In last year’s version of this article, I compared our recent experience with anime to Star Trek movies – the even years seem to be great, the odd years sadly lacklustre. For what it’s worth that trend continues this year, and fortunately that meant good news as 2016, as crappy as it was in the real world, was a bonanza year for anime. In fact, this is probably the single strongest year we’ve had since starting the site, with a bumper crop of excellent shows spread across the calendar. What’s even more encouraging is that a lot of this years biggest hits were very unconventional, whether in structure, form, or visuals. It’s evidence of an industry which is hopefully starting to break out of some of the constraints that have been placed on it for too long, and that paid dividends in the form of a series of excellent shows.
Right from the start 2016’s tendency to be sly and subversive was evident, with Mr Osomatsu continuing its efforts to defile everything pure and beautiful that had once been associated with the property. An adult-oriented reboot of a 1960’s kids comedy manga sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, but instead it turned into one of the years biggest critical and commercial hits. Original author Fujio Akatsuka was probably turning in his grave at the near-continuous string of bawdy sex jokes, outrageous violence, and just general smuttiness of the whole thing, but at its best (such as the instantly immortal ‘Iyami Kart’ segment) Osomatu was funnier than any anime in recent memory. It was also deliciously dark and bitter, not something we tend to associate with Japanese comedies too often, and frequently pushed at the boundaries of acceptability, most notably in the shameless parodying that rendered the first episode pulled from release. It would have been so easy to just do a simple update of the original, but it was the production team’s creativity and willingness to take a chance that produced the idiosyncratic brilliance that makes the show special.
In fact, I feel that production teams taking back creative control was a strong theme that ran throughout many of the shows we saw this year. Anime production is so heavily commercialised and homogenised that it sometimes can be difficult to feel the individual passion of the men and women behind a production. This year though, for many reasons, I felt the hand of the artists behind the stories much more, almost always for the better. It gave many shows a depth of character that hadn’t been previously seen. ‘Character’ is a really nebulous concept of course, but what I mean is there was a certain sense of individuality, of quirkiness and unorthodoxy, of writers and directors willing to push genres in new and interesting directions to produce unique results.
Witness, for example Grimgar of Fantasy & Ash which took one of the most generic premises ever, the ‘trapped in another world’ plot which has plagued anime for years, and turned it into a charmingly homespun tale of friendship and survival in tough times. Or how My Hero Academia gave the shonen battle show a shot in the arm by borrowing from the tone of western comic books. Throughout the year we saw creators putting their own mark on their work, and shows felt much more unique as a result. I think this was also reflected in an increased focus on the importance of character development and interpersonal relationships in many works. Stories like the aforementioned Grimgar, Yuri!! On Ice, Sweetness & Lightning, Mob Psycho 100, Flip Flappers, and My Hero Academia put a renewed focus on friendship, emotion and the bonds between people. Particular praise here goes to ERASED which managed to explore a touching relationship across time between an adult man in a child’s body and an abused preteen girl AND somehow managed to make it incredibly sweet instead of creepy. Even though it dropped the ball at the end, at its gutwrenching peak ERASED was among at the best shows ever at making us empathise and feel for what was happening onscreen.
Aside from character writing, there was also a rebirth in visual invention this year, with a large number of productions eschewing a more traditional look and instead going for some impressive alternative styles. After a largely lacklustre 2015, Studio Bones covered themselves with glory with the comic book stylings of My Hero Academia and the glorious insanity of Mob Psycho 100, which was perhaps the years most beautiful show. Studio 3Hz made a name for themselves with the bizarre surrealism of Flip Flappers, while David Production smoothly handled author Hirohiko Araki’s shift away from musclebound shonen madness and towards smalltown suburban…madness. Even shows that didn’t lead on their visual prowess still tended to have terrific visual flourishes, such as Osomatsu‘s pastel-toned aesthetic, or Time Bokan 24‘s retro-futuristic design sensibility.
What was perhaps most important to me was that this year I really felt that anime found a way to give me what I really wanted from it. Last year I spoke about being disillusioned, and falling out of love with the medium. This year by contrast I’ve remembered why so much of it spoke to me in the first place. That’s not to say we haven’t seen some absolutely terrible garbage in these last 12 months (Pandora in the Crimson Shell anyone?), but overall I was once again impressed by the variety, sincerity and artistry of the productions Japan turned out. There perhaps wasn’t a ‘perfect’ show that aired this year, and there’s definitely no undisputed #1 like there has been in the past, but the richness and spread of what we’ve been offered has been invigorating and gives me hope for what 2017 has to offer. For me personally, and I know for many of you out there, 2016 has been a very difficult time. Thanks to everyone who sticks around to read and comment, and I hope to see you all in the new year for further adventures.