What this list is:
This is a list of the anime and manga that I, as a feminist, recommend. A few anime may be openly and explicitly feminist in their message; others may focus on complex, well-written and fully-realized female characters; still others may have messages of empowerment and feature girls who grow into powerful young women. They are not flawless, and some may even be controversial. I’m including short descriptions – these are not intended to be full analyses, but just a brief, spoiler-free commentary on why it made the list
What this list is not:
This is not a list of all anime that I like. Not even close. Shows like Tiger and Bunny and Fullmetal Alchemist that focus on telling men’s stories have no place on this list. Not that I’ll never write about those shows – as my essay about Tiger and Bunny showed, there can be a lot of interesting stuff to discuss there! But they’re not going on this list.
This is not a list of feminist anime. Looking at a series and checking a box labeled “Feminist” or “Not Feminist” is BORING and binaristic, when the truth is almost always more complicated. Not doing that. Nope.
There are quite a few shows that deserve a spot on this list that I haven’t watched all the way through, or haven’t recently enough to feel comfortable making the recommendation.
Yusaku Godai hates his life: he lives in a run-down boarding house, his neighbors are all weirdos and drunks who have no greater pleasure than tormenting him, and he’s struggling to pass the entrance examinations of even third-rate colleges. He’s just about ready to move out when a beautiful young woman walks in and introduces herself as Kyoko Otonashi, the new manager. It’s love at first sight for Godai, but the recently-widowed Kyoko is still in mourning for her deceased husband.
It’s hard to describe exactly why I think Maison Ikkoku deserves a spot on this list; after all, it’s a shonen romance about a boy relentlessly pursuing an uninterested woman for years until she eventually accepts him. We’re expected to root for the lovable loser over his handsome, successful rival. At its worst, it’s a borderline-harem romcom. And yet…
And yet, at its best, it’s a bittersweet story about the natural grieving process. You see, Maison Ikkoku is just as much Kyoko’s story as it is Godai’s, and Takahashi always takes her feelings into account. The story takes place over a number of years, not because Godai has to wear her down, but because that’s how long it takes her to be ready to move on. A number of other female characters round out the cast. Some are never well-served by the medium and exist solely as obstacles and plot devices, but others are, as the narrative reaches the end game, important friends and allies to the protagonists. Godai himself also undergoes a huge transformation from an immature teenager to a man worthy of Kyoko’s respect and love. The love story of Maison Ikkoku is messy, drawn-out, and deeply human, and that’s what sets it apart.
Maison Ikkoku is pretty hard to get. The anime was never totally released on DVD, and what was is now long out of print. The manga is also out of print, but you can find copies of most of its volumes through Amazon Marketplace.
Twenty-seven-year-old Taeko Okajima dreams of the countryside. Despite being born and raised in Tokyo, she has always longed for a small hometown to return to like her classmates’ families. Now, she’s taking a trip to Yamagata to help with the safflower harvest and experience rural life for herself. While on the train, she begins to remember her childhood, and the memories continue flow as she settles into her temporary home.
For many years, Only Yesterday sat in licensing hell, held by a Disney that was mainly interested in the marketability of Hayao Miyazaki’s fantastical, family-friendly worlds while Isao Takahata’s more grounded stories remained in limbo. Now GKids possesses the license, and they have thankfully put in the effort to bring these movies the attention they deserve, including dubs and theatrical releases. Only Yesterday depicts a young woman who feels alienated and dissatisfied with city life, and as the movie examines her adolescence, it becomes clear that she has never truly felt at home. Taeko felt misunderstood by her sisters and stifled by her loving but overly stern father. The bumps and bruises of adolescence, both physical and psychological, are depicted with a sort of softness that doesn’t reduce them but makes them feel more relatable as Taeko reflects on the experiences that made her the woman she is today. Country life is quite romanticized when compared to the disconnect Taeko feels with her city origins, but viewed as a personal journey rather than an indictment of urban lifestyles, it makes for a beautiful, satisfying story.
Only Yesterday is not available streaming, but you can buy the Blu-Ray.
The Vision of Escaflowne
Hitomi Kanzaki is an ordinary high school girl whose hobbies are running on the track team and reading the tarot, both of which she’s better at than most. When she gets news her crush is moving overseas, she asks him to give her her first kiss if she can beat 13 seconds for the hundred-meter dash. Her race, and her first kiss, are interrupted by a young man fighting a dragon. A beam of light appears and pulls Hitomi into another world, a planet called Gaea where people call Earth “the Mystic Moon,” human-animal hybrids walk among normal humans, and battles are fought using sword-wielding giant robots. The Zaibach Empire has thrown Gaea into turmoil, including Fanelia, the home of Van Fanel, the boy who fought the dragon.
The Vision of Escaflowne, made in 1996, is the ultimate in 90’s anime aesthetic – a teenage girl in a school uniform pulled into another world with giant robots, winged pretty boys, catgirls, and love polygons. Its production history was troubled, a multi-year process full of redesigns, rewrites, and cuts in length. Its cast and crew include then-newcomers Maaya Sakamoto, Yoko Kanno, and Kazuki Akane. In short, the show is as 90’s as they come, and yet remains a classic, an important work in anime history. In original drafts, Hitomi was ditzy, curvy, and useful only because she was necessary to pilot the Escaflowne; Akane’s rewrites made her intelligent and athletic, an active and essential force in the story. The gender-balanced cast is well-rounded and interesting, showcasing a variety of personalities in women and men alike. Even 20 years later, The Vision of Escaflowne is well worth your time.
Revolutionary Girl Utena
Years and years ago, a little princess whose parents had just died was comforted by a prince on a white horse. As a result, she decided she wanted to become a prince herself. Years later, that little princess has grown up to be Utena Tenjou, who, guided by her chivalrous principles, is now one of the most adored students at Ohtori Academy. When she challenges the student council vice president to a duel, she finds herself embroiled in a strange game with the members of the school’s shadowy student council, competing for the engagement of Anthy Himemiya, the so-called Rose Bride, said to be in possession of a mysterious power.
Okay, so this one’s a gimme. Revolutionary Girl Utena is huge among anime-loving feminists, and with good reason. It’s a strange, surreal ride from start to finish, filled with abstract Freudian imagery that seems impenetrable at a glance. However, once you penetrate that layer, the themes about the struggle for agency and revolution in oppressive systems make it deeply applicable to feminism. The story touches on nearly every difficult theme under the sun, heavily featuring rape, incest, pedophilia, and so on, but handles the sensitive material in thoughtful ways. Plus, it’s chock-full of yuri overtones that aren’t male gazey! This show should be required viewing for pretty much everyone.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is available streaming in its entirety subtitled on Youtube
Ashitaka, a prince of the Emishi clan in Muromachi Japan, must leave his home after being cursed by a giant boar turned into a demon. He travels to the boar’s homeland to find the source of the rage and anger it felt as it died in hopes that he may lift the curse. His search brings him to Irontown, a new city led by Lady Eboshi, who is cutting down the primeval forest to get to the iron in the soil. Ashitaka finds himself caught in the middle as the gods of the forest wage war against Irontown along with San, a young woman raised by wolves.
This is it. The movie that started it all. Princess Mononoke made a profound impact on twelve-year-old me and cemented my lifelong love of anime as a medium. Having grown up on Disney films and mostly being exposed to anime through Pokemon and Ranma ½, it wasn’t until I saw Princess Mononoke in the theater that I really realized what anime was capable of. The beauty of the art and animation and the nuanced plot and characters were like nothing I had ever seen animated before, and I was entranced. The movie is known for a lot of things – there are so many elements and it does them all well – but among feminists it’s particularly popular for its nuanced female cast. Lady Eboshi isn’t just villainous or power-hungry; she’s trying to build a home for people deemed unwanted by society, particularly lepers and prostitutes, and is willing to do whatever it takes to secure that. San and her wolf-mother, Moro, are equally justified in defending their home. Ashitaka, as the uninvolved third party, struggles to reconcile their similar yet opposing desires, but many of the strongest driving forces in the film are female.
When ten-year-old Chihiro’s family gets lost searching for their new house, they end up in a crumbling abandoned theme park. When night falls, it turns out the theme park wasn’t so abandoned, and her parents get turned into pigs and kept at a bathhouse for the gods. In order to save them, Chihiro must take on a job as an attendant and survive in a world of gods and spirits that would like nothing more than to eat her.
Spirited Away is the film that made Miyazaki a household name in the US, collecting critical acclaim and Oscar buzz despite an initial limited release with little promotion from their licensors at Disney. And honestly, no wonder. The surreal imagery is distinctly Japanese but not to the point of of inaccessibility, and Chihiro’s emotional journey toward maturity is virtually universal. The film’s semi-episodic structure, with Chihiro having to deal with several interconnected but separate problems, beautifully displays how each moment is a learning experience and a chance for her to gain strength and wisdom and win allies. The central love story is predicated on her learning to understand and rescue the boy, and although others may assist her, no one rescues Chihiro at any point, allowing her to take charge in her own coming of age story.
Spirited Away is available on Blu-Ray/DVD from Disney
All My Darling Daughters
Yukiko is almost thirty, working full time, and still living with her mother Mari. Their relationship is contentious, but they are still the cornerstones of one another’s lives. However, after a cancer scare, Mari announces she’s gotten married – and the groom is a host-turned-actor in his 20’s. Yukiko struggles to cope with her family suddenly changing in the first of five interconnected short stories about Yukiko, Mari, and their loved ones.
I checked this one-shot by josei writer Fumi Yoshinaga out of the library on a whim one day, and it has been one of my absolute favorite manga since then. I love it so much, it’s honestly been a struggle to write about it just because I can’t seem to get my feelings about it in order for long enough to get anything coherent out! The book is intentionally and explicitly feminist, examining the state of women’s lives in the early 00’s, when it was written. Yukiko, Mari, and their friends all struggle with expectations they hold for the world and for themselves, and reconciling them with the realities of the time. Even with all the progress that has been made, there’s still so many things that aren’t quite fair – men not pulling their weight at home, even in dual-income homes; the cultural emphasis on marriage; the disproportionate importance put on women’s appearances; and many other things. The story is beautiful and raw, never quite angry but simmering with discontent nonetheless. The second story, unfortunately, is quite weak and involves a teacher and student being physically involved, and never feels like it quite fits in with the rest of the book.
Buy the manga
Recently-orphaned Tohru Honda lives in a tent in the woods to avoid being a burden to anyone. When her tent turns out to be on land belonging to her classmate Yuki Sohma and his cousin Shigure, they take her in as their live-in housekeeper. When Kyo, yet another cousin, comes literally crashing in, doesn’t take long for Tohru to (literally) stumble on the Sohmas’ secret: they turn into animals from the Chinese zodiac when hugged by members of the opposite sex! Even better, Kyo is the cat, who Tohru felt for from when she heard the story of his exclusion from the zodiac as a child. However, she soon discovers it’s not as cute it sounds – trauma and abuse lurks around ever corner of the Sohma household.
Fruits Basket came out in the US during the great manga boom of the 00’s and was a favorite of mine for many years. I rewatched it recently, not sure that it would hold up. I remembered Tohru as a likable heroine, spunky and empathetic, but I’ve been burned by nostalgia goggles before. I’m happy to report to all you mid-to-late-20’s fans who loved it back in the day that it holds up beautifully. Tohru’s optimism and empathy are admirable, but her awkwardness and occasional moments of weakness keep her grounded. The show is sensitive in its depictions of the mechanics of abuse and the physical and mental scars it leaves, but it’s realistic and graphic enough to be potentially triggering.
Once upon a time, the writer Drosselmeyer had the ability to write stories that came to life. He died while working on his masterpiece, The Prince and the Raven, and the titular characters were locked in a never-ending battle. Years later, the two broke free from the tale. The prince’s heart was shattered, leaving him an emotionless shell. The ghost of Drosselmeyer, unsatisfied with this ending, finds a duck to turn into Princess Tutu, a magical ballerina princess in love with the prince. As Princess Tutu, Duck must find the pieces of Prince Mytho’s heart and return them to him, but her schoolmates Fakir and Rue have other ideas…
A number of people have recommended Princess Tutu as a capital-F Feminist anime. Sadly, I didn’t really find that to be the case – even with a cast full of female characters, there isn’t really much commentary on the state of women in society. However, there was still a lot to sink my teeth into, which I loved. The show’s nickname “Utena Lite” is quite apt, as the show is drenched in symbolism and a constantly-shifting sense of unreality, but considerably lighter on Utena‘s mature themes. Possibly the show’s most notable trait is its use of music and dance – the score is almost entirely made of opera and ballet pieces, each of which carries thematic significance for the scene. However, even if you aren’t educated on that – I’m only slightly more knowledgeable than most thanks to years playing violin – there’s still tons of interesting use of fairy tale and folklore, not to mention a just plain good story.
Yukari Hayasaka never considered a life beyond prep school and college exams, until she is approached by a group of fashion students from Yazawa School for the Arts asking her to model for their senior art show. Yukari questions everything she ever knew when confronted with an outlook on life completely different from her own… and when she meets George Koizumi, the charismatic, eccentric leader of the group.
I’ve already written pretty extensively on Paradise Kiss, so here’s the short version: you’re not going to find a better girl’s coming-of-age story in any medium. Yukari’s struggle doesn’t just center around achieving a goal or getting the boy, but around learning to think for herself when her life, up until then, hadn’t prepared her for it. As she navigates the murky waters of independence, her relationship with the complex, damaged George is both a guiding beacon and a confusing fog. Nobody knows as much as they think they do and nothing comes easily, with even the greatest victories often tempered with dissatisfaction. Where most anime and manga set in high school these days have an element of nostalgic idealism, Paradise Kiss is challenging and realistic. As a bonus, there’s a respectfully-written trans woman character; however the manga loses points for some uncomfortable rape apologism.
Ouran High School Host Club
Ouran High School is a private school for the children of Japan’s super-elite. Those who can buy anything tend to get bored easily, so the host club was founded to provide its girls with a new form of entertainment. One day, working-class scholarship student Haruhi Fujioka stumbles in and breaks an expensive vase. To settle the debt, the host club forces Haruhi to work for them as a host – even after they discover she’s a girl.
Another reverse harem with only one prominent female character. But like Yona, Haruhi is an interesting enough character to place this show on the list. Her sarcastic pragmatism in the face of the over-the-top opulence of Ouran’s super-elite makes her relatable, but still imbues her with enough personality that she’s more than just an audience self-insert. It also adds a certain sharpness to her so her sweetness is more likable than saccharine. Most remarkable, though, is Haruhi’s flexible attitude toward gender (and could easily be interpreted as genderqueer), as the characters concerned about traditional gender roles, and thus how Haruhi violates them, are idiots. Be forewarned: Funimation’s translation uses transphobic slurs… though they can’t be blamed entirely, since the Japanese word they’re translating is also a slur. There are also “feminazi”-style characters, and a scene where Haruhi is threatened with sexual violence.
In the near future, everyday life is experienced through augmented reality glasses. Daikoku City is a particular center for it, with the entire town overlaid with a virtual reality infrastructure. Twelve-year-old Yuuko Okonogi, nicknamed Yasako, moves to the city and is swiftly drawn into the Hackers Club, a group of teenagers who turn the city into their own virtual reality playground and battle zone for their personal war of the sexes. But there’s another new girl in town: Yuuko Amasawa, and she’s not here to play games.
Den-noh Coil is one of my strongest recommendations on this page. The adolescent cast looks and acts like real twelve-year-olds, rather than a fantasized moe version of what people who have never spoken to a real child since they graduated elementary school themselves thinks they would act like. The multi-generational cast is split equally between male and female, and the girls are allowed to carry the plot rather than being shoved out of the spotlight to let the boys take center stage. Den-noh Coil does so many things right, in fact, it’s possible to sit back and enjoy the very strong story without those constant niggling little bits of sexism that can feel omnipresent in media.
Tsukimi is an awkward, painfully shy young woman obsessed with jellyfish. Fortunately for her, she has found a warm, comforting home at the Amamizukan, a boarding house populated with fujoshi who have just as little interest in fitting into mainstream Japanese society as she does. Due to a chance encounter, the beautiful and wealthy cross-dressing Kuranosuke comes crashing into their insular little world.
Princess Jellyfish gets points alone for being one of the few anime with diverse female body types. At only eleven episodes, it’s short and sweet – a pleasant way to spend a weekend afternoon. With its short run-time, the show plays up its characters’ quirky personalities, but what they represent to each other has an authenticity to it that makes them lovable and relatable. Kuranosuke and the Amars, particularly Tsukimi, have a lot to learn from each other, and the show both respects and criticizes the disparate worlds they inhabit.
Twins Shouma and Kanba live alone with their terminally ill little sister Himari. One day, on a family outing to the aquarium, Himari collapses and is declared dead at the hospital. All seems lost, until she is mysteriously revived by an alien in the form of a cute penguin hat they bought at the gift shop. The alien demands the brothers bring her something called a penguindrum so that she can save Himari’s life.
Want a series that will challenge you intellectually and destroy you emotionally? Then Penguindrum is the right show for you! Ikuhara’s follow-up to Utena is difficult to discuss, both because it’s important to go in as fresh as possible, and because it is one of the densest, most literary anime ever made. Don’t let that scare you away, because it’s also a beautiful story about grief, mortality, and redemption – all largely centering around the power within teenage girls.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Madoka Kaname has no special talents or abilities. She isn’t particularly smart, nor is she especially dumb. But she does have good friends, a great role model in her working mom, and a dad who stays home to take care of her baby brother. Strange things start happening when in the same day, her class gets a new transfer student and she rescues a small, catlike animal who promises to grant her a wish in exchange for making a contract and becoming a magical girl…
There’s not much to say about Madoka that hasn’t been said, then argued over, then nitpicked endlessly. I’ve come down on the side of liking the show as a feminist, regardless of Urobuchi’s intentions. The corruption of idealism and the destructiveness of the rage and pain that Madoka and her friends suffer through is one that speaks to me deeply. The whole thing is actually an intelligent examination of the concept of magical girls and what they represent about girls’ and women’s position in Japanese society.
The Woman Called Fujiko Mine
Fujiko Mine lives by simple rules: if she wants something, she takes it. She loves sex, money, jewels, and pretty things, and will stop at nothing to get them. Only a few men dare to pursue her, among them famed thief Arsene Lupin III, and Inspector Zenigata, but no one knows what truly drives her. Who is the woman called Fujiko Mine?
Dripping with sex and nudity, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine seems at first to be an odd choice for this list, but those familiar with it will know better: like Utena and Maria the Virgin Witch, Fujiko is on my short list of feminist anime. The director, Sayo Yamamoto, is a woman, and it shows in her take on one of the most iconic women in anime. Here is a show that not only talks the talk about a sexually empowered woman, but walks the walk – a true rarity. If you find yourself going a bit sour on it towards the end, as I did, stick it out. The last couple episodes have a plot twist that cast everything in a new light and transform the pulpy crime show into a commentary on agency and society’s obsession with psychoanalyzing so-called “bad girls”.
Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun
Chiyo Sakura has been crushing on the tall, taciturn, handsome Umetaro Nozaki since the first day of school. When she finally gets up the nerve to confess to him, he hands her an autograph reading “Yumeno Sakiko”. When she tries again a few days later, she finds herself recruited as an assistant on his popular shoujo manga, Let’s Fall in Love!
The main reason to recommend Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is simple: it’s funny. Wildly, uproariously funny. It gleefully plays with shoujo tropes and expectations, affectionately skewering mediocre manga with Nozaki’s desperately bland Let’s Fall in Love! Nozaki’s manga is largely informed by the people around him – but most of his female characters are based on boys, and vice versa. Combined with a fantastic, lovable ensemble cast, this allows the show to experiment with breaking gender norms and expectations. Shippers will delight in mixing and matching the show’s implied couples, though it is hard to imagine anyone who could stand in the way of Sakura’s desperate, adorable, possibly requited crush on Nozaki.
Yona of the Dawn
The sheltered, spoiled redheaded princess Yona’s world is disrupted when her beloved cousin Soo-Won murders her father and usurps the throne on her sixteenth birthday. She and her bodyguard Hak set out to find the Four Dragons, warriors with supernatural powers connected to her by destiny.
Yona of the Dawn has the unfortunate disadvantage of, like many action shoujo stories, only having one prominent female character. But what a character she is! Yona, though naive, shows real leadership qualities from the very start of the show and develops from there. The really special thing, though, isn’t just how enormous the change in her character is, but how it feels earned. Unlike some reverse-harem heroines I could mention *coughMIAKAcough*, Yona doesn’t lean totally on her warriors, but rather struggles to be a valuable member of the team herself. She works hard to learn to fight, to understand the devastation her father’s spineless policies inflicted on the kingdom, and to grow into her role as a leader.
The series remains woefully incomplete. Let’s hope for a second season.
Maria the Virgin Witch
In the last stages of the Hundred Years’ War, there lived a witch named Maria. While most witches profit from the war, Maria intervenes to stop every battle she can. Also unlike most witches, Maria is a virgin. The Archangel Michael descends and tells Maria that if she continues to interfere, God will strike her down and, as a test of her conviction, she will lose her powers if she has sex.
Although the premise sounds trashy, Maria the Virgin Witch actually starts off as a sweet, well-written sex comedy, and evolves into a thoughtful study of female sexuality and purity. In fact, it’s one of the very few shows I would consider feminist! A study of the macro through the micro, each member of the cast of complex human characters represents a different worldview in a complicated struggle. The sexual humor is, other than one unfortunate rape joke, tasteful and non-exploitative and as the show darkens, it continues to treat the subject matter with the respect it deserves, including one brutal but mercifully unsexualized attempted rape. There are also some great female friendships and a very sweet romance.
After a school festival ended poorly, Kumiko Oumae isn’t sure she wants to keep playing the euphonium when she starts high school. The concert band at her new school is terrible, and she thinks of joining the soccer club instead. Nonetheless, she somehow ends up recruited and finds herself in a band with Reina, an ambitious trumpeter she played with in middle school, being directed by the unconventional new teacher, Noboru Taki.
Kyoto Animation has a well-earned reputation for being The Moe Studio, and while Sound! Euphonium has a bit of that, it overcomes a lot of the moe tropes the studio is known for. For starters, the main characters, Kumiko and Reina, feel like more than a pile of archetypes. Kumiko is gloomy and a bit stand-offish, and Reina is intense, driven, and weird in a way most of her peers find off-putting, making the connection between them compelling and powerful. Also essential to the show’s success is the accurate portrayal of the camaraderie and emotional highs and lows of high school music programs.
Sound! Euphonium is available on Crunchyroll
My LOVE Story!!
Oversized, brash, but goodhearted Takeo Gouda has a problem: every girl he has ever liked crushes on his best friend Sunakawa, who inevitably rejects them. When Suna seems to take a shine to Rinko Yamato, an adorable girl Takeo rescued from a pervert on the train, Takeo decides to shove aside his own feelings and hook the two up. But it’s not Suna that Yamato is interested in!
At a time when most high school shoujo romances tend to feature mean-spirited and unlikable love interests, the sweet-natured My Love Story is like a refreshing breeze. Takeo and Yamato’s relationship is strong and healthy, and while the two are a bit idealized, Takeo’s larger than life personality bounces off the other characters in ways that never grow stale or cease to be entertaining. While the show is told from Takeo’s perspective, Yamato has plenty of personality of her own, and the two complement each other beautifully. The show addresses issues such as trust and jealousy, the validity of even inconvenient feelings, and the assumptions that girls are more pure. The show isn’t perfect, but there’s a lot to love about My Love Story!!
Like her father Hokusai, O-Ei is an artist. This unconventional daughter of an unconventional father doesn’t cook or clean, or do any of the usual woman’s work. Instead, she paints, watches firefighters at work, and cares for her blind younger sister, O-Nao. The film Miss Hokusai follows several episodes in the life of the artist as a young woman.
Hopefully this summary makes it absolutely clear that the main character of Miss Hokusai is O-Ei, not Hokusai himself. Despite her being the title character and the focus of every scene, members of the audience sometimes viewed O-Ei as a sort of narrator of the life of her more-famous father. These people were invariably disappointed, which is a shame, because Miss Hokusai is a lovely film if you don’t go in with the wrong expectations. There is little-to-nothing in the way of story; rather, O-Ei’s personality is put on display through a series of vignettes. She is believably multi-faceted: blunt and brusque with her male colleagues, tender with O-Nao, and awkward in matters of sex and romance. Fans of Edo-period history and ukiyo-e arts will also enjoy the familiar names and artwork in the cast of characters.
Yuki Takeya is a member of the Living at School Club along with her friends Kurumi, Miki, Yuuri, their teacher Megu-nee, and their dog Taroumaru. The six of them are to live out their lives at school without ever leaving. And why would anyone want to leave school? It has everything you could ever need.
As many before me have noted, it’s really really hard to talk about School-Live without discussing the big twist at the end of the first episode. So, if you’re thinking about watching it and don’t want to be spoiled, I recommend you go watch the first episode before reading the rest of this entry. Spoilers aside, School-Live shocked me. What appeared to be yet another “cute girls doing cute things” show ended up being one of the best shows of the season. I expected it to go one of two ways: “cute girls doing cute things and occasionally killing zombies” or “cute girls being tortured”. What I got instead was an excellent story about survival, endurance, and hope. The other girls treat Yuki’s delusions with respect, allowing her to hold onto them until she herself finds the strength to cope with their situation. In turn, Yuki’s buoyant nature helps keep their spirits up and break the monotony of being trapped in a school surrounded by zombies. One bad swimsuit fanservice episode aside, School-Live is a well-told story of girls supporting one another to survive.
Space Patrol Luluco
Luluco is doing her very best to live an ordinary middle school life. It’s not easy, since her hometown, Ogikubo, is a space colony populated with all sorts of aliens; her father is an officer of the Space Patrol; and her mother left them some months ago. She’s doing her best, and largely succeeding, until two things happen in one day: a beautiful boy named Alpha Omega Nova transfers to her school, and her father accidentally eats space contraband that freezes him completely, forcing her to become a member of the Space Patrol herself!
Space Patrol Luluco is a short series consisting of twelve ten-minute episodes. It’s also a product of Studio Trigger and directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, the man best known for the hypermasculine Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and controversial, breast-laden Kill La Kill. It was also made to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the studio, featuring unsubtle references to their previous works. With its origins, it’s not a show that I would have expected to put on the list, but here we are. Space Patrol Luluco’s energy is pure-strain Imaishi: rapid-fire and bizarre, with logic that really only allows for suspension of disbelief due to its internal consistency. It is also surprisingly sweet, as Luluco struggles to navigate the treacherous and unfamiliar territory of first love in addition to accomplishing her mission and getting her father back. The show confronts the idea that teenage girls’ feelings are silly and overblown, demanding that they be treated as valid and just as worthy of respect as any other person’s.
Please Tell Me! Galko-chan
Galko is a sharp-tongued yet kind high school girl. At school, she enjoys hanging out with her friends Otako and Ojou and talking about anything and everything.
Short summary, right? That’s because Please Tell Me! Galko-chan has little in way of plot or development of any sort. I only ended up watching it because of positive word-of-mouth, since Galko’s exaggeratedly curvy body type and the series description evoked visions of fan service and pandering, reference-heavy conversations. I could not have been more wrong.
There’s a lot of anime about some aspect of adolescence – adolescent love, the pressures of exams and other aspects of high school life, of enjoying one’s youth. Few of them touch on just how gross adolescence can be, with changing bodies that bleed and swell and sprout hair, and how hard it can be to understand what exactly is even happening down there. Please Tell Me! Galko-chan is about exactly that, as the characters talk about their bodies with casual, matter-of-fact humor. It’s remarkably body-positive, showcasing a variety of body types in a nonjudgmental manner. It was a ten-minute spot of sunshine every week during its run, and I can only hope for a sequel series, poop jokes and all.
Chitose Karasuma is an up-and-coming voice actress. Well, up-and-coming may be a bit of a stretch – she’s been in the field for a year and has only really played minor characters. One day, her talent is finally recognized (a director cast her because he liked her at a wrap party), and Chitose’s has to keep up as her world expands to include hard work, veteran colleagues, and the court of public opinion.
Girlish Number kind of snuck under the radar as it aired, which is a shame. Chitose is something of an unusual heroine, in that she is a total mess of a human being and not in a cute way. She’s lazy, vain, and selfish and all too happy to skate by on the hard work of others. Girlish Number takes a look at what happens when a person like that grabs a lucky break and must cope with a sudden flood of new responsibilities and higher expectations. It could easily have been an overblown and cliched story about the unexpected price of success, but rather it’s a surprisingly relatable story of Chitose realizing that she’s in over her head and trying to figure out how to keep from drowning. She is lucky to be buoyed by her relationships with those around her, including her older brother/manager, a failed voice actor himself, and the other voice actresses in the cast. Girlish Number deserves commendation for being unafraid of having an unlikable heroine who, although she grows throughout the series, never really becomes a kind or good person. It also gets bonus points for skewering light novel anime.
Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid
Kobayashi, a coder living by herself, gets a surprise one day when she opens her door and finds a dragon standing there. The dragon, who transforms into a busty young woman and calls herself Tohru, says that Kobayashi invited her to be her live-in maid. Oh, and also that she is romantically and sexually attracted to her. Kobayashi, though reluctant at first, allows Tohru to stay with her. Tohru must learn to live and behave in the human world, and Kobayashi must learn to be okay with Tohru’s strange friends and their comings and goings. Neither of their lives will ever be the same.
Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid was yet another anime I had low expectations for, but was pleasantly surprised to find one of the best shows of the season. Instead of a fanservice-oriented, LGBT-tinged sex comedy (although there is still plenty of both those things), it turned out to largely be a sweet slice-of-life show about found families and outsiders finding their own space, with Kyoto Animation’s signature expressive animation. Kobayashi is strongly lesbian-coded, and her relationship with Tohru feels more authentic than in most vaguely homoerotic stories. Kobayashi’s loneliness collides with Tohru’s baggage from her previous life as a dragon locked in deadly war with humans, creating a healing relationship for both of them. There is some uncomfortable comedy – there’s an eight-year-old with a crush that many viewers felt went too far, and a female dragon who doesn’t understand why bathing in human form with a terrified eight-year-old boy is inappropriate.