As if to balance out the light lists of 2019, the new year roared in with so many quality shows we almost didn’t have space to recommend them all. Here are the team’s top picks for Winter 2020.
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!
Surprise Favorite: Chiaki, Dee, Vrai
What’s it about? At her friend Risa’s insistence, Kaede bought the popular new VRMMO game New World Online. Since she’s never played an MMO and her main goal is not to get hurt, she put every skill point she has into defense.
With a mix of iyashikei (healing) and hobby formulas and a fantasy VR aesthetic brought beautifully to life by Silver Link, BOFURI came out of nowhere to become one of my favorites of the season. After a pleasant but fairly unimpressive first episode, the show sets to work building an ensemble cast of likable characters and letting them bounce off one another.
There’s a great focus on the friendship between various female cast members and, while there are a few absurd outfits, they fall reasonably within the in-universe logic of picking cute costumes for your game avatar. The camera is also pleasantly neutral, outside of one or two uncomfortable transformation sequence shots.
BOFURI’s main focus is on gathering a cast who all play the main MMO the “wrong” way, whether by going all-in on one stat like Kaede (or “Maple,” as she’s known in game), or preferring to focus on non-combat interests like crafting and puzzles. Given how often online gaming in particular is discussed in terms of wins and losses, often with accompanying aggressive trash talk, it’s gratifying to see a story shine a spotlight on the many other ways people enjoy playing games without shaming them for it. While the final arc does involve a PVP guild competition, the show’s interest remains on the satisfying friendships that can form through online interaction.
Sweet, welcoming for all ages, and with a second season already confirmed, this is a great choice for anyone looking for a relaxing smile.
Chihayafuru – Season 3
Feminist-Friendly Favorite: Dee
What’s it about? In elementary school, Chihaya, Arata, and Taichi became fast friends united through playing competitive karuta together. Now in high school, the trio have drifted apart, but Chihaya has never given up on her dream of becoming the Karuta Queen. Her determination is infectious, bringing both old and new friends into the game she loves.
Content Considerations: Past seasons featured depictions of occasional gender essentialism, sexism, and body shaming, though this latest season was pretty much void of it.
I’d say I’m preaching to the choir at this point, but given that none of the other reviewers on staff are watching the best lady-led sports anime in recent memory, I clearly need to preach louder. Maybe add some drums or trumpets or something.
I picked Chihayafuru Seasons 1-2 as one of my top anime of the last decade, and surprise! Season 3 is great, too. If anything, the show improves upon itself, building to major emotional climaxes and fleshing out supporting cast members in unexpected ways.
Particularly impressive was this season’s focus on adult karuta players. Season 3 spends a lot of time discussing how people can still pursue their passions as they age, swapping physical prowess for experienced strategies or learning how to juggle responsibility with ambition. Lauren wrote a great article about Inokuma’s dual role as a new mom and karuta competitor that goes into detail about these themes, so I’ll direct you there instead of gushing about it myself.
Simply put, Chihayafuru is an excellent adaptation of a fantastic character-driven, lady-led sports manga and I was overjoyed to have it back on my watchlist. There’s no Season 4 announcement yet, but it seems likely—making this the perfect time for y’all to dive in and fall in love with these karuta dorks as well.
Problematic Favorite: Vrai
What’s it about? Eripiyo is one of the original fans of underground idol group Cham Jam, and her favorite is the shy Maina. Eripiyo worries that she might be scaring her fave off by coming on too strong, but Maina is tongue-tied for another reason entirely!
Content Warnings: Possible age-gap relationship (both adults); romanticized idol/fan romance; the idol industry.
I don’t think I yelled about any other series this season, at least in private, as much as Budokan. As I discussed way back during the premiere, the series is built on a fairly yikes-worthy premise: the fantasy of an idol falling for her biggest fan. It’s the kind of thing that’s seemingly harmless in isolation but when normalized can quickly poison expectations of real-world boundaries between fans and celebrities, especially ones that rely on marketing an aura of intimacy. Or, to quote an internet celebrity: “I’m not your friend, and you have no say over what I do with my body.”
To Budokan’s credit, it actually does a fair bit to couch its premise in less creepy terms: Cham Jam is an underground group, situating the story in the subtly but crucially different world of microfandom; Eripiyo is, in fact, Maina’s only fan. Much of the show’s will-they-won’t-they also comes from Eripiyo pulling back at even the slightest possibility that she might be violating Maina’s boundaries, which goes a long way to calming the creep factor.
That surprisingly thoughtful attention to detail characterizes the show all-over. I wouldn’t characterize Budokan as critical of the idol industry, but it’s far more candid about at least surface-level shortcomings like mismanagement and the unpleasant pressure of popularity polls than any other series I’ve seen in the genre. It also, crucially, spends as much time with the idol characters (including a secondary established queer couple) as the fans.
The show is full of smart little touches like Kumasa, a character visually embodying the “slobby otaku” stereotype, being the most mature character with the healthiest relationship to his fandom. But it also ends up hamstrung when it brushes against bigger systemic issues. No character embodies this shortcoming better than Motoi, who has a bad case of Mineta Syndrome. While the problems with the fandom he represents—i.e., leery creeps who actually think they can one day marry their faves—would feel noticeably absent if not addressed and the show throws plenty of karmic slapstick his way, there’s no real long-lasting rebuttal or consequences to his toxic viewpoint.
Despite that blot on the record, the show surprised me with its surprisingly deft writing and human touch. I might wish it would push slightly harder with its criticisms, but its focus on portraying the nuances of the humans behind the marketing made for a surprisingly affecting, valuable viewing experience.
Problematic Favorite: Peter
What’s it about? Kotoko sacrificed an eye and a leg to become the Goddess of Wisdom for the spirits. Kuro has become immortal after consuming the flesh of two yokai. Together the two resolve disruptions in the supernatural world, specifically one about a vengeful ghost tied to Kuro’s past.
Content Warnings: Depictions of extreme violence and murder; hard to determine the level of consent in Kotoko’s sexual advances toward Kuro.
In/Spectre is probably the most interesting take on mystery I’ve encountered since I was first introduced to the genre. Kotoko’s position as a supernatural detective rarely demands that she seek an absolute truth, but instead an answer that can be accepted—by her client, by the public, or by In/Spectre’s audience. “What do we find interesting about mysteries,” “what utility is there in solving them,” and “how their answers are perceived, correct or not,” are all questions Kotoko confronts even as she investigates the mystery itself.
For a low action series, I found In/Spectre gratifying in a number of ways. Its aggressive and irreverent detective, a role typically reserved for cynical men, instead cast the spunky and eccentric Kotoko, who is also a relatively positive (if not necessarily realistic) portrayal of a disabled individual. The dialogue is immensely engaging, fast-paced and punchy without becoming overwhelming, a balance particularly hard to strike for audiences following along with subtitles.
Most of all, though, I love the conflict. Although the manga contains a number of single-volume stories, the anime focuses on the most sprawling conflict of the series, which examines how public attention on a mystery can fundamentally change it.
In/Spectre comes with a few caveats. The series involves murder mysteries, some of them portrayed in particularly gruesome fashion. Maybe the biggest point of friction is Kotoko herself. Although she and Kuro are definitely in some kind of romantic relationship, her aggressive approach, possessiveness, and use of innuendo come across uncomfortably because Kuro’s degree of consent is left up in the air.
I personally found it refreshing to see a couple where the lady initiates sexual contact, and the two are “officially” a couple. Still, even though the end of the series takes some steps to ensure there is an amount of mutual attraction between them, Kotoko rarely acts in ways that would be considered appropriate and you’re often left wondering how comfortable Kuro is with Kotoko’s behavior.
Feminist-Friendly Favorite: Caitlin, Chiaki, Dee, Peter, Vrai
What’s it about? Asakusa Midori has wanted to make anime since she was small, but her talents lay mostly in drawing backgrounds and concept art. Add in Mizusaki Tsubame, a rich girl whose parents want her to go into anything but anime, and savvy money-grubbing Kanamori Sayaka, and their dreams might just be able to get off the ground.
Content Considerations: For photo-sensitive viewers, there are flashing lights in the opening theme.
If you’re part of AniTwitter in any way, you’ve more than likely seen a tweet or two (or twelve) emphatically urging you to watch this series. Eizouken deserves every bit of praise that’s been heaped on it, but for those who missed getting on the hype train, the actual details of what makes the show so special can get a little lost.
It’s not just that the show is a vivid love letter to the process of making anime, with fantasy sequences that bring abstract concepts to life and infuse them with the giddy imagination of teenage friends bouncing ideas off one another. Nor the story’s extremely sly usage of school clubs as a metaphor for the politics of getting an anime made, with a blunt honesty that arguably puts it ahead of even beloved anime-about-anime SHIROBAKO.
It’s not even (just) the show’s dedication to gender-neutral animation of its characters or the creation of a world that casually embraces both racial diversity and accessibility, though the thorough normalization of those elements is a benchmark to which other shows should aspire. It’s the fact that the series weaves all of these elements together into a warm, funny, tightly woven twelve-episode experience that reaches out to anyone who’s ever made or loved art in any form.
It’s a truly special, singular experience with an open but thoroughly satisfying conclusion. I will miss my three precious gremlin children very much.
Radiant – Season 2
Problematic Favorite: Dee, Peter
What’s it about? In a world where demons called “Nemesis” corrupt everything they touch, those who survive the encounter become magic-wielding sorcerers. Humanity fears and hates the sorcerers, but young apprentice Seth is determined to change that.
Content Considerations: Violence; depictions of prejudice and oppression; magical elements can sometimes lead to low-key troubling issues with real-world mental illness and agency.
Kudos to Peter for encouraging me to come back to this one, because Radiant has steadily risen to become my favorite shounen-style action/fantasy of the past few years. In addition to its likable, increasingly diverse cast (Ocoho is So Good, y’all) and unsubtle anti-oppression messages, there is just something immensely appealing about how the show handles its female characters.
Rather than simply being vehicles for the male protagonist’s development, all the gals are given distinct arcs and time to shine. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call Radiant a Feminist Anime™ (although feminist-minded, sure), but its basically equal treatment of its gender-balanced cast makes it a whole lot easier to enjoy compared to a lot of similar series that struggle to do the same.
That said, I’ve still marked this as a “problematic fave” because Radiant’s anti-oppression message comes with fantasy metaphors that get a little muddied in execution. Untangling it would take more words than I have here, but suffice to say the show wants to talk about mental illness and trauma through a fantastical lens and the parallels don’t always line up right.
I want to stress that Radiant’s heart is emphatically in the right place. Season 2 features lengthy conversations about struggling to trust oneself, the value of support networks, and the dangers of self-isolation; as well as a moment where the characters fiercely assert their humanity in the face of oppressive forces that had me pumping my fist and blinking back tears. It’s by no means a perfect metaphor, though, and your mileage on its effectiveness will vary.
Even so, I’m really fond of this one, and would encourage anyone who likes shounen-style action/fantasy to give it a try—maybe even a full season, as it doesn’t really hit its stride until the second cour. Hopefully you’ll come to like these sorcerer kids as well and cheer them on as they continue to punch lots of fascists, xenophobes, and exploitative capitalists in the face.
Problematic Favorite: Caitlin, Dee
What’s it about? From a young age, Chiyuki looked to have a promising future as a model: she was tall, beautiful, and had plenty of connections with her father’s fashion agency. But then she stopped growing early, topping out at only 5’2”—way too short to walk the runway in Paris. However, she refuses to give up on her dream, despite everyone around her telling her to. But things just may change when she notices Tsumura, a classmate who is rich in passion for fashion design, but poor in cash.
Content Considerations: Flawed portrayal of body image issues; depictions of chronic illness and classism.
I just reread my review of the first episode of Smile Down the Runway, and it struck me how little my feelings have changed about the show. To be fair, I’m a little warmer on it now than I was before—after all, I have it filed as a “fave,” even if there were few series I felt any more than lukewarm about this season.
For once, I am glad that a show focused on a male protagonist rather than his female counterpart. After all, Ikuto is a much more interesting figure than Chiyuki, and seeing him struggle in the world of fashion was the story’s biggest draw. It was interesting to see how certain instincts borne of a lifetime in poverty, such as conserving money as much as possible even when granted a larger budget, work to his disadvantage.
But then there’s the girls. To be fair, there is a message in here about body positivity and self-love. Every female character who displays internality seems to have something they dislike about their body: for Chiyuki and Niimura Fumiyo, it’s their height (or lack thereof); for the model Kokoro, it’s her long limbs.
And it’s true, due to societal pressures, most women are dissatisfied with their bodies. But once again I must, must point out that they are all thin and conventionally attractive. There are so many ways to present the idea that beauty standards are bull, but instead we get “She doesn’t know how beautiful she is” horse dookie.
I will give it this: Chiyuki does grow quite a bit from the spoiled person she was in episode one. By the end of the show, she is fully and openly supportive of Ikuto. The partnership that develops between the two is quite lovely, and it’s nice to see the two supporting each other in ways the larger fashion industry refuses to.
Smile Down the Runway has its strengths, for sure. Ikuto’s story has a rare level of genuine class awareness and how economic insecurity creates barriers to keep people from realizing their dreams. Chiyuki is scrappy and grows nicely as a human being. I only wish the creator had the same courage as their characters and was willing to go farther with the concepts they introduced.
Surprise Favorite: Caitlin, Dee, Vrai
What’s it about? They say that this school has Seven Wonders. They say that if you go to the third-floor girls’ bathroom and knock three times, a ghost named Hanako-san will appear. They say that if you make a wish, she’ll grant it for you, but you must give up something in return. After a harsh rejection, Nene decides to appeal to Hanako for her new crush to return her affections. But something seems amiss… this Hanako is a boy?
Content Warnings: Depictions of death, suicide, homophobia, and bullying.
Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun was one of the most consistent delights of the season, each episode offering up fresh and interesting twists on the school supernatural mystery genre.
It’s hard to sum up everything that made the show wonderful in just a few hundred words. It was a hit on all levels, with limited but gorgeously executed animation, a compelling story, and complex characters given greater depth by standout performances, especially Ogata Megumi, one of the OGs of female seiyuu playing primarily male roles.
Each episode is a character study, from Hanako himself, to the spider-like librarian Tsuchigumo, to the more recently-deceased Mitsuba. Their stories are varied but universally tinged with sadness because, as apparitions, their experience is defined by their deaths instead of their lives. Even as the antagonists appear, including Hanako’s malicious twin, the story never loses sight of what matters: the human emotions that drive the mysteries.
That humanity is what makes Hanako-kun such a standout among supernatural mysteries. It’s in the relationship and growing intimacy between Nene and Hanako. It’s in the way Nene is always a little frivolous and easily flattered, but still kind and sympathetic. It’s in the poignancy of the one-way boundary between life and death, and how the liminal space in between the two is made literal through the show’s concept of “boundaries.”
Hanako-kun’s greatest flaw is that the story is incomplete; it finds a stopping point, but there’s still plenty left to tell. The manga is out there and available in English, I suppose, but it seems a bit more hollow without the beautiful colors and voice-acting.
Surprise Favorite: Chiaki, Dee
What’s it about? Based on the popular mascot characters Tama and Friends, Uchitama?! follows cat Tama as he hangs out with the other cats and dogs in District 3.
Content Considerations: Comedic violence.
Who knew at the start of the season that the real MVP (Most Valuable Pet) was gonna be Uchitama over any of the other anime featuring catgirls? It’s first episode appeared to be setting up a slice-of-life “cute humanoid animals” show, but Uchitama instead became a solid comedy with wit and charm, all while keeping things wholesome and even progressive at parts.
Each of the cats and dogs are easy enough to “get,” given that this is a series based on characters primarily created to sell cute stationary rather than deliver a compelling story. Even so, the show applies the characters well in a variety of situations and I felt like I got to know a new side to them previously unnoticed in their cute and simple caricature animal forms.
I got to the point where I didn’t know what to expect from Uchitama each week, but I accepted it all the same. In one episode, the cast broke out in a rap battle; in another, Tama is a contestant on a parody of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. There is no rhyme or reason why any of this happens the way it does, but nothing felt out of place no matter how surreal things got (except perhaps the interdimensional portal on Beh’s cheek—that was really weird even by this show’s standards).
The show somehow manages to hit a sweet spot where its tone is kept relatively consistent, even as situations ranged from tear-jerking drama to absurdist comedy. There was no ongoing story for Uchitama, but there was enough variety to its short skits that I wouldn’t mind seeing more in the future if this cat returns.
What were your favorites this season? Let us know in the comments!