The truth is, I knew as soon as I watched Death Parade that if it wasn’t going to take the top spot for 2015, something very special was going to have to come along to unseat it. And while we ended up with some very good series in 2015 and Akatsuki no Yona especially came awfully close, in the end no show I watched this year struck me as this one’s equal in terms of vision, creativity and sheer brilliance.
The story behind Death Parade is an interesting one. It started as a part of the Anime Mirai suite of OVAs in 2012, and while some of us at the time speculated that Death Billiards would make for an interesting series, I don’t think many of us expected that to happen. In a sense Death Parade is the ultimate vindication for Anime Mirai’s existence – it gave a platform to a fabulously talented young creator in Tachikwa Yuzuru, and he used that platform to expand on his original idea and seize the anime world by the throat.
Three years after Death Billiards, Death Parade expanded on the world it created with astonishing success, and Tachikawa stamped himself as one of the superstars of anime now and in the future. He not only directed this series, he wrote every episode and storyboarded most of them – which is an astonishing achievement, especially for a talent as young as Tachikwa-sensei. Along with Matsumoto Rie, Tachikawa is the young director whose next work is the one I wait for with baited breath – anything he’s involved in becomes an instant must-follow series.
It’s not by coincidence that I almost broke my record for the longest episodic post with the Death Parade finale (a couple of Hunter X Hunter episodes and the Eureka Seven AO double-ep finale being the other contenders). There’s so much to talk about with this show because Tachikawa takes on nothing less than the fundamental questions of human existence – life, death, eternity, the soul, the very nature of humanity. In doing so he incorporates elements of religion and philosophy both Eastern and Western and combines them in a fascinating and unique mythology that takes the seed Death Billiards planted and grows it into a towering giant sequoia of a series.
One of the reasons Death Parade is such a triumph artistically is because it was not only created specifically for the one-cour format, it was the product of the imagination of one creator. Not only is it exactly as long as it needs to be, it’s exactly the story Tachikawa needs it to be. The lack of narrative compromise is obvious here much as it was with another anime-original 12 episode show (and list-topper), Tsuritama. The fascinating question, really, is to what extent Tachikawa – and Madhouse – had all this in mind when he created Death Billiards, and to what extent he expanded on the idea later, when opportunity knocked.
Whatever the answer to that question may be, it almost doesn’t matter because Death Parade is what it is – an emotionally devastating and intellectually challenging masterpiece of modern anime storytelling. It was criticized early on for the seeming unfairness and arbitrary nature of the universe it created, and the seeming lack of a point to everything that happened – but Tachikawa had the answers. Everything that happened in Death Parade happened for a reason, and it all boils down to that stunningly great final episode where Tachikawa seems to acknowledge the fundamental unfairness of the universe, and the fundamentally isolated nature of existence. Yet at the same time he leaves us with something redemptive, something that seems to validate the essential goodness that can exist inside each of us, and the urgency in treasuring every moment we’re privileged to be alive.
Finally, it must be noted that Madhouse has taken the 1st and 4th spots in this list (in fact Madhouse sandwiches two Pierrot shows for the top four slots), and a full 40% of the total list. Madhouse has been the best studio in anime over the last five years, but that level of domination is something new – new, but not surprising. That Madhouse is able and willing to produce a series like Death Parade – which they surely knew would not make money and probably lose it – is a reason to feel hopeful that anime as a medium still has a chance. Madhouse mixes commercial and esoteric shows brilliantly, and they manage to deliver quality across a wide range of genre styles and demographics. They’re at the top of their game and the top of the industry, and in 2015 they produced one of the best years in anime history.
#2 – Akatsuki no Yona
There’s a reason why Studio Pierrot keeps showing up in these year-end lists, you know? I’ve already gone into detail on why I admire their storytelling skills so much in yesterday’s entry, but Akatsuki no Yona is a bit of a different animal than the likes of Baby Steps or Kingdom. In addition to being a wonderful adaptation in the narrative sense, this is also a first-class production – the art and music are superb, and the animation is excellent from start to finish (probably the best visuals of any series Pierrot has done in several years). The staff actually includes quite a bit of Bones experience, and while this isn’t the sort of series we associate with that studio, their Akagami no Shirayukihime does reveal a surprising degree of synergy.
In this context the Pierrot show Yona of the Dawn probably most resembles is Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii, another wonderful shoujo fantasy that just missed last year’s Top 10 list (and would have made this year’s) and boasted very strong production values. No other studio is so at home in the realm of shoujo fantasy as Pierrot, and it shows in a series like this – there’s an easy dexterity to the storytelling that makes it seem effortless. Yona is even better than Soredemo Sekai, and in fact may be the best shoujo fantasy anime in the last five years (and maybe longer).
To be honest, there’s only one major thing I don’t love about Akatsuki no Yona – and I’ll get to that in a minute. This is a series that really has everything you could want in a fantasy – likeable and complex characters, subtlety, intrigue, a sense of the epic, superb exposition and pacing, great world-building, even a ridiculously cute and hilarious animal mascot. Yona is a great heroine because she has a real journey – she starts out as someone very different from the person she becomes, and I think it’s very telling about today’s anime audience that so may viewers lacked the patience to wait for her to develop. Anime storytelling is mostly instant gratification these days, and Yona is not about instant gratification – it tells a very big story in which the characters go on long journeys both literally and spiritually, and in two cours told only a small portion of it.
Among the best elements of this series is the fact that the main conflict is complex and stubborn to yield up its secrets. The antagonist of the piece is Soo-won – he commits a terrible act at the very beginning of the narrative – yet it’s increasingly clear as the story progresses that he still loves Yona and her companion Hak, and that in spite of what Soo-won has done they still love him. It’s also apparent that Soo-won is no fool, and in many ways represents a strong and even wise leader. Why did he do what he did, then? The series offers us hints along the way, but not the answer served up on a silver platter.
Not just Yona and Soo-won but the entire cast is great here – the four Dragons, the “Thunder Beast” Hak, so steadfast and sanguine. And my personal favorite, the (self-described) tensai bishounen Yoon, a character as proud of his intelligence and resourcefulness as he is insecure about his physical limitations (though he is only 15). We see very few male characters like Yoon in anime, even shoujo, and I think his fiercely stubborn dignity is one of the very best things about Akatsuki no Yona.
That one downer about this series? No, it’s not that anti-Korean racism is so rampant among Japan’s anime viewers that it had to air a disclaimer (though that is galling) but the fact that it ends right in the middle of the story. That’s a common problem in anime adaptations of incomplete manga but it’s especially frustrating here, because the series does such a superb job of setting up the plot, and the pacing gives the impression that a second season was at least a possibility. How much does one dock a show for that? I guess that’s a personal call, but I can say that in my case Yona was likely going to be the year’s #2 series either way. In the end I think you have to judge an anime for what it is and for the story it tells in the time it’s given. And by that standard, Akatsuki no Yona is a near-masterpiece and a triumph, and one of the best shoujo fantasy to hit the screen in the 21st Century.
#3 – Baby Steps Season 2
Yeah I know, you’re tired of hearing about how much Enzo loves Baby Steps. But the fact is that it’s a truly great series, and another example of why Pierrot keeps showing up on these lists despite being the subject of derision from so many anime fans. Fact is, Pierrot is (along with JC Staff, maybe) better at doing faithful manga adaptations than anybody else in the business. Even when they skimp on production values (and heaven knows Baby Steps was hardly lavish in that regard) they’re superb at capturing the spirit and substance of the work.
This season finished at #3 on the list, while the first finished at #5 in 2014 – so was the second season better than the first? Yes, a little probably – if nothing else because the manga itself just keeps getting better. But more than anything it’s a sign for me that this year was a little bit weaker than last. That said, I would judge the overall experience of Baby Steps to be that little bit enhanced – the visuals were more consistent, the pacing was a tad more urgent, and the dynamic between Maruo and Nat-chan upped the ante.
I don’t know what more I could possibly say to convince you that Baby Steps is one of the greatest sports series ever, given that I’ve been making the argument since before there was even an anime. It is what it is – and what Baby Steps is, is brilliant. A character study unequalled in sports anime, and of a character as good as any protagonist there is in the genre. The writing is so patient, so subtle, so realistic – you’d think it would add a clinical air to the series, but despite that detail and accuracy Baby Steps is vibrant, alive, colorful and packed with heartfelt emotion.
I very much doubt we’ll be getting another season of the Baby Steps anime. Given its many awards it’s received I wasn’t totally surprised to get an adaptation, but even getting a second season was an unexpected gift. I’m happy and grateful for what we did get, and that the manga continues to be a shining example of everything a sports series can and should be.
#4 Kiseijuu: Sei no Kakuritsu
What, Madhouse again? Yep – and I wonder if this will be the last time we see them on this list… It’s no coincidence that this studio keeps peppering year-end best lists, and it’s no coincidence that Parasyte was one of the best shows of 2015. It was clear from the beginning that this series was a kind if spiritual successor to Hunter X Hunter in the Madhouse catalogue (H x H even advertised Parasyte in its finale), with many of the key staff from that series taking on roles here.
Saying it is certainly no bombshell, but making anime adaptations from outstanding completed works is a really, really good idea. When you take on a series like Kiseijuu or Ushio to Tora, all the variables are stacked up in the studio’s favor. They can decide their own pacing and tell the story with a definitive ending in mind. It also happens that Kiseijuu is just about a perfect length for a two-cour adaptation, so whatever changes director Shimizu Kenichi and writer Yonemura Shouji made to Iwaaki Htoshi’s masterwork were matters of choice, not necessity. Manga readers may have had issues with a few of them, but the end result was truly outstanding and occasionally sublime.
Kiseijuu is a highly popular work in Japan, a manga that has as much appeal to the general public as hardcore manga and anime fans, and it’s easy to see why (a successful live-action film screened during the anime’s airing). Iwaaki’s work is a tale both subtle and gross, a literary work in the best sense of the word. It’s discernibly a period piece, much more direct in its storytelling than most modern anime. Madhouse chose not to “modernize” it beyond avoiding obvious anachronisms, and I think that was wise – updating Iwaaki would have gutted Kiseijuu of its soul.
This series is interesting enough in its own terms, but the fact that it hit the airwaves mere weeks after the close of Hunter X Hunter’s “Chimera Ant” adds another fascinating element to watching it. It’s very clear that Togashi was influenced by Parasyte in writing that epic – not just in terms of the physicality of his antagonists, but in asking many of the same questions. Fascinatingly, I think Togashi was entranced by what Iwaaki did in focusing on the biological side of the conflict he set up, and put his own spin on it, turning it into a philosophical and moral contemplation of great complexity.
Kiseijuu isn’t a perfect anime – there are some draggy moments in the middle, a few false notes here and there, perhaps a thread or two not tied up. But one of the points of Iwaaki’s story, I think, is that not every question has a satisfactory answer. This is a very serious work that demands serious consideration from the audience, and Madhouse treats it with the respect it deserves. Their choices are almost all good ones (Migi especially, I think, was brought to life with particular brilliance), and they delivered the anime that a series as important as Kiseijuu deserved. It’s a series that will stand the test of time, just as the manga has, and that’s yet another feather in Madhouse’s cap.
#5 – Working!!!
The fact is that when I piece together my year-end Top 10 list, most Fall series haven’t finished their runs yet. I haven’t yet had an instance where a show worked its way on or off the list altogether with its final episode, and indeed it’s rare that a single ep – even the last one – can change my opinion of a show enough to impact its spot on the list.
Sometimes, though, that finale can move the needle a bit – and so it was with Working!!!. I had originally penciled it in 6th, but it and Kekkai Sensen switched places after I watched “Lord of the Takanashi” – so it could be said that it was the finales of those two shows that caused the one to leapfrog the other. It takes an exceptionally strong (or weak) ending to make that happen, and while Kekkai Sensen’s wasn’t weak by any means, Working!!! really was that strong.
I’ve already written extensively about Working!!! this weekend, so as is my custom I won’t be especially verbose when introducing a current series on this list. But I will say this – Working!! has had three seasons, and all three have made my Top 10 list for the year. That’s one hell of an accomplishment, especially in a genre as capricious as comedy. I would be hard-pressed to choose between the first two (there seems a general consensus that Working’!! was a step down, one which I don’t share) but this season was clearly the best in my book. It was a terrific close to a terrific series, and one which I think can make a very strong claim to be anime’s greatest comedy franchise.
#6 – Kekkai Sensen
Matsumoto Rie returns to the Top 10 with her second classic series in a row. And while I wouldn’t rank Blood Blockade Battlefront as quite the masterpiece that Kyousougiga was, it was still one of the best series of the year – and further evidence that the 30 year-old Matsumoto-sensei is one of the most talented and creative directors of her generation. And as a bonus, this show was extremely popular and is thus a lock to get a second season at some point.
Kekkai Sensen is one of those anime adaptations that improved on the source material – in this case a fascinating but somewhat sloppily plotted manga by Nightow. Rie and writer Furuya Kazunao did what was effectively an impressionist painting of Nightow’s work – they captured the tone and feel, but weren’t bound by the limits of what he created in terms of plot and structure. Much of the anime is original material and for the most part it works exceptionally well. And as is usual for Matsumoto (if directors of only two series can have a “usual”) the narrative takes a free-flowing, chain-of-consciousness course that’s highly reminiscent of vintage Gainax (especially Matsumoto’s clear favorite FLCL).
What this show has going for it is many and varied – the visuals are stunning, as you’d expect from this director working with Bones. The cast is epic and superb. Between Nightow and the anime team the story is full to bursting with interesting ideas and characters, and the world-bulding is top-notch. Like Working!, Kekkai Sensen delayed its finale by a few months, but in this case less successfully – I think the difference between a planned and unplanned buffer before the final episode is stark in comparing the two series. That the ending was only good and not on a par with the series’ better episodes probably knocks the show down a bit in overall rating, but it still stands as probably the most visually exciting series of 2015, and one of its very best.
#7 – Gangsta
To say it’s bittersweet to write about Gangsta in this context is certainly an understatement. Manglobe’s distinguished run as a creator of singular and challenging anime came to an end with this series (at least for now), but at least they’re going out with some of their best work. For a while there, Gangsta looked like a serious candidate for AOTY.
There’s another reason this is a bittersweet selection, though, and that’s because Gangsta had arguably the worst anime ending since Kare Kano. It says something about how great the show’s first ten episodes or so were that it cracked this list in spite of that finale. It was immediately clear that something was very wrong at Manglobe when that episode just sort of stopped – and that’s exactly what it did. No attempt at closure was attempted in any way. It was the sort of conclusion that could give anime-original endings a good name. While no official explanation was ever proffered, it seems very likely Episode 12 was originally the penultimate episode, and the planned final ep was a casualty of the studio’s catastrophic financial collapse.
So why is Gangsta here? In short, because it was a great series for most of its run. It was ruthless, poignant and elegantly structured. It created a world of incalculable ugliness and then proceeded to showcase the beauty in it. And it did so in a way that respected the audience and allowed them to piece together what they were seeing into the complete picture. The exposition in this series was as artful as in any I can remember. It may have finished on an extreme down note, but while it was good, Gangsta was very, very good indeed.
#8 – Ore Monogatari
Madhouse grabs another spot in the Top 10 with My Love Story, a rare venture into the realms of shoujo. There’s a lot about Ore Monogatari that doesn’t fit the mold, which is one of the things that drew me to it in the first place. Shoujo romances with male protagonists are rare to begin with, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg in what makes this series unusual.
Here’s the thing – I like the main couple in this series. Yeah, they’re extremely sweet, but they’re at an age where kids can feel that way about each other because life hasn’t worn them down with endless compromises. And I really like the fact that they became a couple in about three episodes, leaving the bulk of the series to focus on the actual relationship (which is pretty rare in itself). But without a doubt the most interesting character and element in Ore Monogatari is not Takeo and Rinko, but Suna – and the most interesting relationship the one between he and Takeo.
That’s all well and good, but the really interesting part – and this is admittedly just my conjecture – is that this appears to be exactly what mangaka Kawahara Kazune intended. I think the mysteries of Suna’s heart and the complex nature of his friendship with Takeo are the true point of this series, more so than Takeo and Runko’s charming but by comparison straightforward love story. There are many kinds of love, after all. And I specially like the fact that the series seems to take a stand in saying that it’s perfectly OK for Suna not to want to be with anyone romantically – that one can be a worthy and whole person without being part of a couple. It’s really fascinating stuff – well-written and deceptively deep, and as usual beautifully executed by Madhouse and Chihayafuru director Asaka Morio.
#9 – Kamisama Hajimemashita ◎
So how is it that the first Kamisama Hajimemashita series didn’t make the Top 20 (just), and this one cracked the Top 10? Well, part of it undeniably comes down to the competition – 2012 was a sterling anime year, certainly the last really great one (hopefully not ever) and 2015 was charitably average.
But there’s more to it, make no mistake – Kamisama Hajimemashita ◎ was absolutely better than its predecessor. It was more focused, better-paced, and more emotionally powerful. And it offered much more character development for Nanami than the first season. KamiHaji is a series of deceptive depth, both in terms of the exploration of its characters and in the philosophical questions it asks. And all of that was very much on display this season.
Considering how unlikely a continuation seemed when the first season drew to a close, I tend to view Kamisama Hajimemashita ◎ as an unexpected gift – a chance to spend more time with these wonderful characters and be taken on a journey by one of anime’s greatest and most insightful directors, Akitarou Daichi. As we enjoy the Kako-hen OVAs, it once again seems unlikely that Kamisama Hajimemashita will return to television, but whatever happens I’m happy this series has been given the chance to shine in anime form.
#10 – One Punch Man
One Punch Man came into the Fall Season carrying a huge weight of expectations. Anime fans like me (and Thomas Romain), weary from a down year and desperate for a respite from endless cute girls doing cute things shows, turned our lonely eyes to Madhouse, ONE and Murata for a reason to hope. And a production committee greedily eyed the commercial potential of what could be anime’s next big thing.
Things didn’t work out exactly as any of us expected, but in the end they turned out pretty well. Fall wasn’t as grim as we feared, and One Punch Man started off a bit slowly – not terribly by any means, but also not revealing the full depth of its genius. But by the midway point we were getting the biting social satire and genre parody in full force, and the second half of the cour was consistently great. The commercial arc seems to have followed the quality arc – OPM seemed on track to be a disappointment, but the Stalker numbers soared as the series did, and the manga has seen huge spikes in volume sales.
There are many things I love about One Punch Man – the sakuga, the savvy take on superhero tropes, the cuttingly accurate commentary on the malaise gripping the young in Japan. This is a smart and subversive series, a hero shounen built around the art of the anti-climax. I suspect future seasons of OPM – and make no mistake, there will be future seasons – may have a chance to place even higher on these year-end lists.
Honorable Mention – Tribe Cool Crew
This dance series featuring (mostly) middle-school heroes from Sunrise was one I knew wasn’t going to get any attention from older and Western anime fans. Frankly I was expecting it to not even be subbed or streamed, and thus be a series I was unable to follow as closely as I’d like. But it was streamed, and I did follow it – and I liked it a hell of a lot.
In a certain sense I think the appeal of Tribe Cool Crew was similar to that of Ginga e Kickoff (though it’s certainly not as good on the whole). The kids at the heart of the series were really likeable and endearing, and the sense of humor was livelier and more cutting than you’d expect. I don’t have a lot of interest in street dance, to be honest, but I did enjoy seeing the dance numbers animated (using a lot of CGI, but quite well-integrated) by Sunrise. TCC was a straightforward, fun and genuinely interesting series, and I wish more people hadn’t dismissed it because it was “for kids”. But then, that’s pretty much the norm.
I’d also throw in a quick plug for Eikoku Ikke, Nihon wo Taberu (Sushi and Beyond), the adaptation of British food writer Michael Booth’s journey discovering Japanese food with his wife and two sons. This one never did find a subber, but it was fairly easy to follow raw (like the fish) and if your provider offered NHK World it could be seen dubbed (not terribly) there. Lots of fun, and a great survey course about Japanese food and culture.
A Refresher on Eligibility:
I’m going by the same eligibility standard I used for the 2012-2014 lists – that is, shows that finished airing in 2015 or split-cours that finished in 2015. Split-cour series like Concrete Revolutio, Ushio and Tora and Akagami no Shirayukihme which finish in 2016 are not eligible for this list, but series that ended this year and weren’t officially confirmed as split cour when they did (like Kyoukai no Rinne) are eligible. So in effect, then, the only shows not eligible for this list are the multi-cour series that began airing from Spring 2015 onwards and are still airing into Winter 2016, or true split cours that will finish in 2016.
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 0759 JST 12/23/14 will be eligible.