Folks, I gotta get something off my chest right now:
I won’t bore with all the details, but let’s just say I’m not doing too well; a combination of stress, some bad habits for the past month coming to bite me, and just a general sense of anxiety as I course correct. And as I’ve watched the state of the world continuously spiral into an inevitable collision course with whatever apocalypse seems likely, it’s put me in an unmotivated state to do anything, much less anything creative.
I’ve had a rough week.
Even now, as I placed the finishing touches on this article, I debated publishing it all because I couldn’t think of a great way to start this piece. Until this past year, I’ve always been on the observer end. Now writing about anime on a semi-regular basis, making my very first Top 10 Anime and finding the “right” order ended up being harder than I imagined. Asking around the AniTAY community online, I decided to take their advice:
“Just go with your gut.”
By the time this gets published, there will be plenty already said about the best anime of 2019, and with award season coming up (including our very own AniTAY Awards!), I wasn’t sure I had anything new to contribute that hasn’t been said before. And while my list probably won’t be too out of the ordinary (with a few exceptions), I went with my gut.
Before I get into this, some house rules:
- While the official AniTAY Awards includes ongoing series, I’m only including completed series/seasons for this list. Please note any series that were not legally available at the time are not considered.
- No Movies, OVAs, or Specials. It’s hard for me to write about a 2 hour film you vaguely remember from a few months back that you’ve only seen once, or I probably would have added Promare.
So with my votes cast to our official Awards, here are my Top 10 Anime of 2019:
10. Psycho-Pass 3
One of my favorite sci-fi investigative thrillers quietly launched its third season on Amazon Prime this past Fall season. With a new cast of investigators along some returning faces, Psycho-Pass 3 marked not only a welcome return to the series after a five year gap from the second season (not counting the films released in between), but a triumph comeback for the franchise by focusing the narrative on policemen Arata Shindo and Kei Mikhail Ignatov. As noted by fellow contributor, DilKokoro, much of their “buddy cop” dynamics fuels the underlying tone of Psycho-Pass 3, leveraging the elements that worked in the first season and adding another notable element shared in many of the best crime dramas: good old fashion police work.
Okay, this is still a story about a futuristic system that monitors its population through their mental stability to determine the likelihood of committing a crime (Crime Coefficient), and while there is still a good deal of the typical sci-fi elements and Illuminati-like group pulling the strings the series is known for, much of it is pushed to the background until the last few episodes. By establishing its characters on and off duty, fans of Psycho-Pass and newcomers will easily find one of the most engaging sci-fi and investigative police stories of any title this year.
A complete reimagining of Osamu Tezuka’s manga of the same name and second attempt at an anime adaption, Dororo (2019) captivated several of our contributors at AniTAY with its grim premise (a wandering ronin hellbent on taking back what was stolen), bleak and graphic visuals, and ultimately, grand tale of finding humanity in the darkest days through its leads Hyakkimaru and the titular child of the same name.
I imagine years from now Dororo will be the textbook example on how to adapt and modernize an old story given the source material ended before it ever took off. The new Dororo does not shy away from its depictions of suffering with almost every character meeting some form of injustice or unfortunate event in their lives. It is through the eyes of Hyakkimaru and Dororo themselves that the audience is able to see the tug and pull at the former’s soul as his vengeance slowly transforms him into the very demons he hunts down. While its second half struggles a bit due to some notable production issues, as well as some weaker side filler, Dororo is the rare anime that tells a complete story and ultimately closes things out on a satisfying note.
8. Carole & Tuesday
The anime that actually prompted me to update one of my seasonal anime song lists AFTER I had published it, Carole & Tuesday’s second half premiered on Christmas Eve and I pretty much binge watched it to be able to add it on this list (otherwise, this would have been a 2020 nominee). Was it worth the wait?
Truth be told, I’ve never cared for most of Shinichirō Watanabe’s early works; specifically Cowboy Bepop. Don’t get me wrong, he’s worked on some incredible titles (my favorite was Samurai Champloo until recently) and his penchant for music and Western productions cannot be overstated. That said, I’ve always felt there was something lacking in a lot of his works; an overreaching plot or commentary. And while the characters and style are what ultimately sell a lot of his most beloved shows, the episodic structure can sometimes hinder or even weigh down the story it is trying to tell.
Carole & Tuesday occasionally dips into a more episodic nature, but the reason why it’s now my favorite Watanabe anime is it manages to tell a complete and personal story while still being able to approach much broader themes in a more organic fashion than his previous works. Again, it can be a bit inconsistent, notably the undeveloped immigration story in the second half, and it takes a while before Carole & Tuesday’s titular pair intersect with Angela’s story line. However, Carole & Tuesday finds success by humanizing most of its cast, focusing on the importance of creativity and expression, and most of all, celebrating the differences and diversity of the world with one of the most evocative finales on this list.
7. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba
An anime that needs no introduction, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba took the anime world by storm with its incredible visuals, deep cut battles, and memorable characters. Compared to many of the other shonen that debuted in 2019, Demon Slayer is a traditional, if straightforward approach to the battle shonen formula.
Now before you take up your Nichirin swords, hear me out:
It is because it is a traditional, straightforward approach to the battle shonen formula while adding in its unique touches that proves why it’s great. Simply put, it’s a really well put together show that manages to find its own voice through some breathtaking fights and a compassionate protagonist with a personal stake in his quest to turn his sister Nezuko back into a human after their family is slaughtered and the latter becomes a demon. It checks off a lot of the standard shonen trademarks I look for while managing to make its own mark and occasionally even put some of the founders on notice. This isn’t the only shonen on this list, but Demon Slayer is a nice reminder of what I love about the genre and one of two shows this year that prove you don’t have to invent or reinvent the genre to tell a compelling a story.
Speaking of which...
6. Radiant (Season 1)
I’ll have more on the second season at a later date as it is continuing into Winter 2020, but for this list, I wanted to focus on the completed first season which I covered towards the beginning of the year.
Taking place in a world where sorcerers are feared and discriminated against while also being the only force capable of defeating the demons that cursed them (called “Nemesis”), Radiant begins as Seth’s journey to reform the world as one of those cursed wizards. Like Demon Slayer, it starts off formulaic while adding its own twists to the genre overtime. Though the pacing drew some criticism, the world, characters, and surprisingly grounded take on real world issues put it in a class of its own.
What truly puts it over the top over similar titles in the genre is its willingness to allow the cast to fail, grow, and own up to their mistakes in a way that a lot of other battle heavy shonen are simply not afforded. Placing the focus on its characters and their respective plights, Radiant shines above its peers by emphasizing their relationships and asking them to look inward to resolve their issues, with one particular episode standing among the very best of the year.
In a year that’s been largely defined by new and “transformative” shows that redefine the shonen template and a handful of eagerly anticipated sequels, along with some unforgettable fight scenes and shocking reveals that dominated many of the conversations online, it can be easy to forget what truly makes the shonen genre special. Radiant is a story about choices and consequences, a reminder that change can happen to anyone at any time, and about the people who guide us from the darkness.
But if you are curious about the new season, I might have a “few” thoughts on the first half:
5. Fruits Basket
Since I’m confessing my anime sins, I might as well continue the trend. It’s been about 18 years in between the first Fruits Basket anime and the 2019 remake. To be blunt, I thought the first series was “just okay,” though I’ve never had a strong affinity for the original as my more experienced anime acquaintances. Then again, I was fairly young at the time and anime hadn’t really taken off to the degree of success found today, so something about it never clicked for me or I was too young to appreciate what it was going for.
Perhaps as a working young adult with his own personal issues, there was something that appealed to me in the new Fruits Basket. Whether it was the emotional depths of Tohru Honda and the Soma family experienced, ranging everywhere from depression to self-doubt/selflessness, or finding myself emotionally invested in these characters as the show explored their inner darkness, Fruits Basket (2019) is more than just another slice-of-life comedy or romance story, proving why the series has endured for so long even after the first series ran its course.
4. Mob Psycho 100 II
It’s not often a sequel manages to outdo its predecessor, but Mob Psycho 100 II improves and surpasses its original series. By building around its central protagonist, Shigeo “Mob” Kageyama and expanding on his growth through the people in his life, Mob II tells a surprisingly down to earth story for the bulk of its run before escalating into more outlandish battle shonen territory with some of the most incredible fight animations of any series this year.
Unsurprisingly, several of our AniTAY writers also found a lot of depth in the new season. What makes Mob II an exceptional anime is the “calm before the storm” moments as Mob’s social circles and everyday life presents challenges and opportunities for those dealing with their own personal issues or have completely withdrawn from society. One of my favorite parts is a pair of episodes that finally sees Mob’s mentor Reigen undergo a personal journey as circumstances pull the two in opposite directions for a time. Even with psychic powers, Mob’s greatest ability is to empathize and see the potential good in people who have lost their way.
3. Astra Lost in Space
An anime favorite that fueled several internal discussions around the AniTAY community and the Discord channel, Astra Lost in Space is a complete adaption of one of the first digital titles published by Shonen Jump. Back in Summer of 2019, I called Astra “the breakout shonen of the season in what will likely go down as one of my favorites of the year,” in the season that also gave us Dr. Stone and Fire Force no less.
A space camp adventure gone wrong, Astra centers around nine children who find themselves stranded off world and forced to make their way home while uncovering the forces that brought them together. Notice I didn’t list a central main character in that brief description. While the original title is “Kanata no Astra”, all nine kids are equally the leads and primary drivers to the main plot as the story dives deeper into their personal backgrounds, their complex relationships with their families and struggles/fears, and how their survival is dependent on one another.
Going back to my earlier statement, I can safely say my faith was not misplaced as one of the top five anime on this list. Weaving a sci-fi mystery with some light humor and character drama, Astra is one of the breakout shonen of the year, sharing the title with my next pick.
2. The Promised Neverland
As one of the first AniTAY reviews I collaborated on back when I was still getting the hang of things on the site, The Promised Neverland is a rarity in the world of shonen, ditching the battle heavy formula made famous in Shonen Jump for a much darker and emotional story about a group of orphans that uncover a secret so shocking it changes their lives forever.
The Promised Neverland, at its core, is a horror, thriller, and a story about sacrifice and family all at once. It’s also one of the most chilling and warm stories of the year. Centered around the idealist and athletic Emma, the intelligent and empathetic Norman, and realist and covert Ray, Neverland’s trio reshapes a lot of what we’ve come to understand as the typical “shonen trio” (hero/heroine/rival) as a result of their circumstances and their caretaker/main antagonist. While there is a much bigger force at work behind the scenes, it’s their relationship with their “mother,” guardian, and eventually obstacle that propels Isabella as one of the most complex villains of any anime and pushing Neverland into what I imagine several have already called one of the best new series of the year.
1. Vinland Saga
“Everyone is a slave to something.”
Based on Makoto Yukimura’s manga of the same name, Vinland Saga is a tale set in the age of Vikings as a former Viking commander named Thors lays down his weapons to live out a peaceful existence with his wife and children. But when events transpire that bring him to reluctantly take up arms again, his son Thorfinn sneaks aboard hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps. In time, however, he learns the true price of war and begins his own journey and what it truly means to follow the path of a warrior.
The story of Vinland can be largely described in three distinct parts, starting with Thors’s post-retirement from killing leading up to his son taking up the sword following a turn of events sometime later when Thorfinn finds himself in the company of Askeladd and his mercenaries. Fueled by revenge, Vinland’s “second arc” this season explores Thorfinn’s descent into the violent world his father left behind and the target of his vengeance. But as the season enters its final “3rd arc” before concluding, the story shifts once more as Askeladd’s unpredictably and web of lies deepens when another faction enters the story, further complicating his true allegiances, motives, and just how far he is willing to go to reach his goals. To steal a quote from fellow contributor, Doctorkev, Askeledd is simply one “Magnificent Bastard.”
2019 had a lot of great anime, and while I would have liked to cover a few more, there simply wasn’t anything quite like Vinland Saga this year, ending on one of the most unforgettable season finales.
This concludes my top 10 anime of 2019. Now I turn it over to you. What were your favorite anime of the year?
Dark Aether is a writer/contributor for TAY and AniTAY. You can follow him on Twitter @UndeadAether. Not Dead Yet.