In general, I consider 2018 an underwhelming year. It sits there as the worst year of this decade for me. There are only three shows that crack the my Top 50 of the Decade, which is the lowest in any year. It has some solid shows, but none that breaks out as a modern classic. I suspect 2018 will be remembered as the year where Netflix original anime storms the mainstream. While I do have some reservations towards its models (never a fan of releasing the whole batch in one go, and I feel Netflix originals are a tad bit too retro, not in a good way), they do take risks and any platform that brings more exposure to anime is always welcome. 2018 is also a really strong year for comedy. Comedy that is plain silly (Grand Blue), comedy that makes you cry (Anzumatsuri), anti-humor comedy (Pop Team Epic)… this year has it all.
Most Popular Show of 2018: Violet Evergarden
I left the show feeling a bit torn about it. On one hand, the production is top notch and when the show hits right, it sweeps you right away. On the other hand, I don’t buy much of Violet’s central conflicts and the show has a tendency to go over-soapiness and try to explain too much, which I was never fond of. To be fair, Violet Evergarden has never known for its subtlety, its intent is always to pull as many punches as possible. Violet Evergarden, therefore, is at its strongest when it uses Violet as an observer, to put her as a background for side characters with their own struggles to find ways to overcome. When she stays in the spotlight, however, the amount of predictable development and cheesy moments always overwhelm the show’s own emotions. All in all, Violet Evergarden is a roller coaster of emotions, in more ways than one. It either sweeps you away with its grandeur approach, or it doesn’t (like myself). Despite my grumpy Violet Evergarden is still worth a watch, if only for the beautiful CG-animated mechanical hands of Violet.
Most Underrated Show: Lupin III: Part 5
Lupin the Third has always been a popular franchise back to the old days, and usually these reboots are more about sustaining the fan-base rather than pushing the envelope to the franchise well-worn formula. So imagine my pleasant surprise to find this Part 5 not only keeps the same adventurous spirit of its roots, but also updating the franchise to the present day with the modern technology and cyber-centric heist. The greatest achievement of this new franchise is that both Lupin the character and Lupin the series feel right at home with this updated modern setting where everybody uses digital surveillance from smartphone apps and where he uses advanced tech for his own advantage, and the show manages to address a lot of our real world. My only issue is the cartoonish way Lupin and Mine Fujiko act. It’s for comic relief I’m sure but the show could do it better than this. Moreover, Lupin III part 5 never forgets to have fun and proves why this franchise is still relevant today after 50 years since its inception.
Honorable Mention #1: Hinamatsuri
Hinamatsuri starts with a simple premise: a girl with supernatural power unexpectedly drops into the house of a yakuza, hilarity ensues. This concept sums up very well the source humors of Hinamatsuri. We have seemingly stock characters at first, put them into some bizarre situations where they are out of their comfort zone, and observe how they react. As such, Hinamatsuri is at its best when it turns these absurd events into unpredictable directions, and when the show uses these absurd elements to flesh out the characters. One of Hinamatsuri’s best assets has always been a strong and memorable cast, especially from the younger ones. Hitomi and Anzu, in particular, make one hell of an impression. Some segments just are down right heart-warming that they ring sad and sweet in equal measure. Hinamatsuri has its own voice and visual quirks. That alone makes it a far better show than your average anime crop.
Honorable Mention #2: Aggressive Retsuko
It’s a bit of a shame that Aggressive Retsuko was initially placed at #10 of the year but it got pulled out in this update. That doesn’t mean I found it less poignant this time around, Aggretsuko remains a straight-up solid show through and through. What it resonates with me the most, apart from how relatable it is, is its atmosphere. It almost feels like we are watching the daily struggles of one of our close friends. The humor is grounded simply because they never make light of her issues. Meeting expectations, enduring horrible colleagues and bosses, and striving for an escape although she’s never quite sure what to do next, they are all rooted in reality, yet somehow it’s funny and sincere and has lots of heart.
Honorable Mention #3: Megalobox
Another show that got cut off from the top 10 in this update (you will see this a lot going through the yearly lists – my preference, after all, is constantly evolving – or deteriorating, depending on how you look at it). Megalobox is a throwback anime that resembles the old era. Its downgraded frame rate and its bold and ugly background designs more than fit with the seedy underground world of Megalobox. With Junk Dog being an underdog started from scratch it’s hard not to root for him in his quest to become number one. While the focus is more about his progression than the sports itself, the show nails it on showcasing a true spirit of sports in its third arc as Junk Dog and Yuri want to fight square and fair. The ending is a massive letdown as it backs off from all the seeds it had been laid out for the whole season, but its strengths are hard to ignore. It’s cool and it feels damn good.
The Top 10
10. A Place Further than the Universe
Cute girls doing cute things is a genre that has been done to death at this point. It takes a standout concept or a deeper narrative to make one stand out from this crowded pack. Enters Sora Yori, an original show from Madhouse that has both of these. The show’s concept, after all, is about a group of high school girls making their trip to Antarctica, also known as the place further than the universe. It’s about experiencing life to the fullest and making friends who share the same interest in the process. The “friendship” bits can be contrived at times, but the drama in this series is done quite well, as it always gives a satisfying emotional response to the conflicts it creates. The girls make up a great central cast for us to follow. All 4 of the girls have different personalities, they have their own goals and their own backstories, and they bounce off extremely well. What Sora Yori also sells us is the way they frame this trip as a self-discovery, as a way to embrace the youth to their heart’s content. In addition, the show spends a great deal of time focusing on several aspects of “friendship” conflicts. Mari’s drama with her best friend, Megumi, for example, cuts unexpectedly and it cuts deep. All in all, Sora Yori features an inspirational story with some excellent drama with a relatable set of characters, thus it’s more than earned its place here.
9. Planet With
In a year full of decent original shows (Gridman, Revue Starlight, Sora Yori, Hisone to Masotan just to name a few), Planet With still earned its place as my pick for the most original show. Satoshi Mizukami is one of the most unsung heroes of the manga industry and Planet With serves as his first script exclusively for anime, and I can’t help but feel impressed by how layered his thematic ideas and story progression he can cramp to a 12-episode show. Planet With has the epic feeling of a forty-fifty episodes show and yet, it doesn’t feel rushed or anything condensing all his ideas into a 1-cour. Each episode has its own arc as it moves the story in a significant direction and yet all these “arcs” build up in a grand scheme of things. I’m not too fond of the mediocre CG but that’s a small price to pay. Planet With is a highly original action mecha series that wraps itself up with a bang and it certainly gives my head spinning with all the twists and turns, but in a good way.
8. Bloom into You
Bloom into You is yuri show but it operates differently than your regular yuri show. It’s slow-burn, it centres on a pair of characters that I still find hard to relate with. It’s about a relationship that passes its friendship state but is not quite there yet for romance. In order words, it’s full of uncertainties but Bloom into You perfectly captures the emotional confusion from its characters. Backed by a strong supporting cast and really solid cinematography that evokes the right feeling at the right moments, this romance story progresses gradually and gracefully, and in it both Yuu and Nanami both figuring out who they are and their true feelings for each other. Bloom into You is a definitive show about first love.
7. Run with the Wind
From the staff of Haikyuu based on the actual novel of Fune wo Amu author, Run with the Wind meets its tower-high expectation, and then some, with an inspirational, compelling central story boasted by a strong cast across the board. Its biggest weapon is not about the sports itself, but about the development of each team member from beginning towards the end, and the chemistry between them, how they inspire and influence each other to self-improve and to literally run along each other. The entire cast of 10 members each have to overcome their own hurdles, and the final relay marathon race allows them the spotlight to shine and reflect how much they’ve grown. It helps that the drama was well executed and the soundtrack elevates the materials. Out of all the shows airing this year, Run With the WInd is the most solid in its performance, in more ways than one.
6. Devilman Crybaby
Devilman Crybaby is my least favorite of Yuusa’s joints, but there’s no denying that Devilman Crybaby roars the loudest as 2018 ends. It was the very first show that started (and ended) in 2018 thanks to Netflix, it’s the most popular Netflix-original anime show and it oozes with hyper-sex and violence. It comes as no surprise, considered all the personnel involved, that this show is incredibly divisive amongst watchers. Devilman Crybaby is extreme. It has an experimental art style, extreme gore and senseless nudity and sexuality and a somewhat wonky plot with many elements shock the audience just for the sake of provocation, yet at the same time it offers one of the most visceral experience in anime, and it aroses countless symbolic debates of the story’s motifs from the viewers. For better or for worse, Devilman Crybaby certainly leaves its marks boldly.
5. Asobi Asobase
In a year where comedy shows gain an unexpected strong showing, somehow a show about 3 cute girls and their pass-timer club emerges as one of the best comedies around. It helps that we were in for some trolling even before the series starts. Asobi Asobase is a prime example of a huge disparity between “what the shows are selling us” and “what it is actually about”, and for all the better of it. Asobi Asobase’s main source of humor comes from how it introduces the mundane situation, then escalates it and flips the situation over to the most absurd level, usually with the expense of our trio. The jokes often land due to how unpredictable and crass it can get, and it benefits from a bombastic chemistry between the trio, along with the rest of the cast. While all the jokes are built in an absurdist manner, Asobi Asobase makes it ten times better with all the crazy reaction shots from the girls. The degraded reactions consistently betray their first cute appearance, making it super hilarious in the delivery. Admittedly, some gags are weaker the others and sometimes it can cross the line between crassly enjoyable and mean-spiritedness (the portrayal of Olivia’s brother nerdiness for example) but that’s the thing because Asobi Asobase is excel at taking us outside of the comfort zone that CGDCT genre often doesn’t dare to try.
4. Thunderbolt Fantasy 2
If anyone has been familiar with the first season of Thunderbolt Fantasy, you’d find yourself a lot to enjoy in this second installment. Served as a sequel, but not a direct continuation to the first, viewers don’t need the knowledge of the original in order to enjoy this ride. Thunderbolt 2 carries many trademarks that make this show such an install success since it came out: the puppetry technique makes it an unique viewing experience amongst anime fandom; the larger the life characters whose characters are the central protagonist in their own stories; the camp value of cheesy lines and back-and-forth conversations; and the somewhat unpredictableness of the plot. It serves as an entertaining and engaging ride on its own right, but to be fair, it’s pale compared to the freshness of the first season. Witty, refreshing, never take itself seriously and always have the right amount of campiness and flashiness, puppets are here to stay.
3. Mahou Shoujo Revue Starlight
Revue Starlight is inspired by the visual motifs from Ikuhara’s works (which comes as no surprise given the director Tomohiro Furukawa worked with Ikuhara during Penguindrum) and it has some of the best visual storytelling this year has to offer. Apart from the stage duels that have a lot of interesting shot angles and well-choreographed battle sequences, I am even more impressed when it comes to the show’s mundane slice of life part. It’s one of the rare shows where the visual is expertly crafted so that even if you turn off the audio and subtitles, just looking at what unfolds on-screen will give you a good idea of the context. As Revue Starlight is a multimedia project between an anime and a musical stage, the music also serves as another strength to this show. Moreover, the narrative also revolves around stage and is constructed like one. The cast is diverse and while I feel that some of them aren’t used to their full potential, there is still some solid chemistry and some gripping drama to enjoy. The Banana Arc stands out for me in that regard.
In the same spirits with Revue Starlight above, Gridman is a bold anime with an eye for visual execution. GRIDMAN is a show of two halves, one half implies more “Anno’s school” of static, lingering shots, the other it goes all out with dynamic climax battle scenes. The lingering approach gives the audience an offbeat and surreal sense, that what happening on-screen isn’t necessarily real, which in turn fits neatly to the reveal later on. What I’m impressed the most about its visual framing however, is how it uses the distance between the characters to enhance their chemistry or depict the characters’ state of mind. Sequences where Rikka and Shou hole up in their own misery after Gridman’s defeat through the smart use of mirror reflection, or the moments where Akane jumps off the crane in episode 9. While personally I’m never that fond of Trigger’s narrative nonsense, this show is up there as my favorite Trigger show and could very well be their best.
1. Koi wa Ameagari no You ni
After the Rain is a show that, despite its tricky premise of a teenage girl falling in love with a much older man, succeeds in drawing a fine line between romance and drama, and boasts two of the most intimately portrayed anime characters in years. It is nuanced and thoughtful in its depiction of two adrift individuals who find connection to each other, not through romance, but in how their bond helps them rediscover their passion in life. Akira’s inner feelings of first crush are smartly conveyed through terrific visual storytelling, and Kondou’s monologues emphasises on reflections of lost opportunity. Moreover, Akira and Kondou’s chemistry is solid enough that everytime they share their screen together they bounce off to create something special. The visual touch-up that Studio Wit polished on previous projects does a magnificent job in this show, and every single shot is handled with nuance and attention to detail. This solid material is further elevated by the understated and strong visual storytelling, standout color palette and one of the best soundtracks in recent years. While I’d love for the conclusion to be more impactful, this show remains one of the most intimate, sensitive – and ultimately – complex portrayals of bonding, and human relationships. After the Rain is pretty much excellent as a whole package.