With the dawning of a brand new decade, it’s time to gaze back into 2019 with 2020 vision (sorry, I couldn’t resist). I paused at regular intervals last year to provide snapshots of each season and you can read them here: Winter 2019 (middle) (end), Spring 2019 (middle) (end), Summer 2019 (middle) (end), Autumn 2019 (middle) (end). Like all grand endeavors, my efforts would be nothing without a grand finale to tie everything together and upset people with my terrible opinions.
Let’s get this out of the way first: On the whole, most Isekai is shit. How is this even contentious now?
Has there ever been such a glut of unnecessarily repetitive, low effort, bottom-barrel-scraping, JRPG-aping, “transported-to/summoned by inept Goddess/reincarnated in/transferred by aeroplane crash or motor-vehicle accident into another world” shows? A small portion of this deluge of stagnant effluence was worthwhile, but on the whole I could die happily without watching anything else from this genre. It’s a source of great frustration to me that Japan continues to churn out an endless torrent of Isekai-themed light novels that seemingly beg anime producers to adapt them, presumably with heady promises of sexual favours, all next year’s winning lottery numbers, a lifetime supply of premium-grade coke or something similarly outlandish. Rant over (for now).
Before we get to my entirely arbitrary top 10 show rankings, I’d like to mention once more that 2019 was the year we lost so many talented animators when Kyoto Animation’s primary production studio burnt down. Such senseless and tragic loss of life left an air of sadness and regret over the whole year - an irreplaceable loss to the world of animation. Please keep their families in your thoughts and prayers as they move into a new year without their loved ones.
Onto my top 10. This was a very difficult choice, and given another day, I could order these very differently.
THIS LIST WILL BE GENERALLY SPOILER-FREE
10) Ascendance of a Bookworm: Crunchyroll
Wins 2019's not-terrible Isekai award. Main is a sweet, vulnerable character, very different to your average Isekai protagonist. No transparent power fantasies here. What I liked about this was her integration into a loving family unit with Best Anime Dad who didn’t understand his strange but brilliant daughter but supported her throughout all of her bizarre schemes. The interesting medieval economics aspects were reminiscent of earlier fantasies like Spice and Wolf and Maoyu. More of a slice-of-life than a standard Isekai, with fantastical elements kept mostly to the sidelines, I do consent to watch more of this when it returns in Spring 2020.
9) O Maidens In Your Savage Season: HIDIVE
Wins the 2019 award for most realistic female teenagers. Mari Okada’s adaptation of her own manga is raw, emotional and funny with multiple cringeworthy moments best viewed through clasped fingers whilst screaming in embarrassment. See the AniTAY review here.
8) Mob Psycho 100 II: Crunchyroll
Heartfelt and emotionally truthful, Mob’s quality is leagues above your average Shonen action show. Mob himself is clearly 2019's best boy, although trickster/surprisingly effective mentor Reigen grows as a human being through suffering caused entirely by his own stupid actions. With intense action fuelled by incredible animation sequences, this show effectively balances earnest slice-of-life, tender coming-of-age and trippy psychic war. This was a much better season two than what One Punch Man managed this year, adapted from a manga by the same author. Read the AniTAY review of Mob Psycho 100 II here.
7) Stars Align: Funimation NOW
I’m generally not interested in sports shows, but this one was excellent, with believable characters, fantastically clear action choreography for the tennis matches and guest-starring the shittiest parents this side of Star Wars. Once I started watching it, I found it hard to stop. I so wish they are able to complete the story of this anime-original property after the production was halted halfway through. Wins 2019 Award for most surprisingly awesome show.
6) Vinland Saga: Amazon Prime Video
Vikings’n’violence with great production values and a high degree of historical accuracy mixed with improbable action. This was a compelling historical drama from Studio Wit of Attack on Titan fame. Main character Thorfinn is like an even more emotionally damaged and growly Eren Yeager but instead of fighting enormous man-mountains, he fights... enormous... vikings... Anyway, this is based on a long-running manga with plenty of material left to fill a season 2, 3, 4... Pray that they announce more of this. We’ll be reviewing Vinland Saga more in depth in an upcoming AniTAY review.
5) The Promised Neverland: Crunchyroll
Without a doubt, this was the best Shonen Jump manga adaptation in years, and I say that having also enjoyed 2019's Demon Slayer and Dr Stone. Based on a still-running series, there should be a season 2 coming later this year that will adapt a very different story arc. If you have not yet watched The Promised Neverland and have somehow managed to avoid spoilers, go watch this practically perfect, tense 12 episodes of horror/adventure anime. The AniTAY review is here.
4) Beastars: Netflix
Currently legally unavailable in the west due to Netflix shenanigans, it is accessible via... other means. This is such a fantastic show that explores confusing, conflicting teenage urges through herbivore/carnivore metaphor. I will not spoil it other than to say my standard description of it is “Zootopia but anime high school drama club... with bunny sex.” WATCH IT WHEN IT COMES TO NETFLIX ON MARCH 13TH.
3) Astra: Lost in Space: Funimation NOW
Impressively structured and paced ensemble show with a much deeper plot than at first appears. The characters are engaging and sympathetic, the story is interesting with well-thought-out mysteries that are unveiled in a steady, skilled way. This is a real throwback to golden age sci-fi concepts and storytelling and at only 12 episodes did not outstay it’s welcome, and I wish there was more of it despite the definitive and satisfying (if very slightly contrived) ending.
2) Carole and Tuesday: Netflix
Apart from an unfocused second half, this was a charming musical show with two very strong leads, wonderful music and an interesting setting. Sweet and innocent runaway rich girl Tuesday is especially adorable. I think this could now be my favourite Shinichirō Watanabe show (yes, even above Cowboy Bebop). I didn’t like all of the music, but everything sung by the main characters was gold. You should watch this.
1) Kaguya-sama: Love is War: Crunchyroll
By far the funniest anime I have ever watched, and I don’t even normally like most anime comedies. Every episode is a masterclass of comic timing, escalating absurdity and Death Note-level mind games. The basic setup doesn’t sound that inspiring - two top students at a prestigious academy are clearly in love with one another but each refuses to make the first move for fear of appearing subservient - but clever writing mines comedy gold from this surprisingly deep seam of inspiration. Also pink-haired dancing Goddess of Chaos Chika is definitely 2019's Best Girl. Read the AniTAY review here. Thank God they’re making more of this.
Special Mention: Rilakkuma and Kaoru: Netflix
This was almost in the top 10, but was pushed out by angsty tennis boys jamming themselves in at the last moment. Watch this wonderful stop-motion anime about a single woman who lives with two inexplicable bears and an obsessive-compulsive bird. Whimsical and gently humorous with some unforgettable imagery, it isn’t a typical anime but it deserves your attention.
Special Mention: Promare: theatrical anime
Studio Trigger’s bonkers neon pink magnum opus was the best theatrical anime I watched this year (also the only theatrical anime I saw this year). If you liked Gurren Lagann or Kill la Kill, this movie is for you. It’s like those, but with everything crammed into two non-stop hours instead of a 26-episode TV series. It’s like mainlining sherbet. Go read my review about it here.
That’s it for the best shows of this year. I could talk at length about all the other shows I watched, but they’ve been pretty well covered in my seasonal articles. The last thing I want to mention is the well-titled Booby Prize for:
Worst Fanservice EVER: Fire Force
Thanks to Kinksy for the above GIF that I had scoured the internet for without luck. Fire force is a great Shonen action show marred by incredibly inappropriate use of fanservice that defuses tension with brutal tonal whiplash and devalues the female characters in unforgivable fashion. They’d better sort this garbage out for the upcoming season 2 or I’ll likely drop the show.
I’ll leave you now with what I think could be my favourite ending song of 2019 - and it took until December 30th for it to be shown. We’ve discussed Babylon before on AniTAY (here) but I’m not about to dredge up the sheer visceral horror of Ai Magase and her axe (oops I just did - sorry). This is a gorgeous, soothing track. God knows what the translated lyrics are, let’s hope this pretty song isn’t about dismemberment.
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