The Best Anime Of 2019
2019 was not my most restful year, and what that means for my anime viewing – which is still something I do for enjoyment even though it's also a job – is that I only watched shows I was either assigned to cover or was actively excited about. So a couple of series that I would have finished in another year just didn't happen this time, when family health stuff came first. But that means that by and large I really enjoyed what I watched this year, and when you can still really enjoy your job, I think that means that things could be a lot worse.
It's always nice when a series can zero in on two specific elements I enjoy, and Meiji Tokyo Renka covers both “reverse harem” and “messing with historical figures.” The story follows modern teen Mei who is Spirited Away to the Meiji Era (in Tokyo, naturally), where she falls in with such improbably hot guys as Mori Ogai, Kyoka Izumi, Shunso Hishida, and the inevitable Hajime Saito, albeit in his Fujita Goro years. Apart from one intensely embarrassing song about the wonders of electricity (which is still somehow less weird than Marie Corelli's 1886 novel A Romance of Two Worlds on the same topic), the plot manages to cover both the fantasy aspects of the characters and situations and the more real ones, using the actual works of the historical figures as plot points and a jumping off point for romance. Mei herself manages to be a decent combination of someone with a brain and an innocent otome game protagonist, and along with the historical notes, that helps to ground the story in ways you wouldn't expect. That there's not a Disney-style happily ever after is a bit disappointing (the show otherwise follows Mori's route), but it does work, especially if you know the history and realize that some of the guys died very shortly after the show was set, plus the whole Great Kanto Earthquake thing is nicely avoided. All in all Meiji Tokyo Renka does its best with what it has and manages to be an enjoyable show, and sometimes that's enough to make a series stick with me long after it's over and done.
You may have heard this before, but female sexuality isn't a topic covered all that often in sex ed classes in middle and high school. That's changing, but it's relatively slow, and that leaves a lot of people sort of twisting in the wind as they try to figure out what's normal, what's normal for them, and what really, really isn't okay. O Maidens in Your Savage Season, based on the manga of the same name, doesn't always go as far as it needs to or cover as much as it should, but it is a major step in the right direction. Told in five different female perspectives with a couple of boys' stories intertwined with them as well, the series' chief strength is the way it shows how adolescence is different for everybody and that emotions and hormones do not always mix in positive ways. Each of the characters is motivated by the same drive to understand what the big deal with sex is, whether that's by scoffing at people who think it's not worth talking about, feeling deeply uncomfortable with the topic for any number of personal reasons, or just plain old confusion. Those emotions are very recognizable if you remember what it was like to be that age or regularly interact with kids in late middle or high school, even if they come off as a little overdramatic to adult viewers now. The story also doesn't shy away from showing what happens when adults aren't willing participants in the discussion, from the confusion between a physiological and an emotional reaction to stimulus to falling prey to a predator who is “too respected” to possibly be abusing young girls. That there's excellent tongue-in-cheek use of symbolism and music is really just the icing on the cake here, and the only thing that keeps this from being higher on my list is that it definitely feels rushed at times and that the LGBTQ+ content isn't given as much attention as the rest. It's great that one of the main characters is a lesbian, but unlike with, for example, Stars Align, there's not much exploration of that. Not every show needs to have that component of course, but it does feel a bit remiss in this one because of the series' focus on sexuality. That issue aside, however, this is a breath of fresh air as it reminds us that it's never easy figuring these things out – no matter who you are.
3. Stars Align
Prior to the final episode, I would have ranked this one higher, but I feel like the ending really dropped the ball, or at least showed the series as a whole to be too ambitious for its own good. But before the final moments of episode twelve (which in all fairness did sort of warn us with its truncated theme songs), Stars Align proved itself to be one of the shows I most looked forward to watching week to week this year. Its juxtaposition of a basic happy sports show with the difficulties that its protagonists faced in other aspects of their lives mostly worked well, giving them all something to work towards while not actually clearing up any of their problems with The Power of Friendship and other tropes. That the story also acknowledged various facets of LGBTQ+ characters' lives, including gender identity, is another thing in its favor, and the way that the kids all grew to respect and understand each other's differences and to help each other cope with them is a major highlight. Ultimately it was not able to live up to its promise, compromising an inclusive story with too many tangled threads of different characters' personal lives and making a sharp left almost out of nowhere with Maki sort of spitting on the relationship the story had he and Toma building for most of the season. But up until almost the end, it did a nice job of showing that nobody's life is perfect and combining that with a good sports story and beautiful animation. All of that does still earn it its place on my list, no matter my feelings on the final five minutes.
A BL show about mourning and music may not seem all that likely, but Given is unquestionably the anime to handle the emotional turmoil around death the best since the equally unlikely Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash. In some ways it almost feels unfair that the show is most labeled “BL,” not because it isn't (it definitely is), but because that designation still carries some stigma in terms of the use of outdated romance tropes and might scare off some viewers who would otherwise really enjoy it. In fact, the romance plots in Given seem to work to deliberately show the toxicity of what would be a more typical relationship in a BL story – the borderline-abusive boyfriends are juxtaposed with Mafuyu slowly coming out of his fog of sadness and guilt and the slow burn of both romances the story touches on. But more impressive is the slow, quiet, and careful build up to the moment when we find out what happened in Mafuyu's past and the day he is finally able to move through it. He doesn't “get over” it, which is good, because people rarely do. But he moves past it in a series of slow steps, culminating in a moment of triumph that isn't overstated and doesn't negate what he's experienced on the way. It'll always be there behind him, just like the other guys' pasts will, but when the series ends, there's a real sense that no matter what, he's going to be okay, and that's possibly the most important message of all.
There's plenty of family-oriented kid-friendly media that attempts to educate children in a gentle way about the difficulties of the world. Some of it's even quite good. But an awful lot of it starts with the assumption that kids are kind of stupid and need things watered down to the nth degree, or that a gentle, well-meaning lie is much better than a hard truth. Those books, films, and shows, in my experience, do much more harm than good, and that's part of what keeps GeGeGe no Kitarō at the top of my “best of” lists. Just Because! it uses cartoony characters and supernatural creatures to convey its messages doesn't mean that it's busy dumbing down its storylines, and it also isn't going to shy away from topics that many would say aren't kid friendly. There are plenty of picture books about dementia and Alzheimer's Disease, but what about the discrimination against and mistreatment of foreign workers or other similarly harsh topics? Maybe not so much, although it is worth mentioning that there's one called The Night Daddy Went to Prison. For the most part, this past year of Kitaro's adventures has been focused on real-world issues told through a supernatural lens, and with exceptions like the bizarre episode 55, it's covered a lot of important ground.
It's also managed to move through the end of two story arcs that have shaped Kitaro's own world, with the most important being the death and reclamation of Cat Girl. This is significant not Just Because! Cat Girl's a major character, but also because even before Kitaro came to anything resembling a decision about how close to humans like Mana he should be (or would let himself be), Cat Girl befriended her, and essentially functioned as the link between the two. When Mana accidentally caused Cat Girl's death last March and Kitaro decided to go to the underworld to see what could be done, it was an acknowledgement that both of them were hurting over Cat Girl's loss. Because Mana wasn't in a position to do anything about it, Kitaro, who was, did. More than the Rei storyline that was ongoing at the same time, Cat Girl's resurrection focused Kitaro himself, even as he also found himself questioning whether all humans were worthwhile or if it was just Mana. That's a decision he's still making as the series heads into its final episodes. It may never be one that's resolved. But even if it isn't, it will still be an important piece of the series as a whole, because even kids know that no matter how much you might want resolution or a sense of finality to a situation, you're not always going to get it. But you do get to keep the discoveries and friends you make along the way, and that's what's kept this series alive for so many years.
Since I am a big fan of Mokoto Shinkai's works, Weathering With You likely would have been on this list if I'd had a chance to see it before the end of the year. Rascal Does Not Dream of a Dreaming Girl also might have been in the mix if it had shown anywhere near me during its very light American premiere. Other titles which I did see and seriously considered for this list (and so would finish out my Top 10 list given the above conditions) include Demon Slayer, Promare, the Saga of Tanya the Evil movie, The Demon Girl Next Door, and Mysteria Friends.
Of all of the series in 2019, only maybe Saranzanmai aimed as high as this one on a conceptual level. But where I hated the more overt style and symbolism of that one, this one felt right up my alley. Despite action elements that could sometimes get very graphic, this was primarily a psychological and philosophical examination of the foibles and defects of humankind couched in terms of a supernatural entity who manifested as the alter ego of a high school girl. Over the course of four arcs covering 18 episodes it contemplated heady matters like survivor's guilt and how people process stress and regret in ways which are designed to speak directly to troubled teens and yet are still easily relatable to adults. It also features one of the year's best vocal performances in Aoi Yūki's portrayal of Touka/Boogiepop and one of the most delightfully smarmy personalities you'll ever see in anime. Only a bit of unevenness in the execution of its story arcs keeps me from ranking it higher.
4. Fruits Basket 2019
Two factors kept me from ranking this one even higher: there were some scenes which I felt were inferior to the original adaptation and I didn't find the series as a whole to be quite as absorbing as the titles I ranked higher. Even so, this was a dramatic technical improvement over the original and showed more emotional depth than any other title I watched out in 2019. Substantial character depth and compelling, sometimes very emotional backstories powered the series through even when its lighter content didn't always work.
On the other hand, this series is here entirely because of its purely lighter content. This is a brilliant concept – taking the protagonists and primary supporting casts from four popular isekai series and transporting them into yet another world – but what truly makes it deserving of this ranking is how masterful a job it did at mixing the four casts in such a way that they can freely bounce off each other without any series seeming shorted. It doesn't miss any opportunity for an excellent joke, conflict, or meeting of the minds borne from characters of different series interacting (such as Aqua trying to turn the undead of Overlord), which contribute to making these half-length episodes the year's funniest title. Cute chibi designs, catchy theme songs, and a couple of unexpected touches of depth also don't hurt.
Of all series this year, only Mysteria Friends and Isekai Quartet rivaled this one in terms of how much of a pure delight it was to watch from week to week. No isekai series – and precious few fantasy anime titles in general – that I have ever seen have developed their world-building as thoroughly and meticulously as this one has, and it's done so without resorting to common traps like heavy exposition or narration. There's no needless detail, either, as each little thing that's introduced is relevant in some way. That it never treats its supporting cast as idiots just to make Myne look good is also refreshing, nor is Myne faultless, and her design, animation, and relationship with Best Boy Lutz are utterly adorable. It also features one of the year's most uplifting opening themes.
This title deserves this position if for no other reason than the ridiculously high bar it sets for any future musically-oriented series. Even silly or mediocre insert songs by this series' standards would be among the best in most other idol/band series, and it includes a bevy of show-stoppers from numerous different musical styles; I'll be replaying “Light The Fire,” “The Loneliest Girl,” “Mother,” and yes, “Galactic Mermaid” many times over upcoming years and would kill for an OST collecting all of the inserts. Beyond that, how good a duo the two leads make, the way that insulates them from the problems that some other performers face, and how their approach contrasts with those of other performers (without the other performers necessarily being wrong) makes for engaging storytelling. The series also isn't shy about commentating on the calculated nature of the music industry, the problems that can come with stardom, and even (in the second half) how music and politics can mix. While certain elements are maybe oversimplified and it can get a bit too silly for its own good at times, I can see this being remembered as a landmark series, and it's definitely another triumph for director Shinichiro Watanabe.
Kunihiko Ikuhara (and more specifically, Utena) is arguably the reason I'm here, in this moment, passionately writing about anime. Nobody else is out there making shows quite like he does, and that includes bawdy musical comedies about magical kappa boys plunging the depths of other people's anuses. If I'm being honest, Sarazanmai currently sits at the lowest tier of my Ikuhara anime ranking, but that's more of an indication of how highly I regard his oeuvre than a slight on Sarazanmai itself. Plus, the beauty of an Ikuhara show is that I know I'm going to return to it someday and extract even more meaning and delight from its web of characters and references. Sarazanmai might be a sign of this once-revolutionary director settling into his toolbox, but it's still a wonderful onslaught of offbeat whimsy, with a surprisingly empathetic heart beneath all of its asses.
Director TATSUKI and Studio Yaoyorozu's follow-up to Kemono Friends, 2017's dark horse breakout hit, is a revamped version of an older project that exhibits a lot of artistic growth in the oft-scorned medium of 3DCG anime. Kemurikusa lacks the immediate selling point of a cast of dozens of bishoujo animal friends, but nonetheless it's a charming and thrilling iteration on that same flavor of post-apocalyptic coziness. I just had a delightful time following it week to week, and it packs a surprising amount of intrigue and emotional affect into its lo-fi appearance. And CG jank be damned, it actually possesses some of my favorite aesthetics out of anything I've watched this year. There's so much confidence in how it uses colors and crafts mise-en-scène, and I still have specific scenes lodged in my brain. Anybody who enjoyed Kemono Friends really owes it to themselves to check out this spiritual sequel. I'm interested in seeing TATSUKI tackle another genre next, but with our own apocalypse slouching ever closer, maybe we need voices like his showing us how curiosity, selflessness, and love can withstand the threat of extinction.
Given's music-infused romance is my favorite love story of the year. Sweet and angsty in all the right places, Ritsuka and Mafuyu's slow burn into boyfriendhood is amplified by an uncommonly sensitive animated adaptation. Seriously, Given's core story and characters are wonderful, but the anime's attention to sound, color, and framing is musical in and of itself. Both Mafuyu's depression and Ritsuka's confusion come through to the audience just as strongly as their mutual growing elation at having found each other. It's cute and sad. It's serious and silly. It authentically feels like two adorably dumb and hormonal teen boys falling head over heels, and it has one of the most stunning emotional climaxes of the entire year. This is the prestige BL adaptation of 2019, and I hope it paves the way for more in the future.
The second season of Mob Psycho 100 basically has anything and everything you could ask of an anime. Its writing is consistently sharp, thoughtful, and buoyed with humor. Its characters are flawed, lovable, and dynamic—always mired in the process of growing into better versions of themselves. Its animation exists on a remarkably virtuosic level unparalleled by all but the smallest handful of its televised brethren. I'm hard-pressed to find a single dull facet of this gem. It's an improvement over the already-fantastic first season, and its first episode alone contains more pathos and beauty than most entire shows I watched this year. As much as it's undeniable in its technical wizardry, however, the human components of its story are what place it so high on my list. Seeing Mob suffer, struggle, and nevertheless strive to be better was an inspiring way to begin another year suffused with ceaseless attacks on basic human dignity. Mob's superpower isn't his ESP; it's his hardline empathy.
1. Stars Align
The tennis is soft. The show is anything but. Stars Align is that rare anime where adolescent students look, talk, and act like real adolescent students coming of age in cruel and confusing times. These twelve episodes cover a dizzying amount of rough topics ranging from a veritable cornucopia of parental abuse to the spectrum of pubescent struggles that come with figuring out one's identity. This, importantly, is also a show refreshingly bereft of cowardice. It doesn't equivocate or excuse the behavior of awful adults. It's endlessly sympathetic to its diverse cast of children, many of whom can and do screw up as a consequence of the trauma they've experienced. I mean, Stars Align unambiguously sides with a kid who brains his bully with a tennis racket after finally suffering enough verbal abuse from him. Stars Align openly and honestly lets Yu voice their own messy feelings about their gender, and it venerates both the process of exploring one's queerness and the decision to live true to one's identity, whatever that entails. In an environment where PR bends over backwards to praise corporate media for a crumb of a morsel of LGBTQ representation, it's nice to see an upfront and down-to-earth conversation about gender depicted with the same amount of care and frankness that Stars Align extends to the rest of its characters.
Of course, the elephant in this Best Anime Of The Year room is that Stars Align is not finished, and it might not ever be finished. Director Kazuki Akane revealed on the day of the finale that his originally-planned run of 24 episodes was halved by his producers at the last minute, when there was no longer time to properly rewrite and course-correct. So what we have right now is half of a show, littered with dangling plot threads and character arcs. Akane, however, does not go down quietly; he bookends the finale with rudely-interrupted OP and ED sequences, and he concludes on a brazenly cruel cliffhanger. This spirit of frustration and defiance is what defines Stars Align to me. In an unassuming way, it's probably the most ambitious show of the year—no doubt it will be frustrating to many, but it's dear to me. And in an unintentionally fortuitous way, its unresolved conflicts reflect our current reality. Stars Align is a story about people with power abusing those without it, entrenching a cycle of trauma that's nearly impossible to escape from. Maki and his friends have no respite outside of each other and the dumb game that brought them together. That's all that most of us have. But that's a start.
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