With 2018 now well at a close, we asked the entirety of the OTAQUEST staff and contributor team to reflect on the year that was with their top three releases and occurrences from the past year. With such a diverse and global team of contributors, as well as quite the flavorful in-house taste from our staff, we had everyone focus on the topics they’re most passionate about — whether that be anime, games, music, or fashion.
It was a massive year for all of us here in Tokyo with so many important changes being made, while also growing our brand massively both domestically and internationally. We threw two larger-than-life festival-style music events in both Los Angeles and Osaka, all while also doubling down on our coverage and media efforts. Everything that we set in motion is leading towards bigger and better things in 2019, and we can’t wait to get it all out there.
With that being mentioned, even outside of OTAQUEST we’ve seen some pretty major things occur in 2018. So moving forward, let’s look at just what everyone considered their highlights of the year that was:
- Devilman Crybaby
Last year started off with a bang, and nothing ever got quite as good. I’m of course talking about Masaaki Yuasa’s latest project, Devilman Crybaby. I had been hyped for the series ever since the first trailer dropped, and while waiting I also managed to get around to reading the original Devilman manga by Go Nagai as well — something which only got me more excited, as it is one of the best manga ever written. And while Yuasa’s adaptation differs greatly from the original in many ways, I couldn’t be happier with the end result.
Crybaby captures the tragically beautiful essence of Go Nagai’s original vision with grace, updating it for modern times and modern audiences. It also put Netflix on an incredible strong footing for the year to come, which saw much great anime released on their platform, such as the Castlevania anime. But none of them ever quite matched Crybaby, which could be both a curse and a blessing for the fledgling anime venture of the world’s biggest streaming platform going forward. We’ll just have to wait and see what this year holds.
The Girl’s Last Tour anime may have ended in 2017, but 2018 saw the original manga finally come to a close in a perfectly harrowing conclusion. My love for the series knows no bounds, and that love extends equally to its enigmatic creator, Tsukumizu. Following the conclusion of the manga, Tsukumizu’s Twitter account became an immediate place of refuge for me, and for good reason. Their account was constantly active following Girl’s Last Tour’s conclusion, particularly with the mangaka posting “doodles” almost every day – such “doodles” ended up being so popular that they warranted their own artbook – but it was their tweets that always intrigued me.
They were always active at the strangest times, posting things like ‘Let’s go to sleep’ or ‘The sky is blue’ along with macabre pictures of their meager meals, which often consisted of a tiny piece of fish on top of a mountain of rice. These tweets were the perfect replacement for the vignettes of Girl’s Last Tour in their nihilistic beauty, even if they worried me a bit. With Tsukumizu’s new serialization beginning soon, I hope that I can continue to feel a little bit of that Girl’s Last Tour spirit this year too.
- March comes in like a lion 2
Okay, so this one could be seen as cheating, as season two of Chica Umino’s March comes in like a lion began in 2017, but I didn’t end up catching up with the series until around the beginning of 2018, and its broadcast got severely hampered anyway by the Winter Olympics, causing it to take a three-week hiatus and pushing its conclusion way ahead into March. So I’d consider it to be a 2018 anime in many respects. Either way, there hasn’t been an anime that has affected me like March comes in like a lion for a long time.
Season one was bad enough, with protagonist Rei dealing with tragedy, depression, and the inescapable feeling of worthlessness. Watching him realize that he did have worth was like an out of body experience for me, and it touched me in ways I can’t even begin to describe. So when I say that season two is even more emotional, you’d better be prepared. It takes a previously serviceable character and gives them heaps of depth, as well as putting them through another ordeal to rival Rei’s in the previous season, in what must be the best depiction of bullying ever committed to screen. Then, when the series moves into its second cour, it goes even further in finally giving us some time with one of the series’ most elusive characters, once more giving them an unparalleled amount of depth in the way that original creator Chica Umino can only do.
We probably won’t see the series continue for at least another year now, given the pace at which it adapts the original manga and how little of it is left, but I’ll try to prepare myself emotionally in the meantime.
- THUNDERBOLT PROJECT BY FRGMT & POKEMON
When I first saw this collaboration teased I was so completely surprised. Granted that Hiroshi Fujiwara’s FRAGMENT DESIGN has collaborated with a very wide variety of companies & products in the past, including a Bikkuriman collab earlier in 2018, doing something with Pokémon was not only rather out of character for the designer but also very unexpected from The Pokémon Company as well.
I’ve been a fan of the Pokémon franchise since its original release in Japan, and Fujiwara is a designer that I’ve long admired. The pieces these two cultural powerhouses came up with for the collaborations are so clean and hit streetwear sensibilities so well that I was immediately drawn in. Unfortunately for me, so were a ton of other streetwear fans, which made obtaining everything I wanted to pick up close to impossible. I’m not going to complain though, I’m more than happy that this team up even happened in the first place.
- Hi Score Girl
Hi Score Girl has been a little bit of a hit or miss topic with friends of mine. Some just can’t get past the animation style, and others just don’t connect with the topic. That doesn’t stop me from shouting my praises for this manga & anime at everyone who’s willing to listen. As someone who grew up in the era that this series takes place (I’m dating myself, I know) every gaming reference that occurs throughout the story hits me so hard in the nostalgia center of my brain that even if the underlying plot wasn’t there I probably still would have watched the whole series.
The character development and love triangle aspect of the story were just a bonus as I found myself able to relate or connect with each of the characters in a different way. With the follow-up OVA coming soon, I can’t wait to see them adapt the last portion of the manga and will be impatiently waiting until it makes its debut on Netflix in March.
- Yasutaka Nakata – Digital Native
Another divisive topic amongst my friend circle this year was Yasutaka Nakata’s debut self-credited album, Digital Native. No doubt that everyone I know acknowledges his talent as a producer, some of them were expecting more out of his first outing after years of incredibly solid work as the man behind Perfume, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, and Capsule. That being said, each of them still had at least one track on the album that they thought was great, and surprisingly enough each of them had a different one they gravitated toward. If that doesn’t speak to Nakata’s ability to reach a diverse audience then I don’t know what would.
Although the album features a lot of collaborations, the choices he made in regards to who to work with are absolutely on point as well and demonstrate a natural ability to get the most out of those he works with. My personal favorite track on the album is his collaboration with Momo Mashiro, “Jump In Tonight”, which I’m hoping is just a precursor to the sound we’ll get with her upcoming work featuring Nakata as the primary producer. I just hope that adding another producer project to his already busy schedule isn’t going to mean waiting several more years for a follow-up.
When Studio TRIGGER announced that it had three major works lined up for 2018/19, it was SSSS.GRIDMAN that caught my eyes the most. While it was definitely shrouded by the likes of the more imminent, “waifu-filled” DARLING in the FRANXX, as well as the highly-anticipated Hiroyuki Imaishi & Kazuki Nakashima feature-film Promare, SSSS.GRIDMAN stood out as being the underdog in some sense.
Marking Akira Amemiya’s first directorial debut for a full-length series, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I had zero familiarity with Gridman or the tokusatsu genre in general outside of Amemiya’s previously-directed Denkou Choujin Gridman Boys Invent Great Hero short film for Japan Animator Expo in 2015. With that being said, when the time finally came around what few expectations I had managed to form were absolutely blown away. Not only was SSSS.GRIDMAN incredibly well crafted and directed, but it managed to balance being corny at the same time as being clever and tactful which happens to greatly appeal to my own sensibilities.
SSSS.GRIDMAN is what every passion project should strive to be, a show that’s heavy in inspiration but is still able to stand on its own as a complete work. Personally, I can’t wait to see what else Akira Amemiya has up his sleeve.
- Pop Team Epic
I’m not gonna lie, I originally went into Pop Team Epic quite cynically. After all, how could they capture the appeal of a cruddy 4-Koma manga in the form of a full-length anime? As it turns out, there are quite a few ways to do that, including only producing 10 minutes of content each week and dubbing it twice back to back. While that might seem like a “cheap” way to do it, continuously bringing on new A-list seiyuu probably isn’t something you do to try and save money.
As for the content itself (read: gags), the anime really outdid my expectations at every turn. In a lot of ways, the anime is just an incredibly smug parody of an already cruddy manga. On one hand, you have French animator Thibault Tresca trying to string together a story with absolutely no idea of what the content should actually be like. On the other, you have the uniquely talented duo AC-bu taking 4-Koma gags and stretching the concepts past their conceivable limits, resulting in something that far surpasses the original. The best moment in the series is when AC-bu decides to take everyone on a wild ride with a beautiful live-action recording of them retelling the story of “Hellshake Yano” through flip-books.
This phenomenon couldn’t be possible without producer Kotaro Sudo, who burnt his one “wildcard” in order to convince King Records that this was a “good idea”. The one downside is that we never got to see the infamous “Ah, you are motherfucker?” get adapted, but I guess that might’ve just been a tad too much to ask for.
- Kae & Sushio Mandarake Complex 10th Anniversary Collab
This one is a tad more personal, but I feel it deserves a mention nonetheless. During my visit to Tokyo in December, I first came across this collab on a pamphlet while scouring the many Mandarake stores in Nakano Broadway and almost immediately fell in love. Being a big fan of Sushio already, me liking this collab was inevitable, but the way in which Kae’s unique style ended up synergizing with Sushio really brought it to another level.
The centerpiece, which depicts a mecha school girl with a red scarf (drawn by Sushio) with a tiny girl and her fluffy pet in the cockpit (drawn by Kae). For me, this felt very reminiscent of Japan Animator Expo short film I Can Friday By Day, which depicts a number of similar mecha school girls piloted by little animal people. It bears mentioning that it was also Sushio who is credited for both the Animation Character Designer and Animation Director for the short, so seeing him revive the concept here is certainly a treat.
Overall, all the pieces are pretty great, and I can’t wait to see what both of the artists will get up to next.
- BAPE Los Angeles Store Opening
The street label behemoth known as BAPE re-opened their doors, featuring a 2,500-square-foot store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles last February. Thankfully I happened to be traveling to Los Angeles the same week it opened and grabbed a shirt to commemorate their monumental success. This flagship marks BAPE’s return to the West Coast after the first store closed in 2010.
Since I’ll be personally moving to Los Angeles at the end of January, I plan on visiting BAPE LA frequently, enjoying the new release lines and grabbing more BAPE camo-themed household items.
- Monster Hunter: World
With over 10 million copies sold across the globe, it would seem Monster Hunter: World has delivered on the game’s ambitious goals to make the franchise accessible to a enormous audience, specially in the West. But while its creators have streamlined some of the series’ more challenging bits and a notoriously cumbersome user experience (just play Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate to see how much the franchise changed), its learning curve is still, severely large. Monster Hunter: World didn’t just evangelize the brand; it won me over to an entire style of play.
- Taiko No Tatsujin
With being just shy of 15 years since it’s original release in the West, Taiko No Tatsujin released late last year for PlayStation 4 as Taiko No Tatsujin: Drum Session! and on Nintendo Switch as Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun. This is also the first time the series has ever been properly introduced to European audiences thus Europeans receiving the game and drum bundle SKU. This is not Donkey Konga; this is the real deal. Fans of the series can play songs from the Japanese versions of Disney hits Frozen and Zootopia here, along with anime flair such as Dragon Ball Super, My Neighbor Totoro, Doraemon, and more.
- Monster Hunter: World
Last year, Monster Hunter made its return to home consoles and did so in the most spectacular way possible. True to its name, the appeal of Monster Hunter: World isn’t just the fierce and lengthy battles, but also the worlds they take place in. There’s a living ecosystem going on that ultimately feels larger than the impact you could possibly have on it.
With high graphical detail and improved AI, Monster Hunter: World found a new global appeal outside of its dedicated audience on portables and has since become Capcom’s best-selling game. It hasn’t stopped there either, with frequent updates, collaborations with Final Fantasy XIV, The Witcher 3 and more, and the upcoming Iceborne expansion.
- Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms
It’s pretty uncommon to walk into a film with admittedly high expectations, only to see them blown away. Within the last decade, Mari Okada has built herself up as an anime screenwriter with a flair for writing compelling drama series. What I didn’t expect is her skill in writing enthralling fantasy worlds or in directing animation. It’s since been reported that even when working strictly as a screenwriter, she’s had an influence on the direction. It even reached a point where on A Lull in the Sea, director Toshiya Shinohara offered to assist her if she ever wanted to become a director (which he did on Maquia).
Maquia itself is an excellently crafted film. Whilst some have criticized it for having too many subplots, for me, it’s the contrast between each smaller story that establishes its clearest messages the most effectively. Outside of the powerful narrative, the film’s messages and world are brought to life with backgrounds by Kazuki Higashiji (one of my favorite artists) and animation by industry legend Toshiyuki Inoue. There’s not a single aspect of this film that brings it down.
- Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom
Studio Ghibli may no longer be the powerhouse it once was when it collaborated with Level-5 for the original Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, but Ni no Kuni II makes it clear that it wasn’t Ghibli’s name that makes this franchise special. Without Ghibli being officially attached, Ni no Kuni II successfully highlights the individual artistry involved such as the work of character designer Yoshiyuki Momose and composer Joe Hisaishi. I’ve been impressed with Level-5’s ability to cross genre and media for a while, but Ni no Kuni II shows that creator Akihiro Hino is confident enough in his vision for this franchise that Ghibli as a company isn’t necessary for him to create a masterpiece.
Much of the game is nothing particularly new. It features the city-building aspects of their previous title, Dark Cloud, has the player exploring the world in similar ways to Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, and has a combat system similar to the Tales of series. That said, the voice acting, charming character moments and the way these systems interact makes Ni no Kuni II particularly special. It’s entirely unrestrained in how it presents its worlds, with each kingdom having a unique aesthetic, musical theme and particular backstory. Even a Silicon Valley-esque city fraught with overworked tech nerds doesn’t strain the scope of Ni no Kuni II. It’s the world that I spent the most time in last year, and I’d invite you to do the same.
- Momoiro Clover Z’s Transitional 10th Anniversary
I’ve been following Momoiro Clover Z’s rise to the top of the idol industry and continued popularity for 8 years at this point, and 2018 saw them celebrate their 10th anniversary — yet this year for the group has been rather mixed. After all, this milestone year begun with the announcement that Ariyasu Momoka would be graduating from the group, less than a week before a concert that constituted her final ever appearance as an idol and in entertainment. The announcement came without warning and was a massive shock for me due to how much the group means to me, and made me extremely grateful for the opportunities I had to see them perform both in Osaka and New York in 2016.
Momoiro Clover Z needed to adapt to such a fundamental change in the group’s lineup that had remained almost-completely consistent ever since their debut. While I may be biased as a fan of the group, they did this superbly, releasing a compilation album and performing a 2-day concert at the Tokyo Dome in May before closing off the year with 5 monthly digital singles in a huge variety of styles from ranging from the heavy-rock of Anta Tobashi Sugi to the more relaxing electro-pop sounds of Sweet Wanderer. This could have been a very difficult year for the group but turned out well for them, and I’m looking forward to seeing them continue to grow in 2019, with a new album already announced.
- Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms
This was far and away the best anime film I saw in 2018, and was coupled by an amazing first experience watching it. The movie is Mari Okada’s directorial debut after making a name for herself as a screenwriter, and she made the difficult transition with relative ease, helping to create a wonderfully evocative and beautifully animated feature where the impressive fantasy world proved to be a perfect vessel to tell a very down-to-earth story about love and family.
My first chance to see the film came from a special screening in London which Mari Okada herself attended and hearing her comments about the movie and her work process made for the perfect ending to the experience. I’ve not really stopped thinking about this movie ever since I first saw it and for that alone it has to be one of my highlights of 2018.
- Zombie Land Saga
Zombie Land Saga was already a great show by the time it hit the halfway point. Funny with an inventive premise that was also able to change its tone and become more serious when the moment asked for it. As my favourite TV series from the (admittedly smaller than I would like) list of 2018 anime I saw it deserved its place here regardless, but I couldn’t mention this show without bringing up episode 8, which brought the show’s focus onto Hoshikawa Lily and her backstory.
As a trans person myself I really appreciate it when a show represents my own experiences, yet unless you watch something specifically about trans experiences like Hourou Musuko they’re basically non-existent. Even when they are present, they become someone defined by their trans identity without a chance for development outside of this. This show not only respectfully handled her trans identity within the context of the show, it allowed her to be trans without this experience defining her, with her personality as a fun and charming young girl established before and developed further after this particular episode.
It may not have much competition, but Lily is definitely one of the best trans characters in anime, which is a positive cherry onto the top of the already-delicious cake that is this hilarious and superb anime.
- Beatmania IIDX 26 ROOTAGE
In November of 2018, Konami released it’s latest iteration of it’s Beatmania IIDX franchise, Beatmania IIDX 26 ROOTAGE. This time, we are taken to a digital library of sorts which is a indicator of the “roots” of the game as this is the 20th anniversary of the Beatmania IIDX series. The interface has touches of a futuristic library as well as server racks which contain the “history” of Beatmania IIDX.
The initial song list was very reminiscent of older Beatmania IIDX games with a wide variety of genres as opposed to the hardcore heavy styles of recent times. Since it’s release, the first event as well as extra stage event have started. The extra stage event is titled ‘Arc Score’ which is a throwback to a specific version of Beatmania IIDX. The first Arc Score song released was “Xenon II ~Tomoyuki no Yabou~” as a throwback to Xenon from Beatmania IIDX 8th Style. This was a very nice throwback to reel old fans back into the game.
The first event is titled ‘The Library of Mirage’ which has players traverse floors of a library unlocking new songs along the way. I personally have not been this excited to play Beatmania IIDX in quite some time, and I’ve been loving my time with ROOTAGE since it’s release!
- Sword Art Online: Alicization
This is likely something that is going to get me a lot of flack for having in my ‘Best of 2018’, but I absolutely love Sword Art Online: Alicization. While at first I truly felt “Alicization” was a really weird name, it’s something that makes a whole lot of sense after watching. Sure at the time of writing this we’re only on episode 13, but up until now, this feels like a very well put together story.
As previous Sword Art Online seasons have focused on VR Headsets which immerse the player into the world of Aincrad, Alfheim, and Gun Gale Online. This time around, we’re taken to a place called ‘The Underworld’ which protagonist Kirito is thrown into after an interaction he had in the real world with a previous player, the antagonist of the Gun Gale Online arc. As opposed to the VR headsets of previous seasons, this time they are on the 4th generation of the ‘FullDive’ system called, “SoulTranslator” a system which puts its users in a dream-like state where multiple hours in-game is only a few minutes in the real world.
There have already been quite a few questionable moments in Alicization. Especially one particular scene which personally had me questioning if I should have been watching it in public while I was on the train heading into Shibuya. All in all, however, I’m really excited to see where Alicization takes us, as the stories in SAO tend to only get more and more intense as the series proceeds.
- Utada Hikaru – Face My Fears (Kingdom Hearts III – Opening)
Probably one of the most shocking things to happen this year is the collaboration between Skrillex and Utada Hikaru. The song opens with an extremely emotional piano line which sets the tone for the song. Utada’s silky smooth vocals and Skrillex’s neo-dubstep-bounce vibe with pitched vocals in the top-line that has been ever growing in popularity recently.
What I find interesting here, however, is the fact that the song isn’t (featuring Skrillex) or (featuring Utada Hikaru), meaning the song was co-written by each of them. While in the music industry this can mean a world of different things, but most likely, Skrillex made the initial track, Utada made the lyrics and the top line, and the rest was likely both of them with their teams.
Where the song still isn’t out at the time of writing, there are currently only 3 days before its release. I’m including it for 2018 because that’s when it was initially previewed and announced, as well as when I originally got so excited about it.
- Maison Book Girl – Yume
I spent a bit of time covering “Yume” when it originally dropped just a few months ago, and since then I’ve only come to feel so much more passionately about it. Being someone who only came across the group by pure chance, happening upon one of their live shows at Tower Records Shibuya some couple of years ago, it’s actually got me quite shocked that I could love an album so much. With their latest album “Yume”, we see Maison Book Girl at their most experimental, and while it might seem slightly jarring at first, there’s so much to explore within the visions that each member so passionately presents.
Favorite Track: Kotoeri_
- Tofubeats – RUN
I’ve been following Kobe-based trackmaker Tofubeats for the better part of my life at this point, and in 2018 he still manages to leave me in complete awe with his latest album “RUN”. The twelve-track release is the fourth major album from Tofubeats, yet in an industry so ripe with compromise, it manages to feel like the most Tofubeats album to date. While previous albums have leaned heavily on the features involved, “RUN” exists on its own with Tofubeats’ incredible production front and center. Definitely one of my favorites throughout 2018.
Favorite Track: Fumetsu no Kokoro / Immortal Love
- Moe Shop – Moe Moe
While I might be a little biased here, there’s probably no album I spent more of 2018 listening to than Moe Shop’s “Moe Moe”, and that’s not without good reason. The album called together a stacked roster of some of my favorite Japanese musicians, perfectly combining their unique charm with Moe Shop’s French House sound. It was a massive shift for Moe Shop, being their first non-sampled EP and ultimately an evolution of their already-established sound, but it totally paid off. From start to finish “Moe Moe” is a total treat, and I can’t wait to see what they put out next.
Favorite Track: Fantasy (w/ MONICO)
With 2018 so completely full of incredible content and happenings, we’re more excited than ever before heading into the new year. There’s so much potential for continued expansion on all the great releases started in 2018, as well as the basis to build so much more. Where the year will take Japan’s numerous cultural scenes remains to be seen, but you can bet we’ll be covering it every step of the way.