As far as anime goes, 2018 is one for the history books. It gave us anime that ranged from raw and poignant to stylish and entertaining. And despite that, I even returned to the older classics, as Iro and I began our journey across the sea of stars and began watching the iconic 1988 OVA, Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Maybe the rest of 2018 hasn’t gone exactly as I would have liked, but at least anime was pretty good this year? In response, and because nobody will stop me, here are my entirely arbitrary awards for the shows I felt deserved the shoutout.
Pop Team Epic by Sumire Uesaka, like the show it headlines, is basically animated shitposting, and that’s exactly what makes it work so well as a strangely cohesive intro to exactly what you’ve signed up for.
Bite by LEO Imai is one I’ve talked about before so not much more to say here honestly. It’s a raw and messy intro that does a superb job of introducing us to Megalobox’s distinct vibe. More on that later…
Fighting Gold by Coda marks the glorious return of the Part 2 fan favorite singer as well as our introduction to Golden Wind. While the show itself has yet to win me over as easily as Diamond is Unbreakable, there’s no denying its OP has a ton of style, both in its song and its fantastic art direction.
Buntline Special by Vickeblanka’s opening licks are almost obnoxious in the way they get right in your face. It’s a lot like the show it caps off. It’s bold and audacious and also kinda funny. How could I not love a song that opens with, “I DON’T GIVE A SHIT”?
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Golden Wind isn’t necessarily my favorite entry yet, but one cannot deny the artistry of its magnificent OP. In the same way Diamond is Unbreakable made an immediate statement with its legendary OP, Fighting Gold seeks to do the same. Combined with the return of Coda on vocals and like 90% of JoJo OPs, it’s a winner through and through.
Megalobox’s soundtrack is a triumph in tone as it effortlessly establishes the anime’s gritty underdog vibe. The best soundtracks compliment a piece of media’s stylistic identity and Mabanua’s score accomplishes this in spades.
Planet With the anime wasn’t perfect by any means, but its soundtrack, scored by none other than legendary mecha soundtrack composer Kohei Tanaka, stands proud on its own merits. It may seem reductive to say Planet With’s soundtrack is a fine example of excellence in something fairly conventional, but it’s proof of how well put together it is that when it’s firing on all cylinders, the Planet With soundtrack is right up there with some of the mecha classics.
Garo Vanishing Line features the series staple composing group Monaca once again and despite Vanishing Line’s boisterous anime Americana tone, they’re happy to remind you this is a Keiichi Okabe joint all the same. Relying on the same old heroic melodies that give Garo its inspiring energy, Monaca also layers in a diverse mix of guitars, synthetic tones, and rhythmic pop beats to give this anime its entirely distinct identity.
I wish I could say more about Masaru Yokoyama’s excellent score for Sirius the Jaeger but the jarring absence of an official soundtrack release leaves me shorthanded here. Still, it’s a fun score, filled with Yokoyama’s acoustic guitars and violins that lend Sirius the Jaeger’s most exciting moments a distinctly rustic vibe that delightfully contrast with the occasional synthesized beats he’s willing to sprinkle in. It’s a hell of a soundtrack and one I look forward to listening to in full…eventually.
Apparently this is hip hop artist Mabanua’s first time scoring an anime and holy shit give this man some more work. MEGALOBOX owes much of its personality to its fantastic soundtrack. Hip hop is nothing new to anime soundtracks, but MEGALOBOX deserves praise for the way it utilizes it. From subtle things like timing beats to the characters’ punches to the way Mabanua excellently layers in various leitmotifs into each track, complimenting its narrative with a kind of directed artistry that only enhances our investment in the anime’s characters. There have been other great soundtracks in anime this year, but none so exquisitely put together.
Favorite Looking Anime
Devilman Crybaby is an excellent piece of work even by the standards of director Masaaki Yuasa. His distinct aesthetic lends a stylishly ugly quality to Devilman’s uniquely ugly story and characters. There is a rawness to the way it’s rendered and presented that in many ways, made Yuasa almost the perfect person to translate Go Nagai’s work.
Lupin the Third Part V manages to keep up the grand tradition of maintaining the timeless Lupin aesthetic throughout the years. While not as singularly distinct as Takeshi Koike’s take on the character, Part V still shined where it counts.
MEGALOBOX possesses a grimy quality to its aesthetic that falls perfectly in line with its story and it’s communicated amazingly with Yo Moriyama’s bold direction. There’s nothing else quite like it in 2018.
SSSS.Gridman is another one that’s quite unique. Taking the tropes of Tokusatsu and building upon them with unique presentation techniques made it one 2018’s most aesthetically distinct anime.
SSSS.Gridman represents the “proper” directorial debut of Inferno Cop director and Gainax veteran Akira Amemiya, and what a debut it is. Utilizing some of the best directorial and visual composing techniques I’ve seen in years, Amemiya creates something wholly unique with something wholly familiar. What makes Gridman so special isn’t that it necessarily breaks the mold, but it finds new ways to present it. I’ve always argued Trigger are the hidden masters of shot composition and nowhere is that more apparent than in Gridman’s beautifully and often experimentally composed shots. And when it wants to kick things into high gear, Trigger proved they can do that just as well with both fantastic traditional mecha animation and some surprisingly slick CG. You can tell it was built by people who truly love the genre.
MEGALOBOX is proof of how powerful it can be for your visuals and music to cooperate with each other, creating a unified thematic design that only strengthens the piece as a whole.
Garo: Vanishing Line on the other hand, is a triumph in crafting a, “feeling.” The way its over the top anime America is rendered down to the way its characters are designed. It’s a big pulpy take on both Tokiiusatsu and Americana that manages to bring out the best in both. It’s big and meaty in a way that feels wholly distinct from the traditional fantasy trappings of its predecessor.
And speaking of anime America, Double Decker’s bizarre take on its New York analogue deserves its own mention. It perfectly compliments its comical police procedural premise and its immediately likeable cast. It all builds into a world that feels just as well realized as the other two.
Every aspect of MEGALOBOX builds toward a single unified aesthetic. Its soundtrack, art direction, character designs, even the episode titles; everything about it contributes to a single stylish vibe that feels better defined than anything else I’ve watched in 2018. The gritty underdog story of MEGALOBOX is sold by its commitment to its theme. Every element of it carries a unique vibe you can only feel in your bones from watching it. Words defy the feeling. It’s an anime where every episode title has the word, “death” in it and characters break into impromptu rap sessions about their struggles. An anime where you can feel the dust and grime in every scene, where the blood spilled on the mat almost feels tangible, and even when you know what cool one liner the character is about to say next, you love every second of it.
Full Metal Panic! Invisible Victory isn’t actually much of a surprise in and of itself. What was more surprising was just that we got a genuinely good real robot anime in 2018. It was neat to come back to an anime that hadn’t gotten a sequel in over a decade and find it was just as solid as ever. Here’s hoping the conclusion to the story doesn’t take another decade.
SSSS.Gridman came out of nowhere and bowled us all over. Between its director, the studio attached, and the property it was adapting, I think we were all expecting something very different.
Double Decker isn’t necessarily 2018’s best anime, but it might be a contender for one of its best comedies. It’s rare to watch an anime actually nail procedural comedy so well. It feels like an intentionally dumb show written by extremely smart people. The way the cast play off each other never fails to amuse.
That said, Hinamatsuri might be the real heavyweight champion of anime comedies this year. Also possessing a cast of hilarious characters, Hinamatsuri won us all over with its weird mix of black comedy and occasional sincerity. Despite its rocky ending, I can only hope we’ll someday see a second season.
It had to be SSSS.Gridman. No other show came close to blowing us away like it did. When it was first revealed by Trigger (along with Darling in the Franxx and Promare), we all expected something along the lines of the Gridman short Trigger animated a few years ago. It would have those classic Imaishi sensibilities, a wacky presentation filled with both boobs and violence. What we instead got was the sort of magnificent sendup to Tokusatsu and mecha anime that only someone deeply in love with the genre can create. It would be easy to say that SSSS.Gridman is an Evangelion or Madoka-esque production that “deconstructs” the genre. But like those much vaunted “deconstructions,” SSSS.Gridman clearly comes from a place of love for the genre and instead seeks to present it in new and interesting ways. Don’t call SSSS.Gridman a deconstruction, instead praise it for taking those familiar tropes and bringing them to life in ways we’ve never seen.
Favorite New Character
I will literally fight anyone who has a single bad word to say about Hinamatsuri’s Anzu.
Akane Shinjo is maybe one of anime’s most interesting villains in years. She’s a deeply enthralling mix of misanthropic and disturbed, yet ultimately vulnerable. The amount of time SSSS.Gridman spends on her helps elevate her from mere recurring villain into an entirely defined character in her own right. We will never forgive Akane’s actions, but we will never forget her important contribution to SSSS.Gridman’s narrative.
Kirill Vrubel is half the reason Double Decker works so well. He’s an idiot, but a loveable one and watching the ways he plays off the rest of the cast is the foundation of its excellent comedy. “Don’t think, feel so good” indeed.
Sword is a man literally named Sword who punches demons. He also rides a cool motorcycle. Garo: Vanishing Line is very good.
I’m really sorry, Akane Shinjo is one of the most fascinating villains we’ve seen in anime in a while. But Sword literally punched a bullet. I’m not saying that’s necessarily the best writing or most nuanced characterizations but that’s really cool alright. In all seriousness, there was a pulpy freshness to Sword. Garo: The Carved Seal of Flames gave us Leon, a brooding pile of teenage angst who would eventually overcome his past and become the hero of legend. Then comes in Sword, this absurd brick wall of a man who prefers to destroy demons by punching them to death and running them over with his motorcycle. This was a man who already went through his angsty character development. A man entirely self-assured about his place in the world and his duty to protect humanity. There’s something admirable about that. Also he punched a bullet.
MEGALOBOX presents Favorite Moment
Full Metal Panic! Invisible Victory Episode 3: “Big one Percent” is maybe my favorite individual episode of mecha anime all year. Facing off against impossible odds, the rank and file grunts of Mithril must delay invading Amalgam forces long enough for everyone to evacuate. It’s the platonic ideal of what real robot as a genre can achieve, showing off the grit and tactics of the plucky pilots who aren’t lucky enough to be sitting in the special one-off prototype mech. If every single episode of FMP was as solid as this one, the whole show itself could have been a contender in my top 5 list.
Garo: Vanishing Line Episode 23: “My Sister” is the most ridiculous fucking thing I’ve watched all year. It’s got everything you could ask from an over the top action anime. Crazy fights, omnipotent bad guys, valiant heroics, and our protagonists busting out every trick they have. And as if it couldn’t get any wilder, it ends in a way so patently absurd I can’t even bring myself to describe it. In some ways, Episode 23 is maybe even better than Garo’s actual finale.
Devilman Crybaby Episode 9: “Go to Hell, You Mortals” is an extremely difficult episode to watch. It contains perhaps the single most heartbreaking thing I’ve watched in 2018, even when you can see it coming from a mile away. But what I actually want to talk about is Devilman’s tearful appeal to humanity’s better nature. For just a single moment in all the turmoil and hardship that has beset humanity in Devilman Crybaby’s tragic conclusion, a small group of people are convinced by Devilman to put down their weapons and to do right by their fellow man. It’s a tiny, but powerful scene that illustrates humanity’s capacity for good. Devilman Crybaby tries to convince us that our capacity for good is just as great as its potential for evil. Even should we fail, that will never invalidate its worth.
SSSS.Gridman Episode 9: “Dream” is the culmination of everything the show has slowly built up to over the course of its run. In this exquisitely directed episode, we get the payoff on all of the story’s disparate threads in a way that could only be accomplished by giving those threads the time and care they deserve. It’s a triumph in storytelling you wouldn’t expect from an anime about a giant robot man that lives in a computer.
As we already went into detail in our weekly coverage, episode 9 of SSSS.Gridman is an achievement in visual storytelling. It uses familiar iconography in unexpected ways that never strays into nihilistic deconstruction and in fact often reads more as sincere appreciation. It helps put together a satisfying answer to the various mysteries the story teased up until now while also helping galvanize our heroes’ character development in a deeply satisfying way. It speaks to a depth in Trigger’s capability for storytelling in ways we never foresaw. SSSS.Gridman was a stunning show across the board, but I think it’ll be episodes like these I think back on years from now.
Favorite MEGALOBOX Episode Title
Episode 01: “Buy or Die?” / “Don’t Let the Simmering Fire Die. It’ll Light the Way in the Dark.”
Episode 06: “Until the Last Dog Dies” / “The Midsummer Heat Might Drive a Dog to Kill, but It Will Never Break Him.”
Episode 12: “Leap over the Edge of Death” / “If You’re Going to Leave Your Album Behind at the Water’s Edge, Then You Don’t Want to Cross This Particular River.”
So much of MEGALOBOX’s appeal is just the way it carries itself. Its, “swagger” so to speak. Its unique episode titles always feel both thematically appropriate to the story and create a really neat through line. I don’t have anything particularly deep to say here, “Until the Last Dog Dies” / “The Midsummer Heat Might Drive a Dog to Kill, but It Will Never Break Him.” is just a really cool name for an anime episode. Also contains maybe my actual favorite moment of 2018.
Anime That Made Me Feel the Worst About Watching It
Golden Kamuy hurt me. The manga is easily my favorite of 2018, no contest. It’s an immense amount of fun supplemented by a fantastic cast of misfits. So to watch Studio Geno just butcher the anime as bad as its CG bear got done in was heartbreaking. It literally put me into a depressive state for weeks. I will literally never get excited about manga I like getting an anime adaptation ever again. All because of Golden Kamuy the anime.
I’m lumping FLCL: Progressive and Alternative together for this one. Sure, Alternative is a bit better, but overall, both are emblematic of the central problem of creating a sequel to the legendary Gainax OVA. Retreading the same old themes and trying to win us over by trotting out the same old Pillows tracks 20 years later is just the beginning of its fundamental problems.
Darling in the Franxx is a bad show. It’s hard to believe this aired the same year as SSSS.Gridman.
Darling in the Franxx is one of those uniquely bad mecha anime that is so bad it makes me fundamentally rethink my enjoyment of the genre, and perhaps the medium of anime itself. There is nothing redeemable about Darling in the Franxx. Some praise should go to Shigeto Koyama’s excellent design work and the hard work the animators put into it, but that’s about it.
By nearly every other metric, Darling in the Franxx is anathema to what I love about mecha anime. It’s not enough for it to be bad, it has to be bad in the sort of way that insults and degrades the genre I’ve loved and often struggled with all my life. It’s everything wrong about mecha in a post-Evangelion world, struggling poorly to react to a show that aired 20 years ago. We’ve already spent plenty of time talking about Darling in the Franxx elsewhere, whether in our written coverage or our podcasts, so feel free to check those out if you’re curious. As 2018 closes, I will not give it the mental space or time it doesn’t deserve ever again.
Gee’s Top 5 of 2018
Lupin the Third Part V is proof that an old dog can learn new tricks. The introduction of the technology angle weaves perfectly into the caper hijinks of the classic character far better than any of us could have expected. Part V will not be the final Lupin story, but it wraps up so well you could almost consider it an unofficial one.
Garo: Vanishing Line marks the glorious animated return of Garo. It effortlessly combined the heroic pulp fantasy of the first season with the slick modern edge of its new setting. Throw in a likeable cast and a devotion to just being as cool as it can be at all times and you have the kind of anime spectacle we don’t see too often these days.
Devilman Crybaby is without a doubt 2018’s most important anime. The rawness of its message is beautifully told by Masaaki Yuasa’s directing. It’s the story of humanity’s inherent good falling in the face of its black hearted evil, but never forgets to remind us that said good is still worth pursuing to the bitter end. Maybe we cannot save the world with love and compassion, but we must certainly try.
SSSS.Gridman is a landmark anime in a variety of ways. It represents the directorial debut of Inferno Cop director, Akira Amemiya. It was a project intended to train Trigger’s younger generation of animators. But perhaps most importantly, it represents a take on a traditional genre that is both intimately familiar but also alienating in the best way possible. Amemiya accomplishes this through some truly impressive shot composition and art direction. Despite how distinctly different SSSS.Gridman feels from other Trigger works, its true quality is its ability to effortlessly balance itself between nuanced characterization, moody experimental visual directing, and an earnest appreciation for the genre, reflected in its dynamic action. Through top notch directing and properly investing time into developing its characters, it makes the story’s familiar message of hope for the future land even stronger.
SSSS.Gridman itself goes beyond just being a great show and becomes the embodiment of a promising future for Trigger. Of the three projects the studio announced in 2017, who would have thought SSSS.Gridman would end up becoming its shining star?
MEGALOBOX is a triumph in technical execution. It boasts a distinct aesthetic and sound unlike anything else in 2018. And despite the simplicity of its characters and narrative, they are presented with such clarity of purpose that it’s worthy of praise in its own right. It is the living breathing example of an anime that has simply decided to excel in every metric in its commitment to crafting its story. No other anime in 2018 feels as wholly complete as MEGALOBOX.
But wait, a new challenger from 1988 has arrived!
Iro and I have only made it about a third of the way through it as you can listen to in our recap podcast, but Legend of the Galactic Heroes is worthy of the praise. It is by no exaggeration, maybe one of the greatest pieces of media I have ever consumed. The 1988 OVA lives up to the hype in all the ways you could imagine and in some you wouldn’t expect. It’s remarkable how its characters and themes can remain so relevant even thirty years after it aired. It speaks to the quality of its writing in a way you rarely seen in fiction, period.
And it isn’t just its relevance that makes it good, it’s a genuinely compelling piece of fiction all around. All the factions and characters are presented with an uncompromising view into their various motivations, fears, and struggles that neither glorifies or condemns, leaving the viewer to make their own conclusions about them. It’s a story that is willing to confront the dangerous pitfalls of all forms of government, the inherent struggles of leadership, and why societies and individuals make the decisions they do within the context of their situation. Its reputation makes it intimidating as hell, I know, but please consider checking it out. It’s worth it.