Feminist anime recommendations of 2016

Now that the winter premieres have aired and most people have figured out what they’re watching this season, we’re starting to look back at which shows from 2016 deserve a second glance. We had been talking internally about our feminist recommendations of 2016, and some of the team wanted to go into a bit more detail on some of their favorites.

We talked about three kinds of recommendation:

  • Feminist-friendly favorite (you would recommend it to a feminist friend with no caveats)
  • Problematic favorite (you would only recommend it to a feminist friend with caveats)
  • Surprise favorite (you expected it to have caveats, but actually would recommend it without)

Here’s what a few of the team thought – let us know your picks in the comments!

DEE

Shirayuki, a young woman with red hair, stands in a greenhouse holding a flower and smiling at Zen, a young man with silver hair who is wearing a military uniform and offers her a supportive fist-bump.

Feminist-friendly favorite: Snow White with the Red Hair

I thought about this one for all of two seconds before I chose the cozy shojo fairy tale Snow White with the Red Hair. A determined, capable female protagonist who’s constantly fighting assumptions based on her appearance or class status and defeats all naysayers with a combination of stubborn agency and compassionate empathy? Check. A central romance that’s built on mutual respect and admiration where the couple communicates, supports each other’s goals, and trusts one another? Check. A supporting cast featuring a variety of interpersonal relationships and female characters with diverse personalities and lifestyles whom the narrative happily accepts, regardless of how “girly” they are? Check and double-check!

I spent a lot of time writing about this show on my own blog, and its soothing tone and quietly progressive messages never failed to leave me feeling all warm ‘n’ fuzzy inside. The idyllic narrative and low levels of drama may come across as dull to some folks, so I can’t guarantee its relaxed tone is going to appeal to everyone.  But if you’re looking for a smart, comfy, feminist-friendly anime to warm your heart on a cold winter night, I heartily recommend curling up with a cup of hot cocoa and enjoying this beautifully drawn and gracefully directed modern fairy tale.

Cocona, a serious girl with blue hair and brown eyes sits at her school desk looking down at her book while Papika, a girl with red hair and blue eyes, smiles brightly from behind her.

Problematic favorite: FLIP FLAPPERS

Even the best stories are bound to have at least one potentially troubling element, but no show this year was more frustratingly close to perfection than FLIP FLAPPERS. Blending magical girls, fairy tales, and grand theories on perspective and personality, this vibrant, ambitious series also featured a refreshingly honest look at female adolescence and awakening sexuality (and an adorable queer romance to boot!). When it comes to the overarching narrative and individual scripts (the majority of which were written by women, by the way), you’d have a tough time finding fault with FLIP FLAPPERS.

The problem is in the visuals, which are 95% imaginative design, animation, and storyboarding, and 5% terrible choices: a grabby robot here, an intrusive camera angle there, a girl badly in need of some pants over there. FLIP FLAPPERS for the most part succeeds at the daunting challenge of exploring teen sexuality without sexualizing teens, but when it stumbles, yikes, it’s like nails on a chalkboard. As a complete work it’s still an earnest, empowering story for girls, and overall I truly believe the creative team’s hearts were in the right place. It’s just a shame I can’t recommend it without mentioning that 5% of unpleasantness.

Short girl Miyano looks up at Ota and Tanaka with a determined smile on her face. Ota is tall with longer, sandy coloured hair, while Tanaka is average height with black hair and sleepy eyes.

Surprise favorite: Tanaka-kun is Always Listless

I’m gonna cheat a little and build up to my Surprise Pick by talking about a whole Surprise Category, because this year was pleasantly packed with titles featuring male protagonists that challenged gender norms and traditional ideals of (aggressive) masculinity.  Whether it was the focus on gender performance in Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju and Yuri!!! on ICE, the rejection of the “might makes right” mentality in Mob Psycho 100, or the slow dismantling of the classic hoo-rah revenge narrative in 91 Days, there were a lot of top-tier series this year that avoided conventional ideas about the way men “should” behave in favor of pushing for compassion, kindness, and being true to oneself.

Still, amid all those excellent high-profile titles, if I had to pick just one series from the “let’s sneakily challenge gender norms!” category, I’d go with the sleepy under-the-radar comedy Tanaka-kun is Always Listless. It caught my attention with its offbeat sense of humor and the adorable laid-back friendship between its two male protagonists (a relative rarity in anime, where close male friendships are more often defined by passionate competition instead of relaxed camaraderie), then hooked me with its gender-balanced cast’s quirks and dilemmas. A lot of conflicts come from characters’ wishes or realities clashing with cultural expectations, and many of those center around gender norms. Yet through it all Tanaka-kun‘s Zen-like tone strikes a careful balance between supporting its cast’s desires  for change and encouraging them to like themselves as they are. It exudes positivity and acceptance and never fails to cheer me up when I’m having a bad day. Here’s hoping it does the same for you, too!

PETER

Rei, a boy in shorts and a white T-shirt, kneels on the floor surrounded by piles of books and with paper flying around him in the air on a dark blue background.

Feminist favorite: March comes in like a lion

Although following a male lead, Rei, a young shogi prodigy, March comes in like a lion is a story that focuses upon the women in his life and the dramatic influence they have upon him. Suffering from severe depression, Rei is struggling to find some means of attaining happiness and overcoming his tremendous personal tragedies through achievement in a game he isn’t sure he actually cares for.

Although the portrayal of Rei’s relationship with shogi in itself is fascinating, the women in his life represent both his emotional safe space and triggers for his emotional trauma. March comes in like a lion is a story of extremes, alternating between vivid visuals representing Rei’s suffocating sadness and the warmth of the surrogate family he finds in the Kawamoto sisters. The recurring representations of Rei’s struggling in the dark waters of depression become a shared experience as the series regularly emerges for much needed air in the bright and enthusiastic homelife of Akari, Hinata, and Momo. Alternatively, his adoptive sister Kyoko seeks to undermine his success in shogi and drive him back into the depths in what becomes a surprisingly sympathetic quest for revenge. March comes in like a lion has a heartfelt narrative that is both breaking and warming in turns and driven by some of the most evocative animation of the year.

A magical girl leaps down from the sky, smashing against Papika's shield as she protects Cocona, on a colourful, stylised backdrop of Pure Illusion.

Problematic favorite: FLIP FLAPPERS

Also my favorite anime of the year, FLIP FLAPPERS is not without its issues. It is a story of Cocona’s self-actualization told through the medium of a magical girl series on the fairy tale backdrop of the world of Pure Illusion, a Jungian collective unconscious where anything is possible.

FLIP FLAPPERS is a visual experience unlike any anime I’ve ever seen, using the fantastical landscapes of Pure Illusion to represent Cocona’s emotional obstacles through allegorical constructs. Throughout the series are seeds of the Oyashima’s broad influences from philosophical to psychological to artistic. The western viewer is sure to recognize a considerable number of references to western films and animation. Although this may sound burdensome, the fundamental story is as simple as it is poignant, no analysis required.

Unfortunately, although a major component of the story is the Cocona’s budding lesbian romance with her partner, themes of adolescent sexual discovery some of the visuals wander away from artistic representation into pure fan service. Despite this, the only reason I would hesitate to recommend FLIP FLAPPERS to anyone is how embedded in the anime subculture the story is. It has ambition, a sense of style, and a pursuit of complex themes through personal narratives reminiscent of legendary titles like Revolutionary Girl Utena and Neon Genesis Evangelion.

We are at the back of a classroom with the members of a school orchestra in front of us, looking up at their teacher, a man with dark hair and in a dark suit standing on a conductor's podium in front of a blackboard.

Surprise favorite: Sound! Euphonium

This is a series I almost didn’t watch. The moe art style and the high school setting immediately set of my “cute girls doing cute things” alarm bells and its popular response seemed something closer to ogling than anything approaching artistic appreciation. Only a few trusted voices supporting the title convinced me to give it a try and I’m glad I did.

A bit of research revealed that the series is based on a light novel by a woman, Ayano Takeda, who wrote due to her personal experience with orchestral music. Although the visuals certainly speak to the same moe aesthetic that sells shows like Love Live!, Sound! Euphonium doesn’t have anything I could claim was even approaching fan service until the second season (pool episode). The cast is primarily female and features a diverse group of individuals with various interests and personal reasons for playing in the orchestra, pursuing a number of character narratives about their struggles, both personal and professional.

All the while, Sound! Euphonium follows the development of the band itself with an almost sports anime-like dedication, providing a wealth of detail about various compositions and instruments, practicing and maintenance techniques. One particularly fascinating insight to me was the organizational psychology behind the band’s slow rise from disorganized and hopeless individuals to a dedicated and ambitious unit.

AMELIA

Victor, a man with short silver hair and wearing a brown coat, leans over and smiles affectionately down at black-haired Yuri, a young man who is looking up at him and smiling warmly back.

Feminist favourite: Yuri!! on ICE

The reason I went with Yuri!!! on ICE rather than other favourites like Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, Erased or Mob Psycho 100 is that it is the only show I have actually shown to someone else – specifically, to a bisexual friend I’ve known for 21 years and never shown a single anime before.

For the record, she loved it (and Sala, Mila, Mari, Minako and Yuko, thank you Yamamoto and Kubo for incorporating multiple engaging women into your guy-centric narrative) and has been sending me fanart she finds on Pinterest ever since. The next friend I intend to show it to goes back even further, and as far as anime goes I have only ever shown him parts of Gundam Wing. As a gay man and former professional dancer, I know this is going to speak to him in a way it can’t possibly speak to me, and I’m so excited to be able to introduce him to that kind of viewing experience.

These are the friends I watched Queer as Folk with as teenagers, who were brave enough to come out at school in the 1990s and continue to be starved of satisfying representation in western television. They are keen to see themselves reflected and/or catered to in any media they can get and have no awareness of anime’s track record with queer representation. They also haven’t been able to share my hobby with me for the many years we’ve known one another. Yuri!!! on ICE is not a perfect show, but it is the one I’m most likely to be able to share with marginalised friends who are not already anime fans, and that counts for a lot.

Emilia, with long silver hair and a typical isekai girl's outfit (frills, short skirt, thigh high legwear) stands in the sunlight coming through the window in the background looking seriously at Subaru, who sits on the bed in the shadow, leaning forward with his hands clamped over his mouth and a desperate look in his eyes.

Problematic favourite: Re:ZERO

Re:ZERO is the show that sparked my friendships with Peter and Frog-kun, both of whom were instrumental in bringing AniFem to life, so it will always hold a special place in my heart for that. However, I am also a big fan of Re:ZERO for its own merits, which includes some of my favourite female characters of the year.

I have to say it… I love Emilia. (Never gets old.) This may come as a surprise if you only know of her as a moe love interest in impractical clothes, but she’s an ambitious mixed race woman with strong principles and zero tolerance for main character Subaru’s worst behaviours. I find her genuinely aspirational, and other characters like lazy but fiercely protective Ram or saccharine but murderous Elsa are satisfying in very different ways. The ensemble cast gets even better when Emilia steps up to take her place as a candidate for the throne alongside four other female candidates, each with a powerful personality and distinct politics of her own.

However, Re:ZERO stands out most as my feminist pick for its arc in episodes 12-18. In these seven episodes, Subaru’s confidence becomes arrogance and his attraction for Emilia develops into a festering entitlement – both of which Emilia calls him out on in one of my favourite scenes from 2016. Emilia is sadly under-served by the story from this point on, and there’s a certain amount of girl-as-reward storytelling which is disappointing to see, but this is a show with far more feminist merit than you might expect a moe isekai light novel adaptation to have. The first time through the first 11 episodes may be hard work, but its skillful use of devices like foreshadowing and foil characters makes it a very rewarding rewatch.

Migiwa, a woman with long, dark hair and humble clothes and boots in earthy colours, floats upwards above the land, looking down at the green grass, the landscape behind her lit in ominous red.

Surprise favourite: BBK/BRNK

I loved BBK/BRNK’s premiere, in no small part because of its ensemble cast featuring multiple powered-up women of a range of ages and personality types. Based on genre and character designs alone I expected gratuitous sexualisation, cutesy helplessness, a male-driven plot. Instead, easy fanservice opportunities were largely averted, the cutest characters more than held their own in battle and the plot turned out to be in many ways driven by a conflict between women.

This isn’t going to be for everyone, and the first time through I was a little disappointed by the mecha-of-the-week approach, but I’ve enjoyed it much more on rewatch after knowing where the plot is going. That said, my comments here apply only to the first season – the second season introduces some fantastic female characters, but also remembers the existence of fanservice.

Let us know what your three picks would be in comments! Please read our comments policy before joining the conversation and contact us if you have any problems.

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  • Fhnuzoag

    Hmm, let’s see. I’m trying to avoid repeats, which is hard become those are strong picks. The best I can choose is Mob Psycho 100 for ‘surprise pick’. For a story that seems like standard shounen, with not many female characters, MP100 surprised by revealing its ultimate theme… and its theme is toxic masculinity. What the protagonists have to fight against is the expectation that they do fight, the need to gain power to overcome others, that it’s cowardly to ask for others to help you, the idea that just because you were born with certain advantages you should use this to dominate and let it define your life.

  • John Clark

    For myself, Flip Flappers was the anime of the year. Were there sprinkles of fanservice? Yes, and its never a pleasant sight to see, but those instances were few and far between. This show did so much. First things first, setting aside all feminist discussion, it was just far and away one of the greatest anime productions of all time. It seems like opinions on the show tend to either be that it sucked or that it was one of the greatest anime of al time. I fall into the latter camp.
    Unlike most thematically ambitious anime, this show does not force itself select providing commentary on either psychological issues or social issues. Flip Flappers, like Puella Magi Madoka Magica before it, tackles both. As a matter of fact, Flip Flappers managed to integrate the two dimensions to an even greater degree and with even more subtlety. Flip Flappers ties Cocona’s struggle with identity to her sexuality. Most of her psychological struggles are rooted in fear of alienation from society because she’s different. There are many people that have written more intelligent articulate and personal pieces on this show and you should check out some of those. It truly was a gift.

  • This is a great list, I’m excited to pick up the shows that I haven’t started! BBK/BRNK is one I’ve had recommended to me by another online, feminist buddy, and I’m eager to start!

  • I think I’ll give Tanaka-kun another go after this, otherwise I’d seen most of the things here already XD I agree there’s been some good stuff last year

    • Peter

      It was my favorite comedy hands down. Such a nice, sweet series. I was heartbroken when it didn’t get renewed.

    • I ended up watching this over the weekend, really glad I gave it a chance. It was lovely to watch them all be supportive to each other

  • Roman Komarov

    I couldn’t stand the problematic aspects of Flip Flappers, so I’ve dropped it around the third episode. I really enjoyed most of what I saw, but I just can’t stand all that fetishizing male gaze in the visuals.

    Whenever I say “I hate anime”, its because of things like Flip Flappers. People would look at it, like it, promote it, and would promote its sexist parts alongside all the good stuff. And only feminist outlets like this site would still mention that yeah, there are bad things. And the better the good parts, the more effect the bad parts would have on people that wouldn’t know how to separate the good from the bad.

    • Peter

      I actually consider a lot of the fanservice in Flip Flappers to be more forgiveable than the stuff you typically find in anime. There are strong themes of Cocona’s developing sexuality and some (but not all) of the shots are use to drive that component of the narrative.

      • Roman Komarov

        I think there is a difference between portraying the character’s developing sexuality vs objectifying her from a man’s standpoint (and both the camera works + this nasty robot are totally showing the male gaze instead of the character’s self-awareness).

  • Dawnstorm

    My favourite anime of the year (actually my favourite anime since Uchouten Kazoku) is Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, and I have no reservations at all recommending it to feminists. It’s not the most original of picks, though, so I hardly need to talk about it at length. I’m just so glad it’s back this season, and I was convinced it was going to be my favourite of this year, too. And what do they announce for next season: Uchouten Kazoku, season 2. When it comes to exceptional shows, this is already a good year. None of them, so far, are new, though.

    ***

    Problematic favourite? Hm… one show I really enjoyed this year was Koukaku no Pandora, but it’s so problematic that I have a hard time recommending it to feminists as a plearuable watch. The core concept is that a full-body cyborg girl gets superpowers by fingering her android friend in the panty area (where the constructor saw fit to put a port). It’s not all bad; the main duo has good chemistry, and the main character is cheerful and capable and often chastises others for trangression (though that itself comes frighteningly close to a purity ideal). The show contains a lot of straightforward fanservice and sexual jokes that aren’t funny (the weapon system BUER takes the cake; its control system is a voyeuristic five-legged lion – I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about the position of the fifth leg). So why am I talking about the show at all, here, when all I’m saying her sounds more like a warning than anything else? Some of the fanservice was interesting. Barring a very spefic fetish, what do you make of a full nude scene of the main character, with a, I’d say medium-level voyeuristic camera angle, when the body in question is obviously mechanic and constructed with all the detail of a barby doll? It made me wonder about how much of nudity in anime is signal-only rather than direct image stimilus. Stuff like that might make interesting object lessons for people who know more about that than I do.

    However, my favourite feminist moment in the show was then show exposed, mercilessly, my own objectification of women (no doubt guided by the imagery, but still…). I’ll have to explain the set up. Our protagonist is mistaken by a shady genius scientist (a woman, the first character to be introduced with a leeary camera eye) for an abandoned android, when in reality, she just had her entire body replaced by an artificial one after an accident. Our protagonist makes friend with the scients android (they will be our main duo), and then stumbles into a rebellion by the scientists underlings. Why do they rebel? They’re sick of being forced to wear fanservice attire. The rebellion’s leader, for example, wears a bunny outfit. Things go awry, the scientist ends up missing, our protagonist ends up together with her android friend, and the fanservice minions end up arrested and in the hands of the shows ultimate villain. Said villain uses Bunny girl to spy on protagonist and co, who quickly find her but they don’t recognise her until she mimes bunny ears. This was a face-palm moment for me; I didn’t recognise her either. Talk about an object lesson in objectivation.

    Why do I love the show to bits? It’s rather shallow really; it’s cheerful and fun, sometimes toughing, and always an aesthetic I quite like. Still, it’s really, really problematic, and rather than recommend it, I really just wanted to talk about the objectivation lesson. When you watch problematic stuff you enjoy and let your guard down, you can learn things about how fanservice actually works in embarrissing detail.

    ***

    My surprise favourite would have to be Shounen Maid. I knew nothing about the show, going in, other than the set up – poor kid works as a maid for rich uncle – and the promotion pictures (all of the boy in maid outfit). I almost didn’t even watch it. It was obviously going to be a stupid show that plays gender-bending for embarrassment-based humour. Except it wasn’t. It turned out to be a quiet and uplifting show about grief and reconciling with an estranged family. Our newly-orphaned main character finds out that his mothers family were actually rich, when his uncle shows up offering to take care of him. Now, his mother quite literally died from exhaustion, trying to make enough money for the two of them to get by, so his first reaction is to refuse any help, out of resentment (“you could have helped!”) and pride. After a run in with a cockroach, the boy accepts a job as housekeeper. The maid outfit was supposed to be a joke by the easy-going uncle, but our serious and proud protagonist instists on taking the joke seriously and defiantly wears the outfit. However, it’s not only a show of defiance, but also a promise of bonding: the uncle makes a living designing clothes, and the maid outfit is one of his designs. Nephew and uncle are very different, personality-wise, and it turns out they each have what the other lacks as they try to cope with their respective grief and guilt.

    The mother (and sister), though dead from the beginning of the show, reamins a powerful presence throughout, tying the two main characters together through flashbacks, memories and habits/traits acquired simply by living with her. We get a sympathetic portait of a capable signle mother, here. Even if death by exhaustion (heart-attack, I think, but don’t quote me on that) is a rather exaggerated way to draw attention to very real problems, her death is never mined for tragedy. There is a through-line of pride: both mother and son have plenty of it. When should you ask for help?

    The show doesn’t take a judgemental tone; instead it’s gentle and reassuring. Help is there if you choose to reach out – plotwise in the form of the uncle, but it’s really a feature of the entire show, which we understand in the very first scene, when the landlord and lady reassure the boy that they’re letting him stay in his room until he knows what will become of him. Due to that gentle and conflict-free mood, some people may find the show eventless and ultimately boring (I’ve seen a few comments that point in that direction), but I really like those quiet, reassuring shows. If the show bores you, so be it. But don’t let the tag-line and promo-art turn you off. It’s not that kind of show.

  • Martial_Bob

    Snow White With The Red Hair is my guilty pleasure. I enjoy the series and ignore some of the sillier elements. It’s nice that the central plot is about two people and how they handle the world around them and not necessarily some distant enemy.

    Re:Zero I am less guilty about. That series was just amazing. We get to see the full depth of the main character though legitimate trials. These trials I call legitimate because the plot allows for him to fail and fail he does, sometimes in the most spectacular ways. Some of these failures are simply issues of a lack of information but the one with Emilia was different. That wasn’t just the main character misspeaking or getting carried away, he lost his God damned mind. He became entitled, obsessed, and grossly over estimated himself. I had trouble watching it but I knew that it needed to be done.

  • RT

    WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOR SNOW WHITE WITH THE RED HAIR

    i was really taken with akagami no shirayuki-hime… until raji-ouji came back late in the first season. [spoiler alert]

    did anyone else feel like this was just rape apologism?? i mean, shirayuki had to flee her home country because she was about to be forced to become his concubine… this is very clearly a threat of rape. but when he shows up later the anime acts like it’s totally normal that she would be ok around him, and that _he_ would be afraid of _her_ because she rejected his forcible sexual advances. and then in the second season (i’m only up to episode 2 though) it is her responsibility (emotionally and diplomatically) to manage raji’s feelings, because she hurt him by being unavailable. wtf?? i watched this anime because of the anime feminist recommendation but was left with not great feelings about it going forward. no hard feelings to the reviewer, just wondering if anyone else had the same impression as me about this anime?