Welcome back to the most special post of the year! As is tradition, we’ve gathered writers from different communities but a shared trait: a love of animation and all it encompasses. The goal, to praise at length the greatest productions and most resonant direction in all of 2018 anime, according to a series of categories. These are our yearly anime awards – the sakugabowl!
Nominations Page 1:
- Best Episode: Yama no Susume S3 #04
This episode of Yama no Susume‘s already notable for the way it skilfully characterises Aoi’s social anxiety through the layouts’ lived-in details like disorderly classroom tables and directorial flourishes that isolate Aoi from her peers. What really lifts it into the stratosphere, however, is the solo key animation effort by Norio Matsumoto. Tasking an animator with devising all ideas for the movement based on the storyboard often reveals their personality and style, but in the involved hands of a master like Matsumoto, they also happen to reflect his views on art, life, and the potential of animation.
Take for example the scene between Aoi and her classmate Mio – observe deeply the specificity and timing of their poses and expressions as the chat progresses and before you know it, characters cease to exist as dramatic entities and become human, dialogue ceases to be lines delivered by actors and becomes conversation, animation ceases to be a tool and becomes the most natural expression for the intimate, sinuous flow of emotional energies between two people in discussion. All in service of the hopeful belief that in the face of anxiety even the smallest act of inclusion can be meaningful.
- Best Show: Pop Team Epic
No recent animated comedy has, in its quest to shitpost the audience into submission, accidentally/deliberately created a more memorable collage of clashing visual textures – heta-uma, pixel art, manga, pre-vis, felt, live-action, cartoon, painterly, browser film, sand, real props – nor has any recent show, via its transmission glitches and preview fakeouts, explored the concept of the televisual as a surface (compared to the cinematic as a frame) this well. A small-screen guerilla art triumph.
- Best Movie & Best Composite: Liz and the Blue Bird
Liz and the Blue Bird’s premise may evoke Chantal Akerman, but personally, Naoko Yamada’s form always owed more to French director Robert Bresson, whose films did away with theatrical baggage and stylized expression to reduce cinema to the absolute essentials of image, sound and actor. The long takes of characters’ legs in Yamada’s earlier work achieve a similar effect as Bresson’s long takes of hands: a near-expressionless canvas that allows the audience to lean in and linger on the context of the scene, thereby absorbing the emotional and sensory texture of that moment.
In Liz, Yamada inverts that dynamic: the story of Mizore and Nozomi’s elusive courtship – complicated by their personal insecurities and shared history of pain – isn’t explicated in the minimised plot but rather in gesture and fantasy. The movie gives us an index of the ways subtle leg movements can betray adolescent desires in hiding: legs tap on and drag across the floor, they shift, twist, quiver and lay across each other. These motions are caught in spacious, empty frames illuminated by specular lighting reflected off squeaky-clean school corridors. At the same time, the gauzy telephoto lens focus heightens our sense of space and the bodies within it while the notes of Kensuke Ushio’s music (arhythmic foley born of playing with classroom props) ping-pongs across the soundscape, invading the image and widening our perception of the world inside and outside the frame.
The cumulative effect of these aesthetic devices is simple yet profound: the gestures unfolding in isolation take root in space, time and the viewer’s mind. Yamada’s goal was never simple naturalism, but a search of new ways to transmit an impressionistic, sensuous concept of high school life. Her concentrated use of photography, off-screen sound and character acting in Liz and the Blue Bird, informed by her musical and mathematical sensibilities, has resulted in a comprehensive approach to animation as subjective filmed reality. This has allowed Yamada to unlock new essential qualities of animated expression: our eyes may be watching these anime high schoolers navigate their daily tasks, but our minds are submerged in a depth of fragile, amorphous emotions taking shape – subterranean feelings so rich, so intense, they can only be mediated through musical and social (love-you-hugs) performance.
- Best Opening, Ending, Or Music Video: EVISBEATS – NEW YOKU feat CHAN-MIKA by Saigo no Shudan (link), King Gnu – Prayer X by Ryoji Yamada (link)
Two music videos that could be the OP/ED for the non-fictional anime known as “Living through 2018”: an immersive mixed media nonsense-fantasy with inventive, vertiginous transitions by Saigo no Shudan and Ryoji Yamada’s angular, roiling depressive doomsday prophecy.
- Best Animation Designs: —
- Creator Discovery: The Techne Program (link)
This year didn’t skimp on impressive indie breakouts for me: Tomoki Misato’s twisty treatises on female insecurity, Uchija reviving the Midori spirit with the guro-gekimation of Violence Voyager, nauseously funny exercises in sexual gross-out humour by Sawako Kabuki and finally, Tsuneo Goda’s technically accomplished low-key hang-out jams.
The sweetest surprise of the year, however, has been the discovery of a source the last two mentioned artists have in common: Techne, an educational NHK programme that commissions artists (from total newcomers to venerated underground legends like Gakuryu Ishii) to create visual works according to a theme. These works are then screened and contextualised in the broadcast with making ofs, interviews, filmmaking lessons, community-created idents and a curated selection of existing shorts fitting the theme. Those range from medium-specific ones like Stop-Motion to more stylistic stipulations like Synchronised Sound and Visuals – the most recent broadcast even used NHKs existing infrastructure to stream works in 8K specifically created for that resolution.
Most of the aforementioned content is easily streamable on their page, making this a real rabbit hole of a website you could sink hours into. Give it a try and you’ll find that by challenging artists to push at the margins of new and old media, Techne can expand our understanding of the possibilities of art.
- Best Episode: Castlevania S2 #07
It’s the year of Studio LAN! I don’t think I can even begin to describe the effect their team and other Twitter-assembled animators have had on action anime this year. To Be Heroine, Black Clover, Boruto, SSSS.GRIDMAN, and so on benefited from them. Animators who built online communities are now being summoned by those in the anime industry to support significant episodes. It was an inevitability due to the increasing amount of strained productions, but it does have the nice side-effect of letting me watch Guzzu’s addictive animation on the telly.
But more to the point: Castlevania’s second season was a confident mark-up from the first season with plenty of talented guest stars. Spencer Wan returned as both an animator and animation director, bringing some incredible choreography to Alucard and Dracula’s battle. The Canipa Effect Opening’s Christian Maize (I will forever ride Christian’s fame) has cemented himself as a leading effects animator that can elevate any action scene, and Guzzu manages to capture attention with destructive action between two powerful forces. It’s definitely reductive to mark the episode down to just a few names, but this is going to be one very long section if I’m to gush about Husain Untoro, Sam / Adam Deats, and Deanna Tredeau, just to name just a few.
To put things short, Twitter is bad…and yet very good at providing animators with opportunities on high profile shows, and giving the audience some incredibly impressive animation from said animators. Just thinking about the effect these animators have had on 2018 shows only makes me more excited for 2019. (P.S. If any of you are gonna be in Tokyo, let me interview you!)
- Best Show: Violet Evergarden
I haven’t had nearly the time I’d have liked to watch more shows this year, but after Winter’s Violet Evergarden, it’s hard to see it being topped. Violet Evergarden‘s almost the product of insanity when it comes to the complexity of its character designs. Kyoto Animation staff have constantly been able to overachieve in providing detailed and expressive character animation, but the delicate consistency in Violet Evergarden is kind of amazing. It’s a series that lives and dies by how the audience resonates with its stories of human connection and communication, so without the stellar direction and subtle changes in character expression, its stories wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.
- Best Movie: Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms
It’s one thing to hear about the sheer amount of work that legendary animator Toshiyuki Inoue did on Maquia, but it’s another to see it. Shortly after the release of the film, an exhibit was held at Sasayuri Cafe in Suginami that filled a corner of the cafe with just Inoue’s cuts from the film. Besides the exceptional dramatic cocktail of fantasy and family tales, the movie matches the quality of its storytelling with its character and action animation. As a film centered around silk should be, the fabric animation is one of the most memorable aspects. Whether it’s the flags, cloth, or dresses flowing in the wind, Maquia’s technical achievements help reinforce the reality of the story, even when surrounded by dragons and immortal beings.
- Best Opening, Ending, Or Music Video: Persona Q2 Opening (link)
Takashi Kojima seems to have spent a lot of time learning from frequent collaborator Masashi Ishihama. This solo-animated intro for Persona Q2 borrows so many of his ideas on what makes a great, stylish sequence, yet it even exceeds Ishihama’s own openings for Persona 5: The Animation – though admittedly, he was very busy at the time. Even in an opening with stunning battles, it’s the layouts and use of colour on the more downtempo scenes that seem to stand out the most. Each scene flows into the next with clever transitions; it all makes me hope that we’ll see him working on more openings or endings in the same capacity in the future.
- Best Composite: A Place Further Than the Universe
I’ve been kind of apprehensive about the compositing in Atsuko Ishizuka works ever since the broadcast of No Game No Life. Although a few select scenes were filled with wonder, the fantasy lighting often felt grating and oversaturated. But this is notably not the case in A Place Further Than the Universe, which uses compositing to develop distinct locations; whether it’s the neon lights of Shinjuku or the reflective surfaces of Antarctica, Ishizuka and director of photography Yuuki Kawashita succeed at making each location feel both real and extraordinary.
- Best Animation Designs: Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms
Maquia was certainly not the first time we’ve seen a Final Fantasy artist’s designs worked into 2D animation, but Yuriko Ishii’s adaptation of the concepts by Akihiko Yoshida (known for his extensive work in the FF franchise, Bravely Default, Nier Automata, and so on) captured his distinct appeal in motion for once; the nobility of Yoshida’s characters is apparent from his drawings, but the ways in which Ishii delivered expression through minimal facial detail is constantly impressive.
- Creator Discovery: Shizue Kaneko
I was first made aware of Shizue Kaneko as it was announced that she’d be the character designer for Pokemon the Movie: The Power of Us. As a watercolour illustrator and character designer known for her work on the Doraemon films, she offered a new vision for the films that sets a standard for the future. Pokemon is at its best when it’s distinctive and fresh, and Kaneko’s approach was instrumental to that in the new movie. The staff clearly thought so as well, since she was asked to draw watercolor illustrations as a part of the film’s credits too. Following her on Twitter this year and seeing her illustrations promoting the film has been an absolute delight.
[Twitter / You’re Already In My Blog]
- Best Episode: Hugtto! Precure #16, Yama no Susume S3 #10, SSSS.GRIDMAN #09
Usually, when I nominate multiple titles, it’s all because of my chronic inability to choose. But this time I have a solid case to clump these three together. Kodai Watanabe‘s Hugtto! Precure #16, ちな‘s Yama no Susume S3 #10, and Kai Ikarashi‘s SSSS.GRIDMAN #09 are all episodes I’ve covered in this site, and by the end of their run, I’d grown convinced that they’re all cut from the same cloth. They all happen to be the first directorial experiments by gifted animators, leading to similarly engrossing results; you could remove the script from them all and Watanabe’s looming shadows, the oppressive layouts that Ikarashi placed Akane within, and the bitterness from a relationship that drifts apart which ちな evoked would be just as effective. Compelling dialogue and narration go to great lengths to illustrate the mental state of your characters, but for this crew who grew up conveying messages through drawings alone, it can be an almost redundant tool.
This isn’t to deny that stylistic differences between them all – if anything, those three happen to be some of the most idiosyncratic rising figures in the industry. And yet, it’s easy to see the similarities between their positions, be it the shared staff in their productions or this timely eruption in the directorial space. As last year approached its end, Fate/Apocrypha #22 marked the start of a generational change for anime, one that goes beyond those caused by tech advancements; it’d be a mistake to consider this new batch of directors another result of the webgen movement(s), since traditional artists pay a big role in it as well.
Episodes of this caliber are rare, as are reasons to have hope in the anime industry. Getting both of them in the same package is as good as it gets.
Runner-up: Boruto #65, Violet Evergarden #5, I really enjoyed looking at clips from Akira Hamaguchi’s two episodes of Uzamaid but for the love of god give this man a better project
- Best Show: Yama no Susume Season 3, SSSS.GRIDMAN
Yama no Susume Season 3 was a relay of anime superstars, young an old, offering a diverse animation spectacle – not a self-serving one, but rather one that carefully builds up to emotional highlights that shows with twice the runtime and more grandiose premises could only hope to achieve. SSSS.GRIDMAN, on the other hand, captured the Gainax spirit better than any other title since their (am I allowed to say this?) death. Akira Amemiya‘s passion project was a respectful love letter to mecha & tokusatsu history, but rather than the overt nods, his greatest achievement was channeling his love for Hideaki Anno into his own tale about facing depression. I don’t need to tell you that they were among my favorite shows this year, because I already did.
Runner-up: I’d been telling you that Atsuko Ishizuka is exceptional and Yorimoi definitively proves me right – now give her the production muscle she needs. And speaking of which, all of Revue Starlight’s staff are heroes for achieving as much as they did
- Best Movie: Liz and the Blue Bird, Doraemon the Movie: Nobita’s Treasure Island, Okko’s Inn
I went by three different criteria when judging the best movies of 2018. Holistically, I don’t believe anything came close to Liz and the Blue Bird – equal parts delicate teenage drama and transgressive production. After Pom Poko, Isao Takahata said he was done with anime, since he felt there was nothing new he could draw out of the traditional system where character art is overlayered on backgrounds. The only way to bring him back was My Neighbors the Yamadas: a film that, in form and craft, challenged those practices. The reason I bring this up is that Naoko Yamada‘s partnership with composer Kensuke Ushio is fundamentally challenging how anime is made as well; storyboards born from the rhythm of real sounds, music composed by the animation, a dialogue between all components rather than forced coexistence. And most importantly, all this experimentation serves the movie’s themes. Liz deals with a tragically asymmetrical relationship, hence why both sound and image relied on imperfect mirrorings through decalcomania. I can’t even imagine what this team might be capable of.
When it comes to pure animation joy though, Doraemon the Movie: Nobita’s Treasure Island was an easy winner, in no small part due to Yoshimichi Kameda‘s role as designer and supervisor. As director Kazuaki Imai put it, Kameda is a precious relic from another time; his animation philosophy is reminiscent of Showa era titles, and yet he’s grown in an age where the production process is much more streamlined, so big projects like this allow him to offer the genuine exaggerated expression of old with the smooth production values of a modern theatrical effort. If you’re a fan of Mob Psycho 100, you can’t miss this one.
What about sheer production excellence? My answer was going to be Maquia, which likely is the most impressive effort of the year and perhaps Toshiyuki Inoue’s magnum opus as its main animator – no small feat! Thinking about it though, the film that floored me the most when it comes to non-stop extravagant animation is actually Kitaro Kosaka‘s Okko’s Inn. The consistent feeling of three-dimensionality in the character art is something I’d never seen before in a Japanese feature-length film, which only becomes more impressive when you realize this didn’t have quite as much support from the traditional stars in anime’s theatrical space. I’ll admit that Okko’s Inn didn’t resonate with me as strongly as it did with Japanese audiences, but that only makes me more interested in giving it another watch. Perhaps next time I’ll find something that lives up to its incredible production!
- Best Opening, Ending, Or Music Video: Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card Ending (link)
On an abstract level, my favorite anime opening of 2018 would be Liz and the Blue Bird‘s introduction; a microcosm of many of the movie’s virtues, environmental sounds creating a conversation and the beginning of an arrhythmical relationship that strives for harmony. If we limit it to animated music videos, my vote would instead go to Rie Matsumoto and Yuki Hayashi‘s Baby I Love You da ze – a cruel gift from the heavens, equal parts a boisterous, perfect incarnation of Boy Meets Girl, and painful reminder of how long it’s taken for the Kyousougiga team to put together even a small project like this. What TOHO giveth, TOHO taketh.
But if we’re talking about more standard opening and ending sequences – the original intent of this category before our dear guests got so creative that I decided to change the name – then there’s no doubt in my mind: it’s got to be Norimitsu Suzuki‘s first ending for Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card. I’m usually drawn to his animation because of his unmatched ability to create the illusion of volumetric bodies in a 2D plane, to convey pixel-perfect perspective and respect principles like inertia while still having fun with animation.
Not this time, though. This isn’t to say the technical quality isn’t there, but the reason it resonated so strongly relates to the franchise itself. Back in the original CCS anime, Suzuki handled the third ending. While during the production he already showcased the kind of skills that’d lead to him becoming one of the greatest animators, the ending was nothing more than a series of illustrations of Sakura and Tomoyo baking a cake. I thought it was cute, and I still do. Which is why my heart simply melted when I saw Suzuki return to animate a followup to his own work; there’s still that child-like purity to it, but at the same time it’s all about how the cast has grown, excitedly going on dates and waiting for replies on their phones. It’s something that maintains the charm of the series while offering a new look at it that accentuates how much everything’s evolved. As far as I’m concerned, the perfect sequel to CCS isn’t Clear Card by any stretch, but rather the ending sequence it contained.
- Best Composite: Liz and the Blue Bird, Boruto Opening 4
I’ll be brief for once. In Kazuya Takao, Naoko Yamada found an ally who understood her filmic aspirations and was willing to rigorously control the lighting, down to the smallest ray trickling through a reflecting surface, so that the setting itself can act. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Liz and the Blue Bird, which offers astonishingly diverse visuals even in the segment of the film that never changes locations, just by allowing color and light to speak eloquently. Shingo Yamashita‘s career also felt like it progressed naturally this year, but no drastic turns are required when you’re already at the forefront. Why highlight Boruto‘s opening, out of all his works in 2018? Because I find his obvious imprint mind-boggling considering that he wasn’t even directing it – though I suppose it helps to have a follower of his at the helm. No individual comes close to matching Yama‘s balance between cohesion and clarity when it comes to presenting action, and his warmth is the real deal.
- Best Animation Designs: Liz and the Blue Bird
I’m a vocal fan of Futoshi Nishiya‘s work. He possesses the versatility to go from Nichijou to Hyouka, from Churuya-san to Free!, and still nail everything between those aesthetic extremes. That adaptability doesn’t come at the cost of individuality – it’s well known that merely working as supervisor leads to a stronger focus on body shapes, thanks to his silhouettes insinuating the contour and a fondness of clothing that tells us more about the wearer by not magically attaching itself to them. Perhaps less well known is the fact that his coworkers jokingly poke fun at him for that, because they’re amused that there’s something inherently sensual about the work of the only male designer at the studio.
I do believe that his collaborations with Yasuhiro Takemoto give us the most transparent look at Nishiya’s personal aesthetic; Hyouka in particular, as it doesn’t follow a preexisting look despite being an adaptation. The reason is simple: Takemoto has precise demands about the information he wants the designs in his works to convey, the points about their behavior and personality that can be built into their appearance, but not so much about the designer’s technique. And that’s why I’ve found Nishiya’s modern work with Naoko Yamada so fascinating, because she does. The two of them decided on A Silent Voice‘s discontinuous, textured linework to highlight the imperfections in characters and increase screen density. And yet when it came to Liz and the Blue Bird, they opted for thining the lines, which adds to the ethereal quality of the work just as much as the elongated limbs.
When it comes to working with Yamada, Nishiya’s designs focus on what they tell us about the characters as much as they do about how they tell us that.
- Creator Discovery: Yoshihiro Miyajima, Ayako Kouno
Narrowing down a single creator that grew on me in 2018 is nearly impossible. I was lucky to see a certain group of animators, tenuously connected to each other through the collaborations with Studio LAN, truly made their break into the anime industry; Gem, Guzzu, Till, Spike, Dave, and so on, are all people I was acquainted with because of their presence at sakugabooru – both as users and artists – so seeing them become recurring guests in industry events like Boruto #65 and Black Clover #63 fills me with joy. As did the chance to interview the bunch of them! That said, it’s hard for me to look at them as my creator discovery, since I see their growth as representative of an international movement rather than individual feats. Not that this makes their achievements any less impressive!
When it comes to real discoveries, I managed to wrap up the year with a smile because of Takahiro Watabe. As someone who ran away from Darling in the FranXX as soon as I had the opportunity, I’d missed his first steps into the anime industry, so his contributions to Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai were a sweet surprise. A scene in episode #07 stuck out to me because of the force it conveyed, and considering its similarity with a certain cut in a previous episode, I was able to deduce that it might have been Watabe’s work – which the person himself confirmed as soon as he saw the comments, something that’s always satisfying as an animation fan.
Though the production of the show was so rushed that Watabe himself was disappointed with the final state of his own work, his contributions were one of the many factors that made the show one of the most genuine surprises I’ve had this year. And hence why I treasure it as one of my major animation discoveries, alongside trainees I’ve excitedly seen grow, fascinating newcomers on series like Yama no Susume S3 and Pop Team Epic (so many Geidai alumni!), and even youngsters giving continuity to animation schools – Jin Oyama becoming a new heir of the Tetsuya Takeuchi acting style is something I never expected yet I’m thrilled about it.
All that said, in the end I decided to go with a director when it comes to my choice for creator discovery; partly as a change of pace since I’d been highlighting animators lately, partly because I knew other participants would have my back in that regard. Due to recency bias – and because of his own skill, to be fair – the first new director who came to mind was Yoshihiro Miyajima. Entrusted by also debutant series director Akira Amemiya with the execution of climactic moments in SSSS.GRIDMAN, his work was striking even when the resources were limited, and people in the team only had kind words for him when privately discussing their work. He’d have been the sole winner were it not for an unexpected star in another show I covered: Ayako Kouno, assistant series director on After the Rain. Though she’d been doing direction work for a few years, After the Rain untapped her true potential, as the feminine touch she provided was key in the authenticity that made the adaptation so affecting. As of this year, one of my anime dreams is seeing her lead another project that plays to her strengths.
- Best Episode: SSSS.GRIDMAN #09
Very few episodes have grabbed me so intensely this year as SSSS.GRIDMAN’s ninth episode. While the show’s been consistently great with its layouts, #09 took it to a new level with an Evangelion-esque exploration of the main antagonist’s mind palace. If that wasn’t already enough to make me thrilled, the combination of deliberate color palettes and oppressive layouts made for a heartbreaking insight into Akane’s loneliness and depression. It’s always easy to show someone as sad, but to take it a step farther, evocate those feelings, and invite the audience into the mindset of a mentally ill person while still criticising their actions is a finely honed talent very few can achieve these days, and somehow, Kai Ikarashi and his team managed to do it.
- Best Show: After the Rain
After the Rain‘s source material is already a favorite of mine, but I really do feel like the anime captured the essence and melancholy of a tremendously fragile topic with delicacy and maturity. I shouldn’t have expected anything less from Ayumu Watanabe, who also was in charge for Mysterious Girlfriend X (yet another problematic and yet charming ‘romance’), but After the Rain, is simply put, bittersweet. The show emphasizes the themes of grief, regret, and failure, but also does such a fantastic job of highlighting the biased lens of nostalgia through two very crippled individuals going through a period of difficulty in their lives. Plus the makeup art! WIT’s got a promising crew there, and I’m excited to see their future work based off how well they did here.
- Best Movie: —
- Best Opening: Persona 5: The Animation Opening 2B (link)
2018 has presented itself with some fierce favorites – I absolutely love Boruto’s fourth opening with its heartfelt song and dazzling visuals, After the Rain’s opening, with its charming and colorful palette and simple style, and Zombieland Saga’s frenzy. But being the Masashi Ishihama fan that I am, even I was impressed by his work for the last Persona 5 the Animation opening, as it goes beyond the typical Ishihama work. Thematically streamlined, tightly directed, and with a feast of visuals; I’ve said it so many times, and will say it again: Ishihama knows what makes openings such a treat for the audience, and continues to push boundaries with his knowledge of transitions, timing, imagery, and composition, all to make exhilarating experiences to leave your heart and mind racing at the end every time you watch them.
- Best Ending: Devilman Crybaby Insert Song Ending (link)
In most cases I’d choose something with a little more animation flair, but the power of Konyadake at the end of Devilman Crybaby #09 is not to be underestimated. The episode was horrific and emotional itself, but the visual of Akira and Miki driving in the sunset on a motorbike is both a final touch of peace and a reminder of the monstrosities they had to endure, and the end result is a pavlovian tear-inducing journey. Sometimes keeping it simple is all you need when it comes to relaying powerful emotions.
- Best Composite: Violet Evergarden
In 2017, we were promised a beautiful show called Violet Evergarden, and while the question of it being worth the wait is a complicated one to answer, I do think that aesthetically, the show was in the right place. Photography and composite were not only deftly handled, but consistently excellent throughout the runtime, which is no easy feat when you think about how ambitious the setting and designs were overall. Whether it was simple reflections, vintage memories being replayed, rain and fire beating down on our protagonist, the composite in Violet Evergarden never felt overwhelming, and instead, only elevated the gorgeous and pristine animation, just like good compositing should.
- Best Animation Designs: Liz and the Blue Bird
Liz and the Blue Bird is sheer delicacy, structure, and deliberation, all neatly combined into a package of high school adolescence and love. When you have a movie that is that precise, with a vision that is that ambitious, and a story that’s hushed and simple, you need to back it up with designs that are appealing, accessible, and streamlined for your director’s touch. When Liz and the Blue Bird’s designs for its main characters were first announced, I felt ambivalent. They’re a true departure from Sound! Euphonium’s, making Nozomi and Mizore seem recognizable, but distant. But after finishing the movie, it’s safe to say that they’re explicitly soft, delicate, and more mature for a very good reason. Futoshi Nishiya has done some incredible work here, and I really hope to see more ambitious designs like this in the future.
- Creator Discovery: Spencer Wan
I usually try to keep an eye on new animators as much as I can, but the arrival of Castlevania season 2 this year drew me back to an amazing artist who’d already worked on Boruto and has headed many of Castlevania’s exciting battles. Spencer Wan’s inspiration from anime is obvious, but molding it to make an accessible style with complicated character designs is something that’s really awed me lately. Not to mention that his work on the opening credits give me absolute chills every time I watch them. I have high hopes for this guy, and I’m excited to see him grow as an ambitious and talented animator for both western and Japanese shows alike!
[Twitter / My Website Is This Website]
- Best Episode: Devilman Crybaby #9, My Hero Academia #49
Though choosing the best episode of the year is always and without a doubt one of the most difficult tasks in doing these yearly write-ups, this time I believe it was harder than ever before. 2018 was a year overflowing with outstanding individual episodes scattered throughout many shows, including memorable outings by both experienced creators and young blood. As a result, I decided that instead of highlighting whichever was technically more impressive than the others, I’d pick the ones that made the biggest, most lasting impact on me.
Devilman Crybaby’s ninth episode storyboarded, directed and solo animated by Takashi Kojima floored me. Not because of the sheer strength of material it dealt with, but rather due to the flawless delivery. Kojima showcased his ability to create bombastic action setpieces in symbiosis with nuanced character moments and, as an icing on the cake, delivered an emotionally devastating finale which left me shaking with my mouth open. This episode had it all.
My other choice shouldn’t surprise you: I already wrote about My Hero Academia’s 49th episode so I don’t need to say more than it was the most satisfying episode of TV anime I watched this year.
- Best Show: —
- Best Movie: Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms
No anime movie this year lived up to the potential of animated theatrical features as much as Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms. The tale of a mother and her adopted son set in a fantasy setting spanning across multiple decades allowed the animators – with legendary Toshiyuki Inoue as the centerpiece – to flex their muscles by depicting a wide repertoire of scenes, characters, props, and creatures. Setting designer Tomoaki Okada, alongside with art director Kazuki Higashiji, created a breathtaking world full of stunning sceneries that took the elaborate work of the animators to another level. While narratively flawed, this movie’s technical and artistic proficiency is a one to remember.
Runner-ups: Liz and the Blue Bird, Doraemon the Movie: Nobita’s Treasure Island, Eureka Seven: Hi-Evolution 1 (Summer of Love)
- Best Opening: Persona 5: The Animation Opening 2B (link)
What can I say about Masashi Ishihama that hasn’t been said before? The master of openings and endings returned in full power and delivered perhaps one of his finest works to date in the form of the final Persona 5: The Animation opening.
- Best Ending: Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card Ending (link)
Similarly, I can spare words for this one. An ending so good I can forgive Norimitsu Suzuki for escaping BONES to make it. maybe
- Best Music Video: Baby I Love You da ze (link)
Rie Matsumoto + Yuki Hayashi + BONES + BUMP OF CHICKEN equals the best chocolate commercial ever made. Best anime of the year perhaps? I’ll give you the answer if you send me some sweets, Lotte.
- Best Composite: Liz and the Blue Bird
Naoko Yamada and Kazuya Takao created two worlds unlike each other, both equally profound and contained within a single movie. The reality made clever use of variable depth of field, exposition, and lighting to set the tone as the narrative demanded, while the characters with their surprisingly thin lineart blended into the world perfectly. The animated fairy tale segments meanwhile took a more simple approach to the camera work and focused on one goal: establishing an aesthetic similar to one of a picture book. Both approaches are equally valid and can be downright gorgeous if done right, which is what happened here.
- Best Animation Designs: Dragon Pilot: Hisone & Masotan
A bet on more unconventional character designs paid off more than well here. The designs created by Yoshiyuki Ito based off Toshinao Aoki’s drafts are full of life, featuring endless amusing and exaggerated expressions; appealing on a surface level, expressive deep inside. I frankly can’t imagine Dragon Pilot: Hisone & Masotan any other way. By the way, Hisone is an angel.
Runner-up: Run with the Wind
- Creator Discovery: —
- Best Episode: Violet Evergarden #07
There are a lot of great sequences in standout individual episodes eligible for this, most of which I did not watch. In fact, between this and other end of year projects, I’ve realized that I didn’t watch a lot of new anime this year (but did find time to rewatch all of Sailor Moon and half of Sailor Moon R, so that’s something, I guess). From a technical standpoint though, the moment that made me take a step back from my monitor and say, “Holy shit” aloud to an empty and messy studio apartment came in the seventh episode of Violet Evergarden, where Violet briefly walks on water with the aid of a fortuitous gust of wind and a narratively-important parasol.
This is insane in a vacuum, nevermind in a TV production. It’s so audacious and gaudy that it would seem out of place were it in any other series but Violet Evergarden, which is a show that thrives in its own audacity and opulence while trying to squeeze tears out of its audience weekly. There’s a meta note here about how this is in true Victorian tradition, the era from which Violet Evergarden borrows the most. This isn’t close to my favorite episode of Violet Evergarden — that belongs to Anne’s episode and subsequent buckets of tears — but the technical aspects of that one sequence where Violet walks on water stuck with me throughout the year.
- Best Show: Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight
Awards are nothing if not biased, and if you read my blog and thought I wouldn’t pick Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight for this category, then you haven’t been paying attention. But Emily, this is for the sakuga awards, you say. While yes, Revue Starlight had a remarkably troubled production — covered extensively on this very blog, including successful public calls on social media for animators — this only makes the accomplishments of this series even more impressive. Consistently strong storyboarding and cinematography kept the series visually sound, even in episodes where the animation itself wasn’t up to par.
I initially checked out Revue Starlight knowing only that it was Tomohiro Furukawa‘s directorial debut. He’d worked with one of my personal favorite anime creators, Kunihiko Ikuhara, on both Mawaru Penguindrum and Yurikuma Arashi, so I was curious to see what he would do with a show of his own. What I found was a nuanced and incisive skewering of certain toxic elements entrenched in Takarazuka Revue theatre culture — likely the influence of former Takarazuka director Kodoma Akiko, Revue Starlight is a multimedia project that includes a theatrical run — that was always wonderful to look at despite uneven animation at times.
Most importantly, Furukawa and company had an eye for how to use a stage specifically in a three-dimensional, layered way that I haven’t seen in anime outside of Takahiko Kyougoku’s Land of Lustrous, which was aided by the relative ease with which CGI animation can use things like sweeping pans across landscapes. One would think that a theatre stage would be limiting, but Furukawa and the entire Revue Starlight team turned each stage into a stunning set-piece that encapsulated how grand the scope of a stage performance can be. And it’s also gay. Incredibly and wonderfully gay.
Runner-ups: Devilman Crybaby, A Place Further Than the Universe
- Best Movie: Liz and the Blue Bird
Like the best episode award, this comes with a caveat: I only watched one anime movie this entire year. Fortunately, Liz and the Blue Bird is so good that I doubt any other anime film would have taken its place, but you never know. The story of Mizore Yoroizuka and Nozomi Kasaki isn’t for everyone. It’s understated and, for lack of a better word, quiet. Mizore in particular leaves much unsaid due to her introverted personality. One of the strengths of Sound! Euphonium was that it could make you care about the most minor of characters who appeared for fleeting seconds in the series, peering in at others in the concert hall, or playing their own instruments furiously in the background. Mizore, for all intents and purposes, is one of these characters, now given a full character arc in her own movie.
Mizore’s natural quietness and her relationship with Nozomi is brought to life it a way that’s both colorful, yet somehow muted at the same time — is it the linework? It’s probably the linework. This is Naoko Yamada at her most dramatic while simultaneously being at her most subtle, fully recognizing Mizore’s feelings with stunning visual and auditory direction. Those who love her over-the-top romantic scenes may leave disappointed, but I loved this movie even more than A Silent Voice.
- Best Opening: A Place Further Than the Universe (link)
“The Girls Are Alright!” manages to capture everything that makes A Place Further Than the Universe a truly special show: large-scale ambition running concurrently with personal emotional narratives. Nods to director Atsuko Ishizuka‘s use of social media to frame their journey are also present, as are individual private moments like Mari Tamaki geeking out to herself in an empty classroom. These are accompanied by a sweeping pan of the four young women standing on the bow of a boat and a sun that barely rises above the horizon at the South Pole.
- Best Ending: Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight (link)
Nearly every iteration of “Fly Me to the Star” is different, reflecting the lives of each individual who takes position zero for that week. The backgrounds are peppered with important items that add extra context to their feelings and relationships. While there’s not much in the way of animation, the rotating cast and several recordings of the song (only to have them come together towards the end) are impressive and tie back into the overarching narrative of Revue Starlight as a whole.
Runner-up: “Le temps de la rentrée” Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan
- Best Composite: —
- Best Animation Designs: Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan
Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan was a bit uneven — this is why it didn’t earn a top spot in anime of this year for me personally — but had some amazing character moments and an excellent sense of design. I loved what Yoshiyuki Ito did with Toshinao Aoki‘s original designs, and how their cartoonish style was a significant departure from the series’ beautifully-painted background art. Hisomaso is a series that relied on its comedic timing, and these designs were perfect for the physical comedy that the series frequently reveled in. Also, the dragons were adorable!
- Creator Discovery: Kai Ikarashi
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really know individual animators without looking them up specifically. Kai Ikarashi made an impression on everyone else contributing to this post far before he ever did on me. Yet, this was my year to discover him, despite having seen his handiwork before in Kiznaiver, Little Witch Academia, and One-Punch Man. Suddenly it seemed that Ikarashi was everywhere, from Revue Starlight to the more recent SSSS.GRIDMAN.
Admittedly, it was his stunning storyboarding and direction in SSSS.GRIDMAN #09 that made me take notice and look up his other work, returning to sequences of his that I had already seen in other series without knowing who was behind them. Now he’s one of the people whose handiwork I’ll look for the most in the coming year of animation.