Summer season—happened so fast! We hope you all had yourselves blast, ’cause a lot of our staff sure did. Travel plans delayed our recommendations for a few weeks, but here they finally are: the series that kept our staff entertained on all those summer nights.
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!
Problematic favorite: Caitlin, Dee, Vrai
What’s it about? Meet the girls of the Pastime Club! There’s Olivia, a Japanese-born daughter of foreign parents with blonde hair, blue eyes, and absolutely zero English skills. There’s Kasumi, who has hated games since she was a child because her older sister used them as a way to power trip over her. Finally, there’s Hanako, who really wants to be cool and popular but just can’t seem to make it work. Together, they explore a variety of pastimes from different cultures.
Content Warning: Transphobia; fatphobia; an adult man trying to hit on a teenager; boob jokes
A comedy about terrible people is a difficult needle to thread. Go too gentle on your cast and you risk seeming to endorse their worldview; go too harsh, and the show’s tone becomes alienatingly cruel. 90% of the time, Asobi Asobase walks that line with skill.
As Caitlin’s premiere review mentioned, the show is dedicated to letting its protagonists wallow in anti-cuteness. The grotesque facial animations and hyper-real close-ups wouldn’t have been out of place in a horror anime, and it’s intensely refreshing. Hanako, Kasumi, and Olivia are horrible little shits in ways generally only allowed for male protagonists, and it had me in rare fits of audible laughter almost every week. Even the show’s boob jokes are funny.
At the same time, you get a solid sense of why they’re friends and they tend to be remorseful when a joke gets too harsh. On the rare occasion that the show breaks into out-and-out sincerity (of a sort), it sells. Watching the Pastimers help occultist and cinnamon roll Oka make a voodoo doll in hopes of curing her hospitalized friend was genuinely heart-melting.
There are jokes that don’t so much cross the line as trip over it (some fatphobia in the premiere, Olivia’s older brother perving on Kasumi via text, a few too many jokes at the expense of Olivia’s body odor), but for the most part the comedy is fast-paced enough that any failed punchline is in the rearview mirror before it can leave much of a sour taste. The jokes lead toward a dizzying absurdity that recalls all the dumb things you thought in middle school and then depicts them with the visual intensity you perceived them to have at the time.
The exception to this is Aozora, a feminine-presenting student heavily implied to be a trans girl. The “jokes” about her almost uniformly centers around the Pastimers trying to look at her genitals. The assumption of cis individuals that they have a right to interrogate trans bodies based on their own curiosity is a poisonous one, and a daily trauma almost every trans person has probably experienced at some point (and don’t come at me with that “oh, she’s a male-identified crossdresser!” shit—this takes place at an all-girls school, not a mixed-gender one with uniform options).
To make things worse, while most of the writing pulls off a clear distinction between the girls being idiots and what the audience is implicitly meant to think, that collapses during Aozora’s introduction. In maybe the ugliest moment of the show, the Ron Howard-style narrator remarks that Hanako’s “animal instinct” tells her she should be afraid of Aozora. It is both unfunny and hurtful, and I don’t blame people who found those sketches poisonous enough to drop the show.
For me, personally, the show being divided into self-contained sketches—there are 44 across the whole show, and Aozora appears in only five—combined with how incredibly successful basically every other element of the show was, made it possible to compartmentalize those aspects. For those interested who want to avoid those sketches entirely (which I highly recommend) they are: “Loaded Questions” (episode 5), “Phantom Thieves: Pass Club” (episode 7; though the joke of this one is about the girls stealing a file of school rumors, and Aozora only appears at the very beginning and end), and basically all of episode 10 (which also includes a burgeoning predatory lesbian, though that blow is softened by the fact that Kasumi is pretty closeted/gay-coded herself).
Outside of that not-insignificant flaw, Asobi Asobase proved to be one of my favorite anime comedies in years. If the terrible-found-family dynamic of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is your jam, then definitely give this one a try.
Problematic favorite: Dee, Lauren
What’s it about? When high schooler Haruka moves to Okinawa to live with her cousin Kanata, she’s quickly introduced to (and falls in love with) beach volleyball. But her cousin seems to have a complicated history with the sport. Can the two come together to form a team?
Content Warning: Gratuitous shots of women’s bodies in swimsuits; an implied romantic connection between cousins.
Attitude is everything in a sports show. When Haruka fell in love at first sight with beach volleyball, I did too. Her enthusiasm was infectious and made the whole show feel like a love letter to the sport. Haruka quickly gets close to Kanata while getting a who’s who of Okinawan volleyball stars, including a blonde American duo with a great manzai comedy act going.
Even as characters’ bombastic personalities conflict, their love for volleyball is the one thing they all have in common and this makes the show click. The beachy setting and real Okinawa scenery offer up a side of wanderlust, too.
If you’re into ‘shipping, like I am, this show makes it easy because volleyball is played in pairs. But that’s what might bug some viewers: Haruka and Kanata’s growing closeness is played very much like a couple slowly falling in love, but they are first cousins.
There’s also the matter that in beach volleyball, contestants wear matching swimsuits. The camera angles, especially one pointed up from just above the sand, leave little to the imagination. I’ve written before that I think fanservice is fine if skin is part of the story, and I’ll add that the more titillating shots go out the window during the shows’ tenser matches, portraying these girls as athletes first and foremost. Still, it won’t work for everyone.
Your mileage may vary, but if you’re looking to learn about a new sport with charismatic players in an enviable setting, this is my summer pick.
Problematic favorite: Peter
What’s it about? At the badminton national championship in middle school, Nagisa Aragaki suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Ayano Hanesaki. Now in high school, Nagisa has turned so hyper-competitive and intense she scares away potential new club members. At the same school, Ayano has turned away from badminton completely and is trying out the tennis club instead. She’s ready to leave the sport behind, but when the school’s new coach sees her save her friend from a wild pass, he insists she join. It looks like Ayano and Nagisa will meet again, but now as allies.
Content Warning: Rare fanservice; Creepy Male Coach in a Girl Sports Series syndrome
I came into HANEBADO! hoping for a double rarity in this day and age: a sports series that was both gorgeously animated and focused on women competitors. It definitely delivered on the visual front, but I got a lot more than I expected when it came to the depiction of competition.
I’m not gonna lie, it was a rough ride. I was prepared to drop the series around episode 3 where it seemed as if Nagisa and Hanesaki’s sturm und drang were getting steamrolled with easily digestible, unearned emotional resolutions in the service of driving the plot toward more games. I’m really happy I stuck with it, because those apparent quick fixes offered up by friends to drive them back toward the court had consequences all their own.
HANEBADO definitely isn’t without its issues. Even as I give the series credit for digging deeper than the surface level, the conclusion ultimately glazes over some pretty significant issues with Hanesaki’s backstory in the same manner that originally caused me to consider giving the series up. Fortunately, Nagisa’s half of the story, which I originally thought would be sublimated by Hanesaki’s arc, was an extremely satisfying redemption story, and the middle arc had enough content to leave some nice hanging questions despite a disappointing conclusion for Hanesaki.
Where I think the story was strongest was during its greatest times of strife, showing a contrast to the usual sense of optimism and joy that follow sports series with a more sober look at how many elements of the competitive environment can kill a competitor’s enthusiasm for the game. Even Hanesaki’s backstory, melodramatic as it turned out to be, provided fertile ground for later developments where her friends’ efforts to push her back toward badminton because of her talent later transformed into a heated resentment for the game and her fellow players.
I appreciate any story that shows pushing people to do things without considering their feelings doesn’t always magically result in a transformative emotional resolution and gratitude. While I think the anime ultimately took the coward’s way out in the end with Hanesaki, the conclusion wasn’t enough to diminish what I had already seen it do. I also feel the series really did right by Nagisa, delivering a story that would have been worth watching on its own.
Phantom in the Twilight
Feminist-friendly favorite: Caitlin, Dee
What’s it about? Inspired by the letters her great-grandmother sent home, Ton and her best friend Shinyao decide to study abroad in London. When Ton chases after a strange thief who’s stolen their luggage, she soon finds herself embroiled in a paranormal battle involving three young men who all work at a cafe founded by her own great-grandmother. What is this organization, and what did Ton’s grandma have to do with it?
Content Warning: Violence against teens; supernatural age-gap relationship
I don’t think anyone knew what to expect out of Phantom in the Twilight. A Chinese co-production with an original story that appeared to include otome and urban fantasy trappings, neither of which I’m particularly fond of? No thanks, I said. Actually, refusal would involve much more awareness than I had of the series, which barely registered for me at the start of the season.
I’m so thankful I have my Anime Feminist colleagues to steer me in the right direction, because otherwise I would have missed out on this truly great series.
Not long ago, I wrote an article about how Cardia from Code: Realize switching her gown out for pants symbolized a shift from passive to active that was rare for an otome-based show. Ton, on the other hand, is wearing shorts and ready to rumble from episode one. From the first moment the Umbra attack, she’s resourceful, scrappy, and absolutely refuses to let anyone stop her from being an active player in her own life.
Sure, Shinyao spends most of the series as a damsel, but this makes a great example of how having multiple female characters with different personalities can breathe new life even into cliche setups. Plus, she isn’t a damsel waiting to be rescued by a handsome hero (even though she certainly finds a cute wolfboy to fall for), but by her best friend.
But the boys… are they good, or are they as predatory as one would expect a vampire, a werewolf, a ghost, and a jiangshi to be? The answer is, THEY ARE SO GOOD. They are, for the most part, respectful to Ton as allies and associates. Even on the occasion they do object, Ton usually challenges them or proves their doubts unnecessary. The romance is largely understated, based more on occasional flirtation and loaded conversations than possessiveness or physical contact. Heck, I forgot there even was a romance angle for most of the series.
Even if it doesn’t sound like your thing, I seriously recommend checking out Phantom in the Twilight. It will probably surprise you.
Surprise favorite: Caitlin, Peter
What’s it about? After an accident that killed his parents, high schooler Soya wakes up with no memory in a household run by a girl in a maid costume and a giant talking cat. Nevertheless, his life is pleasant enough—until a UFO appears in the sky and a group of superheroes arrive to fight it. Soya’s adopted family urges him to fight as well, but it’s not the UFO they’re after. No, they want him to take out those superheroes!
Content Warning: Violence against teens/kids; mild fan service
I’d heard people recommending Satoshi Mizukami, the writer and storyboarder of Planet With, for a while, but I never really made an effort to seek out his work. So when I decided the check out Planet With, it was mostly as a series I thought would be nice to share with the people in my life.
What I got, instead, was one of the most perfect anime series I’ve ever seen.
Planet With, with its economical storytelling, manages to accomplish in twelve episodes what few can achieve in two or three times that. It goes through three story arcs, develops its characters and their relationships, and eloquently expresses its underlying philosophy. It does not once feel compressed or rushed; it simply maximizes the time it has to a degree few media manages.
Although it has a male main protagonist, much of the story is driven by a nearly gender-balanced cast. The female cast is just as rich and complex as their male counterparts, and Soya’s foster-sibling relationship with Ginko is one of the show’s emotional tentpoles. There is some very light fan service, if you’d even call it that, but it’s used cleverly and only on very rare occasions.
But the thing that truly makes Planet With special is the warmly humanist heart behind its philosophy. The choice between sealing humanity’s drive to force it into the evolution of love or finding ways to guide it in that direction spoke to me as an educator who’s trying to guide small children toward making safe and healthy choices while still giving them autonomy instead of barriers.
Its optimism left me feeling cleansed each week, at a time where pessimism and despair constantly threaten to paralyze me. For a half hour each week, I truly felt like the universe was filled with blessings.
Feminist-friendly favorite: Vrai
Surprise favorite: Dee
What’s it about? Karen Aijo is a student at Seisho Music Academy, an all-girls’ performing school. After her best friend Hikari returns from studying abroad, Karen soon finds herself diving into a surreal world of musical battles where she and her fellow students duke it out to determine which of them will be the school’s next “top star.”
The Revue Starlight premiere flew out of nowhere to gobsmack me with gorgeous cinematography, surreal staging, and beautifully animated Takarazuka-inspired musical battles. While the series as a whole didn’t blow me away quite as much as that first episode—the cast was a few members too large for a single-cour series, creating some truncated arcs during the middle act—it was still a standout lady-led series and my happiest surprise of the season.
In addition to being an all-around terrific production (every battle is a visual feast), Starlight also offers two layers of narrative for its audience. On one level, it’s a fantastical story of rivalries and relationships between talented, driven female performers. This includes queer romances both implicit and explicit, as well as a central love story that builds in appropriately epic fashion, given the anime’s musical roots.
On another level, Starlight is an exploration and critique of some of the practices of the Takarazuka Revue, particularly the narrowly defined concept of a single, masculine-performing (otokoyaku) “top star.” I highly recommend reading along with Atelier Emily’s weekly writeups as you watch this one, as they provide a lot of valuable information about the Takarazuka theatre and how Starlight interacts with it.
Because of its short length and somewhat clipped pacing, Starlight works best if you’re willing to give in to its musical bombast, allowing choreography and songs to sweep you along in a rush of grand archetypal characters, conflicts, and emotions. If you can’t, this one will likely leave you cold. But if you can, Starlight will prove an ambitious, stylish, and even moving experience well worth your time.
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