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Quick Hits

Our Guide to the Best Anime of Winter 2023

The highlights include returning populist hits, new adaptations, and even some oddities. 
  • Vinland Saga, Tsurune, and The Fire Hunter (Images: Crunchyroll/HiDive)
    Vinland Saga, Tsurune, and The Fire Hunter (Images: Crunchyroll/HiDive)

    There’s too much anime. Any way you look at it, from an industry perspective or from an audience perspective, there’s simply an overwhelming amount being made. We're here to help interested viewers, though, by regularly sifting through offerings to find the highlights, from returning populist hits to new adaptations and oddities. 

    The Winter 2023 edition of our quarterly guide focuses on selections that began airing and/or streaming this TV season, rather than returning simulcast series (shows that stream immediately after their release in Japan, via western streamers) like My Hero Academia, which is now approaching its endgame in the second part of its sixth season. It's worth noting that, like the certainty of death and taxes, One Piece is also still showing new episodes most weeks. Our last honorable mention goes to NieR Automata 1.1a, an adaptation of Yoko Taro’s existential action video game that moved past a dismal first episode to present what could be the year’s most interesting and creative video game adaptation (yes, including that other one). Sadly, production was severely delayed by a COVID-19 outbreak, so the show has only released four episodes thus far. But there is still plenty of anime worth your time and attention this winter — here are our top five picks.

    Vinland Saga Season 2

    Streaming on Netflix and Crunchyroll

    “Why should I live? Not a single good thing has happened to me in my entire life” declares Vinland Saga’s broken protagonist Thorfinn, years after the events of Season 1 have left him completely hollowed. The murder of his ex-Viking father and a long, ultimately fruitless quest for vengeance set against the backdrop of 11th-century England were unspooled by director Shūhei Yabuta over a 26-episode run. It was rather startling to see that the title of the finale was “End of the Prologue” — Thorfinn’s emotional torment and the prolonged, bloody conflict of the first season turned out to be only the beginning of the story. Now with its second season, which sees Yubata return as series director but MAPPA taking over production from Wit Studio, the rest of Vinland Saga starts in earnest… and once again, it’s likely to surprise its audience with its approach. 

    The first season’s moments of contemplation and introspection are the primary focus of the second. Thorfinn is now a slave on a farm in Denmark, living without purpose. Another man, Einar, who was forced into slavery after the death of his family, begins to draw something out of Thorfinn But even five episodes in, the direction the show will take is tantalizingly unclear as it moves various pieces — many of them based on real figures — into place. 

    The larger story, originally written by Makoto Yukimura, is built from lots of smaller encounters, historical courtroom intrigue taking up just as much real estate as a tense standoff with violently drunk bodyguards or a quest to get a horse and plow. And while the broader shape of Vinland Saga (the TV show) is still unclear, all of those little pieces are incredibly compelling, thanks in no small part to sharp and dramatic direction. The violence of the setting and cruelty of its political intrigue is contrasted with lush, pastoral background art. Yubata’s direction pushes smaller-scale character moments to the forefront. 

    Vinland Saga has always been a character drama first and foremost, but there’s already far less animated action than in Season 1 — animated introspection takes its place as Thorfinn now quietly works as a farmhand, Einar’s arrival pushing him to reflect on having grown up while constantly surrounded by battle. Fans of the show tease Thorfinn’s arc as “Farmland Saga,” but it’s no insult, instead an appreciation of how the story can continue to surprise in how it draws the arc of history and where Thorfinn’s story intersects with it. 

    Tsurune Season 2

    New episodes stream weekly on HiDive

    While Tsurune, named after the sound of a bowstring, certainly moves at a more contemplative pace than a lot of sports and club anime, it has plenty of drama bubbling away, mostly concerning the protagonist Minato Narumiya getting his groove back, after beginning the series having lost his passion for kyūdō, Japanese archery. Previously frozen by anxiety or “target panic,” he bombed during a tournament, and the first season follows his incremental progress back to mastery of the sport and, by extension, himself. 

    Presented even more lavishly than the previous season, Season 2 rejoins the kyūdō boys after they’ve won their prefectural competition, with their school sports tournament immediately on the horizon. This slightly wider scope — seeing the strategies of futsal, basketball, volleyball and others — offers a fun way to experience the pleasures of sports rituals beyond the show’s main focus, as well as see the charming dynamics of the group outside of their usual context. The animation production from Kyoto Animation (known for the gorgeous and melancholic Violet Evergarden as well as wild comedies like Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid and Nichijou) is typically beautiful, warm, and reflective of the sport’s introspective nature. There’s thoughtful detail in director Takuya Yamamura’s depictions of kyūdō’s tactile joys and the process of drawing the bow, the animators admiring the little nuances of how the technique differs per person. Tsurune is fixated on ritual, illustrating all of the steps traditionally taken before making the shot. 

    The psychology behind reaching the target is important too, like with Minato’s “target panic,” Tsurune tracks how the archers’ personal lives rarely remain at the door at every practice session and tournament, their state of mind potentially making the bowstring seem heavier, the target harder to hit. As the characters themselves put it, it’s a sport with no opponents, only time to focus on yourself, and Tsurune as a show feels like a nice extension of that: no fierce battles, just gorgeous art and soothingly repetitive acts. 

    The Fire Hunter

    Streaming on Crunchyroll

    Though it’s set far in the future after the apocalypse, where our present has been all but forgotten, The Fire Hunter feels like it was beamed to us from the recent past. A new series from long-time collaborators Jung Nishimura (Vlad Love) and Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell), The Fire Hunter’s premise, muted colors, and scratchy linework feel like an anime time capsule from the mid-2000s as it follows the journey of the young girl Touko.  

    The world she resides in is equal parts steampunk, high fantasy industrial revolution, and post-apocalyptic, where humans have somehow become so vulnerable to fire that they instantly combust in its presence. Our contemporary society imploded and faded away until the world was rebuilt around an alternative fuel source — demonic Fire Fiends, now hunted and their blood harvested by Fire Hunters.

    Touko encounters one named Haijuu in a forest near her village. He soon dies, but his last act is saving her and killing an attacking Fire Fiend. When the village deems her responsible for Haijuu’s death, and therefore responsible for returning his possessions to his family in the Capital, she's left to take care of his dog Kanata. The show soon splits its perspective between her and Haijuu’s now orphaned son, never rushing to unite them. 

    In the meantime, Oshii’s script unspools the story’s history through specific conversations, leaving the complete picture to be puzzle-pieced together, some episodes focusing on the political factions of the Divine Clans who rule the land or the various tithes the villages have to pay, or the stories of three women forced into marriage. Nishimura’s direction is compelling and even experimental in places, returning to the collage-like storyboarding of his last show with Oshii, the comedy Vlad Love, both frequently playing with split screen. Kenji Kawai ties the work between the two together with a haunting and typically ethereal score. The Fire Hunter’s animation and drawings are much rougher around the edges than Vlad Love — sometimes in intentional, expressive fashion, sometimes not — but its compellingly old school art direction and story interests keep it feeling idiosyncratic rather than just outdated and stiff. 

    Trigun Stampede

    Streaming on Crunchyroll

    In the realm of anime, 3D computer generated animation has become something of a dirty word amongst fans, despite all of the inventive work done in that medium. (I would immediately point to SSSS.Gridman and SSSS.Dynazenon, which use the format to make animated monsters look like guys in costumes like in the classic tokusatsu shows they’re based on). Perhaps the foremost purveyors of it in TV anime, Studio Orange (Beastars, Godzilla: Singular Point) have rather daringly approached a ’90s darling with Trigun: Stampede, a new adaptation of the manga by Yasuhiro Nightow, risking incurring the wrath of both longtime fans and 2D traditionalists, starting with the main character’s sleeker appearance (they yassified Vash the Stampede!).

    Stampede, as it turns out, feels incredibly old-school even with its sense of newness, particularly in the poses and expressions of its characters that feel even more cartoonish than more traditionally created anime — the range displayed on Meryl Stryfe, a returning character from the first show, is something to behold. Orange’s production is incredibly impressive, probably one of the most natural feeling and expressive examples of 3D animation on television as it mixes in the language of hand-drawn while taking advantage of the newer medium’s quirks. 

    Speaking as someone with only passing familiarity with a handful of original Trigun episodes, Stampede appears as a slightly darker and more serious interpretation of that sci-fi western story, though not without a sense of fun. The pacifist gunslinger Vash is still a handsome and kindly goof who could easily annihilate most of his foes but chooses not to, leading to delightfully chaotic action sequences, resulting in the carnage that gives Vash his infamous reputation as a destroyer (the “Humanoid Typhoon”) with an astronomical bounty on his head. There’s other silliness at the fringes – starting with a character being called Roberto de Niro, and the series antagonist Millions Knives turning out to be made of, well, millions of knives. It’s a distinct enough interpretation to feel worthwhile, even if some fan favorite characters are missing (for now). 

    Lupin ZERO

    Streaming on HiDive

    The Lupin the Third franchise has always had a timeless charm, never truly changing the nature of its archetypical rogues, and ZERO feels like a test of that: Would the same formula work if they were children? Turns out, yes — for starters, because it’s incredibly funny seeing that Jigen was exactly the same as an adolescent, with a look that’s 50% hat. He still chainsmokes, and even has the same revolver. It’s not just a good sight gag, but also a sort of meta-commentary on the classic appeal of these figures. We can always count on Lupin to be an impish rogue with infinite tricks, and on Jigen to be a cynical, smarmy gunslinger, even if he’s not capable of growing a beard yet. You can rely on the show to have goofy chases, double crosses and femme fatales, plus a jazzy soundtrack (Yoshihide Ôtomo doing a fun impersonation of the series’s classic composer Yuji Ohno). The show’s visual design is built around that idea: ZERO is set in the 1960s at the time the original Lupin III manga was published, and makes itself look as though it’s a show from around that time. Nostalgia permeates the screen through an intentionally weathered look, even the opening and end credits imitate Part 1, visually and sonically. 

    The miniseries loosely adapts some flashback chapters of the manga by Monkey Punch, taking place before Lupin became an infamous gentleman thief. The leap backward in time means that much of the usual cast — notably Goemon, Fujiko and Zenigata — are missing on this adventure. But it retains the franchise’s classic charms, from the style of its drawings to the goofy, Looney Tunes-esque acrobatics and vehicular mayhem of its various capers. 

    Lupin ZERO doesn’t overstay its welcome: There’s only six episodes of this new origin story for the gentleman thief. But if you enjoy it, there’s plenty more where that came from, with Part IV and Part V both being incredibly canny updates on the franchise’s enduring pleasures, adapting to the times with ease. 

    Kambole Campbell is a freelance writer for Empire Magazine, Little White Lies, Sight and Sound, Hyperallergic, and CartoonBrew. And here!

    TOPICS: Anime