I’ll be honest; the Winter season of anime is usually one of the least exciting ones, with a lot of the big names saving themselves for Spring/Autumn. However, there are always a few gems, and this season was no exception with some standout hits that I never would have expected. I wanted to take a moment to get some words on paper about what I watched, what surprised me and what my favourites were. To make it fair, I’ll be including shows from last season that have just ended, but not shows I’m watching now that won’t end until a later season.
A.I.C.O Incarnation was one of the many Netflix Originals that dropped into our laps this season, even if it did go largely unnoticed compared to the likes of Devilman Crybaby, Godzilla or B: The Beginning. Honestly, I can kind of see why; while I enjoyed the way A.I.C.O stuck to its guns and focused on the main plot, and the animation was very impressive as one would expect from Studio Bones, the lack of deviation meant that at least two thirds of the cast went entirely undeveloped which made it hard to care much about the stakes. Even the main villain is pretty one note and unconvincing, although Takehito Koyasu tries his best to salvage it with the hammiest Dio voice he can muster, which I did appreciate. There’s still something worthwhile here for sci-fi fans, but if you prefer good characterisation in your anime you can probably skip A.I.C.O.
Favourite Episode: Episode 1. It gives a brief but engaging introduction to the world and the main character, sets up some mysteries and ends with a great cliffhanger that makes you want to watch at least one more episode to see where the show could be headed.
Pop Team Epic
I’ll be honest, I still don’t know if the Pop Team Epic anime is real and by this point I’m too afraid to ask. Did we all just have a collective fever dream and imagine the whole thing? If so then knock me out again, because I never want it to end. Although not to everyone’s taste, for fans of the kind of comedy you get from “weird twitter” Pop Team Epic is a wild ride, and surprisingly innovative for a weird gag anime that at times goes out of its way to be bad. I don’t think any of us expected each episode to be one twelve minute episode repeated twice, each with a male or female voice cast that switched out each episode, along with just enough ad libbing in each of the segments that you’d partly be watching it twice over just to spot the differences. But now it’s gone, and life is cold… but at least we’ll be getting a second season of Hoshiiro Girldrop!
Favourite Episode: Episode 8! Of the longer form skits, “The Dragon of Iidabashi ~Pipi’s Revenge~” was my absolute favourite. The lemon eating scene was gold in both versions, and I think we can all appreciate a yakuza duo who go around taking people down for YouTube Crimes. With how this year’s been going down so far maybe that’s not such a bad idea. Episode 7 is a close second, as the flipbook Hellshake Yano segment is genuinely impressive.
After the Rain
I have to appreciate an anime whose art direction perfectly captures its themes. The girlish, pastel palette, the long, lingering shots and the vivid, glistening scenery all capture the wistful emotions behind After the Rain perfectly. What could have easily been a vaguely skeevy age-gap romance became a beautiful coming of age story, where the two leads form a close friendship that helps both of them move past the regrets and depression that they were repressing. I found the two leads very compelling and, although it was uncomfortable at first, the trusting relationship that they build by the end of the anime is touching and you can tell it changed their lives for the better. I love a low-key drama and After the Rain delivered exactly what I was looking for.
Favourite Episode: Episode 4, where Akira goes on a date first with Kase, a colleague from her work, and then Kondo, the object of her affections, was really interesting due to how you could compare and contrast both of those relationships. Kase is a super creepy guy who basically blackmails Akira into going on a date with him, is very pushy the whole time, and kisses her against her consent. Akira basically pesters Kondo enough about going on a date with her, but she is overjoyed the entire time while Kondo seems kind of bemused. The dates mirror each other because they participate in the same activities both times. As well as the obvious comparison of Kase and Kondo as potential dating partners, where Kase is pushy, leery and obnoxious while Kondo is very upstanding and respectful, Akira and Kase also share some similarities in the way they pursue their potential love interests which makes this an interesting episode to think about.
The Ancient Magus’ Bride
Despite some slow points along the way, The Ancient Magus’ Bride was well worth the hype. Chise and Elias are both incredibly compelling characters who you really get to understand over the course of the show, and the rest of the cast gets an impressive amount of development over the 24 episode runtime. I was most interested in learning more about magic and the strange and whimsical occurrences in their world; some of my favourite episodes were centred around the dragons, and I loved finding out more about Silky. Although I don’t think the anime did much to improve upon the source material it was still a wonderful journey, and I’d love to see another season in a couple of years time.
Favourite Episode: There are a ton of episodes that I could choose, but I have to go with Episode 22. Finally getting to learn the true story of how Chise’s family fell apart and watching her re-contextualise and start to move past her trauma was so moving. The minimalist use of the musical score until it was needed really helped to heighten the atmosphere. Every element fell perfectly into place to deliver a knockout episode.
Laid Back Camp
I love chill shows. That’s no secret. Non Non Biyori? I’m all about that. Sweetness and Lightning? Hell yeah, I feel cosy. Laid Back Camp is the TV equivalent of comfort food. The relaxed pace, the likeable characters, the beautiful background art, and the mouthwatering food all come together to make an anime that feels like a warm hug after a long day at work. There was not a single stressful moment in this show, and sometimes that’s all you need. It helps that I feel I can relate to Shima Rin on a spiritual level; she’s a classic introvert who loves chilling out and camping by herself while occasionally texting her friends, who all love and support her. What’s better than this?
Favourite Episode: Episode 12. I loved finally getting to see all the girls camping together in the final episode. Nadeshiko’s vision of their future where they’d all still be camping together into adulthood was heart-warming, as was her and Shimarin’s accidental meetup at the end. It helps that they also ate some amazing looking food. Who allowed drawings of food to look this good?
There was a run of about five episodes of Violet Evergarden where I was incapable of not crying when I watched them. I tried, I really did, but this is an anime that knows not just how to tug on your heartstrings, but to play them like a fiddle. I greatly enjoyed Violet’s emotional journey to understand both the major’s words, “I love you”, and her own feelings. A visual masterpiece, Violet Evergarden swept me up in its world and wouldn’t put me down.
That’s not to say it was perfect. The story is slow to start and too much time is spent in the early episodes on not much happening, and the last couple of episodes before the finale weren’t that interesting. Luckily the show recovers from these small stumbles easily and provides a tale full of beauty and heart.
Favourite Episode: It’s a strange choice to have what may be the biggest emotional turning point happen in Episode 9, and yet somehow Violet Evergarden manages to pull it off. It encompasses both Violet’s darkest moments but also showcases her strengths in managing to move past it and look onward to another day. By having the big moment happen earlier in the story it means that we get to see a new side of Violet in later episodes, allowing us to appreciate how far she has come and see the world through her new, more emotionally intelligent lens.
Watching Devilman Crybaby was an experience I will never forget. It’s strange: when I watched the first episode on the Friday it was released, I really didn’t enjoy it and though the show was very much Not For Me. Admittedly I’ve always found Yuasa’s productions a bit difficult to watch; something about his animation style doesn’t appeal to me, and in some cases makes me feel weirdly motion sick. I also felt that it was throwing around gore and sex for shock value, or to seem “cool” or “edgy” in that super nineties way. And yet, by the Sunday, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I decided to check out a couple more episodes and was quickly hooked, and finished the rest within a day or two. This anime resonated with me in a way I would never have expected and I was genuinely moved to tears by the last couple of episodes. Yuasa and the rest of the team did a fantastic job adapting the original manga for a modern audience while adding their own flair. I will still be thinking about Devilman Crybaby for a long time yet.
Favourite Episode: Episode 9. This was a very difficult one to watch for a number of reasons, but that’s part of the appeal. The shock I felt during parts of this episode was so raw that I can still recall it now, months later, when I think back to watching it. When it comes to the themes of Devilman Crybaby, the human vs demon dichotomy and which side is really in the wrong, this is the episode that encompasses and explores that idea to its core. It’s an uncomfortable experience, but an important one.
March Comes In Like A Lion Season Two
I can never get enough of March Comes In Like A Lion. It delivers everything I crave: melancholy drama, soft slice of life action, introspective explorations of the entire cast, beautiful visuals and plenty of mouthwatering food. The jokes fall flat occasionally, but if that’s the worst thing you can say about a series then it has to be doing something right. This season delivered some fantastic material, including the bullying arc and Burnt Field, then lightened up towards the end of the season to give us a lovely send off where we could fully appreciate how the characters have grown over the last twenty-two episodes. I really hope we get a third season, because March deserves it. If it could also air at the same time as the third season of Chihayafuru that we’re finally getting then that would be my life made.
Favourite Episode: From this season it would be Episode 4, which is one of the first episodes of the bullying arc. This episode had so much dramatic impact and marked the beginning of Rei and Hina’s development in this season, with this being the start of Hina’s frustration at her peers and her teacher doing nothing to deal with hers or Shiho’s problems, and Rei’s desperate need to help Hina and the way that the moment they share on the bridge goes on to change his world-view. Episode 22 comes in as a close second; I love the end of season bookends where they show how the characters have changed and grown, with Rei visiting his adoptive mother and helping Hina say goodbye to old friends and transition into the next period of her life.
A Place Further Than The Universe
When the season began I wasn’t even planning on watching this, and yet somehow this became my favourite anime of the season. How did this happen? Well, an excellent cast goes a long way. So many slice of life shows are full of archetypes, but the girls in A Place Further Than The Universe are refreshingly real. They feel like friends I used to know, bursting with personality, flawed yet idealistic. The way they interact is so natural that even in transitional episodes where they are just hanging out and doing inconsequential things they carry the show so easily. The emotional highs of the anime are so much greater because you feel like you know so much about the characters, you’ve seen what they’ve gone through, that it hits you that much harder. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry as you watch these girls go on the journey of a lifetime. I can’t wait to see what the director, Atsuko Ishizuka, does next.
Favourite Episode: Episode 12. Shirase went on this journey to connect with the mother she lost, and it all culminates in this episode. You can feel her hesitation, her reluctance to go all the way to where her mother last was and have to accept that she’s really gone, all the way through the episode. The final sequence is the standout; I cried big, fat, Ghibli-style tears because it’s such a cathartic moment. That was the moment I knew this would be my top pick of the season.
How did you feel about this season’s offerings? Which anime really stood out to you, and which couldn’t live up to the hype? I can’t watch everything, so I’d love to know what you think!