Like the Spring season before it, Summer was a bit light on shows that wowed us, but the ones that shone were pretty darn bright. Here are the team’s picks for the 2019 Summer season.
We talked about three kinds of recommendations:
- 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 titles below are organized alphabetically. As a reminder, ongoing shows are NOT eligible for these lists. We’d rather wait until the series (or season) has finished up before recommending it to others, that way we can give you a more complete picture.
Here’s what the team thought—let us know your picks in the comments!
Problematic favorite: Caitlin, Chiaki, Dee
What’s it about? After Tohru’s mother’s death left her orphaned and her grandfather moved in with her aunt for renovations, she’s stuck living in a tent in the woods. Despite this, she’s determined to make the best of it. Turns out, she’s been living on property that belongs to her classmate Yuki Sohma and his cousin Shigure. The two invite her to stay with them, but she soon finds out that there’s more than meets the eye to the Sohma clan.
Content Considerations: Discussion of emotional and physical abuse; cisnormativity; adults creeping on high schoolers (usually played off as a joke); slapstick violence.
There’s a lot to love about Fruits Basket, but what sets it apart from so many other series is its emotional intelligence. Tohru hasn’t just started on an exciting high school adventure filled with metaphors for growing up; she’s come into a situation full of trauma and abuse and darkness. She, along with the Sohmas, must cope with the absolute wringer that life has put them through and help each other to learn and grow.
Of course, no teenager is truly that aware, and so it does lead to a lot of monologuing about each other’s coping mechanisms, both healthy and unhealthy, and the nature of love. But that’s because Fruits Basket is just as much a treatise on how to treat each other and yourself as it is a high school romance. It interrogates the narrative that you must love yourself in order for others to love you, contemplates empathy as a learned skill, and other important lessons.
Not that it’s all stiff speechifying—there’s plenty of humor and hijinks as these characters’ big personalities bounce off of each other. It’s no small challenge making every character in a cast as large as this one distinct, but Fruits Basket manages.
For all its emotional intelligence, it does sometimes stumble, especially when it shows its ‘90s roots. Slapstick violence always feels a little jarring in a story that’s explicitly about abuse, and Kagura being a girl doesn’t make it okay for her to beat the shit out of Kyo while screaming about how much she loves him. One running gag is 27-year-old Shigure’s fetish for high school girls, which has never not been creepy.
I love that the series embraces its multiple bisexual characters, but the Sohma’s curse (they change into animals when embraced by a member of the “opposite sex”) is inherently cisnormative and doesn’t fit with our contemporary understanding of gender. Additionally, cross-dressing is often depicted as something characters will grow out of with time, rather than a true expression of gender nonconformity.
Despite showing its age at times, Fruits Basket is a story about the nature of bonds and love, and about finding strength in compassion—all themes that speak strongly to me. I’m so thrilled that it finally has the adaptation it, and we the fans, deserve.
Feminist-friendly favorite: Caitlin, Dee, Vrai
What’s it about? When Ritsuka agrees to fix the strings on the Gibson guitar his strange classmate Mafuyu always carries, he finds his entire life turned upside-down. Now Mafuyu is coming to his band practice, following him around… and making him remember what originally made him so passionate about music.
Content Considerations: Discussions of suicide and physical child abuse (not shown); mild sexual content; depictions of homophobic attitudes and microaggressions.
Given initially seems like it’ll be a nice music show featuring a fluffy, slow-burn BL (boy’s love) romance. It then develops into a nuanced character-driven dramedy that bounces between all four members of the band (two in college, two in high school), depicting a variety of individual conflicts and relationships. The result is a series that can provoke laughter, tears, and “aww”s of delight in equal measures—and sometimes all in the same episode.
Along the way, it tackles difficult topics that range from coming-out narratives to suicide and child abuse. Yet where many YA series would sensationalize these elements, turning the story into an over-the-top melodrama, given handles it with grace and restraint, focusing on the character’s emotions and aftermath rather than the events themselves.
The result is a series that’s far more interested in healing than harm, allowing its characters to work through their struggles and find a way forward. While the finale leaves the door open for more story, it’s also a satisfying conclusion in its own right, tying up all the major threads for the two leads in a way that’s comforting without being overly simplistic.
All that having been said… given is also a nice music show featuring a fluffy, slow-burn BL romance. The central relationship between Ritsuka and Mafuyu develops realistically while also being adorable as heck, and the music performances are sparse but excellent when they occur. Charming, grounded, and gently affirming, I’d recommend this series to just about anyone.
Surprise favorite: Peter, Vrai
What’s it about? A thousand years ago, seven powerful mages sealed away the world’s magic in order to keep humanity from destroying itself. Since then, the descendants of those mages have battled in the Granbelm to see which among them is the strongest. One fateful night, a seemingly average girl named Mangetsu is drawn in and becomes the Granbelm’s newest combatant.
Content Considerations: Queerphobic stereotypes; minor nudity (nonsexualized); existential dread.
This one was a rollercoaster all right, though not quite in the way I expected. GRANBELM began as a character-focused series that seemed like a straightforward magical girl series (give-or-take a few giant robots) only to reveal its dark magical girl roots about halfway through. But unlike almost every other series in the subgenre I’ve seen since Madoka Magica made a very particular brand of it fashionable, it still managed to tell a basically hopeful, if wistful and melancholy, story that wasn’t choked out by suffering porn.
GRANBELM’s most successful moments aren’t its grand tragedies. On the contrary, it lives and breathes in its character moments. For every declaration about a generations-long curse, there will be a grounded scene or two about personal anxieties or the small, fleeting joys of daily life. GRANBELM picks the hardest sell of all—trying to convince the audience that the mundane world is preferable to the magical one—and it actually succeeds.
Like Madoka Magica (which it’s quite deliberately evoking, right down to casting Yuki Aoi as the show’s antagonist), the relationship between GRANBELM’s two protagonist is heavily romance-coded and drives the plot, with the word “friend” pulled out once as the flimsiest sort of shield. And like Madoka’s exceptionally frustrating film Rebellion, overt queerness only appears when it is tragic or villainous. Antagonist Suisho is a walking stack of predatory lesbian tropes, and it’s confirmed that gifted mage Shingetsu had feelings for her childhood friend Anna only after the latter is a lost cause.
That said, between the show’s beautiful production values and lack of a leering camera, plus an ending that genuinely impressed me with its boldness, this one has lingered in my mind much longer than I’d ever expected.
Feminist-friendly favorite: Caitlin
Problematic favorite: Dee, Vrai
What’s it about? Sex! For the girls of a certain high school’s literature club, it seems to be everywhere. The books they read have erotic scenes couched in poetic language. Everyone is having it or talking about it… except for them, it seems. Join these girls for their journey through the often-painful, often-hilarious experience of sexual awakening.
Content Warnings: Depictions of pedophilic grooming; stalking; nonconsensual groping; masturbation (non-explicit); nudity (bathing scenes, non-explicit); queerphobia; misogyny (internal and external); brief fat-shaming; attempted teacher/student relationship (unsuccessful).
When O Maidens works, there’s almost nothing like it. The show’s cast of teens feel like only slightly exaggerated versions of people you might’ve known or been at that age, each facing problems across a spectrum of sexual experiences.
It tackles things like the internalized misogyny of feeling Not Like Other Girls, not being nearly as excited to talk about boys as your other female friends, and not yet knowing that being attracted to someone isn’t always the same as being in love with them. The best scenes handle the awkwardness around sex and adolescence with a careful balance, both aware of how ridiculous teen angst can be but also how all-consuming and terrifying it is when you’re in it.
Where it gets rockier is when it tries to branch out beyond its sweet but fairly conventional (cis, allo, hetero) romances. Bookworm Hongo’s attempts to seduce her teacher feel the most “anime” and contrived. It’s uncomfortable in ways that don’t always feel intentional and too willing to play into troubling “she came onto me” narratives used to absolve predators. The teacher also vacillates between humoring or even encouraging her behavior and pushing her away, just to keep the subplot going to the end (though the relationship is not consummated).
More successful is the exploration of former child star Niina’s struggles as the victim of grooming by her acting coach. Unfortunately, that subplot also falls prey to Okada’s tendency to realistically depict real-world systemic abuses (see also: Hisone and Masotan) but shrug off the system as inevitable, focusing instead on personal catharsis. The show’s queer character, Momoko, is likewise painfully well-realized and lovable, but trapped in an unrequited love plot (albeit one that affirms the importance of their platonic friendship even after the confession).
I am extremely glad I watched O Maidens. Hell, I’d watch it again. It’s the kind of show that crashes only because its ambitions are so high; and for me, its successes were worth the price of its failures. But that’s a decision each viewer will need to come to on their own.