The following list only contains series which ended in 2016, thus Sangatsu no Lion and Iron Blooded Orphans are not eligible (split cour series are acceptable). I will only include series that I have finished, so unfortunately Relife, Flip Flappers and Flying Witch could not be considered. Honorable mentions include My Hero Academia, Konosuba and Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash.
5. Snow White with Red Hair Second Season (Winter)
It is a testament to how much of an improvement 2016 was in anime to 2015 that despite offering a much tighter narrative (for the most part) with strong characterisation for a handful of the supporting cast, Snow White ranks one spot lower than it did last year. Much of what made the original work on an aesthetic level is still here; the warm and well defined world, uniquely fantastical colour palette and set pieces rich in both quality and quantity are again on full display, even if character animation is a bit more uneven. However, it was always the series inner beauty, its focus on intimate relationships of all kinds and characters with genuine chemistry with each other, that sold me on it. What ultimately elevated this second half was its well executed themes of self-betterment and loyalty, with one of my favourite female anime leads at the centre of it all, which depicts a path to personal and professional success and redemption as a tough road, but one well worth taking. While the series is by no means one of the darkest of the year, there are implications of some truly unpleasant acts that really help to ground this Disney land kingdom in reality. From Obi’s past criminal offenses which finally catches up with him to Kazuki’s history with pirates, immoral actions have consequences. Raj in particular deserves mention for being one of the biggest and best surprises of 2016 in anime, turning from what seemed like a one-off antagonist to one of Shirayuki’s most loyal and trusting allies. It’s not all perfect, as Zen never really gets the same strong character moments as the supporting cast and the final three episodes may come off as padding to some, but these lighter episodes are not necessarily a bad thing. All of this is performed elegantly in both Japanese and English and with a sublime soundtrack by the underrated Michiru Oshima. Whether this is the end of Shirayuki’s anime escapades or not, I am wholeheartedly satisfied with the story so far.
4. 91 Days (Summer)
Throughout most of 91 Days run, I was questioning whether or not it would make my top list. The initially impressive animation quality and weighty action scenes seemed to melt away as Studio Shuka reaffirmed the belief that they cannot keep a series’ animation quality consistent to save their lives. The violence and gore occasionally felt too overblown and some of the content on display came off as unnecessary shock factor (such as every scene involving the ever tonally inappropriate Fango). Yet despite all this, the core relationship between Angelo and Nero remained consistently compelling from start to finish, regardless of the convoluted circumstances. While I’ve seen revenge stories about the cycle of hatred and bloodshed before, this is certainly the most potent execution I’ve encountered in anime. Nero’s mix of stoicism and roguish charm made him an engaging character to watch in almost any setting, be it a shoot out or conversation. Angelo’ relentless cold, calculated demeanour ran the risk of feeling wooden and flat, but his few smiles and relationship with Nero and childhood friend Corteo, as well as great character moments towards the end, successfully conveyed a man who was tortured though not necessarily irredeemable. While the rest of the supporting cast and production were a mixed bag, they set the scene well with high stakes and sharp angles of acid washed buildings. It was a rocky road from around the middle, but with a thoroughly compelling final episode (that I feel is perhaps the best finale of any TV anime this year) and well articulated thematic core, 91 Days is one of the year’s most memorable entries for me.
3. Re:Zero – Starting life in another world- (Spring & Summer)
This is doubtlessly going to be a controversial pick, probably even more so than 91 Days, but much like my above choice Re:Zero is a series that actually has something to say. It has gone through the phases that most popular anime do; it has an interesting first few episodes, gradually gets a growing following, being subject to much praise and criticism, and finally being met with backlash and a degree of stigma. However, more than the decade’s other big western hits like One Punch Man and even Attack On Titan, Re:Zero spoke to many on a deep level and used the Isekai (other world) setting to tell a resonant, and socially relevant, story. Much of its success comes from protagonist Subaru, an obnoxious, self-centered chuunibyou with few real life friends and nothing to lose upon being transported to a new world. However, this is not a world designed for him, as he quickly discovers that he will struggle to survive and no-one will give him the benefit of the doubt. The world is different, but he is fundamentally not, and this living, breathing world, with its contesting political factions with their own agendas and hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals more important that him leaves him struggling to find his place. Granted, some of the more tropey supporting cast don’t quite gel with the main conflict (most of the antagonists are more obstacles than characters, felix the cat feels out of place and the whale battle felt a bit unnecessary) but they certainly aren’t crushing faults, and with characters like Rem, Julius and Crusch, their presence is forgivable.While it’s not the most flashy production, with awkward CG background characters and character designs that, while pleasant on the eyes, don’t really differentiate themselves from the Light Novel Adaptation pack, there are definite bright spots. The animation quality is above average in the most important scenes, there are plenty of wide shots that show off detailed landscapes, and the various OPs, EDs and insert songs rank high among the best of the year. The flaws are glaring, but I firmly believe that dismissing Re:Zero‘s messages and powerful execution would be a mistake.
2. Lupin III Part IV (Fall 2015 & Winter 2016)
As good as the aforementioned series are, the top 2 easily outpaced the competition. 2011’s The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is great in its own right, but I’d argue that Lupin III Part IV is the definitive modern Lupin series. It roars to life with a fantastic first episode and (one or two average episodes aside) never seems to let up! Its strong style, propped up by killer production values, alone would be enough to make this a must see this year, but almost every minute of Lupin is oozing with energy, humour and heart. After 2011’s Fujiko Mine shook the franchise to its foundations, everything is where it should be. Cantankerous detective Zenigata is always one step behind, throwing his hat on the ground in frustration, while Lupin and Jigen carry out ambitious thefts with the sporadic help of samurai Goemon and the fleeting cooperation of iconic femme fatale Fujiko. This isn’t just an almost pitch perfect modernisation of the series, as fresh blood further reinvigorates the property. Lupin’s new wife Rebecca is rich and clever, but her more entitled attitude and naivety prevent her from overlapping with Fujiko. Perhaps even better is hot-headed family man Justin, whose brilliance would make even James Bond blush with embarrassment. Smart, sleek and sexy, Lupin III Part IV kicks this beloved franchise into high gear with brilliant presentation, stories that are alternately heartbreaking and hilarious and an understanding of what made the characters so iconic in the first place, it is an absolute triumph. In almost any other year it would have taken the top spot, but this laughing mask was just barely outshone by a crying one.
1. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu (Winter)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is a modern masterpiece of animation. Of all the anime that I’ve seen, I can count those that have managed to weave a such a compelling, cohesive narrative with adult themes and powerful audio-visual storytelling on one hand. Ever since I saw the first episode, which tells a strong story in its own right, it was clear to me that Rakugo was something special. However, with its tale of forbidden love and destructive envy, the inter-generational consequences of the plot and even some sharp social commentary, it managed to exceed my already high expectations. Its a strong story told by a master storyteller where every piece is where it needs to be, conflicts have proper buildup and pay-off, and the period piece setting is authentic and atmospheric. Given all the gushing I’ve done about this series, I best leave it here, but I implore audiences put off by the subject matter or josei demographic to try it out. Missing this would be as much a tragedy as the one it depicts.
Overall, 2016 was a great year in anime, providing relaxing slice of life series, powerful dramas, engaging shounen action and hilarious comedy. This will be a difficult year to follow; 2017 has its work cut out.