Another year has come and gone, leaving us undeniably older and presumably wiser, though at this point it’s hard for me to tell if each new year of knowledge outpaces the mental erosion of aging. That phrase “they’ve forgotten more about subject than you’ll ever know” always seemed a bit strange to me – I mean, I’ve forgotten way more stuff than I’ve remembered, and I don’t exactly take that as a point of pride. I’m really good at forgetting stuff! It’s probably what I’m best at! It does not make me a better thinker or critic!
Anyway, the dubious merits of aging aside, this has been a year of upheaval on my end. The apartment I’ve shared for a decade caught fire in early July, prompting the ramshackle family I’ve gathered to scatter to the four winds. If you’ve read any of my pieces about found families, I’m sure you can guess how gracefully I weathered this transition; fortunately, I was able to lock down a new apartment in late October, so I’ve at least regained a private corner to sit and think about cartoons. Change is inevitable, and though I still mourn the home I’ve lost, I’m coming around to the possibility that a shakeup was probably good for me in the end.
As far as anime and my work are concerned, I think I’ve earned myself a hearty pat on the back for my exceedingly productive year. I’ll admit, I’d fallen into a rut a few years back – the one-two punch of the KyoAni fire and my father’s death essentially knocked the wind out of me, and made it significantly harder to passionately commit to longer essay work. I’ve always written with my heart on my sleeve, and when my heart’s not feeling anything but fatigue and grief, it’s hard to find much insight or poignancy to share with you all. As such, I tended to favor the easier projects on my list, sticking mostly to episodic reflections over more ambitious projects.
This year, I decided enough was enough, and thus opened 2023 with a resolution to tackle one ambitious project every week, be it a long-form essay or full film notes set or whatever else I had commissioned. And I’m proud to say I’ve stuck with that resolution, charging through many of my outstanding Current Projects come hell, high water, or even apartment fire. I’ve written my way through Land of the Lustrous, Kaiba, Planetes, and a wide sampling of the early Toei Doga filmography, alongside a variety of other fresh and fascinating stories. I’m feeling more confident about my own writing than I have in years, and though it’s harder than ever to make a living in this odd little field, I’m happy to be doing right by you readers who’ve stuck by me all this time. Outstanding current projects beware, I’m coming for you!
As for this year in anime, hot damn! As far as my interests are concerned, this has been the best year of airing anime in quite some time, boasting enough distinguished productions to comfortably populate a top five. Of course, just confining myself to 2023 would provide an inaccurate and impoverished view of all the stuff I loved this year, so I’ll once again be including any shows or films that inspired me this year, regardless of their temporal origin. Without further ado, let’s dig into my top anime of 2023!
Vinland Saga S2
Across Planetes and Vinland Saga, Makoto Yukimura has proven himself one of the most thoughtful and far-seeing humanists in the animanga sphere, grappling frankly with the injustices of culture and capitalism while still maintaining hope for a better future. Vinland Saga’s second season abandons bloodshed in pursuit of that hope, as the once vengeance-driven Thorfinn comes to appreciate the profound labor and incomparable satisfaction of tilling the soil with your own hands, of actually creating the furrows and fields that are the essence of productive living. Ketil’s farm proves a microcosm of all human conflict, its inhabitants expressing the far reaches of cruelty and compassion while demonstrating our capacity for reinvention, and the fundamental longing for validation and community that unites us. Yukimura’s vision embodies the best of us, and Vinland Saga’s second season is a blueprint for achieving that distant vision, that Vinland waiting beyond the horizon.
BanG Dream! It’s MyGO!!!!!
Character drama is back, baby! It’s been too damn long since we’ve had a top shelf character study, and MyGO provides that and more, proving itself both an insightful exploration of a half-dozen fuckups and a thrilling band drama in the bargain. MyGO’s understanding of voice and perspective is exceptional; it’s the kind of show where simply watching the main cast interact is an inherent pleasure, as their distinctive perspectives and interpersonal frictions make for a marvelous articulation of our collective, eternal desire to be truly understood. And on top of that, it’s also an astonishingly atmosphere-rich exploration of the amateur band experience, tethering its grand emotional peaks to performances that embody the anxiety and catharsis of pouring your heart out on stage. Plus the songs are actually great! A superior band drama in all regards.
I frankly didn’t have the highest expectations for this one. Urusawa’s work has always struck me as consistently professional but rarely profound – fun thrillers, but a little too formulaic and impersonal to be genuinely moving. But through its overall clarity of purpose and exceptional adapted quality, Pluto rose high above my predictions, offering an exploration of grief and revenge that strikes to the core of what it means to be human. As in the best robot stories, the question of “can a robot become human” is a misdirect, a framing device for exploring whether humans can embody our own alleged best instincts – or whether it’s best for us to step aside, and let the handmade cradles of our ambitions carry on without us. Urusawa’s tendency for narrative iteration feels at its best here, as one vignette after another adds fresh hues to his portrait of mankind, painting a prayer for redemption out of loss, sorrow, and rage.
Scott Pilgrim Takes Off
The Scott Pilgrim comics were just about my favorite thing ever back in high school, which should give you some impression of the precise flavor of intolerable I was back then. Not that the comics are bad; they’re actually phenomenal, a playful and inventive exploration of young adulthood that consistently drives the hooks into their contemptible protagonist. They’re so excellent that a strict adaptation always seemed superfluous – which is why I’m so delighted that Takes Off is something else entirely, a story that flips the script and celebrates all the delightful characters that the original framed as either villainous or simply of little interest to the self-absorbed Scott. Combining witty, character-rich dialogue with creative variations in genre and form, Takes Off finds new life in the margins of Scott’s world, and provides a winning argument for both a post-Yuasa Science Saru and international collaborations more generally.
The end of 2023 also coincides with the end of One Piece’s Wano arc, a landmark achievement drawing in multiple generations of animation talent, from the legendary morphing grace of Shinya Ohira to international all-stars just breaking into the field. The finale of Wano was a triumph of ambition and imagination, as one brilliant animator after another set their pen to realizing the culmination of twenty years of sprawling, preposterously ambitious adventures. And ultimately, our protagonist Luffy’s final trick served as a celebration of animation’s unbound potential, with his magnificent “Gear 5” transformation drawing not just on action animation staples, but also the comedy and fluidity of legends like Tex Avery and Bob Clampett. Wano on the whole has been a truly preposterous adaptation of the most deserving possible action manga, with a generation who grew up alongside the Straw Hats now carrying their ambitions into the stratosphere.
Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World is perhaps my favorite animated film: sobering and enchanting in equal measure, thoughtfully portraying the lives we live and opportunities we miss in the shadow of unimaginable tragedy. His prior Arete is just as good, offering an incisive dissection of fairytale ethics that serves as both a feminist parable and a vivid fantasy in its own right. Featuring a bright young princess and a sad old wizard, the film finds only loneliness and stasis in their assigned roles, instead cultivating a new mythology of curiosity, wonder, and proactive engagement with the world. It’s rich in theme and bustling with vivid characters, fascinated with how the stories we tell inform our identities, but ultimately certain that those who will carry us forward are those who do, who reach beyond fantasy and grapple with the substance and trials of humble, everyday existence. A truly marvelous film, one that has stuck with me ever since first viewing.
Horus, Prince of the Sun
I could put any number of the early Toei Doga films on here, but ultimately I can’t deny the absurd beauty of Horus, Prince of the Sun. Isao Takahata’s directorial debut is one of anime’s great treasures, offering a story already rich in the melancholy, reverence for the natural world, moral ambiguity, and ultimate faith in community that would define his filmography. It’s also bursting with stunning sequences from many of the greatest animators of all time, including Yasuo Otsuka, Hayao Miyazaki, Reiko Okuyama, and Yasuji Mori. Mori in particular is at his best here, with his and Okuyama’s realization of the somber, treacherous, and ultimately sympathetic Hilda opening the door for new realms of characterization and acting in animation. Horus’ legacy is everything I love about anime, but the film itself is just as impressive, having lost none of its singular beauty or thoughtfulness in the decades since its release. A film worthy of its status as a medium-wide paradigm shift.
Mobile Suit Gundam
Even I am not immune to the tendency to regard certain historically significant artworks more as “essential homework” than something actively compelling. Well, that instinct’s stupid, and hopefully the undeniable urgency of Mobile Suit Gundam will prevent me from pulling that crap regarding any more would-be favorites. The original Gundam is thrilling, harrowing, and exceptionally propulsive, sculpting a world that feels far larger than the concerns of its immediate drama, but ensuring the feelings of its cast are never sidelined by the grandeur of its conflict’s scope. Its characters feel sculpted by war in a manner precious few anime can match; you can feel the weight of their fatigue as one catastrophe after another befalls the White Base’s amateur crew, and civilians are forced to become heroes entirely against their will. From the convincing details of its mechanical inventions to the thematic ambiguity of its variable factions, Gundam proves an astonishingly ambitious and perpetually gripping drama, making it easy to see why this production spawned a decades-long empire.
Space Runaway Ideon: Be Invoked
Tomino’s followup to Gundam is crueler, messier, and far stranger than his first masterpiece. Rather than envisioning an entire solar system’s worth of factional conflict, Ideon hones in on one unlikely crew of would-be pilots, trapped within a ship that is salvation and damnation in one. Only the power of the Ideon can protect them; but as episodes stack up, it becomes clear that the Ideon possesses a will of its own, and may well be judging its passengers for their violent acts of self-preservation. The production’s cold, fatalistic ethos reaches its apotheosis in Be Invoked, one of the most savage and unrelenting films I’ve ever seen, made all the more desperate for the long episodes we’ve shared with its forlorn protagonists. A torrent of despair capped by a desperate scream of hope; the influence on End of Eva is clear, but there’s nothing quite like Be Invoked.
Oh, to be a student of the magnificent Seiran Academy, lost in the maelstrom of drama that is the vaunted Sorority! The combination of Riyoko Ikeda’s top-notch melodrama and Osamu Dezaki’s endlessly generous adaptation have stolen my heart, with each episode providing deliciously devious twists and sumptuous visual compositions. Suffering has never looked quite so majestic; Nanako’s drama feels like a work of great Elizabethan theater, as every day ushers guarded hopes and profound injustices, all realized by one of anime’s most visually imaginative directors. Dear Brother is an absurdly generous production in all regards, and personally serves as a welcome reminder of how much more treasure this medium still has to offer – after all, this is only my first Dezaki production! God bless you Nanako, and good luck with all of the Problems.
So that more or less covers my year in anime, though I’ve certainly enjoyed plenty more productions along the way. Having escaped the natural burnout of rigorous seasonal viewing, I’ve found myself enjoying both where this medium came from and where it is going, savoring old classics even as I look towards the increasingly unpredictable future. Don’t limit yourself to genre, don’t limit yourself to era, hell, don’t limit yourself to anime! Every loss of creative passion simply demands a reorientation of perspective; there is more beauty in art than any one person could hope to experience, so take heart and engage widely. Let’s make this new year a good one!