With around 200 new anime series coming out this year alone, it’s often hard to pinpoint exactly what to watch. In the past, I’ve done several lists about the best shows for newcomers to the medium, but these quickly go out of date and don’t provide a single, ongoing resource. So here’s a regularly updated breakdown of the best anime shows of the year. While it won’t be entirely comprehensive — I’m only including series I’ve watched and finished — everything on the list is something I can unequivocally recommend.
Dates refer to debuts. If you feel like something is missing, please recommend it in the comments. Shows that started airing in 2018, but didn’t complete their run in 2018, are not included (ie: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Golden Wind). These shows will be eligible for 2019’s best-of list.
The Latest Additions
Today’s Menu at the Emiya Family (January 1st)
Today’s Menu is set in the Fate universe, which usually involves mages making contracts with history’s greatest heroes to fight over the holy grail. But you don’t really need to know anything about any of the Fate shows to watch it. The show involves characters from the original Fate series (Fate / Stay Night), but throws aside all the drama about fighting over the holy grail, and instead presents a very relaxed show about cooking.
The series was released monthly over the course of 2018, with each episode featuring a dish that’s roughly tied to that month’s events. A typical episode follows high schooler Shirou Emiya as he tries to decide what to make for dinner, usually running into some of the other characters while he’s shopping for ingredients, which inspires what he makes. Then he returns home, where the show beautifully animates him preparing the meal. So for instance, the January 1st episode is set on New Year’s Eve, and features him cooking soba, which is traditionally eaten in Japan on New Year’s Eve.
That release schedule also means the animators had a ton of time to work on Today’s Menu, compared to the turnover required for a weekly show. And since the food is depicted realistically, as opposed to stylized, like you might see in a Ghibli film, it allows the creators more than enough time to keep production quality of the animation high for every single episode. It’s definitely not a show to watch if you are hungry.
Golden Kamuy (April 9th)
Not long after the Russo-Japanese War, former soldier Saichi Sugimoto has gone to Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, to pan for gold. One night, a drunk man tells him of $6 million in gold that was stolen from the area’s Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan. The man who stole it was arrested, and never told anyone where he hid the gold. Instead, he tattooed clues across the skin of 24 prisoners who’ve since escaped the prison. Seeking the gold, Sugimoto teams up with a young Ainu hunter named Asirpa who is also looking for the gold thief — because he killed her father.
That sounds dramatic, but Golden Kamuy balances its drama with gruesome fight scenes, peaceful cooking scenes, slapstick humor, scenes of Asirpa explaining aspects of Ainu culture, and some amazingly memorable characters. I’ve often described it as being like a Coen brothers movie in the way it wildly swings in tone and genre from scene to scene. I’m excited for season 3.
Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san (October 7th)
This 15-minute-episodes series is an adaptation of a comedy manga based on the author’s real experiences working at a bookstore. Honda draws himself as a skeleton (hence the title), while all his co-workers are drawn wearing strange headgear, presumably to protect their actual identities.
Honda’s store is the comic part of a major book retailer, and he’s in charge of the foreign comic section. The show provides interesting insight into how American and European comics are seen in Japan (mostly as big and heavy, since they use a heavier paper stock than Japanese books), and many of the best gags in the show revolve around foreigners visiting the store. It’s a hilarious glimpse at what it’s like to work a service job in Japan.
Zombie Land Saga (October 4th)
In 2008, high schooler and aspiring idol Sakura Minamoto dies tragically in a traffic accident outside her home. Ten years later, she wakes up in a strange mansion as a sentient zombie, with six other girls from various time periods. The man who brought them back from the dead, Kotaro Tatsumi, declares that he intends to make them into a popular idol group that will save Japan’s Saga prefecture.
Zombie Land Saga was one of the biggest surprises this year, in part because almost nothing was released about the show prior to its airing. At its core, it’s a music idol show in the vein of Love Live or The Idolmaster, where a varied group of girls become somewhat successful idols. Except here, they’re intelligent zombies. That lets the show have completely absurd moments, while also having the characters struggle with how they lived, how they died, and how their premature deaths affected those they cared about in the years (or decades) since they died.
SSSS.Gridman (October 6th)
One day, high school student Rikka finds her classmate Yuta wandering near her home, having lost all his memories. In the junk shop Rikka’s family runs, Yuta finds an odd-looking computer that talks to him. In the computer, he sees a robot-like figure calling itself Gridman, which says it needs Yuta’s help to complete their mission. That involves fighting giant monsters that are invisible to most people.
For the most part, SSSS.Gridman follows the structure of a “monster of the week” series: each episode, the heroes fight a new threat. The structure is well suited to Studio Trigger, the animators behind the series, as it allows them to indulge in the spectacular animated action scenes they’re known for from shows like Kill la Kill.
I’ve tended to fall off other Trigger shows in the past, as they often feature too much spectacle and not enough substance. But around the series’ midpoint, SSSS.Gridman starts shifting focus onto the characters. The back half of the series still contains some spectacular action scenes, but the creators also start putting their considerable animation talents into evoking what the characters are thinking. In episode 9, in particular, their animation talents are entirely devoted to understanding where the characters are mentally before the climax of the show. Much of this is conveyed in the framing, and styles how different each characters’ scenes are. That dynamic makes it my favorite Trigger show to date.
Gintama. Silver Soul (January 7th)
I have professed my love of Gintama on the site before, with the expectation that no one is about to start watching this 367-episode, 12-year-old series out of the blue in 2019. With the manga slated to end last fall, this was meant to be the final season. The show reflected that, with meaningful ends to character arcs and long-running plot lines, great animation for the action scenes, and powerful opening and ending themes.
But then the manga didn’t end. So rather than wrapping up the story themselves or just ending things on a cliffhanger, the animation team, in Gintama fashion, found a third way. They put the manga’s creator, Hideaki Sorachi, on trial by having the show’s staff speak through the characters to explain to the audience what happened. At the same time, they took advantage of the opportunity to take him to task for his past years of insisting the manga was ending soon, which apparently led to a few of the previous seasons getting planned as the last season.
This sort of self-aware fourth-wall breaking isn’t new for the series. It’s a good reminder of what makes Gintama uniquely great: it’s an action-packed, universe-spanning saga, but it’s never lost track of its original oddball sense of comedy.
Tsurune (October 15th)
When Minato was very young, he fell in love with the sound of a perfect shot from a bow. He pursued learning how to create that sound for himself, but after developing target panic in middle school, Minato resolved to quit archery. In high school, two of his old friends try to get him to join the school’s archery club, but he refuses, still haunted by anxiety. However, one night while at a shrine, he hears the sound of a perfect shot again, this time from a mysterious man using the shrine’s archery range.
In a year of some very good sports shows, including Hanebado and Free! “Dive to the Future,” Tsurune stands out. It manages to tell a really thoughtful story about people dealing with their issues, not through the lens of sports, but by using the sport’s team aspect to show how friends can help people cope with problems. It also helps that the sport is kyudo, a traditional form of Japanese archery that involves a lot of precise forms and movements, which invites a lot of beautifully animated moments that convey characters’ emotional states.
Previously, I’ve talked about how Kyoto Animation, the studio that animated the series, is one of the best animation studios right now, not just because of its spectacular action scenes, but because of these kinds of intricate expressions. Tsurune is a perfect example.
Bloom Into You (October 5th)
Yuu loved romance comics in middle school, and dreamt that one day she would have a boy confess his love for her, like they do in the comics. But when a boy finally does, she doesn’t feel anything, and she isn’t sure how to respond. Entering high school, she’s unsure whether she can actually fall in love. Yuu explains this to second-year student Nanami, who confesses to falling in love with Yuu, because Yuu can’t love her back.
Bloom Into You was one of 2018’s most beautifully animated shows, and has one of the most interesting romance stories I’ve seen in an anime. This is in part because the show seems less interested in making drama out of the characters’ sexualities, and more involved in validating their feelings. Yuu can be read as asexual, and she meets another, more clearly asexual student she can discuss her feelings with. There’s also a gay female student who finds a sort of mentor in an adult woman in a long-term lesbian relationship.
The show has its dramas, but they’re never exaggerated. Characters don’t have sudden revelations or blowups that change everything, and no one is scheming with malicious intent. So no one character is the antagonist. Instead, everyone is their own antagonist, as drama arises from these kids trying to figure out who they are, and who they want to become.
Streaming on HiDive.
The Full List
Cells at Work! (July 7th)
In Cells at Work! the inner workings of the human body are transformed into a sprawling city, where red blood cells become delivery people who transport boxes of oxygen to the apartment where cells live. White blood cells, meanwhile, battle monstrous versions of germs and viruses.
The series revolves around a specific red blood cell named, well, Red Blood Cell. She is fairly new to her job, and is particularly bad at getting where she’s supposed to go for her deliveries. This often leads to her running into unsavory bacteria or viruses, as well as White Blood Cell, and the two soon develop a close friendship.
The interesting way the show chooses to depict the human circulatory and immune systems is a major part of its appeal. Platelets, for example, are shown as groups of kindergartners who work together to repair damage to the city’s structures, since platelet cells are a third of the size of normal cells. It’s likely the most I’ve ever learned about biology from anything outside a biology class.
Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online (April 8th)
Karen, a university student in a near-future Tokyo, gets talked into playing virtual reality games, and soon gets obsessed with an MMO called Gun Gale Online — in part because she has a complex about being tall, and her avatar is very short. While playing, she befriends a woman named Pitou, who convinces her to team up with a friend for a new squad-based battle royale mode (similar to Fortnite or Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds).
The show is very action-heavy, often focusing on accuracy when it comes to the tactics and mechanics of combat and firearms. But it still gives story and character moments priority. Seeing Karen grow as a player inside the game and as a person outside of it is really enjoyable to watch — even if you don’t really care about battle royale games.
My Hero Academia: Season 3 (April 7th)
A quick synopsis of My Hero Academia from our explainer:
In a world where most people have superpowers, middle school student Izuku Midoriya is part of 20 percent of the population born without them. But his dream is to become a superhero and to attend the premier Japanese school for aspiring superheroes, UA High. After a fateful run-in with All Might, the world’s greatest hero, he learns that his idol is dying and wants to pass on his mantle. His chosen successor, of course, is Midoriya.
This eventually leads to Midoriya inheriting All Might’s powers and attending UA High, where All Might is training the next generation of heroes. But when a group of villains show up looking for revenge, Midoriya and the other students feel compelled to grow faster into heroes or become a burden.
This season is the start of a big shift in the series, with some major action scenes, important turning points, and long-awaited moments. The existential threat of the villains becomes more real as All for One starts to make moves, and we finally get to see what his protege Shigaraki will be like once he’s out of his mentor’s shadow — and how Midoriya plans to make One for All his own.
Lupin the 3rd Part 5 (April 3rd)
Arsène Lupin III, a gentleman thief version of James Bond who’s been around since the 1960s, has gone through a number of interpretations over the decades — some serious, some campy. Still, some fundamental things remain the same, including his supporting cast: Jigen the curmudgeonly sharpshooter, Goemon the monkish samurai, Fujiko the on-and-off ally who’s also his femme fatale rival, and Zenigata, the ICPO detective tasked with arresting him.
This 24-episode series has a number of one-off episodes that allude to older versions of the show, including when it was more slapstick or more action-focused. The new series’ main draws are the four arcs set in the modern day, which tie together a season-long narrative about technology. It’s a surprisingly nuanced arc that involves hackers tracking and surveilling Lupin, which turns into a game that the whole world ends up playing. It also introduces a Facebook / Google analog called “Shake Hands,” touches on how Facebook has amplified extremism in places like Myanmar, and considers the dangers of predictive AI. It’s not only a great series, it’s a perfect introduction for newcomers — and it demonstrates that Lupin is as relevant today as he ever was.
Aggretsuko (April 20th)
Aggretsuko is a surprising show, and not just because it’s surprising to see Sanrio, the company behind Hello Kitty, making a character that isn’t all about being cute. It’s more surprising because of how brutally it portrays the hardships women deal with in the workplace and in society in general. But it also shows that, despite these daily hardships, there are ways to make things better.
In our review by Dami Lee, she explains how important the show’s relatability is.
The fact that a Sanrio anime is both acknowledging these inequalities and portraying fantasies of taking the easy way out is incredibly refreshing, because it validates so much of what goes unspoken — or at least, underexplored in mainstream media — about female anger and when and how it is allowed to be expressed. The show’s best moments are rooted in painfully relatable realities: like when Aggretsuko daydreams about calling out a lazy supervisor, or when an annoying salesclerk follows her around the store relentlessly until she feels pressured to buy some socks. (In Korea, overly attentive salesclerks have become so ingrained in the culture that some stores have color-coded baskets shoppers can use to indicate whether they want help or not.) In so many aspects of Asian culture, the pressure to be polite can be suffocating, and Aggretsuko’s death metal karaoke jams lamenting all of these societal ills is a much-needed catharsis.
Streaming on Netflix
Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku (April 12th)
Wotakoi follows an office worker named Narumi Momose, who hides the fact that she’s an otaku in her public life because it’s led to issues in past relationships. When she starts a new job, she runs into an old childhood friend, Hirotaka Nifuji, who accidentally outs her as an otaku to some of their co-workers. Those co-workers, Hanako Koyanagi and Taro Kabakura, are not only secret otaku as well, but have been in a relationship since high school, which their co-workers also don’t know about.
Wotakoi is a romantic comedy, although it tends to favor comedy over romance. Generally, the show finds the humor in workers’ attempts to balance work life, personal life, and hobbies. But it never feels like it’s punching down at the characters, or criticizing them unnecessarily. It makes the characters endearing and charming, which helps keep viewers invested when things get serious.
Streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Hinamatsuri (April 6th)
One night, a mid-level yakuza named Nitta sees a large egg-shaped capsule materialize in his apartment. In it is Hina, an emotionless, deadpan middle school-aged girl who is also a superpowered telekinetic weapon from the future. Almost without Nitta realizing it, he ends up taking care of her like a daughter, and Hina starts to live a somewhat normal life.
While Hinamatsuri has a strange concept, it’s actually a pretty grounded comedy show, especially as the larger cast starts to form around Nitta and Hina. Since the show makes the superpower aspect so tertiary to the characters and their relationships, it’s easy to forget about them until they suddenly become part of a beautifully animated visual gag. The show has some of the best animation of 2018, with a fluidity to both the action scenes and the smaller moments that adds a lot to the pacing and helps set up the humor.
Megalo Box (April 5th)
Taking place in and around a wealthy futuristic city, Megalo Box is about the sport of Megalo boxing, where fighters have powered exoframes on their upper bodies that augment their strength and speed. The series follows a boxer who initially goes by the name Junk Dog as he tries to work his way up from making money by starting fights in the slums outside the city. He wants to take part in Megalonia, a tournament made up of the best Megalo boxers.
The show harkens back to the ’70s and ’80s, with a cyberpunk aesthetic and themes that touch on class struggle. The show has a sort of fuzziness that’s meant to imitate the appearance of anime shows that have been upresed for DVD releases. All the design choices cumulatively make Megalo Box feel simultaneously timeless, and like a recently unearthed relic.
Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Die Neue These (April 4th)
Set in a far future where the human race has spread out across the galaxy, Legend of the Galactic Heroes’ story revolves around two major powers that have been at war on and off for generations: the Galactic Empire, an autocratic empire based on 19th-century Prussia, and the Free Planets Alliance, a capitalist democracy that’s full of bureaucracy. The series’ glimpse at these two countries comes mainly through two young military geniuses: Reinhard von Lohengramm of the Galactic Empire, and Yang Wen-li of the Free Planets Alliance.
These two are more like rivals than antagonists, but each is so compelling in their own right that either of their stories could have been its own series. Reinhard is attempting to amass enough power in the Empire to overthrow and clean up the corrupt regime of the current Kaiser. Yang only joined the military so he could pay for college to become a historian, and he is continually relied upon for his skill and level-headedness.
What seems like a potentially dry rah-rah military show becomes a surprisingly interesting look at the politics and minutiae that surround war, and how pointless it can be. It does this by taking a big-picture view of the whole situation; for instance, it shows the Free Planets Alliance governing body debating the war before a majority decides that they need to continue the upcoming election campaign as a distraction. We then see how that decision trickles down to Yang and his commanding officer, who both know their orders are futile in the grand scheme of things.
Devilman Crybaby (January 5th)
I was, unfortunately, more familiar with the Devilman series than the work animation director Masaaki Yuasa made prior to Devilman Crybaby (aside from him being the anime director who made a wild episode of Adventure Time about the food chain). But from that alone, it was clear how perfect he was for the job.
The show’s amazing animation bombards the audience with spectacle, as Megan Farokhmanesh discusses in our review:
Its lurid use of sex and violence are not simply gratuitous, however; they’re a tool used to demonstrate the overindulgent, sometimes disgusting nature of being human. The show also uses them to play with your expectations, veering from over-the-top sexual images of bouncing breasts and moments of humor to shocking scenes of someone getting devoured by a demon. And though it has buckets of blood to spill, Devilman Crybaby never stops being shocking, and it’s willing to go pretty far to prove its points about how needlessly violent and cruel people can be.
But the real strength of the show and its story are in the quieter moments. There, the truly memorable and important things happen, and it has a lot to say about humanity.
Streaming on Netflix
Laid-back Camp (January 4th)
Laid-back Camp is a show about high school girls who go camping in the winter.
Don’t expect it to be a deep show with lots of drama or any stakes, aside from the ones you use to pitch a tent. These kids just go camping to different real-world campsites in Japan, teaching viewers a surprising amount about camping in the process. It’s incredibly charming and relaxing, and sometimes that’s all you need after a long day.
A Place Further Than the Universe (January 2nd)
Over the past few years, I’ve tended to pay attention to what animation studio Madhouse is doing. It tends to make really stellar adaptations of manga (i.e., One Punch Man, ACCA, and Hunter x Hunter). But it also occasionally makes its own original shows, which somehow tend to be even better, like A Place Further Than the Universe.
The show is mainly about two high school girls, Mari and Shirase, who live in a suburb of Tokyo. Mari realizes she’s been wasting her youth by not really doing anything, until she finds $10,000 in an envelope, which happens to belong to Shirase. Shirase explains that she’s going to use the money to join an expedition to Antarctica, where her mother disappeared three years ago while leading the previous expedition. Shirase’s determination leads Mari to want to help, and she goes along on the trip.
The best single word to describe the show is “genuine.” Everything feels very real, from the way the characters use their cellphones to how hard it is to get to and even live in Antarctica. The show’s reality grounds everything, allowing for sometimes drastic shifts in tone from dramatic to comedic, or from heartwarming to tragic.