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Like many queer millennials, I was raised on a solid IV drip of the 1990s DIC Entertainment distribution of Sailor Moon. My sisters — about 10 years older than myself — and I watched obsessively, collected figurines and wall tapestries, frequented our local comic book shop for the manga, had cosplay-worthy costumes long before the internet allowed cosplay to shine in the States. I graduated to VHS tapes of Tenchi Muyo! properties bought on sale shelves at grocery stores before following the show to Adult Swim, where I eased into the world of adult-minded anime like melting butter. Most of the shows there didn’t even really do anything for me, aside from Cowboy Bebop; I was never one for big robots, nor stories about boys being cool. But something about seeing animation, which I’ve always loved, being treated with respect instead of sugar-coated for a younger audience, always made me feel less alone in the CRT hum of 2AM.
I made friends with kids in my neighborhood, some of whom I still talk to, who gathered around a PS2 to play the latest Dragon Ball Z fighting game. A certified duo of Weird Girls (cool art bisexuals) introduced me to Azumangah Daioh and Serial Experiments Lain, both of which changed me forever (made me a cool art bisexual). It was through anime that I found my first smatterings of community, getting back the sense of camaraderie I’d had with my sisters before they grew up, grew out of anime, and then moved out of the house.
Unfortunately, right as I was subscribing to Shonen Jump and living in the glory days of .hack//sign and Rurouni Kenshin, it got me: the cringe. I think this killed a love of anime for many my age; the combination of seeing the most earnest and wholehearted parts of myself reflected in the other — cringe as body horror, essay tk tk — plus white kid fetishistic entitlement to East Asian identity rendered anime something that felt too bright to look at. Add in each member of that former community moving away one after another, and it’s clear to see in retrospect the domino drops for why I avoided the medium altogether for so long.
I finally returned to anime half a lifetime later. While my husband, Zach, made attempts to lure me back into anime, his success was spotty. It wasn’t until my partner Jon moved in and instituted a household weekly anime night that I was won over again fully. The medium is, of course, robust, diverse, and beautiful. It always has been. Flattening it to a single concept is, of course, similarly racist to the way white weebs demand that they’re less white than any other white kid who likes a specific type of media.
But I’m also coming back into anime as a white American 30-year-old anarcho-communist queer cop-hating media critic. I am fully aware that anime is not really made with me in mind, and that my perspective on anime is painted by a very Western lens, which impacts everything from the actual writing (with all that we lose in translation and localization) to the themes (“Godzilla is funny monster, grrrr grrr big breakie building lizard! Ha ha!”) to the references (my Spotify now knows my Crunchyroll). My tastes, too, are fairly specific: as mentioned above, I don’t really care about media in which a boy is cool or a robot is big (yes, I’ll still try the lesbian one soon). I care about writing and character more than I care about visuals. I don’t care for shipping, and I have little patience for properties that seem bent on the allure of fandom.
All that being said, I saw some truly incredible pieces of art in anime in 2022. Also, some things that were fine. Here are all of the new anime to 2022 I watched, ranked. All titles can be found on Crunchyroll, because that is the one we got, or also on the internet if you’re savvy.
Before the list proper, I cannot go without mentioning two continuing anime that would have easily, easily topped the list if they had debuted this year instead of just finishing up seasons this year.
Ranking of Kings
Ranking of Kings is what Game of Thrones should have been, wishes it were, could never have been. An intricate and political fantasy setting wraps itself in pastel colors and soft shapes and lines around our protagonist Bojji, a young prince who is both deaf and mute, as well as being impossibly physically weak. He is still determined, however, to step into the footsteps of his father to become a king. What follows is a strange and surreal fairytale-styled high-fantasy adventure that tricks you at every turn, but keeps holding your hand through the labyrinth it has built. What seems like a cute, silly slice of life story becomes a tale of ambition and care, with characters who are never the flat hero or villain they seem to be. If you watch one thing from this list, make it Ranking of Kings.
Kaguya-sama: Love Is War
It took me basically the entire first season of Kaguya-sama: Love Is War to understand the show’s appeal past its undeniable style, which wasn’t enough to win me over on the content. On its final arc of the first season, though, that changed: like its protagonists, this show uses its style and poise to mask its deep well of earned and earnest interiority. What seems at first like glamor for the sake of glamor becomes a direct reflection of the characters and the plot, a masterclass in form following function. The characters, plot, and style being so deeply intertwined also makes for some of the most Shakespearean writing I’ve encountered outside of Shakespeare — not in flowery prose, but in characters’ core personality traits, always informed by their histories and experiences, directly guiding the plot and raising the stakes. This is a show that’s fun, and then surprising, and then impressive, and then borderline genius, all within what basically amounts to two high school dweeb-ass nerds being too scared to tell the other they like like them.
1. Bocchi the Rock!
Hitori Gotoh is the Amelie Pulain of anime. Painfully, painfully shy, her life is depicted in absurdist literalizations of her emotions as she embarks on a quest to change her life. Unlike Amelie, though, her quest isn’t to help other people — that just happens because she’s so conflict-avoidant she can’t say no to anyone ever, about anything. Her quest is to get sick as hell at guitar and get crowds of cheering fans who adore her for being so cool and talented and amazing. Learn the guitar she does; amass fans she does not, except on her secret anonymous YouTube channel. But over the course of Bocchi the Rock!‘s unreal, hilarious, sweet, and strange first season, we watch her slowly (reluctantly) gain confidence after she’s conscripted into a band (reluctantly). This show is meticulous. From the loving and pristine illustrations of Marshall amps to a full song recorded kind of poorly to genre-breaking panic attack interludes, Bocchi the Rock! is the realest depiction of being a musician and the realest depiction of being mentally ill. One season in and I’m fully invested in the story of Hitori Gotoh, my daughter who has every disorder.
2. My Dress-Up Darling
At first glance, My Dress-Up Darling seems like a good excuse for very horny fan service in a sweet little romcom, and if that’s what you’re looking for, this is a perfect fit — but that isn’t really what My Dress-Up Darling ultimately is. The story of Wakana Gojo, a traditional hina doll maker, and Kitagawa Marin, an aspiring porn game cosplayer, is a story about the power of art and sincerity. This anime is maybe what ultimately killed the cringe back inside of me; Marin’s confidence and unabashed love of the characters she wants to embody helps both soften and embolden Gojo’s passion that have gotten him ostracized in the past. The way this show plays with gender, specifically, is fascinating and refreshing (and ultimately more successful than others on this list, e.g. Shikimori’s Not Just a Cutie). Vulnerability and honesty are freely given by both leads, making for a romantic plotline that feels more honest than most by far. My Dress-Up Darling has a deep love for humans and the things we care about and create at its core. Had they not gotten weird with a junior high schooler, it would have topped my list.
3. Spy x Family
Spy x Family is a 1960s spy movie pastiche meets hijinks-heavy family sitcom, painstakingly driven at every single step of its production to be as entertaining as possible. This show is a summer Hollywood blockbuster of the 2000s packed into every single 22-minute episode with the panache and sophistication of the actual spy heroes it salutes. From its setup, Spy x Family demands your attention: the best spy in one of two Cold War stricken counties must go undercover as a loving papa, but his almost randomly-chosen wife happens to be an unbeatable assassin with a spy-hunting brother, his almost randomly-chosen daughter is a mind reader who is still very much a three year old and thinks spies are extremely cool, and also their dog — whose mind can, of course, be read by the daughter — gets premonitions of the future. This show is the definition of a romp, and while I usually need more thematic substance in my media, Spy x Family is popcorn storytelling at its absolute finest. Like its British (or, like, Brit-ish) cousin Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spy x Family doesn’t need more than passing social commentary to keep me hooked on the adventures in subterfuge that unfold.
And now, some shorter reviews for the rest, with trailers linked in the titles.
4. Lycoris Recoil: Gun-fu for cute girls, Lycoris Recoil is about one former cop showing the other the power of community care and abolition by luring her in with the power of being gay. It’s not, but I mean, it also really is. This show is stylish and sweet, and I have a feeling it’ll grow into something that really stays with me.
5. Chainsaw Man: If you’re an anime fan, you’re probably wondering why this is so low on my list. I’m sorry — the writing does absolutely nothing for me. However, the claims about the art being so mildblowingly, mindmeltingly, mindbreakingly amazing are not wrong. Chainsaw Man is a visual feast, a disgusting and bloody and horrific visual feast. It is so visually unparalleled that it would be at least this high on my list even if it had no dialogue.
6. Aharen-san wa Hakarenai: Aharen Reina is shy and very, very quiet. Matsuboshi Raido is scary-looking and monotone. They are determined to be friends. Another sweet romcom, this show is especially com-heavy, with it first half making me consistently laugh out loud. As a plus, the dub is incredible, and I’d even recommend it over the sub for non-Japanese-speaking American viewers. It’s like if Marcel the Shell and Kronk fell in love.
7. Love After World Domination: Another romcom, yes yes, I love love. Love After World Domination is a perfect and delightful parody of the Tokusatsu genre, popularized in the states by the Power Rangers franchise. It’s goofy, over the top, and very fun. I’m always a sucker for a well-made loving parody that is played completely seriously within its own world (see above re: Spy x Family).
8. Shikimori’s Not Just a Cutie: Another take on flipping gender roles, Shikimori’s Not Just a Cutie is a typical anime romance with the characterizations of the female and male leads flipped. More subversion than parody, Shikimori is a fairly straightforward slice of life romance otherwise that works well and has fantastic voice acting to boot. Would love for it to lean into queerness more, but we’ll see.
9. Cue!: It’s no mystery that I adore voice actors and am very familiar with their craft. This is, perhaps, why Cue! fell a little flat for me. Taken from a mobile game of the same name, I guess, Cue! is about a voice acting talent agency that only works with new actors. While the show has promising beginnings and memorable characters, more than half of the stories revolve around . . . not voice acting. It winds up undermining the allure it’s trying to instill, which is a weird and disappointing turn. Still, a fun enough watch.
10. Sasaki and Miyano: Two boys at an all-boys’ school bond over gay manga, but our protagonist, Miyano, refuses to believe he is in the plot of one himself. What could be a very sweet and effective story about the impostor syndrome experienced by so many closeted bisexuals is hindered by a lead who is desperately insufferable. This show will likely work better with people who are into fandom and shipping, and I hope it winds up softening the blow that coming out to yourself can have for some of its audience.