The final anime season of 2023 — the fall one, which started in October — has brought a lot of late entries for the year’s very best. As well as returning shows like the smash hits Jujutsu Kaisen (which began the first half of its second season in August) and Spy x Family, newer shows like The Apothecary Diaries and especially Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End have proven highlights of the year as it approaches its end. Here are the best five anime you can watch on streaming, right now.
Available on Crunchyroll
Amidst the opulence of a palace pavilion, styled after Ming dynasty China, The Apothecary Diaries doles out fascinating intrigue through its case-of-the-week medical mysteries.
Kidnapped from her home in a red light district brothel, the young apothecary Maomao finds herself on call as a servant to the Emperor’s concubines. Despite a desire to keep her head down, she becomes drawn into various almost forensic cases by a combination of insatiable curiosity and occasionally, orders she can’t refuse. The setting is fascinating, both for the transportive nature of its parallel history to ours, but also in how unblinking it is towards the more unpleasant practices of such a time, Maomao recognizing it as a gilded cage.
But it’s hardly miserable — the series luxuriates in its pretty designs in character and architecture, its animation drawn with loving detail. It also feels lightened by Maomao herself, a sort of feudal Veronica Mars who proves an incredibly watchable main character thanks to her blunt, matter-of-factness, sharp wit, and Aoi Yūki’s unique voice performance. With its structure teasing a new puzzle for her to solve at the end of every episode, it’s easy to relate to how Maomao keeps getting dragged into solving them — the drive to watch more and more of The Apothecary Diaries is itself irresistible.
Available on Netflix
During a month when Netflix has put out a number of high profile animated releases — including one that made this very list — it would be a shame for Pluto to get lost in the shuffle. A mature and thoughtful take on a classic Japanese superhero story, Astro Boy, Pluto re-situates its creator Osamu Tezuka’s political messaging within a noir-ish crime fiction plot. It’s based on the manga by Naoki Urasawa, a man known not just for his propulsive approach to mystery plots but also for the empathetic detail with which he builds out his side characters.
These are the real meat of Pluto, which follows the robot detective Inspector Gesicht as he investigates a series of killings of famous, beloved robots, and activists for their rights, a story based on an arc from Astro Boy, "The Greatest Robot on Earth" (where Gesicht appears as a supporting character). Urasawa’s take — and by extension director Toshio Kawaguchi’s — has his investigation intersecting with the fictional history of a "39th Central Asian War," an incredibly pointed reflection on Bush-era U.S. interventionism. Amidst its flashy effects work the greatest draw of Pluto is the acting, in its expression of those emotional, surprisingly decompressed subplots, which turn it from a solid sci-fi homage to a great work in its own right.
Available on Crunchyroll
Despite its Cold War Berlin-esque setting, the first season of Spy x Family felt incredibly warm through its incredibly unconventional found family premise: the super-spy “Twilight” (going by Loid Forger), a notorious assassin (going by Yor Forger), and a telepath (Anya Forger) all living under the same roof, their true identities unbeknownst to each other.
Each hilarious vignette of Spy x Family capitalizes on this wild setup at all times, mining great comedy out of Loid’s over-preparation, Yor’s mix of earnestness with terrifying killer instincts, Anya’s abundance of knowledge but the inability to do anything about it, being only in the realm of five years of age. Starting out with a number of shorter 10-minute stories paired up in each episode, Season 2 settles into the longer arc of a mission on a cruise ship, in which Yor has to protect the wife of a mob boss while evading her unwitting fake family.
This arc lets the show wear a lot of its different guises at once: overlapping family comedy, espionage thriller, and bone-crunching action, knowing precisely when to treat its outlandish plot with lightness, and when to treat its characters with deadly conviction.
To that effect, as the show focuses on Yor — the first season often defaulted to Loid’s point of view — there are some rather brutal reminders that she’s the best at what she does, and that what she does is pretty horrifying. The shop-clerk-by-day, assassin-by-night at one point nails an opponent to a wall with a blade through the head, for starters. Because it takes its other elements seriously, the comforts of Spy x Family become more apparent: in seeing two of the deadliest people in the world often find themselves perplexed by the nuances of child-rearing (“I am a normal father,” Loid says with pride). Its handling of those potentially clashing tones helps create a killer second season.
Available on Netflix
The real appeal of Scott Pilgrim Takes Off only becomes apparent in the final moments of its first episode. Up until that point, it slyly performs as what the audience might have expected: a play-by-play animated adaptation of the comic books which builds on the collective star power of the cast of the 2010 movie. But it’s so much better than that, taking a hard left turn into something new, something engaging and unexpected which actually reckons with the different tellings of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim — reflecting on the paths not taken, and rebuilding the story into a character study of Ramona Flowers.
With animation produced by Science Saru and directed by Abel Góngora, the show, created and written by O’Malley and BenDavid Grabinski, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off feels creatively invigorated by the chance to make something new. That’s perhaps best reflected in its standout third episode, “Ramona Rents a Video,” via two beautifully made sequences — the more obvious choice being a blowout fight between Roxy Richter and Ramona (who now boast the best fights in the movie AND the TV show), as they leap between different genres including war films, westerns and samurai flicks.
The other is much smaller, a jam session between Knives Chau and the taciturn drummer Kim Pine, a meeting of characters that the movie didn’t have a chance to get to, and one that unfolds beautifully here: the scene animated with naturalistic movement as the two find their rhythm and musical chemistry together, as well as a burst of expressive color representing the unique joy of such a moment. It’s like the show itself in microcosm — an experimental riff on familiar material that combines bright, vivid fantasy and action coupled with something more somber: a reflective plot about the actions taken in one’s youth, and the desire to turn back the clock.
Available on Crunchyroll
The passage of time, the ephemerality of human life and memory — both are keenly felt in Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End. Set in a high fantasy world akin to that of Tolkien and the tabletop RPGs (e.g. Dungeons and Dragons) that his work inspired, this anime actually begins after the ultimate heroic deed has been done.
The Demon King is dead, the heroes return home, all is well. But one of the four adventurers who killed him, Frieren, is an elf who lives an incredibly long life, to the point that the 10-year mission barely registers on its scale. But despite her aloof demeanor, she’s forever changed by it, something clarified by the death of one of the party. The realization that she’ll soon outlive all of her friends, and potentially even the collective memory of them, pushes Frieren into a new journey. And it’s one that Saito tells with absolutely breathtaking animation and textured, thoughtful art direction.
Different times in Frieren’s life are illustrated by different customs — the distant past taking on a resemblance, through clothing and architecture, to Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome, her adventures with her party of four looking closer to medieval fantasy, and then the present day pushing towards something more modern. The world of the show feels full of rich history through those backdrops and Frieden’s continual engagement with that past, whether its old tasks that need repeating or through various Proustian recollections.
Not only does Frieden’s long-term existential crisis land with considered emotional impact, but the series is no slouch when it comes to sword-and-sorcery set pieces. An early highlight sees a fight with a dragon framed with thrillingly realistic camerawork, a later one has two simultaneous face-offs with the demon choreographed with visual clarity and exciting flair. It might well be one of the best anime shows of the year, full stop.
Kambole Campbell is a freelance writer for Empire Magazine, Little White Lies, Sight and Sound, Hyperallergic, and CartoonBrew. And here!