5. RWBY (volumes 1-4 with 4 ongoing)
(god if this wasn’t the greatest moment in the history of free internet shows)
Anime Rank: #6 in all-time, #3 in anime airing in 2016
Genre: Fantasy (friendly to weapon-obsessed nuts fantastical weapon connoisseurs)
Tentacle Rating: -1/10 – minus one point for actually being a Western show, plus two for the plot being centred around a boarding school where people learn to use special powers, almost like magic… oh. Scratch that. This is questionable in being in this rank rather than in the TV rank but there’s a reason for it.
Music: Oh my god the music, I think I got more into music from RWBY than any other show this year. There’s Mirror Mirror of course but along with that there’s an entire album of pop-rock for each season volume and it’s all incredible. Red Like Roses is wistful and epic, I Burn could fit alongside pop favourites, and those and more will be making appearances in my songs EOY, I know the earlier volumes better so I know more from there but it’s all wonderful. The soundtracks are fairly great too, when they don’t get interrupted for songs.
Best Girl Characters: I have a really hard time choosing but I really have to go for Weiss because she grows and she’s so watchable and kind of relatable. Although Blake is just as relatable, just for another side of me, the shy introverted yet inordinately passionate side. One of those two, the black or the white. I love Ruby, Yang, Pyrrha and Emerald too and Neptune and Sun end up being fun because they’re such doofuses (and Sun being literally based on a Chinese legend is quite cool). But none can really stand before the eccentric and over-the-top history professor Dr Oobleck who is my personal idol and who I hope to be in 20 years, swigging coffee, talking excitedly about what history means to the world and being an awesome shot with a flaming thermos bat.
So RWBY is not exactly an anime. It’s a half anime. Made by Americans. I’ve put it in here largely because the style of the animation and the focus on fighting scenes and magical girls is very anime and yet also western. It’s neither and both. It’s where the two cultures meet and they’ve made an internet show that’s freely accessible on Youtube and Crunchyroll that is far better quality than a show distributed through those methods has any right to be. It’s one of the shows I’ve gotten so obsessed with this year that I’ve actually watched it through twice. Now this is easy to do because the episodes are so short, only 15 minutes at the longest, but still, that’s something I don’t normally do with just any show.
It’s set in a fantasy world where most of the living space is made uninhabitable by evil black monsters that look like animals but are really these manifestations of evil called Grimm, who feed on and are attracted to fear and conflict. I.e. something for all the ridiculous weapons this series has to harmlessly kill. They are hunted by Hunters and Huntresses, trained combat specialists who spend a lifetime protecting the few human kingdoms who exist in this world, and it’s from this group that all the main characters are drawn. At least they’re Huntresses in training at the start of the series, albeit still very competent in combat. In the school they’re training at, they are split into groups of four, protecting each other and helping each other, and one of these main groups has all the main characters, Ruby, Weiss, Blake and Yang. Making… RWBY. All the groups are named after colours, as are many of the characters (Ruby, Weiss, Jaune, Emerald), other teams include JNPR (Juniper), CRDL (Cardinal), CFVY (Coffee), SSSN (Sun), ABRN (Auburn), NDGO (Indigo) and BRNZ (Bronze). I’m waiting for MRNF (Amaranth).
The first volume is probably the worst. It takes about an hour and a half for the entirety of it though so it’s not worth skipping when many TV series are four times as long. It sets up the story well and has some very memorable scenes in it but if you are fussy about inexperienced voice actors then it does admittedly show those off quite badly. They get better and better throughout the show though. And the show starts to get a hold of its identity, it has a fairly generic setting in the first volume but the second volume expands the world and the danger and basically everything is better from then on (and when your season starts off with the first episode almost entirely dedicated to an epic (in the true sense of the word) food fight scene, you got a good thing going. Though of course it gets much more deadly than that but volume 2 is a load of fun and what got me really hooked on the show after sticking with a rather weak volume 1.
Volume 3, the one airing 2015-16, was even better. Dedicating an entire season to a tournament full of breathtaking fighting battles (the fight scenes in this show are half the reason to watch it, they are so fast-paced it’s glorious), this was the season that really got shit going and I loved every minute of it (particularly one episode, Never Miss A Beat, brought out some excellent musical and visual weapons). I am hesitant to say much more but basically the tone and setting of the show has changed hugely for volume 4 that is currently airing. As much of volume 4 will be contained within next year I’ll save most of that for next year but I’ve already been doing weekly reviews of it on my blog as it comes out (although I still haven’t seen the latest episode yet so should get to that) so I’ll have plenty of material for that.
4. Angel Beats
Anime Rank: #5 in all-time
Tentacle Rating: 0/10 – I would say this is one of the better gateway drug animes, supernatural plot, short and easy to finish, the humour is accessible and not Japanese or niche focused humour like in say, Monogatari or Konosuba. The drama is poignant and relatable too.
Music: The music was a key part of this anime’s enjoyment for me, and it really affected me. The piano plink plonks in the opening My Soul, Your Beats, the slow beauty of the ending Brave Song, and finally the glorious and heart-wrenching Ichiban No Takaramono (‘My Greatest Treasure’). I prefer listening to the Yui version in that link in general because the other version, the one played as the anime finished had a different arrangement as if another character was singing it and it was that that smashed my heart into pieces. I don’t want to overload that again. And of course Girls Dead Monster (the in-story band) provide a great soundtrack for the rest of the series.
Best Girl Characters: I use Tenshi from this anime looking up at the sky as my blog header, and she’s one of those silver-haired deep emotions girls that anime loves throwing at me and making me care for so her of course, despite being the antagonist. Yui grows into a great character over the course of the show, as do Yurippe (kind of a budget Haruhi but I’ll take her) and Hideki. Naoi has a lovely little mini-arc, TK and Matsushita 5-dan form an excellent little duo and even if you watch the sub be prepared for TK making occasional nonsensical statements in English. If Iwasawa had gotten more screentime I’d love her too, she’s kind of like Hayley Williams in anime form. There’s a huge number of characters for the length of anime it is and in only a few short episodes you get the gist of most of them. Some are only there to fill a comedic role, like the Completely Generic Student (Ooyama), the Belligerent Idiot (Toda), No-Nonsense Tsundere (Shiina) or the Smart Guy (Christ Takeyama) but they’re still part of the team and a few extra episodes (OVAs) get some of the best out of the side characters.
Angel Beats is consistently funny. It’s only 13 episodes long and most people say that that wasn’t nearly enough to tell the story it wants to tell. It’s about a young guy who dies and goes to the afterlife, where he finds a number of people who have also died young and are battling against Tenshi (the angel) in a setting that is basically Purgatory High School to keep from going on into what they believe to be nothingness. Most of the school is populated by NPCs, non-humans created by the angel who just act like humans to give the inhabitants some sense of normality. The named characters have formed a club to keep everyone together and they spend their time launching strategic missions against the angel.
I went through Angel Beats knowing it would be similar fare to Charlotte, something I watched and enjoyed last year, but even better (and I was seemingly one of the few to enjoy Charlotte a lot so I had that going for me), but I wasn’t quite prepared for how significantly it would affect me. I’d heard it would. I hadn’t heard that it was going to be funny. And that I’d enjoy the story so much I’d want to continue with these characters and see what happens after the end of the show. (some major spoilers on tone) I broke down crying at the end of it because of how desperate it all was and seeing the characters disappear one by one from the ending screen where before they had been appearing one by one and I’d watched that carefully each episode, it was a glorious outpouring of emotions. Comedy-dramas really are the ones to hit your emotions the most, because you don’t expect it That’s why I’ve played Ichiban No Takaramono a lot to this day pretty much, because it reminds me of the ending and I never want to forget it.
3. Re:Zero – Starting Life In Another World
Anime Rank: #4 in all time, #2 in anime airing in 2016, best anime that debuted this year
Genre: Suffering time. Or Intense fantasy drama
Tentacle Rating: 6/10 – Plenty of wispy magical tentacles, catboys and best girl wars, the premise is understandable though. Might be just a little too weird for non-anime fans but there’s so much action and excitement it’s overcome-able.
Music: Rather good but hasn’t taken over my life as much as the music in the rest of my top 5 has. The second ending, Styx Helix is a very enjoyable piece of subtle modern pop though, giving a great lead-in to the second half ending episodes, where it was really needed to take away the suffering.
Best Girl Characters: I’m one of the few who seems to be Team Emilia. As you might have guessed from this image which shows her in her best light, playing with Puck, the cat. The first featured image in the first article on my blog. But yes, I am Team Emilia, because it’s the right team and Emilia is an incredible person, as she proves in the final episode as well as proving it right at the beginning. She is less present for the middle part of the series and that is where the divide lies. Because that’s where the other team comes in. Team Rem. Rem is probably the most popular character to emerge ever since I’ve been following the anime community and the amount of fanart and love I’ve seen for her is incredible. I don’t dislike her, she’s great (as is her twin sister Ram). She also proves she’d be a good choice (yes, like in Twilight teams, this is a choice between which girl the main character chooses to hook up with but it’s better because this has a good story). But she, for me, is too passive. She would be a great friend, but the way Emilia tries to appear strong throughout, including cutting off Subaru when he’s being too much of an asshole, I think that’s far more admirable.
Beyond the inevitable clash of waifu wars, Puck is great, Crusch, she is possibly the most capable leader in the land, Felix is great although him being a catboy rather than a catgirl is still very confusing to me (because he looks and sounds just like a girl but we’re assured he has the right parts), Wilhelm proves his awesomeness several times over the series, Subaru has his moments of being awful but as a main character is likeable about half the time. The other half is willing him to go kill himself. And Betelguese is a very memeable villain.
Re:Zero has been pretty definitively the most popular anime of 2016 over both Japan and the Western World. Apparently lately there has been some figure skating thing challenging it but as someone who always roots for fantasy, and was checking anime boards throughout the summer, you could not escape Re:Zero’s dominance over that part of the world. Why? Well, like with Konosuba, it’s deconstructing elements and tropes of the rather overused story baseline ‘main character gets transported to fantasy world and has adventures’, but instead of doing it through a route of comedy, it’s going through a route of realistic, painful, mostly mature, drama. And you keep coming back for more of that. Even if you don’t want to. The premise, in something that will be familiar to anyone who’s played Dark Souls (apparently, I have never played that but I hear deaths are common there) is that Subaru, the best car main character transported into this world has been given the power of ‘Return By Death’. Which means whenever he dies he returns, back in time and alive, to his nearest save point. Just like in a video game. Except this is real life and there are painful consequences and mind-altering traumas associated with dying over and over again. And if he doesn’t get the entire run right, people who he’s come to care about through spending far more time with them than they have with him (causing problems of over-familiarity with his relationships at times), will probably end up dead too. His task is to find the only viable route through this world where everything seems out to kill him and drag him into a pit of despair.
What’s worse is that Subaru is a bit of an asshole and assumes that this fantasy world is entitled to make him a hero, which is the result of about half of his downfalls. It’s at that point that you do want him to die. Yet, despite that, there’s good writing, characters grow, characters give long speeches and conversations that develop them and make everything right with the world, there’s plenty of action, there’s a lot of suspense, there’s so much that this is so far one of the few animes I have watched pretty much as it came out because I was so hooked that I could not wait until it was all out there and ready to watch, I had to know, each week, where it would go next. And I really hope that a season 2 materialises at some point, despite being the most successful anime of this year by a long shot, even successful anime have a hard time getting sequel seasons and the source material isn’t all quite published yet. So we could be waiting a while but this was a great show to dominate the summer and I hope an anime like this comes out every year because then I won’t ever run out of amazing anime to get into.
However, as good as Re-Zero was, and how it pretty much dominated this year for anime, it can’t quite get into my top 2, which have really been shows that have influenced my year and my thinking like few others have.
2. Assassination Classroom (seasons 1 and 2)
Anime Rank: #3 in all-time, #1 in anime airing in 2016
Genre: Comedy + inspiration for everyone involved in the learning process
Tentacle Rating: 8/10. Yep, one of my favourite animes has a large amount of tentacles involved. I hope you’re not surprised. It’s largely because the main premise involves an octopus-like being who naturally has lots of tentacles. And enjoys having tentacles so uses them in class work and part of the main story is centred around tentacles. In fact that’s probably the only reason I’m rating it so high, it’d literally get a 12 rating in terms of classification here, there’s not much weird besides that.
Music: I got into 3-Nen E-Gumi Utatan (literally ‘3E Class Band’), the voice actors singing the openings, all four of which, Seishun Satsubatsuron, Jiriki Hongan Revolution, Question and Bye Bye Yesterday are excellent. Jiriki and Bye Bye Yesterday were the ones that really got me getting chills to the opening images and listening numerous times outside the anime though. The former is exciting, the latter emotional. Question is a bit of a middle in between those two. The ending, Hello Shooting Star, by moumoon, is in contrast to the boisterous openings, quiet and reserved. As is the second ending, Mata Kimi Ni Aeru Hi. All the music was excellent. The in-episode soundtrack was just as amazing, for example each time this tense music played played you sat up and paid attention. Definitely an anime where the music elevated it above the norm.
Best Girl Characters: And the other reason why this one really struck a chord with me was the huge amount of characters it had on offer. Most animes, hell, most TV shows, when they’re about a classroom, focus on 4 to 8 students. Maybe a few more if you’re lucky, but the rest of the class will be background extras, in live-action or anime. Not Assassination Classroom. Each and every member of the class was important, had a role to play in the plot of episodes, got their own screen-time and while it focused more on the students with coloured hair who were the real main characters, you got to know each and every one of the others so that they felt like a team. Eventually, after much checking of the character page on TVTropes. I also figured out all of their names. All 30 of them. That was definitely worth it. Out of the less important students, I really grew to like Nakamura, because she has a cheeky sense of humour, Takebayeshi, because glasses and clever, Chiba, because of his mysterious hair and face and Kanzaki, because she’s sweet and lovely. What makes this better is that in numerous episodes there will be something that applies to all of the students, like a nickname or what they like or what role they’ve taken in this latest class activity and the show pans over all of them so if you want you can pause and see who got what. And, as you’re not a teacher, you’re just an observer, you are completely free to pick favourites like I have.
The main characters were eminently likeable though, which is where the strength of this comes in. The reason you absolutely have to watch this subtitled is the incredible voice of the Japanese VA of Koro Sensei, the teacher, the tentacle monster, the reason for the premise. His demented chuckling is brilliant. And he has quite the personality as you spend all two seasons exploring his depths, including why he wanted to become a teacher, which is probably one of the greatest strengths of this anime.
Karma and Kaede both have their moments, Karma has a lot of overconfidence and recklessness that shouldn’t endear you to him but as the bad boy who’s nevertheless a genius, he’s good watching.
I have to give the props to main character Nagisa though. If you’re on Skype with me, you’ll notice my picture there is still that of Nagisa and I only change it away if I have a Skype interview coming up. I really identified with him. And not just because I thought he was a girl for most of the first episode and still really like looking at his character model. He’s the sort of student most of us can identify with, has his own struggles, is not the most domineering person in the class but he really latches on to the mission of the series and becomes a much stronger person through it. His successes are the viewers successes and living vicariously through him is amazing. As are his balls of steel.
The premise of Assassination Classroom is a simple one. A tentacle monster (not an alien, he was born on Earth, thank you very much) has destroyed the moon and threatens to destroy the world if he is still alive at the end of the new school year. His class’s task over the next year is to assassinate him by any means they can. The catch. He can move at Mach 20. I.e. very very fast. If any of the students manage it, they get a huge monetary payout. So they are very motivated to kill their sensei. At first. Assassination Classroom is very touching, but along the way, it’s a whole load of comedic fun with THAT ridiculous premise, over both seasons. As I’ve said in the characters section, you really start identifying with them and there’s a strong message outside of that. The message of acceptance and equality. Schools are very reputation based. The students in the anime go to a good school, but they are in a separate, remedial class, that has to go to a separate, run-down building at the top of a mountain to learn, and the class is filled with dropouts and losers, all looked down upon (and this is encouraged by the school) by students from the higher achieving classes. As well as assassination, the other part of the series is improving Class 3E’s reputation into people who are not taunted and ridiculed every time they appear on the main campus and are actually respected as capable students. It presents the joys of teaching and helping your students grow exceedingly well.
And they also have loads of fun with extra-curricular activities learning all the challenges of being capable (and safe) assassins. It goes from episodic romps in season 1 towards arcs that build and build, all the way through Season 2 and that second season, airing its final episodes as I reached the end myself, was one of the most amazing single anime seasons I’ve ever seen. So much enjoyable content with characters I cared about, and all pretty much very positive stuff. Helped distract from the pits of despair that Re:Zero was sending me into.
Over May and June, I was stuck inside working on exams and my dissertation. Once the former was gone, I had quite a bit of independent time. That was mostly spent getting completely obsessed with what was going to happen next with this anime. I think, watching it as I did, when I was about to leave my personal education for what is probably going to be the final time, it really had a significant impact on me and it will stick with me forever.
Anime Rank: #1 in all-time
Genre: Fantasy battle royale
Tentacle Rating: 4/10 – more grounded and real than Fate/Stay Night but still has big scenes with huge monsters and concepts that could only exist in anime
Music: Kalafina’s To The Beginning, Eir Aoi’s Memoria, two serious contenders for the best anime opening and the best anime ending I know. Memoria has a ton of relevant historical imagery which always gives me chills and while To The Beginning took a while to grow on me I was listening to it so much since finishing this anime in May all the way through to October. The soundtrack is incredible and I do have to give highlights of it as I don’t really know the names of specific tracks well enough to associate with them. Just looking them up gave me serious chills from the memory though. When I rewatch this, as will be necessary at some point in the near future, I will note down the music tracks I loved. Music really is at least one third of my love affair with anime, the soundtracks and the opening songs and the closing songs are so often very mesmerising and special in different ways.
Best Girl Characters: Waver and Rider are the best duo anyone could ask for, mismatched in size and ability but bonded for life (and my personal fandom of the historical characters behind Rider and Saber made them so brilliant for me, in what other show do you have Alexander The Great facing off against King Arthur). Kiritsugu and Saber have a far more serious relationship and that’s a dramatic part of this anime. And when Irisviel comes into the picture too, she’s sweet and kindly and far more than what her origins should be letting her be. Every other character has a vast array of motivations that lead to them taking part in the war and it is great fun to see all fourteen of the main participants clash upon the battlefield with their opposing ideologies. We should get to the story though.
Like with Star Wars, Fate/Stay Night had a prequel written about it, set chronologically in the previous generation of characters, doing a similar kind of thing to the original story, with a shift in tone. Unlike the Star Wars prequels, Zero’s shift in tone was to the adult and serious, and also unlike them, this prequel is more highly-regarded than any form of Stay Night. For the wider community and for me as well. Produced in between the two Stay Nights that have already been in this countdown, the light novel and the anime for Fate/Zero uses the historical potential of real legends fighting it out on the battlefield to much better use than Stay Night, a better cast of Servants, with deeper motivations of their own, as well as a load of Masters who unlike in Stay Night, are all (with one exception) adults with tons of life experience, and it feels like a really serious conflict. Add to that the discarded lack of a romantic focus between the main character and one of his rival Masters and/or his Servant and you get a situation where for quite a long time, even if you are familiar with the connections some of the characters have to Stay Night and think they’re going to survive, you’re still not quite sure who the main character actually is. Who is going to win? Who will make it close to the end? Who will die and who will live? Those were all questions I wasn’t entirely sure on for the first 75% of my first watch of Fate/Zero. With the exception of one Servant/Master pair (who are so ridiculously evil that they’re enjoyable that way), they all have valid reasons and claims to being the hero of the story.
Again it’s a war for the Holy Grail, with seven Masters, humans with magic powers and seven Servants, legendary people from history, in different classes like Archer, Saber, Rider etc, but this time it’s a lot more gritty, dark, and without a clear focus on one pair so you get to focus on them all.
There’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering that is entirely worthy of Game Of Thrones (you need it in what is basically a seven-way free-for-all), there are strong character motivations for every character, no one is left behind, the fights are fantastic, the fact that you like so many characters but since they are in conflict inevitably some of those you like will die by the other’s hand is a very different experience to most shows and it does make it all the stronger. I always like looking at the titles of the episodes and Zero has so many great ones, ‘The Fake First Shot’, ‘A Wicked Beast’s Roar’, ‘Distant Memories’, ‘Knight On A Two-Wheeled Steed’, ‘The Ocean At The End Of The Earth’, and thankfully all those episodes were just as fulfilling as the titles. It’s a powerful, epic anime, telling a weighty and mature story, and it is pretty much an entirely perfect show. While I haven’t raved about it like I have with Assassination Classroom (or at least I would have had I had a blog in June), the sheer quality and enjoyment I got from Fate/Zero is enough for me to put it ahead, and put it ahead of Haruhi as well. In fact, it’s a good thing for Game Of Thrones that it’s still going and has a ton more episodes, otherwise that one might be in danger. But Fate/Zero is so tight on merely 25 episodes, that it tells all it needs to and plays every card it has right, it’s worthy of being my #1 anime.