Dark Aether’s Top 10 Anime of 2022
“If you run, you gain one. If you move forward, you gain two.”
Welcome to my 4th annual Anime of the Year Awards, my yearly check in where I look back at some of my favorite titles and rank them, celebrating achievements in the medium whether it was technique, writing or being just damn fun! I use the word “celebrating” lightly because 2022 was kind of a mess. Having just completed my report on the company that shall not be named, I had mixed feelings about putting this together. While it’s impossible to completely escape the grasp of the orange siren, it’s times like this that I feel at least somewhat morally obligated to ask myself how do I continue to write about my passions without compromising my ideals?
Granted, I’m a freelancer with no obligations or ties to any one party. Right now, I have a lot of flexibility in what topics I approach and how I go about presenting them, even if it means asking some challenging questions. To that end, I’ll always be eternally grateful to the fine folks at TAY and AniTAY for continuing to play host to my writing curios, as well as the community for their continued support, with the positive response from my previous article continuing to be a major source of inspiration.
Before we get into my top 10 anime, I figured I’d use this opportunity to reaffirm my position regarding my future here. As I approach the 7- and 5-year anniversaries of my tenure at those respective sites, 2023 will be a chance for me to reflect as a writer, look back at some of my earlier work and figure out what’s next. This means I’ll be taking some time to work on a few other projects I didn’t get to complete previously. Perhaps a nostalgic dive or two (or three!) before inevitably covering whatever catches my eye in the coming months. Maybe even get my gaming backlog in order while I work on my top 10 games of 2022 (coming soon)!
I guess what I’m trying to say is despite all the bullshit and corporate shenanigans, I feel good right now. The medium itself is stronger than ever, I’ve got at least one major project I’m excited to share after wrapping up these lists, and though my output slowed to a crawl last year, the quality itself more than made up for it in my book.
Whatever the future may hold, I know I gained one last year. Now let’s aim for two.
***Per usual, only titles that completed or ran for the majority of the qualifying year are considered for this list, as I don’t believe in handing a final verdict without seeing the finished product. Shows like Golden Kamuy and Blue Lock will qualify in 2023 or their year of completion. Movies, OVAs, and specials are permitted, though none made it in this time, again. (This has to be karma for that one year I didn’t include Promare!)***
Honorable Mention: Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury Prologue
Well, that’s a bummer — let me explain. See, I was under the impression that Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury was meant to continue into 2023 and go beyond 12 episodes when I settled on my “final” list, hence my initial omission. Then the 12th “final” episode dropped and collectively crushed everyone’s expectations. I considered breaking my above rule, but given that the series is returning in April and this is clearly part 1 of an ongoing story, for the sake of my sanity and giving other titles the spotlight, I’ve decided to treat this as a 2023 title.
Still, I do want to highlight the incredible prologue that aired a while back. It’s a perfect standalone episode that introduces the setting and backstory of the show in a world where Gundams or GUND technology in this universe are eventually outlawed following a certain incident. Featuring a heavy mix of legacy and family drama, political and militaristic intrigue, and some of the best damn space combat committed to the genre, Prologue is an excellent showcase of the franchise’s history, as well as an introductory point for newcomers with a strong emphasis on newcomers. Simply put, this is the story of the fall of Gundam and the birth of witches. Check it out on YouTube above, it’s about 20 minutes long and fully worth your time. And if you need more Gundam in your life, you can check out the first season subbed on the official GundamInfo YouTube page, with new episodes dropping weekly.
Now for the top 10!
10. Bastard!! -Heavy Metal, Dark Fantasy-
Call me old fashioned, but if there’s one thing that I miss in what some would call today’s “Golden Age of Shonen,” it’s retro, 90s-inspired fantasy with adventure, grit, and attitude. This one just happens to have two of my favorite things in the title! Bastard!! -Heavy Metal, Dark Fantasy- is everything it says on the label and then some. A classic throwback to the fantasy genre of yore with an unapologetically metal AF aesthetic and just enough modern touch ups courtesy of Liden Films (Tokyo Revengers) without compromising its identity, Bastard!! is the ideal remake done right.
As I said in my initial review, heavy metal is steeped in counterculture, rejecting a lot of mainstream sensibilities in order to create art that not only stands out on its own merits, but actively seeks to make its own proclamation to the world through experimentation, risk and individualism. Before being moved to Ultra Jump, the original Bastard!! was a landmark title for Shonen Jump, the same magazine that had built its house on the motto of “Friendship, Effort, and Victory,” pushing those familiar traits into their logical extremes through the lens of the antihero Dark Schneider.
Heaven or Hell: Bastard!! -Heavy Metal, Dark Fantasy-
Bastard!! -Heavy Metal, Dark Fantasy- — which will hereby be referred to as Bastard!! because like hell I’m typing this…
From its nonsensical story to its protagonist’s misdeeds, Bastard!! makes no excuses or attempts to hide its true nature, presenting itself as a sadistically cruel and violent world while still introducing plenty of cheeky (no pun intended) humor, deceptively inverting many of its tropes. Yes, it’s low brow entertainment, but unlike many of its contemporaries that came after, it doesn’t hide behind its repulsive acts or attempt to revise its hero as some sort of misunderstood villain. And for all its innuendos and cheesiness, there is something to be said about a show that actively engages its characters to interact with one another and form genuine relationships beyond sexual tension or killing the (eviler) bad guy in a glorious bloodbath.
Speaking of characters, Studiopolis knocked it out of the park, bringing the chaotic world of Bastard!! down to earth by adding a human touch. Directed by Jamie Simone and Ryan Johnston, the English cast enters the battlefield of Metallicana and rolls headfirst into the insanity, hamming it up through sheer bravado and theatrical monologues while maintaining a sense of style, grace and a not-so-insignificant number of musical references that were shockingly not altered to “legally distinct” sounding names as is often the case.
Kyle McCarley plays a very different type of “hero” in Dark Schneider, channeling the dark wizard’s ego and overindulgences while leaning into the wacky, childlike nature in this iteration of the titular protagonist. Reigning in our dark hero’s ambitions is Erin Yvette as the voice of Tia Noto Yoko, who delivers a performance equal parts fiery, compassionate and disturbed as her childhood friend Lucien Renlen (Anne Yatco) is slowly consumed by the wizard’s influence.
Wendee Lee, who previously voiced Yoko, returns as Arshes Nei, channeling the warrior’s tenacity, fury and doubts in a life-or-death battle. Given the volatile nature and context of their duel, her delivery takes no prisoners, dropping one of the most confrontational and emotional scenes as their shared history collides into the present, threatening to destroy them both. Finally, I’ll end this section with Aaron LaPlante’s “Dark Ninja Army of 2000 strong” Ninja Master Gara. Though I hate to play favorites, the actor’s over-the-top delivery and comically self-aware shock and awe as he exchanges words with his friend/rival Dark Schneider puts the them on a level playing field, proving the ninja master’s tongue is as sharp as his sword!
At the risk of regurgitating my review again, Bastard!! -Heavy Metal, Dark Fantasy- is classic shonen that’s as heavy on the metal as it is with delivering a no-nonsense, hyperactive dark fantasy in a way that has yet to be toppled by its would be imitators. Many fantasy stories, particularly shonen and more recently isekai, like to oversell their audience by being as outrageous as possible like a horny teenager describing their weekend partying. Bastard!! is for the adults, unabashed in rawness yet refreshingly honest about its sexuality (and musical tastes!) in a way most titles fear to tread.
9. Romantic Killer
Among the many sacrificial cuts I had to make this year, I had a difficult time deciding what romcoms would survive the culling. Kaguya-sama: Love Is War — Ultra Romantic (Season 3) had its strongest season yet, advancing the plot and upping the ante on its comedy from its previous seasons while newcomer My Dress Up Darling told a genuinely heartwarming tale about a doll maker and a cosplayer with one of the strongest dubbed scripts of the year — shout out to the cast and crew! While I could have easily slotted either of those into this list, one of my greatest delights about this platform is being able to bring the spotlight to hidden gems that may have flown under the radar, and this year that title is Romantic Killer.
An unorthodox adaption by DOMERICA based on the color manga by Wataru Momose and serialized by Shonen Jump+, Romantic Killer tells the story of Anzu Hoshino, a high schooler who would rather spend time with her three greatest treasures — video games, chocolate and her cat — than prioritize her dating life. While pursuing the newest entry of her favorite visual novel, she is greeted by a wizard named Riri who was sent to help her experience true love! Rejecting the wizard’s offer, he confiscates her three greatest desires. Left with no other recourse, she reluctantly plays along — as the anti-heroine!
Over the course of the story, we meet Anzu’s three potential suitors, each with their own backstory and reasons that put them on a collision course with Anzu ala Riri’s magical meddling. Tsukasa Kazuki is the cool headed popular high schooler whose good looks tends to attract unwanted attention, often keeping his distance, especially among women. Junta Hayami is the prerequisite childhood friend (much to Anzu’s confusion and disbelief) with an unrequited crush on the former. Our final contestant is the rich kid and obligatory “tsundere” Hijiri Koganei, who wastes little time pulling out the checkbook while scoffing at the idea that he could be “rejected.” Pretty standard stuff, nothing to write home about, right?
One of my biggest pet peeves in the romcom genre is the idea of the fictionalized “perfect girlfriend” or star-crossed lovers that seems to permeate in most titles. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with a little fictionalized “escapism,” but when I look at titles like Tonikawa or the recent Shikimori’s Not Just a Cutie, more often than not it relies on the absurdity of the premise or presents their relationship in the most idealized, squeaky-clean version possible, making it hard to empathize with either of the leads. Romantic Killer, while admittedly the most absurd romcom premise I’ve encountered, characterizes its anti-heroine and her potential suitors, going all in on their positive traits and paving the way for some genuinely touching moments when things go wrong.
As the titular Romantic Killer, Anzu knows exactly what she wants. Though a bit of a dysfunctional mess and obsessed with her pet cat, she’s proud and confident about who she is as a person, preferring to be a comforting shoulder or a self-imposed champion of justice when trouble comes knocking around her friends. Outside of Riri (who comically gets dunked on by Anzu), the show never talks down or belittles her because of her absent love life, instead embracing the positivity of simply being comfortable in your own skin, having fun and taking things at your own pace. Ironically, these qualities end up attracting some admirers, much to her chagrin. Damn, it’s almost as if creating a flawed heroine with personality and relatable traits is somehow more compelling and realistic than a story about wish fulfillment — and that’s before we bring up the boys!
I may not be the most well versed in shojo or romcoms, but what I do know is it takes to two to tango. Fortunately, director Kathy Pilon came prepared with a highly decorative group. In her first-time lead role, Deneen Melody stars as the anti-heroine herself, breathing equal parts absurdity, determination and kindness into Anzu’s voice as her world gets turned upside down. Courtney Lin plays the devilish Riri, channeling the inner gremlin within as the wizard creates havoc and improvises the most outlandish of scenarios. Jason Griffith, Aleks Le and Kellen Goff voice Tsukasa, Junta and Hijiri as the respective love candidates for Riri’s work in progress. Given that Romantic Killer knows the tropes well, it’d be easy to lump each of their characters as their genre archetypes. Instead, the show lets each character open up to Anzu naturally, allowing each actor to expose their character’s vulnerable side and maintain a fairly amicable relationship, with Griffith and Le notably getting some golden scenes together as their characters become involved in Anzu’s life.
As we get older, priorities change, interests fluctuate and ideally, we take it in stride to figure out who we want to be. I sure as hell didn’t have it all figured out when I was in high school, but like the cliché goes, you have your whole life ahead of you. Romantic Killer is not the idealized romcom nor does it try to be. It’s a romcom about becoming idealized people capable of forming relationships.
8. Lycoris Recoil
I’ll admit, I came into the Lycoris Recoil party later than most. “John Wick: The Anime” one person on Twitter said. “Hideo Kojima-approved,” said another. Despite all the glowing praise at the time and an English dub in the works, I didn’t get around to it until late in the season. Even then, I ended up taking almost the rest of the year to complete it. Why the long delay? Don’t know, I’m a busy guy! But every time I sat down and carved one or two episodes, I’d lose track of time or my sweet tooth began to ache — doesn’t help that it prominently features a café! Part gun-fu action flick, part caffeine induced sweetness slice-of-life, Lycoris Recoil put a bullet in my heart and here’s why.
An anime original created Spider Lily and Asaura and produced by A-1 Pictures (Kaguya-sama: Love Is War), Lycoris Recoil tells the story of Direct Attack (“DA”), a government sponsored group of mercenaries. Known as “Lycoris,” this all-female team of agents and trained killers eliminate and dispose of high-profile targets and terrorists deemed a threat to national security. After an improvised job goes south, Takina Inoue is discharged and transferred to LycoReco, another branch that operates as a café during the day and assists with small time jobs and surveillance. Hoping to repair her reputation and rejoin the main office, Takina reluctantly settles in after being paired up with Chisato Nishikigi, a veteran Lycoris with a different viewpoint of their line of work. Together, they take on the arduous tasks of managing a café and saving a few lives — including their own.
Confession #2 — I’ve never been big on the “cute girls doing cute things” (or CGDGT as I recently learned) genre. It’s an acquired taste for sure, but eventually I need something to latch onto whether its character writing or a compelling narrative. While Lycoris Recoil’s story doesn’t address the ramifications of having a group of high schoolers going on a murder spree, our fixation with gun media in general or even the moral conundrum of taking a life to save another, what it does have is characters. Chisato is the bubbly heart of LycoReco, a renowned field agent with a new lease on life, devoting her time and energy in the service of others. Using a non-lethal pistol to minimize casualties, she takes hard stance against killing before slowly opening up her partner’s world beyond the daily grind of being a Lycoris. The cool-headed logical planner Takina, who disobeyed direct orders to save a fellow Lycoris, initially sees LycoReco as a stopgap and Chisato as more of an annoyance than a partner, until she sees her in action. Their dichotomy between altruism and efficiency serves as the backdrop for a lot of the action and even their café work as the two quickly become attached to the hip, forming an inseparable bond by the time credits roll.
Sure, I can spend a lot more time on the intricacies between DA and LycoReco, the lovely exploration of fatherhood, sacrifice and eventually Chisato’s direct foil when finally challenged on her ideals, but at the end of the day, this is a character-centric show. That’s why ADR director Steve Staley put out a call for DA’s finest agents for this job. Lizzie Freeman and Xanthe Huynh star as leads Chisato and Takina, injecting their performances with the fun lighthearted tone you’d expect from a buddy cop serial before riding into the sunset at their emotional peaks. It’s safe to say their natural chemistry and constant focus on the smaller details become their most endearing qualities by show’s end, a forced partnership turned eternal comradery when the bullets start flying and the clock starts ticking.
Bob Carter plays Mika, a retired DA agent and current manager of LycoReco. A man with a tricky history, Carter endows the character with the finesse of an old soldier who has seen more bloodshed than most, revealing a fairly complex individual caught between old loyalties and a newfound light in his makeshift family, with one particular scene with Freeman’s Chisato hitting home the weight of his burden. Last, but not least, Sean Chiplock locks and loads as the unhinged Majima. Fixated on restoring “balance” and exposing DA, the actor’s portrayal leaves an ambiguous presence in the room, ranging from manic and confrontational to playful and even poetic depending on the circumstances. It also helps that his interactions with Chisato turn into a spectator sport of one-upmanship’s, whether it is discussing action films or who gets to live and die.
While there are a few minor complaints with regards to — depending on your perspective — the show’s reluctance to comment on its political undertones and the show’s maddening sprint towards the finish line, all in all, Lycoris Recoil is quality gun cinema turned anime. Looks like this café gained a new regular!
7. Chainsaw Man
“HEY, HAVE YOU HEARD OF CHAINSAW MAN?! THE NEW SHONEN TAKING THE WORLD BY STORM THAT SOLD A BILLION COPIES AND THEN SOME?! IT’LL SAVE SHONEN AND ANIME!! IT’LL REGROW YOUR HAIR!! IT’LL SOLVE WORLD HUNGER! WHO KNOWS, IT MIGHT EVEN GET YOU L-“
Yeah, that’s basically what I had to contend with in the lead up to this show. Perhaps you as well dear reader! Needless to say, expectations were high, my motivation was low, and I was prepared to write this one off so I can get to slapping some fools after an impromptu wager done internally if it didn’t rock my world. The good news is Chainsaw Man is better than I expected. The bad news is I still want to slap someone!
Now, I know there’s a certain minority of people that come to me specifically for my, shall we say, peculiar tastes. Don’t worry, I haven’t converted to the church of author Tatsumi Fujimoto or the questionable sustainability of workhorse MAPPA who is signed up for at least five projects in 2023, including the currently running Vinland Saga Season 2. But when it comes to shonen, I take it about as well as my regular cup of coffee — strong, tall and bold with a hint of sweetness for texture — which is my unsubtle way of saying this is definitely my seasonal flavor!
Taking place in alternate Earth where Devils take physical form from humanity’s greatest fears, the devil hunting business is booming with fiends quickly outgrowing the number of capable hunters. Outside of the watchful eye of Public Safety which monitors and contains Devils, a poor boy named Denji and his steadfast companion Pochita are struggling to get by. Inheriting a huge debt to the Yakuza, our hero takes odd jobs as a Devil Hunter until one day their devil hunting days catch up to them. Simply put, it does not end well. But in true shonen fashion, Denji transforms and becomes the Chainsaw Man, becoming the very thing he hunts. When Public Safety arrives at the scene, Denji gets an offer he can’t refuse, but when you’re a devil hunter for Makima, there are some collars that won’t not come off. Not that he minds — at least the food is good and the pay is better!
Let’s start with the obvious, the show is drop-dead gorgeous in a horrifically brutal fashion ala Dorohedoro — another MAPPA joint which made my top 3 in 2019 — yet cinematically well directed. I’m not an arts, graphics, or animation kind of guy, but even I can tell a lot of care and detail went into every facet of this production. From the fury of blades popping out to the grotesque spectacle of blood, guts and bodily explosions to the unique endings and score layered into every episode, this show is polished to a shine. I know some have complained of the show being a little “too clean” and not happy with some of the deviations from the source, but like I always emphasize here, an adaption is only as good as what it adds to the table on its own merits, which brings me neatly along to the characters.
Though this probably warrants its own article, the best way I can describe Chainsaw Man is “office workers who hate their jobs” meets existential dread. In a world where death is a way of life and just another day at the office, the show is quick to highlight and build on its cast of exterminators. Denji is a young man who hit rock bottom, fighting for scraps and the simple pleasures of living a normal life. Aki is a hunter seeking revenge against the devil that slaughtered his family, hellbent on completing his vengeance at any cost. Himeno is an experienced hunter unwilling to let another partner die on her watch. Kobeni is an unwilling participant who was forced into this line of work in order to support her family. And Power is just… Power, a free-spirited devil who ends up in Public Safety’s custody and someone who takes a little too much pleasure in their work.
Like any dysfunctional office with coworkers you barely tolerate, eventually you come to know their intricacies and develop something of a forced relationship. You have your loners, family folks, experts too good for their job and mentors among other figures. Chainsaw Man encapsulates this experience as misfits who can’t fit in with regular society end up banding together, sharing drinks in one moment and real horror stories when shit hits the fan.
With all this positivity, you might be wondering how this ended up at #7, which depending on your reading is either too high or low. First off, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the actual positions — I flip flop all the time in making these! There was a lot of great stuff this year, many of which I had to omit, so the fact that it made it here at all is significant in itself. Second, the story itself isn’t anything you haven’t seen before as far as first seasons go, ending a little abruptly given the shorter 12 episode format. Long story, short, Chainsaw Man isn’t The Candyman of anime. It’s a day in the life of the corporate grind, a blood-soaked wonderland of labor with the occasional smoke break in between getting kicked in the nuts. Now, will you stop bugging me about Shonen Jump + already?!
6. Cyberpunk: Edgerunners
Boy, did I end up eating my hat with this one! Of all the potential nominees, I didn’t expect a video game adaptation of a game that had a divisive launch to say the least would end up being one of my favorite anime of the year. Then again, Studio Trigger (SSSS.Dynazenon) has yet to let me down, returning for their third (4th if I had included Promare) consecutive award on my top 10 list. Featuring one of the flashiest animation styles from the studio and the medium, an excellent curated playlist of featured songs that appeared in the game as well as a new score from the legendary Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill), and a top-notch voice cast, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners delivers on the former, expanding the world from the mind of creator Mike Pondsmith and CD Projekt Red’s take on the universe, telling its own unique and interesting story regardless of familiarity.
Taking place in the mean streets of Night City, a futuristic metropolis dominated by street crime and corporate interests, Edgerunners follows David Martinez, a student suddenly turned dropout after a series of unfortunate events, a fatal accident and the crushing influence of the system in place causes him to abandon his former life and undergo a cybernetic procedure. With his new implant, he takes on a new job from a local gang, becoming an Edgerunner. As his reputation and his codependence on his enhancements grows, his grip on reality begins to take an unexpected turn. In Night City, only the strongest and wealthiest survive, but at what cost?
A lot of recent cyberpunk stories have a bad habit of doubling down on the encroaching advancement of technology, attempting to predict the future or simply using the subgenre as a prop to look cool and pay lipservice to the greats without understanding the meaning. The best cyberpunk stories have always geared towards serving as a microcosm of the human condition, posing challenging questions to our common issues of the day and presenting equally difficult arguments in our never-ending quest to transcend our existence. The modern-day dissection of governance, religion and order in the original Deus Ex. The existential crisis and conflict between reality, memories and the concept of a “soul” in the classic Ghost in the Shell films. And to throw my two cents in here, the clash between individualism and purpose for former tools of war in the criminally underappreciated No Guns Life, a title that I’d very much like to do a deep dive at the appropriate time.
At its heart, Edgerunners is a story about a boy who gets screwed over by the system at large, whether it be gang warfare or the corporate masters that control all other enterprises, before promptly deciding “fuck it, I’m done playing by their rules.” What we have here is a tragic underdog turned rouge outlaw, a byproduct of a society so corrupt that the only way for one to survive such a hostile environment is to adapt and embrace its ruthlessness at the price of one’s humanity both literally and philosophically. In true Trigger fashion, it is a spectrum of color and over the top set pieces backed by high production values and a straightforward, yet engaging narrative dealing with loss, inequality and humanity’s worse impulses in the pursuit of liberation from corporate oversight.
(My writer’s sense is tingling! Do I detect a running theme perhaps?!)
While Cyberpunk Edgerunners treads familiar ideas, its execution of running themes, complex characters and philosophical inquiries in between its rainbow arrayed touch of violence along a technological dystopia is more than enough to earn my full recommendation and a permanent place on my 2022 list. Though this place is called Night City, I’m afraid I must depart early, for the evening beckons me…
5. Call of the Night
Now, I’ve tried to avoid bringing up streaming platforms in this conversation for obvious reasons, but if there is one silver lining from last year’s corporate disasterpiece play out in real time, it’s the resurgence of niche platform HiDIVE who had a productive year hosting fan favorites like Ya Boy Kongming! and Akiba Maid War. Though I wouldn’t start investing in HiDIVE stock anytime soon, a little competition goes a long way, and if Call of the Night is any indication, then I suspect we’re going to get along very well in the years to come.
Not content with walking away with one award, Liden Films raised the bar further with their adaption of Kotoyama’s original manga. Call of the Night begins as a restless Ko Yamori finds himself wandering the night streets of his town one evening. Suffering from sort form of insomnia likely brought on from the mental toll of living an unsatisfactory life, his night time ventures soon become routine until he has a run in with Nazuna Nanakusa, a vampire. What follows is an invigorating journey between the human and nocturnal plains as the two form an unusual bond. Featuring laughs and frolics, dangers and tension along with a dash of the paranormal and awkwardness of youth, this supernatural romance begins with Ko vowing to make her fall in love and become a night walker himself!
Everyone has things they try to escape from. The burned-out youth seeking thrills and adventure through taboo and romanticization of the night to prolong the inevitable shift into adulthood. The fictional creature of legend attempting to find meaning and purpose in life unending before the reality of loneliness sets in. Putting its own mythical spin on the classic gothic monster through Kotoyama’s trademark character building and quirky humor, this coming-of-age story turned nocturnal romance dives deep into passion of youth, what it means to truly be alive and live in the moment, as well as our compulsive need to understand what’s on the other side at the risk of losing one’s self to the intoxication of the night. It’s a slower burn than most titles with a strong emphasis on dialogue and chemistry to move events along, yet I consistently lost track of time watching these two goofballs playfully tease each other, along with a strong supporting cast providing more insight into Ko’s day life and Nazuna’s mysterious origins.
It also helps that the show is quite a looker in the art and environment department. Backed by Yoshiaki Dewa’s tranquil score and insert tracks from Creepy Nuts, watching the night sky in this show reminded me a lot of my own youth, spending several summer nights back in my home town looking up at the stars hoping each night would last just a little while longer. For the bold, the daring and all those night time owls out there, Call of the Night warmly invites you to an unforgettable evening as your humble author awards it my highest recommendation. Just don’t fall asleep…
4. Mob Psycho 100 III
Imagine, if you will dear reader, you’re now in charge of the world’s biggest anime streamer. Then one day, let’s suppose you’ve been gifted your direct competitor on a silver platter. Perhaps you decide to make a few “changes” throughout the year to further extend your reach. You implement them slowly so you don’t attract the attention of the media, your current customers, your ex-competitor’s customers, and everyone under your direct employment all at once — that is, if you kept your job during the transition. Then imagine in the midst of this activity, you publicly announce you’re parting ways with some of the cast of a very prominent TV show in your lineup because you wouldn’t sit down to talk. Then while everyone is rightfully angry, you put your remaining staff in the awkward position of having to do their job while avoiding being harassed online, making it impossible for them to talk about the show out of fear or shame of being remotely associated with you and removing them from the credits, and for completely unrelated reasons, you decide to remove an entire season’s worth of nominees from your own awards show.
“Don’t be silly Aether!” I hear you saying. “That would never happen in real life.” Because that would be pretty hypocritical for the company that “champions the art and culture of Anime”? Because they fully support the industry, isn’t that right dear reader?
In The End, Crunchyroll Has Always Been A Brand
As the year draws to a close and award season kicks in, one title that’s been making the rounds is Mob Psycho 100, the…
At the risk of beating the proverbial horse, Mob Psycho 100 III has been controversial. Not because of anything the show itself did, but rather the powers that be — or the anime industry if you prefer. Now, you don’t need me to reiterate the incredible journey that Mob and his friends took as they matured out of their shells into the next phase of adulthood or the bang-up job Studio Bones did as they pulled out all the stops in one of the most impressive cinematic anime experiences with a dazzling shower of colors, psychic energy beams and mutated vegetables. You probably don’t need me to tell you that it concludes the work of author One on a satisfying note, continuing its deconstruction of the shonen genre through the demonstration of positive masculinity and interpersonal growth. And given all the praise from other outlets, I anticipate most of you have some opinion on the matter.
Continuing the story of Shigeo “Mob” Kageyama, our hero finds himself in the ever-growing presence of a new religious movement taking hold of his town. Meanwhile, graduation day is fast approaching and Mob finds himself pondering his own direction as his friends and senior peers make plans for the future. Careers, love and dreams — a daunting checklist the longer he delays it. Taking some time for himself as well as some sagely advice from his closest mentors, he decides to do a little self-investment in preparation for the impending day. But when a figure claiming to be the true leader of the Psycho Helmet Cult appears before the Divine Tree, a second countdown begins. False deities, questionable urban legends and working up the courage to confront the future. It’s now or never for Mob as he faces even stranger phenomena, as well as his own insecurities.
As in previous seasons, the beauty of Mob Psycho 100 has been its willingness to cross examine the concepts of morality, strength and self-realization through Mob and company. If the first two seasons centered around the idea of rejecting absolute power and embracing reform through helping hands, then its finale looks inward, culminating in two interpersonal conflicts this time around. In non-spoiler terms, all of Mob’s previous life lessons come together, showing everyone’s collective efforts payoff in the hour of need. A final curtain call allows almost every character a time to reflect knowing the only path is forward. And when it’s finally time to say goodbye, only truth remains — the end of one chapter and the start of something new.
If I’m being vague, well, it’s my casual way of saying you’re best off finding the answers for yourself (it’s a really good show)! It’s also my disorganized way of reminding you that while it’s a tragic shame Mob Psycho 100 didn’t get the opportunity to go out with all of its contributing members present due to corporate greed, no time like the present for a fresh start. So, on the very off chance someone who contributed on the series is reading this, and on behalf of everyone who chose kindness and solidarity, stuck to their moral code and drew inspiration throughout this journey, thank you. I’m moving ahead and giving it my all — 100%.
3. Kotaro Lives Alone
As much as I love covering the strange and weirder side of entertainment, it may come as a surprise to folks that I’m sucker for grounded, emotional dramas, especially those of the familial variety. Entertainment is a beautiful platform to tell stories, educate and inform the public on difficult subject matters like mental health and domestic abuse, which is all the more reason why Kotaro Lives Alone came as a sudden surprise given its whimsical first trailer in what I had assumed was just a garden variety slice of life with an absurd premise. In reality… it is just that and so much more.
As the title implies, Kotaro Lives Alone centers around the titular Kotaro who ends up moving into a vacant apartment after a mysterious set of circumstances. An unusually formal four year old with a love of samurai cartoons, he introduces himself to his neighbors which include the burnt out manga artist Shin Karino, the bubbly hostess Mizuki Akitomo and the imposing Yakuza lookalike Isamu Tamaru. Naturally, this raises all sorts of questions: “Who is this boy? How he does financially support himself? How did he end up here and where are his parents?” Making the best of an unorthodox living arrangement, Shin and his neighbors keep an eye on the boy as Kotaro does his best to balance the daily tasks of having a place of your own, keeping up with housework and meals, as well as attending school and enjoying the simple pleasures of being a kid. Through strength, determination, and some guiding hands, this is the story of a boy and his neighborhood, hoping to reunite with his family and show them how much he has grown.
Based on the manga by Mami Tsumura, the secret to Kotaro Lives Alone’s storytelling lies in its execution of setup and payoff. A typical episode might feature a common scenario — Kotaro goes to school, Kotaro goes shopping, Kotaro asks for advice, etc. — a running gag with Kotaro’s childlike imagination and naivete often forming the basis of the punchline, until we get the story behind the joke, completely recontextualizing events. To use one example, there’s a short skit where Kotaro goes out and gets a bunch of balloons from a vendor, each time using a different disguise or excuse that they were going to other people. The vendor plays along until he runs into Kotaro sometime after, realizing he kept them all for himself.
For those willing to brave spoilers, you can see the scene here, but the outcome is a great case study of Kotaro Lives Alone ability to weave story progression, world building, character development and humor without feeling forced or — in worst case scenarios — emotionally manipulative and treating its difficult subject matter as an afterthought.
Lucifer and The Biscuit Hammer Is A Mess
Those of you who follow my work know I’m quite fond of dark subject matter, taking an interest in just about anything…
Speaking of difficult topics, I cannot stress enough the brilliance behind Kotaro Lives Alone’s portrayal of family trauma and the delicate curiosity of a child’s mind. Over the course of the story, we learn more insight about Kotaro’s neighbors who for as much time and support they provide to Kotaro have their own problems that the young boy manages to deduce as someone who has faced similar situations.
To name a few, we’re talking domestic abuse, child abandonment and neglect, separation and marital issues, as well as processing and understanding the signs of physical/emotional trauma when the victim — particularly children — don’t even realize that it’s happening to them or are unwilling to come forward out of a sense of loyalty. What amazed me even more was Kotaro Lives Alone’s portrayal of how victims process this grief, often placing the blame on themselves or thinking that they weren’t good or worthy enough of their parent’s love and attention. Because, as one character plainly puts it, “how could a father not adore his own son?”
You’ll have to forgive me if my sentimentality is bleeding through, but I think it speaks greatly to Tsumura’s understanding of the physical and emotional toll of growing up in an unhealthy environment while maintaining a heartwarming and consistent tone in light of it all. It also speaks greatly to the outstanding performances of the English cast and crew. Directed by Cherami Leigh, Jennifer Losi and Michael Sinterniklaas, this trio brings Tsumura’s characters closer together through a combination of charm, humor and yes, wholesomeness.
It’s not every day I get to highlight an ADR director doubling as one of the main characters, but Cherami Leigh’s portrayal as Kotaro hones in the show’s thematic strengths, leveraging the boy’s quirky speech patterns and wiser-than-they look attitude into a thoughtful and well realized take on what goes on in the mind of a four year old. Michael Sinterniklaas also plays along as next-door neighbor Shin. Initially seeing the boy as something of a pain, Sinterniklaas’s Shin sees the character reluctantly step into the position of guardian, providing a lot of the show’s levity as well as its most heartfelt scenes, balancing Shin’s unfazed and grounded expressions while showing genuine care through indirect cues as the series reaches its finale.
Stephanie Sheh joins along as Mizuki, bringing a passionate display of warmth, playfulness and a surprising amount of depth to her character for those who have watched the show. What started off as an adoring motherlike relationship becomes one of the show’s deepest subplots as Sheh’s Mizuki bounces off of Leigh’s Kotaro, cementing their character’s relationship in an act that — without spoiling the moment — I can only describe as “the most touching display of compassion” of the year. Rounding things off is Kayleigh McKee’s Isamu who managed to turn the comic relief character of the neighborhood and turned it into one of the most comprehensive portrayals of fatherhood that has been committed to media this year.
Just as Orpheus touched Hades with a beautiful arrangement, I too was moved by Kotaro Lives Alone. Featuring one of the most well written, smart and mature commentaries on parent-child relationships, as well as being one of the funniest comedies of the year, Kotaro Lives Alone is a masterclass of storytelling, telling a mature, adult story through the lens of a shy kindergartener and his strange new neighbors. Though I considered multiple times bumping it up higher, I was handed a mysterious package recently with special instructions to open it at this exact moment.
(I wonder who it’s from…)
2. Spy x Family
What can I say? This will either be the most obvious entry on this list or a stunning upset given I wrote the very positive spring preview for AniTAY’s seasonal recommendations, but Spy x Family sneaks in at number two. Quite possibly my favorite ongoing Shonen Jump title aside from Dandadan, I was eagerly anticipating this series’ inevitable anime adaptation, taking wild guesses at which studio would take a crack at it, who would compose it and what actors would take part. Needless to say, I got every category wrong! That’s okay, because it ended up better than I could have predicted. A joint collaboration by Wit Studio and Cloverworks, and based on the popular manga by Tatsuya Endo, it’s been interesting to see one of the few titles I was already reading make the transition to TV so smoothly.
The 10 New Anime of Spring 2022 You Should Be Watching
The Spring 2022 season is here! Read on for our recommendations of what anime you should be checking out this season!
Having written a plot synopsis before, I’ll leave it to you if you want the formal version above, but I’ll go ahead and give you the mission briefing: two nations maintaining a false pretense of peace while waging a cold war through mysterious organizations and covert operations. When the nation of Westalis sends their best agent “Twilight” to gather intel on a national leader, the highly decorated spy gets more than he bargained for after going under cover. Adopting a new alias as well as a wife and daughter, his new family soon turns out to have their own share of secrets. A spy playing the perfect husband, a deadly assassin turned loving housewife and their psychic daughter who knows their true identities — what can go wrong?
Like a Swiss army knife, Spy x Family is a tool of all trades, trained in multiple disciplines and executes a mastery of writing, pacing and understanding of balance, carefully constructing its characters through drama and comedy. Loid Forger/Twilight plays the action class spy extraordinaire, a task-oriented agent whose cool-headed persona gradually softens as he starts to become more invested in his family man alter ego. “Thorn princess” Yor Forger finds herself in an unorthodox partnership with her new husband and adopted daughter. Her cheerful demeanor and spirited can-do attitude both endears and masks her terrifying secret, possessing superhuman strength, a killer’s natural ambition, and a complete misunderstanding of cooking 101!
But the real star of the show is the aptly nicknamed “Starlight” Anya, a rambunctious attention seeker and child of wonder finding herself awestruck whenever she peers into her parent’s thoughts. Though each comes into their roles as a matter of convenience, hiding their other side in order to maintain their comfortable façade, their shared history as children of war, cruelty and broken families of their own becomes their connective tissue, becoming something more than their true objectives or their own personal wants let on.
I’ve covered both Wit Studio and Cloverworks with 2021’s Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song and Horimiya receiving a spot in last year’s awards, respectively. I think it’s safe to say their work only seems to improve given the frequency that they keep popping up on these lists! The fact that they not only collaborated on such an ambitious project, but excelled in a way that never once slowed or hindered their productivity each episode is a high water mark for the medium in today’s unpredictable and highly unstable industry.
Though I can’t fathom the ardent task of tackling one of the biggest shows of the year, it’s the kind of forward thinking and pooling of talent that rarely happens, much less works out in the end. Which is all the more reason I was genuinely surprised to hear (K)NoW_NAME (Doroherodo) was tapped to provide air support, serving as the show’s primary composer and easily my favorite soundtrack of the year. If nothing else good comes out of the company that shall not be named awards this year, I hope they get the recognition they deserve because it’s overdue a̶n̶d̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶y̶ ̶t̶o̶t̶a̶l̶l̶y̶ ̶s̶h̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ ̶h̶a̶v̶e̶ ̶w̶o̶n̶ ̶b̶e̶s̶t̶ ̶s̶o̶u̶n̶d̶t̶r̶a̶c̶k̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶D̶o̶r̶o̶h̶e̶d̶o̶r̶o̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶c̶o̶w̶a̶r̶d̶s̶-̶
Before revealing my anime of the year, I have one more top secret mission for you — a quick round of applause for the English cast and crew in one of the year’s finest performances! Probably best known for his directorial work on Black Clover, ADR director Chris George was assigned this high profile mission, along with a number of handpicked field agents up to the task.
First up is Alex Organ as the leading man Twilight/Loid Forger. Playing a double agent can mean the difference between life and death, and Organ’s take on the popular character paints a more human touch to the self-proclaimed master of 1000 faces. Like the many fictional spies before him, his Twilight is smart, confident and collected even in the face of eminent danger, but abstract, baffled and out of his element in a way that’s uniquely shonen — breaking character within a character as he adjusts to a domestic lifestyle.
Natalie Van Sistine plays the shy but alluring death dealer Yor Forger. Similar to Loid, Yor seemingly takes after other fictional works through the lens of a non-traditional shonen story. A different show would have played up the femme fatale angle, yet Sistine’s Yor highlights the gentle, caring and surprisingly self-conscious nature when it comes to her newfound role as mother and wife. Her natural chemistry with Organ’s Loid also paves the way for some of the series’ best moments, including one charmingly hilarious but warm episode where the two talk about their relationship through miscommunications and a bit of liquid courage (please drink responsibly).
As I wrap things up, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Megan Shipman as the Internet’s favorite meme master Anya Forger. Seemingly the only character that simultaneously knows everyone’s identity and doesn’t know what’s going on, Shipman’s Anya dials up the cute, excitable and smug facets of her character, easily amused by her parent’s awesomeness (or horribly traumatized by their “other” jobs)! Shipman clearly had a blast embodying the role, and her performance captures the childlike innocence of kid who knows a dirty secret, trading (literal) jabs and bringing a relatable face as she brings the story back down to earth through her shared interactions with the other characters. With the additional talents of Barry Yandell (Henry Henderson), Anthony Bowling (Bond), Dallas Reid (Yuri Briar) and Dani Chambers (Becky Blackwell) and more rounding out the cast, Spy x Family successfully completes the mission with flying colors — well done agents! This message will now self-destruct in 10 seconds.
Alas, we’ve reached the end of the road. 10 nominees and anime of year contenders. I had fun putting this one together, but only one spot remains. Regular folks who follow me will already know what my anime of the year is. It’s a show that rarely left my mind all of last year, to the point that I had a review in progress before shelving it for other opportunities. Though there were many nominees and not enough time, I already knew what my anime of the year would be from the very beginning of this list. In the end, there was only one title that could cement itself as the crown jewel of 2022, and that title is:
1. Ranking of Kings
From Arthurian legends to contemporary works, fantasy has always held a special place in my heart, symbolizing a portrait of adventure, heroism and imagination through the eyes of would-be dreamers with a fiery passion and an insatiable ambition towards the future. Though I spent most of my 2022 lamenting the state of the anime industry as well as the bottomless pit of isekai titles with obnoxiously long names of questionable origins, every once in a while, there comes a title that somehow makes it all worth while. A work of fiction that brings me back down to earth, to start over and try, try, try again as long as it takes. A story that dares challenge us to aim higher, go further and test the limits of our human potential through courage, empathy and a willingness to come together despite our differences — a hero’s journey, if you will. Such is the tale that I’m about to regale you with.
From humble beginnings, Ranking of Kings tells the story of Prince Bojji. A descendant of warriors and firstborn son to the kingdom of Bosse, he dreams of one day carrying the mantle of his father, to become a great king and usher in a reign of peace and happiness. Born deaf and physically weaker than the average person, his small demeanor and gentle upbringing puts distance among his family and future subjects who question what kind of reign the prince would bring if given the throne. But upon a chance meeting with a shadowy being and carrying his favor after seeing Bojji’s true strength in action, the two set out on a journey. One walks the path of the king while the other a steadfast companion, this the story of a boy and his blob who will one day change the world — and each other. So, it is foretold to those who walk the path of rulers, the Ranking of Kings.
As I’m contemplating turning that aforementioned review into a possible retrospective now that we’re getting close to the one year mark, I’ll try to keep my thoughts brief. Featuring adventure, danger, magic, family trauma and political drama (hey, that rhymes!), as well as the broad strokes appeal of the shonen template of unyielding hope against overwhelming odds, the hidden power of kindness and secret magic of winning hearts and minds, not since my 2020 awards have I walked away this impressed with this cross section of genres, themes, world building and characters, held together with some of the best animation and writing in the business.
The word “subversion” has become ubiquitous with modern day shonen, yet I can’t think of a batter word to describe Ranking of Kings appeal and how it perfectly captures the dynamic and beauty of interpersonal relationships, not to mention the nuance and complex nature that is being human. Almost every character goes through an arc, many of which arrive at completely unexpected destinations, always frequently taking viewers for a ride, whether it be the gorgeous plains of Bosse’s kingdom or the vast caverns of the underworld.
Then there is the sheer amount of raw talent on display. From the visual prowess of the ever present Wit Studio, the wonderful direction of Yōsuke Hatta, Makoto Fuchigami and script writing of Taku Kishimoto, the beautiful score and composition of MAYUKO, not to mention one of my favorite English dubs through the royal efforts of ADR director Caitlin Glass and the knightly talents of Emily Fajardo (Bojji), SungWon Cho (Kage) Justin Briner (Daida), A.J. Locascio (Domas), Luci Christian (Hiling) and Christopher Sabat (Despa) among others, there is really no way for me to do this show justice within the course of the last hour I spent editing this section! Still, I wanted to leave you with some parting words before I set off on a journey of my own.
Over the course of the past year, there’s been a lot of talk about the state of the industry, whether it be anime or pop culture and modern entertainment, to say nothing of the state of the world these days. To quote James Stephanie Sterling, “corporations don’t just want some of the money, they want ALL of the money.” Barely a month into the new year, 2023 is already testing the waters of what I anticipate will be the first in a long line of breaking news and further discussions about workers’ rights and other business affairs. But as the commander rightfully points out, for as much reporting, coverage and traction these kinds of stories get, there is always one element that fails to come up in reporting time and time again — people.
With that in mind, I’d like to do something different. As I embark on this new chapter in my writing career, I want that to be the takeaway from all this dear reader. Because as much praise and “awards” — sorry, I still can’t afford physical trophies! — I bestow upon these titles year after year, I want to properly credit the people responsible for the stories we hold so dearly. I want the history and record of these achievements to be passed down long after I depart this mortal realm. Most importantly, I want you to feel inspired, motivated and optimistic that deep down there is still good in this world. Not because of corporations or monopolies, studios or teams, workers or employees, but because of ordinary people putting in the time and effort.
Which brings me back to Ranking of Kings. Though in an alternate plane of existence, under a different set of conditions there is no telling if this title would still be my anime of the year, I like to think that it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable if all of the above elements didn’t come into perfect harmony the way it did. After all, would the story hit as hard and stick out in my brain if it wasn’t for author Sōsuke Tōka’s unconventional storytelling and ability to weave challenging questions, even if the answers aren’t always the most satisfying? Would I be less tempted to wax poetic about the show’s whimsical melodies and sweeping, emotional setpieces without the genius of MAYUKO behind the magic? Finally, would I still be inclined to call this English dub one of my personal favorites — and if I may be so bold, a modern classic — if it wasn’t for all of these fine folks, many of which did their work remotely to further emphasize the point?
Ranking of Kings is a story about many things. It’s a story about persevering in a world not built around those without natural strength or talent. It’s a difficult tale about the cruelty of humanity, often tempted by their capacity for destruction and natural greed to take and plunder for themselves. It’s also about a kingdom and its tragic past, an endless cycle of betrayal and a history written in darkness and blood.
But it’s also about forgiveness and finding the best in humanity. It’s about kindness, compassion and finding inner strength through friends, family and even would be adversaries. It’s also about a mother’s love, a love for their children and a desire to see them find their own happiness. And it’s about a king who gave up everything, a knight with questionable loyalties, a brotherhood stronger than lightning, and the many citizens of this country finding new purpose when all hope seems lost.
Ranking of Kings is about a boy and his best friend. It’s a story about their courage, empathy, and unbreakable bond. It’s also a story about learning to let go of the past, to devote yourself in the service of something greater than yourself and build towards the future. In the end, Ranking of Kings is more than a hero’s journey. It’s bigger than a single entity, whether it be king or country, studio or streamer, royalty or commoner, or journalist and fan.
Ranking of Kings is a story about people and the shared journey they embarked on together.
Ladies and gentleman, that’s a wrap up for my 2022 Anime of the Year Awards! This one was a lot more work than I expected, but so satisfying to put together and both my privilege and honor to continue the tradition. Sorry for the delay, my articles have started to take longer to construct as finding writing time has become a bit of a challenge (I need my quiet time)! Stay tuned for my 2022 Game of the Year Awards in “about two weeks,” if not before the end of February. I had a lot on my backlog, but now I feel ready to tackle that list before moving onto my big 2023 project. Until then, I will see you all in the next article!
Dark Aether is a writer/contributor for TAY and AniTAY. You can check his previous writings on TAY2, Medium, or follow him on Twitter @TheGrimAether. Not Dead Yet.
The Best Is Yet To Come (More Anime Awards):
Dark Aether’s Top 10 Anime of 2021
Folks, I’m not gonna lie, I have no idea where to start this script.