Anime Feminist Recommendations of Winter 2019

By: Anime Feminist April 19, 20190 Comments
Mob, Reigen, and Dimple look out the window of an empty office. All three seem perturbed.

A big new year comes with fresh new shows—and a few familiar faces. The team got together to pick their top recommendations for the Winter 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!

Kaguya-sama: Love is War

dramatic close-up of a boy and girl glaring at one another with a text box in the middle of the screen that reads "COMPETITION BATTING." subtitle: batting!

Problematic Favorite: Caitlin, Chiaki, Dee, Vrai
Surprise Favorite: Peter

What’s it about? According to student council vice president and president Kaguya Nishinomiya and Miyuki Shirogane, there’s no such thing as a truly equal relationship. In a romantic power struggle taking place mostly in their own heads, these two are each determined to force the other to confess their feelings first.
Content Warning: Gender essentialism; depictions of misogyny; some fanservice

Like Asobi Asobase before it, Kaguya-sama is a comedy show of high highs and low lows intrinsically tied to its sketch-based format. When it’s on, it’s absolutely ablaze: the show has a sharp eye for undercutting Kaguya and Shirogane’s desire to “win” at love with the truth that they’re just two dorky teens scared of their own feelings, and for the most part it tries to keep them on even footing both with their imaginary win/loss ratio and with the kind of ridiculousness they’re allowed to show. When their vulnerability is allowed to show through, it’s genuinely heart-melting.

It’s also jaw-droppingly gorgeous thanks to Mamoru Hatakeyama’s direction. A game of twenty questions becomes a wild west shoot-out, the navigation of a room is an aerial dogfight, and simple conversations have all the color-washed flair and over-analysis of Death Note. Tongue firmly in cheek, it lands some stellar blows about the expectations placed on boy/girl relationships and traditional gender roles.

Or…mostly it does, anyway. The compulsory heterosexuality of the series can be downright suffocating. It’s not that the show focuses only on boy/girl couples, but that every single time the narrator talks about relationships, for instance, it’s framed unfailing as “men-and-women” rather than something as simple as “two people.”

For much of the show it’s clear that this exclusionary, old-fashioned view is predominantly about the pressures placed on the leads, but the show loses its grip during an arc where Kaguya gets sick and Shirogane falls asleep in her bed, and the show quite sincerely pats him on the back for not molesting her while she was ill (Kaguya, meanwhile, is both horrified that he might have and disappointed that he didn’t). In a show that wants to take an arch, ironic perspective on gender roles without explicitly calling them out, it’s a harder blow than average.

There’s also student council treasurer Ishigami, who belongs to that very specific ensemble comedy archetype of “introduced part way through and proceeds to suck the life out of every scene they’re in.” His sketches always feel comparatively mean-spirited to the rest of the show; and while we aren’t necessarily set up to agree with him, his downright MRA-level spiels about women late in the series become exhausting to put up with when there are other, better characters who could be getting that screen time (like the utterly marvelous Chika, one of the best characters of the season).

The second half of Kaguya-sama is a much more hit-or-miss affair than its first, but there were enough strong scenes and sweet moments (listen, it is not an easy task to get me invested in a heterosexual romance) that I wound up sticking with it through to the end. While the final scene is somewhat frustrating without the promise of another season on the horizon, I’d still call this one of the stronger rom-coms of recent seasons.

Vrai

Meiji Tokyo Renka

A teen girl and teen boy in Japanese hakama chew, their faces blue with disgust. A man and woman smile mildly behind them.

Surprise Favorite: Chiaki, Dee

What’s it about? Ostracized as a child for her ability to see ghosts, Mei Ayazuki has gotten used to being alone—at least, until a magician sends her back in time to the Meiji Era. Surrounded by famous men and supernatural mysteries, Mei can truly be herself for the first time in years.
Content Warning: A lack of respect for personal space; roughshod crossdressing; ableist undercurrents

Though Meiji Tokyo Renka started off a little rough with the male cast getting pretty handsy with Mei Ayazuki, the show chills out quite a bit after the first episode. If anything, what helped the show along the most was the fact it had its cast of famed Meiji-era Renaissance men, especially Ougai Mori, take a step back to instead allow the show’s oddball heroine to take center stage.  

Mei is memorable as a character, not only for her quirky love of beef, but her earnest can-do attitude that takes charge each episode. Renka shines the most when Mei is in the spotlight, whether through songs about electricity or forthright declarations about her own wants and needs.

The show, however, is by no means perfect. Notwithstanding the concerns expressed earlier, Renka does not have as much sensitivity as it could. Kyoka Izumi’s germaphobic tendencies aren’t taken that seriously after all, and Otojiro Kawakami’s crossdressing role as Otoyakko feels more like a spectacle than anything.

These character quirks, among others, especially feel shallow given the germaphobia and crossdressing don’t appear to have any historical grounding. Actually, the show had a number of temporal inconsistencies, which made me wonder if the writers did any research at all about these guys save for a quick glance at a Wikipedia page.

Overall, though, the playful tone for the series, and, most of all the narrative kindness expressed towards its isolated female protagonist, makes it such a pleasant watch. I’m just happy for Mei, and being able to join her on this fantastic journey was fun enough for me.

Chiaki

Mob Psycho 100 II

A group shot of the cast of Mob Psycho. Mob stands at the center with Reigen, and his brother most prominently above him, with many other characters fanning out around them, slightly smaller

Feminist-Friendly Favorite: Peter
Surprise Favorite: Dee

What’s it about? The second season of the beloved anime about a boy who wants to make the most of himself but is burdened with godlike psychic powers. Working part-time as an exorcists for his con man mentor Reigen along with his ghostly sidekick Dimple, Mob encounters spirits and fellow psychics that test both his moral compass and self perception as an unremarkable boy who just happen to be able to bend all of reality to his will.
Content Warning: Mild fatphobia in one episode; depictions of bullying and abuse; colorism/racist character design (Takeuchi)

Penned by the famous author of One Punch Man and lovingly adapted as a sort of visual playground for the best animators at studio BONES, Mob Psycho 100 had a huge legacy to live up to and its second season excelled beyond the first in every conceivable way.

This season dove more deeply into the story, showing us many of Mob’s struggles in discovering his place in the world. Where many of the specters of the first season were fodder to show off Mob’s amazing talent, his interactions with ghosts this time around show a lot of the unique moral quandaries Mob faces almost daily. Do ghosts have any lesser right to reside somewhere than the humans requestingtheir exorcism? Does life have any intrinsic value when you can create and shape it at your whim?

Where the first season was excellent on its own, this time around sold the power of Mob’s emotional honesty. Although the psychic battles are amazing, Mob’s insistence on being the best possible person he can and helping others along on their road to growth adds a great narrative context to every conflict. It captures the emotional essence of shonen while remaining free, or even being openly critical of, many of the toxic masculine tropes typical of shonen storytelling.

Part 2 really clued us in on the emotional mission statement of Mob Psycho 100 and why ONE considers this work to be his opus. While some elements remain unadapted, that just means we can look forward to the potential of another season. This series really has something for everyone and produced a truly sterling series that’s going to set an impossibly high standard for the rest of the anime this year. I’m happy to say I can wholeheartedly recommend this series with basically zero reservations.

Peter

My Roommate is a Cat

a black and white kitten surrounded by blooming cherry blossoms

Feminist-Friendly Favorite: Chiaki, Dee
Surprise Favorite: Vrai

What’s it about? Subaru Mikazuki has been alone since his parents died when he was a teenager. Now a popular mystery novelist, he has little interest in the world outside of books. When he encounters a cat at his parents’ grave, he gets the idea for a mystery novel and takes the kitty home.
Content Warning: Animal death; depictions of bereavement

Almost every season includes a soothing series that’s easy to unwind to, and often times they wind up being hidden gems. My Roommate is a Cat (or “What Am Cat” as my wife took to calling it, given its dedication to teaching viewers about the very basic basics of caring for a pet) is at times a lighthearted iyashikei and at others an unexpectedly gut-punching story about overcoming grief and learning how to connect with others. In a stronger season, it would still be a notable standout. In this somewhat lackluster winter, it’s a strong contender for Best in Show.

The series divides each of its episodes between its protagonists, showing us both Subaru and Haru’s perspective on a given day’s events. It’s a risky maneuver, as animal internal monologue can easily become cloying, but its execution is surprisingly nuanced. Haru and Subaru both begin the story essentially operating in survival mode, and each episode brings them a little closer to understanding each other’s motives even if they’re never able to speak to one another.

Far from cutesy, in fact, Haru’s stories can be downright brutal. The series doesn’t shy away from the dangers stray animals face. It’s a mark in the show’s favor that these moments feel neither gratuitous nor cheap, but those uncomfortable with animal suffering and death in any capacity might have a hard time watching.

Subaru’s story, meanwhile, is a satisfying slow-burn of learning to open up to a few trusted loved ones, pushing himself slowly to interact with others without it feeling like the show wants him to change who he is. It walks a delicate line of characterizing Subaru’s social withdrawal as connected to the specific trauma of his parents’ death without falling into being a story about pushing oneself through mental illness, and barring a panic attack very early on, its successful at keeping those lines distinct.

Sensitively written, funny and understated, and with a compassionate heart, this is a wonderful series for anyone who’s ever had a pet make a difference in their life.

Vrai

Run With the Wind

A group of young men sit around two low tables full of food and drinks. Subtitles read "Let's aim for the top together!"

Problematic Favorite: Caitlin

What’s it about? When Haiji Kiyose finds Kakeru Kurahara fleeing after an apparent shoplifting, he recruits the college first-year to move into his dorm. Then he springs it on all ten residents of the dorm: he wants them to enter the grueling Hakone relay marathon.
Content Warning: Some uncomfortable comments from adult characters about a teen girl

In the premiere review, I remarked on the grounded atmosphere of the first episode of Run with the Wind, and how it felt like it could take place in the real world. Twenty-three episodes later, that hasn’t held quite true. The story certainly stretches credibility in places, but in service of a greater and more satisfying emotional truth than the most realistic one.

Haiji’s quest to get the residents of his apartment into shape for the year’s Hakone Ekiden (relay marathon) isn’t at all reasonable, and I wasn’t sure the show would end with him successful. After all, Ekiden runners are Olympic-level athletes and many of the characters were rank beginners.

But the point isn’t whether that’s realistic, it’s about each character’s personal arc, especially Kakeru and Haiji. It’s about acknowledging and resolving the tensions between the inherent contradictions in their lives, much like the oxymoronic nature of running as a team. Out on the road, you’re alone. And yet, through a system of mutual support and camaraderie, your teammates can be an incredibly important motivating factor. The way Run With the Wind addresses that paradox is an important part of what makes it special.

There are plenty of fair criticisms to level at the story. The way Haiji gets the other residents to agree to run are, quite frankly, manipulative, and he never really faces true consequences beyond a few moments of introspection. It romanticizes pushing your body past its limits to the point of threatening your own life and health.

And then there’s Hana. Poor, underused Hana. The sole female character, she was introduced as a cute high school girl whose entire point was to motivate the horndog boys of the team with her presence. Her slight character arc is that she maybe, just maybe, is attracted to one of the guys herself. But there’s no individuality to her, no sense of her own motivations and hopes and dreams. Just a girl who exists to support the boys, adding her to the long list of sports anime female managers that fail the “Sexy Lamp” test.

On the other hand, there are quite a few things that the series does well. There are unmistakable queer overtones to the story, the kind of heavily implied romantic pairings that step just short of canonical confirmation. The script handles them deftly enough that there is, as the kids these days say, “no heterosexual explanation for this” without it feeling like queerbaiting or exploitation.

There’s also Musa, an international engineering student from Tanzania. His story line specifically deals with how he’s perceived due to his Blackness, when many competing schools have Black students they recruited on athletic scholarships. He has a sweet, mild-mannered personality, unlike stereotypical aggressive or wild dark-skinned foreign characters. Anime doesn’t have the best track record with Black characters, and it’s not my place to determine whether he’s “good” or “bad,” but he certainly comes across as a well-rounded, sympathetic figure to me.

Even if it didn’t inspire me to dust off my own jogging shoes, Run with the Wind blew me away week after week with its heartfelt, character-driven story. It may be problematic, but it’ll be a fave for me for a long time.

Caitlin

The Promised Neverland

Promised Neverland image. Emma, Ray, and Norman stand in a room full of beds lined in a row. Emma holds a notebook. The three are looking at the camera.

Problematic Favorite: Peter
Loudly Recommending the Manga: Dee, Vrai

What’s it about? Emma, Norman, and Ray are the three smartest children in a countryside orphanage presided over by their beloved “mother.” The kids lead a seemingly idyllic life, until Emma and Norman discover the orphanage’s terrible secret.
Content Warning: Racist representation; child death and abuse

This was one of the most anticipated adaptations of one of the most unique stories ever to hit the pages of Weekly Shonen JUMP. A survival horror with a female lead, a lot is riding on the success of The Promised Neverland, as its departure from the magazine’s typical style could open the door to more diverse stories and casts within JUMP‘s pages.

Despite a few standouts, horror are relatively rare among anime, especially one packed with intellectual sparring and strategizing. The anime chose to dispense with internal monologues to drive a sense of tension and paranoia which, while a respectable choice on its own, caused the anime to exacerbate the most troubling element of The Promised Neverland manga.

One of the most prominent antagonists in the first story arc is Sister Krone, a black woman whose character design and narrative lean heavily on historically racists depictions of Black people. To clue the audience in on Krone’s motivations despite the lack of internal monologues, the anime doubles down on these elements by providing a beaten doll which she relates her plans to while abusing. This new element not only makes her seem unstable, but effectively eliminates all the redeeming aspects of her story.

That significant issue aside, the anime otherwise does a respectable job adapting the manga with few other notable stumbles. The stellar voice cast went a long way in holding up the tension of the story. While at times it felt like the studio didn’t quite grasp all the themes in the work they were adapting, they did nail the climax of the anime and conclusion of the first story arc. On the whole it’s a solid adaptation, but Krone’s parts can be difficult to grimace through.

Peter

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