SpaceWhales’ Top 10 Anime of 2019

In a year of arson targeted at a major animation studio, major directorial comebacks, delays, setbacks and an industry-wide attempt to fix the overworking problem, it’s time to really think about which anime stood out the most. Throughout 2019, some anime were seeking to impress the cerebral whilst others shouted in loud, brazen hostilities, and I’m glad to have experienced such a wide range of anime.

So, let’s count down the top 10 moments together. Here’s my list, how’s yours looking?

As a prelude, I am excluding Fate/Grand Order from this list because it is so far from ending. Other shows, such as Vinland Saga, are still in the running!

Notable Mention
Boogiepop wa Warawanai / Boogiepop and Others
Winter 2019; Original Review from Fall 2019 (Late)

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While Boogiepop’s 2019 rendition is a disappointment compared to the legendary status that its light novels commands, the fact is that the writing is still strong enough to deem a mention alongside the best of 2019. Undermined by a tired visual direction, the thriller and horror aspects rarely collided to make this think-piece as compelling as it needed to be. However, when all was said and done, the arcs were eloquent depictions of growing up, using philosophy and psychology to deconstruct the existential crises that Japanese youth face. Monsters are not as scary as otherness or the feat to have courage, and the inspirational messages of Boogiepop are lifelong.

I just can’t shake the feeling it should be better, but the fact is that if it were only a little more fine-tuned, its ranking would be shooting up this list. With strong characters like Nagi Kirima, fantastic episodes such as Stairway to Heaven, and cracking arcs such as Boogiepop at Dawn, the sheer potential of the series is something to truly marvel at.

10.
BEASTARS
Genre:
Drama, romance
Original Review from Fall 2019

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BEASTARS didn’t so much crawl on to the scene – it exploded. The gentle tip-toeing of its drama is matched by huge, regular and nuanced climaxes, and the thematic motifs and animal metaphors provide genuine commentary. Legosi is a carniovre, a wolf, and a quiet one, and his story of mixing-up love and his carnal aggression is particularly potent. Identity is put under the microscope, and BEASTARS is so compelling as it actors don’t just act on the theatre’s stage, but the stage of society at large, trying to solve the riddle of discrimination. Rounding out the core trio are Louis, a stag that is the star actor, and Haru, a pure white rabbit who is shamed for her attractiveness, and the pair join Legosi with unparalleled depth. This is a show knee-deep in subtle and more broad developments, and it’s all orchestrated masterfully, at least until a rushed climactic arc that screams ‘soap’.

A sharp production, then, would need to match all this subtlety, and Studio Orange’s CGI follows the huge success of their previous outing, Houseki no Kuni. The show has a keen eye for visual composition, though I’ve never bought into the scenes inspired by comic-strip-panes. In all seriousness, the anthropomorphic animals are one of the show’s biggest deterrents, and even though the series doesn’t give you a chance to ridicule the concept, and digs deeply into the setup, it’s still an odd thing to overcome (particularly in a world that so keenly shames anything that might resemble ‘furries’). I implore you to overcome that mental block, if you can, because this is a cracking dramatic work for most of its runtime.

But the key is most of its runtime. The finale of this anime has continued to dig into the well of its characters well with charismatic storyboarding, but the storytelling has suddenly turned to ridiculousness. Hard to take seriously, littered with plot-holes, and over-the-top, BEASTARS’ fantastic run ends by tripping over its feet, gallivanting over hurdles it didn’t need to make.

9.
Hitoribocchi no Marumaru Seikatsu
Genre:
Comedy, slice-of-life
Original Review from Spring 2019

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Where other cute-girls shows are cute, Hitoribocchi’s brand of cute was far deeper than most choice cuts in the genre. Each little in-joke was more than a gag, but the building blocks that brought these girls together. By the time the series met its midpoint and reflected on the journey so far, the personal adventure that the girls had gone on was quite the distance.

Sadly, this high level of friendship development didn’t last for the series’ entire run. Even while rookie voice actress, Chisaki Morishita, continued to give a commanding performance as the titular Hitori Bocchi, the show’s writing came down a few notches. The gimmicky characters began to enter the fold, and the friendships once savoured lost their integrity, all before the show gave one joke in poor-taste to finish the series.

Still, it was a pleasant meander even then, and the final flop didn’t detract from all the joyous goodness that came prior.

8.
Kakegurui xx
Genre:
Gambling, comedy, action
Original Review from Winter 2019

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Bursting back onto the stage with the same enigmatic punch it left with, it never felt like Kakegurui had been gone long. We jump back into gambles with suicidal flare, moving onto bigger and more satirical games, deconstructing society, exposing the meaninglessness and lavishing in the madness. Jabami Yumeko, who once lead the charge into the bizarre but wonderful insanity, actually takes more of a backseat in this series, contributing as a chaotic wildcard – The Joker amongst Jokers.

With games such as The Greater Good and Tower of Doors, the onus is put onto the side-characters and deepening the school’s secondary cast. As Kakegurui opens up, it becomes a much more intimate show, with characters such as Sayaka, the secretary, taking the spotlight and demanding your attention. Even Suzui, the viewpoint mannequin from season one, joins in on the madness – because it’s truly and utterly infectious.

While the performance arc lets the series down in the midpoint, the final half of the show is an adrenaline rush through socioeconomic theory, unrequited romance and familial breakdown. Kakegurui upped its game.

7.
Doukyonin wa Hiza, Tokidoki, Atama no Ue / My Roommate is a Cat
Genre:
Slice-of-life, comedy
Original Review from Winter 2019

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Throughout most of the season, I was extremely impressed with Cat Roommate. Characterisation for Subaru was disappointingly inconsistent, the melodrama near the end was too enunciated and the production values ranged from acceptable to barely, however, the show still had that special something. Subaru coming to terms with loss is an arc running parallel to Haru learning to live with strangers, and the way the pair bond is heartwarming to a fault. Any pet-lover will consider this an absolute must-watch, and those yet to have a pet will find themselves experiencing the entire gamut of pet-ownership through Subaru’s adventures. At times amusing, yet frequently resonating in the tear-ducts, Cat Roommate is one of 2019’s earliest show runners – and still one of its best.

6.
Sarazanmai
Genre:
Drama, comedy, music, romance
Original Review from Spring 2019

Sarazanmai is a part of director Kunihiko Ikuhara’s Quadrilogy of arthouse anime, along with Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997), Penguindrum (2011) and Yuri Kuma Arashi (2015). While not required, they are recommended viewing due to the out there style. 

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To say that this weird show, that used anal innuendo to make social satire, came out of nowhere, would be false. Kunihiko Ikuhara is an infrequent auteur, with now only 5 chiefly directed anime under his belt, but the latter four have not only been unmistakably his craft – they’ve also been focused critical commentary of society. Sarazanmai continues the visual flair of his previous two works, 2011’s Penguindrum and 2015’s Yuri Kuma Arashi, using animal metaphors, not-quite-name-drops and cryptic audiovisual fanfare to craft a story bashing at the heart of a problem you might not have realised was quietly beating. But the highlight of the whole series, and indeed of all of his prior works, is how fascinating the scene-to-scene craft is. Few series can so easily morph from hilarious romantic-comedy parallels to heated drug-gang crime thriller, through to a musical song and dance over heart-breaking fantasy drama, but Sarazanmai does it within single episodes, and runs a whole gamut between these points, too. With every background so fully depicted to poke fun and poignantly question the state of self-oppression in the internet-connected era, Sarazanmai is certainly an unforgettable, powerful experience. Its final episode, however, hurt its longevity – feeling overlong, overly simply, and regularly redundant. KA PAH PAH, PAH!!!

5.
Meiji Tokyo Renka
Genre:
Romance, slice of life, comedy, mystery, reverse harem
Original Review from Winter 2019

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Meiji Tokyo Renka’s first foot was inspiringly lively, but didn’t make any promises of greatness. In fact, Mei’s travel back in time to the Meiji era was seemingly innocuous or worse as the man set up as the ‘major romance route’ seemed a little too pushy, pushing away potential watchers. But Mei’s good naturedness was addictive; she brought a ray of light to Meiji era Tokyo using her ability to see ghosts to problem-solve. She became an unstoppable force of charisma, even engaging in a song-and-dance about the future! Mei single-handedly made this feel-good adventure throughout the past something special – a rare feat for any harem, reverse or otherwise, to have the protagonist lauded as its success – but the part that was the most impressive was the ending. Tying everything together with a more thoughtful, enduring note than I ever expected of the show, Charlie, Mori, Shinzou and all the other boys came together to make this final goodbye an impressive circle, rife with character progression and purpose.

4.
Lord El Melloi II Sei no Jikenbo / The Case Files of Lord El Melloi II
Genre:
Mystery, drama, magic
Original Review from Summer 2019
Fate/Zero is required to see this anime

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The Fate franchise is riddled with a disease. Symptoms range from over-seriousness and overcomplicated lore to fetishisation and character assassination of its historical or empowered female characters, and almost every entry in the franchise is struggling to overcome these ailments. The Sherlock-Holmes-like spinoff of Fate/Zero, Lord El Melloi II, directed by the talented Makoto Katou, shows that these aspects can be overcome.

Age has worn Waver into the cynical, but talented, mage theorist Lord El Melloi II, and his characterisation captures that dying childlike innocence in every instance he takes to the screen. Together with his gloomily cute apprentice, Grey, he solves magical mysteries on a much smaller scale than the city-levelling problems the franchise usually deals with. While the convoluted magical systems means that following mystery solving is frankly impossible until the detective’s exposition at the end, the show is still a runaway success on the back of its impressive character. There are very few missteps where the ‘howdunnit’ overwrites the ‘whydunnit’, with only a scene near the climax of the final arc drawing on a yet-to-meet character. That’s a mere footmark, though, as Lord El Melloi II does not just enter this list as one of the best anime of the year, but the anime with the most rewarding finale.

3.
Dumbbell Nan Kilo Moteru? / How Heavy Are The Dumbbells You Lift?
Genre:
Edutainment, comedy, sports
Original Review from Summer 2019

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Without realising we’re necessarily doing it, we often praise stories for their power to affect us in physical ways. ‘This is the show that got me to realise I need to change’, one might say. This show about fitness junkies set the audience’s fitness as a mission statement, but it was much more tactful than shouting loud and proud to go outside and get fit. It’s a message hidden amongst ridiculous comedy, relatable apathy, generally tasteful fanservice and a whole lotta fun exposition.

I think the key to the show’s success is how accessible it makes exercise. Hibiki hits up a gym, which is a brave, costly move that not everybody has access to, and the show recognises this by making sure to demonstrate that each workout can be done at home or with everyday equipment. Hibiki gets into fitness out of guilt at first, but she increasingly finds it addictive, and the message is so inspirational. It exists not just for inspiration, either, as fitness buffs can enjoy its in-jokes and appreciate the captured or parodied atmosphere of gym culture. There’s some fat-shaming, particularly early on to push Hibiki towards fitness, and that’s hard to overlook, but that aspect quickly became lost in its jovial sprint forwards.

2.
Given
Genre:
Romance, drama, music
Original Review from Summer 2019

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Boys’ Love, as a genre, has a pretty nasty reputation. That is not simply rooted in homophobic or misogynistic anti-bias, but in the general tropes of the genre – abuse, rape, lots of sex, limited character archetypes, soap-level drama… the list goes on and on. I don’t want to ascribe Given’s greatness with it dodging these qualities, because as time goes on that originality is something will fade – and, put simply, Given’s greatness in the romance genre is something that will not fade. It’s far too good for that.

Each tiny foostep forward is so delicate, but each carries so much introspection. By the time the series reaches its grand crescendo in the final quarter, the character depth and drama has built so much momentum that the show easily slides onto this list. It helps, of course, that the character’s have an impressive rapport with one another, able to jab, chide and support one another naturally. I’m still not convinced that the support characters needed their developments when they did, but it’s hard for a fan to complain.

1.
Manaria Friends
Genre:
Romance, slice-of-life
Original Review from Winter 2019

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It’s nearly a year since Manaria Friends first aired, which means it’s back to Winter – a time when the show’s value skyrockets. The foundation of this show is built on top of that warm bond you form between a cozy blanket and a cocoon of piano melodies, bridging that gap with the peaceful, amusing and menial world of Mistarcia. Anna and Grea lead ordinary lives, spiced up by the colours of youth, romance, golden lighting, gorgeous background art and gentle soundscapes.  Anna is the more boisterous of the two, comically, jealously, emotionally giving the series that little oomph to elevate its placid episodes to an addictive quality. Grea’s more nervous side is no less compelling, and the entire cast contributes to such a lovely show. I don’t think the debate ever came to an end: is Manaria Friends a romance? I can’t fathom an answer suggesting anything but, as the pair’s tightening relationship across the vignettes is the movement of the series, though the laconic, even sterile physicality may disappoint some. Overlook that, however, and Manaria Friends is rewatchable, meaningful far beyond its original runtime.


The SpaceWhales Top 10 of 2019:

1. Manaria Friends (9.5/10)
2. Given (9.5/10)
3. Dumbbell Nan Kilo Moteru? (9.5/10)
4. Lord El Melloi II Sei no Jikenbo: Rail Zeppelin Grace Note (9/10)
5. Meiji Tokyo Renka (9/10)
6. Sarazanmai (9.5/10 decreased to 9/10)
7. Doukyonin wa Hiza, Tokidoki, Atama no Ue / My Roommate is a Cat (9/10)
8. Kakegurui xx (8.5/10)
9. Hitoribocchi no Marumaru Seikatsu (8.5/10)
10. BEASTARS (Review Soon)
Notable Mention: Boogiepop wa Warawanai (8/10)

It’s been a strong year, though it’s a shame I didn’t give out any perfect scores.

Watch this space: I’ll be following up this post with another 2019 ranking of best moments and components! Look forward to it. In the mean time, how is your top 10 of 2019 looking?

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