The Fall went and dropped a variety of colorful anime into our laps, with plenty of surprises along the way! Leave it to the last season of 2018 to keep us on our toes.
We talked about three kinds of recommendations:
- Feminist-friendly favorite: You’d recommend it to a feminist friend with no caveats
- Problematic favorite: You’d only recommend it to a feminist friend with caveats
- Surprise favorite: You didn’t expect it to be something you’d recommend, but it was (either with or without caveats)
The titles below are organized alphabetically. As a reminder, ongoing shows are not eligible for these lists. We’d rather wait until the series (or season) has finished up before recommending it to others, that way we can give you a more complete picture.
Here’s what the team thought—let us know your picks in the comments!
Feminist-friendly favorite: Dee
What’s it about? High schooler Yuu Koito feels isolated from her peers because she’s never felt “love” the way everyone else seems to. When she meets upperclassmen Touko Nanami, it seems she’s found someone who feels the same—at least, until Touko confesses that she’s falling in love with Yuu.
Content Warning: Mild sexual content; depictions of homophobia
Real talk, dear readers: I was totally lukewarm on Bloom Into You at the three-episode mark. I only stuck with it because nobody else at AniFem was watching it and it felt like a show we should be following. Thank goodness for occupational obligations, because holy cow did this build into an impressive series.
Beautifully storyboarded and gracefully narrated, Bloom Into You follows its cast of queer teens as they grapple with their sexualities, identities, and shifting relationships with one another. It would be recommendation-worthy for that alone, but Bloom also directly engages with cultural norms, acknowledging harmful “just a phase” ideology and actively rejecting it by including a healthy adult lesbian couple. Much like Yuu’s relationship with Touko, each week I fell for this series a little more.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, it is worth noting that there’s a fine line in YA fiction between “late-bloomer/repressed” and “ace/aro,” and while Bloom initially feels like the latter, it seems to be turning into the former. It didn’t bother me because (1) the series organically depicts Yuu’s developing feelings and (2) there’s a supporting character who actually is ace/aro, so it’s not “erasure” so much as “showing a variety of experiences.” That said, I know there are folks who’ve felt hurt by that shift, so it’s worth mentioning for incoming viewers.
If you go in knowing what to expect, though, Bloom Into You is an exquisitely directed slow-burn yuri romance that engages with queerness in a way that’s sometimes devastating, often comforting, and always thoughtful. Even if you’re hesitant at first, I urge you to stick with it. Your patience will be well-rewarded.
Surprise favorite: Dee
What’s it about? Isolated high schooler Hitomi’s monochrome world is given a surprising shock when her grandmother sends her back in time 60 years, leading her to meet the members of the Photography Art Club and find a young artist whose work allows her to see color for the first time since childhood.
Content Warning: Discussions of grief and depression; child neglect; ableism
IRODUKU finished roughly five hours before these recommendations were due, which means I’m writing this with the mist still in my eyes and the glow in my heart. What we worried would be a rote “boy saves girl from sadness” story developed into a gentle tale about healing through the help of a community (which includes family, friends, and romantic partners); mutual support of each other’s talents; and the importance of knowing one’s art has a positive impact on others.
That said, this is definitely one of those sincere, guileless series that follows its heart and asks its audience to do the same. There’s a messiness to its magical realism that may be off-putting for some viewers. Time-travel paradoxes notwithstanding, there’s the issue of Hitomi’s inability to see color. It fluctuates between “metaphor for trauma/depression” and “literal physical disability,” which leads to a few lovely scenes that positively engage with improving accessibility, but also to a whiff of accidental ableism, given that the metaphor ultimately takes precedence and recovery is the end-goal.
Similarly, while I personally found IRODUKU‘s depiction of grief, depression, and healing to be emotionally resonant, it’s also arguably over-simplistic. It’s not so trite as “romantic love will fix all your problems” (thank goodness), but it leans into the idea that an accepting community and personal self-worth are all you need to get better. They are important, of course, but are often pieces of a larger, longer process, so I can also understand why the series might not sit right for some folks because of that.
I feel like I’m criticizing IRODUKU a lot in this “recommendation,” but that’s because my Critic Brain is warring with my Viewer Brain. It’s a series that engages with difficult subjects via metaphor in a way that my head knows has a lot of holes in it, but it’s so genuine and well-meaning about it that my heart doesn’t give a damn. The show’s blend of melancholy and hope is right up my alley; its undercurrent about finding happiness by bringing joy to others via one’s art rang keenly true; and its bittersweet ending left me audibly making “mmm!” noises. I wasn’t even planning on watching it, and now I kinda love it. Warts and all, maybe you will, too.
Skull-Faced Bookseller Honda-san
Feminist-Friendly Favorite: Chiaki, Vrai
Surprise Favorite: Caitlin, Dee
What’s it about? Working at a bookstore might seem ideal, but it’s a constant battle. This comedic short depicts Honda-san and his coworkers handling the daily stresses of a service job.
Content Warning: So much social anxiety
Honda-san came right the heck out of nowhere this season, hurtling out of the anitwitter bubble and capturing the internet at large with its meme-worthy screenshots. And behind those screenshots is a warm, clever series that will be relatable to anybody who’s ever worked a service job.
The look of the show is almost reminiscent of early Adult Swim, with bright pastel colors and limited animation that it uses to smartly underscore its anxious comedy. Honda-san and his coworkers are likable, and the world they inhabit is kind—whether it’s dealing with the stress of a language barrier or a customer asking where they can buy porn, the show’s comedy never looks down its nose at its eccentric customers. In fact, this might be the most affectionate teasing of the BL readership I’ve ever seen.
There’s also a palpable fondness for both the books and the people who love them and a clear sense of why these people keep their job–Aggretsuko, this is not. It also strikes an interesting balance of not feeling too romanticized–as I said above, it gets the stress of service interactions pitch-perfect–while simultaneously radiating fondness from every line. It’s like…well, what it is. All the really out-there and weird stories you store up to tell later, which are always just a little bit better in the telling than when they happened and tinged with a bit of nostalgia.
The show doesn’t have particularly great ambitions, but it was a comforting way to spend 11 minutes every week. If you’re looking for a new iyashikei (healing) series to chill out to, I highly recommend giving this one a try.
Problematic Favorite: Caitlin, Dee, Peter
What’s it about? Yuta Hibiki wakes up in a home attached to a secondhand shop with no memory of who he is and how he got there, with Gridman calling to him from an ancient computer screen. When he goes outside, the shadow of a kaiju that only he can see looms overhead. Despite all the strangeness, he tries to carry on as usual with the help of his two friends, Rikka and Utsumi. When the kaiju fully materializes, will he listen to Gridman’s call and defend the city?
Content Warning: Fanservice of underage girls; both cartoonish and realistic violence and abuse
When I called SSSS.Gridman the closest spiritual successor to Neon Genesis Evangelion yet, I had no idea how near to the truth I actually was. While I was basing that on the tense, atmospheric direction, the true spirit of the show—tokusatsu action as a vehicle for what turns out to be a character study of mental illness and self-loathing—connects deeply to its ’90s predecessor.
I almost quit halfway through the show because, for all its technical merits and strong writing, it seemed to be leaning way too heavily on fanservice of its teenage antagonist, Akane Shinjo. The camera focused obsessively on her feet and, in the sixth episode, leered constantly at her bikini-clad body. While I still liked the show up to that point, it was seemingly less and less worth wading through the sexualization to get to the good parts.
I’m so glad I kept watching, because that’s when the really good stuff starts. All the seemingly questionable choices the staff had made started coming together. If Yuta seems like a boring protagonist, it’s for a reason. If it seems strange that everyone worships Akane, there’s a reason. If Rikka seems pigeonholed as the “feminine, compassionate” character, well, that’s intentional too. When I questioned whether Rikka would be “the girl,” I had no idea that the show would take a turn entirely outside of traditional tokusatsu framework, rendering my concerns completely and utterly moot.
Except for the fan service and the… uh… foot service. There’s never a good reason for that. But that’s why it’s a “problematic fave” instead of a “feminist-friendly fave.”
Thunderbolt Fantasy: Sword Seekers
Puppet’lematic fave: Dee
What’s it about? In the second season of this wuxia-inspired puppet show, traveling swordsman Shang’s past comes back to haunt him when a former partner, a crooked magistrate, and a poisonous assassin all cross the desert looking for him and his scroll full o’ swords. Oh, and his old frenemy Lin is back, too, ready to punk some more villains. What’s a perpetually tired wanderer to do? Gear up for some epic puppet fights, probably.
Content Warning: Violence (some graphic)
At first I thought, “Dee, do you really want to recommend a puppet show with no discernible feminist themes to the AniFem audience?” And then I remembered that one episode where Puppet TM Revolution battled a kaiju dragon by rocking out so hard, and I thought “Oh, wait. Of course you do.”
No, Thunderbolt Fantasy is not here to smash gender norms or provide progressive treatises. Sure, it clears the low bar of treating women like people instead of sex toys, but Season 2 only has two prominent female characters, and both are villains, and one of them is a sword. And yeah, it’s pretty gay if you squint a little, but I’m not sure that’s intentional—more the kind of thing you enjoy as subtext rather than explicit representation. One of the villains is a corrupt cop who gets periodically owned, which is very satisfying, but also about as intense as the social commentary gets.
All of which matters, but also kinda doesn’t, because Thunderbolt Fantasy is ridiculously fun. It’s full of over-the-top action scenes, twisting plot threads that tie together and then break apart, and campy dialogue that’s alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) thoughtful and hilarious. There are goth monks and martial lutenists and vaping thieves. It’s an enjoyable romp that doesn’t make its viewers wade through insensitive nonsense along the way, and I can’t wait for the third season.
2018 has been a rough year, folks. These bombastic, snarky puppets helped me through it. Maybe they’ll give you a little pick-me-up, too.
Problematic Favorite: Chiaki, Vrai
Surprise Favorite: Dee, Peter
What’s it about? Teenage Sakura’s life is cut short when she’s hit by a truck; next thing she knows, she’s waking up ten years later in a spooky manor full of zombie girls—and she’s one of them! A man named Tatsumi Kotaru tells her he’s gathered them to become a regional idol group that will save Saga Prefecture. With no skills, no training, and most of the group still acting like brainless zombies, it’s gonna be a long haul.
Content Warning: Verbal abuse; body horror; death; violence; depictions of transphobia; mild nudity (not sexualized)
I assumed I’d drop ZOMBIE LAND SAGA after its third episode, when the different-musical-genre-every-episode shenanigans began to gel into a more standard idol sound. But the next episode had just enough eye-catching weirdness to keep me, and the next, and the next, and before I knew it I’d become wholeheartedly attached to the nice zombie girls and their dreams.
That sincerity is ZOMBIE LAND’s ace in the hole. Its body horror comes and goes (though it is choice when it does appear, and pops lovingly into frame in places where another series might have leering fanservice shots), and its occasional backhanded observations about the dark side of the industry never really coalesce into anything like focused commentary.
But it’s got heart to spare, beating right out of its adorably rotting chest. A lot of focus is put on idols as inspirational figures, which hits home a lot better when Franchouchou’s audience includes a broad range of ages and genders (rather than a sea of creepy adult men). Much has also rightly been made of pint-sized idol Lily being a trans girl, a revelation that’s depicted with a grace and empathy quite rare for anime—even if I admit to finding “don’t worry about puberty dysphoria, kids, just die young!” a bit of an unfortunate accidental message. While the series is often absurd, it rarely feels mean.
That is, with the exception of the girls’ manager, Kotaro. He’s a plot device who exists to get the girls where they need to go, alternately a vessel for high-key shenanigans and a pinch-hitting wise mentor. Mamoru Miyano is an extremely talented actor, and he can pull off both modes in isolation, but the transition from “asshole imprisoning these young women and screaming at them to do his bidding” to “well-meaning, extremely extra uncle who gives cryptic advice” feels completely unearned, and the character breaks apart on the lightest scrutiny.
It’s not helped by the show’s disinterest in examining the darker implications of his whole deal. Or by the addition of some really alarming details in the final episode that cast an even more uneasy pall over the power dynamic, particularly between him and Sakura.
The rest of the show is so dazzlingly well-made (thanks MAPPA!) and lovingly executed that it’s hard to dwell on, though. The final episode ends with a hook for season two, but I’d honestly be happy to leave things here. The emotional arcs and excellent friendships are well-realized, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit wibbly during the big finale.