Last year, we held the first edition of the fullfrontal.moe Anime of the Year Awards. Well… Kind of. We decided last minute to have each member write something about their favorite anime and joke about it being “an award”. Still, the experience was fun, and we decided we would do something more thought out the next year. We tried to have something a bit more organized, brought some friends over to take part in this fun exercise, and tried out some things with the goal of celebrating all of the anime we watched this year.

We had our jury pick out a favorite in each of the four categories, as well as two runner-ups. These choices made up the list of works submitted for the People’s Choice Awards.

The jury this year consisted of:

Members of fullfrontal.moe:

Dimitri Seraki: Co-founder and chief editor at fullfrontal.moe

Matteo Watzky: Editor, reporter, and translator at fullfrontal.moe

Lilo Chiche: Reporter and translator at fullfrontal.moe

LUDO: Reporter at fullfrontal.moe

Emilia Hoarfrost: Writer at fullfrontal.moe

Jamal: Writer at fullfrontal.moe and host of the Get in the Mecha podcast

Buildknuckle: Writer and special reporter at fullfrontal.moe. Also, a space cat?

And some friends:

Stevie Suan: Associate Editor for Mechademia: Second Arc

Claire: Editor and writer at Beneath the Tangles

LKR: Anime YouTuber 

Hisayuki Tabata: Character Designer of Yuyushiki and Fate/Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works

Best Anime of the Year

Dimitri Seraki – fullfrontal.moe co-founder and chief editor

Jujutsu Kaisen Season 2

Since I am the one in charge of editing the whole thing together, I also get the privilege of making my choices last after seeing what everyone has picked and what the public has voted for. Well, my choices were actually already made a few weeks ago, but I was still unsure about which one to pick as my favorite. I was quite surprised to see that Jujutsu Kaisen received far less love than I had anticipated! That didn’t influence my choice, but I am glad I went with this choice in the end because one of the reasons I ended up going with Jujutsu is to recognize all of the efforts that went into it. Yes, every week, we would get new horror stories about the production, about the schedule that was in shambles, and rants from the artists. Jujutsu Kaisen’s production was done by exploiting the pain, efforts, and dreams of its artists. As such, a lot of fans seem to have answered by refusing to praise the show, out of ethical concerns. And although I can understand that caution needs to be applied when celebrating the results of such practices, I can’t let their efforts go to waste. The only thing worse than the conditions they have faced is not to praise the phenomenal work they have done. The ambition that went into it is groundbreaking, and I hope it can set a new precedent in the leeway given to directors and episode directors on high-profile shows. I hope that Jujutsu Kaisen becomes the stepping stone for the many incredible rising stars the show has seen to shine even brighter, with director Shouta Goshozono first in line. The most crazy part is that those ambitions couldn’t even be pushed to the levels wanted. It is only a fraction of what could have been. I definitely want to see all those creative geniuses be able to fully express themselves in the future.

Another reason that led me to choose Jujutsu as best series is that I was considering what Jujutsu episode to choose as best episode, and I was left unable to come to a decision. When the first season was released each week, I was blown away by the episodes. Each time, I thought to myself, “This was incredible; the show has peaked. It can’t get better than that.” week after week, I was proven wrong as episodes would surpass one another. This season impressed me that much more. And once again, I was left in awe week after week, especially with the two Thunderclap episodes. I love the fact that you can feel the love and respect for animation in these episodes. The homages (not plagiarism) not only show their appreciation for what has come before them, it also shows their proficiency and knowledge. Thunderclap 2, in particular, won me over with its many Evangelion references. One that might not have been voluntary is Mahoraga getting bigger and bigger throughout the episode, just like the Eva-01 had inconsistent sizes in the TV series – but it’s precisely if it is not voluntary that it is great, as it blends with all the more obvious references.

 

Runner-ups: Frieren Beyond Journey’s End and Heavenly Delusion

Frieren came very close to being my first pick, but I’ll find other opportunities to talk about it.

Matteo Watzky – fullfrontal.moe editor and reporter

Oshi no Ko

In the year of Heavenly Delusion, Jujutsu Kaisen or Frieren, is Oshi no Ko really the best TV show? Perhaps not. But it is the kind of show that warrants talking about, the kind of thing that is perfectly internally and externally consistent.

I would first like to start with a disclaimer: Oshi no Ko is not an idol anime. It’s not the Perfect Blue of the 2020s, the deconstruction that would expose the lies behind the idol industry and the weird fascination some may have for Love Live or Idolmaster. It couldn’t be a “deconstruction” even if it wanted to because it’s not in the same playground: Oshi no Ko belongs with the other work of the manga’s two creators, Kaguya-sama and Scum’s Wish, but also things like Erased and, more generally, reincarnation stories, romantic comedies, and school dramas. This is, I think, the key to understanding the series and what makes it so great, in my opinion: the way it seamlessly navigates between references, genres, and tones from one arc to another or even within the same arc.

In that sense, Oshi no Ko is, to me, something like Onimai’s complete opposite. Onimai is, of course, about gender transition and identity – except it isn’t. All of the themes and issues raised in the first half are undermined by the second half, where the show becomes simply yet another voyeuristic nichijô-kei series for otaku. In other words, Onimai’s structure belies its message: it’s impossible to become different from what you are. A voyeuristic lolicon series will always be a voyeuristic lolicon series. Oshi no Ko does the opposite, where tonal and genre diversity, while it may get in the way of the plot in itself (all these arcs are fodder; we won’t get the name of the culprit before a while, let’s look at reality), actually strengthens the core theme: it’s all appearances, nothing is real, and especially not identity. It’s impossible to pin down what Oshi no Ko is, and that’s precisely what it’s about.

The “entertainment industry” context is, therefore, essentially there for thematic reasons, but it’s also what makes the series work in another way. Put bluntly, Oshi no Ko is a mainstream, blockbuster series. The first episode might trick you into thinking that it’s about otaku (nobody likes looking down on otaku more than otaku themselves, after all), but it’s not. And it’s this mainstream dimension that brings a sort of sense of reality that you don’t really often see in anime – it’s about young people, social media, influencers, and real life – even if we all know it’s all fake.

And, well, of course, Oshi no Ko is simply well-made. None of what I said would hold without proper writing, direction, and a sense of drama that, while present in the original work, demanded to be properly adapted to another medium. But also, in a time when even the most ambitious series can’t escape, at best, a few awkward layouts or, at worst, complete collapse, seeing something maintain such a level of quality and consistency, which uses its resources just as it should and never misses when it needs to it, is a true pleasure. In other words, Oshi no Ko is not just well-made, it’s well-managed: it knows what buttons it needs to push and always pushes them right.

Runner up: Heavenly Delusion

I wish I had as much to say about Heavenly Delusion as I had about Oshi no Ko, but I guess perfection speaks for itself. And it’s not like I’m talking about it in every other category.

Lilo Chiche – fullfrontal.moe reporter and translator

Jujutsu Kaisen season 2

Among the many blockbuster-type shows in this year’s batch of anime, Jujutsu Kaisen certainly wasn’t the most consistent. It’s probably because, well, its production was seemingly a trainwreck, but besides the perfect 5-episode run of the flashback arc at the beginning, the series was a constant see-saw between the great and the weirdly underwhelming – and apparently didn’t really live up to its ambition.

That being said, what’s left of said ambition is more than enough to put on one of the most thrilling shows to come out of this industry in the past few years. Simply because you never knew what to expect. I remember coming home every Thursday, eagerly waiting to see how Jujutsu Kaisen would manage to surprise me this time. And yeah, sometimes it’d be an unpleasant surprise, like having to sit through a half-episode-long fight against an oversized bug or bad photography ruining the brutal death of an important character. While I’m on the topic, props to the narrator, who managed to barge in practically every episode, detailing stuff nobody needed to know and immediately breaking the immersion. But what’s truly amazing is that, in the end, none of this really mattered in the face of the show’s visual marvels. Be it a subway straight out of Kizumonogatari, a man turned badass by the sheer power of three-tones shading, a whole wild webgen-based episode, or a sudden Yutapon hommage, watching this was like filling the craziest anime bingo card.

That’s why Jujutsu Kaisen is my anime of the year. It’s a flawed but passionate love letter to anime, which is the last thing I expected from a hit-shônen adaptation made at MAPPA, especially after an entertaining but mostly predictable first season and a rather irritable movie. Not only did Goshozono bring his wild touch to this otherwise forgettable series, he didn’t even have to hijack it: as crazy and visually diverse as this season can be, it somehow stays relevant to the narrative and lore of Jujutsu Kaisen. Well, the noticeable improvement in writing also helps. I don’t really care enough about the plot here to ramble about it for some more lines, but yeah, it does get pretty good.

Runner Ups: Scott Pilgrim Takes Off! and Mobile Suit Gundam the Witch from Mercury

Scott Pilgrim Takes Off was great for a lot of reasons. It looked awesome and was certainly a very interesting project production-wise, one that led to yet another civil war in anime tracking websites over whether or not it should be considered anime, which is always a fun sight to behold. Better, its fresh and unexpected take on a story already told three times made it surprisingly relevant as an adaptation. Especially considering the way it misled everybody with a series of trailers seemingly building to a “best of” Scott Pilgrim (which, by the way, it also was) before pulling out that huge twist at the end of episode 1. And yet the actual highlight of the show, its true moment of glory, was when we got to see Will Forte sing a weird off-key version of “Konya wa Hurricane”. I mean, come on. MacGruber singing some Bubblegum Crisis has got to be in the top 10 best crossovers ever… Right?


Anyway, moving on, I have to admit Heavenly Delusion is a serious contender for the title of most compelling drama to come out this year, but I don’t know; I’m not the biggest fan of the show’s photography, and also some other excuse. All I’m saying is overall, I liked G-Witch better. Not because it has robots, although yes, now that I think about it, that’s definitely why, but I guess I’m just glad Gundam’s still doing great 40 years after it started. The 21st century has been a time of self-reflection for the series, and not always to great effect, but I feel like G-Witch really managed to tackle Gundam’s relevance issue with its teen-friendly school setting and overall very modern plot. I mean, there was literally an episode called “Shall We Gundam?”. Couldn’t be more explicit. Although, that was back in season 1, and season 2 didn’t really take this whole meta-commentary any deeper, mainly building up on the established drama to put the story together and wrap everything up. But since that was really well done, too, I see no reason not to use this space for a quick praise of what G-Witch as a whole came to accomplish. Oh, and good job on the 2D mecha animation. The designs deserved that effort, and I hope the good gunpla sales will serve as an incentive to pursue it. Not really sure there’s a link, though… Well, as long as people are still stoked about giant robots, I’m happy.

LUDO – fullfrontal.moe reporter

Pluto

It wouldn’t be an understatement to say Pluto was my most anticipated anime series. I was there when Maruyama Masao and Maki Tarou put the first poster at the MIFA during the 2017 Annecy festival, and Dimitri and I first spread the information about it. I remember the excitement I felt. Well, I wasn’t expecting to wait so long until its release!

Pluto is the perfect homage to Tezuka Osamu, and that’s because Urasawa Naoki is probably the most intelligent mangaka alive and a real fan of the God of anime – Urasawa is also a top-class interviewer in his TV show Manben and an inspiration for me.

Indeed, Pluto is an adaptation of episodes 116 and 117 of Tetsuwan Atom, but also a homage to other episodes (like episode 73) and to other works of the master (such as Hi no Tori). The original Atom story was full of action and super robot fights, but Urasawa mixed it with what he had written on Monster to make it a slow-paced mystery story, the thing he excels in.

Pluto could have been a bummer, but two things make it absolutely masterly: the flowless character design, both ultra-realistic and completely respectful of Tezuka’s, and the brilliant and bold scenario. Urasawa killed even more characters than the original slaughter story… And he rehabilitated the martyr Saddam Hussein!

By frontally addressing contemporary geopolitical issues, Urasawa is pushing further than Tezuka Osamu would have, and I love it. He should adapt Tetsujin 28gou next!

And what about M2’s animation? Like fullfrontal.moe’s friend Noguchi Masatsune told us last April, production has been harsh, but the result is here: it’s absolutely beautiful. We notice immediately that it’s the biggest budget anime series of the year, even if the scenario lacks fights. This has been the best thing on Netflix since Cyberpunk Edgerunners

And Ohira Shin’ya is there, and he’s simply the greatest. A lot of sakuga maniacs were pissed off by Miyata Takahiro for he ruined Ohira’s explosions, but I personally forgive the CGI bald guy because his storms are beautiful and respectful of the originals from 1965.

Well, Pluto is obviously the best series of the year, and choosing more unexpected shows like Heavenly Delusion or Frieren would have been snobbery.

Jamal – Writer at fullfrontal.moe

Tsurune: The Linking Shot

Admittedly, Tsurune: The Linking Shot did not have to do very much to become one of my favorites from this year, considering that I was already quite fond of the season that came before it. Even then, the second season of the series managed to completely surpass my expectations by improving on almost every aspect of the first.  Tsurune’s second TV run feels far broader in its scope by breathing more life into its supporting cast and by utilising a greater range of visual metaphors.  All these improvements fit into a delicate story that addresses the idea of success and a collective desire to be recognized for it, allowing it to transcend its commentary on competitive sport.  This season truly taps into the potential that its predecessor left on the table, making the entire series feel whole.

Runner up: Skip and Loafer

Skip and Loafer was a joy to watch from start to finish.  While I struggled to get into Kotomi Deai’s original series The Rolling Girls from 2015, I strongly admired it as a visual experience; Skip and Loafer is equally as beautiful to look at and is very effective when it comes to harmonizing with its written narrative.  The piece not only explores what it is like to move from one’s life to a new place but also how the people within those environments, as well as the mover, rub off on one another by virtue of coming from different walks of life.  The show’s cast members are presented as soft and malleable through their interactions in addition to the soft color palette that is applied to their designs.  With this in mind, Skip and Loafer’s attitude towards the notion of change is something I think many people can learn a lot from, even if they are much older than most of the anime’s characters.  Deai’s work on this adaptation is warm and empathetic – the evergreen nature of the anime’s core messages will hopefully continue to resonate with people for a long time to come.

Emilia Hoarfrost – Writer at fullfrontal.moe

Oniichan wa Oshimai!

I wish to nominate Oniichan wa Oshimai! for this year’s award, as I sincerely believe it to be an anime that successfully embodies what an anime should strive to be. Though it has rightly stirred the community, the inner quirkiness of the work fully answered my expectations of what an anime classic should aim for — not unlike the hectic, deep, stunning, unapologetically hypersexualized, mind-game riddled masterpiece that No Game No Life was a mere decade ago. There were layers upon layers of complexity, both on artistic and narrative levels, that delighted me week after week, especially on an identity level, as the entire premise dealt with genderqueer representation. Therefore, I invite you all to reconsider Onimai‘s place in anime history in terms of gender depiction, as well as in the subcategory of otaku media, themes I have analyzed more profoundly on my blog.

What strikes the soul most obviously with Onimai has got to be the visual artistic direction. It looks like candy packaging with vibrant pastel colors. But the animation was also interesting, with techniques such as rotoscope being used and bursts of liveliness that greatly conveyed the energy of the narrative, giving it a rhythmic backbone. Another slight addition to Onimai‘s art direction was the use of screen tones in the various backgrounds, rightly echoing its manga source material, as well as playfully filling the viewership’s paradigm with energetic patterns. But the best-animated part has got to be the ending, with an organicity in some cuts that comes from full animation, especially with belated overlapping action by the entire cast during the party skit. 

When it comes to the narrative, I see it as quite problematic as Mihari forced a gender transition upon her brother to reintegrate him into society. But some realities of trans identity are also captured within the show, such as the girlish urge to wear makeup in such a controlling environment as a school or even the pure pleasure that there is in having womanly interactions with other girls. However, the positive depiction of trans femininity may stand directly at odds with the hypersexualization of the cast, though nothing was purer than Mahiro’s cutesy but dense interactions with Miyo. It is also curious to notice how depictions of gender queerness in Japanese animation have historically coincided with sexuality as a topic, starting as far back as Ranma 1/2 in 1989.

Since the main character has been an otaku and hikikomori, I believe that this show targets its audience rather weirdly. As a moe anime that aired late at night, a time slot ordinarily attributed to a more dedicated or adult male audience in the TV anime landscape, it has been suggested by other reviewers that the show’s hypersexualization was a statement in itself. And if the statement is to put oneself through the shoes of a girlish creature of moe fantasy — with agency resulting from a metapolitically significant death of conflict, befitting iyashi-kei as far as grand narratives go —, with such attention given to realities like sorority, friendship and feminine socialization, perhaps it is fanservice that serves a purpose, in its disgusting, sympathetic abundance…

Stevie Suan – Guest, Associate Editor for Mechademia: Second Arc

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury

When considering the question of the “the best of” something, I tend to answer with whatever it is I continually return to: I may find myself thinking about that anime quite often, or talk to others about it frequently, or get inspired to research more about it, maybe even write something on it—a commitment to return again and again to the same work. The following anime from 2023 are those that I found myself returning to in some form the most this year. As time goes on, this may change, but I can assert that these works had their many moments in my mind this past year.

For a TV series, I kept thinking about Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury, the first season finishing in early 2023, and the second season concluding in July. From its mecha designs to the animation, the narrative progression, as well as complex engagement with anime history, it was an excellent series from start to finish.

Although mecha anime have fallen from grace in recent years, the Gundam franchise has continued to go strong. And with giant versions of the robot scattered across Kanto, it seems it is the most visible that it ever was. Although Gundam’s Universal Century (U.C.) can be intimidating for many new viewers precisely due to its long history, Gundam franchises not in the U.C. framework, like G-Witch, often appear more accessible for some. Other mecha anime have not been quite as successful perhaps because the lack of connection to the fame of the Gundam franchise is a double-edged sword: on the one hand it may be easier to get into; but on the other hand, in our heavily media-saturated environment, something that does not have the esteem of a series like Gundam may not be felt worth the time investment.

Another issue is that, without the healthy plastic-model market, it is hard to support an unknown mecha anime series. Gundam can reliably produce more and more series precisely because they can reliably rely on selling the Gunpla plastic-models of the new mecha designs to an already established base of hobbyists.

Indeed, this is one of the strong points of G-Witch, with very well-articulated mecha designs. Unlike recent mecha anime which tend to have quite uninspired mecha designs which deviate too far from the design frameworks of earlier mecha to produce more “realistic” robots, G-Witch dives right into the established styles. But here, they add subtle “twists,” specifically in the “horns” of the robots that themselves become the focus in the narrative. Importantly, despite this being the first Gundam with a female protagonist, instead of stereotypical approaches to approaches to “feminizing” the robot (say, making its coloration pink), the mechanical design unit kept the mobile suit as a standard Gundam format, which seems to merge the patterns from Gundam Reconguista with the Gundam aesthetics of the mid-1990s.

The result are plastic-models that are in-line with prior Gundam models to sell and support the series. Additionally, having physical plastic models of the Gundams helps animators visualize the movements to better articulate them, and that is very visible across the animation in this series. There are some incredible cuts of mecha animation across the series, including an impactful sequence in episode 13 (I believe involving key animation by Yoshiyama Yuu), where the Aerial Gundam bursts forward toward the camera. With wonderful coloring and shading to give it an imposing impression, the sequence hints at the darker, more violent undercurrents that gets highlighted at the end of the episode when pilot Suletta brutally flattens an enemy soldier with the Aerial, then cheerfully exits the robot unphased.

Another interesting aspect was the subtle moments of character animation, where fingers and feet are often focused on to show the characters’ emotions. Suletta’s characteristic gesture of having her fingers spaced out, each fingertip touching the corresponding finger on the opposite hand, then nervously moving her hands together, then apart, while keeping the fingers touching. This was an effective use of building a sense of character in a way that their actions in the narrative could not do alone.

With the central production studio as Sunrise, which has a long on esteemed history producing mecha anime, it is no surprise that the narrative, its themes, and execution were in dialogue with the genre. Interesting to me was how it played with the tropes of post-Eva anime, which itself was playing with the long history of anime. This includes elements such as the open engagement with parental abuse, evincing the psychological damage the burden of piloting a giant war machine has on the characters, “possessed mecha” (like the spirit of Ikari Yui for EVA-01, here as a digitized AI version of Ericht in the Aerial gundam), as well as engagement with the clones of main characters (Suletta, the protagonist itself turning out to be a clone, as Ayanami Rei was in Eva). 

Importantly, some of these themes were already visible in the first Mobile Suit Gundam, but Evangelion expanded on and foregrounded them to the point they were impossible to ignore. G-Witch takes these aspects of Evangelion and then re-interprets them through the history of Gundam once more, providing a refreshing take on the patterns while still keeping them tightly in view. This may be something of a trend, with the recent Pluto anime doing something similar, but this time with a post-Eva engagement with Tetsuwan Atomu: Eva itself was very much from the lineage of Atomu, which is, like G-Witch then put back into the material Eva was itself referencing.

G-Witch thus productively engages with the complex Gundam franchise. Notably, it builds on not just Universal Century tropes but also those of the various other Gundam franchises. It also has an interesting engagement with the “real vs. super robot” topic with the inclusion of AI for Aerial. The Aerial Gundam has the digitized version of Ericht, who Suletta is a clone of. But interestingly, the capacity of Aerial to out-perform other robots is precisely because of this AI/digitized human mind in the robot. It’s in this sense something of a super-robot, but it is also something that presumably could be reproduced and even piloted by others, something hinted at in the series. 

In any case, evincing engagement with the history of the mecha genre, the series is also filled with references to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In this sense, G-Witch felt quite “classical” in many meanings of the word. For instance, the narrative progressive across the 2 seasons felt reminiscent of story patterns popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, hitting all the classic beats from that era (as well as previous ones, specifically of mecha anime): the naïve protagonist stumbling upon the cockpit, the complex romance with a curt but caring (tsundere) classmate, the awkward mixing of military and educational life that settles into a recognizable pattern for each episode (dueling of the mechas), the introduction of new characters mid-way season 1, the broadening of the initial scope of the series to expose the larger conspiracies at play, the downfall of the once strong and prideful character, the slow descent into madness, the expansion of the conflict to a much larger (often global, or in this case, solar system) scale, the redemption of wayward characters, the confrontation with the abusive parent, and a grand spectacle of a conclusion.

All these aspects were competently explored and cleanly enacted across the 2 seasons in a way that felt refreshing in the current anime landscape. Contemporary anime tend toward either a single season or extend across multiple ones, that the patterns get harder to recognize. But here they are in a neatly ordered fashion, progressing in a captivating manner. Furthermore, the anime takes a very clear stance in support of gay marriage, a rare moment in anime when political commentary is so direct. In these ways, from the prologue to the finale, the anime has a very strong narrative structure, engaging pacing, and compassionate explorations of important topics.

That said, in terms of narrative, there is one area I was a bit unsettled by: the centrality of the corporation projects of the high school students to their eventual liberation and solving of many of the world’s issues. This comes to a head in the optimistic tone of the final moments of the series with the students all now CEO’s of various companies—is this the only way we can actually have some sort of agency in the world, through becoming lead managers of massive corporations? This initially left me a bit troubled, as if the conclusion implied that the world can only reach some kind of calmness if each of us became CEOs.

But after thinking about the series for a while, there may be an alternative, more generous interpretation, as it lands on aiming to bring about positive change, more equality and peace through those institutions. As stated above, the series takes great pains to really work through and with the conventions and patterns of the history of mecha anime. But at the same time, it updates them, adjusts them, and enters another substantial variation into that long series of tropes.

In this way, perhaps the optimism of the series can be read as insisting on the capacity to change within the dominant institutions of the era—which in the world-setting of G-Witch, as in ours, is dominated by massively powerful corporations—and that there can be progressive movement toward more constructive modes of living even under and within the restraints of the system we receive, allowing for transformation. This mirrors the approach of the series which engages with so many of the classic tropes of robot anime, wherein through an optimistic and careful engagement with the established structures, positive change is possible. Though I am discomforted with and deeply skeptical of the idea of embracing corporatism as the path to emancipation, I am still encouraged by the optimism of the series and its commitment on multiple levels to working toward the betterment of the world within the context and structures at hand.

Runner-ups: Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End & Afterschool Insomniacs

Another notable series, as runner-up, is Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End. With careful attention to rhythms, music, and atmosphere, the anime produces an exceptionally well-crafted tone. Deftly merging between calming, action-oriented, suspense, and light-hearted slice-of-life, the pacing is extremely well done, in terms of each individual episode as well as the series as a whole. I preferred the initial few episodes before the characters set out on their journey (which were broadcast as a single “movie-like” experience on TV in Japan). But the series maintains its quality beyond that extended introduction.

One area that sticks out in the current climate of anime is the emphasis on layouts in the production that becomes evident by the lush atmosphere found across the series (especially in the earlier episodes of the series). Layouts, as has been reported on, are an extremely important part of the anime production, and until recently, a key part of the training process for less experienced staff.

With the increased costs of anime production, the dwindling labor pool, and increase in orders for anime leading to a breakneck and (even more) abusive pace of production, layouts are not often given the attention they once were. With the increase in computers in the production process, traditional painstaking efforts to organize layouts by animators and background artists are sometimes discarded in favor of the much quicker to produce CGI dominated planning sequences. And as the division of labor has become more complex, often the people executing those sequences and those planning it and correcting it all are in less contact, making the training of animators more difficult.

Hashimoto Taichi, an anime producer and scriptwriter, once explained to me that layouts are crucial for anime production as it is where the narrative meets the animation most directly visible in the final products in the production flow. Layouts could be seen as less about backgrounds and animation alone, and more about environmental and atmospheric production to emphasize moments that provide affective impact.

Not just placing the character on a background, the narrative aspects are integral to the layout of the scene and includes the organization of camera work to further provide a specific weight to the sequence (even if the effect is a lulling calmness). In other words, it is not just adding a character to a detailed set where the characters act out separately from the environment and the cameras just follow their movements. Characters as part of environments, with camerawork that accentuates the moments and produces a rhythm for the scene are integral to the production of an environment and world-setting. This all affects the pacing and tone of the sequence, and cumulatively contributes to the production of the atmosphere of an anime.

As noted before, Frieren has exceptional layouts, which is, in part, a reflection of the major themes of the series. In some senses, the underlying dynamics of layout regarding how characters, background, and pacing operate is evident in the central tension of the anime itself: how an immortal character persists despite environmental change—with characters themselves as part of that environment. 

Throughout their travels they often encounter statues of Frieren’s previous group of adventurers who have now since passed on—a literal merging of the character into the environment. Part of the charm of the series is how Frieren’s long life means that she has centuries of memories of people which she recalls when she revisits different places. All of these highlight how Frieren’s perception of time and pacing are so different from her human companions, causing her to act in the way she does.

These are repeatedly addressed throughout the series, like when Frieren loses a ring in a large forest in episode 14, only to realize the importance of the lost object nearly 80 years after receiving it. This is just one part of the episode, which, like other episodes, are sometimes divided into two distinct but related sections. Each section has its own narrative arc, but each are quite poignant, and even more potent when placed together. That the anime can produce such tight narratives, often in very different locations, is evidence of how skillfully the pacing, backgrounds, and characters work together in each episode as a product of the layouts.

I am tempted to see this all as commentary on the troubling industry shift away from the previously more constructive and training-focused approaches to layouts. Indeed, beyond anime production, the larger industry itself seems to favor viewing characters and backgrounds as separate areas of focus, rather than as brought to life together through careful pacing as emphasized in the work of layouts. For instance, this can be seen in the anime marketing approach where character merchandise and place-based contents tourism (e.g. pilgrimages) are focal points of the media mix, aspects important to the contemporary anime business.

In this sense, the anime may be interpreted as pointing to how a hit can be produced through the productive engagement of characters, environment, and pacing that layout is so crucial for producing. With such a brilliant balance of tone and the series’ popularity, it certainly makes a case for the importance of craftmanship in anime production.

Additionally, the themes of pacing, the flow of time against a landscape which one may think is unchanging is, in fact always shifting, often due to human intervention, carries with it ecological undertones—where we can no longer consider the climate or environment as a stable force, but one riddled with the effects of human activity (global warming, mass pollution, etc.) as theorized by Dipesh Chakrabarty.[1]

Finally, the series does an interesting job of being “game-ic” in a way that aligns with both iyashikei anime but also “comfort gaming.” Instead of engaging with “loop” narratives as Azuma Hiroki[2] has discussed—whereby constantly restarting after death is reminiscent of “restarting” in games, but here narrativized into a story—Frieren provides the virtual experience on going on side-quests for minor rewards while travelling through a beautiful landscape. Something like the appeal of the recent Zelda games or hits like Animal Crossing, Frieren has an expertly crafted tone that hits a pleasing balance of character, background, and pacing to produce a deeply appealing atmosphere. Thanks to the painstaking labor of layout work, the resultant anime leaves a lasting impression that will surely endure into 2024 as the series continues.

 

The Afterschool Insomniacs series initially piqued my interest due to the character design. A somewhat “retro” design style, somewhat reminiscent of the late 80s and early 90s, updated with aspects from Jellyfish Princess (most prominently in the eyebrows and hairstyles of the characters), the general design stuck out in the current anime landscape.

But what really interested me was the costumes, or rather, clothing. Presumably designed by animator Nakagawa Momoko, who has a credit called “clothing designer,” the fashion of the main characters, to my eye, represents an interesting development in the history of anime.

Specifically, the characters, although students with a uniform, often appear in casual, fashionable clothing. I mean fashionable here as in-line with contemporary trends: the sizing and cuts of clothing, the pairing of colors, patterns, as well as mixing of casualness and formality that would not appear out-of-place by fashion-conscious people of roughly the same age in the “real world.”

To me, this is a remarkable shift for anime. In general, if anime clothing is related to the “real world,” it is usually in the context of cosplay. The outlandish clothing of anime characters are painstakingly recreated by the skilled artistry of cosplayers, presented online and at conventions where viewers would recognize the characters from the anime through the costumes worn by the real cosplayers. These fan cultural activities are often labelled as “2.5D,” in that it is somewhere between the 3D “real world” but also intimately tied to the 2D world of anime. 

Yet in Insomniacs the clothing is not really something that would appear to be easily associated with cosplay. One could probably find many similar items already made at major clothing retailers relatively easily. Pairing those in the same way would recreate the look of the character, but the clothing appears so “ordinary” (in the sense that it would not be out-of-place in everyday life in the 3D “real world”) that it would not really stand out as cosplay. It’s simply a fashionable way to wear clothes at this moment.

This, to me, is part of a very recent process where anime has suddenly become something more openly acceptable, maybe even increasingly mainstream. It feels very “post-Covid” in that anime has become much more widely consumed globally, with the markets both inside and outside of Japan having noticeably grown. 

The broader point is to say that anime is not just a media-form that dedicated fans watch, but also something more casually and widely watched and much more approachable than in previous eras, which is evident in the aesthetics of the anime works themselves. In this context, the subcultural appeal that anime supposedly has may no longer just be the vivacious action sequences from (often SF) anime of previous eras—which are certainly still around—but may also be starting to include the charm of trending fashions.

A good example of both is Jujutsu Kaisen, a slick action-oriented anime that has a wide fandom globally, which recently had collaboration with Uniqlo and felt very much in-line with contemporary fashion trends, even placing the promotional materials in relation to the famed fashionable area of Shibuya (itself an important setting within the anime). 

In any case, while I watched Insomniacs, I found myself not just noticing the fashion, but also the clever animation and editing. This stuck out to me most in two specific episodes. 

The first episode is the emotional climax of the series in episode 11, which I think is perhaps the better episode of the two. Building upon the previous episodes, the “will they, won’t they” question of the main characters is answered in a sudden kissing sequence by the ocean, and places a cut of a wave breaking with elegant linework suggestive of a romantic embrace at the climactic moment of the kiss. It is a great example of clever editing and animation utilized to heighten the dramatic moment.

The second episode (the runner up), which directly follows (episode 12), is not quite as solid in terms of its narrative structure. However, I wanted to note it because of a very short sequence in the middle of the episode, where the two main characters are lounging around relatively silently, supposedly working/doing homework while trapped indoors by heavy rains. Not much happens here, and in fact, there is very little physical movement shown. But the poses of the characters and the difference of their actions—Nakami relatively calmly working by the computer in one position, Magari getting easily distracted by other activities instead of doing her work, shifting positions constantly—explores the distinction of their characters. Interspersing sequences of the rain on flowers, with two snails moving slowly over the leaf toward one another, the sequence ends with Magari gazing affectionately at Nakami through the conventionalized expression of glimmering eyes.

Once more presenting how solid editing and expressive animation, even with relatively little physical movement, can be quite impactful, both episodes have stand out sequences that evince how well anime’s stylized modes of expression can be utilized. In this sense, both sequences in both episodes provide great examples of what anime is capable of through its particular modes of character design/costuming, animation, editing, and narrative conventions in 2023.

[1] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 197–222, https://doi.org/10.1086/596640.

[2] Hiroki Azuma (東浩紀), Gemuteki riarizumu no tanjō: dōbutsukasuru posutomodan 2 (ゲーム的リアリズムの誕生~動物化するポストモダン2-The Birth of Game-like Realism: Postmodern Animalization 2) (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2007).

Claire – Guest, editor and writer at Beneath the Tangles

Heavenly Delusion

Everything about this series is stunning. From the series composition, which does full justice to mangaka Masakazu Ishiguro’s layered plotting and characterization while adapting the pacing perfectly into 23-minute chunks, to the layouts and direction that intensify the intimacy of the story while injecting it with even greater dynamism, to the artistry on display in the lush backgrounds, gorgeous color design and lighting, and heart-pounding action sequences—I have nothing to critique. In fact, I could easily have nominated the OP, as well as episodes 6, 8, 12, and 13, for Best of 2023. This series is an absolute treat for the eye—and for the mind as well! The blend of genres is so inventive, weaving together seamlessly the grand existential questioning of the post-apocalyptic genre with the charm and hilarity of the buddy road trip, the thrills of the monster movie, and the intrigue of the mystery. But Heavenly Delusion is so much more than the sum of these stellar technical, artistic, and generic parts: it has heart—so very much of it—and this heart is Kiruko and Maru. These two stay with you—not necessarily because they are easily relatable or majestically inspiring, but rather for themselves, for their own sakes. It is the concatenation of quiet moments, shared laughter, and raw honesty that punctuate their growing relationship, and so enrich the tapestry of this tale, and make these two so very compelling. Amid all the chaos, destruction, exploitation, and betrayal of a broken world, Kiruko and Maru remain kind in unexpected and understated ways. There is nothing flashy or overpowered about them, yet they linger in your heart for the hope they carry. Heavenly Delusion boasts beautiful animation, fascinating world-building, intelligent social commentary, and mind-bending twists galore, yet it is fundamentally a character-driven work, and this is what sets it apart.

LKR – Guest, YouTuber

Heavenly Delusion

Heavenly Delusion is by far the work that made the biggest impression on me this year. At the staff’s announcement, we were presented with a Production IG project that surprisingly offered Mori Hirotaka, an episode director and storyboarder who has alternated between IG and A-1 productions for over a decade, his first try as a series director. At first glance, I wasn’t expecting anything from it, even though big names were present in its core staff, such as Kensuke Ushio for the music, Yuji Kaneko and his team from Aoshashin for backgrounds, and compositing by Kentaro Waki. The synopsis itself was very interesting, so it was obvious that I was going to start watching the first episode as soon as it aired.

Episode 1 was just brilliant, directed and storyboarded by the series’ director, and immediately put us in the mood, with an incredible cliffhanger that differs from the manga and meticulous animation with a lot of attention paid to the characters’ acting. The young animator, Shuto Enomoto, is, for me, one of the MVPs of this production. He succeeds in making the acting sequences just incredible… immediately showing the personality of each character. Episode 1 also featured the participation of Tetsuya Takeuchi in the storyboarding of the action sequences, accompanied by his disciple Ryo Araki, who always manages to impress with the expressiveness and near-realism of his characters’ movements when he animates them. Kazuya Nomura’s episode 3 left a lasting impression on me, and I consider it one of the best in the series. In addition to meticulous storyboarding and direction, keeping Ushio’s music in mind, the episode is full of good ideas and once again allows Shuto Enomoto to show off all his talent, with the added presence of Hiroyuki Yamashita as animator.

I’m not going to list the staff of every episode, but the whole series held a common thread that surprised us every week. Seeing names like Itsuki Tsuchigami, Weilin Zhang, HiroYama, TNK, Haruka Fujita, Kai Ikarashi, etc., is a real pleasure. Seeing so much talent concentrated in a single production always feels great.

Runner-ups: Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End and Tsurune: The Linking Shot

Surprising as it may seem, I’m choosing Frieren only as a runner-up. An equally incredible series, but with completely different stakes. The atmosphere created in Frieren‘s anime is just breathtaking. Seeing Keiichiro Saito at the helm, accompanied by renowned Madhouse animation producer Yuuichi Fukushi, gave us hope for a perfect production. While we’re delighted by its quality, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the working conditions are perfect either, but that’s another discussion. Frieren is the chill anime par excellence, Evan Call’s OSTs are splendid, and Reiko Nagasawa’s designs are so pleasing to the eye. The whole, compositing, background, and so on… gives us the perfect mix to make it the perfect series to watch under a warm blanket.

My second runner-up had to be a Kyoto Animation series. Like a lot of people, I love the personality that emanates from this studio, and when I finished the first season of Tsurune, even though I wasn’t expecting anything at first, all I wanted was to see the sequel. So, the sequel was released at the beginning of 2023, and as director, we continued with Takuya Yamamura, but this time, he wouldn’t be supported by the late Yasuhiro Takemoto. Right from the trailers, the change was radical, and Yamamura’s experience had increased tenfold. A series whose synopsis doesn’t necessarily sound very appealing but which, in reality, conceals an extremely cool series with rather endearing characters. This new season also saw a change on the music front. Formerly Harumi Fuuki, she hands over the role to the great Masaru Yokoyama, who adds a huge plus to the series and makes a simple archery show intense and entertaining. Although he wanted to storyboard everything, series director Takuya Yamamura was unable to complete his last episode due to other commitments. Nevertheless, he finished the series with more than eight episodes storyboarded and was present on every front. Tsurune season 2 is also the series with the most promotions to key animators within a Kyoani series.

Hisayuki Tabata – Guest, Character Designer of Yuyushiki and Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works

Heavenly Delusion

I am originally a fan of Masazaku Ishiguro. I saw IG’s potential in the anime.

Buildknuckle – Writer at fullfrontal.moe, special reporter, space cat

Secrets of the Motorway

You’re probably thinking, “Mr. Buildknuckle, I’ve never heard of this anime. Are you sure it’s real?”. It is real. It’s a series on YouTube, heck it’s not even an anime. It’s not even animated! It’s a guy who says hello to us every Sunday, wonders if we’ve had a good week, and then gets on to explaining one of the many motorways in Britain.

The British motorway network is something that until now has only been explained on very niche websites, unlike more glamorous and more beloved transportation institutions like the London Underground (that have featured on multiple occasions in anime). So it’s good that finally, someone set out to explain all the silly things and little things to look out for when you’re traveling. This could include some silly art installation, quarries, bridges, and railway lines that you’d otherwise not notice when you’re going at 70 mph.

There’s also the topics of how these motorways were designed and built, where plans inevitably cut back due to unforeseen circumstances. Which to be honest, happens a heck of a lot throughout the series. Britain is full of transportation bodge-jobs, and the motorway network may just be the king of them.

So if you want to see bridges that connect to nothing over the M6 Toll, find out about how a fighter jet landed on the M55, see that one Angel from Evangelion next to the M60, or know about the legend of the “Cumberland Gap”, then there’s no better series to watch than Secrets of the Motorway. I can’t wait till he gets to the most infamous motorway in the country (seemingly next year) with the M25.

Runner Up

Hirogaru Sky Precure

This was the series you’d expect for me to pick as the winner, yet it’s not. Though, to be fair, this is an anime, so you can kinda say this is also the winner?

Hirogaru Sky Precure is the 20th anniversary season of Precure. Now let me be clear, the actual 20th anniversary of the show is actually until the 1st February 2024. Toei Animation wanted to celebrate it a year earlier, probably because nobody really cared about Ashita no Nadja’s 20th anniversary this year (apart from me and a couple of other people).

This season had a lot riding on it, with Cure Wing – we’ll get back to that later – as well as Cure Butterfly, who is the first Precure who is legally able to drive a car. Precure fans, being Precure fans, also claim that Cure Sky, the lead character, being blue is something people should really care about so I’ll mention that as well.

The series is all about the fact that anyone can be a hero no matter who they are, that you should never give up on what you want to achieve, and that babies can suddenly age up 15 years and then smash some old evil bald guy in the face. There’s also a random episode that advertises a budget airline, and it was good! What other shows this year did something like that?

The series isn’t over yet, but it promises to be a perfectly good iteration of the show in spite of the much tighter production schedule and many of Precure’s aces being on this year’s film instead. 

Best Continuing Series – EastEnders

I don’t even watch this show, but it’s the best continuing series. The OP is legendary.

Best Anime Feature Film of the Year

Dimitri Seraki

Gridman Universe

Of course, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron won me over and quickly became my favorite Hayao Miyazaki Ghibli movie, but it’s precisely because it’s such an obvious pick, one that is nearly in a league of its own that I have not chosen it as my favorite movie. But it’s also because, for all its technical prowess, it’s not the movie that moved me most this year.

Gridman Universe is a rollercoaster ride. What a pleasure to meet all those characters that have grown on me these past few years. Beautifully arranged, the movie boasts incredible visuals, with Kai Ikarashi’s part particularly standing out. The film got me too heavily invested for me not to choose it as my favorite of the year.

Matteo Watzky

The Concierge of Hokkyoku Department Store

The obvious choice here would be The Boy and the Heron. And it is, quite naturally, my favorite anime film of 2023 – I have, after all, spent half the year obsessing about it. But precisely for that reason, I’d rather talk about something else. And that something else is Yoshimi Itazu’s The Concierge, which does happen to borrow some of The Boy and the Heron’s staff and seems to feature a certain bird in the background at some point.

To put it briefly, The Concierge feels like a European film – just like the original manga doesn’t quite look like run-of-the-mill manga. But I don’t just mean that it looks “different”. By that, I rather mean it possesses a certain design philosophy, where everything seems to be dictated by and revolving around character designs and art direction. Seeing such a philosophy practiced in Japan, with some of the country’s best character animators on it, is pure bliss. Never flashy, the animation is always adequate – each animal has its own design, character, and movement, and looking at this variety is never boring.

Add, on top of that, a simple but effective story which, while it might be weird in moments, is just about sharing a sense of childlike wonder. I’m quite glad that The Concierge came out here in France in the winter season because it might be the perfect Christmas movie. Which might also be confessing that recency bias is playing in my selection…

Lilo Chiche

The Boy and the Heron

Now, I don’t have a lot to say about this one. The Boy and the Heron isn’t Miyazaki’s best movie. You could even say it was a bit indecisive. Cryptic at times. Overall really good, but kind of an acquired taste. Dig a bit into it, and you’ll find some really interesting stuff. From production history to the many more-or-less hidden references in the movie, all the way to Ghibli’s surprising communication strategy, there are indeed a lot of things to uncover. So come find out in fullfrontal.moe’s interviews of Toshiyuki Inoue, Akihiko Yamashita, and Takeshi Honda! Bam! It was all advertising from the beginning! I’m a genius!

Runner-up: The Concierge of Hokkyoku Department Store

While Miyazaki doesn’t really need any more coverage than he already gets, The Concierge of Hokkyoku Department Store, on the other hand, is really worth talking about. Adapting indie manga frontman Tsuchika Nishimura is pretty bold on its own, but Yoshimi Itazu is no stranger to this sort of challenge, having already handled Machiko Kyô’s work on his Pigtails short, to great effect. And once again, he perfectly translates the original manga’s peculiar universe into animation. From chara-design to background art, everything feels consistent and, more importantly, vibrant. Not to spoil anything, the plot succeeds in both drama and comedy, well-served by an all-star animation staff. Which… somehow brings us back to Miyazaki since Itazu was a key animator on The Boy and the Heron and seemingly brought some of his colleagues over to The Concierge. Well played!


Oh, and I haven’t been able to watch the Gridman Universe movie yet, but it sounds awesome, so… potential runner-up? Maybe? Anyway, just using this space to tell anyone who still hasn’t watched Gridman to stop reading immediately and go watch Gridman!

LUDO

Kitarou Tanjou: Gegege no Nazo

Well, this year, a lot of movies I was expecting ended up disappointing me. But only one managed to surprise me positively.

Following the 2008 series, or more accurately preceding it, Kitarou Tanjou pretends to be the closest to the first manga of Kitarou, then called Hakaba Kitarou, as the kamishibai plays. The movie is older, set in the fifties, darker, and more violent than the other anime adaptations. And that’s precisely why I liked it. What a pleasure to see people drinking alcohol and smoking! We don’t see that anymore in Hollywood, even in period dramas.

We follow a two-handed Mizuki Shigeru (neat!) and a still-human Medama Oyaji in a spooky village under the shadows of a Kuromaku and his family.

Yoshino Hiroyuki (Oukouichi Ichiro’s junior), made a great scenario, fulfilling Gegege no Kitarou enthousiasts and post-war years nostalgics. The realistic but simple designs of the young Yatabe Touko from Studio Khara emphasize the great animation. The fights and massacre scenes are numerous and beautiful. Everything has been aligned for a perfect Gegege movie. The Lovecraftian aspect of Mizuki’s work has never been so obvious in an anime adaptation.

Claire

Suzume

Makoto Shinkai’s Suzume is not what it seems. It is not another teen romance with supernatural themes, centering on a natural disaster, or even a problematic teen romance with supernatural themes, centering on a natural disaster. Nor is it another visually captivating extravaganza celebrating the natural world through hyper-real background art so true to the original that I actually stopped dead in my tracks on a bridge in Tokyo a few weeks ago, overcome with the urge to jump the barrier and run across traffic to the other side and gaze down at an old train tunnel, reenacting a pivotal scene on instinct…nope. Ok, so it kind of is these things, but that is just the surface of the matter—the skin of the film, if you will. But what lies beneath is what makes this work so profound, and by this, I mean the allegorical nature of the film. Suzume is alive with metaphors, all of them swirling around a girl who lost her agency to a tsunami a decade earlier. From the impish Daijin, who embodies Suzume’s neglected child self; to the worm, which speaks not only of her unresolved grief, but also of her lack of agency (it is no coincidence the worm is a raw, depersonified force of discontent and pain); to the chair, bruised and battered, that carries both Suzume’s guilt and her blossoming hope—these three threads weave together as a young woman comes of age and learns that difficult, destructive emotions are not to be denied or buried, nor even faced down, but rather placed in context, embraced alongside the joy, contentment, and hope for the future that life also entails. This is the key not just to closing the fantastical doors of the film, but also to Suzume’s own search for closure on childhood loss and trauma. Of all the anime I consumed this year, Suzume is the work that I find myself reflecting on most often, as I hear its gentle invitation to close the old doors in my own life, and look ahead with anticipation to what comes next.

LKR

The Concierge of Hokkyoku Department Store

Yes… I’m one of those people who enjoyed this film instead of The Boy and the Heron. In reality, the plot is pretty basic, but it works extremely well on me. Yoshimi Itazu’s film benefited from Chiyo Morita’s designs – in fact, I didn’t know her before this film – and yet the result is just incredible. The animals all have very different styles, and their appeal is immediately apparent, a sign of an excellent character designer. The animation is as meticulous as ever, with some of the same names who worked on Miyazaki’s movie. If you’re lucky enough to be able to go and see this film, go ahead and curl up under your blanket with a cup of hot chocolate and enjoy it!

Buildknuckle

The Boy and the Heron

You might not know this, even if you have been an anime fan for ages but there’s this guy who everyone thinks is the best anime director…ever. He got his start in anime when one day, he went to the cinema to watch an anime film with some snake lady. That snake lady changed his life forever, because he ended up marrying one of the staff on the film and that he ended up working in anime himself. That man…is Hayao Miyazaki.

I had the pleasure of watching The Boy and the Heron at the London Film Festival in October, while my fellow countrymen in the UK had to wait for Boxing Day. I think the distributor for the film decided to release it on Boxing Day for a very good reason, not just because it’s a popular shopping day here but because Hayao Miyazaki hates birds, and he wants the British People™ to hate them as well, preferably by boxing them.

The Boy and The Heron is a very personal film to Hayao Miyazaki in that he comes face to face with his greatest enemy. As a massive airplane fanatic (especially ones powered by propellers) he knows all too well about the menace caused by birds. His characterisation of all the birds in the film are that they are selfish, violent and disgusting creatures that are only out to torment humanity.

As for my trip watching The Boy and the Heron, I had a lovely day out with my brother! We had a nice burg just opposite the cinema and then after doing a little bit of early Christmas shopping, we had a nice curry rice at CoCo Ichibanya (as you do when you’re in London) before retiring home to not watch anime. Miyazaki would be proud!

Runner up – Blue Giant and Nimona

Watched this one while I was up at Glasgow for Scotland Loves Anime 2023. Did you know that Scotland is the only country in the UK that loves anime? The Welsh probably love it too, but All The Anime are too busy being Scottish to acknowledge them. Anyway, after receiving a lecture by Mr. Clementine at point blank, we were treated to a really nice film about a bunch of folks making a jazz band. I was compelled to support them as they toiled against the odds to not look like huge jazz arses when performing their jazz in the jazz capital of Jazz. I will say that they jazzed all over the jazz room, and everyone was jazzing in approval. Shame about the CG; it didn’t look jazzy at all.

Now I’ve checked it out with Fufuro-chan, I can actually mention Nimona here! Nimona is an absolutely spectacular film that almost never got released due to the murderous rage of Michael Mouse. Thankfully, the film did get released, and I am very thankful to have gotten to see it.

Nimona is a film that has tons of charm and fun, and it would be a shame if I didn’t mention it. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen all year, and I just have to mention it here.

Best Anime Episode of the Year

Dimitri Seraki

The Apothecary’s Diaries #04

China is certainly one of the most interesting figures of the past ten years; not only is he a very talented animator, amongst the most interesting of the newer generations, but his recent ventures as an episode director are where he truly shines. His Yama no Susume and Heike episodes already allowed us to catch a glimpse of his abilities, but with the fourth episode of The Apothecay’s Diaries, China has proven that he is bound to become one of tomorrow’s great directors. The care put into the episode, the quality of the layouts, the pacing of the episode, and even the beauty and simplicity of the lines make the episode particularly stand out, in my opinion. I have ended up taking quite a liking to the show overall as it has great dramatization, and although the show has some beautiful moments and is solid overall, China’s episode standing out so much ends up being jarring. In the end, I am just as impressed by the quality of the episode as by the potential of what a series directed by China would be like.

 

Runner-ups: Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End #09, Zom100: Bucket List of the Dead #05

Matteo Watzky

Heavenly Delusion #10

Doing a “best anime of the year” award without mentioning Kai Ikarashi would feel wrong. 2023 has been poorer in Ikarashi’s blessings than 2022, but his work on Gridman Universe and particularly Heavenly Delusion (as well as some of his soul crossing over to Jujutsu Kaisen) amply makes up for it.

Besides Ikarashi, though, what makes this episode so strong in the first place is how it sums up all of Heavenly Delusion’s qualities. This is just a side quest, the conclusion of what may feel like a secondary mini-arc, and yet it manages to be both fun, scary, dramatic, and intense. It perfectly navigates between tones and scenes, never missing a beat or losing the viewer. Rather than a pure showcase of skill or expression, as some of Ikarashi’s work might feel like, it is a tightly-controlled piece built towards specific moments.

This is a characteristic of the series as a whole, but on this episode in particular, it should be attributed to a specific and somewhat unexpected duo – Ikarashi on direction and storyboarding, and Tetsuya Takeuchi on animation direction. Ikarashi’s previous episodes have always showcased both range and focus, but it feels like, here, Takeuchi controlled Ikarashi’s wildest impulses, to great success. The animation feels both liberated and justified; the design variations, going from cartoony to realistic with some big Katsuhiro Otomo references in the mix, are both some of the best the show has to offer while always feeling new. 

Runner-ups: Bang Dream – It’s My Go!!!!! #03

I’m not a fan of 3DCG, and I never have been. And certainly, if you’re expecting high-quality Japanese CG, It’s My Go!!!!! might not meet the standard. But there’s something about it and what it means to be a “3DCG anime”. If I had to put it into words, it would be: “It’s My Go!!!! is pure flex, and it never stops”. Episode 3 is a perfect example of that.

On paper, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to shoot something entirely from a first-person perspective. It’s just a gimmick, gets tired pretty quickly, and even thematic relevance doesn’t really make it all the more interesting. It’s My Go!!!!! does make it relevant – the show as a whole, and this episode in particular, is all about perspective and subjectivity – but that’s not the point. The point is that they could do it, and so they did. That’s what this show’s flex is about. It seems like it’s constantly addressing 2D anime and provoking it: “Hey, you like good layouts? camera movement? unexpected direction gimmicks? Well, we can do it, and better than you”. Not only is this something I respect and appreciate, but it also makes It’s My Go!!!!! a constant joy to watch.

Jujutsu Kaisen #05

There surely will be a before and an after Jujutsu Kaisen season 2, for both the good and the bad reasons. Its creative ambition and capacity to realize them despite all odds has something epoch-making, and a reasonable number of its episodes could figure in this list. What strikes me about the show is its seeming awareness of its status as “history in the making”, as it references some of the most important animated works of the past few years – there’s the Cyberpunk/Kizumonogatari episode, the Birdy episode, the Evangelion/Gurren Lagann episode… and the Patlabor 2 episode, as I like to call episode 5.

It’s not that, like the other example, episode 5 contains any deliberate references to Patlabor 2 that I could see (if anything, it feels like some moments are taken from Hathaway’s Flash). But, as someone interested for a long time in the evolution of realism in Japanese animation, it made me wonder: are we still in Patlabor 2’s era? In its approach to layouts, this episode is a good example of what has remained and what has changed in 30 years: a profoundly cinematic approach, which often imitates camera lenses and insists on perspective, but only to exaggerate it all. Fisheye, three-point perspectives, an extreme amount of negative space… The very possibility of it all descends from Patlabor 2’s cinematic philosophy but starkly diverges from it in its effects. The same could be said of its approach to designs and animation, which could roughly be described as “realistic” insofar as it focuses on volume and shadows. And yet, there’s something I can’t completely grasp about modern realism, which I haven’t been able to grasp since becoming familiar with Keisuke Kobayashi’s work – a sort of simplicity and minimalism, setting aside all unnecessary details and yet the creation of something incredibly dense and vivid. There’s a mystery to it that I can’t quite figure out, and this episode of Jujustu Kaisen has made me feel it again in all its eerie wonder.

There is, however, one thing that Jujutsu Kaisen season 2 episode 5 and Patlabor 2 have in common. It is the function of realism: conjuring a sense of unease, distance, and ultimately dread. This episode is about the fall into madness; but not the kind of madness that loses touch with reality, the kind that would necessitate an expressionistic, violent representation. It is the one that occurs by encountering reality, by seeing for what it is – or for what it seems to be to the madman, a cold, detached, indifferent world. This episode, then, is not just realistic – it is hyperreal, too real, and deranging precisely because of that.

Most of the works I’ve chosen in those awards – from Oshi no Ko to Heavenly Delusion to this episode – would fall in the same category: hyper-controlled work where everything works to serve one purpose. This is not, obviously, the only thing animation has to offer. Jujutsu Kaisen itself, perhaps paradoxically using its collapse as a springboard, has shown what it is to get wild. But I feel it is the way Japanese animation is increasingly going, and while getting just that would be tragic, it is good to be reminded of the power that a consistent, all-encompassing vision can have.

Lilo Chiche

Jujutsu Kaisen Season 2 #13

I was simply blown away. I mean, this season of Jujutsu Kaisen had already been great up until there, with some arguable contenders to the title of “best episode of the year”, but the Chôsô/Yûji fight of episode 13, “Red Scale”, was somehow on a whole other level. It was like all the undercurrent Monogatari influence of the series (very strong all throughout season 2) surfaced in one big burst of road sign symbolism and cinematographic photography. Regarding the latter, this episode proves especially creative, using blue and red diegetic lighting as a way to both characterize the two protagonists and place them in the space of the bathroom (yes) where the second half of the fight takes place. In the same vein, many great one-time ideas feel worth mentioning, such as the displaying of Chôsô’s powers on the subway’s electric signboards or the “false memory” at the end that plays on video format and compositing effects to get its “old family video” look.

But for all this talk about cinematography, the cut that stands out the most to me in this episode is also one of its “flattest”. That is, the sideways view (around 9:40) of Yûji getting circled in Chôsô’s blood ray, with the background inside the circle seemingly collapsing in on itself. An almost otherworldly sight, very “2D” at its core, that acts as a brief instant of suspension before the next two cuts transition back into the action with a reenactment of the same move, first in a three-quarter view, then in a chaotic first-person view from Yûji’s perspective. Overall, a truly breathtaking scene.

Runners-up: Heavenly Delusion #10 and Jujutsu Kaisen Season 2 #16

Kai Ikarashi’s “The Walled Town” was without a doubt the highlight of Heavenly Delusion, and if I was being completely honest, it might’ve ended up as my first choice for best episode of the year, for the simple reason that it has what Jujutsu Kaisen has been lacking on most of its run: compelling drama. And it’s not only a matter of overall storyline and tone. The fact is, Ikarashi excels at his tweaked Imaishi style, where the expressive cartoony visuals serve not only crazy action but also intense emotion. In this specific case, Takeuchi’s animation direction also proves quite helpful. But the thing is, there’d be no point in me rambling about this for several paragraphs because Matteo’s already doing that, so I’ll move on.


Now, I could try to be at least a little original and talk about Scott Pilgrim’s excellent episode 3, but actually, Jamal’s on it, so you know what? Let’s get back to Jujutsu Kaisen for what is probably the most discussed episode of the whole series: episode 16, “Thunderclap”. Itsuki Tsuchigami pulled off something big there, both as a director and as an animator. Watching this whole webgen-core craziness unfold was truly thrilling and, with all due respect to Nakaya Onsen’s amazing fighting rabbits in the episode’s first half, a perfect fit for the second half’s Sukuna/Jôgo duel. From Tsuchigami’s own effect animation to Sô Miyazaki’s mesmerizing 2 minutes-long scene, there was no better way to represent the overwhelming power of these two opponents than the free-form style that was once the appanage of the likes of Shingo Yamashita. Speaking of, don’t let that big fat Birdy reference in the middle of Miyazaki’s scene fool you: Jujutsu Kaisen only looks to anime’s past as a way to figure out its future. Case in point, this very cut (the Birdy one) is preceded by a really cool kind of screamer, with a distorted and creepy Sukuna face appearing for a single frame, part tome-e part impact frame.
Although when it comes to making animation history, Jujutsu Kaisen’s best shot would be the following episode 17 “Thunderclap 2” — also co-directed by Tsuchigami, that man’s on fire — and its breathtaking cut of Yûji’s devastated face, both calling back to and trying to improve on the remarked last cut of Kai Ikarashi’s Cyberpunk Edgerunners episode 6 last year. Yet another proof that Ikarashi is leaving his mark in anime’s landscape. 

And while episode 13 might be a personal favorite, this couple of episodes right here best sums up what this season of Jujutsu Kaisen has been: a thunderclap.

LUDO

One Piece #1074

Toei did tremendous harm to Japanese filmmaking. Indeed, by introducing the double feature in cinemas, it downgraded budgets and quality. Moreover, during the Japanese studios’ war in the ’60s, Toei was clearly the villain, shamelessly using their strong ties with the mafia to threaten rivals, movie theaters, and artists alike.

As for me, Toei Douga was equally a disgrace to Japanese animation. Starting with the production of tasteless motion pictures without originality and with sanitized scenarios, they followed the lead of Tezuka to go on television but did it awfully wrong. Despite being the yakuza-money-laundering-wealthiest studio, they produced decades of anime of low quality, no imagination, and no artistic claim. They even robbed famous mangakas like Shoutarou Ishinomori and Go Nagai of their royalties!

One Piece was a perfect example of this ineptitude: how could the best-selling manga of all time be so poorly adapted for more than 800 episodes?!

But then, something happened. Eiichirou Oda had maybe something to do with it, for he got jealous of the big hit of Demon Slayer in theaters and shook up the studio. But even before that, series like Tiger Mask W and the new Dragon Quest Dai no Daibouken were much above Toei’s standards.

Anyway, a revolution occurred, and Toei Animation made the most awesome episodes this year, surpassing in quality the biggest feature films!

The golden combination of a bunch of crazy young animators from all over the world (like Vincent Chansard) and the dedication of veteran animation directors (like Keiichi Ichikawa) gave birth to these masterpieces. And if these two factions don’t always get along very well, the result is awesome.

That’s why I especially wanted to praise today’s Toei Animation. I could have chosen episodes 1071, 1072 (with Shin’ya Ohira, my favorite living animator), 1075… But instead, I chose the penultimate episode of the final fight between Luffy and Kaido, the most culminating moment!

Jamal

Tsurune: The Linking Shot #12

The fact that this episode provoked me to cover my eyes in its final stages should say enough about how it was able to grip my emotions in a way that no other episode from this year could.  The twelfth episode of Tsurune’s second season serves as the conclusion to the past twenty-five episodes that have led up to it, which makes it a tense yet reflective experience.  In terms of the former, the sections dedicated to isolating the diegetic sounds of the competitor’s bows or the ambient hum of the sports hall places one into the shoes of the on-screen spectators, heightening its unpredictable energy.  However, what makes this episode even more powerful is the way in which it constantly sets the scene for the match in play, making one more aware of what is at stake.  For example, Takuya Yamamura’s use of jump cuts to showcase Minato’s steady progression as a sportsperson clearly illustrates the amount of time and energy he has sacrificed to reach where he is now, despite the obstacles that faced during that journey.  Furthermore, they speak to the underlying idea of ‘The Linking Shot’, which suggests that the martial art connects one back to oneself in addition to other people (as shown in the previous parts of the season).  All the little touches that were added to an already monumental moment in the series make it an incredibly rewarding narrative climax.  Overall, the twelfth episode has the very best aspects of Tsurune at its core, from its deeply personal take on the sports genre to its immersive sound design.

Runner-Up – Scott Pilgrim Takes Off #03

I have been singing mokochan’s praises for just over two years since their directorial debut on Heike Monogatari – Scott Pilgrim Takes Off #03 only makes me want to keep doing so.  The episode’s cinematic action sequence contains some of my favourite fight choreography from this year.  In this instance, the 21:9 aspect ratio is used to manipulate the perceived scale of the battle, making less spacious environments feel more compressed in comparison to if there was no letterbox present on a 16:9 display. Equally, the ‘reduced’ vertical height of the image shifts one’s attention to its wideness, which is also capitalised on with the use of extreme wide shots to reiterate how ridiculous yet serious the situation is.  This all contributes wonderfully to the mismatched relationship that is at the core of ‘Ramona Rents A Video’ where one partner views their past romance as a large-scale event that altered the course of their life while the other treated it like a temporary, fictional fling.  This sequence and episode as a whole showcases mokochan and co’s dedication to continually pushing the envelope in terms of cinematography, which makes me very excited for their future work.

Claire

The final quarter of Oshi no Ko Episode 1

For better or worse, 2023 was the year of feature-length premiere episodes—often for the worse or at least to no real purpose in terms of the pacing of the season. One exception to this was Oshi no Ko’s premiere, which was the best thing about the highly anticipated series, particularly the final twenty-plus minutes, which under normal circumstances would equate to episode 4. It is this fourth and final act of the premiere that gets my vote as the best episode of anime this year. Yes, it is the climax of the opening arc, focusing on, by far, the most engaging character in the series, Ai. But there’s more to it than simply the build of melodrama and the emotional payoff that comes with it. This stretch of the episode simply sparkles—in a manner that outdoes Ai’s own glittery, starry eyes tenfold. The third act already sees the animation jump up a level, with functional layouts becoming more imaginative and the color design richer (particularly for the outdoor scenes). But this fourth act is downright cinematic, with some incredible shots, powerfully moody lighting, and a level of attention to detail in the animation so above and beyond that it has rightfully earned Kanna Hirayama (kappe), who did the keys and corrections for basically every cut in this final stretch, a bevy of devotees. Underpinning the stunning artistry is Takuro Iga’s score, which deftly draws out the pathos from amid the horror of the climatic scene, transforming what could otherwise be a grotesque sequence into a scene full of grace.

The climax to Ai Hoshino’s story was moving in the manga; but it is transcendent in the anime adaptation.

Runner-Ups

Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead #1

Well, the new studio BUG FILMS certainly started off with a bang! This episode launched the studio’s first production since its foundation in September 2021, and it really blew me away in terms of the episode direction, dynamic layouts, and in particular, the color design, which provides the narrative backbone to the episode. We see the main character Akira’s world fade from the technicolor of his youth, full of hopes and dreams, to the monochrome of working-adult drudgery epitomized by endless pot noodles, before finally, in sudden bursts and flashes, exploding back into color with his newfound (apocalyptic) freedom. Pivotally, this colorful revival of hope in Akira’s life is not simply a return to the standard, realist palette of hues, but something new and distinct, reminiscent of 1990s neon: hyper pink, electric blue, dayglow green—great big splotches of pigmented glory bleeding all over the mindless horde that takes over Tokyo and rewrites Akira’s reality. This was a brilliant artistic decision because it not only anchors the series in the realm of comedy (the waves of undead resemble inept graffiti artists rather than a gorefest), but also picks up on the spirit of the manga with its vibrantly colored covers. The pacing of this episode is also on point, so much so that I had to check whether it was a double-episode premiere since it covered so much ground without feeling rushed, even managing to linger on the mundanity of Akira’s office years to good (mind-numbing) effect. I’ll admit that I didn’t stick around for the rest of the (interrupted) season and did hear rumors of a marked drop in animation quality pretty soon after this spectacular start, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of this opening gambit.

Ancient Magus Bride Season 2 #1

Mangaka Kore Yamazaki’s intricate celebration of Celtic, English, and Welsh lore is a rich and challenging series to adapt, both stylistically and literarily, but newcomer Studio Kafka proved with this premiere that they were up to the challenge. The first episode of Season 2 showcases everything that Kafka brings to the table, and demonstrates that they’re not only a safe pair of hands, but a delightfully creative pair as well, and more than equipped to take over from Wit Studio. The animation is crisp, dynamic, and brimming with movement and intrigue. The intentional lighting (you can practically feel the warmth of the carefully rationed beams of sunlight), the lively play of the shadows, and most of all, the surreal reflections in shot after shot make this a layered, compelling viewing experience that is a delight to the eye and the mind alike, as certain of the extreme low angle shots and canted angles seem to bespeak hidden tensions and subtle psychologies in what would otherwise—without such creative layouts—play out as fairly mundane sequences in most anime. Suffice it to say, the visual language is lush! Returning to this episode now, two cours later, it proves even more engaging, as the seeds of core themes reveal themselves in the details packed into this premiere. Story-wise, the first few minutes (mostly anime-original content) clearly establish this season as a completely new phase in Chise’s story, as she articulates all that she learned from the previous season’s journey, and her aspirations for the road ahead. The sound design is somewhat experimental, with atmospheric, slightly ominous echoing birds and the discordant soughing of trees at times and orchestral swells at others, with jazzy piano riffs in between. Like the animation, there is plenty here to sink your teeth into sonically, or equally, you can just let it set the mood and wash over you. In short, this premiere manages to maintain the best elements of the first season, while setting up season two in a class of its own.

LKR

Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End #09

My favorite series this year is Heavenly Delusion; however, for me, the episode of the year is the 9th episode of Frieren. While Heavenly Delusion has a full catalog of simply incredible episodes, I wanted to talk about the first episode directed and storyboarded by the incredible Kouki Fujimoto. He’s an animator who excels in the execution of his shots and animation. He’s bursting with creativity and good ideas (cf. his ending for “Komi-san” S2). Even if an ending is totally different from the skills required to direct and storyboard a complete episode, Kouki Fujimoto remains a versatile personality, and seeing him in the credits with such a solid staff bodes well for the future. Kouki Fujimoto has always taken a great deal of care with the character acting and fabric of his animation, and this is also reflected in his direction, with many sequences focusing on the careful character acting and fabric of the characters. In terms of action, the narration is a true juggernaut of incredible combat that makes the whole episode simply intense, with the help of action supervisor Tooru Iwaza and his wife Reiko Nagasawa, who is absolutely everywhere and handles her designs to perfection without pause. And to top it off, Evan Call’s music was composed expressly for this fight.

Runner-Ups: Heavenly Delusion #12

Obviously, an episode of Heavenly Delusion had to be among my favorites of this year. Although a Kyoto Animation veteran storyboarded one episode (episode 8) alongside episode director Ryo Nakano, and one of my favorite figures in the industry, Kai Ikarashi, also took on the role of storyboarder and director for episode 10, I wanted to talk about something else.

Episode 12 of Heavenly Delusion is storyboarded and directed by Tomohisa Ishii, a personality many know from his work on series 86. Ishii’s approach is strongly focused on cinematography and the intelligent composition of the shots shown to viewers, always seeking to make his storyboard speak without the need for words. Episode 12 of Tengoku shows this facet once again, with a bluffing ability to convey its subliminal messages to viewers. Every moment is pure cinema, with strong composition and magnificent close-ups. Due to the part of the story it adapts, the energy of this episode is extremely bizarre, and as a viewer, Ishii has managed to convey this discomfort throughout.

Scott Pilgrim Takes Off! #3

Moko-Chan 🧎

Hisayuki Tabata

Kitagawa-san’s episodes of Chiikawa (106 – 115)

Kitagawa-san, who is an acquaintance of mine, really made his drawing and directing skills shine through in these episodes!

Buildknuckle

Hirogaru Sky Precure Ep.9

I have already talked about Hirogaru Sky Precure more at large earlier, but there was a lot riding on one particular part of the show; how will they introduce the world to Cure Wing? For those that don’t know, Cure Wing or Tsubasa Yuunagi is the first male main character Precure, and it was a pretty big moment for a series that, from the very outset, aimed to say, “Girls Be Ambitious”, well turns out everyone can be ambitious and hold the power to become a Precure even if they’re also a small, fat bird boy.

Tsubasa is a boy who longs to fly, because he’s also a flightless bird. You see, Hayao Miyazaki, in a cruel fit of rage cursed him and his clan to never be able to fly. The ninth episode of Hirogaru Sky Precure is the second part of Tsubasa’s introduction and later transformation into Cure Wing. The episode was directed by Kana Shinohara, who, up until now, had never directed and boarded an episode of anime on her own. So it kinda worked on a meta-level as well?

Anyway, the episode was really good and it stuck out to me as the episode of anime I had seen all year. Granted, I haven’t seen as many episodes of anime from 2023 this year, but I’d say it did a pretty decent job of being good. Yeah.

Best Anime Opening/Ending/Music Video of the Year

Dimitri Seraki

Spy X Family Season 2 Opening

After Masaaki Yuasa’s departure from Science Saru, I wouldn’t have expected to see him end up directing an opening for Spy X Family, of all things! The result is an incredibly fun clip with many touches of Yuasa’s quirkiness and cartoonish movements. The energy goes perfectly with the characters and the show’s tone, making it a perfect match!

 

Runner-ups: Spare Me Great Lord Season 2 Opening, BLEACH: Thousand-Year Blood War – The Separation Opening

It was a close call with Spare Me Great Lord Season 2’s Opening, but I haven’t yet figured out if I like it more than Hiromatsu Shuu’s opening for the first season.

Matteo Watzky

Heavenly Delusion Opening

You may think I’m dumb, but I initially thought that Heavenly Delusion’s opening had been directed by Shingo Yamashita. Not only had people made a fuss about it on Twitter back when it came out, as they always do for any new Yamashita opening, it’s got many of the things I’d come to expect from one: great animation, a heavy focus on compositing, natural imagery, and overall an impressive quality.

But there’s something in it that Yamashita’s openings do not have – or rather, do not have anymore. It’s the degree of freedom in the animation, the looseness of the movement, the use of color-tracing or even the suppression of outlines, the sense of fun that pervades it. If it had been by Yamashita, it would have been the crowning achievement of his career as an opening director, the work that would finally bridge the two divergent styles he adopted – the simple, minimalistic style of Shinsekai Yori and Naruto, where everything looks like paper cutouts inhabited by an inner light, and the monumental, blockbuster style of Jujustu Kaisen and Ousama Ranking, where light has become something exterior, simply a “light source” that irradiates from without instead of existing within the characters. This opening, through its perfectly crafted compositing and liberated animation, creates a link between these two. If only it had been by Yamashita!

But who cares who did it in the end? It’s a great piece of art, and it’s all that matters.

Runner-up: The Fire Hunter Opening

Since I just talked about not-Shingo-Yamashita, it’s natural that I now turn to the other unavoidable name – Ken’ichi Kutsuna. It was hard to choose between the two openings he directed this year, but I’ve arbitrarily chosen the one from The Fire Hunter as an act of revenge against this disaster of a show that I persevered to watch until its end – or lack thereof.

If Yamashita’s recent work has gone in the direction of cinematism – atmospheric, visually impressive cinematography built on 3D space and volume – Kutsuna is going in the different direction, that of animetism and flatness. This is done not through a quintessentially “anime-esque” style but rather by borrowing from outside – in the case of this opening, woodblock print and engraving, as seen in the early section and the reminiscences from Laputa’s own opening credits.

Kutsuna’s openings always have something anticlimactic because of how restrained they feel. This was somewhat contradicted in the Magical Destroyers opening with the final, experimental sequence, whereas this one remains committed to a single, melancholic atmosphere, barely interrupted by a few action shots. The stillness of it, the simplicity, and the striking nature of each shot make it feel like a series of moving paintings or illustrations. There is, also, a supplementary layer of melancholy added by the fact that the series itself doesn’t quite follow on the promise set by the opening, making it that much more alluring and deceptive.

Lilo Chiche

Magical Destroyers Opening

Well, there was nothing quite as disappointing this year as watching the really promising Magical Destroyers crash and burn as production collapsed on episode 3… On the bright side, the opening was excellent (and the ending was pretty great, too, by the way). Between this and The Fire Hunter opening, Ken’ichi Kutsuna has been pouring a lot of talent into some frankly mediocre shows this year. In his defense, both looked good on paper and had cool designs for him to build on, so ultimately, it doesn’t feel like a waste.

Plus, the Magical Destroyer Opening theme by Aimi seriously rocked, and Kutsuna really put the noise part of the song to good use, going completely off-track in a jaw-dropping sequence of digital madness and wacky designs — also a cat. That was wild, especially considering the mostly melancholic and symbolic vibe he’d got going on with his Vlad Love opening, and so on to The Fire Hunter. Although, while this stuff is new, the rest of the opening very much reminds of his work on Vlad Love. Same flower symbolism (we get a lot of this in recent openings, don’t we?), the same cut of characters morphing into one another, and the same blue fish in a bowl, for some reason. The respective role of said fish in both works actually sums it up very well: Kutsuna’s Magical Destroyers opening is basically a rock’n’roll version of his Vlad Love opening. Less coherent but much freer in both storyboarding and animation. And I love that.

Runners-up: Heavenly Delusion opening / “Detarame na Sekai no Melodrama” MV

Here, we run into the same problem as earlier: everyone pretty much agrees that Weilin Zhang’s Heavenly Delusion opening is one of if not the best animated musical piece to come out this year, so I don’t have much to add here. The man somehow sums up Shingo Yamashita’s new cinematographic directing style and old free-form animating style, which is nothing short of impressive. I should point out this striking cut of Kiruko’s body and outline dissociating in a frantic run, which is very symbolic of Yamashita’s experimentations with abstracting forms and erasing outlines back in his Birdy days. Techniques that are featured multiple times throughout this opening. 

Moving on to a more niche topic, TOHO animation celebrated its 10 years with a series of five MVs, each entrusted to rising new talents of the anime industry. And while all deserve praise, I personally have a soft spot for the earth tone color palette and huge Utena vibe of China’s — the animator, not the country; it’s my first time writing his name, and I now realize how confusing it is — Detarame na sekai no melodrama. Besides the really catchy song, the whole clip is a visual treat thanks to excellent photography and direction far beyond what the other MVs from the project had to offer. Not that the layout work is especially complex. It’s just that every single shot feels perfect. So, I’m going to put that on the account of storyboarding and wait eagerly for whatever China makes next. Now that I can’t get his whole Utena decorum and that clearly-from-Penguindrum-apple out of my head, I kind of want to see him direct an episode on a Kunihiko Ikuhara series!

LUDO

The Fire Hunter Opening

Disclaimer: I’m referring to the full video clip, not the unfinished one that aired on TV.

This opening touched my heart. First, it paid tribute to Mœbius, the greatest artist of the 20th century – tied with Dali. Second, it also paid tribute to Takaya Noriko’s harmony cel technique. The second one perfectly serving the first homage. Tove Jansson was also used as a reference. The big tree in the water reminded me of In Search of the Castaways, my favourite Jules Verne book as a kid.

And everything turned into an ukiyo-esque atmosphere of lightness… Nevertheless, the difficulties that the animators had to face remained unnoticed by the viewers.

Kutsuna Ken’ichi moved far away from his usual style, rhythm, and patterns (no blue goldfish this time) but still mastered this music video.

He reminded us that he was not only the cool webgen director but also the scholar who knows every classic.

Jamal

Link Click Season 2 Opening

I am aware that it is rather cheeky to nominate an opening from a donghua (an animated work produced in China), but considering how Link Click’s audience intersects tightly with fans of Japanese animation, on top of the fact that the sequence itself is just too fascinating to ignore, I think that my nominee for this category is somewhat justified. Directed by Sun Somei, VORTEX takes the framework of the cyclical credit sequence and pushes it to its logical conclusion, not only by reversing the pattern of the shots in the first section but also by featuring a song with a crab canon arrangement, allowing it to remain coherent when played backwards when Cheng Xiaoshi begins to fall (I was only made aware of this concept recently).  The sequence’s symmetrical structure configures into the show’s overarching narrative by reinterpreting how close the protagonists were to succeeding and how matters swiftly descended back into chaos.  To me, Link Click’s second opening is a model example of how music, motion, and structure can gel together almost perfectly to add additional meaning to the show it is in conversation with.  

Runner-Up Scott Pilgrim Takes Off! Opening

Scott Pilgrim Takes Off’s opening manages to capture the chaotic nature of the show it is introducing.  Although there have been some more ‘kinetic’ openings this year in terms of character animation, I am continually captivated by how mokochan opts to use static shots to portray the anime’s characters; as they proved on Heike Monogatari #05 and Tatami Time Machine Blues #03, great colour design, composition and editing can make any moment a memorable one.  However, bloom stood out to me primarily for non-technical reasons.  Tonally, the OP strikes a fun balance between parody and homage with its use of the stereotypical ‘battle-shonen villain group’ montage while also paying tribute to the late Osamu Kobayashi with a reference to his iconic Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad credit sequence.  Furthermore, the scenes that were used are quite interesting to look back at once one has completed the show.  Without giving too much away, the straightforward conflict narrative that it presents feels like a strong attempt to manipulate the expectations of the viewer, giving it the opportunity to subvert them shortly afterward with its alternative premise.  Although their setups are quite different, the attempt here takes me back to Deca-Dence from the Summer season of 2020, which took advantage of its pre-release marketing material to create a narrow understanding of what it was all about to make its twists less predictable.  In that regard, one could argue that bloom’s effect wears off quickly, but the effort it makes to mobilise the credit sequence in order to shape how one engages with the rest of the anime is too bold to disregard and is an approach I wish more creatives in the space engaged in.

Claire

Undead Murder Farce, Opening and Ending

Now I know I’m meant to pick one, but not only are both the OP and ED for this series top-notch, they also work together in a surprising way to convey the full complexity of this delightfully fun series about monsters, mysteries, and a not-so-young woman who cannot die. It is this woman, or rather, this head-in-a-birdcage, Aya Rindo, who is the key to unlocking the synchronicity between what appear to be an unrelated OP and ED, at least in terms of their style and tone. First, the OP: the loud, jazzy “Crack-Crack-Crackle” by Classy, with its abrupt stops and trumpet flourishes, is perfectly matched by the bold visuals that introduce the cast with the flair of a Master of Ceremonies for a 1900s freakshow, which is where most of the characters would have found themselves back in the day. The grand, swooping cinematography is handled expertly, while the Alphonse Mucha-like stylization pays homage to both the golden era periodization and the classiness of the gentlewoman detective, Aya Rindo, who can outwit (and out-witticism) Sherlock himself. Altogether, the OP perfectly embodies the over-the-top, extroverted personality of the series and its female lead—that is, when she’s in her element. But Aya Rindo has lived a very long time and confesses, in the quiet of the moonless night, to be longing for death and an escape from the vastness of eternity. And it is this undercurrent that is so well-captured in the ED (“Reversal”, by Anna), with its moody photogravure and ink washes, flocks of crows, relentless tides, and the elusive depiction of its characters’ relationships. I could go on (trust me), but just check them out for yourself!

Runner-Ups:

Link Click S2 Opening

This OP is a masterclass in how to ensure that the audience never skips your animation. Not only is it chock full of clever Easter eggs that reveal themselves as the series progresses, but it manages to boil a complicated array of mind-bending, time-paradox heavy sci-fi world-building lore down to a single, evocative sequence that centers on three simple elements: one lead character moves back and forth (or forth and back—it’s hard to discern) in time and gravity, the other cycles through different personas, while the antagonist morphs from human figure to inanimate object to something unknown (brilliant animation here). Simple, elegant, compelling. But how and why and who and what and when and, holy jumpins, wheretofore these movements and cycles and transformations all play out will take a thousand rewatches to decipher, so rich are the contextual details. Added to that, the vocals in the song (“Vortex” by Jaws) reverse too (!), making this a work of genius.  

Ancient Magus Bride S2 Cour 2 Opening

This is yet another stellar OP that does what all OPs should do: introduce the cast while foregrounding the core themes, conflicts, and tensions of the season with enough subtlety that they only reveal themselves fully as the season unfolds but also with sufficient visual aplomb that viewers keep watching each week in order to catch the hidden meaning and depths as they become apparent. In this case, the refreshing use of Victorian-eque paper doll aesthetics are responsible for both catching the eye and providing the allegorical impact of the OP. In it, the cast of young adults, here shown as children, phase back and forth from paper dolls to flesh and blood, as first Chise, and then violent, anonymous spears touch them and pierce their hearts. These young people have been reduced to paper-thin tropes—the obedient oppressed girl, the vengeful loner, the serpent-tongued frenemy, and so on—due to trauma that now has them caged. Chise seeks to break them out and free them to become something beyond the product of their abuse, as she herself has been learning to do. It’s a fraught journey, as triggers and fresh wounds undo the humanity that Chise’s compassionate touch releases to them. What a beautifully wrought allegory for the entire second cour!  

LKR

Heavenly Delusion Opening

Not surprisingly, Weilin Zhang is simply a MONSTER. He unveils his artistic palette, displaying his know-how and unique style through his direction, storyboarding, supervision, and even compositing, which at first glance might make us think of Shingo Yamashita, but no, it isn’t, it’s Weilin! Weilin is, for me, one of the most promising artists of recent years (although he has already proved he can only get better). Like most of you, I discovered him as an animator on Boruto #65, and since then, I’ve become one of his biggest fans. Every one of his appearances is memorable, and it’s immeasurable good fortune to have had him on a production like Tengoku, where he could have the fun he did so well on his Twitter and Tumblr accounts.

Hisayuki Tabata

Kyoufu All Back

It’s a work that made me realize the diversity of animation!

Buildknuckle

Mog’s Christmas (I’m going to interpret this as a short film)

I’m very much cheating with this category, but I think it’s absolutely worth mentioning that it’s one of the best things I have watched all year, and I only caught it on the telly a few days ago. Though, to be very honest, I knew I would end up liking something animated at this time of year because, without fail, a new cool animated film would pop up on either the BBC or Channel 4.

Channel 4, in particular, have gotten the best of these animated films over its 41 years of broadcasting. Heck, The Snowman literally debuted on the channel in its first Christmas and has become mandatory viewing for many Brits ever since. Since then, we’ve had other films based on Raymond Briggs’ other works, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, and, of course the sequel The Snowman and The Snowdog. All of these films are excellent and are absolutely worth watching. So Mog’s Christmas had massive shoes to fill, and boy, did it fill them!

Mog’s Christmas does technically qualify as an MV since about 1/12th of its runtime is just a music video (a bloody catchy one at that), but for all of its roughly 25 minutes of runtime, it can guarantee that it runs rings around almost any anime you will have seen this year. No, it doesn’t have fancy battle sequences, but Mog does get stuck on the roof, and I’m pretty sure One Piece has spent most of this year on a roof as well, so who can say it’s any less of an anime for that reason?

I say this without a shadow of a doubt that no episode of anime released in 2023 can even get close to the animation prowess of Mog’s Christmas. Not even close. Every single second of it impressed me. I challenge anyone reading this to suggest something after having watched Mog. You won’t be able to think of anything, I guarantee it.

Also, it’s about a cute fat cat, and you know I’m just a sucker for that kind of thing!

People’s Choice Awards

Best Anime of the Year

In 3rd place, taking 12.4% of votes, Pluto

In 2nd place, with 22.2% of votes, Heavenly Delusion

In 1st place, with 22.7% of votes, Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End

From the community, Giaggiu about Heavenly Delusion:

Maru and Kiruko’s adventure allows us to meet many people with the most different stories and personalities, who, when put together, allow us to see a picture of our society “freed” from the constraints it has imposed itself. On the other hand, in the “Paradise”, we see a group of children completely unaware of the existence of a world outside, raised in a bubble that has altered their perception of emotions such as affection and love. A controlled micro-society which, however, is unable to curb one of the most typical characteristics of the human being: curiosity.

The anime excellently alternates the action of a road movie, the intrigue of science fiction, and stories of everyday life. Through the lives of many different people and their points of view, we have a varied vision of a humanity conditioned by the context in which it finds itself living, repeatedly putting the viewer in front of different emotions: curiosity, amazement, fear, anxiety, pain, anger. All emotions that make us humans.

Everything is amplified by a masterful direction that does not lose its identity even once, regardless of the personality of the director who helms the episode of the week, for a work that truly feels choral.

Best Anime Feature Film of the Year

In 3rd place, with 15,1% of votes, Slam Dunk: The First

In 2nd place, with 21.6% of votes, Gridman Universe

In 1st place, with 35.7% of votes, The Boy and the Heron

From the community, Explosive Legend about The Boy and the Heron

The Boy and The Heron is a movie that could only be made by Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, in my opinion.

It’s not the best Ghibli film ever. But the way the story is told. The way it’s shown. The way it’s visualized. It feels timeless.

I’ve seen a decent amount of anime films, and there are times where some of them show their ages. But when I watched this movie in theaters. It didn’t feel like it came out in 2023. It felt like it came out at any point within the past 20-30ish years. It blew me away despite having no expectations going into the movie. 

Studio Ghibli movies tend to have a certain environment or a certain feeling that they’re going for. It’s hard to describe it. But it just works. It’s an old movie that’s never actually old. It’s a fictional movie, even when it’s realistic. It’s a realistic movie, even when it’s fictional. The ability to balance both is why I think it deserves to be the Anime Movie of the Year.

Best Anime Episode of the Year

In 3rd place, with 10.8% of votes, One Piece #1074

In 2nd place, with 11.4% of votes, Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End #09

In 1st place, with 25.4% of votes, Heavenly Delusion #10

From the community, Giaggiu about Heavenly Delusion #10

Kai Ikarashi’s episode was phenomenal: capable of alternating hilarious moments, moments of thrilling tension, and very human dramatic moments with an ease that cannot fail to amaze. The animation was certainly no less: it was interesting to see snappy movements, comedic timing, and funny faces rapidly switching to chilling (literally) scenes full of pathos and intensity. An overall chaotic yet balanced episode, sure one of the most fascinating of the whole year.

Best Anime Opening/Ending/Music Video of the Year

With 11.4% of votes, Jujutsu Kaisen Season 2 Opening 1

With 16.2% of votes, Magical Destroyers Opening

With 26.5% of votes, Heavenly Delusion Opening

Thanks to everyone who participated in this year’s awards!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wait, you expected us to pick a winner? It was just an excuse for us to write about what we loved most in anime this year! But if you really, absolutely need winners, here are the Jury’s results:

Best Anime of the Year goes to Heavenly Delusion, directed by Hirotaka Mori.

Best Anime Feature Film of the Year goes to The Concierge of Hokkyoku Department Store, directed by Yoshimi Itazu.

Best Anime Episode of the Year ends up in a tie between Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End #09, directed and storyboarded by Kouki Fujimoto, and Heavenly Delusion #10, directed and storyboarded by Kai Ikarashi.

Best Anime Opening/Ending/MV of the Year goes to the Heavenly Delusion opening, directed by Weilin Zhang.

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