2019 Retrospective

2019 Retrospective

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.

Another year of anime lived. I was going to begin this post by apologizing for how late it is, but then I realized I’m actually a couple days ahead of last year! So instead, I’m going to act undeservedly proud. I expected nothing less of myself.

This was an incredible year for anime–I think somewhat indisputably. We had potentially the most impressive depth of good shows all decade, as well as quite a few great shows, all spread across various genres. Obviously what specifically falls into those categories of “good” and “great” will differ from person to person, but the sheer quantity and variety of enjoyable shows really stands out to me. In particular, I imagine this will go down as a legendary year for fans with a taste for shounen or action: Mob Psycho II, Dororo, Attack on Titan S3P2, Demon Slayer, Dr. Stone, Vinland Saga, Fire Force, My Hero Academia S4…these aren’t even my kind of anime and yet that list excites me.

Looking at that list may make you think the year was dominated by such shows, but there honestly was a lot of diversity. As a result of my own tastes, this list will end up serving as evidence of that. Still, I’d recommend scrolling through this year’s seasons on MAL or a similar site on your own to get a sense of the breadth. I think it’s easy to adopt a severely negative view of seasonal anime, so when a year makes me feel this excited or optimistic, I want to express that positivity. Why bother keeping up with seasonal content if you aren’t going to appreciate when the going’s good?

But rather than waste any time on vague reminiscences, let’s get into the five anime that defined this year for me:

Hitoribocchi

I expected to get bored or annoyed by Hitoribocchi’s premise within a few episodes, and I think with a few minor differences I probably would have. As is, Bocchi’s character rides a fine line between frustratingly and adorably insecure. I’m sure she actually crosses that line into frustration for some people. However, her earnest quest for friendship won me over, and the moments when she displays some serious independence create depth in her character that leave me sympathetic to her anxieties. I think her having a tangible goal for her friendship quest with a specific motivation for pursuing that goal also goes a long way toward endearing us to her.

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As a result, the comedic notes of her anxiety hit without feeling obnoxious or belittling. The show (and even Bocchi herself sometimes) knows when Bocchi’s worries are hyperbolic and presents them accordingly. Likewise, the show knows when it’s touching on something real in her anxiety (and social anxiety in general) and handles those moments tenderly, imparting a dose of drama. This balance is well-executed throughout the series and is a big reason why every episode feels fresh and unique. In fact, I think Hitoribocchi falls well beyond the slice of life/school days genre tag. It’s very much a forward-moving story that sees significant development in character and plot. Admittedly, it’s primarily a comedy and primarily character-driven, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an adaptation of a 4-koma.

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It’s worth pointing out the strengths of the rest of the cast, both as individual characters and as they relate to Bocchi herself. The dilemma of whether Bocchi can be Sotoka’s “master” and her friend simultaneously begins as a silly gag, but develops into a somewhat moving commitment of comradery between the two. While Aru doesn’t have the same kind of dramatic relationship to Bocchi, she certainly adds a lot of her own flare to the show’s comedy and functions as a solid foil for Bocchi’s insecurities. Despite having a lot more to be embarrassed about, Aru is full of confidence and willing to put herself on display. Again, I think all of these factors contribute to making Hitoribocchi feel continuously alive and fresh. It’s a pleasant ride from start to finish that makes you want to cheer on Bocchi the whole way.

After School Dice Club

To some degree, Dice Club is just a standard cute-girls/slice of life show consisting of an archetypal main cast and formulaic story beats. I would argue that most of the characters grow a bit beyond their archetypes, however, or at least enact those archetypes with their own flare. Midori comes to mind as the best example of this. She is basically your standard rule-abiding student council type, but she brings an extra bite of fierceness to the table. The look she gets in her eyes before executing her winning strategy tells us just a bit more about her character than you might get in another incarnation of this archetype. The same can be said for various qualities of the other characters, and even the side characters have their unique charms. Predictably, I’m fond of the delinquent girl with a pleasant Kansai-ben. 

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I’m also fond of board games, both in real life in how this show portrays them. Board games are a staple activity whenever my friends and I get together, and Dice Club nails (quite impressively, I’ll add) the experience of learning a new game with your friends and slowly piecing together its strategic elements. The viewer goes through this experience with almost every game the show introduces: as the characters begin to play, we begin to recognize the risk vs. reward or competitive aspects of the game much in the same way you would when playing. I mentioned that this was an impressive feat, primarily because the show rarely spells out these strategic intricacies. They become apparent through the gameplay itself, which made me wish the entire show was just girls playing games.

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That isn’t to say the different dramatic arcs are bad, just that the gameplay was done well. The other drama ranges from fine to great, with a certain Christmas romcom event being especially fun. However, I’ll make it clear again that the games are the real reason this show got onto this list. I’m sure I’ll be rewatching certain episodes specifically to enjoy the games or the girls’ reactions to the games. Dice Club delivers on its “quirky activity” in a way most of these slice of life shows fail to. It’s surprisingly enjoyable to see characters play real games that you recognize or have played yourself. Dice Club clearly cares about real board games and wants you to care too.

JK no Mudazukai

Can I say something amazing? This opening song is easily the best of the year. I can appreciate the hype those shounen openings bring, but this combination of music and animation is just full of its own unique style and energy. JK Mudazukai had caught my attention with its first scene, but this opening hooked me in for the rest of the season. The energy of the opening tells the story of the show’s directing as a whole–stylistically, the show never settles for what’s easy. So many jokes are elevated by clever editing; it’s no exaggeration to say you laugh with your eyes as much as your ears. The backgrounds are also packed with extra jokes or details, including subtleties like Loli and Lily hanging out together that sell the idea of the classroom as a living feature of this storyworld.

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Speaking of, the gag of having nicknames for every major character does so much more comedic work than you’d expect. Identifying characters as Loli or Robo instead of Saku or Shiori just seems to make all the jokes hit harder and lifts the atmosphere of the entire show. The nicknames imbue every scene with a lighthearted feeling, and the contrast between that and the rare character who doesn’t use nicknames is almost a joke itself. It’s difficult to explain just how much fun these names add to the show’s antics, but I’m sure if you watch and consider their role that you’ll reach the same conclusion. This wouldn’t be the same show without the nicknames.

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As the straightforward nicknames imply, every character is one-dimensional on the surface (Robo seems emotionless, Loli is tiny, Baka is…well, stupid) but rather individualized and engaging as you get to know them. I’m reminded of how Yuru Yuri handles its characters (these shows beg comparison for a variety of reasons), though JK no Mudazukai bases its cast more strictly on singular traits. However, in both cases there’s a serious humanity below the ridiculous outer layer. Of course, those outer layers certainly aren’t boring either. Yamai is a personally favorite on account of being such a lovable chuuni. The singularity of those outer layers also lends itself to particular kinds of voice acting as the actors enter those “roles,” which results in some great performances of Wota and Loli among others. 

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At the end of the day, it’s hard to put into words why particular comedies appeal to you over others, but I can say that JK no Mudazukai is full of energy, always looking for new laughs, and clearly built out of love for its material.

Maidens in Your Savage Season

Surely it’s no surprise that an original story from Mari Okada makes it onto this list. She is my favorite writer working in anime by such an unfathomably large margin. Even the most powerful confession of love I could write would still mislead you into thinking I adore her less than I truly do. On the surface, it might seem like I’m a sucker for masterful melodrama, but I think her original works (and the ways she depicts her adaptations) are quite daring and challenging in a more general sense as well. This is certainly true of anime like Fractale or Maquia, and Maidens is Okada’s most direct confrontation of what we–as societies or as individuals–like to sweep under the rug.

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At least in the promotion and discussion I encountered leading up to release, Maidens is packaged as a puberty dramedy, as if it will deal with the most milquetoast of taboos and reveal the shocking fact that teenagers think about sex too! Luckily, that is an inaccurate description. This is a story about sexuality and particularly teen sexuality, sure, but the true bulk of its focus and its real thematic depth is centered on desire more broadly. Love, sex, identity, self-worth, art, family, and more are all caught within the tumultuous storm of desire. Okada chooses to explore desire through teenagers perhaps because puberty is the moment at which desire first becomes fully realized, but perhaps also because of the unique relationship between youth and desire.

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There are endless essays brewing in my mind right now, but I’ll save those for another time. What is most beautiful and compelling about Maidens are the questions Okada asks (sometimes explicitly) through her characters. The one that stands out the most is the literal question that characters repeatedly ask each other: “If you had to have sex with someone, who would you pick?” Dramatically, this question forces characters to confront their relationships, and is the spark for several characters realizing they’re in love. Philosophically, this question forces us to consider the complicated relationship between sex and love. Could you truly be in love with someone if you don’t answer their name to this question? Does answering someone’s name to this question mean you love them? Is this question the same as asking, “Who do you love?” Is sex essential for love? Primary for love? Vice versa?

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These are the sorts of raw, human questions that Maidens asks of its characters and us over and over. Of course, Okada doesn’t shy away from more straightforward social issues either: teen pregnancy, age-gap romance, and sex in the arts all get the interrogation light shone on them at different moments. But at the same time as all of this, we’re also treated to lovable characters, sweet romances, and good ol’ Okada humor. Equal parts thought-provoking and heart-moving, it’s everything I want out of melodrama.

My Roommate is a Cat

This is a very intimate inclusion that may be difficult to explain in the same way as the other shows in this list. Yet, I do think this anime is cute and heartwarming to a degree that anyone could appreciate. Haru’s personality is fun and endearing, which sells the whole personification of a cat conceit well. I think most attempts at this would go the Disney route and just make an animal think and behave exactly like a human, but My Roommate constructs some great cat-like narration and dives deep into Haru’s interiority. The depiction never feels like a gimmick or strays into obnoxious territory. It’s an impressive feat that usually gets highlighted by each episode’s structure of witnessing events from a human perspective first before repeating them from Haru’s.

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But those aren’t the real reasons why this was my favorite anime of the year and one of my favorites of all time. I suppose my connection to this anime begins with Subaru. We share the position of writing for a career (though in different fields…for now), and although I’ve never been at an emotional point where I’d call other people “annoyances,” I certainly share his desire to only engage with other people on his own extreme terms. Subaru also experiences solitude in a particular way, or rather appreciates solitude for a particular reason. What he pursues in his solitude is a wholeness or oneness, an atmosphere in which he understands everything to the limits of his own emotions and can communicate (that is, to himself) without interference. There’s a point at which we start to say isolating behavior like this is negative, perhaps because this “wholeness” solitude can provide discourages you from making changes. If you feel complete when you’re alone, your objective becomes maintaining the status quo, when in reality you may benefit from adapting to change.

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This “risk” of solitude is something that I think is easy to conceptualize (I mean, we just did), but may be difficult to recognize or act upon in practice. How do you evaluate yourself and judge whether your behavior is avoidant or the result of fear versus simply your preference and beneficial for you? My Roommate tackles this problem by introducing Haru and challenging Subaru’s perceived wholeness. A cat isn’t a person (though Haru is an “annoyance” to Subaru in other ways), and so Haru and Subaru coexist in a sort of limbo state. Subaru isn’t really alone, but he’s not with company either. Living with Haru is an opportunity to add something to solitude without destroying it or having Subaru reject the situation. In the process, Haru may open Subaru’s eyes to what he couldn’t perceive about himself when truly alone.

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Being someone who appreciates solitude for the same reason as Subaru, but also being acutely aware of some negative experiences I’ve had with solitude, the development of Subaru and Haru’s relationship hits me hard. The impact is doubled considering my own close relationship with the cat that I had as a child. A pet you bond with well, who becomes more than a simple companion, can enter your most personal sphere without feeling like an intrusion or addition. Really, you seem to understand and love each other more than you could with any human. As Subaru reflects in the show’s conclusion, the connection he forms with Haru causes his world to grow “bigger and bigger.” The “complete world” you can find in solitude has the potential to be expanded by connections where two parties attempt to understand and care for one another. This conclusion doesn’t insist that you need to break out of solitude or that you shouldn’t like being alone, but rather that it’s possible to find the wholeness of solitude in your connections to other people as well. There are relationships that feel as complete and secure as solitude. Just as Subaru is glad to have found one with Hari, I’m glad I found one with my own cat.

In truth, I’ve only scratched the surface of my feelings towards this anime, but I believe these thoughts at least convey the color of those feelings. I see in My Roommate a lot of what makes me who I am. The emotions that must have inspired this story are the same emotions kept near and dear in my own heart.

 

And that’s the list. Honestly, a few other shows (including Senko-san and Kaguya-sama) came close to replacing entries on this list. I think that’s more proof of the quality of this year; usually it’s immediately clear to me what my standout experiences of the year were. I’ll repeat my thoughts from the introduction: I really enjoyed watching anime this year. Some years wind up being a seasonal search for that one gem you can look forward to each week, and some seasons wind up having no such gems at all. I hope this year didn’t feel that way for any of you, but I suppose it’s impossible to please everyone.

Looking ahead to next year, a lot of what has me most excited so far are sequels. They are incredible sequels to be sure (Chihayafuru, Railgun, Haikyuu, Oregairu–it’s like all of my prayers are being answered), but it’ll make creating the next iteration of this list a true challenge. That being said, some promising newcomers are on the horizon, so I’m sure I won’t have to bend my rules next year.

Anyway, that’s all in the future. In the meantime, I need to get back to work on my “decade of anime” list and that Clannad project that isn’t going to finish itself. See you all then!

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