The Best (and Worst) Anime of Fall 2019
The Best (and worst) of Fall 2019
Best: Stars Align
I had no expectations going into Stars Align, a show that on the surface looked to be another sports drama airing in time for the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Besides, another 'not great sports club gets it shit together, wins big' is the modus operandi for these kinds of shows. At best, I thought there might be some well-animated tennis in it and humor. What I got was much, much more than that.
Stars Align is about tennis, sure, but its real heart is the players and their personal struggles to find themselves when the authority figures around them have boxed them in. The characters are fighting battles of personhood and trying to decide what their true name is, whether it's the class president or the team's manager. Stars Align takes the desperation of adolescence head on and tries to share a message of hope for anyone who didn't fit in their designated box. Its sensitive emotional core resonated strongly with me and I'll always highlight shows that lets its characters get tangled up in complicated emotion in service of figuring themselves out. Stars Align's humanity is its greatest strength and it deserves the attention it's received this season.
Harem anime are usually dismissed for a variety of reasons: racy romcoms can make for decent popcorn entertainment but they aren't usually pushing any buttons (except for one, specifically). ORESUKI's first episode looks like its laying down a similar path: crappy dude wants to get laid and puts on a fake, perfect persona to weasel his way into the good graces of the attractive girls at his school. It's a nightmare scenario, but ORESUKI isn't about patting its lead on the back and supporting his horrible social machinations. At it's best, ORESUKI is a genuine parody of of the typical harem anime and it's perfect, affable protagonist as well as the girls that fall all over themselves to make him happy, personal desires be damned.
The protagonist (Joro) has to learn about his own shortcomings and insecurities through mistakes and arguments with the female cast (all named after flowers). The characters actually communicate with one another instead of building drama and conflict from omissions and misunderstandings, like most harem shows. It's a refreshing take on the tired formula, but still not quite good enough to launch it above the likes of Stars Align. If you're a fan of romcoms but have gotten tired of predictability in the genre, ORESUKI is a stand-out addition.
Worst: Food Wars!: The Fourth Plate
Once upon a time, I gave a shit about Food Wars!. It was hands down one of my favorite shows during its initial run. I had aspirations of attempting some of Soma's recipes (no, not the peanut butter octopus) and it peaked around the Apple Prince Foodgasm segment. The show used to be really inventive, hilarious, and its “battles” (shokugeki) kept me at edge-of-my-seat tension. What the hell happened? Some time during season three the animation hit the bottom of the barrel with tons of slow pans over still frames. The foodgasms went back to little more than golden light and disappearing clothes. Azami, despite being one of the most evil villains to grace the show, sort of faded into the background. Suddenly we're the kids are battling on a train against fellow students whose motivations for joining Azami's bland-food-camp-for-kids are little more than convenient. Over time the show transformed into a shadow of what made it fun and can't even get up the motivation to check in anymore.
It's not often a show I don't know anything about beforehand that I put on the top of my most anticipated list actually winds up being my favorite of the season. Welcome to Demon School, Iruma-kun was easily the show I looked forward to the most out of all the many series I found enjoyable. The demon school setting is so colorful and vibrant while bathed in gothic overtones. The character designs pop on the screen, and though they're relatively rare, there are a few instances of magic in action and moments where Iruma's instincts to avoid danger come into play that make for eye-popping animation sequences.
The characters are really what make this show so enjoyable, though, particularly Iruma's wacky, energetic childlike/pet-like friend, Clara, and the grumpy Severus Snape-like instructor, Kalego. Iruma, trying so hard to go unnoticed, nonetheless always manages to come too close to being outed as a human—a dangerous position for him to be in at a demon school—only for him to unintentionally blow his fellow students' minds with feats previously unheard of. There's not much progress on any overarching story to speak of, other than hints that perhaps Iruma could be destined to be the demon king one day, but every school exploit is guaranteed to make me laugh, so I'm in no rush for Iruma to get there.
Runner-up: Ascendance of a Bookworm Though isekai shows are a dime a dozen these days, there's something so endearing about the pure earnestness of little Main's goal of bringing books to the medieval Europe-ish masses with knowledge from her previous life as a Japanese woman studying to be a librarian. Everything Main brings to her new life from her former one turns heads and manages to make her hailed as something of a prodigy in merchant circles, but she never wavers from her goal of earning enough money and creating opportunities to make books affordable. I like how, even with magic in this world, Main has to put in the work to make things happen, and how she struggles through setbacks—the most prominent of which is a medical condition that weakens her fragile child's body and is almost guaranteed to kill her soon. It's a sweet series with just the right amount of stakes so you really feel that clock ticking as Main struggles to meet her goal.
Worst: Africa Salaryman
Because I enjoy workplace comedies (sometimes with animals-as-people to boot) like Aggretsuko, Africa Salaryman seemed poised to be one of my favorite shows this season, but for some reason, it stuck in my craw even more than the few other shows I watched but found a little dull. It's not completely dull—it just tries too hard. The art jumps from CG to hand-drawn and back again for no discernable reason at a whim, animation of either kind is often choppy, and the whole aesthetic is unpleasant. The characters are all one-note, and though I usually like fictional jerk characters, the toucan just tries too hard to make sure we know what an unlikeable cad he is in every single situation. Half the jokes seem to bank on irreverence (like the random serial killer hamster co-worker), while others are more grounded in the reality of office work, and that makes for a comedic whiplash. I did chuckle on occasion while watching this show, but not often enough.
Best: Stars Align
So much more than a soft tennis show, Stars Align will soon be mentioned in the same breath as other emotional sports dramas like Run with the Wind. My colleague Nick Creamer called this "tennis-adjacent personal drama," and I found the description particularly apt. We get to know these characters both on and off the court, seeing the ways their home circumstances inform their roles on the team and vice versa. A veritable encyclopedia of ways to be a terrible parent, this is the only show of the season to make me cry. To accomplish that level of emotional pull, it had to achieve two things: make its characters empathetic, and make their struggles intimately tangible. At the same time, it offered a spectrum of interesting characters to follow, including one who is gender-questioning. Sandwiched between an unskippable opening and ending sequence, it's difficult to decide if the tense theater of tennis matches or the palpable suffering of their fraught teenage lives takes center stage. More likely, each half feeds into the other to give the story a holistic richness that brings these imperfect, lovable characters to life.
Runner-up: Outburst Dreamer Boys
Ignore the nearly nonsensical title localization. This charming reverse-harem show is so much more than it seems. Hijiri finds herself in the relentlessly confusing position of wrangling five boys who each have an extreme case of "middle school syndrome," or chuunibyou, as some fans might recognize. From Nakamura, who writes embarrassing self-insert fanfic about himself as a demonic being, to Noda, the childish aspiring hero, each boy's outsized passion for his particular thing is as infectious as it is ridiculous. Each of these larger than life personalities play off of one another for a remarkable ensemble series. The story keeps its vibe of wacky whimsy and good clean fun all the way to a bombastic finish. Best of all is the show's pitch-perfect message about being yourself and liking what you like, no matter what other people think.
Worst: Gundam Build Divers Re:RISE
As a lifelong Gundam fan, I am cursed to watch every single show in the Gundam canon to its conclusion, no matter what I think of its quality. This latest installment in the Gundam Build series isn't its lowest point (that honor goes to its predecessor, Gundam Build Divers), but still has a lot of shortcomings that are difficult to ignore. Set in an MMORPG for and by Gundam fans, it suffers from the idea that it's all "just a game," giving it considerably lower stakes than your usual Gundam fare and, unlike the exemplary Gundam Build Fighters, isn't nearly enough sports-anime reminiscent competition to make us care about it anyway. These cookie-cutter characters don't even have enough life in them to realize that the plot might have more to it than anyone bargained for. A mid-series twist is starting to turn the tide, but even an addictive ending theme song isn't enough to redeem the sluggish pace.
Best: Ascendance of a Bookworm
This pick is one of the easiest I've had for a seasonal top spot in quite some time, as nothing else was even in the ballpark. It takes the standard isekai reincarnation premise and moves it in a vastly different direction than normal by focusing on world-building at a very mundane, rather than fantastical, level, and that proves much more fascinating than might be expected. It still retains standard isekai sensibilities about anachronistically introducing new concepts and products to the new world (the advent of shampoo, for instance) but it also explores deeper and more complex issues, like how untrained, unregulated magical affinity can be fatal and how that can be used as a control mechanism so obtuse that the public isn't even aware of it. Key to the series' success is the adorable depiction and portrayal of central protagonist Myne (Main in Crunchyroll's subs), who can win audiences over with her bright-faced enthusiasm, pluck, emotional range, and developing relationship with loyal friend Lutz. Rarely I come across an anime series which has been such a pure joy to watch week in and week out.
This one was a vastly harder choice, as no other title clearly stuck out to me as being a quality production. While I have a higher opinion of Babylon than some, and think it actually works pretty well as a stealth horror movie, I also can't deny that certain aspects of it were a hot mess. Fairy gone has nicely reversed itself from a drab first half, to the point that I might put it here if it nails its finale, but I had to write this before that episode aired. No Gun Life, Fate/Grand Order Babylonia, and ORESUKI are all fun series which have their merits but don't feel right here. Ultimate I went with the third quarter of the Alicization arc because it does an exceptional job of adapting the source material into a form suitable for animation. For as much as we sometimes rag on series which don't at least adequately adapt their source material, I don't think we celebrate enough when the job is done right.
This was also a difficult choice this season, as my Most Disappointing of the Spring 2019 season (Fairy gone) returned but as a better show and both of the low-end series that I am following to conclusion (Assassins Pride and Val x Love) are more mediocre than outright bad. Hence I'm falling back on the series that I gave my lowest grade to back during the season's Preview Guide. Even as otome game adaptations go it's a weak effort, one which features a heroine with an interesting ability that doesn't fit her situation at all and an utter lack of common sense. Maybe this got better as it went along (and someone please tell me so in forums if that's the case), but I got so fed up with it so quickly that I couldn't stand to watch more.
Best – GeGeGe no Kitarō
Will she ever stop naming GeGeGe no Kitarō as her best for everything? Sure I will – when the series is over! Or if it takes a nosedive in quality, and honestly, this was a very close call for me between my best and my runner-up, because both shows were thoughtful and didn't talk down to their audiences while covering sometimes difficult topics. But at the end of the day, GeGeGe no Kitarō won out because with maybe one exception it was better thought out in terms of timing and didn't try to cram too much into any given episode. There may not be much that moves from one story to the next (barring the Nurarihyon plot, but that's been mostly in the background), but Kitaro himself internalizes what happens, and that gives viewers the chance to really digest each episode and think about how it changes Kitaro's views or works with the overall theme of whether or not humans and yokai can really co-exist – or even if they should.
That message gets a lot of airtime in this season as episodes look at the corruption of an old yokai who once was said to protect humans (episode 85), yokai bent on the destruction of humanity, or at least a few very specific humans (episodes 77 and 83), and the cruelty of humans towards those who are foreign or different, as we see in episode 84. But then things are balanced with Mana's treatment of Chin-san in that same episode, letting viewers, especially the younger ones who are the target audience, that their attitudes towards others are their choice, or the manga editor who works with drought god Hiderigami in episode 81 because he believes that a great manga creator is a great manga creator no matter what, and ultimately helps make Hiderigami's dreams come true. Kitaro and the viewers are asked to absorb all of this and make their own decisions, and not having an answer spoon-fed to us is a major continuing strength of the series. That it can also handle subjects like the exploitation of foreign workers, how social media can backfire, and dementia just makes it that much more impressive.
Runner-Up: Stars Align
If GeGeGe no Kitarō is lacking anything, that's queer content, and this season Stars Align was there to fill that gap in a non-exploitative way. (Much as I enjoy BL and yuri, it rarely is handled with anything approaching sensitivity towards real-world issues.) Over the course of the episodes that have aired as of this writing, characters have questioned their gender, stood up for a gay teammate, and had open, honest discussions about all of that in a way that was so sorely lacking in O Maidens in Your Savage Season, although that one honestly tried. But while it's easy to just think of Stars Align as “the show with the LGBTQ+ stuff,” it isn't just that either – it looks at the myths of perfect families and points out that everyone has their own family issues, whether that's an extreme helicopter parent, abuse both emotional and physical, or even just a parent who doesn't see your goals as worthwhile. Filtered through the lens of middle school, arguably one of the most difficult periods of anyone's life, the show can feel melodramatic at times, but that, too, is in line with how a lot of people feel when they're that age – like the world is a big, difficult, scary place and absolutely nothing is ever going to go right. Add in some beautiful animation and good (albeit slightly unfair) storytelling tactics, and this is much more than just the tennis show it at first appeared to be. The only reason it isn't tied with GeGeGe no Kitarō for me is that it really seems to be trying too hard to cover too much in too few episodes. It gets overwhelming, and that's a trap Kitaro hasn't fallen into yet.
Worst – Tie: Stand My Heroes: Piece of Truth and Kemono Michi: Rise Up
I spent a long time debating these, as well as whether I was going to go with “worst” or “most disappointing,” because I love semantics. If I'm going to be technical, Kemono Michi: Rise Up is “Most Disappointing” due to the fact that it had plenty of potential to be a goofy take on the basic isekai show and then squandered it with mean humor largely based on jokes about women's bodies and one poor wolfman being repeatedly sexually assaulted by the protagonist. More wrestling and animal-cooing would have gone a long way towards fixing this particular mess. As for Stand My Heroes: Piece of Truth, well, I didn't have high expectations for it in the first place, but rather kept watching in hopes that Rei would evince some actual personality or that I'd eventually be able to find the plot, see some decently animated walking, or figure out who all of the guys were. I did get the plot down towards the end, but it was dormant for far too long, and the way the guys all treated Rei like some sort of mascot character was increasingly annoying. It's still got one episode to go as of this writing, but unless it pulls a gigantic rabbit out of a hat, it seems destined to go down as just not that good.
The fall 2019 anime season was defined by sequels and continuations, from the ongoing drama of Vinland Saga and Fire Force to new seasons of old favorites like Food Wars! and My Hero Academia. In light of that, it's appropriate that my own favorite show of the season was the continuation of Chihayafuru, a sequel half a decade in the making. But Chihayafuru's long slumber hasn't clipped any of its dramatic power - on the contrary, season three has so far been its most intense season so far, overstuffed with karuta tournaments and emotional payoffs galore.
Having spent so much of its first two seasons carefully laying out the finer points of professional karuta play, Chihayafuru is now able to execute as a sports drama with a strategic depth and emotional resonance like little else in anime. From its careful illustration of the tactical nuance and dramatic appeal of its chosen sport, to the perpetually charming personal journeys of its rich ensemble cast, Chihayafuru is a treasure, and I'm overjoyed to have it back.
Though Chihayafuru is my own personal favorite of the season, I've been likely even more impressed by the course of Stars Align. Though it's also technically a sports anime, Stars Align could not be more different from Chihayafuru - it's instead structured like an ensemble character drama, and its reflections on community, abuse, and even gender identity have made it one of the sharpest dramas of the year. Stars Align matches its unusually frank approach to adolescent life with remarkably nuanced, expressive character acting, and its actual sports sequences are animated so well, you can parse the momentum of the matches just through the character movements. Even if you don't generally watch sports anime, I'd highly recommend Stars Align - I think there's a strong argument it's the outright best anime of the year.
As for my worst show of the season, my recently adopted philosophy of dropping shows if I'm not enjoying them (radical, I know) means I'm not actively resenting anything I'm currently watching. However, I did put Legend of the Galactic Heroes on hold, which I guess makes it my “worst” by default. Legend of the Galactic Heroes isn't a bad show - it's actually quite an interesting one, depicting a conflict on a scale we rarely see in anime, populated with fascinatingly layered characters, and full of sharp political commentary. My issue with LoGH is simply that its source material feels too ambitious and too ponderous to effectively translate into anime, particularly in its current doubly-abridged incarnation. Watching it gives me the distinct impression I'm watching summaries of conflicts and summaries of debates, and given the show's visual execution is basically just functional, the fact that it's animated isn't really making up for these narrative-simplifying compromises. I greatly enjoy Yang and Reinhard's adventures, but am strongly suspecting I should probably just check out the books.
Best: Stars Align
This season was a busy time for me, mostly only regularly watching shows for reviews and keeping up with some holdover personal favorites. So after what felt like so much mediocrity, finally catching up on this Stars Align thing I'd heard so much about was a revelation: “Remember good anime?”. Remember interesting, careful direction? Stars Align is able to illustrate itself nearly wordlessly when it wants to- One of my favorite bits is an early scene from the first episode wherein main boy Maki demonstrates his practiced speed by hurrying up and down eight flights of stairs before his eggs are finished cooking. Remember hooking the audience's interest in? Like all great sports shows on their subjects, Stars Align welcomed me into the world of Soft Tennis, something I knew nothing about, and made me appreciate its particular paired intricacies. Remember great animation? The calculated characterization of all these kids is carried in the business of their body language from scene to scene, and the idiosyncrasies of the sport come through in how they're animated while playing. Remember subtlety in storytelling? ...Okay, Stars Align doesn't have that, as every single character brings their own melodramatic baggage with them facilitated by one of the worst crops of anime parents I've ever seen in a single show. But those sledgehammer-like sensibilities meant that Stars Align hit hard every time, which does a lot to shake off the ennui of your usual wave of average anime per seasons. And invigoration like that is what made me so happy I finally made time for Stars Align.
Runner-Up: Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Die Neue These Second Season
Getting to review the first season of this new adaptation last year let me dive face-first into the roller-coaster of History-Channel-esque excitement that is The Legend of the Galactic Heroes franchise. So I was really looking forward to this follow-up, and while it followed the original books and OVA in any adapational story divergences smoothing out, that only served to better sell what I like so much about this series. Probably my favorite, and least favorite thing about LOGH is how depressingly relevant its political storytelling is. The series is predicated on the cyclical nature of human conflict, with Yang's character primarily finding success by noticing those kinds of patterns. So when the story, despite originally being conceived in 1982, is depicting spot-on portrayals of the resurgence of nationalism and the rise of facism, it can get a little collar-tug-y. But on the other hand, that sexy dictator-to-be Reinhard did beat the tar out of a bunch of rich nobles this season, so perhaps the message is that there's hope yet. This section of the story has some of my favorite LOGH content, and while it's hard to say if it beats the original anime in my eyes, it is eminently watchable and digestible, which means Die Neue These continues to be an easy recommendation for anyone generally curious about the franchise.
I should stress right away this is definitely a case where my pick is more ‘Most Disappointing’ than out-and-out Worst. However, I've made no secret of my boredom with the baseline isekai genre, and good gods was there a glut of those shows this season! Cautious Hero then was one that actually caught my eye, with a great, energetic first episode that seemed devoted to taking the piss out of this recycled repetition. Sadly, that didn't last. Instead of going for full irreverence, the story has kept sticking just enough to the straight isekai playbook to bury large swaths of the plot in tedium. It hardly uses any parodic angles to make meaningful commentary on the genre in a way it could learn from it, instead trying to pepper the proceedings with mere slapstick. This is hampered further by the production's real-time meltdown, as the show has taken several weeks off, ensuring I'll still be following it as we head deeper into Winter. I'm sorry Cautious Hero, I had high hopes for you, but even the stupendously silly faces of Ristarte aren't enough to make me even cautiously optimistic for how you'll turn out at the end.
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