Well it’s been a long time coming, but we’ve finally reached the end of 2016. It’s been a very…negative year to say the least in regards to world events and celebrity deaths (and I’m more than a little concerned about if we’ll be able to survive that first one), but it’s been a pretty alright year for Japanese cartoons, and a fair amount of solid stuff managed to make it’s way down the pipeline. So for now let’s forget about all the bad stuff, and take a look at some of the best that 2016 had to offer in the world of anime.
This category goes to things that aren’t exactly show specific, but nevertheless wanted to point out. That includes theme songs, characters and stuff related to English dubs. Anyway let’s get started:
Best Anime Opening– 99 by Mob Choir (Mob Psycho 100)
It’s been a fairly solid year for anime openings, and while there hasn’t been an abundance of standouts, there’s always been at least a few each season that managed to leave a mark. For me though, none have left as big an impression on me as Mob Psycho’s. To be honest when I first heard this song, I really didn’t like it, and thought it was a bit too Engrish-y for me, but the more I heard it every week, the more it stuck with me, and by the time I actually discovered how much some of the lyrics tied into Mob’s coming of age story, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It’s accompanied by some bombastic visuals as well as some of the most seamless scene transitions I’ve ever seen, making for a spectacle that’s equal parts catchy and breathtaking. 99 may not have gotten off to the best start with me, but it’s stuck with me more than any other opener I’ve heard this year, and even if you don’t care for the song itself, it’s hard to deny just how well executed of a 90-second music video it is.
Honorable Mentions: History Maker by Dean Fujioka (Yuri on Ice), The Day by Porno Graffiti (My Hero Academia), Great Days by Karen Aoki and Daisuke Hasegawa (Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable)
Best Male Character– Yoshikage Kira (Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable)
I could probably think of more compelling male characters if I wanted, but none have proven to be as consistently entertaining as Kira. For parts 1-3 of Jojo’s, Dio was pretty much THE villain, and while the Pillar Men were fun in their own right, there was no getting past the pure ham that comprised most of Dio’s evil antics. Amazingly though, what makes Kira such an interesting villain, is that in a lot of ways he’s almost Dio’s total opposite. He doesn’t particularly engage in ham (or what constitutes as ham by Jojo’s standards) and instead opts for a more pragmatic approach to his villainy, and his humble goals of just wanting to live a quiet life, strike an interesting contrast to the usual villain goals of world domination or power. Most of all, he’s a villain that actually progresses in becoming stronger, much in the same way you’d generally expect the heroes to, and by the time he’s managed to work his way towards becoming a truly horrifying threat, it’s as shocking to the audience as it is to the heroes. This shift in expectations was enough to really make Kira stand out as a villain, and while he’ll probably never be as beloved as Dio, I found him to be just as fun.
Honorable Mentions: Yuri Katsuki (Yuri on Ice), Mob (Mob Psycho 100), Izuku Midoriya (My Hero Academia)
Best Female Character– Tsumugi Inuzuka (Sweetness and Lightning)
Again, I could probably come up with someone better if I tried but gosh darn it, I really want to give this one to the adorable 4 year old. Portraying kids as well…kids has always been a challenge for most forms of media and the same goes for anime. The last time anime notably managed to get it right was with Naru from Barakamon, and while I found her endearing, I didn’t quite see her as the soul of the show in the same way that many others did. Here though, the stage really belongs to Tsumugi, and her infectious nature really helps in keeping Sweetness and Lightning consistently heartwarming. She really feels like an actual little kid from her curiosity about the things around her, to spontaneous tantrums that result from the tiniest problems, and all of those little quirks help in making her an absolute delight to watch. For all of that though, the real reason she’s topped the list for me is that her cute expressions managed to kill me every episode. Like seriously it should be illegal to make something this adorable *dies*
Honorable Mentions: Kayo Hinazuki (Erased), Nico Niyama (Kiznaiver), Asuka Tanaka (Sound!! Euphonium 2)
Best English Dub– Your Lie in April
I already talked about this one in my 25 Days of Dubs list so I won’t go too much into it, but this dub was a real standout. Patrick Seitz may not direct stuff often, but when he does, he really knows how to deliver. Everything from the direction to the scriptwriting works extremely well, and they’re matched by some equally great performances. Max Mittleman’s Kousei does a fantastic job at selling the character’s depression, and Erica Lindbeck’s Kaori works just as well, with the two playing off each other pretty well. The rest of the actors are strong too, and it’s a super-solid effort from top to bottom, as each of them manage to pull off the hefty amount of turmoil displayed throughout the series. There’s been some other solid dubs this year, but this one was easily the best of the bunch, and if you haven’t given it a peek yet I highly recommend it.
Honorable Mentions: Rage of Bahamut, Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash
Best English Voice Actor– Max Mittleman
While things managed to pick up a bit towards the end, this has been a fairly lukewarm year for dubs, and while there’s been some good individual performances, I haven’t seen much in the way of actors consistently hitting all the right marks. Of course there’s always an exception and this year that crown goes to Max Mittleman. While he’s only snagged two lead roles this year (and one is much more widely recognized than the other) his work on both proved to be excellent, with his aforementioned Kousei managing to standout as a very emotional performance, while his Saitama proved to be a lot more deadpan and comedic than I ever expected from him. Both roles showed that he has quite a bit of versatility, and his smaller roles this year have managed to work out pretty nicely as well. He’s well on his way to becoming the next JYB or Bryce Papenbrook of the California dub pool, and going by some of the work he’s displayed this year, it’ll likely be a title that’s well earned.
Honorable Mentions: Ricco Fajardo, Jad Saxton, Erika Harlacher
Best Japanese Voice Actor– Tasuku Hatanaka
I’ve been meaning to highlight some of my favorite Japanese VA’s for a while now, so I figure that now is as good a time as any to start. I’d first heard Tasuku Hatanaka as Yuma in Yu-Gi-Oh Zexal and given that Zexal is well…garbage, that didn’t exactly leave me with the best first impression of him. His work as Ushio in Ushio & Tora on the other hand, managed to pull a complete 180 for me, as he did a great job of selling the brash but endearing nature of the character, and his delivery of Ushio’s breakdown during the final arc of the series, really stood out to me as one of the more memorable performances I’d heard on the Japanese side of things this year. His Ikoma from Kabaneri, while less compelling than his Ushio was also a really solid performance, and there’s a very unique quality to his voice that really sticks out amongst the usual stock anime leads, and feels a lot more rough and grounded. I’m glad to see that he’s gradually getting more work these days, and while he may have gotten off to the wrong foot with me, he’s since become a pleasure to listen to.
Honorable Mentions: Megumi Han, Toshiyuki Morikawa, Akira Ishida
This category is centered around genre stuff. Unlike the best series which we’ll get to afterwards, this for things that stood out really well as a genre piece moreso than as an overall series. That said there’s still plenty of good stuff to be found here, so let’s take a look:
Best Comedy Series– Keijo!!!!!!
It’s been a really weak year for anime comedies (though coming off of something as off the wall as Mr. Osomatsu, there was nowhere to go but down) but a couple of good ones managed to work their way through the cracks. Among them was, Keijo which to be perfectly honest I wasn’t even going to watch at first. Almost everything about it’s premise seemed like an excuse for gross fanservice so I was happily surprised when it not only turned out to be a lot cleaner than I expected, but way more entertaining than it had any right to be. Keijo is completely aware of how silly it’s premise is, but rather than simply going the skeevy route, it has fun with it, and treats the “sport” as though it’s legitimate competition with everything from training arcs to “sad” character backstories, which sounds awkward in theory, but the show does a good job of making it all work. What makes it a great comedy though is all in the Keijo battles, as the crazy special attacks are all delightfully ridiculous, and over-the-top, never failing to deliver at least one or two good laughs. It feels strange saying good things about the show centered around bikini butt battles, but it’s certainly earned that much, and while the premise might more than a little off-putting, if you’re looking for a good time, this one’s more than likely to keep you entertained.
Honorable Mentions: Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto, Taboo Tatoo, Dagashi Kashi
Best Action Series– Thunderbolt Fantasy
When I first heard that Gen Urobuchi was doing a show about puppets, I was more than a little disappointed since I was really looking forward to his return to anime scriptwriting. Needless to say I was surprised when said puppet show, not only turned out to be good, but is also quite possibly the single most entertaining thing the man has ever written. The story follows a lot of the usual fantasy beats, but it has some solid execution both in part due to the show’s rich character dialogue as the conversations between the core cast are almost always excellent, and the over the top action action sequences, as the fight scenes have some surprisingly good action choreography and special effects which all make for a real treat. Of course if you’re a fan of the Booch’s usual sense of style there’s still some of that here too as he sprinkles in a few messages regarding tradition and what really lies beneath any “heroic” legacy, but he’s mostly here to entertain this time around, and if you found Fate/Zero or Madoka to be a bit too dour, this one’s a lot lighter in comparison. Urobuchi’s return to scriptwriting may not have happened the exact way I expected, but I’m more than happy with what we actually ended up getting, and I’m glad that there’s more of it coming our way in the future.
Honorable Mentions: Mob Psycho 100, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Diamond is Unbreakable, My Hero Academia
Best Drama Series– Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
It always feels a bit pretentious to say that something is “for adults”, but there’s really no other way to accurately describe this one. The series is a slow moving drama, and centered around an artform that’s about as strictly Japanese as it gets, which makes it a tough sell for both younger audiences and anime fans at large, but for all it lacks in broad appeal it makes up for in execution. The tragedy concerning the lives and respective downfalls of Yakumo and Sukeroku is a compelling one and the innate struggles concerning the former’s sexuality and the latter’s sense of identity really helps in painting a picture of what it was like to struggle as an artist during one of the harshest time periods in Japan’s history. I also found myself really getting drawn in to the show’s frequent demonstrations of Rakugo demonstrations, and they did an excellent job of simultaneously showing the insane level of skill required for the craft while also using some of the pieces as solid metaphors for some of the events that were going on around them. As I said before though it’s a very slow moving series, and I’m not really surprised at how much it flew by the radar for most people, but for me it was easily the most moving anime drama to come out this year, and one of it’s best shows in general.
Honorable Mentions: Yuri on Ice, Orange, Sound!! Euphonium s2
And now we’ve finally arrived at the best series for the year. You may notice that I have two series listed here instead of one, but that’s because I’ve picked the best based on two sub-categories: best adaption and best original work. While both adaptions and original projects both carry the intent to pick up an audience, they’re generally trying to accomplish different things as an adaption has to be a good piece of entertainment while maintaining the strengths of it’s source material where as an original work needs to stand completely on it’s own two feet and draw in a crowd on it’s own merits. As such I feel it’s only appropriate to bring up which two series did the best at tackling those things so without any further ado, here they are:
Best Anime Series (Adaption)– Mob Psycho 100
One-Punch Man was one of the biggest mainstream anime successes in recent memory, and as a series by the same author, Mob Psycho 100 had some big shoes to fill. Fortunately the team of animators at BONES and director Yuzuru Tachikawa of Death Parade fame were up to the task and delivered on an adaption that not only went toe to toe with it’s predecessor, but for me, exceeded it. As an adaption one of the biggest difficulties concerning this series was whether or not to stick to the original author, ONE’s, crude artstyle considering that One-Punch Man did not. However Tachikawa and co. made the decision to stick to that style, and while it might have cost the show the opportunity to enjoy the same level of mainstream success as it’s sister series, it gave the animators free reign to go all out with the show’s art design, making for one of the most impressively animated shows of the last decade, and giving it a unique visual aesthetic that really stands out from just about any other anime made in the last few years.
Of course while the show’s visuals are part of it’s appeal, the real heart lies in it’s storytelling, and it’s portrayal of Mob’s journey through adolescence. A lot of Mob’s issues concerning his abilities and his humbled attitude, seem reminiscent of Saitama from OPM at first glance, but it quickly becomes clear that his issues are less about his overwhelming talent causing him to hit wall, and more learning to deal with the reality that his abilities alone won’t get him on a fast track through life. It’s not a gigantic shift in perspective, but it’s enough of one to make Mob’s story his own, and he’s joined by a fun cast of supporting characters, all of whom manage to do a good job of standing out on their own. Especially Reigen, who managed to go from semi-annoying comic relief in the show’s early episodes, to it’s moral center and easily the best written character. All in all, Mob Psycho turned out to be a fantastic ride, and while it may not have been able to step out of the shadow of OPM’s popularity, it was certainly able to shine on it’s own as a stellar series.
Honorable Mentions: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable, Sweetness and Lightning
Best Anime Series (Original)– Yuri!! on Ice
So before this series even began, I was already pretty sure I’d like it. Sayo Yamamoto is a director with a lot of style, and her work on Michiko and Hatchin really won me over with it’s flare and strong feminist commentary. What I wasn’t expecting though, was exactly how much I’d end up digging this show, and I sure as heck wasn’t expecting so much of the anime fandom to latch onto it that it’s become the biggest mainstream success of the year. In a lot of ways though, it’s kind of fitting that this show would end up becoming so widely beloved, because love itself is what really lies at the core of the series.
Yuri on Ice is about love, and love in various forms. Familial love, sexual love, and most of all, being able to love yourself, as told through Yuri’s journey of self-discovery and his realization of the significance behind the various relationships that surround him. What’s really impressive is that none of this is every explicitly stated through the usual hamfisted means we’ve come to expect from most anime, and Yuri’s coming to terms with these feelings comes off in very much the same way you’d expect of someone his age in real life. Although, as is widely known by this point, one of the biggest highlights of this show lies in Yuri’s relationship with Victor, and the fact that their romance is portrayed in a way that’s just blatant enough that any denial of their sexuality would be delusional, while also having enough subtly and nuance to feel like a genuine relationship between two adults rather than the usual “will they or won’t they?” antics of anime, and I feel as though it’d mostly draw the same kind of reaction from me even if one of them was a woman.
The show isn’t without it’s problems of course, as it mildly suffers from some heavy repetition in it’s latter half, and the overambitious nature of the production in regards to animating every one of it’s figure skating scenes, leads to some serious woes. Ultimately though, these issues feel like minor gripes in comparison to everything else it achieves and between it’s stellar soundtrack and fun cast of characters, it’s hard not to get lost in the magic of everything it’s attempting to do. Yuri on Ice is by no means a perfect show, and if I were grading on consistency alone, Rakugo would probably beat it out as my favorite show this year, but this one spoke to me, and apparently a lot of other people in way that nothing else this year did, and for a show with about as anti-mainstream a premise as gay figure skaters, that’s one heck of an accomplishment.
Honorable Mentions: Thunderbolt Fantasy, 91 Days, Flip Flappers
And that’s it for me this year. A big thank you to everyone for reading my crappy little blog, and while it’s hard to say exactly what the future will bring for next year, I plan to keep writing as much as possible, and I’m looking forward to pumping out more work. Until then, have a happy new year, and stay animated.