The Best Anime Of 2019
I try going into every Ikuhara anime knowing I'm not going to necessarily understand the story, but this year's Ikuhara offering does a good job of balancing the expressive art with the characters and themes, so I didn't feel as lost as I thought I might. Each of the main trio feels like a real, flawed person—who goes through some extraordinary, supernatural experiences to rip away the lies with which he's comforted himself and expose his deepest, darkest emotions. Still, Saranzamai is shorter than many shows and might have been able to express the character progression in more depth if there had been more time to build up the strange circumstances that transform the boys into kappa. Nonetheless, the art and animation is stunning, chock-full of colors and bold silhouettes amidst operatic music that will stick with the viewers long afterward.
4. Welcome to Demon School! Iruma-kun
Consistently hilarious, Welcome to Demon School! Iruma-kun shakes up the academy genre with a show about an amiable human hiding amidst unexpectedly likeable demons and doing his best not to stand out. Without meaning to, Iruma consistently wins over his demon cohorts and manages to impress with his unconventional methods of accomplishing the tasks he's assigned. With a color palette suited to something like a cheery version of Dracula, the art adds another layer of charm to this pleasantly charming series that's only just begun to scratch the surface of its potential.
3. Dr. Stone
I didn't put Dr. Stone in my top anime for either season it aired, but it was always extremely close to the cut-off. In retrospect, it was a solid series that I looked forward to every week, simultaneously thrilling and educational entertainment. I actually learned a lot about how people in the STEM field make all the technology we take for granted. While there are some battles like in most shonen action series, there's an emphasis on cunning, particularly intelligence versus strength and how one can complement the other. While protagonist Senku does often fall into the introverted genius trope, he never expresses misanthropy, making him a sometimes callous hero you can nonetheless root for. By the time Dr. Stone wrapped up for the year, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a socially stunted prodigy recreating humanity's greatest achievements in a far-flung stone age future makes for a such consistently funny and captivating story.
2. Vinland Saga
The aesthetic of Vinland Saga shines with meticulously animated battles that are broad in scope. Nearly every episode, the show brings to life the sense of brutality that's a hallmark of Viking warfare without relying on imagery that's too grotesque. Based on the visuals alone, Vinland Saga is one of the best anime of the year, but the characters and story kept me tuning in week after week. With more episodes to work with, the series is still nascent in the development of the plot, but by season's end, there have been some surprising twists and noticeable character development that make it clear there is no black-and-white good-versus-evil anywhere in sight. Even hero Thorfinn makes questionable choices in the name of revenge. The character of Askeladd in particular does few things to make him sympathetic at all, yet he's one of the most compelling people on the screen and the impetus for so much of what goes on in the show, despite him not (yet) being a central figure to the conflict at large.
At the time when this show aired, I listed another show (the adorable My Roommate is a Cat) as my favorite of the season, but by year's end, Kaguya-sama: Love is War is the one that's really stuck with me as a standout. The president and vice president of a high school student council are both madly in love with the other, but are both too proud to be the first to “cave” and admit it because they think that would give the other an unfair advantage in a relationship. (They both come to this conclusion separately, demonstrating how well suited they are for one another, unhealthy though it may be.) Because they're largely oblivious to the other's feelings, they come up with elaborate situations to “make” the other fall in love. The concept alone is humorous, but the stark visuals, overly serious narration, and great characterization make for a consistently stellar season without a single dull episode. Red and black dominate the art, lending a weighty import to simplistic “battles” for dominance that are mostly in the minds of these two teens. While the leads are intent on keeping up the appearance of propriety and elegance throughout each bout, the audience gets to see that their thoughts run comedically malevolent. The other two members of the student council both have distinctive personalities as well and combined, the four make for a truly hysterical show that never lets its core concept get stale. Somehow, both Kaguya and Shinomiya get you to root for them, even though they have selfish, manipulative sides beneath their impeccable veneers.
5. Promised Neverland
Mamoru Kanbe and CloverWorks' adaptation of The Promised Neverland has proven to be a bit divisive for fans of the manga. The art of Pozuka Demizu is expressionistic, surreal, and dreamlike, taking Kaiu Shirai's story of a band of orphan children trying to escape a nightmarish farm run by flesh-eating "demons" a razor-sharp and nightmarish edge. The anime, on the other hand, favors a muted palette and grounded style, framing most of the action around intentionally drab 3D backgrounds that make up for their lack of personality by granting a freedom of movement to the show's camera work that often feels downright cinematic.
I've often compared the feel of The Promised Neverland anime to that of an M. Shyamalan film (one of the good ones, that, is). Like The Sixth Sense, or Signs, or even The Village, The Promised Neverland bathes every waking moment of Emma, Ray, and Norman's desperate escape plan in dread, terror, and a haze of unknowing. The demons may be otherworldly abominations, but they're nothing compared to the ill-timed creak of a floorboard, or a slow walk down a terribly long hallway in the dark. The show has some problems with racial insensitivity, and it's decision to completely eliminate its characters' inner monologues has had some fans dismissing it entirely as a worthy adaptation, but I still love The Promised Neverland, warts and all. At its best, it is one of the most satisfying nail-biters on TV, anime or otherwise.
If you'd asked me six months ago, I might have told you Kunihiko Ikuhara's latest joint was a shoo-in for my number one spot this, year, but it hasn't stuck with me quite as much as I thought it would. Still, if Sarazanmai has ended up being one of Ikuhara's lesser projects, that still places it leagues ahead of almost every other anime in 2019. I originally planned on filling this part of the list with stupid butt jokes, but what would be the point. This charmingly disgusting tale of three boys-turned-kappa in a world of evil otters and even eviler Amazon.com knockoffs has the market cornered. Sarazanmai will no doubt walk away as 2019s "Anime with the Most Characters Covered in Anal Leakage After Being Turned into Living Butt Plugs for Giant Zombies Created By the Horror of Late Stage Capitalism", and if you know anything about Ikuhara, you'll know he somehow manages to turn that premise into one of the most heartwarming and riveting anime adventures of 2019.
3. Mob Psycho 100 2
Mob is a very good boy. The freshman season of Mob 100 was proof enough of that. Thankfully, in the year that One-Punch Man's sequel series was set up to disappoint with its incredibly lackluster production and direction, Mob Psycho 100 2 arrived to show us exactly how you follow up a smashing adaptation of a quirky ONE manga: You just do everything the first season did, except even better somehow. The first episode of MBS100 2 is so packed with earnest emotion that it justified the existence of a second season all by itself. While the whole series was filled with plenty of worthwhile moments, its 7th episode was one of the year's most talked about triumphs, and rightly so. It stands as a testament to Mob Psycho 100s entire philosophical ethos, which preaches empathy and a pursuit of self-betterment as fundamental pillars of human decency - that the show's crew was able to sell that story with some of the most jaw-dropping animation ever seen in a televised anime production is merely icing on the cake. One-Punch Man may be the most popular ONE anime, but Mob Psycho 100 is the franchise that will go down in history. If you haven't watched it yet, I implore you to give it a shot.
2. Vinland Saga
My second and first spots on this year's list are virtually interchangeable, seeing as they're both so good that just writing this list makes me want to immediately rewatch them from the beginning. Vinland Saga may have seemed to have had a rough patch there in the middle, and some might not be keen in how Studio Wit's latest offering is more focused on the philosophy of the Viking warrior, rather than their gory battlefield exploits, but at this point I feel like it is undeniable that Vinland Saga is doing something truly special. It's main hero, Thorfinn Snoresson, is a real figure from Norse history whose saga to Vinland (aka North America) really was the stuff of legend, but right now he is more of an observer in his own story. While he has spent a decade stewing in his quest for revenge, characters like Askeladd and Prince Canute have grown into some of the most complex and well-written characters of any anime this season. Couple this fantastically layered writing with Studio Wit's moody and ferocious direction, and you have what I think is, easily among the absolute best anime released this year. Don't let Vinland Saga's Amazon exclusivity scare you away: This is must watch entertainment for anyone interested in historical drama, searing character development, or the simple pleasures of watching Vikings explode other men's limbs with tree trunks and the like.
1. Carole and Tuesday
Shinichiro Watanabe basically earned himself a lifetime of blank checks after directing Cowboy Bebop, and I've either liked or loved pretty much every project he's had a hand in since then; I even dug Terror in Resonance. Carole and Tuesday takes things to the next level, though, providing the first series overseen by Watanabe in years that I feel approaches instant classic status (don't @ me, Space Dandy fans). In chronicling the story of two aspiring musicians just trying to make their way in the bustling metropolis of Mars, Carole and Tuesday uses its sci-fi trappings and its despire to spread joy though the power of kickass music to smartly address all manner of themes and subject matter.
This is a show thay manages to explore the modern day crises of anti-immigration movements while also speaking to the fundamental power of music to give voice to the voiceless, and create empathy and compassion in hostile spaces. The way that these girls' improbable rise to stardom coincides with and affects Mars' political turmoil might seem hokey to some, but I bought into their journey completely. The story of Carole and Tuesday reminds me of a world I used to fervently believe in, where people were moved to action by love instead of hate, and were proud to resist bigotry and stupid malice in all of its forms. Carole and Tuesday wasn't just great entertainment in 2019 - it was a vital antidote to the woes of the real world, proving that even if one good song can't completely change the world today, it can provide hope that a better one might still be waiting for us tomorrow.
5. Kaguya-sama: Love is War
I'm not as aligned with others I've seen to the idea that comedy in anime form is especially hard to do, but I'm still pretty impressed when an exceptionally funny cartoon comes along. As with so many things, the beauty of Kaguya-sama's setup is in its simplicity: You have two elitist doofuses who are in love with each other but too prideful to confess first. Put them in romantic situations that would, under no other sane circumstances be competitive, and watch the fireworks fly. The series mines an astounding amount of comic gold from several simple scenarios per episode, to the point that as the series grew in complexity and developmental density later in its run, I worried that might actually dampen its comedic effects. But Kaguya-sama never really stumbled, through deft writing of its central lovestruck loons and a brilliantly-deployed cast of supporting characters. That of course includes its real secret weapon: The irrepressible embodiment of chaos and surprisingly talented dancing fool Chika Fujiwara.
I was unfamiliar with the original manga for this one, but that honestly just made it more fun to get into and follow as the season went on. The first episode was an entertaining, if somewhat slow-to-start premiere laying out what seemed to be a fairly simple tale of kids in the titular space-lost situation needing to find their way home. But then I noticed a lot of chatter from some of my friends and fellow fans insinuating that this ride might be more of a roller coaster than I was expecting. Even with that tip-off, I was not prepared. So many shows out there try to succeed by doling out as many shocking twists and swerves in their plot as possible, but Astra actually made it all work. It demonstrates an expertly-honed talent for baiting audience reactions, catching us with revelations that turned out to be double- and even triple-bluffs- Fake-outs that were earnestly satisfying once we were able to settle on their truths. I can only speak in vagaries about this series to avoid the absolute avalanche of spoilers, but suffice to say, Astra ended up feeling like a true classic to me by the end. It genuinely seemed like I'd spent way more than twelve (okay, fourteen) episodes with these kids when it was all said and done, and I can definitely see myself returning to revisit their journey again in the future.
I told you I was impressed by good comedy. I could go into explicit detail about how this show's translation of budding feminine sexuality into comic brilliance was successful on a number of levels, but instead I'll make it clear with just one quick anecdote: A day after I watched the episode, I found myself stifling giggling at my desk at work, still thinking about that god-damned bowling ball scene. I've been hit-or-miss with her before, but this show means I'll finally admit that Mari Okada is a genius. Her look at the subject matter involved in this show is unflinching, prompting not only some of the most uproarious uncomfortable laughter I've experienced, but also allowing us to bask in the messy entanglements of these girls trying desperately to enjoy their youth and just being absolutely terrible at it. When I wasn't clamping my hands over my mouth every week to stifle laughter, I was doing so in shock at this show's refusal to leave any depths un-plumbed. I don't know if O Maidens is going to be for everyone, but I absolutely believe everyone should watch it.
I was late to the Mob party, missing the original series and only hopping aboard when this second season started up and you people did not. Stop. Talking about it. And in all your defense, I can see why. At a time when announcements of studio changes and waiting had already dulled our enthusiasm for the upcoming second season of One-Punch Man, it turned out the true inheritor to its legacy was right here all along, and this one might be even better. The visual splendor of Mob is a massive selling point in its own right, to be sure. I love how it takes ONE's famously...distinct artistic style, maintaining the sketchy lines and goofy simplistic faces, then making those move masterfully, both to symbolic excess and for fresh, experimental action (this show's take on an ESPer who uses teleportation for combat must be seen to be believed). But more than its technical achievements, I love the messaging and worldview Mob Psycho embodies. It exudes positivity on the part of people's nature: The exercise club full of jocks that are happily welcoming and helpful to a less-fit kid like Mob, or the way our hero encounters a variety of ‘bad guys’ and mean people inspired to change by his own commitment to kindness. The boy's moral center, which drives the whole show, is imparted to him by Reigen, a money-grubbing con-man who nonetheless has enough of a heart of gold to be seen as one of the very best examples of the humanity that Mob fights for. This show is inspiring, hilarious, beautiful, and meaningful, and watching the whole thing was one of the best favors I did myself all year.
God I love Studio Trigger. I love how much they've come into their own this decade. I love the way this movie has turned out to be an international phenomenon, it being clear that Imaishi and Nakashima had their fingers on some sort of pulse. There are times when the film almost seems too self-absorbed, the team seemingly trying to do a Gurren Lagann again or mashing together the manic energy of projects like that and Kill la Kill. But as a crew, I think they've earned it. Constantly throughout this movie I found myself repeating under my breath, like some sort of mantra, “Studio Trigger has done nothing halfway in their entire lives, and they are not about to start now”. I love how refreshingly unpretentious this movie is, unaffected by cynicism or irony poisoning, gleefully throwing cool things like massive fire dragons or giant mecha in as the plot races along without feeling a petty need to qualify itself. I love how unabashedly political Promare is, tackling subjects of marginalized populations, rising fascism, and global climate change with shocking blatancy. I love how it pushes the boundaries of marrying 2D and 3D animation, illustrating how both mediums can mingle to grow and learn from each other, in the same way a fireman and an embodiment of fire can fall in love and find a way to save the world. Looking at the response, I think a lot of us definitely needed something like Promare right about now, and I love Trigger for giving it to us.
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