There’s something to be said for putting down a more permanent record of your favorite anime of the year. I didn’t do it last year and I realized I regretted it—so this year, although I said I wouldn’t and the list will be shorter than normal—I won’t make the same mistake.
These are my picks for the top anime of 2018.
As I mentioned in my favorite anime moments of 2018 post (I apologize for any repetition in this one), I watched fewer anime in 2018 than I have in a year since I started watching anime, but I have to say that the rewards of that were worth it. Focusing in on a smaller handful of shows that I really cared about made them all the more worthwhile.
And so I got to enjoy things like Planet With, which for me had its emotional climax in Soya’s breakdown midseason and suffered from its speedy pacing to the extent that the finale missed just a little bit of the punch it should have had. Also as an honorable mention is SSSS.GRIDMAN, TRIGGER’s first entirely good anime, which hit for the stars and achieved a stunning amount of good things. Comic Girls was also good and painfully relatable, although it’s faded in my mindspace as time has gone on. And the final honorable mention shoutout goes to Hugtto Preure for being so good that I mostly stayed current with it!
And with that, let’s hit the top 5!
5. Free! Dive to the Future
Free! is the KyoAni franchise that seems like it’ll never die, and for that I am thankful. Although the shows have been inconsistent over their three-season, multi-movie run, there’s a sense of genuine fun that pervades them even in the midst of the deepest drama. Dive to the Future as a successor to the seasons prior is a very satisfying thing, as it does what few anime do and expands the story beyond high school into the characters’ university lives—but even so, the scars of time past go with them. It’s the way that Dive to the Future tackles these pains that make it so good, building moments of catharsis out of relationships and arcs that have changed over time. My favorite? Ikuya’s resolution with his brother.
But that’s just part of Free!‘s appeal to me. The other big part is the manservice. No, not all the muscular physiques, although those are nice. Rather, it’s the emotional service that Free! provides to its male characters in the way it allows them to be emotional, caring, doubtful, and nuanced that’s the real service the franchise provides. I wrote about this a bit with regards to High Speed!, and Dive to the Future builds on that foundation more gracefully than I could have expected, blending the more poignant emotional drama of the film into the lighter tone of the original TV series with reasonable success. Overall, though, it was simply a pleasure to see these characters back again. Here’s hoping for a glorious return in 2020!
4. Fate/Extra LAST ENCORE
The further I get from Fate/Extra LAST ENCORE, the fonder of it I seem to grow. I’ve already written in some depth on what I consider to be the core theme of the show, and while it was LAST ENCORE‘s treatment of the reality of despair and the difficulty—and glory!—of responding to it, there was so much else to this little entry into the Fate franchise that made it mean something to me. This is perhaps best exemplified by Nero’s triumphant speech in the finale, a rousing shout in which she describes her experience of Hakuno’s physical and spiritual ascendancy as witnessing “a star being born!” It is a grandiosity piled upon a bed of prior grandiosities, but Saber’s devotion, love, and loyalty are on full display.
LAST ENCORE is a show about belief that survives despair, and no character is so emblematic of this as the charismatic Red Saber. There is an honest simplicity to her exterior that makes her easy to love, yet she also possesses a complex interiority—born out of her multiples lifetimes—that grounds her as more than a fantasy girlfriend. As Nero and Hakuno travel together upwards, the natural comfort that grows between them likewise serves as the foundation for the grander gestures of LAST ENCORE‘s story. The almost uniformly tragic (or at least bittersweet) tales of those Saber and Hakuno encounter build to these beautifully, and even though this is a Fate hardcore fans say isn’t accessible to non-fans as promise and certainly not one I expected to love, like Saber with Hakuno, I find myself compelled to shout of its radiance.
3. Yama no Susume S3
Somewhere along the way, Yama no Susume has become a series I treasure. When I watched the first season a few years back, I was looking for something cute and light, and nothing more. And while Yamasusu is certainly both of those things, it is also more than that. The care and attention the second season offered to Aoi’s small but poignant struggles to climb Mount Fuji—and especially to her failure—marked it as a show whose modest ambitions belie its exellence. And so, having been drawn in slowly, Yamasusu‘s (unexpected?) return was a cause for celebration for these reasons as well as those of its wonderful production circumstances.
In football, players who are especially appreciated by their fellow players (as opposed to fans, managers, etc.) are sometimes referred to as “players’ players.” Yama no Susume as a creative work strikes me as something similar, a production that holds a great deal of appeal for those of us who are particularly insert in the craft of how anime, or perhaps even more specifically, animated television shorts, are made. Yamasusu is for me a delight of execution that elevates, infuses, and blends with content. I adore it as a small story of a group of friends having small conflicts and small joys, and I both appreciate and learn from it as a work of creativity. All this had its roots in the previous seasons, but much like Aoi, I’ve changed over the years. Being able to perceive those changes in myself—in what I value, in what interests me, in what I want to do—through the lens of Yamasusu‘s simple self is special, and I’m not show any other show recently has done that for me the way this third season of Yama no Susume did.
2. Hisone to Masotan
A friend of mine on Twitter is fond of referencing a spoken-word review of Grand Theft Auto V by Leigh Alexander in which she says that in the game “you can do a lot of things. Not too many things. Just enough things.” Although the context is different, this is kind of how I see Hisone to Masotan—a TV anime that does a hell of a lot of things, but just enough of them to be fun and weird and packed to the dragon innards without tripping over the invisible wire of Too Many Things and becoming incomprehensible. There’s the thing where the D-Pilots are literally swallowed by their dragon/planes, which is also a metaphor for how people’s work can seem to literally swallow them whole. There’s also the thing where Hisone licks Masotan. And the thing where the realization that she’s fallen in love with someone causes her scream her head off and runs into the night. Also the thing with workplace sexism. And the thing the legendary dragon and the historic sacrifice that serves as a macrocosm of the show’s thesis on the hundreds of impossible little decisions people have to make between love, life, career, family, fulfillment, and everything else.
I really do love this kind of jam-packed show, and there was no other anime this year that I enjoyed talking about with other people than Hisomaso. From its unique character designs and the vivid personalities that inhabited them to the adorable Masotan to its willingness to staightforwardly tackle difficult topics, the many things Hisomaso does make it constantly entertaining and persistently interesting. Few enough shows manage either of those, let alone both at once. And while I’ll admit the ending lacked a bit of punch for me due to how quickly it happens, such a fault is easily overlooked amidst the cascade of strengths Hisomaso contains. My favorite TV anime of 2018? This is it!
Talking about Maquia is difficult. Each time I’ve watched it, I’ve cried solidly through the last 20 or so minutes of the film’s three-pronged climax. When so much of a film’s appeal is located in such a visceral reaction, it’s hard to see through the literal and metaphorical tears to everything that lies beneath and facilitates those feelings. I called my mom after I saw Maquia the first time, and unintentionally freaked her out because I still hadn’t finished bawling my eyes out. That conversation wasn’t really like anything in Maquia. And that was okay. Because, ultimately, Maquia isn’t really so much an expression of a concrete reality as it is of those broader threads of experience that overcast our lives but rarely contact our daily existences. Our lives are not made up of a series of vignettes like this story is. We can’t breeze through mundanity in a cheery montage, and our conflicts don’t always wash away in the rain with a slap to our stomachs.
But the truth and familiarity in Maquia can speak so powerfully, I think, because it grasps those grander aspects of our lives that we mostly can’t see and makes them visible. Maquia mourns her son’s passing, and if nothing else is true about Maquia, certainly the fact that the ascending storm of flowers gives her grief—vast, real, and very beautiful—tangible visual expression is. These are the kinds of gestures Maquia makes toward the reality of love. Although the film is centered on a mother’s love for her son, there is universality in that unique particular. Because, really, this is what love looks like. That’s why Maquia is my favorite anime of the year.
T1. Liz and the Blue Bird
Talking about Liz and the Blue Bird is difficult. Each time I’ve watched it, I’ve found myself more and more captivated by the film, drawn into its singular world through the immersive soundscape and deft visual framing. In terms of craft, it is an absolute wonder to me, and it is on those terms that it speaks to me most. It’s not simply that Liz is pretty or that it unspools its emotional thread so delicately that I’m barely conscious of the web being sewn with it; it’s that the film’s acuity of vision and execution is so powerful that I can’t help but be aware of it in every frame even as I am carried along with the gentle currents of Nozomi and Mizore’s story. I like these kinds of things, these sorts of contradictions where the craft-puppets’ workings are so clear that they become a part of the appeal in their own rights. Perhaps that is one meaning of “art house.”
I do like the story of Liz and the Blue Bird. As I’ve written before, to me it is a story of love through letting go, a crisp fold on the edge between togetherness and loss. But my heart is, in the end, with the way the film is made. At times I even consider that I might like the individual components of the film—music, shot composition, sound direction, colors, voice acting, animation—more as discrete parts than as a whole. But I think if that were true, Liz would be a lesser film for the lack of a holistic final product. And Liz is not a lesser film. It’s transcendant as art in a shockingly specific way. I find new reasons to be amazed each time I watch it. That’s why Liz and the Blue Bird is my favorite anime of the year.
And that’s the end! All in all, it really was a good year in anime for me—frankly, it’s one that 2019 will be hard pressed to equal. But you never know what surprises may be around the corner, and I’m certainly hoping to encounter some amazing stuff this year!