Sakugabooru Animation Awards 2023

Sakugabooru Animation Awards 2023

It’s time for a last look at 2023 with the Sakugabooru Animation Awards. We’ve gathered directors, animators, designers, producers, and passionate fans to share their favorite, most resonant works of animation across the last year – and other years, frankly! In short: Sakugabowl time!


Entries:
Franziska van Wulfen
ちな
jamal
Kerorira
Relux
Blou
Fede
Akihiko Sudo/Kasen
Geth
Ken Yamamoto
Maki
Natasha
Kevin

Franziska van Wulfen

Character Designer, Animator, Vtuber, Astarion Liker [Twitter] [Sakugabooru Tag]

  • Best Episode: Scott Pilgrim Takes Off #03

Scott Pilgrim‘s strengths and uniqueness always lay in its fun interplay between early 2000s small-town mundanity and its flights into fantastical video game logic. What is actually real, what is just metaphor; it doesn’t matter as long as it serves to explore the characters’ emotional state to full dramatic effect. Episode #03 embodies that principle through and through. The cozy, sleepy atmosphere of the cafe and video store clashing with the raw hurt of Roxie and Ramona fighting it out over the backdrop of several movies. Interestingly, that contrast becomes most noticeable in the approach to its layouts. There is a shocking amount of intricate, detailed layouts to be found in this episode, giving the sense of these characters actually frequenting a real physical space despite being cartoony in design. This realism is then shattered by the flat backdrops of the fight, in turn fully focussing on the characters and their emotions instead. Strong both in animation and aesthetics, but particularly in its boarding, this was the episode that fully got me on board with the show.

  • Best Show: Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End

Frieren is the rare kind of show where you can point to almost any singular part of the production and find it in perfect synergy with the vision and atmosphere of the rest of the project. Every choice is deliberate and purposeful, while also maintaining its production quality and consistency; it’s the sort of adaptation most source materials can only dream of.

The titular character, being an impossibly old elf, sees the world very differently from us mere mortals, posing a challenge in relatability. How to depict such a fundamentally different experience of life, then? While the muted color palettes and slow-burn approach of storytelling certainly are a big part of it, it is hard to imagine Frieren having quite the same impact if it wasn’t so strong in its animation department in particular. What has left the strongest impression isn’t so much the certainly impressive action sequences, but rather its character animation. There is something so graspable and tactile in a lot of the carefully depicted smaller motions. Every tiny, seemingly unimportant action suddenly becomes precious, something that both Frieren as well the viewer come to learn to observe and appreciate.

In an industry where there is often little room for delicate character animation like this, Frieren is an absolute delight.

  • Best Opening: Magical Destroyers OP (link)

I will always be a sucker for an opening that also easily doubles as a very cool music video. Though Magical Destroyers‘ intro is arguably a bit more style over substance perhaps, it do be darn good in the style department! With its crisp beautiful drawings, bold compositions, and even fun usage of mixed media, it quickly bursts into an overload of striking imagery—aided by an increasingly disorienting song, making it a beautifully surreal experience of an opening.

  • Best Aesthetic: Helluva Boss

Cheating a little bit here since Helluva Boss isn’t strictly speaking a 2023 show, however, being an independent production that releases just a couple of episodes a year I wanted to give it a mention. While this show’s approach of what I am affectionately dubbing edgy cartoon maximalism isn’t every person’s cup of tea, it has undoubtedly developed in its own very unique visual voice, more so this year than ever before. It’s flamboyant, it’s loud, and it doesn’t pull any punches giving every single setting and design of its version of hell a very distinct flavor; not just when it comes to its backgrounds, but the color palettes in a broader way as well. It’s certainly exciting to see a big project like this prosper in the indie animation sphere year after year.

  • Best Animation Designs: Bungou Stray Dogs (Nobuhiro Arai)

I always adored Bungou Stray Dogs’ fun, stylish approach to its bishounen designs. The show now being in its 5th cour, this certainly hasn’t changed. Impressively versatile, Nobuhiro Arai‘s designs lend themselves to accentuating the coolness of the characters, while also effortlessly deforming them into absolute buffoonish caricatures of themselves in the blink of an eye. It goes without saying that this is perfectly suited for Takuya Igarashi‘s approach to both action and comedy. While they may not be the easiest to animate, they’re certainly always striking and fun to pose. Not to mention that despite being adaptational designs, they have their own very unique flair to them, without losing the essence of their already quite appealing original manga counterparts.


ちな

Animator, Storyboarder, Director, Writer, Good At Everything? [Twitter] [Sakugabooru Tag]

  • Best Episode: Jujutsu Kaisen #44 (S2 #20)

In the middle of a bunch of tense episodes full of intense animation, it takes a special brand of skillful direction to be able to take a step back from that hotblooded animation and bring you unexpected laughs.

In summary, this is the number-one comedy episode of the year.

Thank you, Yuji Tokuno

  • Best Movie: Detective Conan: Black Iron Submarine

It feels like Detective Conan movies in recent years have sharper-looking faces than ever before.

In particular, the Conan movies directed by [Yuzuru] Tachikawa are great because the stories lean relatively more on suspense—similar in that regard to the old days, when Kenji Kodama directed them.

As we see more and more high-quality animated movies, Conan movies have not only raised the bar when it comes to production values, but also remain dedicated to focusing on pure entertainment, so I can relax and enjoy them.

  • Best Music Video Neko to Wakai se na (link)

I had been looking forward to this one since last year, and it was just as good as I had hoped.

Unrestrained by a regular cel animation look, with high-quality animation, interesting dialogue, and its narrative cohesion as a short film, Neko to Wakai se na has to be this year’s number one MV in every respect.

  • Best Aesthetic: Fate/Grand Order Memorial Movie 2023 (link)

Great visuals that get to the heart of the cel animation look. There is a lovely contrast between the simple designs/matte textures favored by talented animators and the lavish metal armor/ornaments. It’s so delightful to watch that I almost forget how hard it must be for the people who have to draw it all. Even as a fellow industry member, it’s pure fun to see it get taken this far.

  • Best Animation Designs: Kusuriya no Hitorigoto / The Apothecary Diaries (Yukiko Nakatani)

When I received the offer to direct an episode, I saw Nakatani-san’s model sheets and immediately thought, “I’ll do it!

There’s a strong universal appeal to her designs, with all the aspects such as novelty, nostalgia, and technical prowess combined. They’re bold, charming designs that appeal to all people of all generations.

The design sheets feel like each and every character comes alive. They’re great designs that stimulate my mind as a director, and make me want to capture these people on camera.

As an animator, I hope to be able to draw like this someday.

  • Non-contemporary Work Award: The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

I watched it for the first time this year. All the storytelling tricks and turns can be learned from, and it’s very interesting to boot. Spielberg is the master of creating excitement. I wish he had kept going in this direction to make more animated works…

  • Creator Discovery: Seiko Yoshioka (link)

[Seiko] Yoshioka-san’s work on Frieren is truly excellent. Her art boards posted on Twitter have a wonderful atmosphere to them. Creating backgrounds for fantasy worlds was something we struggled with for Detarame na Sekai no Melodrama (link), so I know better than anyone how amazing that is…

So, not just to her but to all creators and anime fans out there, here’s to a happy new year!


jamal

Allegedly in the mecha [Twitter]

  • Best Episode: Scott Pilgrim Takes Off #03

Ever since mokochan’s directorial debut on Heike Monogatari two years ago, I have made it my mission to keep track of everything they work on. While I never would have imagined that the third thing they were going to draw storyboards for would be a new entry in the Scott Pilgrim franchise, the episode is full of surprises as usual.

One of the most intriguing features of their previous work is how they make the most out of static drawings, so witnessing the high-energy close-quarters fight scene they constructed was an exciting experience. Azoura’s cuts, featured at the beginning of the clash between Ramona and Roxie, had a wonderfully feral aura as a result of the erratic spacing that they applied. The aggressive smears used in the plane crash scene also did a great job of characterising Roxie, portraying her as a character that is equally afraid of change as much as she is angry about it.  Yet to some extent, mokochan’s work still showed their appreciation for stillness in the way numerous shots in the fight were held for slightly longer than one may expect to convey the force and emotion that each combatant is putting into their actions. This approach extended into more lighthearted moments too, as seen in the jam session between Knives and Kim. Despite the chaotic nature of this episode, I appreciated the directorial decisions that were made to allow the heated emotions of the characters to shine.

Perhaps my favourite five minutes of anime from this year come from the ‘movie world’ scenes that were presented in the 21:9 aspect ratio. As a result of being in a 16:9 container, the reduced space made all the fast-moving action cuts feel even more spontaneous since they were able to move to the corners of the frame seemingly much quicker. This, in addition to all the other elements that I mentioned, created a captivating episode that made me start to understand Scott Pilgrim’s whole appeal as a slightly awkward action-romcom hybrid.

Honorable Mentions: Tsurune: The Linking Shot #05 and #12 could have also been here but I thought it would be a better choice not to turn my slate of nominations into ‘The Tsurune Awards’! Both episodes stole my heart and spoke to how quickly director Takuya Yamamura had honed their skills over the last few years.

  • Best Show: Tsurune: The Linking Shot

The second season of Tsurune felt like a technical level-up in almost every way relative to the first. Takuya Yamamura’s direction felt even more slick than it did before with its emphasis on props and non-character elements to aid their storytelling. This came at the perfect time since this part of the series focused quite heavily on the martial arts concept ‘ikiai’, which is much better conveyed visually. With new characters also came new staff that contributed fresh takes to the anime’s vision. The eleventh episode, which was the first in the series to be storyboarded by Minoru Oota, was a highlight for me on the basis that it was able to bring a unique idea (namely a harmony cel sequence) into the mix all while synchronising with the prop-driven direction of Yamamura. The same can be said about Tatsuya Ishihara’s first two storyboarded episodes in the series which even manage to harmonise with each other at points. Tsurune: The Linking Shot came across as both a refreshing sequel and a standalone anime because of this approach.

Some of the more noticeable areas of growth were in its camerawork and use of 3D backgrounds. Taichi Ishidate’s animation at the beginning and end of the show is one example of how these key moments were made to feel even more immersive; tracking the trajectory of arrows from the very moment it left the subject’s bow gave a stronger, more physical insight into the conviction and passion that was put into it the shot, adding an extra layer of personality to those involved. Other moments like making the camera emulate the metaphorical flow of synergy in the form of wind demonstrated determined effort from Yamamura and co. to give their audience an idea of the indescribable emotions that often overtake the kyūdō players. This worked well for me since the stillness that occupies a lot of the show’s visual language was sometimes challenging to resonate with.

Even if it was just by coincidence, this run of the show felt rather self-referential to Kyoto Animation’s current trajectory and hopeful future. The very existence of this continuation came across as quite bittersweet considering the series’ unfortunate connection to the 2019 arson attack and the loss of some of the production’s core members including supervisor Yasuhiro Takemoto and animation director Yuuko Myouken. While the last thing I wanted to do was trivialise such a serious matter, it was difficult not to connect some of its contents to the real-world situation. The way almost all the main characters go through the process of learning that they have people supporting them, even if it is from afar, was particularly touching when I took the last few years into account. The ability for The Linking Shot to be so optimistic about tragedy and the connections made between other passionate people resonated far beyond the boundaries of the story to me. The anime epitomises what it means to come back even stronger than before from both a narrative and production standpoint.

  • Best Music Video: Detarame na Sekai no Melodrama (link)

As a huge fan of modern works that use aspect ratios outside of 16:9, China has been my go-to director for animation in 4:3 since Just Call It Love was released in 2020. Detarame na Sekai no Melodrama was a beautiful follow-up that used imagery and techniques that can be traced back to Kenji Miyazawa-inspired titles such as Revolutionary Girl Utena or Spring and Chaos. The most recognisable instance of this was its homage to Shichiro Kobayashi’s aesthetic on the former show. TJ’s art direction captured the charm of the late artist’s backgrounds extremely well; I could almost feel the pressure of the brush strokes used to create the gradients on the walls, floors and ceilings, which added to the authenticity of the architecture and the piece as a whole.

Imperfection was a running theme that embedded itself into the other visual components of the music video. The delicate lines that made up Moaang’s character designs not only imitated the natural imperfections that would come from putting a pencil to paper but also helped to convey them as sensitive beings. Although the designs did not appear to be striving for realism, their subtle expressions and the light-handed draftsmanship used to construct them certainly made the girls’ love for one another come across as genuine.

As it is probably already known, the defining feature of a work for me was the aspect ratio the animation is contained in. China demonstrated how in touch they are with the appeal of 4:3 by pairing it with slightly inconvenient jump cuts and cropped compositions to emulate the relaxed feeling that comes with home video. The scenes that featured both characters together felt even more intimate as a result of the pillarboxing on either side. Detarame na Sekai no Melodrama did a phenomenal job of recognising the artistic appeal of the titles that it was paying homage to, all while bringing new ideas to the contemporary 4:3 anime niche.

Honorable Mention: Bani-chan’s artistry on The Greatest Living Show (link) was literally and figuratively out of this world to the point where I am not even sure I have the right words to do it justice. The music video is a worthy successor to Yoshitaka Amano’s 1001 Nights.

  • Best Movie: The First Slam Dunk

The Boy and The Heron did not make its way fast enough to the gloomy island that I live on so I could not quite take all of the year’s heavyweight films into account when making my decision for this award. With that said, out of the handful of new films that I did get the opportunity to watch, The First Slam Dunk was the most memorable and daring from a visual perspective. This was the first time I ever felt that the 3DCG work outshone its respective 2D sections. Although my experience with 3D character animation in the anime space is pretty limited, I think the reason why I gravitated to those sections much more is because of how much it borrowed from many existing sensibilities that are standard to 2D anime. The aesthetic decisions made such as the flat, unintrusive composite and the bold outlines that were applied to the character designs helped to prevent the switch between the two approaches from feeling like a shock to my system. In addition, the more familiar timing to the movement made the film’s most intense scenes feel even more snappy. The First Slam Dunk sold me on the potential that 3DCG has in the anime space and has prompted me to be a bit more open-minded about what can be done with it.

  • Non-contemporary Work Award: Junkers Come Here

From time to time I like to make the effort to watch a collection of shows made by particular directors or animators to get a better sense of their style and hopefully gain some context for their future work. Due to other commitments this year, I did not get the chance to dive down another one of those rabbit holes yet, but I coincidentally managed to watch three works that Jun’ichi Satou was involved in creating: Mahou Tsukai Tai! (1996), Tamayura: Hitotose and Junkers Come Here, my pick for this award. The film features animation from some of anime’s finest, from Mitsuo Iso to Osamu Tanabe and even Takashi Nakamura. However, the bulk of the reason why the film has continually taken up so much of my headspace this year is because of how still it managed to be, which I found made it even more gripping as a realist film.

The patience that Satou employed in his sequencing was fascinating to observe, since it was such a straightforward but effective way of portraying Hiromi’s standstill as a powerless eleven-year-old victim to her parents’ crumbling marriage. As a consequence of the film’s unhurried style, the surreal and more kinetic moments, including Manabu Oohashi’s special flying sequence, felt more rewarding. Junkers Come Here has a degree of inefficiency that I deeply wish could be brought back in the contemporary anime landscape (although I am not so hopeful that it ever will).

Even though I was vaguely aware that Keisuke Hiroe has been involved in many high-profile commercial projects in the past few years, I never took the time to look into what they were up to. That all changed this year because of their directorial credits on Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End’s accompanying music video as well as My Happy Marriage’s opening sequence. Since their animation portfolio has a pronounced slant towards action-oriented projects, I found it pretty surprising to see how the two pieces that they directed had such a strong emphasis on grounded actions, considering that a lot of their previous work has been about defying the limits of weight and form. Hiroe had the chance to show off their range this year and they did not disappoint; I am hopeful that we will get the opportunity to witness more of what they are capable of as a director in the near future.


Kerorira

Animator, Character Designer, The World’s Fastest One-Man Studio [Twitter] [Sakugabooru Tag]

  • Best Episode: Tengoku Daimakyou #10

This year was full of great episodes, including China’s for Kusuriya #04, Nobuhide Kariya’s for Frieren #10, and Kazuto Arai’s for Jujutsu Kaisen #37, but it was another one that personally left the biggest impression on me: Tengoku Daimakyou #10.
Kai Ikarashi’s direction shines throughout. And with animation from Tetsuya Takeuchi that leans closer to Ikarashi’s style than usual in the mix, the result is an unprecedented level of cool.

Every scene is packed with fun, subtle ideas. And combined with how good the original work is, of course, it was the episode that felt the most complete as a self-contained whole!

  • Best Movie: The Boy and the Heron

Seeing the Studio Ghibli logo at the beginning of The Boy and the Heron filled me with incredible excitement, as it hit me that I was really about to witness a brand-new work by the studio.

I’m sure opinions will be split on this one, but personally, I left the theater feeling positive!

  • Best Opening: Tengoku Daimakyou OP (link)

When I first saw it, I was blown away by Weilin Zhang’s tremendous artistic sense that oozes from the animation and visual direction.

It’s really wonderful, with its breadth of novel ideas and visual details!

  • Best Ending: Undead Unluck ED (link)

The latest work of art from Taiki Konno. The beauty and choice of colors in every frame are just what you’d expect.

  • Best Aesthetic: Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End

The blue gradients of a beautiful, cloudless sky; bountiful forests; buildings that tell stories of their inhabitants’ customs, religious views, lifestyles, etc. The series hasn’t finished yet, but on a visual storytelling level, it’s already unsurpassed. Of course, you can’t ignore Keiichiro Saito’s direction, but Seiko Yoshioka’s concept designs play a large role in breathing life into the world of Frieren.

  • Best Animation Designs: Onii-chan wa Oshimai! (Ryo Imamura)

Ryo Imamura’s designs feel like they should have existed before, but they’re revolutionary in their own right!

His designs have led to the birth of a number of new ways of symbolically expressing characters, and I find myself heavily influenced by him as well. They skillfully translate realistic, textured 3D forms into a two-dimensional space.

I’m sure a lot of people who pursue anime in the future will have studied Imamura’s designs at least once.

  • Non-contemporary Work Award: Kodomo no Omocha

Kodomo no Omocha is one of Akitaro Daichi’s earlier works as director, which I got around to seeing for the first time this year. It’s got an unbelievably good tempo, with Sana Kurata’s cheerful monologues driving the pace.

It goes from a barrage of wacky gags to suddenly hitting you with pure-hearted scenes, and that rollercoaster of emotions is downright addictive. Just pure, good entertainment.


Relux

Of the sakuga kind [Twitter]

  • Best Episode: Jujutsu Kaisen #40 (S2 #16)

Months of constant controversy and discourse have surely inflicted intense Jujutsu Kaisen fatigue upon viewers, non-viewers unable to avoid the topic, and especially any who have been involved in bringing each episode to television on a weekly basis. That said, between all the doom and gloom are several triumphs made possible only by the strength of the passionate individuals who continue to push through such unfavorable circumstances. It was ultimately Itsuki Tsuchigami’s #16 that shot to the top of my list at the same moment it pulled tears from my eyes with its animation power alone.

Tsuchigami’s directorial efforts, though infrequent, have consistently hit all of the right beats to set my brain on fire. It was Mob Psycho 100 II #11 that soundly secured his position as one of the most promising action directors in the industry. Later, his efforts for Kazuto Arai’s FGO Camelot 2 resulted in a climactic showdown that I can’t help but rewatch regularly to this day. Opportunities for projects like these are few and far between, but it was hard not to wonder if or when his next full-action episode would arrive. As it happens, that moment came in the midst of the most publicized production catastrophe in years.

Nearly every character featured in #16 is consistently off-model in a way I always love to see in the medium’s most outstanding episodes. Shading is left at a minimum and features are defined by lineart above all, an approach fully reliant on the draftsmanship of the surprisingly small number of participating artists (at least relative to the novel-length credits of surrounding episodes). This minimalistic philosophy carries over to the episode’s color design and post-processing as well. That is, until all hell breaks loose in the B part.

The pair of action sequences serving as centerpieces for each half are as well constructed as one would expect from Miso, but they aren’t exclusively his doing. Nakaya Onsen more or less unit-directed and solo animated Megumi’s fight with his child and animal-abusing father, while the explosive curse showdown was more of a collaborative effort between Miso and Sou Miyazaki. Miyazaki, of course, roughed out numerous potential action cuts for Miso to review simply because they might be cool. The completed cuts were as cool as the events on-screen were hot.

It shouldn’t be long after the rabbit martial arts sequence that most viewers realize they’re in for something special, and Miyazaki’s 2 minutes of madness more than seal the deal. While Onsen’s presence speaks for itself at this point, Miyazaki’s appearance marks the first time he has completely let loose in a TV anime production. It was gratifying to see his work characterize the climax of an episode like this one after following his web and MV projects for some time. In fact, it was his rendition of Shingo Yamashita’s iconic Birdy Decode sequence that caused the previously mentioned shedding of tears upon first viewing. After 15 minutes of your favorite artists playing exactly to your personal tastes, a faithful display of reverence towards your favorite anime project of all time is just too much to handle.

Action aside, there is grace to how less bombastic moments were handled as well. Masami Mori concludes a noisy battle with quiet acceptance of the end. Between all the spectacle is a coherent vision that remains distinct from the rest of the season, and at the forefront is the seemingly unrestricted output of several artists whose work I already lived for.

Honorable mentions:

    • Jujutsu Kaisen S2 #05 is a pure showcase of Takuya Niinuma and Souta Yamazaki’s artistic prowess, as well as Shota Goshozono’s storyboarding expertise as he weaves Geto’s decaying mental state into the episode’s moment-to-moment presentation.
    • Tengoku Daimakyou #10 is a Kai Ikarashi episode, and in every sense he continues to crush it with the added element of Tetsuya Takeuchi’s masterful animation direction.
    • Kusuriya no Hitorigoto #04 is 24 minutes of fantastic draftsmanship and some of the most thoughtful acting you’ll see all year.

I watched a number of enjoyable seasonal anime this year. Tengoku Daimakyou and Sousou no Frieren are each immersive experiences with commendable production values. Bungou Stray Dogs managed to maintain its usual artistic consistency while bringing a truly insane story arc to a satisfying conclusion even before its source material. Vinland Saga S2’s passionate team brought out the best in an already thought-provoking piece of fiction. Despite all of that and more, I realized while considering my selection that none of them resonated quite enough to write a passionate endorsement for the Bowl.

What I do find myself anxious to discuss is One Piece’s exceptionally climactic 2023. I’d be lying if I claimed the show didn’t encounter rough points and struggles throughout, but I consider that an irreplaceable part of the long-running anime experience. The rapid production metamorphosis spearheaded by series director Tatsuya Nagamine and significantly aided by Line Producer Tetsuji Akahori along with countless other inspired contributors is what allowed such frequent spectacles up to this point. As the conclusion of the Wano arc finally arrived, it was pushed to its absolute limit and came through stronger than ever.

Fan expectations at this stage had become no less than astronomical and it goes without saying that the team wanted to one-up themselves as well. A series of consecutive large-scale climactic battles would ordinarily be a death sentence for a long runner, and while it wouldn’t be a smooth ride, it served as the perfect chance to pull out all the stops and cash in every favor built-up throughout the past 4 years.

What really pushed One Piece to be my favorite show of the year was the unique experience of witnessing it all in real time. The celebration of animation that was Gear 5th’s debut episodes, the celebration of sakuga episodes that was Ryosuke Tanaka and Katsumi Ishizuka’s #1062, Nanami Michibata’s beautiful resurrection of EDs and Megumi Ishitani’s OP to match, monstrous individual efforts from the likes of Tu Yong-Ce and Vincent Chansard, all of it spoke to the team’s boundless desire to keep pushing and evolving. Through all of the ups and the downs, I look forward to all of what comes next.

Blue Giant was one of those rare theater experiences that leaves you all but stunned as the credits roll past. As someone entirely unfamiliar with the source material and less than knowledgeable regarding the art of jazz, what brought me to a seat in front of the big screen was the knowledge that director Yuzuru Tachikawa would absolutely deliver. Unsurprisingly, he did just that, but I was caught off guard when every other aspect of this film proceeded to hit me harder than a speeding truck.

The movie is filled with and is about youth. If you’ve ever poured your all into achieving a particular dream, you are represented here. If you find yourself directionless and beginning to resent what you believed to be your path, you are represented here. No matter your situation, I believe viewers will come out the other side feeling a bit more optimistic about these things.

It stumbles a few times visually and the CG may rub some the wrong way, but that much is offset by unreal pieces of 2D animation when it counts: the performances. While experiencing Blue Giant in theaters is tragically no longer an option, I recommend watching only with the largest screen and best sound system you can access. Allow Hiromi’s soundtrack and the characters’ emotions to consume you. Live it. Absorb it. Become blue. Become giant.

Honorable Mentions:

    • Gridman Universe provides all the fanservice one could want from a crossover/celebration film while somehow delivering a satisfying narrative and convincing character work at the same time. Also, it looks excellent.
    • The Boy and the Heron is a film I enjoyed and appreciated, and frankly not one I’m qualified to analyze.

  • Best Opening: Magical Destroyers OP (link)

I like when Kenichi Kutsuna makes things. His Magical Destroyers opening features all of the qualities I already enjoy about his short-form projects, but with 30 seconds of indescribable ???? tacked onto the end and a song that miraculously fits the bill.

OPs and EDs often become a platform for skilled artists to rework or entirely ignore the visual approach of whatever larger project they’re attached to, and in this case it’s what makes the OP so excellent (as well as Taiki Konno’s ending for the same show).

A defined yet malleable take on the characters is complemented by grainy backgrounds and high-contrast color design. The first minute is stuffed with striking shots and would easily be a frontrunner on its own, but the ensuing dramatic collapse of everything I just described truly brings this OP to another plane.

Honorable mentions:

  • Weilin Zhang’s debut OP aired around the same time in Tengoku Daimakyou, and similarly did its own thing. The thing he did is very good.
  • Riki Matsuura’s Undead Unluck OP couldn’t be a better fit given his own career history and that of the team as a whole. It’s a love letter, and the recipient actually worked on it.
  • Best Ending: Jujustu Kaisen S2 ED1 (link)

Depicting the joyful day-to-day life of our always suffering cast has become something of a Jujutsu Kaisen tradition throughout its run, and I must say Yojiro Arai’s take is easily my favorite. If nothing else, the reason would have to be that it simply looks incredible.

Rarely am I this blown away by photography and backgrounds alone. We shift from characters contained by solid white borders to beautiful environmental shots, and then to those characters existing naturally within that environment. Many of these backgrounds are remarkably deep and layered with cleverly applied parallax simulating a convincing camera effect. Dynamics between characters and future developments are implied via subtle visual indicators and less subtle parallels.

It’s shocking how much Arai was able to cram into the standard runtime of an ending, as I still occasionally notice new details among the quick cuts. I suppose I have no choice but to keep rewatching it more.

Honorable mentions:

    • Cardfight!! Vanguard: will+Dress S2 ED1 is the combination of drawings by Kai Ikarashi, Kou Yoshinari, Mebachi, and actual photography that I’ve always wanted without knowing it. Need more EDs like this to exist.
    • Nanami Michibata produced an excellent return to the ED format for One Piece, and with Masami Mori’s supervision, no less. More than anything I’m amazed by such an appealing/coherent reworked aesthetic in her debut ending.
  • Best Aesthetic: Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End

This year we’ve been blessed by more than one story focused on a lengthy, often sidetracked journey through awe-inspiring environments and featuring characters with consistently amusing dynamics. The post-apocalyptic cityscapes of Tengoku Daimakyou and the sprawling fantasy setting of Frieren share few similarities, but neither would be nearly as effective without coherent aesthetics building a world worth being immersed in.

Yuji Kaneko’s art direction is always a strong baseline to work from, especially in a setting like Tengoku’s. From there it’s Kentaro Waki’s involved photography which tastefully brings out the best in those backgrounds and holds back when necessary. One of my favorite sequences of the year, the monster fight in the 2nd episode, made use of complete darkness and limited light in a way that would simply be impossible without Waki’s touch.

Rather than monster fights however, much of Tengoku’s runtime is occupied by the small moments of our main pair’s somewhat aimless trek through a destroyed Japan. The entertainment value of such moments relies not just on charming writing, but on the appeal of the environment through which they’re moving.

Frieren’s case is the same. Despite indulging in the occasional shonen-style fight, Frieren’s value originates primarily in its interactions, themes, and world. Each extended montage embodies all of these things. A grainy, faded look is matched by often low contrast colors that break free and pop when the moment calls for it.

I’ve reached the groundbreaking conclusion that looking good is key for shows that lean heavily on characters’ surroundings for storytelling.

  • Best Animation Designs: Fate Grand Order GudaGuda 2023 CM (Namiko Torii)

Through all of the countless Fate projects by just as many groups of creators, Namiko Torii and Takahito Sakazume have synthesized what I consider to be the most appealing visuals in the franchise for a 30-second advertisement.

It likely comes as no surprise considering previous choices that rounded, minimalist designs are my jam. What immediately came to mind upon seeing Torii’s take was A Sacred Star of Milos, a film in which Kenichi Konishi’s designs almost single-handedly defined what I look for in CDs. Rounded hair/shape design, low line counts, and strong volume defined by draftsmanship rather than excessive detail.

Needless to say, I will be looking out for whatever Torii does next. While these designs may be limited to a commercial, they exist as proof that despite being relatively new to anime work, she already knows what’s up.

  • Non-contemporary Work Award: Tetsuwan Birdy DECODE

I spoiled it earlier, but there is no animated work I love to shill more than Tetsuwan Birdy Decode. This fact is only further established following each yearly rewatch. Birdy represents a group of idiosyncratic creators at the top of their game, and in a setting that allowed for an unprecedented level of self-expression. It is in shows like Birdy that anime demonstrates its potential as a medium for artists.

The first watch of episodes such as 02 #07 and #12 is an eye-opening experience. Suddenly, so much of the inspiration behind ambitious modern efforts becomes clear. In the latter, a combination of Norio Matsumoto’s action storyboards and Shingo Yamashita’s unrestrained animation resulted in 30 of the most important seconds of 2000s action animation.

For as strong of a link as we can draw between modern action darlings and Birdy, that is not a show that could be made today. It is by all means a product of its era and of the specific individuals involved. Remove any key staff member and you’re left with an unrecognizable product and potentially major differences in the current anime industry.

Something about Kazuki Akane’s work speaks to my soul on a unique level. Narratively, the first season is nothing special, but the consequences of those events are weaved perfectly into 02 and form a genuinely compelling original story to match the legendary production. Not to mention, every anecdote from behind the scenes is just as entertaining as the show itself. It was far from smooth sailing, but everyone gave it their all and then some.

One would think that maintaining a coherent vision while dealing with so many skilled, individualistic artists would be nigh impossible, and yet these varied styles each fall into place. The show inherently facilitates experimentation and expression starting with Chimo’s easily molded designs. Birdy is both a showcase of unique talents and a well-constructed piece of art in its own right.

Having previously praised the evolution of One Piece’s production, I thought I’d provide a specific example of how that restructuring has allowed certain artists to evolve along with it.

Nearly 2 years ago, Fasto and Shoutarou Ban first appeared in the 1006th episode of the One Piece anime along with several other promising online animators. At the time, Fasto’s experience in the industry was limited and Ban’s was non-existent, but their inclusion was tactical. Directing 1006 was another up-and-coming staff member by the name of Ryosuke Tanaka.

Rather than keeping the episode limited due to its unimportant content, it was used as something of a training ground. Tanaka’s direction and strong showings from many of these young artists proved the experiment successful.

From that point, Fasto and Ban would continue to appear on a semi-regular basis, often performing a relay of sorts by taking adjacent cuts. By the time 2023’s climactic events rolled around, they would be entrusted with multiple high-priority sequences (including a big contribution to Tanaka’s 1062) and repeatedly met the challenge with increasingly impressive results.

Initially mistaking their recent tree-related morphing sequence for animation touched by Masami Mori brought about the realization that the pair had come a remarkably long way. This is far from the only example of similar growth as Wano has progressed, and I see that as a major benefit of the long-running format. Each member of such an ambitious team pushes the others to reach greater heights, and observing that collective growth as it occurs is inspiring.


Blou

Producer, International Production Coordinator, Don’t want to change his old avatar since it’s cute [Twitter]

  • Best Episode: Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End #07

This might come off as a strange choice considering the number of high-quality episodes that Frieren has treated us to. This one doesn’t feature an all-stars team like most of the other episodes; in fact, episode #07 is outsourced to a relatively unknown entity. It’s not granted a special gravitas by being an arc’s action climax like episode #09—far from that, since it’s the introduction to that same arc! And yet, that’s exactly what draws me to this episode. On the surface, we don’t have an exuberant showcase of animation, but the more attentive eyes will recognize that every scene elevates the script to create something memorable.

Keisuke Kojima, and co-storyboarder Naoto Uchida, crafted an episode full of intricate angles, shots flowing naturally with the dialogue, and particularly involved camerawork. It never feels like too much or too little, the episode is perfect from start to finish. This is the kind of quiet excellence that I yearn for in the TV anime landscape nowadays. While it seems that the number of incredible spectacles increased over the years, the average quality seems to have declined quite a lot. I won’t fool myself into thinking that this episode is indicative of a trend, as Kojima has practically dedicated his career to raising his own team with his own pipeline, I’m still glad to see him thrive where many, including entire studios, have failed.

  • Best Opening: Spy x Family S2 OP1 (link)

In the same vein, Spy x Family S2’s opening isn’t necessarily a jaw-dropping spectacle, especially by the standards of a figure as idiosyncratic as Masaaki Yuasa. The OP is animated by the team in charge of the show itself, as you can certainly tell by the somewhat sterile approach to the animation and character art—again, by Yuasa’s standards at least. Nonetheless, the concept is so strong that it doesn’t matter much at the end of the day. All the cuts are fun on a conceptual level and have simple ideas to back them up, such as the pastel color palette or the screentones backgrounds. Combine that with Ado’s lively song and you get a piece that brings joy whenever you watch it.

  • Best Ending: Cardfight!! Vanguard: will+Dress S2 ED1 (link)

After gushing about the importance of good ideas and singularly, strongly focused directors, I switch to a piece that is the total opposite of that. In fact, this ending doesn’t even have a director credited. Simply put, this ED is the reunion of 3 extremely idiosyncratic artists doing their own things. And while there’s no denying the eclectic nature of this ED, it still comes together as a surprisingly cohesive piece.

Sure, it doesn’t tell a story and feels closer to a jam session, but the editing sells the whole thing superbly. The 3 styles don’t clash but complement each other in a way that maximizes their appeal. Improbable ED but we can only be grateful it got made.

  • Best Animation Designs: Overtake! (Masako Matsumoto)

Two years ago, I dedicated this section to highlight character designs directly drawn by animators, as opposed to adaptations of existing properties or illustrators providing original drafts. This time around I instead find myself praising one such case, which is elevated by the execution Masako Matsumoto; her return to character design duties almost 10 years after her debut in that role on Aldnoah Zero, again alongside Takako Shimura.

Matsumoto’s philosophy remains the same, if not more refined with the years. Her designs are elegant with a focus on the forms and curves that are typical of animator character designers. It’s not only the faces but also the rest of the body that are well constructed, down to the way Matsumoto draws the limbs. Her designs remain attractive even when she isn’t directly supervising; that is not always a given, especially with the trend of increasingly raising the line count over the years. Matsumoto is part of the (sadly) rare circle of charismatic character designers in an industry where illustrators and mangaka are clearly taking over, and I can only hope she gets to keep designing original shows at Troyca for a while.

  • Non-contemporary Work Award: Noein #01

For someone who has mostly watched anime circa the 2010s, I’ve known Takahiro Kishida as an extremely prolific character designer but not so much as an animator. Of course, I’ve seen plenty of his works on sakugabooru, but the Noein premiere is the first time I got to witness Kishida’s animation and supervision in context.

While watching this episode, every following minute presented further evidence for its case: Kishida is a god. It turns out, perhaps entirely unsurprisingly, that his cult-like adoration is entirely deserved. Animation is a team job, for sure, but Kishida’s presence dominates everything on screen. His draftsmanship is overflowing in every cut. The masterful angle of the camera, the character posing, the large array of expressions, there’s so much to love and appreciate in this episode. If you haven’t watched the first episode of Noein, do yourself a favor and go watch it now; or after you read every other entry in these awards, if you haven’t done that either!


Fede

Translator, International Production Coordinator, Savior Of Doomed Projects [Twitter]

  • Best Episode: Kusuriya no Hitorigoto / The Apothecary Diaries #04, Kubo Won’t Let Me Be Invisible #11, Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End #14

China and Moaang’s episode of Kusuriya had the interesting peculiarity of being a very high-quality, storytelling-heavy yet pretty standoffish and simply elegant episode; attributes that seem antithetical with the current times, as we keep rewarding high drawing counts and sabunga-fests just for the sake the time and resources put into those shows. Compared even to the somewhat recent Detarame na Sekai no Melodrama, this new effort feels way more mature, maybe even an opener to a new “era” of less juvenile lens from their directorial efforts.

As for Kubo-san #11, I didn’t expect Hirofumi Okita to be such a careful director. It shows when it comes to weighing the proportions between cel and BG elements on screen, or in the crafting of meticulously precise lighting, even in how he imposed quite difficult yet simple ideas on the sakkans. It all results in a wonderfully wholesome, already timeless episode! It reminded me of the quieter sakuga fests of the late 00’ and the early 10’, except with cutting-edge compositing, and some drawings that show off the more illustrative and risky sensibilities of a new generation of artists.

Frieren #14 was such a great reminder of how much of a superb director of three-dimensional spaces good ol’ Ponte is, especially after what seems millennia of Dr. Stone kantoku duties. I particularly appreciated the way they comped the FX animation; they found the perfect blend (to my sensibilities at least) between cel-centric compositing and fx-centric comp for action scenes, while still handling the more fair tones in the daily life scenes with uttermost care so that those don’t fall flat either. It was also incredibly interesting to see the sakkan ping-pong-ing element between the old guard and the new generation of non-japanese animators between Hirotoshi Arai and Eri Irei. Arai’s output in particular reminded me of the sort of elegance we used to see in sakkans from Koji Matsunari’s shows.

  • Best Show: Skip and Loafer, or maybe nothing at all

This is more of a protest vote than anything else.

I am quite disappointed in this year’s lack of original or pseudo-original TV anime that could have shown off what anime creators are all about, dammit! We need to fight our war to limit the influence of all these corporate bureaucrats who just want us to be happy and productive making their own stories. We should be able to tell our own stories too, not just theirs! In this realm I think I only found Overtake! to be a truly interesting offering, which is concerning for multiple reasons; first of all, I’m scared of fast cars.

On a more positive note, there’s the lovely Skip and Loafer. I really appreciated the comedic timing, combined with so much animation supervision care it was able to evoke incredibly realistic yet wholesome situations that gently put me in Mitsumi’s shoes. Shima and her were just so cute together thanks to the combined effort of drawings, voice acting, and a pretty smart and unconventional screenplay that reversed the usual monologue tropes. I really struggle to ship characters together (especially straight characters) but those two are just made for each other.

Honorable mentions: Tengoku Daimaikyou, Overtake!, Frieren.

  • Best Movie: The Boy and the Heron

I don’t think I would commit a cardinal sin by affirming that most of Hayao Miyazaki’s output is made up of rather detached tales. Oftentimes, the personal interests and cultural references of the director get dethroned by a genuine desire to create moving stories aimed at children and their parents alike. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Kimitachi is an incredibly nerdy movie.

I don’t mean this just by his standards, but genuinely nerdy; it almost feels like hearing the guy saying “Well, you’ve all expressed so much about the kind of things you like, and I’mma do the same!” as we get to experience incredibly loving references and build-ups to the works of Yoshie Hotta, Natsume Soseki, Daijrou Morohoshi, Federico Fellini, Fusao Hayashi, and the Kojiki. I feel like as outsiders, we often end up crafting a way too austere and grumpy image of Miyazaki just because he finds the anime subculture he helped form foreign. There’s an otherization by fellow nerds, but Kimitachi demonstrated that he’s madly in love with the formative authors of his youth.

The Soseki “toolbox” in particular gets used in incredibly inventive ways, as the most knowledgeable get to experience how certain elements of the movie rhyme with older Miyazaki works the same way Soseki depicted his own juvenile haiku in Kusamakura with newfound meaning. The real magical trick, though, was pulled off when he masterfully unveiled why this is an “adaptation”.

When Mahito reads the climax of Copper’s story from the original Kimitachi, he ends up crying and switches his attitude towards an important character. Experiencing that gave me such incredible joy and made me feel like anime can still accomplish the type of weird and powerful scenarios that remain unexplored in every medium. It’s something we can still achieve if we trust creators to tell their own stories, rather than shackling them to faithfully adapting the popular shounen garbo du jour. It’s sad that TV anime seems to disagree so much about this idea.

Honorable mentions: The Concierge, Gridman Universe—especially the Ikarashi scene!

  • Best Opening: The Ancient Magus’ Bride S2 OP2 (link)

A surprisingly excellent result despite the always dangerous separation of directorial duties; this time, between Yuki Igarashi’s solid ekonte and Kazuaki Terasawa’s masterful supervision work. They were able to express Chise’s inner psyche, playing a game of contrasts using mixed media. While this is clearly not a new direction per se as the Inu Curry duo can attest to (lol), I feel this piece was able to definitely surpass the simple Cel<->Motion Graphics divergence that oftentimes crowns such works, by mixing in more and more influences from different visual formats. Thanks to a few more cinematically edited and composed cuts, a more intriguing representation of theater becoming a leitmotiv of the entire opening, and some cleverly timed action cuts, Chise’s tragic condition is granted more emotional depth. It ends up transforming the sequence into a very intriguing journey you ought not to skip.

This blend of not overly standoffish 3D-looking 2D drawings and incredibly flat surfaces with manga-like flat panels is quite similar to the kind of stuff I wanted to be able to draw when I was 15-16 years old, so I guess it hit pretty close to home (laughs). I also found myself enjoying the similarities between the hatching of the manga-like flat panels and the medieval miniatures. These guys are onto something, that’s what I feel!

Honorable Mentions: Magical Destroyers, Tengoku Daimakyou, Kusuriya no Hitorigoto.

  • Best Ending: The Masterful Cat is Depressed Again Today

Rather than experimenting with aggressive compositing and the use of 3D materials, this lovely piece of work makes use of the color/shiage department of the rather controversial Osakan studio. Their work here is able to provide a distinct mixed feeling of warmth and coldness at the same time, thanks to the use of incredibly curated iroshitei that make a frequent use of iro-tracing. While the OG Shingo Suzuki and his fellow Kazumasa Yokomine handled the storyboard and direction, I was particularly impressed by learning that the color designs were done by two relatively inexperienced artists in Kouki Koeda and Xueran Zhang, who debuted on in-house productions only that season. The care for the proportions of the sakkan team really helped giving believability and character to the family of cats during the climax. Big props to them too!

Honorable Mentions: Magical Destroyers, Oniichan wa Oshimai! , Shingeki no Kyojin The Final Chapters, Cardfight Vanguard Will + Dress S2, Watashi no Shiawasena Kekkon.

  • Best Music Video: Detarame na Sekai no Melodrama (link)

Maybe it’s a bit fetishistic rather than just inspired by cel-era anime, and too reliant on older concepts and leitmotivs compared to a lot of other China-directed works, but I appreciated the more unconventional takes on the girls’ anatomy on Moaang’s side—especially in the practice scene. Their chins were quite interesting too, they seemed almost bean-shaped but in a lovely way, and I loved the compact silhouettes they end up creating once the camera grows apart from them. On the directorial side, the particular interest in the color red and its variations was also note-worthy, as it felt spacious and rich in a broader way than the director’s work with the more complex palettes of Heike Monogatari and Ai to Yobu Dake. However, what stole the show for me was the almost subconscious correlation between the birdcage and the beams that sustain the school (representing the system?), empowered using quite different field depths from cut to cut.

I know reading of me praising China every year may be getting boring. Believe me, I would love to find some other obsession, but they just refuse to slow down in their greatness.

  • Best Aesthetic: Oniichan wa Oshimai!

It’s very difficult to accept this due to my archenemy working on that cartoon, but It’s pretty much impossible to find another TV anime that was able to pull up an aesthetic rulebook that I feel will be as influential as Onimai’s. In particular, I feel the way the color and compositing departments were able to mimic the fatter, deeper, and slightly more violent pen strokes typical of Ryo Imamura’s sketches into shiage paint was something that can move the cel layer as a whole into a dimension of new aesthetic possibilities. It showed how we in a not-so-distant future could fundamentally change the look of the cel layer into something more prone to represent volume and especially anatomical volume, without having to rely on such high line-counts but just technology and some good-ass sakkan.

Maybe it was born to be horny I feel like it’s fated to be more that. This seed will grow into something majestic one day.

Honorable mentions: Jujutsu Kaisen S2, Frieren, Tengoku Daimaikyou, The Concierge, Gridman Universe—again, especially the Ikarashi scene.

  • Best Animation Designs: Pokemon: Paldean Winds (Takashi Kojima)

Takashi Kojima has been at the top of the game since his early sakkan days, but his most recent output is able to stylishly represent all sort of characters of different ways of life and physicality in appealing, interesting, yet a bit whimsical ways. I’d say that this is especially true when compared to his less recent design work on titles like Flip Flappers and Kiminami.

I could make this point about Heike Monogatari, which was a more complete experimentation of his visual ideas, but the designs of Pokemon: Houkago no Breath are uniquely interesting in how they toy with a similar line-count while retaining more realistic proportions, which better fit the lens of the world portrayed by Yuki Funagakure’s art direction. Other than that, I really appreciated the way some features of the hair for all co-protagonists differed in both silhouette and shading to better fit their partner Pokémon’s features in either shape-language or volume—rather than going for less subtle similarities like possessing similar colors, which allow to play with complimentary tones.

Honorable mentions: Shield Hero Season 3 with Franziska Van Wulfen-sama designs; I feel they do really represent a possible happy future for anime, only time will tell.

  • Non-contemporary Work Award: Shiawase Sou no Okojo-san

Shiawase Sou no Okojo-san is such a visually inventive show, able to present absurd situations and melodrama in ways akin to shoujo manga, but with a clear-cut late-night anime vibe that helps make the Takahiro Kishida output feel at home. In a way, it almost feels like a spiritual prequel to Yama No Susume with how three-dimensional spaces are portrayed, although with a bigger use of “pure” cel scenes, but has such a feminine (perceived) elegance that places it at a distance from the more otaku-centric output of late night anime. An incredibly cozy yet seductive watch that experimented with some rather curious visual tropes.

  • Creator Discovery: Saori Den

Don’t get me wrong, I was aware of the existence of this incredibly talented artist way before this year, but now I feel like I’m way more aware of Saori Den’s qualities and her quirks as a director compared to her enshutsuka days. Her compositions oftentimes work with unconventional center-right and center-left subjects, which are bound to leave as strong of an impression on the viewer as the peculiar timing of her multi-plane slides. She really made me re-evaluate how impactful a line of dialogue can be by adding a subtle motion of a different animation layer than the mouth, or when not showing the mouth of a character at all, which won’t even result on a more demanding workload than the usual serifu/flip flap mouth. Her constant use of POV hand shots created with just a still frame or a single cel moving aren’t as baroque as Ei Aoki’s more animated ones, but are quite more flexible and easily splash-able into more situations. I would bribe all around in order to get her some of her enshutsu instructions or kantoku bible!!!

Honorable Mentions: Yume Bakui, G-ko, the real potential of Mahmoud Moftah, Aaron Rodriguez, and Idlkllr.


Akihito Sudou

Animator, Storyboarder, Episode Director, Person With Good Taste [Twitter] [Sakugabooru Tag]

  • Best Episode: Tengoku Daimakyou #10

A veritable threat of an episode that fuses Kai Ikarashi-san’s overwhelming artistic talent with idiosyncratic animation.

This episode depicts the inner workings of Juuichi as a character, and it leaves a lasting impact on the audience, as if gouging their hearts out.

  • Best Show: My Love Story With Yamada-kun at Lv999

Directed by Morio Asaka.

The conversations between characters have a snappy, pleasant tempo to them, and I was able to enjoy the story throughout all of the episodes without ever growing bored.

  • Best Movie: Gridman Universe

Akira Amemiya’s first time directing a theatrical work, for the Gridman series at Trigger.

The dry approach of the TV series remains intact, and there’s a lot of fanservice for the long-time Gridman fans. I remember clearly how satisfied the audience looked leaving the theater when I went to watch it.

  • Best Opening: Spy x Family S2 OP1 (link)

Storyboarded and directed by Masaaki Yuasa, I was impressed by the wealth of animation ideas present.

The art style, with its exaggerated silhouettes and perspective, makes you remember the primitive joys of animation.

  • Best Animation Designs: Skip and Loafer (Manami Umeshita)

The wonderful designs from Manami Umeshita, who served as character designer and chief animation director, were the first things that left an impression on me when watching the anime.

In my opinion, the soft designs help to further accentuate the pure-hearted nature of the characters.


Geth

Always Purple [Twitter]

  • Best Episode: Kusuriya no Hitorigoto / The Apothecary Diaries #04

A lot has already been said around the internet about why Kusuriya #04 is so special—on this very blog, even! So, to keep it succinct, I appreciate the extent to which this episode goes to craft a complete, personal work, as it is exceedingly rare these days to have as much drawing incongruence as this does with the surrounding anime. Moreover, the skill on display to emphasize characterful movement is second to none. It’s the best animated episode of the year.

  • Best Show: Tengoku Daimakyou

The 2023 calendar year marked the least number of currently airing anime I have watched since becoming a habitual seasonal enthusiast back in 2016. In terms of concrete numbers, this year I finished 18 of these things between TV, film, and OVA. Still a decent amount (kvin seems to think I’m still qualified!), but regardless, it’s about a 50% drop from last year. While it’s true that the state of TV anime has deteriorated significantly in just a few years, it would be unfair to attribute this sudden decline in interest entirely to that. The truth is, I simply have less free time. And when you have less free time, you tend to reserve it for unique and interesting stories. Tengoku Daimakyou is both of those things. I was enamored by the mystery established in the first episode and quickly took to the manga, binging until catching up. Overall, it’s not without its flaws, but even a flawed story told well can be fun to follow, and that’s exactly what it was for me.

  • Best Movie: The Boy and the Heron

As someone who goes out of their way to have zero expectations for basically everything in my life, I cannot say it has ever paid dividends quite to the extent that it did with The Boy and the Heron. Without delving into spoilers myself either, I would encourage anyone who is able to see it with as little knowledge of the material as possible. Hyperbole has always followed Hayao Miyazaki wherever he goes, but in this case, it truly was an unforgettable experience. The actual greatest to ever do it.

  • Best Opening: Hikari no Ou OP (link)

The directorial works of Kenichi Kutsuna regularly find their way into my yearly awards. I most appreciate the fact that there is a certain intangible wisdom that can be felt resting beneath the surface. Especially for anyone with a vested interest in the craft side of this hobby, that purposefulness tends to be extremely alluring. Part of Kutsuna’s genius is his being abundantly comfortable with breaking convention. For instance, I had an interesting discussion with Shengmeng Chen recently where he pointed out the lack of a book slide within the snowy field cut in Vlad Love’s OP. He thought it must be a mistake since, with the character walking across the screen, it feels a bit uncanny to not have the background slide in the opposite direction. Instead of guessing as to Kutsuna’s motives, I consulted my copy of the doujinshi dedicated to this OP that he released at a previous Comiket. It’s full of insights, and sure enough, he mentions intentionally keeping the background fixed so that it would feel misaligned. All this to say, Kenichi Kutsuna’s opening sequences are a reminder of the incredible minutiae intrinsic to animation.

Returning to Hikari no Ou, this OP reinforces the degree to which flora and greenery are a staple of his work—both in and of themselves and also as a means to depict full cel backgrounds. The presentation is so confident that it foregoes the need for robust animation, which is fortunate, or perhaps intentional, considering he was working with a much more modest crew than his previous OP. As a historian and scholar of sakuga, Kutsuna also managed to fit a reference to the iconic Record of Lodoss War OP.

On a final note, this may not even be the last time Kenichi Kutsuna directs an OP for Hikari no Ou, as the series is returning in the new year. Regardless of whether he reprises his role, though, we can only hope he once again publishes his thoughts and creative process!

  • Best Aesthetic: Skip and Loafer, Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End

These two series sharing an award make a lot of sense since they’re designed similarly: simple, unobtrusive filtering, and colours that agree with each other. This tends to be the winning formula as far as I’m concerned. Skip and Loafer in particular makes great use of pastels for fun and creative cutaways, which was also a major factor in my selecting Cool Doji Danshi for this award last year.

Keiichiro Saito may have inherited Shingo Natsume’s production line at Studio Madhouse, but Frieren’s art direction ended up with Sawako Takagi of Studio Wyeth rather than Studio Pablo (ACCA 13, Sonny Boy). There are few background studios remaining that are capable of painterly brilliance, such as those on display regularly in Frieren, so, more than any of the other blessings the series has incurred, it’s fortunate to have landed in very capable hands.

  • Best Animation Designs: Overtake! (Masako Matsumoto)

There weren’t any designs this year that genuinely floored me, but Masako Matsumoto’s interpretation of Takako Shimura’s original illustrations on Overtake! caught my attention. It certainly helped feed my bias when her skilled supervision enabled the cast to move perpetually and gratuitously throughout the premiere!

  • Non-contemporary Work Award: Eureka 7

This is an easy category for me to write about since I have an ongoing, massive thread on Twitter chronicling my first full experience with Tomoki Kyoda’s mid-’00s landmark anime. If you have been following said thread, then I don’t need to tell you that it has been a frustrating rollercoaster-like undertaking as I witness one of the most expertly crafted anime repeatedly fail to connect the storytelling pieces in a satisfying or even coherent way.

Eureka 7 was made at a time when Masahiko Minami’s Studio Bones had found a comfortable footing. With strong ties to reliable supporters such as P.A. Works and DogaKobo, the studio was able to ensure consistent, quality animation even across their longer productions. Moreover, the high-end talent pool they had access to grew with each production, to the point where it could be argued that Eureka 7 is their most ambitious in that regard. With Eiji Nakada and Kenichi Yoshida responsible for mecha and character, respectively, the series’ animation was under the leadership of two of the greatest craftsmen to ever do it. In addition, the ancillary departments such as photography, art, music, and colour design were all riding in harmony along the same trapars. It’s a damn well-put-together anime, which makes it all the more tragic that its attempt at narrative is without focus. A major contributing factor to this is the fact that Eureka 7 was originally planned as a two-cour series and later stretched to four. It isn’t known exactly how late into the planning phase their quota doubled, but the multitude of aimless episodes speaks for itself. Perhaps there is a 24-episode cut of Eureka 7 out there that tells the succinct story of romantic techno-environmentalism that it so desperately wants to be, but until then, I’ll continue to appreciate the otherworldly craftsmanship that went into the design of this great series.

This is far from a proper discovery award, as Hirokazu Sato has been on my radar for a long time; truth is that I had a semi-viral tweet of their sneezing animation on Ganbare Douki-chan (2021) that I impulsively deleted a while ago. So rather than that, consider this my attempt to direct some deserved attention towards one of the three main animators for Undead Unluck, a series with no shortage of impressive animation (despite the art direction’s unfortunate inclination to spoil their efforts). Also in that role are two action veterans, Kazuhiro Miwa and Hiroyuki Okaji, who happen to be somewhat household names among the animation-enthused, so it’s fair to say Sato is at risk of being overshadowed.

In any event, the focus of my aforementioned deleted tweet was the Tetsuya Nishio-like efficiency in their animation. Sato often draws in a clean way that emphasizes shorthand movement. It’s worth noting that this Nishio comparison is purely observational, and it’s entirely possible Sato isn’t consciously aware of the sakuga legend. If only their Twitter gave off the impression of being even remotely approachable! (lol)


Ken Yamamoto

Animator, Storyboarder, Director, Aikatsu Respecter, A Leaf [Twitter] [Sakugabooru Tag]

  • Best Episode: Jujutsu Kaisen #37 (S2 #13), The Magical Revolution of the Reincarnated Princess and the Genius Young Lady #03, The Idolm@ster Cinderella Girls U149 #04

Jujutsu Kaisen #37 is an episode that feels extremely well-realized, with its vision clear-cut from the start. Episodes 40 and 41 by Miso-san [Itsuki Tsuchigami] were great as well, but my personal belief is that the low-brow nature of commercial anime is its greatest charm, so this is more to my liking.

Similarly, there’s Tenten Kakumei #03. By their very nature, commercial anime makes it very difficult to depict beautiful subjects in all their beauty (I think only a very limited number of titles, such as [Isao] Takahata’s Princess Kaguya, even makes an attempt). The standard approach is to construct visuals using artistic iconography to some degree. This episode has a very high level of directorial sense, composing shots using framing and spacing as iconographic devices. With Tsurugi Katou-san’s hand-drawn effect animation (I believe) on top, it’s full of the charms of commercial anime, and just a plain good-looking episode.

As for the last one: the animation, storyboarding, and direction are all amazing so just go watch it. Even if you don’t know anything about iM@S, you’ll fall in love with Momoka-chan. Also, Arisu makes some good, dumb faces.

  • Best Show: The Iceblade Sorcerer Shall Rule the World

So good that every other commercial anime belongs in the past now. It’s been burned into my memories as the greatest work of visual entertainment out of countless works. This is the first name that would come to mind when asked about the all-time best things I’ve seen in my life.

Just when I felt myself getting sleepy at the long-winded exposition at the start of episode #01, the sudden encounter with his buff friend perked me up a bit, and by the time the main character was running in what looked like a parody of Get Out, it had completely captured my heart.

From there, I could do nothing but watch as I was overwhelmed by the drama of the main character, Ray White, regaining emotions appropriate for his age; the drama of his friends and acquaintances as they grow and develop; the endless barrage of surreal gags. So incredible. This might be the first time as an adult that I thought of a work of media as just pure fun from the bottom of my heart.

Since this is an animation blog, on a visual level, [Nobuhiro] Muto-san’s episodes, 5 and 11, are easily the best, with the timing for pans and tracking shots clearly on another level. You also get to witness [Tomonori] Kogawa-san’s AD work , and very rarely there are cuts mixed in where you feel the efforts of young animators, so personally I enjoyed it a lot on a visual level. However, it might take some time to adjust if you’re too used to watching dull anime from recent years with loads of post-processing and overly detailed cel art.

I can infer that most likely that there were some unfortunate circumstances with the schedule or whatnot, but the episode directors must have done a pretty good job, because stuff like the timing of the drawings and emoting is all on point. It really is an incredible anime.

By the way, the manga adaptation is really fun as a hot-blooded battle manga along the lines of s-CRY-ed, with really good art, so I recommend it as well.

Editor (Kevin’s) note: The manga is fun as hell, genuinely one of the most expressive things I’ve read lately.

  • Best Movie: Aikatsu! 10th Story ~Mirai e no Starway~, Girls und Panzer Das Finale Part 4, Detective Conan: Black Iron Submarine

I can’t think of a better treat for original fans who have since become adults than the Aikatsu 10th Story movie. I cry every time I watch the scene of Ichigo repeating the same words over and over like a bird singing, accompanied by birdsong in the background. Fans of the series should definitely, absolutely, and by all means watch it.

As for Girls und Panzer Das Finale Part 4, I’d describe it as Mad Max: Fury Road but with cute girls and tanks. Hands down this year’s best in terms of entertainment. By far the most fun movie this year, despite not having watched the previous parts of Das Finale.

Finally, there’s the latest Detective Conan film. To borrow the words of Naoto Uchida-san, it’s very well-constructed. There’s not a moment of boredom, and the way especially in the first half, it goes from action to car chase scenes is just plain awesome.

  • Best Opening and Ending: A whole lot of them
    • The Idolm@ster Cinderella Girls U149 OP: Cute, cheerful, the best. From the character introductions, the producer POV, to the very U149-ish answer to the series staple of having everyone show up and dance for the chorus, it’s all amazing.
    • The Magical Revolution of the Reincarnated Princess and the Genius Young Lady OP: Love the way they compare and contrast the two main characters, the way they hold hands in the past and present, and the beautiful art filled with happiness.
    • Onii-chan wa Oshimai! OP: Too good. Miton-chan’s long rotation shot, for example, would be hard to pull off without really good animation, but it’s really, really impressive. The song is fun, too.
    • Tonikaku Kawaii S2 OP: I only watched episode 1 of the first season, but after watching this OP, I bought all the volumes of the manga. Sequences that thematically touch on the long passage of time are always up my alley, no questions asked.
    • Rokudou no Onna-tachi OP: Extremely high level of precision in the key animation, AD corrections, and in-betweens. The timing and action for the action part where the bike goes flying in the chorus is really cool. I often look back on it as a reference. The level of care shown here must be really difficult to pull off in modern times.
    • Gotoubun no Hanayome ∽ OP: Seeing all the unexplained light effects flying around makes me appreciate the brute force of Hiroto Nagata-san (storyboards/director) introducing his own field of expertise. The part in the intro with all five having the same eye color, as well as the juxtaposition of all five of their torsos while running, are both visual effects you could only pull off for this show, with these quintuplets. I really like it a lot.
    • Dekoboko Majo no Oyako Jijou OP: I was impressed at the decision to parody the OP2 of the 2000 Saiyuki anime today. Animation-wise, Alyssa shifting her weight in the walk cycle loop in the first verse is good, and the shadows on Giriko’s crossed legs in the pre-chorus is beautiful in a stylish way that reminds me of [Kazuchika] Kise-san.
    • Fate/Samurai Remnant OP: Nakaya Onsen is unbeatable when you let him make awesome sequences.
    • Undead Unluck OP, as well as the ED: It takes the motifs present in the manga and expands upon them in an interesting and very fun way. The classic style in which it introduces the characters with the action during the chorus is the ideal way to show off the atmosphere of the original manga, and I like it a lot.
    • Tenpuru ED3: Filling up 90 seconds with just walk cycle loops, a number of cuts as punctuation, and different backgrounds is super neat and I love it.
  • Best Aesthetic: Hirogaru Sky! Precure

Hirogaru Sky Precure is, in fact, good.

  • Best Animation Designs: Skip and Loafer (Manami Umeshita), Bungo Stray Dogs (Nobuhiro Arai), Tenpuru (Masako Katsumata)

Skip and Loafer‘s designs are simply beautiful. [Manami] Umeshita-san, who was in charge of them, once did key animation for me on The Promised Neverland S2 OP (if I may brag). I was blown away by how good she was, so I’m happy to see so many people enjoy her work.

As for Bungo Stray Dogs, the characters’ faces and silhouettes are leagues above when it comes to how pretty they are. I have enough fun just looking at those faces, but when you combine that with [Takuya] Igarashi’s direction, it makes me want to draw really cool drawings. Not that I can draw them.

Meanwhile, Tenpuru‘s designs are stylish, cute, and surprisingly classy for a fanservice anime. It felt weird being able to watch it with my mind at ease.

  • Non-contemporary Work Award: Bakusou Kyoudai Let’s & Go!! WGP

At the time, I enjoyed watching it off of recorded videos I had sent to me from Japan. In terms of animation, it’s fun watching all of the Sunrise/IG/Tatsunoko/Xebec people going wild, and it’s a very 90s anime in how well-made it is. It’s a work that I aspire to reach.

  • Creator Discovery: Masahiro Takata

With the resources available to him, Masahiro Takata tries to create the best anime possible. In the modern anime industry, where manpower and time are both lacking, yet the demands keep increasing without end, his work embodies the attitude that is needed the most.

Iceblade Sorcerer and Dekoboko Majo really served to open my eyes, and in my mind, I now see everything as either pre- or post-Iceblade Sorcerer.


Maki

Professional Homo [Twitter]

  • Best Episode: Oniichan wa Oshimai! #01

With a complex storyboard that took far longer than director Shingo Fujii anticipated, immediately drawing cries of panic from the storyboard artists for the following episodes, and as the only episode of the series to have character designer Ryo Imamura as solo sakkan, Onimai #1 was a bombshell. There are so many things to highlight: Fujii’s layouts, the fantastic opening sequence with work by Miton, FukurouP, Kaori Imai, and Yuki Matsubara; Ann Nakai’s dress-up portion; Miton’s work on the lingerie scene; Kay Yu’s comical acting; basically all of Imamura’s corrections…. It’s all brough together under Fujii’s directing—a knockout of a first episode, and one that perfectly draws the viewer in to the rest of the series. My personal highlight would be Ann Nakai’s sequence; I absolutely love the movement of the fabric and the cartoony comedy of Mihari’s reaction, as well as small bits like how Mihari’s hair gently blows up then settles as she quickly crouches down.

Honorable mentions: Uma Musume Pretty Derby Road to the Top #4, Tengoku Daimakyou #8, Oniichan wa Oshimai! #12.

  • Best Show: Oniichan wa Oshimai!

Really the only choice for me. I loved this show from start to finish; beyond simply being a collection of pieces made by all-stars (though it certainly was that), I loved the way first-time director and first-time character designer Shingo Fujii and Ryo Imamura—both by all respects ace animators, trying something new for the first time here—approached both the content and the production. In the BD booklet interviews, Fujii discusses how it was part of their production plan to have Mahiro’s physical acting be more masculine at the beginning of the series, and to slowly bring out more feminine movements over the first number of episodes, which ended up subtly building up both the language of the show and the gradual shifts in Mahiro’s character over time, making the decision in the last episode hit all the harder—in a way that it never did in the manga.

Of course, with Fujii and Imamura heading the show, and with Toshiya Otomo (Yama no Susume, Mushoku Tensei) as animation producer, a dazzling lineup of their friends and other young animators were chomping at the bit to work on the show with them. Of note is how the flexibility built into their production plan allowed for some of the scenes that attracted the most attention, like the bathing suit scene in #03 that Miton was in charge of and which garnered a huge reaction online. When discussing the scene it was pointed out to Fujii that Kaede’s chest was, at the character design stage, not anywhere near as large as it’s depicted here, Fujii says that while Miton had already drawn it particularly large during the genga stage, he gave the OK to make her bust even larger, since that fit the directorial vision of it being seen from Mahiro’s perspective. Gotta love it.

I could go on and on about this show—the cuts and changes in content that elevate it over the simple (but of course still good!) gender-bender comedy of the original manga; the research the team did into transgender issues to nail certain aspects of Mahiro’s character; the way Fujii and Imamura used it as an opportunity to train newbie animators; how the 250-cuts-or-less per episode limit that they imposed helped to bring out the slower pace that ended up being so characteristic for the series; and of course, Mahirochan kawaii. There’s far more to talk about, but I’ve already written a lot, so I’ll leave it here. I look forward to seeing what Fujii directs next!

  • Best Movie: Hibike! Euphonium: Ensemble Contest

This may be cheating since this is technically an OVA (that just so happened to earn more than some of the more hyped-up movies of the year in its limited theatrical run—Eupho strong); but man oh man was it absolutely wonderful to take in that Kitauji air once again. With Taiichi Ogawa taking up the post as assistant director in addition to Tatsuya Ishihara reprising his seat as director, and with a whole slew of both new and familiar faces in the trenches, this was exactly the return that Eupho fans had been waiting for, showing off exactly how far KyoAni has been able to come since the tragedy of the arson in 2019. Filled to the brim with that inspired, natural character acting that’s like a calling card for the studio (I obviously couldn’t help but fall in love with Kanade’s shadowboxing) and, in classic Eupho fashion, showing us Kumiko’s growth as she becomes used to her role as the newly appointed club president, it was the perfect transitory interlude between the previous film and the upcoming third season. (Thank you for the Minami Middle content. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you…)

  • Best Opening: Tengoku Daimakyou OP (link)

This probably needs no introduction. Weilin Zhang’s OP for Tengoku Daimakyou is an instant success on all fronts, with a lineup that most would kill for. Moaang, soty, and Shingo Yamashita is like a rotation from my dreams; I particularly love the intensity of Hakuyu Go’s running sequence, which echoes the conflict that’s core to Kiruko’s character. All of it is unified under Zhang (who did the composite himself), with an aesthetic that’s ideal for the strange, emotional-but-funny-but-wow-that’s-fucked-up space that Tengoku Daimakyou occupies. I had been a fan of the manga for a while, and I could not have asked for a better intro for this series.

Honorable mentions: Oniichan wa Oshimai! OP, Uma Musume Pretty Derby Road to the Top OP, Shounen yo Ware ni Kaere, live performance by Tsukino Mito and Lize Helesta atにじさんじ 5th Anniversary LIVE「SYMPHONIAAs for endings, Gundam: The Witch from Mercury ED2!

  • Best Aesthetic: Little Goody Two-Shoes

Okay, yes, this is a video game, but hear me out: Little Goody Two-Shoes was my surprise of the yearan exquisitely done RPG Maker-style horror game with an exceptionally realized nostalgia-bend of an aesthetic; admittedly two things that are laser-targeted toward me in particular, as I both am of a Certain Age and have loved RPG Maker horror games for years now. Produced by a 5-person Portuguese team (AstralShift), who previously released Pocket Mirror ~ GoldenerTraum, LGTS‘ aesthetic hits a home run on all fronts for me. Whether it’s the environments that evoke storybooks or, perhaps, 90s adventure games, the absolutely gorgeous hand-painted backgrounds that harken back to classic World Masterpiece Theater shows like Anne of Green Gables and Heidi: Girl of the Alps, or the nostalgic mini-games being presented as literal arcade cabinets, this is a game that knows exactly how it wants to present itself to the player. And yesit is indeed gay.

It’s a gorgeous, incredibly impressive game that has clearly had endless amounts of love poured into it; it borrows from classic anime in spades, but none of it ever feels heavy-handed or too close to what it’s borrowing from, which is a testament to how seamlessly integrated the aesthetic is to its entire experience. I found myself constantly surprised and delighted as I found my way into new and entirely different environments or discovered new visual elements over my playtime. I haven’t even touched the character designs or the opening moviethe latter of which was produced by Studio Nostalook, whose 2021 Dua Lipa music video didn’t do all that much for me personally, but whose work here I feel hits just the right notes. By the way, did I mention that the character sprite work is excellent too?. LGTS is easily my pick for the best aesthetic of the year; probably the past several years, even. I must say, it’s by far my favorite work in general to come out of the larger ‘anime nostalgia’ trend of the past decade or so.

This one is definitely cheating, since Minoru Ota has been around for a while, with his first credit as an inbetweener on Nichijou’s episode 0. (As an aside, he also did a favorite scene of mine in Liz.) However, what I want to highlight here is how, with Ensemble Contest, he has succeeded Hiroyuki Takahashi in his role as Eupho’s instrument animation director, a role that Takahashi held—and was outrageously good at—through both the K-On! and Eupho series up until now. (Note that Ota actually worked alongside Takahashi on Violet Evergarden, as they were jointly in charge of the accessory settei there, a role he reprised in both Haruka Fujita’s Violet Gaiden and the 2020 movie.)

Not content to simply accept the torch from his predecessor, he’s also intentionally bringing his own touch to the series. This comment of his from August shows how his approach might differ from Takahashi’s technical precision; for Ensemble Contest, he says that he worked particularly on developing the ‘radiance’ of the instruments even further than previous entries in the series, which is evident immediately, with the textures of Kumiko’s eupho in the very first scene dazzlingly dancing as she plays. I—along with I think most Eupho fans—am overjoyed to see Ota take up the mantle of instrument AD, and I cannot wait to see his work develop even further in the upcoming third season.

Honorable mention: I’d also like to use this space to mention Ann Nakai, who, despite being a complete newbie when starting work on Onimai, consistently produced seriously stunning work as part of the show’s core team. I became a fan immediately, and am really looking forward to seeing more of her in the future!


Natasha

Ah, Satan [Twitter]

  • Best Episode, And Also Creator Discovery: Jujutsu Kaisen S2 #01 And Shota Goshozono

Ever since 2011, I have been in search of a creator who matches the imagination, skill, and mind of horror-lover Masashi Ishihama. Very few people match his unabashed love for the dark and the surreal, and his knowledge of how to evoke fear in the medium of animation. It’s come in blips and flares throughout the decade, but Jujutsu Kaisen‘s second season was where I really saw that potential arrive through the eyes and hard work of Shota Goshozono, who also happened to storyboard what I consider one of the most striking pieces of horror of 2023. So, let me merge categories and quickly explain why this was such an impactful episode for me, and how it allowed me to discover a talent I’d been looking for.

JJK S2 episode #01 sets the tone for a 90’s-esque X Files investigation with warped perspectives, lengthy cuts, cinematic layouts, and the usage of analog home video and distorted narration clips. Combining a blending of 3D camera work with masterful sound design, Goshozono creates an episode that has filled me with the same kind of dread I haven’t felt since Ishihama’s work on Occultic;Nine or From the New World.

Goshozono’s talents extend beyond this episode, but there’s been enough coverage of Jujutsu‘s strained production conditions for me to comment any further. This has been a wild ride, pairing the mindset of efficient storyboarding against unmatched levels of rushed scheduling demands, with flashes of genuine auteur craftsmanship. At the end of this tunnel, though, I see a bright future for someone as talented and resourceful as Goshozono.

  • Best Show: Vinland Saga S2, Pluto

It feels a little unfair to weight the likes of Vinland Saga and Pluto against other titles; they are built after all, on the sinew, muscle and bones of what I personally consider to be two of the best mangaka of recent decades. But beyond the inherent excellence of the material, both shows do a solid job of briefly elevating their respective manga, and cover themes that I’ve yet to see covered in recent anime.

Episode #17 of Vinland Saga in particular, showcases the effects of toxic masculinity, the insurmountable loss of war and discrimination, and the endurance of love across these moments of brutality. In a year where these topics become increasingly relevant, Vinland Saga feels like a slow balm; it eases that pain, but doesn’t cure it—on the contrary, it reminds me of why these topics are so critical to discuss in the first place. Pluto, for similar reasons, is here, with not-so-subtle references to the Iraq war and a discussion on the ever so fraught relationship between humanity and technology.

Honorable mention: On the other side of the spectrum, Skip and Loafer is unabashedly earnest and warm in everything it chooses to have dialogue about, and those dialogues are often refreshing. Charming character designs and a bright colour palette serve as a fantastic backdrop against an unconventional coming-of-age story, and it would be an understatement to say that this show was a much-needed bright half-hour in my life for three months.

  • Best Movie: Spider-man: Across the Spiderverse

I admittedly didn’t get much of a chance to see many of this year’s film darlings (namely Suzume and The Boy and the Heron) but somehow, I also know that even if I had, the neon-streaked and dazzling Spiderverse would still remain glued to the back of my eyeballs.

Into the Spiderverse was already an ambitious feat; putting animation and its connotation as a medium, not just as a source of family-friendly adventures, but back on the map for the world. Across the Spiderverse plants that reminder firmly into the ground, albeit not without severe consequences. Every character comes with their own personality that’s deeply embedded into distinctive animation styles, rules, and design. Then layer on the aspect of multiple worlds, all blended with references to art in reality, blended with CG composite as much as real materials (xerox machines, Indrajal comics, screen tones, etc). What you get is a product of dazzling proportions, and a story that utilises the often-stale trope of the multiverse as an honest celebration of diversity.

Perhaps the most memorable part of Spiderverse, personally, was not just the movie—it was the culmination of hundreds of artists on Twitter showcasing their individual efforts to bring a scene to life, often during the time of the pandemic when collaboration was hindered, if not impossible. Spiderverse is possibly the year’s most innovative achievement, and a reminder of not just the limitless potential animation has, but that of diverse creators bringing together their experiences and perspectives into a medium that can be bold as much as beautiful.

  • Best Opening: Tengoku Daimakyou OP (link), One Piece OP25 (link)

If I had to choose any singular anime as the one that dominated 2023, it would unmistakably be One Piece; having finished the immense Wano arc in both the manga and anime, and landing the first successful live action anime adaptations we’ve seen in years. Nothing feels more celebratory of these feats than the 25th opening, which marks the rise of Megumi Ishitani as not just a fan-favorite in the world of One Piece animation, but as a full-fledged opening maestro in her own right. A montage of detailed compositions, threaded together by evocative symbolism, shows not just how inventive and thoughtful of a storyboarder Ishitani can be, but also how she fundamentally grasps the soul of One Piece this year.

Tengoku Daimakyou‘s opening is also a banger in every sense, but for different reasons: it’s, to me, a highlight of how impactful Shingo Yamashita has been on the world of webgen artistry. Weilin Zhang takes careful measures to highlight that inspiration with an opening that nostalgically dazzles but also makes his own mark. Vivid colouring, a usage of silhouettes, and an emphasis on the basics of highlight, shadow, and shape—these are all classic Yamashita moves, but Zhang takes them to a new level to create chaotic and yet controlled energy in this opening, paired with an equally raw song.

Honorable mention: I can’t leave out how much I adore Masaaki Yuasa‘s Spy x Family opening. Spy x Family has had the fortune where every opening highlights the versatility of the show’s strengths—it’s sometimes a fun thriller, sometimes a beautiful appreciation of the mundane—and Yuasa adds to the mix by emphasising the warmth of a seemingly dysfunctional and wacky family. Shin-chan inspired designs, silly retro pop art backgrounds, tight sequencing, and snappy animation, all create a zany opening imbued with Yuasa’s signature charm.

  • Best Aesthetic, And Also Best New Medium: Alan Wake 2

Continuing on the horror train that I started me entry with: I admit, I’m biased when it comes to this selection. Alan Wake is one of my favourite games of all time, though in my heart it’s registered less as a traditional collection of interactive mechanics, and more as an experience. Alan Wake 2 ramps that concept up to 100%, but to give clarity as to how or why would also rob everyone of the much-deserved chance to “play” this new….thing for themselves. So, I won’t do that, but I will end this bit on: Alan Wake 2 is possibly my favourite experience this year that pushes the envelope of art engagement, storytelling, and the ever-evolving medium of video and audio.

Aesthetically, it’s stunning. It combines unmatched technical fidelity with striking art direction to create immersive landscapes of nonstop tension and intrigue. It both is deeply inspired by film noir and the 90s era of television, and challenging of it, with moody environments that pulse with volumetric fog, ray-traced and puddle-ridden streets, glossy neon flickering signs in dim alleys, and chromatic aberrated shadows, itching to destroy your soul. I have never been drawn in by such a grand metanarrative survival story that’s so clearly in tune with its own aesthetic; if there’s one flaw to this, it’s that I could wipe what I’ve played so far of Alan Wake 2 from my brain and experience it fresh again.


Kevin

Me [Twitter]

  • Best Episode: Tengoku Daimakyou #08, Kusuriya no Hitorigoto / The Apothecary Diaries #04, The Idolmaster Cinderella Girls U149 #11

If there is any recipe to put together something likely to be remembered as the episode of the year, it would likely entail the overlap of significant narrative developments with memorable delivery—not the only way to achieve success by any stretch, but arguably the most straightforward one. Multiple episodes of Tengoku Daimakyou hover around that continuum, with Kai Ikarashi and Tetsuya Takeuchi’s #10 oozing charisma like no other episode this year, and several others landing genuine setting-shifting reveals alongside still impressive craftmanship. The one that resonated the most with me, though, is more akin to a side story; one that does make fascinating implications about the world, but a shift in focus nonetheless. It’s not the loudest showing in such an outrageous series, yet it hits like no other. And that is episode #08, the first full storyboard by Haruka Fujita ever since she left Kyoto Animation.

It would be an understatement to say that she understood the assignment. Acting as the storyboarder but not sticking around to oversee its execution can get in the way of having one’s vision properly realized, especially if the production is done at a studio they don’t actually work for. But Fujita didn’t remain an outsider—not to the making of this episode, and certainly not to this story. She left a simply ridiculous amount of notes for the staff who had to eventually bring to life her boards; a genuine study of the characters across the entire series, explanations about the imagery that she herself had come up with to embody the recurring themes, and amusingly, even some notes expressing regret that she couldn’t stick around to direct the episode.

The result is nothing short of stunning. The elegance we’ve come to expect from Fujita makes an entire episode about death feel ethereal, and yet still so personable through her detail-oriented storyboarding. The episode is Tengoku Daimakyou at its most touching, and due to the show’s structure and Fujita’s gentle delivery, it’s bound to age like fine wine. While other episodes made a stronger splash—because they’re damn good, mind you—I feel like this is the one that will have the strongest legacy. It’s a given in my heart, at the very least!

If elegance is the name of my favorite episodes of 2023, there is only another one I’d put on this level; or rather, there’s one episode and an entire series, but I can show love to that show in the next category. Truth to be told, I don’t even have to say much about Kusuriya #04 either, mostly because I’ve already done so already.

The series as a whole is already one of my favorites this year, but its winning formula of procedural mystery and amusing character interactions transforms into something entirely different for a special episode led by China and Moaang. As funny as ever, but so much more deliberate in its framing. Acted with precision rarely seen on TV, which allows it to convey details that normal episodes would have to speak out loud—or simply fail to convey. It’s one of the most lavish episodes you can treat yourself to this year, with thought put into every little motion. And yet, it also stands out for its mindfulness of animation economy, for its ability to dance around limitations elegantly. It accidentally sparked a debate about shortcuts in animation around the industry, but I feel like debating works like this purely from an angle of “concessions” and “shortcuts” is giving too much credence to a quantitative, simply boring view of art. The choices of what should be drawn in detail have an aspect of guidance of the eye, and in a broader way, an austere beauty that is resonant before it’s smart.

This episode accomplishes all of this while retaining the intangibles to convey a story about love in a way that goes beyond all those specific, material details. It’s easy for this type of meticulous, detail-oriented direction to veer into overcalculated and cold; something that can have its uses too of course, but would have clashed both with the tenderness and bursts of fury that we witnessed in this episode had Chinashi not kept everyone’s emotions in the foreground. Outrageously good work spearheaded by one of the greatest (still!) young duos in anime.

My final shout-out has to go to The Idolm@ster Cinderella Girls U149 #11; directed and storyboarded by Atsushi Kobayashi, who has also been doing brilliant work on the likes of Vinland Saga S2, but also in an active conversation with the imagery that series director Manabu Okamoto already established in the first episode. In my experience with the Imas franchise at large, I’d never bought onto Arisu’s character in the way others seemed to, but she finally clicked for me over the course of this episodes. They refuse to embrace a cheap twist about her parents having loved her all along, and instead empathize with a child prone to misunderstand the situation, and eventually shatter her misconceptions about adults in a way that lifts a load from her shoulders. The way Sheng Meng Chen’s animation abstracted her feeling of alienation is one of the most stunning moments of the year, but it’s also one that would only land in an episode that carefully depicts her psyche, and in a show that has set the foundations for that.

Honorable mentions: Basically every episode of Tsurune: The Linking Shot. Nobuyuki Takeuchi’s surprising (but not entirely) solo episode #09 of Kawagoe Boys Sing. Hirofumi Okita building the best, most authentically crowded city of 2023 for Kubo-san #11, not for its own sake but to contrast it to the world of two that the cute couple loses themselves in. Makoto Kato’s most stunning episode to date, Overtake! #09, for making me have an excellent awful time that is canceled out by just as uplifting of an ending. And, while its greatest episodes are in the first arc—#05 in particular—I must shout out Jujutsu Kaisen S2’s team for their work on episode #16. At a point in the production where the struggles they faced were tremendous, and even accounting for the prioritization of the episode, the degree of realization of Miso’s vision is truly amazing. It’s a sad context, but also one that emphasizes just how great of a feat they accomplished. Kind of like Zom 100 #01 in that way—another banger!

  • Best Show: Tsurune: The Linking Shot, Overtake!, Vinland Saga S2

The first season of Tsurune was a very enjoyable experience, a solid directorial debut Takuya Yamamura. It was archetypical in its sports narrative beats, but applied to a contemplative activity like kyudo, which made for interesting contrast. At the end of the day, though, its simplicity made me assume that it had a certain ceiling; and that might have made me assume something similar about Yamamura himself. The Linking Shot, to put it plainly, has pierced through those assumptions.

Besides presenting a new group of rivals with compelling conflicts of their own, this second season manages to peel away layers from preexisting characters and reveal a degree of internal complexity that you could have guessed from their first adventures. Their struggles, as well as those of the new rivals, tend to have the shared trait of contrast; sometimes it’s between social standings, a major theme across this series, and sometimes simply a clash in personalities. The team put lots of thought on how to translate that not just into the storyboards—most of them drawn by Yamamura himself, who got so carried away he nearly singlehandedly handled them all—but into the aesthetic of the show itself.

Carrying over the theatrical production energy they’d built up when making the (not really) recap film that preceded season 2, the team reformulated the show’s aesthetic and landed on something noticeably more complex. Again, this isn’t intricacy for its own sake, but an attempt to embody that idea of contrast into the world they inhabit; for example, art director Shouko Ochiai didn’t just increase the level of detail in the backgrounds to better showcase the gap between fancy equipment and weary, scrambled together tools depending on the school, but also emphasized the contrast in right about every BG. That implied further collaboration with the digital department and a bigger workload for them, hence why photography director Kouhei Funamoto went as far as coding applications to make the more involved process speedier for everyone. The story of The Linking Shot’s production is one of deliberate choices and collective, cohesive greatness.

This extends beyond anime itself, but there’s always been that idea that brilliant directors are necessarily tyrannical figures who are justified in their harsh behavior, because that’s just what genius is like. Though professional relationships are up to the people involved above anyone else, I have to say that I appreciate cases like Tsurune and Yamamura that strongly refuse that conclusion. In every interview with the team, the representatives of each department explained that a big reason why they were able to raise the bar was the director’s inadvertently motivational attitude. Yamamura would constantly swing by other people’s desks, praise their accomplishments, and also motivate them to share their own ideas; he would do so in a way they compared to a dog happily swinging its tail, or perhaps an excited kid. Though the ingredients were always there for an excellent show, I don’t think that its thesis could have permeated it so thoroughly without that extra push, nor would the quality have risen so much. I really hope Yamamura manages to bring that attitude to new projects in the future.

It’s only been a few days since we published a lengthy write-up about Overtake!, so I don’t think I have it in me to reiterate why it’s one of the best shows of the year; if you’re interested in confident scriptwriting that doesn’t hold your hand as anime tends to clumsily do, and bold direction that underlines those subtleties, you should simply give it a try. So instead, let me talk briefly about something else I recently did and am in the process of digesting still. After dragging my feet for so long, I finally watched Vinland Saga, and I couldn’t not give a nod to one of the best anime of the year. I’d initially stopped watching the first season after a couple of episodes, feeling some friction with the material I already loved, but I’m happy that a friend pushed me to watch this together.

The adaptation headed by Shuhei Yabuta dares to be in an actual conversation with the original work’s themes, making adjustments that may appear minor but come together to assemble the team’s own interpretation of this series. In an era where the demand for faithfulness often prevents adaptations to actively engage with the worldview of the original works, Vinland Saga is refreshing, and proves you can do that without the type of major rewrites that fans are so scared of. Someone yell at me to write about this show at length when I’ve got time, because this is a fascinating topic. I don’t have a secretary to issue these reminders, you know.

Honorable mentions: If we had a Rawest Anime Of The Year category, that would have gone to Uma Musume Road To The Top; and maybe we should add it after all, since it’s getting a spiritual successor bound to be even more aggressive in the next few months—maybe too soon given the schedule, but that’s a discussion for another day. I considered way too many episodes of The Idolm@ster Cinderella Girls U149 as potential favorites not to give it a nod as one of the best shows, especially since it does stick its landing very nicely; a story about kids, and even brattier adults, submerged in an often cynical entertainment industry but still emerging with a positive outlook.

  • Best Movie: The Boy and the Heron, The First Slam Dunk

It couldn’t be any other way: my movie of 2023 is Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron. I’ve written at length about the movie from the angle of Miyazaki’s often dreamlike, empowering physics, and how a movie that examines his own legacy feels weightier on a literal and figurative sense. I’ve read multiple writeups approaching it from different directions and finding just as much depth to it, and can even intuit the space to tackle it from many other angles. The Boy and the Heron feels like hanging out with a passionate friend over a drink, hearing a story that gets lost in one tangent after the other but that keeps you engrossed through the vast knowledge and whimsical turns. Except, in this situation, your friend also happens to be arguably the greatest director in anime history. It’s insane that this movie exists. So, rather than trying to make sense out of its abnormal existence, let me instead praise the most entertaining movie I’ve watched in 2023—while also ranting about the state of commercial anime, through the state of the biggest studio in the industry.

The current Toei Animation is uniquely depressing. That’s not because their cynicism is unlike what we see in other creative industries, nor because the studio’s inner workings are more reprovable than the norm in the world of anime, but rather because they’re in a position where it’s easy to see the potential for something greater—something they stifle themselves. While we constantly condemn the anime industry’s inability to properly train younger creators, Toei has built a very impressive mentorship regime; one that can only raise a small fraction of the manpower they need to keep such a large studio running, but still a very thorough, deliberately slow process to absorb all the knowledge one needs to become a capable animator or director.

When they get to that stage, though, their personal voice is either silenced or forcefully channeled through someone else’s worldview. The studio’s evolution towards a model where everything is sustained by large franchises that have spanned for decades upon decades can’t possibly be walked back, but even in that stage, they always used to make room for passion projects on the side. This is particularly important for the younger, most creative members at the studio; ones who would need an escape valve to avoid burnout, as otherwise their job is to keep returning to the same established works—which often have narrower artistic constraints—over and over.

Toei themselves understand that, hence why this has traditionally happened, and why just a few years ago they announced a program for their younger staff to create original works. Megumi Ishitani is now known across the world for her contributions to One Piece, but her short film Jurassic! precedes those contributions. Much like her Geidai graduation film Scutes on my mind, it’s built around her love for dinosaurs, and could have been the start of something larger. That didn’t happen, and despite being billed as the first of multiple showcases of young talent, it was never followed up.

Toei has never stopped raising brilliant creators, but we’ve gone from a place where Rie Matsumoto and Yuki Hayashi could unleash their unique ideas onto Kyousougiga, to a studio that convinced Koudai Watanabe to pursue independent animation instead—bless Hanabushi’s work, don’t get me wrong—and that has kept Haruka Kamatani in the awkward position of being a clearly exceptional director, but one whose name remains obscure to even many dedicated fans, as she’s never done something truly of her own.

This is all to say that there is no one more skeptical than Toei Animation’s reliance on nothing but iterative franchises, reboots, remakes, revivals, and any other word you can apply to marketable series of old being revisited. Add to that the choice to pursue 3DCG animation, and trailers being bafflingly misrepresentative, and I think you can guess how I felt about The First Slam Dunk before watching it. Now, here’s an important detail, though: that movie is goddamn excellent.

As has been the case for the most interesting Toei revivals, The First Slam Dunk doesn’t just seek to deliver more of the same; and it’s especially not here to deliver a lesser version of the exact same thing you’ve already seen. Although it doesn’t incorporate its relationship with the fanbase explicitly into the narrative like Looking for Magical Doremi, nor builds everything around the idea of time having passed for everyone and everything like Otona Precure: Kibou no Chikara recently did, the movie still interrogated what it means to return to Slam Dunk after all this time. The series was a genuine phenomenon, directly responsible for an uptick in interest in basketball for entire countries, but enough time has passed that a straightforward sequel wouldn’t have the same impact—and let’s not even consider a remake.

The solution was to indeed return to the manga at a point after the original anime had ended, but not so consecutively to make it a regular sequel. And more importantly, to reconstruct the story in a way that shifts the lens of the protagonist from the fiery Sakuragi to Miyagi, temperamental in his own way. By focusing on his story and that of his family, the movie has an excuse to reintroduce the rest of the cast as well, who appear ever so slightly different from a point of view unlike that of previous Slam Dunk. It’s a movie that will feel familiar to preexisting fans, yet constructed as an onboard point for new generations. I can’t imagine the writing process was easy; despite having the foundation of a great manga, there are countless adjustments to make it a self-contained experience, and you need to play loose with time in a movie that is both about exactly one match of basketball and the entire lives of some people. Fortunately, the result is the most exciting singular game of basketball you’ll see.

The First Slam Dunk is an event movie to me. Though I’m not used to cheering during movie screenings—no judgement for those who do, as long as it’s agreed upon that it’s fine—I consider myself lucky to have first seen it at a special stage; well over a thousand people packing a large theater for the Catalan dub premiere, featuring the original dub actors and their fun stories about having aged so much since then that their children now kicked them out of the basketball court for their sorry display. Once the movie itself started, it came time for alternating cheers, laughter, and tense silence. Though I’ve experienced it in silent environments too and it remained as entertaining of a movie, the collective ectasis during the movie’s cathartic end to the match felt like the right way to experience it. It’s no wonder that it has been granted one of the longest screening runs in anime history.

The movie also ended up being a lot more technically interesting than the first trailers made it look, but I’ll save this talk for whenever the bluray release is out and we can point at specific scenes. I think I’ve made my point regardless: despite Toei’s obsession with the marketable past being such a depressing topic, The First Slam Dunk is a genuinely excellent movie.

Honorable mentions: Gridman Universe is a beautiful culmination of not just this story (for now!), but also of the relationship between the franchise, its creators, and the fandom. I’m not sure whether other people would count it as a movie or not, but the theatrical OVA Hibike! Euphonium: Ensemble Contest is a beautiful return to form; without being all that significant of an advancement in the overarching narrative, its thoughtful acting—leaning on the team’s accumulation of carefully depicted gestures of the past—makes a series that had been missing for a while feel immediately familiar and charming.

  • Best Opening/Ending: Shounen yo Ware ni Kaere, live performance by Tsukino Mito and Lize Helesta atにじさんじ 5th Anniversary LIVE「SYMPHONIA」

If you think I’m being cheeky with a choice outside the realm of actual openings, let me assure you that there is a genuine argument to give it these honors. Many of these performances have traditionally been accompanied by intricate, fun VFX recreations of iconic anime intros and outros. There is an interesting relationship with the performers themselves too, as they will often be involved in the creative pre-production; this is particularly true of Tsukino Mito, my one and only president, who is known for being very involved in the conceptual stages of the imagery, and has essentially drawn anime-like storyboards for all sorts of creative endeavors. Even beyond the aspects that directly track to anime craft, there’s some fascinating innovation going on in these events. The live augmented reality effect—now with more reciprocity with the projection of live comments—still feels like actual witchcraft to me, and its combination with actual props and traditional tricks like fog machines makes for an interesting blend. Plus, it’s inherently funny to combine virtual people with real pyro.

That specific performance is elegant with its imagery, and as impressive of a technological feat as the rest, but the truth is that it’s here because it’s the one that made me scream the most; especially as the two of them started dancing while singing. Is that enough reason to give it this award? The song is the second opening for Penguindrum, so I say it is. If you don’t like it, make your own list.

Honorable mention: Okay, fine, my favorite regular opening is Megumi Ishitani literally going full circle with her One Piece opening, flexing her composition skills while toying with that visual motif.

  • Best Ending: My Happy Marriage ED (link)

Shiori Tani is the type of artist you can tell holds a masterpiece within herself before the opportunity to unleash it actually comes. Her contributions to other people’s visions at studio Kinema Citrus are already great in their own right, and My Happy Marriage is no exception, but the real glimpse of her potential wasn’t so much in the actual episodes but the ending sequence; one she redesigned the series for, co-animating it alongside Ayaka Tsuji. As if shedding its skin, the series is distilled into a beautiful sequence that elegantly hits the same notes. While I do enjoy the show a lot, this is the type of ending that makes you wish for this separate interpretation of the story. The real wish, though, is something else: for Tani to be granted the canvas she deserves—and Tsuji too, for that matter!

Honorable mention: The second Gundam: The Witch from Mercury ending is a beautiful mix of its well-known external influences with the show’s own visual language, of commercial artists with more alternative figures. It slaps. Also, Attack on Titan The Final Season FINAL CHAPTER ED: Good! Excellent! Love it!

  • Best Aesthetic: Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End, Skip and Loafer

This year I’ve gravitated towards aesthetics that play an active role in the storytelling; meaning, something more involved than the inherent power that they always have over the feeling of any given work. I could easily highlight Tsurune: The Linking Shot for reasons I’ve already exposed before, so instead let me shout out… two shows I’ve also written about at length, but that definitely deserve that honor.

It goes without saying that one of those is Frieren, an anime that is as beautiful as it is thoughtfully conceived. The harmony in the colors—with a palette designed by Harue Oono—and the painterly, textured background art led by Studio Wyeth’s Sawako Takagi would be enough to depict a soothing, physically aging world, but it’s Seiko Yoshioka’s work on a conceptual level that I believe takes it to the next level. As I’ve written about at length, it was her duty to imagine Frieren’s setting beyond its original boundaries. What are the fauna and flora like in every corner, and how do they evolve day to day, season to season, year to year? What are the customs of the people in this world, and the objects they’ve built for those customs and daily necessities? How does their faith physically manifest? In essentially every episode of the show, there’s a detail answering these questions that was added through her extensive design work and collaboration with series director Keiichiro Saito. Together, they’ve arrived at a breathtaking, noticeably lived-in world which perfectly embodies Frieren’s themes.

Although the ways in which it enrichens the narrative experience aren’t so easy to pinpoint, I also think that Skip and Loafer’s aesthetic excellence is as important as any other aspect to its storytelling. Series director Kotomi Deai has earned a reputation for her exceptional eye for color, and here she reunites with color designer Yuko Kobari for perhaps their best work yet. The ability to interpret the tones implied by the source material makes the series come across visually as gentle as it’s written, and when it comes to more precise shifts in color for the sake of a narrative point, the whole team responds properly. Skip and Loafer is a beautiful adaptation in a way that feels natural and effortless, and yet when you compare it to so many other shows out there, it’s clear that what they’ve achieved isn’t something you can take for granted.

Honorable mentions: I may not condone the apocalypse, but if it were to happen, can we arrange it so that Yuji Kaneko oversees its art direction? His work on Tengoku Daimakyou is but a reminder that if you want a beautiful wrecked city with overgrown vegetation, he’s the person to look out for. Also, in a less visible way and from a different angle, Nekotomi Chao raised the aesthetic bar for the Oshi no Ko anime with her color scripts and direction, which very often coincide with the most poignant moments in the show. While the series on the whole isn’t up to my taste when it comes to art direction and colors in the way that all the previously mentioned ones are, Nekotomi’s sense is always a homerun for me.

  • Best Animation Designs: Onii-chan wa Oshimai! (Ryo Imamura)

Whenever designs really speak to artists, you can notice a spike in fanart that doesn’t merely track to the overall popularity of the title. And when specific stylistic traits of animation designs enamor the audience in that way, then you see them carry over onto all sorts of drawings; aspiring animators, other folks in the industry, and regular fanartists will start applying them not just to drawings celebrating that title, but even personal art as well. In the same way that all sorts of people embraced Kerorira’s geometrical shapes, stark profiles, and even his painting tendencies after the Bocchi madness, I’ve noticed quite a few artists being fully on-board with the traits Imamura chose for Onimai’s designs, like the short dyed lines to give volume in an organic way. Also, Kaede, cute.

Honorable mention: There is no Oshi no Ko without Kappe. This is no hyperbole: the project quite literally owes its existence to her push to adapt it, and the entire production rested on the shoulders of one of the fastest and more impactful chief animation directors you’ll find in the anime industry. Beyond just how much work she did, though, is the arguably more important fact of what she accomplished. For Oshi no Ko’s very special first episode to land, and for the following ones to live up to it, the performers in the story need to be overflowing with visual charisma—something inherent to Kappe’s design work and intricate art. Also, she made Arima Kana cuter, which successfully widens the gap that makes her a funny pitiful existence.

  • Non-contemporary Work Award: Detective Conan

This year, we’ve started collectively rewatching a bunch of older titles in the Discord server for sakugabooru patrons. These range from genuine classics to somewhat more modern, but perhaps not fully appreciated titles. It’s been a blast to revisit Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, Alien 9, Tenamonya Voyagers, Read or Die, Mahou Tsukai Tai, Saint Young Men, Yuyushiki, and whatever else I may be forgetting. These were chosen by our supporters, but in the least shocking twist possible, this democracy is a bit of a farce—those options are curated from favorites of mine, so I haven’t exactly been surprised by their greatness. If I were to highlight the non-current work of animation that has stuck with me the most in 2023, then, I’d have to instead ask this question: Anyone else enjoy watching something right before going to sleep, eventually allowing it to become background noise as they pass out for the day?

Any time you see someone asking a question in that format, the question is going to be Of course you jackass, you just described a common occurrence. I don’t think I’m particularly unique in choosing Detective Conan for that purpose; it has built up a ridiculously large backlog, its format leans itself nicely to it, and it just so happens to be one of the most popular series in the goddamn planet. Although Conan being enjoyable is not exactly surprising to me, since I’ve been watching it since I was a child, I’d been ignoring the TV show for long enough to think that it would be a good idea to rewatch the entire thing, however episodes a day I’d stay awake for. And let me tell you: it has been a great idea.

Conan isn’t only good, it’s also the type of franchise that has lasted for long enough to face changes in technology, distribution, and culture, so you get to experience how creators react to those—from its writing, having had to adapt the mysteries to a world where everyone has cellphones, to all sorts of visual changes due to the evolution of anime’s craft. The switch from 4:3 to 16:9, and the more granular evolution to embrace digital elements have forced this team to adapt their ways of expression; the show is simply not directed, framed, and certainly not animated in the same way as it once was, and a rewatch highlights every single one of those new steps.

Mind you, sometimes those are inarguably missteps, but the series finds ways to recover and reform an identity that remains appealing despite the limitations of an endless production. Even as someone who naturally gravitates more towards cel and rounder, more stylized design work like the one in the early stages of the show, I find the sharper linework with heavy lineweight variation of modern Conan to be an interesting way to capture the appeal of Gossho Aoyama’s artwork. I even find the many original cases in the series, every one goofier than the previous, to be pretty entertaining. Conan is just fun, yall. Probably the best batting average when it comes to OP/ED song selection for a long runner too!

  • Creator Discovery: Jeon Jinkyu (Sakugabooru tag), Danny Cho (Sakugabooru tag), The Fact That Morio Asaka Still Kicks Ass & Other Fun Directors At Yamada-kun Lv999

When it comes to the sheer surprise factor of encountering a creator whose work you were completely unprepared for, a couple of animators from very different fields have particularly stood out to me this year. I always keep an eye to GEIDAI ANIMATION students as it’s undoubtedly Japan’s leading program when it comes to mentoring alternative artists, and so this year I’ve once again encountered multiple individuals with resonant work that boldly steps into places that commercial animation forbids. And, out of them all, it was Jeon Jinkyu’s The House of Loss—produced by the legendary Koji Yamamura—that left me most speechless. Immersive, deeply uncomfortable, capable of giving a physical dimension to the feeling of alienation, and again embodying the potential only independent works hold. I only remembered to breathe back after it was over, and it still took me an extra few seconds to be able to do it normally.

Within the commercial animation space, my best discovery came attached to a realization: studio Dogakobo may employ some sort of dark magic. Back in their sakuga heyday, the studio’s exuberant character animation made a lot of sense; they did excellent scouting beyond the regular premises of the industry, at a time when that wasn’t so common, and had quickly built a reputation for their bouncy, cute animation that attracted like-minded artists. But in many ways, those days are long gone. Key individuals behind that scouting process, such as everyone’s beloved Shouta Umehara, have left Dogakobo. Their brand has shifted from their original position, and the studio is stuck in an overproduction cycle that never helps. So, exactly how do they manage to keep raising one exceptional character animator after the other, at a rate that is far above industry standards? Black magic, I’m telling you.

Within that character-centric paradigm, Danny Cho burst into the scene with a stronger dash of fantasy; still with a knack for acting, but mixing in effects-heavy abstraction to make those potent emotions into something larger than life. His role in Oshi no Ko simply makes no sense for a newbie, who normally would have no place in animating so many pivotal scenes—but if there’s one thing that remains from Dogakobo’s golden age, is that if a youngster shows promise, you let them swing with all their strength. Really looking forward to what he can accomplish in the future, because his potential appears to be tremendous.

The sweetest surprise of the year, though, has been the realization that a historically significant director hasn’t lost his touch. Morio Asaka is an all-time great and the director of some of my favorite shows of all time, but I’ve been rather critical of the way his modern output had gradually slid into an inelegant reliance on genre markers. Be it due to the gaming theme or whatever other reason, his approach to My Love Story with Yamada-kun at Lv999 has felt incredibly fresh in contrast to preceding works, making it into one of my favorite shows this year. His layered style allowed for playful delivery, encouraging other directors to do the same; Koji Sawai is a big veteran, but the framework Asaka built enabled his most inspired storyboards to date. Watching a creator whose best days you thought were behind rise back to their peak, encouraging others to do the same, is a feeling like no other.

Honorable mention: You, the reader, for surviving another year & another endlessly long awards presentation.


Support us on Patreon to help us reach our new goal to sustain the animation archive at Sakugabooru, Sakuga Video on Youtube, as well as this Sakuga Blog. Thanks to everyone who’s helped out so far!

Become a Patron!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

0