Welcome to the first annual “Best of”s from all your friends here at We Have Always Lived in the Kraken! This year and every year we’ll be making ridiculous top lists, handing out awards we just made up, and in general celebrating the weird, wild year we all just experienced. In today’s installment, we’re talking
trash I mean, anime. (For any terms you might find confusing, head to our How to Speak Otaku primer.)
For me personally, this was a year that began with Tsukimonogatari, ended with Owarimonogatari, and had a surprising amount of forgettable magical high school shows in between. And so much of what I found compelling this year was a sequel that I’m listing them separately.
Special mention: Fate Unlimited Bladeworks (second half): I am an admitted Nasuverse fanboy (warning, TV Tropes link – Ed). I can’t say that FUB is a good show, but it’s an adaptation of the second of three routes of the Fate/Stay Night visual novel. And I love Fate. Also, the fans called this show “Unlimited Budget Works” for good reason: it’s really, really pretty. However, I suspect the writers of this “anime” are also fans of the visual novel–possibly too much so. The interminable monologues between two major characters arguing about their life philosophies (which is the entire point of the story) aren’t so much adapted as they are merely animated. The lack of proper affordances being made to the constraints of the anime medium is a concern that I wish was limited to Nasuverse shows.
Special mention: Tokyo Ghoul √A: I cannot say Tokyo Ghoul‘s second season is good, as it loses control of its narrative, focusing on the subplots of too many characters that it fails to resolve, and diverges very heavily from the source material in a way that only makes sense in the context of the ending. The entire season relies on some specific explanations of ghoul physiology/myths which are not adequately explained in the Funimation subtitles I watched (I only understood large plot elements after reading the manga in between my first and second viewing of the show). However, the last episode is one of the most self-confident of the entire show, and while not as breathtaking as the finale of season one, it does bring the entire season (and show) to a strong thematic conclusion. Given how unwieldy and difficult to understand the previous six episodes had been, I am stunned by the sheer thematic bravado of the director saying, “This is what this show is about; I don’t care how the final arc of the manga did this.” If the directors/writers had been willing to take similar license with the second half of √A, and restructured the rest of their show to support this ending (and if they had the animation budget to make the fights not look terrible), √A would have been a strong contender for my favorite show of the year.
Seraph of the End, second season: Well animated and surprisingly well directed, this love story about cute, loli vampire boys (that is pretending to be an action show) just works, like an appliance. (When you’re used to appliances that don’t, this really starts to mean something.) The characters are charming and the fight scenes are effective. Moreover, this year Seraph managed to embrace its shonen tropes–inner visions to obtain greater power, nakama vs self interest, skill vs practice–to end up with an effective show without tripping or making any unrecoverable mistakes.
Owarimonogatari and Tsukimonogatari: My year began with Tsukimonogatari, and it ended with Owarimonogatari. The Monogatari series is without a doubt my favorite anime series. After the “conclusion” at the end of Monogatari: Second Series with the defeat of the “final boss,” we have had three subsequent Monogatari works. (Or six, depending on how you count them.) Each of these works has filled-in backstories, side stories, and epilogues to show that Monogatari is not done and the central themes (and even the “true villain”) are not resolved. It’s hard to describe Monogatari to a new viewer in a way that makes it sound appealing. The average “arc” is three or four episodes of two or three characters speaking razor sharp dialogue (filled with Japanese puns), and then ten minutes before the end of the last episode both the gimmick of the literal plot and pun defining the thematic message become clear. It’s also a nonlinear series which has two ways to watch it (release order vs chronological order), and (warning, spoiler link) fans have developed complex timelines to help understand what’s going on.
Monogatari is medium specific, a witty and erudite meditation on anime, manga, and otaku culture. It’s unlike anything else. It directly engages with all of the modern Japanese otaku culture, both embracing and insulting the trend of anime written and directed by writers who watch a whole lot of anime. And every story adds new depth to the world and the characters.
Monogatari is love.
Monogatari is life.
Aldnoah Zero, second half: Many people (including me), claim this show didn’t stick the landing in terms of the execution of its ending. But shows are more than just endings; I enjoyed every giant robot fight, every political twist, and every bizarre Urobutcher parody of giant robot tropes. It was also well-animated, a marvel to behold, which is important when you are seeing giant robots kamikaze base jump from orbit to save the princess of Mars.
Gatchaman Crowds Insight: Although ostensibly a remake of the 1974 anime Gatchaman, in reality this is the second season of a fascinating experiment on the nature of heroism, democracy, public service and “good” in the age of the internet. While not every idea works, many of them do. After the villain of the first season who was the literal manifestation of trolling is defeated, the second season tackles direct democracy, and whether people know what’s best for themselves. Monogatari and Yurikuma show that anime directors can tackle large ideas, but Gatchaman is the most accessible and watchable show on this list that actually has something to say.
Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Comedy wa Machigatteiru, second half: A teeth-clenchingly brutal tale of Japanese teenage loneliness and angst, the second season expands upon and greatly improves the first. The first season was a show about a young, unhappy teenager who solves every social situation by making everyone else around him hate him (and in hating them, they become better friends with each other. The second season shows the profound consequences of behaving that way, both personally and to those trying to become close to him, without being any less funny or moving.
And now for the rest, the rare non-sequel originals:
Yurikuma Arashi: The thematic followup to the legendary Revolutionary Girl Utena and Penguindrum. Creator Kunihiko Ikuhara appears to function as a lone auteur trying to prove that the medium of anime can be used to express ideas. The plot, about lesbian bears pretending to be human to eat lesbian schoolgirls hiding behind the walls which protect civilization, is partially an allegory, but is frankly too strange to be interpreted just as a metaphor. It’s also stunningly pretty and well-animated.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans: The newest Gundam reboot, this show is still ongoing. While some of the most recent episodes have lagged, the third episode has a scene with a genuinely amazing updating of Gundam‘s “war is hell” ethos, with abused child soldiers improving their situation by executing their commanding officer with no remorse. Not the first Gundam (by far) to feature pilots who are in every meaningful sense child soldiers, Iron-Blooded Orphans treads much of the same ground as Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation by treating its characters like actual children, not shying away from their brutality or their innocence.
Overlord: One of the few shows that grew on me as it went on, Overlord is another entry in the “MMO player wakes up in an MMO world” genre. Overlord, however, has a character who believably acts like the overpowered god he is in this digital world, and the exploration of his powers, the world, and his minions (all of whom have personalities based on his former guild members) is consistently fun, as well as well-animated. Rather than being surprised or concerned, Overlord behaves like a true end game, raid guild player would. “I got this, I beat this MMO once, I can do it again.”
Gakkougurashi!: This show (also known as School Live!) is probably my favorite show of the year (if Owarimonogatari is invalidated for being one part of a massive series, then Gakkougurashi! really is my favorite show of the year). It is a masterful deconstruction of the “cute girls doing cute things” or “slice of life” genres, while also exploring coming of age for Japanese high school girls with great acuity. It’s also one of most original stories I’ve come across in the zombie genre. The ending is perfect, resolving all of its thematics about growing up, friendships, and coming of age, and expertly set up by all of the moving pieces the show introduces throughout its run.
One Punch Man: The current anime crowd-pleasing favorite, One Punch Man is a satire of modern office/school hierarchical cultures, discussing the limits and effects of those systems. It’s also a brilliant parody of most modern superhero stories, showing a hero who is so strong that he defeats all of his enemies with a single punch (and is profoundly bored with being a hero because of it). The show runs with that idea, creating engaging fights with the secondary characters. (One of the most effective fights of the year is the doomed fight of a man with no powers trying to hold off a giant monster that he know is going to kill him to protect civilians because, “that’s what being a hero is,” while Saitama, the undefeatable main character is lost on the way to the fight.)
Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon: A fun little show from the first half of the year about an mmo-inspired world where people literally “level up” in a society that based on getting strong enough to clear progressively harder floors of this dungeon. It’s well-animated, and its exploration of video game tropes (including someone trying to find a place to level up mid-fight) keeps the show engaging. This show also gave the raw components for this video, which should be watched on a loop for at least an hour a day:
And for things I am fucking tired of, 2015 edition
MC-kun is accepted to magic solider high school and is in someway “defective” but secretly awesome. He meets several girls who all fall for him. Chivalry of a Failed Knight, Absolute Duo… there are probably 10 other shows that have done this. Seeing the same formula with only slight variations two or three times per season for four consecutive seasons has left me utterly numb to any further shows in this genre. Every season I find myself liking Mahouka more in retrospect. I’m not sure this a good thing.
Larger concerns about the medium: the Japanese season is 12-13 episodes (known as a cour). One of the things that drew me to anime when I was younger was the capacity of narrative arcs planned in advance for a total of one or two cours. But of the 12 shows I’ve listed, only two of them are original written to be anime. (Yurikuma Arashi and Iron-Blooded Orphans.) The rest of the shows are adaptations of light novels or Japanese comics, which are by nature not paced for a one or two cour anime, or they are sequels, which often don’t bother. Of the sequels, only Gatchaman and Aldnoah Zero are not adaptations.
I find that more and more shows don’t have conclusive endings because there is more manga, light novel, etc material that the creators want to adapt. While some shows (like School Live!), have perfect endings which resolve both narratively and thematically, many shows this year (Overlord, One Punch Man, Seraph of the End) have an ending that amounts to, “buy enough figures and Blu-rays so you can find out what happens next.” While I’m happy for a good anime to come from any source, I grow concerned with the increasing faithfulness of anime adaptation to the source novel/manga, because I still need to evaluate a show on its own merits, not for how good the manga it convinced me to start reading was.
Speaking of that, there’s a new Berserk adaptation on the way. My body is ready for some more Black Swordsman. Also, there’s Gate season 2, and least 10 more magical high school shows. If this column is written by a different author in 2017, you’ll know why….
Unlike Sam, I am not caught up with the Monogatari series because I watched too many other things. My anime viewing habits move in cycles; sometimes I’m watching a lot of anime at once, sometimes I’m only watching one or two shows. In 2015 the downside of this was that, unlike Sam, my anime watching experience was not nearly as positive. As he said, this past year was full of way too many dull magical high school shows, original anime that had no idea what to actually do with their premises, and panderific shows whose obsession with fan service eventually drove me to stop watching. Keskel gave us a very comprehensive look at anime in 2015, so I am just going to briefly fill in some gaps he decided not to cover.
Shows Well Worth Watching
The Seven Deadly Sins
- During Netflix’s rise to prominence, one of the things that doesn’t get enough press is the fact the there isn’t just one Netflix. Instead, every country has its own Netflix tailored to that country’s citizens. This goes beyond just localizing the material on American Netflix; the company also wants every country’s service to reflect their own television and movies. So when Netflix launched in Japan last year, it wanted to get into the original anime game. This actually started with Knights of Sidonia, which launched before Netflix Japan itself, but the effort continue with The Seven Deadly Sins launching exclusively on Netflix near the end of last year. Based on the manga of the same name, this series started as a basic shōnen show that just wanted to flex Netflix’s financial muscles by looking exceptionally pretty and having fun action sequences. Slowly, though, things began to change: the actions sequences went from pure silly fun to more brutal and story motivated, and as the story came together, we got some real impressive moments, especially with the character King. By the time The Seven Deadly Sins finished its first season, it was a fun show that gave no fucks about anything and showed hints of greatness. This show is well worth a watch, and fits well into Netflix’s binge watching model.
Shokugeki no Soma, or Foods Wars!
- Okay, this show really shouldn’t have worked at all. It’s a shōnen cooking show, for crying out loud! But man, does it work like gangbusters. Based on an excellent manga, this anime is about the only one I was watching at some points of the year, and it was so much fun. The inherent silliness of shōnen shows somehow just fits with the activity of cooking, and Shokugeki‘s characters are compelling and fun. Even its pandering is fun, as people will eat food that is so good that they will literally strip down, or fantasize about ridiculous situations as they lose all reason and give into the flavor. The show focuses on these gags a bit too much, considering in the manga they take up maybe a page or two of any weekly issue, but at least they happen with both men and women equally. More important, the show is willing to engage with both the male and female gaze, which is nice trend to see. Food Wars! isn’t a masterpiece or anything, but it is so much fun that who really cares.
Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Comedy wa Machigatteiru, or My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU
- Keskel also highlighted this show, but it needs to be restated that the second season of this anti-romantic comedy is one of the best things that aired in 2015. The show takes the Japanese stereotype of the male social outcast who draws the attention of popular and/or special female students and really does its best to approach that from a realistic perspective. A lot of this is because this show is all about the slow burn, so that much of it ends up being about meaningful friendship instead of romance. The gender relationships are great, and Yahari is not afraid to throw its characters into the thick of it. The main male character, Hachiman, is an outcast by choice, and the show strikes a delicate balance, explaining why his lifestyle choices are effective and self-destructive all at the same time. The characters in this feel like real people with real problems, and the emotions that can elicit are quite impressive. I normally avoid a lot of anime that doesn’t have robots, magic, or other crazy things, because I have more than enough American high school shows, but this one is different, because it approaches familiar stories differently from virtually any other show. It may be hard to tell from the title, but this is not trash, and deserves all the praise, assuming you can handle the feels.
Yamada-kun to 7-nin no Majo, or Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches
- Another strong romantic comedy, although one in this case with a rushed ending that ruined a lot of the dramatic tension of the last two episodes. Still, Yamada-kun is strong because of the way it uses magical powers and strong character work to deal with the struggles of high school. More importantly, unlike most Japanese shows, Yamada-kun‘s students actually treat kissing and sexuality a bit more like actual people, not anime tropes that believe children think kissing is the most lewd or icky thing possible. This show is a bit more positive in its approach than Yahari, but still packs an emotional punch. Also, this is not some harem where all of the witches fall for the main male character. In fact, quite a few of them like him less after dealing with him. This is a nice change of pace, especially considering the main character is a deconstruction of the bully stereotype. The ending is unfortunate because it undoes a lot of the good work done on the show, but it at least gets things to a happy place of conclusion, and doesn’t take away from the fact that this show is very good.
Special Shout Out
- Digimon Adventure tri.: It’s hard to really judge this because so little is out, but the important thing is, the original Digi-Destined are back and ready to pretend the coda at the end of season two never happened. As a huge fan of this show when I was a child, this return is of great importance to me. What I have seen so far is super pretty and great, but it remains to be seen where everything ultimately goes. The thing to remember is:
Di Di Di
Digimon Digital Monsters
Digimon are the Champions
Die in a Fire Award
- Classroom Crisis: So you would think this show’s crime is that it is some disgusting fetish-filled pandering garbage that showcases all of Japan’s worst tendencies and exist to sell PVC figures and body pillows, but no. See, those shows at least know what they are, and while I think many of them are terrible and regressive, at least a lot of them realize they are garbage. The shows I can’t forgive are ones like Classroom Crisis that think they are good, but are actually boring garbage. This was one of the least enjoyable pilots I have ever seen, with zero interesting characters or plotlines. It took itself way too seriously, and the thought of actually watching more of that show makes me want to punch something. Yeah, die in a fire, Classroom Crisis, and know that that is still too good for you.
Shows I Need to Catch-Up On
- Noragami Arogato (this is actually good)
- Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans (the only show Keskel has told me I have missed that sounds worth watching)
- Rampo Kitan: Game of Laplace (murder mystery anime are fun, even if this one is uneven)
- K: Return of Kings (because I hate myself)
- Concrete Revolutio: Choujin Gensou (I am more curious than I should be)
That’s it for today’s “Best Of”s for 2015. Come back tomorrow for the next entry in this week-long series, the best Television of the year.