What the crap how is this season so good. We just got off a season that basically justified anime in 2017 altogether, and now here we are opening with a season that’s pretty much just as strong, if a little more genre-constrained. And it’s not like I care about this season’s genre constraints, given I fall neatly into the audience for all its low-key character drama and slice of life offerings. Perhaps the most astonishing thing is this crop’s base aesthetic quality – Laid-Back Camp is mostly just an above-average production, but Evergarden, After the Rain, Franxx, and Universe are all visually stunning every single week. The season has been good enough that it’s forced me to realize half a dozen airing shows is basically my limit; I’d love to be keeping up with Mitsuboshi Colors, but there’s just too much else to watch for me to hold onto it at the moment. There’s plenty to celebrate this week, so let’s get right to it and RUN THESE SHOWS DOWN!

Violet Evergarden pulled off its best episode yet this week, which in practice translated to an episode I liked on the whole, but still had serious reservations about. Evergarden’s central problem remains the fact that Violet herself is a very boring character with a very cliche character arc. Violet’s glacial growth just isn’t that interesting, because there’s so little there – her humanity is basically just contained in her feelings for the major, and that’s not enough personhood for me to really grab onto. On top of that, all of the other characters treat her as if she’s a shy person who just has to try a bit harder, as opposed to a robot who straight-up cannot understand the concept of sentiment beyond fact. That said, this episode’s tale of Luculia and her brother was satisfying for its own sake, full of poignant little moments and given sturdiness through its evocative belltower motif. The side stories are already almost good enough to carry the weight, so I’m hoping that as Violet’s obvious story progresses, her growing humanity will eventually start bearing some of the burden as well.

Laid-Back Camp maintained its usual quality this week, offering a satisfying mix of comfy and comedy in these harsh winter months. Nadeshiko’s rapport with the outdoor club is already very strong, and the show’s mastery of both visual comedy and comedic timing makes sequences like Chiaki getting packaged for shipping far more funny than I’d expect them to be. There’s just something about the way this show paces its multi-step comedy beats, like Nadeshiko running into the school or Rin staring down a dog, that makes them land very impactfully without disrupting the show’s mellow tone. I also liked how this episode’s last act contrasted the more upbeat and goofy fun of group camping with Rin’s serene but equally compelling solo trip. Rin will obviously get swallowed up by the group eventually, but I hope we don’t lose the show’s lovely quiet moments.

Meanwhile, After the Rain held onto its title as the most impressive show of the season, offering one more stunningly beautiful and painfully evocative little vignette in Akira’s lonely life. This time we actually got the reveal of her leg injury, but the true highlight of this episode was how well almost the entire running time used a sudden heavy storm to facilitate its drama. From Akira trudging aimlessly through the rain, to Kondo trying to physically wipe away her image on his windshield, to the quiet post-rain moments in the park, this episode was basically a masterclass in environmental storytelling. The incredible visual execution elevated everything as always, matching both Akira’s heightened and Kondo’s grounded realities, and selling their strange personal dynamic through the push and pull of those two worlds. In a season where an actual Kyoto Animation show is kinda disappointing me, it’s nice to still have a production that embodies everything I love about their work.

March comes in like a lion pitted Rei against the shogi champion Souya for the first time this week, in a match that wasn’t exactly over as soon as it began, but still felt vanishingly brief all the same. March tends to find its climaxes in weird places, so I wasn’t exactly surprised by this episode’s low-key approach, though the Hina arc has left me hungry for a big match to sink into. But this episode was more about bolstering Souya’s mythic stature, establishing the otherworldly tone that always accompanies him, and creating an initial rapport between Rei and Souya, and it succeeded perfectly well in all of those goals. Watching Souya just pointedly stare at things while Rei freaked out about ticket refunds and hotel reservations was an unexpectedly charming experience, and I’d be happy to see Souya become a more consistent part of the narrative. With its last major arc done, March can go basically anywhere from here, so I’m enjoying this Souya vacation while it lasts.

This week’s Darling in the Franxx was the hard sell, or well, at least a sell of some kind. After two episodes defined as much by their unfortunate choices and obvious callbacks as they were by their own strengths, Franxx finally pulled off an episode that largely rose above its influences, and offered a genuinely satisfying finale. For me, perhaps the most important thing about this episode was the texture it offered to Hiro’s various teammates, making me actually care about the other mech pilots. Up until now Ichigo has basically been the only sympathetic character, so that was nice. This episode’s explanation of their names, and other small acts of rebellion, also solidified the show’s overarching conflict between the sterile world these kids inhabit and their own attempts to bring humanity to this place. All that, along with some excellent art design and intriguing worldbuilding, made this the episode Franxx has desperately needed. This show has a phenomenal team behind it, and I’m happy to finally care about what happens.

Finally, A Place Further Than the Universe offered a very unexpected sendoff to its leads, focusing not on its actual protagonists, but on the bitterness of Mari’s friend Megumi. Structurally, this episode was just as impressive as any of the others; I loved how well it used Megumi’s childhood memories to bookend its drama, as well as how naturally her resentment built up to her confession at the end. The shot framing was also spectacular, with my shot here offering just one of the many clever visual contrasts between the two friends. And in terms of storytelling, it was really nice to get this surprisingly harsh glimpse into Megumi’s feelings of worthlessness. Universe’s first episode was elevated by the sharpness of Mari’s self-loathing, and I was happy to see that tone return here, granting a sense of reality and emotional weight to a journey that could easily float off into dreamlike slice of life territory. Certainly not the episode I was expecting, but a terrific goodbye for Mari’s closest friend.

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