Best of 2014 – Anime

Now you might be thinking upon seeing that title, “Hey isn’t this about three months late?”, maybe you should instead be thinking “It sure would be a shame if asking all these questions forced Mick to mess up my pretty face”. Just a friendly suggestion. Indeed it is a little late, due in part to laziness but also due to an inevitability outlined below.

2014 was an odd year for me when it came to anime viewing. The way I watch anime changed almost entirely but at the same time reached what was basically its inevitable end point given my viewing habits and proclivities. I though I hadn’t watched as much anime this year as last year but I actually watched roughly twice as much. On the other hand the quality of the anime I watched this year was probably on average lower than 2013. I ended up watching a fair few shows that while not terrible never really made it above average. I also has the misfortune to watch the worst anime I’ve seen in years (Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei). On yet another hand (clearly channelling deva form) this year also delivered some of the best anime I’ve seen in years. Stuff that easily makes my mythical Top X Anime mental list.

Before talking about the anime itself I suppose I’ll expand a bit on what I meant by my viewing habits changing. Well before that, to get it out of the way, I’ve a huge backlog of anime. It’s probably not going to get watched. But it does mean that technically I’m never short of something to watch. However over the last few years I generally just watch what I like from each seasons shows and move on, occasionally watching stuff I missed based on recommendations or a whim. I have a habit, though really it’s basically a compulsion these days, when watching stuff (be it anime, tv or films or actually book series as well now that I think of it) I will not (cannot) watch it until its complete. Watching it week to week just doesn’t do it for me (some tv stuff, generally comedy seems exempt). So for new anime I’d generally have to wait a few months for it to finish before watching it. Which thankfully generally removed me from online discussion of it (online anime fandom is my least favourite online fandom which is saying something). However I’d generally watch stuff from my backlog in the “off” months so I’d be watching at least some anime every month. But with the way I started watching anime per season combined with not being able to watch unfinished stuff what’s happened (or well what happened last year and seems to be happening this year) is that I’d watch no anime until the time when a previous season ended when I’d binge watch anime for a month or so. Actually now that I wrote that out I realise it pisses me off. Going to try to get through at least one show a month now. Take that brain! (and free time).

Anyhow, the viewing habit outlined above is also partially responsible for this post being late as I’d sort of forgot about anime until the last season ended (which would be round about now). A quick note on how I compiled the list. Any anime I watched this year, whether it was released this year or not, is eligible for inclusion. However if the anime in question appeared in a previous year’s Top 10 it can’t be included. I’ve also made a conscious effort to try to keep the entry for each anime to around two hundred and fifty words (in general I also just talk about why I liked the anime in question not what its plot, etc. was, that’s what the links to summaries are for). I don’t think anyone is interested in reading a magnum opus. Oh and they’re in no particular order If you desperately want to keep up to date with my anime viewing habits you (should go see a psychologist and then let me buy you a pint) can see it here – http://myanimelist.net/animelist/Uthred

Kyoukai no Kanata / Beyond the Horizon (2013)

Kyoukai no Kanata - 01 - Carmine [UTW][1280x720][h264][HDTV].mkv_snapshot_01.37_[2015.04.19_03.16.22]Kyoukai no Kanata - 01 - Carmine [UTW][1280x720][h264][HDTV].mkv_snapshot_03.22_[2015.04.19_03.17.27]

While these aren’t in order (and have a pretty wide mix of genres) if you twisted my arm I’d say this was probably my favourite. It was just packed to the gills with stuff I really like. A modern-day supernatural setting, interesting unique special abilities, interesting characters, a nice mix of pathos, comedy and drama, lovely looking animation, great action sequences. I thought this sounded interesting when I first heard about it and it was one of the first anime I watched in 2014 and it was basically the bar against which the rest of the year was measured (which might be why the rest of the year felt heavy on “average” shows). The main reason I watch anime is probably for interesting stories and for me a big component of that is interesting settings. While the modern-day supernatural setting, while certainly its own thing, may not be particularly unique it was well constructed and fleshed out briefly but fully over the course of the series. It’s a world (and a bunch of characters) I’d be more than happy to see more off. But, and this disappointingly rare, it told a solid and complete story in the time alloted to it. So while I’d welcome more I neither feel like I need it nor that I was denied anything more than a complete story. (I thought it was just getting the usual recap movie but it seems the second movie is actually a sequel, awesome)

Tokyo Ravens (2013/2014)

Tokyo Ravens - 03 - Shaman Clan Calling the Dead [Anime-Koi][1280x720][h264][HDTV].mkv_snapshot_11.37_[2015.04.19_03.23.44]Tokyo Ravens - 01v2 - Shaman Clan Promise [Anime-Koi][1280x720][h264][HDTV].mkv_snapshot_02.18_[2015.04.19_03.20.58]

I absolutely love the setting for this. I am a big fan of alternate history settings, when that alternate history leads to supernatural action in the modern-day that’s an added bonus. The fact that Onymodo, which I am also a big fan of, plays a major role in the series pushes it over the top (Stallone would be proud). While an intriguing setting goes a long way for me the series is high quality all around. The characters are well realised, the story is interesting and while it plays into some standard genre tropes it has enough originality to put a bit of a spin on them. Theres a nice mix of action drama and comedy. The action is well animated and choreographed and the series also frequently employs clever uses of the various characters special abilities (while I’m not averse to toe to toe power based slugfests I do have a soft spot for clever solutions). The series has a solid ending (a sad rarity it feels like sometimes) which wraps up the major plots of the season while still leaving room for sequels.

Nobunagun (2014)

Nobunagun - 01 - Oda Nobunaga [HorribleSubs][1280x720][h264][www].mkv_snapshot_20.43_[2015.04.19_03.26.19]Nobunagun - 01 - Oda Nobunaga [HorribleSubs][1280x720][h264][www].mkv_snapshot_20.47_[2015.04.19_03.26.27]

Nobunagun is quite simply entertaining. The premise of the show really appealed to me and the show more than delivers on its implicit promise of madcap action. I love the weaponised historical characters, I love the dark and distorted art style, but most of all I love the action. While the series does mix in the requisite amount of comedy and drama the action is the main focus. Thankfully its very well done; its well animated, its well choreographed, the sound work is excellent and most importantly it gets the blood pumping. This show is replete with moments that generate those, for want of a better term, mental erections that make high-octane entertainment like this so appealing. That little shiver you get in your brain when something, which can only be described by the over-used “awesome” occurs. I really enjoyed this show, I heard about, I looked forward to it and it exceeded my expectations. A sequence that is getting rarer, no matter the medium, these days.

While the shows main focus is on action and spectacle it also creates quite an interesting world. While it doesnt go into a huge amount of depth its a cool setting with some interesting ideas and some interesting plot twists. While putting this together I was actually surprised to see that it had received a number of rather poor reviews. Further evidence that people desperately need me to tell them whats good, I weep for you ignorant world, I weep.

Log Horizon Season 1 (2013/2014)

Log Horizon - 02 - Loka no Souguu-sen [HorribleSubs][1280x720][h264][www].mkv_snapshot_02.02_[2015.04.19_02.43.06]Log Horizon - 02 - Loka no Souguu-sen [HorribleSubs][1280x720][h264][www].mkv_snapshot_02.16_[2015.04.19_02.43.18]

I am sick of the current glut of new manga and anime all of which have shallow spins on the idea of the virtual world becoming real or people being trapped in a virtual world. While it wasnt unheard of before hand I think it’s obvious that Sword Art Onlines success has had a lot to do with it. I watched and enjoyed the Sword Art Online anime adaptation. I even enjoyed the second half of the first season, which a lot of online anime fans don’t like because apparently being mind wiped into someones rape toy isn’t a “real” threat (which says more about online anime fans than anything else). Why does SAO matter? Well because when Log Horizon came out I initially dismissed it as a SAO imitator. I only got around to watching it when I idly put it on last year. The irony of my dismissal became more and more crushing with every episode I watched. SAO is about being trapped in a virtual world, but ultimately it uses this setting as the frame for its story. I didn’t realise how clear that was until I watched Log Horizon. Log Horizon presents a setting that actually feels like what would happen if MMO players got trapped in a virtual world. While watching Log Horizon I realised how shallow SAO’s representation of MMO players had been.

I later learned that the author of the Log Horizon light novels was an old hand at pen and paper RPG’s and was a proficient MMO player while the author of SAO had a fairly shallow amount of experience with MMO’s. Now don’t think I’m bashing SAO, as I said I enjoyed it, but now I enjoy it for what is, an action fantasy adventure with a virtual world frame for the story. Log Horizon on the other hand really takes the idea of MMO players trapped in a virtual world made real and runs with it. So really they’re quite different things. Well, so much for keeping these short. Log Horizon is excellent, the plot is engaging and the characters ooze verisimilitude. There are lots of clever twists which spring naturally from how people play MMO’s and how that might feasibly lead to certain behaviours if the virtual became real. I don’t think you need to be overly familiar with MMO’s to enjoy this but I think it certainly adds an additional layer of enjoyment. Oh and the main protagonist is a “thinker” an archetype which I’m a fan of as I mentioned above. All in all very much worth a watch.

Free! (2013)

Free! - 01 - Reunion at the Starting Block! [Hatsuyuki][1280x720][h264][HDTV].mkv_snapshot_02.35_[2015.04.19_03.27.22]Free! - 01 - Reunion at the Starting Block! [Hatsuyuki][1280x720][h264][HDTV].mkv_snapshot_21.13_[2015.04.19_03.29.08]

There are a lot of scantily clad, well drawn, good-looking boys in this show. Actually I think there might only be one named female character in the entire thing. I really enjoyed this. At its heart it’s a sports drama but it also has a nice philosophical element to it that I found really appealed. Unfortunately the second season was a big letdown, it moved the focus away from the main characters and also had the main characters betray what seemed to be the fundamental basis of their characters established in this first season. Luckily this season is complete in itself so I can still heartily recommend it. I think one of the hallmarks of any good sports fiction is that it makes you interested in the activity itself, no matter how you might feel about the sport in question. Admittedly I used to love swimming, but not having gone in years this series really did make me want to get back in the water.

Chihayafuru Seasons 1 & 2 (2011/2013)

Chihayafuru 2 - 01 - So The Flower Has Wilted [Commie][1280x720][h264][HDTV].mkv_snapshot_02.21_[2015.04.19_03.18.51]Chihayafuru 2 - 01 - So The Flower Has Wilted [Commie][1280x720][h264][HDTV].mkv_snapshot_01.52_[2015.04.19_03.19.52]

Chihayafuru is the second sports anime in my top ten. If you’re thinking to yourself, “What? Hanafuda isn’t a sport!” the show luckily does an excellent job within the first few episodes of reversing that opinion. Chihayafuru certainly has romantic elements, but they take a back seat (sometimes to the point of irritation) to the main meat of the series which is good old-fashioned sports drama. There is drama a plenty here, all the old familiar elements, being the best, training, teamwork, comrades, rivals, all the rest. While those are the basic building blocks of sports drama not all series’ utilise them properly, on the other hand Chihayafuru utilises them masterfully.

The series has some truly tense and exciting sequences, even matches that don’t have you on the edge of your seat still always maintain your interest. The cast start out a little formulaic but quickly distinguish themselves into unique characters who work well together in terms of delivering an interesting story. Despite being an adaptation of a josei (aimed at women from their late teens on up) manga (which is also good) I don’t think gender really plays an issue in one’s enjoyment of it and I cant see why a man wouldn’t enjoy it just as much (after all I did). Apart from its accomplished use of sports drama the series makes good use of the characters relationships to produce several moving moments, not to the point of melodrama but the sun might get in your eyes now and then. It’s also a lovely looking series, they style and its high level of detail combine to give the show a nice level of visual verisimilitude while maintaining a distinctive visual style. The music and soundwork is also excellent (unsurprising I suppose given the importance of sound to the series).

Barakamon (2014)

Barakamon - 01 - Barakakodon (Translation Spirited Child) [HorribleSubs][1280x720][H264AVC][www].mkv_snapshot_00.18_[2015.04.19_02.44.17]Barakamon - 01 - Barakakodon (Translation Spirited Child) [HorribleSubs][1280x720][H264AVC][www].mkv_snapshot_02.06_[2015.04.19_02.46.01]

Barakamon is possibly best described as soothing, not in the ephemeral way stuff like Mush-Shi is but in the fun, upbeat life affirming way stuff like Yotsubato! or The Town Still Moves is. Dont get me wrong, there’s a strong element of comedy in Barakamon and its sprinkled with drama and some reflections on life and work and what have you, like arguably all good examples of this style of slice of life story should be. Perhaps “simply fun” would be a better description, but I think soothing fits, you can throw this on and by the end of an episode things will be looking up a bit. While functioning as an emotional panacea is to be lauded that’s not all there is to the series. The characters are interesting and entertaining and while its generally episodic the growth of the main character and his relationship to the rest of the cast does make for an engaging story. Slice of life comedies are pretty reliant on the character dynamics and the cast works very well in that respect.

Hitsugi no Chaika / Chaika The Coffin Princess (2014)

Hitsugi no Chaika - 01 - Hitsugi Katsugu Shoujo [HorribleSubs][1280x720][h264][www].mkv_snapshot_00.41_[2015.04.19_02.40.09]Hitsugi no Chaika - 01 - Hitsugi Katsugu Shoujo [HorribleSubs][1280x720][h264][www].mkv_snapshot_00.57_[2015.04.19_02.40.32]

This was an unexpected fine. I downloaded it purely based on the name and the fact the promo art showed the titular character dragging a coffin around like Django (the 1966 original, not that Tarantino rubbish) or if you prefer your references more “anime”, like Beyond the Grave. I’m so glad I gave it a chance as it was unexpectedly great. I suppose to some extent HnC falls into the same general category as Nobunagun, it’s a very “pure” piece of entertainment. While nearly everything else about it is different in terms of the purity of fulfilling its basic role it brings to mind (good) eighties action films. Or to make some use of my various useless qualifications, it’s an excellent example of what one might erroneously refer to as low culture if they were so gauche as to buy into the antiquated false dichotomy of low/high culture.

However it has a number of elements that push it above the competition. The world setup is intriguing from the get go, the politics and factions get sketched in quickly enough and while not particularly byzantine they adequately fulfill their roles and serve as a good backdrop or motivator as appropriate. While magitek with a steampunk aesthetic (thankfully) isn’t rare these days I’m not sure if any other property (other than Strait Jacket) has handled the idea of “guns as magic” quite as well as this show. As a primarily action based show its important that the action hold up and it’s actually really well done here, all of the combat sequences are (well) animated and I don’t think there’s any of the standard budget saving re-use of footage. The plot is handled well, it develops at a nice pace, it has some satisfying (if not particularly shocking) twists and it also offers us perspectives on the story beyond the protagonists. It makes good use of the series’ relatively novel premise and handles the various mysteries the early episodes set up quite well. It also concludes the series well while leaving it open for a sequel (which it got but which I’ve yet to watch). On a personal level I loved lots of the various little touches in the series, clever use of powers (I’m sensing a theme) and activation sequences reminiscent of Shadow Skill (the tv version of Shadow Skill is one of the most criminally under-rated action series out there). At twelve episodes it also doesn’t over-stay its welcome. If you’re a fan of action or fantasy I’d very much recommend this.

No Game No Life (2014)

No Game No Life - 01 - Beginner [Underwater-FFF][1280x720][h264][HDTV].mkv_snapshot_03.26_[2015.04.19_02.37.55]Sora_holding_Imanity's_Race_Piece_(King)

While it was always there, and certainly isn’t unique to anime, the number of “self-insertion” fantasies seems to be on the rise in recent years. A lot of them I dismiss out of hand after reading the creepy summary for it. “Oh yeah I was a 35 year old unemployed nerd who died, got resurrected as a ten-year old super magic boy in a fantasy setting with my memories intact and now I’m totally okay with eating the face of this eleven year old” – to name one recent example that springs to mind). Ahem. Moving on. You could initially mistake NGNL for one of those but that would indeed be a mistake. The protagonists in NGNL aren’t simple cyphers for viewer self insertion. Theyre full characters in their own right.

I really enjoyed NGNL, while it’s primarily a light fun comedy it also includes some interesting social and political commentary, a dash of action and one or two moving scenes. It also, and I’m almost embarrassed to write this again but its the main focus of the show, features a protagonist who uses his intelligence to overcome all (well most) of the obstacles he faces. The main characters are a nice mixture of absurd behaviour and occasional genuine emotion, the interplay between the two of them and the main cast is fun to watch and drives the show along in a believable way despite the unbelievable setting. Speaking of the setting the world presented never feels particularly “real”, but it’s not supposed to and it largely doesn’t matter as the characters that populate it do. The animation for the show is generally excellent and it uses an interesting palette and some varied styles that keep things fresh and matches the mood its going for. I really want to see more of these characters and this world.

Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou (2014)

Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou - 01 - Tatoeba [HorribleSubs][1280x720][h264][www].mkv_snapshot_00.41_[2015.04.19_02.40.54]Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou - 01 - Tatoeba [HorribleSubs][1280x720][h264][www].mkv_snapshot_00.43_[2015.04.19_02.41.01]

I enjoy slice of life anime, while quite varied they tend to share some elements in common and they are elements I enjoy. So I was looking forward to watching this but I keep putting it off because I assumed the romance elements were going to play a large role and perhaps be emotionally draining. I was both wrong and right on that front. The show has the usual slice of life mix of this and that and it did elicit some emotional response (which is probably less impressive than it sounds given my emotional stability). But I was completely wrong about where that pathos would come from. The romance elements are there and they’re well handled (to the point of being almost painfully realistic at times) but they aren’t as dominant as I expected and really I found the characters and how they dealt with their lives to be generally more moving.

The “main” female character felt a little formulaic at first but the show does a good job of expanding her character into a nice believable whole. The rest of the characters get similar treatment. As I mentioned when talking about Barakamon character dynamics are important to this kind of show and they work very well here. Slice of life anime always feel like they’re too short and I certainly felt that to be the case here. I simply wanted to spend more time with these characters and their lives.

Vent your spleen