Doing a lot of research means doing a lot of reading, which means the idea of doing more reading in your spare time kind of makes your eyeballs want to roll out of your head and boycott. So this year, when I felt like diving into fiction for fun, I found myself gravitating to visual media more than novels—and thus, as I’m sure you’ve noticed if you frequent this blog, I ended up watching a lot more anime than usual. It’s barely any compared to the people who routinely keep up with multiple shows coming out every season, but hey, from what I have dug through this year I’ve discovered some real gems.
It’s nothing as comprehensive as a Top Ten or a year in retrospective, simply series that I completed that I would (even with the caveats noted) recommend to other people. And without further ado, here they are:
Premise: Cocona, an insecure and directionless student, is going about her everyday life when a mysterious and effervescent stranger (who seems to know all about her) pops up out of nowhere, and invites/drags her to join her adventures in a strange otherworld called Pure Illusion. Cocona slowly grows and becomes more confident through these fantasy trips, though her view of herself and the world is challenged when she realises that Pure Illusion changes to reflect the people who enter it, meaning she’s effectively walking through other people’s (and her own) dreams.
The Good Stuff: Let me be honest with you, Flip Flappers was a trip. Its “journey to fantastical worlds that reflect the characters’ psyche” premise and the blend of sci-fi and fantasy it entails make for a visual feast and some really fun and bizarre adventures. It’s the way this fantastical wackiness aligns with character exploration that really makes the show engaging, especially in the case of protagonist Cocona, whose coming-of-age we witness through these madcap psychological adventures. It’s part magical girl show, part philosophical sci-fi mindbend, all wrapped around the story of one insecure girl’s coming to maturity. This includes a fairly nuanced and gentle exploration of Cocona’s budding sexual awakening and first love via her partner in dream-travel Papika. That’s right folks, it’s officially gay.
Caveats and content warnings: I want to universally recommend Flip Flappers to anyone looking for a wild and rewarding queer magical girl adventure but… well. There’s a grating dissonance at play here where the show really is telling a nuanced and non-exploitive story about queer female sexuality and love, but it’s also intent on shoving the camera up the protagonists’ skirts during their transformation scenes and stranding them in swimwear for entire episodes. There’s also a pervy robot because someone decided pervy robots make for entertaining side characters, I can only assume.
The second caveat is less to do with grossness and more to do with pacing. One of the reasons there’s so much awesome analysis of this series is because there’s so much detail crammed in for the audience to pick through and interpret, everything from literary allusions to flower symbolism to underlying threads of philosophy and science. A lot of that stuff does require a deep dig to unearth and make sense of—for instance, all the great significance of the “Yuri Hell” episode–which is difficult to do in-the-moment due to the show’s breakneck pace, and can leave you feeling bewildered. I also feel like the backstory of the show comes at you so fast and hard that it serves to be baffling rather than illuminating, perhaps meaning the series could have done with a few more episodes to flesh out some of the ideas and worldbuilding aspects it was dealing with.
Premise: teenage witch Makoto moves to a town in rural Japan to live with her cousins and complete her magic training. Slow, dreamy, slice-of-life antics ensue as magic interacts with the mundane to the backdrop of the beautiful countryside.
The Good Stuff: Flying Witch is probably the most relaxing thing I’ve watched all year. It’s a bountiful blend of feel-good slice-of-life shenanigans and the fantastical fun of magic. If you want fantasy but not the epic plots and high stakes that often go with it, or if you want slice-of-life but with a bit of unique fizz, this is the show for you. It’s soothing, soft, quiet, and it helped me unwind in the middle of a busy semester. Watching Flying Witch filled me with inspiration and energy and the desire to breathe the fresh crisp air of the lush countryside and cook wholesome dinners for my loved ones.
(Technically, I am perfectly capable of taking a stroll “in the countryside” at any time. My closest brand of “countryside” is just full of dry grass and kangaroos, which isn’t quite the same aesthetic)
Caveats and content warnings: if you prefer your fantasy with actual stakes and plot, this is not the show for you. The slow pacing will suit some and bore others to tears, and the lack of any real tension or conflict means character development moves at a somewhat glacial pace. The casual attitude to magic also leaves the worldbuilding with quite a few holes in it, given that you’re largely expected to just roll with it and enjoy each scene of domestic magic as it unfolds. That said, there’s nothing in the way of fan service or skeevy humour!
Love, Chunibyo, and Other Delusions
Premise: Yuta is keen to forget his embarrassing geek phase as he moves into high school, and is keen for everyone around him to forget too. This plan works for about five minutes, until he gets tangled up with his classmate, Rika, who is still happily afflicted with her own case of “eighth-grader syndrome”. What follows are comedic high school shenanigans aplenty, and in the end a surprisingly moving story about how “embarrassing” passions can bring you great joy and support in hard times.
The Good Stuff: This is cheating slightly because I rewatched this this year rather than discovering it, but look, it’s a good show, and I was pleasantly surprised that it tugged my heartstrings now as much as it did when I first came across it a few years ago. It’s sweet without being overbearingly so, comedy and drama mixed in such a way that sometimes leads to mood whiplash but ultimately creates an even balance that portrays the up-and-down nature of high school. There’s a message here about how interests and hobbies can be a nurturing comfort zone that manages to come off as heartfelt rather than contrived and self-congratulatory. Chunibyo’s a nice reminder to be kind to our thirteen-year-old selves (and to current thirteen-year-olds) no matter how much their antics may make us cringe.
Caveats and content warnings: Alas, most characters who aren’t Rika and Yuta get the short end of the stick development-wise, to the point where some of them are just one-note jokes rather than supporting cast. The show also falls into that strange pit I think is called moe where it wants you to know that Rika is childlike, both in that she’s emotionally stunted as also physically immature… but it also wants you to see her as love interest material. There’s not anything as dire as direct sexual fan service that I can remember, but the opening credits do feature a lovingly rendered shot of a bouncing butt in a frilly skirt to set the scene.
Recovery of an MMO Junkie
Premise: thirty-year-old Moriko quits her soul-sucking corporate job and retreats into the safe and happy zone of a fantasy MMO, where she creates “the ultimate hot guy” avatar and finds a new home in virtual community. This includes falling a little bit in love with a healer named Lily, who is, unbeknownst to Moriko, played by a man. The two players run into each other (literally) on the street, and their online and offline lives—and relationships—suddenly become much more tangled.
The Good Stuff: MMO Junkie is just… very sweet. It surprised me, in all honesty, with just how resonant and kind it is, always encouraging the audience to laugh with rather than at its human disaster of a protagonist, and to cheer her on in what ultimately becomes her story about recovering from social anxiety and debilitating stress. The parallel offline and online dynamics between Moriko and “Lily” create a delightful Miraculous Ladybug-esque conundrum where two very different relationships exist between the same two people, via means of concealed identity. But both of them are cute, wonderfully slow-burn, mutually shy but also mutually supportive.
I’m increasingly picky with romance—especially straight romance—so the fact that I not only endured but enjoyed this should speak volumes. It’s a love story much more focussed on emotional intimacy rather than physical, which I appreciated a whole lot. And, much as I adored it, the romance is really only one part of the show, the heart of which is Moriko herself and her journey towards starting to get better, which is an immensely rewarding thing to watch.
Caveats and content warnings: we’ve got to talk about The Gender Stuff. It’s not something I necessarily would have thought of myself, but some commentators have wrinkled their noses at the show’s flippant treatment of gender presentation, using it for comedy shenanigans in a cis, straight romance rather than using it to explore the actual idea of gender identity in any progressive way (you can 100% read Moriko and her love interest as bisexual/biromantic given that they fall for their online personas, but the series itself doesn’t address this in any such terms). I can definitely see why that would be obnoxious, so I won’t ask you to put up with it just to get to a cute fluffy love story.
The second big thing is not a thing but a character: Koiwai, the token extrovert that the plot unfortunately needs to get the ball rolling now and then, given that both gamers are too shy and self-deprecating to maintain momentum in a rom-com on their own. Koiwai is… not a bad dude, necessarily, and certainly not played as antagonistic. But he has a skeevy sense of humour that crosses over into personally unforgivable territory (rape jokes are never funny) and is never really called out, leaving it a bit ambiguous as to whether the show is condoning his behaviour and asking us to see him as just a loveable scallywag, which puts a black mark against its otherwise sweet nature.
Restaurant to Another World
Premise: six days of the week, Nekoya is an ordinary restaurant… but every Saturday the front door becomes a portal to several locations across a fantasy world. Knights, wizards, dragons, treasure-hunters, elves, mermaids, and princesses become the diner’s regulars, each with their own personal story and their own favourite dish.
The Good Stuff: if Flying Witch fills you with the desire to take a long and wholesome walk in the countryside, Restaurant to Another World gives you an insatiable craving for Japanese food. It sits at the same delightful intersection of fantasy and slice-of-life, with the supernatural a lush backdrop to the mundane and character-focussed plotlines that take centre stage. That said, Restaurant to Another World has some pretty damned solid fantasy worldbuilding, with all the aspects of the magical land through the diner’s door given consistent internal logic, and slotting together over the series to form a coherent picture of the way it all works (though perhaps not complete, but what is left unexplained by the finale seems being set up to be explained or elaborated on later, rather than handwaved as “it’s just magic, whatever”).
Using short, character-driven stories is a fantastic way to build a world, it turns out—you become attached to the human (or, you know, elf, mermaid, etc.) element and learn about the magical rules through their personal journeys. This is only enhanced by the focus on food, with each character having their own special connection to their favourite dish that’s both informative and entertaining. And it all looks so, so delicious.
Caveats and content warnings: also as with Flying Witch, if you’re looking for an action fantasy with big stakes, this is not the show for you. If you aren’t grabbed by the short story premise, the episodic “fantasy character comes in and eats their favourite food” structure might become tedious. That said, the short story structure means the pacing is consistent and quippy, and if you find yourself bored to tears by one patron, you can rest assured that their segment will be over soon and the spotlight will be given to someone else.
In terms of grossness, there isn’t too much—some shot-from-behind shower scenes and a skantily-clad dragon lady, but nothing worth putting up red flags about. The character designs all treat the ladies with respect, though it does do that Thing where the male characters have a massive variety of body types and facial features and the women are all slim and pretty.
Revolutionary Girl Utena
Premise: I… well. Hmm. Okay. Let’s start at the start: our protagonist Utena meets a fairy tale prince as a child, and is so impressed that she decides to “become a prince herself”. Sure enough, several years later she struts into a new school wearing a modified version of the boys’ uniform and looking for princesses to rescue. She gets her chance when a classmate breaks her best friend’s heart, and Utena decides the best course of action is to challenge him to a duel. The classmate accepts, and Utena finds herself sucked into a strange swordfighting society hidden in a magical subspace on campus, were students duel for possession of a mysterious girl they call The Rose Bride. Surrealism ensues.
The Good Stuff: if it wasn’t clear from the three giant in-depth posts I’ve churned out over the last few months, Utena is exactly my jam. I’m not sure if it’s my favourite anime, but it’s quickly become my favourite anime to write about—there’s just so much to pick apart and examine, from the intricacy of the characters and their flaws and relationships, to the symbolism, to the commentary on gender roles as they appear in stories and how that influences the real world. I can see why it’s become such an iconic series. The music is great, the themes are ever-resonant, and the characters are fantastic, including a wonderfully flawed and fascinating protagonist and the first villain I’ve been legitimately frightened of in a long time.
It’s also gay. Which, as with Flip Flappers, gives it an immediate recommendation even with caveats.
Caveats and content warnings: cards on the table; I watched Utena with someone who had already seen it before, and that enhanced my viewing experience tenfold. And by that I mean we had some great discussions, but also they had to explain quite a few things to me: sometimes character nuance that they had a better grasp on having seen their arcs play out before, sometimes spelling out a plot twist because it was mired in surrealism and went right over my head. Utena is a goldmine in terms of analysis because you sometimes have to come at it with a pick and shovel to get to the heart of what it’s trying to say. You have to have your brain switched on to enjoy this show (and switched on in that specific way where you’re ready to let symbolism and strangeness wash over you), which probably makes it not so much a good choice for a relaxing weekday night if that’s the kind of anime you’re looking for.
More importantly though, Utena deals with some dark stuff in its investigation of gender and story, including heavy exploration of sexual abuse and incest. It’s handled, as much as this theme can be, tastefully, and isn’t just thrown in for shock value, but it’s still confronting. Definitely take care if you think diving into that topic will affect you, because Utena isn’t shy about exposing and exploring the nasty heart of gendered violence.
Premise: Ryuji is a kindhearted boy who looks like a mobster, Taiga is a cute tiny girl who contains all the rage and aggression of an ancient conquering army. The lives of the two mismatching and misunderstood teenagers intersect when Taiga accidentally leaves a love letter intended for Ryuji’s best friend in Ryuji’s bag, realising in the ensuing confrontation that Ryuji is also in love with her best friend. The odd pair team up to try and play matchmaker for their respective buddies, leading to shenanigans aplenty as the love polygon surrounding them gets increasingly complicated and they grow closer together themselves.
The Good Stuff: this is also slightly cheating, since this is a rewatch as well. I also won’t go on for too long here, since I have already written so many thousands of words about why ToraDora! is awesome. Its biggest strength for sure is its characters and the way the show develops them, evolving from the tropey façades you first meet into layered and flawed human beings with a whole bunch of complicated feelings that make for some grade A melodrama. The romance is sweet and grows naturally to the point where you can believe in it (and as I said above, I’m very picky with my romances) and you generally find yourself getting really attached to these kids and wanting things to turn out okay for them. It’s just a really fun, thoughtful, good character-focussed show.
Caveats and content warnings: there are a few Anime Was A Mistake moments in the show for sure, but for the most part the fan service camera isn’t too clingy nor the series’ sense of humour too crass. Taiga’s backstory is one of broken families and emotional abuse, however, so tread warily if you think those issues might cause trouble for you.
Premise: a race of aliens called Scoopers attack Earth in search of creativity and culture, since their species lacks the ability to imagine. They’re naturally drawn to the colour and pep of Harajuku, where they begin hoovering up important landmarks and artworks. Three best friends, Rito, Mari, and Kotoko, become the designated defenders of their beloved district, transforming into superheroes and fighting the Scoopers with the power of their creativity.
The Good Stuff: I’m parched for wholesome and fun magical girl series, alright? Classics like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura are still waiting for me (one of these days CP and I will get around to finishing Sailor Moon R, oops… maybe I should contract RSI again), and that’s nice to know, but it’s also gratifying to see those traditional hallmarks like The Magic of Friendship appearing in new series, especially in the post-Madoka world we live in. That said, I also enjoy how URAHARA plays with some of those familiar conventions too, creating a neat genre-blend of sci-fi and fantasy, and branching out to explore new aesthetics and character design possibilities beyond the genre’s familiar frilliness (it’s set in Harajuku, so naturally there’s some wild and wonderful stuff going on with the costuming).
URAHARA is just nice, setting out to tell a story about the strong bonds between young girls and the power of creativity—and managing to get into some interesting and resonant stuff while it’s at it. It also looks amazing, embracing the animated medium and having some real fun with a stylised aesthetic. It’s a little bizarre at times, but ultimately radiates unstoppable charm.
Also, Kotoko is my daughter, and I will protect her with my life.
Caveats and content warnings: from a writing perspective, this show doesn’t have the best pacing. It can feel a bit flip-floppy, with some major conflicts drawn out over multiple episodes and some resolved in a matter of minutes. It’s also a little simplistic at times, but that’s not a crime so much as a mark of it being made for a younger audience. There’s no fan service or nastiness in sight, and the biggest issue with the show remains its sometimes-clunky writing, which you may or may not be willing to put up with depending on how much you enjoy the magic and the aesthetic.
And that’s a wrap for this year… here’s to 2018 and all the new discoveries it will bring!