I expected the decision about my best anime of the year between my top 2 series to be an agonizing one. I didn’t start seriously thinking about this list until a month or so ago, and once I did – to my surprise – that decision made itself almost instantly. Tsuritama was my favorite anime of 2012, and it wasn’t a photo-finish, either. As I said yesterday I think the wondrous Chihayafuru and Hunter X Hunter would be fine #1’s some years, but not this year. Eno-shima-DON!
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you may have heard me refer to FLCL as the most perfect anime ever (not the best, necessarily – though it’s comfortably in my all-time Top 5). While that’s still my opinion, I think Tsuritama may be the most perfect full-length anime I’ve ever seen. By “perfect” I mean the complete absence of missteps – a show that accomplishes everything it sets out to accomplish in spectacular fashion. Tsuritama is a great testament to what’s possible with an original series – it was an idea that could be fleshed out with the exact format in mind, and clearly was – it hit the ground running and never stopped. There were no bad arcs (the series was effectively one long arc), no bad episodes, hardly a mediocre moment at all. The whole thing was a strange and wonderful joy to behold.
If I were to try and distill what it is that makes me love a series so much that it could knock Chihayafuru and H x H down a peg, I don’t think I can do better than I did in my series review:
“If you distilled pure happiness into 22 weekly minutes of sight and sound, you’d have something a lot like Tsuritama.”
The list of things I love about Tsuritsma is long. Nakamura Kenji’s always spectacularly creative visual style (and he delivers fantastically surreal storybook imagery here) finally finding a story that connected emotionally. Tapioca. The soundtrack by Kuricorder Quartet, the one soundtrack that I could say probably knocks the likes of Chaihayafuru and Eureka Seven AO’s soundtracks off the top spot – it’s whimsical and funny and irresistible and matches the series as perfectly as any since The Pillows gave FLCL it’s musical voice. And then there’s the way the show uses Enoshima as a character in itself, showing it as the strange and magical little island it is, and makes the somewhat esoteric sport of fishing seem like something profound and beautiful.
The amazing work by the cast is a big part of Tsuritama’s magic too. Sugita Tomokazu is hilarious as ever as the 25 year-old secret agent (DUCK!) Akira, and Uchiyama Kouki is spot-on as the tsundere Fishing Price, Natsuki. And then, two of the finest seiyuu performances of the year – first, Miyu Irinu in a fearless and risky against-type virtuoso as Haru. Miyu-Miyu’s reputation is established beyond doubt, but he doesn’t play it safe as Haru – his choices ultimately make Haru seem both alien and innocent, a sort of modern-day Petit Prince. And most especially relative unknown Ohsaka Ryouta stamping himself as a top-tier seiyuu with the series’ best performance, giving Tsuritama its heart and soul as Yuki. The first part of Tsuritama is largely a study of Yuki’s all-too-typical yet dramatized teenaged-boy neuroses (portrayed by Nakamura-sensei with some of the cleverest animation sequences of the year), and Ohaska nails every one of those crucial moments. Those performances truly were the four seasons – so different, yet all superb. And the writing made perfect use of them by establishing the characters first, giving us only hints as to the larger plot – which gives us so much more emotional investment in them when the drama of the second half of the series ramps up.
Most of all, though, I love the spirit at the heart of Tsuritama. This show made me smile over 12 episodes as much as any I’ve seen – it is indeed, as I said in that series review, one of the most joyous anime of all-time. But the best part of it is that what I felt about the series from the beginning turned out to be exactly right – it’s a thoroughly personal story. Series writer Oono Toshiya (who’s done very little anime work) has said that he wrote this series as a kind of letter of encouragement to his teenaged self. He was unhappy as a high-schooler (as so many kids are) and wanted to send a message that everything can work out – that things are never as bad as they seem, and that the worst thing you can do (which he did) was isolate yourself, and not allow friends into your life.
That’s a pretty amazing thing – and it’s amazing that an anime was built around that idea, and that the sentiment came through so clearly. Without being sappy or overly sentimental, Tsuritama manages to be hopeful and optimistic and compassionate and incredibly uplifting. It’s also a series that isn’t afraid to embrace the notion that teenaged guys are capable of every bit as much pain, anxiety, empathy and hopefulness as girls are, even if anime generally treats them as shallow and uninteresting plot drivers whose inner lives aren’t worth bothering with. The characters at the center of this series stand as a condemnation of every poorly-written or criminally under-written teenaged boy in anime.
In summation – everything that’s wrong with most anime is right with Tsuritama. It’s simply an anime perfect storm – the visuals, the music, the cast, the plot, the pacing, and most of all the soul. It’s an anime that shows off how gloriously funny, inspirational and emotionally powerful the medium can be, and I think it’s the best series of 2012.
#2 – Chihayafuru
I think the first thing I should say is that there have been years when Chihayafuru would have ranked as my #1 series. In fact, I could say that about my #3 series Hunter X Hunter too, and probably even my #4, Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita. So it’s been quite a good year overall, and the fact that Chihayafuru ends up in the second slot should in no way be taken as a sign that I hold this series in anything but the highest regard. I adore it with every fiber of my anime being.
I’ll talk about the reasons why my top-ranked series is what it is tomorrow, but for now I’m going to focus strictly on Chihayafuru and why I think it’s one of the better anime of the last few years. Some things should be obvious, for starters. Suetsugu Yuki has written a wonderful manga, which has won the Manga Taishou and Kodansha Manga Awards, two of the highest honors in the medium. Her artwork is the equal of her writing, and Madhouse (what a year for Madhouse) has done that manga justice in translating it to the screen. Chihayafuru is one of the most beautiful anime of the year, and director Morio Asaka found a way to make the manga’s big emotional moments pop off the screen with almost startling power. While the cast is uniformly great, Miyano Mamoru followed up his star turn in Steins;Gate with an even better (and totally different) performance as Taichi. And Yamashita Kousuke’s soundtrack might very well be the year’s finest.
Along with the ones I mentioned from H x H yesterday and one or two others, Chihayafuru provided the absolutely highlight of the year in anime for me, and that was episode 20. More specifically, the scene between Taichi and Harada-sensei (Unshou Ishizuka) on the train platform, in which Suetsugu and Morio encapsulated everything that was beautiful and potent and unspoken in the series up to that point, and brought it to fruition with Taichi’s words – and Harada’s reaction. It was an utterly perfect moment brought to life by two superb seiyuu, the kind the few series ever approach, and it speaks to the depth of feeling Chihayafuru is capable of generating in the audience. This series is, in many ways, a hybrid of the best elements of shoujo, shounen and josei – it’s classified officially as the latter but I think it’s proof that genre labels are overused and often insufficient. As was the case with Hikaru no Go, I knew nothing of the game at the heart of the premise when the series started – and it didn’t matter a bit. Both stories use their central conceit as the medium to deliver a heartfelt and beautiful human story, and both – through the love the characters showed for the game in question – made me care about that game by the time the series was finished.
If I were to make any quibble about Chihayafuru – and it takes some effort to find one – it would be that the series peaked a few episodes before it ended. But happily, that’s not so much an issue because some three months after the series ended, a second season was announced (it begins next month). Hearing that news was one of my happiest moments as an anime fan (and hearing that the two new Mizusawa Karuta Club members will be played by Miyu Irino and Han Megumi – both very prominent on this list – was the icing on the cake), because it’s so rare that a series that relies on depth and emotional complexity rather than marketing strategy gets a second season. The manga continues to be a sales powerhouse, and while the anime didn’t sell many Blu-rays and DVDs it clearly spawned an incredibly loyal if modestly-sized legion of fans. Chihayafuru is a very, very special anime – full of heart and intelligence and capable of making you hurt as only shows with those qualities can do.
#3 – Hunter X Hunter 2011
I’ll admit it was a judgment call to include Hunter X Hunter in this year’s list, as I said on the first day. But this show is just so good, so consistent and so worthy that I feel as if it’s justified, given the fact that it’s aired every season of 2012 and has no definitive end-date in sight.
I’ve written a lot of posts on H x H, and they tend to be some of my longest – so if there’s something to be said (by me anyway) I’ve probably said it. But it’s worth pointing out that two of my favorite anime episodes of the season – probably two of my top three – are from this series. Namely, Episode 16 (Gon-Hisoka showdown during the final phase of the hunter exam) and Episode 35 (Gon vs. Hisoka in Heaven’s Arena, part 1). Truth be told I could have pointed to a dozen episodes easily enough, because in sheer volume of great anime delivered no anime can match this one over the last year. But those two episodes represent some of the darkest, smartest, tensest and most exhilarating GAR shounen ever written – and episode 35 marks what for my money is the best anime fight scene since episode 2 of Seirei no Moribito.
It’s really very straightforward with Hunter X Hunter – this is a great anime. Togashi is a remarkable writer, nimbly dancing back and forth between moods and tones seemingly at will. And Madhouse is doing a fantastic job with the anime, delivering brilliant animation consistently and making the action sequences come alive with some of the best cinematography of the year. H x H has charismatic and fascinating protagonists, unbelievably compelling antagonists (Hisoka and Chrollo are two of the best I’ve ever seen), complex and subtle character development, and some of the most intricate and well-constructed plot arcs and back-story of any series in manga.
Consistently, week-in and week-out, this is the series I’ve most looked forward to watching over the course of the year. It’s anime as it should be – tremendously fun, GAR, engaging, dark and visually stellar. It’s rare that I find a shounen anime I love this much, but shounen this good takes you places no other form of manga or anime can. Thank goodness for Hunter X Hunter – may Madhouse keep making new episodes and may Togashi start giving them new chapters to work with before they catch up.
#4 – Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita
Anytime I can start a series review with “I’ve never seen anything like this before” that show is in pretty good shape. And I’ve definitely never seen anything like Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita before.
Jinrui is not a perfect show. What was usually a great strength – the unrelenting refusal to be conventional or predictable – could also be frustrating. Director/writer team Kishi Seiji and Uezu Makoto took what was already a very iconoclastic LN series by Tanaka Romeo and made it even less accessible, ordering the adaptation in a way I still can’t quite figure out. This was felt most keenly in the ending, which was neither an ending in any real sense or among the anime’s strongest chapters. Yet, finally, that pales when viewed in the larger context – Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita is one of the smartest, boldest and most hilarious anime in many years.
It was clear from the very first episode that Romeo-san was writing on a level most in anime can’t even approach. In terms of pure satire this is one of the finest anime I’ve seen, and in the conceit of a future where mankind in effectively devolving and the odd little creatures called Fairies have risen to prominence, Romeo found the perfect vehicle for his pitiless literary katana. The cute little bastards could get away with saying things humans never could, and in heroine Watashi – brought to life by Nakahara Mai in one of the best seiyuu performances in years – they had their perfect foil. No subject was taboo, and the series amounted to a systematic and hilarious dissection of modern human culture. It was also absolutely beautiful in its fairy-tale pastel surrealism (AIC isn’t consistently great in terms of production values, but they periodically knock one out of the park) and brought off some of the most brilliant comedic set pieces (Pan-tan, the capitalist chicken chase, et al) in anime history.
Really, the only criticism I had of the anime at first was that it didn’t move me emotionally as it did intellectually – but Jinrui breached that both with the growing development among the main cast (especially Watashi and Assistant-kun) and with one-off arcs, like the “Pion/Oyage” story. I wish the series had saved its best moment – the Joshu-kun origin arc – for last, and I was disappointed that Assistant disappeared for the last few episodes. But that’s nothing against the sheer brilliance of the series as a whole – easily the best show of the summer season, and a surprise hit on BD/DVD (a surprise to me, at least). If you haven’t watched Jinrui, do yourself a favor and check it out this week while things are slow in the anime world – it’s both unique and staggeringly brilliant, and any anime that can say that is surely one to be remembered.
#5 Nazo no Kanojo X
If there was any series in 2012 that truly surprised me, it was Nazo no Kanojo X. I didn’t know too much about the property going in (I’d bought a doujin a few years back because I liked the artwork) and quite honestly I found the central conceit (the drool) pretty gross. The studio, Hoods, had never produced anything of real substance. I really didn’t know what to expect, but what I got – one of the very best relationship anime in years – was definitely way more than I expected.
Everything about MGX seems paradoxical. An anime about two teenagers whose relationship began when one drank the other’s drool – and continues to do so daily – that’s also incredibly smart and in fact, very sweet? In fact, nothing in MGX is as it seems – the drool is a metaphor, and indeed so is much of the series. It’s actually an incredibly smart, subtle and incisive story by mangaka Ueshiba Riichi. It sheds light on both love and sex and the role they play in our lives, and it’s a sort of anti-Btooom! in that it reflects a sympathy and understanding of both boys and girls – of how we’re unique, and of what draws us to each other.
As I said in my series review, I consider MGX the spiritual heir to FLCL. While that show was the best ever at exploring the terrifying onset of puberty using symbolism and humor, MGX performs the same role for the teenaged romantic relationship. More than anything I think this series is an exploration of what would happen if boys and girls could actually communicate with each other, and a brilliant one at that. It also features a perfectly cast lead pair of the peerless Miyu Irino and the extremely natural Yoshitani Ayako, and some of the coolest retro 70’s style art in anime. Director Watanabe Ayumu also directs Uchuu Kyoudai, and he’s proved himself beyond doubt with those starkly different series in 2012. Through judicious decisions on what chapters to adapt and in what order, along with a fantastically original visual flair, he’s made an anime that expands on what the manga is (just as Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun’s adaptation did).
Nazo no Kanojo X is a show that demands that we keep an open mind, and defies all expectations. It’s the most surprising anime of 2012, and one of the very best.
#6 – Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun
I’ve already written 10 paragraphs on Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun today, so I don’t have a whole lot to add to that. Needless to say, I hold this series in the highest regard – without a question it’s one of my favorite romances of recent vintage, and for a lot more than romance. Another triumph for Brains Base.
I think Tonari makes an interesting contrast with Hyouka, especially when it comes to rankings like this. I don’t think Tonari even achieved the same level of soaring brilliance that Hyouka did at its very peak moments. But the thing is, Tonari was great every week – pretty much without exception it delivered pure quality, while Hyouka had some fairly dramatic ups and downs. Yet both shows ended up as remarkably subtle character studies of four teenagers, two potential couples each. And each series stands as an example of what’s possible when both the males and females in the cast are treated as serious characters, and all are given full character arcs. It seems so easy – yet it’s something that we rarely see in anime these days.
It seems so easy to say, “Just get it right” – but if it were, every show would do it. It’s amazing how few stumbles this series had over 13 episodes. Visuals, music, casting, pacing – it was all there. And the cast is one of the year’s best, with the supporting characters – especially Natsume and Sasayan, who are really more like co-leads – a particular standout. We may never see the second season Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun so richly deserves, but the first stands out its own as an example of how to make a great shoujo anime.
#7 – Hyouka
It’s a pretty safe bet that if you’d told me after a the first month that Hyouka was going to be in my Top 10 shows if 2012, I’d never have believed it. Yet here we are, and the truth is, my initial instinct was to rank it even higher than I did. So why didn’t I? I think it comes down to a philosophical view on what a list like this should be. Am I judging a series at its best, or the entire series? I think it should be the latter, at least to some extent – so this is where Hyouka falls. And in an above-average year like this one, it’s still a pretty big compliment.
Make no mistake – Hyouka proved itself to be a truly remarkable show. I do think there were too many episodes that simply weren’t all that strong, especially in the first half, to call it unequivocally great – and I don’t think it’s merely a change in my perspective but an actual tangible step up in quality. But when Hyouka found its stride it was breathtaking. The visuals always were – even by Kyoto Animation standards this is a truly gorgeous series to look at. I’d rank it as the most visually impressive TV anime since Seirei no Moribito, and not just because of the beautiful art and lavishly expensive animation, but because of how genuinely creative the visuals were. It was as if the cinematography were a second script, telling another story right alongside the one being told by the dialogue. It’s the most impressive series KyoAni has done in terms of visuals, and that’s saying something.
Where Hyouka truly surprised me was in the depth and subtlety of the writing. This series was special – quite unlike any anime I’ve ever seen in its narrative approach. No other show captured as well for me the feeling of being a bright high-schooler trying to fill the day, and the exquisite art of wasting time. The character development was so sophisticated that in most cases it was impossible to spot that it was even happening until, in a flash, you notice how much a character has grown up. The “Kanya Festa” arc was a work of true genius, spending multiple episodes simply depicting a culture festival as an incredibly interesting place to be, then crafting the finest mystery of the series – the finest because it showed off the inner workings of the four main characters brilliantly. Hyouka also delivered a truly spectacular ending (we all know how hard that can be), one of the best in recent anime history.
At it’s best, Hyouka was right there with the very best anime of the year – and it was doing so in a way that was dramatically different than what any other series was doing. Consistency counts, and that’s the reason there are better series than this one in 2012 – but in terms of depth and emotional perceptiveness, Hyouka takes a back seat to no one.
#8 – Eureka Seven: Astral Ocean
I strongly suspect that this pick is going to find more disagreement than any of the others on my list. Seeing as how I’ve stated the case for E7: AO so many times in my weekly posts, there doesn’t seem much point in doing so again – and I’m certainly not going to convince anyone who disagrees with me. So I’ll just reiterate the gist of why I love this show so much. It does exactly what a good sequel should do: it honors the spirit of the original without trying to be a copy of it. AO dared to be different, and paid a price for that with fans of the beloved original Eureka Seven. Hey, I love E7 too – that’s why I was so pleased Astral Ocean ended up being the great series it did.
I can’t help but think of Steven Spielberg when I consider my feelings for this series. Spielberg has obviously directed a dizzying array of blockbuster hits, many of them also very fine films. But my two favorite Spielberg films are two which made very little money and divided the critics: Empire of the Sun and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. I used to wonder why it was that I split so dramatically from mass opinion on Spielberg’s films, and then I realized – it doesn’t matter. I see an emotional honesty and a willingness to avoid pandering in those films that make them stand out from the rest of his work, and if others don’t feel the same way, that’s fine. There are some – like the legendary critic Andrew Sarris – who were champions of both those movies, and argued that over time they would come to be viewed as the classics they were while some of Spielberg’s more lauded movies would fade to obscurity.
Time will tell, and the same can be said of Astral Ocean. In the end, it doesn’t really matter to me – I think this show is another example of BONES’ willingness to take risks, something other anime studios are doing more and more rarely these days. I would laud them for the effort no matter how E7:AO had turned out – the fact that it turned out to be one of the best shows of the year is all the more reason to do so.
#9 – Jormungand
Choosing these last two slots was agonizingly difficult, because the last cuts – one show in particular – are definitely worthy to be on this list. Truth be told Jormungand and Ano Natsu could almost have been throws of the dart, there’s so little separating them from the first show I cut and even the second – but I did make a conscious decision to include them, because the need to do so was just that tiniest bit more insistent.
You’ve got a snootful of recent Jormungand posts to read through if you want to know why I love this series, so I won’t go into the reasons at length here. Suffice to say, this is a rock-solid adaptation of a great manga. In fact it may be the most letter-faithful manga adaptation I’ve ever seen, and while I generally support that in theory it doesn’t always work in practice. Especially with a manga as narratively challenging as Jormungand, one where the mangaka doesn’t exactly bend over backwards to make things clear to the audience. But somehow it worked, and delivered up one of the fascinating character studies in recent anime. That element was sometimes hidden beneath a huge and Byzantine plot whose primary role was to put pressure on the characters, and in the process shed light on the human condition, but Jormungand was always about the characters first. Because of the nature of the series, Perfect Order soared above the already-excellent first cour in overall quality – we knew these characters, and understood the essentials of what made them tick. The nature of this cast is that the more we know about them, the more fascinating they become.
Much more next week in the series review.
#10 – Ano Natsu de Matteru
The pedigree for Ano Natsu was a strong one: ace director Nagai Tatsuyuki and the Onegai franchise writer Kuroda Yousuke – along with the character designer and much of the key staff. As one of the few original series JC Staff has launched in recent years, this one had a high curiosity factor for me – and it didn’t disappoint. I think is surpasses Yousuke’s Onegai series in overall quality.
I won’t lie – this #10 slot was a tough call, because there are at least 3-4 shows that deserve to be in the top 10 and won’t be (that as much as anything shows it was a strong year). But when I looked at the overall enjoyment a series gave me, Ano Natsu won the day. What really stands out in my memory is just how beautifully paced the series was – both intra-episodically and as a whole. The talent and experience of the staff really shows here, with each episode providing a discernible beginning, conflict and climax. It’s an old-fashioned show in a very good sense – dispensing with all the trappings and affectations that drag modern anime romantic comedies down and delivering winning character interaction and some of the funniest situation comedy of the year. It also dared to focus on what happened after the main couple became a couple, and didn’t drag the moment where they became a couple out interminably. Misunderstandings were usually cleared up quickly, and the show recognized the fact that what happens in a relationship is usually much more interesting to watch than two people dancing around the idea of starting one. In addition, Ano Natsu proved to be one of the year’s best series about friendship as well as a great romance – an area where JC Staff and Nagai-sensei once again prove their expertise.
Aside from that, this was the best-looking JC Staff show in years, and the cast was terrific – headed by the great Tomatsu Haruka and relative newcomer Shimazaki Nobunaga. This was really just a simple, straightforward and confident show from a director and writer not so afraid of telling a real story about real characters that they had to hide behind cheap dramatic tricks. The hardest thing to do in comedy is be good and make it look easy, and these guys really made it look easy.
Honorable Mention: Shirokuma Café
I like to use this leadoff spot to call attention to a show that isn’t in the Top 10 but deserves more attention, and Shirokuma Café seems like an ideal candidate. In fact it’s ongoing and isn’t even eligible for this year’s list, but as it gets so little attention – and because my posts about it tend to be short – there’s no show that fits the bill better.
Tonight’s episode is a perfect example of why this is such a great series. It’s almost impossible not to feel good watching this show – the humor is generally low-key, but often uproariously funny and even quite subversive once in a while. Shirokuma is all about balance, as so many good anime comedies are – balance between warmth and irony, and between lowbrow and intellectual humor. There were so many great gags in this episode – my favorite was the “Secret World of Arrietty” in the pun montage, which Penguin-san out a stop to just in time to keep the lawyers from getting involved. I don’t think we’ve ever seen quite so much fun with the vacuum gag – first Panda-kun got sucked up by Panda-mama as usual (while reading a “Penguin Holmes” manga), then sucked himself up (still saying “Don’t suck me up!”), then Penguin, and finally Panda-kun sucked up Grizzly-san (“Don’t freakin’ suck me up!”). Shirokuma-san’s random and completely unnecessary “In France this would be déjà vu!” was a keeper, too. We also had the warm feelings of a quiet New Year’s together – nice to see Llama-san included as part of the “family” before all the rest showed up. And finally Sloth and Tortoise-san showing up just in time to make everyone miss the countdown.
The essence of an underappreciated show is one that’s easy to take for granted despite all you get from it, and the shoe fits here. It’s not an easy show to blog because it’s hard to capture the experience of watching it – comedies are hard to blog anyway, especially one that doesn’t rely on big comic set-pieces or extensive character humor – but it’s incredibly easy to enjoy. Shirokuma Café just keeps delivering, week after week, and makes it look easy.
A quick note on eligibility:
So as not to generate any false suspense, I wanted to clarify which series are eligible for this year’s list. My general guideline is still to make a show eligible on the year it finishes airing – that makes it easy with shows like Shin Sekai Yori. There are some grey areas though, one of them differentiating between split-cour series – which I always make eligible in the year the final cour airs – and true sequels. I consider both Fate/Zero (which split between two calendar years) and Jormungand (which didn’t) as split-cour shows, as their full schedule was announced in advance and there was no question that they would take only one season off for production reasons. I don’t consider Chihayafuru a split-cour, because it took multiple seasons off and there was no confirmation of a second season at the time the first ended. Therefore Chihayafuru is eligible for this year’s list even though it has a sequel airing in 2013. So are Jormungand and F/Z of course, but that’s because their final cours ended in 2012.
I did, however, decide to make one exception this year: Hunter X Hunter. There are several reasons: first, because the show aired for the entirety of 2012. Second, we don’t have a confirmed end-date for the series. Once a series airs for an entire calendar year it seems to me that it makes sense to judge that year as a body of work – and, quite frankly, I’m anxious to shower the series with some well-deserved praise in a year-end review and don’t want to wait an indeterminate length of time to do so.