2018 In Stuff: Anime/TV
Mostly anime, not gonna lie. I figure you got a lot more people who can tell you how good The Good Place and Bojack Horseman are. (They are extremely good.) Not all of these are stuff I exactly loved, but all of it is stuff I found worth watching all the way through.
As we go I’m going to be pointing you to where you can watch these shows in the US. Full disclosure: I have done work for VRV/Crunchy this year. Has nothing to do with my recommendations.
I watched the first episode of Pop Team Epic half-asleep on the floor of my friend’s apartment in Asakusabashi. Waiting until I got home was out of the question. I was way too excited for this one, and the collaborative, grab-bag adaptation of bkub’s absurdist 4-panel comics by a bunch of studios who don’t usually do anime more than satisfied me. Single scenes in this series — particularly AC-bu’s rock epic Hellshake Yano — are epoch-making by themselves. I *guess* anime got better than Pop Team Epic this year, but stupid pointless nerd humor didn’t.
One of the pieces I wanted to write during my vacation but forgot about was an observation on the ubiquity of the Pop Team Epic characters at that point in time in Tokyo. Nerd neighborhoods like Akiba were total saturation zones, but the girls’ influence was just starting to leak out into “normal” society as well. If you look up the lyrics to the “Let’s Pop Together” segment, the song is very much about the characters acknowledging their own ubiquity and telling the listener to shove it up their ass if they don’t like it. They had that impact on the real world, too. On every single anime streaming site, and ran on Cartoon Network.
Viewer discretion for this one. Though it was sold to kids, this classic contains extreme violence and frank depictions of sex.
This year was really an embarrassment of riches, considering in January I got a new adaptation of my favorite-ever comic by one of the stars of the animation world. It’s kind of unfair to lead 2018 with Devilman Crybaby, anime of the year.
Masaaki Yuasa and his team at Science Saru re-interpret Go Nagai’s 70s kids’ horror masterpiece, modernizing, shaving off filler, and cutting deep to the core of the work: the limits of heroism, the pointless atrocity of war, the tiny redemptive sparkle of love that motivates even Satan himself. The freewheeling Yuasa is a surprising style match for this chaotic work: Crybaby looks wildly different, but not a single change he makes is out of character with the original. On Netflix.
The original manga also saw release this year. Though it shoehorns in a lot of creator-mandated filler material in the mode of “Star Wars Special Edition” and so on, Devilman remains an unquestionable classic of the medium and has lost none of its impact today.
It was cold, so I watched anime about girls eating ramen and getting drunk to feel warm and fuzzy over lunch.
If you can stomach a skeevy protagonist and framing device, I enjoyed Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles. The titular heroine travels Japan liberally satisfying her insatiable desire for ramen and offering her encyclopedic knowledge on the subject to the viewer. Unfortunately, the show follows her from the point of view of a stalker classmate. This character goes way past “crushing on Koizumi” into territory that is intended to be so weird and pathetic it’s hilarious. It’s more so weird and pathetic that I wanted this character to get hit by a bus. The true reason I gave this show a try is that a mall in Akiba had a pop-up food court featuring Koizumi’s recommendations, and the ramen I ate was *good as hell*. On Crunchy.
Takunomi means “drinking at home”, so it’s a series with humble aims. A group of lovable 20-something professional women get trashed off whatever’s at the nearest supermarket, with (again) boozing lore and wisdom to accompany drunken hijinx after a hard day at work. Total fluff that’s totally in my strike zone. You can’t judge me. On Hidive or VRV.
If SSSS.Gridman had simply been a rote modern remake with the wild energy of the gang at Trigger, that would have been enough for a guy like me, who loves the whole Japanese superhero aesthetic. This show didn’t get a ton of buzz running up to its premiere, and I think that’s because most people expected a niche tribute for die-hard genre fans. But if you watched it, you know that it gave us a lot more than that.
The nostalgic superhero action in the Ultraman mode is there. Gridman’s battles with city-leveling kaiju are lovingly executed in a stylish mixture of 3D and 2D, painstakingly focused on expressing the weight and heaviness of the original live-action fight scenes through animation.
What’s unexpected about SSSS.Gridman is just how strong tokusatsu veteran Keiichi Hasegawa’s story is. With layers of meta-storytelling and abundant twists, it’s very hard to talk about the plot at all without giving it away. What I can tell you is the characters are easy to love, their conversations natural, their struggles simple and honest.
Hasegawa clearly believes in this format, and because he takes it seriously he’s able not just to modernize but to cast a new and profound light on the themes of the original work. The new series shines so brightly for it. On Crunchy.
I’ve always said the closest thing to a sure-hit method in anime is to throw some big shock in within the first few episodes. Teens are your audience, and they eat that stuff up. Zombie Land Saga came running out of the front gate with one of the most shocking and strange debuts in recent memory, grabbing everybody by the throat whether or not they found “idol” or “zombie” to be a dirty word.
This story of zombie idols in the boonies leans hard into bizarre comedy, led by a literally howling Mamoru Miyano in his greatest-ever role… and not too far in, it becomes a straightforward and serious idol anime. It has to, because like most idol anime it is selling its voice actresses as a real-life idol group (Franchouchou), and it’s also hawking tourism in far-off (even for Japanese people) Saga prefecture.
“I can’t do it!” “You can do it, Zombie #1.” “I can do it! I’ll believe in myself and all of us!!” How you feel about that template depends on your tastes, but there’s no question that you start watching a zany comedy and finish on a forced melodrama arc. I wasn’t crazy about the finale, but I loved the individual personalities of the zombies. When ZLS focuses on their backstories, it turns out some of the best episodes of the season. Fans are probably flying to Saga as we speak. On Crunchy.
The title “Planet With” will not make any sense to you, even once you have finished the anime. That being said, it’s probably the most underrated series of the year. In a year without Crybaby or Gridman it might have been my show of the year, so it’s my third place instead. In a scant 13 episodes, Satoshi Mizukami blasts through a story dense enough for two or three seasons of TV with the timing and insight of a true master.
Like Gridman, Planet With looks like rote superhero stuff at first, but its tropey characters hide multitudes. Mizukami has a knack for cutting straight to the heart of a character, making you feel like you know these people — personally — about three minutes after he introduces them.
Without giving too much away, the emphasis in this story is on making peace. The courage to be kind, the strength to forgive. As the series calls it, “choosing the evolution of love.” On Crunchy.
Thunderbolt Fantasy, now in its second season, is still the best puppet anime I know. A collaboration between Nitroplus and the Taiwanese puppet studio Pili, the series combines the tight, villainous plotting of Gen Urobuchi (Madoka Magica among many others) with the frankly astonishing puppetry of seasoned masters who have literally assembled thousands of episodes of this kind of thing. Crunchy supplies some “making-of” bits with the first season and you should *really* watch them.
The second season is a new sword-related heist drama with a new cast of villains and do-badders, with only our hero (Shang) and our anti-hero (Lin, aka “vape wizard”) standing between them and monstrously powerful mystic blades.
The fun thing about Thunderbolt Fantasy is its shady characters and their odd motivations. Lin doesn’t beat the bad guys because he cares that justice is done: he’s just a huge asshole who loves to use people, foil their plans, and make them miserable when it all falls apart. The villain this season is a sociopath who would otherwise be playing “devil’s advocate” in a Reddit discussion, and the finest performance is Aoi Yuuki as a seductive, bloodthirsty mystic sword.
No less twisty or clever than the first season. You won’t have any idea where this thing is going.
Hanebado! comes recommended simply because it’s so beautifully drawn. Absolutely stunning animation: It’s hard to believe this is a regular TV series. Incredibly natural, detailed, and intimate movements on and off the badminton court, full of creative and surprising directorial choices, and it never lets up. It doesn’t even occur to you, watching this show, that people don’t generally think of badminton as the most exciting and intense thing a person can do.
Lately there’s been this trope popping up in shonen manga — and I’m thinking most of Attack on Titan — that you have to be a sociopath to be a shonen manga protagonist because that’s what it takes to be The Best at all costs. As the story goes on and you find out more and more about “what the hell is wrong with Ayano”, the level of melodrama in her backstory (particularly everything to do with her nonsensically evil mother) threatens to upend the whole show.
As the heroine becomes less and less likable, her hard-working, frustrated rival becomes more so, and the master strategy of the series is revealed: they want you to root for Vegeta against Goku. It works. On Crunchy.
The TV show I blew through this year (that wasn’t Bojack Horseman) was Kamen Rider Build. Genuine-article live-action Japanese superhero shows can be tough to get through in large amounts, given their formulaic setups, simple resolutions, and high episode counts. Even a really great Kamen Rider or Super Sentai show is bound to have a few blocks of episodes where they’re doing the same thing over and over again.
Build is not that kind of show. Written not by one of the usual Kamen Rider suspects but by TV writer Shogo Muto — entirely by himself! — Build wastes no time with “monster of the week” elements and instead plunges directly into the tough stuff. Nothing is safe.
The unlikely found family of our Kamen Rider heroes and their friends clashes with various corrupt authorities as Japan slides steadily towards civil war… and that’s, okay, maybe one third of it. The nonstop angst is sweetened a bit by the amazing chemistry of the cast and Akibaranger director Ryuta Tasaki’s cartoonishly goofy style. I didn’t expect to get as attached to these characters as I did. I still think about them. No legal release, and don’t hold your breath for one.
Hinamatsuri is the opposite of throwaway gag comedy. It makes absurd jokes that you’d expect to just disappear into the mist, like an anvil in a Looney Tunes cartoon. But no matter how stupid, every gag in Hinamatsuri becomes the foundation of some other branch of the story later. All these callbacks aren’t just laugh lines, they’re actually really important, and that only makes them funnier.
This one’s about a mobster who takes in a little psychic girl who drops out of space, and who’s kind of a shit. Cynical screwball comedy ensues, with a surprising emphasis on people on the fringes of Japanese society. It’s not just the yakuza: we meet homeless, child laborers, and other outsiders. All the aliens in this story wind up on the fringes of society themselves, after all, so we see them associate with others who society would prefer to ignore.
Despite its cynicism about its main characters, Hinamatsuri has a warm heart. Otherwise it wouldn’t be able to make you laugh so hard. On Crunchy.
Middle Management Blues: Mr. Tonegawa was without fail the mundane grown-up work anime I would watch during my own lunch breaks.
Though it’s a parody of the workings of the absurdly evil Teiai financial group in the Kaiji suspense manga, Tonegawa’s grounded setting and largely everyday problems makes it universally relatable and thus quite popular in its own right, even among readers and viewers who’ve never read Kaiji. The fact is, the fictional Teiai might as well be Wells Fargo, Bain Capital or whoever. That they hold death games at night only points towards what we all suspect ultra-rich bankers do in their spare time anyway.
The titular Tonegawa is a middle manager caught between the insane demands of his demonic, half-senile boss and the eccentricities of his subordinates, a pack of near-identical men in black. Hilarity ensues as Tonegawa forgets people’s names, puts on an employee BBQ, asks his men why none of them have ever seen The Matrix, that kind of thing.
About halfway through the show a secondary protagonist from a secondary comic, foreman Ootsuki appears, and the show kind of splits down the middle for him. Despite another crazy origin story — he runs prison gambling rackets so that he can buy single days of freedom, during which he eats and drinks like a king — Ootsuki’s adventures are also pleasingly mundane. Perfect for my lunch. I’m back to work as soon as it’s done. On Crunchy.
Megalobox is a remake of the 60s boxing classic Ashita no Joe that seems tailor made for early 2000s American anime fans. In the early episodes it even feels like some forgotten side story, set on one of the run-down sci-fi worlds of Cowboy Bebop.
The team at TMS delivers a twist on the classic that toys with expectations of it at every turn, up to and including Ashita no Joe’s major plot points. On the other hand, if you don’t know anything about the 60s boxing manga that swept Japan decades before I was born, you won’t be missing much in Megalobox. Rather than a mere imitation, the creators of Megalobox made a modern classic of their own. On Crunchy and Adult Swim.
Though the characters aren’t technically idols, Revue Starlight was also regular idol anime. (I should know; every time I called it one there was a pissed-off Twitter user with an anime avatar there to correct me.) But it was regular idol anime with an undeniable visual flourish, not to be missed by anyone who cares about beautiful animation. The A part of every episode deals with the girls’ struggles in the cut-throat world of the theater, and the B part visualizes them in surreal, thrilling battles against each other. The format — and the fact that all the girls are in cute little official couples — has driven comparisons to Utena. The resemblances are pretty superficial.
My biggest issue was that I just didn’t find a lot of these characters memorable or likable, and those I did got little screen time. The show leans hard on the main heroines’ back-and-forth “will they or won’t they” drama, which is a little hard to take considering both characters are carbon copies of recent popular anime archetypes (Honoka and Homura respectively), and it’s *very* clear what shocking event things are leading to. Again, think Utena.
I still stuck through all the way, and I was rewarded by some astonishing imagery in the final episodes. I’m told their live show is amazing, and I believe it. On Hidive or VRV.
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