly proved itself to have burned any potential it had.
Best: GeGeGe no Kitaro 2018
Right, so no one's surprised by my choice at this point. It's actually fairly unheard of for something not a book to hold my attention for as long as this series has – I can follow a print series for years, but I rarely find a television show, anime or otherwise, that can keep me engaged for as long as this one can with no breaks. Whether that says something about the literary merit of GeGeGe no Kitaro or not, the summer season's set of episodes continue to be a blend of social commentary, folklore and mythology, and respecting the intended family audience by not talking down to them. The social media episode does come close to doing so with a more overt use of symbolism than the series usually engages in, but even then the ending where everyone just moves on to the next thing, leaving Chris and Jomon Man out in the cold does make a good point, and actually reminds me of the film The Truman Show in its final scenes. Since that 1998 movie won some awards, I think that's pretty good company for even a less stellar episode to be in.
More importantly, however, is the fact that these episodes give us the chance to see Kitaro as a more vulnerable, emotional character. While he's still not going to have a major breakdown or other demonstration of feeling, we do come to understand why he still puts up with Rat Man (who may actually be at his worst this time around) and see him trying to cope with the effects of the bargain he made to get Cat Girl back to the land of the living. He's also outsmarted once or twice, leaving someone else to get the saving-the-day mostly done before he comes back; it isn't like when he became hooked on the dating sim a while ago, either – he's actually hypnotized by the villain, meaning Mana and her uncle have to carry most of the fight. This goes a ways towards making Kitaro more of a character and less of a cure-all, which adds a layer to the story that wasn't always previously there. And of course, it wouldn't be GeGeGe no Kitaro without a few moments of total fear or quiet heartbreak – episode sixty-six is going to join The Secret of NIMH as something I think about sometimes and almost cry.
If I haven't convinced you to give this show a chance yet, at least my runner-up covers some of the same themes, albeit in totally different form. Given was the series I didn't know I would love but absolutely did. Quieter and more grounded than Kitaro, the story looks at love, loss, and finding where you belong from a variety of angles, mostly centering on the four young men in a band. The music, to me, feels almost incidental to the emotional drama, although it is part of it as a cathartic form of expression for the characters as well as the means of bringing them together. Given is just honestly a good story, and I can't wait to read the manga when it comes out in English
Worst: Are You Lost?
I always feel a little unfair with these because it so rarely goes to a show I managed to get all the way through. But I disliked this series' blend of prurient content and survival tactics so thoroughly that it earns this spot for me. The premise – high school girls who survive a disaster and have to try and stay alive on a desert island – is interesting enough that it really doesn't need the fanservice, and the way that it's used doesn't add anything to the series. Cage of Eden is an example of how fanservice and survival stories can work together; Are You Lost just sort of throws the two genres at each other and hopes they stick, like trying to make a peanut butter sandwich by standing on one end of the kitchen and chucking a piece of bread at the other half of the sandwich on the other end. It's a fun thought, but in the end all you end up with is a messy kitchen and no lunch – and that's what happened here.
Best: Vinland Saga
A showcase for epic battles with top-notch animation, Vinland Saga also presents a compelling character arc for its main character stretched out across episode after episode of Viking violence. Thorfinn's evolution from a child full of wonder raised in a relatively peaceful life to a sullen youth bent on improving his battle skills in order to enact vengeance is interestingly a mirror of his father, who begins the series as a unimpeachable peaceful man running from a violent warrior past. Though Thorfinn's seemingly inevitable journey back toward being more merciful and empathetic may be slow, this first cour is just the start, and there are hints that he retains his empathy at his core during the various raids he engages in alongside the freelance vagabond group responsible for a crime he can't forgive. I've always enjoyed fictional tales of redemption and characters whom you can't exactly root for but who nonetheless have some kind of fascinating charisma, and Vinland Saga has those kinds of characters in spades.
Runner-up: The Demon Girl Next Door
The Demon Girl Next Door takes a one-trick gimmick and spins it into a cour's worth of burgeoning friendship among enemies, comedy, and parody. Shamiko/Yuko aims to do her best as the villainous demon girl she transforms into, but she's just too darn kind at heart to be too bad. It doesn't help that the retired magic girl/classmate she makes her target is incredibly powerful. Fortunately for Shamiko, Momo also takes an immediate liking to her and feels sorry for her circumstances, doing her best to make Shamiko feel like she might have a chance without ever knocking her down a peg, as she easily could. Momo experiences PTSD from her days saving the world, and though the show pokes fun at many magical girl conventions, this aspect is treated with the amount of dignity such a subject deserves. For the most part, The Demon Girl Next Door is a sweet and funny show about friends who happen to be bound to battle on occasion, and though it's far from the funniest parody of the genre, it's an enjoyable and consistently solid character-driven piece.
Worst: Cop Craft
Cop Craft's story isn't bad, per se, though in this first cour, it has yet to break any new ground in the cop genre, unless you simply count that an American cop is paired with an otherworldly partner. However, the animation after the first few episodes is distractingly bad, earning it the title of the show I watched this season that I least looked forward to. More than the intricacies of inter-dimensional politics and the buddy comradery between the two leads, what sticks in my mind is the consistent close-ups of body parts to eat up screen time when characters are supposed to be moving, the sudden stilted lingering on still frames for an action shot, and the general amount of nabbing-the-bad-guys that takes place right off screen. At some points during the show's most intense action sequences, it feels more like a motion comic than an animated series. While I understand the animators have a limited budget to work with and can work themselves to an unhealthy degree to try to work within those confines, it feels like the show could have benefited from more time and/or a greater budget to help do it justice—otherwise, why tackle an action-heavy series at all?
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