2018 was a long year and that was as true for anime as anything else. This year saw new sequels to old properties (FLCL Progressive and FLCL Alternative) and spinoffs of the same (Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online). Plus surprisingly heartwarming comedy (Hinamatsuri), surreal action-dramas (To Be Heroine), the unflappably pleasant (YuruCamp, Anima Yell!), and the just plain weird (Pop Team Epic). Even on a more meta level, reputation-builders from young studios (RELEASE THE SPYCE from Lay-duce, for example), and no small number of strong shows from more established ones. All in all, it was a pretty good year for the medium.
So in a year with as much going on as 2018, what makes an anime Top 5 worthy? Well, several factors go into making the cut. The most obvious is that a show just has to be good, so while some of this year’s more interesting failures might be fun to talk about, you’ll certainly not find any of them here. Secondly, a good resonance with the zeitgeist is important.
It’s easy to dismiss anime (and animation in general) as unimportant or as pure entertainment. While that’s true of some series, the medium has long been a vehicle for social commentary both subtle and not-so-subtle. Even shows that don’t tackle social issues directly can simply vibe well with the times. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is simple personal resonance. I think 2018 was a good enough year for the medium that everyone’s personal Top However-many’s will be a bit different. You could rearrange this list in several different ways before I’d raise any objection. So without any further ado, here are our choices for the top five anime series of 2018.
5. Planet With
Studio: J.C. Staff
A lot of anime in 2018 preached empathy. Planet With was one of the few to actively weave it into its narrative. The series is at its core a mecha show, but as seen through the lens of legendary mangaka Satoshi Mizukami (his first time working in the television medium, in fact). Planet With is the story of Souya Kuroi, the last survivor of an alien race destroyed by a rampaging intergalactic dragon. It’s also the story of his adopted family–Ginko, a space princess, and Sensei, an anthropomorphic cat who speaks only in “nya”s.
Planet With manages the impressive feat of cramming three main story arcs into just twelve episodes without ever feeling rushed. If impressive briskness was all it had going for it though, it would be an honorable mention at best. What makes the series tick is Mizukami’s commitment to reverse-engineering the viewpoint of every character–yes, even the intergalactic dragon–to make them sympathetic. There are no easy heroes or villains in Planet With, everyone works from their own angle, making for one of the most fun-to-follow shows of 2018.
4. ZOMBIE LAND SAGA
It’s not entirely fair to say that ZOMBIE LAND SAGA takes a bit to get off the ground. It’s more that the show has a trick up its sleeve. Screwball comedy into heartwarming dramedy isn’t new per se, but ZLS is one of the best executions of that tonal shift yet. The core cast of Franchouchou are some of the year’s most outright likable characters. Together, they turn ZLS into a surprisingly compelling idol saga.
More than that though, it’s a surprisingly compelling story in general. Every member of Franchouchou has a tale to tell. And while ZLS’ twelve episodes only get to most of them, this is the kind of personal storytelling that it’s hard to pull off period. Much less in something as conceptually weird as an idol show where the idols are zombies.
Where ZLS really shines though is its surprising level of emotional intelligence. The idols’ personalities relate to how they died, and the show uses this to explore the ramifications of their deaths. Consequently also exploring how they treat their second shot at life. So what starts as a comedic romp evolves into a sort of dramedy, and the series is more shockingly well-considered. Especially given that even in the more serious episodes, it derives a lot of its humor from things like the manager character yelling very loudly. It’s an oddball, for sure, but among the year’s most lovable shows.
When SSSS.GRIDMAN started, it seemed like the most straightforward show of the year. An animated reboot of a cult tokusatsu franchise built around flashy CGI fight scenes. What could be simpler? Yet, as it went on it became clear that GRIDMAN had a cerebral edge that most of its contemporaries didn’t, putting it in the same company as the aforementioned Planet With from earlier in the year. What the show really is, is a tale about the importance of empathy and loving yourself in a world where that’s sometimes very hard. That’s a lot of weight for a show primarily about a giant robonoid slugging it out with giant monsters to carry, but carry it GRIDMAN does.
The central arc about main villain Akane and her relationship to the kaiju she creates might just be some of the best character writing of the year. Spoiling the ending would be a crime, but the last few episodes especially reveal just how many levels GRIDMAN is working on, and make for one of 2018’s most rewarding watching experiences. Probably the year’s best pure action show overall. As a bonus? It has a fantastic English dub, making it more accessible to anime neophytes than it might otherwise be. SSSS.GRIDMAN stands as possibly Studio TRIGGER’s greatest achievement yet, and director Akira Amemiya‘s personal magnum opus.
2. Revue Starlight
Studio: The Kinema Citrus
Revue Starlight is a bit hard of a show to talk about. Early promotional materials basically billed it as a drama about a theater school. Technically–in a broad sense–this is true. What Revue Starlight really is though is a kaleidoscopically surreal action-drama where the theater comes to life in a very real way. Starlight spends about half of its opening episode pretending to be that drama about a theater school.
Then protagonist Karen Aijou takes a mysterious elevator she’s never seen before down to a secret theater hidden underneath the school, where students battle on a mysterious ever-evolving stage to become the Top Star–the position of highest prestige in the Takarazuka Revue-inspired world of Revue Starlight. All of this under the watchful gaze of a sinister talking giraffe.
If that all sounds a little weird, it is to be sure a strange series. Less willfully obtuse and more artfully bizarre. In addition to the Takarazuka influences, director Tomohiro Furukawa is a study of Kunihiko Ikuhara (Revolutionary Girl Utena, Mawaru Penguindrum). Who got what from where is kind of a chicken-or-egg question here, but the direction of Revue Starlight will be immediately familiar to any fans of the latter artist.
Karen, our protagonist, is a wrench in the system of the rigid Top Star hierarchy, desiring to ascend to Top Stardom together. First with just her “close friend” / love interest the mysterious Hikari Kagura, and then eventually with everyone. Revue Starlight is a show you watch with your heart, and in any other year it would’ve been an easy #1 pick. Even still, #1 or not, it’s definitely not one to be missed.
1. A Place Further Than The Universe
In a year full of surprises, A Place Further Than The Universe might’ve been the biggest of all. I must be honest, when I started penning a rough first draft of this list just after Thanksgiving, I was already pretty sure that nothing would dethrone Further as the best anime of the year. A Place Further Than The Universe is, at its core, a very simple story about growing up. A girl (Shirase Kobuchizawa) sets her sights on an impossible dream; to visit Antarctica, where her mother went missing years before. Our protagonist (Mari Tamaki) gets roped into her scheme, and what follows is a twelve-episode adventure that doubles as a whirlwind of emotions.
There is a concept much brought up in anime criticism known as the “endless everyday”. It’s a term for the sort of timeless, “forever-now” setting that many slice of life series take place in. Indeed, when preview materials came out for Further, it was natural to assume that the improbability of the setting would be swept under the rug in favor of more of that.
It was a category shared, after all, by Further‘s contemporary YuruCamp, and by several other shows later in the year. What the show quickly reveals though is that it is, if anything, a natural evolution beyond that concept. None of Further‘s characters are reducible to simple archetypes. None of them have broad story arcs that can be summed up in a few words. The characters are as complex and complicated as real teenage girls are. Each of the four main characters is layered, nuanced, and treated by the narrative with respect. They interact like real friends do as they grow into that friendship over the course of the series. It must be stressed though, all of this is in service to the greater narrative.
That journey to Antarctica is a rock solid metaphor. A metaphor for the impossible dreams we all secretly harbor but allow ourselves to not chase after. Further‘s message, if it can be said to have one, is very simple. Whatever your dreams, and whatever your reasons for having them, they should be pursued.
Shirase goes to Antarctica to reconcile with her mother’s disappearance and likely death there years earlier. Hinata goes to prove herself to the high school system she dropped out of and was ostracized from. Yuzuki goes to get away from her overbearing stage mother and the pressures of fame. Kimari goes simply because she is desperately seeking a goal in life. Further‘s central narrative argues that all of these are valid, and by extension, that any reason for chasing your dreams is a valid one. The point is hammered home by the title card flashed at the end of the series. A card which reads “best wishes for your life’s journey”.
I’ve written a lot about Further–both here for Geek Girl Authority and elsewhere. Only, I think, because it’s the most that an anime has ever convinced me that it deserved to have a legacy. The title of the final episode is “We’ll Go On Another Journey Someday”. A sentiment that I really hope is a promise from series director Atsuko Ishizuka.
When A Place Further Than The Universe started airing almost a year ago on January 2nd 2018, I lived with my parents in Pennsylvania and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. It’d be silly to give Further complete credit for the fact that twelve months later I live in Chicago with my girlfriend and am actively pursuing a career in animation criticism. It would feel equally disingenuous though to not give it at least a nod. Further is the friend screaming “You can do it!” in your ear when even you don’t think you can. In my view, that is maybe the highest position that a piece of art can aspire to. A Place Further Than The Universe is pure, uncut inspiration, a masterpiece of its genre, and the best anime of 2018.