It’s that time of the year again, and increasingly I’ve found the biggest challenge of picking an anime of the year is actually remembering what I watched. This isn’t to say that the shows have been bad or forgettable. Much as we love them, it can be hard to concentrate on Japanese cartoons when all the news in the real world always seems so terrible. Then again, it’s been a pretty good year for anime, honestly! New shows and longstanding franchises alike have all impressed, and even the misses have had something going for them.
And yet, thanks to day jobs and other real-life circumstances, I’ve also become a more distracted viewer, less and less able to keep up with new shows as they come in week to week. Much as I dislike the way licensing moves by companies like Amazon and Netflix have tended to stifle active discussion (by “locking up” shows until after a season has passed), they may be on the money when it comes to predicting the habits of viewing adults like yours truly.
Indeed, several of my picks this year came thanks to fevered binge-watching sessions rather than the weekly drop I once favored. Nevertheless, I did make my decisions, and these are my personal picks for Best Anime of 2016.
[Editor's Note: As with last year's Japanator Awards, our lists are arranged in order, with our #1 pick being our favorite of the year. To qualify for inclusion in the Japanator awards, a candidate must have concluded a broadcast run or season ("cour") within the calendar year of 2016.]
5. Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans Season 1 and Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt
Over the last few years, my favorite Gundam productions have engaged with Gundam not just as a common brand but as a cultural phenomenon and an artifact of history shared by all its fans. Shows like Build Fighters and games like Gundam Breaker thought of the famous mecha franchise as a series of toys rather than weapons of war. For all intents and purposes, the fourth wall between Gundam and the world didn’t exist in those titles.
Iron-Blooded Orphans and Thunderbolt, which tie for this place, do a similar thing, but in a different way. Instead of breaking down the fourth wall and recognizing Gundam as the toy and media property it is, these two series – Orphans in particular, grapples with the longstanding patterns and archetypes of Gundam stories, tackling them in fresh new ways and re-contextualizing them to examine, and even challenge their old meanings.
Iron-Blooded Orphans takes the traditional Gundam standby of the teenage pilot and recasts its aura over the child soldiers of Tekkadan, framing their struggles as a heroic, but fundamentally tragic and flawed quest to carve out a place in the world the only way they know how – by brutal violence. It doesn’t shy away from the compromised morality of their position, allowing the viewer to think outside the good-guys-bad-guys dichotomy and see war, even justified war, as the tragedy it is. And this all happened in Season 1. Season 2 is ongoing, and proves Orphans as the rare multi-cour anime that gets better as it goes on.
Similarly, Gundam Thunderbolt frames war’s consuming nature through the stories – and bodies – of its pilots, and looks and sounds absolutely stunning while doing it. Both series succeed where shows like Gundam 00 tried and failed, finding a fresh, character-driven approach to familiar themes.
Keijo!!!!!!!! is this year’s trashy treasure, and a blazing, bouncy reaffirmation of the fact that you can’t judge any anime series by its premise alone. It manages to be credible sports/battle anime in a year chock full of entertaining sports series, but distinguishes itself by its utterly ludicrous premise: That there is a genuine competitive scene out there for ladies who like to knock each other into pools using only their chests and hindquarters. It’s magnificent.
Sure, ludicrous premises for sports are part and parcel of the anime experience, and in the end Keijo!!!!!!!! doesn’t quite come up to the level of, say, Girls und Panzer, Yowapeda or Haikyuu for elevating the genre. But it gets credit in my book for really leaning into the fan service in a way not even dedicated fan service shows manage to, selling the sexier aspects as a real facet of the proceedings on-screen, rather than just horndog opportunism and pandering. That they had to do it by structuring the entire show around weaponized fan service is telling, of course, but what matters is that it works and has led to true glory in this case.
3. Girlish Number
I love Shirobako and consider it one of my favorite anime of all time, thanks to the strength of its direction and its appealing cast, but also because it was almost a documentary, revealing the production side of anime creation at its stress-ridden studio source. That said, there’s no denying that the show was fundamentally more positive and optimistic in its outlook, tending to gloss over some of the industry’s quirks and (very real) problems.
By contrast, I call Girlish Number “Shirobako with bloodshed on its mind.” The show, penned by My Teen RomCom SNAFU author Wataru Watari. Knowing it’s from the author that brought the world a butthead like Hachiman might have been a dealbreaker for me, but Watari’s typically cynical disposition is tempered by charm and sarcastic comedy. Its sharp-tongued jabs at the industry’s troubles come from a better place as well: Where SNAFU’s downer snark made its characters too unlikeable for me to stick with, Girlish Number’s attitude comes from exasperation and a tired but essentially hopeful mindset. Perhaps that’s what’s needed to survive in the anime industry these days, but whatever the case, Girlish Number gets the job done.
2. Mob Psycho 100
I may have picked One Punch Man as one of my anime of the year, but I have to admit that I thought of it as a fluke. The pairing of an irreverent webcomic satire of battle manga tropes with the most talented and dynamic battle manga (and anime) producers around was a great juxtaposition, and the result was the best kind of appropriation you could ask for. On the other hand, Mob Psycho 100 seemed different. While retaining its notion of a nearly omnipotent lead, it struck me as a more typical story at first, and I wondered if the same approach would reap the same awards.
I shouldn’t have worried. Bones took a different, yet equally effective tack in adapting their source. Rather than play up the highly detailed, deliberately conventional style of Yuusuke Murata’s One Punch Man, they hewed closer to the squashed and deformed caricatures of the original webcomic, supplementing it with brilliant handcrafted effects work and crackerjack characterization. Bones really helped sell the struggle of one young boy as he tried not to be driven bonkers by life’s little ordeals, lest he unleashed his omnipotent psychic powers. But like the deeper appeal of One Punch Man, Mob Psycho 100’s lush visuals and action cloak a series of sometimes-touching personal dramas. A boy that struggles to communicate with the people around him. A mentor trying to live up the image of him held by his pupils. A brother wrestling with his sense of inferiority. These relatable, everyday conflicts formed a strong foundation for the insanity on-screen to grow from.
1. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu
Perhaps it’s telling that the best anime of 2016 is the show that is the least “anime”, at least as we go by the commonly-held stereotypes of what anime is. There are no giant robots, destined heroes, wacky sports, boob humor, or high school age students. Instead, there is an old man, a young man, a young woman, a long legacy, a name freighted with meaning, an obscure, old-fashioned art form, and a time period that your parents likely lived in.
It could have been a live-action prestige drama series or a feature film. It could have been a big novel. It could’ve been a lengthy stage play. But now it’s an anime, and it’s a thing to see and hear. Expert performances sell two eras and a sharply written, almost painfully tragic personal history. The only qualms I have about picking Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu for anime of 2016 will be that I may be pressured to not pick next year’s continuation as the anime of the year in 2017.
Honorable Mentions: Sound! Euphonium, Yuri On Ice, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable, Osomatsu-san, My Hero Academia
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