Monday, 31 December 2018

My Anime Top Ten - 2018

"Ha!" I thought to myself as I sat down to write this, "Making a Best of 2018 anime list is going to be easy. I mean, there wasn't that much good stuff this year, right?" Cut to five minutes later, and me squinting at a list of 25 series and films that was still threatening to grow at any moment if I were to just think a little harder.

No matter what the naysayers may wish to opine on the matter (I find they usually say "nay"), 2018 has been another good year for good anime, and just like any other year the slew of titles we find ourselves buried under each year still provide more than enough gems to make the whole endeavour worthwhile.

So what were the true highlights of this year? Well, let's start with some honourable mentions that I had to cull, from the most recent Bloom Into You (which I'm ditching on a technicality because I've not quite finished yet), through to some genuine, heart-warming surprises like Mitsuboshi Colors and After the Rain that don't quite make the cut. It was also a strong year for film to make life difficult, with Mirai, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms and I Want to East Your Pancreas all notable and not far off my eventual list. There were also some harder TV anime choices that missed my top ten - Violet Evergarden deserves a place in so many ways, but didn't sway or swell my heart quite like my final selections, while the same can be said for After the Rain - so here's my final cut of the things I would mark out as well worth watching from everything 2018 had to offer.

10. Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan

This series probably doubles as my "why did everyone forget about this so quickly?" lament of 2018 (and yes, I know you'll respond by saying "because Netflix", but still...), as I really can't think of any other series that straight-up charmed me in the way that Dragon Pilot did this year. Its story of a misfit girl desperate to try and find a place - and more to the point a place she actually desires rather than one of mere convenience - is another of Mari Okada's semi-autobiographical masterclasses, and the result is as entertaining as it is beautiful. The show's visual style and character designs will be an acquired taste but they fit the outlook of the show like a glove, and its mixture of humour and human drama is expertly paced and laid-out to a tee, to leave me desperately struggling to avoid writing a cliched "it made me laugh and made me cry" line... but it did both of those things, and ultimately that's a vital part of Dragon Pilot's appeal. It's been a strong year for Mari Okada, but this was still my 2018 highlight from her oeuvre. 

9. Penguin Highway

(Full disclosure: The UK theatrical and home video rights for this series have been acquired by my employer, Anime Limited)

Let's be real here for a moment: Penguins are the best animal. With that in mind, why wouldn't I sing the praises of a film with the word "penguin" in the title? Ironically, the penguins of Penguin Highway aren't really all that important to the plot in a literal sense, as this adaptation of Tomihiko Morimi's novel is more interested in its smart-alec young protagonist and his worldview, shaped through a prism of weird mystical science and the schism between what you actually know and what you think you know.

For their debut feature-length film, Studio Colorido have created a gorgeous, eye-catching film, and suffused it with life and heart via a mostly snappy script that makes great use of its source material and adds another inflection point on the chart for good Morimi to anime adaptations.

Oh, and those penguins really are adorable.

8. A Place Further than the Universe

Hey, you know what I was saying about penguins? Well, guess what... my next pick features them too, albeit as just one brief blip on a group of high school girls on an expedition to the antarctic.

As tired as the criticisms of "cute girls doing cute things" anime might be, my expectations were to find a run-of-the-mill but mildly amusing story here, but A Place Further than the Universe truly surprised from beginning to end. Rather than just perfunctory friendships, this is a series that really gets the complexities of human relationships - how you can love someone like family, apart from those times when you really can't stand them. This in itself linked into the show's examination of actual family, culminating in 2018's first moment where I couldn't stop bawling at the end of an episode of anime, which wouldn't have happened had I not come to love the show's cast of misfits learning to get along over the course of their daft, entertaining but educational adventures.

7. Lupin the 3rd: Part 5

(Full disclosure: The UK streaming and home video rights for this series have been acquired by my employer, Anime Limited)

Having been surprised by just how terrific the return of the "real" Lupin the 3rd was in Part IV of the series, I have to admit I expected little of Part 5 of the franchise - was there really anything more they could do with this ageing character in our modern times?

As it turns out yes, there was plenty for those involved to get their teeth into. Dropping Lupin into a modern, technology-filled world for this series seemed like it should be a misstep, but as it turns out pitting this master thief against social media and, ultimately, off-brand Mark Zuckerberg with family issues, was a work of genius, offering countless hungrily taken opportunities for social commentary and to open a window to the world we find ourselves in now.

This series brought us Lupin at his most relevant and his smartest, boosted as always by his entourage, not least new addition Ami who eased the path into the show's world of technology ably to become a cornerstone of the show in her own right.  I don't really want to consider the question of whether Part IV or Part 5 of Lupin the 3rd is better, but the more I think about it the more I suspect that this year's iteration may win out in a straight fight between the two.

6. Revue Starlight

Mention the work of Kunihiko Ikuhara to me, and I'll probably sigh and make a complicated face at you. Well, that and explain how I watched all of Revolutionary Girl Utena in a 72-hour period and how that was a terrible idea. In short, I have a complex relationship with his standout works that trends towards dislike - his use of repetitive narrative structures irritates me, and the abstraction inherent throughout his work often feels laboured to me. I love what he tries to do, but rarely enjoy its actual execution.

Thus, I approached Revue Starlight expecting the worst - a series not created by Ikuhara himself, but clearly heavily influenced by his approach. With that in mind, I was surprised and refreshed to find myself fascinated by it, and more importantly enjoying it tremendously. The show's theatrical setting made for a perfect foil for its staged narrative, its characters were compelling, and the twist in its tail over half-way through the series was bananas in all of the best ways and was almost (but not quite) redolent of Puella Magi Madoka Magica's outstanding episode 10 in the way it stripped so much of its story away to reveal the wiring under the board.

Although its production struggled here and there, Revue Starlight also boasted some tremendous animation that I still can't quite get out of my head, as my mind occasionally wanders to swords clashing theatrically, or the almost hypnotic sight of uniforms being manufactured for the show's regular auditions. Some might call this series Ikuhara-lite as a pejorative - I call it exactly that as a compliment of the highest order.

5. Megalo Box

(Full disclosure: The UK home video rights for this series have been acquired by my employer, Anime Limited)

I've never watched Ashita no Joe (please don't hit me), so why would I care about a 50th anniversary remake with a weird cyberpunk sci-fi aesthetic? Because it's bloody amazing, that's why.

Megalo Box is, when all is said and done, a great example of sports anime done right - the perfect blend of out-of-ring human drama coupled with in-ring conflict, ensuring that the two are intertwined deliciously. The triumphs of "Gearless Joe" throughout are palpable - the kind of moments that leave you punching the air in delight; the moments that see him lose his footing or have the rug pulled out from under him are heart-rendingly painful; the cliffhangers where it seems like all hope is lost are the pinnacle of the "what do you mean I have to wait a week to find out what happens next?" despair that is lost outside of the week-to-week of a TV broadcast schedule that I suspect will one day be lost from visual media forever.

Backed up by the year's best soundtrack, and a visual style that brings an old-school vibe to its animation but with thoroughly modern sensibilities, few series can beat Megalo Box's presentation either, making it an almost complete package that shouldn't be missed.

4. SSSS.Gridman

Where to place Gridman in my top ten was a tough choice, mostly because it's the series I'm the most unsure about in terms of how I'll feel about it come this time next year. As of right now, I'm fresh from the experience of watching it in the moment, and it's a series that traffics intensely on its immediacy, both in terms of its own week-by-week story and also the way it layers its homages to Evangelion and far beyond throughout.

In all honesty, I nearly didn't watch this series at all - the related Japan Animator Expo short left me cold, and my knowledge of tokusatsu is perfunctory at best. Yet none of that matters - or rather, it all matters if you want it to, but Gridman has layers far beyond being a love letter to Ultraman and its ilk.

What makes the series work so well is how those layers build up over the course of the show. We start with our protagonist, clueless but press-ganged into saving the city. Then we have our "villain", as her motivations for serving as antagonist develop and branch out the deeper we go. All of the show's other characters have important parts to play and also develop in their own rights too, as part of a broader narrative that I found utterly compelling from start to finish.

I'm more than willing to concede that Gridman sees Trigger arguably leaning too hard on its Gainax roots, and it certainly trades heavily in both its particular brand and the nostalgia and knowledge that comes with it, but I don't think of any of that should dampen the praise for its ambitious, smart and tightly delivered narrative which barely puts a foot wrong throughout.

3. March Comes in Like a Lion (Season 2)

(Full disclosure: The UK home video rights for this series have been acquired by my employer, Anime Limited)

I liked the first season of March Comes in Like a Lion a lot - it's the kind of series I'd wax lyrical about and espouse to anyone, especially as a great example of the breadth of story-telling that anime can provide to show that it's not all about Boruto's Dad or fan service. However, I'll also admit that at times the first series of the show dragged a little, occasionally even feeling a little lacking in focus and direction.

Not so this second season - with all of its cast and core ideas in place, it really spreads its wings and flies. More specifically, the mainstay of this series focuses not so much around its main character, but Hina, as she suffers bullying at school. In short, the way this entire story arc is handled is incredible, bringing across all of the anguish and raw emotion of the situation - not just for Hina herself, but for everyone around her from relatives to friends and even to teachers. It's the kind of thing they should air in schools, quite frankly.

Even outside of this standout arc, this second series of March Comes in Like a Lion feels more confident and assured, and everything that it tries its hand at sees it hit the mark and achieve whatever it sets out to.  Given how lofty those goals and subject matter are, that's highly impressive, and enough for me to waive any concerns about the season starting in 2017 to ensure that it makes my 2018 list.

2. Devilman Crybaby

Were it not for Masaaki Yuasa at the helm, I may not have ventured into the world of Devilman via this Netflix Original series. Boy would I have missed out - not only is this series a perfect vehicle for Yuasa's expressive style and intense excesses, it's also a fantastic story to boot.

Of course, Devilman Crybaby is a visually engaging series from its enticing opening credits onwards, and every time you think you've got a handle on what it can throw at the screen it finds something new (and usually shocking) to surprise you and reset your expectations. None of this would matter in isolation though, and the show's narrative moves at a steady clip and quickly, handily builds up its characters so that before you know it you care about their plight; their trials and tribulations - and there are certainly plenty of those.

The result is a series that refuses to take its foot off the accelerator or hold anything back at any time as it barrels on towards its shocking climax - a refreshing feeling when so many other series tend to feel like they're always hedging their bets or trying to elongate a story arc. In other words, Devilman Crybaby's appearance on Netflix blew away the New Year cobwebs like a 250,000 Volt electric shock - and I'd willingly go back for another dose.

1. Liz and the Blue Bird

Given the success of A Silent Voice, I simply assumed that we'd already seen Naoko Yamada at the pinnacle of her career - I mean, how could you top its emotive tale of redemption? By making Liz and the Blue Bird, as it turns out.

Now, to be clear, this Sound! Euphonium spin-off (although it seems unfair to even call it that in a sense) doesn't have any of the grandiose emotion of A Silent Voice... but that's almost what makes it so powerful. Instead, Liz and the Blue Bird is a subtle tale of normal, everyday girls and their normal friendships, and the forces - both internal and external - that can push and pull at those relationships, wearing them down over time on one side, building them up on the other.

Watching these characters struggle with themselves and others in the face of these forces, at a time when adolescence makes all of those forces feel magnified, always carries the potential for drama, but this film carries it all with a magical lightness of touch and a deft but expressive hand that gives so much weight to everything that happens in this quiet, contemplative piece.

Of course, Liz and the Blue Bird looks great - changing up its character designs from mainline Sound! Euphonium as if to make the tenuous nature of their connection clear, and obviously relishing its leaps from the real world to the fictional allegory within the book which encompasses the film's title. It also sounds great too, in its own melancholy way. But it's the way this movie feels which really makes it stand out unlike anything else I've watched this year, with an emotional resonance that is hard to describe but has a hefty, tangible and relatable impact upon the viewer. It's a film I almost watched again the day after I first viewed it, simply because I was still feeling its lingering effects and wanted to confirm them. That never happens to me, and it marks out just how special Liz and the Blue Bird is.

One might even call it the best anime I've watched in 2018...

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