Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
In a nutshell: rakugo is a traditional Japanese one-man storytelling performance. Rakugo Shinju follows the intertwined stories of various performers through the decades.
Rakugo Shinju is a gem. The first season barely wastes a single moment as it fleshes out a complex, conflicted cast and drives them into a beautiful tragedy. The second season isn’t as watertight, but still holds many charming moments as a new generation of characters try to pick up the pieces and create their own happiness. Speaking of the cast, they’re marvellously crafted, each with their own desires, fears, and conflicts, playing off each other in entertaining scenes. Rakugo Shinju is at once a sweeping chronicle of the decline and rebirth of an art, as well as an intimate tale of individuals searching for happiness in the world they find themselves in. It’s a marvel to watch and ruminate.
I’ve written about the tragedy of the first season here.
In a nutshell: ever since their parents left them, the three siblings of a makeshift family have been waiting in the wonderland-type world of Mirror Tokyo–until one day their estranged sister arrives, smashing the usual peace and order.
I have a soft spot for heartwarming tales of bonds between family and of coping with losses. The whimsical wonderland setting and Koto’s boundless energy are also fun to watch. And the tragic family story in the premiere (“as long as we have our family, who cares what the world thinks”) is among my favorite single anime episodes ever.
In a nutshell: we follow the anime production process through the eyes of bright-eyed youngsters at the start of their careers.
This is a show that can be enjoyed on a variety of levels. It’s a look inside and a love-letter to the anime industry. It’s a much-welcomed story of adults in the workplace dealing with relatable conflicts. (I’ll also confess here that I did my fair share of groupwork in university and can relate to their scheduling struggles). It’s a tale of optimism. It has relatable characters whose growth you root for. And the humor works more often than not. For me, all of these layers, plus some outstanding moments (looking at you, episode 23), cement Shirobako this high on the list.
In a nutshell: through the eyes of a snarky euphonist, we witness the drama and ambitions of a high school band aiming for the Nationals.
There’s a lot of to love about Eupho: its protagonist is snarky and endearing, its audio and visuals come together to create moments of absolute magic (cue gushing over the Kumiko-Reina moments), and it effortlessly juggles several character arcs that reinforce again and again a central theme: daring to have ambition despite the pain of failure. It resonates on the levels of both thematic analysis and visceral enjoyment, and when art can do that, you know it’s something special.
UPDATE (after having watched the second season): the first half is fairly average, with a touching story undercut by an entirely unconvincing climax. The second half, however, hit emotional heights capable of matching anything from the first season. It was so cathartic to see a major character let down her facade, allowing herself to be persuaded that it’s OK to be selfish, it’s OK to not be a perfect adult all the time.
In a nutshell: a club of four high school students, all with distinct personalities, solve various mundane mysteries. Like Eupho, it’s very character-focused.
Watching Hyouka is quite an experience: the visuals and music are gorgeous, the banter and general interaction between the characters are a joy to watch, and Kyoto Animation’s sense of comedic timing is quietly effective. The narrative, the dialogue, the character acting, and the visual framing are all so richly layered that each rewatch uncovers subtle details that add to the understanding of the work. Like Eupho, I think Hyouka tells an important story of the courage to emotionally invest in the things you do, and the journey of getting to that point. That’s a personal reason for me to love it.
In a nutshell: an unmarried salaryman finds his life completely changed after he begins to take care of a five-year-old–his grandfather’s orphaned illegitimate child.
This is the sweetest, most heartwarming slice-of-life on this list. Rin is such a treasure to see on the screen, her growing bond with Daikichi melting the viewer’s heart (although her good behavior may border on unrealistic). What cements Usagi Drop on this list, though, is its multifaceted, sympathetic take on the adults’ perspective. Daikichi searches for a work-life balance for the child he comes to love. Haruko puts up with a terrible domestic situation for the sake of her child, and the show acknowledges that she doesn’t have good courses of action. The show even has some sympathy for a mother who abandoned her child for her career, suggesting that while what she did was irresponsible to the extreme, her conundrum was at least understandable. At the end of the day, I will always have a soft spot for a charming series that portrays hardship but is nevertheless resolute in its optimism.
In a nutshell: a slice-of-life that turns into a drama, set in a town, full of wonder, co-inhabited by humans and angel-like winged creatures known as Haibane.
The first half of Haibane Renmei deserves praise for fully immersing the viewer into the setting: the mysteries of the Haibane, the wonder of the quiet town, the wistful atmosphere with a hint of a liminal existence. The second half then turns introspective, portraying characters battling grief, depression, and self-acceptance. The final triumph–the realization that help can only be received when one accepts it from others–is such a powerful message that I choked up. For that, I hold Haibane Renmei dear in my heart.
Revolutionary Girl Utena
In a nutshell: teenagers fight ritualized sword-duels at the top of their school for the “rose bride” and the mythical power to bring the world to revolution. Oh and this is all a metaphor.
Utena is a dense, layered, busy show, practically demanding multiple rewatches to understand and analyze everything that’s going on. It is, among many other interpretations, a story of adolescence, its insecurities and the desire to quickly become adults; a story of awakening to and challenging gender roles; a story of the ways that various forces of society dictate our thoughts and behaviors, and of how we accept or rebel against this system. Yet none of this is boring, as the show has an incredible sense of humor, its absurd comic relief giving me some of the best laughs watching anime. Utena is an achievement.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
In a nutshell: Madoka lives a mundane adolescent life. One day she encounters a cute alien bunny-cat that will grant her one wish in exchange for making a contract with him and becoming a magical girl.
Madoka is a triumph in the quality of its constituent parts as well as in the overall viewing experience. The narrative: neatly sectioned into 3-episode arcs, its twists and reveals flowing inevitably from what we already know. The main cast: sympathetic in their desires and tragic flaws, with hardly a single moment wasted in their characterization. The music: several standout tracks add greatly to the atmosphere, from the upbeat drums of “Credens Justitiam” during Mami’s showy battles, to the chanting of “Sis Puella Magica” during ominous moments, to the tragic violins in Sayaka’s two themes “Decretum” and “Symposium Magarum”. And, oh man, the themes: ideals shattered and reawakened, love twisted into a possessive desire to protect, reasons to fight, self-sacrifice, and at the end of the day, an infinite hope to challenge the crushing indifference of the world. I’ve watched Madoka multiple times, and I still can’t help but marvel at nearly every aspect of it.