We’ve reached the grand finale of our animation awards! These are the shows and movies that, for some reason or the other, have impressed our panel of fans and industry members the most!
— Shouta Umehara
- Best Show: Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba
Once again, I’ll have to go with Demon Slayer. The level of excellence it hit on a weekly basis is incredible! One densely packed action episode after another, and yet the quality never took a hit, remaining solid until the very end. It’s amazing that it kept that level of consistency throughout!
- Best Movie: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Released this year in Japan)
There is the fact that it was the first 3D animated film I saw, but I was blown away by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse nonetheless. It’s quite telling that, despite the fact that I’ve never watched any Spider-Man before, I felt a pang of sadness at the scene where each of them goes back to their own dimension.
- Best Show: Vinland Saga
As a complete package, Mob Psycho 100 stood so far ahead of the pack this year that it feels almost unfair to nominate it in this category as well. In addition to that, I’m sure it’ll be very well represented in these awards, so I’m instead selecting a series which resonated with me very strongly: Vinland Saga. If you’re wondering where that strength that won me over comes from, you can start by considering the complex nature of the character designs and setting; a production that’s wholly antithetical to the culture of “Sakuga (作画): Technically drawing pictures but more specifically animation. Western fans have long since appropriated the word to refer to instances of particularly good animation, in the same way that a subset of Japanese fans do. Pretty integral to our sites' brand.” as many understand it and yet, when weighed against all else, it still feels like the right choice for me. For this, we have Shuhei Yabuta to credit. A director who has shown tremendous dedication to present something beyond just the manga panels as they exist, as well as displaying an acute awareness of the powerful core of the source material he was entrusted with.
Makoto Yukimura’s Viking-themed epic is an important tale of anti-war and pacifism… ironically delivered through some very violent settings, though the author ensures to never relish in it. Instead, he uses the cruel Nordic world as a springboard off which he bounces inspiring tales of redemption, soul-searching, and compassion through characters who are able to stand completely on their own two feet, while at the same time serving as an important mouthpiece for Yukimura himself.
With such a mindfully crafted source material it would be all too easy for the anime adaptation to miss the underlying point of events such as Thors’ sacrifice or Canute’s philosophy in the pursuit of something easier for both the viewer to digest, and for creators themselves to present. Fortunately, this animation staff has gone the distance, battling the increasingly harsher schedule in the process, to enhance all the biggest moments of Yukimura’s manga.
Yabuta has disclosed one of his priorities was to pace the dialogue and Yukata Yamada’s brilliant soundtrack for natural feeling exchanges between characters, an element which has come to shape this adaptation’s identity, especially in the final stages. It’s because of his tireless involvement that Vinland Saga carries so much significance as an adaptive work, and while it may fall short of the narrowly defined Sakuga (作画): Technically drawing pictures but more specifically animation. Western fans have long since appropriated the word to refer to instances of particularly good animation, in the same way that a subset of Japanese fans do. Pretty integral to our sites' brand.-mark – save for an Arifumi Imai appearance of course – it redeems itself time and again through equally valuable measures.
- Best Movie: Cencoroll Connect
This section demands a disclaimer as I’ve personally watched only a handful of the movies released this year. That said, I consider myself fortunate in that one of them happened to be Cencoroll Connect. It was this very blog on which I’m currently writing where I would find a lengthy dissertation on the artistic endeavors of one Atsuya Uki. If I recall correctly, I didn’t make it even halfway through the article before deciding this was a series that I immediately needed to experience for myself.
Like most people, I was immediately hooked by Cencoroll’s refreshing amateur-feeling style. With so few fingerprints on the film, none of which of the corporate variety, Uki’s unfiltered devotion to presenting something entirely of his own shines through. While his illustrative backgrounds and rich color palate certainly impressed visually, it wasn’t until the movie began trotting through its plot that it would be forever cemented in my favorites.
You see, the first Cencoroll is always one step ahead with the questions and two steps behind with the answers; never stopping to explain its characters or the context behind its bizarre world. It instead serves just the right amount of cohesiveness to keep the pieces intact, but not enough for the viewer to ever grasp the larger picture. That delicate balance remains the true beauty of the series, and while Cencoroll Connect didn’t channel those feelings to the same degree, perhaps spending too much time fleshing out the characters and surrounding narrative for my liking, it still maintained enough of that thinly veiled aura of mysticism packaged around the same kick ass-visual aesthetic which made me fall in love with the project in the first place. It remains a must-watch treat.
- Best Show: Mob Psycho 100 II
The most outstanding project of the year, both in terms of narrative and animation. Despite its raw depiction of the struggle of emotional survival in our modern society, at the end of the day, Mob Psycho 100 II always provides a heart-warming outlook on life; sure, interpersonal conflict is always a theme, but so are aspects like the delightful chemistry between Mob and Reigen.
Purely in terms of animation, it goes without saying that the project assembled a strong team of both experienced animators – like character designer Yoshimichi Kameda and Kenichi Fujisawa – as well as new promising talents; among those youngsters, Hakuyu Go and Itsuki Tsuchigami were entrusted with individual episodes that turned out to be major highlights, leading the coalition of Webgen (web系): Popular term to refer to the mostly young digital animators that have been joining the professional anime industry as of late; their most notable artists started off gaining attention through gifs and fanmade animations online, hence web generation. It encompasses various waves of artists at this point so it's hardly one generation anymore, but the term has stuck. animators that brought to life the most memorable moments. Mob Psycho 100 II’s overall quality is well beyond expectation, so we can only thank the staff for this miracle of a show.
- Best Movie: The Legend of Hei
One of the year’s biggest surprises came in the form of a Chinese animated feature that received excellent reception at home and abroad; after making over 300 million yuan in domestic box office, The Legend of Hei also received a limited release in Japan, which earned it high praise from numerous anime industry members. After watching it become sort of a phenomenon, it feels important to remember its more humble origins; after all, it started as a web series back in 2011, then gathered a small but dedicated fan base as it was slowly updated over time. The main team behind it is composed of young talents in their twenties and thirties who have a strong passion for animation – and the result of their work really reflected that.
I watched the film at a local cinema. There, I got to experience a tale set in various stunning locations ranging from forests to the most cosmopolitan cities, all of them captured with gorgeous background art. But personally, the most fascinating part was its acting finesse that underlines individual characters’ personalities and feelings. And not only that, this approach also coexists with fighting scenes seemingly inspired by Japanese Webgen (web系): Popular term to refer to the mostly young digital animators that have been joining the professional anime industry as of late; their most notable artists started off gaining attention through gifs and fanmade animations online, hence web generation. It encompasses various waves of artists at this point so it's hardly one generation anymore, but the term has stuck. styles as seen in titles like Mob Psycho 100 where the intensity of the feelings at play is captured through details like the camerawork. This excellent film represents the best of Chinese animation, and it helps me look forward to more great domestic projects in the future.
- Best Show: Stars Align, Mob Psycho 100 II
My closing thoughts on the latter are simply “Was it really OK to watch the entirety of Mob Psycho 100 for free on TV?”, and knowing that many people will be deservedly singing its praises, I’m gonna go ahead and steal this space to talk soft tennis!
Stars Align / Hoshiai no Sora presented me with a huge, diverse cast and somehow managed to make everyone feel like a complex human being with their own personal issues and story to tell, experiencing the world in their own unique way, and all in a stingy 12 episodes. Having to pack it all so densely means every shot and line of dialogue had to be carefully arranged to provide some kind of insight into character mentality, relationship progression or off-screen happenings yet the conversations never felt anything but natural to me; we’re talking about the kind of show where a simple interaction between characters will clue you into what might be going on in their heads based simply on their meticulous body language.
The strength of the character depictions and Kazuki Akane’s script was bolstered further by a brilliant voice acting cast and the unique soundtrack of jazz-indie band Jizue – absolutely worth googling even if you’re not interested in the show! – who played a huge part in crafting an atmosphere that felt really original to me amongst 2019’s TV anime.
Even in more traditional production matters, the gorgeous colour and composite coupled with the lovingly detailed background and setting/prop work easily beat out half of the theatrical anime I saw this year. The animation itself can only be defined as meticulous, with its attention to posing that stays consistently amazing throughout. There’s an important sense of believability that comes through when the ‘in-characterness’ of everyone never breaks, and I found myself nodding along like ‘god you’re right, that kid would have that in their lunchbox’. A feeling that only intensified as I followed along with the show’s reveals and re-experienced details and bits of dialogue in hindsight.
Anyway, something about the show feels simultaneously nostalgic, timeless and yet undoubtedly Reiwa. I can’t help but think it’ll age well. While its heavy themes and drama definitely won’t be for everyone, I have a feeling it’s a work that I’ll still be thinking about for a long time after it’s done airing. I certainly haven’t stopped thinking about it this entire season…!
Honorable Mention: Run with the Wind.
- Best Movie: PROMARE
I saw a whole lot of animated movies this year, but there was a clear winner when it came to what resonated the most with my friends and got the whole theatre enjoying themselves, cheering and laughing throughout, then going home and screaming about it some more. Without a doubt, that was PROMARE.
It was flashy, it was silly, it was horny, and simply a whole goddamn lot of fun! It never quite feels made for critics, yet the artistry and technical expertise on display are undeniable. Depending on who you talk to, the film also manages to squeeze in a byline about climate change, racial discrimination, and billionaires, but it sure doesn’t let that get in the way of some good old-fashioned shirtless firemen content either.
There’s something infectious about the enthusiasm TRIGGER has for taking what they love and know they’re good at and indulgently tossing it onto the screen – and I think it played a huge part in the viral popularity of the movie, especially among young creators. And the end of the day, you as the creator will be the one slaving away at bringing your content into the world for hours, months and years and if it’s not something you’re gonna truly enjoy making, then what’s the point! Sometimes you just want to flex your big brain animator muscles drawing a real sexy giant robot fight, and that’s valid! There are people who want to see it!! Chances are your greatest passions are also among your greatest strengths, and with this line of thought, I found myself cheering for the creators as much as the onscreen characters throughout the entire theme-park ride of a movie that was PROMARE.
- Best Show: Vinland Saga
The first episode of Vinland Saga grabbed me in a way I wasn’t expecting. In a time where other anime are handling subjects like slavery in a concerning flippant manner, this show’s direction made sure to give the subject the sense of gravity it demands; it felt as if the production itself emphasized the moral compass of a man like Thors very deftly.
From that point onwards, I’ve been absolutely charmed by the characters and the quality of the storytelling. The extremely volatile relationship between Thorfinn and Askeladd kept me at the edge of my seat every time they sparred. Watching the evolution of this sweet boy to a battle-hardened young man and the tragedy of it has been my favorite journey in animation of the year.
- Best Show: Mob Psycho 100 II, Fate/Grand Order – Absolute Demonic Battlefront: Babylonia
Once upon a time, Mob Psycho 100 II 2 and Fate/Grand Order: Babylonia stole much of the animation talent in the TV anime space that it made them the top two most-well animated shows for the year almost by default. The end.
My special nods have to go to Fire Force and Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba for delivering generally consistent doses of good animation. Worth noting is that both shows represent landmarks for the respective studios making them; David Production – R.I.P. SHAFT – and Ufotable both reached new heights in terms of animation quality and overall polish in their TV animation efforts.
- Best Movie: Weathering with You
Let’s not beat around the bush: Weathering with You is not as well-animated as Makoto Shinkai‘s previous outing, which is to be expected given the lack of Masashi Ando as animation supervisor, but it’s hardly a movie where the animation is found wanting. There are still plenty of expressive character animation to go around, although the real eye-catching stuff is with the water animation; from droplets trailing down the windows to torrential rain, never before has animated water looked so good to the point where you want to drink it. Now excuse me, I need to get a glass of water.
Honorable mention: Fate/stay night: Heaven’s Feel II. lost butterfly
- Best Movie: Saekano the Movie: Finale
My vote has to go to Saekano the Movie: Finale. It’s a film that lives up to its title: befitting of a conclusion of an entire franchise, the kind that makes you want the best for Megumi Kato.
Frozen 2 was spectacular as well, but Saekano takes the top spot due to the movie’s ability to bring to mind all the memories of following the rest of the series up to this point. And just as importantly: it’s number one because Megumi Kato is that cute.
- Best Show: Mob Psycho 100 II
Let me be honest: I wasn’t particularly excited about the arrival of Mob Psycho 100 II. It’s not as if I didn’t like the first season, but I felt like I already knew what to expect – kind of a weird reason perhaps, but I felt like I already had a grasp on the team and the caliber of the work they would be putting out for this sequel. Fortunately, that slight indifference towards the series was quickly blown by how it managed to step up the game when compared to its already fancy prequel. A candidate for best animated TV show period? As far as I’m concerned, yeah!
- Best Show: Mob Psycho 100 II
Typically, even the greatest shows of the year only have a few high notes that push them above the rest, but Mob Psycho 100 activated some sort of cheat code in its inception, then toggled on hacks for its second season. Every episode is a high note, with its own take on ‘highlights’ elevating things further, exploding through the metaphorical roof of TV anime’s limitations.
At its core, the series is a humanistic look at characters as they fumble their way through a world they’re not convinced they belong in. It’s delicate, moving, heartbreaking, and heartwarming. To handle such heavy themes, balance them with hysterical comedy, and simultaneously deliver the best action scenes of the year is a monumental task, yet the show has done it two seasons in a row thanks to its intensely dedicated staff, and an endless array of industry connections.
It’s a show that embodies themes of acceptance, and I have entirely accepted Mob Psycho 100 into my heart, so if you haven’t already, I urge you to do the same.
Frankly, I’m a little upset this show exists since my other darling Dororo was a mile above the other offerings this year for similar reasons listed above… and it would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for that meddling Mob!
- Best Movie: Eromanga-sensei OVA: Yamada Elf’s Love Song
Given the sheer number of clips and trailers Toei have released at this point, it’s tempting to simply list One Piece Stampede here despite having not officially seen it. Instead, I’m going to break the rules, and pick an OVA that not only impressed me, but may potentially land me in jail, just like when I picked this series for best character acting in 2017.
Yamada Elf’s Love Song is the first episode of Eromanga-sensei’s OVA, and it sure packs a punch on multiple levels. While those invested in the characters will get their fair share of emotional gut punches, those in it for the spectacle can revel in one hell of a song and dance number that brings back fond memories of Space Dandy’s 17th episode. Sadly, the majority of the sequence’s best cuts are still unsourced, but at the very least, Shuu Sugita delivers one of the more astonishing parts of the episode, with a slew of bouncy moments that bring me endless joy. After his wonderful solo contribution to the mainline series’ ending, it’s a real joy to see him return with an extended chain of character-filled goodness.
Now if you don’t mind me, I’ll be over here listening to this on repeat and crying.
- Best Show: Kaguya-sama: Love is War, Vinland Saga
Animation-wise, it’s an easy winner: Mob Psycho 100 II takes the cake with its heartfelt tones and artistic direction. But surprisingly, a show in the same season crept under the surface, directed by none other than the talented, and equally inventive man Shinichi Omata. While Kaguya-sama: Love is War lacks some of the explosive ammo that Mob Psycho had, its economic direction, clear love for the original material, and a depth of understanding to use the strengths of anime as a medium for storytelling, makes it shine as the best show in 2019 for me. No episode left me without tears of laughter, which is a rare feat when it comes to the conventional genre of a romcom. I’m particularly fond of the charming Naoya Nakayama’s Chika dance; it’s a fantastic example of how rotoscoping should be a conversation of strength, not weakness, when it comes to animation.
On the other hand, Vinland Saga, while not completely on par with the genius of Yukimura’s manga (but honestly, how could we ask for something like that?), was a fantastic adaptation nonetheless. I’ve been rather vocal for the past few years about how Vinland Saga as one of the best series out there in the world of manga right now, and while the anime is a showcase of the opposite effect as Kaguya-sama (one where the medium faces incredible difficulties trying to elevate an already-good story), it’s still a labour of love and hard work by Shuhei Yabuta and his crew. Aided by Yutaka Yamada’s fantastic soundtrack, Vinland Saga still nails both the poetic (Ayumu Watanabe’s direction on Episode 14 is probably the best episode of the year were it not for Sam Esmail and his audacity to reinvent prestigious western TV storytelling) and the dynamic (Arifumi Imai’s continuous blending of 3D environments with dynamically choreographed action feels right at home in a work like this) to make for a powerful drama about revenge, religion, and the simple nature of man.
Also, last but not least, Mr. Robot is actually an anime, so please give that a try, if you care about visual storytelling and the art form of TV as a medium. It’s easily my favorite show of the last four years, in its efforts to tackle the painful process of dealing with emotional trauma, the merciless apathy of society and capitalism, and the constant battle with loneliness and doing what’s right. It is by no means perfect, but damn if it doesn’t try to tell us that sometimes, just living with an open mind, day by day, is the hardest but most important change we can make in this world. And in my opinion, that’s as anime as you can get.
- Best Movie: Children of the Sea
It’s not quite fair for me to try and put the same thing in every department for this post, so I’ll try to keep it as minimal as possible: Children of the Sea is easily one of the most stunning things I have laid my eyes on. It’s messy, dynamic, poetic, and a momentum of expressionism that I’ve rarely experienced on a big screen. Barring the unfortunate work ethics involved with the creation of the movie, there is really nothing I can put into words that describes how ephemeral this film is: as the director Ayumu Watanabe said himself, it’s a movie to be felt and seen, rather than truly deciphered and understood.
Rarely have I felt so overwhelmed by the bizarre beauty of the sea, the emotional waves of turbulent youth, and of the vast and inexplicable force we call nature that surrounds us. It’s this kind of immersion that makes me appreciate the medium of anime, and equally, it’s a testament to the careful balance of both hand-drawn animation and CG. I can’t wait for GKIDS to bring it overseas for fans to truly get a glimpse at Watanabe’s magnum opus here. In the meantime, please take a look at a fragment of this rare piece.
- Best Show: Nijisanji
When people stress out that storytelling and animation are inseparable in this medium, they speak of an ideal. Something that’s conceptually true, and at anime’s best, the reason why certain scenes can shake us to the very core. But in the real world, especially when it comes to long-form commercial productions, it’s something that’s simply too much to ask for in a consistent manner. Exceptional moments where the synergy between both aspects is such that not only do they boost each other, but you can’t even tell where the content ends and the delivery begins? Sure, the greatest shows can manage that. But managing that at all times? There’s only so much you can ask out of a TV project.
Mob Psycho 100 II is that ideal.
This sequel had an upward slope to climb to begin with, seeing how the element of sheer surprise was considered key in the original Mob Psycho 100’s success by director Yuzuru Tachikawa, but Mob’s psychic abilities appear to have bent physics once again, to the point that this show’s tremendous success felt effortless. It followed through on the first season’s emotional inertia as if had never taken a break, somehow found ways to increase its production muscle, and most importantly, it channeled all that energy towards depicting Mob’s fundamentally kind, simple but life-affirming messages. It’s a series with more badass action that anyone could have ever wished for, and yet also one that has its writing and visuals reject the indulgence in it in unison. Tremendously deliberate, beautiful in multiple levels, and even the kind of show that lets you engage with it in different ways, which makes for a very easy recommendation to right about everyone. I couldn’t have asked for anything else… other than perhaps a couple extra episodes to let certain developments have more breathing room, but that’s a tiny complaint in the grand scheme of things.
So rather than choosing one of the best shows of all time, I’m nominating Nijisanji, which isn’t actually a show but rather a virtual youtuber agency; before you tell me that I’m cheating, consider that they did star in the hilarious disaster of a TV anime Virtual-san is Watching, and the fact that I’m the person who’s been allowing guests to embrace chaos in their choices for years. Via what is either excellent scouting or the luckiest blind guessing in the world, Nijisanji managed to gather a bunch of hilarious and surprisingly talented fellows (do you know how many anime industry people have groaned over the last year because they felt they were beaten even in drawing skills by their new virtual entertainers?) who also put a lot of emphasis in creating a space where everyone could feel comfortable regardless of age, gender, preferences, and whatever other circumstances. Save for a few unpleasant slips – unfortunately bound to happen when you gather this many nerds – it’s been a wonderful experience for saps like me who simply enjoy being with people who feel comfortable around each other. Nijisanji is warm being a major motto is no joke.
Even when it comes to sheer appreciation of the art, watching a bunch of fairly young creators toy around with new technology has been a ton of fun. A lot of it is frankly janky, and many of them lack traditional art studies, but even those become positive aspects as you watch these virtual people stumble around untrodden artistic territory; when your leader and somehow industry trend-setter is like this, then you’re encouraged to experiment in the weirdest ways possible, and that they have. Nijisanji has managed to change the image of what a virtual youtuber even is, changed consumption habits for half the anime workforce – half this site’s staff too – and even recently landed major deals in this industry. If that’s not the anime of the year, I don’t know what is.
— にじさんじ公式🌈🕒 (@nijisanji_app) December 31, 2019
Honorable mention: My favorite TV show of 2019 was going to be Stars Align. In the end, it might still be, but I’ll need a long time to ruminate on that. And let me be clear: my hesitation isn’t to be blamed on the series itself, which went way beyond its capabilities to thread together a poignant story about abuse – accounting for the different forms it manifests in depending on socioeconomic situations and support groups, with some exciting sports anime content on the side. Series Director: (監督, kantoku): The person in charge of the entire production, both as a creative decision-maker and final supervisor. They outrank the rest of the staff and ultimately have the last word. Series with different levels of directors do exist however – Chief Director, Assistant Director, Series Episode Director, all sorts of non-standard roles. The hierarchy in those instances is a case by case scenario. Kazuki Akane proved he can write some of the snappiest dialogue in all of anime, while the production team he led didn’t hesitate to follow through with his tremendously ambitious approach, characterizing a large cast through their body language first and foremost.
Unfortunately, they were informed by the production committee that their promised runtime was getting halved a couple of years into the production, just a mere months before the broadcast. The result was having essentially no time to pivot into an elegant endpoint, so as much as they tried to make it work, the series just sort of stops. So my award to the best anime we’ve been robbed from is the rest of Stars Align, while the prize to the most pathetic production committee – a category with way too many contenders – goes to the people who backstabbed this team.
- Best Movie: The Girl From the Other Side
As much as I’d have loved to award the other impossible production of the year in the movie category, it appears that Children of the Sea was dragged into this plane of existence via abuse so bad that it stands out even in anime’s hellscape, so I’ll have to abstain. And honestly, that’s not a choice I regret having to make, since the fondest memories of anime movies in 2019 for me is the wholesome story of The Girl From the Other Side.
I’ll spare you the long rambling for one because I already published a lengthy piece about this short film and its surrounding circumstances; if you’ve got no time for that, allow me to just say that it captures the poetic beauty of the source material, fulfilling the nearly impossible dream of creating an anime where every frame looks like concept art, while very elegantly alluding at the surprisingly important narrative aspect of the manga. And not only that, it was created by a very exciting new regional branch of Studio WIT, meant to train new creators in the Ibaraki prefecture that they have a strong emotional connection with, while producing beautiful shorts like this and children’s animation on the way. A beautiful story to end the year with!
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