Guideline to my rating scheme:
10 - A work with some element that I feel is masterful, and no other elements that are bad enough to detract.
9 - A great work without the spark of mastery OR a work that has both masterful and deleterious elements.
8 - Something good enough that I would find it worth re-watching.
7 - Something that was good but I'd only re-watch it under select circumstances.
6 - Something I don't regret watching but I wouldn't care to re-watch it.
5 - Quotidian. ("Mom, look at the rock I found." "That's nice.")
3 or 4 - Garbage, but inoffensive (milk cartons, broken furniture, and banana peels.)
1 or 2 - Offensive garbage (used sharps, bandages, and rotting meat.)
Why did I give insert title a 10?
Spoilers may abound in this section, so click on things at your own risk!!!
March Comes in Like a Lion may be one of the most mature anime featured on this website, but unlike many other anime that deal with mature topics it simultaneously has a cute look that would appeal to children (when I say mature, I mean things adults should spend a decent portion of time considering, not the vulgar definition of blood and sex.) This is the paragon of slice of life anime, where we explore the unique lives of several individuals AND get to see the all develop and grow as characters. Every character feels like a real person; we don't get caricatures of villains or good people. In fact, we don't even have any real villains, just like life generally does not. We get a world where things don't magically work out perfectly for the protagonists, but since it isn't the end of the world if they fail like the human beings they are, that's just fine. They feel pain, pick themselves up, and move forward. Accompanying this masterful story is the best animation I've seen to date. Yes, it is a slice of life without action, so there's no need for flashy action scenes, but that didn't stop Studio Shaft from making pure art. Animation is actually used to help tell the story instead of just being a nice backdrop like it so often is. You simply understand an old man's struggle with being the last one left of his generation when you see him wrapped in strands of cloth, the wishes of those who have moved or passed on. March Comes in Like a Lion proves once and for all that you don't need flashy action or pandering fan-service to make a successful anime. You just need a good story.
Traditionally, I'm not the biggest fan of love polygons. They often substitute endless wavering for character development and obligatory conflict setup for actually exploring any of the other real life difficulties that people encounter in romance (I'm not saying love triangles can't happen; if they couldn't, I don't think we'd have a word for adultery.) A Lull in the Sea is the anime that saw my dislike and went all in, winning my heart in the process. This anime has the most convoluted romantic relationship chart I've seen to date (and with five seven people you know at least someone will walk out either unlucky or dead (which is to say, particularly unlucky.) Yet instead of relying on this relational spaghetti alone, A Lull in the Sea yokes the relationship drama to a somewhat generic apocalyptic fantasy plot. This still sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn't it? Yet instead of crashing and burning like a wad of grilled peanut-butter squid, we get the unique experience of the peanut butter and pickle sandwich. A Lull in the Sea uses the relationship drama to explore what it really means to love someone and to demonstrate that love involves sacrifices. It uses the fantasy aspect to interact with the nature of the sacrifices and ask which sacrifices made in the name of love are worthy and which desecrate love. The break between surface and sea opens the door to examining familial love and community versus friendship and romance. A time skip gives a chance for the relationships to start to rework themselves, while also letting us wonder about transience and permanence, a theme further emphasized by the fact that the apocalypse is happening. Meld all this together with stand-out voice acting, gorgeous character design and animation courtesy of P.A. Works, and the project you would think was begging for the trash heap became a masterpiece.
Fruits Basket is a simply beautiful anime. It is filled with stories about one of the kindest characters your will ever have the chance to meet, Honda Tohru, interacting with a tragically cursed family, the Sohma family. By nature of the curse, the members of this family generally suffer from the effects of emotional abuse, stemming from various sources. One would be concerned that such a panoply of suffering characters would result in trite problems and cliche personalities, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Each character is well realized, their problems thoughtfully presented, and their personalities influenced but not solely defined by their struggles. Tohru is also no perfect angel, having imperfections and struggles of her own, including her own traumatic circumstances that she is slowly working her way through, mostly invisible to the audience. The other beautiful thing about Fruits Basket is that although the subject matter is often heavy, the presentation rarely is. This is one of the few comedic dramas that manages to balance the comedy and the drama well enough that you neither suffer from a case of emotional whiplash every episode, nor find the difficulties the characters face made light of for the sake of a few cheap laughs. As mentioned in my official review of season 1, when you walk away from a show both thoroughly entertained and inspired to be a better person, what more could you ask?
Hyouka is filled with all that is delightful about the slice of life genre, as well as providing us with a unique take on the mystery genre. I think that the genius of Hyouka is this very combination. The slice of life aspect gives us its relaxed nature, providing us with the kind of anime that I'm always in the mood to watch. The mystery provides us with our plot, which gives a direction to go so that our characters can be developed as they encounter different situations. Add just a sprinkling of some of the cutest romance you'll ever see and a dash of drama, and the recipe for a masterpiece is complete. Hyouka's characters carry the anime from start to finish. Hyouka has a relatively small main cast of four: Oreki, Chitanda, Satoshi, and Mayuka. Oreki and Chitanda both have slightly extreme, if not completely unbelievable, personalities while Satoshi and Mayuka ground the cast in reality. Together they comprise their schools Classic Literature club, the literature aspect of which has very little to do with the plot of the anime (no Soseki, Dazai, or Akutagawa references caught here by me.) Instead, the club provides a historical bridge to connect them to their first mystery, and later becomes PI Oreki's home office. Now, in general the mystery genre is obsessed with the world of crime, verily splattered with the grimmest murders the authors can conceive. Hyouka ignores this conceit and goes to the heart of mystery, which is simply problem-solving in action. As fun as spending time in the morgue of traditional mystery can be, it's incredibly refreshing to get above the ground for a while and take a break from the gruesome. We get picnic-style mystery with everyday problems and everyday stakes, mystery you can take a break from for a moment or two so that we can laugh at a spot of comedy and cheer for budding romance without needing to dissociate from that stabbed corpse in the corner. That doesn't mean Hyouka can't be serious when it needs to be, it simply means that serious is a place to visit instead of pall cast over the whole proceeding. I've gone on for a while at this point, but that's simply because I loved Hyouka's style of mystery and want to see more of it. It is the work of a masterpiece to take a genre as restrictive as mystery and reveal a side of it we've rarely seen before. Hyouka's gorgeous animation, a prophecy of the future Violet Evergarden, guarantees you won't want to look away from the screen for a moment. Finally, I must add that Chitanda Eru is the girl I wish I'd met back in my high school days (I guess I can always hope for the future.)
The vast majority of Re:Zero's strength comes from how it treats its protagonist. The isekai genre in general actually has a lot of promise for developing good stories. First, as the protagonist is a newcomer to the world just like the reader, it can make world building exposition seem a little more natural (the same effect is often achieved in classic fantasy by having the protagonist by an outsider to the setting of the story, like a farm boy becoming a knight or magician.) Second, it can address our conceits from our culture by having them clash directly with another culture. Those advantages aside, the majority of stories we've received through anime have tended toward power fantasy, with overpowered protagonists merely vindicating their culture in another world. This tendency is understandable, but generally inimical to good story telling, especially character building. Yet, since an overpowered hero provides the immediate advantage of being able to get involved in world-shaking events quickly, the shortcut remains tempting. Re:Zero's first genius move is sidestepping this dichotomy by giving us an everyday hero whose power lets him interact with world-shaking events and overcome them by gaining knowledge over time instead of simply blowing the enemies away. Through in well-realized drawbacks to using the power and we're able to quickly get the character involved in interesting events, turn up the risk level several notches due to his power, and still not neglect character growth. This solution is the first masterpiece move that Re:Zero satisfied me with. The second is that the character growth of Subaru clearly demonstrates that the culture he came from, otaku, isn't going to let him magically save the day. Subaru struggles, makes major mistakes that he can't fix with his power, suffers, and in the end grows to be a better person. Because of the moments you are yelling at him through the screen to stop being such an idiot, Subaru's character arc ends up being immensely satisfying. Once we reach the final scene, Subaru is no longer the person he was at the beginning in a good way. Re:Zero also really managed to pack in the thrills simply by virtue of Subaru's death not being a story ending event. We get to have real consequences and eat the cake of Subaru moving forward too. Re:Zero's world isn't the most clever world, but it's no slouch either. The White Whale is a great antagonist, as is the mysterious and deadly Witches' Cult. Elsa and Petelgeuse scratch that itch for dangerous, nasty villains, while the whole Queen's selection is quite well thought out. The other characters aren't cardboard cutouts either, which makes for a nice change, Emilia, Beatrice, Ram, and Roswaal standing out in particular (I feel that a lot of Rem's standing out is simply by virtue of greater focus. That doesn't mean she's a bad character; I just don't think she's quite as strong as some of the other characters.) Re:Zero is simply good fantasy, isekai that uses its premise to help criticize Subaru instead of just power him up, has good mystery, and is thrilling to boot. Sometimes a clever and well-applied power for the protagonist is all you need in order to create a masterpiece. (Note: In retrospect, while what I've written is still something I opine, I've downgraded my rating for Re:Zero a point due to its lack of subtle emotion, a significant character failing.)
Clannad: After Story is one of the rare sequels that is the heart of the entire series. It opens much in the same way as the previous series, with a series of short arcs exploring various characters: Misae, Sunohara, and Yukine. Of these three initial arcs, none are as boring or contrived as the Kotomi arc in the first series, but neither are any as funny and poignant as Fuko's arc. Overall, if the series had ended here, it would garner an eight or nine. However, the series does not end here and instead progresses into the most powerful series of anime episodes I've viewed to date. From Nagisa's illness preventing her graduation to the day Ushio dies, every episode is a bottom of the ninth grand slam home run. High school romance gets to grow out of high school, young love begets marriage, youthful delinquency matures into adult responsibility. Then marriage turns to grief, grief to escape, but finally the dawn blasts away the night and grief and pain are finally accepted. Tomoya overcomes his longstanding issues with his father as he matures into a great father himself. All of this is told beautifully and feels remarkably real. Honestly, this anime would top my list were it not for it's deus ex machina ending, which is both a little confusing and very unnecessary. It isn't the worst of endings, as it essentially takes the episodes after the tragedy of Nagisa's death and recasts them as a learning experience for Tomoya, where he learns to accept that to love someone else is to also accept a portion of pain, but that the love is worth the pain. This is a beautiful lesson, but I feel it could have been just as adequately portrayed without undoing Nagisa's death. This lesson could have been taught as Tomoya slowly falls in love with Kyou and deals with trauma of his first wife's death in order to commit to marrying her. Still, despite the ending being disappointing, I can't deny that those ten episodes are anime perfection, easily earning this series the title of masterpiece in spite of its other flaws. After all, if we can't love something in spite of its flaws, we certainly didn't learn the lessons that Clannad was trying to teach us.
Irozuku: The World in Color truly lives up to its name. This may be the most beautiful anime I've seen to date (in particular the fireworks are superior to all other animated fireworks.) P.A. Works pulled out all the stops with the artwork, producing a gorgeous world. This all supports the story, with its fully color bind protagonist (and emotionally blind,) Hitomi. As the color in the art swells and fades, we can read the pulse of Hitomi's growing heart, even as she also learns to accept the beauty she can see through colorblindness as part of the photography club. Irozuku is full of soft, gentle, everyday magic, the type of magic that helps mankind keep the peace instead of the common fantasy magic that helps win the war. I absolutely love this kind of gentle magic, and the magic's gentleness permeates the entire show. Each character as a spark of this gentleness at their core, even the wild Kohaku and the mischievous Chigusa. Asagi and Hitomi in particular exude this gentleness, despite their respective lack of self-confidence. The romance in this show is also well done, moving the characters to grow and act without distracting from their development. Yes, there are clashes as the result of romance rejected or unspoken, but these clashes are peacefully resolved, demonstrating the true friendship of the group. Even though the primary romance is destined for failure, its very ephemeral nature only heightens its beauty and increases its potential to help Hitomi leave her shell. This show powerfully reminds you that although life is inherently temporary, that doesn't mean that it is inherently meaningless. A color seen for a moment or a friendship shared for a month can continue with us in memory, reminding us to always keep looking for the color and beauty in this world.
Often, when you mix widely disparate show elements, like comedy, drama, tragedy, romance, and action, you end up with a jumbled mess of a show that wallows in both plot and tone incoherency. Yet on occasion these elements transform through the alchemy of excellent direction and the hard work of the production staff into spectacular journeys. Angel Beats! is one of these shows. The central conceit of this anime is life after death where those who died young are able to come to peace with their tragic lives by living a fulfilling life in this purgatory before being reborn. It would be easy for a show with this premise to waste time on tragic melodrama, but Angel Beats! avoids this trap by keeping a narrow focus for in-depth characterization. Some may see this as a bug and wish to explore the backstories of every character in complete teary detail, but this is a feature for me. Angel Beats! has a very large cast, so giving this in-depth treatment to each character would cause the anime to drag on, diluting the focus that makes its combination of show elements functional. Just knowing that each cast member does have some tragedy in their past gives them a little extra weight when necessary despite our not knowing the details, plus it may have detracted from the main purpose of this large cast, which is to provide a diverse source of comedy elements. Angel Beats! is peppered with incredibly humorous moments supported by this large cast, moments so funny they belie the serious nature of the main arc. Certainly the humor is highly dependent on exaggerated slapstick and goofy characters, so it may not be your cup of tea, but I for one was dying for the entire rocket desk sequence. Angel Beats! knows that the quality of the humor is more important than the quantity, so it is able to be very funny without cheapening the emotional beats of the show. The drama and main plot of this show is driven by characters anger at the tragedy in their former lives, rising to the point of rage against God. Yet as characters fight against this pain, they still slowly start to move toward peace in a manner feels organic instead of forced. Characters disappear when they accept this peace, a curious echo where life after death brings the same pain and loss that death after life brings the living. This bittersweet pain is the backbone of the series, letting the viewer cry and experience tragedy without the nasty aftertaste so often lingers after tragedies in life. In the end, despite the rage of the characters against God, they come to find that God (or at least something) cares enough about them to provide them with second chances and help them find hope. The final scene of Angel Beats! ties this all together, reminding us that no matter how difficult it is to part with those we love, there is always the promise that love and hope have the power to outlast even death.
Flying Witch is the pinnacle of the iyashikei genre. Gentle to a fault, it has all the zest and thrill of spending a day exploring in the mountains. You follow a trail for a while, skip some rocks by a lake, eat some wild berries, hurry back to camp to play games while waiting out a storm, then share a delicious meal around a campfire. That feeling of always wanting to know what is on the other side of the hill is what makes Flying Witch so addictive to watch in spite of its episodic structure. Flying Witch is filled with a batch of quirky, fun characters that you would wish with all your heart were your next door neighbors. Flying Witch also features the gentle brand of magic that I particularly love. All in all, Flying Witch is a paean to the past when more of us were able to enjoy the idyllic beauty of nature and a simpler life. Its haunting cry is all the more effective because it doesn't gloss over the hard work involved in that type of life. It also shows the deep beauty of family and friendship, the grace present when all is well in the home. While it is unlikely humanity will ever go back to those days, at least Flying Witch lets us enjoy that beauty from the comfort of our own homes, and inspires us to find little ways in which we can increase the simplicity of our lives and better connect with the beauty of our world. By leaving our problems behind for a moment while watching this show, hopefully we'll come back to find those problems smaller and more manageable.
Ascendance of a Bookworm is the best realized fantasy and isekai of recent years. By willing to sacrifice early thrills and action in favor of character development and world building, it has built the solid foundation necessary for future greatness. First, Bookworm is an isekai that actually uses the concept in a smart way. Myne's former life in Japan provides the primary motivation for the character, namely developing books that will be accessible to the common people in her new world. Myne is filled with valuable knowledge, but Bookworm does a great job of distinguishing that while modern people have a lot of knowledge that would be useful in the past, they also lack a lot of knowledge necessary to live in the past successfully. Thus, Myne is no overpowered protagonist trampling about the new world, instead she is a real person learning about and trying to find a place in a new world that lacks the things she loved most in her old life. Bookworm also addresses the potential problems with being reborn in another world, both in terms of the girl Myne who died so that Urano's spirit could take her place as well as the threat that new knowledge can present to an established political order. Bookworm's world building shines as well, clearly depicting how life was in the medieval era without glamorizing it nor adding unnecessary grimness to the world. Bookworm's broad cast is all well developed in terms of personality, with none of the characters feeling like tropes made flesh. Overall, if you want isekai fantasy that has a strong slice-of-life aspect, Bookworm will satisfy you exquisitely.
Anohana is in a way the perfect tragedy. You know from the beginning exactly what happened, but the show slowly and carefully builds your connection to the characters until you also have experienced the tragedy that they experienced that summer day so long ago. Despite being a tragedy, Anohana is able to buck the trend of the genre and also be a story of hope, again by virtue of its putting the tragedy in the past instead of leading up to it in the present. This combination of hope and misery is ideal for placing you in a state of catharsis. Like these six friends, we all have or will experience tragedy at some point in the course of our lives. We will all need to deal with our feelings of grief; we will also need to let hope pierce the shadows of grief so that we can return to life. Anohana is clever in that it recognizes from the beginning that each of us will grieve in different ways, and that each of us will also grieve for different reasons. No two of us will experience the exact same tragedy, nor grieve in the exact same way. By presenting the spectrum of grief and grieving, Anohana gives us a far better opportunity to connect with the characters than the traditional tragedy does. Anohana also makes it clear that grieving leads people to make mistakes, to act in ways that they wouldn't if they were in their right minds. These actions aren't condoned, but they give us the opportunity to brace ourselves for similar irrationality in the wake of tragedy in our own lives. In the end, Anohana has no villain save the vicissitudes of life. Senseless accidents occur, without the hand of man or God ordaining them. By removing the villain from the scene, we instead are asked to search our own hearts and determine how we will react when life is just plain unfair. Will we cry? Yes, we will. Will we make mistakes? Yes, we will. Yet, in the end, we need not become a victim. By letting ourselves freely feel, we will eventually be able to set ourselves free from the bands of grief. Sorrow will remain with us for all the days of our life, but the sun always rises, spring always comes, and so too grief will pass in the end. That is the beauty of Anohana: reminding us of the course of life in the wake of tragedy and the rainbow that will shine as the waves settle and the mists pass from our view.