Iconic anime shows being part of Netflix India’s catalogue; the arrival of Crunchyroll, with its relatively affordably subscription rates; the return of two anime auteurs to the theatres; excellent arcs from fan-favourite shows — 2023 was a great time to be an Indian anime fan. There are reportedly 30 million anime viewers in India and Crunchyroll has said that over the next few years, it expects 60% of the global growth in this category to come from India. Not bad for a ‘niche’ genre, is it?
Anime has been a crucial part of the Indian appetite for anything related to animation for quite a few years now. Many of us have a separate channel on cable television solely dedicated to airing venerated shows in their English and Hindi dubbed versions. Others have been forced to get their animated fix from the dark corners of the internet. For all concerned, the easier accessibility is a welcome development and will hopefully mean anime becomes more mainstream in terms of access (please don’t let its storytelling lose the distinctive inventiveness). It’s both a thrill and a relief to know exciting new shows like Blue Eye Samurai (on Netflix) and Scavengers Reign (JioCinema) are just a click away, on a local streaming platform. Now to see how long it takes for the non-anime crowd to wake up to the idea that animated films and series are not just for children.
In the meantime, we take a look at some wonderful shows, films and arcs on our radar. Here are some highlights from the year that was.
Makoto Shinkai, who has been cheekily referred to as ‘King of Melancholy’, and found international acclaim with Your Name (2016), returned with Suzume (2022), an epic story which is a delicate ode to the disastrous earthquake that ravaged Japan 12 years ago. A few months after its release, PVR brought Suzume and five other films by Shinkai to India. If you’re not already in the know, you’d have been hard pressed to get details in time to watch these films, but the whisper network of anime fans worked beautifully and most of the films saw enthusiastic crowds show up to see Shinkai’s gorgeous art on the big screen.
Suzume is arguably Shinkai at his best. The film is simultaneously about trying to save the world and also confronting the inevitability of grief. The protagonist, Suzume, takes us across the length, breadth, and depth of Japan — from Kyushu island up to Ehime, through Tokushima and Kobe, passing Tokyo, up to Miyagi, and finally through to Tohoku, Suzume’s birthplace. This region was the real life site of 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, which took over 20,000 lives. Shinkai brings in magical doors, a talking cat, an elemental dragon and other magical elements to both explore and address the grief, love and heartbreak that are bundled up in the real-life trauma of surviving a disaster. It’s a spectacular film.
Canadian author Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim comics got an iconic, star-studded film adaptation in 2010 and now there’s a Netflix anime version as well, called Scott Pilgrim Takes Off. The endearing amount of techno-modernity woven into the show is a reminder that both the comic series and its previous adaptations exist in a strange little pocket of time, and this continues to be true of its latest avatar. This new anime series can seem jarring if you are nostalgic about how the film mixed its eccentric graphics and idiosyncratic stunts with its live action cast (I would unscientifically argue it’s one of the best casting stints in the history of cinema). The new show finds O’Malley returning to Scott Pilgrim after more than a decade, this time in collaboration with the writer-director BenDavid Grabinski, and critically-acclaimed Japanese animation studio Science SARU. It also, miraculously, features the return of the movie’s entire cast, but Scott Pilgrim Takes Off isn’t the redux it appears to be on paper. This adaptation hinges on a major twist that’s worth being fastidious about.
Another soaring adaptation was Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece, this time taking the anime series of more than 1,000 episodes into the world of live action. The adaptation of the beloved manga series by the same name manages to stay buoyant while sifting through the original material, even though it lacks the original’s goofiness. Fans of the anime will notice that the camp aesthetic of the anime translates awkwardly to Netflix’s self-serious aesthetic. The worldbuilding, crumbling under the pressure to condense the plot of anime show’s arcs, is far less detailed. The exaggerated and amusing sensibilities of the anime series are replaced instead with an earnestness that can feel cloying. Still, the show is funny, emotionally endearing, well-structured and faithful to the manga.
To the credit of showrunners Matt Owens and Steven Maeda, this One Piece embraces the strange and quirky elements of its source material, like snail phones, and refrains from overexplaining anything. It would have been nicer had Netflix not conflated goofiness with intellectual frivolity, but it is still an impressive adaptation because of the slow burn of the friendships at the heart of One Piece.
In Netflix’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers, a mysterious plague claims only young men as its victims, which throws Edo-era Japan into both a medical and socio-political crisis. Intensely melancholic and meticulously researched, the show speculates how a gender-flipped Japanese society would evolve. As the male population dwindles, the ones who are left find themselves in an awkward position where they are incredibly valuable for the purpose of procreation, but also have little negotiation power for their economic prospects. It features radical and queer notions of companionship, and one that gives us plenty to mull over in terms of the framework in which we imagine the labour of care and love.
Another Edo-period inspired drama is Netflix’s gorgeous Blue Eye Samurai, which has gone on to become one of the platform’s most critically acclaimed series. The adult animated drama was created by Logan (2017) screenwriter Michael Green and his wife Amber Noizumi. The setting is Japan in the 1600s, when its borders were closed to the outside world, and white people were banished. Mizu, the protagonist, is hiding two secrets, one more successfully than the other. The better-kept secret is that Mizu, (voiced by Pen15 star Maya Erskine), is a woman disguised as a man. The other — hinted at in the show’s title — is that Mizu had a white father, which makes her an impure monster to her countrymen. She has concealed her gender and mastered swordmaking and various deadly styles of combat, all so she can seek out the four white men who might be her father, and kill all of them to avenge herself . The show has one of the most thrilling (and amusingly gentle) fight sequences that have come out of anime in recent years.
On the softer and more buoyant side was My Happy Marriage (which has been renewed for a second season) on Netflix. It follows the Cinderella-like story of Miyo, who lives with her father’s abusive family after the early death of her mother, and is arranged to marry a high-ranking officer without her consent. The officer in question, however, helps her develop enough self-confidence to stand up to her family, and anyone else, if necessary. We later come to know Miyo also has a supernatural ability, which plunges her into a scary slew of nightmares. Fortunately, her husband is only preoccupied with Miyo’s own well-being. The overcoating of the fantasy element can feel gratuitous, but it is still a tender portrayal of a couple in love whose affections don't waver on the basis of the fickleness of social hierarchy.
SpyxFamily, an enchanting cocktail of spy action and comedy, returned for a second season. The show combines the deceptions of espionage with the stresses of parenting when secret agent Twilight is tasked with building a family as a cover for a mission. Unbeknownst to him, his ‘wife’, Yor, is an assassin known as the Thorn Princess; and their adoptive daughter, Anya, is telepathic — and the only one who knows exactly what’s going on. In addition to these three, in the second season, we also get a dog with special abilities.
Jujutsu Kaisen returned with updated action this season. Fans have always joked about how it's a more evolved and less sexist Naruto because of the space it gives its female characters (also a nicer Sasuke). But Jujutsu… imagines power in a limited male framework, just like the show it is mercilessly compared to. It is still worth keeping on the radar, though, because of its worldbuilding and face-off sequences.
The final season of Attack on Titan is riveting. The series features one of the most legendary break-bad moments for a protagonist of a series. What started deceptively as a simple story of a young boy seeking revenge against the giant humanoid monsters that ate his mother, has evolved into an intellectual meditation on the vicious cycle of war. The tonal shift in Attack on Titan came with one of the biggest heel-turns in modern anime, with the protagonist, Eren Jaeger, devolving into a radicalised monster threatening worldwide genocide. The twist, which many fans anticipated, is developed in the final season and without giving any spoilers, we’ll just warn you that the show ends on a very dark note (and remains faithful to the depiction of its debauched protagonist). To be fair, Attack on Titan has been all about how hate is manufactured on a systemic basis, and never claimed interest in the neat happily-ever-after.
Rurouni Kenshin, one of the most popular mangas of the Nineties, got a rare reboot, which also happens to be excellent. The story follows the life of a samurai coping after the war, with the land socio-politically reeling from the effects of the war. The newer version is sleek and evokes nostalgia, but not to the disproportionate degree where it would distract you from the show.
We’re still lying in wait to see 82-year-old filmmaker and Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s latest outing, The Boy and the Heron. The film is based on Genzaburo Yoshino’s How Do You Live and according to producer Toshio Suzuki, it’s “semi-autobiographical”. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Suzuki said the protagonist Mahito “mirrors how Miyazaki is”. The character of an old wizard, known as Granduncle, is Miyazaki’s tribute to his mentor, Isao Takahata (he passed away in 2018) and the relationship that Takahata and Miyazaki shared can be glimpsed in the way the character of Parakeet King and Granduncle get along, said Suzuki. We’re keeping our fingers tightly crossed that The Boy and the Heron will come to India soon now that it’s recorded Studio Ghibli’s biggest opening ever at the American box office.
A live-action Naruto is in the making after several botched attempts (anime fans, resist the temptation to say “believe it” in Naruto’s cocky tone). After a decade, the manga and the anime adaptation has finally found a writer to shoulder the task: Tasha Hao, who also wrote Red Sonja. Naruto Shipudden’s subbed version recently arrived on Netflix, along with its less revered sequel, Boruto: Naruto Next Generations.
Adult Swim and Shinichiro Watanabe, director and creator of the original Cowboy Bebop, are teaming up once again with a new Toonami anime series running on jazz, sci-fi concepts, and action sequences designed by the John Wick mastermind, Chad Stahelski. Tentatively titled Lazarus — produced by Sola Entertainment and animated by Studio MAPPA — it follows a team in the near future chasing down the mad scientist behind a miracle drug exposed as a deadly, slow-acting poison.