Friday, July 11, 2014

My Top 15 Anime of All Time - Part One

Okay here's another fun list for you all

Gonna start trying to do this sort of post, it feels like every other post is less interesting than this sort of post. No categorization, no qualifiers, just top 15, boom, boom, boom. I'm gonna spread this into three posts... for hype, I guess. Plus it's gonna get long. Don't worry though I already wrote the other parts so there isn't any chance that I'll just abandon this.

This list was pretty hard to put together, though, which is I guess why I've shied away from trying to do it. At first it was more "traditional" with critically acclaimed stuff but like I dunno...  I started thinking about why I actually watch anime, why I'm making this list and not a "top 15 TV shows" list or whatever. Stuff like Monster or Samurai Champloo, is it even anime to me? I had a film professor recommend Tatami Galaxy to us in a class. Hell, I watched Cowboy Bebop with my dad. Like, you can find these shows on any other list. And they're fantastic, sure. But it isn't those shows that are making me excited to go to Japan. It isn't those shows that I watch almost every night before bed. Those aren't true anime.

Probably if you know me and you're reading this list you already know where I'm going with this and groaning. Maybe even if you don't know me you can guess. What is true anime? Let's read on and find out!

15. Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei

Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei, 12 episodes, 2007
(Zoku) Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei, 13 episodes, 2008
Zan Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei, 13 episodes, 2009

This is not actually true anime. There's a male character. It probably shouldn't be on this list. In fact, it often criticizes and attacks the sacred cycle of moe pandering that so much of this list is based upon. But, then again, it criticizes and attacks basically every other "cultural institution", actual cultural institution, personality archetype, personal philosophy, etc, etc... Everything is shamed into absurdity and irreverence with such impartiality that basically nothing remains. Nothing could be more appropriate for a show about a teacher obsessed with suicide.

The plots all have this sense of everything being taken to their "logical" conclusion, which ends up being absurd when the original premise is far from logical. Some minor facet of contemporary Japanese culture will be exposed as bizarre through sheer focus. Some overlooked trait of an accepted archetype will be taken to extremes. Or sometimes even a pun is enough to connect two wholly unrelated ideas, which then somehow can constitute a whole episode. It almost seems more like a thought experiment than a premise, more just an excuse to string together a dense web of jokes. At it's most basic, we have our beloved sensei, and he must be in despair. All consistency, logic, laws of physics, etc... all can be bent on a whim to those ends.

The rest of the cast, too, seems to be designed with this goal in mind. Traits and archetypes are taken to such absurd extremes that, when you're first introduced, the characters seem like they maybe have two jokes each. There's no effort to make these seem like plausible, realistic characters; if anything, the effort has been made in the exact opposite direction. And yet, these characters, as they slowly expand in personality and scope, manage to stay entertaining and, in a weird way, can become really endearing and lovable. I have no idea how that miracle works.

It probably has something to do with the design. Shaft, as always, goes all out in their aesthetics. A consistent minimal style makes all the characters into even more memorable caricatures of themselves, but is also cute enough to comfort you. This is combined with Shaft's signature use of repeated symbols, patterned backgrounds, abstract settings, non-diegetic expository scenes, etc, etc... don't worry, we'll be looking at all of this stuff a lot more, there's a lot of Shaft shows on the list, lol. The end result is something that seems almost like a pamphlet or lecture slides, so dense with jokes and information, like someone trying to be educational but just getting frantic and out of control.

And that's really the appeal of the show, this sort of manic feeling. The jokes are just absurdly dense... the dialogue is loaded with puns, there's jokes on the chalkboard, jokes on the signs... Everything parodies something, or two or three things. There can never just be one reference, there has to be a whole list - often literally just a list of further jokes and references on a theme. There's bawdy humor and slapstick, character-driven jokes and catchphrases, political satire and intellectual jokes. There's the entire spectrum of high and low humor here, often all at once. But the feeling is never that you're feeling overwhelmed, despite the fact that I feel like no single person in the world could notice, let alone get, every joke in the show. Instead, it's more the feeling that there's always something for you, always something to laugh at in just the level of humor you want to laugh at. That's the sweet spot.

It never feels so irreverent that it's stupid, or so deranged that it's dismissable. It's often very intellectual and esoteric, but... it is also stupid and deranged. The attitude of this show is so mysterious to me. It seems so nihilistic and despairing, but the scope is so wide and the actual watching of the show is so fun and silly that it also feels like there's a lot of love here, a sort of love that, although perverted, inverted and ironic, is still all-encompassing and forgiving. But then it's also often very mean and targeted. So I dunno. And even beyond that, sometimes it jumps so deep into mysterious symbolism and spiritual imagery (especially in the fantastic OPs) that it might even mean something, too... who knows.

Best Girl Award: Kafuka Fuura

This was a tough one... the characters here are so extreme that every one is memorable, but so endearing that you never want to forget them... if that makes sense. Kafuka is the best, though. The strict antithesis to the eponymous sensei, Kafuka operates on a level beyond the other characters. Her archetype is so incompatible with all the situations she finds herself in that the end result is never predictable. And yet, her endless optimism seems to infect all the other characters, resulting in the key conflict of perspective that drives the show. There's a little bit of her in everyone (lol).

14. Sakura Trick

12 episodes, 2014
Studio Deen

Okay we went from one of the few not real anime on the list to the realest. This is a controversial choice. I mean, the show is objectively bad on a whole lot of metrics... Studio Deen had a budget of like 50 bucks for it and it shows. The fanservice is completely shameless, and, unlike fanservice-laden "masterpieces" like Strike Witches, seems lazy and forced. Like, this is a really blatant show. There isn't a second of subtlety in it. That seems like a weird thing to complain about in the medium that birthed such masterpieces of unsubtlety as Gurren Lagann and Redline, but in the context of love stories... you kinda want some restraint, right?

Well, actually, no, I don't. Starting an entry on a list of all-time favorites with a whole paragraph of complaints seems weird, but this isn't really complaining. Okay yeah I could do without a lot of the really excessive and pointless fanservice, that straight up detracted from it. But everything else is... exactly what I wanted it to be.

The budget is so charming! Ishikura directed this beast, and brought all the cost-saving measures he taught Shaft: characters represented with symbols, static perspectives, extreme closeups of objects, shots of sound effects spelled out, abstract gradient or patterned backgrounds, super deformed and minimal character shots (the essential "wideface")... it's all here, giving the show the (brilliant) nickname "Ecchi Sketch" (hahaha). I'll discuss the actual appeal of these elements later, but just know that they're here and I love them.

I love the characters, too. The structure of six girls with three obvious pairings is a proven classic. The introduction of Yuu's older sister, the hilarious and frantic school president, and the love triangle between her, Yuu, and Haruka is really what sets this show apart. It probably didn't have to get as dramatic as it did, but it was a nice change of pace, and lent the whole affair some significance. The contrast between that mess and the more stable pair of Shizuku and Kotone (although the one episode they tried to put some drama in that pairing seemed bizarre and unnecessary) works well too.

Okay but here's the actual important thing. Here's the thing that made me include this show over a lot of other slice of life shows that are more healing, better produced, have more endearing characters, don't have really degenerate levels of fanservice, etc... It's the yuri factor. Yuri is one of two Japanese terms I'll refer to a lot on this list (the other being moe). Basically, it's the genre or plot element of Japanese media that deals with lesbian relationships. Yuri, and Western subgenreing of "shoujo-ai" (girl's love), carries implications (at least to me) of stories that focus on the beginning of the relationship, the overcoming of societal stigmas, the discovery of emotions, etc. Sakura Trick is straight(lol) yuri, from episode one to episode twelve. They kiss. They make out. They hold hands (!!!!!). They say "I love you". This isn't subtext. You don't need your goggles. They don't cut away (although sometimes they probably should... this show is so shameless). It's finally here.

I don't think an appreciation or understanding of yuri is necessary to enjoy moe slice of life shows. But it is one way that you can enjoy them. It's certainly a way that I enjoy them. I think the first time I really shipped two girl characters was in Azumanga Daioh, Yomi and Tomo... really obvious pairing, yeah. I saw them hanging out and interacting and I felt like they had feelings for each other. Actually, I knew they had feelings for each other. I wanted something to happen. I knew it wouldn't, but I wanted it to.

Since then I've watched some depressingly high number of moe slice of life shows (real anime). And almost every time there's two girls, or often two sets of two girls, or even more sets, where I know that they must have romantic feelings for each other, where I really wanted to see that love come to fruition. And they never did. Sometimes it would get really close, yeah. Maybe it never happening added to the appeal, I don't know. Explaining the actual appeal of yuri will have to come later. But often the most compelling aspect of a series would be having these two characters you liked, and wanting them to be together, and anticipating that, and never getting it.

So this time, it actually happened. That's it. That's the reason this show is so good for me. It's the show I've been wanting for so many years. No fake outs, no tricks, no possibility of failure. Sure, it's a bit too easy, a bit too blatant, a bit too immediate. There's none of the slow budding and blooming that makes a yuri masterpiece like Girl Friends so great... they kiss in the first half of the first episode! But that just gives you more time to enjoy the splendor of the lily in full bloom. Sometimes, despite all the excess and shamelessness, it could be really romantically moving to me - episode 8 especially, I think I've seen that episode like a dozen times at least. This isn't exactly the show I always wanted for all those years, but it's close enough.

Best Girl Award: Kaede Ikeno

Somewhat ironically, the least yuri character won! Kaede was just too much fun. Her awareness and playfulness made me really identify with her - she seemed to engage in the events of the show in the same way as the viewer. This "calling out" also provided a nice counterbalance to the happiness of the show. She was sarcastic without being mean, apathetic without being negative. Her design was great too, easily the most reasonable... and although I love Yuu's flowers and will defend to the death the cuteness of Haruka's floppy bow, the classics can't be beat. Speaking of which, shipping her and Yuzu was the exact sort of compelling shipping experience I want to have in other anime, especially since the precedent of the other couples made it seem possible that something could actually happen.

13. Lucky Star

24 episodes, 2007
Kyoto Animation

By the time I watched Lucky Star, I understood slice of life shows. I even understood moe. But I still didn't like Lucky Star, or rather, I didn't want to like it. See, with Lucky Star, something that I think I had been avoiding became obviously true: anime was pandering, one of the most pandering mediums in the world. Before, slice of life and moe, things I was just starting to get interested in, seemed natural byproducts of some other goal. The fact that nothing was happening was just because the story they wanted to tell was naturally uneventful. The fact that the characters were cute and endearing was just how they were. It seems dumb now, but this is what I sincerely believed.

But with Lucky Star, it was unavoidable. Cuteness was the goal. Having nothing happen was the goal. They knew I wanted that and they were pandering to me. I was such an elitist about my taste in music and such at the time... being pandered to really felt dirty. So I didn't want to like Lucky Star. But I did. When I gave it a chance, I did, I really really did. This might have been the first real anime I enjoyed after I finally realized what real anime was. Real anime is pandering. It's the truth that is as beautiful and as ugly as it is obvious. Real anime is released on Blu-Rays with two episodes per disc that retail for 70+ bucks, supported by tonnes of similarly priced figures. Real anime is bought only by a small faction of cultish otaku. It is not worth trying to expand this market because it is so easy to just give it what it wants. So they do that, over and over. They get really good at it. The market never stops wanting it. They'll never stop making it. Viva moe! Viva anime! This cycle is what birthed most of the shows on this list, either as a simple product or response.

Despite appearing near the start of the true modern moe boom, Lucky Star got a whole lot of stuff really right. This is true real 100% pure anime. Sakura Trick was real anime too, but it was so real that it became hyperreal, and the appeal wasn't really the "real anime" aspects of it. So let's take this opportunity to break down what makes a real anime:

- 4+ Girls
- High school setting
- No major male characters (Konata's dad is a close call, but we'll allow it)
- Moe everywhere all the time (we'll get more into what this means later, don't worry)
- You can ship the girls
- Catchy OP
- Festival episode
- Beach episode
- Studying/exams episode
- Christmas and/or New Years episode
- Basically no plot development between episodes
- Basically no plot or events within episodes
- General tone is of humor (i.e. not sad or dramatic, but occasional exceptions are okay)
- Peaceful, calm, no major conflict, no suspense or tension - slice of life!

Seems like extensive requirements... but there's a lot of shows that fit all of these parameters. You'll see a lot of them on this list. Lucky Star nailed this formula before I feel like anyone should have been able to understand it so well. The actual appeal of a lot of these things I'll explain later... sorry, I keep doing this, it seems like a cop-out, but I just feel like I should explain them with the best examples I know of.

The thing that makes Lucky Star special is that it did all this with a completely shameless but always hilarious level of self-awareness. They threw realism to the wind in their design of the characters, making Konota just the ultimate wish-fulfillment character... super-otaku, athletic, brilliant, social, funny, cute, etc, etc... It's the "super-otaku" aspect that pushes this beyond just regular Mary Sues... see, usually, when someone designs a "perfect" character, they discard a lot of the "undesirable" traits of themselves, but here, Konota just embraces them further. She still loves anime! There's an episode about them going to Comiket! There's tons and tons of anime and gaming jokes, references, parodies - sometimes taking full reign of all aspects of production. It's the source for the funniest parts of the show, and also provides a level of awareness that (although ultimately unnecessary) is stabilizing, especially when you're first getting into the genre. It plays with the fact that it's pandering to you, letting you "in on the scheme", although you're still going along with it. This all is taken to the extreme in the meta-level Lucky Channel segments that end every episode, where you're often flat out told why you liked what you have just seen, how it was created for that purpose, and how you're going to spend money on it. How considerate!

Don't think that this is just a heartless blatant cashgrab, though. It is a blatant cashgrab, but it isn't heartless. There's a lot of love in this show. There's a sense of there being a real community at the school, a real perpetual life to both the main and extended cast that continues on even when the characters aren't on screen. All the characters are loaded with personality and quirks, and any could easily be your favorite. The pacing is wonderful, a great mixture of the infamous long, rambling conversations and sudden, energetic, "memetic" (in the best way) shots. KyoAni, gods of indulgent budget, have a lot of fun with every gag, splurging on elaborate diegesis-breaking shots and fluid character motion. It's just a joy to watch.

Best Girl Award: Kagami Hiiragi

I think maybe Misao wins on average quality in scenes but she's just too minor a character to beat out Kagami, one of the all-time greats. Kagami is the ideal twin-tailed tsundere, although, yeah, the one Lucky Channel segment argues pretty well that she isn't technically a tsundere. Kagami works so well because she's so reasonable, hardworking, reliable, not without her faults... she can be competitive and petty, too. Her weary straight-man to Kotona's absurdity is the driving dynamic of a lot of the show's humor, and, like many characters in her archetype, the moments when she finally admits that she's having fun, too, are just too nice for words.

12. Azumanga Daioh

26 episodes, 2002

This was the first real anime I saw... I think it was one of the first real anime ever, too, but I'm too lazy to research that claim very well. It was certainly a very landmark in the struggle to have true anime... really exist. And although it seems dated in many ways, it fits all the criteria of a modern real anime that I outlined above. And, like any apparently negative aspect of moe anime, the things that make it seem dated are also its ~charm points~.

Each episode is chunked into four-five minute segments, each fairly standalone but contributing to an overall theme or plot of the episode. This is a really great format, I find it replicates perfectly the way one actually remembers a day... interconnected but distinct incidents. The overall appeal of the show comes from this very naturalistic feel, this was the show that first really made me understand the beauty of the slice of life genre.

The series diligently attempts to depict all the essential facets of the high school experience. There's an episode called "Sports Fest" and then an episode called "Sports Fest, 2nd Year" and then an episode called "Last Sports Fest in High School"... I think that says it all, right there. You get a feeling of responsibility, almost like that of a journalist, to faithfully and fully capture every incident - not just "the sports fest" experience, but the experience of the annual sports fest, the actual experience you'd have in high school.

This almost documentary-esque sense of naturalism is made even more significant by how little this show really feels like it's pandering to you. I really still do think this show isn't pandering. I mean, there was basically no established market that this could pander to at the time. And like... this is from the guy that made Yotsuba. That just... transcends pandering (more on this topic later).

Beyond all that, though, is a sense of innocence that just seems incomparable with deliberate pandering. It's what makes the show sometimes feel very dated. This show just seems way more "anime-ish"... like, more like not-real animes that were popular at the time. There's those blurry coloured speed lines on the action shots that shonen animes are still using to save budget. They make sure to set up premises and characters like this was some TV sitcom or something. Stuff like attitudes towards fanservice, acknowledgement of fanservice, running jokes, etc... a lot of it feels really unnecessary compared with what anime "gets away" with now. You can tell they couldn't tell quite yet what was or wasn't important to its audiences. And it's not like anything falls flat for me now, but sometimes it just seems weird... weird because it's... too normal. Okay, we're in deep now.

One thing they did here that is now seen as very controversial and pretty rare is that they actually ended it. The series ends when (spoiler alert!) the main cast graduates after three fun years of high school. It's these episodes, so beautiful, so sad, that will always remain special to me in this show. I think I watched this around when I started high school (wow, that seems so weird to consider, now... that I used to watch high school anime when I was in high school), so I think I could relate to the graduation experience. I was really moved. The scene where they thank their teacher, and it's really also like they're thanking you, the viewer... it's almost too much to bear, even thinking of it now. I think that was the first time I really understood the appeal of anime. Who knows where I'd be if it wasn't for that final episode...

Best Girl Award: Tomo Takino

All six of the main girls (and the teachers) are excellent characters, any one of which is a great waifu (wow! did you know this is the show where that term originated?!), but I have to give it to Wildcat Tomo. This was my first experience with the appeal of sheer energy... Tomo is not smart, or athletic, or particularly talented in any regard. She's just so... SPIRITED! so GENKI! At first I honestly couldn't understand the point of such a character, but it soon became obvious. She just has so much stuff going for her... I think the jokes with her are the funniest, she's kind without being saccharine, the pairing of her and Yomi is so entertaining... I still shout (at least internally) "It's the final stretch!" whenever I start running. And the way she suffers through it all! Despair-moe, still a highly experimental and innovative form of moe, finds many of its roots here.

11. Welcome to the NHK

24 episodes, 2006

At it's most basic, all real anime is escapism. I'd like to say that it's a bit more complex than that... but we'll get into that later, I guess. We'll just stick with escapism for now. Escapism is pretty simple: you immerse yourself in something fictional for awhile and forget about your actual life. It's usually a pretty negative term. What happens when you forget about your own life to an extreme degree? Welcome to this anime. Welcome to the NHK tells the story of Satou, a hikkikomori (never goes outside) NEET (not in employment, education, or training). He meets a mysterious girl who promises to break him out of these destructive habits. It was based on a manga that was based on a novel. Each adaptation got less depressing but this is still the most depressing anime I've ever seen. The original author struggled with being a hikkikomori even while writing it. Bleak, right?

This show affected me more than I'll probably ever realize. Hikkikomori, NEET, otaku, lolicon... these words were introduced and cemented into my vocabulary by this show. Even if before I had some sort of idea of a shut-in, or a pervert, or a loser, these ideas were replaced by memories of this show. Beyond that: so much of my understanding of pandering, of moe, of depression, addiction, retreat, isolation, I still refer to this show, on some levels. Even specific things, like, the scene where Satou is trying to commit suicide, but is convinced to stop by Yamazaki, saying that people like them don't deserve a dramatic death like suicide... that scene still really haunts me.

I think if it wasn't for the fact that I find moe so healing and endearing, this show would be an easy top 5, maybe even top 3. But then, if I didn't find those things so appealing, this show would be a lot less meaningful to me, so I dunno. All I'm trying to say is this is an excellent show. Like Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei, it takes a look at some of the more ridiculous aspects of modern Japanese culture, but in this case, through the perspective of one being dumped on by those very conventions. The plot has all the arbitrary episodicness of the best realist art house. Satou stumbles from one mistake to the next, always toeing that fine line between comedy and tragedy (well, sometimes shoving the whole foot into the latter half).

The story of two otaku working together to make their dream erotic game is inherently comic, and substantial enough to support a whole comedy series alone. Likewise, an "angelic" girl coming to save a guy from his hikki ways sounds like a great romantic comedy. And there's a lot of episodes where they play this pretty straight, and just play around with some of the many recipes for hijinks that come to mind with these premises... fake dates, MMORPG addiction, sales scams... but the real meat of the show comes from taking these wacky situations and peeling back all the artifice.

It's brutal, like, unilaterally brutal. You never learn any positive information. There's no success. Things just get worse. It's like some bizarro shonen where, at the end of the arc, they lose to the boss, the next destination is unknown, and they're even weaker. And even though all the characters are despicable and disgusting in their own way, just this sheer amount of suffering is enough to make you want to root for them. And - this might just be me - you really start to see yourself in them. You start to really question what it is that separates you from this lifestyle, what you've really done to earn a better life, to earn more respect. Maybe you have answers to those, I don't know, but it's still worth considering. Sometimes the little choices you make in life, the choices you make naturally, without even considering the alternative, are worth focusing on. Your understanding of what it means to be a member of society, of what it means to have a worthy life, etc... this show will make you question those things again. It's a very profound experience.

And, of course, at the same time, it's still a fun anime experience. There's a lot of play with the genre and setting, which is pretty remarkable for a show about not leaving the house. Things often go so wrong that it hits that sweet spot of sheer absurdity you see in shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Peep Show, where you can't help but laugh how many mistakes are accumulating at once. I'd honestly recommend this show to almost anyone. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll, uhh... think about things... It's unforgettable.

Best Girl Award: Misaki Nakahara

Well, it was between her and Hitomi, I guess. Or Megumi but ugh nah. Or maybe Magical Girl Pururin? Anyways, Misaki is a haunting character. Even before you actually know anything, you get a sense of something deeply fractured within her. She represents everything about that spirit of things just getting worse and worse and worse... every time you think you understand her, that's yet another facade she put on to keep you from the even uglier truth. All of this is wrapped up in a cute design that seems to fragile to even witness.

Wow, what a depressing end to part one!

Don't worry, there won't be more of that anymore. We shall all be healed. What have we learned so far?
-I have shit taste
-I like moe
-I think moe = real anime

Things we notably haven't learned:
-What moe is
-Why I like it

\That's in part two.


Steven Ye said...

1. kafuka is strictly not best girl
2. sakura trick is garbage and i know you know that it's garbage and you shouldn't put it in a top 50 let alone a top 15
3. kanata izumi is mai waifu

Anonymous said...

UHH EXCUSE ME kafuka is STRICTLY best girl I will literally fight you

Anonymous said...

Much waifu