How in the world do I find anything new to say about Hunter X Hunter? I’ve blogged 148 episodes, two movies and several miscellaneous H x H-related events. It was a fixture in 2013’s “Best of” posts. As a blogger this series has surely defined me and my body of writing more than any other (though I’d argue I was perhaps most impactful with coverage of the almost-universally ignored Ginga e Kickoff). In short, I think anyone likely to be reading this knows what I think about this series at this point.
I don’t think there is much new I could say about this series or my feelings about it. So maybe I should talk about how it relates to this list, and about the franchise itself. On that latter point, I have read the first nine chapters of the current manga arc (“Dark Continent”) but haven’t been able to bring myself to read the last, knowing it may indeed be the last new Hunter X Hunter we get for some time.
No one can say what the future holds for the series – when Togashi-sensei’s health will improve enough for him to publish semi-regularly again (if it ever does), what his plans are for the story, and if there would be interest in animating the rest of it once Togashi does manage to get enough of it into print. I do know this much – if Togashi’s health results in Gon & Killua’s storyline being left where it is forever (for the record, Gon has been minimally involved in “Dark Continent” and Killua not at all) I’ll be absolutely heartbroken. I should also note, as some have asked me, that I’ve watched about half of the 1999 series now and intend to eventually finish it. I find it quite good, but in truth I’m struck both by how much more faithful the 2011 is to the manga, and by how much better it is in terms of production values and casting (though I won’t deny I’m biased). I could compare to the two adaptations at-length, but this really isn’t the proper venue for that.
This is a Top 10 list for 2014, so let me address why Hunter X Hunter was once again my top series. There were only two candidates – no other 2014 series comes close to H x H or Mushishi Zoku Shou. H x H becomes the first series to repeat three times in the list, never mind top it twice, and I should point out that when I rank it for 2014, I’m doing it based on the 2014 edition of the show – in other words, the “Chimera Ant” arc (the year actually began with Episode 111, about midway through it) and the short “Election” arc which closes the TV series. Hunter X Hunter was last year’s top series, and #3 in 2012 (so eligible because in ran for both years in their entirety) and thus had already set an extremely high standard for itself.
Here’s the bottom line – in my view, Hunter X Hunter was better in 2013 than it was in 2012. And though it’s a near thing given how much I adore last year’s material, I think it actually managed to improve again in 2014. “Chimera Ant” is a controversial arc, but for me it’s the most intellectually ambitious, existentially disturbing and subtlest arc in shounen manga history. And Madhouse adapted it brilliantly, with the usual impossibly-consistent animation and some of the finest voice work I’ve heard in anime.
Trying to compare Hunter X Hunter against Mushishi really points up the futility of exercises like these lists, because the two series could hardly be more different. They each succeed brilliantly at achieving utterly different goals. It would be hard to imagine any series doing better at being the kind of story Mushishi is than Mushishi itself – it’s functionally perfect as far as I’m concerned. Hunter X Hunter is an altogether distinct creation, and one reason why I give it the nod here is because what Togashi has achieved with “Chimera Ant” seems so impossible. Whereas Mushishi transports us with mesmerizing and contemplative stand-alone tales week after week, everything Togashi does is connected. You can draw an unbroken line from the beginning of the “Hunter Exam” arc to the coda of “Chimera Ant” and see how Togashi brought these characters where he did. In terms of sheer achievement, I stand in awe of that and I just don’t think any anime – not even Mushishi – can stand as the equal of it.
I’m currently in the midst of a rewatch of this series (I’m about 23 episodes in) and while it’s plain that Togashi was always evolving his stylistic take on this premise, it’s remarkable how much is foreshadowed by these early episodes. I again refer back to what Salieri supposedly said of Mozart, that he wrote “as if he were taking dictation from God” – and that’s what Hunter X Hunter feels like to me. It’s as if Togashi had this magnificently dark and complex story composed in his head, and merely needed to commit it to the page.
The sheer complexity of the relationship between Gon and Killua alone is astounding, but in “Chimera Ant” it’s layered in with Buddhist allegory, political satire, deconstruction of shounen convention, and a dizzying array of supporting characters with deep and complex arcs of their own. In manga or anime, I’ve never seen anything like it. Are there more “mistakes” in “Chimera Ant” than in Mushishi Zoku Shou – is it less perfect? Yes, undoubtedly – but the ambition soars so ridiculously high (and the most transcendent moments are so sublime) that I can’t possibly hold that against it.
With all that said about the written material, it’s worth remembering that it’s the anime version of “Chimera Ant” that I’m honoring here. And here’s thing thing – for all its brilliance and endless wealth of ideas, this arc is a seeming nightmare to adapt. The narrative (by choice) is all over the map. Much of the exposition comes in the form of narration, and entire chapters can cover a mere 10-15 seconds of real time (sometimes more than one chapter with the same 10-15 seconds). Main characters are off-screen for many episodes in a row, and sometimes entire ones focus on seemingly quite minor characters. And while there are lights-out shounen moments to rival any in manga, they’re not the climactic moments of the arc – as is always the case with Hunter X Hunter.
Yet somehow, miraculously, Koujina Hiroshi and Madhouse make it not just work, but soar. Those 10-second episodes are breathless thrill rides, and all of the “minor” characters jump off the screen. “Chimera Ant” can give us Netero’s battle with Meruem, yes, and Gon’s unbelievably tense verbal confrontation with Neferpitou. It can give us Killua’s tears, and the unlikeliest romance in anime this year. But it can also give is a truly Shakespearean face-off with Ikalgo and Welfin, full of subtext and psychological subtlety. It’s astonishing, all of it.
All of that, of course, doesn’t even begin to factor in “Election”, which marks another complete stylistic shift for Togashi and Hunter X Hunter. And while by its nature “Election” is not as awe-inspiring as “Chimera Ant”, it’s likewise remarkable as it gives us by far our most intimate look at the inner workings of the Hunter Association. And in the process it returns us to the themes of the long-ago “Zoldyck Family” arc and reveals the fault lines in Gon and Killua’s relationship, and finally confronts the ultimate shounen trope which began the series – Gon’s quest to find his father. In doing so it manages to conclude with one of the best finales in recent anime history, even as it makes it clear that H x H is still very much an ongoing story. Even to the extent where Megumi Han described the first 148 episodes as the “prologue”.
There you have it, really – there’s just so much here to discuss, even after 199 posts on the series. This world and these characters are so intricate, so subtle, so real – there’s really nothing else quite like it in shounen or anywhere else in anime. When I take into consideration everything achieved by a series over its 2014 run, I can’t rank anything ahead of Hunter X Hunter – not even the note-perfect and life-changing brilliance that is Mushishi Zoku Shou. Hunter X Hunter was the best series of 2013, and it managed to be even better in 2014. The only thing it can be compared against is history, and it’s already carved out a lofty perch for itself.
#2 – Mushishi Zoku Shou
I’ve made no secret of my belief that 2014 was a bad year for anime – on balance the worst since I’ve been a fan in terms of elite series. I love all the shows on this list, but in truth as a group they don’t really look like a Top 10 to me – they’re wonderful shows, but not an especially strong body of work as compared to my prior lists.
Ironically, it’s at the very top where 2014 can hold its own with any anime year. My #2 series of the year is Mushishi Zoku Shou, and it’s no exaggeration to say that there any many years when it would have been the #1. To say the gap between the top 2 shows and the rest is wide is a massive understatement – that’s part of the problem with the year, but also a reflection of just how great these top two are. There are times when I’ve been surprised and disheartened at the lack of commentary on the episode posts, but I sort of understand it – Mushishi speaks for itself so eloquently that it can seem almost disrespectful to try and add anything oneself.
As to just why the final order of those last two series is what it is, I’ll touch on it tomorrow – but it must be said, it would have been no stretch for me to make Mushishi my top series of 2014 (as it was in 2006). As a practice I don’t write long Top 10 entries for series that have just concluded in the Fall season – I have a long post from last week explaining why I revere Mushishi as much as I do, and there’s no need to repeat myself here.
In that context, then, I’ll simply reiterate for the record – I love Mushishi, and I think it’s one of the finest and most important anime of the 21st Century. Mushishi is that exceptional series that isn’t a classic example of a genre, or a deconstruction, or a subversion – it’s simply unique. There is no other show like Mushishi, plain and simple – no other anime does what it does because no other anime tries to do what it does. Thank goodness it exists, in this or any year – but especially this year. This is one of the series that made me love anime in the first place, and it’s to the credit of Nagahama-sensei and Artland that it’s lost none of its magic whatsoever. Having Mushishi return to grace our screens again was a dream come true, and saying goodbye once more truly is sorrow incarnate.
#3 Ping Pong the Animation
When it ended, I don’t think there’s any way I would have guessed that Ping Pong would wind up as my #3 series of 2014. Part of that is a reflection of how weak the remainder of the year was, yes – but there’s more to it than that (I don’t think I expected it to finish this high even when I started considering this list). It would be fair to say that Ping Pong is a series that grows in stature the more one considers it – and the more one is exposed to what makes up the overwhelming majority of the anime landscape. This show stands the test of time, and I suspect it’s reputation will only grow in the years ahead.
This is the third sports anime on the list (and to give credit where it’s due, the second NoitaminA series), but to call it a sports series is just as limiting as it is with Baby Steps, albeit for somewhat different reasons. The sport in question here is table tennis, and there’s both a love for and encylopedic knowledge of it displayed in mangaka Matsumoto Taiyou’s writing. But sports is the canvas here, not the painting itself. This is a character study, and a brilliant one – not just of the leads Smile and Peco, but of a memorable supporting cast as well (my favorites being “China” and Butterfly Joe). I think the same essential story could have been told if the boys were, say, violinists or, yes, painters – it’s the deeper psychological underpinnings that drive the story. And you’ll rarely see an anime that psychologically dissects its cast as much as Ping Pong does.
The anime version of this series is a melding of Matsumoto’s unique narrative and visual style with director/writer Yuasa Masaki’s perhaps even more singular narrative and visual style. That was a risk – two positive poles could have repelled, or something – but in hindsight it was a marriage made in Heaven. Ping Pong is clearly a show produced on a modest budget, but there’s so much sheer creative brilliance on display that it turns into a positive. In a sense, Yuasa is doing what Shinbou Akiyuki pretends to do, except he’s really doing it for artistic reasons and not just to deliver the expected on the cheap. Yuasa’s particular magic, I think, is to find the point where beauty and ugliness meet and set up shop right there – and that’s a perfect fit for Matsumoto’s series.
Ping Pong is also a strong test-case for choosing completed manga to adapt into anime, and doing so with an appropriate number of episodes. Yuasa had the perfect stage, and he performed – he told the entire story, and finished the series on a high note. It’s sheer agony to imagine what Watanabe Shinichirou could have done with another NoitaminA show, Sakamichi no Apollon, if he’d had the same privilege – but his story was much more cumbersome than Ping Pong, and he was given only 12 episodes when telling it in 22 would have been a stretch. I get that series like these aren’t going to get multi-cour commitments very often these days – getting one is a minor miracle – but choosing a story than can be told in the time provided is a crucial part of the production process that’s frequently a casualty of expedience.
I take a lot of things away from Ping Pong, but what really stands out for me are two scenes from the final episode: the montage of the major cast from toddlerhood to adolescence expressed through ping pong, and set to the voices of a children’s choir singing “We Are Alive”. And the three old-timers sitting in the hallway reminiscing about the good (and bad) old days while the kids played the climactic match of the series inside the arena. What a magnificent way to draw everything together, because Ping Pong is a story about all the stages in our lives, and about the passions that drive us. It’s a beautiful series – not in the superficial sense, but in every sense that matters.
#4 – Gin no Saji
This show took the most circuitous route possible to the Top 10 list – a split-cour, with the second airing in Winter of 2014. But those are the rules I set up, so I followed them – and this isn’t the Academy Awards, where 90% of what’s released before November is too ancient for the memories of the voters. No, Gin no Saji was always going to stake out a place in my Top 10 – it was just a question of how high a place.
This is a strange sort of series in many ways. Silver Spoon is technically a shounen, and it’s the product of the author of one of the best-selling shounen manga ever (the far more conventionally shounen Fullmetal Alchemist). But thematically it’s always felt as seinen as a series could be to me, even allowing the high-school setting and 16 year-old hero. Its unusual chemical composition explains its commercial pedigree – a monstrously successful manga (among the top 10 in history in fastest accumulation of a million volumes sold) but an anime that didn’t sell many discs. I don’t think it’s a huge problem, because the manga is so popular and because I doubt the production committee or NoitaminA were expecting big-time disc sales. But it does make it less likely that we’ll see another season once the manga finishes (or theoretically earlier).
I love this series, not in-spite of how no-frills and lacking in flash it is, but because of it. Arakawa-sensei has given us a true coming-of-age story in the traditional style, one full of harsh lessons and hilarious missteps. She’s also written a love letter to the life of her childhood in rural Hokkaido, but one that pulls no punches when it comes to the hardships of that life. She asks difficult questions (the entire “Pork Bowl” storyline is about asking one such question) and never cops out with easy answers. It would be hard to imagine a high-school series more grounded in reality, more relatable and believable and less reliant on trope and cliche.
I think it’s perfectly fine to view Gin no Saji as one extended season (that’s the premise behind ranking split-cour shows only after they finish in any case) especially because the two seasons are so seamlessly integrated (despite a change in director). I couldn’t pick one over the other as a favorite anyway – they’re dead-even in my book. The Komaba storyline was every bit the equal of the Pork Bowl one, both in terms of inherent drama and enlightening the particular challenges the characters in this series face (which are also quite universal, in their way).
I could write for hours about the spider-web of issues in this series, and the subtlety with which they’re developed – Hachiken’s parents, his relationship with Mikage, the brutal reality of the agricultural economy… They all work, because this is an author clearly writing what she knows. Ultimately, though, this is Hachiken’s story and it really soars because of what a great protagonist he is (and Kimura Ryouhei’s stellar performance). Seeing his development at Ezonoo – free at last from the crushing weight of his father’s expectations and disapproval – is one of the great joys in recent anime. That kind of satisfaction a coming-of-age series is uniquely positioned to deliver, but we don’t get many of them in anime these days – and almost never ones as honest and literate as Silver Spoon. Thank goodness there’s still a place in anime – for now at least – for shows like this one.
#5 – Baby Steps
As I said about last year’s #4 show, Ginga e Kickoff: I love, love, love Baby Steps.
I certainly admit that this is a personal choice for me – but as I’ve said before, these are lists of my favorite shows, plain and simple. They aren’t a measure of what show is objectively better than another, because that’s a subjective measure. Baby Steps the anime also (like Space Dandy) asks questions about what the priorities should be in ranking series. The fact is, the biggest reason Baby Steps is such a fantastic anime is because the manga is fantastic. But that said, it’s no mean feat to take a source material this good and not screw it up.
The funny thing about Baby Steps is, when the series was announced it seemed like there was a pretty good chance Pierrot would screw it up. We heard that it was only going to be 25 episodes (the manga is already well over 300 chapters) and that the mangaka would be contributing “original material” (cue foreboding music). Yet what we got was two cours of religiously faithful anime – almost nothing was changed or left out, and what few scenes were added (like Nachan as the “Meat Bun Girl” at the culture fest) actually improved things. Who would have believed it?
Make no mistake, if I were grading strictly on story and characters, Baby Steps would be ranked even higher on this list. The production values here are generally pedestrian (though a few of the big matches are quite stunning), as has often (though by no means always) been the case with Pierrot adaptations of late. As a production, a show like Haikyuu!! (which I liked very much) certainly outshines Baby Steps. But for me, story and characters are the most important aspect of an anime, not the production values – and this series is almost peerless in that department.
To call Baby Steps a “sports anime” is to call Stephen Fry or Craig Ferguson a comedian – it’s factually true, but it encompasses only a small fraction of the truth. The reality is that this is the story of a life – that of its protagonist Maruo Echirou – and tennis is a part of that life. But so are parents, and friends, and rivals, and tests, and the girl he falls in love with. And the tennis itself is not simply tennis – it’s stretching, and endurance training, and meditation, and enforced goofing off.. And note-taking. Lots of note-taking.
There are no short-cuts in Baby Steps – no cheats. It’s systematic in its deconstruction of Ei-chan (which fits perfectly because he systematically deconstructs everything in life including himself – and that synergy is no accident) yet remains warm, funny and exciting. Ei-chan is a wonderful main character, incredibly easy to root for, and the ever-expanding supporting cast seems plucked from real life. And I think Ei-chan’s sweetly innocent fumblings at romance with heroine Natchan fare ever better in the anime than they do in the manga – seeing them brought to life on-screen gives even more charm.
Baby Steps is not part of the generation of crossover sports hits that sell massive quantities of discs and body pillows – it’s just a humble, respectably popular manga that’s beautifully written and enlightens the world of youth sports with its intelligence, dignity and emotional honesty. I listen to “Believe in Yourself” to psych myself up for big moments in my life. I actually shed a few tears when the shocking announcement of a second season broke (I still almost can’t believe it). I love the fact that the manga and even the anime have found an audience, even if it’s not a huge one. I love Baby Steps for what it stands for, and for what it is – quite probably the best sports manga I’ve ever read, and now one of the best anime of 2014 and beyond.
#6 – Space Dandy
We’re halfway through the list, and 60% of it has been comedy – that’s pretty rare. And yes, I would call Space Dandy a comedy first, though it certainly spans as wide a range of genres as any series in recent memory.
Space Dandy is a fascinating series in so many ways. You have to push past the “save anime” nonsense and the unusual nature of the show’s distribution and take stock of it on its own terms, and that’s not an easy thing to do. Yes, this is a series that set out (and at least partially succeeded) in trying to forge a new path to commercial viability for anime – and that’s important. But I don’t think it would be nearly as important if the show weren’t of lasting value on its own merits. And for me, it definitely is.
A question Space Dandy demands we ask is this: how much should one value ambition in measuring the relative merits of anime? Like it or not compiling these kinds of lists requires that we make qualitative judgments of how series stack up against each other. For me, I’ve always felt that a show with a modest premise executed flawlessly shouldn’t be marked down for not being inherently ground-breaking, but it’s not so easy to say a show shouldn’t be given a little more leeway if it is. BONES and Watanabe-sensei took a very interesting approach with Space Dandy, effectively making something like 20 different series over 26 episodes by recruiting teams of talented directors, writers and animators and giving them almost total creative license (not to mention linear narrative for most of the series). It was exhilarating, fascinating – but it also resulted in a pretty broad range of quality between the best episodes of the series and the worst.
In my view, I think Space Dandy should be judged by the impact it had as a whole – and the soaring ambition and staggering creative courage that went into it is what stands out. The best episodes – I’d cite the “A World With No Sadness, Baby” and “I’m Never Remembering You, Baby” eps as two examples – were among the best anime episodes in years (“No Sadness” is easily in my all-time Top 10). But the spine of the series, which eventually revealed itself in the second cour (as expected, along the lines of the ED lyrics) was brilliant in itself. And as you’d expect from a BONES series directed by Watanabe, the visuals and music were absolutely world-class.
Maybe I’m too forgiving of Space Dandy – there were certainly clunkers among its 26 episodes. But that it was willing to take so many chances, that it succeeded so often, and that the finest moments were so utterly sublime justifies the risks and largely negates the missteps. As anime becomes more and more risk-averse and uniform, to see a series embrace imagination unreservedly and aim so high, so often is a wonderful thing. The show stands as a love letter to classic anime, to American pop culture and to creative freedom itself, and as a rejection of both artistic and commercial convention. And like it or not, that makes Space Dandy an uncommonly important series.
#7 – Hoozuki no Reitetsu
Four shows, three called sleepers – and it’s not like everyone was with me on expecting Kuroshitsuji to be one of the best shows of the year, either. Maybe in a bad year it’s easier to pick out the shows with potential, I don’t know, but Hoozuki no Reitetsu is definitely another gem whose potential stood out for me without having read any of the source material (an oversight I’ve since corrected).
Another trend we see in the list so far, of course, is comedy. Along with sports, it was the saving grace of 2014. And Hoozuki no Reitetsu is a “pure” comedy in the sense that the humor is definitely the top priority here – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a fantastic cast of characters. Hoozuki has the trait many great comedies share, in that it can generate humor using a wide variety of different styles. And like many great comedies (most obviously Monty Python) it successfully aims for both extremely highbrow and absurdly lowball humor, the contrast being of the series’ most winning features.
It wasn’t love at first sight for me with Hoozuki no Reitetsu – I only liked the premiere, and some of the references whizzed over my head. But the movement was unidirectional – the show just kept getting better and better, and with it my esteem rose and rose. So much stands out about this show, but one has to mention how ridiculously literate it was – the cultural references (Eastern and Western both) cut a dizzyingly wide swathe. The visuals (like the manga’s) were gorgeous, a kind of absurdist take on classical Buddhist art. The music and cast were top-notch. And there are so many hilarious highlights: Peach Maki’s idol career, Nasubi’s art, the trip to “Mortal Hell”, Super Mario driving a funicular… The list on and on, with many gems being mined from the East-West culture clash (like Satan’s visit to Buddhist Hell).
One can’t talk about Hoozuki no Reitetsu without taking note of what a huge commercial success it was. In fact it was the only show from a historically disastrous (deservedly) Winter 2014 season to average 5-figure disc sales, and it doubled the nearest competition in doing so. I’m still, to this day, not quite sure why this esoteric and idiosyncratic comedy full of obscure jokes was such a huge mainstream hit (especially with women – though much of that seems to stem from the Hoozuki-Hakutaku pairing), but the fact that it was is certainly a reason not to abandon all hope for anime as a medium.
#8 – Kuroshitsuji: Book of Circus
At only 10 episodes, Kuroshituji: Book of Circus is the shortest series to ever land in one of my year-end Top 10 lists. But its place here is a no-brainer for me – it’s a terrific adaptation, and in hindsight it was probably just about the right length as well. If any more padding had been necessary, Yoshino Hiroyuki would have been forced to get creative – and I don’t think any of us would have wanted to see that.
If you’re going to compare “Book of Circus” to a series from last year’s list, it would probably be Rozen Maiden Zuruckspulen. Each is the finest representative of a popular manga franchise in anime form, thriving in the hands of a quality director. But neither one should be taken as a surprise – Zuruckspulen incorporated more original material but it was written by the great Mochizuki Tomomi. And Circus is probably the most brilliant section of the Black Butler manga, incorporating everything about the series that makes it great (atmosphere, tragedy, pathos) and little of what tends to undermine it (excessive campiness and Grell – if there’s any difference).
The most important reason “Book of Circus” was so great, though, was that it completely ignored the disastrous Okada Mari-written second season and returned to the spirit and substance of the manga. I think that debacle had caused a lot of people to forget just how good the first season of Kuroshitsuji the anime (also written by Okada, but faithfully to the source) really was – and that’s really good. Circus was even better, spinning a fascinating tale of a circus preying on the most innocent in Victorian society, and one which has a sinister connection (just how sinister depends on how much of a conspiracy theorist you are) to Ciel’s past.
I love “Book of Circus” because it acts as a perfect vehicle to illuminate the essence of Ciel’s story (which is Kuroshitsuji’s story) – that of victims and victimizers, and those who try and cross from the first camp into the second, with invariably tragic results. And while “Circus” is nominally the tragedy of the performers of Noah’s Ark Circus, in truth this is Ciel’s tragedy – this entire series is – and the ending drives this point home. There might perhaps be things “Book of Circus” can’t achieve as a 10-episode series, and Kuroshitsuji as a whole might have a bit too much puffery and pandering for its own good. But this series still manages to showcase what a savage and brilliant story this can be when it’s on top of its game.
#9 – Yowamushi Pedal
Just to clarify, this rating is based on the first series only, not Grande Road (though for the record, I find the latter pretty comparable thus far).
2014 was a very good for sports anime (that’s a hint), arguably the strongest element of an otherwise weak year. It was also a very good year for Watanbabe Wataru, who saw not just his most famous work but the lesser-heralded Majimoji Rurumo find their way to TV and computer screens. I love sports anime and I love Watanabe-sensei’s writing, so that’s all good for me. I think we’ve seen a real change in the commercial aspect of sports manga – the ones that find the biggest commercial success in anime form now (though Prince of Tennis arguably started this) do so primarily on the strength of their popularity with female audiences. There’s still room for old-school stalwarts like Diamond no Ace (which does indeed have a large female audience of its own) and “pure” sports and character stories like Baby Steps, but the commercial titans’ popularity is mostly driven – let’s be honest – by shipping.
Enter Yowamushi Pedal, which for me straddles this divide better than almost any sports adaptation has (as witness the 50-50 split between Blu-ray and DVD sales). Yes, this was a sleeper I pegged pre-airing, because I knew how good the manga was and knew it already had a sizable fanbase. But its success has been a major story nonetheless, falling somewhere short of shows like Haikyuu!! and Kurobas in terms of disc sales, but faring extremely well both in terms of BD/DVD and ramped-up manga sales. Yowamushi Pedal has fans both in the old-school and new-school sports anime audiences, which is pretty rare and to the extent that Yowapeda has managed it, probably unique.
There’s a reason for that, and it’s Watanabe’s writing. As fans of either this show or Majimoji will know, Watanabe has an unpretentious, open-hearted silliness to him that’s very hard to resist. He writes cute characters of both sexes, has a knack for likeable protagonists, and in the case of Yowapeda, rarely have we seen an author’s passionate love for a sport shine through more clearly. Bikes are a big part of almost everyone’s life in Japan, but the sport of cycling is not high on popularity lists either in manga or in general, which makes this series that much more welcome. The combination of hero Onoda’s irresistible spirit and longing to connect with others, and the encyclopedic detail and love for cycling makes for a unique and hugely entertaining story. Yowapeda has peaks and valleys (fittingly), as almost all three-cour shows do. But on the whole it’s phenomenally likeable and entertaining, and certainly stands out in a very busy year for sports anime.
#10 – Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun
I had a pretty good year in terms of identifying sleepers (this wasn’t the only one that wound up in my Top 20), and there was something about Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun that stood out right from the very beginning, though I hadn’t yet read any of the manga. It’s published in Gangan Online, a veritable treasure trove of smart and original series that transcend gender and demographic boundaries. And as a shounen with a female lead who’s on love with a shoujo mangaka, this series figured to show little respect for such conventions.
Honesty compels me to say that as much as I love this show, this is the first time since I began compiling these lists that Gesshounoku would have been a Top 10 series – in a decent year it would be somewhere in the teens. Nevertheless, even allowing for the fact that 2014 was respectable in the area of comedy, this series stands out. It’s consistently funny, and occasionally hilarious. Most delightful for me is the way it gleefully obliterates gender stereotypes – best exemplified in the sublime “There Are Times When Men Must Fight” episode, where Nozaki and Mikoshiba play galge, and Nozaki-kun tries to do so using shoujo manga logic.
This is a series with many strengths, starting with the cast – it’s just the right size for everyone to get their share of the limelight, and they fit together beautifully because each is likeable and funny in their own way (Mikoshiba being my favorite). It’s a smart, insightful and beautifully produced comedy that works on multiple levels – perhaps most powerfully as a deconstruction of genre and demographic tropes, but also quite effectively as a character-driven situation comedy. Gesshounoku deserves every bit of the commercial success it’s achieved, both in terms of promoting the manga and strong disc sales – and that success makes a second season a near certainty at some point. That’s a very pleasing proposition indeed.
2014 was in many ways both a tough and an easy year to compile the year-end Top 20 list – for the same reason, and it’s not a good one. But here we are, and as always I’d like to start off with a show which doesn’t fit neatly with the others on the list, but which holds a special place in my heart. This year that show is…
Honorable Mention – Tonari no Seki-kun
I was a pretty big fan of the Tonari no Seki-kun manga, but I wasn’t at all sure how it would translate to anime. A main character who doesn’t speak, very brief stories that are almost entirely sight gags and the other main character’s internal monlogues, many very esoteric Japanese cultural references? It seemed a tough fit for an adaptation, to be honest.
Thankfully, Shin-Ei and very experienced director Mutou Yuuji made almost entirely wise choices, and the result was one of the most entertaining short-form anime ever. I would have liked double-episodes every week (that would have taken us to about 12 minutes, as the OVAs were) but not trying to go full-length was the first smart move. Casting Shimono Hiro to give voice to Seki-kun’s non-linguistic verbalisations was another. Having Kana Hanazawa (who’s also very good here) as Yokoi speak directly to Seki so often was a choice that didn’t initially click with me, but it worked well enough in the end.
The first job of any comedy is to be funny, and Tonari no Seki-kun fulfilled that obligation admirably (while this was a down year in anime, comedy may be about the closest it had to a strength). But the most important thing is that it mined the humor from the same source as the manga because it understood what makes the manga work – its laser-accurate capture of the differences between boys and girls. Seeing Seki’s ridiculous schemes and Yokoi’s tortured reactions come to life on-screen was a real treat, and this show was about as accomplished as it’s possible for a six-minute anime to be.
A Refresher on Eligibility:
I’m going by the same eligibility standard I used for the 2012-2013 lists – that is, shows that finished airing in 2014 or split-cours that finished in 2014, plus shows that aired for the entire year (such as Diamond no Ace). There always seems to be one show that falls in a grey area (last year it was was Little Busters!) and this time it was Yowamushi Pedal and Tokyo Ghoul. Do I consider these a split cour (and thus ineligible), or do I consider the first series and Grande Road or Root A as different series? I chose the former – admittedly in part because it was such a weak year, but also because Grande Road was announced late in the original series’ run and Root A after, and each had a different subtitle. So in effect, then, the only shows not eligible for this list are the multi-cour series that began airing from Spring 2014 onwards and are still airing into Winter 2015, or true split cours (like Fate/stay/night: UBW and Aldnoah.Zero) that will finish in 2015.
And as with last year, let’s do 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 12/22/14 will be eligible.