The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

2016: A Year in Review

Some opinions are controversial. Some opinions take mountains of evidence and hour-long speeches to defend. But I don’t think anyone here will contend this statement. 2016 was a bomb. More accurately it was a torpedo, launching out with promise before taking everyone with it to a watery grave. I could wax on about the general pessimism this year has brought about for days. But I won’t. The lows may have hit harder than normal, but don’t think that means there were no pearls to glean from beneath the deep. In such a sea of disappointments, I daresay, the highs haven’t been higher in quite some time. Despite a flurry of unimpressive sequels ala Macross and Hibike! Euphonium, we also saw more than worthy continuations with Haikyuu S3 and Ace of Diamond S2. Hell, even exceptional shows like Hai to Gensou no Grimgar failed to make our annual list, there was so much to rave about. So whatever poison you take to wipe 2016 from your memory, make sure not to forget these standout titles.
Introduction by: Kavik Ryx

your name.My Hero Academia

AC on: your name.
Shinkai Makoto has established himself as a romanticist for aesthetics. Be it enchanting views of clouds and skylines, or picturesque snapshots of real-life sceneries, he always vividly animates his imagination and artistically breathes life into his work. However, some people have noticed how his productions always lack good storytelling, and I agree. I waited for the day Shinkai successfully does it, and that day eventually arrived in the form of your name. Whilst it boasts his trademark artistic flair, it also tells a larger-than-life love story that spans through time and space. Perfectly balancing moments of lightheartedness and sentimentality, we witness high school students Taki and Mizuha’s peculiar experiences which are amusing at first but gradually descends into something more foreboding. The emphasis on storytelling is an immensely welcoming change, and a huge risk taken by Shinkai that paid off very well. Riding on the time travel wave that is becoming a recurring plot device in recent years, your name is an extravaganza that essentially defines the year.

The TIF on: Re:ZERO -Starting Life in Another World
At times deconstructive, at times playing it straight, and at times the playground of an author with a secure case of sadism, Re: Zero brings quite a bit to a tired isekai genre table while still feeling familiar, and safe, enough not to freak out too many otaku. The biggest strength of this one comes from the willingness of the author to force his characters to go through hardships before getting to their just rewards. Nothing comes easily to the main character, even with his ability to reset to arbitrary “spawn” points, and his weaknesses as a hero bring trouble not only to himself but to the people he grows to care about over the course of the series.  In this way, the audience is forced to suffer as well, gripped by tension and a sense of dread that anything can happen to our beloved characters, and that the happy ending so common in fairy tales may not ever come at all.

editorial2016year_ajinSlashe on: Ajin
After an enjoyable 24 episodes, Ajin closes with a mediocre finale, with a deus ex machina climax and a sequel-bait epilogue. However, it’s the journey that makes the story, and the experience is certainly a thrilling one, with twists and turns that are neither cliched nor predictable. Ajin asks the question “how would people react to gods among us?”, delivering the premise with a grim reality that speaks true to life. The dichotomy between how the two main characters wrestle with their immortality is fascinating – Nagai seeks a life of peace and quiet, of which he fights desperately for, whereas Satou fights because… how boring would life be otherwise? While the anime original ending falls flat, it leaves me hopeful for a further telling at a later date, should 2017 somehow prove to be a brighter year. 

Kavik Ryx on: ERASED
Sometimes the line between workmanship and artistry is atoms thick. ERASED could have been a perfectly serviceable anime; it’s plot of a man quantum leaping into his childhood self to prevent a murder has potential enough as is. But director Itou Tomohiko has taken what would otherwise be a visually static series and has imbued it with a subtle yet haunting pathos through the simplest of techniques. Without much motion, the animation of ERASED takes the viewer through the whole emotional spectrum from innocence rediscovered to learned helplessness in the face of horrific abuse. The transitions in this show, from calm, to spine tingling tension, to heartwarming tenderness, and back to tension, is unassuming and every moment is for the better because of it. I have little doubt that it will be ERASED by which future anime thrillers are judged.

editorial2016year_yurioniceKaikyaku on: Yuri!! On Ice
This series has been a smash hit of the fall season, and with good reason. Director Yamamoto Sayo brings together the best elements of a successful sports series and a charming romance. With a focus on men’s figure skating, the series is able to explore several international settings and introduce a diverse cast of skaters from different backgrounds. Each character has a story to tell and something to prove, whether to themselves or even their countries. The performances are unique and entrancing, coupled with some generally stellar animation. Beyond the competitions, we also get to watch the relationship between the titular Yuri and his all-star coach Victor grow and develop into something really special. If anything, Yuri!! On Ice tries to do too much in its twelve episodes, but what it does manage is engaging, exciting and most importantly, entertaining.

Reckoner on: The Boy and the Beast
Mamoru Hosoda is a household director name like Makoto Shinkai and until Your Name’s recent, immense success, he was thought of to be the more likely candidate in the anime industry to get close to replacing Miyazaki in stature. Like other Hosoda films, The Boy and the Beast plays around a lot with the theme of family and in a sense, the movie almost plays as a companion piece to Hosoda’s previous movie Wolf Children. If Wolf Children could be said to be about motherhood, then The Boy and the Beast is more about fatherhood. The main character Ren meets the beast Kumatetsu who decides to take Ren as his pupil and together they learn to grow together in a pseudo adoptive father-child relationship. Nothing that Hosoda does here is necessarily all that original on its own, but his ability to weave together several ideas together into a more unique experience is exquisite. The Boy and the Beast is not without some problems, particularly in pacing, but it is incredibly poignant and a simply a beautiful movie to just look at. Furthermore, it is a movie you can show literally anyone, yes even your own parents who may think anime is nothing but Pokemon, and they manage to get something out of it. It is that kind of transcendent quality in anime that we desperately need more of in the industry.

AC on: Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
Rakugo is not merely Japanese comical storytelling. At its finest, it’s an experience that immerses the audience into a world where characters of fiction come to life. Using wit and skills, the storyteller entertains the audience with tales that range from comic to tragic. And in truth, that is exactly Rakugo Shinju is about. Rakugo is the theme that bundles up the core story: the brotherhood between Kikuhiko and Sukeroku, a bond that goes beyond flesh and blood. Like a brilliant rakugo performance, the story transports the audience into a different olden world and explores the bittersweet fates of a small cast. Perhaps the most praiseworthy feature is the amazing seiyuu work showcased both on and offstage in the show, with Hayashibara Megumi and Ishida Akira offering their best performances in recent memory. Rakugo Shinju completely flew under my radar, and after making time to watch this before the year ends, I’m surprised to realize how underrated this show is. If I can nominate a dark horse of 2016, this is definitely it.

editorial2016year_fune-wo-amu2Slashe on: The Great Passage
I’m eternally grateful to Noitamina, for its many progeny that would not have seen the light of day under normal circumstances. Fune wo Amu is exactly what it appears to be – a chronicle of people making a dictionary from scratch, including all the passions and problems that it brings. While it’s disappointing that the series doesn’t have any deeper drama or narrative arc to delve into, it keeps things true to life by remembering the little things, from how the characters carry themselves, to the little ticks in their accent. These are people, coming together to collect words, because words are important, and words connect us with each other and the world. And it’s marvelous that we get to see how the sausage is made.

Reckoner on: Food Wars! The Second Plate
Let’s be real here, Shokugeki no Soma is a dumb show and we all are the happier for it. With preposterous cooking sequences and ridiculous foodgasms, JC Staff is able to fill this anime with an irresistibly engaging force. Essentially a shounen battle manga with cooking, Shokugeki no Souma has access to infinite possibilities with all of humanity’s recipes at its disposal. Every cooking battle is able to be a uniquely entertaining in its own right and may even inspire you to replicate its recipes. With its colorful cast, Shokugeki no Soma’s second season continues to entertain on even grander stages and is easily one of the more fun shows to watch of the last two years.

Kaikyaku on: March comes in like a lion
Though only halfway through its run, Sangatsu no Lion has already demonstrated its a series with an impact. Professional Shogi player Rei’s struggles with his talent, unsure if it is a blessing or a burden. His challenges with depression and finding purpose will resonate with many who have felt like they are floating or, at times, even drowning. This is a series that knows how to capture emotion through a combination of voice acting, artistic direction and the use of environments, though the visual metaphors are sometimes a tad overdone and the comedy is often awkward. The expectations will be high for the second half of the series in the new year.

editorial2016year_flipflappersThe TIF on: Flip Flappers
When it comes to original anime it is no secret that I have often been more lenient in criticism when a show doesn’t deserve it. Thankfully, Flip Flappers doesn’t require that I pull punches, because I have few to give. First time director Oshiyama Kiyotaka takes first time concept author Ayana Yuniko’s script, and delivers a colorful, frenetic, and charming show that delves into the surreal and the symbolic as it takes a different approach to a “magical girl” show. The animation is simplistic, which allows the animators to sakuga the hell out of each episode, with a very right pastel color palette, keeping with the whimsical tone of the script. The acting is superb, with M A O (Ichimichi Mao) doing some fantastic work in one episode and showing a wide range of talents that have proven her strong push towards leading roles is well deserved. A lot of concern was raised when Ayana left the show after episode 6 for unknown reasons, but the rest of the crew was talented enough to carry this fun show to a satisfying end.

AC on: My Hero Academia
My Hero Academia embodies everything about the shounen genre. Midoriya is your constantly self-doubting but nobly selfless hero. All Might is the idol Midoriya looks up to but holds a grave secret that no one should know about. Fiery Bakugo adopts the role of Midoriya’s rival/childhood friend while Uraraka stars as Midoriya’s love interest. And to top it all off, there are the bad guys with a nefarious common goal. Passionate characters, intense rivalry, cool superpowers, good versus evil, and themes of self-belief and chasing dreams form the backbone of shounen, but what makes My Hero Academia a little more special than others is its sheer amount of heart. Midoriya’s pure determination in helping people despite knowing his limitations garners admiration, while Bakugo’s utter competitiveness draws intrigue. The passion of each character is portrayed at its highest intensity during fight scenes, all of which are exhilarating. This show won my heart as one that perfectly exemplifies the essence of its genre.

Kavik Ryx on: Flying Witch
You go home after a stressful day. You put on a bath and afterward have a cup of tea. Following a few sips a friend shows up out of the blue with a cake that tastes like it was baked by angels. As you take the first bite of the delectable dessert, your friend tells you a story so unbelievable that you slam on your plate edge and launch the cake into your face. After a good chuckle, you take a second piece. This is Flying Witch in a nutshell. This is a series that finds charm in the banal and catches one off guard with one of the most innocent portrayals of magic to grace anime. Selling the wonder is the fact that much of the show is told through the unused eyes of a child. The success of any given joke, surprise, or moment of reflection is too often dependent on the viewpoint character in each vignette, which means that Flying Witch doesn’t always work. But when it does, it’s almost sublime.

editorial2016year_anthemoftheheartReckoner on: Anthem of the Heart
Anthem of the Heart reunites famed director Tatsuyuki Nagai and writer Mari Okada, along with the rest of the staff that made Ano Hana. The staff had one goal in mind: to create an anime that fans of Ano Hana could enjoy and on that note I would definitely say they succeeded. Anthem of the Heart is not quite as dramatic as Ano Hana, but it also mostly a drama centered around teenagers in highschool with higher emotional stakes in play. Clearly Nagai seems to be a sort of cure for Okada’s worse vices in writing as their pairing consistently produces quality anime and this one is well worth watching.

The TIF on: Girlish Number
Is Watari Wataru the leading contemporary LN author of our time? In OreGairu, Watari Wataru brilliantly explored the less rosy side of high school based romantic comedies, sporting a main character (read: mouthpiece) whose cynicism forced the audience to realize just how silly this genre really is.  In Girlish Number, the cynicism runs amok from every nook and cranny, and this time his ire is directed at the anime industry at large and seiyuu culture.  If Shirobako was a triumphant fistbump to the industry, Girlish Number is a raised middle finger.  Through the characters, the author makes it clear that he doesn’t care for how the business is run.  The dialogue drips with sarcasm with allusions to real events, employees are given jobs or roles well outside their levels of talent or expertise, an anime is produced with little regard to the original author’s wishes, budget problems crop up thanks to incompetence, fans are shown to be fair-weather and entitled, and so on.  Like OreGairu, it isn’t all bad, and the strength of the interactions of the characters make this feel more like a slice of life drama than a scathing rebuke, but the rebuke is clearly there.

ACIt seems customary to say how the current year’s anime offerings is worse than the last. Even I thought so too when I looked back at what I’ve watched for the past twelve months. But after careful retrospection, I have to retract my original thoughts and claim how maybe this wasn’t a bad year after all. Shows like Rakugo Shinju and Re:Zero turned out to be surprisingly amazing, and the true potential of the currently airing 3-gatsu no Lion is yet to be revealed. However, for this year, my crown goes to your name. Visually mesmerizing and emotionally captivating, Shinkai’s latest movie is a spectacle that made waves in the anime community. Since his first cult classic Voices of a Distant Star, he has been continually improving his craft and your name is the result of his 14 years worth of perseverance. His love and dedication are instilled in every minute of the movie, and its stellar performance at the box office is a testament of its sheer quality.

The TIF: Unfortunately, as of this writing, I have not seen the critically acclaimed your name. nor the Kyoto Animation adaptation of Koe no Katachi, so if this “best of” section feels light, that’s because 2016 did a piss poor job of offering me anything that was worth a shit to consider for our highest honor.  While the Spring and Summer offerings were, at best, moderately good, the year was thankfully bookended by the two best shows in Winter and Fall: ERASED and Flip Flappers.  The former show goes above and beyond with superb direction and execution to create a legitimately tense situation while still being explorative in themes, and the latter is energetic, creative, and entertaining with strong work by all phases of production.  However, I didn’t like ERASED’s inevitably pedestrian plot which brought it down a peg, while Filp Flappers stayed weird, fun, and held up all the way to the end.  Flip Flappers is, therefore, the best anime of 2016.

Slashe: 2016 has been disappointing to say the least, bringing few solid series and no memorable stand-outs, while granting Sangatsu no Lion like a twisted wish. Under SHAFT‘s butchering, sound effects are needlessly voice acted, painful accentuating all of Umino sensei’s unfunny humour, creating a travesty that the general audience celebrates. That aside, I need to mention Shinkai‘s your name., which came out of nowhere to raid our wallets and hearts. In the end, pushing past faithfuls like Natsume Yuujinchou Go, dramas like Orange, and surprises like Shounen Maid, Erased stands as my pick of the year. Time travel has always been a done-to-death narrative device, but Erased manages to shine a new light on it, exploring the evils hidden in plain sight in a captivating and heart-breaking journey, all within a short 12 episodes.

Reckoner: If you thought the anime world would be left out of this incredibly crappy 2016 then you are wrong. The industry feels close to out of new ideas for television and seems complete unable to produce quality original anime. The most notable anime have either been movies or sequels, and I am hard pressed to pick more than a handful of shows I would fine worthy of a recommendation. So having not seen Shinkai’s your name., there really is only one option that would qualify as anime of the year for me and that is Re: Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu. No other anime managed to excite me week after week as much as Re:Zero and Studio Whitefox’s passionate efforts with the production of the show were truly admirable. While Re:Zero may not necessarily have a valuable message at the end of the day, it does have excellent character development and proves thoroughly gripping throughout. Additionally, it is not often that a show galvanizes the anime community by receiving both critical acclaim and immense popularity among your everyday fan. Re:Zero is definitely an entertainment experience that would hold up in any year and is well worth your time.

Kavik Ryx: Even in a year like this, I find myself waffling over what series I feel stood above all others. All I know for certain is that whatever I choose will be a work that succeeded in pushing the limits of animation and deals with childhood rediscovered.  Strictly speaking, ERASED is not just one of the best anime of 2016, it is one of the best series of the decade. And while it is of the highest caliber, there is one show that deserves more recognition. For me comparing my favorite anime of 2016 is like comparing Goya with Picasso. It’s a matter of subjectivity. So as I would take Guernica over La Maja, so do I choose Flip Flappers for this year’s standout anime. Not only did this series create a world that could only could only be expressed in animation, and not only was it one of unbridled escapism, but it was one which turned itself back onto the viewer to reveal unassigned depth and wonder.

Kaikyaku: This year had a number of gems that will certainly rank amongst my favourites. Haikyuu!! turned in a fantastic third season. Yuri!! On Ice was a joy to watch with its great optimism and likeable characters and I certainly count myself amongst those hoping for a second season. But I have to give my AOTY nod to a series that is already set to return in 2017. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju was a real treat that explored fascinating and complex characters through a beautiful traditional Japanese art form. The excellent direction, voice acting and writing made this series stand out as not only the best of 2016, but one of the best anime has to offer.

With no one series dominating our picks, it’s clear there was something for everyone in 2016. Whether drama, fantasy, mystery or humour, this year’s best had something intriguing, challenging or at least entertaining to offer, proof that even in less than stellar years, there are things worth celebrating. Let’s hope for the same or better in 2017!
Conclusion by: Kaikyaku

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