Feminist anime recommendations of Winter 2017

Now we’ve reviewed all the Spring 2017 premieres, we thought we’d round up some of our favourites from shows that ended last season.

We talked about three kinds of recommendation:

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

Just so you know, every one of us would have picked Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju for the feminist-friendly favourite. (For those who loved it as much as we do, we highly recommend our own Dee’s insightful episode recaps for both seasons.) To give you a more diverse selection, I asked that only one person cover Rakugo and that the rest come up with other options – easily done, since we all had other anime from the season that we had loved.

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

VRAI

Feminist-friendly favorite: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, Season 2

[Editor’s note: as mentioned above, this was the feminist-friendly favourite and clear recommendation for the entire team, which Vrai kindly agreed to write up on behalf of all of us! If you only watch one anime from the past year, make it this one – AC]

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is a grounded drama, quiet and deliberate, and one of the only anime I can think of that follows a character from childhood all the way through the natural processes of aging. It excels at bringing the viewer into the world of rakugo, even those who don’t have any previous idea of what the art form is (no small feat, given that there’s not really a neat western equivalent).

The series tackled huge themes over the course of its two seasons, including gender roles and presentation, the relationship between art and performer, the balance between tradition and progress, and how people make sense of their lives by turning them into narratives. And through all of that, it never lost its hold as a gripping character drama, grounded in loves found, lost, and communicated through performance. It is truly, truly special.

Problematic favorite: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid

I confess to having a drastically lowered bar for anime that’s willing to overtly admit to having queer leads. Basically, if it’s not perpetuating horrific stereotypes or the idea that assault is a romantic gesture (which knocks out a good chunk of BL anime), I’ll probably watch it all the way through.

Even then, Dragon Maid managed to surprise me. The T&A from the early episodes drops off fairly quickly; and while every time the show trotted out Lucoa’s molestation of a child as if it were the height of comedy I wanted to stab needles under my fingernails, I wound up surprised by how sweetly sincere a lot of the series is (even if it gets a bit draggy in the middle).

I’m sure there are accusations of queerbaiting, because there are always are (and that shit gets pulled a lot, especially with KyoAni productions), I was pleasantly taken aback by how straight (heh) the finale wound up taking the typical magical girlfriend trope: normal protagonist realizes they don’t actually want their old life back, and makes a proclamation of their feelings; they might not kiss, but a lot of straight couples in this genre don’t either. Because anime loves milking that “will they won’t they” for as long as possible.

Tohru embraces Miss Kobayashi on the ground while Kanna stands a short distance away, watching them.

Surprise favorite: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid

Dragon Maid would probably also count for this one — KyoAni being KyoAni, I pretty well expected things to veer in either the HEY LOOK A HETEROSEXUAL SUBPLOT direction of Sound! Euphonium or the THEY’RE SUCH GOOD FRIENDS approach of Free!. So have a cookie, KyoAni. I still don’t trust you.

(The biggest surprise this season was that I didn’t care much for ACCA-13, despite House of Five Leaves being one of my all-time favorites. While a perfectly fine series, the at-arms-length approach to the cast and their relationships ultimately left me a bit cold).

PETER

A fish-eye view of Mauve and Jean in formal clothing sat opposite each other over a diner table, with a large glass of red wine between the two, close to the camera.

Feminist -friendly favorite: ACCA

After so many years watching anime, I’d like to think I have a pretty good measure of my own tastes. It isn’t very often that a show comes along which forces me to reassess what actually makes a good story. Even the briefest exposure to ACCA puts its attractive points on full display, a unique visual style and excellent score. The charming cast of characters and meandering exploration of the diverse districts of ACCA made keeping up with the show a bit of an addiction. At it’s heart, or perhaps close to it, the story is a conspiracy thriller but without the thrills. At no point did I ever feel my adrenaline pumping, the rising conflict approaching the climax never arrived. All the same, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

ACCA was relaxed from start to finish. More than anything I think I just enjoyed my weekly vacation into its world alongside Jean. That along with the tragic history of some of the characters was sufficient to put this anime near the top of the season, regardless of the ending. Throw in a number of female characters of various pursuits among its diverse cast and some really delicious looking pastries and you’ve got a winner. The only warning this anime needs is to avoid watching on an empty stomach.

Tohru looks at Kobayashi with a big smile and tears of delight.

Problematic favorite: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid

To be perfectly honest, Dragon Maid was every bit as much of a surprise as Saga of Tanya the Evil when it came to enjoyment. I was firmly buckled in and ready for a disasterpiece of fanservice and problematic content. What I got was an unquestionably horny but heartfelt romantic comedy with an endearing cast of characters and KyoAni’s expected tour de force of animation. Dragon Maid even tackled some particularly tough subjects, particularly Tohru’s acceptance that her time with Kobayashi would be very limited by her reckoning and Kobayashi’s difficulties reciprocating Tohru’s advances after a lifetime of feeling unwanted romantically. Dragon Maid even navigated the minefield of sexual development among adolescents with the relationship between Kanna and Saikawa.

The major stumble of Dragon Maid was, to not mince words, Lucoa’s sexual molestation of the underage Shouta, which was not only used for comedic purposes but tacitly accepted by the rest of the cast. Despite the one, admittedly glaring, flaw, I probably looked forward to Dragon Maid more than any other show week to week.

A close-up of Tanya's face in an evil smile, with a glint in her wide eyes.

Surprise Favorite: Saga of Tanya the Evil

I recall rolling my eyes at the preview of Tanya but became quite a bit more interested when I read a bit more about the premise. Even having been quite a bit more spoiled than your average viewer going into Tanya, I’m pretty blown away by many aspects of this show. Despite some interesting twists, I prepared for something truly trashy and likely problematic given just about every aspect of Tanya’s character, but the show never went there. Instead the show portrayed the sort of truly magnificent bastard I love to watch succeed just as much as I desire they spectacularly fail. Given this was Studio NuT’s very first anime, the series had some respectable animation and excellent direction.

Tanya would have been a major surprise for me if it was good at all, but the final product was downright shocking. Tanya is an awful little creature and the show made no attempt to lionize her or make her sympathetic. That said, she was just vindictive enough and her story was so outrageous that I became really invested in her fate. After an open-ending, I’m hopeful for a sequel.

DEE

The cartoony ClassicaLoid characters stand in front of a sparkling background, some crying big gushes of tears, some saluting and some with delighted smiles.

Feminist-friendly favorite: ClassicaLoid

From the director of Mr. Osomatsu comes a comedy about famous composers reborn in the modern era who escape a research lab and move into a Japanese boarding house where they cook gyoza, play MMOs, and use their psychedelic “musik” powers to help their high school landlady. And if all that sounds absolutely ridiculous, that’s because it absolutely is. Blending wit with weirdness with old-school slapstick and topping it all off with a dollop of heartfelt sincerity, ClassicaLoid is a creative playground that fully commits to both its characters’ conflicts and their shenanigans, and I loved it for that.

I also loved it because, unlike so many comedies, I didn’t have to take breaks between giggles to constantly roll my eyes at gratuitous T&A or flip a table about some queer-bashing “joke.” Barring exactly two references to Kanae being flat-chested, ClassicaLoid is good clean fun, a little too saucy to be a true “kids’ show” but with all the bright energy of a Saturday Morning Cartoon. It also managed to impress with its understated progressivism, as it doesn’t force its cast into traditional gendered behavior patterns (Landlady Kanae, for example, is both a thoughtful caretaker and a temperamental rage-monster), and even directly challenges cultural norms from time to time, such as in the delightfully inclusive “Girls’ Day Out” and “Love, And You Shall Die.”

As those links can attest, I haven’t been able to shut up about this goofball series, so it should be no surprise that this was my second-favorite show of the season (behind Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, of course) and that I give it a big ol’ Feminist-Friendly Thumbs-Up. If you enjoy a bit of gleeful silliness in your life, this is one melody well worth playing.

Miss Kobayashi lies on grass with her arms behind her head, dressed in her usual masculine trousers, shirt and sweater. On one side of her stretches out cute child dragon Kanna in human form, while on the other side is Tohru, with her big dragon tail sticking out from underneath the petticoats of her Victorian maid costume.

Problematic favorite: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid

I really wish I could come in here singing this show’s praises without reservation. That I could just flail over its adorable normalization of queer families, the way it tackles issues of prejudice and difference, its ability to discuss sexuality often without sexualizing its characters, and how it balances the funny, the sweet, and just the right amount of bawdy. And there are stretches (especially the first three and the last two episodes) where that’s pretty much true. The dynamic between the introverted Kobayashi, the eager-to-please Tohru, and their too-cute-for-words “daughter” Kanna is magnificent, and every scene that centers on one or all three of them exudes humor and heart in equal measures.

But then there’s that troubling subplot where busty ex-goddess Lucoa molestd a flustered boy literally named “Shouta.” The “joke” seems to be that she’s unaware what she’s doing is wrong or even sexual, but no one ever explains to her that it’s wrong, and he tells her to stop and she doesn’t, meaning the series is tacitly approving of her behavior (or at least not seeing it as harmful). This is emphatically Not Good.

…And yet. Precious Gay Dragon Family. And Elementary School Crushes. And Nerd Boyfriends. There’s too much good in this series for one bad but minor story line to turn me away from it. Dragon Maid is by-and-large a sweet, charming queer rom-com, and for that it deserves praise. But it’ll always be that one subplot away from a wholehearted recommendation, and that’s a damn shame.

Mauve walks past Jean and speaks quietly to him as he listens but does not react.

Surprise favorite: ACCA

ACCA is something of a paradox: a leisurely thriller, full of increasing stakes and paradigm-shifting reveals, but with a cast of adults who are (almost) always coolly chowing down on baked goods, even in the face of uncertain loyalties and whispered coups. It builds its story with an even hand, unleashing organic but surprising twists along the way, and finishes with a finale that’s both unexpected and understandable; thoroughly satisfying. I sure can’t fault it for being too run-of-the-mill or predictable.

While the protagonist and many of the central figures are men who don’t especially challenge gender roles (although there is a complex, sweet male friendship at its center, which is always nice to see), ACCA isn’t just a boys’ club. The series also depicts women in positions of power and treats them with respect, particularly Mauve, a high-ranking official and active player in Dowa’s political machinations. At worst, some of its supporting ladies occasionally fall into stereotypical beats of “women who’re obsessed with office romance,” and at best… well, I don’t want to spoil the surprise.

The series tends to hold the audience at arm’s length, and I confess that the emotional distance coupled with the methodical pacing makes it hard for me to personally get excited about it. Still, it’s a fascinating study in slow-burn storytelling, punctuated with a few moments of genuine emotion and featuring some pretty rad characters, even if I never felt like I got to know them that well. Your mileage may vary, but I’d say it’s definitely worth trying for a few episodes to see if it catches your interest.

AMELIA

A stylised screenshot from Scum's Wish, in which Hanabi is dressed for a former night out, looking desperately at something off screen while the silhouette of a man remains foregrounded, his thoughts about how desirable Hanabi is in thought bubbles.

Feminist-friendly favourite: Scum’s Wish

I had high hopes for Scum’s Wish from even before I saw the premiere. It met my high expectations, though other people’s reviews have been mixed. Scum’s Wish shows a spectrum of human behaviour, from destructive kindness to enthusiastic cruelty, and invites you to feel for everyone involved. The human experience is messy and complicated, and Scum’s Wish manages to capture that in a beautiful, strongly manga-inspired format, with some excellent voice acting. Anecdotally, it seems like if you recognise echoes of your own emotional experiences, you may be more likely to enjoy Scum’s Wish. In my corner of the internet, it seems that it would either hit you hard, right where you live, or leave you cold.

Specifically, Scum’s Wish is all about sexuality, emotions and how the two intersect. Sex isn’t just about romance; it is comfort, distraction, consideration, revenge, calculation, validation. Often it is more than one of these at a time. As in life, sex and sexuality are complicated. Young people are shown to be sexual without being exploited for fanservice. Queerness is explored gently and with nuance. All the main characters, including women with different attitudes, priorities and situations in life, are shown to make questionable decisions without judgement. It is a beautiful and extremely human show with plenty to say that is of interest to feminists.

First love interest Hikari straddles main character Shoichi in a shallow ocean bed at the beach. Subtitle: "Be honest. You're aroused right now, aren't you?"

Problematic favourite: Seiren

After a problematic first episode, Seiren went on to surprise me by making main female character Hikari an emotionally honest and confident young woman with sexual desire and agency. She also happened to care deeply about appearances, be prone to merciless teasing and act impulsively regardless of the feelings of the people around her. At the same time, she is generous, proactive and values both friendship and ambition more highly than romance. The other love interests in this visual novel-style branching format anime aren’t as good as the first, but she does at least turn up in their arcs too, continuing to be a delight. (I still wish they’d scrapped the under-developed final love interest and given main character Shoichi an arc with his best friend Ikuo instead though.)

We’ve looked previously at how the non-consensual aspect of fanservice is often its biggest problem. When Seiren veers close to this line it is with incidents far more plausible and less hands-on than boob grabs or skirt flips. In our first podcast, we talked about how it seems more like a western sex comedy than a typical fanservice-fest. Much of it is driven by the women themselves, but even the more gratuitous moments tend to still centre the characters as characters. Your mileage may vary, but Seiren‘s fanservice falls within my personal tolerance.

It also earns points for its portrayal of sibling relationships in main character Shoichi and his older sister Tomoe. They are close in age and have overlapping social circles at school, while at home they hang out together in non-sexy leisure clothes, playing board games and chatting about their future. When she shows up in skimpy cosplay, or her underwear is being discussed, he is completely unaffected – just like real siblings. After the fanservice sisters of Fuuka, this was a relief to see.

Mauve walks away from subordinate Jean in the street at night. Subtitle: "You are less useful than expected."

Surprise favourite: ACCA

There were really only two options for this category: Saga of Tanya the Evil and ACCA. I watched both to the end and was indeed pleasantly surprised by Tanya, but I enjoyed ACCA more. I had no idea when I watched the first episode that it was based on a manga by a woman, just that there was something captivating about this story of bureaucracy, something charismatic about these ambiguous characters. 12 episodes later, I still can’t put my finger on exactly what it is about ACCA that drew me in, but every week I was gripped by this slow burn thriller about an auditor and his various bosses.

I should acknowledge that my initial fears of the women in the office serving no purpose other than cake consumption were sustained, but they were such minor characters in such a large ensemble that it soon stopped jarring me. To offset that, the story arc of Director General Mauve soared far above my expectations, though this only becomes clear towards the end. ACCA prioritises plot and worldbuilding over character, so we don’t get too many insights into Mauve’s head, but if we had she would have been one of the standout female characters of the year.

LAUREN

Kudelia faces a crying Atra, looking surprised.

Bonus recommendation: Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans

[SPOILERS for the ending of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans]

This is the only Gundam show with Mari Okada in the writing credits, and perhaps that’s why it ends with such a female-focused conclusion. In the end, it’s two women who tell how the chips fell. One: a Gundam pilot whose accolades leave her on top of the world. Career success has taken the place of a love interest, as she concludes the series on the cusp of a promotion, planning a celebratory dinner with her colleague (who, thanks to his troubled relationship with the main antagonist, some viewers read as queer). Another, whose beauty and royal bearing fooled us into thinking she’d be the main character’s love interest. Instead, she ends the series as an influential politician, a mother, and according to the creators, another woman’s wife. All in all, it’s an unusually progressive entry in the Gundam canon.

 

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

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  • Jahu

    I’ve watched a grand total of one Winter 2017 anime, so here I am to gush about the (still going) TV adaptation of Little Witch Academia. It’s heartfelt and silly and wonderfully animated (in both senses) and a breath of fresh air, even with the familiar magic boarding school premise. In the past few episodes things have been getting REALLY plot-heavy and I’m excited to see where the last ten episodes take us!

  • Rory More

    So your telling me the middle of Koboyashi… “drags on” 😉

  • Nicholas Penrhyn

    I didn’t finish Tanya the Evil… The whole Nazi thing came at a really sore time for me to even fathom tolerating it even despite how original the premise seemed, not to mention the original author has kind of a fascination with Nationalist figures (Carlo Zeno for an obvious one) in general, and bleh, war stuff on top of that… Pass…

    Other than that I agree with pretty much everything here! Though I didn’t watch IBO, hearing the reactions to this season was entertaining xD

    • It’s a delayed WWI not Nazis. I think the world might be better off if the Germans won WWI because it’d have prevented the Nazis. And that’s why the WWI choice for Wonder Woman makes me uncomfortable.

      • Nicholas Penrhyn

        I’m sorry… that was a terrible way I worded that… you’re right

  • Colibraelle

    Feminist friendly favourite: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, Season 2
    Problematic fav: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid
    Surprise favourite: Gabriel Dropout

  • Petréa Mitchell

    Feminist favorite: Tanya the Evil
    Problematic favorite: Iron-Blooded Orphans, for being willing to talk about non-heteronormative romance but not quite actually show it. Except for that one moment where Atra and Kudelia say “Hey, I kind of like you too,” everything is framed around their relationships with Mikazuki and then Akatsuki. It’s nice if the creators have said somewhere that Atra and Kudelia are married at the end, but what is actually on the screen is a couple of friends raising their mutual boyfriend’s kid with no direct romantic affection for each other.
    Surprise favorite: Tanya the Evil

  • As much as I loved the Tales of Zestiria game/story/characters, watching the anime made me realize that maybe the next game isn’t for me. It seems to heavily rely on male gaze of the female body, females getting clothing torn off, to the point it was too painful to keep watching the anime since they mixed scenes of both games into one anime. Seeing the costumes in the game itself also disappointed me.
    I mean I highly recommend TOZ as a game because the females in it are both strong and not sexualized… but the upcoming game seems to be like typical male-gaze anime level of fanservice, where they are strong but also must be sexualized to appeal to horny men. It was really disappointing for me because I was expecting higher of it from the lead being a female, but I guess it’s more in the name of fanservice and not relatability.

    Of course I liked Super Lovers 2. I think Super Lovers actually has a really good representation of women despite there not being many, and it centering on male characters. For example the mother is a hard-working scientist with her own unique personality and wants/regrets, and there is also a young tomboy in the second season. Tomboys and androgynous women are such a rarity in anime, I was very happy to see a character like her.

    This isn’t a winter anime, but I like how the female characters I’ve seen so far in “KADO” aren’t relying on moe/fanservice, but also have different face shapes. That’s something I don’t often see in anime. Particularly, the actual face shape and not just eyes, things like the jaw, cheeks, chin, etc, I have noticed vary on all of the characters.
    I kind of wonder if it leans towards a female demographic even, despite being sci-fi, because of the good-looking male characters as well.

    • You sure you’re not being too harsh on Tales? They are the studio that also designed Milla XD
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StAEWAsZpP0&t=10m10s

      And traditionally, Tales’ costume design borderlines on conservative.

      • It’s not entirely about the outfit itself, but how unnecessary things like clothing being ripped off her was in the anime. When normally in a Tales game, clothing wouldn’t be ripping apart from battles for the sake of fanservice.

        This would never happen with a male character for the sake of fanservice unless it was a very risque “fujoshi” anime like Osomatsu-san, which obviously caters often to their female fans.

        If Tales were normally an ecchi series or heavily male-oriented series, like Dead or Alive, then I wouldn’t have any complaints, because it’d just be them catering to their usual demographic which has imagery yelling “this is made for men’s sexual desires” all over it.

        It’s kind of like the difference between if you had two versions of Kantai Collection where one had the visuals of the girls having their clothing ripped off in often very sexual poses from being damaged (which it does), versus a version of Kantai Collection that does not have visuals of their clothing ripped off… that makes it entirely obvious if the game is fanservice for male gaze, or something made for a general audience. Because Kantai Collection without the clothing ripped off, actually could come off as a somewhat tame game in terms of sexualization. It would be a bit like how Touhou isn’t very sexualized despite being almost all pretty/cute girls, and I think that’s a part of why Touhou is or was popular even among many women and among all ages.

  • I wrote that review, and this is completely fair criticism. You’re totally right, I should have addressed this and a couple of other aspects of Scum’s Wish that were absolutely problematic af. Thank you for pointing that out!