The weather outside may be frightful, but some of these winter anime are pretty darn delightful.
The team split up the reviews between staff volunteers, with one person putting together a short review on each series. Like we do in our check-in podcasts, we started from the bottom of our Premiere Digest list and worked our way up. If we didn’t watch a show for at least three episodes, we skipped it, and we’ve used nice bold headers to help you quickly jump to the shows you’re interested in. Unless specifically noted, we’re only discussing the first three episodes, even if a show has released more than that.
We don’t have the time to keep up with everything, so please let us know about any gems we might be missing in the comments!
The Quintessential Quintuplets
Chiaki: As noted in my premiere review, this is most certainly a harem anime, even with the twist that Fuutarou’s defining personality trait is that he’s an asshole. Fuutarou continues to be primarily driven by his wish to be freed of debt at the end of the school year by helping all five sisters safely graduate high school. However, to his credit, he is at least optimistic and driven to succeed in genuinely helping the girls.
Whereas sexual and romantic tensions are alluded to in the show, Fuutarou also remains a bit more principled since creeping on Yotsuba in the first episode. He dedicates himself to education and has more or less declared he’s not interested in any kind of romance. He has notably avoided employing a leering gaze on the quintuplets himself, even as the show depicts a healthy dose of ecchi scenes and situations.
Also worth noting, Quintuplets manages to take a meta-critical look at harem anime as a genre by arguing that all five sisters are essentially the same. Fuutarou discovers the five sisters cumulatively are capable of scoring a perfect score on a test. He thus argues that while the sisters may individually be failing, they possess a basic capability to be successful. The sisters themselves present situations playing on how their bodies all look similar and that the playful “little sister” character can just as much be the erotically enticing big sister by dressing up and acting accordingly.
All of this is compounded with the first episode’s foreshadowing that Fuutarou will marry one of the sisters. In essence, as much as Ichika, Nino, Miku, Yotsuba, and Itsuki are seemingly different and catering to different tropes and tastes, they are all essentially the same girl. They exist only to cater to the audience’s ideals of an idealized bride.
Meiji Tokyo Renka
Dee: I’m so glad I gave Meiji Tokyo Renka the three-episode try, because the next two were leaps and bounds better than the premiere. After that awkward mass introduction of sparkling pretty-boys, the show slows down and becomes what it actually wants to be: a historical fantasy with a good sense of humor, a love of chibis, and an active, meat-loving protagonist.
Mei’s ability to see and interact with ghosts places her firmly at the center of each supernatural story. Her powers are about emotional connection instead of spirit battles, but the series takes care not to turn her into a passive damsel. Her desire to help others is her greatest strength, and she’s not afraid to put herself in harm’s way to help a spirit in need. Also, she gets to wear lots of silly faces and I like her a lot.
Ougai is still a bit too handsy for comfort (with both Mei and Syunso, which doesn’t make it better), there’s a smattering of manservice, and the obligatory ‘shipteasing scenes tend to feel pretty rote. Fortunately, that’s maybe 10% of the show. The rest is time-travel goofs, ghost stories, food nonsense, and endearing chats between Mei and the boys. I almost didn’t come back to it, and now it’s one of the shows I most look forward to each week.
Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka
Vrai: I’m not sure “good” is the best descriptor for Spec-Ops Asuka. It’s patently ridiculous and campily straight-faced in its military jargon—but it also still has water balloon boobs, now with bathing suit fanservice, and facial features that feel like they’ve been photoshopped onto the girls.
It’s not best-of-show material. But it’s still a fun kind of bad, with interesting gore (lots of torture scenes, as a heads-up) and a comfortable awareness that its own premise isn’t actually that clever.
Once in a while it even sneaks up and surprises me with some thoughtful writing. One of Asuka’s civilian friends is struggling with post-traumatic stress and panic attacks after surviving the terrorist attack in the premiere, and the writing is not only strongly sympathetic toward her but has her use actual coping strategies. In fact, the series as a whole has yet to betray the underlying sense that there are things worth fighting for; for all its gruesomeness, it still hasn’t sunk into the morass of misery porn.
I’m not wild about the fact that, in addition to the evil lesbians, the show’s introduced an overly clingy fellow magical girl who’s about two seconds away from yandere-style murdering Asuka’s new friends. That said, there’s still room for her to get better rather than worse. “Good” it ain’t, but it’s probably the best “dark magical girl” series in the past few years.
Caitlin: It can be hard to judge a series that’s based largely on people making poor decisions. It muddies the waters, making it hard to find the line between portraying something and permitting something. Domestic Girlfriend sits largely in that gray area, as Natsuo and Hina’s choices are both reprehensible, leaving Rui mostly caught in the middle.
Natsuo, under his soft boy image, is kind of a jerk. It doesn’t stop at him trying to kiss his teacher/stepsister while she’s drunk and borderline unconscious. There are more subtle moments than that, like when Rui transfers to his school and he asks her to pretend they don’t know each other. Or when he actually does forcibly kiss Hina in the third episode’s climax. No amount of bad hair days or goofy improv with his best friend will change that he’s kind of terrible.
And, it turns out, Hina isn’t much better! She apparently habitually kisses people while drunk and is having an affair with a married man who she’s trying to convince to leave his wife, despite the whole thing making her miserable. When confronted, she shrugs it off as merely “the world of adults.” To top it all off, she sexually assaults Natsuo in return, kissing him and pushing him down on her bed to make a point.
Like I said, this all sits squarely in that gray area between depicting and endorsing. It’s abundantly clear that Hina’s and Natsuo’s choices leave a lot to be desired. I don’t need my entertainment to be a morality play, either, but there’s a lot of potential for things to push past the bounds of good taste. And the next episode previews, with the title written on the body of a woman in lingerie, are definitely outside those bounds.
My Roommate is a Cat
Vrai: My Roommate is a Cat is still bringing in a seasonal dose of cute with an undercurrent of sadness. Protagonist Subaru has taken several levels in basic human decency since his insufferable debut, allowing himself to cry over his parents’ death and beginning to realize that perhaps those around him also have hardships and are trying their best.
He’s still a bit of a jerk, but in a softer and understandable way… even if the scenes of his unprofessional behavior left me grinding my teeth, thinking about all the marginalized authors I know who have to be relentlessly on their best behavior to even get a chance at the industry he takes for granted.
I was a bit leery of the “talking animal” part of the series when the show premiered, but it’s developed a smart balance: rather than dividing half-and-half between the two POV characters, we usually only check in with kitten Haru at the end. The script also has a talent for showing off “weird cat things” without coming across as cutesy or insufferable. Then again, this is the series that reminded us right up front: “Hey, sometimes stray cats starve to death.”
It does teeter on the edge of being a “friendship solves mental illness” story, as there are times when Subaru’s antisocial grief tips over into agoraphobia and even a panic attack. Those scenes left me feeling that, while a cat does wonders, this man needs therapy and maybe some anti-anxiety medication. For the most part though, it stays focused on that unresolved grief, and those scenes are well-handled without being soporific.
Also, Episode Four is gonna have a dog too, so definitely tune in for that.
Kaguya-sama: Love is War
Caitlin: The first episode of Kaguya-sama exhausted me. Fortunately, the next two episodes totally assuaged my concerns. Miyuki and Kaguya, while they may have a lot of book smarts, are complete idiots when it comes to human relationships. They’re not trying to force each other to confess for the sake of power—they want the other one to confess because putting themselves out there and doing it is terrifying. They just tell themselves it’s for the sake of power because that’s what seems right and natural in their highly competitive world, especially with their own lack of experience.
When they’re not trying to play mind games with each other, they’re actually pretty sweet kids. Kaguya, in a rare opportunity to walk to school, helps a frightened elementary schooler even though it means she won’t be able to engineer a “chance” meeting with Miyuki on the way; Miyuki offers some well-intentioned but terrible advice to his classmate who’s trying to figure out if a girl likes him.
All this comes together with Mamoru Hatakeyama’s brilliant direction. He caught my attention with Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju and held it with Record of Grancrest War (even if the show itself couldn’t). Here, it’s clear that his comedy chops are just as sharp as his drama and action ones. A scene that especially stood out was a game of Twenty Questions, framed as a Western-style quick-draw. While the manga had the game, the framing device was purely an invention of Hatakeyama’s. He elevates the already-solid material into something truly amazing.
If the first episode of Kaguya-sama didn’t win you over, try watching the next few episodes. Soon, it’ll trick you into confessing your love for it.
Dimension High School
Chiaki: It’s not great. It’s just not that great. Once you’re past the gimmick that the show is half live-action and half “2D,” you’re dealing with five somewhat-good-looking guys hamming it up in a high school setting. Even if you’re a fan of the actors or just desperate for pretty boys this season, the low-budget look of the show and its premise as a drama focused on brain teasers makes this a niche within a niche.
Sitting through 24 minutes a week is a slog. And while five of those minutes are dedicated to the brain teasers, they continue to be relatively inaccessible to anyone without a high school Japanese education, making this a tough sell for an English-speaking audience. If anything, this show would have been better served as a short.
The characters themselves aren’t bad people. None of them have proven to be problematic, per se; their only crime is that the acting is incredibly campy. The boys appear to be somewhat homoerotic or rooted in bromances both realized and unrequited, but their paper-thin characterization makes it very difficult to care about any of them.
The Promised Neverland
Caitlin: The third episode of The Promised Neverland is tough for me to talk about. Not because it’s particularly upsetting for me, but because it concerns the depiction of a black woman and, my friends, I am so damn white. So, the first thing I’m going to do is refer curious readers to Jackson Brown’s essay “Thoughts on The Promised Neverland and Black Women in Manga” to sum up the issues with how Sister Krone is portrayed.
The anime, unfortunately, does not fare much better. Most of the points Brown raises are still present, and the animation adds a swing to her hips and ferocity to her movement that further contributes to the “animalistic” connotations. It sucks! It takes away from what is an otherwise incredible series in a very serious way, playing into harmful stereotypes. I’m not going more into it because, like I said, it’s way out of my lane. As always, we encourage pitches.
Episode 3, which especially centers on Krone, makes it hard to focus on the things that the series has done well. Emma is a fantastic protagonist: physically strong, intelligent, intuitive, and empathetic in a way that’s both a strength and a weakness. She has the hot-blooded shounen spirit that drives many JUMP protagonists, but this comes from a desire to protect her loved ones, not a desire for power. She may not be calculating or have the same level of foresight as Norman or Ray, but she’s got plenty of strengths of her own.
The adaptation removes the internal monologues that marked the manga, somewhat obfuscating Emma’s intuitive intellect compared to Ray and Norman’s explanations. The anime does a great job with body language, expressing the terror of their world and their situation through heavy breathing and shaking hands, but I’ve noticed quite a few anime-only viewers come away with the impression that Emma is less capable or intelligent than the boys. Hopefully, the anime will soon be able to show that’s very much not the case.
Grimms Notes the Animation
Dee: I have a weakness for stories about stories, especially if they’re focused on prescribed roles and expected narrative paths. Grimms Notes is all of that, though I still can’t tell where it’s going with those ideas.
The protagonist Ex is “role-less,” a position that earns him ire from others and leaves him feeling lost about his purpose in life. However, it also means he’s capable of literally donning other roles (both masc- and femme-coded) to wield more power and agency than the people who do have assigned parts to play. It’s a fascinating concept, albeit one that’s undercut by our heroes’ focus on ensuring the Story Worlds follow their set narratives. Whether the show decides to challenge its premise or uphold it will make or break it, I suspect.
All of this is wrapped in an inoffensive action/fantasy that plays fast-and-loose with the fiction it’s drawing from. The main cast are archetypal but pleasant and their relaxed camaraderie makes for an easy (if not super-engrossing) watch. Also, the villain is Loki, because of course it is. Grimms Notes is thoroughly “fine,” all things considered…but dammit if those undercurrents don’t keep me coming back, hoping for more.
Vrai: In case you were wondering, this season’s MAPPA project is still downright gorgeous. Every episode is striking, whether it’s the smooth battle animation or the backgrounds that evoke classic sumi-e art.
Beyond that, it’s hard not to be struck every week by the fact that this is based on a manga from the ‘60s. The so-far episodic stories are competently told, but they’re hampered by the fact that decades of media have had the chance to build from Tezuka’s work.
The series’ handling of disability continues to be a sticking point. There’s a sense that Dororo wants to treat the topic respectfully, including several disabled background characters as part of the series’ preoccupation with the process of surviving and rebuilding after war and trauma. Episode two centers around a disguised monster whose evil is only sensed by the series’ blind characters—a well-meant metaphor that probably seemed a lot less cliché in the ‘60s (a topic a contributor plans to discuss in the future).
It’s not so great with women, either. So far, the only female characters to appear have been either helpless due to illness, an evil monster, or killed immediately.
It’s also unclear how the series is going to work out its pacing, given that Hyakkimaru has nine demons left to kill in about as many episodes. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for the story to breathe, which might end up blunting the effect of the series’ best moments: small, lingering scenes of people attempting to reconstruct their lives in the wake of war.
Boogiepop and Others
Although Boogiepop is significantly further along than most shows, we’ve opted to keep our review to the first three episodes.
Caitlin: Well, that was a mess. The third episode of Boogiepop and Others wraps up the first arc, dispensing of the shifting perspectives and creeping sense of wrongness in favor of a slugfest that sidelines all the female characters and has Boogiepop barely show up until the end. After enjoying the first two episodes, the third one bored me to near tears. I barely remember it, despite only watching it last night!
Stories that involve a lot of violence against women require a balancing act, and the final episode of this first arc throws that balance way off. While the cast is heavily weighted in favor of female characters, few of them participate meaningfully in the story’s resolution. Instead, they end up sliced open and dismembered for the audience, but ultimately incapable of defending themselves.
Nagi’s removal is particularly galling—although she survives and it’s hinted that she’s extremely powerful (Boogiepop calls her “Fire Witch”), she’s quickly dispatched by a dirtbag with a box-cutter. The camera takes great glee in that as well, showing the slitting of her throat multiple times, including an extreme closeup.
Maybe Nagi will have more to do in future arcs, but I’m not feeling particularly inclined to keep watching Boogiepop and Others after the way they handled this first one. Perhaps if it were paced better, I could look past its failings more easily.
The Price of Smiles
Vrai: I can’t quite put my finger on what keeps me coming back to Price of Smiles every week. It’s still fairly boilerplate in many ways: here a pathos-inducing war orphan, there a musing on the vast difference between being in the throne room and on the battlefield, everywhere a grim face about things that Must Be Done.
And yet, its execution continually elevates it. The series doesn’t shy away from blood, but it’s also not spraying gouts of the red stuff all over the battlefield, giving the violence a blunt mundanity. The characters’ reactions have humanity, and the potential melodrama of certain scenes is treated with a light touch. And it helps that it looks pretty darn slick, too (though I could do without the weird shininess on Yuki’s design).
Or maybe I’m just impressed that as of episode three, a huge chunk of the scenes in the opening theme are a blatantly impossible lie. The unblinking audacity of that move is one of the boldest in this sleepy season.
The Magnificent KOTOBUKI
Dee: KOTOBUKI seems like it’s running at 1.5 times speed, and I can’t decide how to feel about that. On the one hand, the rapid-fire, almost manzai-style dialogue neatly matches the rat-a-tat rhythm of the aerial battles. But on the other, I wish the show would give the character interactions a few moments to land instead of breathlessly whisking us away to the next snappy back-and-forth.
Despite my slight exhaustion at its pacing, KOTOBUKI still places high on my list of winter anime. It continues to blend distinct female characters quipping at each other with engaging, technically ambitious action scenes. There are a few impractical outfits (and I cannot fathom why anyone would want to sleep in a bra at all, never mind a frilly one), but the camera doesn’t leer, and it’s offset by the majority of the show being about Women Being Good At Their Jobs.
As one should expect from a Mizushima/Yokote project, there’s also some sneakily clever humor and commentary laced throughout the story. The ladies deal with casual sexism everywhere they go; a female politician faces fierce opposition to her plan to reduce crime by giving the pirates jobs; and Elite Industries hilariously blurs the line between “thieving criminals” and “legitimate corporation.”
While I do hope the series takes some time to slow down and flesh out its cast, overall I’m having a real fun time with this one and excited to see where it takes its story. KOTOBUKI has created a big frontier world with loads of potential, and I look forward to exploring it more.