Best anime of 2015

As always, I’m excluding shows that already ranked in my 2014 top (ie, no Shirobako or Parasyte).

1) Durarara!! x2
There was a lot to fear with this sequel. A new studio with little experience, the risk of diminishing returns (especially after the Yellow Scarves arc being a bit of a step down)… Could the magic be recaptured ? Well, YES. The first part stumbled a bit out of the gate, having trouble to find its feet despite having lots of good parts. The second part, though ? Pure gold. A bunch of character-focus episodes that found again the greatness of the best of the first season, followed by the various new threads finally clicking together, and a finale that pulls the rug in a spectacular manner. I can hardly wait for the third part (starting in a couple of weeks’ time).

2) Yuri Bear Storm
Ikuhara is a master at what he does. The characters may be less compelling than his previous opus, but instead the story gains in laser focus and clarity of purpose. This series had a point to make, and made it beautifully. Roar, roar.

3) Mushishi – Suzu no Shizuku
This final special episode was the perfect ending to a great show. It encapsulated every strength, while telling a story that leaves you feeling that everything has been told. Many series would dream of such a conclusion.

4) School-Live!
The idea of combining a zombie survival show with a student slice-of-life structure was pure genius ; it produces a result that’s not only a great iteration of both genres, but a strong series on its own. And it’s executed so well, with careful seeding and foreshadowing of its big twists.

5) Death Parade
After Death Billiards, there was a question as to whether you can build a full series out of it. The answer is a resounding YES : while some of the episodes didn’t quite hit home, enough of them did, and the framing story was good enough to carry the show through. Also, one of the best OP sequences of the year.

6) Gatchaman Crowds Insight
Amazingly, this was even better than the first season. It tackled head-on some of the more problematic bits that had been raised, making itself all about the impact of the Internet and social media on democracy. The main antagonist here was group-think, something the heroes couldn’t just punch. (Well, technically they did, but you know what I mean.) That we can have anime tackling directly those themes is something to rejoice about.

7) Little Witch Academia 2 – The Enchanted Parade
The original special was a lot of fun, with perfect execution of its premise. This is even better, building on everything that made it work and expanding the scope just enough. And you’re left wanting for more, of course.

The main problem this show had was that it was too clever for its own good, and hid its carefully-designed conspiracy & time-travel plot under a façade of gratuitous fanservice and deliberate ridiculousness. If you’re used to this writer, you could see the method in the madness relatively quickly (and he does do good absurdist comedy) ; otherwise, you may have missed this gem.

9) Owarimonogatari
This season was a microcosm of how I feel about -Monogatari as a whole. Ougi Formula/Sodachi Riddle/Sodachi Lost was the show at its best, focusing on character exploration and barely having any actual Oddities in play. Shinobu Mail, on the other hand, was a rambling mess more interested in losing itself into its own ass, caring way more than me about its own mythology. But then, I’ve yet to find any Shinobu-focused arc I cared for. Still, it did have its moments, Kanbaru was a delight as always, and the Tale of Sodachi was more than enough to make up for the second half of the season’s weakness.

10) PSYCHO-PASS : the Movie
I never would have guessed the next stage of this franchise would be an exploration of how the Sybil System handles colonialism, but it’s way more interesting than “let’s have it face an even more undetectable and creepy asshole trying to subvert the system”. Expansion does make sense as a natural progression for Sybil, and the way it shakes down in the end feels like a classic S-F tale. Well done, PSYCHO-PASS, you’ve finally shown you’ve got more than one story in you.

HONORABLE MENTIONS : (aka : all my 7s)
Gangsta got knocked off the top 10 by a hair. This Black Lagoon/X-Men hybrid had just enough style and sense of purpose to carry it over its total lack of any resolution (with a sequel all the more unlikely after Manglobe went under). Also, bonus points for featuring a deaf protagonist and thinking it through.
the Japan Anima(tor) Project as a whole. Not all of the shorts were winners, but enough of them were to make it all worthwhile. Special mentions to “Comedy Skit 1989”, “Bureau of Proto Society” and “Robot on the Road”.
– The “better luck next year, maybe” awards : Concrete Revolutio, a conspiracy mash-up of all of the superhero subgenres at once, and Gundam – Iron-Blooded Orphans, which bit the bullet and made explicitly itself all about family. Both have been compelling shows, but they’re barely halfway through their runs and deserve to be re-evaluated when they’re done.
Noragami Aragoto is every bit as good as its first season, which unfortunately still places it in the bottom half of the top 20. Ditto for Knights of Sidonia – War on the 9th Planet.
Blood Blockade Battlefront had a lot of potential, and there were a few episodes that really clicked, but way too many of them fell just a bit short of working, the main plot wasn’t too compelling, and it focused too much on the wrong characters. Good try, though.
Maria the Virgin Witch was a series that had something to say about the horrible treatment of women’s sexuality (both in the Middle Ages and in a wider context). Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite enough to make for a compelling story.
The Rolling Girls, just for the awesome world-building.
Yatterman Night, for having good ideas on how to turn the franchise’s premise around, although it did stumble quite a bit at times.
Shimoneta – A Boring World Where the Concept of Dirty Jokes Doesn’t Exist, because we don’t get enough political satire in anime. That it actually had something to say beyond its initial arc was very welcome, and made up for much of the repetitive running gags that weren’t that funny in the first place.
– According to my notes, the 3rd season of Working!!! was still good, finally resolving some of its long-running threads in clever ways. Good for it.
Rokka – Braves of the Six Flowers belongs to a genre mashup – heroic-fantasy + classic mystery – that greatly appealed to me. It mostly delivered on that front, had fun characters, cool designs, and one of the most hilarious epilogues of the year.
Yamada-kun & the 7 Witches was sometimes a bit rushed ; but it’s still one of the best and funniest romantic comedies in my book.
One-Punch Man was good at what it did, and I love some of the weird superheroes in there. Still growing a bit repetitive by the end, though.
Charlotte had many terrible episodes and twists ; that I still enjoyed most of it speaks volumes for the good bits of it.
The Perfect Insider had a nicely-designed central mystery and fun main characters. Sure, the culprit was completely full of shit, but that’s what villains do.

12 Days #12 : ???

Oh, dear.

When I planned out this series of post, I quickly mapped out 11 things I wanted to talk about in them. I was missing one, but surely something would come up by then ? Maybe either a movie/special/OVA I had on the backburner, or one of the last gasps of the Fall season ?

Haha, nope. I got nothing. And I’m running out of time. I guess I could have recycled my annual “Top 10 anime of the year” post, but that would be cheating. (It’ll go up tomorrow, instead.)

So, I’ll just conclude this series by saying that it’s been a lot of fun, the year had many cool anime in it, and I hope next year brings in at least at much.

Happy holidays !

12 Days #11 : The Queer Queen of the Universe

One of the dubious perks of building an anime database is that I got to read synopsis of series I’d never ever heard about. And that sometimes meant that a sequel’s description would spoil me on its predecessor’s big plot twist.

Case in point : Stellar Buster Mito 2 : A Pair of Queens.
(Spoilers for both seasons after the break, obviously.)

Continue reading 12 Days #11 : The Queer Queen of the Universe

12 Days #10 : Embracing the Non-Ending

This year, we witnessed a studio collapsing and declaring bankruptcy just as they were finishing production on an anime series. Now, the writing had been on the wall for a while ; Manglobe hadn’t been producing the ambitious original shows like Samurai Champloo or Ergo Proxy that had put it on the map for a while, instead focusing on otaku-friendly licenses like The World God Only Knows that paid the bills (with diminishing returns). NoitaminA commissioning Samurai Flamenco out of them, however fascinating creatively a show it was, seems to have been the death knell : it sold like crap and somehow it took two years for the studio to find another project ; by then, it was too little, too late. Especially as there was no guarantee a Black Lagoon clone would have sold well enough even before it got the smell of death.

Of course, Gangsta had much more going for it than that. For one thing, the premise had more to do with X-Men, except without any superheroes to protect the mutants. Instead, it’s the mob families (with their own wars) and freelancers like the protagonists. Now, the plot itself is the series’ weakest point ; it’s not so much a story than a few characters pieces and a parade of murderous wackos wrecking havoc on the setting. Instead, what it excelled at was setting a mood ; there was a real feeling of community, and the city itself being its own character. And then there were the fight scenes. A combination of perfect direction and delicious score more than made up for the obvious budget problems ; it always knew how to make characters look badass and pull crazy physics-be-damned moves.

With all that in mind, it doesn’t really bother me that this series had no ending whatsoever, not only ending on a cliffhanger, but still introducing new elements until the last minute. (And of course, the chances of a sequel are close to nil, given the context.) This is a show that is all about enjoying the moment and giving the middle finger to a future that’s probably to screw you over and leave you for dead ; the denial of closure feels logical rather than frustrating.

12 Days #9 : Uh, So I Built a Personal Anime Database

For a couple of years, I’ve been toiling on a pet project : a personal anime database. The original idea was to re-use the extensive voice-acting data from ANN, and re-organize it so that I could browse it in creative ways. In particular, for each new anime I’d watch, I could get a quick overview of where I’d heard those voice-actors before ; filtered by the series I had actually seen, and in chronological order, unlike the messy ANN presentation.

Then this year, I did a number of major updates that pushed the project into a completely different dimension :

  • I finally got around to getting the hang of HighCharts, which allowed for eye-catching graphs that made the data pop in very interesting ways.
  • I overhauled the tagging system, allowing for better search and a bunch of new tag categories for more insight on what I’ve been watching (studios, adaptation source, is the show taking place in Japan and involving high-schoolers…). Of course, this was months before MAL started redesigning itself so that a lot of such data would be much easier to find.
  • And most importantly, I added the series I hadn’t watched to the 500+ I had, quadrupling the database’s size in the process. This included a back-tagging ordeal that took me months and is only barely close to being over (with 100ish shows from the 70s left).

The net result, though, is that I now have a very searchable and malleable source of data to learn more about the history of anime, its fads and its evolution. Sure, there are some blind spots (I excluded OVAs, movies, shorts, and a good number of kids’ shows), but you can see the 00s ballooning up until the 2008 crisis, and the industry recovering since, as well as the rise of the light-novel adaptation (which is slightly overstated ; they only represent less than a fourth of all full-length new anime series started over the last few years, as opposed to the 40+% still firmly held by manga adaptations).

Another welcomed side-effect of adding 1500+ anime series to this database has been that I had to look up all of them so that I could tag them properly… and thus I discovered many series I’d never heard of before, but now really want to see. The moment I realized that (and modified the engine so I could keep a handy list of them) was one of the most heart-warming of the year.

Sure, it isn’t a fool-proof process ; some of the shows thus selected have been stinkers (ugh, Zombie-Loan) or barely above average (Kanamemo, Manabi Straight…). But if the net result is that I can experience such out-of-left-field surprises as Moonlight Mile and a show I’ll be discussing in a couple of days, it’s worth it.

12 Days #8 : Explode That Pool

2015 has been a good year for political anime. Not only has there been a good number of them, but there was also a lot of variation : court politics in Snow-White with the Red Hair, a civil war in Legend of Arslan (admittedly not a very good show), sexual politics in Maria the Virgin Witch, arcane sci-fi political coups and questionable leadership in the new Knights of Sidonia, the dog and pony show of Classroom Crisis, even the petty feuds inherent to a large school club in Sound! Euphonium… Heck, I may thoroughly disagree with the wrong-headed and ham-handed political message of Ranpo Kitan – Game of Laplace, but there’s no denying it’s the core of the show.

And on top of that, we got two series that were ALL about politics : Gatchaman CROWDS Insight, and Shimoneta – A Boring World Where the Concept of Dirty Jokes Doesn’t Exist.

Despite having more (spectacular) action sequences than its predecessor, Gatchaman CROWDS Insight isn’t really about the superheroics. It doesn’t even have a real villain ; the true antagonist are people as a dumb whole. Its central conflict can’t be resolved by the heroes just punching stuff… well, that’s actually how they do it eventually, but they had to be very creative about who they punch, and how they frame it to the public. Because really, that show is all about the vagaries of democracy, public opinion and the dangers of group-think in this age of the Internet and social media.

On the other hand, SHIMONETA went for a territory fraught with pitfalls : political satire. Being framed a sex comedy put it even more at risk. And sometimes it indeed didn’t quite land ; Anna quickly devolved from a brilliant statement about sheltered conservative upbringing to an unfunny and repetitive running gag about joke rape. But at its best, this is a show eager to make a point about the evils of “think of the children” prudishness, its hypocrisy and its pointlessness.

And it’s also very funny. The opening sequence in particular is a masterpiece of getting the viewer engaged and laugh with the show : from the protagonists framing themselves as sentai villains, to the enthusiastic narration detailing how the authorities destroyed all the symbols of lewdness, including this one innocuous-looking swimming pool. Because it’s not any random pool ; it’s That Pool. The one used in so many erotic photoshoots (presumably out of convenient location and versatility) that it’s become a running joke in the field. So of course the SHIMONETA villains establish themselves right from the beginning by blowing That Pool up. They could have just closed it down or have the building demolished in more conventional ways, but they had to make a statement : That Pool needed some exploding. And so it got it.

It’s a three-second shot in a very busy opening sequence, but it’s among the very reasons I was on board with this show from the very beginning. It was proof that this show knew what it was doing, and had fun while doing it.

(And of course, when there’s a whole episode about home-made fleshlights, the ending sequence reprising the tutorial instructions is shot in live-action in That Pool. No other location would be as funny.)

12 Days #7 : Looking Back at the Year 2000

Wow, a project I actually finished this year, in a mostly timely fashion !

Up until now, I hadn’t watched much of the anime that came out in the Year 2000, especially compared to the years surrounding it. Admittedly, this is partly because the number of shows produced was abnormally low then, but still. Just Boogiepop Phantom & Tsukikage Ran ? When heavyweights like Love Hina were in there ? This is a year that deserved being checked out (and the low volume made it slightly easier).

So, last Winter, every day I tried out an anime series that came out in 2000. Okay, with a two-month hiatus and a few other delays in there, but I got it done. I’ve finally archived my thoughts on this blog, by the way. And sure, there was a lot I didn’t care for or that was just crap, but I did find a lot to like in there. For better or for worse, this provided a big chunk of the series I decided to marathon through this year : Miami Guns, Boys Be, Niea_7, Strange Dawn, Love Hina, Vandread, Sakura Wars, Ghost Stories, Sci-Fi Harry right now… There’s a couple still on my radar (Android Kikaider, Saiyuki, maybe Argento Soma), but they can wait.

It’s not a single moment, but this project was a lot of fun throughout ; from the planning stages, the watching, the writing up, the following up on the shows that had caught up my eye… If there’s one thing I will remember 2015 in anime for from my point of view, it’s most probably this.

And because I’m a glutton for punishment, I’m probably going to have another go at it. The year 2005 feels very promising (with both a number of noteworthy shows, and a very low ratio of me having actually watched anything from then), I merely need to find some time to put aside to do it…

12 Days #6 : When Utawarerumono Lost Me

Oh, dear, Utawarerumono. Whatever happened to you ?

I watched the 2006 series half a year ago. It was far from perfect, but its bizarre blend of harem hijinks and bloody war stories (with intense mood whiplash from an episode to the next) ended up quite charming. It had a focus on nation-building (betraying its tactical-RPG origins) that is rarely explored in anime and I found fascinating. It also had a very weird ending that put the world’s origins into quite uncomfortable a place, but that’s not an unredeemable taint. And for all its faults, it was never a boring show.

Still, it was quite a surprise when a sequel was announced for this Fall, tying in with a sequel to the original game. And it started decently enough, featuring a strong and multidimensional main couple, while promising a new take on the complex politics and world-building that had drawn me in. Big mysteries and conspiracies were hinted at around the edge of the slice-of-life stories, and the supporting cast from the first series made guest appearances to comfort the illusion that this was all leading to something.

Fast forward to episode #10. The main couple’s romance is not only getting stale, but actually regressing ; both of them have been getting more of a caricature by each week. And they’re barely in this episode anyway. Instead, all the focus is on a bunch of freeloading girls belabouring the running gag of fantasy yaoi bookstores (which wasn’t that funny the first time around, and has gotten downright painful by now). I have no clue what those girls’ deal is ; admittedly, I fell asleep during the episode introducing most of them, but it’s alarming that right now there’s no clue of them having any life besides their empty cookie-cutter banter. (The one exception being the naive young princess, who does have a visible reason to exist despite her one-dimensional personality.)

Who are these people ? Why are they here ? Why hasn’t anybody kicked them out, as they steal valuable screentime and audience goodwill from anything else that would make the show watch-worthy ? Has the show so little content planned out that it needed to be padded out with such dire nonsense ?

And thus my patience ran out. Goodbye, Utawarerumono ; I’ll remember you for the best moments of the first series, and pretend the second doesn’t exist.

12 Days #5 : I won’t be finishing my Gundam marathon this year

Back in February 2013, I made a foolish bet with myself : within a year, I’d watch ALL OF GUNDAM. Oh, and I’d write some commentary of it along the way. At an average of two episodes a day, it’d easily work out, right ? Ahahahah, nope.

It started quite well, actually. Before 2013 was over, I had watched the original series, its compilation movies, Zeta Gundam, Gundam ZZ, Char’s Counterattack, War in the Pocket, Stardust Memory, Gundam F91, Gundam Victory, G Gundam, the 08th MS Team, Gundam Wing (and the Endless Waltz OVA), Gundam X∀ Gundam, Gundam SEED, and some of MS IGLOO. SEED Destiny was done a couple of months later. And then, I got burnt out, and let the whole project sleep for a year.

(For the record, not because of Destiny ; I actually enjoyed that show, and certainly more than SEED itself. It’s 00 I found hard to get into.)

Earlier this year, I went back at it. I finally finished Gundam 00, Gundam AGE, the remainder of MS IGLOO, and the tons of shorts I had forgotten about along the way. Taking into account that post-2013 series were off the table (as I watched them as they ran), the only thing left was Gundam Unicorn. Which I watched half off before trailing out again.

This is the awkward moment where I realize there’s no way I’m finishing this project in 2015, because of the four measly one-hour episodes left sitting on my plate for several months. And of course, there’s all the work of republishing it on this blog (with hundreds of articles and images). Nope, that won’t be until 2016. Oops.

Oh, well. Shit happens. Better luck next year.

12 Days #4 : Vehicular Manslaughter

Durarara!! is one of my favourite anime ever. The intricate plotting that mixes the adventures of an immense ensemble cast into a tapestry of weird happenings and chaotic feuds between numerous factions and colourful wildcards is immensely rewarding one you get past the non-linear storytelling and the weird initial focus on a trio of highschoolers who don’t seem to have much involvement with anything else.

So of course I welcomed the surprise announcement of Durarara!!x2, more than four years later, with some trepidation. Especially as it would be animated by a brand new studio who could easily get in over its head. (Remember Attack on Titan and its embarrassing still frames once Wit got crushed by delays ? Yup, happened here too.) But the more pressing question was, could it recapture the magic of the first season ?

Its first part in Winter was a bit underwhelming. Lots of good bits, but a focus on youth gang wars that didn’t really come together as a cohesive whole and reminded me of the weakest parts of the Yellow Scarves arc. The Summer part got off to a much better start, with a series of one-episode portraits that did a lot to flesh out some of the numerous new characters and explain how they fit into the grander scheme.

But the true moment that made me fall in love with the show again happened at the end. New big villain Yodogiri had been a background presence ever for a while, establishing his credentials by knifing Izaya out of nowhere as a cliffhanger. The long-coming retaliation was a joy to behold ; not only because it showed Izaya being as petty as ever as he got him run over… but also for the true nature of Yodogiri, which makes perfect sense from the few contradictory glimpses we’d had of him so far, and makes him fit right in with the bizarre bozo populating the show’s Ikebukuro.

Also, the new series deserves an award for finally making Mikado compelling to watch.