This is a little project of mine that came about, partly due to some ignorance I witnessed last summer. I was at a panel at a science fiction convention about the state of the anime industry, and one person in the audience said that part of the problem was that there hadn't been a good series to come out in a long, long time. I'm sure you avid readers can see why I took issue with this. While there has been a distinct lack of what I would call "Triple-A" titles (I'm talking Bleach, Fullmetal Alchemist, that sort of thing), every season I come away with at least a couple of things to watch, and more often than not it's quite a few. There's been some really spectacular stuff to come out, and the unfortunate thing is that much of it doesn't have the breakout appeal it needs to achieve huge amounts of success outside critical circles such as mine.
To keep with the spirit of Oscar season (well, a bit belatedly anyway), I've decided to get into the action as well and highlight some of my favorite series that came out last year. Some of the categories are serious, some are humorous, and while many shine the spotlight on some really great shows, I'll also be blowing some raspberries in the direction of the real stinkers. I'll be including a few things that started in late 2007 and spilled over into this year. A note about the serious categories: I've only included things that I've watched enough to feel comfortable passing "final" judgment on. Admittedly, some of the gag/raspberry categories are things that I've only seen one episode of.
Action isn't really my favorite category, since I'm often drawn to series focused more on drama and character development. However, I was impressed by Casshern SINS not only due to its excellent action, animated by the very talented Madhouse Studios, but by how character development and story progression have also been given an important place in the series. Before the first episode of this series, I never would have thought that destroying robots could seem so utterly brutal, and yet watching Casshern grasp at cords and wires as if they were human entrails, the sheer grotesqueness of the situation becomes apparent. Also impressive is the fact that many of the characters featured in the series, most notably Lyuze, Dio, and Leda, all have very distinct fighting styles which can be very exhilarating to watch.
The series continues to impress into its second half and is definitely high on my list of recommendations in this genre.
The Shounen Action genre draws a lot of ire from many critics, possibly because many shows of this genre seem to be cookie-cutter copies of each-other, and have the tendency to become long, drawn-out bloated filler farms, losing sight of their story along the way. Soul Eater seems to avoid many of the tropes that drag many similar series downward. While I often find some of the humorous elements of the series distracting and annoying, and there are moments when I'm reminded rather bluntly that the series is, in fact, aimed at an audience much younger and with much simpler expectations than I am, the good most definitely outweighs the bad.
The action sequences are all impressively done and feature creative weaponry and fighting styles from the various star players, and, while most of the fights are exciting but lacking in impact, there are certain points where the quality of the storytelling and animation lend them a certain creepiness (the first fight with Crona comes to mind, as well as the appearance of the Kishin Asura). I continue to be impressed with the show, and I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of it when Funimation releases it on DVD beginning later this year.
Nodame Cantabile: Paris Chapter
It's sometimes difficult to categorize certain series, since many fall into multiple genre categories. I put Nodame here not because its romantic or dramatic elements were lacking in any way, but because, at its heart, it's the comedic elements of the series that help to endear the characters to the audience and make the serious and romantic moments all the more poignant.
In this sequel to the charming 2007 romantic comedy, Nodame and Chiaki begin their study/work in France. Nodame finds her own way to learn the French language, and begins to grow in her music as Chiaki becomes more busy with conducting. One of the funniest moments of the series occurs when Nodame and Chiaki have a knock-down, drag-out street battle over their relationship. Handled with any less finesse, this hilarious situation might feel more creepy and abusive, but instead it stands as one of the comedic highlights of an already funny series.
Rather than just go for gags, though, the humor in Nodame lends a certain reality to the characters. Nodame is incredibly talented, but also a complete weirdo, and its her imperfections that make you want to be part of her world, dysfunction and all.
Astro Fighter Sunred
Of course, gag comedy has its place too, and Sunred has it down to an art form. Taking on the Japanese institution of Sentai/Tokusatsu series and messing with the formula a bit to make the "bad guys" sympathetic and the "hero" into a jerk creates a situation ripe for comedy. Mr. Vamp, the leader of the evil Florsheim organization, is polite to a fault, helping Sunred and his girlfriend Kayoko move to their new apartment and providing a hand-made bento for his young hostage's dinner. At his rate, taking over the world might be a very far-off possibility. Sunred, on the other hand, is tired of being the hero and ignores the showmanship expected from others of his ilk in favor of getting the fight over with and leaving. With pacing akin to Cromartie High School, this show tickles the funny bones of those of us who enjoy off-beat, quirky comedy.
While Kannagi generally failed to deliver on its promise of being a more low-key, well-written and heartwarming magical girlfriend show, where it actually excelled was in its comedic timing. As a show which seemed to trade genuine character development and story progression for humorous filler type episodes, at least the humor was spot-on. From a misunderstanding about a character's sexual orientation, to a bizarre karaoke outing, to an absolutely uproarious use of the phrase "It's a Sony," Kannagi managed to remain entertaining even though it could have been much better overall.
Tackling the touchy subject of Japanese traditionalism and starring a character who, in less skilled hands, could have become nothing more than lolicon fodder, Kurenai stands on its own as one of the best modern anime dramas. Though it has its action-packed moments and some extremely funny scenes, at its core the series is all about developing its characters, and then using them to talk about something bigger than just the story of a sheltered girl with a messed-up family.
Shinkurou, the boy who lost his family and grew up under the watchful eye of Juuzawa Benika, a sort of bodyguard for hire, meets Murasaki Kuhouin, a little girl from a very secretive family when he's tasked with guarding her. They develop a friendship based on their shared experiences.
Stepping back, though, I find that Shinkurou and the Kuhouin family seem to represent two opposing social forces present in modern-day Japan; Shinkurou is the modern ideal of individual choice, whereas the Kuhouins are the other extreme of blind adherence to tradition, with Murasaki in the middle facing the choice of what path to take. In a country that stands at the forefront of modern technology, art and fashion while still expecting women to leave the workforce after marrying or becoming mothers, this message seems especially important. Kurenai manages to present these ideas while still conveying an entertaining narrative, which stands as a definite accomplishment.
Michiko to Hatchin
This first appeared to be more of an action series, with some flashy fights and chase scenes, but as I've slowly made my way through this series, I've been drawn much more to the dramatic little character moments the series seems to be so good at. While the plot progression has been a bit disjointed at best thus far (I'm up to around episode 8), each episode seems to reveal a bit more about the characters, their environment, and the various people populating the Latin-American setting. How Michiko and Hatchin's relationship resolves itself will be interesting to see.
The Daughter of Twenty Faces
One of the overlooked gems from earlier in the year, this series combines some action, mystery, and classic aesthetics into a series with more depth than is initially apparent. The story of an orphaned girl who lives out the dream of a lifetime - being taken in by her hero, the gentleman thief Twenty Faces - transforms from a pleasant coming-of-age tale into a more dramatic mystery when Twenty-Faces' ambiguous nature becomes even more so. The story has a darker tone that one would expect - there's quite a bit of character death - and Chiko, despite being quite young, is a compelling main character with surprising depth.
The strange and beautiful series from creator Masaaki Yuasa, Kaiba reminds us why we all love anime in the first place. The relatively simple tale of a man on the quest to find out who he is and to find the woman he loves is set in a fantastic world controlled by the buying, selling, and stealing of human memories. The series addresses a range of ideas, including the relationship between the body and mind in defining the self, the ethics of being able to trade bad memories for good (and vice-versa), and the abuses of memory alteration.
All aspects of the series are different from almost every series in recent memory, including the unusual character designs and the incredibly atmospheric music. These items are enough to make the viewer stop and take notice, while the quality of the storytelling is more than enough to keep them with the show until the epic ending.
A surprising reboot of the popular Japanese children's series, this version of Kitaro is much darker and has oodles of visual style. Not to mention that Kitaro himself is definitely a more morally ambiguous character than his kiddie-show counterpart. The stories range from humorous, when Kitaro encounters vampires from two different parts of the world, to utterly sad, when Kitaro meets Neko-Musume, but all have an undercurrent of Japanese ghost-story mythology that lends the series a classic feel.
Mouryou no Hako
The story of two schoolgirls with a very odd relationship and an encounter with a head in a box sets this supernatural mystery story in motion. Though the murder mystery at the center of the action seems fairly down to earth, there's always the question of whether there are ghastly forces at work behind the scenes. When even an entire episode comprised mostly of dialog about mythological beasts is compelling, you know you have a keeper on your hands. Hopefully the last few episodes will be fansubbed soon.
The unsettling series from Shirow Masamune and Production I.G., it deals with a range of subjects from astral projection to various psychological disorders and diagnostic techniques. At the center of it all are three boys, connected by their ability to disengage their spirits from their bodies and also by their families and events from the past. As elements from the Unseen World begin to meld with the normal world, the nature of reality comes into question. Despite a weak ending, the series is a solid, creepy mystery that distinguishes itself from your normal, everyday anime entertainment.
There really is no competition here. One Outs excels in ways that most sports anime don't; it removes the usual "ganbarimasu" attitude and adolescent entertainment level and replaces it with an antihero who wins games through psychological manipulation and subterfuge.
The Lycaons are an underdog team with a manager who worries more about making a profit than winning games. One of the star players goes to training and finds a man named Tokuchi Toua who uses the sport of baseball to gamble. Tokuchi is a gifted pitcher, and when he finally loses a bet he's forced onto the Lycaons team with an unusual contract; He makes money for every out that he pitches, and loses money for every run scored.
Tokuchi's confidence level is rivaled only by that of the protagonist of Akagi, and rightly so - this series is produced by many of the same people who worked on that series, and Tokuchi is voiced by Akagi's VA. His cleverness and ability to manipulate those around him is both humorous and exciting, and even anime fans who don't have a clue about baseball are likely to enjoy this series.
*Next time we'll continue with some more serious categories when we award visuals, music, and other technical aspects of anime.