Oh, that was easy.
Fantastically dry and full of appealing characters, Ichigo Mashimaro is irresistible. I very rarely re-watch anything, but I’ve seen Ichigo Mashimaro at least three-and-a-half times. The cute designs belie a wonderfully cynical sense of humor: the characters are conniving and insufferable, their conflicts pointedly trivial.
It’s not often that anime science fiction is this, well, science-fiction. The future here isn’t glamorous or overfull with cool gadgets; it’s a halfway-believable extrapolation of the modern world, a proper reflection on how the overarching trends of today might really play out in the future – particularly, the unidealistic explorations of environmental stewardship and global capitalism which respectively make up Planetes’ central premise and plot. More to the point, though, it does it with a sharp sense of pacing and a charismatic cast of characters who make these conflicts viscerally meaningful and relatable above and beyond mere philosophical tangents. It’s one thing for a work of fiction to declare that classism is bad and warn of the unsustainability of modern global capitalism; it’s altogether another to write the work in such a way that those conflicts feel real and actually engage the viewer.
Solid production values and jaw-dropping visuals keep Heartcatch Precure well above average, but it’s the strong emotional core that makes it truly exceptional. Erika and Tsubomi’s chemistry on screen is the only thing more enchanting than either of them on their own, and the cast of supporting characters are all fun and engaging in their own right. The conceit of the Heart Flowers is a brilliantly elegant way to give emotional gravitas and a meaningful sense of stakes to the monsters-of-the-week. By tying the emotional well-being of actual characters to the results of the Precures’ brawling, the audience is given a real incentive to invest in each episode. And Heartcatch is, by and large, quite good at returning on that investment – the character arcs are satisfying and elegant on their own, but also cumulatively play an important role in its more central progressions.
Recency bias be damned. Sengoku Collection was a fantastic breath of fresh air, a free-form omnibus populated by skilled and passionate creators. Much to the contrary of expectations, Sengoku Collection was freed rather than limited by its inauspicious origins. Expected to adhere neither to any rich existing mythos nor to any standards of “serious” quality, the authors were free to tell their tales unencumbered – and tell they did. Most impressively, each story manages in the course of a half-hour to develop characters more dimensional and charismatic than most anime can achieve in a cours or more. Whether a given episode is parodic, hard-boiled or deadly serious, its characters’ charms are punctuated by their brevity and the intense focus with which the scriptwriters approach them.
Really, though, exactly how well can one express the visceral connection that defines a favorite as distinct from a mere exceptional example, anyway? Waxing lyrical and fawning over a beloved work is all well and good, but it’s at best a deconstructive affair: an attempt to retroactively dissect a raw emotion into sensible, communicable parts. Ichigo Mashimaro isn’t one of the anime I like best because it’s dry; dryness is just one of the things I like best about it. Planetes and Heartcatch Precure are standards-bearers of their respective genres, to be sure, but neither is by any means quantifiably “best” at the things I love most about either – and let’s face it, Sengoku Collection probably isn’t even that good.
Let’s try to end on an honest note. I don’t love Hidamari Sketch for anything it does - I love it for the enchantment that I feel when I watch it.