If it seems like this year has been light in terms of must watch anime. It may be because two of the biggest current shows are ones that have been enormous titles for years. Attack on Titan and Demon Slayer both returned for the winter and easily dominated the populist conversation. That said, there’s still plenty of under-the-radar or slice-of-life dramas that have been as equally – if not more so – engaging.
From the latest series from Mitsuo Iso to the incredible back half of Ranking of Kings and the unlikely relationship at the center of My Dress Up Darling, here are the best anime of the year so far.
Attack on Titan
The back half of Attack on Titan’s Final Season has been a labyrinth of revelations, futility, and narrative-defying expectations. The quick succession of twists may leave longtime viewers polarized in seeing how their favorite characters have fallen from grace and left deformed, and least of all, left with animosity for the series protagonist turned antagonist, Eren Yeager. The series has returned intermittently for nearly a decade, with studio changes and prolonged breaks between seasons— beginning as a fairly archetypal, albeit dismal drama of slaying the beasts who decimated the world. However, since that initial season, the storytelling has subverted past tropes, submerging into a chaotic descent of conflicting morals, family prophecies, and the general ending of it all. It remains to be seen if there is any levity or resolution for Attack on Titan’s characters. With storytelling so notoriously forlorn and with the forthcoming series finale, it’s futile to overlook the judgment of the Founding Titan. [Dylan Griffin]
Demon Slayer Entertainment Arc
Hot off the heels of one of the biggest movie releases ever, Ufotable returns to make sure we don’t forget how good the studio is at building hype. This arc takes Tanjiro and friends to a swanky, indulgent, and more populated region, and the Ufotable team steps up to the task, naturally. The team knew right out of the gate how popular the new character, Hashira Uzui, was going to be and doubled down hard on the rule of cool. Despite the stakes being raised, the series also leans way further into its humor than last season. Animation is way more flexible, on model and exceptionally fluid when it needs to be, but is not afraid to break the model in service of more lighthearted moments and jokes. That flexibility really helps continue to sell Demon Slayer’s own themes of hope in the face of hopelessness. There’s a tendency to forget about returning series like this, but don’t fall behind on Demon Slayer. [Travis Hymas]
My Dress Up Darling
The real secret to My Dress-Up Darling’s quality is in its mundanity – there has never been an anime with such detail paid to its sewing animations before, and maybe likely never again. Marin and Wakana’s budding relationship plays out naturally and with a very familiar air of high school awkwardness. While on its face moments like this are meant for laughs, the ways that My Dress-Up Darling plays things as normal and unassuming as possible really makes its leads endearing, everything from Marin’s fondness for less than savory video games to Wakana’s interest in doll crafting is treated with respect and a desire to convince the audience that there’s nothing wrong with someone’s joy. That sense of normalcy also challenges actual norms – particularly gender norms. Though both of My Dress-Up Darling’s leads present pretty traditionally in their gender, even cis-presenting people could stand to have, what they presume to be a traditional norm, challenged. While that doesn’t seem to be My Dress-Up Darling’s main goal, that it does so with such casual understanding is itself sort of groundbreaking. [Travis Hymas]
The Orbital Children
With only a six-episode count (it was released as two feature films in Japan) Netflix’s The Orbital Children hits the ground running with a thrilling, action-adventure set in space. Created by Mitsuo Iso who was also behind the underrated Den-noh Coil (as well as a key animator in End of Evangelion for that battle scene with Asuka), the series contains his penchant for grounding grandiose science-fiction through youthful eyes who see as much as they’re able to comprehend. Kenichi Yoshida provided the character designs while Toshiyuki Inoue is the main animator, and the overall effect is a visual spectacle that matches the non-stop motion of the series. There’s no time to waste and as we watch five children – two born on the moon, the other three on earth – as they try to survive after an accident on their space station leaves them stranded. [Allyson Johnson]
Ranking of Kings
One of Ranking of Kings greatest and most consistent achievements has been its ability to continually up the ante on a week to week basis, especially in its second cour. The story of a young, perceived to be a powerless prince who must overcome adversity to prove his worth and protect his kingdom from unknown dangers, the series easily could’ve traveled well-worn paths. Instead, the series has taken the time to dive into the past and current psyche of all its characters, committing fully to demonstrating the inner complexities of them, even the ones who, on the first introduction, seemed like they’d be the easy villain or punching bag. The reality is much more interesting, with every character having their driving forces and convictions.
The character exploration is met with gusto by the expansive world-building, which both makes the universe in Ranking of Kings feel impossibly large while still finding a way to unite each thread so that, by the time it culminates in the still ongoing finale, there’s a deep catharsis to seeing all the characters we’ve grown to care about uniting. With simplistic designs that are contrasted with stunning and visceral action pieces, where the violence and brutality, though often bloodless, is shockingly unsettling, Ranking of Kings could easily go down as one of the decade’s best anime – and one of the year’s best shows, period.
Also, it has the best OP in ages. [Allyson Johnson]
Sabikui Bisco feels like an anime out of time with a 90’s music video aesthetic and a plot that reads more like a fever dream. In spite of – or maybe because of – the bizarre plot structure, Sabikui Bisco is never uninteresting thanks to its dual best boys Milo and the titular Akaboshi Bisco. Both men have a lot more going on underneath their initial introduction to each other, which leads to a surprising place that most series like this would never dare follow, much less verbalize. Special attention should also be paid to the needle drops in this series; with a punchy heavy-rock focused soundtrack ready to pump another banger into the regularly occurring action scenes. Sabikui Bisco is ready at any time to get your head bobbing along to whatever weird adventure these mushroom brothers have gotten themselves into next. [Travis Hymas]
Sasaki to Miyano
Compared to some of the action-packed series that have dominated the first quarter of the year, Sasaki to Miyano is a breath of fresh air. This slice-of-life BL series based on the manga by Shō Harusono focuses on the titular characters Sasaki and Miyano as they grow close after an altercation leads them to each other one day after Miyano watches Sasaki step in to stop a group of bullies from targeting his friend. As their relationship develops and Sasaki realizes he has romantic feelings for the other boy, Miyano questions his feelings and preconceived notions of romance. The character designs are charming and the score filters in light and loose, dancing around the central duos dynamic. Perhaps the greatest aspect though, beyond the main relationship, is how well the animation style captures the mood and tone of the story. With soft yet vibrant colors, the show makes sure that light is captured to reflect how their emotions waver and shift over time. [Allyson Johnson]