10 Treasures from the 2D World
Most people seem to be in agreement that 2016 was kinda shitty irl. It wasn't all bad, but on personal, cultural, and global levels, I'm sure we can all identify more than a few instances of tragedy and disaster. Luckily for us, there seems to be some law of cosmic righteousness where the worse our 3D world gets, the better the 2D world must become. Indeed, this was a fantastic year for anime: after a slow start in the winter season, spring, the season of miracles, more than filled our needs in every essential genre. Summer dialed back just a little, but only to emphasize the insanity of fall, a season so fantastic that it could measure up to the all-time greats, so overwhelming on all fronts that it almost became cruel, silly, taunting... "You like anime, huh? Is this what you want? This many shows???"
Well yes, that is what we wanted, this is exactly what we wanted. All the injustice and sadness and rage and ideology in the world: it is the ability to turn away from all of that and towards a screen for 22 minutes and forget that anything exists beyond it: pure escapism: that is anime. It was pretty hard to get down to even 10 this year so we're doing a substantial honorable (sometimes dishonorable) mentions section, hold on...
ANNE HAPPY♪ - On one hand, this is a typical 5-girls slice of life show focusing on your standard friendship, enjoyment, sentimentality, etc. On the other, it's a bizarre story of robots and giant board games and objectophilia. Both ways are good.
Bakuon!! - Here we have high school girls riding motorcycles and it's completely insane, with Suzuki viruses and ghost girls and Biker Jesus, really more a collection of silly biking jokes than a standard slice of life show. My favorite is the MC's voice, which sounds like she's screaming all the time.
Boku no Hero Academia - This is one of my favorite shonen manga running right now, and the adaptation didn't do anything wrong, so I still really recommend it. It just didn't have the sheer creative genius of the shonen adaptation that did make the list.
Brave Witches - Like Love Live with Sunshine, they've bravely rebooted the Strike Witches franchise with nine new girls. Miraculously, they're all great, basically on par with the original cast! But it's still just more Strike Witches, more shootan and flyan and befriendan Strike Witches. Whether that's good or not is up to you.
Dagashi Kashi - This is a worthwhile show, with great character designs, lively animation, and often hilarious plotlines, but the highlight is still the educational and bizarre candy sequences. It's much more accessible than it might seem; I'd suggest giving it a try.
gi(a)rlish number - This is basically "what if everyone in Shirobako was a jerk and/or an idiot?" The answer is a hilarious but substantial story more in line with Western sitcoms than anything else. Really cute animation, too!
Keijo!!!!!!!! - This is a hundred times better than the exclamation points would suggest, and about ten thousand times better than the premise would suggest, largely because - not in spite of - the fact that it takes itself as seriously as any other sports show. But ten thousand times whatever you were thinking is maybe still not enough.
Kiznaiver - For some reason Trigger wanted to make a Shaft show. And they kinda succeeded!? The character designs? Great! The direction? Pretty great! The plot? Never speak to me about this again. At least it simulbirthed its godlike opposite, Space Patrol Luluco.
Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku wo! - I really liked the episodes centered around slice of life antics in the fantasy world; they really created a warm community feeling. But no amount of EXPLOSION could make up for how much the fight scenes dragged and how generic it became...
Kuma Miko - This strange story of a backwater girl and her talking bear friend barely missed the list hue hue. It's pretty adorable, often hilarious, but mostly just... genuinely upsetting? A must-watch for despair-moe connoisseurs.
Long Riders! - After the madness of Bakuon!!'s high school girls on motorcycles, the sanity of this college girls on bicycles story felt kinda fresh again. But really, it's just a standard "cute girls doing [hobby] things" show, a genre which rarely produces masterpieces, instead reliably giving us warm and pleasant shows like this.
Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku - This ambitious show in the "dark magic girl battles" legacy of Madoka does some cool stuff: I liked the ambiguity of power levels, the variety of the girls' real-life forms was neat, and the last episode was pretty satisfying... but oml it was SO EDGY, like every episode was edgier and more violent than the last, I really don't need to see any of that.
Musaigen no Phantom World - Kyoani fight scenes is maybe enough of a reason to watch this, and the cat episode was sick, but there really isn't much else lol. Really trainwrecky at times, but you know what they say about looking away~
Sansha Sanyou - This is a great slice of life show with lovable characters, funny plots, and surprisingly lively animation. It proved to be just a warm-up for Dogakobo's other work this year, but it's definitely still worth a watch.
Stella no Mahou - If New Game! was too "real", check out these cute girls doing nerdy doujin things. At its best, it captured the fever, camaraderie, and triumph of actual doujin game production. The rest of the time, it was pretty standard moe SoL, and that's fine too.
tanaka-kun wa itsumo kedaruge - I was told BL actually has the best girls, and it was true! And this had some great yuri too?? And really, is it not time for me to diversify? The overlap between BL and yuri includes some of my favorite elements... Okay, but why is there tons of het in this show too? Who asked for that?
Okay, whew, that's it, that's enough. Or too much. Let's move onto the actual list!
10. Yuri!!! On Ice
Yes, I watched this. No, I wasn't tricked by the name. I watched it cause loads of people - including people that don't usually watch this "flavor" of anime, even people who don't really watch anime at all - kept telling me it was a great show. And it is! This is, before anything, a really solid competition show about figure skating: the crises of motivation are meaningful, the rivals are lovable (JJ Style!!), and the uncertainty of their success compelling. You truly feel their heartbreak and triumph, so what more could you want?
Well, if that was really all I wanted, I could have watched dozens of other shows. Shows with like, cute girls and stuff. But we aren't just about cute here; what truly sets Yuri!!! On Ice apart is its bold sexuality. Where so many series' fanservice is so inconsequential you can't even process it, the relationship between Yuri and Victor is explicit and meaningful. Moreover, that energy and gravity carries into the many skating sequences, infusing them with greater significance. It captures the intensity, fragility, and, most importantly, beauty, of the sport itself.
9. High School Fleet
After the runaway success of Kancolle and the rest of the military-moe genre, it was inevitable that we'd get cute girls crewing ships too. Most of these shows try to avoid villainizing any of their cast through either inhuman enemies or making the battles a harmless sport, but neither would suffice to adapt this genre. And sure, the justification they use is a little weak, but this cake-eat greediness allows them to nail all your favorite ship-movie tropes: cautious exploration, human-on-human tactics, spooky fog of war action, crises of command, and desperate survivalism.
But that survivalism is also domestic, and the show exceeds as a slice of life, too. All your favorites are here again, and supercharged by the unique setting: intimacy, relaxation, friendship building... it's hard to choose which episode is my favorite: the climactic battle or the wonderful festival. The cast is gigantic, but it doesn't dilute the experience, as even the most minor characters are interesting and lovable. The intersection between wartime job and peacetime personality creates a new dimension for each character; it's hype to meet other captains or high ranking staff and really believe that they've earned it. Oh, and they're all adorable, but that prolly goes without saying.
8. Scorching Ping Pong Girls
Okay you might have heard of a little show called Ping Pong? In the last few years, it's gone from a cult favorite to a crossover hit to the gospel of competitive Melee players. And I loved it too, I put it as my favorite show of 2014. But what was the one universally agreed upon flaws? Not enough cute girls!! Well, here is our salvation. No okay yes this is a very different show than Ping Pong. Instead of the Wallace-esque investigation of competitive attitudes, we start with the assumption that playing ping pong is fun and that's good enough and go from there. Their discovering and expressing this doki-doki feeling is so visceral and addictive that even I, barely coordinated enough to both sit and type, want to give the sport a try.
This straightforward motivation lets the show dive deeper into the mechanics of ping pong, too. The various spins and drives are pushed to almost parodious levels, but seeing how they match up is pretty exciting. Sure, the designs might look goofy, but the simplicity allows for really dynamic animation of all these absurd smashes, soundtracked to some kickass beatz. And once you see them in action, and the friendship they build off the court, they'll look a little less Western-How-to-Draw-Anime-bookcore and a lot more adorable and hype.
I think hype is really the only word for this series. Seeing new characters and wondering how strong they are? Hype. Mid-match revelations leading to comeback victories? Hella hype. Somehow being able to shout at length about how much fun you're having in the split second where the ball is hitting the paddle? This is the hype we live for. I think the bottom line is that this is Ping Pong Saki, and that should say enough either way.
Let's move on from all this competitiveness and tension into the realm of Iyashikei, of real anime, into the paradisiacal seaside town of Amanchu!. We join newcomer Teko, feeling a little distraught and reserved in her new home, as she forms a fast and frantic friendship with Pikari, who's like an extreme version of HidaSketch's Miyako. There's all your typical slice of life bonding stuff, and it's lovely, but the focus of their relationship is diving, Pikari's beloved hobby, which she joyfully shares with the initially nervous Teko.
Like many "cute girls doing [hobby] things" shows, the journey we take with Teko to understand diving is enthralling and educational. We share in her tensions and triumphs, witnessing her fantasies of the open sea and wishing alongside her for them to come to pass. The real brilliance here, though, is how long they spend before Teko actually goes on a proper dive (spoilers: it's a long time). The magic of that eventual victory is made all the more sweet by the detours along the way.
This pacing reinforces the show's best quality: yuri. No, I mean sentimentality. This isn't just a sentimental show, but a show about sentimentality, about finding meaningful moments in life and remembering them and treasuring the memories. Diving, yeah, but also flower viewing, silly games, and, most importantly, friendship. No, wait, I mean yuri, which actually is still the best quality. I mean, the way they parallel the realization of the show's wonderful moral message, Teko finally entering the ocean, and the advancement of their relationship? That's genius, that's just straight up storytelling gold.
6. 3-gatsu no Lion
Shaft's only 2016 series, 3-gatsu no Lion tells the story of Rei, a young shogi pro. This is no Hikaru no Go - a simple look at the strategy and competition of the game would be way too easy. Nor is it just a character study of the players, though... sure, the narrative of sacrifice and determination that professional play necessitates is compelling and significant here - the aftermath of Rei's wins and losses, for him and his opponent, is especially haunting. But even that would be too easy!
No, no, what they went here was for some real life shit. Shogi is just a part; wacky best friend(?) Nikado is more than a rival(?); all his opponents go home and really live. There's Rei's tragic past, but also the warmth of the Kawamoto home, and but their tragic past too. There's the shogi hall, but also the river, the bar, the school roof. Happiness and sadness and silliness and intensity, nothing is black or white (I told you it wasn't go), 100% real life.
And Shaft went for it in the direction, too. You already knew it was gonna be gorgeous, but unlike the unreal landscapes of Monogatari, the settings here are very grounded in reality, building on the style of last year's Kofuku Graffiti. The emotional range of the show is expertly depicted in everything from editing to shot composition to colour; you feel, down to your bones, the intense isolation of the shogi game, the churning darkness of Rei's memories, the lively warmth of the Kawamoto sisters... Shaft's direction here begins to exceed any preconceived limits of anime, into the realm of Ozu and Bergman, into true cinema, or, dare I say it, kino?
Okay that's a fine spot to stop for now
Here's part two!