This was a very difficult list to compile. In previous years the final list usually picked itself with little issue. In fact even as I’m writing this intro I still don’t know the proper order between 3 and 7. It’s been a year full of anime that really struck a chord with me even while I recognise they have significant issues in other areas. The top 2 took those positions largely because they knew exactly what they were going for and executed it without any real issues. I don’t think it’s been the greatest year, but these top 10 I will look back on fondly.
A word on the also-rans: One Punch Man was certainly one of the more consistently entertaining anime this year, but it was so lightweight that even now barely a week after it ending I can’t really remember a specific great moment. Similar story with the new Little Witch Academia movie. I appreciate Osomatsu-san but it’s comedy doesn’t quite do it for me. Rokka would have made the top 10 if the ending wasn’t the worst anime ending ever. Iron Blooded Orphans and Durarara aren’t over yet so aren’t eligible. This was also the first year where I could watch the new Ghibli movie When Marnie Was There, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet. Shame on me.
10: Gakkou Gurashi
Gakkou Gurashi shouldn’t have worked for me since it’s about 90% cute girls faffing about, which is my kryptonite. But I was so rarely bored watching this thing and I think the reason why is you’re not really watching the surface level. It’s not like Higurashi where you’re just waiting for the mask to slip so it gets interesting, you’re just reading what the mask says at all times. You’re always interpreting events through the layer of delusion and escapism critique. Lines that seem meaningless fun in the context of a 4-koma adaptation take on something more when it’s a front for how a character can’t grow up. Perhaps it’s in part because I don’t like this genre that Gakkou Gurashi’s harsh critique of what it represents for otaku struck that chord with me. It’s not super deep, but there’s plenty to unpack each episode as you recontextualise everything they do, and by extension you start to repurpose what other anime in this genre stand for. The ending is pretty garbage mostly because it breaks that mask and loses all its subtlety, but it doesn’t forget its central themes so it didn’t ruin the series overall for me.
9: Blood Blockade Battlefront
By all rights Blood Blockade Battlefront shouldn’t be on this list. I should probably plonk One Punch Man here instead, or that new Ghibli movie I haven’t watched yet. The ending is absolute rubbish (bit of a trend this year) and about half of the episodes are only about average. But when Blood Blockade was good, when it was firing on all cylinders, it was the best anime of the year. The episode with the crazy blood transfusion lady was like Baccano instead better, which considering Baccano is in my top 5 anime of all time is insanely high praise. It had a vibrant fun and a fantastic sense of cartoony pacing which a great cast of characters in that Baccano/Durarara sense in that they were all instantly recognisably charismatic and larger than life. Throw in a few other great episodes like alien restaurant owners barfing into bowls or mushroom people duel-wielding hamburgers and you have a series full of these hugely memorable moments that I will cling to with my life, even as my mind is constantly poking me and reminding me what a huge let down the other half of this anime was.
Quick confession: I have not finished Owarimonogatari at time of writing. This is more of a time thing personally, but maybe I’m also running low on my Monogatari hype train? If Second Season aired this year it would be ranked #3. That said, I would also be lying if I didn’t admit I still really fucking like this series, and I still like what they’re doing with it. Oshino Ougi has been a real delight this season in her Actual Literal Devil role, coming up with some wonderful turns of phrase as she verbally rips apart characters. I still love the general aesthetic of the anime. What I’m particularly loving at this stage is how much fun it is to revisit these strange environments and see all the surreal architecture return, such as the banana sofa in Arararagi’s room of the flame bicycle thing outside Senjogahara’s block of flats. Most of all, it’s fun to hear from these characters again. I am relieved the ending to this franchise is in sight, but not because I’m tired of it. More because I do really like this franchise and seeing these arcs through to the end will feel great as a final chapters in this story.
7: Maria the Virgin Witch
What a weird, original idea for an anime. Let’s set a story during the 100 year war between France and England and tell the story of a witch who loses her magical powers if she has sex. A lot of anime fans looked at that plot description and, with no other real point of reference, latched onto the idea that anime does purity-obsessed sex comedies really badly and dismissed it out of hand, which was frustrating as hell, particularly given Maria is actually critical of that attitude. It uses its setting to tell a nuanced critique of female sexuality in a world where the surrounding culture has super-weird attitudes towards female sexual purity, in particular religion. Those two themes, religion and its weird messages, and cultural obsession with puritanism, are things I have some very strong opinions on and having an anime talk about those with some depth was fantastic. Plus it has clever writing, good directing, and is generally a really well put-together piece…apart from the ending, which the more I think back on, the weirder it gets. But hey, I still have fond feelings for Maria as a whole.
6: Yuri Bear Storm
In a year with some awful endings, Yuri Bear Storm stands out because it has the best goddamn ending in an anime I’ve seen since…well, From the New World, which wasn’t that long ago, but still. It made this strange little story of teenage ostracisation towards homosexuality wrap together into a (mostly) coherent whole. This meant as an overall package, Yuri Bear Storm did it for me in a way that Ikuhara’s previous anime never quite did, even while I liked them a lot too. I recognise Yuri Bear has issues, since it borrows heavily from yuri tropes to bring across its messages, and these are tropes that I find boring no matter what the context. But again, how it all comes together and tells this perfect story really worked for me. It’s not “it gets better I swear” so much as all the symbolism you had been laughing along with up until now coalesces into this one neat overall message. Gao gao.
This was very tough to rank in part because I had read the manga beforehand. In another universe, a Parasyte adaptation would have been the best anime of the year. Even in this anime form, it still hits strong for me. Its story is about the meaning of humanity and the strengths of human bonds. Why it is people make sacrifices and how that works in the mind of humans even as they live around constant contradictions to this meaning. This is all layered below this visceral thriller that’s incredibly fun to watch on its surface level. It balances the tone of the weird comedic nature of the body deformations in a way that makes sure they don’t lose their horror element either. And yet! And yet…there’s probably a better anime they could have made. Cut out some of the awful female characters that if anything felt more egregious in the anime adaptation. Have better, or at the very least competent BGM. Cut back on some of the dumber melodrama. What can I say, it was a year of fantastic yet deeply flawed anime.
4: Shimoneta: A Boring World Where the Concept of Dirty Jokes Doesn’t Exist
So you know how in the description for Maria, I bemoaned how the terrible sex comedies of anime resulted in nobody taking any criticism of sexuality in anime seriously (something that incidentally even happened with Yuri Bear Storm despite Ikuhara’s track record)? Shimoneta falls into this category too, but what’s remarkable about it is it stood up for those awful light novel sex comedies. It wore the skin of the trashy light novel to make a serious point about the importance of admittedly trash teenage sexual expression and exploration. Yeah it probably leans strongly on a straw man, but it showed us how the reverse of demanding teens don’t get treated to this stuff won’t change their desire to seek the trash out, simply as part of them growing up. By doing this, it means the sex comedy takes on a new light and becomes funny again. It’s not “haha this is funny because sex”. It’s “haha this is funny because society has warped their minds and given them a warped idea of sex”. Also cookies. Yeah.
3: Psycho Pass: The Movie
Did I mention I really like this movie? How it not only resurrected my love for Psycho Pass but also dug a whole new layer of appreciation for this movie alone? Catch me at another time and the numbers 3-7 would be completely reversed, but as of now I am so appreciative for how this movie resurrected Akane and Psycho Pass again that I went for this one on top of this interchangeable list. I thought it was a really clever way to expand its form of cyberpunk dystopia to a whole new, different type of dystopia and tell a completely new story with the same framework to work off of. Its story about modern colonialism and the forcing of your culture on struggling societies took me completely by surprise not only by the fact it was even there in the first place, but how nuanced its inclusion was. You could come away from this movie and think that there are some good things about the exportation of culture and society, such as how the stronger, more advanced nation can be seen as saviors in a war torn nation, which is an incredibly difficult subject to tackle without it coming off like you’re some neo-nazi. Also the CG mecha tanks are so fucking cool in this movie.
2: Prison School
I never really had a guilty pleasure anime before. Something undeniably trashy without any real deeper themes that I feel slightly embarrassed by how much I love it. Well, now I do. I can try explain why Prison School did it for me. Its tale of camaraderie in the face of severe conditions while using this ridiculous setting tickled my funny bone while somehow keeping me emotionally invested in these relationships and their escape. The show is a master of dramatic framing and understands the inherent humour of its setting without needing to plonk in a straight man to point this out for us. I had such a blast watching this series to the point that I actually felt a touch emotional towards the end when they went through their final “where are they now” montage. It sure looks weird on this list where almost everything else has me extolling some deeper, complex themes about sexuality, religion, censorship, colonialism, humanity and so on. Yes it is trash. But it is the most glorious trash.
I think back to that opening bait-and-switch in Shirobako where it starts out like many other PA Works titles. A bunch of fresh faced teenage girls say quirky things while being super pumped about their eternally optimistic future. Then there’s this sudden snap cut to one of them looking drained and exhausted, sitting in a car behind a red light. It’s a show about the realities of working in anime, exploring this tough world from every angle as though it really wanted to make sure you knew everything that happened behind the scenes. It’s a work of intense love and devotion, as well as anger and frustration as the creators pumped their life experiences working in anime. But it’s also a work with a hugely optimistic message about how rewarding this job can be once you find your passion and position within its structure. On top of that it’s such a well put together package with distinct and memorable characters with their own quirks. The director who would get locked in a cage to complete the storyboards. The weird cloud obsessed guy. The “funny story” guy. Tarou. I find it hard to say anything negative about it whatsoever (I wish the female characters were allowed to have the same varying body types the men had, but that’s about it). It’s a little disappointing as a #1 anime of the year, as I think it’s probably the weakest #1 in the 8 years I’ve been writing Anime of the Year posts, but it’s still a fantastic bloody anime that you should really watch.