The Best Anime Of 2019
Given is a band story, romantic drama, and character study all in one, centered on the quiet Mafuyu and passionate yet often emotionally tongue-tied Ritsuka. Though anime is overflowing with shows focused on the emotional conflicts of adolescence, almost none of them treat these subjects with the thoroughness or sensitivity of Given. This slow-moving, thoughtful drama illustrates the personalities and circumstances of Mafuyu, Ritsuka, and their fellow bandmates with laudable acuity, and then uses that rich cast to discuss topics as diverse and charged as youth suicide, coming to terms with your sexual identity, social shaming and bullying, and living with ongoing depression and grief.
And yet, in spite of the heaviness of those topics, Given never feels either mean-spirited or hopeless. The very acuteness of its drama speaks to how fully it's invested in the feelings of its characters, and when those characters come together, their chemistry is vividly clear. Culminating in a live performance that counts among the most emotionally resonant moments I've seen in anime, Given is an unconditional gem, and I'm greatly looking forward to its film continuation.
4. Stars Align
Director Kazuki Akane has an eclectic collection of shows to his name, but they're all beloved in their own ways, from the classic Escaflowne to the more recent Noein and Birdy the Mighty: Decode. In Stars Align, he turns his consistent passion for messy character stories to a fairly grounded premise, as he explores the personalities and home lives of one mixed-up soft tennis club.
Combining piercing scenes of unhappy home lives with thrilling match sequences and warm club activities, Stars Align naturally attests to the importance of finding your own families. None of Stars Align's characters are perfect people; they each suffer from resentments or anger problems or insecurities of their own, and it is only through the unifying joy of playing tennis together that they truly embody their best selves. And in addition to its clever fusion of character drama and sports anime fundamentals, Stars Align is also just-plain-gorgeous. The show has some of the most fluid and convincing character acting of any show this year, and the match sequences are illustrated so convincingly that you can follow the momentum of each match purely through the visual drama. Succeeding brilliantly as both sports and character drama, Stars Align combines these threads effortlessly, emerging as one of the best sports anime of recent years.
3. Vinland Saga
Makoto Yukimura is one of the all-time great mangaka, with both Planetes and Vinland Saga standing among the most poignant and thematically incisive manga I've read. This year's adaptation of Vinland Saga, helmed by Attack on Titan veteran Shūhei Yabuta, manages to translate all the savagery and pathos of Yukimura's work over to the small screen, demonstrating that action shows can be just as thoughtful and far-seeing as any other genre.
Vinland Saga's actual battle scenes are quite impressive, and clearly demonstrate the 3D-centric approach to visual drama that Yabuta nurtured on Titan. But it's Vinland Saga's thematic ambitions that really speak to me - its persistent focus on a brighter horizon, far from the cruelty, enslavement, and cyclical violence of its viking drama. Just as Planetes highlighted the inherent inhumanity of untethered capitalism within the space age, so does Vinland Saga explore the tragic societal assumptions of the age of heroes, as its combatants cross words and philosophies just as frequently as swords. Yukimura's antagonists are never individuals, and I appreciate that; though his works articulate the cruelty of mankind with a historian's care, his own heart rests with the thoughtful Thors' pronouncement that “no one has any enemies.”
2. Mob Psycho 100 S2
The first season of Mob Psycho 100 was a dazzling wonder, simultaneously demonstrating the emotional range of its creator ONE, as well as the pronounced talent of its fast-rising director Yuzuru Tachikawa. This year's followup season is, if anything, even more impressive than the first - more poignant in terms of its character studies and psychological inquiry, and more dazzling in terms of its absurd visual highlights.
The eye for dynamic cinematography that Tachikawa nurtured on the excellent Death Parade is put to brilliant use by ONE's inventive action narrative, as young esper Mob undergoes painful trials that force him to directly grapple with his fragile self-image and many insecurities. There are sequences of action animation within this season that outright boggle my mind, combining creative storyboarding, nearly surrealist animated transformations, and hard-earned character growth. Through its combination of transcendent visuals and sturdy, thematically resonant characterization, Mob Psycho 100 proves there's still life in the old shonen action frame.
Though I'd probably consider Mob Psycho 100's sequel the most “flawless” anime I watched this year, our favorites rarely match up with a cold, clinical assessment of merits and demerits. And for me personally, no show was more welcome or appreciated this year than the charming, endlessly generous Carole & Tuesday.
Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe's return to the director's chair combines many of his abiding interests - music, found families, people on the margins of a shifting society, and the planet Mars. But while all of his works contain great sympathy for his ragtag protagonists, he's never made a work as sunny or idealistic as this. Carole and Tuesday themselves are incredibly charming characters, as dedicated to each other as they are to their music, and this production's early episodes are brimming with slice of life vignettes that demonstrate Watanabe's uniquely keen sense of humor. Along with the flavorful animation and inventive background design you'd expect from a Watanabe show, these episodes all peak in a unique musical performance; some focus on Carole and Tuesday simply exploring their strange city, some are framed in the context of a music video or jam session, and some portray their first, nervous live performances. In terms of music and animation, Carole & Tuesday is a truly obscene buffet of riches.
Later on, Carole and Tuesday find their work taking an unexpected political dimension, as a fairly on-the-nose Trump avatar threatens to shatter their new life. But even though Carole & Tuesday directly engages with the cruelty of our current reactionary age and inhumanity of modern immigration policies, it never falls into cynicism or despair, instead working to serve as a beacon of optimism and solidarity in a very unfriendly world. As an admitted cynic myself, I needed Carole & Tuesday this year - its aesthetic brilliance, its episodic charm, its championing of diverse musical styles, its acknowledgment of our current struggles, and its untarnished hope in our collective potential.
As we hit a neat ten-year milestone, I'd just like to report that the anime industry still needs to chill; right now, there's still so much anime being made that lots of shows have trouble finding audiences, even the best stuff is produced by crews of fatigued, overworked animators, and the inevitable fragmenting of the online streaming market means that, if you're a complete maniac like me (and you), you basically need to subscribe to at least five or six portals to have a shot at seeing everything you want. And that assumes that you live in the good old USA, which gets the lion's share of anime sooner or later. I say "later" because we're still dealing with Netflix Jail, which is where BEASTARS, a show with the kind of buzz that I expect will land it on many top 10 lists, is currently languishing. I love the variety of productions, but slow down, anime industry! Anyway, here's my top five, with apologies to close calls Kemurikusa, I want to eat your pancreas, Fruits Basket, Hitori Bocchi, and Jojo's for not quite making the cut.
5. Attack on Titan Season 3
The series that arguably ignited a global passion for anime that continues to this day had a couple of long, momentum-stealing gaps in production, but the show's semi-climactic season commits brilliantly to bringing Hajime Isamaya's apocalyptic tale of man-eating monsters and their mysterious masters to its thrilling conclusion. A lot of the time, open-ended fan favorites struggle to find good, effective endings, weighed down by editorial demands and other pressures. In this season, Eren and company's close-knit fellowship gets even closer and deadlier, we find out the shocking secret of what's in the basement... and it's worth it, it pays off with a satisfying conclusion. But thanks to the aforementioned pressure, the series soldiers on; I'm not confident that Isamaya's final chapters will make as good animated storytelling as what we've gotten so far, but I'm holding out hope.
In taking up the euphonium and taking her musicianship seriously, Kumiko Oumae made friends, mended fences, and helped lift her band to a big win. This franchise's two TV installments were winsome and wonderful odes to high school band life-- and in those stories, Kumiko owes a lot of success to her senpai Asuka. In this film, Asuka's graduated and now Kumiko is the senpai! The earlier installments of Sound! Euphonium were generally steered by director Tatsuya Ishihara, with significant contributions by Naoko Yamada (who herself went on to create the excellent spinoff Liz and the Blue Bird); here, he turns in a virtuosic performance, helped along by the steady hand of designer and animation director Shoko Ikeda, who was one of the many we lost in the infamous July 2019 fire. Ikeda in particular carries a lot of responsibility for Sound! Euphonium's shimmery, dreamlike look; it's still really tough to think about, but this film will stand as a monument to her excellent work. The film's climactic musical performance is utterly pleasing to the senses in a way that very few anime I've seen have been-- I'm looking forward to experiencing it again on the small screen.
3. Carole & Tuesday
Speaking of Netflix Jail, here's a show that escaped from it just in time! Despite the second half of the series surfacing just a week ago, I've been horking down episodes in chunks of three or four at a time. There's a lot to like about Carole and Tuesday; it's got the signature punchy, music-driven director's hand of Shinichiro Watanabe, it's got these gorgeous, soft, fluffy character designs by Eisaku Kubonouchi, and it's got an unforgettable soundtrack anchored by Nai Br.XX and Celeina Ann, the musical incarnation of the title characters, an odd-couple pair of street musicians in a futuristic but recognizable Mars. Aside from its great music and fun characters, Carole and Tuesday's genius is that it's largely a familiar refraction of the modern music industry as we know it-- a diva and her perfectionist, algorithm-obsessed producer square off against Carole and Tuesday, with an over-the-hill-and-loving-it DJ playing the wild card, against the backdrop of social media, political rallies, and giant festival concerts. The show is surprisingly topical and savvy; hear its song, because Carole and Tuesday's got something for everyone.
2. Vinland Saga
Say, remember a couple of years back, when I did a column on good manga that hadn't yet been adapted? (It was four years ago, actually...!) One of the titles I tipped was Vinland Saga, an excellent, highly detailed historical fiction about the 11th-century conquest of England by Denmark. I'd like to say that I predicted this, but it was almost certainly inevitable that Makoto Yukimura's superb manga would be adapted to anime sooner or later. It's too good to stay on the printed page! Wit Studio understood this, and also understood that they'd need an action show in the pipeline after Attack on Titan wrapped up. As a result, us lucky fans were left with Vinland Saga, in which Thorfinn, a humble boy from an Icelandic seaside village, is forced to watch his father die, and so trains himself relentlessly as a fighter, all so he might take revenge on his father's killer, the viking raider captain Askeladd. The ensuing series of skirmishes, raids, and all-out massacres takes place over the backdrop of England in 1002, when the Danish conquest of the country was complicated by a power struggle between Denmark's king Sweyn and his sons. Yukimura's story, like his earlier hit PLANETES, is rich with character and pathos, and takes some surprising turns. A second season seems all but inevitable, so jump on the bandwagon early on this one.
If you didn't see this coming, you weren't paying attention. Trigger have spent the 2010s making their mark; their shows are noisy, riotously colorful, extreme in almost every aspect, and almost uniformly good, often great. Here, Hiroyuki Imaishi's wild bunch take their mastery of TV anime and put it on the big screen, and it pays off hugely. The studio employs a candy-colored mixture of 2D animation and shaded 3DCG to create a movie that looks and moves like no other, and further leverages the medium to build a film that is somehow simultaneously a bonehaded blockbuster action flick about hot-blooded future firefighters tangling with flame-wielding adversaries, and a savvy political thriller about a set of opposing social factions finding solidarity in the face of fascism and pushing back hard against a Thiel-esque technocrat ruthlessly marching society towards a climate disaster. Imaishi and pals insist it's all a bit coincidental, but Promare really might be the most topical film of the moment. It's also a film with two brilliant, fun-to-watch protagonists who just might be boyfriends. Home video can't come soon enough!
This year was slim pickings for me but there was still enough anime to fill out a top five roster; I just didn't have to make any tough calls this time around. My picks all have one common thread and that's emotional resonance. The stuff that sticks with me best always beats up my heart a little and as a slowly aging millennial, that takes some intensity. This year's top five shows all got that emotional sucker punch in to make sure I didn't forget it.
I'm always down for an Ikuhara joint and flexing my brain cells to dissect his various symbolism and eke out the underlying messages that ties everything together. Utena will always be my personal favorite of his works but Sarazanmai wiggled its way up there with equal parts adolescent angst and folklore. This show might be less ambitious than say, Penguindrum, but its sharply attuned focus on three queer kids learning to accept themselves allowed for less distractions from its emotional core. Ikuhara has always said it's ok to be a “bear” or whatever monster society might take you for. Sarazanmai solidifies that message with hope for all us “weirdos” out there. If I had one criticism, it's that Kazuki's arc felt like it needed a touch more resolution but overall Sarazanmai serves as a great introductory work to Ikuhara's art and themes.
4. Carole & Tuesday
Shinichiro Watanabe's musical drama has a sci-fi setting but it feels particularly grounded in current events. Carole and Tuesday are incredibly likable girls with big (albeit common) dreams to be professional musicians. Pursuing that goal, with the help of a American Idol-style program, opens up a new world of possibilities for both the hardworking, orphaned Carole and privileged and isolated Tuesday. That world is filled with all kinds of people from different walks of life. Watanabe and the anime's team made sure that Carole & Tuesday felt international and representative of what the art world is really like, both good and bad. Also the music is downright amazing and spans a variety of styles whether you like futuristic synthwave or heart-felt folk songs. Carole & Tuesday doesn't get everything right; it takes on ambitious topics in its second half that it can't quite solve adequately but just like its lead duo, it puts its whole heart out there.
I'll admit that I'm not a Trigger diehard. I understand why the studio's works has fans and it definitely deserves the accolades but there just hadn't been a story I could champion until Promare premiered this year. Set in not-New York, the film stars a lovably brash firefighter working for his local precinct who discovers that the whole government he trusted probably needs burned to the ground since they're rounding up Burnish and plan to use them to power a giant spaceship to escape a dying Earth. Yeah, anime was not light on immigration commentary this year and Promare adds some environmentalism on top of it with a big ol' heaping of beefcake. Also, the film was gorgeous from beginning to end with an expert use of 3D and 2D integration, a flying fire dragon, and combo mechas. Galo starts the film at a 10 and never lets up in his quest to “Do the Right Thing”, a hero for the ages.
This one hit so close to home for me it was almost painful to watch. Mari Okada has wrenched some tears out of me before but this was like watching aspects of myself painfully go through real moments of my adolescence. The best way to describe my thoughts on this series is that I'm grateful that it exists. Who knows if I would have gotten as much out of it if I wasn't viewing it retrospectively, but suffice to say that being a teen girl is hard. Navigating social expectations and hormones and self-discovery is brutal. Not just anime, but media in general rarely gets this exact experience right but O Maidens never faltered even when the results were ugly. It's easy to tell a story about teenagers muddling through their emotions but the gravity of the mistakes that are made and how all encompassing that feels is more difficult. I honestly hope the anime comes back to finish out the manga's story but until then I'll keep saying a prayer for little Hongo.
I really didn't expect to love this series as much I do. The first season, while funny and expertly animated, didn't really stick with me. It wasn't until the second season when Mob really comes into his own as a person and his powers that the show took off. The characters are almost completely different people. Season one's Mob is naive, to say the least, which is why he continually undervalues his powers and falls for Reigan's underhanded BS. That changes in the second season as Mob has really learned to treasure his family and friendship and also himself. The change-up in the dynamic for Mob and Reigan means that the adult has to start thinking of others and also trusting Mob (and Mob has to trust Reigan in turn). Mob's growth also means he can start being a pillar of support for others and help them begin their own positive changes.
The animation continues to be fantastic throughout, both heightening the show's tension during each successive showdown and reflecting Mob's own state of mind as his power grows. The staff utilize unique art methods that keep the show fresh and intense. All around Mob Psycho II is an excellent show and I'll be singing its praises well into the next decade.
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