As I said back in the worst list, 2018 is seen by many as one of the best years for anime in recent memory alongside 2007 and 2011. I can definitely see why people are saying that seeing as 2018 had a lot more anime to like for sure. If I’m being honest, I could make a proper top ten with the amount of anime series I enjoyed from this year, and that practically never happens. But in terms of actual favorites, I can’t think of anything that’s really had as much impact as the best of 2017. When I think of Made in Abyss and Scum’s Wish, I go “man I really want to rewatch my blu-rays sometime soon”. When I think of my favorites from this year, I go “well that was decent, but I’m not sure when I’ll ever go back to it”. If you need a reminder, I generally rate an anime by how much I want to rewatch it, and if a show doesn’t have much rewatch value, then it’s not going to rank high with me.
So for me, 2018 was a decent year. But it wasn’t exactly an ordinary decent year. Most of the anime I liked were really surprising for reasons I’ll get to later, whilst a lot of the anime I expected to like ended up being alright, but not good enough to the point that I’d put them on this list. And aside from a Twitter account not connected to this blog along with the occasional positive review, I rarely gave out my opinions on anime I enjoyed from this year, so most of you probably have no idea what the top five is going to look like. Honestly, I wasn’t sure either until I got to looking at the list and picking my faves.
And before we get started, a reminder that sequels are forbidden unless they’re a massive improvement from their predecessor. As such, Hero Academia S3 is forbidden from entering the top list, which is just as well because I’d rather sit through a Nickelback album than write about Hero Academia on this blog. Also, the anime must be a series, and a popular one at that. I didn’t clarify this last time, but shorts are not recognized on these lists either. They all tend to be throwaway comedies, which aren’t my genre, so I don’t bother with them.
Got all of that? Well then let’s get to the top five best popular anime of 2018.
Let it be known early on that most of my favorite anime from 2018 have a bit of a recurring theme: they tend to belong to genres or production studios that I generally don’t think much of. And you know 2018 was a surprising year when it can get me to like an idol show of all things.
5. Zombieland Saga (MAPPA)
The fact that this series even became a hit is something that’s hard to not admire on its own. It had no hype. It had little promotional material. It’s from a production company that’s known for making consistently watchable anime with an ever-increasing frequency of LBGQT-representation in their shows. Not to mention, MAPPA has tried to make it into the idol scene before, and…
…it did not turn out well.
But not only did this show surprise me with its combination of horror comedy and idol storytelling that is shockingly funny – which if you know my taste in humor, you’ll know I generally don’t do anime comedy, especially in Japanese – I think Zombieland Saga has by far the best cast of characters in anime this year. Everyone of them has great and distinct personalities from Yugiri’s hilarious motherly charisma to Sakura’s bubbly butt-monkey status to Kotaro basically just being Mamoru Miyano with sunglasses and a sharp suit (although goddamn he can overdo the yelling at points). And of course, who can forget the Legendary Yamada Tae, the zombie girl who’s more canine than idol?
Honestly, I’d love to put the show higher on the list, but as much as I enjoy these characters, I can’t fully overlook some consistency issues. The character arcs that go on for several episodes aren’t as good as the ones that only last a single episode. There’s still a lot of things Zombieland Saga has to address in a future season, so I need to hold back some praise until the inevitable continuation occurs. But more importantly…
Goddamn this CG is hideous. And when it’s being used for the dancing sequences, it’s just flat-out criminal. I know MAPPA isn’t as big as Sunrise, but the frame rate on the big major dances that are supposed to be empowering is just eye cancer. It’s possible the blu-rays will fix this, but if you’re going to debut on major networks, you’d better be ready for prime time.
Either way, this show is a good reminder of the MAPPA I tend to like rather than the MAPPA we got for most of 2017: creative, ambitious, and impressive animation that occasionally lapses into shit-territory. While I’m looking forward to the Mob Psycho and Kakegurui sequels next season, I think Zombieland Saga is the one I want to see a sequel to the most. Hopefully when it does come back, they put more time and budget into the dance scenes.
I’m probably going to get crucified for putting this one so low on the list given how mostly everyone else would put this as their #1. But screw it. It’s my list, and I need to be honest: A Place Further than the Universe only makes it to fourth place.
4. A Place Further Than The Universe (Madhouse)
I mean the fact that Madhouse finally managed to produce a series that I can say is good with few caveats after the ambitious failings of their recent high-profile anime is an accomplishment in of itself. But the fact that said series is just about a bunch of high school girls going to Antarctica in order to make something of their lives before they grow up should have put it in the same “well that wasn’t bad I guess” category that we put most shows by Dogakobo back when they were fresh. Not make it more critically acclaimed than Shirobako and Madoka Magica, the previous kings of anime helmed by a primarily female cast.
And months later, I still can’t quite see why I’d rank this anime over or even at the same level as my current favorites in that subgenre, Haibane Renmei and Sound Euphonium. I think it’s because I don’t really hold its themes of aiming high and making something of yourself as highly as most people do. If you’re going to go that route, I would have preferred some insight into people who do try to accomplish what these characters do and ended up failing because of reasons, particularly when they’re used as motivation for our main group to try harder. I guess you can say that best friend with the glasses or the missing mother fit those roles, but they’re not on screen very much and they weren’t intended to motivate the characters to begin with. Well the missing mother is meant to motivate Shirase, but I digress.
Really, the only reason this show is on here is because it’s a very well-made, well-executed series. It looks nice. The characters are decent. The pacing is…honestly not the best considering how it’s not until the last few episodes when we really get to know some of the characters. The emotional moments are good, particularly in the latter half when you see how the actual Antarctica trip affects everyone. This show actually gets female friendships and uses it for more than cheap jokes or a pleasing aesthetic like most moe shows, and I’ve got to respect that.
It’s fine, okay? Now let’s move on to the next entry.
Do you guys remember when Studio Shaft used to be on top of the world?
They’re enjoying a decent reputation as of now, but back when Monogatari and Madoka were fresh, they felt like they were untouchable as a production company. Then they released a bunch of trash that no one remembered before earning another big hit with Nisekoi. Of course, they ruined that with a godawful sequel that rivals Chuunibyou 2 in terms of tarnishing a fan-favorite, and now Monogatari and Madoka are all they’re really known for. So if you’re not onboard with those shows, Shaft is not going to do anything for you.
Now don’t get me wrong, the milking of those series has long since passed the point of tolerability (do we really need a Madoka smartphone anime adaptation?). Their signature style of animation in general has long since outstayed its welcome. And there’s a reason that they aren’t known for anything else: most of their older hits haven’t aged well, and mostly everything they’ve released since has been bad. But they’re still a really talented production company that I respect in an age where mediocre visuals that are basically killing the medium of animation are abundant. And nowhere is that more apparent than with their most recent hit, March Comes In Like a Lion.
3. March Comes In Like a Lion (Shaft)
I mean the amount of acclaim this series gets is just insane despite not being nearly as marketable as Shaft’s other popular franchises. Even with sequel bias, the second season is in the top ten anime series of all-time on MAL as of this writing. And while I’m not sure about the eastern fanbase, in the West, this show rivals Your Lie in April as one of the best serialized anime dramas to grace current year. However, what differentiates March from April (hahaha) is that in addition to dropping the romance aspect, while Rei is the main character, the show is more about the entire cast going through various stages of depression and how they deal with it in their own way as opposed to just one guy. I really like how they deal with their issues through shogi or shogi metaphors, whose representation in the series is sort of like a lesser Hikaru no Go, and I like how every journey is bittersweet with a tinge of happiness at the end.
Truth be told, I have too many issues with the way Shaft adapted Chica Umino’s manga traits to give it the full endorsement. If you recall, I originally dropped this show after eleven episodes because that woman’s humor is still as stupid as it was in Honey & Clover, and Shaft has lost the ability to do good humor a long time ago. I’m still not sure what’s supposed to be funny about that goddamn cat, and the slow pace due to the way Shaft adapts the manga’s chapters can feel very unnatural. And these issues occur throughout the entire show, although thankfully they disappear entirely whenever March goes into a dramatic arc. I don’t think that storyline revolving around bullying would work well with a cartoon cat annoying you every five seconds.
But despite all of my frustrations, March Comes In Like a Lion is one of those anime that just got better in my mind the more I sat down on it. I just like too much about the series for its many adaptation issues to be deal breakers. The visual storytelling and animation is some of the best Shaft has put out in years, and the characterization for this huge cast go in really rewarding directions for the most part. It really is an anime that’s better when binge-watched rather than through weekly increments, and I’m sure I’d have more positive feelings towards the show if I ever got to revisiting it. Too bad the blu-rays are expensive as hell and the video players that I can watch the show on aren’t great, which kind of kills my desire to do so. You should go on Hulu or Netflix, March. That’s where a lot of the other Aniplex shows that’s not Eromanga Sensei go.
I am planning to give this anime a full review in the future, so I’ll try to not use up too much material when describing it.
2. Banana Fish (MAPPA)
I honestly don’t know why this anime wasn’t a bigger hit than it actually ended up being. And it was pretty big when it first came out. MAPPA producing an adaptation of a critically acclaimed manga from the late 80s-early 90s focused on the gay relationship between two young men before PC culture was a thing? The director of Free spearheading the project? It’s like this anime was made specifically for me and then some. Not to mention, after sitting through so many shitty Netflix anime that basically copy Western trends poorly whilst removing the Japanese element altogether, as well as sitting through a bunch of horrible progressive propaganda in general throughout this year alone, it’s nice to see an anime like this demonstrate how to use an American setting and the love between two boys properly.
I’ve seen a lot of people say that they can’t get into this show because the amount of horny men wanting to rape the main character Ash ever since he was a little kid takes them out of the experience. To which I respond: that’s what makes this show addicting. I like when rape and sexual assault is utilized as a core part of the narrative as long as it’s clear that the show doesn’t actually endorse the action, just like I enjoy how violence is used in fiction as long as the story doesn’t glorify it (plus, it’s not like Banana Fish is Oz-levels of brutality). And this is a very bleak show, almost like if Black Lagoon was channeling Re: Zero through the eyes of a shojo audience. Ash just can’t catch a break, and it’s the constant war between his violent nature and the warmth that his “friend” Eiji gives him that makes Banana Fish so fascinating to watch.
The actual plot is honestly quite flawed. It’s centered around a gang war for a mysterious drug that can mind-control people, with Ash trying to kill the very man who “raised” him when conflicts of interest occur through this gang war. The slow pacing helps to build character and make the many tragedies that occur effective, but while it’s done well, Ash and his friends aren’t exactly the most complex of leads, so repetition eventually settles in when you’re doing all of that for twenty-four episodes. It kind of reminds me of how Parasyte started to get stale after the halfway point. Product of the time these manga were written? Probably.
However, that ending. Oh boy that ending. If you’ve seen the series, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and I’m just going to say right now that that was the best ending I’ve seen from an anime this year. It’s up there with the satisfying tearjerkers that were Made in Abyss’s and Scum’s Wish’s finales, and I’m still thinking about it even to this day. If it wasn’t for the ending, Banana Fish would probably have fallen below A Place Further Than the Universe on this list. But now that it exists, I’m tempted to watch the show again to see all of the choices that were made to get there. It’s just that good of a re-contextualization of the series.
In short: good characters, good animation, great ending, and quite a few emotional scenes in-between the somewhat slow pacing. Banana Fish is definitely critic-bait, but it’s the kind of critic bait that I can get behind.
Now on to the best popular anime of the year. But first, here are a list of other anime that I’d like to recommend, but couldn’t make it onto the list either due to my rules or because I didn’t like them enough to put them on.
Aggretsuko (Sanrio Animation)
I don’t think any other cartoon, both western and eastern, really captures what it means to grow up in today’s generation the way Aggretsuko does. The world is definitely unfair in a lot of ways, but there are methods of achieving happiness as well. And I do appreciate how despite the fantastical setting, it never resorts to fantastical logic like Dragon Maid or Bojack Horseman.
Golden Kamuy (Geno Studio)
It’s a damn shame that Geno Studio is still trying to get its footing on the ground when it comes to anime production, because epic manga adaptations like this are pretty rare as a whole. Hopefully they’ll improve in the future.
Violet Evergarden (Kyoto Animation)
Yeah, I know this show has its issues. I’m aware the episodic stories can be uneven and the directing is a bit of a mess. But when this show was working, it was really good. At the very least, it’s sticking in my mind more than Magus’ Bride and Hinamatsuri.
Lupin III: Part V (TMS)
Here’s the last anime I had to cut from the list and boy do I feel a tinge of regret doing so. This was easily the best TV adaptation of Lupin III bar none, but I have to concede that at its core, it’s not doing enough different from the other Lupin iterations to get past my “no sequel” rule.
Pop Team Epic (Production Douga)
You know, I still think Pop Team Epic is more fun in regards to the community around it rather than the actual show, but at least it’s something different. At least it has originality to its humor and approach to the medium of anime in general. And I’ve got to respect that, even when it’s ultimately not my thing.
High Score Girl (J.C. Staff)
I really do have a soft spot for this show despite its many frustrations. It’s so much better than every other anime that combines romance with video game culture that it’s not even funny. Why exactly did it even take this long for anime to get to this point? Oh right, it’s because there were legal issues way back when this was green-lit in 2013.
FLCL Alternative (Production I.G.)
This is my favorite non-popular anime series of the year. I don’t know why it wasn’t a big hit, because it really does a good job of capturing what it means to be growing up as a teenage girl and then some.
Planet With (J.C. Staff)
Also, I honestly have no idea why anime fandom wasn’t open to embracing Satoshi Mizukami’s brand of weirdness. This should have at least stood alongside Darling in the Franxx as the revival to giant robots the mecha genre needed.
Castlevania (Powerhouse Animation Studios)
Ignoring the fact that this is an anime in the same way Avatar and the Voltron remake are anime, Castlevania is going to continue having more seasons in the near future and I don’t want to keep praising the same show every year. Although I will say the twelve episodes that are out now can totally stand on their own in case the later installments are shit.
Alright, that’s enough of that. Let’s get onto the best popular anime of the year. What have I chosen to crown this glorious title to?
Some people have asked if my number one anime on this list would be different if I didn’t include only popular series. Honestly, I thought it would be when it was initially airing, but the more I watched this show, the more I realized that I’d have to include movies for it to have any real competition to be my #1.
It may not be good enough to be a favorite of mine, but while anime like Planet With, Revue Starlight, A Place Further than the Universe, Devilman Crybaby, and my personal underwatched favorite of FLCL Alternative had undeniable strengths for me and the community, their was only one anime series I really wanted to be my number one upon completion. And when I found out the English speaking audience mostly ignored it, I got really sad. Then I found out it was actually one of the biggest anime in Japan and my faith in humanity was renewed. More proof that Japan knows anime better than we do.
1. SSSS Gridman (Trigger)
Easily Trigger’s best anime in years, SSSS Gridman won me over through the sheer combination of its epic set pieces, nostalgic non-inclusive throwbacks to the original series, memorable characters, and heartwarming story all centered around a young girl and her desire to escape from reality. You may think the protagonist is the heroic trio using a rundown computer to fight the monsters summoned by the girl to destroy the world, but you’d be wrong. The protagonist is actually the villain and the emotional journey she goes through as her powers become contested by people she once believed to be her allies. It’s sort of like a more personal take on what Planet With accomplishes with its own subversive storytelling, and that’s what I really like about this new Gridman iteration.
The one-cour length means that it doesn’t outstay its welcome like Trigger anime tend to do, and can I just say thank god that the director of Inferno Cop and whatever team he was working with finished the entire show before it aired, similar to what happened with Violet Evergarden? Given how bad Trigger productions tend to go to the point where it seems like they’re making shit up because they wrote themselves in a corner halfway through airing and frantically try to get themselves out, it’s nice to see one that has a distinct vision from beginning to end. One where it’s clear who the true bad guy is from the start, and that the world these characters are living in isn’t exactly natural so to speak.
Not only is this the mecha show that shows the genre isn’t dead yet, I think it’s better than most of the mecha classics that we’ve gotten throughout the decades. Better than The Big O. Better than Gurren Lagann. Certainly better than any of the Go Nagai adaptations. Actually, I can’t think of a mecha anime that I like better than SSSS Gridman. It just has such a great combination of visual atmosphere and strong storytelling that few other shows can match, and I almost resent the West for not getting it like Japan does. But as has become increasingly clear, especially in an age where we’ve got ANN hating The Rising Shield Hero before it even came out, the non-Japanese anime fandom is a load of bull these days, and we shouldn’t listen to them. You know they released an article discussing if the “one fanservice episode” from that show makes it hard to take the entirety of SSSS Gridman seriously?
I honestly can’t think of a better anime to not only be my favorite popular anime series of the year, but my favorite series of the year in general. Here’s hoping Trigger follows up on this with Promare being a good movie, and here’s also hoping that 2019 has more delightful surprises akin to this year in general. Although I do want the trustworthy names to continue producing quality stuff as well. Either way, that’s my list and I hope you guys had fun reading it. If you haven’t seen any of these anime, I recommend giving them at least one glance. Who knows? You might get surprised like I did.