Once Shin Sekai Yori was revealed as my #2 anime for 2013, there certainly wasn’t much mystery left about the last entry on the list. It could only be Coppelion. Or… not.
#1 – Hunter X Hunter 2011
Believe it or not, this wasn’t an easy choice. Both Shin Sekai Yori and Kyousougiga spent some time at the top of my leader board over the last several weeks, as I watched Kyousougiga and weighed the relative merits of three great series in my mind. But in the end, Hunter X Hunter always won the day. I can only look at what it’s accomplished with an awe that borders on disbelief.
There is the one problem though, as I said – how can I possibly come up with anything new to say about this series whose praises I’ve been singing for 110 weeks? Hunter X Hunter is, simply, great – a miraculous marriage of a genius mangaka, a top-notch studio that’s budgeted the show generously and a creative team (led by underrated director Koujina Hiroshi) that’s been religiously faithful to the letter and spirit of the manga while making small changes that have almost always been for the better. In adaptation terms, it’s a perfect storm.
One could ask why H x H was #3 last year and moved up to first in 2013 (while, for example, Chihayafuru dropped 8 places to #10). There are a few factors I think, the first being that 2012 was a marginally better year than 2013 for anime. There’s also the fact that the series is defying all precedent by staying this good (and this beautifully animated) for this long – to have been this superb in a second year is an even greater achievement than a first. But I also believe that, just by the tiniest sliver, Hunter X Hunter has actually been better in 2013 than it was in 2012. It’s a brutally tough call – “Heaven’s Arena” may be my favorite arc (purely a personal choice) and last year also gave us the tail end of the “Hunter Exam” arc along with “Zoldyck Family” and “York Shin”. The beginning of 2013 coincides almost perfectly with the start of “Greed Island”, which segued into the ongoing and epic “Chimera Ant” arc.
Damn – how in the world does one choose between those bodies of work? If there’s anything that nudges this year just slightly into the lead, it’s the fact that the series (because the same is true of the manga) has been a hair more consistent. That, and because Togashi is such a brilliant writer than he continually builds on what’s come before, and that allows him to take his characters into even deeper and darker psychological territory than he could with the material covered last year. But truth be told, both years are so stellar that it’s difficult to choose between them.
That gives you an idea of where H x H is now – it’s really only completing against itself and history. These are the yardsticks now – not whether it was the best show of 2013, but whether it’s the best shounen adaptation of all-time (in my eyes, clearly yes), the best straight manga adaptation ever, and the greatest long-running series ever. For me Hunter X Hunter’s 2013 was the greatest full year of anime since Cross Game, and even there it’s a photo-finish. Anime simply don’t do this – no clunker episodes, consistent brilliance, exquisite sakuga animation aplenty – for 110 weeks. This is the adaptation Togashi’s masterpiece deserves, and the miraculous thing is that it’s the adaptation it’s received.
The future for Hunter X Hunter is a bit unsettled for the moment – Togashi is still on hiatus, the anime is now on late-night (somehow avoiding a drop in animation quality), and it seems likely that the series will end – for now – after the remaining manga chapters are adapted rather than continue with original material. But what a legacy it’s creating for itself. The friendship of Gon and Killua is one of the most complex and emotionally powerful in anime, the cast of supporting characters (especially the irreplaceable Hisoka) probably unmatched, and the current arc is one of the darkest and most elaborately plotted in manga history. Hunter X Hunter continues to deliver on every front – character development, social commentary, action, and subtly asking profound questions about what makes humans and the societies they create tick. This series is the benchmark by which all other shounen adaptations will be judged, and more than that, a show that I love unreservedly. There can be no more fitting or deserving choice as my top anime of 2013.
#2 – Shin Sekai Yori
We’re at the point of this list where it’s just a matter of parsing tiny slivers of personal preference – all of the top three series this year are truly great anime, timeless treasures that will be regarded as important works for years to come. And that certainly applies to Shin Sekai Yori.
I’ve discussed the sad trend that runs through my Top 10 this year – commercial failure – but Shin Sekai Yori practically redefines the term (it’s right there with Dansai Bunri no Crime Edge, at least). The show averaged well under 1000 units per volume, and while I recognize that this isn’t an especially mainstream or commercial story, I do shake my head and wonder – how can a show this spectacularly good possibly convince so few anime fans to support it and – by doing so – more series like it?
If I start to list the reasons why SSY was such a superb show, we’d be hear till next year (even if that is this week, it’s a long time). Absolutely superb score by Shigeo Komori (“Kage no Denshouka Daisanbu” may be my favorite BGM track of the year), brilliant use of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony”, and ED by Taneda Risa (who also plays the lead, Saki – and beautifully). A truly astonishing job by director Ishihama Masashi and A-1 Pictures in delivering beautiful visuals with a distinctly tiny budget. The best pacing of any series this year, both intra-episodic and beyond. Great work by the cast, especially Risa and the always awe-inspiring Namikawa Daisuke with one one of the greatest chameleon roles ever as the villain (or not) Yakomaru.
I opened my series review for Shin Sekai Yori by thanking everyone involved with making it – starting with novelist Kishin Yusuke, right up to the people who had the vision and courage to adapt his novels and give them two cours (and took a bath for it, as it turned out). Anime adapted from novels have a much better track record than those adapted from any other sources, and the sheer intelligence and complexity of this story is staggering. It’s fearless, merciless with the audience – sparing us none of the ugliness of the world it depicts, and offering no easy answers for the questions it raises. It grabs you from the shocking first few minutes of the premiere and never lets go for 25 episodes, pulling us into a world somewhere in our future that feels so real it completely absorbs you. Each of these episode felt like it lasted about five minutes, yet they were densely packed with character development, plot and challenging intellectual and moral questions.
Like Kyousougiga, this is an anime that both aspires to greatness and has the chops to achieve it. There are a few slip-ups here, mostly involving the ill-advised attempt to fetishize the character Maria and her relationship with Saki, which damaged the more-important relationship between Saki and Satoru (some of Kaji Yuuki’s best work ever) – certainly more mistakes than by Kyousougiga, which was as close to seamless as any show this year. But this was a much longer series, telling a story with even greater depth and breadth, spread over two timeskips – so I think that kind of thing is close to unavoidable. Two-cour series that come close to perfection are basically in the Seirei no Moribito class, i.e. once-a-decade masterpieces. By any other standard besides that impossibly lofty one, Shin Sekai Yori stands tall.
I always fear that when I see a brilliant show like this abysmally fail that it’s going to be the last one I ever see made, but for now at least anime as a medium still seems to have the ambition to try at least once or twice a year. A series like this should be treasured, though, because anime this good have always been rare and are likely only going to become more so. Thank you again to A-1, the director, the novelist, the cast, and everyone involved – this is a series than transcends commercial considerations and achieves historical significance, and for some of us at least that’s enough.
#3 – Kyousougiga
I’ve known the top three spots on this list for a while now – it’s really only been a question of how the order would shake out. And truth be told there isn’t a whole lot between them – I could easily have made a case for Kyousougiga as the top show of the year. As I said in my series review this kind of series isn’t just the reason I love anime – it’s the reason I started loving anime in the first place.
As in the last couple of years, I don’t feel like saying as much about the shows on this list that aired in the current season – the words are fresh in mind, and there for anyone who cares to read them. But in brief, the essence of Kyousougiga is, for me, that it aspires to greatness and achieves it. The level of care and commitment that went into this series is astonishing – aside from the stellar art, animation and music, the story is pieced together like a delicate spiderweb. So much goes into it – so much talent, so much symbolism, so much cultural literacy – and the end result is a story that resonates deeply on the human level.
It has, indeed, been a good year for Kyoto in anime – and like the other Kyoto series on this list, Kyousougiga is at heart a love story about family. It’s beautiful, deep and profound, and like few series before it is capable of engaging both at the intellectual and emotional level. Kyousougiga ended up being very different than the frantic, bewildering and exhilarating mess I expected – it was much more grounded, coherent and sentimental. I was expecting to like this show a lot, and ended up loving it for a completely unexpected set of reasons. Not every anime has the potential to be great, but one thing’s for sure – if you don’t try to be great, you definitely won’t be. I only wish more shows had the towering ambition of Kyousougiga – if they did, anime would be an even more fascinating medium.
#4 – Ginga e Kickoff
I’ve referenced the famous movie review by the late, great Roger Ebert, the movie in question being North. Well, with one small change it applies to my #4 series of 2013 – I love, love, love Ginga e Kickoff.
This show works for me on every level, but the equation is really very simple – there’s no anime in years that I’ve loved more. There are a few series I can objectively say are better this year, but none which so completely charmed me and made me care so deeply for the characters. As I said when covering the show, the feeling when Shou or one of the other Predators had a milestone moment was like watching my own kid do so – that’s how happy those moments were for me, and how agonizing it was when things didn’t go well for them.
Make no mistake about it: GeK is able to do all that because it’s a truly great anime. It’s beautifully written, with some of the most realistic material related to youth sports in anime history and tremendous character development that occurs gradually and naturally. It has a fantastic cast, including Yuu Kobayashi in her best male role ever as the tireless terrier of a hero, Outa Shou, and Koyama Rikiya absolutely winning as Hanashima-Koochi, the adult mentor who anchors the series. The strength of his character (and the performance) allows Ginga e Kickoff to switch back-and-forth between the kids’ perspective and the adults’ without missing a beat – something very few anime focused on kids can do. All of the kids on the Predators are interesting and distinct personalities, and Shou is a truly great main character – an undersized and under-confident kid who sees things others don’t see and absolutely refuses to be discouraged by anything life throws at him, on the pitch or off.
I have an even deeper connection to this series, though, because in a way it feels as if it’s the show I most closely identify with as a blogger. Even in the niche world of the English-language anime fandom I’m a tiny fish in a big ocean, but there was pretty much no one paying any attention to GeK when I started blogging it. It was a sports series – strike one. The main characters were 12 year-olds – strike two. There was no best-selling manga – strike three. I can state with almost total confidence that I made a bigger difference with Ginga e Kickoff than with any other anime – I believe I’ve had more people thank me for turning them on to it than every other show I’ve ever blogged combined. In this very small pond, for once I was a big fish.
There are rewards that only a great sports series can offer, and a great show about kids is likewise a unique experience. It’s a shame so many anime fans dismiss both, but I was pleased that Ginga e Kickoff did make some converts in Japan – it placed quite highly in several fan surveys, and actually managed to make a sizable splash with the fujoshi fanbase. In terms of pure enjoyment and emotional buy-in, this little series is a positive titan – a great example of how to do this sort of show right. If you’re willing to open your mind to the possibility than an anime outside your normal comfort zone can win you over, by all means give Ginga e Kickoff a chance. It’s full of heart, humor and intelligence and richly deserves its place on this list.
#5 Watashi ga Motenai no wa Dou Kangaete mo Omaera ga Warui!
How can a series this painful be such a pleasure to watch?
Summer is normally the dog days for anime, but in this episode-down year it was probably the best season in terms of truly elite series. And Watamote certainly meets that description. There was plenty of reason to be hesitant about this series: the manga is unrelentingly bleak and seemed like a tough candidate for adaptation, and Oonuma Shin’s recent track record has been decidedly mixed. But Watamote was a triumph – this year’s Nazo no Kanojo X in the sense that it was a case of a director improving on a very good manga, and that it transcended my expectations in every way.
I analyzed the hell out of this show in my episode posts, so I won’t rehash all that now. But I will say that I really admire how it stayed true to the dark perspective of the manga while still somehow injecting the tiniest amount of hope. As anyone who grew up with a family member who suffered from severe social anxiety will tell you, this series was obviously the work of a writer who knows the subject painfully well. Tomoko isn’t remotely likable in the conventional sense – she’s often mean-spirited and petty, and clearly the source of most of her own problems. But my heart still breaks watching her suffer through her own personal Hell, and of course she can’t help the way she is – and that’s largely the point. Tomoko is moe in the original sense of the word.
Amazingly enough, while never pulling punches Watamote still manages to be one of the funniest series of the year. Shin does an amazing job with showing us the world through Tomoko’s uniquely paranoid point-of-view, and Izumi Kitta delivers a truly spectacular performance – she’s alternately hilarious, grating, snarky and achingly subdued. Watamote, like the other series on this list so far, didn’t do much in terms of sales but the manga continues to be popular – including, interestingly, in America. Sentai has licensed it and I’ll be very interested to see how the anime is received, though absent Kitta’s performance it likely won’t be nearly the same. What does it say that a brilliant and funny series that’s incredibly literate and astute about otaku and fujoshi culture can’t succeed commercially as an anime in Japan? Nothing good, that’s for sure.
Watamote was a very personal experience for me, I freely admit. Yet I think it’s a truly noteworthy series on its own terms. Smart, moving, funny, visually brilliant with a terrific soundtrack. I also think it does a great service by shedding light on a truly authentic life experience without sugarcoating the harshness of it, asking the audience to understand Tomoko without softening any of her razor-sharp edges. If you like your anime to be about something, look no further than Watamote – it’s a series of significance and, I think, one that will stand the test of time better than most.
#6 – Uchouten Kazoku
It’s been a good year for Kyoto in anime. Uchouten Kazoku is another love letter to the magical city by Morimi Tomihiko, who also wrote The Tatami Galaxy. I think this is the better series – warmer, more honest and less pretentious. It’s also yet more proof that anime adapted from novels (not light novels) tend to be some of the best around, and that P.A. Works is one of the most artistically ambitious and admirable anime studios.
Naturalistic Surrealism is about the best term I can use for Uchouten Kazoku as far as style goes, and watching it truly is a magical experience. It’s an anime full of mystical creatures and bizarre events, depicting a Kyoto where the human residents are unaware that much of the population is made up of tanuki and tengu. Yet it treats all this in a very matter-of-fact way, and the triumph of the series is in the way it depicts the simple and very human emotions that drive it – especially love for one’s family.
Uchouten was a mildly slow starter for me, and the last couple of episodes weren’t the show at its best. But for a stretch it was as good as any anime this season, especially the sixth and eighth episodes. I consider the latter among my ten favorite anime episodes of all-time – it’s a masterpiece of powerful emotions that left me drained and exhilarated at the same time. This is wonderful series, with fantastic and fantastical art unlike anything P.A. Works has done before and a superb cast of characters, including the supporting players. It tanked commercially, predictably (as has every show on this list so far except, debatably, Chihayafuru 2), but I hope that doesn’t discourage P.A. Works from taking more chances on stories like this.
#7 – Dansai Bunri no Crime Edge
I knew from the very first episode – the first few moments in fact – that Dansai Bunri no Crime Edge had something exceptional going for it. There were some awkward narrative transitions but that premiere was overflowing with style and a weird and compelling sensibility that grabbed my consciousness and never let go.
The first thing that strikes you with Crime Edge is certainly the visuals. The series was produced by Studio Gokumi (of whom I knew very little before this show) but the visual staff is peppered with big names, many of whom worked on Gurren-Lagann (the similarity in look was apparent to me immediately). It was a fabulously creative effort start-to-finish, lush and gorgeous and full of iconic imagery, with some of the best cinematography and use of lighting I’ve ever seen in anime.
Like the visuals, the story itself is adept at juxtaposing ugliness and beauty. Contrast is a powerful narrative weapon in the right hands, and it’s used like a scalpel in Crime Edge. It’s a series about fetishes as much as anything, and people trying to do terrible things to each other. It’s about trying to contain the evil impulses that reside inside all of us. But it also features one of the most refreshing and innocent romances in years (helped by the casting of seiyuu who aren’t the usual suspects), and moments of real grace and transcendence.
Dansai Bunri is like an art-house film, a weird and challenging and idiosyncratic work that whiffs commercially and pisses off half the audience even as it entrances the other half. I love it for its fearlessness and insight and intelligence and wit, and for the true passion it displays for creating anime that’s art, and not just craft.
#8 – Rozen Maiden Zurückspulen
Although I wasn’t a huge fan of the earlier adaptations of Peach-Pit’s manga, I had a suspicion Zurückspulen was going to be a different animal. I always preach “look at the staff” and with Mochizuki Tomomi writing and Omata Shinichi directing, it would have been an upset if this series hadn’t been great. And it was great.
There are certainly many deserving series this year, but I chose Rozen Maiden here because it’s a beautiful, thoughtful and technically brilliant anime that worked on many different levels. Perhaps I can pay it no greater compliment than to say that it was so good, it made we want to read the manga, knowing this was a more faithful version than the Nomad editions. And the manga is indeed far better than I expected, though Shinichi’s visual flair (like Shinbou with taste and restraint) and Mochizuki’s dialogue and sound direction make this anime even more special.
I love the way this series weaves together the stories of “wound” and “unwound” Jun while asking profound questions about identity and free will. I love the way the dolls are less fetishized and more complex as actual characters (Sugintou and Kanaria are night-and-day from the Nomad versions, and Shinku has never been more sympathetic). I love the respect it shows for its audience by challenging them and letting them figure things out on their own. This is a great series, part of a Summer 2013 season that may be one of the best that normally weak time for anime has offered in many years.
#9 – Zetsuen no Tempest
This may be the first pick where I meet some serious disagreement – maybe not – but this is one of those shows that stands up better than most. Like last year’s Hyouka, Zetsuen no Tempest reveals its charms fully only upon reflection. This series isn’t as great as that one and they could hardly be more different thematically, but they both have a specialness about them that makes them quite different from most anime.
Zetsuen was, in a sense, a marriage made in Heaven. Shirodaira Kyou’s brash, operatic manga was the perfect muse for Okada Mari, and in Andou Masahiro the show got the strong director it needed both to give it the theatrical sweep it needed and to keep Okada’s bad habits in-check. And if there was ever a series that was custom-designed for the BONES sensibility, this was the one. I used the same words over and over with this series – grand, operatic, sweeping – and of course, a premise that’s a sort of fusion of Shakespeare and Beethoven isn’t going to do anything to take away from that.
There are flaws with Zetsuen, no doubt – the second cour wasn’t as great as the first, and the opening couple of episodes were a bit hard to appreciate, for starters. But the show grew on me in a big way, and the middle third is one of the best stretches any anime achieved this year. How many shows could pull off a four-episode swing which basically consisted of four characters unmoving, debating with each other, with Koyama Rikiya’s Samon saying “Shounen!” while pounding his sword hilt on the rocks every few minutes? It was great stuff – and Zetsuen no Tempest was full of great stuff. It’s one of the most spectacular anime I’ve seen in a quite literal sense of delivering “spectacle” – soaring music, dramatic dialogue, signature BONES visual snapshots. It’s a unique and special series, and that’s more than enough to transcend its flaws and earn it a place on this list.
#10 – Chihayafuru 2
Chihayafuru makes the list for the second year in a row, though it was a much tougher call this time around.
It’s no secret that I love Chihayafuru, but it’s also no secret that I loved the second season somewhat less than the first. In fact as I read the manga, it seems to me that the second season covered the least compelling part of the story – certainly the chapters taking place after it ended (spectacular, mostly) are more gripping for me than much of what we saw in this season. So it’s a testament to how great the series is that it still cracked the top 10.
I could certainly attest to the reasons why I didn’t love this season as unreservedly as the last – mostly due to some imbalances in the themes, direction and pacing. But at its best it was still spectacular. It still managed to move and thrill and anger and inspire me and break my heart like few shows can. Chihayafuru is special, very special, and as I read the most recent chapters I was consumed by a burning desire to see Madhouse animate them. For all its shortcomings, in the end there was simply too much of what makes this such a special series to leave it out of the top 10. And as always, those last couple of cuts were brutal ones.
Honorable Mention – Bakuman 3
This award is really for all three seasons of Bakuman, which never received the attention they deserved. Since I always lead off the year’s-best list with shows that don’t make the Top-10 but stand out in spite of that, this seems like a perfect time to celebrate this underrated gem.
Bakuman didn’t have the best animation, or the most star-studded seiyuu cast. But what it did have was an amazing amount of passion for manga – it’s a true labor of love for the team of Obata and Ohba. With the superb Kasai Kenichi at the helm Bakuman 3 managed to steer through some of the less-beloved sections of the manga and deliver a really stirring and heartwarming conclusion. I love manga and I love anime, and seeing an anime about manga (sometimes being made into anime) was a fascinating experience. As usual it was the cast that really closed the sale, and there have been few series that have seen me care as much about the characters as I did with Bakuman.
Kasai-sensei had a lot of ground to cover in this season, and it was certainly the most fast-paced of the three. But it got where it needed to go, with all of the major relationships in the series – finishing, as it had to, with Mashiro and Azuki. It leaves Mashiro in the middle of his life’s journey but that’s fitting, as the journey is much more the point of Bakuman than the destination. As much as Bakuman is a manga and anime for people who love manga, it’s in telling the human stories that it’s at its very best. Ultimately the heroes of Bakuman – Mashiro, Takagi, Azuki, Kaya, Eiji, Hattori – are relatable characters who are incredibly easy to root for because they’re fundamentally decent people who work their asses off to chase their dreams.
A Refresher on Eligibility:
I’m going by the same eligibility standard I used for the 2012 list – that is, shows that finished airing in 2013 or split-cours that finished in 2013, plus shows that aired for the entire year (such as Hunter X Hunter and Uchuu Kyoudai). The only show that really fell in a grey area was Little Busters! – not whether it was eligible, but whether to consider Little Busters! and Refrain as one contiguous series or separately (ultimately I chose the latter). In effect, then, the only shows not eligible for this list are the multi-cour series that began airing from Spring 2013 onwards and are still airing into Winter 2014.
And a little contest – anyone that guesses the Top 10, in order, gets a made-to-order haiku. If no one does that, I’ll go with the closest guess. Guesses made by 2359 JST 12/22/13 will be eligible.