Is it really that time again? Seems like only yesterday I wrote about Summer 2019's anime. In my half-season scorecard article, I declared Autumn 2019's anime to be underwhelming, and proceeded to bury myself in vintage anime to prepare for this article about 2011. Following that ordeal, I plunged headlong into my seasonal backlog, in preparation for Winter 2020's looming onslaught of new shows.
Because (believe it or not) I have a life outside of anime, I’ve been unable to watch everything my fellow writers recommended. Psycho-Pass Season 3 looks totally up my street but I’ve not seen the preceding two seasons, movie or OVA trilogy. Dilkokoro wrote an article about it here. Chihayafuru Season 3 similarly joins my Eternal Streaming Backlog of Shame. One day I’ll find time to fit 60 or so episodes of competitive poetry card game anime into my life. 2019 just was not that time.
Previously, I bemoaned the state of anime in regards the overbearing glut of cookie-cutter Isekai (transported/reincarnated into another world) shows, all with their lazy JRPG mechanics and faux-middle-age-European aesthetic. I still exist in a state of constant bemoaning, but with the aid of an unhealthy festive food carb-coma I became relaxed/immobile/apathetic enough to binge a couple of current shows from this contentious genre:
Cautious Hero: The Hero is Overpowered but Overly Cautious (all 12 episodes)
A victim of the absurdly literal and offensively descriptive light-novel naming scheme pandemic afflicting Japanese popular culture, this show truly does what it says on the tin. I hated the first few episodes of this derivative, unoriginal and unfunny bilge. The nominal main character and “cautious hero” Seiya is an unsympathetic, smug and unlikable dick who repeatedly assaults a woman. That woman is Ristarte, the hapless goddess who summoned him. She is an amalgamation of all the worst parts of Konosuba’s “useless goddess” Aqua and DanMachi’s horny-for-hero goddess Hestia. The repetitive, uninspired slapstick humour falls flat and Ristarte’s constant screeching frays my nerves.
I found more enjoyment by switching to the dub and appreciating how much the cast really go for it to make the most of the ridiculous premise. Episode 11 triggered tonal whiplash so hard I almost fell off my sofa into my pile of sweet wrappers, it actually managed to evoke real emotions and contextualise the annoying characters’ actions in what would have been an (almost) believable way, if it hadn’t felt so rushed. The ending is both conclusive and open-ended, and I’d be relieved if it finishes where it does. I hear only about a quarter of the source material has been animated though, so I guess there is more of this to come. Hooray?
Ascendance of a Bookworm (all 14 episodes)
Now this show was worthwhile from the outset. If anything it’s like Dr. Stone without the Shonen trappings - i.e. there is very little conflict. Somewhat atypical for an Isekai show, this is less of a power fantasy as “Main” (pronounced Myne), our main character (a reincarnated librarian of all things), is a sickly young girl who wants nothing more than to be able to spend her life reading. Shame that the world she’s been reincarnated into has very few books (owned exclusively by the nobility) and the majority of the common people are illiterate. Main spends her time (re)inventing basic technology (Shampoo! Pound cake! Crocheted hair ornaments!) and with very small steps progresses towards her eventual goal of producing her own books. The final episode injected some drama into this otherwise sedate and comfy show, and I have high hopes for the second cour, due in April 2020. I’m glad I eventually got around to this and was able to see past my rabid-isekai-prejudice. It seems only 99.9% of the genre is derivative shit.
Vinland Saga (all 24 episodes)
I won’t write too much about this here, as I’m contributing to the upcoming collaborative AniTAY review. Thorfinn continues to communicate mainly by screaming. Askeladd continues to be a Magnificent Bastard. Thorkell the man-mountain grins while ripping limbs from bodies. Prince Canute apparently grows some balls (though still manages to appear very feminine). Vinland Saga concludes at a sensible stopping point, though claims that after 24 episodes this was merely “the end of the prologue”. I hope that Wit Studio make more of this violent Viking epic.
Blade of the Immortal (up to episode 14 of 24)
Another historical anime with similarly violent content to Vinland Saga, but an altogether more nihilistic tone, Blade of the Immortal comes with a well-deserved warning before every episode. This show is dark. Like Vinland, it is also a well-researched period piece, set during the mid-Tokugawa Shogunate period in Japan (probably late 1700s). Our main character Rin is the survivor of an attack on her family’s dojo by a rogue group of Samurai known as the “Itto-Ryu”. They are led by young idealist/iconoclast Anotsu Kagehisa who wishes to tear down the corrupt and stifling society of the samurai. Rin swears revenge and contracts wandering ronin Manji to aid in her quest. Manji is a walking armoury with dozens of concealed weapons and an anything-goes dirty fighting style.
Despite the gritty setting, Blade has some fantastical elements - mainly in regards to Manji, who is infested by “Kessenchu”, or “sacred blood worms” that patch up any injury, even re-attaching severed limbs. The first half of the story keeps the fantastical elements in the background (except for Manji’s recoveries from some spectacularly violent and messy fights). Later in the story (at the point in the original manga where I stopped reading as due to rights issues it became unavailable in the UK for several years) Manji is subjected to gruesome experiments to ascertain the limits of his regenerative capabilities. This material is stomach-churning and seriously is not for the faint-hearted. Hateful bad-guy Shira is one of the most depraved characters in all of graphic literature, so to see him animated is both chilling and disturbing. So bleak is this show that I can manage to watch only one or two episodes at a time. I still recommend it though.
Babylon (up to episode 9 of 12)
Perhaps the most disturbing Amazon Prime show of Autumn 2019 is Babylon, more so even than the violent Vinland Saga or depraved Blade of the Immortal. To find out more about this series, read our collaborative article. So far, after a lengthy break, only two episodes of the concluding third arc have aired. It’s hard to know exactly where this show is heading, or if it even has any chance of remotely sticking the landing. Slick and unsettling but with confused messaging and laughable philosophising I can’t recommend this as a good time per se, but there is something mesemerising about it.
Beastars (all 12 episodes)
Zootopia - the anime, but High-school Drama Club with Awkward Interspecies Sex. This year I broke my usual rules about acquiring anime from non-official sources, almost entirely because of Netflix’s inflexible binge-watch policy, where they wait until entire series have aired, delay them further and then splurge them all out in one go. I imagine they must have data that backs up their decision as the best for them, but is it really the best for the individual shows? A mystery-based, plot-driven show like Beastars would really have benefited from week-to-week discussion and world-of mouth viewer growth concurrent with Japanese broadcast, rather than being delayed until 2020. I worry that after an inevitable but brief flurry of interest, this fantastic show may sink into the Netflix Anime Quagmire without the more widespread attention it sorely deserves.
Set at a High School in a society of anthropomorphised animals, it explores the tensions endemic to a mixed population of herbivores and carnivores. Officially, the carnivores survive on a diet of eggs, soya protein and other meat substitutes, but there is a dark underground market where they can go to satiate their hunger for real meat. Legosi is an imposing but gentle grey wolf who is embarrassed by his carnivore status and horrified by his natural urges who finds himself falling for the childlike Haru, a small rabbit. Legosi struggles over this attraction - does he like her because he is programmed to want her as prey? Haru also struggles with her appearance and place in society - she’s frustrated that even other herbivores treat her as something fragile, to be protected. She uses promiscuous sex to regain some of her control. Supporting character Louis the stag is an interesting mix of neuroses and ambition, railing against his status as a herbivore, he craves recognition and dominance over his perceived oppressors.
I don’t want to go too far into spoiler territory here as it is not yet released officially in the West, but please do seek this series out when you can - it is something really quite special. Also if you felt Zootopia was seriously lacking in the bunny sex department, I guess Beastars was made for you.
Carole and Tuesday (all 24 episodes)
Now that Netflix has finally released the second half of this series in the West, I can talk freely about it. What a fantastic show. The first 12 episodes dealt with the very beginnings of the titular duo’s musical career, with little in the way of narrative diversion. This second half is somewhat less focused and loses a little of its lustre with some poorly explored diversions into politics, racial and gender identity. In general their world is convincingly portrayed - at least on the superficial level, however the plot focusing on Tuesday’s politician mother was wrapped up too conveniently, was unconvincing and seemed like an attempt at trendy-point scoring against the USA’s current political climate. (We can all understand that, though can’t we?)
The same goes for the under-cooked immigration plot. It was nice that they did at least try to explore some of the racial tensions underpinning this future society, but in a show where the main thrust of the plot is the progression of Carole and Tuesday’s music careers, such weighty themes could not be given the justice they deserved. And the less said about the bizarre attempt to integrate some kind of gender diversity/politics into the show the better. I’ve no idea what they were attempting to say about Angela’s mother/father nor about the androgynous recluse musician, other than they invented a new “disease” that made people transgender or something? Again, lack of detail made the inclusion of this material fairly pointless, reducing what could have been an interesting plot into mere window dressing.
Other than these peripheral concerns, Carole and Tuesday remained excellent entertainment until the end. I loved the two main characters, I loved their singing and wanted so hard for them to succeed. Angela’s story was a little predictable but I enjoyed her interactions with Tao and wish their relationship had been a bit more fleshed out. Their story reached a natural endpoint, though I imagine they could make more Carole and Tuesday if they were so inclined. This was definitely contender for Anime of The Year for me.
Dr. Stone (all 24 episodes)
It seems to be trendy round these parts to hate on Dr. Stone, but I really enjoyed this light-hearted series. After an admittedly shaky start, it grew into a consistently entertaining and fun take on the Shonen formula. I love science, always have done since early childhood, and there’s something about Senku that reminds me of myself making things explode with my home chemistry set. I love the sense of progression in the story. Our characters don’t power up because they’ve been training their muscles - they power up through the unstoppable march of scientific progress. I’m glad they’re making more of this. I’ve now read far ahead in the manga (it’s on Shonen Jump’s fantastic iPad app BTW) and I’m looking forwards to what’s to come. Now if only they could sort out the animation budget, the show looks seriously cheap at times.
Fire Force (all 24 episodes)
I want to love this show, I really do but it makes itself so hard to love. Although the female characters have great designs and cool powers, they are almost completely ignored by the narrative and offensively objectified at the slightest possible provocation. Tamaki’s “Lucky Lecher Lure” is the single most stupid concept in any anime this year, and it detracts from any scene she appears in. Even her climactic fight against the bad guys in episode 19 is completely ruined by the resolution that again involves someone groping her against her (and their) will.
Resident buffoon Arthur is a single joke played out too long - yes, I get it, he’s as dumb as a box of rocks but could he please get some other character development? Main character Shinra is pretty cool - he’s heroic and selfless and despite appearances is intelligent and can think his way out of a tight spot. His love for his estranged brother is admirable and with that he forms the emotional core of the show.
Due to the confident animation by David Production, the fight sequences pop with colour and motion and are by far the highlight. If only they could nail the tone, Fire Force could be so much better. Perhaps they’ll have a chance to refine things come the already confirmed season 2.
Fate/Grand Order: Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia (up to episode 12 of 21)
For a mobile game adaptation, this is pretty good. It definitely beats reading through the lengthy static story screens in-game. With mega-budget-brandishing action sequences it looks spectacular, and even the slower sections where characters do little more than talk about the plot are fairly engaging. I think a Fate newcomer could follow the basic story easily enough and gain some enjoyment from it, but really this is aimed at FGO weirdos like me. Some of the best characters appear in this - Caster Gilgamesh! Archer Ishtar! Lancer Ereshkigal! Grand Caster Merlin! Although this will never be top-10 AotY material, I am very happy so far with this adaptation.
My Hero Academia (up to episode 12 of 25)
Wow, this season took a long time to get going, but once it did it provided one of the most intense storylines so far. New bad guy Overhaul is truly hateful, with apparently no redeeming features. The latest episodes have revealed the true extent of his powers and it seems the heroes won’t be able to best him without significant personal sacrifice. MHA is generic shonen fare done well, with sympathetic characters who live in a logical society with consistent rules and believable stakes. I don’t go into this expecting anything earth-shattering or mind-blowing, but it’s a fun way to spend 25 minutes or so in the company of endearing heroes being beaten up for the sake of justice.
Null and Peta (all 12 episodes)
Child genius Null has lost her older sister Peta to a Road Traffic Accident. Don’t worry, though - she’s built a robotic replacement that contains Peta’s replicated personality! A series of short 5-min episodes, this starts off deceptively bright and goofy but hides a more serious, tragic heart that I can’t discuss in detail here without entering dangerous spoiler territory. Cute and diverting, mildly humorous rather than hilarious, it’ll take less than an hour to binge through these. Give it a try, it’s worth it.
Bananya Season 2 (all 13 episodes)
Another random short (about 3 mins per episode), my 8-year old son begged to watch this with me continually until we’d seen Every. Single. Episode. Now he runs around the house shouting “Nya! Nya!” as he pretends to be a demented banana-cat. I just... What even is this? Season 1 was weird enough. Season 2 broadens the cast of Feline Musaceae-inhabitants to include a wizard banana-cat and a Kiss-cosplaying banana-cat among many others. It seems to be an acid-inspired prequel to the first season. I now view the bananas in my fruit bowl with significantly increased suspicion.
No Guns Life (all 12 episodes)
A hardboiled dystopian cyberpunk detective show where the main character has a big-ass revolver for a head. Seriously. I don’t know what the author of the source manga was smoking when he wrote this, but if I wasn’t an upstanding member of the community I’d sure as hell like to try some. Grim future-noir is totally my thing, and we don’t get much of it these days. If anything, this reminds me of 80's and 90's anime more than any recent show. If only the character animation wasn’t so stiff and the characters themselves weren’t so stereotypical. We’ve got a generic Evil Megacorporation(tm) run by what appears to be a transhuman gestalt entity comprising its shadowy founders. Their main lackey is an overweight whining incompetent blob of a man like you’ve seen in any poorly written anime. Protagonist Juzo is interesting but the show’s insistence on portraying him like a deformed, goofy Alphonse Elric during lighter moments completely assassinates any character integrity he develops. Mechanical whizz-kid Mary would fit into any low-grade sci-fi anime or live action production and blue-lipped Director Olivier Vandeberme’s absurdly sexualised appearance is at odds with the rest of the show. The story is so-so and has hardly progressed by this point. I believe a second cour with episodes 13-24 starts in April 2020, so it may get more interesting then.
Stars Align (all 12 episodes)
Finally, I had left this show to last due to conflicting reviews from my colleagues (here and here) and the fact I’m not normally interested in sports anime. I am so glad I found time to watch this because Stars Align is absolutely fantastic and has probably muscled its way into my top 10 of the year as a last-minute entry.
It seems a shame to spoil the premise here, but it is almost impossible to discuss the show without doing so. What initially appears to be another generic shonen-esque team-sports anime turns out in truth to be more like “Child Abuse - The Anime (With Tennis).” That’s not to say that Tennis doesn’t take up the bulk of the running time - it does, with lovingly animated body motion and immaculate choreography that makes the action easy to follow - but the whole show is coloured by the knowledge that each and every one of these kids is suffering somehow, usually due to weapons-grade parental shittiness.
I don’t normally shout at the TV screen when watching sports - I’ve never understood why people do that - but I shouted at Stars Align. Not during the Tennis matches though, but at the supremely horrid parents, all of whom expressed traits I recognised in shitty adults I encountered in my youth. So much of this rang true for me, even though I was brought up in a loving household with parents who weren’t sociopathic control freaks or physically abusive.
Cautious Hero has one tonal whiplash episode. Stars Align has at least 6. You know something horrendous is about to happen once the cheery credit sequence has ended and there is a silent postscript. You soon learn to dread whatever is about to occur. Anime rarely makes me feel like this. I am heartbroken that it ended on a massive cliffhanger that may never be resolved. They had scripts for 24 episodes but were informed deep into production they had funding for only 12, and elected to change nothing. This isn’t even based on a manga or a novel - it’s an anime original story. Despite this huge setback, it is still an immensely rewarding 12 episodes of heartwarming character development and interaction interspersed with savage moments of pure emotional horror. Watch it.
That brings me to the end of my Autumn 2019 postmortem. Join me again soon as I take a look back at 2019 as a whole. Thanks for reading and feel free to share your own comments or suggestions below.
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