March Comes in Like a Lion (Crunchyroll) serves as a object lesson that you shouldn’t rely too much on first impressions. After the first episode of the first season I was close to dropping it but I decided to persevere for a couple of more episodes. After that it gradually grew on me to the point where I now consider it my favorite series of the Winter 2018 anime season. (Earlier posts.)
2017 was like most years in anime: a lot of crap, some amusing but forgettable shows, some pretty good shows and a small number that seem like real classics. The surprising thing is that in retrospect the number of “classics” seems unusually high. Less surprising is that most of the remaining good ones are sequels.
Outstanding Anime of 2017
The Ancient Magus’ Bride (Crunchyroll) is a near-perfect series with beautiful artwork, a meticulously constructed fantasy world, interesting characters and masterful writing.
Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju Season 2 (Crunchyroll). The first season was good but felt incomplete. The second season hit the ball out of the park with a perfect conclusion.
One fascinating but sometimes frustrating feature of anime is that key facts about character relationships are often conveyed by the level of politeness in their speech. This often is not straightforward. A higher level of politeness can indicate respect and admiration. Or, since greater formality means greater distance, it could indicate resentment and hostility. (The latter is particularly common in women’s speech.)
Generally it’s a change in the politeness level that’s most significant. If a woman normally addresses her husband as “anata” she may switch to the less formal “omae” when she’s mildly annoyed with him. On the other hand her children will probably tremble in their boots if she addresses them using polite verb forms. (“Ii desu ka?”) That means they are in BIG trouble.
March Comes in Like a Lion (Crunchyroll) is a fine show, but limited by the fact that it is based on an ongoing manga. As a result we have to settle for an ending that is basically OK, but leaves a lot of questions unanswered. This might still turn into something great if it gets another season or two to really wrap up the story but there is no guarantee that this will happen.
This is a challenging cerebral anime where much of the action takes place inside the head of Rei, the protagonist. It took some time for me to get drawn into it but I ultimately found it rewarding.
We have a morose withdrawn hero who initially seems off-putting but when we get to know him he turns out to be quite likeable. Rei is young and naive and he has suffered things that in an ideal world no child should ever have to endure. Yet he has an unbreakable spirit and always strives to do the right thing, assuming that he can figure out what that is.
Let me state right from the start that the two best anime series this season are continuations of existing series.
Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju: Descending Stories (Crunchyroll) should wrap up the story that I praised here and here. This is a sophisticated drama, well worth your time. (If you haven’t seen the first half, be sure to watch it first.)
This will probably be the final cour of March Comes In Like A Lion (Crunchyroll.) This is a smaller-scale story without the grand historical sweep of Showa but it’s an effective personal drama that is sometimes chilling but often heartwarming. See my post here.
March Comes in Like a Lion (Crunchyroll) was one of my two favorite shows last fall. (The other of course was Girlish Number.) (The Japanese title is Sangatsu no Lion “The Lion of March,” sometimes written 3-gatsu no Lion.)
This is sort of a sports anime, but an unconventional one–and not because the “sport” is a board game. In anime and manga any competitive activity can be the basis of a “sports” story, but the usual convention is to start with some young people who love the game but aren’t all that good at it, and follow them as they become champions through dedicated practice and teamwork.
Here we have a protagonist who is extremely talented, obviously a potential champion, but who started playing for the wrong reasons and now feels trapped. The real question is whether he can overcome the emotional scars of his youth and learn to love the game. (Or failing that, find a way to be happy doing something else.)
Rei Kiriyama is a 17-year-old professional Shogi player who lives alone in a barren Tokyo apartment, constantly practicing and studying the game. He feels alone and afraid, and has felt that way since he was a young boy when his parents were killed in an accident.
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
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
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.