It’s been another big year for anime-watching on my part, with more access than ever before to both the currently-airing series themselves and the hot goss on which of them are worth checking out. And so once again I’ve gathered mini-reviews of my favourite series into one handy-dandy post! This is a mix of series that came out this year, series from days of yore I decided to rediscover, and series that were locked away on Amazon until recently that I’ve only just had the chance to check out (R.I.P., Anime Strike or whatever that was). This list contains coming-of-age stories, steampunk shenanigans, magical mayhem, a friendly skeleton, and a lot of queer themes and female protagonists. If that sounds like your jam, do take a look–I’m happy to share my thoughts, and maybe you’ll find something that sounds fun!
A Place Further Than the Universe
Premise: sixteen-year-old Mari is fretting that she’s wasting her youth, and is filled with wanderlust and a desire for purpose. She gets the chance to do something amazing when she meets Shirase, who is on a mission to try and get to Antarctica to find her missing mother… or at least some closure. The girls team up with two others and launch on a quest to the ends of the world.
The Good Stuff: it should be no surprise to anyone who’s followed me this year that I think this show is fantastic. It’s a gorgeous, moving story about grief, love, friendship, and growing up, packed with equal measures of comedy and drama in a way that creates bittersweet balance rather than emotional whiplash. The characters have a sense of realism to them that’s hard to nail down when writing teenagers, and it’s rewarding to watch each member of the cast grow and work through their problems in their own ways and with the help of the friends they make along the journey. I laughed, I cried, I wrote a lot of words about it.
Caveats and content warnings: this is a story driven by grief after the death of a parent, so tread carefully if that is something that will affect you. On a perhaps less serious note, there’s also an episode entirely about being seasick, which is, while sympathetic and at times funny, the most viscerally unpleasant moment of the entire show.
Premise: shy Futaba moves to a new town and finds herself completely out of her depth, that is until her bubbly classmate Hikari takes her under her wing and introduces her to the magical underwater world of scuba diving. The two become increasingly close and help each other with their respective confidence issues, all against the backdrop of the frightening yet freeing ocean.
The Good Stuff: as I wrote about a while back, there’s a gold nugget of emotional authenticity to this series that allowed it to carve out a special place in my heart as well as simply being a sweet little growing up story. Futaba and Hikari’s relationship is heartwarming and rewarding to watch, with an at times understated and at times delightfully overt romantic current running through their partnership.
Caveats and content warnings: here’s the thing… the above praise can really only be considered a review for the first season of this show, since I never quite got around to finishing the second one. It introduced and shifted focus to a selection of side characters who I was far less invested in than I was in Hikari and Futaba’s relationship, as well as taking a turn for the surreal. Apart from wanting more content of my good good diving daughters, I don’t think Amanchu! was a series crying out for continuation, since the first season ends on such a sweet note that satisfyingly completes the arc of the story (both character development-wise and relationship-wise). I won’t tell you to stop at season one if you do crave more, but I can’t really comment either way since I didn’t continue myself.
That said, there’s still some nonsense in the first season, mostly in the form of (again) side characters, and a repeated shallow joke about a diver beating the crap out of her twin brother when she’s angry or embarrassed. Because you know, it’s not abuse if it’s a girl hitting a boy and there are slapstick sound effects, right? The twins’ antics–which amount to most of their characterisation–felt a touch out of place and were sufficiently annoying to sour my experience.
Girls’ Last Tour
Premise: two friends trundle around a snowy post-apocalyptic landscape searching for food, equipment, and shelter, and finding fun wherever they can.
The Good Stuff: just as Flying Witch and Restaurant to Another World blend the genres slice-of-life with fantasy, Girls’ Last Tour blends slice-of-life with sci-fi, following its characters on their daily business around a world that’s already ended. The show is sometimes funny and sometimes deeply melancholy, and sometimes, somehow, both at once. I found myself enthralled by this slow, quiet journey through this strange and haunting setting, and increasingly attached to the characters and their relationship the further they progressed. It manages to be weirdly optimistic and heartfelt for a post-apocalypse, which leaves you with a wonderfully bittersweet and unexpectedly moving end to the story. Reader, I cried. But I promise that’s a recommendation here.
Caveats and content warnings: while it’s abstract rather than direct, this is a story about the horrors war can inflict upon people and landscape, so do be aware that it deals with some heavy stuff despite its sometimes light tone. No real fan service to speak of, though the girls do skinny dip at one point.
Premise: high schooler Rin goes camping on her own as a hobby… a hobby that’s unexpectedly interrupted one night when her new schoolmate Nadeshiko crashes her campsite, distressed after accidentally staying out in the wilderness after dark. From this awkward point, the two slowly form a sweet friendship based on a mutual love of camping, and the show follows them and various other characters on their trips throughout the scenic area around Mount Fuji.
The Good Stuff: Laid-Back Camp is a cup of hot chocolate for the soul. It’s a gentle little slice-of-life series, slow-paced but somehow never boring, full of lush scenery and adorable interactions between friends. I got quite attached to both Rin and Nadeshiko, and appreciated the way that their relationship naturally progressed across the show while Rin’s desire for her own space was respected as well. Absolute top-tier “cute girls doing cute things” stuff, with the cute girls allowed to be layered and flawed and goofy rather than just fitting into stock archetypes, and able to go about their business—even to a hot spring!—without the camera ogling them.
Caveats and content warnings: obviously if you’re not a fan of slow-paced, quiet shows about girls enjoying their hobbies, this is not for you. It also does a super weird thing where objects such as pine cones are personified with cute little voices, then immediately set on fire, which can… break the immersion and charm just a little bit.
Premise: a steampunk-tastic alternate version of Victorian England has been split in half by revolution, with a giant wall dividing the land in two and a gravity-defying sci-fi element called cavorite fuelling their warring airships. In the midst of all this is a group of teenaged girls who have been recruited as spies, using their varied collection of skills to carry out badass episodic missions.
The Good Stuff: Princess Principal is the gay steampunk spy caper I never knew I always wanted (it would have been on last year’s recommendation list, but I only finished it into 2018). It’s good madcap fantastical fun, drenched in pseudo-Victorian aesthetic and full of zazzy fight choreography—and all about capable young women, too!
Caveats and content warnings: as I noted in this post, the somewhat convoluted political machinations driving the show’s plot feel a bit like set dressing by the end. But, as I also said in that post, if you acknowledge that the political plot is just set dressing for the interesting and heartwarming dynamics between the characters, you will have a much better time.
The girls themselves have a pretty nice time all around: there is little to no fan service, and they are never threatened with sexual violence or put in compromised positions. However, more than one of the team does have a backstory of parental abuse that’s depicted fairly brutally.
Premise: drama school takes a strange turn for Karen when she stumbles into underground “auditions” where her classmates duel each other to music. Will this ruthless, rivalry-encouraging process tear her apart from her childhood best friend, or do these girls have the power within them to break the system and make something new?
The Good Stuff: do you ever just find a show that is so Your Brand it honestly surprises you? Revue Starlight has it all: abstract imagery that makes for fun character studies, musical theatre, swords, queer overtones, time magic, and a beautifully metatextual comment on tropes and storytelling. It’s just… it’s so Me, and not even necessarily in all the ways I was expecting when I picked it up. This show was a wild delight from start to finish.
The Utena influences are obvious, and I would recommend it if you enjoyed that series but are looking for something that captures some of those same aesthetics and themes while being… significantly less hardcore. For example, if you want to get a younger sibling into sapphic swordfighting adventures about defeating unfair systems, but perhaps don’t want to subject them to Utena‘s harrowing themes of abuse and sexism, you could instead hand them the much lighter (but still full of rebellion and critique) Revue Starlight. Or, you know, if you want to rewatch Utena but just don’t think you could handle said themes at the moment.
Caveats and content warnings: while for the most part Starlight contains itself nicely as a tightly-plotted narrative, it could have benefited from perhaps another couple of episodes, just to develop characters that are left a little shallow by the end (including, ironically, the main character herself). It also could have benefited from a smooch between the leads to really solidify that beautifully defiant ending, but alas, I’ve come to expect that this is the norm (which is what makes Yurikuma Arashi so exciting! See below)
Skullface Bookseller Honda-san
Premise: based on a semi-autobiographical manga about the author’s experiences working in a bookstore, this short series follows an ensemble cast through various circles of Retail Hell. The main character is represented as a skeleton because… like, I mean, have you worked in retail? It just feels like that sometimes.
The Good Stuff: Honda-san‘s lighthearted humour and bite-sized vignettes make it a fun way to unwind, but there’s also something deeply endearing about the show too. Maybe it’s the balance it strikes between presenting Retail Hell in all its cold and stressful truths and showing that its skeletal protagonist genuinely likes helping people and gets a kick out of his job.
Naturally, since Honda-san sells comics and manga, there’s plenty of geeky shenanigans, but I get the sense that said geeky customers–no matter how enthusiastic–are there to be laughed with rather than laughed at, which is always a crucial balance to get right when basing your comedy around subculture. Plus, there’s portrayal of queer characters, including a particularly adorable scene where Honda-san does his best to help a pair of boyfriends looking for gay manga. It’s a fun glimpse into the publishing and bookselling industry as well as a relatable look into the tumultuous (but rewarding) world of customer service, and it’s just overall delightful.
Caveats and content warnings: Honda-san’s bookstore sure does sell a lot of saucy comics, so expect some saucy-comics based comedy from time to time–otherwise the show’s sense of humour is pretty harmless and, as I noted above, doesn’t punch down at any group even if they feature as the wild card in the sketches.
Tiger and Bunny
Premise: Hero TV is the hottest reality program on screen, following brand-sponsored superheroes as they capture criminals live on air. Kotetsu, aka “Wild Tiger”, is starting to seem a bit old-fashioned with his reckless heroics and genuine sense of justice rather than what will make good TV, so the network pairs him up with newcomer Barnaby for their first superhero duo. The two initially butt heads, but gradually grow closer together as conspiracies reveal themselves beneath the shiny veneer of superhero culture.
The Good Stuff: this is technically a rewatch, but it’s going on here nonetheless because it was a delight to rediscover just how much I enjoy this show. It’s an interesting take on the superhero genre (one we’re all familiar with to the point of exhaustion, even moreso now than when this first came out in 2011) with a fun cast of characters at its core. The Buddy Cop dynamic between Kotetsu and Barnaby is a delight, with the added playful twist that it’s the old-timer who’s full of idealism and heroic optimism and the newcomer who’s edgy and practical. Watching it again, I realised I’d completely forgotten how the climax and conclusion of the series played out, and it was great to get sucked into the tension and action all over again.
Caveats and content warnings: the show’s strength is its characters and dynamics, so it sticks out when they’re flat and stereotypical–as indeed they are in the case of a few of them, particularly the flamboyant, effeminate Flame Emblem who, while endearing, ends up a bit of a camp caricature a lot of the time (though I believe they got more development in the movie, even attempting to explore their gender identity rather than having it be a running gag). The ladies also suffer from falling into tropes as shorthand, and the show does That Thing where their superhero designs are all small and cutesy while the dudes get a whole range of costume and body types. It’s grating, but at least most of the time they’re well-written enough that I could get myself to see past it (even though, I won’t lie, the whole plotline about Blue Rose’s crush on Kotetsu still makes me squirm a little).
Premise: the industrial world of humans and the fairy tale-ish world of bears are separated by a giant wall. When a pair of bears break through and start wreaking havoc in a fancy all-girls’ school, student Kureha vows to hunt every last beastie down and get revenge on behalf of her dead loved ones. However, all is not as it seems in this surreal and artistic world, and there’s more to everyone—bears and schoolgirls—than their introductory tropes might make you think. But everyone is very gay.
The Good Stuff: Yurikuma was a lot, but I loved it—almost unexpectedly so. It plays around with genre and with expectations, and ends up diving deep into themes of prejudice and exclusion. I appreciated how it both used aspects of its world as abstract metaphors for exclusionary forces like homophobia, but also had legitimate queer characters and love stories within the text. It’s visually stunning, full of good good meta commentary on the way we tell stories and the way we divide society up in arbitrary ways, and in the end quite moving.
Caveats and content warnings: oh boy. Well. As a critique of (among other things) how female sexuality is policed, Yurikuma is chock full of images and depictions of female sexuality, some more tasteful than others. It’s sometimes difficult to tell where the artistic point ends and the leering gaze of the camera begins, and I think everyone’s personal distinction of that will be quite different. I was in the odd position where the context of the nude or erotic-toned scenes was often so abstract and baffling that I was too busy being confused to take the time to be offended or confronted. But there are some more blatant parts that carry allegorical tones of sexual violence, which, while nothing literal is happening, are quite shocking to watch.
This is also a show that requires some prior knowledge. Knowing that this was from the same director as Revolutionary Girl Utena, for example, allowed me to view the unfolding bizarreness in a different way: that is, with the knowledge that “okay, he’s trying to say something to me with all this”. Knowledge of the tropes and conventions of yuri and Class S is also essential, since so much of the show involves taking them apart. Had I not done all the research that led up to my Flip Flappers article last year, much of the show’s entire point would have gone over my head with a little whooshing sound.
Basically, if artsy, abstract, symbolism-heavy stories that rely on intertextual knowledge and like to throw images of nude women at you aren’t normally your thing, give this one a miss.