The middle-top of the list, where we run into more things that I more like than don’t like but which may or may not have various caveats and so on and so forth. This was the hardest part to have anything interesting to say about, can you tell? As with Part 2, most of these shows could be arranged in any order and I’d have no real complaints. Honestly, plenty could also switch places with those in Part 2 as well. Perhaps I’m just too easy to please?
Make sure you hit up the Intro post if you’re new here, so you can read Parts 1 and 2 before this. Anyhow, on with the list.
Months on from its ending, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Kakushigoto. (My opinion on it has admittedly muted a bit from when it ended and I originally reviewed it, though not by too much.) Two shows for the price of one, is one way to look at it. On the outside, Kakushigoto is a goofy slice of life comedy about a bumbling father who draws dirty gag manga for a living and is absolutely desperate to keep his young daughter from learning that fact. On the inside, it’s an oddly melancholy examination of what we lose when we grow up. Somewhere in there is a pretty compelling defense of manga as a medium itself. There’s a lot going on here, and not all of it works.
So what does work? Well, the comedy in this thing is mostly pretty damn funny. There are a few notable places where it’s really not (a bizarre Desi stereotype character being the most egregious) but in general when Kakushigoto sticks to the inherently amusing dynamic between Kakushi (the aforementioned father) and Hime (the daughter) it’s really charming and hilarious. A lot of the bits here are standard slice of life fare bent just enough by the father/daughter relationship to feel fresh again. Some–such as Kakushi’s ongoing feud with an annoying editor–rely a bit more on industry inside baseball, but those are generally pretty good too.
And then there’s the frame story, which is in many ways a different beast entirely, and deals with Hime at age sixteen, after her father has, as we eventually find out, suffered an accident that renders him amnesiac. With the benefit of hindsight I think Kakushigoto would’ve benefited from leaning more into this side of its story. (And there’s a theatrical recut of the series scheduled to premiere next year, so perhaps it eventually will.) In its best moments, the frame story taps into a universal, melancholic summertime nostalgia, and if I seem to have less than might be expected to say on Kakushigoto it’s only because that kind of ephemerality speaks for itself. There’s a lot to like about a series that revolves around familial ties and the passing of the artistic torch from one generation to the next. And Kakushigoto also certainly holds a special place for having perhaps the most memorable ED of the year. Putting an entire generation onto Japanese pop godfather Eiichi Ohtaki is no small feat.
#8: Assault Lily Bouquet
Assault Lily Bouquet is a lot of things. It’s kind of a mess, for one. For another, it’s an entry in a sub-strain of the battle girl genre with some not-entirely-flattering unifying characteristics. Like Katana Maidens, The Girl in Twilight, and Granbelm before it, Assault Lily Bouquet leans heavily on proper nouns and invented terminology. It is extremely coy, often directly toying with audience expectations, sometimes to its own detriment. It’s also stuffed to the gills with tonal back-and-forth, often yoyoing between the comedic, the tense, the saucy, and the genuinely romantic at the drop of a hat. This all could rightly be called a lack of focus. There is indeed a part of me that intensely wanted to dismiss Assault Lily Bouquet as a series that didn’t know what it wanted to do and wouldn’t know how to do it if it did. To a very limited extent, I actually still kind of think that’s true.
Some of this isn’t the fault of the anime itself. Picking up a pre-premiere hype train comes with a lot of expectations. That Assault Lily Bouquet picked up the nickname “SHAFTogear” off the strength of just some teaser trailers may well have put it at an unfair disadvantage. Indeed, Symphogear this is not. (It is an obvious acolyte of that series, but that’s the norm for the genre nowadays.) If you’re inclined to drop an anime off the back of things like a surface-level ridiculousness and the aforementioned lack of focus, Assault Lily Bouquet will not make it difficult for you to do that.
But, here’s the thing. Two things, even. First; Assault Lily Bouquet has some of the best single episodes of the year, from a long, summer-drenched slow-burner centering around ramune soda to a peppy uptempo miniature school festival arc, the series is definitely at its best when it channels all of its energy into doing one specific thing. Second; there’s the finale.
Assault Lily Bouquet‘s overarching plot is….strange. It’s mostly delivered in fairly dry expository dialogue between four characters who otherwise don’t matter much. As mentioned, it leans really heavily on a lot of corny terminology. (Terrible idea; make a drinking game based on how often the phrase “Rare Skill” is used. You’ll be out like a light by episode four.) And what exactly it’s trying to say is fairly inscrutable until the very end of the series. Assault Lily Bouquet‘s core thesis is an unfortunate combination of under-articulated for most of the series and unusually complicated.
In general, the show explores shades of love, loss, feelings of inadequacy, how they might be overcome, etc. How people move on from relationships that have been broken and how they form new ones from the ashes of the old. Along the way, it briefly touches on how male-dominated infrastructures fear powerful women, militarism, and even environmentalism. To say you have to squint to see a lot of this is putting it mildly, Assault Lily Bouquet is maybe the most tongue-tied anime of 2020.
Still, at the end of the day it’s just really hard for me to dislike an anime that ends with two girls in love fighting a giant monster. Has it done before? Yes. Will it be done again? Certainly. But as the battle girl genre continues to grow and multiply, I find myself compelled to defend basically every one of them, because I really do just love them all that much. It’s perhaps my favorite modern genre of TV anime.
Time will tell what, if anything, is in store for the future of Assault Lily Bouquet. The success of the wider Assault Lily franchise which started life as the rare modern TV cartoon directly based on a toyline and now includes this anime, a manga, and a mobile game is probably what will dictate if we ever see Riri and Yuyu again. But I hope we do, Bouquet can dress it up in terms like “Schutzengel” and “Schild” to duck conservative watchdogs and add an air of chuuni-ness to things all it wants, but I know a power couple when I see one.
#7: Sleepy Princess in The Demon Castle
Sometimes, all a comedy anime needs to succeed is to take a truly silly premise and run with it. Thus is the case with Sleepy Princess in The Demon Castle, one of the year’s premiere entries in a sort-of genre I like to call “idiots in a jar”. In an “idiots in a jar” series, all you need is some exceptionally dense characters and a reason for them to interact. Sleepy Princess has the titular princess, the Demon King who’s kidnapped her and is imprisoning her in his castle, and the latter’s horde of minions. And the reason? Well, hostage she might be, but our heroine needs a good night’s sleep. Preferably a fantastic night’s sleep, since there’s not much else to do in the Demon Castle.
And the rest….just sort of flows out from there. The specific parody fantasyland that Sleepy Princess takes place in has in many ways become a sort of cliche setting in its own right nowadays, and comedy anime like this have become more common than the action fantasy anime they once spoofed. Yet, Sleepy Princess‘s implacable-yet-lazy lead works well with its silly and often surprisingly inventive fantasy world. From monsters like Quilladillo and a man made of scissors to item designs that would fit in only the silliest D&D campaign, Sleepy Princess has a knack for invoking its fantasy trappings precisely when they add an extra kick to the joke. All this makes it stand out above many recent anime that are trying to do similar things. And it all feels very well-crafted and deliberate.
There’s also a certain coziness to the series, fitting for an anime about sleep. The Princess’ relationship to her ostensible captors grows closer over its twelve episodes, capping with the finale, which is open enough to leave the prospect of a second season tantalizingly probable. In fact, as far as shows that are simple, warm joy from start to finish, Sleepy Princess really only has one contender from 2020….
#6: My Next Life As A Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!
My Next Life As A Villainess is a magic trick. It’s an isekai series, it’s a harem series, and it’s one of the many 2020 anime that are a blast to speed through in a few evenings. Even having seen it, Villainess (also known semi-officially as OtomeFlag and Bakarina. This is the series with the most titles on the list, certainly) doesn’t feel like it should work. Die-and-reincarnate isekai premises are, appropriately, done to death, and the harem genre has arguably never had a good reputation. Yet, by simple virtue of having a likable female lead, and the small-stakes character writing victories that follow, Villainess manages to turn lead into gold. (And its maddeningly catchy, genre-unto-itself opening theme doesn’t hurt.)
The anime centers around the titular Katarina Claes and her life after she’s reborn into the world of an Otome game. This would be easy to milk for cheap drama, but Villainess is unconcerned with such things. Instead, to avoid the fate of her game counterpart, Katarina aims to be the nicest person possible. By dint of just being an irrepressible ray of sunshine, every single one of her game equivalent’s rivals end up falling for her. As a result; Claes can certainly claim the largest bisexual harem of any anime protagonist of the past year.
What takes Villainess beyond being just cute is a running through-line about relationships that persist across lifetimes. The show heavily hints at, and eventually outright reveals, that Katarina’s friend (and one of the many, many people crushing hard on her) Sophia is herself the reincarnation of one of Katarina’s classmates and close friends. Is this entire subplot super sappy? Absolutely, but I’m a sucker for this stuff, “I Entered A Dangerous Dungeon….”, in which we learn of Sophia and Katarina’s past relationship was one of my favorite episodes of the year, and sticks with me even now.
And I wasn’t the only one so taken with the show, evidently. A second season has been definitively confirmed to be on the way. My hope? Only that Katarina continues breaking the harem genre over her knee like a twig.
That’s all for the (slightly abbreviated) Part 3. See you tomorrow for the Top 5 in Part 4!
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