* Not objective
** Not comprehensive
It’s been a good number of years since I’ve watched enough yearly anime to make an annual retrospective post make sense, but it finally happened. Not only did I watch a good amount of seasonal anime, but I also have checked out a fair few older shows for the first time, leading to a very healthy anime diet (at least as healthy as metaphorically eating anime can be). That said, I didn’t feel I watched enough to make a proper top anime of 2023 list, so instead you’ll just get some categorical short reflections on various moments and shows from the year. I hope you find that sufficient.
So, why? Why was this the year I came back to watching seasonal anime after a solid two years away? The answer is simple, charming, and straightforward: Spy x Family. I watched the first part of the first season of the show as it aired in Spring 2022 and it turned out the unvarnished cheer, the platonic-ideal-of-anime blend of action/intrigue stuff with slice-of-life stuff, and the solid production was what I needed to remind me of what I liked about watching anime. Spy x Family is just the right kind of nice to make you want to spend 20 minutes with it each week, and in the midst of a year that was pretty whatever for me from the start, apparently that was exactly what I needed.
Despite my time away, I don’t think I ever stopped liking anime or wanting to watch it. It just didn’t have a place in my life for a few years; it needed a hook that make me decide to make it more of a priority and find a place it could fit in amidst the other hobbies and activities. Whether it was the humor brought my Anya’s blunt, childish approach to the world, the marshmallow fuzziness of seeing Loid gradually grow to cherish his fake family, or Yor’s gentle efforts to be a good member of the Forger clan, Spy x Family had the reasons—both in terms of the show itself and anime as a whole.
So, thanks, SpyFam. You were never going to be my favorite show of this year or any, but you made a difference in your own way.
A Chorus of Pinks
I’m often know as a blue person due to my consistent avatar colorings over the years, but if you look at the background of this blog you’ll notice another color is much more dominant. As good as blue-haired childhood friends are and as often as the blondes seem to catch my eye, there is something about a pink-haired anime girl that stirs the soul in a special way. And we had our fair share of pinks this year (and Sasaki Saku, who is eternal): most notably Shikimori of Shikimori’s Not Just a Cutie!
I actually had an idea for a post about how the way Shikimori is framed in her show differs noticeably from the way cute anime girls often are framed—with her presentation for Izumi being prioritized over making her eye candy for the viewer—but in the end it was too ambitious and would have required too much time going back to gather screencaps than I had motivation for. So instead you get this little teaser of Shikimori’s unique kind of bishoujo work.
Elsewhere, we had Kiara from Engage Kiss (who got Guilty Crown‘d), the pink gyaru from Fuufu Iijo (whose cuteness was undercut by the show’s insistent sexualization of her at all times), Bocchi from Bocchi (who hardly even registers as a pink to me for some reason), and Charlotte from Parallel World Pharmacy (the goodest child of the year). No, Bisque Doll‘s Marin doesn’t count as pink as badly as they wanted to ape Chitoge’s gradient hair. Jean from Vanitas is also pink-coded, but she gets her own section. All in all, not a bad year for pink representation in anime in terms of quantity, although there could always be more.
The Best People in the Industry Want to Make One Kind of TV Anime
A few years back, there was this crazy moment where a certain kind of technically brilliant, aesthetically distinctive episodes happened. This year, we saw a similar kind of effect, except across four entire shows (three of which aired concurrently): Healer Girl, Bocchi the Rock!, Do It Yourself!, and Yama no Susume: Next Summit. Now, you might be saying that the thing that binds these things together is that they’re all cute girls doing things cutely shows, but while that’s true, the similarity I’m interested is in their aesthetic commonality. Although each articulate it in slightly different ways, I believe the philosophy is evident in every aspect of how these shows look—simple yet evocative character designs, restrained yet effective application of color, light, and shadow, and the restrained use of post-processing.
All this adds up to shows that look sophisticated yet distinctly cartoony, a massively welcome contrast against the highly processed, glossy and glitzy (and sometimes realism-obsessed) instincts of many of their contemporaries. I don’t want to be overly cynical against many of the trends in anime production, but I really don’t think it’s a coincidence that these shows share so many of the same aesthetic sensibilities—to say nothing of the industry-bucking production circumstances paralleled in Healer Girl, DIY, and Yamasusu. And this does lead back to the genre similarities, because I don’t think that’s a coincidence either. Whether it’s simply because these aesthetic preferences are most compatible in show that don’t demand huge fights or simply because the tastes of the creators themselves leans a certain way, some of the most talented people in this industry are out here making the same kind of great shows—and I for one am very grateful.
I Still Haven’t Finished Vanitas S2
Ask me about my favorite anime of the past few years and there’s a good chance I’ll start spouting off about how much I love Vanitas no Carte, a BONES-produced, visually decadent adaptation of Mochizuki Jun’s original manga. BONES and I have a long history, and Vanitas was yet another in a long series of things the studio has made that have spoken to me in a deep way. And yet, the second season of Vanitas sits in my MAL list, unfinished at episode 7. Why?
Because the show kind of gave me everything I wanted out of it in the Chloe arc. You see, from the first extremely problematic moments of Vanitas’ flirtations with Jean, I was all in on that ship. And if you’ve seen the Chloe arc, you know it’s full of Jean and Vanitas interactions and their weird, ever-rotating power dynamics with Vanitas being sick, Jean nursing him back to health, Jean needing his powers to fix the situation, and eventually Jean surprising Vanitas with a kiss on the cheek in a gorgeously composed field of flowers. Those moments were the true marshmallow high of seeing your ship canonize itself (even if they still aren’t really a couple). I was pretty much so overwhelmed by being so decadently fed—I mean, have you seen the way that scene looks?—that I basically was like, “I can die happy now.”
I really do love the show and I’ll come back to the final five episodes eventually, but for now my unofficial ending to Vanitas no Carte is Jean’s lips on Vanitas’ cheek and Vanitas recalling his childhood to realize that maybe he doesn’t have to be alone.
Five Short Takes
Blue Lock: Thank you for making me want to rewatch the greatest sports anime ever made, Kuroko’s Basketball. Update: since I wrote this, I’ve rewatched all of KuroBas.
Lycoris Recoil: I liked imigimuru before it was cool. I just want to reiterate that.
Heroines Run the Show: Probably the best show this year no one will watch because it’s Honeyworks.
Bisque Doll: One of the rare anime to really sell the scene where the characters are on the verge of just losing themselves to mutual attraction and having sex. I was actually kind of irritated by the cliche anime interruption of the moment. (Juju-sama the cutest tho.)
Bocchi the Rock: I wrote my blog post a little early, but in the end I think overall I was right about the way the show treats Bocchi.
Yamasusu S4: If there’s no more Yamasusu to come, just. Thank you for everything.
So, About AOTY…
As I see it, there are exactly two options for anime of the year: Yofukashi no Uta (aka Call of the Night) and Do It Yourself.
Sure, Vanitas pandered to me harder, Bocchi was the funniest and most visually creative show of the year, and the Yamasusu victory lap was emotional and well earned, but the two at the top of them all stand out in my mind—and for very different reasons. Yofukashi could be called anime of the year for its fierce engagement with societal disillusionment and dis-integration, while Do It Yourself could be called anime of the year for its technical perfection and the deep sense of satisfaction its conclusion engendered in me. Said another way, the former is here for the ambition and sensitivity of its content while the latter is here for the feelings of warmth generated by the excellence of its craft. Yofukashi spoke to my soul with its compassion, and Do It Yourself accomplished the miraculous feat of accomplishing every single goal it set out to achieve.
To be honest, I’m not all that fussed to choose between my two candidates. If they were even remotely the same kind of show, it might be harder to choose, but they’re so different in basically all meaningful ways that comparing them just seems… pointless. Whether we’re discussing how cute Nazunachan is or Purin’s wonderful tsundere childhood friend antics, creating a competition between such lovely works of art is just not something I care to do.
I think that’s an anti-listicle meta decision that Nazuna would approve of and devotion to doing things my own way that even Serufu could get behind.