2013: My Year in Anime
I already have posts for Hanasaku Iroha, My Little Monster, Kimi ni Todoke, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Hyouka, Psycho Pass, Mysterious Girlfriend X, Clannad, Flowers of Evil, Kaiji, Servant x Service, Usagi Drop, Kimi no Iru Machi, City Hunter, Cream Lemon, Future Diary, Princess Knight, Rurouni Kenshin, Space Brothers and Honey and Clover. You can click right on the names to take you to those writeups. So: what else did I watch, but didn’t write about? Let’s see!
A surprisingly great subversion of the visual novel formula wherein the main dude solves the problems of a bevy of cute chicks, bettering their lives in the process. Here, the main hero solves people’s problems by using his time machine. But, while the first half is more or less about screwing around, the implications of the character’s actions are never laid to rest. In fact, the second half of the show is about bringing those out into the open. And it is here where the whole “visual novel” aspect becomes warped. The hero of this show cannot solve these girl’s problems; in fact, in order for him to reach his intended outcome, he has to undo all the things he has done for them. They must return back to zero.
Nineteen 19 (1990)
The story of a young man who hits up the clubs with his friends looking for love. I swear that about half of it is pure 80’s neon cheesefest music video masquerading as an OVA. And the other half is totally boring nonsense about the main dude losing his virginity and learning life lessons or whatever. Whenever this is at its most abstract music video imagery, it shines. Sadly, it isn’t enough.
Cross Game employs an incredibly patient and subtle approach to storytelling. The characters are given room to breathe and we observe them rather than them having to voice out everything they’re thinking. It also understands the importance of time to deal with suffering. In the very first episode, we’re witness to a tragedy (the scene where the main character realizes what happened is one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen in an anime), and it’s that absence that provides an anchor to the show. Cross Game also gives great importance to objects and their significance as time passes (just think of the clocks that the main character uses or the list that he has hanging up on his wall) that’s worthy of Ozu. Honestly, it’s shows like this that make me believe in the beauty of long-form narrative storytelling. You just can’t do something like this in a movie. The final episode’s realization, thanks to the years of pain and suffering, of glances, of small encounters, hits you like a ton; and then the final image is perfect, a metaphorical simplicity that is just beautiful, anything is possible. Why must you know more? Beautifully realized, impeccably written, a small miracle. Will you believe?
This is one of the shows that when I was first getting into anime, everyone had seen. For me, it’s one of the classics, one of the foundational texts, a precursor to all the stuff that’s come out in the past 10 years. As such, it was my duty to see it. When they were kids, a boy and a girl made a promise to get into Tokyo’s most prestigious university. But now the boy has forgotten the girl’s name, and he’s also failed the test to get in twice. Anyway, he ends up being the manager to an all woman’s boarding house and this is a harem show and he’s completely spineless and also a pervert and did I mention that there are hot springs out back and did I mention that each episode features him stumbling and falling and grabbing someone’s breast and or opening the door and seeing someone right when they’re undressing; yeah, so that’s that. The show’s worst aspects are definitely it’s most slapsticky, or when the show loses the emotional focus of the story (the growing attraction between the two main characters, one of the greatest tsunderes ever created). It wasn’t quite a disappointment because it’s what I expected, but you know, you always want these things to be better than they really are.
Arguably the breakout hit of 2012, this is a weird, messy work. It’s full of risible elements (little sisters, invincible main protagonist, waifus, the entire second half) that make it inexplicably annoying and bad… and yet. At least for the first half of this series, even with the random diversions and stuff that’s awkward, I still managed to buy into its love story. Or, rather, I bought the idea of it, as something that was necessary for both of those characters. The real time element of it (how they actually stay 2 years in the game) is what eventually sold me on it – if they have to stay this long inside the game, why not make something beautiful of it? Of course, this turns out to be complete wish-fulfillment idealized domesticity nonsense that wouldn’t fly in a more serious work; but, here, it mostly works.
Wonderful bit of shoujo. The hunk of the school gets interested in anti-social girl who doesn’t believe in having friends. Although the characters aren’t as interesting to me as the more lovable bunch of My Little Monster, they probably live in a more realistic world. Sex is more casual here; something that for some of the characters is more of an option than not (although it seems to be contained to either a character’s past, or to more unsavory characters). The biggest strength of it for me is simply about watching the main character open herself up to experience, and realize that she can trust people. Which includes romance and friendship and good things. It’s the same idea as Kimi ni Todoke, but less accomplished. Still, I eat stuff like this up most of the time.
For every Japanese teenager who wanted to write a manga, here’s the shounen version of that! So, yeah, this is basically a show about teenage boys wanting to be manga-ka. But, in order for this to be accessible, the idea of art is sidestepped. In Bakuman, creating manga, shounen manga at least, is basically a series of popularity battles, with the ultimate goal basically being voted #1 in the magazine that they run in. There’s some lip service paid to alternative manga, but the question of art never really comes up. Which is both damning and myopic in equal measures. This is probably the most innocent thing I saw all year, too. The romance, at least the main one, is so ridiculously “innocent” that it almost becomes like this weird abstract concept of what a first love should be. Which again ties back into its relatively idealized take on its characters, emotions and their milieu. Regardless, this is still heaps of fun.
Calculated, pandering schlock. Knowing where it eventually ends up taints whatever satirical reading you want to apply to it, too. Regardless, its portrayal of finding a group of like-minded individuals is almost heartwarming. Almost. Kirino, the little sister, is a really bizarre creation, however. She’s almost too unique and strange to dismiss, and yet at every moment we are aware of her as a product of a calculated effort to be two things at once (both a proud enthusiast of the fetish that the show’s about, and also an object to be fetishized over by the audience). Kirino then remains more of a provocation, an idea, than a fully fleshed-out character. Also: I hate everything that this represents in modern anime culture.
This is the heir to Hikaru no Go that I’ve been waiting for for years now. Takes as its subject the dedication that its characters show to their game of choice, and how this dedication manifests itself as personal growth. Wonderful cast of characters, incredible music, lovely animation.
Absolutely hilarious anime concerning a teenage girl’s unlikely entry into show business. Her attitude is awful, her reasons are terrible, but little by little, she begins to find meaning in her pursuit. It’s a great show, but I appreciate it more because of the trail of inquiry it put me on. Basically, anyone and everyone can agree that in mainstream western entertainment, there’s a dearth of female-centered narratives (mothers, girlfriends of main characters, sex objects seem to be the norm). Anime/manga seems more open to the idea of female-centered narratives in general; this includes generic shoujo romance to something more radical and/or atypical like The Twelve Kingdoms. The point is this: it’s rare to find modern narrative features/TV works that focus so largely on presenting the mindset/interior states of its female characters, and I’m finding more of this in anime/manga than anywhere else. Skip Beat! is a perfect example of this: a total genre pleasure (comedy) that never skimps on its character development, treats its main subject with dignity and respect (even when she’s acting like an idiot) and sports a fully-realized female creation that remains fascinating and entertaining. This is rare.
For some, this show does for magical girls what Evangelion did for mecha. The comparison is fair, as this show does act as something like a deconstruction for the magical girl genre. At least, that’s the narrative that’s been built around it. Madoka is built more or less on the futility of hope. Some characters line up to in order to defend it, some to tear it down, one lives through it over and over again; the characters exist in order to bring about these ideas. That said, the experience of actually watching Madoka is anathema to these thematic readings (although they can certainly be made), because much of its power relies on the viewer making an emotional investment on its characters. By upping the stakes of its battles, the show gives weight to the actions of its characters – and the resulting devastation and trauma that results from those actions becomes even more dramatic because of this. Although in my mind I still have trouble reconciling the very forward-thinking and ambition nature of this show with the marketplace-motivated motivation/calculations that went into its creation (how even though these characters are incredibly well-realized, the reason why they are allowed to exist is because they are likely to be commodified and objectified by the audience the show is aimed at), the show is nonetheless very strong.
Arguably 2013’s blockbuster title, Attack on Titan thrives because it conjures a palpable sense of fear and uneasiness. There’s never a moment where anyone is quite safe or at ease. Either their cities are under attack by titans, or they’re waiting the next moment when the attack might come. It mostly works. Any advancements or lucky breaks for the humans usually either gets overturned or qualified with some other peril (their trump card is unreliable and prone to attack its own companions). The setup also allows for a ton of allegorical readings about all sorts of things (it’s almost too vague) and there’s fun to be had there, too, but really the show is basically plot twists and action sequences done with as much bombast as possible. The execution of those things is pretty damn good.
Never thought I’d find an anime that deeply concerns itself with the morality of eating meat, food production and other such similar concerns, but here we are. Although it tackles all these issues, it never preaches or offers a point of view of what is right; instead, it settles on exploring the viewpoints of its characters, and juxtaposing them with the realities of the trade. Although this description makes it sound heavy, it’s actually a really fun(ny) series with a great host of characters and a surprisingly strong emotional arc for the main protagonist. Bring on season 2.
A family saga in the vein of something like The Royal Tenenbaums (for lack of a better comparison) but filled to the brim with members of Japanese folklore. The shape-shifting racoons at the heart of it are a literalization of the fluidity inherent in its storytelling (its switches from comedy to melodrama, from explosions of action to soul-searching introspection, almost invisible).
Thinking about this show in comparison to Flowers of Evil is actually pretty enlightening. Both shows feature teenage characters whose personalities are based on their attitudes toward the world (in this show, those personalities about as a defense mechanism). But, unlike Flowers of Evil, this show adopts the usual norms and signs of a typical anime romantic comedy. In essence, the characters start at the same place, but through the show’s adoption of certain tropes (or the rejection of them), the characters inch toward their eventual destinies. The wonderful thing about SNAFU is that its characters stay true to their own weird personalities, but thanks to its engagement with high school anime tropes, a greater engagement with the world around them. Staying true to yourself doesn’t have to mean damnation.
Memories of the original Gatchaman soon fade away as soon as the main character, Hajime, starts talking. Ostensibly a reimagining of the franchise, Crowds treats the original as a source of iconography and ideas to sift through while working through its own thematic concerns. The idea (and the need) for a superhero is questioned in the age of social media, and the vigilante aspect of it is soon dismissed as basically lacking in common sense. The main character, Hajime, does what no other character does – she asks questions. She doesn’t take at face value the assumptions of the genre that she’s a part of; instead, she easily dismantles them, questioning the very need of them in her own cock-eyed view. Basically: one set of genre expectations is introduced before being dismissed as not up to date to the current generational mindset; another set of concerns is swiftly introduced to address this new, plugged in generation.
One of the more interesting things about this series is that it normalizes the subjugation of another species for much of its duration without making much of a deal about it. The characters use their supernatural power to kill many other species, and the series never explicitly condemns them for doing so. In fact, the critique that the series is engaging in is wholly implicit until about 2/3rds of the way in the series, and the series’ final reveal paints an even more disturbing picture of what we’ve seen. It’s to From the New World‘s credit that it never quite resolves the thematic tensions and thrusts that it brings up, preferring to present the complexities of its society as essentially ambiguous and difficult and with no easy answers. Another one of the show’s masterstrokes is how it utilizes the passage of time. By starting the series with the main protagonists as early teens, it details the myriad ways that adults inculcate their values on to the next generation, and how those values are accepted, dismissed or adapted to changing times. The final moments of this series are as moving as any I’ve seen this year: although the main characters have tries to do their best, it’s unclear if they’ve actually made the best choices along the way; instead of lamenting this, they decide to forge ahead and try to build a better future for those to come. Youthful idealism gives way to rational pragmatism just tinged with a little bit of optimism. Each of these threads I’ve brought up could fuel an essay. Maybe one day.
The idea is simple: take a tragedy and turn it into a comedy. But can it be done? Two troublemaking teens stumble onto the existence of magic, the end of the world and become accomplices in its eventual salvation (or destruction?). Blast of Tempest is a hodgepodge of almost incomprehensible mythology (two trees apparently duel for control of the world, mages protect those trees, butterflies mean something?), revenge drama and meta exercise. Sprinkled liberally throughout are quotations from two Shakespeare plays, Hamlet and The Tempest, and the show then sets out to reenact their basic scenarios (or, more accurately, their concerns). The archetypes are acknowledged, the similarities are noted, etc., but what becomes more pressing to the characters is if they can change the outcome of the story. One character hurls himself into a doomed end, but the other one keeps pulling him back, using his wiles in order to rewrite the story. The first half is then functions according to the laws of tragedy, and moves along with a sense of inevitability. The second half of the show, however, finds the characters unwilling to commit to that version of the story. The show then takes on the characteristics of a comedy, introducing crushes, fanservice and a general hangout vibe – the show rewrites its ending by essentially denying the narrative momentum it had built up by basically becoming another show entirely. Potential threats and powerful enemies are quickly defused and shown to be harmless, seemingly insurmountable problems are conquered through ridiculous means, the revenge narrative is even deemed impossible – Blast of Tempest, in an almost distractingly gimmicky way, sabotages itself to give its a characters a happy ending they didn’t think they could have.
Have a great holiday season!