As we power ahead into the new year, it’s time for one last reflection back on 2019: anime edition. While my spare time skewed more towards reading this year, and generally there weren’t quite as many series that jumped out and grabbed me, I still watched some fantastic series that I want to share. So even if the “big pile” is a little smaller than it has been in previous years, I’ve still got a selections of little gems here that I want to boost! This is, as always, limited to series that I watched and completed in 2019, which disqualifies things I’m still currently catching up on, and of course things that are still airing and not yet complete. Let’s dive in:
Bloom Into You
Premise: with a shelf full of shoujo manga and a music library full of love songs, Yuu knows all there is to know about romance. When a classmate asks her out and she doesn’t feel her heart soar nor see sparkles manifest, she wonders if there’s something wrong with her. Her anxieties are assuaged when she meets the dignified and charismatic Touko, who has also turned away every romantic confession she’s ever received. Yuu quickly learns, however, that Touko is a master of disguise and is in reality neither dignified nor charismatic; in fact she’s a grief-stricken human disaster in the midst of an identity crisis. And, to top things off, she’s announced that she’s fallen in love with Yuu.
The Good Stuff: I’ve posted plenty about this little show, but allow me to repeat myself: this is a gloriously messy and complicated coming-of-age story about how the expectations we have of the world rarely match up with reality. Yuu’s arc quietly—but pointedly—interrogates the very narrow vision of love and relationships that popular media sets up, and Sayaka’s prods and picks apart harmful social notions like “just a phase” that push queer teenagers deeper into the closet. The cast is comprised of multiple, varied queer characters all dealing with their feelings in different ways. It manages, for the most part, to tell a story about the confusing world of teen sexuality without sexualising its teen characters (something that gives it a one-up on, say, Flip Flappers). The switch where naïve Yuu is the wise one in the relationship and Touko is the Disaster Gay is delightful and leads to some funny moments as well as poignant ones. It’s often sweet, often heart-rending, sometimes quite funny, and generally Real as Shit, albeit with plenty of margin for melodrama.
Caveats and content warnings: the show’s biggest Achilles Heel is that it doesn’t really have an ending. Its lack of concrete conclusion feels especially jarring given that for a large chunk of the story, it’s actively building up to a certain event, which I (and I’m sure many others) presumed would feature as the climax to the series. As it is, Bloom Into You just sort of peters out and leaves you hanging for a second season (…or rushing out to buy the manga, I suppose. Is this dedicated pacing, or a particularly sharp marketing tactic?). It’s also a very slow, quiet show for the most part, so obviously if that isn’t your sort of thing then you’ll probably find yourself groaning through the slow-burn, especially when it doesn’t end up building to a finale.
It’s also perhaps important to note that this is not a love story, necessarily, so much as a show about love, and the tangled shapes it can take. This was definitely something that was blocking my enjoyment of the series until I realised and accepted the fact that Touko and Yuu’s relationship is not really meant to be cute and fluffy and romantic, so much as it’s meant to be an exploration of two sets of Messy Feelings colliding at the speed of youth. There should also be some content notes for grief, family member deaths, and depictions of depression and self-loathing.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Premise: it turns out trying to cheat death can cost you an arm and a leg (and a lot more, too). An unsuccessful attempt to bring their deceased mother back to life leaves young alchemists Edward and Alphonse Elric with metal body parts, increased alchemical abilities, and a whole lot of questions, all of which lead them to the heart of the fantasy nation where they live… and right into a web of government corruption, war crimes, and dark and grisly experiments with science-magic that humankind was never meant to play with.
The Good Stuff: this is like, really good! I’m surprised I’ve never seen anyone talking about it!!
It’s always nice when a piece of media lives up to the hype. And this is perhaps the most hyped anime I’ve ever heard of, so it had a lot to live up to, and frankly I was worried that it would fall short. But it’s… like, really good! It has some of the most solid pacing and plotting I’ve seen in a long time, the conservation of detail is impeccable, the character development is not only delightful but believable within the constraints of the story, and it somehow manages to switch seamlessly between moments of heart-stopping drama and moments of laugh-out-loud comedy. Seriously, this is so hard to do without inducing a painful mood whiplash that throws the audience completely out, but somehow they’ve done it, and I’m going to be attempting to study it for the next ten years to try and figure out how. The characters are a lot of fun, too, and with such a big cast there’s sure to be a fave for everyone in there; and within that cast are a collection of delightful and satisfying slow-burn developmental arcs that honestly had me cheering. Plus, it goes without saying, the two leads are two Good Good Boys.
Now, at last, I understand the hype. And I understand all the memes. And I, too, am sad about Maes Hughes.
Caveats and content warnings: though balanced out with lighthearted moments (and capped off with an optimistic finale), things get pretty damned dark—there’s murder, scenes of the horrors of war, human experimentation, blood, and body horror aplenty especially where the unearthly shapeshifting homunculi are concerned. I feel like where there’s horror or yuckiness it never goes on for so long as too be shocking and gratuitous, but of course your tolerance for that sort of thing will vary from viewer to viewer.
Kaguya-sama: Love is War
Premise: Kaguya and Miyuki, president and vice-president of their student council respectively, are the two Most Powerful people at their prestigious school. They’re also madly in love with each other, but a combination of pride, stubbornness, constant need to have the upper hand, and crippling shyness, means they can’t just come out and say it. No, the only solution is a series of elaborate mind games and eccentric manipulation tactics to get the other party to confess their affection… with results about as successful as you’d expect from such a ridiculous courtship method.
The Good Stuff: as I’ll get to in a moment, this show has a fair bit of “ugh”, but I had to include it here just because I can’t remember the last time something made me lose my mind laughing this hard. The premise could easily get tired, but a combination of cinematography, effects, and sharp character writing mean that the “war games” these two idiots are playing stay fresh and stay enthrallingly ridiculous. Simple conversations about movies or shortcake warp into elaborate wheels-within-wheels plots with all the drama of Death Note and the visual effects of an epic shounen battle scene. Kaguya and Miyuki are two hyper-intelligent youths who are, at the same time, deeply and fundamentally dumbasses, and the contrast is endearing and hilarious. The fact that they’re both as goofy and shy as each other creates an odd sense of balance, preventing it from becoming a story about a boy stripping a haughty girl of her façade and revealing her soft caramelly centre, a trope that this could have easily fallen into.
And, of course, far and away the best part of the show is their friend Chika, who leans in the opposite direction (emotionally intelligent yet profoundly ditzy) and who somehow always manages to throw off their intricate games and send everyone involved into a headspin, revealing it for the ridiculous farce that it is. Plus, she can dance!
Caveats and content warnings: the “ugh” mostly comes in two isolated-ish places: the council’s fourth member, who brings a slew of sexist jokes and assumptions with him when he jumps out the dark corners of Reddit and joins the cast partway through the series; and a mini-arc late in the story where Kaguya gets delirious with fever and All Sorts of Shenanigans occur. The humour and drama of this leans into some icky jokes—for example, Kaguya is concerned that Miyuki might have touched her without her consent while she was passed out, but is also annoyed by the idea of him not taking the chance to touch her, because surely him respecting her boundaries means he doesn’t find her attractive? It’s not enough to completely ruin the series, but it is, to use the official academic terminology, pretty yikes.
The show takes the chance, gradually, to parody and pick apart the notion that there must always be a power imbalance in romantic relationships. I sort of wish it had taken this one step further and interrogated some of the “battle of the sexes” stuff it sometimes leans into, but that may be too much to hope for. So it’s not a hard-hitting critique of gender roles by any stretch of the imagination, but it is quite funny, and sometimes, shockingly, quite sweet.
Land of the Lustrous
Premise: in a distant post-human future, living gems are doing their best to eke out their immortal existence without being captured and turned into jewellery by the sinister hunters who descend from the moon. Phosphophyllite is the youngest, rowdiest, and most fragile member of the crystal community, and is desperate for something to do to prove their usefulness despite the fact that they shatter to pieces with frightening ease. Their optimistic search for knowledge and purpose soon leads them into dangerous territory, where everything they knew about their life on earth and their sense of self starts to unravel…
The Good Stuff: this was on everyone’s recommendation lists the year it came out, so stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but wow. This is a fascinating and bizarre speculative world to play around in, and it’s a delight to see it play out in motion and colour. The visuals are stunning, from the fight sequences to the quiet sweeping landscapes to the expressiveness of the characters themselves. Phos is an endearing lead whose journey, I think, will resonate with a lot of people for a lot of different reasons—I, for one, sympathise with them greatly and am very worried about them. Their arc plays out as something of a tragic coming-of-age tale, dipping into philosophical themes about the self and the body (and the connection between them), about the cold nature of immortality, about growth and change, and about the endless search for purpose and a sense of belonging. Its gripping action and drama is interlaced with sweet moments of comedy that make the characters all the more interesting and likeable. And hey, as a bonus, if you’ve noticed me using neutral they/them pronouns for the gems, that’s because they’re all canonically genderless and those are the pronouns used in the official English release!
Caveats and content warnings: body horror. Oh my goodness. As always, tolerance for this will vary from person to person, and the abstract, non-human nature of the characters and the things happening to them may lessen the impact a bit, but that doesn’t change the fact that these people are getting dismembered and at one point dissolved.
The story’s main issue echoes my point about Bloom Into You: this is another show that adapts its manga faithfully enough that it doesn’t really reach a concrete conclusion at the end of its one-cour run, and leaves you hanging waiting for a second season. Phos does have a recognisable arc across those twelve episodes, but the overarching narrative remains very open-ended and unsatisfying, especially given that we’re still unsure if there will be more or not.
O Maidens in Your Savage Season
Premise: sex! You can’t get away from it. It’s such a part of everything, from popular culture to high literature to advertising to everyday chatter, a quintessential facet of what we call “Adult Life”… and so, as a group of teenaged girls move towards adulthood, sex becomes an unavoidable topic of their thoughts, by turns complicated, hilarious, gross, disastrous, and emotional.
The Good Stuff: this show swings (most of the time with grace) between comedy and drama, with interpersonal relationships and messy feelings at its core. It absolutely hits the nail on the head in its portrayal and discussions of double standards, of the ways that female sexuality is policed and preyed upon (sometimes both at the same time), of the bizarre self-torment adolescents go through when they’re trying to figure out how they feel about their bodies and the way they’re perceived, and many more little and large themes. Sometimes it’s heart-aching, sometimes it’s laugh-out-loud funny (special shoutout to the climax—no pun intended—of the first episode, which played a big part in me wanting to keep watching), and sometimes it’s Just Too Real.
The characters and their relationships are disastrous and charming and, despite the frequent melodrama, much of the conflict feels authentic in its commitment to being messy and rough-edged. The way most of the cast are simultaneously fascinated and disgusted by the idea of sex felt particularly on point as a representation of The Teen Experience—no one wakes up ready to tackle the concept of sexuality with maturity and elegance. And what is maturity, anyway? Chasing a particular vision of “being mature” is something that causes nothing but torment for the Maidens, in multiple plotlines. The ensemble cast allows for a multitude of experiences to be portrayed, and, while there are some things the storylines consistently return to, each of the five leads gives us a different viewpoint on this strange business through their own lives, relationships, and personalities (and I can’t believe Sonezaki’s arc was the most wholesome one of all).
Caveats and content warnings: so, about those five plotlines… if I could outright delete one of them, I’d be able to recommend this show with much more ease. As it is, there’s a significant chunk of the story that just had me consistently going “nope, nope, come on, are we doing this?” The storyline in question belongs to Hongo-senpai, an aspiring author whose work has been knocked back by publishers for being “too immature” (there’s that theme again), her erotic scenes in particular. Determined to get some “research”, Hongo reaches out to her internet boyfriend, whose IRL identity turns out to be one of her male teachers. Had the story cut off with that mutual awkwardness, it would have been fine, but Hongo continues to pursue him—blackmailing him into helping her club and pressuring him into a physical relationship. He refuses, multiple times, but eventually begrudgingly agrees to abstractly help out with the “research”.
As if I need to reiterate this, no always means no, and having a protagonist character (flawed and messy or otherwise) ignore this felt incredibly skeezy. Plus, “she threw herself at me” is an excuse that sexual predators use, and it was unnerving to see it played straight here. Especially given that (and this is another big content warning) there is a legitimate sexual predator in another character’s plotline, the theatre director who groomed her when she was a child actor. The director is portrayed as creepy and nasty, his actions’ effects on Niina’s image of herself are explored in all their messy depths, and the last we see of him is Niina punching him in the face. I’d hesitate to say if this was done with significant nuance or not, as I’m not an authority, but it certainly felt bizarre to switch from that appropriately dark and twisted dynamic to Hongo’s comparatively zany relationship with the teacher (who is, for all intents and purposes, treated as a pseudo love interest by the plot).
So prepare yourself for that big yuck, if you are going to dive in. Also prepare yourself for representation of a baby lesbian discovering her first tangled-up crush on a girl (yay!) who doesn’t get as much exploration as I’d have liked, and who doesn’t really get a happy ending beyond “I don’t get it but I want to stay friends” (less yay). And, of course, the show is about sex, so expect lots of chat about that (but not much sexual imagery, and no sex scenes—like Bloom Into You, talking about teen sexuality without really sexualising its teen cast).
Premise: the boys’ soft tennis club has been deemed the most weaksauce extracurricular group by the school council, and runs the risk of being disbanded if its members can’t win at least one tournament. When new student Maki moves in, and shows he has plenty of strength and stamina, club president Touma does his best to bring him into the fold to improve their chances. Maki joins, at first reluctantly, but then finds a sense of camaraderie among the other misfits in the team.
The Good Stuff: Stars Align joins Yuri!!! On Ice in the (admittedly small) genre of “I can’t believe I’m this invested in a sports anime!” And it is a sports series, first and foremost, but the characters, their personal conflicts, and their friendships with each other form such a strong emotional throughline that I found myself hooked in a genre that I, personally, don’t usually vibe with.
The show tackles so many issues that it runs the risk of overloading its plate and tripping, but to my mind it never does: it has a nuanced portrayal of abusive family situations, demonstrating the variety of shapes and sizes they can come in (not just leaning on the physically harmful father as the sole vision of “abuse” as the stereotype goes, but balancing this out with different kinds of abuse and showing that women are just as capable of this as men are) and how these situations affect the innocent kids involved. It has a non-binary character (x-gender, to use the Japanese term) who comes out to a trusted friend and has a sweet, well-handled discussion about identity, the likes of which I haven’t really seen in an anime before.
It’s a story about mistreated, marginalised kids bonding together and protecting each other, with emotional support and with the passion they put into their sport. It’s harrowing, but it’s sweet and rewarding, and it tells its underdog story with such sincerity that it feels moving where other narratives might have just felt cheesy and trite.
Caveats and content warnings: as I said, this show deals with some heavy themes. There are abusive parents aplenty, both physically and emotionally, and depictions of traumatic responses like panic attacks and disassociation that can come from being raised in these situations. There are also some depictions of bullying, in some cases with homophobic overtones, and though the conversation about gender is nuanced and wonderful that episode does still end with the x-gender character in the closet and being shamed and questioned by their mother for their behaviour. It’s rough, and obviously your mileage may vary on how nuanced and well-handled it feels to you personally, so tread in carefully if you think any of these topics might hit close to home.
The other big caveat about this series is, unfortunately, that is isn’t… quite finished. Allegedly the series was planned to be twenty-four episodes, but production funding was axed partway into development. As with others on this list, Stars Align‘s anime feels like only part of the story, though in this case it has no manga it’s adapting from to fill the gap. Unless the series gets a second season (and there are currently fan campaigns for such), the wrenching cliffhanger episode twelve leaves us with is the end of the story.
While I don’t want to send people towards an unfinished story with an unsatisfying conclusion, this series still moved me enough that I want to give it all the shout-outs I can. Heed these warnings, but do give it a shot if it sounds like something you might enjoy – they’re good, good sports boys with struggles that really matter, and I hope we can see their adventure concluded one day.
Here’s hoping for a 2020 full of more wonderful series! What were your favourites from the past year?