2016 Has Been an Exceptional Year for Anime

Them salty sweat-palmed geeks in your life are hiding a secret. You ever catch ’em in a daze, some moment of somber reflection, all glassy eyes and middle distance staring, pulled from their present reality by the hook of some existential question? What they’re thinkin’ is, “What was the best year in anime?”

If the universe meets it entropical fate ahead of schedule, blame just how much of the heat was expended arguing this infinitesimal point. I got two notions: the shows I’d consider modern classics for their value as evidence that anime is more than fodder for sex pests and boy children mostly came out in 2011-2012, but on the other hand, Digibro makes a compelling case here for the supremacy of 2007.

That video is the most concise summary of how anime has developed over the past 20 years, but right now I only care about the last five. Steins;Gate, Psycho-Pass, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Shinsekai Yori — these all came out between 2011 and 2012 and they are some of the most gripping examples of storytelling, anime or no, I could offer anyone. 2013 gave us Attack on Titan, Kyoukai no Kanata, and Kill la Kill. 2014 had JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders, Mekaku City Actors, Fate/stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works, Shingeki no Bahamut: Genesis, and Hanamonogatari. 2015 had Kekkai Sensen, Hibike! Euphonium, Owarimonogatari… and uh, new Digimon.

I liked a lot of those shows, but even besides most of them being sequels, none of them offer the degree of originality or subversion on show in the series I mentioned from 2011 and ’12. 2016 put forward some strong contenders, though.

Let’s get Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress out of the way first. Kabaneri is Attack on Titan: The Walking Dead Edition. It’s directed and produced by the same people (Tetsuro Araki and Wit Studio respectively) and the plot should sound familiar: Monsters nobody knows a thing about have driven humanity back into walled enclaves and it’s up to a shouty male protag with the same powers as the monsters to save the world. Unlike Attack on Titan, Kabaneri leans more heavily on survival horror: all of the characters are displaced, having to live on their giant train as it moves from walled city to walled city in search of true sanctuary, and never finding it. If they stop, they might die. If they trust too many people, they might die. These are intriguing ideas presented with at least half of a strong cast: a damsel princess who grows with the responsibility she’s thrust into, her jock bodyguard who goes against trope and smartens up, the tuff-as-guts train driver who nevertheless plays fairly neutral.

It would be all too easy to use these archetypes to cut yet another stale batch, but their characterisation is shown so much more than it’s explicitly told that you have enough room to infer depth. But between shouty shooty boy and his porcelain murder doll secondary, the leads, as Mr Levene says, are weak. They’re the pendulous anchor determined to pull this thing down in spite of the gorgeous direction and sound design. Kabaneri is unlikely to stoke any theses on its main themes, but as a follow-up to Attack on Titan it does what Kill la Kill managed with Gurren Lagann: hits similar notes re-presented in a new arrangement, and comes off as slick as a mainstream series should.

If Kabaneri is like the Walking Dead, Mayoiga’s closest network TV analogue is obvious: LOST. The parallels are striking, although Mayoiga plays things more extreme from the get. An ensemble cast from all walks join a bus tour to a fabled lost village where they can leave the rest of the world behind, and throughout the season we’re treated to flashbacks and exposition which reveal their various life-ruining humiliations. One guy staked his career on a business move that went south, one kid grew up with an emotionally abusive mum, another was fleeing murder charges. Only when they get there, the village is deserted with signs everyone had recently up and gone, and there’s a rumbling in the forest nobody can quite grasp. Having seen LOST, the revelation of what exactly is Out There is foreseeable, but that’s not the thrust here.

Instead, the series spends its time pondering the common fantasy of escaping a civilisation fraught with interpersonal conflict and how it can only be reconciled through confrontation: you can run, but you can’t hide. The mystery is played pretty decent, and how much you appreciate the subtler stories told here might come down to your tolerance for the more outlandish characters, like murder-happy teens and the lecherous tour leader, but there’s a lot to be captivated by. The parental stuff got me hardest: whether it was the bus driver yearning to see his daughter again, another daughter trying to save her father, or MC-kun and his struggle to live in the shadow cast by his tormented mother, there’s realism enough at the heart of this thing, and although it falls into typical tropedom in moments, the message at its conclusion — not in a dissimilar vein to the one at the end of Evangelion — lands hard.

Maybe the most promising original from this year, though, is Re:Zero. Now half way through its run, the last couple episodes have taunted at just how good this already surprising series could get. First you meet Subaru, a post-modern take on the NEET who’s sucked into, ostensibly, a video game world. He wakes up in fantasyland apparently having seen your Sword Art Onlines and Log Horizons and knows that he’s the outsider from our world plunked into a magical realm, and therefore probably destined to play a critical role in its legend. Early gags involve him realising he’d reached the moment where he unleashes his secret, heretofore-unknown magical power to save someone in distress, only to land on his dick like the mortal fool he is. But they do away with this quick, and that’s one of the series early strengths: unlike SAO and Log Horizon, Re:Zero wastes no time on the exposition to catch the characters up to the viewer. There’s no “Where are we? How do we operate in this strange land? What are the rules?” — questions which are tedious for us to watch because they’ve been answered in the 25 word blurb on the box before we ever hit play. In Re:Zero, the world is established, its stakes are set, and we dive in.

As it turns out, Subaru does have a magic power: when he dies, he respawns in the recent past at a kind of checkpoint. The impetus for the story comes when in his first life, he’s robbed and then nearly killed by some thugs, only to be saved by the half-elf noble Emilia. He later witnesses her being murdered, and his own fate quickly follows. Now set upon saving her life for her saving his, he tries again and again, and when it finally happens, he reaches a new checkpoint. This premise is like if you’d taken episode 12 of Steins;Gate (produced by the same studio as Re:Zero, White Fox) and backboned a series on it, which is to say, the mental state of someone who had that ability, who had to watch someone they cared about die and die again, who had to die and die again themselves trying to save them, is a curious thing to examine. The last couple episodes have taken that to new heights: after being accepted into Emilia’s home and drawn into her life, and having saved her and the people she cares about against new threats, he finally snaps. “You should have a greater debt to me than you could ever repay!”

Everyone should be familiar with the type of guy who disguises his self-serving as altruism and expects something that’d never been offered in return. And to make sure nobody who harbors the same fantasy could misinterpret, Emilia cuts ties with him immediately and walks away. Is this secretly a story about male entitlement? It remains to be seen. A reconciliation between the two seems inevitable. But to drive home just how radical this is for anime, when these scenes were first published in the web novel, parts of the audience started abandoning Re:Zero. “The comment section of the novel EXPLODED with flaming and complaints at the direction of the story after the chapter was uploaded a few years ago.” Every arc of this series has offered new kinds of suffering as Subaru has gone back and forward trying to inch his way towards saving everybody, forming new relationships in this alien landscape only to watch them (sometimes gruesomely) snatched away. His life operates on the idea that returning the outside world to its original state is possible, but his interior world is decaying beyond the point of return at all. Having already been the most gut-wrenching series of this season, Re:Zero has just proven it has plenty of potential yet to explore.

These are a few examples, but the list goes on: beautiful but forgettable third-tier stuff like Musaigen no Phantom World deserves a mention for its similarities to Kyoukai no Kanata; sequels like the new JoJo and Koyomimonogatari have offered some of the best entries into their long-running series (although Durarara!! continues to drag on); seinen-y stuff like Ajin, Dimension W, and Erased all held a lot of promise and might be reclaimed at some point, but seem settled for now as flawed but noble experiments; and exquisite new shows like flying witch and One Punch Man have been enthralling dedicated audiences. The rest of the year holds the long-awaited Kizumonogatari, a second season for Hibike! Euphonium, and the new Berserk anime. These are all a big deal.

In that video up top, Digibro says that one of the reasons anime has started reaching so far out of Japan in the last few years is the advent of speedsubbing: more anime is being subtitled for international audiences now, and some fansub crews have followers and brand recognition akin to your ETTVs and YIFYs. But more anime doesn’t mean more good anime, and as Katsushi Ota will tell you, Japan don’t really have to cater to the world outside Japan because Japan’s market is fucking massive — big enough to sustain the anime it puts out, anyway (at least at the inhumane wages they pay animators.) In the past few years, at least to me, it’s felt like there’s only been one or two shows a season to get even mildly invested in — maybe one or two a year to get really invested in. And sure, there’s plenty of trash in 2016: carbon copies of carbon copies of Gary Stu high school fellas with preternatural magic talent enough to soak the pantsu of whichever bubblegum-haired caricature of a girl he awkwardly flirts with. But this year, the gulf between that stuff and the series mentioned here seems so much wider than usual. Stunning new adaptations from small studios, big-budget maximalism from big studios, and inventive chapters added to already existing shows have made 2016 one of the best years for anime in recent memory.

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