We’re a few days away from the official start of the 2019 Winter Anime season, which gives us just enough time to reflect before being inundated with more shows than we know what to do with. Before that happens, I thought it’d be good to look at some of the stronger series that slipped under the radar in 2018. We’ll focus on the top series from each individual season, with a single runner-up to round out the count to five series total.
First off, the runner-up:
Record of Grancrest War: At a time when everyone seems to be obsessed with transporting their main character into a video game world, Ryo Mizuno brings a refreshing change of pace with the high fantasy action series Record of Grancrest War. The story follows Theo and his mage Siluca on their mission to reunite the kingdoms of their continent and save their lands from the encroaching Chaos and the monsters it’s spawned. Grancrest delivered week in and week out with stunning artistic design, pulling viewers into the moody, chaos-infested Forest of Eternal Darkness or the pristine halls of Castle Unicorn with adroit I wouldn’t have expected. Like any good fantasy series, it brought action and romance in equal amounts, and thanks to some good timing, we even got the planned ending from the light novels.
What keeps this series as an Honorable Mention though is the rushed pacing. It isn’t often someone can levy this criticism, but Grancrest could have been twice as long (or longer) and would have been twice as good. Twenty four episodes simply isn’t enough time to introduce the massive cast in this anime. Many characters get little to no introduction, they just appear (and often die) with little fanfare, while sweeping, landscape changing battles are reduced to simple montages. This should have been a sixty-five episode epic to properly allow the story to breathe, and that keeps it from reaching the heights of which it was capable.
Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens: I never thought I’d be placing a sports anime on a best of list. Kidding aside, Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is one of those rare examples of a quality light novel breaking through the pack and becoming an anime. (We should’ve known it was special when it was lacking an impossibly long name.) HTR follows Zenji Banba and Lin Xianming, two hitmen trying to make it in the murderous underworld of Hakata. Of course, if this series was all about gruesome murders and grimdark characters, it would’ve gotten lost in the shuffle–other shows have done it first, and likely better. But what made Tonkotsu Ramens work is it delved into the necessity of forming friendships to live a healthy, happier life. Combined with an affable cast that surprisingly contains multiple well-written queer characters, plus some solid animation from Satelight and you get the hidden gem of the Winter season. Hopefully it’ll see a second season one day.
Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku: If there’s one flaw anime has in nearly every genre, it’s the medium’s obsession with young characters. Everything’s set in junior high or high school, with college being a rarity and proper adult protagonists about as hard to find as shiny Pokemon. But with Wotakoi breaks from this frequent crutch by having main characters old enough to actually go to work every day. Narumi Momose is an office worker who recently started working at the same company as her childhood friend Hirotaka. Both of them are huge geeks, but Narumi suppresses her otaku side to find a decent boyfriend…at least until Hirotaka asks her out.
Wotakoi starts at the so-called happy ending. Where most shows are stuck in “will they, won’t they gear”, the end of the first episode sees Narumi excitedly take Hirotaka up on his…eccentric way of asking her out, and for the rest of the series the two are dating, and often hanging out with another couple they know from work. The underlying question of Wotakoi is whether common interests are enough to sustain a relationship, and it haunts both Hirotaka and Narumi for the majority of the series. However, this series isn’t about some doomed relationship of star-crossed lovers or something designed to leave you depressed and crying–this is four young adults and what it’s like to be dating in your mid-twenties. The biggest drama comes from characters going to work exhausted after staying up all night playing video games or catching up on anime, which probably makes it far more relatable to the average viewer than most of us want to admit. Plus this show may have the cutest opening ever.
Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight: For those of us who wished anime’s pop idol obsession came drenched in more symbolism, the summer season brought us Revue Starlight. Set in the Seisho Music Academy, Revue Starlight followed the academy’s 99th graduating class–a group of girls working together to put on the play Starlight. But what does it truly mean to strive for the position of Top Star? And what will they throw away to achieve it?
You can forget about plot for the most part with this series. You come for the idol characters, to see how they grow and change when faced with the bittersweet reality of the stage, but you stay for the sweet swordfights, jaw-dropping animation from Kinema Citrus, and the top-notch direction courtesy of Tomohiro Furukawa.
That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime: As someone who enjoys but doesn’t worship at the shrine of JoJo, I didn’t really have a strong entry for Fall 2018…until I was finally motivated to give this series a try. A few days after Christmas I said I’d watch a few episodes of Reincarnated as a Slime with the intention of catching up eventually…but I wound up marathoning all thirteen episodes out at the time in a single day. It’s just such an enjoyable watch. Despite some of the characters initially proclaiming their land as a harsh world where only the strong survive, Reincarnated as a Slime is probably the most optimistic fantasy series to air all year. It doesn’t shy away from violence, but most of its characters are decent people who just want to live in peace alongside one another.
Another isekai with an absurdly long name, Reincarnated starts with salaryman Satoru Mikami dying in the modern world before being reincarnated in another universe as Rimuru Tempest, a slime monster who through a series of unlikely circumstances winds up becoming one of the most powerful beings on the planet. His vast power means his actions are constantly sending ripples throughout the country he lives on, taking things from a simple comedy into more serious overtures quite rapidly. That’s what’s so special about the series–it could’ve settled for being a fluffy comedy, but it adds drama, action, and a bit of political intrigue without ever going too far out of its depth. It helps to have a strong lead–Rimuru Tempest is probably the most likable character I watched all year, helped massively by the voice actress responsible for bringing him to life, Miho Okasaki. Her voice conveys Rimuru’s excitement and occasional bewilderment at the world around him, often echoing my own reactions to the unfolding events as a viewer perfectly.
Overall, 2018 was another great year for anime. Will 2019 be able to top it?