The last time I wrote a list like this was back in 2007. Can you believe it’s been 5 years since then? 5 years since Gurren Lagann? I don’t know how I’ve lasted this long. The pace of my blogging has slowed since then, too. In 2007, I made 82 posts; in 2012, this will make it 24. I’ve often thought about stopping, but, in the end, something always drags me back, and when it does, I’m glad I’ve made my home here. Here, more than 6 years in the making. This is an anime blog filled with contradiction, error and inconsistency. Maybe you’ve been reading us for that long, maybe this is your first time? But whatever the case, welcome! This review of 2012 begins now.
12. Natsuyuki Rendezvous
Natsuyuki Rendezvous features a love triangle between a ghost husband, a lonely widow and a jerk. The ghost constantly undermines the widow’s attempts to move on, the jerk uses the ghost’s memories to worm his way into the widow’s heart, and she’s only too willing to use him to run off with the ghost. There’s nothing wrong with a story about such an unlikable bunch, but when it comes to calling them out on their foolishness, Natsuyuki Rendezvous favours wishy-washy sentiment over logic and then palms us off with a faux-happy ending that’s really anything but.
11. Sword Art Online
In a moment of weakness, I started reading the Sword Art Online light-novels. They are crap. Like most, I was hooked by the idea of being trapped in a murderous video game. The TV series is well animated and action-packed, but none of that can deflect from a story that’s about as contrived as they come. This is such a predictable and cynical cash-grab of a franchise that even its author apologises for it.
10. Thermae Romae
The best compliment I can give to Thermae Romae is that I wish there was more of it. A random comedy about a bath architect from ancient Rome being somehow teleported to contemporary Japan, this is, like Detroit Metal City before it, a short, sweet and strange sojourn into the poe-faced, surreal comedy that anime has always done well. It’s hardly animated, but don’t let that deter you, for this is that rare thing: actually funny.
If director Kenji Nakamura is working on a series, it’s a default watch. But then, I would’ve watched Tsuritama anyway, because the idea of an anime series about fishing is just too strange to ignore. There’s not an ounce of cynicism to it either, it’s just deliriously happy. There’s songs and dancing, and characters with smiles as wide as their faces. It tackles alienation, loneliness, misanthropy and can be difficult to watch, but with Tsuritama, you can always rely on there being a sparkling, shimmering sunset at the end of every tunnel.
From the outside looking in, Sankarea is hardly appealing: just another magical girlfriend series, you may assume, but one little thing. This time, said girlfriend is a zombie. And there’s no getting around a couple of other important facts: that zombies are vicious, and dead, and, therefore, any relationship derived from this point on is fated not to end well. What a strange, beautiful, fetishistic, almost Utena-esque romance this is, then, and one that I shan’t forget in a hurry.
7. Eureka Seven AO
One of the year’s most anticipated series, Eureka Seven AO, like most any Bones anime, was full of ambition, action and conflict. For a start, its plot, which has a political, nationalistic flavour, is difficult to swallow. It requires patience, for it’s hardly forthcoming with answers, but its biggest flaw is that it lacks a clear, coherent connection to 2006’s original Eureka Seven. And while those connections do eventually appear, on first viewing, they aren’t satisfying enough. It’s a series that will improve with time, but as for today, one thing I can say with absolute certainty is this: the soundtrack, by Supercar’s Koji Nakamura, is brilliant.
A real guilty pleasure is Btooom!. It’s politically-incorrect and about as sophisticated as a hammer to the head. Or grenade in the face. This is a red-blooded anime that, at its best, is an engaging game of wits between people trying to trap each other in the jungle with bombs, but at its worst, exploits that same premise to gross, fetishistic ends. In other words, Btooom! brings with it the constant spectre of rape and sexual violence. I enjoy this series, but it isn’t one for the sensitive souls amongst us.
5. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure
Low budget though it is, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is by far and away the best manga adaptation of the year. Brimming with a fan’s passion, it recalls a top-form Osamu Dezaki (Rose of Versailles,) all ultra-dramatic, iconic freeze-frames and swirling patterns. Even the manga’s sound effects were animated. Visually, then, it’s lavish and exciting, but there’s only so much one can do with an overlong first story arc that’s a little too derivative (of Fist of the North Star) for its own good. It’s still a hell of a lot of fun: testosterone-addled, muscle-brained and crazy. Even better, the anime has since moved on to adapting the second story arc, which should iron out the series’ narrative kinks and hopefully deliver a complete package: never was a story more aptly named!
4. Psycho Pass
To understand Psycho Pass, it’s best to contrast it with Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Both series are police procedural dramas set in a near future dominated by technology, but where Stand Alone Complex is an often meditative, under-boiling noir, Psycho Pass is all blood and thunder. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t want people going into this series thinking that it wants to be a serious work of art that’s somehow better than everything else. Stand Alone Complex always had a sense of independence about it, as if it were anime simply because that was the only medium open to it, but Psycho Pass, straight from its pretty-boy character designs on, is so much more tied to what it means to be “anime.” It’s pulpy, violent and swept-up in its own sense of theatre. I love it.
3. From the New World (Shin Sekai Yori)
From the New World is an elegiac, disturbing portrayal of adolescence run amok. As in Akira, when you match egotistical teenagers with overwhelming psychic powers, the result is an inevitable bloodbath. The story begins 1000 years after that, with humanity still struggling to come to terms with its newfound abilities and having been forced to, amongst other extreme measures, tinker with DNA as a means of control. This is a series that works on multiple levels, boasting a fascinating, violent mythology, a brilliant, ever-changing aesthetic, and a powerful sense of symbolism, all about teenagers’ coming of age, budding sexuality and own bodies in revolt. What’s initially so surprising about From the New World is just how bleak it is. The world is thrown into another dark age with the discovery of these new powers and there’s little room for sentiment. Having set such a heavy tone, it’s then able to meditate on a number of fascinating set-pieces. By and large, this is an artfully animated, lyrical anime, the like of which (serious, thought-provoking, and tragic) is very rare indeed.
The year’s most befuddling anime is surely Hyouka. On the face of it, an episodic moé mystery set in and around Japanese high school, bright and breezily animated by Kyoto Animation. The more anime you’ve seen, the more befuddling the series becomes. The sarcastic leading boy, the perky leading girl. We’ve seen it all before. This is a brilliant series though, and fact is, no matter how hard I try to describe it, I can’t feel satisfied. That’s what I mean by befuddling. I can’t point to any one aspect and explain why it gets me like this. It just reads like everything else. A series about friendship, finding mystery in the familiar, about natural talent and discovering your limits, beautifully animated. I’m lost in fog, walking towards a street light that’s moving ever further away. A warm flickering light is Hyouka, the only anime this year that bound itself so tightly around me.
1. Kids on the Slope
It’s fair to say I was excited for Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Apollon.) Putting aside its soundtrack composer (Yoko Kanno (which, in itself, should be reason enough for anyone to check out a new anime series,)) it also marks the return to TV anime of Shinichirō Watanabe, the director of Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo and Macross Plus. It’s been 8 long years since he made Samurai Champloo, but none of that rustiness is showing in Kids on the Slope, a turbulent school drama that, from start to end, is so affective, and yet, a much more subdued effort from the director, being set in Sixties Japan: a country still healing its wounds from the war. There’s racial tension and a generation of kids growing up influenced by American pop-culture, especially music, like rock n’ roll and Watanabe’s own beloved jazz. Much as this is a period drama, then, it’s also intended as love letter to music. From the catharsis of a live performance to the sheer skill required to play an instrument properly, Kids on the Slope is at its best during these moments, when its able to convey a raw enthusiasm for jazz, and a spine-tingling sense of freedom with it.