There are spoilers ahead. If you see a show title you haven’t watched yet, you might want to skip that section until you have.
This was a year full of quality and diverse anime, and even the most cynical curmudgeon couldn’t have come out of it having enjoyed nothing. It was also an incredibly busy year for me, which kept me from watching so many of these shows until just the past couple of months. That being said, I believe that my relative inactivity in 2018 was all for the purpose of having a fantastic 2019, throughout which I hope to deliver you all my best work–both in discussing anime and in my own creative endeavors.
But since this is a post meant to celebrate anime and not my aspirations, let’s move on! The same rules apply as always: only shows that began their first cour and season in 2018 were considered. Films, remakes, and reboots were all excluded for the same reasons as usual. To say it for the (now) fourth time: I decided on these five shows as the anime that will best represent 2018 to my mind–whether that be for my emotional response to them, my appreciation of their execution, my investment in their extratextual hooplah, or any other reason I explain below. This was the hardest retrospective to put together yet!
So let’s celebrate some of the year’s anime.
For some reason, I decided to start with the show I have the most difficulty discussing. Hinamatsuri is a show that doesn’t like to explain or justify itself, even as its storylines spiral into ever deeper pits of absurdity. I suppose that endless spiral is what defines the show, if it’s definable at all. The punchline in any other anime is merely the premise in Hinamatsuri. I’m reminded of the comedy show Nathan For You in how already ridiculous premises are folded back on themselves a dozen times until, by the end of the episode, Nathan is handing someone electric shock gum in the middle of the ocean, completely detached from his original purpose.
That isn’t to say that Hinamatsuri is all absurdity, though. Comedy and drama are blended together so smoothly throughout the show that I often found myself in the middle of a heartwarming or tear-jerking scene before I realized it. Episode 6 is the best example of this seamless blending. The first half of the episode is devoted to Hina’s visit with Nitta’s family–a situation that grows ridiculous as Nitta invents an impossible cover story for Hina’s arrival, yet somehow placating his drunkard sister and sentimental mother. The comedy of that encounter progresses naturally to Anzu’s parallel story of actually finding a foster family. One moment we’re laughing at the absurd tragedy of Hina’s fabricated backstory, the next we’re holding back tears as Anzu accepts that the homeless community she had to leave behind will always remain in her heart through the lessons her friends taught her.
Episode 6 isn’t simply divided into a comedic half and a dramatic half, either. Anzu’s revelations and tears motivate the viewer to think back to Hina’s own “meet the family” experience. Isn’t Hina learning the same kind of lessons from Nitta as Anzu did from the friends she made while homeless? Isn’t Nitta learning lessons from Hina as well? Don’t Nitta and Hina make for the same kind of foster family as Anzu’s, despite their differing family dynamics? These questions allow the viewer to reflect on just how much emotional weight is hidden behind the absurdity of Hina and Nitta’s hijinks. When those emotions are made explicit later in the season, it feels natural and earned, for that latent drama was weaved throughout the comedy all along.
Overall, Hinamatsuri is just a fresh and unique show that will keep you laughing and engaged all the way through. The characters and storylines are built on the back of careful writing labor and a strong creative vision. In the most general and genuine sense, Hinamatsuri is a great show. And there’s really no other way to put it.
Iroduku: The World in Colors
After a brutal four-year stretch of mediocre and downright awful TV anime from P.A. Works, Iroduku finally restored my faith in the studio. The P.A. Works magic is back in full effect, which is only more impressive considering Mari Okada’s absence from this production. Okada’s writing is as representative of P.A. Works’s identity as Shinbo’s directing has become of Shaft’s, and it had begun to feel like more than a coincidence that she was not involved in any of the studio’s recent lackluster projects. However, Iroduku immediately flipped all my doubts on their heads.
If you’re on board with the classic P.A. Works formula (as I most certainly am), Iroduku will completely enchant you by the end of the first episode. You quickly acclimate to a world filled with mild fantasy that’s strange enough to be exciting, but familiar enough to feel like home. Although the worldbuilding isn’t quite as thorough as a show like Nagi no Asukara, the environments are still brought to life with an attention to detail and that particular brand of P.A. Works eye candy. But speaking of eyes, the distance between the eyes of the characters can definitely take some getting used to. It’s an odd flaw in an otherwise gorgeous show that I wish I could hear some explanation for.
Fortunately, I hardly had time to worry about eye placement. This is inarguably P.A. Works’s strongest TV series in terms of cinematography and a definite contender in terms of direction. The photography club that the main cast participates in could have easily been relegated to being a thematic vehicle, but instead was taken full advantage of. There are dozens of “photographs” taken in the show that make for poignant pictures even outside their narrative contexts. Additionally, the visual depictions of various artistic or emotional struggles are wildly creative and effective. The images of Yuito chasing the success of his first drawing are still stuck in my head.
And of course the core of the show is quintessential P.A. Works. Perhaps that’s a disappointment to some, but I was glad to get exactly what I came for: a bunch of beautiful people all falling in love with each other. My tastes may be simple, but at least I know what I want. Please give me those love triangles with extra tangles.
Although unfortunately not a Yuru Yuri camping spinoff, Yuru Camp is just as excellent and endearing as that premise sounds. This is the best remedy for those evenings you need to relax at any cost. It is a cute-girls-doing-cute-things show that makes you feel like you yourself are also cute and doing cute things. To be honest, that should be all I have to say…but I’ll continue.
I have a longer post on the way about Yuru Camp’s sound design and how the show’s directing is shaped around its audio elements, but these stylistic choices are so crucial to my love of the show that I need to mention them now. In short, the direction always allows sound and music to do their thing uninterrupted. I’ve written in the past about my affinity for insert songs in movies, and the idea of creating “space” for the audio elements of the show is appealing for many of the same reasons. In the same way Iroduku puts aside dialogue and action (the two main motivators of direction and editing) to show off photographs and artwork, so does Yuru Camp make space for the viewer to enjoy the sounds of nature, music, or even eating.
I mention eating because a clear and convenient example of such directing comes while Nadeshiko is eating ramen in Episode 1. We’re treated to over half a minute of Nadeshiko chowing down with nothing but cheerful rustic music to accompany the sounds of her meal before we hear Rin narrate the scene. When you consider that an episode of anime has less than 40 of those half-minute chunks to work with, that’s a substantial amount of airtime to delay any incidental momentum (again, dialogue or action). By the time any character actually speaks, a full minute has passed. And there’s less than 20 of those chunks to work with!
What I want to emphasize here is that Yuru Camp is not in a rush to get to the next joke or activity or even the next shot. The show would rather develop atmosphere or relax to some of the fantastic songs that accompany each scene. If you’ve seen enough slice-of-life anime, you can probably notice the moment most other shows would have Rin comment on Nadeshiko’s eating: the first cut back to Rin. It would make plenty of sense–Nadeshiko makes her popping “ah” sound as she lets the steam out of her mouth, then the camera cuts to a shot with Rin. Insert remark about Nadeshiko eating fast, not waiting for the ramen to cool off, or whatever else you can imagine. However, Yuru Camp delays. It wants to take its time a bit longer, to listen to a bit more music, and to show off a bit more cute Nadeshiko animation. It isn’t until the next shot of Rin that she comments–and even then, only in narration.
These moments are spread throughout every episode, and are part of the reason why Yuru Camp makes for such an effective iyashikei experience. Of course, plenty of other factors contribute as well (can’t have cute Nadeshiko faces without talented animators), but I wanted to bring attention to these calm spaces. In those spaces, we can hear the music, the wind, and even the silence we might otherwise overlook. Yuru Camp provides these calm spaces, knowing that sometimes, among all the stresses of daily life, we as viewers might have trouble finding them elsewhere.
Hanebado! is an absolute mess, but I think it reaches ever-so-slightly into what appears to be a growing narrative (to a lesser extent: artistic) trend. There are similar thematic and formal forces at work in games like Doki Doki Literature Club and music like Kero Kero Bonito’s Time ‘n’ Place. I’ll be doing myself a disservice by trying to explain this alleged trend without fully forming its identity beforehand, but let’s go for it anyway! This is, after all, the main reason Hanebado! is on this list.
Essentially: characters, conflicts, themes, or even the form of the art itself are twisted and then placed in the context of barren genre conventions and tropes. These conventions and tropes are “barren” in the sense that they offer to the artwork the bare minimum of conceptual identity–they do nothing but allow the audience to categorize the art and its components into a genre or archetype. DDLC makes for a perfect example: the characters are introduced as the simplest possible dating sim archetypes; the inciting incident is the most contrived and generic club formation; and Salvato himself has expressed how his prose was meant to imitate the barebones “get-it-done” localization of muck heap visual novels.
The twisted elements of these works then inevitably disrupt the generic status quo. The example is again obvious in DDLC, so I’ll speak on Time ‘n’ Place instead. The poppy, PC Music-esque elements of the music are often disrupted by audio “glitches”, looping, dark undertones that rise to the surface, or even lyrical content. Those pop elements attempt to push the twisted elements back behind the curtain, or to continue onward in the hopes they will outlast the twisted elements, but the twisted elements always prove more powerful. You might compare this idea to some vague notion of “subversion”, but it’s only a distant cousin at best. The generic elements and twisted elements always remain two distinct entities, and there is never any “flipping” of the conventions, but there is a battle between the conventions and the enigmatic content. This obviously requires a much more thorough discussion, but since I mean to talk about Hanebado! and not DDLC, we’ll have to move on. Hopefully I’ll have the time to return to the topic soon.
With that in mind, how does Hanebado! figure into this proposed trend? Well, there are certainly plenty of barren sports anime conventions at play here. A new coach arrives to change/save the club; the lonely player learns what it means to be on a team; dramatic rivals show up out of the past; etc. The twisted element here is obviously Ayano, who winds up defining her familial relations themselves by her ability to win at badminton. She is presented at times as a thoroughly broken and traumatized character that rejects the spirit of competition, denies her opponents the opportunity to participate in the sport, and operates independently from the coach and team she supposedly belongs to.
Whether this all comes across as edgy or not is irrelevant (though I do enjoy over-the-top rivals who want to win and make you regret all your life decisions). Where I found Hanebado! interesting was in the interplay of the twisted character of Ayano and the archetypal “solutions” to some of her would-be flaws. There is a section of the show during which characters like Elena appeal to Ayano’s empathies, asking her to consider her opponents’ feelings in a conventional “competition only exists because someone is also trying their best on the other side of the net” way. There are also conventional appeals to playing for a “love of the game.” However, the most interesting of these attempts to untwist Ayano is that of resolving her abandonment trauma. The pieces appear to fit into place quite typically: Ayano can realize she doesn’t need to win in badminton to earn her mother’s love because her teammates already love her due to their shared experiences (or several other less compelling alternatives the show offers up).
This (for a little while, at least) does not work. Ayano “hates” that her teammates try to encourage her. She doesn’t play badminton to enjoy it. She rejects her pseudo-sister’s olive branch because, in her mind, the two of them living in harmony is not a possible resolution to the story. All these conventional attempts to resolve Ayano’s character arc fail in the same way the player fails to achieve a good ending in DDLC and Sarah Bonito fails to sing a pop record in Time ‘n’ Place. There is a twisted element in the art that can’t be resolved or filtered out. One drop of poison spoiled the whole goblet. I think, in this way, this proposed trend can do a lot of work–from analyzing twisted cases of character, to questioning how a genre can evolve to accommodate twisted elements of style, to simply providing an exciting experience. The question at hand seems to usually be about what happens when art fails to be the magical cure-all we romanticize it to be, and what does it feel like for the artist when their art fails in some way.
Unfortunately, Hanebado! throws all this potential away at the last minute, suddenly turning Ayano’s trauma into the very vehicle that somehow fuels her acceptance of all the aforementioned conventions. Although it was clear early on that the show wouldn’t do much with its twisted elements, I was still disappointed to see them undermined so sloppily. And really, sloppiness is all throughout Hanebado!. Its conventions are dull when not confronting an immutable object, and its ridiculousness is comedic when not in service of that confrontation. Nonetheless, I will remember it as a case study of failure.
My own silly distinctions between my “favorite” anime, the “best” anime, and the “greatest anime of all time” might make for an interesting (if confusing and infuriating) individual post, but for now I’ll just note that Hibike! Euphonium has been my favorite anime since its release. There was never much competition over the spot either. At least, not until Violet Evergarden. And although I’m tempted to just leave it at that and let my well-displayed and overwritten love for Euphonium explain the rest by comparison…I will try to do Evergarden some justice here.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the show that contests Euphonium’s spot is also a KyoAni adaptation of a novel series close to the staff’s hearts. I’m a predictable man, I suppose. Still, the care and commitment that went into Evergarden is immediately obvious. If the novel winning grand prize in KyoAni’s Awards talent search (an awards committee that notoriously doesn’t award any artist most years) isn’t enough proof of the studio’s investment in the series, then consider the anime’s initial preview. The PV was released about a year and a half before the show’s wide release, which (at least for the parts of the industry I keep an eye on) is quite long, even for sequels or films.
Looking back at this initial announcement, KyoAni’s care shows through in numerous changes to character design, style, and even content. Violet’s design appears more moe in the stereotypical KyoAni sense, and clean cut during the shot of her as a soldier. We also catch a glimpse of Violet surfing an axe, as apparently she goes Rory Mercury for a moment in the novels. The anime obviously winds up taking a subtler and more realistic approach to war and Violet’s past, ditching some of the light novel-y elements and complicating Violet beyond the potentially alluring confines of a kuudere archetype. It’s clear from the end result that the staff took their time, experimented, put different ideas in competition with each other, and earned themselves a finely tuned result.
The individual vignettes are stunning–both in terms of the emotion they arouse and the finesse with which they are executed. Even if the soulless ones among us might claim some of these stories are played out, I would return that Evergarden presents us with a unique, if not a superior, version of those stories. KyoAni has always stood out for their ability to make the common or “insignificant” suddenly feel fresh and monumental. That’s basically the entire modus operandi of Euphonium. Animation, music, and a dozen subtleties of direction come together to elevate an act as simple as a smile to the level of divinity. Evergarden certainly holds no punches in this regard. Time and time again, so much work is done in all artistic aspects in order to encapsulate heartwarming/wrenching stories in the space of a single episode.
The overarching narrative of Violet’s self-acceptance is no slouch either. Even if it had weak moments, the developmental force exerted by the vignettes would redeem them completely. The strength of this primary narrative seems to come most often through its constancies, surprisingly enough. Violet’s voice acting (Yui Ishikawa) remains rather singular throughout the show, but the viewer’s perception of it deepens in complexity. It’s difficult to perceive Violet’s voice as anything but robotic at the start of the story, with her only emotional expression seeming to come in the form of the volume or stress of her speech. However, in later episodes, Violet speaks in more or less the same diction, but her emotions are more clearly accessible. Her pride in introducing herself as an Auto Memory Doll, her sympathies towards Ann Magnolia, and her desperation when searching for the Major at his childhood home–all of these emotions are discernable despite each line being delivered in a similar way.
By the end of the season, I was disarmed in the way all my favorite stories have disarmed me. There was nothing left in my heart but admiration. All the emotions I had felt along the way, and any criticisms I might try to leverage, had run their full course. This doesn’t mean they faded or depleted, but that I experienced them uninterrupted to their fullest potential. I hope that by saying that much, I’ve conjured the memory of some story that’s done the same to you. It’s the rare result of expert craft put to work on a narrative you’re unequivocally receptive to. I’ll return to the word “disarming” again, since it’s the only appropriate description of that sensation. If you haven’t felt it yet, I hope you will someday.
But in the end, disarming though it may be, there’s only one word that can properly describe Violet Evergarden itself: beautiful.