The Best (And Worst) Anime of Spring 2020
The Best (and Worst) of Spring 2020
Picking a best for me this season was difficult, not because there weren't good shows, but because one of the ones I had been enjoying the most – IDOLiSH7's second season – didn't get a chance to finish. While that will happen in the future, it left me with a few choices that gave me a bit of pause before choosing between them. Ultimately, I went with Woodpecker Detective's Office despite the fact that it is a show where the final episode, which hasn't yet aired as I'm writing this, may make or break my final opinion on the series. But based solely on the eleven episodes I've seen, this is a very solid mystery series.
The crimes are all what's called fair play mysteries, meaning that there are enough clues provided to the viewers so that they can solve the case alongside the detective, and as a reader of Ellery Queen, I very much appreciate that. (Queen's mysteries are considered some of the best of the fair play stories.) There's also a thread binding most of the cases together, and that isn't made glaringly obvious, but rather becomes apparent as the series progresses, giving the show as a whole a sense of things coming together in a way that's both satisfying and natural. Themes of Christianity, pleasure of different types, and truth partially obscured by trickery also flow through the story, creating a feeling that there's a reason of some kind for everything that happens, even if it's not one that we'll necessarily like or agree with. That this may be because we're seeing the story through Kyōsuke Kindaichi's memories of his time with his friend Takuboku Ishikawa is something that isn't often brought up, but that comes across in Kyousuke's interactions with Ishikawa. Their relationship is fairly unhealthy and Ishikawa unquestionably takes advantage of Kyousuke while also treating him like garbage, but even though we, and possibly Kyousuke, can see this, he still loves Ishikawa in one way or another.
It's an interesting dynamic that makes the tragedy of the story – that Ishikawa will die of tuberculosis at a young age in 1912 – more about who and what Kyousuke will lose than the bare fact that Ishikawa will die. It's not an easy thing to pull off, but Takahiro Sakurai does such a good job of voicing Kyousuke that the heartbreak is clear and present as we watch Ishikawa get thinner and sicker. Woodpecker Detective's Office makes us care about someone not for himself, but because he's important to someone else, and without descending into maudlin melodrama. That's the reason why this is my pick for best.
And even if episode twelve tramples all over that, it's still a pretty good mystery.
I love the source books for this anime, and while I know that adaptation is absolutely more of an art than a science, I still wish that the show had followed the books just a little bit more closely. Don't get me wrong – I understand and agree with the decision to fill out the plot with the short stories from much later volumes that do, in fact, take place during the first two novels. But some of the fluffier bits didn't need to be there, and this was a chance to expand on some of the bigger scenes in the first two novels to really draw them out. Sadly, my sister and I have come to the conclusion that no one finds the ball scene in book one as funny as we do, but that still would have been a good place to spend a bit more time and I think Nichol got short shrift, at least a little. That said, I truly enjoyed this series and looked forward to watching it every week. Leaving in the section from Anne's perspective was very well done, as was Sophia's dream of her past life, which is one of the most important non-harem aspects of the series. I also loved the voices chosen for each character and some of the visual choices made, like the way Mary always wore lower necklines than everyone else as a statement of personality. Even if I didn't always agree with its choices, I had a good time watching it, and I'm very excited that it will be getting another season.
Most Irritating: Wave, Listen to Me!
I rarely base this decision on only the first episode of a series, but this one just made me so annoyed and mad that I seethed about it for a good long while. The ranting Minare engaged in felt rambling and annoying, like the person who plops down beside you on public transportation and begins screeching about how much their life sucks, and the entire reason she ended up at the radio station in the first place was so underhanded that it felt contrived. (Not to mention illegal.) The story seemed to revel in Minare's angst and anger, and those aren't emotions that I find particularly entertaining on any level. I'm very glad other people enjoyed it, but this was very emphatically not the show for me, and the fact that it irritated me to the point where it refused to fade out of my head like some of the arguably less well done shows just made it more of an annoyance.
Best: Ascendance of a Bookworm
This title might have been here even without COVID-19-related delays pushing back some other potential contenders to later seasons. Those familiar with the source novels have complained that the anime version is rushing through material, but week in and week out it kept up a good pace on offering up new developments, never felt like it was dragging, and delivered exactly what I wanted: meticulous world-building without ever being too heavy on exposition and a good balance between Myne being awesome and having to struggle through her own learning curve and health problems. That and the usually light-hearted spirit have kept her from ever feeling overpowered, which is just as crucial to the series' success as her inherent cute factor is. (Really, she gets such a wonderful array of expressions over the course of this half.) Almost nothing anime-related would make me happier at this point than additional seasons being announced for this title, and it's one that I feel comfortable recommending even to casual anime fans.
Fruits Basket could have been a competitor here based on the first few episodes, but I am following that one via the English dub (which I prefer), and that has fallen several weeks behind. That opens the door for this fascinating discovery. I was interested in the concept of a protagonist who turns into a wearable mascot-like suit, and had a mildly positive reaction to the first episode, but as the season progressed, I gradually found this series more and more compelling. Some of the credit unquestionably goes to the fascinating underlying psychology in play, the often-brutal underlying stories, or the way the effective use of body horror helps the series achieve an edge that many anime series only wish they could accomplish. However, the series' biggest selling point may be co-protagonist Clair. Though clearly designed with sex appeal in mind, she cannot be pigeonholed into any standard archetype. She is smart, calculating, has both the will and charisma of a true leader, and can be monstrously ruthless if the situation demands, though she never gives the sense that she as heartless as she sometimes acts. Nao Tōyama's wholly atypical voice work as Clair (She sounds nothing like her other prominent roles) also contributes.
Worst: Gal & Dino
This was a slightly more difficult choice because last season's punching bag Plunderer improved enough during its second half that it no longer belongs here. Nothing else that I followed stunk up the place either, so I am defaulting back to the first episode that I had the strongest negative reaction to. Gal & Dino comes from the creators of Pop Team Epic and is clearly trying to recreate the “magic” of its predecessor. That's already a big negative for me, since I passionately hated its predecessor, but even besides that, I rejected this one nearly as strongly on its own merits. So, apparently, did a lot of other people, as it did not seem to catch on even with those who were fans of its predecessor; in fact, it did not make the voting cut for episode reviews despite this being a thinner spring season than we've seen in many years. Frankly, this doesn't surprise me much, since Pop Team Epic always seemed like the kind of lightning strike whose success would be hard to replicate. This one, by comparison, registers barely a spark.
Best: Fruits Basket Season 2
Some classic anime may look rosy through nostalgia-goggles, but bomb when they attempt to bring their dusty stories to the present (looking at you, City Hunter). Fruits Basket is not one of those stories. The emotional story of Tohru's life with the Sohma family has transferred seamlessly from 2001 to 2020 and looks great doing it. Updated character designs and more consistent facial rendering mean that Tohru and the gang have gotten a major glow-up from their googly-eyed weirdness of the turn of the century. However, comparisons aren't necessary as this show looks polished and pretty even when you don't compare it to the older version. Sure, there are a few dated relics that don't quite fit into modern sensibilities—and I'm thinking mainly about Kagura's physical comedy here. But it turns out that Tohru's bright outlook and the way she encourages everyone around her to search for the light amidst the gloom is a message that is, if anything, more important now than ever.
Runner-up: My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!
Sometimes we just want our comfort anime. My Next Life As A Villainess isn't artsy and you won't find any exemplary sakuga in its animation or storyboarding. But it's a fun romantic comedy romp that utilizes fan-favorite isekai and harem tropes. At the center is the charismatic and instantly loveable Caterina, a protagonist who can seduce anyone by being stupid and eating dessert. She is by far this show's greatest pull, considering the ensemble cast gradually loses their identifying personality traits in exchange for increasing amounts of Caterina thirst. Her harem of men and women, refreshingly devoid of any hand-wringing about morality, offers a rewarding bisexual power fantasy (though the ever-dense Caterina is herself hilariously unaware of it). A surprise twist in the final act offers the kind of intrigue that will delight dating sim fans. Though a sequel is in the works, this show is a self-contained and well-concluded spring 2020 vintage.
Worst: Tower of God
At the beginning of the season, I never imagined Tower of God would be my pick for worst. Despite its crude, sketchy art and dim coloring, it started strong with a story that rivaled Hunter x Hunter for a masterful understanding of what makes “test arc” tropes entertaining. But with so little to watch this season thanks to the effects of global quarantine, it was slim pickings and this just-okay series is on my personal chopping block. Reviewing this show had me making it my job to know about the nonstop twists and turns, but webtoon author SIU didn't make it easy: he has an “all that and the kitchen sink” approach to cramming in storylines, a practice that led to the comic's cult following but which made it easy for anime-only fans to lose the plot. The adaptation team had its hands full turning the world's most complicated entrance exam into a 13-episode run, and in the process, some of the most vital exposition ended up on the cutting room floor. Mainly, plot points that ought to have major impact (like what it means that Bam is an “Irregular,” a title that is only defined in the show within metaphors) fail to carry the storytelling weight that they do in the webtoon. Tower of God begins as a heartfelt love-letter to shonen battle anime exam arcs, but it doesn't quite earn a passing grade on the test.
I like being pleasantly surprised. A lot of my favorite shows are ones I knew nothing about going into or perhaps weren't expecting to have much interest in. Now obviously that's not the particular case of the second season of Kaguya-sama: Love is War, follow-up installment in the series that already established itself as one of the new all-time greats of anime comedies. Of course so long as they continued their quality I was going to love it, and indeed Season 2 hit the ground running, delivering funny-as-hell material magnificently rendered by a murderer's row of talented animators. They were even sure to give more screen-time to obvious Best Girl, Hayasaka. But what really pushed Kaguya-sama to top choice for this season was how it surprised me: By proving it could manifest drama as effectively as humor with its presentational brilliance. There were signs of it at a couple points in the Student Council election arc, but the crowning example in the eleventh episode, where over the full course of its run-time the story had me feeling emotions, genuine sympathy, for the unlikeliest subject of Yu Ishigami. I'd been loving to dunk on this boy since the first season, a huge portion of the comedy surrounding him being based in how much he seemed to ‘earn’ his continued misery. Yet the show turned all that around in twenty-two minutes with a nuanced backstory and demonstration of his own ability to move on and develop. That was a revelation of wholly unexpected depths both for his character and the show itself, and the power of that surprise cemented Kaguya-Sama as the best thing I watched all spring.
Gleipnir, however, was a much more conventional pleasant surprise. This was one of those shows I had zero expectations for going in: It just seemed like another sleazy, exploitative mass of an edgy murder-game story. And you know what, it was a sleazy, exploitative mass of an edgy murder-game story, but it was really, really good at being that. There's a misconception, I think, that a lot of critics just inherently don't like trashy shows like this, but really it's just that so few of them are actually done well. Gleipnir is exceptional in its excessive execution, a gross greasy murdery mess that's also a potent thriller on both the emotional and psychosexual fronts. It's got ruminations on the lines between good and evil and how those are applied to the arbitrary camaraderie of people. It's also got a girl roping a nerdy guy into a relationship beginning with her throwing him off a roof. It examines the bizarre feelings of our young sexual awakenings and the experimentation we put ourselves through as a result. It also expresses that, for instance, by having a catgirl climb into that nerdy guy having turned into a scary mascot costume, then they get crushed to death together and reform into a kickass edgy catgirl monster dual-wielding pistols. Whatever Gleipnir is doing, I'm so glad for it and that it's doing it so well, as I'm not sure I can hope to be surprised by another series on this level anytime soon.
Worst: Tamayomi: The Baseball Girls
And then there are the unpleasant surprises. As with a lot of situations like this, a large part of this could have been my fault for getting my hopes up. But that was some keen key art they showed us and why shouldn't I be excited at the prospect of a sports anime featuring baseball girls makin' eyes at each others' thick thighs? And I know from chatter I saw online that I wasn't the only one. So it tragically says a lot when all that chatter dried up pretty much immediately once everyone actually got to watch the thing. Instead of any attention-grabbing introduction to a sports story, we got a weak effort anchored by a mere game of catch, rendered with limp artistry and not even an attempt to deploy music effectively for like half of it. It is mostly a case of a bad first impression, as Tamayomi's following episodes have a bit more life to them. But that core feeling of mediocrity is still ever-present, and when a sports show wants to aim for the championships, mediocre isn't going to cut it.
Best: My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!
Never have I seen a harem show in which I didn't necessarily have a preferred love interest I was rooting for because my favorite character is the one at the center of the harem itself: in this case, Catarina. I want everyone to wind up with her. I have no idea which, if any, she will choose because this oblivious, kindhearted, scheming weirdo doesn't even seem to consider that the mass of friends she's accumulated are all in love with her. While there are some overdone clichés of the genre—like the real-world high schooler who reincarnates after dying in a traffic accident—for the most part, the series is an effective play on otome games while at the same time a compelling story in its own right. Catarina's single-track mind to avoid the game fate of the character she's been reborn as makes her so driven not to be seen as a villainess that she can't even realize that she's not a villain at all. It should get old, and the fact that no fewer than seven friends seem interested in her should feel ridiculous, but every week My Next Life as a Villainess offered a great time—even if it was all building up to a more serious dramatic turn at the end. The series proved just the kind of humorous, light-hearted fun I was looking for this season.
I wasn't sure Dorohedoro was going to be my jam after the first episode, but I'm glad I stuck with it all the way through because it proved one of the most unique anime I've ever seen. The grimy, punk aesthetic of this show is one of the main reasons to recommend it, but the plot kept surprising me, too. In a cruel, violent world separated into two dimensions, a lizard-headed amnesiac man named Caiman is looking for answers about his condition. Like a detective, he interrogates every sorcerer he finds… by sticking their heads in his mouth and having the person living inside him determine if that sorcerer is the one who cursed him. The main group of sorcerers who come into conflict with him are easily my favorite characters. Callously cruel yet also resembling a family, En and his array of lackeys steal the show from Caiman whenever they're on screen. While Dorohedoro is overly graphic in its violence, it's worth sticking around even if you're squeamish because of the characters and visuals.
Worst: Woodpecker Detective's Office
It's a bit harder for me to be critical of a show based on the life of a real person who died young than I might have been without that knowledge (even if it is highly fictionalized), but as a whole, I found Woodpecker Detective's Office hard to follow, packed full with characters who don't have much depth (largely because they're based on real people who were a part of the titular character's poetry circle and they probably “needed” to be there), and centered on an off-putting character who only sometimes bothers to solve mysteries. For the most part, I found the visuals and setting pleasing, but the show focuses too much on the one-sided relationship between Ishikawa and his professor neighbor, Kindaichi, rather than the mysteries. When the mysteries are the focus, the many characters toss out tons of hypothetical solutions rather than focusing on building up a case of evidence to determine the real solution. As a whole, I found myself disappointed.
Best: Wave, Listen to Me!
Minare Koda's life is ridiculous and bizarre mess these days: She works with a bunch of weirdos at the curry restaurant, Voyager, her ex-boyfriend Mitsuo totally ghosted her after squeezing thousands of yen out of her bank account her parents are hopelessly dysfunctional on their <i>best</t> days, and now she's landed a gig as the host for a vaguely occult-themed late night radio show in Hokkaido, and all because she got blackout drunk enough to do a guest spot for a station where she ranted passionately about her unshakable desire to brutally murder Mitsuo should she every see him again. In other words, she's a perfect poster woman for the Disaster Millennial Generation, and the fact that a thirtysomething woman like her would get an entire series devoted to breaking down her self-destructive shenanigans is exactly what makes Wave, Listen to Me! so refreshing and exciting to behold.
When you combine that with Studio Sunrise's capable production skills and Riho Sugiyama's star making performance as Minare, then you have a genuinely funny comedy that explores issues a lot of anime just can't be bothered to deal with, one that always keeps things visually and narratively interesting in between all of the gags. This adaptation of Hiroaki Samura's manga gets so much right, that even when things like undercooked subplots and meanspirited gay jokes threaten to derail the proceedings, the show usually finds itself landing on the right foot. Wave, Listen to Me! might be a bit of an acquired taste, but I encourage anyone who is even a little bit intrigued by its unique premise to check it out.
Runner-up: My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!
I'll be honest, My Next Life as a Villainess squeaked into my runner-up spot mostly because I'm a loser and haven't caught up with Kaguya-sama: Love is War. That being said, My Next Life as a Villainess proved to be the little “reincarnated-in-an-otome-video-game-world reverse harem” anime that could this season. The fact that it was popular enough to get a sequel season greenlit the minute this season finished airing should be proof that the show was doing <i>something</i> right, and as it turns out, that thing is simply being very cute and endearing almost all of the time. Catarina, the would-be-villainess whose life ends up getting stolen by a video-game obsessed Japanese teenager who had a date with the business end of a truck, is basically the perfect protagonist for this kind of story. She's so earnestly sweet and likeable that you get why all of the men and women in her life would end up crushing on her, but she's also so delightfully stupid about literally everything going on around her that there is no shortage of shenanigans abound to keep things funny and interesting, even when none of Catarina's many suitors are making much progress in the war for her heart.
The show's visuals range from “charmingly janky” to “basically a slide-show”, so this isn't the kind of anime for folks who want their cartoons to look, you know, <i>good</i>, but the writing is usually solid enough to make every episode worthwhile for some reason or other. This isn't the kind of anime that will change anybody's life or anything, but its worth a watch for anyone in the mood for some easy laughs.
As per usual, I make it a point these days not to go out of my way to watch crappy anime unless I'm specifically being paid to do it, so this is a “Worst Thing I Managed to Watch” deal. That being said, I did take the time to shotgun about half of Shironeko Project's twelve episode run before writing this article just so I could feel comfortable in awarding it such a dubious honor, because who knows, maybe the awful first episode I covered for Preview Guide was just a lousy fluke? Nope, it turns out that Shironeko Project is just a painfully shallow and generic fantasy action series, one that almost feels like the kind of thing an A.I. would produce if you fed it the scripts for every bargain bin fantasy anime of the last thirty years and ordered a season's worth of “new” material from it. I'm not kidding when I say that I just finished episode five of the show literally minutes before writing this, and I couldn't tell you what this show was about if you put a gun to my head. There's this Prince of Darkness who's super edgy and cool, and a Maiden from a White Kingdom that opposes the Dark Kingdom in some kind of eternal battle, and there are some fights that happen for…reasons?
The sad fact of the matter is that while some art is bad because it is genuinely offensive or terribly made, and other art is bad because its over ambition causes it to faceplant, but most bad art is simply boring and forgettable. Shironeko Project: Zero Chronicle falls wholly into the latter category. It exists primarily to serve as a commercial for a free-to-play mobile game, and in that respect, I guess it is technically functional? I definitely know the game exists, now. As a piece of entertainment, however, there is not a single thing to find in this show that you can't already find in a hundred other, better anime.
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