Our yearly animation awards gather writers from all around the world to highlight the animated works that resonated with them the most – and this time we’re taking them to the next level, by including the insight of various anime industry members, from a production assistant to animators and even directors. We’ve split the results into three posts so that the result is easier to disgest, so today we’re presenting the best TV episodes of 2019, the opening and ending sequences that made the biggest impact, and the most interesting creator discoveries. Enjoy!
— Shouta Umehara
- Best Episode: Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba #19
I want you all to keep in mind that I went into Demon Slayer #19 with high expectations after hearing the exceptional buzz surrounding it, and yet it cleared that high bar and then some! To think it’d truly be that good!! I really enjoyed how it was packed with moments that catered to the viewers’ desires – and I mean that in the best of ways.
- Best Opening: That’s Why I Gave Up on Music MV (link)
Although “That’s Why I Gave Up on Music” is technically a music video, I’ve watched it so many times that it only feels right to make it my first choice in this category. And the reason is simple: everything that’s on-screen is tremendously pleasant.
If we’re talking TV anime openings though, I would actually narrow it down to a single cut: I really liked the shot towards the end of Takuji Miyamoto’s Shield Hero OP2 where the girls all show up with their hands raised. I wasn’t expecting them to pop up from the bottom of the screen like that! Honestly, I also just like compositions where the characters are all acting in support.
- Best Ending: The Promised Neverland ED (link)
When it comes to ending sequences, my sweetest surprise of the year was Shouko Nakamura’s closure for The Promised Neverland – I thought it would be all still shots, but my expectations were pleasantly betrayed by the tidbits that move with lots of emotion. In terms of art level, I believe that these illustrations and those in Taiki Konno’s first ending for Fire Force are equally powerful!
I’m going to have to split my vote between two candidates. For starters, this year I got to truly grasp how exceptional Ken Yamamoto truly is.
His abilities in terms of art and illustrative skill, character animation, action, speed, and even his ability to vanish from his work are all top-notch. You could say he’s the Akira Hamaguchi of a new generation!
And last but not least, I owe a nod to Kana Ito. At her age, she’s already challenged herself to work on all sorts of realistic acting sequences, as well as action and comedy ones, and all of them have turned out to be equally great. I can hardly believe someone like her exists!
- Best Episode: Mob Psycho 100 II #05
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the best episode of the year was decided before any other contenders had an opportunity to submit their bid. Hakuyu Go and the talented team he often surrounds himself with have built a reputation on delivering TV anime’s grandest showings, so it’s only fitting that this latest one would come on a series which had already aimed to push the limits of what’s even achievable within the TV-sphere.
Nothing short of writing an entire thesis on Mob Psycho 100 II #05’s twenty-four minutes of animation would do them the justice they deserve, but I was told to keep the paragraphs as succinct as possible, so instead I’ll stick to more general observations – such as the distance Go’s storyboard and direction went in balancing the two halves of the episode, the melancholic build up and Mob’s subsequent emotional eruption. Careful emotional storytelling that still allowed a myriad of idiosyncratic animation styles to relay from one to another without ever feeling even a touch out of place. Should this episode end up being his final contribution as a director in this particular industry, it will be among the highest notes to end on, ever. Though if that sounds too dramatic for your liking, trust that in any capacity the seemingly-endless ambition of Hakuyu Go will make a splash regardless of where and through which avenues he decides to share his talent with the world.
- Best Opening, Ending, or Music Video: Carole & Tuesday OP1 (link)
In a year lacking the brilliance of Shingo Yamashita and Masashi Ishihama, two of the greatest directors when it comes to anime openings, an opportunity presents itself to give credit to figures that might be less renowned but are also capable of pulling off stunning performances. Carole & Tuesday’s first opening happens to fit both those bills: as a literal and figurative performance, one that perhaps didn’t receive the attention it deserved due to Netflix’s awkward release schedule.
In any event, the truth is that Bahi JD has always been a beloved figure among sakuga fans; after all, he once was an active member of this community, before crossing to the other side and making his name known as an animation superstar. All that time he spent studying the very best this industry has to offer has granted him technical skill beyond belief, sure, but he possesses an intangible element. A fundamental understanding of the art of animation, one which you cannot teach through ordinary means yet is constantly found pervading throughout his work.
In a lot of ways, his Carole & Tuesday opening is just a distilled version of those principles. For one, there’s the way he chose to directly implement Tadahiro Uesugi’s rough imageboards, hardly even modifying them in the process but instead letting that organic feeling stand as the driving force behind the entire piece. His next priority would be to bring harmony to the characters placed before the backgrounds, and again his approach is one that allows for the animation talent gathered here to shine uncorrected, free from the handcuffs of the show’s own designs. Bahi continues to outdo himself, so anime fans everywhere should be excited about whatever the future has in store for the Austrian-born superstar.
- Best Creator Discovery: Takeshi Maenami
Pokemon Sun & Moon was a near-constant source of surprises throughout its run, whether it be the on-screen adventures with Ash and his friends, or the happenings behind the scenes that put it among the strongest long-running productions in recent memory. One of its sweetest surprises began this past March, as fans were treated to a lively scene involving a new Pokemon, Meltan, accompanied by the loony theatrics of Jesse and James. Coincidentally, Meltan wasn’t the only new arrival to the franchise that day: Takeshi Maenami, the animator responsible for bringing the creature to life, was also making their Sun & Moon debut!
It’s a known fact that the anime industry does not see inexperience or age as an obstacle, and 31-year-old technical-newcomer Maenami is yet another example of that. Since his debut, he’s been a regular contributor to the series, pairing his amateur illustration skills he amassed over the years while working as a cook with Kanada-inspired timing for a refreshing take on a much-beloved animation style, and seemingly growing stronger and more comfortable with each successive outing. Seeing how quickly he made his way to the current series, I hope that’s a sign that he’ll remain a regular contributor!
- Best Episode: Fate/Grand Order – Absolute Demonic Battlefront: Babylonia #08
2019 marks the beginning of Japan’s new Reiwa era, as new artistic trends gain increasing attention in the field of anime. Webgen animators, closely followed by all over the world for their pursuit of lavish action scenes, managed to keep momentum towards the next decade and gathered once again on a prominent project.
Fate Grand Order: Babylonia #08 was certainly a festival for such young talents. The major chunk of action that the episode will be remembered for a long time for was storyboarded by Toya Oshima, then animated by quite the impressive lineup of artists. Right off the start, the bold and expressive high-contrast frames from Kai Ikarashi and some realistic movements in regard to timing by Jin Oyama managed to stand out in their own way. Oshima’s boards made excellent use of camera movement and the contrast between foreground and background objects to give a great sense of immediacy. And let’s not forget about the exceptional sakuga relay of an action climax handled by the likes of moaang, Yusuke Kawakami, Shota Goshozono, Kerorira and Kosuke Kato, who combined fluid background animation with intense animated effects and creative arrangement of props. This splendid episode sets a good example of blending webgen aesthetics with more traditionally raw action that future works will surely pay attention to.
- Best Opening: Kaguya-sama: Love is War (link)
The story of Kaguya-sama focuses on a contradictory relationship between a pair who long for romance with each other but fear to take the first step, and the opening serves as a metaphoric interpretation of that dilemma. The direction touches on distance and possibilities, two main themes of a twisted love story. Matching with the brisk melody, the animation employs a kaleidoscopic effect that makes for a dazzling style.
- Best Ending: Sarazanmai (link)
Sarazanmai’s deep connection with real-life scenery is without a doubt a major evocative source of its charm. The ending sequence, produced by professional filmmaker Tao Tajima, merges cityscape photography with sharp motion graphics. I particularly enjoy the sense of fantasy it gives by placing animated characters over real footage of Asakusa’s streets, as well as all those details that reflect on the wet surfaces while creating light effects.
- Best Creator Discovery: Kana Ito
Young animators nowadays mostly look up to veteran action animators like Yoh Yoshinari and Yutaka Nakamura – with a specific focus on that action part of their portfolio. However, I would like to take this chance to recommend a youngster who has been focusing single-mindedly on vivid character acting during the early stages of her career: Kana Ito.
She started her career at Studio WIT after graduating from a Production I.G training program, then proceeded to attract the interest of sakuga fans this year thanks to her output in the last few episodes of Run With The Wind. Her sequences in Boruto’s TV series and other recent work of hers turned out to be just as noteworthy, delivering a palpable sense of weight when animating full-body action. She even handles shading and clothing folds – typically complicated elements for new animators to grasp – in a sophisticated way! Having become a sort of freelance artist, she’s now expected to appear in a broader range of titles, so I look forward to her charm diversifying even further.
- Best Episode: Mob Psycho 100 II #05, Stars Align #03
Let it be known that my choices were Mob Psycho 100 II #05 and Hoshiai no Sora #03, but they’re so good I feel like I’m incapable of articulating it, so I’m technically giving this category a pass!
I’ve been a huge fan of Tadahiro Uesugi’s illustration work for many years and I was not expecting to see him appear on a TV anime OP of all places, but Bahi JD continues working his Twitter networking magic – and what a match made in heaven they were! Uesugi’s image boards and Jun Kumaori’s background work, along with the delightful character animation, breathe incredible richness and life into Carole & Tuesday’s cozy urban setting. Such an amazing fit for the warm acoustic OP songs!
It’s always super exciting to see this kind of collaboration between artists who spend most of their time in different sectors of the field. Career-illustrators and painters can bring to the table a sense for colour, texture and shape in image-making that feel incredibly fresh and exciting as animation, and a short-form work like an OP/ED feels like the perfect place to pull together unique teams and explore some new aesthetics!
Honorable mentions: BEASTARS OP, Hoshiai no Sora ED
- Best Creator Discovery: Akihiko Yamashita
I came to know of Akihiko Yamashita’s work this year after finally watching Invisible from Studio Ponoc’s Modest Heroes collection, which he contributed to as director, storyboarder, animation supervisor and according to the short’s producer, key animator for as much as 80-90% of the film itself.
Working with the premise of a main character that’s literally invisible, has no mass and thus is constantly at risk of being blown away would without a doubt be an animation nightmare for most of humanity, but Yamashita manages to make the entire production feel effortless, while simultaneously presenting delightfully creative points of view and enchanting movement that would only be possible in animation. Bizarre physics are rendered with stunning believability, and I could feel the protagonist’s struggle to move the way he wanted through every drawing.
Yet what made it most memorable for me wasn’t the astonishing technical achievement – there is a bonkers sakuga sequence where the camera literally flies through the invisible man and captures the insides of his clothing – but the heartfelt character acting that was full of emotional tension, all without a face, body or dialogue other than grunts to work with!
I’m always super excited to see original work from veteran creators whose primary output has mostly been on films with very tight directorial control (such as Ghibli staff), and despite my own mixed thoughts on Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Modest Heroes has me really optimistic about Studio Ponoc and excited to see what the crew come up with next.
- Ken Yamamoto, who already has a fantastic article on this blog about his work on FGO Babylonia so far. His visceral motion and captivating drawings on The Promised Neverland totally took my breath away, and the scene where Emma and Norman discover the ‘creatures’ while hiding underneath a truck is easily one of my favourite animated sequences ever.
- Sou Miyazaki aka Glens_sou: There are a lot of amazing artists dropping their gifs on the interweb every day and I can’t possibly give a shout out to them all, but one that really stood out to me this and last year was Glens_sou. They have a truly fantastic sense for layout, camera and timing that makes for some really memorable scenes and I’m super looking forward to seeing more of their future work..!!
- Moaang: I- I really love Moaang………For real though, their character artwork and unique way of depicting limbs and clothing is absolutely enchanting, and I’m very excited to see them getting more supervision work since it only means more beautiful Moaang drawings making their way to my eyeballs.
- Best Episode: Symphogear XV #08
With the final season of Symphogear being as strong as it consistently was, it’s hard to pick a favourite episode out of the bunch. As far as I’m concerned, though, the sheer spectacle of episode #08 gives it a slight edge over the rest. Toshiharu Sugie got the chance to handle a lengthy section of Carol’s fight, showcasing the versatility of his animation; in the previous season he served as more of a supporting player, but with more action directors to help spread the workload, artists like him got to put together more polished work than ever before. To make things even better, a sweet surprise in the form of newcomers to the franchise like Mitch Gonzales and Yom brought some youthful flavour to the proceedings.
The episode was very effects-heavy, with a lot of the latter half dedicated to juicy beams and explosions. Kazuto Arai – who usually comes along for the odd explosion – had quite a showing as he experimented with more character-focused action, although still mixing in his effects and wrapping it all up with one of his most grandiose explosions yet. After that, we were blessed with this stellar henshin sequence by acting specialist Kosuke Yoshida; the detail in the effects and the smoothness of the motions really conveyed the feel of witnessing the transformation of a mortal into a god. The episode’s gradual escalation leading to that climax made the entire package feel like more of a season finale than a regular episode along the way. A very satisfying outing of an already stellar final season.
- Best Opening, Ending, or Music Video: Cannon Busters OP (link)
Cannon Busters was a show I was unreasonably excited for… and it ended up living to those expectations! Between the diverse cast and the fun designs by folks like Thomas Romain and Yann Le Gall, I had lots of things to enjoy from the get-go. And that applies to the opening too: it does a great job of highlighting the 3 leads with some fun character cuts and many flashy displays of ability, culminating in Weilin Zhang‘s explosive final sequence with top-notch 2D vehicle and background animation. Truth to be told though, my favourite cut of the whole thing ended up being the characterful shot with Sam getting ready; the way she pats her hair down has such a fun bouncy quality to it, and her walk to the door has some great fabric animation. Alongside the great song, the opening really captures the feel of the whole series. The kind of intro I could never skip while watching the show.
- Best Creator Discovery: Hiroyuki Takashima
When the lineup of action directors for the final season of Symphogear was announced, I admit I was pretty intrigued; Toshiharu Sugie and Kouki Shikiji were returning figures, but the other two animators listed I was simply unacquainted with. Yoshiki Nakakoji was at least somewhat known because of his work on series like Duel Masters, but Hiroyuki Takashima’s work in episode #02 took me by complete surprise and I genuinely lost my mind. He imbued the scene with the sense of desperation it really needed, with a mix of acting and frenetic action. The choreography is a lot of fun to follow, and the entertainment value doesn’t get in the way of the technical thoroughness, so he still went out of his way to emphasize how they pull their weight after pretty much every hit. The spark effects were just as inspired in that regard, and the shapes of both smears and 2DFX are a lot of fun to simply look at. Quite the introduction!
As the season progressed and Takashima continued to excel, confirmation about some of his previous works also surfaced thanks to certain intrepid fans interacting with him. Finding out he was the person behind a rather legendary fight in Re:Zero #03 sealed the deal for me. As much as we love to discover fresh talent, it’s great to see experienced animators finally get the recognition they deserve after years of putting out stellar work.
- Best Episode: Mob Psycho 100 II #05 & #11
Hakuyu Go‘s final directorial effort – for the time being? – in the form of Mob Psycho 100 II #05 is the definitive sakuga episode of the year, and I’m sure many others here will echo similar sentiments. Not content with that, episode #11 of the show also presented the most impressive runner-up of 2019; another stunning showcase of animation with a stronger focus on action spectacle, featuring highlights from the likes of Nakaya Onsen, Ken’ichi Fujisawa, and Takumi Sunakohara, just to name a few. Onsen’s work in particular is one of the most memorable action sequences of the year – the combination of striking layouts, good use of simulated camera movement and frantic, physical action makes for very exciting viewing.
Honorable mentions: Fate/Grand Order Babylonia #08; Azur Lane #08 (caveat: pending BD fixes)
Gotta hand it to Fire Force‘s first opening for straight up looking like a sakuga MAD; it’s an animation highlight reel that happens to have some music playing over it. Not exactly a well-rounded product as far as openings go, but it’s undeniably packed with well-animated action.
Bahi JD‘s Carole & Tuesday opening, on the other hand, has a stronger focus on character animation, starting with depicting Tuesday walking through some very pretty scenes then slowly building up to showing the titular duo dancing and performing in the streets. It’s a lovely bit of work that’s put together rather nicely.
As far as Psycho-Pass goes… it’s a Tetsuya Nishio solo work. Need I explain more?
- Best Creator Discovery: Ryota Furukawa
Psycho-Pass isn’t a franchise with a particularly strong association with impressive animation, but 2019 began to change that perception with the release of the Sinners of the System movie trilogy and Psycho-Pass 3. Both of them contained a fair share of well-animated and choreographed action scenes – especially of the melee variety – which naturally piqued my interest.
As it turns out, a bunch of those highlights were animated by Ryota Furukawa, who has been a regular face at Production I.G. works for the past decade. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of work that has been officially attributed to him, but from the few confirmations available out there, Furukawa appears to be very adept at character animation. His work on the Psycho-Pass franchise tends to involve intricately-choreographed hand-to-hand combat scenes; it’s always a pleasure to have animators who have a knack for animating such action scenes.
On a side note, I’ve got to give props to the production team for going the extra mile to utilise martial arts consultants on a regular basis for the latest entries in the series. Psycho-Pass 3‘s addition of Systema and Flipino Boxing styles provided a variety of weapon disarms, joint locks, and elbow strikes to the fight choreography – something quite different from the usual flurry of punches and kicks one would come to expect from a typical fight scene, and from a franchise point of view, a welcome respite from the Dominator gorefest that was Psycho-Pass 2.
- Best Opening, Ending, or Music Video: Kirin Creative Relay #04 (link)
Although this isn’t an opening or ending sequence per se, as a short form animation it felt right to highlight the fourth entry in Kirin’s Creative Relay in this category. At under one minute in length, Yoko Kuno’s short film for this campaign efficiently presents a world within the screen that’s just delightful and feels alive at all times.
- Best Episode: Mob Psycho 100 II #05
It almost seems as if this award was reserved for Hakuyu Go every year he directs an episode of anime. Mob’s fifth episode not only serves as a great follow-up to his previous directional effort on Fate/Apocrypha, but also as a showcase of various animation styles, techniques, and talents of the young generation of animators he represents. Presented in a superwide aspect ratio and polished to the tiniest details, I don’t think television anime can come closer to high-profile theatrical works than this. If anything, more than a few movies should get nervous if a team this young can put off feats of this caliber on the small screen.
Both openings – the first one directed by Bahi JD, while the second one was led by Motonobu Hori – are based on imageboards drawn by an illustrator of international renown like Tadahiro Uesugi, who had yet to make his anime industry debut. The animation staff used the idiosyncratic aesthetic of his illustrations and created laid back intros to the futuristic Mars metropolis as the protagonists wander through it in hope of creating music that will reach the farthest corners of the universe.
- Best Ending: Fire Force ED1 (link)
Taiki Konno was already featured on this site before, and for good reason at that. His past experience as an illustrator gives him a wider skillset than that of a standard key animator and he made spectacular use of it in Fire Force‘s endings – the first one in particular. He created practically everything bar compositing for this ending sequence, easily securing himself this spot on my list in the process.
- Best Creator Discovery: Weiling Zhang
This generation’s natural-born genius, perhaps?
- Best Episode: Wataten! An Angel Flew Down to Me #12
It’s been quite while since animation producer Shouta Umehara left Doga Kobo and, to be quite honest, the studio hasn’t been the same ever since then. You might think I’m exaggerating, but none of their recent output has had quite the same love for animation that drew many fans to their work back in the day. Sure, their modern shows can move a lot every now and then, but they don’t do so with that level of liveliness; the bouncy, loose, wild sequences that were synonymous with Doga Kobo pre-2016 are no more.
At least, that used to be the case. The reason why I’ve chosen Wataten! An Angel Flew Down to Me #12 is that it managed to challenge that idea. The show as a whole tried to replicate that feel an didn’t quite match it… until its final episode that is; a school musical piece, featuring about 15 minutes of singing animation with non-stop lively acting. Perhaps it wasn’t as flashy as the Mob Psychos, Fates, and other high profile action shows of the year, but it definitely meant more to see something like this. At least for a moment, I got the spiritual successor to the likes of Love Lab, Yuru Yuri, Sansha Sanyou, or Mikakunin de Shinkoukei that I’ve been waiting for years.
- Best Creator Discovery: Ryuuki Hashimoto
Now this was a true discovery. Three months ago, no one in the sakuga community even knew Ryuuki Hashimoto existed! He suddenly burst into our screens via studio Engi’s Kemono Michi, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call him their ace animator already. You know that someone is an amazing talent when their first work is thought to be uncredited contributions by the likes of Nakaya Onsen and Takumi Sunakohara – some of the names that were brought up when his work popped out of nowhere. How could fans predict that this amazing animation was penned by essentially a rookie?
Hashimoto proceeded to work on eight out of the show’s twelve episodes, constantly delivering amazing animation with exaggerated yet realistic movement. Action, effects, character acting – you name it and Hashimoto’s got it in the bag! Even if the project had had the sturdiest production schedule in the world, the sheer amount and variety of his work would still be something to behold. Now all that’s left is hoping that he isn’t truly bound to studio Engi so that we don’t have to wait for the second coming of Kancolle to see more of his work!
- Best Episode: Mob Psycho 100 II #05
It speaks volumes about the quality of Mob Psycho 100 as a whole that I can sit here and umm and ahh between multiple episodes for this award. The second season’s eleventh episode is an absolute marvel, with visuals that put countless movies to shame, but in spite of my battle shonen addictions elsewhere, it’s episode #05’s character work that speaks the most to me, and thus wins this award.
This is very much Hakuyu Go’s baby, having directed, storyboarded, and handled the animation supervision for the episode. His storyboard, largely utilising an ultrawide aspect ratio, is almost entirely focused on conveying Mob’s torment in this hellscape dreamworld, and it is just astonishing.
Like a psychedelic fever dream, Go frequently distorts the frame, and pushes characters’ depictions to their absolute limit. It culminates in one of the most absurd action sequences of the year, and still has time for astonishing character acting. It’s an unquestionable masterpiece, and much in the same way SSSS.Gridman #9 did (my pick last year), it weaves its visuals and narrative together seamlessly. It is animation at its peak.
- Best Opening: Dororo OP1 (link)
Dororo was my second favourite show this year; its exceptional direction, narrative, and animation highs came together wonderfully, and its opening is no exception. Directed by Takeshi Koike, it embodies the multifaceted tone of the series, showcasing the joy, melancholy, and brutality that spans the 24-episode series. From its colours to its texture, and its wonderful connection to the accompanying song, it is by far the best opening this year.
- Best Ending: Fire Force ED1 (link)
While Fire Force’s opening is a visual powerhouse, packed to the brim with cut after cut of astonishing action, it lacks any real cohesion, not only from scene to scene, but against its music, too. In contrast, Taiki Konno’s solo effort with its first ending stands in stark contrast, marrying its visuals to its track perfectly, and conveying a distinct mini-narrative in its short runtime. With delicate character acting, remarkable linework, and a distinct textural quality overlaid on wonderful colour work, it checks all the boxes for one fantastic episode-closer.
- Best Creator Discovery: Masayuki Kouda
For my past few contributions to this category, I’ve gone with legitimate newcomers who’ve made a significant impact with their contributions to the industry. This year, I found myself diving into many older shows that I somehow missed over the years, and so it feels appropriate that I pick a personal discovery this time around.
A few months ago, I found myself finally powering through the entirety of the Naruto franchise. I’m not strictly a newcomer to the series, having seen and read 150% of the overall content before; meaning 100% of Naruto‘s original series and 50% for Shippude). With a more powerful sharingan sakugan this time around, I had my eyes opened to some spectacular staff, far beyond the obvious industry icons scattered throughout the series.
In particular, Masayuki Kouda’s stunning approach caught my eye; his loose, blobby characters and minimal shading immediately spoke to me. The stark departure from the series’ typical approach to shape design and shading reminded me immediately of my darling Naoki Tate’s take on typical modern Dragon Ball. I am a hopeless romantic for minimalist designs, and with Kouda’s episodes typically featuring some astonishing staff, himself included, it’s hard to think of anyone I love more than him on this series.
I’ve yet to dive into Naruto’s son’s anime, but fingers crossed his work there is equally as interesting as his take in Boruto’s dad’s show. Sorry.
- Best Episode: Mr. Robot Season 4 #05
This is absolutely cheating, but Mr. Robot’s fifth episode of the fourth season is a moody, 45-minute heart-racing episode that has only two lines of dialogue and only serves to show how important visual and auditory direction and narrative can be just as important, if not more than, explicit conversation. Enough said.
- Best Opening: Carole & Tuesday OP1 (link)
Carole & Tuesday‘s first opening is delicate, sweet, and also, thematically and structurally, representative of the show’s themes and messages. Whether it’s the fact that the opening is a collaborative effort of artists all over the globe, or that it captures the hustle and bustle of a city with impressive layouts and even more impressive character animation, or that it’s a cheerful insight into the connections we can form with others through the beauty of music; Carole and Tuesday’s first opening represents the delight in freedom.
- Best Ending: Boogiepop and Others ED (link)
Eerie and catchy are not words I’d often use to describe a good ending, but that so happens to be Boogiepop’s ED: flat, stylish, and snappily paced to a song in such a way that it gives off that moody and introspective atmosphere. I’m already quite a fan of Keiichiro Saito – his work on Mob Psycho 100 is just phenomenal – but his simple, low frame rate work here is much calmer and distinctive, creating a Shinsekai Yori ED-inspired kind of work.
- Best Creator Discovery: Kazuhiro Miwa
Kazuhiro Miwa is a well-known name in the community, and granted, it’s not like his scenes have wowed me before in series like My Hero Academia and Darling in the Franxx, but it’s his consistent cinematic action scenes in Fire Force that have stunned me. It’s one thing to put out one or two fluid, dynamic scenes that still have a great sense of control in them. It’s another to grasp the explosion and intensity of fire, apply it to martial arts-based action, and then put amazing scenes like this and this for a two-cour series. Hats off to Miwa, and while I hope he gets a good rest, I’m continuously in awe at how easily he’s able to grasp dynamic action.
- Best Episode: Mob Psycho 100 II #05
You might think that belonging to a series of Mob Psycho 100’s caliber is a good thing. And let’s not kid ourselves, you’re absolutely right; there are no downsides to being part of a carefully planned project led by a director who’s capable of channeling the energy of many idiosyncratic animators into a cohesive whole that encapsulates the source material’s kind message. No downsides, except how hard it is to stand out as an individual episode when your show is so good that it makes excellence mundane.
So in a way, it was easier for the highlights of other shows subjected to less extraordinary standards to stand out. This isn’t meant as backhanded praise either: Sarazanmai, a series that got me excited about Kunihiko Ikuhara’s work on a level I hadn’t been since Penguindrum, followed that show’s tradition of peaking on a fantastic ninth episode directed by Nobuyuki Takeuchi. Carole & Tuesday, another show I’ve held dearly this year, had the daring idea of hyping up its finale at the start of every episode… and lived up to its own promise; not just in quality but in sheer length, delivering the miraculous animation feat of 7 uninterrupted minutes of a climactic performance. Pokemon Sun & Moon’s celebration of the franchise peaked with episode #144, a fittingly low stakes exhibition match that’s all about the joy of Pokemon. Morio Hatano’s beautiful exposition of Star Twinkle Precure’s inclusivity thesis and Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba #19 embodying the ideal form of ufotable’s in-house harmony are easy to pick as 2019 highlights too.
How come I’m still nominating the fifth episode of Mob Psycho 100 II, then? Because it did the seemingly impossible and created the same kind of gap between an individual episode and the series as a whole, despite the average quality being so high it was already poking holes on TV anime’s ceiling. The climax of Mogami’s arc matches Hakuyu Go’s also legendary Fate/Apocrypha #22 in sheer scale (and quirks), but its much more introspective focus renders comparisons between the two moot. A nightmare that morphs under the pen of animators representing the best of a whole generation leading to an inner battle where the strongest weapon is unyielding kindness. Mob Psycho 100 II #05 is the reason animation is good.
- Best Opening: Carole & Tuesday OP1 (link)
Our coverage in this site has made it no secret that I adore not just the BEASTARS anime adaptation as a whole but also its intro sequence in specific; here’s a whole piece dedicated to the team behind that delightful stop-motion opening. If the greatest quality of the show’s production is its ability to use a diverse and modern toolset to create animation that excels in pretty traditional ways, then it could have no better introduction than Michiya Kato’s handcrafted opening.
That said, I ultimately had to look further back to find the sequence that left the biggest impact in me in all of 2019. When it comes to certain themes, Bahi JD’s opening for Carole & Tuesday is a stronger realization than Carole & Tuesday itself; his choice to stick very close to the aesthetic of Tadahiro Uesugi’s rough concept art, evocative of mid-twentieth American graphic art, ends up making a more compelling case for the human warmth of imperfections over polished AI creations than the show itself. In many ways this is a direct evolution from Bahi’s opening for ATOM – hence the return of Jun Kumaori for the color script – but, aided by the likes of Shinichiro Watanabe and Motonobu Hori, his efforts feel much more purposeful this time around.
In fact, he nailed it so much that the second opening by Hori himself followed Bahi’s steps so naturally that one would assume both sequences were made by the same person; though of course, the quality of the animation couldn’t really compare to the excruciatingly nuanced acting showcase in Bahi’s original intro, as it lacked the exceptional lineup of animators he’d gathered. If I haven’t been convincing enough about how good this opening is, let the series director trying to emulate it but not quite managing to match the original be the definitive proof of its quality.
Honorable mentions: Since opening sequences with integrated credits are the one trick I’ll always fall for, I feel obligated to dedicate them a special mention. I continue to appreciate 10GAUGE’s Nobutaka Yoda and his love for neon signs, and certain thematic tights made me laugh, but at the end of the day it’s the organic approach that Mitsue Yamazaki and Ryohei Takeshita took for Wataten’s intro that earns my arbitrary award of Best Integrated Credits of 2019. And on a different level of moral obligation, I must mention that long-time Touhou fan Satoshi Yamaguchi contributing to the franchise in an official capacity and producing the opening for Touhou Cannonball by himself made me smile like few things have. The result is characterful, spacious, and even manages to translate the bullet-hell into dense 2DFX – you can tell he’s been a fan for a long time!
- Best Ending: Sarazanmai (link)
For all I’ve mulled over the other categories, my choice of the best ending of the year was immediate: Tao Tajima’s sequence for Sarazanmai is an elegant summary of one of the 2019 works that will stick with me the most. In fact, I’d argue that it also encapsulates many of Kunihiko Ikuhara’s qualities despite the sequence not being penned by him.
For starters, it showcases the renowned director’s modus operandi; one of Ikuhara’s greatest skills that never seems to get enough acknowledgment is his exceptional scouting ability, and once again he had no qualms about relying on an artist with no anime industry experience whatsoever. As it turns out, that was the right choice, since Tajima’s approach to filmmaking is a perfect extension of the magical realism that characterizes Ikuhara’s oeuvre. Even when anime characters aren’t projected over the real streets, something about Tajima’s pulsating lighting already sprinkles the setting with fantasy. The compositing is simply bewitching.
The sequence’s deep roots in the setting also mirror both the show and the director’s mentality. Sarazanmai is very tangibly set in Asakusa – it’s built around local folklore, and even the gradual transformation of its cityscape is used by Ikuhara as a launchpad to talk about societal change and economic struggles in a couple of occasions. So, who better than a creator like Tajima who specializes in bathing real urban scenery in beautiful but extraneous lighting to make it look like a fantastical place? Let me tell you who: no one. Ikuhara knew exactly what he was doing when he entrusted him not just with this ending sequence, but with all the teaser movies that preceded the show.
Honorable mentions: If there was an award to the most viral ending sequence it’d go to Naoya Nakayama’s special ending for Kaguya-sama: Love is War #03, and it’d be deserved; catchy, a nearly flawless rotoscoping process that balanced the realism with adorable exaggerated expressions, actual acknowledgment given to the choreographer from the get-go, and did I mention catchy? For another extraordinary solo animation effort, Taiki Konno’s endings for Fire Force also sum up his repertoire, from the composition sense he gained with his extensive illustration work to the eroticism of his drawings. Also, a final nod to Yuusuke “nara” Yamamoto for extending a Hitoribocchi gag into a special ending sequence that gathered all sorts of fresh talent painting increasingly more outrageous takes on the same layout. Now that’s effort well spent.
- Best Creator Discovery: Yuu Yoshiyama
If you’ve been following these awards for a few years, you might have noticed that my creator discoveries follow very obvious patterns, because I happen to be a fool who wears their preferences in their sleeves; all of them are character-focused animators – mostly Kyoto folk & A-1 adjacent ones – or directors who specialize in employing artists like that, as well as western animators I was acquainted with before they made their professional debut.
This year could have been exactly the same, because 2019 has had its fair share of sweet surprises too. Kaguya-sama’s solo ending allowed me to grow acquainted with Nichika Oono, after whispers of a certain youngster’s talent had already reached my ears. It was also the year where I grasped how good truly Maiko Kobayashi is; not just as a meticulous animator and supervisor but also as a director, since her skillset transferred as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Even on the overseas animator front I’ve got plenty of valid choices, as a bunch of talented friends have made their way to productions like Given and Azur Lane… though I’d be happier about that if they hadn’t immediately been slapped by this industry’s cruel reality upon entering it.
In the end, though, I feel like surprise is the main point of this category. And the discovery that came entirely from left field to me was Yuu Yoshiyama. I first noticed her at the start of the year, during Hugtto! Precure’s second to last episode; or to be more precise, I noticed her presence in the form of a shamelessly Kanada-style shadow amidst the climax, which at the time didn’t feel like something that the members of the crew I was acquainted with would draw. Her continued idiosyncratic appearances in this year’s Star Twinkle Precure eventually got staff members to speak out: that was all the work of Yoshiyama, whom according to their words, has a very noticeable style. No kidding!
You might think that it’s a bit weird that someone with such a strong voice took a relatively long time to get noticed by animation fans. The answer to that appears to be a mix of her getting corrected rather heavily most of the time, as well as not always feeling comfortable in going all out as she’s been doing in this series lately; the truth is that Japanese fans first noticed her for her extensive work on Cardfight!! Vanguard, but since it wasn’t extravagant in this very specific way, they never put 1 and 1 together to deduce she was Precure’s new mysterious ace.
Either way, Yoshiyama’s work at its peak is a love letter to Yoshinori Kanada, although with personality of its own like the apparent intent to give illustrative qualities to her heavy effects and impact frames, which makes her animation nostalgic and damn pretty just to look at. Kanada might very well be the most influential figure in Japanese animation, sort of an equivalent to Osamu Dezaki in his own field. That means we’re never going to run out of artists who follow on his steps, whether they realize it or not, but that influence is mostly limited to the timing of the animation. Sometimes you’ll see an impressive Kanada dragon, but Yoshiyama’s extensive usage of shapes that bring to mind that era and the master specifically is an exceptional occurrence among her generation – and it makes for some very dynamic animation too! All in all, my favorite anime creator discovery of the year.
Honorable mention: The three artists behind Studio Himalaya’s Memory of Blue made a student short film that puts many professional productions to shame even when it comes to polish, an aspect where independent works are at a massive disadvantage. Keep an eye on them!