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Binge Log: The anime worth watching from Winter 2017

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Japanator Recommends: Winter 2017 Edition

Did you know that there are more anime series being made now than ever before? The year isn't even over yet, and dozens of new shows have already debuted. Take 1998, the year of the legendary Cowboy Bebop. That year produced about 60 or 70 anime series. 2016 saw nearly 180 try to make their mark in a crowded season. 

That's more than a human can reasonably be expected to watch, even for an aspiring otaku. Thankfully, the age of streaming means that it's easier and cheaper than ever to pick up a show after the fact, binge-watching batches or entire seasons when the spirit strikes.

But that still leaves a lot of chaff to separate out from the wheat. That's where we come in. Read on for a mere handful of binge-worthy shows of the last season, where to watch them, and why they're worth checking out!

[Note: This guide is based on viewing availability for North America. Accessibility and services may differ across regions.]

Descending Stories: Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu

What is it?: A period drama stretching from pre-World War II through to the present, centered on a family of entertainers that do Rakugo, a traditional Japanese form of storytelling involving one man on a stage.

Why watch it? I singled Descending Stories out in my game (and anime) of the year listing, and I'm happy to have the opportunity to boost it again, especially now that the story saw its end this past winter. My feelings on the show haven't changed since then, and it's one of the few anime I can heartily recommend without qualification.

That's a rare thing, to be frank. I'm often forced to say "Well, it's anime, but..." when trying to get non-otaku to watch these things, but Descending Stories would be a really good show about storytellers in a changing Japan regardless of whether its characters were drawings on screen or flesh-and-blood actors. You might even imagine a western adaptation focusing on some other dying traditional performance art. Maybe some kind of Irish dancing?

That it is animated does helps in the second season, though, as the show leans in more with the legacy of famed Rakugo practitioner Yakumo the 8th, as he ages and struggles with how the thing he's best at - Rakugo - has made him miserable his whole life. That sounds like a downer, but there's a lot of warmth to be found seeing things change for Yakumo's family and the man who would succeed him, an ex-Yakuza named Yotaro.

Where can I watch it?: Descending Stories: Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is available for viewing on Crunchyroll.

What else can I try? If rakugo seems a bit too "Japanese" for your taste, or the story skews a little older than you'd prefer, how about a round of Shogi? March Comes In Like A Lion leverages the intricacies of "Japanese chess" and involves the more youthful dramatics of Rei, a 17-year-old pro Shogi player with a lot of problems. The show doesn't lose the focus on relationships, and continues in the heartstring-tugging vein of tackling maturation, estrangement, and abuse. It's also on Crunchyroll and Daisuki.

 

Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans

What is it? The latest entry in Bandai's long-running Gundam franchise. 300 years after the apocalyptic Calamity War, the Martian child soldiers of Tekkadan struggle to find their place in a world that spits on "human debris" like them. Good thing they've got a leader with vision, Orga Itsuka, and an ace pilot, Mikazuki Augus, as well as Gundam Barbatos, a powerful mecha from the war, to help with that.

Why watch it? For one, it's the best way to get to know Barbatos, the new Gundam that's set to show up in the upcoming Gundam Versus game. Beyond that, mecha shows, especially ones with pretensions to "harder" sci-fi, tend to get a bad rap, often thought of as overly dry, and in Gundam's case, toyetic. The truth is that they're quite characterful, though that voice can often get drowned out by lore bloat, awkward writing, and the need to always be selling the next set of plastic models. 

Iron-Blooded Orphans is a happy (or tragic?) outlier when it comes to that pattern. I think it comes partly down to a shift in perspective. Gundam's heroes have typically come from privilege or the military. The "human debris" of Tekkadan, mostly kids, many of them illiterate, forced to undergo dangerous surgery to let them pilot mecha and fight, are little more than slaves, raised in violence. No surprise, then, that it's by violence, and audacity, that they try to carve a future from a hostile status quo. The change in status makes Gundam's pet themes of war and its costs resonate that much more strongly and allows Iron-Blooded Orphans to take and remix well-known Gundam tropes to new, fresh effect.

The impact's further underscored by the setting's approach to the Gundam aesthetic, as well. Iron-Blooded Orphans is a more low-tech Gundam, with chunky mobile suits named after Goetia's demons duking it out with huge, clanging medieval weapons, with nary a beam in sight. It's the best show this side of Broken Blade to watch if you want to see some mecha just wreck shit with a huge mace.

Where can I watch it? Both seasons of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans are available on Crunchyroll and Daisuki.net, as well as on Bandai's GundamInfo YouTube channel.

What else can I try? Want the painful humanity of the best Gundam stories without Iron-Blooded Orphans' emphasis on hot, shirtless young boys and tacit endorsements of polygamy and child marriage? Or maybe you only have a couple of hours to kill? Try Gundam Thunderbolt, a side story set in the waning years of Gundam's core mythology, the One Year War. The fighting takes place in the "Thunderbolt" sector, a ruined space station zone crawling with mech-borne snipers and deadly debris. Federation soldiers struggling to retake the zone must take down Zeon's "Living Dead" division, a battalion of maimed aces with little left to lose. With a first "season" of four episodes released over the last couple of years, the animation is gorgeous, with some intense, music-inspired directing, top-tier mecha action, and a minimum of ugly CG. Actually, if you're watching Iron-Blooded Orphans, watch this, too. Sadly, you'll have to work a little bit harder to find it, as Bandai seems bent on just distributing it via limited, timed release on its YouTube channel

 

Konosuba: God's Blessing on This Wonderful World

What is it? Local moron Kazuma Satou dies in an embarrassing, hilarious way and is granted the chance to be reborn anew in another world, one that just so happens to conform to the many tropes of a classic fantasy role-playing game, complete with destined hero, evil overlord, and stalwart party members. Nothing happens as it should, though, as Kazuma arrives in his new environs with no heroic destiny and nothing but the tracksuit on his back and a goddess – the divine dope Aqua – in tow. Sitcom antics ensue.

Why watch it? Comedy anime tend to take two broad paths: One is to construct a cast of walking punchlines and then run those punchlines into the ground, and another is to build the show in such a way that the setting and premise are essentially meaningless, serving merely as staging for a series of non-sequiturs and gags.

Konosuba takes more after the classic sitcom mold, using the characters and their chemistry while shaping their circumstances to induce a variety of reactions in the viewer, from laughs to cute "awws" to heavy breathing thirst. Individually, the cast are old archetypes, though twisted just enough to be entertainingly broken. Kazuma's a classical everyman, but he's much closer to a real person in that he's just as cynical, jaded, and self-serving as a flesh-and-blood putz from the real world. The same goes for his companions, with a specialized mage so obsessed with her special spell it's all she can cast, and a tank-build knight so valiant about protecting people she gets off on taking damage.

Between them and their antics, the show is the paragon example of "failing upward," their incompetence and oafishness still managing to net them some measure of success thanks to pure luck and the occasional flash of decency. And unlike many ostensible "comedy" shows, it's got some genuinely good animation most of the time, with able direction and possibly the strongest facial expression game of the last few years. Practically every frame Aqua's drawn in could be used as a funny reaction face.

Where can I watch it? Both seasons of Konosuba are available for viewing on Crunchyroll. Australian and New Zealander viewers can catch it on AnimeLab.

What else can I try? If you ever needed more proof that microtransactions are the devil's work, give Gabriel DropOut a gander. In it, honor-student angel Gabriel White discovers the dubious charms of free-to-play MMORPGs during a semester on Earth. This exemplar of late capitalism causes her fall, much to the chagrin of her more prim and proper buddies, of both the heavenly and infernal persuasion. It's a more conventional anime comedy compared to Konosuba, but fans will find some impressive comic timing in some of the gags, if nothing else. Catch it on Crunchyroll.

Ms. Kobayashi's Dragon Maid

What is it? Tired programmer Kobayashi wakes up one morning to a strange sight: A giant green dragon, straight out of a fantasy novel. The dragon then transforms into a girl, Tohru, who then pledges to be her maid, fulfilling a promise made one booze-filled night in the forest. 

Why watch it? A strong contender for the much-sought after honor of "gayest thing ever," Ms. Kobayashi's Dragon Maid ("Maidragon" for short) is a brilliant little entry into the old-fashioned "magical girlfriend" subgenre. Usually shows of this persuasion pair some milquetoast nothing of a man with a hot alien, cyborg, android, or even monster-girl. Maidragon stands out by bringing something for everyone. For traditional fans, it's a capable, adult romantic romp, with the reserved Kobayashi playing foil to the high-energy magical beast that is her dragon girlfriend/housekeeper. There's also a gag comedy in there, with Tohru and her other dragon friends - including legendary wyrm Fafnir and the divine Quetzalcoatl - struggling to adapt to living in the real world. Even action fans can chew on some high-quality animated sequences courtesy of the folks at Kyoto Animation. The real draw, for me, at least, is the surprisingly touching family show at Maidragon's heart. It excels at calling up the same warm feeling you get when watching videos of cute relatives or beloved pets. It's light viewing, but it doesn't feel like an empty time-waster, and that's a tough balance to strike for any medium.

Where can I watch it? Crunchyroll has the full season, and the English dubbed version has been licensed by FUNimation, as well. Seven Seas is publishing the source manga.

What else can I try? Viewers wanting to keep things a bit, uh, straighter between humans and magical creatures can try Interviews with Monster Girls, which recasts such mythic existences as vampires, dullahans, and succubi as mere people with peculiar conditions. One young biology teacher is lucky enough to work at a school with a handful of these "demi-humans" attending, and seeks to learn more. Interviews is a bit more typical thanks to its high-school setting, and tries a little harder for the romance angle (particularly with the succubus math teacher), but still works to establish a similar, quasi-familial warmth to Maidragon, as well as raising themes of accepting difference and empathizing with others. Also, the voice of Fate/stay night's Archer gets to play a dopey-but-hot teacher, and it's oddly appropriate. Try it on Crunchyroll and FUNimation.

 

Saga of Tanya the Evil

What is it? Why type a few hundred words summarizing it when I could just embed this tweet:

That tweet's not quite a 100% on-target, though. The titular "Tanya" isn't a Nazi so much as the soul of a secular libertarian reincarnated into the body of a tiny young witch, and made to fight in a quasi-World War I by an seemingly omnipotent "Being X," as some kind of hot riff. It's more "Book of Job meets BioShock" than "The Adventures of Little Hitler," and there's plenty to chew on for fans of subtext being made the text. It also happens to be a decent war story, despite the presence of magic and sorcery. Tanya leverages her future knowledge and Randian callousness to great effect on the battlefield, making for entertaining viewing no matter what you think of the Great War. The show also brings the best "evil face" game this side of a Code Geass.

Where can I watch it? Crunchyroll and FUNimation both licensed the show for simulcast. 

What else can I try? If Tanya the Evil's magic leaves a foul taste in your mouth, wash it away with the luscious pastries of ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept., which stars the troubleshooting public servants of the fictional kingdom of Dowa. Follow one senior agent as he tours the thirteen provinces of his country, eats desserts, and uncovers a wide-ranging political conspiracy. It's a slow burn, but surprisingly engaging once you get into its groove. Check it on Crunchyroll or FUNimation

Shows like these are a mere handful of everything that came out last winter, and even hobby-grade weebs like your friends at Japanator can't possibly catch 'em all. And that's before accounting for taste! If you think we've missed something big, make a suggestion below! If you'd rather talk about what's on right now, stay tuned. We'll have more current recommendations ready soon!

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Josh Tolentino
Josh TolentinoAnime Editor   gamer profile

When not posting about Japanese games or Star Trek, Josh serves as Managing Editor for Japanator, Dtoid's sister site for the best in anime, manga, and cool news from Glorious Nippon. Disclosure... more + disclosures


 


 



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