Outside of the horrendous and tragic Kyoto Animation fire, this was an amazing year for anime. The fire is a terrible loss to the community; there is no softening that blow. But as far as the quality of the shows that came out – WOW!
This is going to be a pretty long post, because there’s so much to get to. Before we start, here’s the structure:
Without further ado…Let’s begin!
Winter Season Winner: The Promised Neverland
Overview/Review: I remember when the winter season was ongoing it was thought of as a truly incredible season. And…yeah, but not necessarily because of the huge variety of new shows. It’s because between the new shows and continuations of previous shows, there was a ton of FANTASTIC content. We have the incredible season 2 of “Mob Psycho 100” airing as well as the back half of part 5 of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, “Golden Wind”, arguably the best one yet. “Dororo” started airing as well; I only saw it later on (and honestly it came off mostly as a bargain bin “Demon Slayer” with worse action choreography, animation, and music – yes, I know it came first), but it was still pretty good.
Without a doubt though, of the new shows, the season came down to two: “The Promised Neverland” and “Kaguya-Sama: Love is War”.
(“Wait, you’re not even going to talk about ‘Shield Hero’?” NO.)
Both shows were very good, but I think everybody knows the clear winner has to be “The Promised Neverland”
Okay, I know I already outed myself as a loyal shonen guy, and yes, this year’s list will have multiple. And yes, “The Promised Neverland” is a shonen. But it’s not a normal shonen. “The Promised Neverland” is a horror story. A really intense horror story about adorable children being raised on a farm and fed to demons.
I just spoiled something for the first episode, but I don’t know how to recommend it to people without talking about the premise. And MAN is that some premise, and some first episode. The show doesn’t shy away from some truly horrific imagery, and the direction and character animations are tremendous.
Most importantly though…the damn thing is scary. Really scary. It isn’t nihilistic, it isn’t gory or gross or full of jump scares, but the way it expertly maintains an atmosphere of slowly creeping dread is masterful. And yet, it is also undoubtedly superversive, an impressive feat.
I can’t talk about much more because spoilers really do matter in a story like this. The villain is great, the leads are likable, and the soundtrack is solidly atmospheric. It’s an excellent show.
That said, to my eyes it is far from perfect. The pacing is totally janked in the middle, with certain plot points being hyperfocused on to an almost laughable degree and others sped by so fast you’re left scratching your head trying to figure out how you got here. And outside the villains, while the characters are solidly likable they don’t particularly stand out. This makes sense in a story like this – too competent and you lose some of the tension as it becomes less likely they’ll lose – but it does nevertheless leave you occasionally waiting for somebody to do something really interesting, and while it DOES happen it can take awhile. It often feels like lots of chess pieces are being pushed around with few captures.
But in the end the show has such a great atmosphere and executes its terrific premise so well it is the easy pick for the anime of the spring season. Highly recommended.
Runner-up: Kaguya-Sama: Love is War is a neat twist on high school rom-coms starring two characters who both obviously like each other but instead of talking it out engage in escalating battles of hyperbolic 3-D chess as each tries to get the other to confess. The show honestly starts off slow but as it starts to peel back the layers surrounding its characters it grows beyond being a collection of memes and becomes a funny and satisfying rom-com in its own right, more like “Toradora” than not. Recommended.
Spring Season Winner: Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba
Review/Overview: The spring season was nowhere near as strong as the winter season, with no real standout sequels to pad out the numbers. But one show stood out, and not only stood out, is in my opinion superior to “The Promised Neverland”, and that show is “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba”.
Let’s be honest here: Demon Slayer is about as generic a shonen as you can get. A teenager from the Taisho period of Japan named Tanjiro comes home to find his entire family murdered by demons, save one: his sister Nezuko, but unfortunately she’s no luckier – she’s been transformed into a demon herself. Despite this Tanjiro refuses to believe that her humanity is completely gone, and searches desperately for help. After a chance encounter with a demon slayer proves that her familial loyalty has not been completely lost the slayer spares her life and recommends Tanjiro train to join the Demon Slayer Corps, with the hope that with their training and resources on his side he can somehow find a cure.
The characters are fine – nothing special. The plot is fine – nothing special. So what makes this show so great?
Quite simply, this show has arguably the greatest production values a TV anime has ever had. Demon Slayer paces itself well, and every action scene is better than the last, culminating in the remarkable Demon Mountain arc and the stunning episode 19 fight between Tanjiro and one of the villainous twelve Kizuki, super-powerful demons working for the most powerful demon of all, Muzan.
So essentially we have a show with solid characters (except Zenitsu, who at times nearly ruins the show, though people have promised me with solemn assurance that he gets better), pacing, and writing and incredible action, animation, sound design, and soundtrack. For a shonen to break its way into the popular consciousness I think it needs to do one thing particularly well; for “My Hero Academia” it’s the characters and for “Demon Slayer” it’s the production values. For that reason I doubt it will age as well, but that doesn’t make what we have any less excellent.
Runner-up: None. I didn’t particularly like the rest of the offerings this season. I suppose I should note “Fruits Basket” is supposed to be good even if it isn’t really my thing.
Summer Season Winner: Dr. Stone
Review/Overview: Summer was a much stronger season than the spring season, though often for a lot of its sequels. We have the fun, if slight, sequel to “Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?” which is the sort of light feel good show I think the lame Slime Isekai was supposed to be, and some well-regarded spinoffs I have been assured are good even though I didn’t watch them, such as “A Certain Scientific Accelerator” and “Lord El-Melloi’s Case Files”. We also have mediocre-but-not-terrible disappointments like “Fire Force”, which at least has decent animation sometimes. “Vinland Saga” I haven’t had the opportunity to watch yet; I’ve heard it’s…pretty fine.
But by far, and I mean by far, the best anime of the summer is “Dr. Stone”. Holy crap do I love this show. “Dr. Stone’s” premise is as simple as it is awesome: One day all of humanity turns to stone. Over 3,000 years later Senku Ishigami, a genius high schooler with a passion for science, wakes up along with his dim-witted but physically adept friend Taiju, and together they set about rebuilding civilization and reviving the stone world.
The show starts off with a bang, leaning into the horror of the premise and introducing an unforgettable character in Senku, then steadily improves as it goes along. “Dr. Stone” is not a battle anime, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hype. “Dr. Stone” is an anime about science, yes, but more importantly it’s an anime about how humanity is awesome and how we take for granted all of the wonders of the modern world that people of the past could only dream of.
The hype moments take place in the form of technological and scientific achievements, as Senku slowly reintroduces modern technology to a lovable cast of characters. It also features what is absolutely my scene of the year, even over “Demon Slayer’s” epic episode 19 fight, in the final minutes of episode 9, an utterly awe-inspiring moment that needs to be seen for itself to be fully appreciated.
Imagine you have never seen a light bulb, a record, a generator, antibiotics, or even pasta before. What would it be like to see it for the first time? To watch the modern world come into being? The answer to that question is the true appeal of “Dr. Stone” (not to mention its gorgeous backgrounds and hilarious facial expressions), and I can’t recommend it enough.
Runner-up: Despite some good sequels no new shows really stood out to me, but for what its worth I’ve heard “Vinland Saga” is pretty decent, if a bit divisive. As far as sequels I do recommend “Is it Wrong to Pick up Girls in a Dungeon?” for a fun time.
Fall Season Winner: No Guns Life
Review/Overview: The Fall season has been insanely good, both in new shows and sequels. Though stuffed with isekai not even all of them are disasters for once. What I’m just going to call “Pro Wrestler Isekai” and “Cautious Hero Isekai” are okay, if not hilarious, comedies; ultimately I think if Pro Wrestler Isekai – written by the Konosuba author – had the animation quality of “Cautious Hero Isekai”, it would probably be great, but as is one is written very well but has bland animation and one is animated hilariously but feels more like a knock-off “Konosuba” then the anime by the “Konosuba” guy. Still, both can be an okay time.
“Ascendance of a Bookworm” is a very, very slow burn, and I’m getting tired of medieval European-style settings, but the characters are lovely, the ideas behind it are interesting, and it looks great. If you are okay with the snail’s pace there’s a lot to love about it. Even a show like “Assassin’s Pride”, which is generic light novel trash, is really, really well animated and well drawn with an interesting world and terrific visuals. I can’t and won’t recommend it, but we’re in a season where even the bad shows actually have effort put into them.
To say nothing of the sequels, season 4 of “My Hero Academia” and even season 3 of “Chihayafiuru”, which is a surprisingly fun little show about a girl obsessed with the Japanese card game Karuta and the relationships that have been formed around it.
That said, two new shows this season were both absolutely outstanding, “No Guns Life” and “Beastars”, but while I absolutely love “Beastars” and unreservedly recommend it I have to give “No Guns Life” the nod as anime of the season. In a dystopian future Juzo Inui is a private eye working as a “Resolver” where he takes on cases specifically related to “extended”, humans who have augmented their body with cybernetic extensions. In fact, Juzo is an extended himself, a particularly dramatic one, in fact. You see, his head is a gun.
Yeah. His head. Is a gun. Straight up, just a gun.
So this show is awesome, of course. With a premise like that, how could it not be? But it’s even better than that. “No Guns Life” is smart. Juzo’s (outstanding) character design can easily be played campily and over the top, but the show goes a different way and plays everything with total seriousness. As a result Juzo, while absolutely badass, comes off as a distinctly tragic figure. I think the most impressive part of this show is that once I started watching it I never thought to myself “Man does Juzo look silly”. He isn’t a silly character, he’s a sad one, his humanity forcibly taken away so he could be turned into a living weapon.
And yes, he is indeed super cool. Remember, only people Juzo accepts get to touch his trigger, and he doesn’t intend to accept anyone. The other main characters, a teenager rescued by Juzo from the evil Beruhren Corporation, who conducted human experimentation on children, and Mary, Juzo’s mechanic, are both immediately interesting to watch, to say nothing of the colorful cast of minor characters appearing regularly throughout the show. The plot is an engaging conspiracy mystery with plenty of twists and turns, and the studio in charge is the legendary Madhouse so of course the animation is great. It all feels like a 90’s throwback anime in the best possible way – mature storytelling for a slightly older audience with a serious-looking art style and color palette.
I should note that for the first time on this list it is questionable if the show is strictly speaking superversive. “No Guns Life” is a neo-noir, and the essence of noir is that the world of black and white, good and evil, is gone: We’re in a world of gray now. But inside this world of gray are men like Juzo, who hold onto the flame of integrity even though they know it has no value in a world like this – but that doesn’t matter, because sometimes something is still the right thing to do. Good isn’t always rewarded, evil isn’t always punished, but that’s no excuse for breaking your moral code, because in the world of gray it’s even more important than ever before. Is that superversive? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s certainly compelling. Highly recommended.
Runner-up: I can’t emphasize enough that “Beastars”, dark tale about the lives of herbivores and carnivores living in a society where they are forced to integrate as equals, is very nearly just as good a show as “No Guns Life”. Specifically, “Beastars” takes place in a school and follows the life of Legosi, a polite and mild-mannered wolf who is constantly swallowing down sudden urges of extreme bloodlust. After a murder takes place on campus and Legosi nearly loses control and kills a rabbit, tensions mount and conflicts start to arise not only between the herbivores and the carnivores but even between fellow carnivores with conflicting ideas about how to live their lives.
The show is animated in CGI but somehow it not only works, it has one of the coolest and most distinct visual styles of the year. The music has a jazzy feel vaguely reminiscent of “Cowboy Bebop”. While the OP, “Wild Side”, isn’t necessarily the best one (there are others with more going on visually), it’s terrific musically, has legitimately incredible stop motion animation, and tells a creepy little self-contained story. “Beastars” is an excellent show, and that I prefer “No Guns Life” is arguably only a matter of taste. Highly recommended.
Best continuing show/sequel of the year: Mob Psycho 100 season 2.
Review/Overview: With so many amazing sequels having come out this year, to say nothing of the continuing shows from Fall 2018, I want to say that this was a really difficult choice. We have the terrific second half of part 5 of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, “Golden Wind”. We have the front half of season 4 of the always excellent “My Hero Academia” in its best story arc. We have the fun-if-slight shows “Is it Wrong to Pick up Girls in a Dungeon?” season 2 and “Chihayafuru” season 3. All of these shows ranged from good to outstanding and could easily win in any other year.
(Note: “My Hero Academia”, if the arc is executed well, would probably win if the FULL season was shown instead of just the first half.)
I want to say this was a really difficult choice, but it wasn’t difficult at all. Season 2 of “Mob Psycho 100” was somehow even better than the incredible season 1 of the show, and cements its status as an instant classic. It’s hilarious, it’s touching, the animation is insanely good, and the message that hard work and self-improvement is the key to making a fulfilling life for yourself is just as profound in the modern
anime world landscape as ever. Despite airing all the way back in the winter season, and despite many other excellent shows up against it, there was never any other real contender. There’s no excuse not to be watching this one by now.
And now, last but not least…
New show of the year: Dr. Stone
This year really was insanely strong. It featured five – Five! – shows that easily could have been anime of the year in almost any other year in “The Promised Neverland”, “Demon Slayer”, “No Guns Life”, “Beastars”, and “Dr. Stone”. But I can’t in good conscience pick any show but “Dr. Stone” as new anime of the year. Like “The Promised Neverland” its premise is immediately eye-catching, but unlike that show it doesn’t have any weird pacing issues, and it has one of the most compelling protagonists ever.
The production values are not to the level of “Demon Slayer” and it doesn’t feature much action, but it explores ideas that are far more interesting and features moments that are just as hype as any fight scene. It doesn’t have the twisty plot or mature style of “No Guns Life” but it has an infectious enthusiasm for humanity that really makes you reflect on just how much our species has accomplished.
It’s a super optimistic show with a great premise, a great protagonist, great backgrounds, great character designs, great facial expressions, great ideas, and is overall the most fun I’ve had watching an anime this year. In a year of strengths, “Dr. Stone” stands out as the strongest. I am ten billion percent certain you’ll regret it if you miss it.
Bonus section – Disappointment of the year: “Carole and Tuesday”
This year featured in my opinion four contenders for the title. “Fire Force” was much hyped but ended up being mostly dull with bursts of action that were hard to be invested in thanks to the unmemorable characters and unimpressive plot. After an incredible season 1 “One Punch Man’s” second season was a dud that had none of the effort and passion that went into the original season of the show. “The Rising of the Shield Hero” was again much hyped but suffered from the same problems as every other isekai story even as it pretended it didn’t.
But while the easy pick for disappointment of the year is “One Punch Man”, I’m not going to pick that. Really, didn’t we all know it would be bad when we heard Madhouse wasn’t going to be handling it? Instead I’ll have to give the award to “Carole and Tuesday”, a Shinichiro Watanabe show about a rich girl in a sci-fi future who moves to the city to make it big in music, where she teams up with a poor waitress and they form a band. Watanabe, the legendary director of classics like “Cowboy Bebop”, “Samurai Champloo”, and “Space Dandy” putting out a show centered around music? How could it miss?
Alas, miss it did. The first episode was one of the most predictably trite first episodes I’ve ever seen for a show. It did absolutely nothing interesting. The characters weren’t interesting, the worldbuilding wasn’t interesting, the animation wasn’t interesting…nothing. It was just bland, bland, bland – the last thing I expected from a Watanabe show. Listen to the soundtrack and ignore the rest of it. It’ll save you some time.