Stuff I Enjoyed in 2017: Anime/Manga

Anime is of course not possible to “keep up” with: there is more material produced in three months than a person can possibly consume in a year. It’s like saying “Yeah, I’m all caught up with television.” No you’re not. You aren’t an all-seeing cosmic orb. Shut up.

It’s a testament to exactly how many series run in a year, how fast anime moves, that I had to bring up a list of titles from the year. And there were titles — superb titles — that I had completely forgotten were from this year.

Again, a disclaimer: I did not watch all of the anime made in the year 2017. That would be unhealthy.

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju (Descending Stories) is the one TV anime from this year that I would actually demand you watch. This is an amazing piece of work. A rumination on the nature of storytelling, performance, and art itself. The performance sequences themselves are quiet spectacles, capturing the essence of the live performances that the protagonists have given their lives to. Characters that are very difficult to forget, if a bit melodramatic by their nature. Not a story I can talk about for very long without giving it all away. Truly something you should let wash over you.

The anime series covered the second half of Haruko Kumota’s original manga this year and sticks the landing. The very last moments let slip a very surprising detail that made a lot of people retroactively swear off the entire work. That’s how you know she’s good.

I wrote at length about Kemono Friends. It’s a very good show. That piece is my favorite thing I wrote all year.

Recovery of An MMO Junkie is a season-length meet-cute between two online RPG players.

The heroine of this show is a 30-something woman who, after some traumatic event, quits her successful office career and decides she’s going to just play MMORPGs as her hot guy avatar until she runs out of money. She is extremely moe. She falls for a cute girl character — who is of course played by a guy who lives in the neighborhood — and we’re off.

Despite Morimori’s backstory, this is a very light and positive show, a relief to watch every Friday. The heroine and the hero inch closer together as the people around them do their damnedest to cheer them on, just like you start to do. They certainly waffle, and at moments you think the show is going to fall into shoujo manga “misunderstandings” territory, but the show makes a point of not going for the stall when it can.

I loved these 30-year-old kids and I’m going to miss them. Koiwai was the real hero.

GAMERS! was about gamers getting along too, but in a different, dumber way. The TV series has a really strong first half, with an amazing farcical climax… and then it falls into a bit of a pattern. I loved the first half so much I did an op-ed at Polygon about it, but it’s funny what happens when you try to write about anime that isn’t done with its run yet.

Chiaki becoming a conventional “tsundere” (hot and cold) type and taking over the show in the second half was terrible, but Chiaki’s sister is even worse. Imagine a pervy moe anime version of Scrappy-Doo.

I still like this show’s sense of humor in general, and when they inevitably get picked up for a second season, I’ll probably follow along for a bit.

Garo: Vanishing Line is a throwback to a time when all men ate mountainous steaks, and all women were Bayonetta.

I really love the Garo live-action series, but there’s something special about the animated versions. Late in one Garo season, the characters make reference to the fact that the battle between Makai Knights and the demonic Horrors has been going on forever, all over the world. For obvious budget and casting reasons, the live-action series can jump back and forth in time but they can’t really leave Japan. It’s the anime series that get to have fun with that idea.

After the first Garo animation took place in medieval Spain, Vanishing Line moves to a modern New York stand-in called “Russell City.” Being obnoxious New Yorkers, friends and I joked about how nobody would be hanging out in Times Square like this, why everybody acts like Tokyo people, and how bad traffic would be for the hero to deal with on his sweet demon bike.

But really, that’s the endearing thing about Vanishing Line’s “everything’s bigger in” America. They’re not going for accuracy, they’re going for fun. As I write, the most recent episode had the gang visiting a classical Old West town where even the grannies are strapped.

The character design is wild: the hero is about three times wider than the guys who typically bear the name Garo, and the women are, seriously, they’re all Bayonetta. The action is outsized too, with some genuinely awe-inspiring highlights thus far.

At first this show seems like a fun, flashy romp with great action and little else, but it’s a lot smarter and the characters more layered and memorable than you’d guess from those first few episodes. I love that lil’ Sophie is surrounded by cool older lady role models.

I was surprised both by the show’s decision to do a “9/11 episode” many years after the point, focusing on the devastating civilian aftermath of a battle between Makai Knights, and also by a treatment of that material more respectful and heartfelt than the average actual “9/11 episode.”

Iwas lucky enough to see the first Fate/Stay Night: Heaven’s Feel movie in its theatrical run. These days I mostly see Fate through the phone game, the money-grubbing nature of which makes one pretty cynical about the work itself.

It’s easy to forget that there are actually some great stories buried deep in the Type-Moon universe, upon which all the junk is built. Ufotable’s peerless adaptation work excises as much of original writer Kinoko Nasu’s navel-gazing as it can while zooming in on the human element. Also, the fights are mind-blowing.

I walked out of the theater feeling really good about Fate again, and about ready to quit that stupid damn phone game. But don’t make this your first Fate anime: you won’t know what the hell is going on.

I’ve been consuming the new Osomatsu-san season in kind of a vacuum from the fandom, so I didn’t even really notice that it was polarizing. As far as I could tell, the boys have been killing it every week. It wasn’t until I saw that there were people who weren’t happy with it that I realized the second season had barely featured any homoerotic situations at all, and I said “Oh, right!” I’m not a fujoshi, after all.

Quite related to that, I’m seeing a few plots where one of the boys is briefly involved with a woman. Coupled with the brutal fangirl stereotypes (literally “you’ll let these boys step on you and you’ll like it”) in the first episode, I feel like this show is probably deliberately moving to piss off its fans.

Osomatsu-san continues to be extremely rude, vulgar, cynical, and clever. It never lets me down. I loved the dolphin bit.

I feel like Re:Creators might have been a bigger deal if it weren’t stuck on Amazon streaming. Specifically cited by its creators as an anime version of the 90s Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero, Re:Creators is about fictional characters falling into the real world and going to war with one another.

What feels at first like a simple knockoff of Fate becomes a low-key meditation on creative work itself, with creators as gods or parents to their creations. While the creations have flashy super-powered battles against the forces of what is effectively an evil Hatsune Miku, the creators have to actually figure out a narrative that defeats her and which her audience will accept as “real”.

My favorite scene in this show was a character confronting his creator and realizing that yes, his existence is indeed simply the product of a cruel and indifferent god who was just looking to sell books.

Also stuck on Amazon streaming is Vatican Miracle Examiner, if your tastes bend towards the absurd. It’s a CSI-style procedural with a occult horror theme, and it’s completely improbable and insane. Two Catholic priests who definitely don’t realize that they’re a couple investigate miracles and solve mysteries with a combination of nonsense science, nonsense occultism, and nonsense deduction. Don’t try to solve these cases along with the show, because you don’t get any clues and nothing adds up.

The very first arc comes out with guns blazing, featuring Satan-worshipping school kids and a secret Nazi society in the same story. Later stories are about as outlandish, including for example the “Decapitating Clown” arc. At one point a character suggests that a frozen corpse has been thrown from the top of the Matterhorn into a cabin, and everyone pauses to consider this possibility. So do you, because that’s not even the craziest way the show has explained something away. It is after that pause that the character smiles, and says hey, you guys know I was kidding, right? No, we really didn’t.

The anime adaptation of this long-running novel series finishes not with the craziest case ever, but with a full episode of chaste, weepy boys-love romance. It knows where its bread is buttered. I was reminded of the religious plausible deniability of Marimite.

I tend to intentionally watch mediocre titles that look a little bit unusual. I don’t know why I do this — Juni Taisen sucked — but I did find Anime-Gataris that way.

If I had dropped Anime-Gataris any sooner than about a week ago, I probably would not have included it in any kind of year-end list, but here we are. Several episodes in, this series gives the impression that it’s an infomercial for the anime culture. An anime club introduces its newbie to the basics of being a highly profitable anime fan: buying Blu-rays, lining up at Comiket, making anime pilgrimages. There’s nothing reflective or critical about it, nor do the characters ever rise above the level of flat “types”.

I was reminded of my old favorites at the Genshiken, their raw, bawdy humanity, and by comparison this series’ lack thereof. There is an antiseptic quality to a series where the characters go to Comiket and buy only official merchandise.

In the second half, everything goes completely off the rails and it becomes weirdly brilliant. It’s as though the staff were required to make the “advertising” episodes and waited for all their sponsors to look away before taking the show completely out of control. The whole world around the characters starts to care entirely too much about anime, until, well… it really blasts off from there. You could skip the first few episodes and hurry to this part.

Speaking of the Genshiken, I’m not really down with what happened in Spotted Flower. It feels like the author just wanted to try the other big “what if” in the Genshiken universe and burned it all down for that. I don’t really buy a betrayal this severe as natural for this character.

There is this masochism to the character of Madarame, which might have been the joke of the interminable Genshiken Second Generation. I wish the author would let him go: this stuff dragged down Genshiken so badly, and blotted out characters who needed their stories told.

There was an embarrassment of great anime this year, but I also want to point out the spectacular mistake of Hand Shakers. When a production falls apart it’s one thing. When a production goes above and beyond to become spectacularly bad, it’s a whole other beast.

This series couples a cynically generic “sure-thing” premise and characters with an animation style so busy and ugly that it might be avant-garde. Legitimately painful for the eyes to look at, with a searing neon palette clashing against CG out of a Dreamcast game. A very rare kind of misfire and surreally fascinating. Doesn’t really keep it up past the first few episodes.

The actual worst anime of the year was Forest Fairy Five, and it isn’t close.

Hi! Glad you made it this far. My name is Dave and I write for a living. Not every idea is something I can sell, though, so I keep this blog for the things I nevertheless must write. If you like what you see here and you’d like to help me keep doing things like it, please consider supporting me with a small tip over at my Ko-fi. It means a lot. Thanks.

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David Cabrera

Sooolar wind. Anime/games writer. Sometimes on @polygon? @Kawaiikochans is the sum of my efforts. Serious about stupid.