As usual, a brief explanation first: contrary to the title of this post, these awards are not for anime released solely in 2016, but rather for those shows released from the start of spring 2016 and finished by the end of winter 2017. Mostly because scrolling through best-of lists in late December and early January gets pretty old, pretty fast, but also because there tends to be less in the way of ongoing titles between the winter and spring seasons. As in previous years, I’m counting only televised shows that I watched right through to the end. Films, specials, and OVAs are automatically disqualified, as are any shows I ended up dropping before the final episode.
Right then, let’s get to it!
The Congrats-For-Not-Being-Shit Trophy (aka Biggest Surprise Title)
Second runner-up: 3-gatsu no Lion (Fall-Winter)
There are few anime studios as a whole that I dislike on general principle, but Shaft tends to be one of them. I can think of a whole two titles from the studio other than this one that I wholeheartedly like, so my expectations for 3-gatsu no Lion were unsurprisingly low. And oh how I loved being proved wrong. The very rich cinematography of the show negates the need for any exposition whatsoever and at times tells the story practically on its own, while the touches of familial warmth and comedy keeps the natural angst of the series from becoming melodramatic. Quiet but powerful, 3-gatsu no Lion struck me as both well-crafted and extremely poignant – certainly not something I was expecting going in.
Runner-up: Cheer Danshi!!! (Summer)
For a school-centered sports anime, Cheer Danshi is remarkably adult. In part this is because it’s set in and around university rather than high school for a change, but it also manages to avoid many of the more tiresome tropes of its genre by being quite introspective and reflective rather than continuously upbeat or high-energy. That’s probably what helps define sports anime for many viewers, but personally I really appreciated the less colourful and more realistic vibe that Cheer Danshi has going on. Plus, it isn’t bogged down even in the slightest by issues of fanservice or gender-baiting – and given this is an anime about cheerleading, that’s pretty darn amazing.
Winner: Sailor Moon Crystal season 3
After the blazing trainwreck that was seasons one and two of Crystal, I hadn’t expected much of the third, with only the most fragile of hopes prompting me to watch the first episode anyway. Much to my astonishment, said third season rectified nearly all of the issues plaguing its previous efforts – the terribad CG, stilted dialogue, and complete lack of anything even resembling meaningful characterization – and replaced them with a slightly altered art style, far better pacing, and writing that actually made sense. Just in time for the introduction of the outer senshi, too! I think it’s safe to say that the change in directorship worked wonders.
The Shiny Entrance Medal (aka Best Debut Episode)
Runner-up: Kuzu no Honkai (Winter)
Bearing in mind that I’m not a manga reader at all and therefore had no idea what I was in for, Kuzu no Honkai completely took me aback, and mostly in a great way. I wouldn’t call this an ecchi title by any means, but the explicitness of what goes on here is, as far as mainstream anime goes at least, incredibly bold, and the first episode takes full, shocking advantage of that. In terms of both pacing and visual representation, there’s absolutely no beating around the bush, and it’s that frankness which lent the anime such a strong first impression.
Winner: Yuri!!! on Ice (Fall)
Knowing what I did of Yamamoto Sayo, I went in expecting Yuri on Ice to be good. I didn’t expect it to be that good, especially right off the bat. It wasn’t just the realism of the figure skating itself that appealed to me right away, or the cinematography in a more general sense, or even the way the little moments of humour were so lovingly blended in with the drama. It was that Yuri on Ice immediately endeared itself to me as a show that knew how to tell a story with both grace and subtlety, eschewing exposition in favour of unspoken relationship dynamics and rock-solid characterization. So impressive was the premiere that I actually had to go back and re-watch it that same day, partly because I enjoyed it so much and partly because I had to make sure I wasn’t just imagining things. And I sure wasn’t.
The Shiny Exit Medal (aka Best Finale)
Winner: 91 Days (Summer)
I liked most episodes of 91 Days. I loved the final episode of 91 Days. Quiet, contemplative, and even weirdly uplifting, the finale is a bit of a departure from a series that is, if not exactly action-packed, then certainly not shy of physical confrontation or bloodshed. While the show is for the most part a tale of revenge and gangster politics, episode 12 takes a literal trip away from both these things in a nostalgic callback to The Bro Roadtrip of episode 4, easily the other best episode of the series as a whole. The result is a curiously muted but emotionally powerful affair – easily one of the best conclusions of any anime I’ve seen to date and, needless to say, one that also blows any competition for this award right out of the water.
The Blue Ribbon of Fabulosity (aka Best Character)
Runner-up: Ohta, Tanaka-kun wa Itsumo Kedaruge (Spring)
There are plenty of reasons to love seeing a character like Ohta take center stage. He looks like he should be the stereotypical tough, stoic sort of guy, and in some ways he is, at least on the surface – tall, often expressionless, doesn’t really talk more than necessary, deep voice when he does, good at sports, etc. etc. On the other hand, he’s got a huge sweet tooth, enjoys domestic chores, is terrified of anything even remotely horror-related, and has no problem at all admitting to any of it. In fact, neither he nor anyone else seems interested in attempting to defend or attack his masculinity in any way, which makes for a highly refreshing change. Ohta also just happens to be the nicest guy around (quite a feat when everyone in this series is incredibly decent), and all the other characters know it. Seriously, I haven’t seen a Bro of this caliber since Ore Monogatari. If Tanaka doesn’t manage to get him to marry into his family, I’m calling dibs.
Winner: Katsuki Yuri, Yuri!!! on Ice (Fall)
Yuri on Ice has an amazing cast in general, and the various relationships Yuri has with them is worth an entire post on its own. However, as a character in his own right, Yuri sees such fantastic development over the course of the series that it’s impossible for me to overlook him. It’s not just about watching Yuri go from the bottom of his heap of competitors to nearly the top; it’s about his mental and emotional progress as he does so, not only in the context of his figure skating but also in terms of how he views himself as a person. Yuri is already a nice guy, but it’s wonderful to see him struggle and eventually succeed in becoming a stronger one. These struggles are what makes him immensely likeable, but also very relatable and very realistic – something of a rarity in anime when all put together. (Incidentally, here’s a great little article someone posted on the topic of mental health in Yuri on Ice back when it was still airing. I highly recommend the read.)
The Holy Eyedrops Award (aka Best Visuals)
Runner-up: Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu season 2
In terms of general art style and animation, Rakugo Shinjuu is a cut above many, but nothing extra-special on its own. Sure, it’s fairly realistic in comparison to plenty of other shows, concerned as it is with portraying in some detail a real historical setting, but the biggest aspects that stand out in terms of its visuals are the extraordinarily careful work with framing and the body language of its cast. This is a series that’s all about people telling stories through the posture of their bodies just as much as with their words, which means every hand gesture, every movement of the head, every shift of the feet, becomes a highly significant part of the show. That same level of care and consideration spills over onto every other scene as well, whether it has to do with rakugo or not, and is a big part of what makes the series such a profound viewing experience.
Winner: 3-gatsu no Lion (Fall-Winter)
Watching 3-gatsu no Lion is like watching poetry in motion. That probably sounds ridiculously arty and maybe even pretentious, but it’s exactly what it feels like sometimes. The colours, or sometimes lack thereof, combined with the careful framing of shots and often unusually thick outlines, makes for an interesting visual combination. It’s not that the artwork is necessarily especially detailed – in fact, it often seems purposefully the opposite, more like a series of paintings or vivid, animated sketches – but the attention to detail is meticulous. Whether it’s showcasing negative space to portray a certain feeling or is more concerned with its extreme close-ups, 3-gatsu no Lion knows exactly how to tell a story via its art rather than dialogue – something I’ve always appreciated seeing.
The First Miniature Crown of Swank (aka Best OP)
Runner-up: Yuri!!! on Ice (Fall)
A fellow blogger once joked that this might as well have been Slovenia’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, and I can understand the sentiment; it does have that upbeat and slightly cheesy Europop feel to it. In spite of or perhaps even because of that, I was almost immediately hooked; “History Maker” is one of those tracks that instantly makes me feel better when I’m down and has me dancing around the room regardless of my mood. Paired with the unique, almost minimalist but gorgeously rotoscoped visuals, this is one OP I can never bring myself to skip past.
Winner: Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu season 2 (Winter)
The competition as far as winter season OPs went was particularly fierce, with at least a couple of addictively jazzy tunes and stylish visuals around (Onihei and ACCA, anyone?), but when Rakugo Shinjuu revealed its OP in the second episode, it made an instant and massive impact. The combination of Sheena Ringo’s music and lyrics with Hayashibara Megumi’s vocals makes for a classy, sultry, and highly evocative track, although even better are the visuals – still enough to send chills down my spine even now. With its eerie symbolism and thematic foreshadowing, “Imawa no Shinigami” is, as the title suggests, deliciously dark and haunting, and quite unlike any other OP I’ve seen before.
The Second Miniature Crown of Swank (aka Best ED)
Runner-up: Yuri!!! on Ice (Fall)
While the joyous music of the ED took a few episodes to really grow on me, there’s no denying that the visuals are something very different from the norm – a sometimes comedic, sometimes touching extension of the themes of social media that are so prevalent (but largely unspoken) within the series. Featuring images from various characters’ Instagram feeds, each of them tells a small story on their own – and while this is probably cheating since it only features once and to completely different music, none does so more memorably than the ED from episode 10, with Yuuri’s drunken antics immortalized on the camera rolls of his fellow competitors.
Winner: Natsume Yuujinchou season 5 (Fall)
I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for female vocalists with a bit of huskiness to their voice, and Aimer’s deliberately-paced “Akane Sasu” is a bittersweet and emotionally hard-hitting track, lingering in the mind far after the song has ended. As I recall, it was a couple of episodes before there was any animation to go with it, but that too doesn’t disappoint; a very simple but poignant scene that looks like an animated watercolour painting, with characters appearing and disappearing and the setting a beautiful reflection of the lyrics.
The Golden Ears Award (aka Best Overall Soundtrack)
Winner: Yuri!!! on Ice (Fall)
In a series about a sport where music plays such a significant role, it’s only fitting that Yuri on Ice should have such a memorable soundtrack. I adore the OP, and the ED grew on me over time, but the OST as a whole is undeniably gorgeous as well with a bold mix of genres and songs picked to complement or highlight a particular facet of each character. Even more fitting is that the very best of them is (in my opinion) the titular track, a delicate and piano-centric instrumental which gradually builds to an almost urgently-paced and definitely emotionally-charged climax. It’s a beautiful piece, and one I’d happily recommend to just about anybody regardless of whether I think they’d be into Yuri on Ice or not.
The Wooden Spoon of Shame (aka Worst Overall Title)
Winner: Super Lovers (Spring)
I didn’t watch that many truly terrible anime this anime year – or not more than a couple of episodes worth at least – and I guess Super Lovers isn’t all that bad in comparison to what I put up with for this category last time around. That said, I don’t think anyone could claim this to be a good series. It’s really awkwardly-paced, features a bunch of seemingly random and unexplained time skips, and yes, is more than a little creepy in places thanks to the age of one of the main characters. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Super Lovers is just poorly-disguised pedophilia (mostly because there’s actually surprisingly little in the way of sexual content), but that still doesn’t exactly make it a palatable romance. Needless to say, I didn’t go back for season two.
The Diamond-Studded Tiara (aka Best Overall Title)
Second runner-up: 3-gatsu no Lion (Fall-Winter)
I’ve always been drawn to shows with family and loneliness as central themes, particularly when both are directly related to one another – that’s probably why the likes of Usagi Drop and Natsume Yuujinchou are on my all-time favourites list. 3-gatsu no Lion, while on paper a series about shogi, usually seems more interested in depicting Rei’s own struggle with the isolation that results from his chosen discipline and the way in which his adoptive other adoptive family constantly helps save him from it. Rei’s emotional journey is often incredibly bleak and at times feels brutally accurate, which you’d think would make for a depressing watch. However, Akari, Hinata, and Momo, along with their grandfather (and also the cats) bring such warmth and innocent humour to the proceedings that even when Rei is in the darkest of places, the show itself never succumbs to it. Ultimately, it’s these factors that had me practically glued to the screen every week.
Runner-up: Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu season 2 (Winter)
It’s difficult to know where to begin with Rakugo Shinjuu, mostly because it’s the kind of series that almost seems to defy description. That is, I could certainly give a basic synopsis and talk about relatively surface things like the music or artwork, but what I can’t do is sum up in one paragraph exactly why it works so well as a story and what makes it such an intensely compelling watch; it’s just one of those shows where you really have to either see it first-hand or else remain forever in the dark about what an amazing piece of work you’re missing out on. I suppose in a way that’s true of just about any great story, but it’s doubly true for Rakugo Shinjuu, and this second season is the best continuation (and conclusion) that anyone could have hoped for and more. Tightly-woven, gorgeously subtle, and with enough emotional clout to have kept me rooted to the chair for every single second of it, I imagine this anime will go down as one of the very best historical dramas of all time.
Winner: Yuri!!! on Ice (Fall)
There’s plenty to praise about Yuri on Ice: the aforementioned soundtrack; the effort put into making the art and choreography of figure skating a largely authentic and realistic part of the series; the top-notch voice acting; the appealing character designs; the large and varied cast with their layered characterization. But while no mean feat, all of this comes secondary to the continually developing and incredibly touching relationship between Yuri and Victor. It goes far beyond yaoi-baiting into a reciprocal, emotionally healthy, and canon male/male romance – one which is inherently woven into the natural fabric of the story. The fact that this takes place in a televised and mainstream anime series is a huge deal, and one that I hope will shape anime itself in the years ahead. It’s what moved me to laughter as well as tears at multiple points throughout the show, and I simply can’t think of any other in recent years that got me so emotionally invested. Make no mistake, Yuri on Ice is a title that literally made history, and the only thing that would make me happier at this point would be the announcement of a second season.
Aaand just to wrap things up, here are all the shows that aired over the past anime year that I also finished but did not make an appearance in the above awards. I enjoyed all of them to some extent, so for the most part, these should be considered honourable mentions rather than snubs: ACCA: 13-ku Kansatsu-ka, Ajin season 2, Amaama to Inazuma, Arslan Senki season 2, Fudanshi Koukou Seikatsu, Fukigen na Mononokean, Fune wo Amu, Joker Game, Kiznaiver, Onihei, Orange.
Question of the post: Agree? Disagree? Totally affronted by my taste in anime? Sing out in the comments and let me know some of your own picks for these categories.