Hurray! I love year-end lists! And, since I also love anime, this will be a gloriously fun exercise. My criteria for this list are fairly straightforward. This is a list of my ten favorite anime that aired for the first time in 2016, ranked according to my own personal enjoyment. Nothing about this list is objective. I’m not giving any deference to mind-independent quality or to industry innovation. The important questions in terms of getting onto this list are questions like: Did the anime make me feel something? Was I moved by the experience? Did I laugh? Did I cry? Did I grip my chair in anticipation, or involuntarily stand up and shout “What the fuck???”? Did I think about the anime after it was finished airing? The strength of my answers to these sorts of questions (and others) determines the selection and ordering of this list. If you don’t have a good handle on the kind of anime fan I am, then perhaps this list will serve as a good guide to which shows I gravitate to.
Before I dive in, though, I want to express some regrets. I don’t have any honorable mentions, but I do have plenty of regrets. No one can watch everything, and I didn’t feel altogether comfortable putting shows I did not complete on this list. I haven’t finished Macross Delta or Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash as of this writing. While they may well have made my list if I did finish them, there’s also a chance I’d have not felt as strongly about them as the shows that currently reside here. I also didn’t get around to seeing either Kizumonogatari movie before writing this. Clearly a mistake. And it won’t be the last.
Now. Let’s Volt. In.
10. Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
This show is a little bit like the ladies I went on dates with before I met my lovely wife. They were pretty, fun and pretty fun for part of the time; but in the end I walked away unsatisfied at the lack of connection between us. I was rather enjoying the tone, setting and stylish action of Kabaneri during its first half, but the introduction of Biba well-and-truly derailed this beautiful train. Not even Miyano Mamoru’s stellar vocal performance could rescue the show from the mire that Biba’s tedious arc plunged it into. While the ending salvaged things a bit, the Kabaneri experience should have been better on the whole. When it was good, though, it was very good.
9. 91 Days
If television still mattered, I’d say that a network that plays crime dramas should take a chance on 91 Days. This is a stellar mafia tale the likes of which anime hasn’t seen since Gungrave in 2004, but 91 Days is, I’d argue, even more palatable to international audiences. Given that this is a revenge story, though, many viewers will likely see the destination of the show long before it arrives at the finish line. However, that doesn’t mean the journey is boring. Where the show shines, I feel, is in the way it ratchets up the stakes for its protagonists. As Angelo works his way up through the mafia in order to get access to those who killed his family, he and his friends stumble into increasingly dangerous situations. In 91 Days, cover can get blown and characters can get killed at any time, and the intensity of this viewing experience was what kept me coming back.
8. Yuri on Ice
Using this valuable column space to justify why Yuri on Ice is so low on my list would just turn this summation into something negative, but I want to be positive about this show because it deserves that. There was nothing else this year quite like this show or quite like watching it with what felt like the entire internet. For a couple of months, Wednesdays were a weekly celebration of love, sport, community and animation. Seeing people respond to an anime in this way was truly special and something I will remember. Now, it will be impossible to recapture these specific feelings when I decide to rewatch the show, but there are so many other great reasons to revisit Yuri. It’s chock full of exquisitely beautiful skate choreography that I can watch over and over. More than anything else, though, Yuri on Ice exudes pure, contagious joy. And the OP always gave me the tingles.
There may not be a more important show on this list than Orange. This anime wraps a light, sometimes questionable sci-fi concept around some lovable characters and a shoujo romance that delves deeply into the topic of suicide. As someone who has been touched by suicide twice, I quickly became emotionally invested in the journey of a group of friends to right the wrong of their past and prevent Kakeru from taking his own life. And, as someone who has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and has mental illness in his family, I deeply appreciated the show’s portrayal of Kakeru, the one who wants to end his life. Orange isn’t interested in judging Kakeru or assigning blame to specific people he knows. Rather, I think the message of this show is for everyone to make an effort to understand the people in their lives and for all of us to reach out to others for help when we feel lost, alone or misunderstood. For my in-depth thoughts on Orange, listen to this.
6. Space Patrol Luluco
AWAKE! 2016 was the year I became convinced that the short format could compete with conventional TV anime. Trigger’s Space Patrol Luluco packed more fun, energy and heart into its seven minutes each week than most of its contemporaries could manage in triple the amount of runtime per episode. The zealous Hiroyuki Imaishi certainly does what fans would expect here in terms of creating a wacky playground of a universe that positively crackles with enthusiasm. It’s a sugar rush that gets you hooked quick. I certainly became dependent on my weekly fix of the incomparable Over Justice (the character who probably made me laugh the hardest this year, just by standing up), the stunning Lalaco Godspeed and seeing people transform into guns. Yet, if you scratch a bit beneath the surface, Luluco is a tribute to its creators and the artistic process in general as well as a show with some very interesting things to say about the nature of love.
5. Mob Psycho 100
Mob Psycho was unquestionably the most visually creative television anime released in 2016. It was so exciting to tune in each week expecting to be wow’d by the visuals and then having the show continually hold up its end of the bargain. The sheer imagination on display was incredible. On top of that, the show has a resonant story to tell about adolescence and tells it through one of the year’s best ensemble casts. Mob Psycho also manages to be a shounen-ass shounen show but also bypass the repetitive middle parts of long-running shows of that ilk. And then there’s, Reigen. Glorious, charming, lying Reigen. Scamp, rogue, con man, mentor, protector. Reigen Arataka is, for me, the most memorable anime character of this year. In a similar way that ONE inverts the fantastic into the mundane, he has somehow made an unapologetic petty criminal into the principled, upright moral compass of his story. Reigen is my amazing dad, and I love him, and if you have anything bad to say about him you can shut up.
4. Rakugo Shinju
Jared will be mad that I’m not using the full title, but it is just too unwieldy for me, my man ;). This show is not for everyone, but it you can sync up with its rhythms, it will make a deep impression on you. Rakugo is a show that pins everything on its characters and their performances. Saying they delivered would feel like a gross understatement because the three leads absolutely knock it out of the park. While we got to observe Kiku and Sukeroku develop their stage presences and entertainer personas, Rakugo never shied away from depicting their (and Miyokichi’s) raw humanity offstage. This mixture led to some of the most moving moments in anime this year. Full disclosure: Rakugo made me cry. As a father, the scene in episode eleven in which Kiku cuts Konatsu’s hair felt so intensely real and was such a beautiful moment that I couldn’t hold back the tears. Add to all this an entirely transportive aesthetic, and you’ve got a strong contender for AOTY. A period-piece about Japanese one-man-show theater could’ve been super boring, but I couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the human drama.
The top three on this list all occupied the number one spot at one time or another in 2016, and, really, they all deserve to be co-number-ones. But where’s the fun in that? Hard choices had to be made. Below lie the results.
I took a break from all of the shows on this list but one. No matter how busy I got, it was imperative that I made time for ERASED. The pitch perfect tone of this time travel mystery thriller grabbed me almost immediately. Its cinematography and exemplary direction made sure each episode packed a punch. Every shot meant something; no time was wasted. I completely fell in love with the kids, and the show doled out endearing character moments and heart-pounding tension in just the right measure and at just the right time each and every week. I know a lot of people supposedly figured out the mystery quite early, but ERASED kept me guessing throughout most of its runtime. I guess being slow on the uptake worked in my favor for once! Truthfully, the show stumbles a bit in the execution of its ending. But, when I think back on my time with ERASED, I won’t remember who the killer turned out to be or that the finale wasn’t all I’d hoped for. Instead, I’ll remember the quiet moments Satoru shared with Hinazuki and the shock and heartbreak I felt when the show pulled the rug out from under me…again and again.
2. Sound Euphonium Season 2
I haven’t seen too many other Kyoto Animation productions, but I can’t imagine that they can be much better than Sound Euphonium. It’s voice is totally unique, and it’s vision is so well-realized. Eupho’s cast of characters is the farthest thing in the world from a collection of surface-level archetypes; rather, you distinctly feel their agency and their depth. The presence of their robust internal lives lends a very specific tone to the series. Kitauji High’s atmosphere is thick with unspoken words, hidden feelings and passionate motivations. These characters feel like people, not like story props. Eupho’s visuals are truly indelible and not just because they are pretty. The creators understand how to pair beautiful, well-framed shots with particular moments in the narrative’s momentum, thereby using them to their maximum effectiveness. There’s so, so much I could say about this show: how bold some of the directorial decisions are, how amazing the music can be, how incredible some of the naturalistic voice acting is. But, I think I can best sum up my feelings like this: Sound Euphonium’s second season was, in my mind, the best anime that aired on television this year.
…but it wasn’t my favorite.
Remember the criteria I discussed at the beginning of this? When asking each of those questions about Re:Zero, the answer is a resounding yes. It’s not just that I experienced a range of emotions throughout the show but that I experienced those emotions so intensely. The show was an absolute roller coaster, one of the most visceral roller coasters I’ve been on in quite some time. It brought me from gripping the arms of my chair, a tight knot in the pit of my stomach, to complete, wide-eyed shock and deflation, to tears streaming from my eyes all in the space of about four episodes. Re:Zero broke my heart open, but it also put as big a smile on my face as an anime has in years. In addition to all this high drama, there’s some meta-textual stuff going on too: it becomes clear roughly two-thirds of the way through that the show is interested in taking down the construct of the modern light novel protagonist. To the show’s great credit, though, it doesn’t let this idea undercut its greater strengths, namely continually-building mystery and fantastic character dynamics. Now, Re:Zero doesn’t resolve all of the questions it raises because it’s an adaptation of part of much longer story; however, both the emotional climax and the actual ending of the anime’s story are quite satisfying. A principle cast I fell head-over-heels for gets some incredible moments to shine, many of which I won’t soon forget. When I saw this show in preview coverage, I dismissed it pretty quickly. Thankfully I tried it, and it never stopped surprising me. Re:Zero is so much more than it appears to be; it is truly special.
And that’s it. This was super fun. If you’re mad, though, you know where to tweet. See you back here next year. Good lookin’ out!