2016 Anime Year In Review

I feel like I have to say this every year but…No, 2016 was not a terrible year for anime. You have to keep Sturgeon’s Law in mind: “90% of everything is crap.”

When fans look back on 2016 in the future, they won’t be remembering the 90%. It’s the other 10% that determines how successful a year is. So based on the 10%, 2016 wasn’t the best year ever, but it wasn’t all that bad.

Outstanding Anime of 2016

ERASED (Boku Dake ga Inai Machi) (Crunchyroll) is a superbly executed fantasy thriller with crisp plotting, edge-of-your-seat tension and a fine ending.

Last year I called Rin-ne (Crunchyroll) an “Outstanding” comedy. With the second season we’re at 48 episodes and if anything it’s funnier than ever. It’s incredibly hard for a comedy to keep up the pace for this long. (Consider the enormous drop-off in quality between the first and second seasons of Squid Girl, one of the few anime series to reach comparable levels of hilarity.) Kudos to the legendary talents of manga giant Rumiko Takahashi.

Notable Anime of 2016

The year’s best iyashikei anime was Flying Witch (Crunchyroll), a charming story about a young witch who goes to live with her cousins in a small rural town.

I see only one example of a good traditional shoujo series: Orange (Crunchyroll.) Aside from the fantasy premise, this is a smart and fairly realistic story about the difficulties involved in preventing teen suicide.

I’m not giving Natsume Yujin-cho 5 (Natsume Yuujinchou Go) (Crunchyroll) an “Outstanding” award because its the fifth season of a long-running series which doesn’t break any new ground. Still this series about a boy and his encounters with the spirit world remains consistently good.

Charming/poignant story with a cute kid #1: Sweetness & Lightning (Amaama to Inazuma) (Crunchyroll.) A young widower wants to learn to cook for his daughter and gets help from a lonely high school student.

Charming/poignant story with a cute kid #2: Poco’s Udon World (Udon no Kuni no Kiniro Kemari) (Crunchyroll.) A lonely bachelor begins to come to terms with his past when he takes in a lost little boy (who is actually a shape-shifting tanuki.)

At last! Girlish Number (Crunchyroll) finally gives the anime industry the treatment it deserves!

Was this the year that the isekai genre finally wore out its welcome? We had a brutal deconstruction in Grimgar (Crunchyroll). Konosuba (Crunchyroll) was a trashy parody of the genre. And of course Girlish Number told us a little too much about the people responsible for foisting this stuff on us.

However Re:ZERO -Starting Life in Another World- (Crunchyroll) goes a long way toward redeeming the genre by giving it a Groundhog Day twist. The nebbish hero doesn’t somehow become heroic when transported to a fantasy world. He acts like an immature teenage otaku, the results are horrid, and he actually learns from his mistakes.

Special “Eat Your Vegetables” Award

What do you get when some talented people get together to make an anime series that is inspiring, educational and morally uplifting? Something like The Great Passage (Fune wo Amu.) Really I don’t have anything bad to say about this series about the hard work and sacrifice that goes into creating a new dictionary. It’s totally admirable. It just doesn’t excite me much.

Still Watching

You may be surprised that I didn’t give an “Outstanding” award to Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju (Crunchyroll.) It’s been excellent so far (my take here and here) but it’s really a 2-cour series in which only the first cour aired in 2016. By my rules judgment must be withheld until 2017.

March Comes In Like a Lion (Sangatsu no Lion) (Crunchyroll) has also been excellent so far, but a lot will depend on the second half. Our talented but emotionally-scarred young Shoji player really needs to grow up and get a grip. (He’s had some terrible breaks but he’s also lucky in some ways and he doesn’t fully appreciate that.)

Girlish Number Ends

4.5 Stars

“Snark” is not highly valued in Japanese culture so it’s rare for an anime to excel in snarky satire–but Girlish Number delivers it in full and is wickedly funny (Crunchyroll.)

It’s not uncommon to have an anime series about the making of an anime series (or a manga, or video game, or whatever.) Generally it focuses on a group of idealistic young people who struggle, make mistakes and confront numerous obstacles but eventually succeed in producing something they can be proud of. Not so here. There’s no pretense that the anime series being made in this story (called “Millennium Princess x Kowloon Overlord“) is anything but crap. Though the ending of Girlish Number is more-or-less upbeat, it’s mostly because the characters have come to terms with working on a crap series.

This conforms to something I’ve said before. Anime is subject to Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crap.” So if you want to work in anime, it stands to reason that most of the time you will be working on crap. But if you’re Japanese then you are expected to be 100% enthusiastic about your job, 100% of the time. That has to be somewhat draining but it turns out that it can be funny to watch.
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Fall 2016 Anime Early Impressions

This year had a promising start last winter but the rest of the year has been uninspiring. There have been some watchable shows but the best ones have been sequels. What’s missing are those special shows that feel new and exciting.

That aside, this season still has some new shows that seem interesting enough for me to recommend as “possibly worth your time.” Here they are, with the most promising first.

natsume-yuujinchou You can’t go far wrong with Natsume Yujin-cho 5 (Natsume Yuujinchou Go) (Crunchyroll). This is the fifth season of the critically-acclaimed series previously called Natsume’s Book of Friends in English. The writing remains as excellent as ever. If you are a fan of the earlier seasons then you shouldn’t miss this.

If you aren’t familiar with the series it’s worth checking out, but I’d recommend that you watch at least the first season before watching this. (That’s the first 13 episodes here.)
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R.I.P. Steven DenBeste

I was sorry to learn of the death of pioneering anime blogger Steven DenBeste. He did a lot to spread interest in anime and encourage people to take it seriously.

He first gained fame back at the turn of the century as a political blogger (generally right-wing but very pro-science.) Back then, of course, the right-wing blogosphere was a great deal more civilized than it is today. His posts were well-informed and tightly reasoned. Back around 2002 his site, USS Clueless, was one of the leading voices in favor of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. That didn’t work out well but it’s worth remembering that at the time the policy was supported by most of the leading U.S. politicians, including Hillary Clinton.

After that he apparently got sick of political blogging and started a new site called Chizumatic, devoted to the decidedly non-serious subject of anime. Except he did take it seriously, writing long-form articles that subjected an anime series to the sort of detailed analysis that one might give a respectable literary work.

There had been anime blogs before, but nothing like this. He inspired many other bloggers (including me) and helped give the whole subject a bit more respectability than it had previously enjoyed.

As the years went by and his health deteriorated he stopped writing the long-form pieces but he continued to post regularly almost until the day of his death. (Mostly about fan-service.) These pieces kept his site popular right to the end.

So long Steven! You will be missed.

Photos of Birds and Stuff

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More Spring 2016 Anime First Impressions

I said in my last post that I hadn’t seen them all yet. At this point I think I’ve looked at everything that looks like I might possibly enjoy it. Here are a few more that look like they might be worth at least another episode or two. (At this point it’s too early to really endorse anything.)

Big OrderBig Order (Crunchyroll) is the most problematic: a shounen fantasy adventure that looks interesting, but rather dark and over-the-top.

An “Order” (English word) is a person who has been visited by a wish-granting fairy and given a super-power. As always you should be careful what you wish for. Ten years ago, when he was about 5, Eiji Hoshimiya made an ill-considered wish and as a result caused the “Great Distruction,” a catastrophe that killed much of humanity. (At least he thinks that’s what happened. He doesn’t remember the details and I’m suspicious of the whole story.)

But he thinks he was responsible and has spent the last 10 years wracked by guilt and afraid of being found out. Now he’s being pursued by a pretty girl who is actually a vengeful super-powered assassin.
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Spring 2016 Anime First Impressions

I haven’t seen every new show–I don’t have time for that and anyway some shows haven’t even started yet. This is just a brief look at some new shows that look interesting.

Bungou Stray DogsBungo Stray Dogs (Crunchyroll) is a stylish fantasy-adventure-comedy. A luckless orphan falls in with a group of quirky detectives, each with a quirky super-power. He finds that he fits right in.
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Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash Ends

3 Stars
Grimgar poster
The most frustrating anime of the Winter 2016 season was Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash (Hai to Gensou no Grimgar) (Funimation.) This show had a lot going for it: the best artwork of the season, solid writing with memorable characters and a setting that offers a lot of possibilities. I’m giving it an extra star for technical excellence.

But as a story it’s unsatisfactory, with an ending that leaves most of the big questions unresolved. It’s possible that they will add additional seasons that will flesh out the story and answer all the questions. If so this might be the start of something great–but I wouldn’t bet money on it. Anime adaptations of light novels tend to tell only the story of the first volume or two and then stop. The only example that comes to mind of a LN adaptation that told the complete story (over 3 seasons totaling 6 cours) was Shakugan no Shana, and that one managed to end each season in a satisfying way.

But I’m going to write a review anyway just to give me a starting point in case they do surprise me with additional seasons.
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Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju Ends

4 Stars
Final announcementAccording to the announcement at the end this is “Act 1” of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju (Crunchyroll.) But they didn’t give a date for the second season and the wording of the announcement suggests that they haven’t lined up funding for it yet.

This is a high-quality show. In American terms it’s sort of like the anime equivalent of a BBC costume drama. But is there enough of an audience to sustain that? That’s not clear to me. (For renewal purposes the only audience that matters is the one in Japan, especially the number of fans willing to buy expensive Japanese DVDs.)
It makes a big difference whether we get a second season. The first season was fascinating (at least for anyone interested in traditional Japanese culture) but it doesn’t make a fully satisfactory story. It ends with the central tragedy that the title refers to, followed by a brief epilogue in the 1970s that leaves more loose ends than it resolves.
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5 Stars
For me ERASED (Boku Dake ga Inai Machi) (Crunchyroll) was far and away the best anime of the season.

I’m sure that it’s not to everyone’s taste. The subject matter is pretty dark. It’s definitely not suitable for pre-teens. But the ending makes it all worthwhile.

If you’re in the mood for a taunt, well-written thriller you should check this out. (Unless you’re one of the aforementioned pre-teens. In that case wait until you’re older. You’ll thank me later.)
Lean In
I know that some of the fans of the manga are upset that some parts of the original story were left out, but I think an anime adaptation should be judged on its own terms. As it is, it works very well. Perhaps it might have been even better if they had added another cour and put in all the scenes from the manga, but that’s far from certain. One of the most painful lessons that a writer must learn is the importance of making cuts. Generally it’s best to cut out everything that isn’t absolutely essential to the story.

All too often adding extra material weakens a show rather than improving it. I think this show is fine as it is.
Baby with Satoru