Wow, what a year. Anime did some incredible things in 2017, from high-speed titan slaying to students with some serious gambling problems. Regardless of your favorite genre, there’s bound to be something you liked. As someone who usually prefers shonen (a genre marketed toward younger men) anime, 2017 was the year for me to broaden my horizons a bit. Rather than watching six half-hour slug-fests every week, I started watching more and more school life anime. This genre incorporates a level of character development and interconnectedness that most action anime never really approach. On top of that, the relationships between characters in school life anime are generally a lot deeper and feel more rewarding to watch.

Along with a few honorable mentions, here are my top five school life anime. These are all anime that take place (surprisingly) around and in schools. More than that though, plot in school life anime revolve around school activities, clubs, and the like. The order of the top five is loose; I’m a fan of all of them and ranking them is pretty difficult considering how great they all are.

Honorable Mention: LOVE TYRANT

Seiji Aino and Guri
Guri may be immortal, but even cupids can take a snack break | Image: Crunchyroll

While not quite as school-focused as a lot of the other shows on this list, LOVE TYRANT does occur mostly around school trips and events. It’s a school life anime that I would probably hate if it weren’t such a hilarious mash-up of other concepts. In this anime, high school student Seiji Aino is sitting at home when a strange girl named Guri knocks on his door, proclaiming that if he doesn’t kiss someone within twenty-four hours, she’ll die. On top of that, Seiji will never find love, leaving him, in her terms, “a helpless virgin forever.” Guri turns out to be a cupid and uses a “kiss note” (sound familiar?), but this particular black notebook doesn’t kill people. If two names are written together in the book, those two people will inexplicably fall in love.

Through a variety of shenanigans and romances, Seiji, Guri, and some other students get extraordinarily close. LOVE TYRANT manages to make steady references to a variety of anime while establishing its own basic plot. While the lack of complexity keeps it from the top five, the constant comedy gets it an honorable mention.

Honorable Mention: MY HERO ACADEMIA

You’re probably asking yourself, does it count? Is it actually a school life anime? Does a futuristic, huge facility created for the sole purpose of training teenagers to wield unique and often destructive powers even count as a school? Probably not, but sue me.

MY HERO ACADEMIA Season 2 promotional poster
With powerful displays of Quirks and all new challenges, school is back in session | Image: Funimation

MY HERO ACADEMIA had one of the most incredible second seasons of an anime I’ve ever seen. It managed to combine extraordinary character development, beautiful art, and heat-gripping action scenes with a storyline that left fans begging for more. It somehow did all of this through a simple sports festival too. Unlike a lot of other action-oriented shows, MY HERO ACADEMIA imagines a world where superpowers are commonplace. Nearly 80% of the population is born with superpowers, or ‘quirks’, forcing the government to go as far as regulating their use. Superheroes are trained and licensed, so the best of Japan’s saviors are cool and professional.

MY HERO ACADEMIA and the Power Struggle

Main character Izuku Midoriya was born with no quirk, but eventually finds a way to get a power of his own. He trains for months to enroll in U.A. High School and starts learning how to become an incredible hero. MY HERO ACADEMIA spends a lot of time creating detailed backstories for every character. Students at U.A. don’t always have perfect lives. Rather than just giving every character a cookie cutter school life anime childhood, MY HERO ACADEMIA makes backstories deep and often tragic. This series brought a significant degree of character development into an action show, and I found myself caring as much about personal struggles as fights.

5. CLASSROOM OF THE ELITE

Moral quandaries don’t usually have a huge role in anime, but CLASSROOM OF THE ELITE has more of them than you can count. Taking place in the near future, CLASSROOM OF THE ELITE revolves around the Tokyo Metropolitan Advanced Nurturing School. This massive school was created by the Japanese government to educate the next generation of Japanese leaders. It’s a ridiculously large facility, with pools, malls, and a private island. Students lucky enough to earn admission are divided into four classes (A through D) based on merit. Those classes receive points based on their academic performance and general aptitude, and higher classes receive significantly more resources than the lower. The series follows Kiyotaka Ayanokoji, a scarily smart student who somehow ended up in the lowest class.

Kiyotaka Ayanokōji and Suzune Horikita
Some underdogs might dress like everyone else, but their gazes are infinitely more intense | Image: Funimation

This series earned a spot in the top five mostly because of the structure of the school and the challenges it brings. The point system is a reflection of modern society. Points can be spent on literally anything, including study guides and answers to tests. This privileges upper classes and makes it nearly impossible for lower students to rise through the ranks. Because of that, students in Class D have to make use of complex schemes and occasionally undercut their peers in order to avoid flunking out. The premise of outcasts having to fight through structural inequality is a rather unique one for school life anime, giving CLASSROOM OF THE ELITE a top 5 spot. I found it incredible to see how far students would go for self-preservation, and how conniving their victims had to become in response.

4. WELCOME TO THE BALLROOM

Kaname Sengoku, Hyoudo Kiyoharu, Hanaoka Shizuku, and Fujita Tatara
Dance is a passion! | Image: Amazon Anime Strike

This anime takes the typical aspects of a shonen sports anime and flips them on their head. Rather than having a random student arrive and instantly dominate in a given sport, WELCOME TO THE BALLROOM brings learning into the anime. Main character Tatara Fujita is pretty small and thin on top of being unfamiliar with ballroom dance. While he starts off unfamiliar with the sport, his relationships with his peers drive him to learn more and more. His passion to become better is shared by his teammates, and they compete in multiple tournaments to move up through the ranks.

What I identify most with in this series is the struggle with direction and inferiority. Tatara, like a lot of younger watchers, is looking for a path in life. He wants something to be passionate about and avoid burdening his father, so much so that he hides his new hobby and works long hours to afford time in the studio. Other characters struggle and often compare themselves to their peers. For Tatara, his peers, and a lot of others, their development is through finding strength in themselves and improving in an activity they enjoy. This show isn’t just about competition, making it a great sports series and an excellent school life anime.

Anime Watchlist: WELCOME TO THE BALLROOM

3. GAMERS!

GAMERS promotional poster
Games, romance, and more! Who though school could get so complicated? | Image: Crunchyroll

While everyone in this school anime loves video games, the real story lies within this show’s love triangles. Every character, despite having different game preferences, is at least loosely affiliated with the Gaming Club. Some prefer shooters, some action, and some strategy. But their gaming interests are nothing compared to the various romances among them. One of the main characters, Keita Amano, is simultaneously in love with a girl he knows through gaming, subconsciously loves yet another girl in his class, and has an actual girlfriend. These numerous connections aren’t limited to just Keita. Every main character has ties through gaming to at least two other characters, but none of them are aware of what’s real and what’s assumed. This creates some hilarious misunderstandings as fans watch to see who ends up as a couple.

Every gamer in this anime comes together to find friends through something they’re normally teased about. Despite all of the romantic mix ups, all five main characters are great friends and learn from one another. As a fairly awkward person myself, I can relate a lot to making wrong assumptions or not understanding people’s feelings. One person’s exuberance in GAMERS! might make a shy character open up while another’s thoughtfulness makes someone else more compassionate. Students in this series are from different circles, have different popularity, and lifestyles. Finding common ground and forming real friendships despite those are the core of this show. This is a simple concept, but GAMERS! does it really well. All in all, it’s a school life anime that makes you root for your favorite characters and get seriously invested in every romance.

2. TSUKIGAKIREI

Azumi Kotaro and Mizuno Akane
The most wholesome relationships start simple | Image: Crunchyroll

This is one of the most relatable series I’ve ever watched. Imagine that awkwardness you felt the first time you asked someone out, the time of trying to figure out if you have feelings for someone, and then acting on those feelings. That entire process can be super difficult, and it’s the whole backdrop of TSUKIGAKIREI. Instead of trying to go far beyond the simplicity of school life, TSUKIGAKIREI emphasizes basic things like facial expressions and reactions. Unlike a lot of other school life characters, fans get to see characters’ parents too! Everything revolves around the show’s basic goal of contextualizing characters’ lives and their romances.

The romance is often slow, but steady. With a budding relationship comes doubt, questioning, and plenty of internal soul-searching. Main characters Azumi Kotarou and Mizuno Akane are very much their own people, and watching them is incredibly satisfying. While the plot isn’t as deep as some other shows, TSUKIGAKIREI achieves near perfect exposition of love and the student experience. Occasional lack of dialogue, sound, music, or background noise forces watchers to not just view this school life anime, but experience it. I see my middle school self in these characters, and getting so much detail about their lives makes that experience even better.

1. FOOD WARS! THE THIRD PLATE

I literally have to make dinner before I watch this show. I’m genuinely hungry just writing about it, and I promise you will be too.

FOOD WARS season 3 promotional poster
These students take culinary school to the next level | Image: Crunchyroll

FOOD WARS follows 15-year old Soma Yukihira, a student with a dream of becoming a master chef like his father. To become one of the best chefs though, he needs to graduate from Totsuki Academy, where fewer than a tenth of students graduate. This makes culinary school into as much a competitive process as it is a pedagogical one. FOOD WARS is an incredible story of a boy who has to pull off culinary miracles to stay afloat and do well enough to graduate.

Seasons one and two were incredible and did quite well with character development. Season three improves from that already high bar and creates even better competition than most sports anime.  One particular aspect of this season that made it compelling were the major changes to the school’s structure that students had to contend with. New leadership takes over Totsuki Academy, threatening the literal existence of every school organization. People are even removed from club spaces and forced to challenge members of the Elite Ten to try and get the spaces back. Now, students need to save the structure of the school rather than just do well in it. This heightens the plot to a level I never would’ve predicted.

This is an anime that is able to thoroughly immerse viewers in a world of culinary masterpieces. That and the character growth made it a clear top pick for school life anime. As a fellow student, I can relate to having to struggle and learn before even beginning to find school success.  This season brought a level of seriousness and plenty of intense interactions with the Elite Ten. If you have yet to check out any of the three seasons, you need to do so. Immediately. But maybe grab a snack first; you’ll need it.

Who Needs the New Year?

While 2018 will have some great anime, there are enough from this year to keep fans occupied for months. If you haven’t checked out most on the least, you’re missing out. This year’s school life anime alone brought a lot to the table, and that’s just one genre. I’ll probably rewatch several over the holidays and pick up some new anime too.

Have any favorites that didn’t make the list? Share your top school life anime with us in the comments!

Featured image screenshotted via Crunchyroll.

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