Spring 2019 Anime Retrospective

Series Overview

As it began, I was quite apprehensive about Spring 2019’s anime lineup. Other than a few potential standouts, it looked fairly bleak. While there was definitely 1 show I overlooked, my assessment was almost always a little too positive, actually. There were a lot of missed opportunities.

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The big fall, for me, was Fruits Basket. As I mentioned several times, I am one of the few writers that have come in without prior source material knowledge (of either the manga or the early 2000’s adaption). Now, I love a good shoujo anime, and Fruits Basket painted a very optimistic picture of a standout in the genre. Unfortunately, as it kept going, it lost its identity in a big way. Episodics boiled down to overly silly shenanigans with a rather unfunny slapstick twist that would morph into an angsty bit of self-reflection whereby Tohru, the acting protagonist, would depart sagely wisdom and make everybody feel better. As a concept, this is fine, but the execution got more and more muddled as it went along. The things that were troubling the boys were too distant and convoluted to really pay much attention to, and Tohru’s development was extremely poor such that there was no catharsis to be found in how she came to give all this advice. For all the feel-good words that Fruits Basket dumped upon us, none of it had a strong enough foundation to feel earned. What’s more, many of the introduced boys were just too gimmicky, and the issues they faced were either ridiculous or corny. There will be no review of Fruits Basket since I decided to drop it, so this is my parting take on the series.

And then, in another corner, you have Kimetsu no Yaiba. The last time I checked in here, it was beginning to win me over during the training arc. The pace was slow, but appreciably so, and it was digging its heels into the journey that Tanjirou took from zero-to-hero in a meaningful way. I’ve got a soft spot for training arcs, that much is probably clear, but the thing is that all the pieces were in place for a grand story to unfold. And then it hit the throttle pedal on plot, then realised it could pad for a bit so promptly hit the brakes. After a mid-season run-in with the Big Bad that amounted to not a lot, the pacing of the series went from aimless to suddenly extremely A-To-B – like extended fetch quests in video games, with frustratingly borrowed ideas such as ‘levels’ and whathaveyou. But none of these sins are as bad as the sense of humour it suddenly discovered; while the sloppy attempt at jokes become a much bigger problem in its 2nd cour, the signs of a seriously unfunny backbone were there once Yushiro and his fawning was introduced. ufotable kept delivering some solid animation, but the constant monologuing over the action made it feel apologetic in needing to explain every minor detail. This went from a solid recommendation to a bottom ranking anime in about 5 episodes, which is impressive in its own way. But it’s still at the top of the rankings, because the well is simply that deep.

Despite all the warning signs, I kept showing a bit of faith in Fairy Gone for its potential hooks unfurling. In my review, I went into this in a lot more detail, but I found myself shaking my head at this show’s clumsy attempts at padding and cast development. Once the news came out that the show would be split from 1 x 24 episode series into 2 x 12 episode series’, I figured it would be a cliffhanger ending – but it was really a lousy arc that backloaded all the interesting tidbits into its 2nd half. When you consider the messy visuals and scant charm, Fairy Gone earned a place right at the bottom of my currently reviewed anime with a score of 2/10.

Dororo’s 2nd cour, on the other hand, was more directionless than disappointment. In Winter, I mentioned that the show was battling between mediocrity and greatness, and, well, it continued that battle right up until the end. But the inability to meaningfully converse with its core themes – even at the finale – really held it back from doing much. There were also a couple of major missteps in the 2nd half, such as the oddball comic episode (positioned, jarringly, right after a major plot event) and that really badly animated episode. There were some exciting moments, but they just didn’t tie together very well. You can read more about it in my full review, but my gut takeaway is one of sadness: Dororo could have been so much more.

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Kono oto Tomare, then, left me with a much more nonchalant feeling. Kono oto Tomare’s potential hooks were much subtler, trying to sell its cast chemistry and unique character setup. While Chika and Satowa had a strong rapport, the show’s dramatic arcs were major missteps and the way the tone and protagonists changed throughout the story felt like haphazard planning. Thankfully, the show really pushed the boat out on loudness bestowing its emotions with blunt but honest quality, though that also meant its comedy got annoyingly repetitive. Kono oto Tomare was close to being a decent club-competition anime, but had just a few too many niggles.

Amusingly, I discussed Ultraman in a similar light, didn’t I? Decent popcorn fodder. Well, truth be told, I finished it a couple of months ago and never got around to writing a review. Honestly, I think I found the popcorn more fulfilling after a few more episodes. The action never stopped being solid martial art bonanza, but the menial drama was stretched thin, and the ultimate Big Bad was laughably underdeveloped. And then there wasn’t even much oomph to the protagonist overcoming him, either. It was a bit of a flop of a finale, and lead to something too forgettable for me to feel comfortable reviewing!

Much like Hachigatsu no Cinderella Nine. Because of the tennis clashing with its airing slot, this one went on hiatus for a couple of weeks, but it didn’t come back fresher for it. No, the series ran itself into the ground after a handful of episodes, having nothing but base gimmicks to sell its characters with and forgettable sports drama. There was one moment I almost perked up, as a character’s sketchy home-life was brought into question, but the permanently blushing characters weren’t given nearly enough agency to process these difficult feelings in nuanced ways. Hell, the show looked bad. This cute-girls anime was tired. A redundant, utterly forgettable watch. Again, too forgettable to review.

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Thankfully, Mayonaka no Occult Koumuin had something for me to talk about – even if that was how this show lacked a good hook. The hook was supposedly in the character rapports, which was acceptable as the dialogue generally circumvented usual teenage drivel but still didn’t have much of a presence. Protagonist Miyako essentially used his unique trait of being able to understand youkai to offer counselling services to help them in their squabbles, which occasionally offered fun moments, but it was ultimately yet another anime failing to leave its mark. 

Thankfully, a handful of anime did in fact leave their marks. RobiHachi flew over my radar at first, but I’m so glad I gave this colourful buddy comedy the time it deserved. As an episodic, I found myself drawing parallels to Dororo – both had to develop the episode-contained conflicts, settings and characters simultaneously within contained 20 minute segments. While RobiHachi failed to give significant development to its characters in its short runtime, the settings were colourful and amusingly explored, and there were a lot of knee-slapping and chuckle worthy gags along the way. A solid comedy that really just needed more breathing room to put the bigger things in place.

Meanwhile, I was perhaps a little too ambivalent to one of the season’s best anime. It’s always hard to get a gauge on how a cute-girls-do-cute-things show will be, because so much of their charm comes to down minute executions, and there were lots of question marks on paper for this show. With an intelligently directed production and an incredible voice acting performance for its lead character, Hitoribocchi was an anime that really hit the ground running. While its latter half didn’t live up to the strong relationship development and sensibilities of its first half, ultimately ending on perhaps the worst joke of the whole series, Hitoribocchi is still a must-watch for genre fans – and might just win new fans over with its delicate story of friendship.

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And then we have Sarazanmai. Now, to say I predicated Sarazanmai would be good is a lie – this anime original was unpredictable to a fault, vaulting between cheesy misunderstanding romance dates with a hint of crossdressing and then finding itself in the crime drama of the drug underworld. Sarazanmai is yet another very strong effort from director Kunihiko Ikuhara and his cohorts at studio Lapin Track (with some additional help from MAPPA), though it’s hard to say if Sarazanmai is up there with his prior masterpieces, Penguindrum and Revolutionary Girl Utena. While its ending may have left a little to be desired (and, since writing a glowing review, my gut has been considering editing the score as I consider lasting value) Sarazanmai was an absolute pleasure to follow every week and has cemented its place amongst the best anime of the year.

As a final addendum to get back to the negativity: let’s not mention Joshikausei. 

Ultimately, my rankings for the season are fairly self-explanatory:

1. Sarazanmai (9.5/10)
2. Hitoribocchi no Marumaru Seikatsu (8.5/10)
3. RobiHachi (7.5/10)
4. Dororo (5/10)
5. Kimetsu no Yaiba (4.5~/10) (Review at the end of Summer)
6. Mayonaka no Occult Koumuin (4/10)
7. Kono oto Tomare (4/10)
8. Ultraman (3.5/10) (No Review)
9. Fairy Gone Season 1 (2/10)
10. Hachigatsu no Cinderella Nine (1.5/10) (No Review)
11. Joshikausei (1/10) (No Review)
12. Fruits Basket (Drop ~Episode 12)

Best Premiere

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You’ve just gotta hand it to Sarazanmai: it sure knows how to do weird. There’s several ways to write a compelling enigma, and the mixture of charming humour, shocking twists and sympathetically flawed cast makes all the tiny little details feel like they will become something gigantic and beautiful. This is the kind of premiere you can easily get excited about.

Hitoribocchi fielded a rather excellent premiere, too, but Sarazanmai takes the cake this time.

Best Episode

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Due to a handful of episodics in the seasonal pool, this category is a toughie. But I think one episode really stands out to me the most when I think back, and that’s RobiHachi’s 9th episode: The Family That Stays Together. The in-series-fictional Hizakuriger anime got its chance in the spotlight this episode, and the sheer foundation for the Hizakuriger was so well laid that the episode was a doozy of well-timed gags, lovingly emulated nostalgia and a whole lotta fourth-wall-breaks. Throw in some key Robi time and hilarious use of hard sci-fi mechanics, and The Family That Stays Together is the finest takeaway of the whole series – and one of the finest of the season!

Best Character Arc

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So the thing with Hitori Bocchi’s personal arc – and, indeed, many characters arc more generally – is that the problem is presented to them, and then they overcome it. What I liked so much about Nako’s arc (and indeed, why the first half of the show shone so much bright than its later half) was that we saw snippets of a girl understanding her public image, feeling uncomfortable about it, and deciding to change it. The apathetic character realised her standoffish and scary image did not reflect herself, and while she was too careless to change it before, befriending Bocchi caused her to also want to overcome misgivings. And, what’s really wonderful about this little arc, is that it is in tiny gestures that we see this unfold – she tries on fake-glasses to change her image; she feels anxiety over talking to the teacher. It’s quite rare to see such a psychological understanding of a character presented so subtly, and it’s even more rare to see it in a secondary character. Nako’s journey was something I relate to more than I’d like to admit, but it was the sharp understanding of that feeling that sold it.

Best Boy

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Kono oto Tomare has problems, but it also has Chika. This loudmouth delinquent was so powerful as a driving force that they displaced the actual protagonist and took the reins. Some of his developments, such as his Koto playing’s dramatic rise in nuance or his edgy fighter-boy background, were not the most receivable, but his attitude and personality score him the title of Best Boy. Sadly, there wasn’t much competition, as Sarazanmai’s boys were revelling in their flaws and Robi couldn’t exist without Hachi.

Best Girl

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ARU BEAM! The rather unfortunate Aru didn’t offer much to Hitoribocchi’s story of personal change, but she brought a lot of great gags. It’s hard not to fall in love with this ditzy, but subterraneanly salty vice pres’. Bless Aru. She always had something to add to the show.

Best Fight

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While Dororo fielded some very spectacular fights, particularly towards its climax, I’m actually going to hand it to Kimestu no Yaiba this time. There was a lot of pointless talking, and the fight itself was spread unevenly over a couple of episodes, but Tanjirou’s battle with the Hand Demon during Final Selection had serious stakes. It’s fair to say that the series earned a horror tag a few times, and the thrilling survival against the odds in Final Selection contributed majorly with Tanjirou’s coming-of-age moment here against the toughest trial.

I’m also going to throw a shoutout here to RobiHachi’s 10th episode, where each of their idiosyncrasies piled up to a full on argument between Robi and Hachi. Arguing over literally everything – including leaving the toilet seat up – made this episode far more genuine than I expected. Frankly, I have these arguments all the time! Being so genuine at a time when it was getting ready to wrap up was a really cracking move, and made the whole journey all the more vivid.

Best Production

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While it never quite reached the peaks of its opening episode and stock footage, Sarazanmai’s production almost never faltered. Fantastic photography and excellent animation were key standouts, though it’s also worth mentioning just how infectious that soundtrack – with all those iconic sound effects – really was. The fact of the matter is that Sarazanmai wasted no resources to throw extra little jokes and details into its backgrounds and soundscape, which ultimately was a key to the whole shebang’s success. 

Final Words

Spring didn’t end well. I even brought up my two best – Sarazanmai and Hitoribocchi – having their endings be the weakest aspects! But it’s important to go back in time and cherish all the good bits, right? Sadly, many of those were overshadowed, but there were definitely some moments to get excited about – Kimetsu no Yaiba’s training arc and Final Selection, Dororo’s Treasure Island, Fruits Basket when it still thought of Tohru as a character and not a vehicle… etc. While it was undoubtedly a weak season, Summer 2019 is already looking rather phenomenal, so I’m not going to spend too much time crying over spilled milk.

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