One series out of Netflix jail and another delayed from the spring season ride in to save an otherwise slim summer.
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. That means completed series released from Netflix jail this season, like BNA, are eligible; while Great Pretender, which is still waiting for its final batch of episodes, was not.
Here’s what the team thought—let us know your picks in the comments!
Problematic Favorite: Caitlin, Chiaki, Dee, Lizzie, Vrai
What’s it about? In early-1900s Los Angeles, a cross-country automobile race filled with fantastical vehicles and colorful characters is about to kick off. When upright young swordsmen Kosame and flighty genius engineer Appare wind up far from Japan, they decide to enter the race—Appare so he can put his inventions to the test, and Kosame so they can use the prize money to get home.
Content warnings: Racially stereotyped character designs; violence, including brief depictions of the deaths of indigenous people.
Vrai referred to Appare-Ranman as “the platonic ideal of a problematic fave” during our mid-season check-in, and that held true right through to the end. As we’ve discussed before, the character designs were an undeniably insensitive mistake: someone thinking “if they’re all dressed like stereotypes, then it’s fine” without considering the histories of oppression, appropriation, and uneven power dynamics that impact Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities.
And it’s completely fair if that’s an automatic deal-breaker for you! But if it isn’t, the great news is that Appare‘s writing is in almost direct opposition to its character designs. A modern take on turn-of-the-19th-century Western adventure stories, Appare takes the genre’s story beats and twists them in refreshing ways, largely by centering its tale on the marginalized characters (women and BIPOCs) that those older narratives either ignored or outright vilified.
It plays with expectations in delightful ways, as characters you think will be villains turn out to be cinnamon rolls, apparent enemies quickly become friends, and the “cold genius” character becomes the emotional core of the series. It all culminates in a thrilling and surprisingly touching finale—and, while I don’t want to mislead readers by saying the ending is explicitly romantic, the lighting, tone, and dialog all make it very easy to view the series as a queer love story (and an adorable one, to boot).
I don’t mean to suggest that Appare is a complex progressive manifesto, because it isn’t. It is first-and-foremost popcorn entertainment that wants its audience to have fun, which means its take on feminist topics is more in the vein of “hoo-rah, go underdogs!” than a nuanced exploration of early-1900s America. There are also some issues with flat villains and kidnapped ladies in the back half, though it helps a lot that there’s also a prominent female character playing a major role in the damsel’s rescue.
Still, the endearing way Appare both subverts genre expectations and builds its characters and their relationships makes it an immensely enjoyable romp with surprisingly few caveats. Despite its cringe-inducing character designs and some early narrative concerns, Appare-Ranman‘s lovable cast and feel-good adventure story helped it become my favorite show of the summer (and possibly of the year). The finale teased a potential season 2 airplane race that I’d love to see play out, but even if it doesn’t, this is a charming self-contained series that I very much look forward to rewatching down the road.
Problematic Favorite: Chiaki, Dee, Lizzie
What’s it about? Anima City was established ten years ago as a safe haven for beastpeople, though its tenuous existence requires its leadership to bend to shady politicians. For tanuki girl Michiru, the city looks like paradise, but the night she arrives she witnesses a terrorist attack and crosses paths with imposing wolf investigator Ogami Shirou. And Michiru has one more secret: she says she’s a human!
Content Considerations: Racism allegories; brief instance of an older man feeling up a younger woman; moments of gratuitous gore; flashing lights during fight scenes.
Some might argue BNA could have used a second cour to let the story have a little more breathing room, but I think the single cour helps keep things tight. Its plot builds and builds and keeps building until a climatic final moment (as Trigger is oft to do) that leaves the viewer going, “boy, that escalated quickly.”
I’d be inclined to give this series a “feminist friendly” endorsement if not for how it oversimplifies real-world issues of race, religion, sexuality, and other aspects of identity. BNA consistently draws from real-world issues such as how “borders are fake” or the trouble with well-meaning but ignorant allies, but it also does so in a vacuum. In this version of Japan, the only real prejudice humans appear to have is against beastmen.
There is no indication that humans still harbor the same political and social strifes amongst themselves and are instead directing all of their prejudice to beastmen and only beastmen. Sure, there may be a more complicated world just off camera, but consistently coopting real world issues, including the Holocaust, and making it about how humans have persecuted beastmen ultimately reduces persecution to merely a concept and absolves humanity in BNA (and the viewer) from deeper introspection about how humans apply these prejudices in real life.
Aside from that, nothing really stands out as too bad. There is one scene where a masked cult leader decides to get handsy with a younger member of the cast, but the show largely stays away from uncomfortable sexual situations or fanservice otherwise. If anything, the show really encourages viewers to embrace and celebrate themselves for who they are.
As Vrai referenced in their premiere review, if you’re looking for a story about the empowerment of girls: great! That’s exactly what you get in BNA. Michiru has a lot to adjust to, but she ultimately finds her place in the world and you can’t help but feel happy for her when she does.
Anyway, time to get back to my redesigned fursona. She’s got wings now.
Feminist-Friendly Favorite: Caitlin
Surprise Favorite: Dee, Vrai
What’s it about? Natsume is a young woman who has grown up in a world where 90% of the human population was killed by these creatures, called Gadolls. The remaining population lives inside a giant mobile fortress called the Deca-Dence as Tankers, whose job is to support the Gears who fight the monsters. Natsume longs to be a Gear, but her prosthetic arm disqualifies her. She begs her gruff mentor Kaburagi to teach her to fight, but as a retired Gear, he carries many mysterious regrets of his own.
Content Warnings: Animal death; depictions of ableism; carceral violence; eugenics; some gore; vomiting.
DECA-DENCE is a very good show that people should watch. Its visuals are breathtaking, with a lot of clever stylistic experimentation that’s a joy to watch while also not being alienating to anime fans who aren’t ready for Kaiba or Flowers of Evil. Its narrative centers around a critique of capitalism and the way workers become the dehumanized cogs in an uncaring machine, and it does so without ever feeling hopeless. The combat is fluid and mesmerizing. It treats Natsume’s disability with dignity. I am immensely endeared by the creators’ fondness for western media, which bleeds through in character names and interviews. It is, in many ways, the perfect anime for 2020.
Now I’m going to spend the rest of this recommendation complaining about it, because it was so good that it made me expect better of it.
When the show shifted its focus from Natsume to her mentor Kaburagi, I spent a long time waiting for this shift to balance back out, but it never really does. Natsume is never passive, but she’s not the protagonist the first episode purports her to be—something that underlines the show’s well-meaning but sometimes bizarre gender politics. It’s free of fanservice and its female characters are all likable, but then some outdated tic would come along and throw me out of things.
Natsume spends almost three quarters of the show unaware of the larger meta-plot, which often robs her of agency in crucial moments and, at worst, makes her efforts feel meaningless. Functionally, her role is to be an inspirational daughter-figure to drive Kaburagi, the actual protagonist. The show can’t even let her serve as the symbol of the next generation taking the reins from their imperfect elders, as the writing has Kaburagi step back only to undo it literally as the credits roll. And Natsume’s female combat role model, Kurenai, is saddled with a running gag about how she became strong in order to be “worthy” of Kaburagi, leading her to swoon whenever he’s near.
These are complaints I would absolutely table with a series like the above-mentioned Appare-Ranman!, which stars marginalized characters but also swings broad and action-oriented; but Deca-Dence never steps back from being about systemic oppression in a central way, and that means it has to take scrutiny alongside praise. As it stands, this is a hearty recommendation with a pinch of disappointment on top.
Surprise Favorite: Mercedez
What’s it about? After transferring to a new school, Hina finds herself blackmailed into joining the fishing-centric Breakwater club. Unfortunately, the many creepy-crawly critters of the ocean leave her more than a little faint.
Content Considerations: Depictions of animal death; mild fanservice; alcohol and alcoholism
When I first started Diary of Our Days at Breakwater, I didn’t expect to finish it, in large part because I don’t particularly like fishing and tend to get squeamish at the sight of live fish. But as the summer season continued, I found myself looking forward to each episode in a very low-key way, if only because I knew each episode would ultimately end on a pleasant note.
Diary of Our Days at Breakwater is not doing anything new for the genre it functions in. Much like Laid-Back Camp, Hakumei and Mikochi, and Flying Witch, Breakwater neatly fits into the iyashikei (healing) sub-genre of anime: not only is Breakwater a slice-of-life series, it’s a relaxing slice of life, set at the breakwaters of rural Ashikita in Kyushu’s Kumamoto Prefecture.
All of this unfolds from the perspective of Tsurugi Hina, a character so darn relatable that you’ll quickly find yourself charmed by her and her growth as a member of the Breakwater Club. In fact, as I sank into my weekly watchthrough, I found myself charmed by pretty much all of the members of the club. After all, there’s something lovely about watching friendship bloom between a bunch of good kids who like fishing.
Sometimes, it’s nice to have simple shows, especially in a year like 2020, where hope seems to be limited somedays. Breakwater feels like the animated version of a thick, fleece blanket. There’s something comforting about coming along for the ride with Hina. Something wonderful about learning little tidbits about fish and fishing. There’s even something nice about seeing the Breakwater Club indulge in their catch, though do be aware that there are regular instances of on-screen animal death.
Diary of Our Days at Breakwater not perfect by any means. There’s little things that will bother critical viewers, and little things that bothered me. I wasn’t a fan of their alcoholic club advisor in the least; then again, I’m never a fan of that particular trope. I also wasn’t a fan of how abrasive Natsumi, one of the club members, could be. I’m still mad at the octopus in episode one.
Yet there’s something nice about a show where happy endings come with the sizzle of a fish being grilled or fried or just simply cooked, and the promise of another day at the breakwater and a few smiles.
Problematic Favorite: Chiaki, Mercedez
What’s it about? Long ago, humans and monsters fought one another in an seemingly unending war, battling until exhaustion overtook both sides and the meaning of said war was lost. Now, in more modern times, monsters and humans cohabitate in the same world and spaces. One such pair is Dr. Glenn Litbite and Lamia girl Saphentite “Sapphee” Neikes, a human-monster doctor duo who take care of the monster girls in the city of Lindworm.
Content Warnings: Cishet-oriented fanservice; sexual kink, including BDSM.
By itself, Monster Girl Doctor is a by the numbers appreciation of a large harem of female characters who are mostly well-endowed and conventionally good looking even with the addition of a few extra arms, legs, eyes and other aspects that make someone a “monster.” The show, however, goes beyond just that and delivers more than a weekly “horny horned-girls fest.” The girls all have lives to live, and while character designs are clearly meant to please its viewers, you can tell they’re not just there to fawn over the potato sack-kun of a protagonist this show has.
Dr. Glenn is a nice boy, but beyond his expertise on caring for monster-folk, there’s not much to say. His drive to be a doctor to help others is admirable, but the show mistakes his skills as a doctor for a passion in life. Whereas everyone else is leading a double life as an assassin or taking down slaver gangs on top of trying to win Glenn’s affection, Glenn’s just kinda there to tell you “you don’t have lupus, you’re just molting.” Glenn, however, does not matter that much in the grand scheme of things, because I’m watching the show for literally almost everyone else.
I’m increasingly convinced monster girl shows tend to have a queerer audience than what the marketing suggests. Given how monsters have become easily identifiable icons for LGBTQ folks as an ‘other’ trying to make their presence known in a society that does not wish to acknowledge them.
Monster Girl Doctor, in that respect, has a world I can invest myself in. The show easily lends itself to comparisons with 2015’s Monster Musume, but Mercedez on our staff and I agree that this show is in many ways superior in its setting. Whereas MonMusu took place in modern Japan and the monster girls are a horny allusion to immigrants, MonDoc presents a kinder world where monsters are the norm (some humans are still racist tho). It’s a world where what is abnormal for us thrives and is beautiful and that is touching to see.
For that reason, I had fun with this show. As someone who openly likes horny content, I didn’t have to tune in each week feeling like I have to justify why I like this show. They present aftercare in BDSM. Sapphee, though intensely jealous, is enough of an adult to talk things out with her rivals. Illy is affectionate toward Glenn but isn’t sexually weird about it. The character dynamics are overall pretty okay!
That is, until the last episode when they revealed the dour little dragon girl Glenn helped cure turns out to be a sugar-coated manic pixie madly in love with him once she gained a new lease on life. So yeah, there is no 12th episode. This was an 11-episode series.