Anime Feminist’s Top Picks for 2019

By: Anime Feminist January 3, 20200 Comments
The main trio of Sarazanmai smile into the distance

Our two-week recommendations extravaganza comes to an end with the staff’s Best of 2019 list!

How did we choose our recs?

Participating staff members picked five titles from three categories:

  • Feminist-friendly favorite: You’d recommend it to a feminist friend with minimal 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 2019 or been on the air without a break for over a year. This meant that split-cours (like Ascendance of a Bookworm) and shows that began in 2019 and are still airing (like Chihayafuru Season 3) were NOT eligible. They’ll be rolled onto any 2020 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

For the first time in AniFem history (to be fair, it’s only been three years), we have a tie for first place! One’s a returning shounen that built beautifully on its first season; the other a fantastical tale of connections lost and found. Both earned three votes and one #1 pick, earning them each a piece of that 2019 gold medal.

Mob Psycho 100 – Season 2

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

Chosen by: Caitlin, Dee, Peter (#1)

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 Warnings: 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

SARAZANMAI

The two cops from SARAZANMAI, one pulling the heart out of the other's chest in a pose reminiscent of Utena

Chosen by: Chiaki, Dee, Vrai (#1)
Also previously recommended by: Caitlin

What’s it about? Three 14-year-old boys—Kazuki, Toi, and Enta—accidentally release the Prince of the Kappas from a statue… only to anger him and wind up as kappa themselves. Now they must work for the prince, defeating kappa zombies by removing their shirikodama and obtaining “plates (sara) of hope” to help make their own desires come true.

Content Warnings: Depictions of homophobia and evocation of queerphobic tropes for commentary and subversion; assault-coded imagery in early shirikodama extractions; ableist language; gang violence; children in peril; minor body horror; nudity; implied sexual content; so many butt jokes.

It’s nothing short of a miracle that SARAZANMAI lived up to the expectations placed on it. As the first series directed by beloved auteur Kunihiko Ikuhara since 2015’s flawed (but very lovable, fight me) Yurikuma Arashi and the first work in which Ikuhara would specifically be telling a story about queer men, hopes were high indeed.

I’m lying, it didn’t meet them. It crushed them. I haven’t felt so happily anguished and giddy waiting for a weekly anime since A Place Further Than the Universe, nor so thoroughly seen since Land of the Lustrous. This is the kind of show that reminds me why I write about anime for a living and the dazzling heights of creativity that are unique to animation.

Over eleven short episodes, SARAZANMAI touches on the difficulties of adolescence; the complicated pain of both familial and romantic connection; the commodified exploitation of kink; and the way that entrenched power structures exploit queer people while insisting they’re there to help, turning the marginalized into upholders of their own oppression. It accomplishes all this with a plot that looks the anime industry dead in the eye and says, “Hey, it’s kind of messed up that queer couples in mainstream anime aren’t allowed to say ‘I love you,’ huh?”

It’s also riotously funny and weird, with an intensely endearing and relatably flawed cast (Enta is great; again, I invite you to fight me). And for those intimidated by Ikuhara’s reputation, this is easily one of his most accessible works, sometimes sincerely (each episode title is essentially a thesis statement) and sometimes tongue-in-cheek (having the main villain sing “I am an abstract concept,” which is of course the villain in every Ikuhara series).

And it’s a musical. And it has one of the best English dubs I’ve heard in years, with both a clever localization and a super-talented cast. And it made me cry, like, a bunch. There won’t be another show like this.

Vrai

Runner-Up

A dark horse candidate if ever there was one, this feel-good series was the only other title to earn three votes, winning it a surprise spot as our silver medalist. Whoever said nice guys finished last?

Outburst Dreamer Boys

Mizuki throws out her hand as if shooting an energy ball and a group of boys all fall over backwards as if she's struck them

Chosen by: Caitlin, Dee, Vrai

What’s it about? Hijiri Mizuki wants a peaceful life at her new high school, but she just had to go and get an eye infection before starting. The eyepatch she’s temporarily wearing catches the attention of Noda Yamato, a superhero tokusatsu nerd who immediately pegs her as a fellow geek. Will she be able to make any “normal” friends now that he’s begun recruiting her to join the Hero Club?

Content Considerations: Mild comedic violence.

An infectiously enthusiastic comedy about helping others and being true to yourself, Outburst Dreamer Boys swept in like a super sentai squad to become not only my favorite show of the fall, but one of my favorites of the entire year. 

As a story about nerd boys, Dreamer Boys walks two impressive comedic tightropes. First, it pokes good-natured fun at its cast without veering into cruelty, always tempering its humor with a genuine beat of humanity. And second, it encourages its audience to be honest about their geeky passions without snubbing its nose at anyone who doesn’t share those passions. It’s enthusiastic but never smug; silly but never mean; an upbeat exploration of what positive nerd masculinity can look like.

And, as a story about a girl finding her place in a new community, it’s slow-moving but deeply satisfying. As the passive, reluctant Mizuki gradually develops genuine affection for her new friends, she shifts into a more active role in the story, working to protect the club and the people she cares about. Whether Mizuki has actual superpowers is up for debate, but by the time the credits roll, there’s no doubt the Hero Club is her home.

At a crisp 11 episodes, the series tells a complete story that’s joyfully accepting, quietly affirming, and a whole lot of fun to watch. Don’t get caught sleeping on the Dreamer Boys, folks.

Dee

Feminist-Friendly Favorites

Black Clover

Group shot of the Black Clover cast, with Asta flashing a "victory" sign in the foreground

Chosen by: Peter

What’s it about? In this long-running shounen fantasy, boisterous orphan Asta is determined to become the Wizard King. Only problem: He doesn’t have any magic! But through stubbornness, supportive friends, and a mysterious grimoire, he just might be able to make his dreams a reality.

Content Considerations: Violence, fanservice, fat stereotyping in the early going (improved as the series progresses), and depictions of toxic familial relationships.

In the year when the current biggest shounen blockbuster ran a redemption arc for its violently abusive father while reducing its villain’s motivations to biological determinism, and the newest breakout shounen gags its only prominent female character for literally no reason, Black Clover just keeps building speed.

The anime continues to push its primary rivalry between Asta and Yuno as a great mutually supportive relationship, avoiding many of the common toxic cliches of competing leads. The series’ heroine, Noelle, has reached a new peak in her long arc of character development. Black Clover has also shown a willingness to improve upon past missteps, as it’s introduced multiple fat characters who’s weight is not only never commented on but, miraculously, possess powers that don’t involve turning calories into magic. All the while, the larger cast of the Black Bulls continue to remain goofy and relevant to the major conflict of the series.

Black Clover is probably the most guiltless feel-good shounen of the past few decades, avoiding major pitfalls of the genre as if they didn’t even exist. Now heading toward the climax of the major conflict introduced near the beginning of the story, it seems the series has started accruing the attention and production efforts it always deserved. If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, now’s the perfect time for a binge.

Peter

given

Ritsuka fiddles with a guitar while Mafuyu claps

Chosen by: Dee (#1), Vrai
Also previously recommended by: Caitlin

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.

Dee

Hitoribocchi no Marumaruseikatsu

Hitori holds up her phone in awe. Rainbow-colored on-screen text reads "Contact info exchanged."

Chosen by: Peter
Also previously recommended by: Dee, Vrai

What’s it about? All through elementary school, Bocchi’s only friend was Kai. When it turns out they’re going to different middle schools, Kai gives Bocchi a challenge: they can’t be friends again until Bocchi has made friends with every person in her homeroom class.

Content Considerations: Depictions of anxiety.

Hitoribocchi is the gentlest of comedies, the kind of school story that lovingly pokes fun at its characters while always sympathizing with and humanizing them. It’s quite silly, featuring fairly broad archetypes with quirks like “secretly a disaster” or “wants to be a ninja,” leading to plenty of solid humor. At the same time, though, there’s an emotional authenticity to its characters’ stories and arcs that grounds it, allowing it to resonate with middle-grade viewers and adults alike.

Protagonist Bocchi is often a spot-on portrayal of anxiety—getting nauseous at the thought of greeting new people or speaking in front of class; fretting that her friends will forget about her if she’s been away for longer than a day—but the series handles it with a light, optimistic touch. Bocchi is never shamed for her difficulties with social situations, and she does slowly grow and gain confidence, thanks in large part to her supportive friend-group.

So often “cute girl” comedies let themselves get too saccharine or stumble into infantilization or fanservice. Hitoribocchi avoids these pitfalls, leading to a sweet, upbeat experience that’s a pleasure to watch each episode. If you like soothing comedies, this one’s an easy recommendation.

Dee

My Roommate is a Cat

a black and white kitten surrounded by blooming cherry blossoms

Chosen by: Chiaki
Also previously recommended by: Dee, 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 Considerations: Animal death; depictions of social anxiety and 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 is at times a lighthearted iyashikei and at others an unexpectedly gut-punching story about overcoming grief and learning how to connect with others.

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

Stars Align

The soft tennis club on a tennis court. Most of the team is behind the net, with two players in front of it.

Chosen by: Vrai
Also previously recommended by: Dee

What’s it about? When the notoriously terrible boys’ soft tennis club is in danger of losing their student council funding, team captain Toma Shinjo manages to recruit (or rather, bribe) his old friend Maki into joining and lighting a fire under the team. The club may be on the rise, but the boys face as many challenges in their homes as on the court.

Content Warnings: Depictions of emotional and physical parental abuse, implied spousal abuse, fat shaming, dissociation, compulsive lying, stalking, queerphobia, transphobia, anxiety, depression, and bullying.

Stars Align is an easy show to love. Its depictions of middle school awkwardness are painfully and warmly familiar by turns, and its ensemble cast is made up of good kids who’ve gravitated together because it often seems like the rest of the world won’t have them.  

It’s also a show determined to talk about important and sometimes difficult issues. This includes representation of trans characters (one who is x-gender/nonbinary, one who is a trans man) as well as an exploration of the many faces of parental abuse, from neglect to physical abuse to controlling helicopter parenting.

The show’s determination to bring light to these issues, many rarely discussed in TV anime, often leads to earnest monologues written with all the bluntness of a two-by-four. It’s the kind of show that will hopefully look clunky in a decade, when other series have been given space to explore the same issues with further nuance. But that shouldn’t at all discount its power now, which is to make anyone who relates to its characters feel seen.

It’s also a difficult show to recommend, because it’s literally unfinished. The series was apparently cut from two-cour down to one mere months before it was meant to air. Rather than try to chop it into something that would fit 12 episodes, the crew proceeded as planned. It ends on a brutal cliffhanger, and because it’s an anime original, there’s no guarantee we’ll ever get to know how it ends. Still, I don’t regret one moment of the time I invested in it.

Vrai

Problematic Favorites

Carole & Tuesday

Carole and Tuesday sitting in Carole's apartment, writing music. Carole's owl alarm clock watches on.

Chosen by: Dee

What’s it about? Tuesday has always been the picture of privilege, until one night she sneaks out and takes the train with only her guitar and a suitcase. Her goal: become a musician. In Alba City, the biggest city on Mars, she meets Carole, another young woman with the same dream but a very different background. Despite their differences, the two discover they can make beautiful music together.

Content Warnings: Depictions of xenophobia, racism, police brutality, and emotional abuse; discussions of child abuse; queer characters depicted as abusive or violent (there are also queer characters who are not depicted this way); transphobic beliefs equating one’s body with one’s gender. 

I wrestled with putting Carole & Tuesday on this list, not because I didn’t like it (I did, quite a bit), but because there’s no way I can untangle all the pros and cons in a few paragraphs. It would take several essays, most of which I’m not qualified to write in the first place. (QTPOC: Pitch us! We’d love to hear from you!)

What begins as a straightforward, light-hearted music show about two girls trying to get their big break slowly morphs into a political drama about anti-immigration/refugee policies, free speech, and what (if anything) artists can do to fight for social justice. These are all valuable themes in today’s world, but they’re also muddled in execution, with an overly simplistic finale. This was arguably intentional—the protagonists talk about wanting to write songs that give people hope in difficult times, and perhaps C&T wanted to do the same—but it’s also arguable whether such a pat conclusion successfully achieves that “hope” they were aiming for.

And that’s not even getting into the way the series handles its most marginalized characters. C&T is much more racially conscious than the vast majority of anime (I don’t think it’s an accident that, when the police start cracking down on immigration and political dissent, it’s the Black men they go after first), but it’s debatable whether that leads to nuanced storytelling or perpetuates stereotypes. I am way too white to be any kind of authoritative voice on this conversation, but I do recognize its existence.

There’s also a tacked-on subplot concerning trans(?) characters that would take pages to explain: a mess of sci-fi elements that hinges on involuntary transitions, conflates bodies with gender identity, and goes exactly nowhere. The series does attempt to balance “positive” and “negative” characters to avoid blanket statements and be more about individuals than entire groups (one trans-coded character is abusive; the other practically a bodhisattva), so I don’t think it’s intentionally malicious—but with such a misinformed, harmful premise, I also don’t think intent matters.

And yet, here I am writing this rec, because dammit: I still really like this mess of a show. I love its focus on complex female characters, the grounded friendship between the two leads, its exploration of fandom and the music industry, and its consistently catchy music. I appreciate that it’s explicitly anti-fascist and anti-xenophobic at a time when both are globally on the rise, and that it sincerely tries to grapple with systemic oppression in a way most popular fiction (nevermind anime) wouldn’t even attempt.

Carole & Tuesday is a hugely mixed bag with significant flaws, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who saw those content warnings and decided to skip it altogether. But I’m glad it exists even so. Quintessential Problematic Fave, you have been found.

Dee

Fruits Basket (2019) – Season 1

Tohru holds Kyo and Yuki's hands as the three jump in the air together, smiling.

Chosen by: Caitlin (#1), Chiaki
Also previously recommended by: 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.

Caitlin

Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? – Season 2

Bell dances with a blonde girl. Both are in evening wear and look nervous.

Chosen by: Peter

What’s it about? After newbie adventurer Bell falls for Aiz, the warrior-woman who saved him during a dungeon-crawl, he vows to become strong enough to stand by her side. Now, with the help of the goddess Hestia and his growing group of companions, Bell is on his way to becoming someone who can protect the people he cares about.

Content warnings: Fanservice, depictions of sexual assault, and references to rape.

Danmachi is the only good harem show, and by that I mean it’s the only harem show where you look at the protagonist and all the attention they’re getting makes sense. Where most harem protagonists range from shitty dudes to bland voids that viewer can easily project themselves onto, Bell is a genuinely great character. His primary feature is a bottomless and extremely open admiration for all of the people around him. He takes the time to both learn more about everyone he meets and let them know how much he respects them and is grateful for their companionship.

Although possessing a lot of cheesecake and many interactions devolving into petty competitiveness over Bell’s attention, Danmachi nails the true spirit of the genre dating back to the days of Tenchi Muyo by having a large cast of cool and often titanically powerful women. And, despite being a brat, Hestia often gets to show off her leadership qualities.

It’s hard to champion a show like this and I’m honestly surprised I’m doing it, but maybe the best way to talk about its charms is by describing the two scenes that bookended the second season. The first was a ball where half the cast charmingly conspired to get the shy Bell and Ais to dance together; the second was the final scene: an intimate and tearful conversation between Bell and Hestia where he shares his fear of death and irrational sense of guilt over the fact that he will age and die while she will live on forever. It’s that kind of emotional sincerity and charm that makes this a peak Problematic Fave recommendation.

Peter

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!

Chosen by: Caitlin, Chiaki (#1)
Also previously recommended by: Dee, Peter, Vrai

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. Even with its flaws, I’d still call it one of the stronger rom-coms of recent seasons.

Vrai

O Maidens in Your Savage Season

Two teen girls in school uniforms look frazzled and embarrased. The one in the front is blushing bright red while the one in the back is looking at her, startled, flushing slightly.

Chosen by: Vrai
Also previously recommended by
: Caitlin, Dee

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.

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!"

Chosen by: 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

Surprise Favorites

GRANBELM

The silhouettes of a mecha and two girls in front of a glowing column of light

Chosen by: Peter
Also previously recommended by: 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. 

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.

Chosen by: Chiaki
Also previously recommended by: 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

Editor’s Bonus Pick

Pokemon: Sun & Moon

Group shot of the Alolan twerps, along with Misty, and their Pokemon cheering excitedly

Chosen by: Dee

What’s it about? Team Rocket gets adopted by a bear and opens a successful malasada busin An Alolan vacation turns into an extended stay when Ash decides to enroll at the local Pokemon School. There, he and his new friends explore Alola, pursue their goals, and grow closer as a team, helping each other to overcome challenges both individual and global.

Content Considerations: Mild violence and peril; depictions of death and bereavement (both human and Pokemon); very occasional gender essentialism.

If I could pick one word to describe Sun & Moon, it would be “joyous.” This is a series bursting with charm and energy, from its bright, bouncy animation and expressive artwork, to its endearing cast, to its gleeful shifts between subgenres (slice-of-life, super sentai, wacky comedy, apocalyptic sci-fi, and on and on). Along the way, it uses its cast and stories to explore both universal themes, such as grief and healing or the importance of standing up for yourself, as well as more topical ones, such as corporate pollution and buyouts of native lands (yes, really).

While the tournament arc has been a somewhat disappointing boys’ club, overall the series has done an excellent job balancing its male and female characters, providing them with personalities and arcs as diverse as they are. Whether it’s the “manly” Kiawe crying easily and doting on his family, caretaker Mallow’s focus on her career as a professional chef, or Lana’s laid-back good humor paired with her fierce competitive streak, all of these kids buck stereotypes and norms in one way or another—and the series consistently applauds them for it.

Also: BearMom. Have I mentioned BearMom? BearMom is Very Good.

Anyway, if you fell off the PokeWagon and have been wondering if you should get back on, the answer is yes. Sun & Moon is a delight for all ages. Check it out if you can.

Dee


What would your 2019 picks be? Let us know in the comments!

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