The winter season keeps a-chuggin’ along and whoops it’s slim pickings all round. Sounds like the perfect time to highlight some of my favourite shows from last year! As for this season, well, there’s always the backlog…
I begin this list with something of an oddity, its inclusion as curious as the show itself, an existence shrouded in mystery as dense as the one which envelops the village its cast stumbles upon. Whatever I could type here about 2016’s most ineffable offering couldn’t possibly come close to capturing what a curious, uniquely community-driven experience Mayoiga proved to be; shlock you couldn’t tear your eyes away from if you tried as viewers gleefully devoured its surreal structural turns each week, marvelling over its bizarrely constructed script. Unlike a typical seasonal staple it proved to be very much the animated equivalent of one of those trashtastic b-movie spectacles you’d happen to stumble across channel-hopping at three am, cocking your head at its unabashed gaudiness before swiftly moving on with a ‘welllll, that sure was a thing’. Throughout the show’s run I could practically hear Okada Mari and Mizushima Tsutomo snickering in the background, throwing all the wacky side characters that would no doubt be fan favourites in regular shows in, them all speaking at each other and offering surreal one-liners Tommy Wiseau himself would be proud of. A somewhat misguided critique of Japan’s depressingly reductive approach to mental health, the result is absolute chaos. Mayoiga is everything and nothing all at once, something we must all pay tribute to. Perhaps we’re all ill-fated hippopotamuses at heart…
#09. Hibike! Euphonium 2
Hibike! Euphonium’s second season opens with a statement of intent as wistful summer reflections arise in tandem with ephemerality suffusing the air, seemingly unavoidable. Towards the end of its gorgeous hour-long premiere, Kumiko and Reina lace fingers together as fireworks suggestively burst across the midsummer canvas as if saying ‘this cannot last forever’, a sentiment which Kumiko’s inner voice likewise alludes to. Things continue to change as the heat grows more intense, with feelings quietly simmering under the surface for everyone involved, characters drifting towards their future and taking matters into their own hands. While I personally feel the material which ensues isn’t as emotionally powerful as the first season’s (part of which I suspect is due to the supplementary nature of it all, Asuka’s stirring narrative strand aside) HE!2 still proves to be more than a worthy successor to Kitauji’s first magnificently constructed piece. It is splendidly composed as usual, worth highlighting an extravagantly animated performance spanning a total of seven minutes during the fifth episode, sparing no detail in conveying the efforts of the group with every fervour-propelled gesticulation of Taki’s, every passionate cymbal clash – Reina’s clear solo soaring through the vast expanse of the concert hall and into your heart. Euphonium is a franchise which excels when it comes to all of these personal details, imbuing the show with a much-welcome sense of the humane, allowing you to be swept along in its musical reverie. +10 points for hecka cute Yuuko faces.
#08. Oshiete! Galko-chan
Unless something of a community sensation, shorts seldom attract the attention of casual purveyors, doomed to linger unnoticed right at the bottom of seasonal lists. To that end I was initially reluctant to check out Oshiete! Galko-chan due to the designs, assuming that it had been fashioned with salacious doujinshi piled high at a Comiket table in mind – shame, shame on me. Catching me completely off guard however, Galko-chan turned out to be one of 2016’s most charming gems through its surprisingly sincere portrayal of adolescent female relationships and the conversations shared in hushed tones; tangible panic over gross bodily functions without veering into exploitative territory, instead positing a distinctly educational bent. Viewing the characters smirking about matters they know nothing about, all chests puffed out with pride, similarly left me grinning as their conversations brought to mind all the similar exchanges I would have had with friends at that age, totally legit stories peppered with all he-said-she-saids and urban myths. Galko-chan also deserves a nod for its broaching of physical matters I rarely see brought up in this medium, the second episode opening with its core trio browsing the feminine hygiene isle in search of tampons. Sweet, sassy, and refreshingly grounded in its depiction of female adolescence, this is one short that’s well worth your time (although rocking – heh – idol pastiche Sekkou Boys was pretty cool too).
If you were to perhaps ask me for a list consisting of my dream animated projects, a Nakamura Asumiko production would have found itself comfortably positioned between ‘where’s that Oyasumi Punpun adaptation already’ and ‘at this point I will eagerly devour a Thomas no Shinzou anything, please – unless it’s errr, a revamped j-drama starring idols’. Entries on this proverbial list find themselves spread amongst the loftiest heights possible, real fantasy stuff, so you can imagine how surprised I was when a dream team consisting of frequent Ikuhara co-workers set about transforming these fantasies into reality via a Doukyuusei film (hint: VERY). Nakamura’s winding designs, reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley’s art nouveau extravagance, seamlessly transition across the big screen complemented by Nakamura Chieko’s dreamy watercolours to portray an intimate coming-of-age tale in all its sincerity. Unlike most boys’ love travesties that have somehow gotten the greenlit throughout the medium’s history, Doukyuusei is refreshingly down-to-earth in its depiction of Kusakabe and Sajou’s relationship, unfolding through seasonal snapshots which heighten the inherent wistfulness suffusing the feature as they gradually draw closer to one another. In many ways I would be reluctant to classify it within the context of what often proves to be such a reductive genre, filled with suspect power imbalances, as Nakamura Asumiko is concerned with laying the groundwork of a convincing relationship that not only succeeds, but excels with distinctive notes of plausibility and warmth. Given that the film proved to be a runaway success, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for an animated sequel.
#06. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable
With the celebrated shounen powerhouse’s fourth installment we return home after a whirlwind journey ‘round the globe, Araki turning the franchise’s gaze inwards through focusing on a crazy noisy bizarre town and its peculiar inhabitants. Set during the ‘90s, David Production gleefully pays homage to classic suburban thrillers, all disorientating candy-coloured clouds offsetting the sinister undercurrent lurking beneath suburbia’s sleepy veneer. In a tried-and-true formula evocative of the zeitgeist’s fascination with Lynchian extravaganzas, DiU emphasizes the surreal found in the mundane, the darkness lurking within suburbia’s sweet shade. The supernatural Stand fights are continuously engaging as opposed to repetitious which unfortunately proved to be the case with Stardust Crusaders, where every episodic battle rendered the weight of Dio’s absence palpable. However DiU takes its sweet time introducing us to the charming town of Moriou, each episode akin to a lazy Sunday drive around its technicolour landscape. Colourful vignettes involving gloriously cartoonish characters meandering around Anywheresville prove to be likable, even the usual one-shot crew inundated with a delightful whimsicality and continue sticking around long after their role is finished, wreaking havoc in the background. As the franchise marches on, Moriou will certainly not be a town that I will soon forget. Pasta, anyone?
#05. Sangatsu no Lion
A long-sought after adaptation hits the smaller screen at last, courtesy of… Shaft? Oh dear. Certainly worth raising an eyebrow (or two) at the prospect for they are hardly a studio known for their work on restrained and meditative material, yet the idiosyncratic stylistic quirks most went in dreading faded away within moments of Sangatsu no Lion’s striking premiere; the viewer soon whisked off into the solemn waves enveloping its production. One of the series’ most lauded aspects continues to be its nuanced portrayal of protagonist Rei’s psychological machinations, his depressive mindset emerging through a spacious room filled with unopened boxes, a sparse fridge, overwhelmed by lethargic fits. Shaft deserve credit for enhancing his melancholic reveries through gently pulling the reader in via soothing aesthetics, every drop of moisture serving to accentuate the emotions brewing within. It’s all suggestive pauses and lingering silences as Rei ambles through the town, drinking in what it has to offer, foreboding water never far from sight. Having plateaued in his career as a professional shogi player, he stumbles into happiness and warmth via the kindness of the Kawamoto family, and gradually learns to love again while navigating a tangled web of destructive filial relationships which aided his devastating spiral into stagnancy.
Despite its historical roots curled deep into chess’ history, shogi continues to elude western audiences as a mystifying profession yet the matches which take place over the course of the series serve as an elaborately constructed field upon which inner turmoil is wagered, belying the psychological ministrations of its players. A tense score swells alongside a excruciatingly bitter scene during the tenth episode, emotions surging forth through body language as it’s all scrambling for a bottle, mopping a sweaty brow followed by one of the most emotive yet bitter sequences from last year. Equal parts heart-wrenching and heart-warming, Sangatsu no Lion proves to be more than a welcome follow-up to Umino Chica’s beloved Honey and Clover. Also can we please talk about how adorable Momo is?
Don’t touch that dial now: up next we have teenage scumbag extraordinaire Yuuta who wants to make a living cashing in on affiliate links to his suspect blog devoted to occult phenomena only to… get roped into a technobabble-fuelled crusade centuries in the making?! Okay, look. I get it. I really do. Occultic;Nine may deserve its reputation for lurking at the slimy bottom of anime’s collective rubbish bin, but an outrageously vivid spectacle nevertheless lies in store for those who dare pull it up along with them to the top, armed with a nigh incomprehensible premiere that left many with eyes wide and jaws slack. Bearing witness to a technicolour fever dream played at double speed is a small price of admission for one of 2016’s most entertaining pieces that kept me gleefully tuning in week after week. Strain your ears and dare to pick up all the nonsensical conversations about radio waves and spirit channels, cackling Evil McEvil men plotting in a menacing boardroom, madcap schemes involving Nikola Tesla, 256 corpses showing up in a city lake, BL doujinshi linked to murders – and this only scratches the surface of how gloriously, wonderfully, unrepentantly anime it all is. Very much the animated equivalent of an article Yuuta would gleefully cobble together from dubious sources, snickering all the while at how Kiri Kiri Basara’s audience will gobble it up.
I would certainly appreciate the show for its surreal narrative bent but it also happened to be one of the most gorgeously produced shows last season; creative freedom running wild with impressive direction, all indulgent tilting and lively movements with some truly creative sequences – one of which involved a praiseworthy use of CG to create one of the medium’s most chillingly intimate sequences, and another which involved a dizzying conversation which utilized spinning round and round a tiny room, catching the viewer off guard. Glittering in all its delightfully bizarre ostentatiousness with episode titles pulled from catchy alternative rock tracks, Occultic;Nine is a treasure well worth digging for. Arguably nowhere near as well-constructed or credible as fandom-favourite Steins;Gate of course, but one thing is guaranteed – you’ll be sure to have a goofy smile on your face throughout. End transmission.
#03. Mob Psycho 100
While I can admit that One Punch Man had style for miles and could be amusing with Saitama’s wry commentary reflecting his ennui, the novelty soon wore off and I found myself dropping the show early into its runtime. Enter Mob Psycho 100 in all its punk rock exuberance, the bratty younger sibling slouched over and sliding on haphazardly smeared ectoplasm, its premiere a technicolour explosion of talent demanding attention which you are only too willing to give. This delightfully quirky spectacle depicts a number of cartoonish individuals coming to grips with themselves and the world they inhabit, adolescent woes and self-image filtered through an exaggerated psychedelic lens enhanced by a promising crop of animators (#MobWasRobbed). True to their word, the production team truly did offer something we hadn’t seen before and more. If it were all style and no substance I would have been satisfied, to a degree, yet Mob Psycho 100 goes above and beyond the call of duty through often poignant reflections on finding one’s place in the greater scheme of things, grappling with the surge of contradictory emotions threatening to erupt with the slightest provocation as is so often the case with maturation.
It is by no means a pristine symphony systematically orchestrating a sweet serenade of youth but a bizarre and raucous path threatening to constantly veer off course as esper powers serve as an excellent coming-of-age vehicle with its discordant notes; awaking in tandem with development as suggestive shots pave the way for pathos. It’s electrifying and intense, piecing a portrait of fractured identity with a cast as vivid as the show’s aesthetics: a peculiar girl obsessed with the paranormal, her brain hovering in the skies above alongside the spaceships she dreams of. A lovable conman gesticulating wildly as he leaves a trail of salt in his wake. A younger brother drowning amidst the stifling shade of everything he’s not, skittishly bending spoons like they’re going out of style. A meek but kind-hearted older brother spurned for his inability to fit in with society, with so much love to give as he huffs and heaves trying to keep up with his athletic club peers. With One’s sharp eye for the bizarre and Bone’s horrifically talented team, Mob Psycho 100 is an exhilarating ride through the subconscious I will happily board yet again. C-Can we get a second season of this instead of One Punch Man, please?
#02. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu
It would be remiss to liken 2016’s finest animated achievement to a stuffy trajectory examining an antiquated pastime’s history; its performers droning on in a monotonous sleep-inducing register, the viewer rousing with a start only when the ending theme plays. Defying the odds, however, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is instead an achingly poignant look into the lives of a tightly woven cast spanning generations, enabling a myriad of fascinating perspectives that continue to arise with each magnificent episode. It tells of lives lived during an era that stifled the impulses of those who dared to tread off the beaten path, ageing superiors whose disdain for modernization only serves to chain down ghosts of the past whose claws dig into the backs of those struggling to thrive in the present. What unfurls is a complex and rich character drama suffused with anguish and searing pathos, the casts’ personal narratives weaved with resentment as the era, along with personal affections, erect a formidable wall unable to be surmounted. Self-destructive impulses arise as desires go sublimated, never spoken, tragically leading to expected, yet nevertheless emotionally devastating, climaxes. Those ghosts linger in the shade of each uneasy tap of a fan, each staged gesture, each shaky breath. They are ever-present.
DEEN was once a studio I would titter about, but expertly directed sequences made me parse their efforts in a new light, from emphasizing generational roots coiling tightly around those futile attempts at escape, to suggestive body language belying swelling emotions left unsaid. Of course, the direction likewise extends to the performative aspect of the profession through the tangible physicality which arises, skittish movements on a cushion; sweat rolling down a nape; darting eyes. These efforts heighten the convincing qualities of an archaic pastime struggling to thrive in the unrelenting face of modernization. The production elements in general are to be applauded as well, Rakugo’s vocal performances surely one of the finest anime has to offer, particularly with veteran Ishida Akira on board. Here he offers what is certainly the role of a lifetime in his often spine-chilling performance of Kikuhiko, stunning me on numerous occasions through arresting renditions of classical tales, leaving both the viewer and audience awestruck. With the second season currently airing, even while writing this I await with bated breath to see if the profession’s self-styled reaper will drag it down to the depths alongside him… Or will he be able to cast aside these ghosts at long last, finally free? Only time will tell.
#01. Yuri on Ice
As is the case with most, whenever New Year’s Eve rolls around I tend to get caught up in a whirlwind of platitudinous cheers, that next year will be #our #year, that it will surely be the best one yet, quickly forgotten about in a drunken whirlwind. Yet when the clock struck midnight a month ago, finally bringing 2016 to a close, I found myself sincerely, desperately wishing just that – a moment of clarity in the midst of a rum-fuelled stupor. For various reasons, I would be hard-pressed to call 2016 a good year. Things had been growing increasingly stressful in my personal life as the colder months settled in, my mood suffering a rather severe dip as a result, and political turmoil only worsened this nebulous cocktail of frustration and loathing simmering within. Yet an anime about love, about what happens when one has hit a wall, offered a much-needed sense of hope and catharsis. Yuri on Ice has earned itself quite a reputation in recent weeks, quickly turning into something of a global phenomenon with even international skating outlets and Olympic medallists singing its praises, yet I imagine the real reason it had such a profound effect on people is that it arrived when it was needed most.
It’s a show about finding a glimmer of hope in the midst of being engulfed in a desolate, ostensibly all-consuming void. It’s about following your dreams. It’s about mustering up the strength to rise above all that holds you back. It’s about finding a home a last. It’s about doing your country – but most importantly, yourself – proud. It’s about overcoming mental health fixations dragging you down. It’s a loving meditation on the two “most important L words, life and love” in its myriad forms. It’s about making history. Yuri on Ice is many things, but for all its undeniable clumsiness and chaotic structural preoccupations it’s a piece I hold dear to my quivering heart, something I wouldn’t dare trade for anything in the world. This nauseating knot of worry tearing me up inside only seems to tighten each day, but there’s a glimmer in the midst of that impervious darkness. 2017 has barely started and already things seem so much worse, but I continue to hope and stay positive.
Love. Hope. Defy the odds.
After all, you only live once.