It’s been a while since I updated my recommendations! I’m going to start aiming for at least quarterly updates, so while it may not include all the best anime from the previous season, it’ll give you a better idea of what I’ve been reading and watching lately.
Beauty is the Beast
Fruits Basket (manga update)
Dawn of the Arcana
In This Corner of the World
Recovery of an MMO Junkie
Fushigi Yugi (yes, really!)
Beauty is the Beast
When Eimi Yamashita’s parents move abroad for work, she decides to go live in her school’s dorm. Her quirky, off-beat personality and carefree nature quickly endear her to her dormmates, as well as some of the residents of the boys’ dorm. She finds herself most drawn to Wanibuchi, a young man with a dangerous reputation.
Beauty is the Beast makes an interesting addition to the army of shoujo manga centered around a troubled bad boy. Viz’s copy makes it sound like a romantic melodrama, but it’s much closer to a slice-of-life comedy with some sprinkling of drama. Mangaka Tomo Matsumoto draws on her own experiences from living in a dorm, using them as a source for characters and plot threads, giving it a gentle, grounded atmosphere. I don’t know if Eimi is based on reality – she’s a bit too airheaded and strange to feel quite real. Wanibuchi, on the other hand, is indeed a troubled bad boy, but in a much more believable way than most of his ilk. His anger is justified, and his sense of alienation as a returnee comes across keenly. He never turns his anger against Eimi, nor does the narrative put pressure on her to “fix” him. It’s a light, pleasant read with enough darker undertones to make it compelling. Unfortunately, it ends quite abruptly – I suspect it was cancelled in its original run. It’s a shame, because I would have loved to read more.
Office lady by day, call girl by night – Yumiko works hard to support her lifestyle, which involves buying herself lots of nice things and feeding her pink pet crocodile, Croc. She hates her gold-digger stepmother but loves her half-sister. One day she meets Haru, an aspiring writer who just happens to be sleeping with her stepmother, and starts her own affair with him.
Kyoko Okazaki was one of the early progenitors of josei manga and remains one of its smartest, most pointed artists. Pink is something of a Cinderella story, if Cinderella were set in bubble economy Japan and Cinderella and the Prince weren’t much better than the evil stepmother. Pink was written before Japan’s economy crashed, at a time when it was at its most frenziedly capitalistic. Minor absurdities, like Croc, allow for sharp social commentary as Okazaki semi-affectionately writes about the decadence and emotional and spiritual poverty that go hand-in-hand with the era’s commodity fetishism. It’s an interesting, challenging work that definitely isn’t for everyone.
Fruits Basket (updated)
Now, the manga runs way longer than the anime did (arguably too long), and digs into the Sohma curse with much greater depth and detail. While Akitaro Daichi is a director with a truly unique energy and style, he was not the best fit for this project. Natsuki Takaya’s original vision of Fruits Basket is an allegorical tale of familial abuse and the lasting psychological scars it causes. It’s imperfect – it runs too long, compulsively matches its characters up, and has a disturbing number of adult/minor pairings – but overall makes for an engrossing, emotionally satisfying read.
Dawn of the Arcana
In the kingdom of Belquat, hair color is an indicator of status: black hair shows royal blood, while blonde and brown hair belong to peasants. Red hair only belongs to the lowest of the low. So when the redheaded Princess Nakaba of Senan marries Prince Caesar, she suffers poor treatment at the hands of her new family. Her only ally is her ajin servant, Loki, who has a similarly low status. But when she awakens to the Arcana of Time, the ability to see the past and predict the future, the future of both kingdoms may be up to her.
So, Dawn of the Arcana comes with a couple caveats. In the first volume, Caesar treats Nakaba terribly, but improves rapidly after that into a kind, caring husband. Also, the world politics and treatment of conflict is a bit half-baked, since 13 volumes is far too short to tell the kind of story Rei Toma wanted to. Still, it’s pretty solid YA fantasy at a time where this kind of story has grown rarer and rarer in shoujo manga as supernatural and school romances became the big sellers. Nakaba is a well-rounded heroine, resilient and resourceful from years of surviving bullying and abuse. Her relationship with Caesar is important to her, but she prioritizes her own goals and ideals over pursuing love. Toma prioritizes her emotional journey and growth as she must make tough decisions, at times even having to decide who lives and who dies. Dawn of the Arcana may be a bit weak for adult readers or those of us who are well-read in fantasy, but it makes great reading for young women.
At 26, Nagisa has been cosplaying for 10 years and is something of a perfectionist. Despite her height and age, she loves to cosplay as cute, young characters, especially the magical girl, MagiRuru. With her best friend Kimiko behind the camera, she’s as close to anime as reality can get, or so she believes. But when the cute-as-a-button teenager Aya looks to her for mentorship, Nagisa must reevaluate her life as a cosplayer.
If you are an adult in fandom, Complex Age is an absolute must-read. It takes a long, brutally honest about exactly what it means to participate publicly in fandom past a certain age, the potential ramifications, and all the factors that go into whether or not to continue. The first volume can be off-putting to a lot of people – Nagisa is insecure and snobby, and there’s a one-shot with similar themes about a Gothic Lolita deciding to give up her hobby – and its Goodreads page is peppered with one-star reviews. Those impressions are totally fair, and I had the same worries. However, my love for the series only grew with each volume, as Yui Sakuma explores her characters’ normal lives, cosplayer lives, and the crossover between the two. I’ve only ever dabbled in cosplay, but I saw a lot of my own life as a congoer and critic reflected in its pages. It’s a beautiful story about doing what you love, and the role it plays in your life as you grow and age.
In This Corner of the World
In the year 1944, Suzu moves to Kure to marry a man who she’s barely even met. Though he’s kind, Suzu struggles clumsily to adjust to the life and duties of a wife and meet the expectations of her new family. It’s hard, but she makes it through with her love of art and growing feelings for her husband. Meanwhile, the war encroaches on every aspect of their life.
Pretty much everyone has made the Grave of the Fireflies comparison, so just to add my voice to the chorus: Grave of the Fireflies is a film about the victims of way, while In This Corner of the World is a movie about survivors. Both are beautiful, heartbreaking movies, but the latter ends with a message of hope. If you object to sympathetic depictions of wartime Japan, this one is not for you. However, if you can accept that, In This Corner of the World is easily one of the most moving stories I’ve ever watched. Suzu is not, in any sense of the word, a strong heroine. She’s clumsy and awkward and suffers terribly from the stress of failing to live up to the expectations of her in-laws. The best she can do in the face of the war is to endure it and try to make the best of things. She is a well-behaved woman, not making history. But while she’s not strong, she’s well-rounded and complex. She doesn’t just endure hardship with a smile on her face – she does her best, but she also gets frustrated and exhausted and even angry with the hand she’s been dealt. The realism adds to the film’s emotional impact, and I cried several times.
Cocona is your average, everyday middle school student trying to figure out what she wants to do for high school. Well, she was until the half-feral Papika comes crashing into her life, dragging her into a strange organization called Flip Flap. Forced into a partnership with this wild girl, Cocona must enter Pure Illusion and recover fragments. However, they’re not the only ones after these fragments.
Flip Flappers is an utterly fascinating show. Much of it is a confusing kaleidoscope of imagery, bright and colorful and hard to make top or bottom of. It doesn’t help that the writing only gives information in drips and drabs, with very little expository dialogue. It’s a show that puts a lot of faith in its viewers, for better or worse. However, all the bizarre imagery is a purpose, using the “anything goes” nature of Pure Illusion to build up complex symbolic systems. Underneath all the symbolism and imagery lies a deeply emotional core, sensitively portraying queer female adolescent sexuality. Sometimes the sexual imagery goes too far and dips into fan service territory – the director is a man, and it shows at times like that – but it’s a show worth engaging with.
Recovery of an MMO Junkie
Unfortunately, the director of MMO Junkie, Kazuyoshi Yaginuma is an Anti-Semite and believer in Jewish conspiracies. His views are not present in the show, which is based on a webcomic by a female mangaka, Rin Kokuyo. Signal.MD, the studio that produced the anime, has put out a statement that they will not be working with him again, and he does not receive royalties. Many fans have stated they will not be promoting or engaging with the show in the future, and I struggled with it as well. I’m choosing to leave it up to you, the reader, to decide whether or not to watch it.
Moriko Morio is thirty years old and totally burned out. She quits her job, unable to cope with corporate life and its crushing conformity and long hours. Searching for something to do with her surfeit of free time, she picks up the roleplaying game Fruits de Mer and makes herself a handsome boy to play as. In-game, she meets Lily, a cute girl who helps her learn the ropes. Not long after, she has a fateful meeting with a blonde-haired young man…
When Recovery of an MMO Junkie first premiered, a lot of fans were nervous about the direction it could go in. Anime fandom is, after all, largely populated by nerds who do a lot of socializing online – would the show be an indictment of our internet-oriented lifestyle? Would Moriko learn that the internet is a waste of time and cheerfully reintegrate into the story? Critically-minded fans had other concerns: Would Moriko be railroaded into a gender normative life? Fortunately, the answer to all those questions was, “Not at all.” Moriko’s “recovery” mentioned in the title is not from internet addiction, but from depression and burnout from corporate Japan’s punishing conformity and long hours, not to mention the gendered expectations. It presents friendships found through the internet and gaming as authentic and essential to Moriko’s healing. Moriko herself is something of a hot mess, but in a way that geeky women in their 30’s can find relatable. The romance is sweet and founded on mutual interests, rounded out by a likable supporting cast.
Fifteen-year-old Miaka has it rough. Her mom wants her to go to a top high school, but she hates studying and isn’t very smart. When she falls into a book called The Universe of the Four Gods and the handsome emperor ask her to become the Priestess of Suzaku in exchange for having her wishes granted, she jumps at the chance. Now she must gather the seven Celestial Warriors in order to summon the god, but that may not be as easy as it seemed at first.
I really and truly struggled with whether to include this. Fushigi Yugi has a lot of issues that have made it age poorly, including homophobic/transphobic humor and overuse of sexual assault as a source of drama. When it was on Crunchyroll, it became something of a meme for people to watch it and make fun of it. However, it’s also one of the first anime I ever watched and one of the ones that hit me hardest. But not to worry, I’m not recommending it out of pure nostalgia; I do think the series has a lot to offer people who watch it with an open heart and open mind and a willingness to forgive its flaws. Few series really and truly understand the heart of a teenage girl the way Fushigi Yugi did, no doubt aided by how young mangaka Yuu Watase was when she wrote it. As the series takes care to address Miaka’s deep-seated hopes and anxieties, she displays significant growth as a character and comes into her own by the end of the story, supported by a genuinely likable ensemble supporting cast. It’s a raw, messy story, but one worth your time.
And if you can’t forgive the original series’ issues – and I don’t blame you if you can’t – I still recommend the prequel, Genbu Kaiden. Since it came out in 2009, over 15 years after the original, it’s a much more polished piece of work. I think it loses some of that raw appeal, but it does display considerably more educated and progressive attitudes and a more evenly-paced story. Takiko is a much more competent main character, and the central love story leans less codependent.