Today is a good day to be an anime fan. We have an unlimited anime queue — hundreds of titles at our fingertips — with plenty of streaming options to choose from. Fans can watch seasonal episodes the day they are released in Japan or dive into an anime backlog that holds series from the 80s and 90s. It is a golden age of anime consumption and I’ve been fully taking advantage of it. Throughout the last year I’ve watched a ton of shows, and some of them have surprised me in more ways than one. So, as a sort of weird recommendation list, I thought I’d share what surprised me the most about a few of them!
Devilman Crybaby (2018)
Devilman Crybaby. Wow. This show surprised me because it is a show I usually wouldn’t like. Hyper-sexual shows kind of just gross me out and, ironically, turn me off. Gore I can do. Bring on the blood and guts, but I can do without the explicit, raw sex scenes thank you very much. Devilman Crybaby is both hyper-sexual and hyper-violent… and I love it. It’s because Devilman is not sexual or violent just for the sake of it; those scenes all add to the theme and tone of the show. Devilman is also horrifically sad; I don’t think I’ve been so disgusted watching an anime before, including my viewing of Grave of the Fireflies. It puts the worst parts of humanity on display, our propensities to be jealous, fearful, power-hungry and merciless. It is those things that destroy humanity in the end. But the show is just so good. I’m sad, disgusted and hyped at the same time. That definitely surprised me.
I was also surprised that I liked the soundtrack so much. I like to think of myself as a rocker, or, if not a rocker, at least someone who likes music that’s made on real instruments. Long story short, I’m not a fan of electronic music and prefer rock. But man, I loved this soundtrack. It was funky and crazy and kind of ear-gasmy in a way that made it perfect for the show. It just fit! And the raps were amazing. I watched them repeatedly and was struck by their symbolism, crazy rhythms and flow. It’s just really good stuff! I was surprised by Devilman Crybaby because it’s everything I usually don’t like and it still was amazing. And I didn’t even tell you about the plot!
If only Ryo took the damn baton. Come on, Ryo.
Violet Evergarden (2018)
Another Netflix series, I know. I’m as surprised as you are. Netflix seems to be hit or miss, but when it’s a hit, it’s a hit. Violet Evergarden kind of blew my mind. Even just the first main scene — when the camera zooms away from Violet to show a large ship leaving the harbor — made me choke up a bit... and cinematography has never made me emotional before. I was hooked within the first ten minutes of episode 1 and continued to fall in love with the show until the very end. In a weird way, I feel like Violet Evergarden is a blessing.
Mary, you overly religious weeb, what is wrong with you? Well, I just feel like Violet Evergarden is more than an anime. Every aspect of it is inspired, from its painstakingly detailed and beautiful animation to its powerful soundtrack and subtle character writing. Violet Evergarden was created to teach empathy and the nuances of the human condition, to inspire others to be better and not take what they have for granted. Why did this show surprise me? I was surprised by how much I loved it, how much it moved me to my core. How much Violet taught me about the responsibility of being alive.
This show is episodic, so if that’s not for you then you may not like this show. Some people also say that it has a slow start, which I can totally see and can’t argue otherwise. But none of that really matters because Violet Evergarden is a piece of art. With powerful insight on the effects of war, post-traumatic stress, and — what may be the show’s biggest moral — the power of communication and human empathy, Violet Evergarden surprised me because I wasn't expecting to watch a masterpiece. There. I said it. It's a masterpiece. I should probably give it its own article because it’s that good. Please watch it. It should go down in the history books. And if it doesn’t, the anime community is messed up.
Mob Psycho 100 (2016)
I talked about this show before in my Anime Flash Flood Review so I won’t spend too much time on it. But damn, did this show surprise me. When it originally aired, I watched the first episode and pushed it to the side. Weird art... dumb comedy. But people loved it so much I decided to give it another chance. Mob Psycho 100 is a fun comedy, but a much better family drama.
That’s why it’s on this list even though I’ve already written about it. The thematic switch surprised the hell out of me! As I wrote in the Flash Flood: “My preconceptions of the show were proven wrong with a longer viewing. I thought it would be some slap-stick comedy about Reigen hiding his secret and the hilarity that ensues between him and Kageyama. I was happily mistaken. Instead it turned into a funny and touching commentary on the negatives pushing away your emotions and how two brothers torn apart by a trauma return to each other.”
Yeah! I wonder if I was the only one surprised by this, but the family drama is so well done. Watching Kageyama and Ritsu slowly become more and more jealous of each other, watching their emotions and anxiety slowly bump up to 100%, and watching the aftermath of their individual explosions was, plainly stated, just really good TV. Mob Psycho taught me not to judge a book by its cover...or first episode because a show can surprise you. Surprise you enough to write about it twice.
Tsuredure Children (2017)
Tsuredure Children is a surprising show in more ways than one. Firstly, it’s a short series: 12 episodes, 12 minutes long. Anyone going into it would just think it’s a little, dinky gag anime. And it’s all those things but dinky. Tsuredure Children is not just 12 minutes of stupid jokes until the credits roll. That’s the second surprise; it’s a short series that doesn’t feel like one; it has the appearance and tone of a full length anime. Even with its length, I was able to get emotionally invested in the personal stories of its many characters and look forward to following them week to week. The show's couples felt well-developed and well-rounded, which is a surprise since you only see them for 6 minutes every week (the episodes are split into two or three parts). Tsuredure Children was one of my favorites of its season because it had me sighing, face palming, and laughing to tears! Runtime be damned! A good show is a good show no matter what!
The third surprise is that I still miss it! I think about it every once in a while and think, damn I loved that show. And then I think, damn how did I love a mini-series so much?! Tsuredure Children is the first short series anime that I can wholeheartedly recommend to someone. It is a great slice-of-life romcom that will have you shrieking in joy. Yeah, I’m going to start rewatching it now. Why not? It’s so short!
Mawaru Penguindrum (2011)
The oldest series on the list, Mawaru Penguindrum surprised me the same way Mob Pyscho 100 did…I thought it was going to be about one thing and ended up being totally, totally wrong. The anime opens with a slightly crazy but still “anime” premise: Two brothers must search for the “penguindrum” in order to keep their younger, sick sister alive. But then it transforms, like both of Ikuhara’s other anime (Revolutionary Girl Utena and Yuri Kuma), into a whirlwind adventure/drama/battle with estranged families, terrorist organizations, and a hell of a lot of penguins. Even with all the craziness and plot twists (no spoilers, no worries), the biggest surprise was that I genuinely enjoyed the whole experience — insanity and all.
Ikuhara is known for craziness. I watched Revolutionary Girl Utena because it is one of those anime you have to watch... and my sister is obsessed with it. I wasn’t enamored by it. I liked Utena and some of the other characters but it was just a bit… I don’t know. Too out of the blue? Not enough explained? Too weird? A lot of naked people? And Penguindrum has most of that stuff too, but I was all in by the first transformation scene with Triple H belting Welcome to Rock and Roll Night!! There are a lot of similarities but I enjoyed Penguindrum 30 times more than Utena. That’s the main thing that surprised me.
Penguindrum is hard to recommend because it’s very avant-garde. Even saying that is probably a bit of an understatement. But it’s a rockin’ roller coaster that’s hella crazy and hella fun. I wish I watched it with more people; experiencing Penguindrum for the first time in a group must be awesome. And this show has inspired my next cosplay, so that also gives it bonus points! A crazy Ikuhara show inspiring me to cosplay? Yeah, that’s a surprise too.