Now that the winter premieres have aired and most people have figured out what they’re watching this season, we’re starting to look back at which shows from 2016 deserve a second glance. We had been talking internally about our feminist recommendations of 2016, and some of the team wanted to go into a bit more detail on some of their favorites.
We talked about three kinds of recommendation:
- Feminist-friendly favorite (you would recommend it to a feminist friend with no caveats)
- Problematic favorite (you would only recommend it to a feminist friend with caveats)
- Surprise favorite (you expected it to have caveats, but actually would recommend it without)
Here’s what a few of the team thought – let us know your picks in the comments!
Feminist-friendly favorite: Snow White with the Red Hair
I thought about this one for all of two seconds before I chose the cozy shojo fairy tale Snow White with the Red Hair. A determined, capable female protagonist who’s constantly fighting assumptions based on her appearance or class status and defeats all naysayers with a combination of stubborn agency and compassionate empathy? Check. A central romance that’s built on mutual respect and admiration where the couple communicates, supports each other’s goals, and trusts one another? Check. A supporting cast featuring a variety of interpersonal relationships and female characters with diverse personalities and lifestyles whom the narrative happily accepts, regardless of how “girly” they are? Check and double-check!
I spent a lot of time writing about this show on my own blog, and its soothing tone and quietly progressive messages never failed to leave me feeling all warm ‘n’ fuzzy inside. The idyllic narrative and low levels of drama may come across as dull to some folks, so I can’t guarantee its relaxed tone is going to appeal to everyone. But if you’re looking for a smart, comfy, feminist-friendly anime to warm your heart on a cold winter night, I heartily recommend curling up with a cup of hot cocoa and enjoying this beautifully drawn and gracefully directed modern fairy tale.
Problematic favorite: FLIP FLAPPERS
Even the best stories are bound to have at least one potentially troubling element, but no show this year was more frustratingly close to perfection than FLIP FLAPPERS. Blending magical girls, fairy tales, and grand theories on perspective and personality, this vibrant, ambitious series also featured a refreshingly honest look at female adolescence and awakening sexuality (and an adorable queer romance to boot!). When it comes to the overarching narrative and individual scripts (the majority of which were written by women, by the way), you’d have a tough time finding fault with FLIP FLAPPERS.
The problem is in the visuals, which are 95% imaginative design, animation, and storyboarding, and 5% terrible choices: a grabby robot here, an intrusive camera angle there, a girl badly in need of some pants over there. FLIP FLAPPERS for the most part succeeds at the daunting challenge of exploring teen sexuality without sexualizing teens, but when it stumbles, yikes, it’s like nails on a chalkboard. As a complete work it’s still an earnest, empowering story for girls, and overall I truly believe the creative team’s hearts were in the right place. It’s just a shame I can’t recommend it without mentioning that 5% of unpleasantness.
Surprise favorite: Tanaka-kun is Always Listless
I’m gonna cheat a little and build up to my Surprise Pick by talking about a whole Surprise Category, because this year was pleasantly packed with titles featuring male protagonists that challenged gender norms and traditional ideals of (aggressive) masculinity. Whether it was the focus on gender performance in Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju and Yuri!!! on ICE, the rejection of the “might makes right” mentality in Mob Psycho 100, or the slow dismantling of the classic hoo-rah revenge narrative in 91 Days, there were a lot of top-tier series this year that avoided conventional ideas about the way men “should” behave in favor of pushing for compassion, kindness, and being true to oneself.
Still, amid all those excellent high-profile titles, if I had to pick just one series from the “let’s sneakily challenge gender norms!” category, I’d go with the sleepy under-the-radar comedy Tanaka-kun is Always Listless. It caught my attention with its offbeat sense of humor and the adorable laid-back friendship between its two male protagonists (a relative rarity in anime, where close male friendships are more often defined by passionate competition instead of relaxed camaraderie), then hooked me with its gender-balanced cast’s quirks and dilemmas. A lot of conflicts come from characters’ wishes or realities clashing with cultural expectations, and many of those center around gender norms. Yet through it all Tanaka-kun‘s Zen-like tone strikes a careful balance between supporting its cast’s desires for change and encouraging them to like themselves as they are. It exudes positivity and acceptance and never fails to cheer me up when I’m having a bad day. Here’s hoping it does the same for you, too!
Feminist favorite: March comes in like a lion
Although following a male lead, Rei, a young shogi prodigy, March comes in like a lion is a story that focuses upon the women in his life and the dramatic influence they have upon him. Suffering from severe depression, Rei is struggling to find some means of attaining happiness and overcoming his tremendous personal tragedies through achievement in a game he isn’t sure he actually cares for.
Although the portrayal of Rei’s relationship with shogi in itself is fascinating, the women in his life represent both his emotional safe space and triggers for his emotional trauma. March comes in like a lion is a story of extremes, alternating between vivid visuals representing Rei’s suffocating sadness and the warmth of the surrogate family he finds in the Kawamoto sisters. The recurring representations of Rei’s struggling in the dark waters of depression become a shared experience as the series regularly emerges for much needed air in the bright and enthusiastic homelife of Akari, Hinata, and Momo. Alternatively, his adoptive sister Kyoko seeks to undermine his success in shogi and drive him back into the depths in what becomes a surprisingly sympathetic quest for revenge. March comes in like a lion has a heartfelt narrative that is both breaking and warming in turns and driven by some of the most evocative animation of the year.
Problematic favorite: FLIP FLAPPERS
Also my favorite anime of the year, FLIP FLAPPERS is not without its issues. It is a story of Cocona’s self-actualization told through the medium of a magical girl series on the fairy tale backdrop of the world of Pure Illusion, a Jungian collective unconscious where anything is possible.
FLIP FLAPPERS is a visual experience unlike any anime I’ve ever seen, using the fantastical landscapes of Pure Illusion to represent Cocona’s emotional obstacles through allegorical constructs. Throughout the series are seeds of the Oyashima’s broad influences from philosophical to psychological to artistic. The western viewer is sure to recognize a considerable number of references to western films and animation. Although this may sound burdensome, the fundamental story is as simple as it is poignant, no analysis required.
Unfortunately, although a major component of the story is the Cocona’s budding lesbian romance with her partner, themes of adolescent sexual discovery some of the visuals wander away from artistic representation into pure fan service. Despite this, the only reason I would hesitate to recommend FLIP FLAPPERS to anyone is how embedded in the anime subculture the story is. It has ambition, a sense of style, and a pursuit of complex themes through personal narratives reminiscent of legendary titles like Revolutionary Girl Utena and Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Surprise favorite: Sound! Euphonium
This is a series I almost didn’t watch. The moe art style and the high school setting immediately set of my “cute girls doing cute things” alarm bells and its popular response seemed something closer to ogling than anything approaching artistic appreciation. Only a few trusted voices supporting the title convinced me to give it a try and I’m glad I did.
A bit of research revealed that the series is based on a light novel by a woman, Ayano Takeda, who wrote due to her personal experience with orchestral music. Although the visuals certainly speak to the same moe aesthetic that sells shows like Love Live!, Sound! Euphonium doesn’t have anything I could claim was even approaching fan service until the second season (pool episode). The cast is primarily female and features a diverse group of individuals with various interests and personal reasons for playing in the orchestra, pursuing a number of character narratives about their struggles, both personal and professional.
All the while, Sound! Euphonium follows the development of the band itself with an almost sports anime-like dedication, providing a wealth of detail about various compositions and instruments, practicing and maintenance techniques. One particularly fascinating insight to me was the organizational psychology behind the band’s slow rise from disorganized and hopeless individuals to a dedicated and ambitious unit.
Feminist favourite: Yuri!! on ICE
The reason I went with Yuri!!! on ICE rather than other favourites like Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, Erased or Mob Psycho 100 is that it is the only show I have actually shown to someone else – specifically, to a bisexual friend I’ve known for 21 years and never shown a single anime before.
For the record, she loved it (and Sala, Mila, Mari, Minako and Yuko, thank you Yamamoto and Kubo for incorporating multiple engaging women into your guy-centric narrative) and has been sending me fanart she finds on Pinterest ever since. The next friend I intend to show it to goes back even further, and as far as anime goes I have only ever shown him parts of Gundam Wing. As a gay man and former professional dancer, I know this is going to speak to him in a way it can’t possibly speak to me, and I’m so excited to be able to introduce him to that kind of viewing experience.
These are the friends I watched Queer as Folk with as teenagers, who were brave enough to come out at school in the 1990s and continue to be starved of satisfying representation in western television. They are keen to see themselves reflected and/or catered to in any media they can get and have no awareness of anime’s track record with queer representation. They also haven’t been able to share my hobby with me for the many years we’ve known one another. Yuri!!! on ICE is not a perfect show, but it is the one I’m most likely to be able to share with marginalised friends who are not already anime fans, and that counts for a lot.
Problematic favourite: Re:ZERO
Re:ZERO is the show that sparked my friendships with Peter and Frog-kun, both of whom were instrumental in bringing AniFem to life, so it will always hold a special place in my heart for that. However, I am also a big fan of Re:ZERO for its own merits, which includes some of my favourite female characters of the year.
I have to say it… I love Emilia. (Never gets old.) This may come as a surprise if you only know of her as a moe love interest in impractical clothes, but she’s an ambitious mixed race woman with strong principles and zero tolerance for main character Subaru’s worst behaviours. I find her genuinely aspirational, and other characters like lazy but fiercely protective Ram or saccharine but murderous Elsa are satisfying in very different ways. The ensemble cast gets even better when Emilia steps up to take her place as a candidate for the throne alongside four other female candidates, each with a powerful personality and distinct politics of her own.
However, Re:ZERO stands out most as my feminist pick for its arc in episodes 12-18. In these seven episodes, Subaru’s confidence becomes arrogance and his attraction for Emilia develops into a festering entitlement – both of which Emilia calls him out on in one of my favourite scenes from 2016. Emilia is sadly under-served by the story from this point on, and there’s a certain amount of girl-as-reward storytelling which is disappointing to see, but this is a show with far more feminist merit than you might expect a moe isekai light novel adaptation to have. The first time through the first 11 episodes may be hard work, but its skillful use of devices like foreshadowing and foil characters makes it a very rewarding rewatch.
Surprise favourite: BBK/BRNK
I loved BBK/BRNK’s premiere, in no small part because of its ensemble cast featuring multiple powered-up women of a range of ages and personality types. Based on genre and character designs alone I expected gratuitous sexualisation, cutesy helplessness, a male-driven plot. Instead, easy fanservice opportunities were largely averted, the cutest characters more than held their own in battle and the plot turned out to be in many ways driven by a conflict between women.
This isn’t going to be for everyone, and the first time through I was a little disappointed by the mecha-of-the-week approach, but I’ve enjoyed it much more on rewatch after knowing where the plot is going. That said, my comments here apply only to the first season – the second season introduces some fantastic female characters, but also remembers the existence of fanservice.
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