Sony recently announced its acquisition of streaming webservice Crunchyroll, in a move that brings the majority of western anime streaming under one roof. While there are still a handful of outliers, including Netflix, classic title refuge RetroCrush, and niche holdout Sentai Filmworks, Sony has essentially secured a monopoly on the world of seasonal anime streaming. And while there are many questions to be asked in the wake of the merger — will this lead to improvement of both companies’ somewhat stagnant apps, will the stranglehold on the market lead to a gouging of monthly fees, and will that potential price raise do anything for the alleged underpayment of translators? — the discerning modern consumer knows that the most important question is, “how can this benefit me, personally?”
While Funimation originally did the majority of its business by selling anime on home video and has kept that side of its business going, Crunchyroll has no in-house video distributor. During their partnership with Funimation, the latter would provide dubs and DVDs for profitable streaming titles; at present there is a similar but far less robust arrangement between Crunchyroll and Sentai Filmworks. However, between Funimation’s reluctance to put out physical releases of titles without English dubs attached and the much lower ratio of licenses-to-Blu-Rays put out through the Sentai partnership, a lot of excellent titles have ended up in the precarious position of being streaming-only. Physical media remains one of the few reliable sources of archival in a world where licensors can pull titles without warning, as any longtime anime fan’s straining shelves can tell you. Here are nine titles that newfound windfall of Sony money can and should save with a Blu-Ray release…with a sad tip of my hat to titles that had their video rights purchased by smaller companies — like The Eccentric Family Season 2 (NIS America) and Samurai Flamenco (Aniplex America) — only to be left to gather dust.
9. Phantom in the Twilight
Plot Summary: Ton travels to London along with her best friend Shinyao in hopes of following in her great-grandmother’s adventurous footsteps, only to have her luggage immediately stolen and find herself embroiled in a supernatural conspiracy.
Reverse-harem anime get a bad rap, not least because many of the genre’s most recent entries are based on mobile games and saddled with miniscule budgets, often resulting in a thinly drawn heroine and stiff-looking visuals. There are a wealth of similarly cheap titles with potato-faced male leads and a gaggle of fawning ladies too, but they somehow seem to avoid the overwhelming dismissal that sticks to reverse harem and otome shows like glue. Which makes it all the more depressing when a genuinely fun supernatural action title like Phantom in the Twilight crops up, only to be left without a physical release. In fact, this one got insulted twice: its home video sales were abruptly cancelled in Japan as well. At least the manga is still going strong… if you’re comfortable reading it in Japanese.
8. Skull-Faced Bookseller Honda-san
Plot Summary: A very tired skeleton relates the daily highs and lows of working in a popular Japanese bookstore.
Bite-sized and deeply relatable to anyone who’s ever worked retail, Honda-san’s borderline Flash-level animation is proof that a big budget isn’t always necessary to make a series engaging. The writing strikes an admirable balance: while Honda is intensely anxious about social interactions, his customers are more clueless than cruel, and there’s a seed of optimism in the way characters connect over books; and while the source material is semi-autobiographical and clearly coming from a place of affection, it also avoids romanticizing hellish tasks like order day and visits from upper management. The 11-minute short format has been going out of style since Honda-san aired, and it’s all the more disappointing that such an excellent example of the format might slip into obscurity.
7. Asobi Asobase
Plot Summary: The three members of the Pastime Club love to hang out after school and play games; this is the chronicle of their club activities.
“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia but make it schoolgirls” is the pitch I usually use for this series, though that fails to fully encompass what makes it so stellar. The show takes unbridled delight in baiting audience expectations with its soft pastel color-palette and generic Cute Girls Doing Cute Things opening theme before slamming head-first into jokes that revel in squishy, deliberately un-cute expressions and weird, occasionally gross-out jokes, and under all the absurdity is the kind of petty asshole moves you absolutely remember doing in high school. The sketch-based format hits with remarkable frequency, with the exception of a scattered handful of transphobic jokes, and at the end of the day it remembers the all-important rule of trash friend-group shows: showing why, at the end of the day, it’s kind of sweet that these assholes deserve each other.
6. Thunderbolt Fantasy
Plot Summary: Dān Fěi and her brother were tasked as guardians of the mythical Tiān Xíng Jiàn; but after the power-hungry Xuán Guǐ Zōng clan murder her brother in pursuit of the sword’s power, Dān Fěi is forced to flee and winds up under the protection of a wandering swordsman and mysterious magician.
Gen Urobuchi is perhaps best known for the subgenre-creating megahit Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which is probably where he got the money to pour into his passion project: a show where beautifully intricate puppets indulge in classic wuxia tropes and swing weapons at one another before exploding into fountains of puppet gore. It’s roughly 70% fight scenes, and it’s awesome. This unique action series blends cultural traditions and has style to spare, but hasn’t seen a box set release outside of Japan and Taiwan despite premiering back in 2016 — though with a third season on the way in 2021, it might just be in a better position than most of the titles on this list.
5. Laid-Back Camp
Summary: High-schooler Nadeshiko discovers the joys of winter camping alongside her school’s outdoors club and avowed solo camper Rin.
While iyashikei (“healing/soothing”) is its own entire genre, few shows nailed it as well as Laid-Back Camp, which is due for a second season at the beginning of January. The objectively objectionable act of sleeping on the cold ground outdoors in freezing temperatures has never looked as inviting and exhilarating as it does in this show. Scarves have never looked more fluffy, prepackaged ramen more satisfying. It’s a peak example of the edutainment-laced hobby anime subgenre that bears up well under multiple rewatches, and the fact that it’s comfort food viewing doesn’t make it any less worthy of preservation.
More Anime and Manga:
- Chainsaw Man Is More High Concept Than Its One Brain Cell Heroes
- Magia Record is the Aliens to Puella Magi Madoka Magica’s Alien
- In Ascendance of a Bookworm, Women’s Work Changes the World
Summary: When prickly guitarist Ritsuka agrees to fix the strings on his classmate Mafuyu’s vintage Gibson — an instrument he always carries yet can’t play a note on — he gets more than he bargained for. Suddenly Mafuyu is not only following him to band practice, but living rent-free in his head.
BL gets a bad rap for having issues with consent, with an abundance of titles that involve one partner heavily pressuring if not outright assaulting his future love interest to get the “romance” going. While there’s been a shift away from that kind of story in the world of manga, it’s true that those types of “no means yes” megahits are often the ones chosen for anime adaptations — which is part of what made given’s focus on a sweet, consensual romance between two awkward teens such a big deal to a lot of viewers. But that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what makes this series such a compelling character drama, one that deals with growing up, trauma, and grief while still maintaining a goodhearted and cathartic center backed by a great soundtrack. It’s easily one of the best titles of the past several years, and while I can’t prove that it’s homophobia that caused many to dismiss it sight unseen, I have… suspicions.
3. A Place Further Than the Universe
Summary: Rule-abiding high schooler Mari is inspired to throw caution to the wind when she meets Shirase, a young woman determined to get to Antarctica in order to solve her mother’s disappearance.
This one absolutely screams “gateway anime.” It has a fairly grounded setting, a well-developed quartet of female characters who feel like actual teenagers you might know rather than archetypes or vehicles for fanservice, a snappy script that zips along and feels right at home with popular YA fiction, and gorgeous direction. What it lacks is an English dub, which has helped many a prospective fan over that instinctive fear of subtitles and into this wonderful, life-eating hobby. That distinction and the lack of video support (or any for-purchase option, really) has consigned this title to the “well-reviewed but basically forgotten” zone that has damned so many critical darlings in the past, while the literally physically nauseating Hand Shakers enjoys its very own blu-ray.
2. Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!
Summary: Asakusa’s greatest wish is to make her own anime, but she’s not sure how to start until she crosses paths with popular idol and secret artist Mizukashi; with the help of Asakusa’s money-minded friend Kanamori, they just might be able to get their project off the ground.
This series needs little introduction, as it’s one of the few that managed to pierce the bubble of anime fandom and escape into the public consciousness last year, even netting a Best of 2020 mention by the New York Times. It’s a stupendous love letter to animation from an accomplished director that every critic, myself included, has already raved about. But because it was acquired after the Funimation/Crunchyroll break-up but before the tentative crossover of releases through Sentai, it currently sits in the same ephemeral streaming-only Hell as every other considerably more obscure title on this list. Even its massive success isn’t enough to transcend the strangling limitations of its licensing conditions.
1. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
Summary: Recently released convict Yotaro falls in love with the traditional storytelling art of rakugo after seeing a performance by the legendary Yakumo, and begs to be taken on as an apprentice. Yakumo agrees, on the condition that Yotaro will first hear the tale of his past, and the blood Yakumo’s adopted daughter claims he has on his hands. So begins an intergenerational story about the links between art, relationships, and the way we mythologize our lives.
You know that sketch where ProZD fails at recommending Chihayafuru? Rakugo Shinju is like that. While you don’t have to know about rakugo going in, as the show does a solid job at introducing readers to the art through its fictionalized history, you do have to at least be comfortable watching a period piece and maybe consulting a guide for any cultural references. Even the title is dense with allusion for an English-language viewer, containing two era titles — Showa (1926-1989, the era where the story mainly takes place) and Genroku (1688-1704, the era during which rakugo was popularized) — the central art of “rakugo,” an oral tradition where performers learn a set number of existing texts and perform their own interpretations onstage (a la Shakespeare) as one-man shows with minimalist props; and the ominous shinju or “double suicide” (implicitly a lovers’ suicide), which carries multiple meanings throughout the story. It’s also basically impossible to dub; while there are English-language rakugo performers, the show’s direction and animation are intricately bound to the way rakugo is spoken in its original language. No dub historically meant no disc, despite the series airing while Funimation and Crunchyroll were still partnered.
But in addition to the archival fears of all the prior series, Rakugo has the additional kicker of being incomplete in its current streaming form. While the opening of season 2 was originally a double-length OVA, which came on the Japanese Blu-ray, the Crunchyroll edition only offers the functional but clearly truncated half-length tv cut. This is the second-best anime of the 2010s, maybe one of the greatest ever made, and I intend to personally keep yelling about it until it gets the fancy special edition it deserves.