Old Stories, New Spins: The 2016 Winter Anime Season in Review
The winter of our discontent?
This is my shortest retrospective to date, thanks to a pretty dismal season in terms of incoming series. Some of that had to do with my own time constraints and self-imposed ranking rules (there are four shows in the “unranked” category this season, three of which I’d happily recommend to others), but some of it had to do with there just not being a lot that caught my eye this time around. Still, the top two were pretty special, and if an anime season can give you even one incredible series, then it’s hard to call it a true disappointment, I s’pose.
If there’s one positive trend to take from this season, it’s that we’ve got some good artists and directors in the business: people able to take into account all elements of a production and elevate the source material, whether that’s from “meh” to “good” or “good” to “great,” so take heart! The blueprints may be rough at times, but at least they’re in the hands of skilled builders.
1. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
Streaming On: Crunchyroll (click here for a list of regions)
Episode Count: 13 (Season 2 announced; no release date yet)
In a Sentence: This historical fiction follows a young ex-convict as he gets tangled up in the complicated past and relationships surrounding Yakumo, a rakugo master.
Content Warning: The story deals with sexism, emotional abuse, sexual situations (including prostitution), and violence, but most of it is told or implied rather than graphically depicted.
I wrote mini-essays about Showa Genroku on my own blog pretty much weekly, because it’s one of those series that’s nearly impossible to discuss in a few short paragraphs. It’s historically grounded but also intimately focused, told mostly as a framed, first-person narrative that treads the line between literal realism and emotional realism. It’s extremely well-directed and expertly staged, sparingly animated but with an active camera and an attention to subtle detail that gives each character (all performers, and all wearing various masks to some extent) an internal complexity that goes beyond just their dialogue. It’s really, really, really damn good, gang.
It’s also getting a second season at some point, which means I don’t have to try to summarize all its themes and ideas just yet. I will say that it deals extensively with the tension between the “traditional” and the “modern” in postwar Japan, showing how the environment shapes and restricts individuals in terms of rigid social hierarchies and heteronormative expectations, and does it all with a great deal of nuance and sympathy. Where it’s going to take all its ideas and characters, I’m not sure just yet, but I am very much looking forward to finding out.
While I think there’s a certain universality to its personal story that makes it accessible even if you’re not familiar with the setting, if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, I do have those episode posts (featuring both analysis and historical context) if you’d like to walk through the show with a friend!
Season Grade: A
2. Snow White With the Red Hair (Akagami no Shirayuki-hime) – Part 2
Available on: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Season Episode Count: 12
Series Episode Count: 24
In a Sentence: After herbalist Shirayuki flees her homeland when her rare red hair catches the eye of the kingdom’s prince, a chance encounter with a young man named Zen promises to change both their fates.
Content Warning: Violence (mild)
While Showa Genroku is hands-down the best show on this list, Snow White may very well be my favorite, a comfy fairytale for the modern age that left me feeling relaxed and happy after pretty much every episode. Director Ando’s graceful production brought the world and characters to life, developing its story at a (mostly) relaxed pace and growing its many relationships—from romantic partners to friends to coworkers—with intelligence and warmth.
There’s a short stretch of episodes that tries to be a standard fantasy adventure and gets away from the show’s strengths, but it comes together for a final act that’s such a pitch-perfect blend of sweetness and humor that I can’t bring myself to fault it much. Its relative lack of drama may not be your cup of tea, but if you’re looking for a gently progressive fairytale that promotes communication, trust, and personal agency, I can’t recommend this one enough.
Series Grade: A
3. Mr. Osomatsu (Osomatsu-san)
Streaming On: Crunchyroll (worldwide except Asia)
Episode Count: 25
In a Sentence: The sextuplets of the 1960s comedy Osomatsu-kun are all grown up, but modern adult living isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Content Warning: Comic violence, comic sexuality/nudity (mostly male), and episode 10 (entitled “Iyami and Chibita’s Rental Girlfriend”) is a mess of transphobic and sexist stereotypes.
Whoa, did Oso-freaking-matsu seriously just crack my Top Three? Huh. Well whaddaya know. There are a lot of series ranked below this one that were better at their very best, but they had dips in quality or flaws in writing (or just flat-out pissed me off enough) that Mr. Osomatsu—barring that unpleasant episode I mentioned in the content warning—didn’t really have, at least for me. So, for its comic consistency, cleverness, and sheer brazen zaniness, I’m giving a top spot to this sometimes-brilliant, sometimes-crude, often-irreverent, and occasionally-touching sketch comedy. If this surprise hit wants to come back to give me more weekly doses of ridiculous, I sure wouldn’t complain.
Series(?) Grade: B+
4. Haikyuu!! Season 2
Streaming On: Crunchyroll
Season Episode Count: 25
Series Episode Count: 50 so far (Season 3 coming in Fall 2016)
In a Sentence: Undersized spiker Hinata Shoyo joins the Karasuno High School volleyball team, where he and a group of lovable dorks must learn to work together in order to return their school’s team to its former glory.
I’m docking Haikyuu ever-so-slightly this time around because the show’s greatest strength is its sincere, excitable energy coupled with its ability to draw the audience into its volleyball matches as if they’re watching real ones, and it lost some of its bounce during portions of the early-to-mid-season. That was partly intentional (the growing pains/training arc being an important part of the sports formula, after all), but it still caused the season to drag here and there.
Even so, an expanded cast, a renewed focus on supporting players, and especially the character arc around Yamaguchi helped flesh out the team and build greater emotional attachment between audience and cast. The final round of episodes were a fabulously animated, edge-of-your-seat series of games—exactly what you’d hope for from a season finale. Haikyuu is still loads of straightforward fun, no question about that, and I’ll certainly be tuning in when it comes back in the fall.
Season Grade: B
5. Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash (Hai to Gensou no Grimgar)
Available On: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: A group of young adults who wake up in an MMO-like fantasy world with no memory of their pasts must learn how to work together to survive the all-too-real dangers of their new lives.
Content Warning: Violence (against teens/adults), fanservice, and one of the characters is a sexist jackass
I wanted to rank Grimgar higher than this, but then I thought of all the times (particularly in the early episodes) when it made me want to throw rocks at my TV and I couldn’t quite manage it. Which is a pretty harsh opening sentence, but I genuinely loved Grimgar about 80% of the time. At its best, it’s a slow-paced, down-to-earth character study that (despite its gorgeous storybook backgrounds) paints the realities of living in an MMO-style fantasy world in all their unromantic glory. The series understands the emotional repercussions of warfare and loss and gives its characters time to grieve and work through trauma, even going so far as to depict a realistic near-panic attack.
But then it keeps interrupting all its smart writing, quiet characterization, and atmospheric fantasy with stock anime clichés, a sporadic male gaze-y camera that’s particularly obsessed with one female character’s butt, and a sexist, entitled ass whose dialogue and actions (while realistic in terms of “jerk teenagers” and while frequently condemned by the rest of the cast) serve as irritating tonal whiplash.
And, again, I liked Grimgar—a lot. I think it does a lot of things really well, and in terms of “shows I most looked forward to each week” it was behind only Snow White and Showa Genroku. I’d love it if it got a second season, but I also know it’s a strange, uneven creature, too slow-paced for some and too vexing for others, so it’s hard to know who even to recommend it to. Do you like slice-of-life stories about forming communities and dealing with grief and trauma, and also butt shots, and also goblin-slaying? H’oh boy. I’m really not selling this one well at all, am I?
Series Grade: B
6. ERASED (Boku Dake ga Inai Machi)
Available On: Crunchyroll
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: Struggling manga artist Satoru’s ability to (accidentally) jump backwards in time may help him solve a half-forgotten mystery from his past.
Content Warning: Violence (sometimes graphic) and child abuse (fairly graphic).
Erased sparked a lot of debate and some dramatically fluctuating opinions this season (from “best of the winter” to “frustrating disappointment”), and I think whether or not it works for you will hinge on two primary factors: How much you want it to be a riveting mystery/thriller, and how attached you find yourself to the characters. On the mystery side, Erased is pretty lackluster, with a culprit telegraphed from roughly five miles away and a penchant for overwrought staging to try to make its predictable twists seem shocking. There are also a lot of “gals in trouble” in the early going, although that balances out a little as the story goes.
That said, as a character drama about the importance of trust and community, as a critique of look-the-other-way culture, and as a musing on what it means to be a hero, Erased pulled its story together in remarkable and surprising ways in its last two episodes, building to an emotionally satisfying conclusion that avoided the majority of the cliches I feared it was heading towards. I mentioned in my mid-season review that Erased had the framework of “guy saves girl in order to fix his own life,” but it tweaks that formula enough in the later episodes to suggest it’s much more a story about the bonds of family/friendship and how true altruism is about giving others the chance to make their own choices and being happy for them (rather than making choices for them or expecting a reward for one’s actions).
It’s a little low on this list because I spent most of the episodes between 3 and 10 underwhelmed (and occasionally outright laughing at the melodramatics), but it comes together nicely in the end. Taken as a complete work, Erased gets an “uneven but worthwhile” recommendation and a solid overall score.
Series Grade: B
7. Prince of Stride: Alternative
Available On: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: The once-famous Honan Academy “Stride” parkour-style racing team looks to get their name back on the map thanks to some passionate incoming freshmen.
Content Warning: Fanservice (male).
The only thing PoS:A really had going for it in the first few episodes was pleasing art design and a talented director (Ishizuka Atsuko, definitely a name to watch) who knew how to keep the stride races entertaining, but it got me to hang around long enough for the characters to become endearing and the straightforward story—about building a team and having the support of others when fighting to achieve one’s goals—to take shape. It struggled with its comedy and never tried for anything ambitious, but I think it did exactly what it set out to do with playful, cheesy sincerity. I won’t be putting it on any “best of” lists, but I enjoyed it even so.
Series Grade: C
She and Her Cat -Everything Flows-
I almost broke my rule about not ranking “shorts” this season, because She and Her Cat is a wonderful four-part story (available on Crunchyroll), heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal turns, and it deserves to be getting lots and lots of attention. Had I ranked it, it would’ve easily cleared my Top Three. I’d like to do a longer write-up about it at some point (including the production history behind it), but for now, if you’re a young professional, and especially if you’re a cat owner, I can’t recommend this beautiful little tale enough. Make sure you sit through the final ending credits!
The story of a young female manager trying to wrangle the four-man pop idol group “Sekkou Boys,” who are not “men” so much as “talking stone busts of Saint Giorgio, Medici, Hermes, and Mars.” Yes, really. Rides the line between dumb and clever thanks to a combination of goofy statue sight gags and mythological references, with good comedic timing and just a dash of vinegar; at an 8-minute run-time it knows when to bow out before the joke gets too stale. Watch it if you like kinda-stupid concepts that go gleefully all-in with their premises.
Lupin III – Part 4
Technically not a “winter anime” (it aired in 2015; Crunchyroll just finally got the streaming rights this season) so technically not eligible for ranking. I did enjoy it, although based on others’ reactions, I’d have liked it a lot more if I was a long-time Lupin fan. (That said, it’s a newbie-friendly series, so you can jump into this one even if you aren’t a Lupin expert.) It’s a mostly episodic series, so some stories are great while others are forgettable, and the finale focused a little too much on damsels and surreal storylines to leave me totally satisfied. Overall, though, thanks to likable characters and some standout one-offs, I’d still give it a “B.” Stylish spy caper goodness, and a fun way to spend 25 minutes a week.
Durarara!! x2 – Part Three (Series Finale)
Unranked because I still haven’t finished it. I haven’t dropped it, mind you, but I have limited TV time, and I had to make a choice between watching Daredevil Season 2 and watching the final season of Durarara. I regret nothing! I swear I’ll get to this one eventually. In the meantime, feel free to hash out your own thoughts about the finale in the comments. .. er, just make sure to mark “spoilers” for my sake and others’, please!
Dee is a nerd of all trades and a master of one. She has bachelor’s degrees in English and East Asian studies and an MFA in Creative Writing. To pay the bills, she works as a technical writer. To not pay the bills, she devours novels and comics, watches far too much anime, and cheers very loudly for the Kansas Jayhawks. You can hang out with her at The Josei Next Door, a friendly neighborhood anime & media blog for long-time fans and newbies alike, as well as on Tumblr and Twitter.
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