Hahahahaha, 2016, oh wow. It sure has been a year! While it’s been crappy to exist in, it’s been pretty alright for escapist media! And from my perspective, there’s been a lot of good anime – enough that cutting down to 10 was actually difficult.
As always, I’m counting ‘2016 anime’ as series that ended in a 2016 season and films that I first had the opportunity to watch in 2016. So if it started in the autumn season of 2015 but finished at the end of the winter 2016 season, that would count; if it started in the autumn season of 2016 but won’t finish until the end of the 2017 winter season, it won’t. For split cours, I just go with my gut. In short, unless I’ve been able to put a score on it I won’t be considering it – prematurely enshrining how great something is when it isn’t even half over is a bad idea!
So with that out of the way, onto my top 10 anime of 2016! Ah, but first, a few series that didn’t quite make the cut…
Space Patrol Luluco: Now this series was great fun and had a surprisingly strong emotional core. It energetically hurled along with its loud, absurdist, over-the-top story that gave way to a wonderful and sweet little coming of age story. It did get bogged down in the middle when indulging in Trigger fanservice, and the overall effect was a bit throwaway, but still a wonderful, short show.
Flying Witch: I so wanted to include this in my top 10, because nothing else this year came close to the sheer amount of twee, quaint charm that Fying Witch indulged in. It was just so lovely, but that it didn’t accomplish anything more than that – not that it aimed too, nor that that is even a bad thing! – just barely excludes it. Having said that, I would be far more inclined to recommend it over some of the series in the actual top 10!
Mob Psycho 100: Stunning animation, kinetic, visceral fight scenes and a sense of humour that knew how to integrate the visuals, Mob Psycho 100 was an absolute blast and something you should definitely look into. But it suffers from being pitted against a lot of shows that were an even bigger blast or struck a personal chord with me. Still, as far as sheer quality of animation goes this has most everything else beat.
And now, the top 10:
10. Boku dake ga Inai Machi
AKA “ERASED”. The modern day storyline was pants. The murder mystery elements were middling. And that fucking ending… Boku dake ga Inai Machi was burdened with a lot of mediocrity that I think many felt completely dragged the show down. If my Twitter timeline is anything to go by, this show has been rendered as nothing more than a punchline, something to laugh at for the ridiculous choices it made. But holy shit the good parts are unparalleled. Nothing – nothing – has come close to evoking that same extreme mix of tension, dread and heart-wrenching empathy that the Kayo arc did. Every single one of those episode left me a wreck, with heart pounding and breath short. Were the rest of the series on that level – or even just not as crap as they were – this could easily have taken my number 1 pick of the year. When this was good, it wasn’t even fair.
Very occasionally, a series comes along that is so much my aesthetic. Kiznaiver was that through and through. Visaully, well obviously it’s Trigger and very much has that kind of style, but I can see a little bit of AnoHana/Ano Natsu de Matteru in there too – all of which creates a look that I loved. Story-wise, it was pretty much about teen feeling across the board, and had just enough melodrama to be super emotionally charged but not too much to be overbearing or overly cheesy. I loved that it was primarily about exploring pain, insecurity, loneliness and more, with an emphasis on encouraging and growing empathy. The sci-fi overarching plot was more of a means to an end, but it still gave it a nice flair. And then it also had some fantastic direction.
Because so much of Kiznaiver was precisely my kind of thing I think I overlook a lot of the perfectly valid criticisms levelled at it, but what does it matter? Gimme more of that lowkey anime emo shit, I freaking love it!
As the spiritual successor to ARIA, Amanchu! was going to have some difficulty living up to expectations, but not only did it succeed it also managed to escape its predecessor’s shadow and stand on its own merits. Comparisons to ARIA are still warranted – they aren’t that different, after all – but it’s far from “just more ARIA”.
Amanchu!’s focus on anxiety, self-doubt and distance were where it succeeded. It looks inward, it analyses the causes and shows slow, hesitant but strong growth to overcome it. It’s relatable, it’s inspiring, and it was heartwarming. It’s precisely what I want from iyashikei, and it did it wonderfully.
7. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable
Stardust Crusaders was cool, but in some ways a bit of a letdown – it was so many episodes of them just wandering over to Egypt and battling various opponents and that was it. Very, very focused on a single goal of beating up the bad guy, with a bunch of obstacles thrown at them. On top of that, the newly introduced stands felt a bit half-baked at times, as Araki got to grips with them as a concept; a lot of them were very straightforward.
Diamond is Unbreakable realises the potential of stands and gets weird with them. Yeah, you have your standard fighting ones, but you also have shit like a stand that turns food into ultra-restorative miracles (via temporary body horror), a stand with no master that clutches your back and drives you slowly insane, and a goddamn electrical pylon. And it ain’t just the stands that get weird: the scope in Diamond is Unbreakable is vastly reduced to the going-ons in the city of Morioh and the weird shit that happens there. So it may end on a long, epic story about hunting down a stand-using serial killer, but there’ll be times where the characters are just trying to make easy money, dealing with a maniacal obsessed stalker, or using an alien to gamble against a grumpy manga artist. There’s as much time spent on the character’s daily lives and exploring the city itself as there is advancing the core story, with the end result being far more interesting characters, fights where the stakes matter much more, and above all else a huge outpouring of creativity! Diamond is Unbreakable is so very different from every JoJo’s before it, but that’s what makes it so good.
6. Yuri!!! on Ice
I came into Yuri!!! on Ice expecting a different take on sports anime with some homoerotic subtext to maximise the irony of its title – Free!, but figure skating, basically. What I got out of it was an astonishingly intimate and passionate romance that used the expressiveness and loneliness of the sport to explore that love; a daring and sincere work that pushed boundaries but never relied on its novelty at the expense of compelling drama. It was captivating.
That it took the figure-skating world by storm and even made inroads in areas where anime wouldn’t normally be seen despite the concept that, on the surface, looks targeted to a very specific niche speaks volumes about its quality. That this series was arguably closest to being a phenomenon extending beyond the anime fandom is unreal to me.
5. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu
Who would have thought a series about a very traditional form of Japanese comedy would make for one of the most compelling and mature dramas this year? Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is far from a dry, historical treatment of the subject matter, instead revolving around the relationship between two students of the art as they shake up the dying form of entertainment, butt heads with officials, deal with the pressure of having to shoulder rakugo’s future, and bicker and argue with each other over style, money and women. It’s about two close but diametrically opposed friends and what managed to drive a wedge between them. It’s getting a second season in 2017 and I’m so happy that a show this niche got one; it truly deserves it.
4. Flip Flappers
If you want wild, fierce, inventive creativity underpinned by depth, heart and intelligence, then you could not do any better than Flip Flappers this year. How easily it flitted between bouncy, energetic fun, moody, atmospheric drama, kinetic, flashy action, and sentimental, sincere relationships! How rich in meaning and depth was every element! How thoroughly was this series crafted, down to even the smallest details, in service to the growth of Cocona and Papika’s relationship! This was truly a special, wonderful show.
3. Hibike! Euphonium 2
When season 1 of Hibike! Euphonium clicked, it became something magical. Intimate, careful and rich in characterisation, it both grounded and elevated the very concept of high school club drama. It quickly became a favourite of mine even though I didn’t fall in love until past the halfway point. So you can understand just how much I adore this second season, as it captures that same magic from the very start. While there were structural issues that prevented it from feeling like a single, coherent narrative, what it did with the characters and where it took them were so much more powerful than anything the first season did. The finale in particular is arguably the most perfect send-off I’ve ever seen from an anime, and a painful goodbye – testament to the incredible characterisation that made even someone like Asuka deeply sympathetic. And hey, even if it wasn’t your cup of tea animating an entire performance from the band was hugely impressive!
2. My Hero Academia
Superheroes have never really grabbed me. Something about the blatant supremacy, impenetrable history, and goofy-ass heroes trying to be taken deathly seriously turns me off. But it wasn’t anything innate, rather just how the genre in western comics has developed – My Hero Academia is a love letter to them but I absolutely adored it! Maybe it’s because the setting normalises superpowers, making ‘normal’ people less meaningless. Maybe it’s because Midoriya, our protagonist, is one of few people who never develops powers, meaning that when he gets powers he doesn’t take them for granted. Maybe it’s because even after getting powers, he has to train hard so that it doesn’t destroy his body. Maybe it’s because of All Might’s moment of righteous fury, which is the purest expression of self-sacrifice and overwhelming, justified strength. Maybe because its seriousness isn’t gritty, and manages to balance silver age goofiness with genuine drama. Whatever it is, My Hero Academia got superheroes right, for me.
But that’s not what made me love it. No, that has to go to just how goddamn triumphant it is. Midoriya’s low sense of self-worth that comes from his lack of superpowers combined with his dream to be a hero and all the bullying makes him so sympathetic – his plight seemed hopeless. Even if he has a strong sense of justice. Even if he acts heroically when terrified. So when All Might told him he can be a hero, when he gets accepted into the academy, when he manages to beat Bakugou, when he succeeds against all odds and fucking deserves it, it is all extremely powerful. That sense of hard fought triumph that My Hero Academia displays can only be compared to Gurren Lagann – and My Hero Academia is operating on a MUCH smaller scale.
I could talk about Orange’s narrative, its direction and its characterisation. I could clinically and distantly try to discuss and praise it in semi-objective, impersonal ways, and it would still come out looking pretty good. But that’s not why it’s my anime of the year.
Its subject matter, and its treatment of the subject matter, struck a deep, personal chord with me. I’ve never been as far as suicidal depression, but the fact I even have to clarify that is probably telling. So for a series to tackle it in such a careful, sensitive and sympathetic way, and for Kakeru to be treated with the love and concern that he was… it’s important to me, in ways I can’t quite articulate. But it means a lot to me, and I’m grateful that something as rare as Orange came out this year.