We’re taking a final look back at 2018 before jumping into the new year! 2018 was packed with a variety of titles for a variety of tastes, and our staff’s dramatically different picks make that all too clear. There’s something for everyone on this hefty list of titles!
How did we choose our recs?
Participating staff members picked up to five titles from three categories:
- Feminist-friendly favorite: You’d recommend it to a feminist friend with no caveats
- Problematic favorite: You’d only recommend it to a feminist friend with caveats
- Surprise favorite: You didn’t expect it to be something you’d recommend, but it was (either with or without caveats)
The only rule was that the series or season had to be complete as of December 2018. Shows that are still airing (like Run with the Wind) were NOT eligible. They’ll be rolled onto any 2019 lists.
How are they ranked?
They’re not, really. We’ve highlighted some “top picks” that received votes from multiple staff members, but otherwise they’re just organized first by category and then alphabetically. The team has varying tastes, as do our readers, and we didn’t want to try to put those tastes in a hierarchy.
Hey, you didn’t list my favorite show!
That’s okay! Like we said, we limited ourselves to a Top Five, and everyone has different tastes. If there’s something that slipped under our radar and you think it’s a series other feminist-minded viewers would enjoy, please let us and your fellow readers know in the comments!
Best in Show
Chosen by: Amelia, Dee, Peter, Vrai
What’s it about? Mari Tamaki is a by-the-books high school student whose desire to experience new things has always been undercut by her fear and insecurity. When she meets Shirase Kobuchizawa, a driven young woman determined to follow her vanished mother to the Antarctic, Mari is finally inspired to take a leap of faith.
Content Warning: Bereavement; an isolated joke about a parent threatening to hit their child; mild nudity (bathing scenes; not sexualized); mentions of bullying (not shown)
While not everyone on staff watched A Place Further than the Universe, everyone who did listed it as their #1 recommendation of the year, making it an easy choice for “top pick” of 2018. Here’s what Amelia had to say about it when it first finished airing:
As someone with a knee-jerk dislike of Cute People Doing Cute Things shows, my livetweet for the Place Further premiere was snarky and dismissive. By the end of the thread, I’d taken back all my earlier cynicism, apologised for my mischaracterisation, and thrown my full support behind this beautiful show.
It’s hard to know which parts to highlight, because Place Further gets so much right. The representation of teenage girls and friendship is spot on. The Antarctica mission is led by skilled, experienced, scientific women. Each character is a distinct, complex individual with clear goals and motivations which develop over the season. The art is expressive, and the world is grounded in realistic detail. I could go on, and no doubt others would pick out different elements, but suffice to say this is an expertly crafted series.
Each girls’ personal struggles, particularly Shirase’s pursuit of her lost mother, can be hard going at times. However, the writers make sure to balance each note of grief with plenty of comedy and charisma—most episodes made me both laugh and cry, and I know the rest of the AniFem staff who watched Place Further had similar experiences.
This is a rare anime you could show someone who is not an anime fan without the need for caveats or lengthy explanations. These 13 episodes tell a complete story that is an absolute pleasure to watch.
Unlike last year, where we had a clear second-place finisher, this year had a smattering of shows earning two votes and a bunch that only earned one. So, using a Very Complex Point System that only our managing editor understands (and even she’s a bit iffy on it), we wound up with two “runner-up” titles: a feminist-friendly fave and a problematic fave.
Chosen as a feminist-friendly favorite by: Caitlin (#1 pick), Peter
What’s it about? After an accident that killed his parents, high schooler Soya wakes up with no memory in a household run by a girl in a maid costume and a giant talking cat. Nevertheless, his life is pleasant enough—until a UFO appears in the sky and a group of superheroes arrive to fight it. Soya’s adopted family urges him to fight as well, but it’s not the UFO they’re after. No, they want him to take out those superheroes!
Content Warning: Violence against teens/kids; mild fan service
I’d heard people recommending Satoshi Mizukami, the writer and storyboarder of Planet With, for a while, but I never really made an effort to seek out his work. So when I decided the check out Planet With, it was mostly as a series I thought would be nice to share with the people in my life.
What I got, instead, was one of the most perfect anime series I’ve ever seen.
Planet With, with its economical storytelling, manages to accomplish in twelve episodes what few can achieve in two or three times that. It goes through three story arcs, develops its characters and their relationships, and eloquently expresses its underlying philosophy. It does not once feel compressed or rushed; it simply maximizes the time it has to a degree few media manages.
Although it has a male main protagonist, much of the story is driven by a nearly gender-balanced cast. The female cast is just as rich and complex as their male counterparts, and Soya’s foster-sibling relationship with Ginko is one of the show’s emotional tentpoles. There is some very light fan service, if you’d even call it that, but it’s used cleverly and only on very rare occasions.
But the thing that truly makes Planet With special is the warmly humanist heart behind its philosophy. The choice between sealing humanity’s drive to force it into the evolution of love or finding ways to guide it in that direction spoke to me as an educator who’s trying to guide small children toward making safe and healthy choices while still giving them autonomy instead of barriers.
Its optimism left me feeling cleansed each week, at a time where pessimism and despair constantly threaten to paralyze me. For a half hour each week, I truly felt like the universe was filled with blessings.
Chosen as a problematic favorite by: Chiaki (#1 pick), Vrai
Also previously recommended by: Dee, Peter
What’s it about? Teenage Sakura’s life is cut short when she’s hit by a truck; next thing she knows, she’s waking up ten years later in a spooky manor full of zombie girls—and she’s one of them! A man named Tatsumi Kotaru tells her he’s gathered them to become a regional idol group that will save Saga Prefecture. With no skills, no training, and most of the group still acting like brainless zombies, it’s gonna be a long haul.
Content Warning: Verbal abuse; body horror; death; violence; depictions of transphobia; mild nudity (not sexualized)
I assumed I’d drop ZOMBIE LAND SAGA after its third episode, when the different-musical-genre-every-episode shenanigans began to gel into a more standard idol sound. But the next episode had just enough eye-catching weirdness to keep me, and the next, and the next, and before I knew it I’d become wholeheartedly attached to the nice zombie girls and their dreams.
That sincerity is ZOMBIE LAND’s ace in the hole. Its body horror comes and goes (though it is choice when it does appear, and pops lovingly into frame in places where another series might have leering fanservice shots), and its occasional backhanded observations about the dark side of the industry never really coalesce into anything like focused commentary.
But it’s got heart to spare, beating right out of its adorably rotting chest. A lot of focus is put on idols as inspirational figures, which hits home a lot better when Franchouchou’s audience includes a broad range of ages and genders (rather than a sea of creepy adult men). Much has also rightly been made of pint-sized idol Lily being a trans girl, a revelation that’s depicted with a grace and empathy quite rare for anime—even if I admit to finding “don’t worry about puberty dysphoria, kids, just die young!” a bit of an unfortunate accidental message. While the series is often absurd, it rarely feels mean.
That is, with the exception of the girls’ manager, Kotaro. He’s a plot device who exists to get the girls where they need to go, alternately a vessel for high-key shenanigans and a pinch-hitting wise mentor. Mamoru Miyano is an extremely talented actor, and he can pull off both modes in isolation, but the transition from “asshole imprisoning these young women and screaming at them to do his bidding” to “well-meaning, extremely extra uncle who gives cryptic advice” feels completely unearned, and the character breaks apart on the lightest scrutiny.
It’s not helped by the show’s disinterest in examining the darker implications of his whole deal. Or by the addition of some really alarming details at the end that cast an even more uneasy pall over the power dynamic, particularly between him and Sakura.
The rest of the show is so dazzlingly well-made (thanks MAPPA!) and lovingly executed that it’s hard to dwell on, though. The final episode ends with a hook for season two, but I’d honestly be happy to leave things here. The emotional arcs and excellent friendships are well-realized, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit wibbly during the big finale.
Chosen by: Dee, Vrai
Also previously recommended by: Caitlin
What’s it about? Office worker (and red panda) Retsuko does her best to survive her soul-crushing office job with a mild-mannered “can-do” attitude—all while secretly venting her rage through death metal karaoke.
Content Warning: Depictions of sexism/misogyny; the dub contains some racial stereotyping
Despite initially looking like an extended Sanrio toy commercial, Aggretsuko is a shockingly charming and smart series. The show serves as a sharp critique of modern office culture (particularly for women), from the sexist boss who’s a literal chauvinist pig, to the overworked and underpaid “opportunities” available to young professionals, and–embodied by Retsuko herself—to the expectations placed on women to be responsible “good girls” and never show their dissatisfaction or rage (no matter how justified it may be).
Yet while the social commentary and humor are biting and on-point, what really makes Aggretsuko shine is the way its characters find ways to not only get through each day, but to enrich their lives as they go. Female friendships and mentorships form the backbone and emotional core of the series, and the way the ladies support and lift each other up is downright heartwarming. Aggretsuko also does a smart job of depicting harmful behaviors while also promoting healthy ones, as demonstrated through Retsuko’s self-sacrificing romance as well as Haida’s swerve from potential Nice Guy to genuinely good dude.
It’s important to have fiction about smashing a broken system, but it’s also important to have fiction that shows its audience how to survive within that system through support networks, emotional outlets, and developing tactics to enact change (however small). Aggretsuko is firmly in the latter category, reminding its audience that they too can persevere and thrive, just like its characters do. Clever and topical, frequently hilarious, sometimes painful but ultimately encouraging, this is a series I’d recommend to just about everyone.
Chosen by: Dee
What’s it about? High schooler Yuu Koito feels isolated from her peers because she’s never felt “love” the way everyone else seems to. When she meets upperclassmen Touko Nanami, it seems she’s found someone who feels the same—at least, until Touko confesses that she’s falling in love with Yuu.
Content Warning: Mild sexual content; depictions of homophobia
Real talk, dear readers: I was totally lukewarm on Bloom Into You at the three-episode mark. I only stuck with it because nobody else at AniFem was watching it and it felt like a show we should be following. Thank goodness for occupational obligations, because holy cow did this build into an impressive series.
Beautifully storyboarded and gracefully narrated, Bloom Into You follows its cast of queer teens as they grapple with their sexualities, identities, and shifting relationships with one another. It would be recommendation-worthy for that alone, but Bloom also directly engages with cultural norms, acknowledging harmful “just a phase” ideology and actively rejecting it by including a healthy adult lesbian couple. Much like Yuu’s relationship with Touko, each week I fell for this series a little more.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, it is worth noting that there’s a fine line in YA fiction between “late-bloomer/repressed” and “ace/aro,” and while Bloom initially feels like the latter, it seems to be turning into the former. It didn’t bother me because (1) the series organically depicts Yuu’s developing feelings and (2) there’s a supporting character who actually is ace/aro, so it’s not “erasure” so much as “showing a variety of experiences.” That said, I know there are folks who’ve felt hurt by that shift, so it’s worth mentioning for incoming viewers.
If you go in knowing what to expect, though, Bloom Into You is an exquisitely directed slow-burn yuri romance that engages with queerness in a way that’s sometimes devastating, often comforting, and always thoughtful. Even if you’re hesitant at first, I urge you to stick with it. Your patience will be well-rewarded.
Chosen by: Caitlin
What’s it about? Hisone Amakasu joins the Japan Air Self-Defense Force in hopes of finding something only she can do. When her superiors send her to Hangar 8, which doesn’t seem to exist, she discovers that the JSDF has a secret: dragons! And that dragon wants nothing more than to gobble her up… but maybe that’s the point?
Content Warning: Workplace sexism; gender essentialism; mild sexualization of adult women; death of a queer character
Man, I really wish Netflix had let us watch this series week to week. It’s a show that would have engendered some spirited discussion if a large portion of the anime community—myself included—hadn’t been waiting for the streaming giant to release the whole thing at once.
But what’s done is done, and Dragon Pilot is now out and available for everyone to watch and digest at their own pace. And maybe that’s a blessing in disguise, because the plot takes a turn where I almost certainly would have dropped the show in disgust, until the characters come out and say: “No, this is wrong.” I’ve had to talk others into continuing when they almost did the same thing. All I can say is that, by the end, it’s mostly worth it.
I say “mostly” because make no mistake, Dragon Pilot is a messy show. It portrays the kind of workplace sexism that happens in a traditionally masculine, male-dominated field matter-of-factly, without offering solutions or catharsis. The main characters cope with sexist comments and harassment, but never strike back or even really comment on it. It also has tragic lesbians, with one member of the couple falling to the “bury your gays” trope.
The second half, however, is far more ambitious with what it wants to say, although mixed in whether it can be considered totally successful. It directly confronts not just sexism but full-on gender essentialism… and it seems to agree with it for a while. I don’t want to say too much for risk of spoiling things, but the wonderfully off-kilter heroine Hisone kicks that essentialism in the face. Imperfections and all, that makes this a series I want to recommend to others.
Chosen by: Peter
What’s it about? High schooler Rei Kiriyama has moved out of the home of his adoptive family and misses classes to focus on his career as a professional shogi player. By chance, he befriends the three Kawamoto sisters, similarly separated from their own parents. Through his connection to the sisters and his peers in the pro shogi world, Rei begins to build a new life for himself and discovers individual purpose that gives him the strength to cope with his depression.
Content Warning: Depictions of mental illness and bullying
Many stories about depression involve tragic life circumstances to be overcome or problems in perception that can eventually be corrected. The character triumphs over their personal woes and reaches the conclusion of their story as they finally discover happiness. March isn’t about that.
Based on the award-winning manga by Chica Umino, March is an emotional epic following the lives of its many characters, their existential struggles, and the variety of ways they find meaning. Personal arcs are intense and the challenges the characters face don’t often have solutions, but instead means by which they can be confronted and perspectives they can draw from their experiences.
There are no easy answers in March, but that’s what makes it so honest. Rei’s battle with his depression has no end. It will always be there trying to swallow him up, isolate him, and drown him; but March shows that this doesn’t mean he can’t also be happy. Rather than finding something that will make Rei’s pain disappear, the series follows him as he discovers loving and supportive friends. Rei finds purpose in these meaningful connections and finding ways to repay the kindness his loved ones have offered him.
March is about the pain and joy life offers and the ways we can choose to live it. It’s funny, sad, and cathartic in turn. It’s also free of many of the unfortunate trappings of anime as a medium. This is easily one of the greatest anime I’ve ever watched, to a degree where I felt compelled to recommend it even though only the final quarter aired in 2018. You owe it to yourself to at least give it a try.
Chosen by: Chiaki
Also previously recommended by: Caitlin, Dee
What’s it about? Inspired by the letters her great-grandmother sent home, Ton and her best friend Shinyao decide to study abroad in London. When Ton chases after a strange thief who’s stolen their luggage, she soon finds herself embroiled in a paranormal battle involving three young men who all work at a cafe founded by her own great-grandmother.
Content Warning: Violence against teens; supernatural age-gap relationship
I don’t think anyone knew what to expect out of Phantom in the Twilight, a Chinese co-production with an original story that included otome and urban fantasy trappings. I’m so thankful I have my Anime Feminist colleagues to steer me in the right direction, because otherwise I would have missed out on this truly great series.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article about how Cardia from Code: Realize switching her gown for pants symbolized a shift from passive to active that was rare for an otome-based show. Ton, on the other hand, is wearing shorts and ready to rumble from episode one. From the first moment the Umbra attack, she’s resourceful, scrappy, and absolutely refuses to let anyone stop her from being an active player in her own life.
Sure, Shinyao spends most of the series as a damsel, but this makes a great example of how having multiple female characters with different personalities can breathe new life even into cliche setups. Plus, she isn’t a damsel waiting to be rescued by a handsome hero (even though she does find a cute wolfboy to fall for), but by her best friend.
But the boys… are they good, or are they as predatory as one would expect a vampire, a werewolf, a ghost, and a jiangshi to be? The answer is, THEY ARE SO GOOD. They are, for the most part, respectful to Ton as allies and associates. Even on the occasion they do object, Ton usually challenges them or proves their doubts unnecessary. The romance is largely understated, based more on occasional flirtation and loaded conversations than possessiveness or physical contact. Heck, I forgot there even was a romance angle for most of the series.
Even if it doesn’t sound like your thing, I seriously recommend checking out Phantom in the Twilight. It will probably surprise you.
Chosen by: Vrai
Also previously recommended by: Dee
What’s it about? Karen Aijo is a student at Seisho Music Academy, an all-girls’ performing school. After her best friend Hikari returns from studying abroad, Karen soon finds herself diving into a surreal world of musical battles where she and her fellow students duke it out to determine which of them will be the school’s next “top star.”
Content Warning: Theatrical violence
The Revue Starlight premiere flew out of nowhere to gobsmack me with gorgeous cinematography, surreal staging, and beautifully animated Takarazuka-inspired musical battles. While the series as a whole has a few hiccups—the cast was a few members too large for a single-cour series, creating some truncated arcs during the middle act—it’s still a standout lady-led anime, and one of those shows I’ve come to appreciate more over time.
In addition to being an all-around terrific production (every battle is a visual feast), Starlight also offers two layers of narrative for its audience. On one level, it’s a fantastical story of rivalries and relationships between talented, driven female performers. This includes queer romances both implicit and explicit, as well as a central love story that builds in appropriately epic fashion, given the anime’s musical roots.
On another level, Starlight is an exploration and critique of some of the practices of the Takarazuka Revue, particularly the narrowly defined concept of a single, masculine-performing (otokoyaku) “top star.” I highly recommend reading along with Atelier Emily’s weekly writeups as you watch this one, as they provide a lot of valuable information about the Takarazuka theatre and how Starlight interacts with it.
Because of its short length and somewhat clipped pacing, Starlight works best if you’re willing to give in to its musical bombast, allowing choreography and songs to sweep you along in a rush of grand archetypal characters, conflicts, and emotions. If you can’t, this one will likely leave you cold. But if you can, Starlight will prove an ambitious, stylish, and even moving experience well worth your time.
Chosen by: Caitlin
Also previously recommended by: Dee, Vrai
What’s it about? Meet the girls of the Pastime Club! There’s Olivia, a Japanese-born daughter of foreign parents with blonde hair, blue eyes, and absolutely zero English skills. There’s Kasumi, who has hated games since she was a child because her older sister used them as a way to power trip over her. Finally, there’s Hanako, who really wants to be cool and popular but just can’t seem to make it work. Together, they explore a variety of pastimes from different cultures.
Content Warning: Transphobia; fatphobia; an adult man trying to hit on a teenager; boob jokes
A comedy about terrible people is a difficult needle to thread. Go too gentle on your cast and you risk seeming to endorse their worldview; go too harsh, and the show’s tone becomes alienatingly cruel. 90% of the time, Asobi Asobase walks that line with skill.
Hanako, Kasumi, and Olivia are horrible little shits in ways generally only allowed for male protagonists, and they had me in rare fits of audible laughter almost every week. Even the show’s boob jokes are funny. At the same time, you get a solid sense of why they’re friends, and they tend to be remorseful when a joke gets too harsh. On the rare occasion that the show breaks into out-and-out sincerity (of a sort), it sells.
There are jokes that don’t so much cross the line as trip over it (some fatphobia in the premiere, Olivia’s older brother perving on Kasumi via text, a few too many jokes at the expense of Olivia’s body odor), but for the most part the comedy is fast-paced enough that any failed punchline is in the rearview mirror before it can leave much of a sour taste. The jokes lead toward a dizzying absurdity that recalls all the dumb things you thought in middle school and then depicts them with the visual intensity you perceived them to have at the time.
The exception to this is Aozora, a feminine-presenting student heavily implied to be a trans girl. The “jokes” about her almost uniformly center around the Pastimers trying to look at her genitals. To make things worse, while most of the writing pulls off a clear distinction between the girls being idiots and what the audience is implicitly meant to think, that collapses during Aozora’s introduction. In maybe the ugliest moment of the show, the Ron Howard-style narrator remarks that Hanako’s “animal instinct” tells her she should be afraid of Aozora.
It is both unfunny and hurtful, and I don’t blame people who found it poisonous enough to drop the show. For those interested who want to avoid those sketches entirely (which I highly recommend), they are: “Loaded Questions” (episode 5), “Phantom Thieves: Pass Club” (episode 7; though the joke of this one is about the girls stealing a file of school rumors, and Aozora only appears at the very beginning and end), and basically all of episode 10 (which also includes a burgeoning predatory lesbian, though that blow is softened by the fact that Kasumi is pretty closeted/gay-coded herself).
Outside of that not-insignificant flaw, Asobi Asobase proved to be one of my favorite anime comedies in years. If the terrible-found-family dynamic of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is your jam, then definitely give this one a try.
Chosen by: Vrai
What’s it about? In a world where demons merge with other beings to ensure their own existence, sensitive “crybaby” Akira is pulled by his mysterious friend Ryo into uncovering the powers and potential of human-demon hybrids.
Content Warning: Graphic violence (toward children and adults); body horror; animal death; nudity (adults and teens); sexual assault; explicit consensual sex; disturbing themes
I’ve discussed crybaby a lot this year, from talking out its shortcomings to writing about director Yuasa’s largely successful attempt to recast an almost 50-year-old manga as a modern, progressive story. I’ll direct you there for a more thorough dissection, but I wanted to give the series one last hurrah before it goes.
There is a steep difficulty curve for engaging with this show. Its first episode begins with an explosion, but a lot of the first half drags its heels indulging in the exploitation of its female main characters: finding excuses to strip them naked, necessitate their rescue, or frame them as (frequently unwilling) sexual objects for the viewer to ogle.
It’s unpleasant, unnecessary, and mimics the also scattershot early chapters of the manga (when Nagai had no idea what he was going to do) for no good reason. Also the monsters are overwhelmingly categorized by their monstrous femininity in the early going—lotta vagina dentata on display, to the point where “blatant fear of female sexuality” still feels like an applicable tag for the series.
I am not about to tell you that you “need” to tough out the first part of the series if it’s making you uncomfortable. That mentality serves exactly no one. But I will say that around Episode 6 or so the show figures out what the hell it wants to do. It uses its horror elements to critique the fear of young people, outsiders, and the marginalized in modern-day Japan, and its grotesquerie begins to feel smartly applied rather than pure spectacle. It gathers its outsiders—queer teens, a mixed-race family, and discontented teen rappers—and makes them the sympathetic center of a well-told tragedy.
It’s far from a perfect work of art (no matter what Twitter tells you), but it’s ambitious and undeniably gorgeous, and it’s continued to stay with me long after I finished watching.
Chosen by: Chiaki, Peter
Also previously recommended by: Dee, Vrai
What’s it about? Mid-ranking yakuza Yoshifumi Nitta’s life takes a series of unexpected turns when he becomes the (initially unwilling) caretaker of Hina, a mysterious girl with powerful psychokinetic abilities.
Content Warning: Minors in peril; non-sexualized teenage nudity; comedic violence and alcohol use
Hinamatsuri proved a weekly delight, mixing absurd or deadpan comedy with a sometimes sweet, sometimes melancholy underpinning to give the shenanigans some weight. The core of the show is Nitta and Hina’s father/daughter relationship, which has an appealing frankness to it. Hina is a deadpan slacker with a bottomless stomach and Nitta is frequently frustrated and driven to romanticize his days of singledom, but the show also makes sure to underline how much they care about each other.
Their relationship is also blessedly free of any incest angle or attempts to fetishize Hina—in fact, the series seems to exist in a magical world where its young adolescent characters are completely free of sexual menace from the adults around them. Hina’s “rival” Anzu pops out of her space pod naked in front of a biker gang? They’re just mad that she’s blocking traffic. Schoolgirl Hitomi gets blackmailed into working at a bar? Her patrons are just really impressed with her mixology.
Even the one story that does deal with the (false) assumption that Hitomi is having an affair with a teacher is centered on her classmates trying to catch the teacher so they can report him (and, y’know, maybe see a boob, because middle schoolers). It’s the kind of thing you don’t know you’re worried about until it’s gone, and it makes Hinamatsuri a relaxing watch in a way that many “take care of a tiny super-powered girl” shows are not.
Prospective viewers should be aware that there’s a lot of suffering-based comedy, and some suffering played for drama as well. Hitomi in particular just cannot catch a break, from the beginning of the show to the end; and while Anzu eventually ends up in a secure and happy home, she goes through hell to get there. Her arc in the first half of the series deals fairly bluntly with the trials of being a transient in a major Japanese city. Unfortunately, it drops the ball once Anzu is adopted, hand-waving the fate of the adults who’d cared for her with a pat “as long as you’re thinking of each other, they’re never alone.”
Still, the series is never quite mean-spirited enough to be unpalatable, and its heart shows through earnestly and frequently. If you’re fine with some choppy waters before the sweet payoff, this might be the comedy for you.
Chosen by: Chiaki
What’s it about? Sosogu Hoshifuri is your average high school student, but she’s secretly a rising star. Can she survive high school and catch her childhood sweetheart Daichi Taira? Hoshiiro Girldrop is your typ—just kidding, this anime is about Popuko and Pipimi, two of the most absurd girls to ever walk the earth delivering 288 minutes of non-sequitur comedy.
Content Warning: Unprovoked violence; grotesque visuals; reliance on stereotypes; men voicing female characters
This show isn’t for everyone, I’ll admit it. It’s exhausting at times, anxiety-inducing at others. The consistent reliance on pop culture references specific to growing up as a millennial in Japan also means most people who did not come of age immediately adjacent to Heisei otaku culture (or modern Japanese culture in general) will have that nagging sensation that they’re “missing the jokes.”
Pop Team Epic does a fantastic job of cramming in a wide variety of references and employs some of the most convoluted attempts at meta humor I’ve ever seen. Part of what I enjoyed most was the constantly changing voice actors for Popuko and Pipimi. Each episode featured two sets of actors, a pair of men and a pair of women, acting out the same skits with a healthy dose of ad-libbing. Of course, part of the humor in Pop Team Epic plays on the absurdity of men voicing cute(?) girls for about half of the show, and though the content itself is not transphobic, the use of men may be taken the wrong way despite intent.
But you don’t need an encyclopedic understanding of trivia to appreciate Pop Team Epic. Just have fun with it. Don’t try to “get it.” The only bar for entry is whether you like absurdist comedy and cartoonish violence. My advice is to turn your brain off and enjoy the endless stream of nonsense and creativity, because the show collected a pool of talent that would otherwise never work together on a single show. Where else would surrealist animation studio AC-bu, a random French guy named Thibault Tresca, and the felt animation studio UchuPeople come together?
Of course, the show is not without flaws. In taking nothing seriously, it also makes light of some heavy issues such as child abuse or unchecked anger issues. Perhaps the most glaring example was when the two heroines are depicted as abusive parents to a pair of high school students. Their weird acts of irresponsibility overshadows the actual nature of abuse and addiction to vice.
But to tell you the truth? The real reason why I think this show deserves a spot in my Top 5 is because it’s been 10 months and I am still thinking about Hellshake Yano.
Chosen by: Dee
What’s it about? When supernatural hunter Yuliy Jirov travels with his team to track down a murderous vampire in 1930s Tokyo, it sends him on a collision course with his past and the brother he’d long thought dead.
Content Warning: Violence (some graphic); depictions of genocide and slavery; some revealing costumes (though the camera doesn’t leer)
It’s been a week since I finished Sirius the Jaeger and I already want to rewatch it. I also can’t seem to stop thinking about it. That one-two punch is the main reason it made my Top 5—while I enjoyed some shows more and a few others provoked deeper analysis, few did both with as much flair as this one.
This series is three things rolled into 12 episodes. First, it’s campy paranormal pulp, with thrilling fights, endearing heroes, chortling villains, and a treasure hunt-style plot that feels right out of an Indiana Jones flick. Second, it’s a heartfelt family tale of orphaned brothers torn apart, trying to save each other despite the powerful forces against them. And third, it’s a period piece about the lone survivor(s) of an indigenous tribe fighting back and finding a way forward.
Sirius uses its supernatural metaphors to bluntly reject imperialism and xenophobia, ideologies that were on the rise in its 1930s setting and are all-too-relevant today. Better still, it does so in a way that both pushes for different communities to find common ground and acknowledges that sometimes you have to stab the hell out of a few slave-owning supremacists before you can get there. I wouldn’t say its metaphors are ironclad or wholly successful (and it’s not my place to make that claim anyway), but I personally found it pretty darn satisfying.
Is it messy, simplistic, and overly idealistic? Hell, yes. Does its supporting cast deserve more screen time, especially its very cool female characters who are ultimately sidelined so the wolf brothers can take center stage? Absolutely. Do its silly supernatural elements distract too much from the story it really wants to tell? Maybe so.
Sirius is by no means a perfect anime, and its semi-open ending suggests the creators were either hoping for a sequel or weren’t quite sure how to see their ideals realized (especially for a story set on the eve of WWII). But it’s also wildly entertaining, desperately earnest, and taking a clear stand at a time when we need it. Flaws and all, I still think that’s worth a lot.
Chosen by: Caitlin
What’s it about? Narumi Hirose’s last breakup went about as poorly as possible: her then-boyfriend found out she was a fujoshi and spread it around the office, causing her coworkers to shun her. Now she’s starting a new job and planning to hide her fujoshi side from everyone (including any future boyfriends). But when she runs into Hirotaka, a childhood friend from her middle school otaku circle, keeping things quiet may be harder than she planned.
Content Warning: Boob jokes; occasional mean-spirited teasing
There’s something really nice about seeing your own slightly-unconventional-but-loving relationship reflected in fiction. That’s why I love Wotakoi so much—it not only depicts but celebrates relationships between nerdy adults, much like my own.
Watching Narumi and Hirotaka’s relationship take shape over the course of the series is a fascinating trip. The two have a comfortable back-and-forth of good-natured antagonism. They’re not the most affectionate couple (Narumi admits she has trouble thinking of Hirotaka romantically, let alone sexually), but they get along well. Narumi’s extroversion and ability to blend in with “normal” society (a learned skill, since fujoshi are looked down on) complements Hirotaka’s introversion as the two grow from being together.
Wotakoi is especially interesting with how it portrays female-dominated transformative fandom and male-dominated curative fandom. It focuses more on transformative but doesn’t flinch away from the slight tension between the two; Kabakura can be grumpy and judgmental about Hanako’s love of yaoi and cosplay, but is never portrayed as being in the right for it.
Hanako and Kabakura’s relationship is the main thing that pushes Wotakoi into “problematic” territory. Some couples fight often, and that works for them; I understand that. However, I’ve never subscribed to the belief that frequent fights are a sign of passion or a functional relationship. Hanako and especially Kabakura often push past the boundaries of playful teasing or bickering and into outright mean-spiritedness, without ever properly making up with each other. If you can get past that, though Wotakoi is a fun geek-focused rom-com.
Chosen by: Dee, Peter
What’s it about? Transfer student Nadeshiko learns the joys of camping after she meets solo camper Rin. As the two explore their shared hobby in different ways, they grow closer with each other and their fellow classmates.
Content Warning: Slightly mean-spirited slapstick in the premiere; mild nudity (bathing scenes; not sexualized)
The end of the winter season saw Laid-Back Camp’s ascension to form the Holy Trinity of perfect healing anime along with the two other paragons of the genre, Tanaka-kun is Always Listless and flying witch. It’s inviting, fun, and inoffensive, allowing the viewer to let their guard down and simply enjoy the show for what it is: a cozy series about girls who like to camp.
Laid-Back Camp managed to keep its premise fun, and even informative, through its full 12-episode run, concluding with a finale that was genuinely touching. Despite a few standout narrative shows during the Winter season, I think I looked forward to each episode of Laid-Back Camp the most for it’s reliability—20 minutes of pure enjoyment, no strings attached.
Slice-of-life shows can be hit-or-miss, sometimes lagging in the middle, and many that feature all-female casts contain questionable framing or outright fanservice, but Laid-Back Camp never betrayed my trust, keeping things clean and comfy. I don’t often rewatch shows, but I rewatched this entire series once at the halfway point and again three-quarters of the way into the season. You can share it with anyone, free of caveats. I wish more slice-of-life anime could be this good.
Skull-Faced Bookseller Honda-san
Chosen by: Chiaki
Also previously recommended by: Caitlin, Dee, Vrai
What’s it about? Working at a bookstore might seem ideal, but it’s a constant battle. This comedic short depicts Honda-san and his coworkers handling the daily stresses of a service job.
Content Warning: So much social anxiety
Honda-san came right the heck out of nowhere, hurtling out of the anitwitter bubble and capturing the internet at large with its meme-worthy screenshots. And behind those screenshots is a warm, clever series that will be relatable to anybody who’s ever worked a service job.
The look of the show is almost reminiscent of early Adult Swim, with bright pastel colors and limited animation that it uses to smartly underscore its anxious comedy. Honda-san and his coworkers are likable, and the world they inhabit is kind—whether it’s dealing with the stress of a language barrier or a customer asking where they can buy porn, the show’s comedy never looks down its nose at its eccentric customers. In fact, this might be the most affectionate teasing of the BL readership I’ve ever seen.
There’s a palpable fondness for both the books and the people who love them and a clear sense of why these people keep their jobs. It also strikes an interesting balance of not feeling too romanticized (as I said above, it gets the stress of service interactions pitch-perfect) while simultaneously radiating fondness. It’s a sequence of all the really out-there and weird stories you store up to tell later, which are always just a little bit better in the telling than when they happened and tinged with a bit of nostalgia.
The show doesn’t have particularly great ambitions, but it was a comforting way to spend 11 minutes every week. If you’re looking for a new iyashikei (healing) series to chill out to, I highly recommend giving this one a try.
Chosen by: Caitlin
Previously recommended by: Dee, Peter
What’s it about? Yuta Hibiki wakes up in a home attached to a secondhand shop with no memory of who he is and how he got there, with Gridman calling to him from an ancient computer screen. When he goes outside, the shadow of a kaiju that only he can see looms overhead. Despite all the strangeness, he tries to carry on as usual with the help of his two friends, Rikka and Utsumi. When the kaiju fully materializes, will he listen to Gridman’s call and defend the city?
Content Warning: Fanservice of underage girls; both cartoonish and realistic violence and abuse
When I called SSSS.Gridman the closest spiritual successor to Neon Genesis Evangelion yet, I had no idea how near to the truth I actually was. While I was basing that on the tense, atmospheric direction, the true spirit of the show—tokusatsu action as a vehicle for what turns out to be a character study of mental illness and self-loathing—connects deeply to its ’90s predecessor.
I almost quit halfway through the show because, for all its technical merits and strong writing, it seemed to be leaning way too heavily on fanservice of its teenage antagonist, Akane Shinjo. The camera focused obsessively on her feet and, in the sixth episode, leered constantly at her bikini-clad body. While I still liked the show up to that point, it was seemingly less and less worth wading through the sexualization to get to the good parts.
I’m so glad I kept watching, because that’s when the really good stuff starts. All the seemingly questionable choices the staff had made started coming together. If Yuta seems like a boring protagonist, it’s for a reason. If it seems strange that everyone worships Akane, there’s a reason. If Rikka seems pigeonholed as the “feminine, compassionate” character, well, that’s intentional too. When I questioned whether Rikka would be “the girl,” I had no idea that the show would take a turn entirely outside of traditional tokusatsu framework, rendering my concerns completely and utterly moot.
Except for the fan service and the… uh… foot service. There’s never a good reason for that. But “surprise faves” can also be problematic faves, and this is definitely one of those.
Editor’s Bonus Pick
Using her editorial powers only for good, Dee has found a way to sneak one last recommendation onto the list—and seized her final chance to signal-boost one of her favorite under-the-radar titles in recent years…
Chosen as a feminist-friendly favorite by: Dee
What’s it about? Classical composers are reborn in the modern era, where they goof around, wax poetic about gyoza, and use the supernatural power of “Musik” to help out their high school landlady, Kanae.
Content Warning: Mild bawdy and sophomoric humor (fart jokes, mostly); comedic violence (teens/adults); shipteasing between minors and adults (played for comedy, and nothing comes of it)
Oh look, Dee’s shouting about the wacky composer cartoon. Must be Tuesday…
After a somewhat lackluster start, ClassicaLoid’s second season built into another strong run of episodes that once again excellently balanced the silly and the sincere. Between western homages, a Hippo/iPad road trip, and the world’s greatest usage of a classic portrait, the season also explored its characters’ insecurities, desires, and their relationships with both music and one another. The series climax is a magnificent merger of shounen and shoujo story beats, complete with last-minute power-ups and saving the day with your feelings, and its focus on family puts a surprisingly heartwarming capstone on the series.
While this second season isn’t quite as low-key progressive as the first (it dips into the “women dream of getting married” well a smidge too much), it still features a fantastic female cast who get to be just as cool, angry, or goofy as the boys, and there’s a fascinating undercurrent about the fine line between artistic influence and appropriation (a subject which I am in no way qualified to write about, but would love to commission a piece from someone who is!).
To conclude: ClassicaLoid is goofy and genuine and smart and dumb, and I loved the hell out of it. Please, Sunrise, hit us with a Season 3. Me and the 12 other people who watched it would be ever-so-happy if you did.