2. Violet Evergarden
Anime that deals with war often focuses on the action, the fighting, the in-the-moment drama of direct conflict. Violet Evergarden instead uses its 13 episodes to explore life after war and the process of recovering and discovering individuality. Our protagonist is Violet Evergarden, a former child soldier who has only known the battlefield before losing both of her arms and her commanding officer in the final battle of a brutal war. Her hospital equips her with two prosthetic arms and discharges her into the care of one of her commanding officer’s friends, a former military man who has started an auto memories doll business. In the setting of Violet Evergarden, auto memories dolls are skilled typists who can capture and communicate the essence of a letter sender’s feelings. This ingenious setup allows the series to explore numerous facets of recovery by having Violet regain her connection with emotions and self-determination through writing letters for other people who have been ripped apart in various ways by life.
How Netflix manages to fund all of its original series will remain a mystery to those outside of its inner circles. Whatever dark magic they employed to summon the funds for Violet Evergarden worked wonders. Every cent involved in the production feels like it appears on screen. It stands as the most visually stunning anime series of the year with a staggering attention to detail that doesn’t go to waste. Each scene uses every second of runtime to convey story elements in the backgrounds, character movements, or facial expressions. Being able to show a character’s discomfort with a quick shot of toes curling into the ground enables the show to turn even its quietest moments into a visually arresting feast for the eyes.
Pacing stands out as the only fault of Violet Evergarden. The series begins with Violet basically being a machine, but within a few short episodes she begins taking on jobs that have sweeping ramifications for international politics. A slower burn as she learns her craft and works up to that point would have been appreciated. It also leaves Violet with a large number of unexplored facets which should make future seasons very interesting while they build upon season 1’s solid foundations.
The biggest surprise of 2018 has to be Aggretsuko. Based on a series of 100 1-minute shorts produced by Sanrio, the company that created Hello Kitty and leading force behind all things cute, Aggretsuko manages to transcend the short-form comedy of its origins. Behind the adorable character designs and welcoming cut-out style, Aggretsuko hides a frank look at the existential dread of a generation.
Aggretsuko stars Retsuko, an adorable anthropomorphic red panda who has been ground down by five years of working the same entry-level accounting job. Her dreams of progressing through life have become ash, she possesses little social life beyond work, and she constantly dreams of an escape. Numerous episodes revolve around her trying to quit or finding a husband or buddying up with her prickly misogynist of a boss. Ultimately, none of it works – except for escaping to a karaoke booth after work to scream her feelings of rage and desperation away as death metal songs.
Aggretsuko is not a series about triumphing over adversity or climbing a corporate ladder. Instead, it is about the quiet and glamorless struggle to persist and exist. Coping with irritating coworkers, dreaming of an escape in romance, checking out and not caring, these are the things that should be relatable to almost every working person in the world. Aggretsuko makes the case that, while perhaps there might not be a way to truly triumph in such a world, it can be enough to embrace the things that make us unique and weird, the activities that bring us some amount of peace. For Retsuko, often that’s screaming “Choke on my rage” over and over again in a karaoke bar at the end of a long work day. That leaves viewers with a blistering satire of the corporate workplace with an existential darkness constantly threatening to close in on our cast of characters. This tone and subject matter mix with the crisp, adorable visuals to create a disarming program that can speak to pretty much everyone.