From romance to horror, seinen to shoujo, here are the stars that shone brightest from the past year.
How did we choose our recs?
Participating staff members picked five titles and ranked them. The only rule was that the series or season had to be complete as of December 2022 or been on the air without a break for over a year. This meant that split-cours and shows that began in 2022 and are still airing (like Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury and BIRDIE WING — Golf Girls Story —) were NOT eligible. They’ll be rolled onto any 2023 lists.
We always want to emphasize that our recommendations are not meant as a rubber-stamp of “Feminist Approval.” Rather, we aim to highlight shows we found valuable and think might appeal to our readers as well, with any content warnings or caveats that might apply.
How are they ranked?
They’re not, really. We’ve highlighted our “top picks” that received the most staff member votes, but otherwise they’re just organized 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
This year the top spot goes to three very different but equally compelling series!
Bee and PuppyCat (2022)
Chosen by: Dee (#1), Chiaki (#3), Alex (#5)
What’s it about? Bee just got fired from the local cat cafe, and she’s really gonna miss those cats. When she wishes for a pet of her own, a cat (or maybe a dog?) falls out of the sky onto her head. Feeding her new “PuppyCat” may prove a challenge when she can’t hold down a job—but fear not! PuppyCat is a planet-hopping temp worker and can sign Bee on to work with him! The two set off to fulfill the odd jobs of the universe, but there may be more to Bee’s squishy new friend than meets the eye…
Content considerations: Fantasy violence; restrained depictions of child neglect, verbal cruelty, and depression; references to and metaphorical depictions of chronic illness; light body horror and bawdy humor; a very irresponsible pregnant lady.
Editor’s Note: Yup, this is an anime! A Japanese co-production, in fact, produced by OLM with many veteran anime directors and storyboarders on staff. If you’re looking for an overview of the series’ premise, production history, and general themes, please read the premiere review. We won’t have time to rehash it here.
I stopped watching other shows for a while because the only thing I wanted to watch was Bee and PuppyCat. I finished it and immediately wanted to watch it again. I bought a Bee costume for Halloween and two(!) PuppyCat plushies because I wanted one for cosplay and one for cuddles. I am forming summoning circles to pry a second season from Netflix’s fickle hands. And I’m leading with this so you’ll understand it’s gonna be hard for me to write about this show with coherence, never mind critical distance.
It’s alternately silly, thoughtful, and devastating; delightfully bizarre in its jokes and beautifully melancholic in its ruminations on time, growth, shifting relationships, and what it means to “be an adult.” If you like Ikuhara anime, I can just about guarantee Bee and PuppyCat is for you.
A lot of the feminist-friendly elements I noted in the premiere review hold true throughout, as the expanded cast of lovable messes are also racially diverse and routinely veer from traditional gender norms. The Wizard brothers are all caretakers to some degree, while Toast, the overzealous pro wrestler who keeps smashing through walls and demanding her rival fight her even while she’s pregnant, is particularly chef’s kiss.
Unfortunately, the show’s hiring practices also remain a pain point, as B&P continues to cast a lot of white actors to play characters of color. It’s a disappointing mark on a series that’s otherwise quite thoughtful in handling traditionally marginalized characters and story beats.
Because B&P is so thoroughly submerged in fairy-tale and sci-fi metaphor (and because the story isn’t finished yet), there’s not a lot of explicit progressive ideas to discuss, but there’s plenty that’s open to interpretation. It’s not difficult, for example, to read some of the characters (especially Cass) as neurodivergent; or Bee’s unique body and Cardamon’s sleeping mother as metaphors for chronic illness; or PuppyCat’s backstory and the entire temp system as a commentary on capitalist-driven societies; or so on. (The series is also covered in trans pride colors, though whether that’s building to something or the art director just really likes soft blues and pinks is anyone’s guess at this point.)
I know metaphor- and subtext-driven fiction isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and there are plenty of valid critiques out there about why it’s important to have explicit, realistic representation in fiction. But as a fan of stories that encourage audience interpretation, I love how much there is to chew on and muse over in this series (when I’m not giggling at PuppyCat’s soft punches or crying over Moully, anyway). With luck, other writers will feel the same and we’ll see some pitches in the near future, nudgenudgenudge.
I suspect Bee and PuppyCat will be a polarizing series that either does nothing for you or catapults to the top of your “faves” list. For me, it’s solidly the latter—easily my favorite anime of 2022—and I dearly, dearly hope enough other people will feel the same so we can see how this strange, lovely, heartbreaking, hopeful series plays out.
The Case Study of Vanitas
Chosen by: Vrai (#1), Lizzie (#1), Dee (#4)
What’s it about? Sheltered vampire Noé comes to bustling 19th-century steampunk Paris in search of a legendary grimoire called the Book of Vanitas, which is said to curse any vampire who looks upon it by corrupting their “true name.” And find it he does, in the hands of a human who has taken the name “Vanitas” for himself. This Vanitas claims to be a doctor who specializes in vampires… and the only one who can save the vampire race from the corrupting force known only as Charlatan.
Content warnings: Depictions of infanticide, genocide, assault played for horror, gore and body horror, child abuse and grooming/brainwashing, depression, suicidal ideation, survivor’s guilt; nonconsensual kiss (episode 4), one-off visual gag of the series’ only notable brown-skinned character being put on a leash so he doesn’t get lost (episode 4).
It technically runs in a shounen magazine, but Vanitas embodies everything that I love about sweeping Gothic shoujo. While the plot might be a tangled web of conspiracies involving vampire politics and church corruption, all of that matters about as much as the lovable mess of nonsense in fellow honorary shoujo Escaflowne. This is a character piece through-and-through, examining generational trauma, histories of abuse, and a variety of deeply intense but largely unlabeled relationships in the way mangaka Mochizuki Jun loves so dearly. It’s brought to breathtaking life with BONES’ stunning production values, a superb soundtrack, and a killer voice cast.
It can dance from popcorn-munching melodrama to dazzling action to chibified comedy skits without missing a beat; it’s also genuinely sexy, very rarely using traditional fanservice shots but instead focusing on the intimate tensions between its main cast. Good sexual tension is about the yearning, and Vanitas absolutely gets that. This is a series that vibrates “everyone is bi and hot” from the rooftops.
The one major potential hurdle is the relationship between Vanitas and Jeanne, which begins with easily the worst scene in the series (a nonconsensual kiss with heavy focus on her discomfort). While the two eventually develop a rapport based on genuine support and the series does its best to invert the power dynamic between them going forward, it can be a tough hurdle to overcome.
It may be some time before we see a continuation, as the series adapts the entirety of the ongoing manga’s current run (which, as a monthly serial, it took almost seven years to build). But as long as they can get this team back, I’ll wait as long as it takes. In the meantime, just for Dee’s sake, I’ll ask: how about that full Pandora Hearts remake?
The Executioner and Her Way of Life
Chosen by: Caitlin (#1), Alex (#2), Cypress (#3)
Also previously recommended by: Vrai
What’s it about? Menou is a priestess tasked with helping the weak and powerless; she is also an executioner for the church, tasked with dispatching the “Lost Ones,” whose terrifying powers make them a danger to the common people. But she also has dreams of a certain stranger—and the most recent Lost One has been dreaming of her too.
Content warnings: bloody violence, body horror, brief non-consensual groping, mild fanservice, casual non-sexual nudity, graphic violence involving an immortal child
Badass girls! Hammy villains! Colorful swords-versus-sorcery fights! Time magic! Deliciously dark, frequently ridiculous, and with an all-female cast with a variety of personalities and motivations, The Executioner and Her Way of Life lives up to its fantastic first episode and delivers a fun fantasy romp.
While this obviously exists in conversation with the isekai genre (and the cheeky bait-and-switch in the premiere will be extra satisfying if you’re familiar with the genre’s tropes and market saturation), Executioner is not a parody. Instead, it takes a familiar fantasy convention—teens portalling through to other worlds—and uses it as a springboard for its own original story. How would a fantasy setting be impacted by the consistent arrival of young, naive strangers with godlike abilities? What ideologies and power struggles would pop up in response? The writing’s not always the deepest thing in the world, but it does put genuine work into examining interesting questions.
These twelve episodes leave us on a shout of “the adventure continues!”. Which is not necessarily a bad thing—things come to a satisfying climax, even if it’s clear this is part one of a bigger story. That said, don’t go in expecting payoff for the various wlw relationships suggested throughout these early episodes. Momo’s over-the-top clingy crush on Menou (which thankfully tapers off as Momo develops beyond a one-note possessive stereotype), Momo’s fun rivalry with Princess Ashuna, and Menou’s growing feelings for Akari all hang unresolved as the curtain falls. Then again, given the tangled situation, it’s difficult to imagine what “resolution”—especially for Menou and Akari—would even look like. Without spoiling too much, theirs is not a straightforward love story, that’s for sure. I can only be curious about where things will go from here, but for now, season one of Executioner is still a good time on its own.
The Best of the Rest
These other titles got at least one vote from a staffer, earning them a spot on our 2022 recs list.
Chosen by: Dee (#3), Peter (#4)
What’s it about? The Republic of San Magnolia has boasted zero human fatalities in battle ever since they switched to drone warfare, but the reality is far less rosy: the “drones” are actually piloted by soldiers called “the Eighty-Six” who have been deemed subhuman by the ruling class. When empathy-driven Major Lena Melize gets assigned as the “Handler” for Spearhead, an 86 squadron known for destroying its commanders, will she and the squadron repeat history, or find a different way forward?
Content warnings: Depictions of racism, genocide, abuse, trauma/PTSD, and violence/death against children and teens (not condoned); a few “jokes” about peeping on girls.
I’m not going to be able to adequately explain this earnest, messy, visceral series in a few paragraphs, so apologies in advance for everything that gets left on the cutting-room floor.
Part 1 is a powerful exploration of oppression, privilege, war, genocide, and what it means to be an ally/accomplice. By dividing each episode more-or-less equally between the marginalized soldiers in the field and their commander in the city, 86 challenges its privileged characters without centering them, explicitly rejecting white savior mentalities and refusing to offer any easy, comforting answers. It’s a gut-punching narrative that thoughtfully tackles a lot of difficult topics without losing sight of its human element, particularly in the complex bond that develops between Lena and Spearhead’s squadron leader, Shin.
Part 2 is… rougher. This is partly because it’s recalibrating its central cast, partly because the production schedule fell apart, and partly because its big-picture themes are less clearly defined (it’s sort of trying to grapple with ethics in the face of apocalypse, but it never quite comes together). Its greatest weakness, though, is Frederica, a young girl who fluctuates between a three-dimensional character and a Precocious Child cliche only made worse by her Japanese voice actor playing her with a grating chipmunk squeak. The series shoehorns her into the plot in ways that at times defy reason, leading to some rough episodes in the middle stretch.
Fortunately, the series finds its footing again at the end, returning the focus to Shin’s struggles with PTSD and the connections forged between its central cast. The finale is arguably too rosy given the heavy material that came before it, but after seeing everything our young soldiers have gone through, I’d say they more than deserve a little hope at the end. 86 is insightful and clumsy in equal turns, but when it hits, it really hits, and I’d much rather a series swing for the progressive fences and whiff a few times than never try at all.
Aharen-san wa Hakarenai
Chosen by: Dee (#5)
Also previously recommended by: Peter
What’s it about? After spending middle school friendless, Raido is determined to make some real connections in high school. He starts by making small talk with the girl who sits next to him, Aharen, only to get no response. At least, that’s how it seems at first—it turns out Aharen just speaks in a near-imperceptible whisper, and is just as eager as he is to overcome her awkward past and become pals.
Content considerations: A teacher who’s too invested in her students’ love lives; a couple short sketches about weight gain and dieting.
In a spring season full of surprise gems, this goofy, deadpan rom-com about two neurodiverse-coded teens trying to understand and support each other just might be my favorite. Despite that “rom-com” label, this is primarily a friendship-driven comedy of misunderstandings, as Aharen and Raido get judged by appearances, struggle to express themselves, and navigate personal space. The series is particularly adept at using its characters’ overactive imaginations to draw absurd conclusions, often to great comedic effect.
Fortunately, Aharen-san never veers into cringe humor or miscommunication melodrama because the series is just so darn fond of its cast, encouraging the audience to laugh out of solidarity rather than superiority. While it’s not explicit in-narrative, I’ve seen autistic folks vibe pretty strongly with Aharen and Raido, so it’s particularly heartening the way the series pushes for accommodation and consideration. The pair are always looking for ways to connect that work for both of them, which makes their relationship a joy to watch develop.
Alas, most anime comedies are required by law to have one crappy joke, and in Aharen-san it’s a running gag about their teacher getting really worked up over their relationship. Despite my best attempts to read it as her having “cuteness overload,” some scenes strongly imply that she’s aroused by the thought of her students dating—which, hey, gross! Thankfully it’s a minor part of the series and is balanced by more charming characters and scenes, including a truly lovely moment between Aharen and her gender-non-conforming sibling.
Silly with a warm heart and an endearing friends-to-dating romance, Aharen-san pushes nearly all my favorite anime comedy buttons. If you’re a fan of understated school comedies like Tanaka-kun is Always Listless or mutually supportive rom-coms like MY love STORY, I’d definitely recommend giving this one a try.
Akiba Maid War
Chosen by: Alex (#1), Cy (#2), Caitlin (#4)
Also previously recommended by: Vrai
What’s it about? The year is 1999 and bright-eyed Wahira Nagomi moves to Tokyo’s Akihabara ward with dreams of becoming a maid. She quickly finds a home at cafe Ton Tokoton, a.k.a. The Pig Hut. But it’s not all frills and thrills: being a maid means fighting for your life, and newbie Nagomi is about to learn how intense a maid’s life can be.
Content warnings: Gun violence; blood; human trafficking (maids who lose at a certain poker table will be shipped off to work on a fishing boat, though this is a fairly clear stand-in for the sexual kind); organ trafficking (characters betting using their pancreas as collateral—though they end up intact); depictions of ageism (not condoned by the narrative); mild fanservice via skimpy costumes; brief casual racism (Venezuelan background characters used for “funny foreigner” jokes).
“A rivalry between maid cafes plays out like a yakuza turf war” is a pretty fun premise, though not necessarily one that sounds like it could last. It might be right at home in a Pop Team Epic skit, but seems like it would swiftly go stale. And yet, Akiba Maid War has executed this zany pitch with finesse. I think, chiefly, it’s because this series is not content to ride solely on the shock value of girls in frills doing violent kills. It delivers its vision with genuine flair, with every piece of the ridiculous puzzle carefully crafted and placed, from the music to the pacing to the performances. That beautiful, batshit energy of the premiere is maintained—dare I say refined and perfected—across the series.
Most importantly, this bizarre and bonkers story is carried by some genuinely compelling, loveable (though not always likable) characters. The cast is made up of women with strong personalities who get to be all sorts of “uncute” things: greedy, bloodthirsty, vengeful, foul-mouthed, snarky. Yet also: noble, passionate, driven, wrestling with their morals. There’s something delicious about seeing these women get to step unflinchingly into genre and character tropes usually reserved for male anti-heroes, treated with enough narrative respect that the whole thing feels sincere and emotionally potent rather than another juxtaposition we’re meant to laugh at.
Now, the writing isn’t flawless—having said all that, some characters feel weaker than others, the pacing is sometimes abrupt in a way that takes you out, and there’s definitely a rather cynical way to read how the finale reinstates a status quo for Akiba as a whole. But damn it, Maid War is fun. Raucous and stupid in all the right places, for sure, but able to switch things up and hit you—moe moe kablam—with genuine drama and pathos (and a perfect epilogue for heroine Nagomi). It’s a wild ride that feels fresh and inventive, and is honestly my runaway favorite of the season.
BOCCHI THE ROCK!
Chosen by: Caitlin (#5)
Also previously recommended by: Dee, Vrai
What’s it about? Anxious Hitori learns the guitar so she can join a band and make friends, but never plucks up the courage to ask anyone to play music with her, or even play in front of other people. Now beginning high school, Hitori is determined that things will be different, but no one seems to want to be her friend and she still can’t make herself reach out to others. Until, that is, a girl sees her guitar case and asks for her help.
Content warnings: Regular intense depictions of panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, anxiety spirals, and dissociation; alcoholism played for comedy.
BOCCHI THE ROCK! is a show I’m somewhat of two minds about. It’s a visual triumph, apt at using mixed media to convey the stress of anxiety or just to do an interesting sight gag. It pulls from a broad palette of sources and does pretty much all of them well, proving that making a compelling slice-of-life so often comes down to execution. It’s also surprisingly heartfelt once it gets its feet under it.
I felt on the verge of dropping the series multiple times in its first half, as the series has a tendency to get carried away with its visual wizardry to the point where it can feel like it’s piling on Bocchi rather than relating to her. However, once Bocchi begins to bond with her fellow bandmates, the show settles into what it clearly wants to be: a story about trying to get through life with a mental illness and having friends who understand and love you even when you feel like an unlovable mess. It’s also refreshing to see Kita’s crush on laconic bassist Ryo sidestep the cliches that have so often gone hand in hand with queer characters. Her crush doesn’t define her personality (in fact, her main role in the band is being the hype-drawing extrovert everyone loves), and the jokes around it center more around the fact that Ryo isn’t nearly as cool or smart as Kita desperately wants her to be rather than “isn’t it funny that a girl would have a crush on another girl.”
The members of Kessoku Band might be named for the rosy portrait of youth, but they don’t quite live up to it and neither do their songs. It’s not radically transformative, but it is quietly reassuring; and given both the fact that the manga artist seems to be drawing from personal experience and the intense stigma around discussing mental health in Japan, I wonder if that basic level of reaching out is its main, somewhat humble goal.
It can get uncomfortable when the show goes broad, like showing Bocchi actively dissociating and not realizing where she is, leading from “oh she’s just like me” to “she is going to get hurt, please can an adult do something.” Of course, these things going untreated isn’t unrealistic, in Japan or elsewhere, but that’s a bit heavy for the kind of tone the series is shooting for. I don’t necessarily blame it for not bringing in heavier conversations about mental health, but I wish it had, thinking of all the people it could have reached.
The only unequivocal clunker is senior bassist and semi-mentor Hiroi, who baldly proclaims that she’s constantly drunk to cope with the stress of her anxieties. The show has characters nod toward this being unhealthy, but it’s a twig dam trying to hold back a flood of Funny Drunk antics.
Despite there being a lot one could discuss—an artist’s duty to their own experience versus shedding a hopeful light when writing fiction consumed by young adults; focusing on getting through the status quo versus trying to nudge it toward change for the better—at base, this is a really well-made and endearing music show. I hope that between now and the inevitable season two, people will give the other Bocchi a look, too.
Do It Yourself!!
Chosen by: Alex (#4)
Also previously recommended by: Peter, Vrai
What’s it about? Clumsy and airheaded Serufu has just started high school, separated from her childhood best friend Miku for the first time. On the way to class, Serufu’s bike gets into a brawl with a light pole, leaving her without transport… until a mysterious upperclassman on high-tech rollerskates slides over and fixes it for her. Intent on saying thank you, Serufu tracks this stranger down to the shed at the back of the school and finds herself in the DIY club. Could fixing, building, and upcycling be the hobby for Serufu—and the way to rekindle her friendship with Miku?
Content warnings: Brief, unsexualized nudity (bath scenes); some arguable “funny foreigner” undercurrents to the American and South Asian characters.
I had been hankering for a good ol’ Girls Doing Stuff show all through 2022, and DIY!! was just the ticket. Funny, laid-back, and very pretty to look at with its stylised figures and watercolor backdrops, this series is an understated but finely-crafted story of daily life.
It celebrates the concept of “DIY” with a wide and inclusive umbrella, with some of the girls focusing on more traditionally feminine crafts like making jewelry while others go the less delicate route and build furniture using power tools. There’s a fun mix of personalities in the main cast, and Serufu and Miku’s awkward but sincere yearning to rekindle the closeness they shared as childhood friends is by far the standout dynamic.
Some characterization tiptoes on the line of “wacky foreigner,” though I feel there’s enough work done that the girls’ eccentric traits read as expressions of their individual characters rather than expressions of their ethnicity. For example, Kokoro is a roof-climbing wild child, but glimpses of her family show them acting very differently. This gives us a spectrum of Southeast Asian representation that’s admittedly very small, but still just enough to dislodge the notion of this being a racial stereotype—at least, so far as I can tell from a writing point of view. We welcome, as always, perspectives on this content from members of the represented groups!
Likewise, as Vrai highlighted in the check-in, there’s a conversation to be had about Serufu’s cartoonishly over-the-top clumsiness crossing over into something like a learning disability, something I’m admittedly also not 100% qualified to speak on. This is certainly a warm-hearted series, though, and it never asks us to laugh at Serufu—rather, to laugh with her and to share in her joy as she grows more confident and capable, and finds her own unique ways to contribute to the group’s projects.
Overall, while it has those key issues that complicate things a touch, Do It Yourself remains a sweet, relaxing experience that helped round out 2022 with a sense of calm accomplishment.
Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean
Chosen by: Caitlin (#3)
What’s it about? Jolyne Cujoh was an ordinary 17-year-old Floridian girl until her boyfriend hit a pedestrian with his car while they were out driving. Her worthless father, Jotaro, is off doing marine biology research in Africa and can’t come help her out. To add insult to injury, he sends her a locket that stabs her in the finger when she opens it. She throws it aside, but then something weird happens: she develops the power to turn her body into strings that she can control. Now, where did that locket go?
Content warnings: Portrayals of carceral violence, sexual violence, and racial violence; regular blood-and-guts violence; children in peril; body horror; existential horror; accidental incest; pretty much anything else you can think of.
I’m not saying stories are inherently more interesting with a female lead, but self-indulgent power fantasies tend to pull me in more effectively if there’s a protagonist at the helm whose gender more closely matches mine. I’ve loved Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure for a long time, and I knew before coming in that Jolyne stood poised to displace Josuke as my favorite Jojo. I wasn’t quite ready, however, for just how intensely I would love her or how much Stone Ocean would have to say about intergenerational violence and trauma, the carceral state, and the very concept of destiny. It is by far the most thematically rich chapter in the Joestar saga, and a fitting end to the conflict that has plagued them across six generations.
The first thing that stands out about Stone Ocean is how very little has changed, even with a primarily female cast. The fanservice doesn’t ramp up, the violence doesn’t become more sexualized, and there is no effort to soften or objectify the characters to make them more appealing to a male audience. Jolyne and her team are just as wild and messy and strong as their predecessors, as are the antagonists across the spectrum.
Plus, the setting, a mixed-gender prison in Florida, also gives plenty of opportunities to explore not just the kind of “punch people who wish you harm real hard” violence that has characterized most of JJBA, but also things like institutional/carceral violence and some uniquely American varieties of racial violence. It takes the tropes of exploitation movies, mixes them up with the characteristically esoteric Stand battles of the series, and uses them in surprisingly thoughtful ways. Of course, there’s still plenty of villain-of-the-week punch-’em-ups and the fights can get so convoluted that they feel like Calvinball rules.
Even more than that, though, this is the Joestar family’s big finish, and Hirohiko Araki takes the opportunity to really dig into the themes of what it means to be haunted by destiny. Jolyne is a Joestar through and through, bearing not just the star birthmark but all the power and pride of her ancestors… not to mention her disregard for the rules and anger management problems. Dio is dead, but can the Joestars ever truly be free in this world? Can they protect their children from it? What does it even mean to inherit a conflict like this from your forefathers, and how does it determine your place in the world? Stone Ocean brings Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure to a close in a way that I never expected, but left me deeply satisfied. Just make sure you keep the tissues close at hand—you never know when you’ll need them.
Kaguya-sama: Love is War -Ultra Romantic- (Season 3)
Chosen by: Vrai (#4)
Also previously recommended by: Alex, Caitlin, Dee
Content considerations: Occasional heteronormativity and gender essentialism; some mild fanservice.
After an up-and-down first season, Kaguya-sama expanded and developed its cast in Season 2 to become an endearingly hilarious tale of well-meaning high school disasters stumbling through adolescence. Season 3 continues this trend (now with 100% more rapping!), building its characters and their relationships with one another in surprising, heartwarming, or just plain funny directions.
Despite its rocky start, Kaguya-sama has become a top-tier anime rom-com: clever, insightful, and sweet in equal turns, with masterful comedic and dramatic timing from one of the best directors in the business. At this point there’s not much to say that we haven’t said already, so if you’re not on the bandwagon yet you can check out our Season 1 and Season 2 recs for more details.
Chosen by: Cy (#4)
What’s it about? Saotome Mary enters Hyakkaou Academy as an ordinary girl from an ordinary, everyday family. Yet inside the school’s prestigious and filthy rich halls are gambling dens, which decide the rank of each student, regardless of heritage or standing. Unused to gambling and thrust into a world where she has to decide if she’ll sink or swim, Mary’s got a lot to get used to… or else, she’ll end up a school pet and a Mittens.
Content Warnings: fanservice, bullying
There’s something so specifically enjoyable about seeing girls be bad: I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that it’s a rejection of “proper” socialization. A catty girl is a bad girl, and bad girlhood is a slippery slope into all manner of bad, bad behavior. Except…Kakeguri kind of thrives on bad girls. That’s 100% of the fun with this series: young women reclaim being greedy and selfish and self-interested as vehicles for getting what they want in a world where gender is the ultimate gamble and can be leveraged at any time. It’s Mean Girls for the discerning anime viewer at its best and utterly compelling gambling melodrama at minimum: doubly so for Kakegurui Twin, which is a prequel focused on Saotome Mary.
Mary is an ordinary, lower-middle class student in an academy where every family name has at least eight zeroes attached to it, elevating them to a completely different echelon of society that’s untouched for our heroine. Unlike the main franchise’s Jabami Yumeko, Mary is relatable: she comes into Hyakkaou as an innocent and almost immediately has to lean on her common sense and being a bit underhanded to survive. But it never feels bad: in fact, there’s something richly empowering about seeing Mary snatch piles of money–and slim-chances–from these rich kids. If anything, it’s easy to find yourself cheering for Mary, wanting to put it all on the line for just one more risk, one more push, one more gamble that might make you or break you.
It helps that Kakegurui Twin leans on the same beautiful grotesque imagery as the main series: when the girls catch gambling fever and get their gambling freak on (Jabami Yumeko’s words, not mine) the animation pushes the limits of beauty, going from stylized to semi-realistic shots of the girls grinning, grimacing, sweating, yelling and mocking one another’s prowess, complete with fevered gazes, lots of cackling, and plot twists. Even if you see where a game is going to go, this never gets old: in fact, I found myself living for these moments of Mary’s features contorted with her passion for winning more, more, more and showing these snotty rich kids what for. Now, that doesn’t necessarily elide the fanservice–and Twin has a lot of fanservice–but it does recontextualize things when seen from the perspective of these gamblin’ teens.
Short as Kakeguri Twin may be, it’s well worth a watch, even if you haven’t engaged with the main series at all. At minimum, it’s compelling: at its most engaging, it’s over-the-top and camp at its finest. I’d love to see more conversation about this series: I think there’s something deeply empowering about it when examined from a wholly feminist angle, and something so utterly compelling about seeing these young women give the middle finger to ever being good girls.
Kotaro Lives Alone
Chosen by: Lizzie (#2)
What’s it about? They say it takes a village to raise a child. How about an apartment complex? When deadbeat artist Karino notices that his new neighbor is a four-year-old who speaks like a feudal lord and seems to be living on his own, Karino and a collection of other tenants step up to be the parental figures little Kotaro insists he does not need.
Content Warnings: child abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, neglect, starvation, child abandonment, depression and PTSD.
Kotaro Lives Alone isn’t a perfect series. It’s easy to dismiss at first, because it looks like it’s just the silly antics of a little kid living alone and his quirky neighbors; but in reality, it’s a show that explores the meaning of chosen families and how it really does take a community to raise a child. Kotaro’s sad circumstances opens up conversation about child abuse and shines a light on how to spot signs of abuse or neglect.
Depictions of children in anime can be a hit or miss depending on if they either come off as too annoying or ridiculously smart, but behind all of Kotaro’s actions is a scared and vulnerable kid who built up defense mechanisms to protect himself from his family’s violence. The show doesn’t shy away from discussing heavy topics such as emotional abuse, physical abuse, neglect and abandonment, etc., but surprisingly the show never veers into contrived sentimentality. Its light-hearted tone actually makes it easier to handle the tough situations most of the characters find themselves in.
The episodic aspect of the show also helps ease viewers into Kotaro’s life and it’s a great way to introduce new characters who will either positively impact Kotaro or vice versa. The adults in the series are flawed, but it’s genuinely heartwarming when some of them come together to support Kotaro while others use their resources to help other kids in distress.
What ultimately won me over, though, is the clear earnestness and concern with which the series treats the various maltreatments children go through and how as a society we have to step up to help the most vulnerable members of our communities. It also goes the extra mile to address how long-term consequences of abuse affects kids into their adulthood and how there’s virtually no support system in place to help young adults that age out of protection services. These aren’t easy conversations to have, and Kotaro Lives Alone doesn’t offer easy solutions either.
At heart, Kotaro Lives Alone acknowledges that raising children isn’t easy and that it takes time and patience to raise them into healthy adults. Regardless, children don’t ask to be born into this world, so the least we can do is provide them with a good environment where they can thrive and help those going through rough times. I’d love to see some article pitches about how the series handles the themes of chosen families, but I’ll stop here for now. If you have time, go check it out.
Miss KUROITSU from the Monster Development Department
Chosen by: Chiaki (#1)
What’s it about? The Secret Society: Agastia plots for world domination in a Japan filled with Sentai heroes and other rivaling evil gangs. Toka Kuroitsu, along with her boss, Professor Sadamaki, are charged with the task of designing a never ending queue of new beasts to face their local hero: The Divine Swordsman Blader. Kuroitsu feels pretty good about her latest project, it’s on-time and on-budget. Nothing can possibly go wrong, right?
Content Warnings: fanservice, toxic work environments, gender dysphoria
Let me preface this with something shocking, I don’t even like sentai heroes. I think they look hokey and the flashy poses they do seem silly. Back in the day when the Power Rangers were airing on TV, I always kinda rolled my eyes because, if I wanted to watch a bunch of people do martial arts, I’d watch a Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan movie. Yet Miss Kuroitsu speaks to me and helped me find an appreciation for these heroes, especially those who approach their work at a community level. It must be stated, first and foremost, that Miss Kuroitsu is a love letter to sentai heroes and the people who bring magic to life, like professional wrestlers (also a genre of entertainment that escaped me until I was in my 30s).
But a love-letter alone does not merit this show’s recommendation. It’s also the pokes and jabs at Japanese corporate culture that critiques and shows what healthy work-cultures can be. Whereas Aggretsuko captures the frustrations of work in a toxic environment, Miss Kuroitsu focuses on how things could be better if managers and bosses actually gave a damn beyond the bottom line. As absurd as the characters and situations may be, this show is plain relatable and queer to boot.
Yes, the show can be read queerly at times, as the show incorporates other characters who emulate Haruka and Michiru of Sailor Moon. Worth noting, however, is that unlike Reo and Yuto (who emulate the iconic sailor scouts), recurring monster Wolf’s gender dysphoria is presented more explicitly and to comedic effect. His dysphoria could be distressing when read from the perspective of trans men, but at the same time, can be considered an attractive situation going the other way for trans women (#transitiongoals).
Miss Kuroitsu is generally light hearted fun, and you get to spend some time googling about local heroes after each episode to ask questions like: “who the heck are the J Heroes anyway?”
Mob Psycho 100 – Season 3
Chosen by: Peter (#1), Dee (#2)
Also previously recommended by: Caitlin
What’s it about? Working part-time as an exorcist for his con-man mentor Reigen along with his ghostly sidekick Dimple, junior high student Mob encounters spirits and fellow psychics that test both his moral compass and self-perception as an unremarkable boy who just happens to be able to bend all of reality to his will.
Content warnings: Violence (against adults and kids); psychological horror; bawdy humor; there’s a two-second “joke” about a middle schooler taking part in a drug-fueled alien orgy (not shown). For season 2, we also tagged “Mild fatphobia in one episode, depictions of bullying and abuse, colorism/racist character design (Takeuchi)”; I’m sure I’m forgetting something but I can’t think of what, so please hit us up in the comments and we’ll add others as needed.
Mob Psycho’s final season was perhaps not as dazzling as its second, but that’s like saying an A- isn’t as good as an A+. Technically true, but c’mon, they’re both still real good.
While the season’s mini-arcs took a little while to get revved up, they built well on previous arcs and led the characters to emotionally and thematically satisfying conclusions. The finale is exactly what it needs to be, focusing on the relationships Mob has developed over the series while also putting a capstone on the show’s discussions of masculinity, power, guilt/shame, and adolescence (and delivering a magnificent conclusion to the redemption arc of everyone’s favorite GrifterDad). It’s rare to find a series that so thoughtfully engages with negative emotions and the parts of ourselves we don’t like, which makes Mob not just an entertaining series but also a valuable one, especially for its teen male target demographic.
As with many sequel writeups, it feels like there’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said, so I’m inclined to stop here and direct you to past writeups and articles for more details. Overall Mob Psycho 100 is a top-tier shounen adaptation: visually dazzling, thematically thoughtful, and emotionally resonant. I’m still a little in awe that a series I almost dropped halfway through season one became one of my favorite shows of the last decade—and likely one of my favorite shows of this decade, too.
The Orbital Children
Chosen by: Alex (#3), Vrai (#5)
What’s it about? Touya, the last child born on the moon, now resides on the commercial space station Anshin—and has to play host to the tourists visiting it from Earth, much to his annoyance. The latest interstellar holiday quickly goes awry when the AI that runs the station suddenly and mysteriously reboots, and a comet leaves Earth’s atmosphere on a collision course with Anshin.
Content considerations: Children/teenagers in peril; depictions and discussions of terminal illness.
Orbital Children is a dense and tightly-packed mini-series, crammed to the brim with philosophy and sci-fi worldbuilding, and signing off with an optimistic message. Using its antagonists, it looks pointedly at the way seemingly noble notions like “the greater good” or “the future of humanity” can be co-opted by nefarious ideologies.
Rather than buying into the idea of sacrificing a few for the survival of many, the narrative staunchly rejects this and, instead, dares us to imagine and fight for a future that everyone gets to be a part of. While perhaps a little clunky in execution owing to the sheer weight of the themes relative to the short runtime (as these folks put it, things get literally galaxy-brained) it’s a valuable through-line that’s more relevant than ever.
The characters are also plenty of fun. It’s rewarding seeing Local Teen Edgelord Touya grow across the adventure, and while Konoha doesn’t get an awful lot to do initially, I also love her mini-arc about deciding she wants to live. Between sweet-natured Konoha, villainous Nasa, and vain and bubbly Mina, we get a nice spectrum of personalities across the female members of the cast (and hey, even if Mina ends up as the butt of a few jokes, her desire to be an influencer is part of what saves the world, so she ends up validated and with an important role to play).
Overall it’s an enjoyable romp through an eerily-prescient vision of the near future. Structured and paced more like one long movie than a segmented series, I’d recommend giving this one the binge-watch treatment and letting yourself fall straight into the wonderful world inside Iso Mitsuo’s brain.
Princess Connect! Re:Dive – Season 2
Chosen by: Peter (#5)
Also previously recommended by: Dee, Vrai
What’s it about? The Gourmet Guild returns for a second season, but their quest to find (and eat) delicious food begins to take a backseat to troubles on a grander scale. As the guild meets new friends and slowly unravels the mystery at the heart of their kingdom, Pecorine and Yuuki must confront their pasts and Karyl must decide where her true loyalties lie.
Content considerations: Fantastical violence; mild fanservice (impractical costumes and a few boob jiggles).
Princess Connect’s first season became a surprise staff favorite thanks to its bright energy, upbeat female stealth-protagonist, clever take on the “boy of legend” archetype, and strong sense of humor. While Season 2 isn’t as stuffed with silly shenanigans, it makes up for it with more emotional heft and some truly dazzling animation, building to an explosive finale that doesn’t always make sense but is also never boring.
The character arcs touched on in Season 1 take front-and-center here, with slightly mixed results. On the one hand, the plot gets unnecessarily complicated, muddled in convoluted mythology and way too many minor characters. On the other, it nails its central cast’s arcs and emotional beats, as Pecorine comes into her own as a leader, Yuuki reconciles with his past, and the found-family tale at the heart of the story—especially Pecorine and Karyl’s relationship—reaches a satisfying and at times tear-jerking conclusion.
I can forgive a lot of plot nonsense if the feelings hit, and PriConne never had any trouble getting me to cheer for and fret over the Gourmet Guild as they grew both as individuals and a community. It’s up-and-down, but if you’re a fan of comedic fantasy with a touch of drama, you’ll likely have a good time with this one.
Chosen by: Lizzie (#4)
Also previously recommended by: Dee
What’s it about? High schooler Anzu has no interest in dating, but the romance fairies have other plans for her. When Riri shows up at Anzu’s home to take away her favorite things and turn her life into a rom-com, Anzu declares war on the tiny cupid. Riri can throw as many hot dudes and dating sim cliches in Anzu’s way as they want, they’ll never get her to fall in love!
Content warnings: Depictions of sexual assault, victim-blaming, an adult stalking a minor, bullying, and violence against teens (all of these actions are condemned by the narrative); characters make a lot of hetero/allonormative assumptions, although it’s debatable if the story itself agrees with them.
If Romantic Killer’s premise sounds like a big Yikes, well, it’s supposed to be. Anzu spends the entire series rebelling against her unwelcome cupid’s attempts at compulsory heteronormativity, and the narrative is firmly on her side. The series walks a tricky tightrope, but it stays fun largely because all of Anzu’s suitors are decent dudes. They’re not perfect, and some can be mean in the impulsive, self-centered way that teens can be mean, but there’s never a whiff of sexual menace or manipulation from them, which keeps the premise from going anywhere truly unpleasant.
Despite its title, Romantic Killer is not exactly anti-romance. Instead, it rejects the “storybook love” often depicted in popular media (i.e., fleeting infatuation rife with gender norms) in favor of the sturdier, longer-lasting bonds that form as people take time to learn about and support each other as individuals rather than as a set of stereotypes. The conclusion is open-ended about whether Anzu will ever actually fall in love, but the audience understands why her suitors like her, as well as why she might fall for them one day (or, hey, might not!).
The first half of the series functions as a light comedy, poking fun at dating sim and rom-com tropes and using Anzu’s plight to explore the way society at-large pressures people (and especially teens) to fall in love. The second half digs a lot deeper, dealing with more traumatic issues of consent, assault, and stalking through two supporting characters (one girl and one boy). While it’s not always an easy watch, it is unequivocally sympathetic to the survivors. The finale veers into melodrama, but that doesn’t overshadow the sincere and thoughtful narrative that comes before it. I expected Romantic Killer to make me chuckle; I did not expect it to also make me cry.
There are loads of elements worth discussing in terms of how the series handles gender roles and sexuality—and I’d love to see some article pitches about it!—but I’m on a word-count limit here, so let’s end this rec on the number one reason to watch Romantic Killer: Anzu. Is. So. Good. Her faces are terrific, her fashion sense is terrific, her personality and perspective and interactions with the other characters are all just terrific. If you enjoy nothing else in this series (and I suspect you will), go enjoy Anzu. She’s a top-tier protagonist and we deserve more proactive, messy, compassionate, snarky gals like her.
Sasaki and Miyano
Chosen by: Lizzie (#3), Vrai (#3)
Also previously recommended by: Alex, Caitlin, Dee
What’s it about? After helping out a fellow student who’s being bullied, covert geek Miyano and alleged delinquent Sasaki become friends. But there’s more to these two students than meets the eye, including Miyano’s passion for boys’ love (BL) manga and Sasaki’s growing crush on Miyano. As the two connect over fictional love stories, will a real-life romance blossom as well?
Content considerations: Very restrained depictions of queerphobia, queer male objectification, and teens navigating relationship boundaries/comfort levels (with a focus on consent).
Settling in for this show every week was like sinking into a warm bath. While far from the most lavish production of the season, the direction excels at conveying unspoken emotions through lighting, scene composition, and a healthy dose of the ol’ shoujo bubbles. It’s a quiet, unhurried little rom-com that packs a lot of smarts just under its unassuming surface.
Adapted from a four-panel webcomic that grew legs, the series begins by introducing audiences to Sasaki and Miyano’s friends while making affectionate jabs at BL culture. As it goes on, it starts weaving in discussions about societal expectations of manliness, masculinity both toxic and affirming, the role of fiction in queer teens’ journey of self-discovery, and a particularly deft, quiet scene about how being a queer man in BL fandom can be objectifying. Its light touch and insider jokes allow the series to have a refreshingly nuanced conversation about the pros and cons of BL. And it’s all wrapped up in a sugar-sweet love story that’s easy to root for.
This is the slowest of slow burns, and Miyano’s confession in particular is dragged out to an occasionally frustrating degree. It does ultimately commit though, and the announcement of a second season takes the sting away. While it might not suit folks looking for more high octane rom-com shenanigans, this is a gem of a series that I hope more people will discover.
SHADOWS HOUSE — Season 2
Chosen by: Vrai (#2), Lizzie (#5)
Also previously recommended by: Caitlin, Dee
What’s it about? Kate and her “Face” Emilico have successfully made their debut and discovered the source of the house’s brainwashing; but as the girls slowly begins to gather allies for their rebellion against the house’s oppressive rule, an unknown party is intent on spreading chaos and pinning the blame on Kate.
Content warnings: Brainwashing, medical horror (forced treatment), suicide (offscreen, discussed), child endangerment and death
With the rules of its universe safely established, SHADOWS HOUSE has room to stretch its legs. This season expands the cast considerably—thanks to the premise, every new character introduced is actually two—but it manages not to feel overwhelming because of how well the writing ties characters to their importance vis a vis the overarching mystery. It also smartly siphons its focus down to a core handful of new faces (and shadows) through Kate’s clash with the Star Bearers. As she works to clear her name, the audience gets glimpses of how the current generation’s struggles are far from the first time a child asked too many questions.
The central themes of childhood agency and identity are fleshed out beautifully here. There’s a literal gulf in the house between the world of children and adults, across the threshold of which lies supposedly wonderful benefits but require cutting away pieces of oneself to appease the existing power structure. “Becoming an adult” is almost entirely divorced from age and instead tied to when a child is deemed useful and obedient enough to rise through the ranks. Kate, in questioning the cost of those powers, is enemy number one in the house’s eyes.
This season also introduces the wonderful Maryrose, who I both adore and am slightly exasperated on behalf of, as she’s a very ‘90s embodiment of “this is a queer character in a queer narrative but we haven’t technically said the words, so a straight person somewhere is probably confused.” Her storyline is the emotional core of the season and ends on a satisfying note, but I was left with an old lingering frustration that the writing was afraid to step over the line into saying “love” when characters like John and Patrick are free to express those feelings for the girls they like.
Still, that’s a minor annoyance on an incredible season that keeps all the haunting unease going strong while pouring love and attention into its cast. Whether you’re waiting for that still-unannounced second season of Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun or just like a good gothic aesthetic, don’t sleep on this one.
Shikimori’s Not Just a Cutie
Chosen by: Peter (#3), Chiaki (#5)
Also previously recommended by: Alex, Vrai
What’s it about? Clumsy boy Izumi loves his girlfriend Shikimori, but it’s not because she’s cute: actually, Shikimori is the opposite, and has a surprisingly tall, dark, and handsome side to her… when the time is right.
Content warnings: some uncomfortable jokes implying some fleeting sexual tension between Shikimori and Izumi’s mother; extremely mild sexual imagery of teenagers (flirty ice cream eating).
Is Shikimori a subversive masterpiece for the way it switches up the gender roles and gendered traits in its central couple? I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it is refreshing. The way Shikimori tries to navigate the expectations of femininity, but ultimately refuses to make herself more demure and less competitive in order to be attractive, is certainly satisfying. The series plays with tropes not in a self-conscious genre parody way, but in service of bringing us a sweet little story that explores some different aspects of some fun characters.
Because Izumi and Shikimori are already dating when the story begins, we also get to enjoy a different dynamic to the will-they-or-won’t-they that more often drives rom-coms. It’s cute watching these two dingus teens explore the early stages of a relationship, clearly comfortable with each other but still often shy and awkward, figuring out their boundaries and their future together. At times, it’s goofy, but more often than not Shikimori is delightfully sincere. And it does all this without sexualizing Shikimori (or the other female characters… with perhaps the brief exception of Izumi’s Hot MomTM).
Granted, Shikimori is sometimes possessive of Izumi, and the show can’t quite seem to decide if this is part of her “cool” side or an immature trait she needs to grow past. That said, at one point, a love triangle rears its head… but is swiftly solved with earnest communication. The mini-arc ends with Shikimori gaining a new friend rather than a romantic rival! While the breakdown of gender roles in relationships may not go as hard as I wanted them to in places, this show feels like its heart is in the right place, and it’s a really fun viewing experience.
Chosen by: Cy (#1)
What’s it about? Hiyori learned to fish from her now-deceased father, and whenever she’s anxious she heads to the pier. One day her fishing session is interrupted by a girl running down the dock, stripping to her swimsuit, and preparing to dive into the ocean—despite it being early spring and freezing cold. Hiyori stops the stranger from yeeting herself into the frigid sea, and the two get talking, sharing the wisdom of the fly fisherman… only to realize that they’re about to become stepsisters!
Content considerations: Depictions of grief/mourning.
On the surface, Slow Loop is just another “cute girls doing cute things” entry into the already sprawling genre of teenage Japanese (cis) girls being cute and getting hyperfixated on a particular topic. In this case, it’s fly fishing, which I have no experience with, but found was a perfect vehicle to a story about grief and the stages of surviving a parent as a child.
Oh, what’s that? Slow Loop’s got depth? Heck yeah it does, and let me tell you, it came as a very welcome surprise in a season that was filled with a lot of good, a lot of bad, and a heck of a lot of middling shows. And hey, it’s not even yuri-fied: there’s nary a kissin’ stepsister in this series. Instead, it follows two young women bonding over their new living situation and their shared trait: having widow and widower parents who found second life in new love. Alex expressed genuine concern in the premiere review that this show would Make It Weird, but I’m here to assure you there’s only heart, and nothing weird here, which like… wow, the bar is really on the ground, huh?
I’m so fascinated by this new shift in slice-of-life using grief as a vehicle for having very earnest conversations about emotionality in teen girls. Revolutionary? Well, in a way yes, even if there’s shows that have done this before in previous decades. I’m glad to have another modern series to add to the canon of young (cis) women having very open emotions about the one thing that comes for us all: death, and how to survive losing a parent as an actual child versus as an adult, which we’re all socialized to anticipate.
Instead of trying to be the catch of the day, Slow Loop’s a slow burn, only this time, the burn is watching two teenage girls become a real family as they move through some very big feelings and also have some really good seafood. Definitely come for the generally cute animation and stay for the underlying tale of Hiyori and Koharu finding common ground by learning to enjoy living together, and all the vividness that can come in the wake of grief.
SPY x FAMILY
Chosen by: Peter (#2)
What’s it about? Super-spy “Twilight” works tirelessly in the shadows, fighting a cold war to maintain an outward peace between the East and the West. No job is too difficult—until he’s assigned a mission that requires him to take on the civilian identity of “Loid Forger” and acquire a family: adopted daughter (and secret telepath) Anya and office worker wife (and secret assassin) Yor. Can “Loid” juggle his dual identities to complete his task?
Content warnings: Child endangerment, animal endangerment, mild depiction of torture, a character creepily obsessed with his sister, spyganda, war and cold-war themes and imagery directly lifted from WWII and post-war Germany.
A title that seems to have something for everyone with tactical espionage action, a primary will-they-wont-they romance that is actually the most interesting ship in the series, powerful found family themes, and absolutely devastating comedy. Anya in particular is a tour-de-force of comedy as a semi-genre-aware gremlin dead set on making the story as interesting as possible. She doesn’t fall within the usual trap of depicting children of her age as a singularly adorable and innocent little angel.
SPY x FAMILY is also a true found family story. Alongside all the comedy and action, SPY x FAMILY finds time for plenty of pathos. Each member of the family is outcast by their profession, past, and personal abilities. They struggle with the feelings of isolation created by being outside the norm, as well as societal pressures to fall within their expected roles. The series is a masterful balancing act of its disparate parts, delivering on its comedic elements, action scenes, and surprisingly moving moments between the Forger family members. To date, my biggest gripe with the series is that Anya, as the genre-aware character, and Loid, as the driving force behind the series main story, each enjoy a larger share of the spotlight than Yor—although that should be resolved in the upcoming movie.
The series did stall considerably in the second cour after the introduction of Bond, pulling away from the tight character focus to spend more time with the developments of Operation Stryx and the introduction of Loid’s colleague Nightfall. whose singular obsession with him makes her a (slightly less creepy) reflection of Yor’s brother Yuri. But those two are the pain points in an otherwise sweet and enjoyable cast. Overall, the series’ almost universal acclaim is well-deserved and a rare moment where both critical reception and fan popularity are in perfect sync.
TEPPEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Laughing ‘til You Cry
Chosen by: Chiaki (#4)
What’s it about? Yayoi, Yuzu, and Yomogi form the manzai trio Young Wai-Wai, representing the Kansai region in a national comedy showdown. Can the girls shine on stage and get to the top?
The “what’s it about” description for Teppen! really undersells what this show is actually about, because it’s taken so many wild turns since its inaugural episode. It’s a show about all fifteen girls competing in the Teppen Grand Prix. It’s about friendship. It’s about the Japanese entertainment industry. It’s about aliens. It’s a mystery show. It’s a surrealist sketch comedy. It’s so many things, and it’s hard to say exactly what this show is.
As I mentioned before in the three-ep and mid-season podcast, this show isn’t laugh-out-loud funny to me, and that’s why I feel like I must recommend this show in spite of itself. Like a steak pun, it’s a rare medium done well. I occasionally groan or snort, but never break down into hysterical laughter, and so I’m left wanting for something heartier, like when I’m watching Kaguya-sama or Hinamatsuri. Yet the comedy is there, and I can’t help but appreciate this weird little show.
Teppen! offered critiques into the Japanese entertainment industry. Though not front and center as it was in the fourth episode of the series, it’s a show that points out some of the surreality of the entertainment industry. From influencers to the physical comedy it takes to make it on TV entertainment in Japan, Teppen! takes jabs at media culture itself to elicit its chuckles.
But critique itself isn’t everything in the show. Teppen!!! is just surreal overall, yet it narratively stays consistent no matter how tall the tale seems to get. What seems like throwaway gags stay canon and it continues to build throughout the show until the very end. It’s kind of like watching Big Fish, a story that seems impossible and completely made up—and it probably is—but somehow you can suss out that maybe there were more granules of truth than fiction at the end.
And I will admit to this: I was howling with laughter at episode 11. In its climatic moments, it finally broke me to crack a wide smile and just embrace the show. It’s a story so ridiculous, I can’t help but just say: touché.
Ya Boy Kongming!
Chosen by: Caitlin (#2), Chiaki (#2)
What’s it about? Kongming, famous General of the Three Kingdoms, finds himself at death’s door with one wish: to be reborn into a peaceful world. He has no clue that said peaceful world will be modern-day Tokyo–namely, Shibuya, in the midst of a Halloween party full of party people. One of those partygoers will help him adapt to a new life where peace is the name of the game, and adventures await him.
Content considerations: Sexualization, abusive entertainment industry practices, depression, suicidal ideation, and burnout.
Ban ban, ah chiki chiki ban ban, a chiki chiki ban ban, a chiki chiki chiki chiki-
Opened with easily the most memorable cover of a Hungarian club song, Ya Boy Kongming was a joy to tune into and dance along to. I mean, I still put it on to dance along today.
The show itself has merit as a fun romp through Three Kingdom’s history, updating warring kingdoms to rival musical groups, setting up an absurd juxtaposition between life-or-death tactical decisions and the pomp of Shibuya’s nightlife. It almost makes it sound like studying military history isn’t such a bad move if you want to be Lil Nas X’s talent agent, or wondering if Yang Wen-li would have prospered better in the world of Macross.
Fun as though it may be, Kongming strikes at a central question of what it takes to stay true to yourself as an artist. It’s a series with a solid cast of characters who can rival the glitzy Kongming. The titular general certainly drives the action, but he is, funnily enough, ultimately a supporting character, as he was for the rulers of Shu Han. So the story is really about Eiko and Kabetaijin, two young artists trying to get a foothold in Tokyo’s glitzy and slick nightclub scene. It’s more a “surviving the system as it is” than a “tear it down” story, but both artists are given space to struggle with doubt and disillusionment in addition to passionate idealism.
This focus on “staying true to yourself” plays into the final arc of the show, which pits rival idol band unit Azalea with Eiko’s group. While this finally brings in another female character for Eiko to bond with, it also touches on sexualization as marketing. Azalea’s producers focus on generating buzz and popularity by any means necessary and pivot to sex appeal despite protests from Azalea’s members. The theme is alluded to in the opening sequence, and it is handled critically, but it’s worth a heads up.
Editor’s Note (2/2/23): This article was edited after publication to adjust several votes and add Aharen-san wa Hakarenai.
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