With its often avant-garde visual style and everyday humor, Shaft Animation Studio may seem like a newer company, especially since much of its best-known work – including the long-running monogamy franchise and the magical girls subversive series Puella Magi Madoka Magica — only aired in 2009 and 2011. Nevertheless, the studio itself was founded in 1975, although it only started producing its own anime in the early 90s.
Now mainly influenced by writer and director Shinbo Akiyuki, Shaft has made a name for himself thanks to his highly distinctive artwork and sometimes equally unique comedic chops. However, the studio has much more in its repertoire than that of Madoka Magica and monogamyincluding cozy life titles, high school parodies, eccentric rom-coms and heartfelt coming-of-age dramas.
Hidamari sketch (2007)
Aspiring artist Yuno has come one step closer to realizing her dream of being admitted to Yamabuki Art High School, although this means she will have to move from home to the Hidamari Apartments dormitory complex opposite the school. Fortunately, Yuno discovers that she will be far from lonely, as she soon becomes connected with three other female students living in the apartments: her energetic classmate Miyako, the more mature Hiro and the somewhat reserved Sae. Together they strive to realize their respective goals while supporting each other as budding artists.
Comedy real-life anime doesn’t get much healthier than Hidamari sketch (literal Sunny Spot Sketch). Initially a 12-episode title that aired in 2007, the series, based on a yonkoma manga of the same name, eventually got three more seasons and numerous specials. Deliberately slow and relaxing, Hidamari sketch is designed to be lighthearted, while still leaving viewers with the warm fuzzies, which it achieves through its easygoing story style and charming character work. While the show isn’t reinventing the slice-of-life genre, it’s a well-executed addition and will likely appeal to those looking for material that’s soft and soothing.
Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei (2007-09)
Itoshiki Nozomu is an extremely pessimistic high school teacher whose life is saved by his polar opposite; a ruthlessly optimistic student named Fuura Kafuka. Deterred by her effusive positivity, Nozomu flees the scene to begin his homeroom class, but realizes that Kafuka is one of his students. Worse, every student in his class turns out to have an eccentric personality trait or outlandish passion, challenging Nozomu’s cynical mindset and forcing him to think in startling new ways.
Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei (Goodbye Mr. Despair) will not appeal to everyone. Much of the material is based on black comedy and biting satire, and the series often jokes about sometimes taboo topics such as death and suicide. However, as long as viewers don’t take the show too seriously, they can count on plenty of irreverent and self-referential sketches about Japanese culture and lifestyle, including politics, media, and otaku-dom. With three seasons plus three OVAs to his name, Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei can be a fat watch at times, but also an incredibly entertaining one for those who happen to have a particularly dark or sarcastic sense of humor.
Arakawa under the bridge (2010)
A self-made man in every way, Ichinomiya Kou lives in Arakawa, Tokyo, and has one specific mantra: In whatever he achieves, he must never owe anyone anything. One fateful day, Kou falls into the Arakawa River after being attacked by a gang of bullies. He is saved from drowning by a girl named Nino, and Kou soon realizes that he owes her his life. Desperate to owe her nothing, Kou asks how to repay her, but is told to love her. Thus begins Kou’s new life of life under a bridge – a place full of bizarre and colorful characters from all walks of life, including a self-proclaimed kappa, a war veteran who dresses like a nun and a singer who believes he is a superstar. .
Anime fans may struggle to name a mainstream comedy/romance that is more unusual and surreal than Arakawa under the bridge, which ran for two seasons of 13 episodes, both airing in 2010. With its ridiculous plot and seemingly random characters, viewers might assume the show has very little to say and way too much time to say it. Whether that’s really the case or not depends on one’s point of view, but either way, this is a series that is unashamedly odd and never shy of making fun of Japanese societal norms.
March Comes In Like a Lion (2016-18)
In Shinkawa, Tokyo, teenage Kiriyama Rei lives alone, isolated from most people and with no relatives to support him, as his parents and younger sister all died in an accident during his childhood. However, as a professional shogi player, Rei has both the talent and drive to rise through the ranks and earn a living by winning matches. Among his few acquaintances are the three Kawamoto sisters – Akari, Hinata and Momo – who all care deeply about Rei and each other and come to think of him as family.
Possibly Shinbou Akiyuki’s best work to date, March comes in like a lion (3-gatsu no lion) is a deceptively simple story with a lot of heart. A coming-of-age title with a strong focus on psychological drama and mental health, the two-season anime is often visually stunning and emotionally heartbreaking, especially when the story revolves around the themes of grief, loneliness, depression, and found family. Regardless of whether or not viewers are familiar with or even interested in shogi, March comes in like a lion‘s artistic vision, combined with his rock-solid emotional realism, makes it a series not to be missed.