Best of 2009 – Anime (Yes it is super overdue) (But its full of links)

I get the feeling that I’ve somehow forgotten a large amount of the stuff I’ve watched this year as I feel that I’ve watched a fuckton of anime but when it came time to compile a list it was a real struggle to come up with ten. Of course when I did put together a list it became difficult to select just ten titles as I watched a lot of quality stuff this year.

Looking forward, 2010 isn’t looking particularly engaging, checking out the new shows starting in 2010 only a few of them look interesting (Dance in the Vampire Bund, Ladies versus Butlers!, Omamori Himari, Baka to Test to Shoukanjuu, Seikon no Qwaser, Katanagatari, Sengoku Basara Season 2, King of Thorn, the end of Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, Elementhunters, To Aru Kagaku no Rail Gun, Kimi no Todoke…ok so perhaps 2010 does have plenty of interesting anime to watch.

Well as I’m posting this a shocking seven months late were now slowly sliding into the third season of anime for 2010. As such a number of shows have come out that look like they could be awesome (can’t watch anime week to week, it’s all or nothing).

The spring season gave us Heroman, B Gata H Kei, Ichiban Ushiro no Daimaou (Good but wasted opportunity), Angel Beats! (Awesome if depressing), Arakawa Under the Bridge and Senkou no Night Raid.

Summer season gave us Ookami-san to Shichinin no Nakama-tachi, Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin, a continuation of Kuroshitsuji,Sengoku Basara and adaptations of some sweet manga – Gakuen Mokushiroku: High School of the Dead, Nurarihyon no Mago, Sekirei and Shi-Ki.

Holy shit the fall season looks awesome, a second season of A Certain Magical Index? Yes please. More Arakawa Under the Bridge and Letter Bee is also nothing to be sniffed at. Super excited about the adaptation of The World God Only Knows (as I fucking love the manga. Then there’s the original IP’s such as Psychic Detective Yakumo, Hykka Ryouran, Togainu No Chi (even if it is all about the BL).

Eden of the East

If you only watch one of these ten shows then I strongly suggest that this should be it. Though I would be remiss not to point out that the eleven episode series is only the first part of the story, the rest of it will be presented in three feature length movies – only the first of which is currently available (EDIT: two are out now).

In some ways it’s hard to go into any specific detail about the series as a large part of the series’ appeal lies in watching the various mysteries unfold. The series starts with our protagonist waking up naked outside the whitehouse with a gun in one hand and a phone linked to a 10 Billion yen account in the other. Oh and he has amnesia. In some ways the earlier parts of the series are similar to The Bourne Identity (the book not the execrable film). Though it quickly moves past that to become its own thing.

And perhaps that’s where the key appeal of Eden of the East lies. It’s almost entirely its own thing, it feels fresh and new in a medium that is almost defined by adherence to genre tropes. The story itself also has a broad appeal that stretches beyond the (already broad) label of anime fan.

Also on a personal level I found a number of the themes and plot elements extremely interesting e.g. Flash mobs, augmented reality, the use of power, etc. The series also delivers from a technical standpoint. The animation is fluid and well done, the characters distinctive both visually and in terms of character. The voice acting and soundwork is all also top notch and even the fact that Oasis does the intro music doesn’t grate that much.

Tentai Senshi Sunred

Tentai Senshi Sunred is an animated ironic parody of Japanese superhero tokusatsu shows such as Metal Hero, Kamen Rider,Power Rangers etc. and like all great parodies it demonstrates a genuine love of the subject matter. While a parody can be entertaining without said affection it generally fails to have any real staying power, because after a while it just tends to seem, well, rather mean. TSS (Tentai Senshi Sunred) is anything but that. While the show adroitly lampoons the tokusatsu genre it never feels particularly malicious, you get the sense that its “good natured ribbing” as opposed to anything malicious. Personally I find that it makes the show easier to watch. While cutting parody/satire can be enjoyable it can also be something of a chore to engage with.

The show follows the eponymous Sunred, now more or less unemployed and living with/supported by his girlfriend Kyoko. He spends his days wandering around smoking, playing pachinko, and, at (scheduled) times, duffing up the monstrous forces of Floreshiem led by General Vamp (guy on the bike above). The majority of the humour in the show comes from the personal interactions between the three main characters – Sunred (Red), Kyoko and General Vamp. Red is a rude, rough-talking and violent “ally of Justice”, whereas General Vamp is polite, conscientious and easy-going. Even so both of them stick to their assigned “roles”. Kyoko is generally supportive of Red but is friends with Vamp and regularly rings him/invites him over for tips/help with cooking or housekeeping (which Vamp is excellent at). There are also various small ongoing segments which are in a few shows e.g. Vamp and Kyoko’s cooking corner.

While the description above may leave it sounding rather boring or corny I assure you that it’s much better than it sounds on paper. The humour is sharp, frequent and easily accessible. This is probably one of the most genuinely funny anime I’ve seen and I can’t recommend it enough.

Maria Holic

I genuinely can’t remember why Maria Holic ended up on this list. I remember enjoying watching it. But any actual details about it beyond the basic premise are entirely absent from my memory. Scraping the grease encrusted edges of memory I seem to recall it being fucking hilarious while simultaneously eliciting a decent level of emotional reaction through good character growth. But that could have been pulled entirely out of my arse. So it’s taking top place on my “WATCH THIS MOTHERFUCKER” list, but unfortunately I’m currently one third of the way through Shippuden and with around one hundred and twenty episodes to go I can’t see me getting to this anytime soon. So simply consider it to have my unqualified seal of approval and work away (Ha as if anyone actually reads this – boo hoo hoo the angst it consumes me!).

Natsume Yuujinchou

I found Natsume Yuujinchou extremely reminiscent of Mushi-Shi. Not in content though, rather it was the strange fairy-tale like ethereal “otherness” that both of them invoke. It also shares Mushi-Shi’s talent for eliciting both pathos and melancholy while simultaneously leaving the viewer feeling strangely happy and buoyant. Well the latter might not be universally applicable. Because I suspect that some people with non-functioning souls read my blog. Thats right. The minions of hell take time out of their busy schedule to kick back, ignore their plan to bring about the end of days and luxuriate in my sticky word gravy.

Anyhow, the characters and creatures in Natsume Yuujinchou are almost universally well-realised and appealing. This applies particularly to the main cast who all feel “real” to a level sufficient to create real emotional investment in the series. Which the series rewards by playing an entertaining melody of friendship, loneliness, acceptance and the transient nature of existence on your heartstrings. In some ways that is the best recommendation for this series. While the other anime I’ve listed here will almost certainly entertain you and draw forth a broad range of emotion they really cant match up to the emotional impact of Natsume Yuujinchou. Nor the unique feeling you have after each episode of melancholy intermingling with hope and joy.

Of course you’re now going to watch it, be thoroughly unimpressed and assume that I’m some kind of emotionally unstable mental case.

Soul Eater

I really like “typical” shonen anime/manga. I like characters who power-up up over time, who engage in bizarre training, who gain power from nonsensical and implausible beliefs like the power of bonds, or shit like that. And in some ways Soul Eater is typical shonen fare (certainly in some of the ways that matter most to me i.e. sweet action, rapid power progression and weird training) but it other, equally important ways, it is quite clearly different. If there’s one word which sums up both its difference from typical shonen anime and the series as a whole it would be stylish.

From the character designs to the choreography of the fights everything has a very distinctive and unique style which is an odd blend of Shinjuku Hipster with the visual style of Tim Burton and David Lynch. Soul Eater also features a female lead, which, while not unheard of, is relatively uncommon. The female lead is also relatively stereotype free. She’s neither simpering weakling nor tomboy in drag. There is literally not a single character in Soul Eater I dislike. From random hencHmen to the main cast every character is simply excellent. They all exude their own unique look and character and are singularly entertaining. To be honest my fondness of the cast is relatively unique in my experience. Usually there’s always characters youre not particularly fond of or who you actively dislike (FUCKING DANZOU!) or who youre simply ambivalent towards. But in Soul Eater I really liked everyone, even if I “rooted against them” they were still entertaining and I enjoyed their screen time. I even liked Excalibur (admittedly in a Twisp & Catsby type way).

The setup of the story and world is also simply cool. Human weapons, gods of death, faceless gods trapped in their own skin, soul resonance, the importance of symmetrically folded toilet paper, whats not to like? All these elements are blended seamlessly together into a series that is entertaining from beginning to end.

***CONCEPTUAL SPOILERS***

The only possible downside, and I dont consider this one, but some people might, is that the series diverges from the manga pretty wildly after episode 35. I didnt find this out till after I’d finished watching the anime and I have yet to read the manga so I cant say whether its a good or bad thing one way or another. What I can say though is that its basically imperceptible. The anime never feels like it takes a dip in quality and the last sixteen episodes flow on seamlessly from, while building upon, the thirty five that preceded them. Unlike other anime where this happens and youre left wondering why the series flags in its latter half (I’m looking at you here Hellsing and Full Metal Alchemist) I would never have thought the latter half was anime only unless I was told (hence the spoilers above so you dont end up wasting time trying to spot a “twist” that never comes).

Akagi

Akagi is an anime adaptation of Fukumoto Nouyuki’s manga of the same name. I first came across this several years ago. But the hyper stylised nature of the artwork put me off and I only watched a minute or two. Several years later I came across Kaiji, an anime adaptation of another of Fukumoto’s manga (Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji to be precise). While it was stylised it wasnt quite as, well, deformed, as Akagi. It was also extremely enjoyable, though I do sort of hate the protagonist. Anyway, when I finished Kaiji I was eager for more of the authors work and the only other part of it that had been animated was Akagi.

Several years of viewing far too much anime, in tandem with Kaiji’s “Akakgi lite” art style, had left me more than ready for the look of Akagi and so girding my visual loins I forged forward. I emerged twenty six, continuous episodes, later battered and bruised by a storm of underground mahjong awesomeness. While I’d seen anime based on various other traditional asian/Japanese boardgames before (Shion no Oh, Hikaru no Go, etc.) I’d never really seen anything like this.

I’m sure a thorough understanding of Mahjong would make this even more entertaining. But I went in entirely ignorant and still enjoyed it immensely. Like most entertainment media based around high stakes gambling the mind games and characters (and in this case the cheating) involved are what are important. And its in these areas that Akagi really shines. There is nothing predictable about the characters and the situations they get involved in which keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat from start to finish. The main protagonist, the eponymous Akagi, is particularly intriguing. For a character that doesnt go out of his way to be likeable its surprising how much youre rooting for him by the time the end of the series rolls around.

The only downside of this series is that it has an end. And the ending is a rather contentious one. Its also impossible to talk about without spoiling stuff. So lets just say that opinions are divided on the ending (dont worry it doesnt pull an Evangelion, it just, possibly, has some completion issues).

Skip Beat!

I never thought I was going to like this. I honestly only put it on out of random curiosity. After all its a shoujo (aimed at girls between ~7-18) story about a girl who wants to get back at her unfaithful and abusive boyfriend by entering the fashion world in disguise, making him fall in love with her and then crushing him. Not exactly my common fodder (he lies adroitly)…I watched all twenty five episodes in a row and then read all the available scanlated manga.

Its just a really enjoyable story with very engaging characters. It also features a nice blend of humour (the bits where the main protagonist falls to her “dark side” are nearly always hilarious), character development and melodrama. The main protagonist is very well realised and comes across as a strong woman with a believably feminine side. Not the usual simpering waif or hypermasculine tomboy that so often takes the lead in shoujo material. Maybe thats why I liked this so much, while its clearly shoujo (though I believe its appeal easily transcends its nominal target audience) it manages to avoid or at least, more adroitly employ, the many shoujo tropes that I find irritating.

The only downside is that the anime series, while very faithful to the manga, ends very abruptly at episode twenty five. It doesnt really tie anything up and so if you have no plans of reading the manga its going to be rather frustrating.

Kuroshitsuji

This was a hell (no pun intended) of a lot better than I expected it to be. Originally I was expecting some overly angsty homoerotic black comedy, instead what I got was an excellent Victorian urban fantasy with little to no angst and only the vaguest hint of BL. Really it would have been hard for this show to disappoint me considering it includes so many elements that I like e.g. demonic pacts, Victorian London, sinister cults, Jack the Ripper, death gods, black comedy, etc.

But I think thats where the shows true appeal and quality lies, it takes a number of elements and blends them seamlessly into a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts. The series starts of relatively light heartedly, mixing its signature black comedy with more traditional slapstick hijinks. As the story progresses the light hearted humour is phased out and the action and mystery elements phased in, though its only really entirely absent towards the finale. The inclusion of these myriad elements, as well as the fairly tight plotting, serve to keep the show feeling fresh and the audience engaged.

The characters are also quite well designed, each appealing in their own way, the two main characters in particular – Ciel Phantomhive and Sebastian Michaelis are very well realised. The interplay between the two of them is well constructed and entertaining and Ciel is portrayed excellently, his tragedy is clearly conveyed without it descending into mawkish angst. On a technical level the series is well animated and voiced; the music is also well done. Though Im not a huge fan of the opening.

Seitokai no Ichizon

This is one of my favourite shows of 2009 and was the one I most looked forward to watching each week. An excellent self-parody of the harem romance genre Seitokai no Ichizon is a wickedly sharp sendup of both the aforementioned genre and anime culture itself. While the satire is the main draw of the show (and will require a decent knowledge of anime to fully appreciate) the interactions between the characters and the occasional moments of real pathos add up to make this something more than just a simple comedy.

While the animation quality and character design is good to excellent (I really like the latter half of the opening) the fact that the majority of the series takes place in one room serves to highlight and focus the audiences attention on the dialogue which is the real meat of the show.

It really is hard to find more ways of saying, “This is funny and enjoyable, go watch it”.

Toaru majutsu no index

While the show has many outstanding characteristics, which I’ll get to later, it is probably the setting that appeals to me the most. The setup of the world is engaging, entertaining and intriguing. The show is based on a series of best selling Japanese light novels, of which there are currently 21 volumes, and I want then translated mainly to find out more about the world (as well as the continuing adventures of the main characters). Of course this wealth of source material is also the main problem with the anime, which only covers the first six books.

After the setting itself (which Im tempted to throw together a FATE adaptation of) it’s the characters that form the next major draw for the series, from the endearing cuteness of Index (one of the few cute/”moe” characters I don’t find mawkishly sentimental) to the sinister mystery of Crowley all of the characters are well rounded and realised, likely because of the superior characterisation offered by a light novel over a manga or videogame source.

This excellent foundation is rounded off by high quality animation (I fucking love the look of Innocentius the Witch hunting pope), which looks particularly good in the HD version, and some nicely acted voice work (well from what I can tell).

The two low points are, as I mentioned above, the fact that it’s based on six light novels which leads to a somewhat fragmented feeling as we’re presented with inter-related but separate story arcs. The second “problem” is fairly minor and subjective; I don’t really like either the opening or endings. They feel out of kilter with the rest of the show. However these are minor issues and don’t detract from my hearty recommendation to go out and watch this as soon as possible.

Listening to: Furuido - Nantokanare

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