There are spoilers ahead. If you see a show title you haven’t watched yet, you might want to skip it until you have.
Another year has come and gone, which means it’s time for another retrospective list. As always, this list contains the five anime (in no particular order) that I believe I’ll remember as being most representative of my year. For better or worse, these five shows will define the year 2017 for me–as far as anime goes. The same rules apply as always: no films and no shows that had cours or prior seasons before 2017. Since it affects a few shows this year, I excluded remakes or reboots when thinking up the list as well.
I’m a bit late posting this because the death of Animestrike convinced me to check out a few shows I wasn’t going to bother with. However, one of those shows wound up making this list, so I suppose it was worth the delay. Anyway, let’s get right into it.
Kuzu no Honkai
Funnily enough, I only gave Kuzu no Honkai a chance on account of the character designs in its key visual, yet it wound up being one of my favorite animated melodramas. The show was powerful and self-assured the whole way through. I certainly don’t think it’s a perfect melodrama–I actually think some sections are terrible–but it’s a standout among anime and a unique entry in melodrama at large. Anime almost never peeks behind the closed doors of adolescence, and melodrama rarely expresses its physicality through such earnest sexuality.
In melodrama, as a result of both historical necessity and narrative ingenuity, the pure verbal expression of emotion is typically accompanied by some physical representation of emotion. In Sirk’s Hollywood films, for example, physicality shows up in the form of bar fights and gunshots. Usually, physical expressions result from a character’s inability to face their emotions and express them verbally or when communication is snuffed in general. It’s all a bit more complex than that (currently writing about this!), but that’s the basics.The main idea is that all that emotional pressure needs to be released in some fashion–plus fights, explosions, or horse races all help invigorate a plot that is otherwise just talking and crying.
While violence and competition are extremely common physical expressions in melodrama, sex is almost never utilized except in stories revolving around adultery. Kuzu no Honkai, however, ditches violence and competition in favor of sex. Hanabi and Mugi relieve their unrequited loves and emotional blockades via sex and other intimate contact with each other. Sex becomes a way to imagine a reality beyond frustration and hesitation, as each character in the story uses their body to bypass confounded emotions. Notably, Hanabi and Mugi end their physical relationship as soon as they decide to confess their feelings to their separate love interests. The moment their emotional-verbal gateways are opened, physicality ceases.
This style of melodrama works perfectly in a story focused on lustful teenagers and adults with a tangle of romantic complexes. The show spends more time dealing with needless characters and conflicts than I’d like–especially since that time could’ve been spent further exploring the problems of using sex as a melodramatic physicality–yet remains a benchmark for anime melodrama in my eyes. It hooks you by the gut and pulls you along the whole way…until the bafflingly bad conclusion for its adult characters. Alas, part of enjoying melodrama is rolling with the punches. At least in Kuzu no Honkai’s case, the good punches outweigh the bad.
Studio 3hz (plus Actas, for accuracy’s sake…) returns with another genre-bending original full of as much attitude as Flip Flappers. Once again, Yuichiro Matsuka (and anyone else who knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy) reached out to collect some incredible staff members for Princess Principal, including Yuki Kajiura, Ichiro Okouchi and some very talented animators such as Ryouma Ebata. But a list of impressive-sounding names isn’t the reason I’ll remember Princess Principal.
The show wastes no time in flexing its artistic attitude. By the end of Episode 1, as Ange “lies” and fires multiple rounds into a defector with a beautifully melancholic soundtrack playing in the background and mourning lowlights covering her in shadow, viewers already know they’re in for a ride. This bravado continues throughout the season with endless moments of chair-bouncing, air-punching goodness. Some examples: Beatrice being saved from decapitation by her mechanical voicebox; Charlotte flaming her classmates in the bathroom; GET ACROSS THE WALL; and more. There is no studio that makes making anime seem as fun as Studio 3hz does.
Much like Flip Flappers, Princess Principal excels at achieving payoff in an episodic structure. Episode 6 stands out as a particularly powerful example. Dorothy waiting at the bar for her father as Beatrice sings the song her father used to put her to sleep with was among the most memorable scenes of the year. And while some people may have preferred more focus on an overarching narrative, I think the show works best as a series of pivotal vignettes. Each spy’s personality is interesting enough, and their personal stakes exciting enough, to make each vignette engaging. At the end of the day, 3hz just seems to think up fun things to animate and then animates them. I couldn’t ask for much else from, uh, animators.
Okay, let be me perfectly clear: I didn’t even watch this show and I never intend to. I skimmed the first episode and found the goofy animation (like someone putting broken 3D models on Pivot animation) to be endearing, but otherwise the show was boring and the promises of its fans couldn’t convince me to keep going. But…I don’t know. This show was absolutely everywhere on the internet for six months straight and continues to pop up in the most random corners of the world for no reason. I couldn’t escape Kemono Friends. It’s gotten to the point where now I sometimes think of the show without even being prompted. Somehow I feel like I know nothing about it and everything about it at the same time.
After Brazil lost to Germany 7-1 in the 2014 World Cup, we entered an alternative timeline where memes became real and the polarity of reality inverted. Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar, every celebrity in the universe died, the American election happened, and a penguin fell in love with a dead tree in the shape of a Kemono Friends character. This is the kind of reality we have to accept from now on. Was there a way to avoid this? If Brazil had taken the nil with pride instead of scoring the most depressing 90-minute goal in history, maybe we could have avoided all of this. I’ve thought of many “what if” scenarios, but all I’ve learned is that we can never go back. There is no escape.
I don’t actually know the plot of Kemono Friends, but I’m pretty sure I am Kaban. I am stuck in an unfamiliar world where Netsuzou Trap gets an anime adaptation; and a virtual-but-not-actually-virtual YouTuber from Japan yells “Fuck you!” at Resident Evil; and rappers I hate are trying to sacrifice rappers I like to Satan…and I just don’t know what to do anymore. Kemono Friends is on this list because the timeline demands it and I am not willing to risk defying the timeline. Glory to the timeline.
Made In Abyss
Much of the discussion around Made in Abyss seems centered on its “grim” elements or deceptive art design. While parts of the show are more realistically gruesome than anime tends to be, I never found those moments particularly engaging. Maybe this was because all I’d heard in the months before I watched Made in Abyss was how grim it could be. Maybe it was because Riko was so obviously immune to death or lifelong injury. In any case, what actually grabbed my attention was the world as a whole.
Worldbuilding in Made in Abyss is smooth, even when characters are infodumping by reading out of books or giving history lessons. Part of this is because of Riko’s personal connection to this infodumping: she’s obsessed with the secrets of the Abyss; her mother is one of the mysterious White Whistles; her new best friends appears to be a strange relic of the Abyss. At times, the exposition becomes lazy, such as Riko explaining what is dangerous about a monster as it slowly walks up to attack her, but for the most part these details are woven into the story well. I especially appreciated the attention paid to the food chains and diverse habitats of the Abyss. In those moments, I really felt like an adventurer exploring uncharted territories.
Riko and Reg become incredibly stupid at convenient moments (how do you forget about your super special awesome weapon literally 2 minutes after you get it?), but those moments aren’t quite show-ruining. I was disappointed with how emotionally distant I felt for most of the show, but the final arc with Mitty made up for those 10 episodes of apathy. I’m glad the show found a way to make me feel something besides curiosity, but am concerned that I’ll never grow to care for Riko and Reg as the anime adaptation continues. By all accounts, I should feel attached to Riko, but I simply don’t. Made in Abyss makes this list for both how immersive its world is and how strangely uninteresting its protagonist is.
On the opposite end of the romance genre spectrum from Kuzu no Honkai stands Just Because!. Ironically, this show stands out by doing very little and maintaining a low key atmosphere. There are important confrontations and significant romantic progression early on, but nothing that I would call a real dramatic punch. In fact, I only felt like I was watching a drama when I was watching the show’s last episode, when the various story arcs had to conclude. Although this is part of what I love about the show, it also causes some issues I’ll touch on in a moment.
Primarily, Just Because! is a view into the twilight of numerous students’ high school careers. The entire cast consists of third-year students in their last (and essentially inconsequential) semester of school, with the exception of one important second-year. Most scenes focus on, or at least spare attention for, the realistic lifestyles and concerns of near-graduates. Students text during class; they start to communicate with adults on equal footing; they ask each other why they’re going to college (or why that college) and none of them really have an answer at first. This twilight stage of adolescence is an integral part of every character’s identity and every relationship’s development.
Since these characters are nearly proper adults, their romances aren’t frustrated by them choking on their confessions. If a budding relationship encounters obstacles, they tend to be related to characters leaving for college or wanting to get their own lives in order before becoming part of someone else’s. Like the obstacles impeding love, the moments that build love are also grounded in reality. Soma grows close to Morikawa’s younger brothers as he gets to know her better; Komiya tries to advance her relationship with Eita by setting herself as his phone wallpaper. Both of these details are clearly drawn from writer Hajime Kamoshida’s own romantic experiences, rather than random details taken from the grabbag of acceptable romance tropes. Earnest realism like this goes a long way in such a low key show.
However, this is still a show that exists in context with other romantic dramas. Just Because! makes some refreshing choices within its genre, such as having Komiya–a character not dealing with third-year problems and not in the main cast’s friend group–be part of a love triangle. Although I love Toradora! and Sakurasou, I enjoy seeing an outsider in those triangles. This isn’t groundbreaking, but it leads to some great moments like Mio plainly telling Komiya she can’t ask Eita out (and Komiya not listening). An outsider provides an opportunity for romantic conflicts to not be bogged down by the dynamics of friendship or the inevitability of seeing your romantic opponent all the time. This is especially useful in a less dramatic show like Just Because!, since opposing characters can each get romantic development without seeming in such direct competition with each other. Unfortunately, this can be as much of a bane as a boon.
Because parts of the show are so understated, such as Mio’s participation in the love triangle involving Eita and Komiya, dramatic resolutions can fall flat. Mio focusing on her exams leaves plenty of space for Komiya and Eita to develop as a pair without dramatizing the love triangle, but this also causes her to lose any chance to counterattack. Phrasing it this way is weird, but typically the sidelined character in a love triangle counterattacks at some point, forcing the triangle to a decision. There’s a date, a confession, a change in character–some kind of outward statement of their intentions. Mio’s only changes are in relation to herself–she decides properly which college to pursue, lets go of an old unrequited love, and so on. This is great stuff for Mio as a character, but none of it is a “counterattack” and none of it reaches Eita’s ears.
Here I become conflicted. I love the slow-rolling first 11 episodes of the show. I love that Mio’s character development doesn’t have to be chained to a romantic partner. I love that Komiya and Mio never have a dramatic face-off because they aren’t friends and have no other reason to talk to each other. But I wouldn’t like the absence of a love triangle. I wouldn’t like if Mio became indifferent to her feelings for and history with Eita. Thus, there’s a conflict between the quiet depiction of third-year romance and the mechanics of drama itself. The love triangle has to reach a resolution, and since one character hardly played the game, it feels as though the match was won by default. Mio is the main heroine, so she automatically wins. I won’t theorize solutions here, but this bumpy ending is part of what makes Just Because! so memorable to me. It doesn’t detract from the show too greatly, but still represents an interesting dilemma.
As predicted, 2017 was a challenging year for me (in both expected and unexpected ways) and the frequency of my posts suffered for it. 2018 looks like it’ll allow me much more time to write for this site specifically, at least for the first half of the year. If nothing else, the anime airing this year have already grabbed my attention and are begging to be written about.
As far as concrete plans go: I’ll continue writing about the Monogatari series in pieces, melodrama in pieces, and you can expect a discourse-oriented post about Citrus and/or Koi wa Ameagari since that will surely be fun and not controversial. I’m also sure I’ll be focusing a lot more on currently airing shows than I did last year (since I completely ignored them last year…). I tried out a few different ideas last year, but finally felt that most of them detracted from the overall purpose of my writing, which is to open doors of observation that are typically ignored in online discussion about anime.
I hope we can go another year without losing that purpose, while simultaneously enjoying this rapidly developing medium. Anime movies I never would’ve predicted to screen outside Japan are getting international releases, with some even screening in the rural nowheres of America. The streaming market is starting to see actual competition now that Animestrike is integrated into Amazon Prime and Netflix is airing shows weekly (rest in peace U.S. viewers). In this changing environment, my goal is to get my voice out there in whatever small way I can. So thank you to anyone who reads any post on this site.