Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My Top 15 Anime of All Time - Part Two

Back in it, part two!

(Part one)

This is when the healing really starts. This is when, hopefully, I make you understand what makes anime so special for me. Despite it being shameless pandering to a tiny, desperate, uncultured audience. Despite it being paradoxically engineered to feel special. Despite it being objectively simplistic and irrelevant. Or maybe exactly because of those things. Am I piquing your interests? I don't know, writing intros like this is silly and hard.

Probably putting a lot of effort into lists like this in general is pretty silly, too... Like, I'm not sure if I actually understand who would want to read this. If I was some sort of unique voice in the anime fan community, maybe, but a big part of this is that I'm not, I'm actually a very typical consumer of one of the most relevant demographics of taste. If I was incredibly expert in anime, well researched, definitive, objective... but nah forget that, that's boring. Or if I was somehow relevant outside of this list, like, someone famous and respected for other areas, yeah, it would be kinda cool to read about their taste in anime... but has any big anime fan ever been in that position? lol

Ahh, this sort of futility can make me so weary... this is when I need anime most of all.

10. K-On!

K-On!, 13 episodes, 2009
K-On!!, 26 episodes, 2010
K-On! the Movie, film, 2011
Kyoto Animation

This is a really real anime about a high school "light music" club, a club where these four (later five) girls start a band. It is a straight up real anime - it aces the checklist I mentioned in part one. If you accept real anime into your life and your heart, the appeal of this show should be pretty obvious. For all those unfortunate and still searching, this might take some doing.

First, let's look at the obvious appeals of the show. Kyoani, eternal gods of budget, bless this show with an umatchable professionalism. All the corner-cutting tricks you see in many shows - tricks that have been elevated to an artform by Shaft - have no place here. Instead, there's a consistent, beautiful, naturalistic style. The scenery is always detailed, nonspeaking background characters have fanclubs on /a/, absolutely everything moves fluidly. Kyoani goes nuts with tracking shots, zooms, and rotations that would drive many studios to the poor house. And when a character becomes deformed or an animation moves choppily for some joke, the effect is even greater. I don't think it's possible to realize just how much anime usually gets away with in these regards without comparing it to a show like this.

And stuff like voice acting, background music, even the recording quality itself... it all has this layer of polish that few other shows can match. The end result is a beautiful, natural style. With this detail, fluidity, and sound, it's one of the closest things in anime to an actual live recording. It isn't just technical, though - every choice of composition reinforces this atmosphere. This is where the show exceeds any live-action attempt to recreate it. This isn't just a depiction of the world consistent and detailed enough to feel, it's a depiction of an ideal world. The people are always beautiful. The settings are always picturesque. The food always looks delicious. Things that could never be coordinated or micromanaged in real life are perfect here. Kyoani goes even further, indulging in some soft lighting and filters whenever they need just an added touch of beauty. Anime, to an extent, always takes place in a perfect world, in a world where everything is designed. K-On!'s is just especially rich.

So the show is just a joy to watch just from it's sheer beauty, sure. I feel like that's almost enough, that I could have just provided some gifs and screencaps and soundtrack and such and that would have been an okay entry. The show is simply breathtaking. But that isn't the whole appeal. And it isn't the premise, either. I mean, the premise is great, don't get me wrong. Loads of plots for episodes result from their musical dreams, plus each character is interesting enough to support lots of stories, plus there's everyone's favorite high school classics, so the basis for the story is solid. The concert scenes are always exciting - as you watch the band prepare, these events end up having the same significance for viewers as the characters. And the camaraderie of the band is, well... we'll get to that shortly.

'Cause I mean really now, you're not watching K-On! for the music. The music is great, but c'mon. They don't play at all in like, over half of the episodes. No, no, there's something else going on here. To explain it, we're gonna go in pretty deep. We're heading into the heart of the heart of anime. This might get kinda intense, but if you've read this far, you should be ready. It's time to battle the big beast that is moe. Anime lives or dies on this beautiful concept. I have tried many times to put it into words in a way that someone might understand. I have failed just as many times... until now... hopefully. I think in the past I was trying to explain moe for all people, but now I realize that the only thing I can do is explain moe just for me. It might get kinda personal, with that in mind... uh, be warned, or whatever, I guess.

I guess we should start with the Wikipedia page, which I think does a pretty good job of explaining the basics. There certainly isn't much in there I'd outright disagree with, at least. But what is the actual appeal of moe? What does it do for the viewer? Let's dive deep into the mind of a moefag (me) and try to root it out. I think if this is ever fully understood, the government could issue some sort of pill to cure it and destroy the otaku-centric anime industry. Or they could reverse-engineer it and make trillions. This is important stuff.

It's not that complicated, though, really, although I think there are subtle aspects that I might not be able to explain fully. First there's the sheer visceral aspect to moe, that which exists on the level of character design. Moe characters look cute. You want to see their reactions to things, you want to see them in a variety of situations. You want to hug them or hold them or whatever. The whole idea of cuteness can probably be traced back through evolutionary psychology to pre- and post-reproductive urges, but that stuff's for nerds. Likewise, getting into why I think the Keions look cute is beyond the scope... probably some deep science of ratios of eye-size to face-size or something. Regardless, I think everyone understands that there are cute things in the world. Basically any reaction people typically have to cute things is also a pleasant reaction people can enjoy with moe things.

But yeah, all of these reactions can easily exist "irl", too, of course. I'm not going to claim that one is better than the other, or even that there's aspects of moe design that could never be replicated irl. The specific appeal of moe that you can't get with anything irl comes in the next phase, the level of personality. Moe characters have a pretty wide range of personalities but they're unified by the ideal of their design. See, the level of meticulous and omnipotent refinement that was applied to the production of the show is applied to the characters, too. And there is only one goal: to have you like the character.

This is the rare beauty of true anime: to have a cast of characters where every single aspect - their looks, their voice, their personality - every flaw, every quirk, every strength, every weakness, every charm point - everything has been successfully designed with only one purpose in mind: to endear the character to you. There is no concession they need to make to support the plot because this is no plot. There is no pretense of making a realistically flawed character. There's no attempt at realism at all. No person in reality can act like this; there's no person who exists on every level just to endear themselves to others - because real people have their own autonomy! Any sort of "irl moe" would either be a deliberate appeal or an observer-side reinterpretation of purpose, i.e., someone "acting cute" for you is either them acting unnaturally to be cute for you or you're incorrectly interpreting their natural behaviour as "acting cute". In anime, because the characters have no autonomy, there's no compromise between their natural behaviour and what you find most endearing. You're aware that what you're watching is a deliberate construct made to appeal and thus can correctly "parse" all aspects of what you see as something appealing, but you also know that you're watching something "natural".

Does that make sense? The end result is a character who, beyond having no unlikable aspects, is designed solely to receive your love. I'm not saying this is a thing I actually want in reality, like, it's good that real people don't act like this, that these characters can't exist in reality. In no way should the comfort of this "moe" trump the autonomy of actual people. I hope that went without saying.

Still, the impossibility and unreality of moe has its own appeal. It operates on the third and most powerful level of moe: the self-annihilatory. This is the very core of anime. We're going to max depth here. It's not too late to turn back.

OK: there will be people who sincerely and confidently believe they will never fall in love. There are others who, even if they fell in love, would be forever burdened by their own presence in the feeling (i.e. their distaste for themselves is such that, if they loved a person, they would not want to "subject" the person to "their love", and the very fact that their beloved person is loved by something like them makes them feel like a "flaw" in the life of the beloved person, and the possibility of the person reciprocating the feelings is paradoxically both the desire and the most terrifying thing, etc). The truth of these beliefs and concerns is irrelevant - what matters is that people exist who believe these things, and moe can be very important for them.

Mio-chan is Mio-chan is Mio-chan. You don't have to get to know her or have things in common with her. You don't have to be her kind of person to "hang out" with her for 22 minute stretches. There's no one you have to be jealous of - she doesn't have a favorite viewer. In fact, she doesn't have any feelings at all for any of her viewers - and she never will. That sounds like it's depressing, but it really isn't... there's no chance for you to compromise her perfection with your presence in her mind. In fact, you don't have to think about your presence or yourself at all. It doesn't matter who you are or what's wrong with you. You can love Mio as much as you want and that will never matter. It is a love entirely abstracted from consequences or even the potential of consequences. It is a love that you don't have to be at all involved in.

Nothing will happen to Mio-chan. Mio-chan won't change. You don't have to worry about her. She won't start disliking you. She'll never ask anything of you. She "exists" for you, she is cute for you, and she doesn't need anything more. The comfort and joy of love - the feeling of warmth, of the world really coming alive, the feeling of having something secret within you, something invigorating and motivating and burning, an ideal to aspire to, a reassurance of goodness... all of these beautiful feelings, safe and free and easy, guaranteed and infallible, indiscriminate and infinite. A simple and shallow love, sure, maybe just a taste of love, but love nonetheless, and one that comes to you as easily as pressing play. That is moe.

And beyond just Mio-chan, this feeling can blossom and encompass every aspect of the show. You love all the characters, the relationships, the settings, the gags, the aesthetics, the plots (or lack thereof)... the entire universe of the show. You can fall in love such that there is no aspect of the show that you won't love. It truly is falling in love with the whole world, which is I think one of the most beautiful feelings anyone can aspire to. Even if the world only exists in this show, you can have a taste of that all-encompassing love. It's really wonderful. Moe is really wonderful. K-On! is really wonderful.

Best Girl Award: Azusa Nakano

Okay we maybe went a bit overboard there. Let's get back to sane behavior like debating who the best girl is. This was a really, really tough call for me. For a long time I would have said Mio, sometimes I feel like saying Mugi... but really, it has to be Azusa. Now that I've established what moe is and what it does for me, I can start talking more specifically about things I find moe. Azusa's awesome because she operates as a tsundere character in terms of playing the "straight man" to Yui and getting frustrated and such, but her role as the underclassman conflicts with this, putting her in a unique and incredibly endearing position where she both admires and chastises her senpai. YuiAzu is one of the all time great pairings. I generally just love tsundere type characters, too. They aren't my absolute favorite, but they're up there. I love the feeling of a character denying their true feelings, but knowing how they feel deep down, and knowing that eventually they'll admit to it and open up.

9. YuruYuri

YuruYuri, 12 episodes, 2011
YuruYuri♪♪, 12 episodes, 2012

Okay so now maybe you have an idea of what moe is. If not, just watch this show. This is moe as a perfected science. This hits the theoretical limits. I talked earlier about the cycle of otaku-pandering that churns out anime... this is that machine running at absolute peak efficiency. This show is like... completely insane. There's no premise - it's just these four girls in the "amusement club", which they freely admit is a club with no activities. On the pandering scale, it falls somewhere between Lucky Star and Sakura Trick, but something about it feels even more blatant. Although it may not have the extreme reference mining of Lucky Star or the explicitness of Sakura Trick, it also puts in way less effort to "justify" or set up the pandering scenes.

I'm really not sure I could ever fully explain how nonsensical this show is. Every time I think I've remembered the defining example, the one where I can say "this show is so insane, they even did this", I think of something even crazier. There's no realism, no consistency. The fourth wall is shattered, causality is violated, even the basic relationships between the dimensions are busted... the characters acknowledge that they don't age and are simply repeating the same year over and over. This extends to the animation, too... although they don't indulge in many Shaft-style total breaks, there's a lot of indulgence in little tricks, instantly-memorable movements, etc...

Lots of anime conventions that we've somehow become accustomed to are pushed to limits, sometimes for basically no reason. It one-ups other series' "no male characters" philosophy by only having any sort of male human on screen in like two scenes that I can think of. There's no teacher character or really any classroom scenes. Stuff like sports fest episodes and festivals that I used to consider essential are deconstructed and stripped away, revealing them to be plenty unnecessary. Instead of pretending there's some overarching plot or theme, the title makes it clear that nothing more than some lazing around will be accomplished. And instead of occasional treats for the yuri-fanatic fans in the audience, well, the second half of the title is also appropriate. They're even in middle school instead of high school for basically no reason. Everything deemed worthy is pushed to an extreme and everything that isn't is completely discarded.

It even "corrupts" the "morality" of the series... what I mean by this is that, for most real anime, a certain consistency in goodness is paramount. And I love this, it's what really vitalizes and sustains the feeling of moe. But there are certain things that aren't possible in that emotional mode that can also be funny or cute or otherwise appealing. Most shows are content to let these go, but YuruYuri boldly tries to have it's cake and eat it, too... interjecting loads of decidedly non-moe elements while still trying to maintain a level of overall serene happiness... slapstick, overt despair, cruelty, surrealism, satire, crude jokes, metaness... "lower" forms of humour that feel like they ought to pull you ought of the hypnotic immersion of moe. Why do they do this? Well, 'cause it's funny. That's all. It's even funnier, sometimes even shockingly funny, in the context of the comforted bliss of moe anime.

To facilitate these, they employ a lot of fantasy sequences, dream sequences, illustrations of hypotheticals, etc. This results in a bizarre feeling of totally irreverent unreality, where the more sincere a scene appears to be, the more likely it is to be some sore of fake-out. But then, just when you think you've found some pattern, the show flips it up again, going all the way with an idea in "reality". This just furthers the sense that absolutely everything in this show is unreal and meaningless.

But to what end is all of this? This all-candy diet of anime, this cake-eat impossible indulgence, what does it really get you? A silly funny comedy or a heartwarming moe classic? Well, it's somehow both. Somehow, despite seeing the characters suffer, you manage to take part in their enjoyment. Despite the action being chaotic and the deigesis nonsensical, you can settle in and relax in a peaceful world that feels real and encompassing. Despite almost every moment of sincerity being "tainted" by some self-reference, crudeness, or extremity that seems like it ought to ruin it, the juxtaposition somehow makes both sides stronger.

I think this all works because, for everything they've taken out, every rule they've disregarded, they haven't forgotten the most important part: make the characters endearing. And oh man, the characters here are just mind-bogglingly cute. Like, literally... I think if you watch too much of this show, the cuteness of the characters gets overwhelming to the extent that you start going insane. The uniforms are my absolute favorites in any anime. Something about the proportions, the hair, the faces... everything is just way too cute. The personalities, too... the same "we want it both ways!" philosophy applies here, and we're given characters who are selfish, mean, crazy, and yet somehow still really endearing and lovable? How?? Modern science has no answers.

Best Girl Award: Akari Akaza

I love every character in this show but this was still a blow out. If it wasn't for Akari, this show probably wouldn't have made the list. Akari I think is probably my third favorite character overall, in any anime. It was because of seeing a good Akari design that I finally took the plunge on buying a dakimakura. She's just so great, so cute. Long-suffering and impossibly unlucky in her endless quest to become the protagonist, she perfectly exemplifies the bizarre but miraculous phenomenon that is despair-moe. When I see Akari suffer, it provokes a really bizarre reaction in me, where I feel bad for her, and pity her, but then take solace in the fact that it "isn't real" and then feel comforted... but when I think "oh well, this isn't real", I'm actually thinking, on some subconscious crazy level, "oh well, this isn't real, Akari isn't really suffering"... like, still somehow thinking that the "real" Akari isn't suffering. Huuuuh? I think it has something to do with the show's play with multiple layers of "reality" and such, but this reaction basically makes no sense. I end up having it like three different ways - 1) Akari is suffering, and I feel bad for her; but 2) actually she'll be okay because this "isn't real"; but really 3) absolutely none of this is real, obviously, it is a construction... all of these layers are conflicting, but somehow they all sustain in my head when I watch the show, and they're all endearing and they all further the feeling of moe.

Her attitude is just so good, too. Despite all her despair, Akari always engages in her world in the same way I engage with the show - with wonderment and joy. She wants to be loved by her friends. She wants to have fun and experience everything she can in her life. She's caring, considerate, kind, proactively positive, playful, and warm. This is the "good girl" archetype, my absolute favorite. We'll get more into this later.

8. Saki

Saki, 25 episodes, 2009, Gonzo
Saki Achiga-hen episode of Side-A, 16 episodes, 2012-2013, Studio Gokumi
Saki: The Nationals, 13 episodes, Studio Gokumi

Eventually, if I keep being at all productive, I want to make a "top whatever manga of all time" list. It won't have very much overlap with this list, really... although a lot of the series on here are based on manga, they're usually pretty basic 4koma stuff. I like them and all, but they're really missing the visceral qualities that make moe stuff so enthralling. Plus I think the "magic" works better in a purely passive medium... even clicking through a manga is sometimes more effort than I want to put forth. On the other hand, there's another ur-genre that I feel just as suited for manga as moe for anime, one that I find also enthralling and escapist and wonderful, and one that I'll probably spend a lot of the manga list defending and unraveling the appeal of... shonen!

So I don't really want to spoil that list, if it ever will exist, with this description or anything, so I hope I can sorta "get away" with saying something like "Saki is so great because it appeals to me as a shonen on top of everything else"... it's all about the type of suspense, the feeling of triumph, of progressively stronger enemies, of the protagonists growing in strength... Okay actually that's pretty simple stuff to understand. Explaining exactly why I find these (often formulaic and basic) elements so great might take some doing but hopefully that's enough for now.

It's the "everything else" that we'll look at now. Saki has been lauded for it's revolutionary hybrid of moe and mahjong. I'd love to say it's more than that, but really... that's enough for me. That's more than enough for me. You get the gigantic cast of a long-running shonen mahjong series, and the meat of the series is just straight-up ridiculous mahjong action, but all the characters and their relationships are grade a+ adorable. This is some sort of amazing chocolate-peanut butter best of both worlds super hybrid.

The Saki wiki currently has 185 characters listed. Okay, okay, a few of them are like "Unnamed Shouan student" and some of them are only in the manga thus far and so I really shouldn't count them and there's like three men and they sure don't count... but that's still a whole lot of characters. It's built right into the premise of the series - each high school has a team of five, and each game needs four high schools, so that's 20 characters per arc. Well, 15, considering Kiyosumi or Achiga or whoever the main characters are will have to be there. And sometimes another school advances too, so sometimes only ten. But hey, really think about that - 10 new characters per arc. That's insane! When most shows try to endear you to four or maybe five girls for the entire run of the show, maybe ten max, Ritz simply spams you with characters!

How do they get away with it? How can every character be so great? It might have something to do with the fact that a lot of these characters don't really get a lot of focus. Typically a character from the losing arc who isn't in the 5th position will get one episode of focus, and then just show up with the group the rest of the time... maybe 30 minutes total of central focus... I bet there's some math I could use to figure this out but forget that. So maybe the characters only seem good because we get such a fleeting glimpse?

I think that's a big part, but more because of the other side of this: because they know they don't have to keep up the character for a whole series, they can make them much more extreme. They don't have to appeal to everyone with every character... if someone dislikes a character, they won't be around for long. But if they like the character, that positive moe memory will linger much longer than the distaste for an disliked character. They can choose to extend their love of that character through the spinoff manga, through doujins, fanart, etc, etc... This sort of positive skewing is yet another miracle of moe anime. So Ritz would much prefer to design characters that will be somebody's favorite and maybe somebody's least favorite rather than a character that everyone will be OK with.

And man, she nails this. The girls of Saki fall across the whole scale on every metric of personality and appearance. No matter what your tastes are, you'll find someone for you. I think I could go on and on about my favorites... the super badass redhead Risa, the monkeyish Shizuno, the aloof and elite Hiroe, the tragic and fragile Toki and her guardian Ryuuka, my lord and savior Nelly, the demure and kind Kyaputen, the uncontrollable Kurumi, the mysterious but very vast appeal of Kyouko... There's so many good characters! So many!! I really want to keep going, but it's frustrating to try to summarize why I like them so much with any brevity. This is the only show where I could try to come up with my top 20 characters and have that be a very difficult challenge.

What's great too is that, despite only seeing them briefly, you get a super broad range of the character. You get to see them in triumph and defeat, happiness and sadness, camaraderie and conflict. You'll see them competing fiercely at the table and hanging out with their friends. If you like shipping characters, and c'mon, who doesn't, every team has like a full encircled pentagon of pairings of all levels of canon, and when you start looking at the literally hundreds of intriguing cross-team pairings - it's super easy for every player that competes in the same round, but the real fun is thinking of other ways for players of different schools to come together - it's almost overwhelming levels of yuri joy. While other shows focus on just a few pleasant emotional states, a few wonderful characters, and a few lovely relationships - as well they should, because those are the best - the thrill of Saki's complete overload of content is great too.

On top of all that, the characters have still another metric by which they can be really appealing and memorable, a whole dimension that no other show has - their mahjong skill. There's a certain phenomenon that I really like in some fiction where, in a huge cast of characters, some take on a certain mystique, due to a combination of their notoriety and their elusiveness. When there's a character that you know is really good at whatever and you haven't really seen her yet, and she stands at the mysterious, cloud-riddled top of a whole hierarchy of interest involving the characters you do know... I just go crazy with anticipation. Shonen series can pull this off really well, you know the old trope... they beat one villain, and it cuts to the bigger villain in his lair, calling the previous villain trash, I love that. I want to know who that new villain is! I want to see why he's so powerful! Call me a sucker, sure, and in a lot of the series I really love it's much more subtle than this, but man I just can't help myself. Surprisingly, I find I get this same sense of anticipation in some book-ass books, too... Infinite Jest has this in spades, and I recently wrote a bunch about it while talking about The Savage Detectives, of all things.

Of course, Saki has it too. When I find out that some shadowy girl is a mahjong god, I want to see her, I want to see her play, I want to see what her personality is, everything. Half the work of making her endearing and memorable is already done. Of course, the possibility for Ritz to drop the ball and make the hyped character underwhelm certainly exists, but she hasn't done so yet. And it's this feeling, more than anything, that makes me so obsessed with the series. What will Nelly's powers be? What do Jindai's more powerful Goddesses do? How can Saki beat them?? And beyond all that, what about the pros? Kokaji and Hayari, who is more powerful?? Ahh, even just thinking of it now is making me excited!

And mahjong facilitates all of these things wonderfully. It's such a perfect game for manga and anime. There's skill and strategy involved where characters can exert their own particular personalities, but there's still enough luck that you get a sense that anything can happen. Indeed, it's this feeling of potential, that every draw can make a huge difference, that some circumstances could align to make any comeback or fall from grace possible, that makes it so enthralling. Mahjong masterpieces like, uh, anything by Fukumoto, and, in a weird way, The Legend of Koizumi, have already gone about as far as you can go with luck and circumstance, so Saki skips the pretense and goes straight into supernatural bullshit.

Oh, but what fun and wonderful bullshit it is! Characters can exert themselves even more memorably through their powers, which range from the cuteness of Aislinn's drawings, the badassness of Risa's hell waits, the overwhelming power of Teru's hurricane wrist (shoutouts to Migos), the terror of Toyone's stalking, the super yuri reservation of Mairu and Himeko, the unparalleled beauty of Saki's riishan, I even liked Shizuno's wacky monkey mountain magic... again, I could go on and on and on. And it isn't just silly, either - the characters actually engage in these powers with strategy that, while babby-tier to Fukumoto, is pretty interesting.

The show takes full advantage of this wonderful mahjong potential and goes all out, with pacing that might seem glacial to outsiders but feels, if anything, slightly brisk to us fans of the genre. Every hand is broken down as the psychology, ability, and backstory of all involved players gets fleshed out. The music is great, varied in genre but always tense and suspenseful. The little hyper-indulgent sequences of lightning bursting off of tiles, eyes catching fire, even full-on dimensional warps to allegorical battles of angels and demons (btw, these are all things that, canonically, the players can see too... Hisa mentions "the power of her illusion!" in reference to one of these at one point... I just think that's hilarious) are all fantastic and generally hype. Really, hype is the only word for it, and it's a word that I don't think I can break down any more. All I know is that I could watch Saki nail riishans all day like I could watch Falcon combo videos.

Moe and mahjong. Slice of life and shonen. A huge cast but still intimate. Wacky powers but still deep. An endless overload of hype hands, cute girls, friendship, love, adversity, and triumph. That's Saki. As its dominant media empire crushes ever further in every direction, advancing a mile every time Ritz manages to pen a few lines (all too rare these days), I hope you join the winning team.

Best Girl Award: Saki Miyanagi

This feels like such a cop-out... in a series with over a hundred viable choices, I pick basically vanilla. Saki is just so good for me. Her appearance is only half as beautiful as her masterful hands... chained kans into riishan kaihou (especially with kan dora, hnnng) is the impossible fantasy that makes me act irrationally and drop sure thing hands for a shot at glory, as if flowers would actually bloom around me. Saki is basically a good girl who enjoys simple pleasures. She plays best when she's relaxed with her shoes off and having fun. She's a crushing demon, too, and seeing how she's perceived by the other characters gives a great duality to her strength. Unlike most of her teammates, we rarely see into Saki's mind or her hand while she plays, making her elusive and mysterious despite being the main character. Her timid but steady relationship with Nodoka is a beautiful thing to cheer for. I mean, what more can I say? She's great. Probably 5th favorite girl overall.

7. Sora no Woto

14 episodes, 2010
A-1 Pictures

This is a really strange choice for me. It's set in a post-apocalyptic sorta time... a great war has knocked humanity back from giant spider mechs to early twentieth century technology. The specifics of the situation are obscured, making you piece together what clues can be gleamed from the main character's limited perspective and a lack of immersion-breaking exposition. There's dramatic flashbacks, tragic backstories and potential danger. There's death, suffering, orphans, guns, explosions, mechs, some vaguely supernatural elements that sorta get dropped, engineered plagues, military evil, heterosexual romance... Why is this show on my list? Oh, the five main characters are all cute girls? Oh, okay.

Really, this show functions most of the time as K-On! in the military. Most episodes, although containing a bit more of a dramatic arc and some flashbacks that are borderline traumatic, are pretty easygoing. There's lots of opportunities to enjoy the beautiful world of the show at a relaxed pace. Even more than K-On!, this show prides itself on a consistent depiction of reality, and although A-1 cannot afford the flourish of Kyoani, they make up for it with a uniquely rich and beautiful world.

The life and cheer that most anime bring to a high school, Sora no Woto extends to the entire town of Seize. Every shot is loaded up with so much detail... I think the best comparison I can make is to the PS1 era Final Fantasies, especially IX. All the backgrounds are just crammed full of little surprises, little treats... things that you see and you want to think of the use for, and then you can imagine a little lifestyle there. You approach an unfamiliar lifestyle through their habits, through their particular ways of doing things, through the small, deliberate, tasks that make up day to day lives... cleaning, preparing food, organizing... this is something I really just enjoy a whole lot in any medium of fiction, watching people go about routine small tasks that are just a bit unfamiliar to me. It probably isn't worth trying to examine too much why I like this so much, since this isn't the absolute best example by any stretch, but there's a lot of that going on here. And even if that isn't your thing, the effect it is has on making the town feel vibrant and alive is wonderful to everyone.

And just as beautiful as the town is the country of Helvetia that surrounds it. This show has some of the best straight-up landscape porn I've ever seen... we're treated to the countryside in all the seasons, in all times of day and night. But, even more important, we're shown these landscapes in all sorts of emotional contexts. The ability to make the same horizon evoke hope, joy, fear, despair... I think that's something that elevates this beyond just pretty drawings into real emotional masterpieces.

I think it's the emotional impact that I should focus on when I try to write about this show. There's a whole lot of things I like about it - the military aesthetics, the worldbuilding, the Mediterranean + Japanese flavor, little flourishes like the use of written French, the rate and naturalness of exposition, the episodic structure... but the reason I love the show is the overall emotional impact it had on me.

This show has a lot of moe elements, to be sure, but it uses them more as a tool to increase your emotional sensitivity to the actual events of the show. This is almost sacrilege to me, a compromise of the purity of moe. To even suggest that there should be other feelings to experience for which moe just serves as a conduit... no, no, that can't be right, that can't be anime. Moe should be the ultimate feeling.

But in a weird way, it is... the story endears you to the world, then slowly shows you the dark side, the tragic histories, the troublesome future. It takes you through classic plots of mystery, suspense... mistaken identity and lost romance... but at the end of the day, there's still happiness, there's still wholeness (except for the infinite despair you feel when you reflect on how there will never be a second season, and the subsequent melancholy you feel when you start to feel that maybe that's for the best, and somehow appropriate).

I don't know, it's really hard to get into words, especially since I don't want to spoil any specific details of later plot events. I'm not sure if it's worth belabouring... the basic idea's pretty simple - the vibrancy of the world and the endearing characters make all the other emotional aspects of the plots all the more powerful. Beyond that, I don't think I can say - I think it's just something you need to experience. And I really do recommend that, to almost anyone. I'm not under the delusion that a lot of the shows on this list have any sort of broad appeal, but I think basically anyone could appreciate this show. It's compelling, and beautiful, and emotionally varied. Give it a chance.

By the end of this show, I felt emotionally exhausted - that's a rare thing for me, in this medium. Usually I want anime to be emotionally refreshing, mildly uplifting, or generally sedative... This show, though, left me feeling haunted and obsessive. I listened to the soundtrack and other brass music exclusively for weeks after. Even now, just trying to take in the entire scope of the show, I'm left with that elusive, maddening feeling, of overloaded aesthetic rapture and meaning that slips just ahead of the intellect... and then AIJOU YUUJOU OMOIKASANETE!!!!!

Best Girl Award: Kanata Sorami

It might be becoming clear that I have a sort of type... Kanata is another optimistic, joyful girl, who might be a bit naive but makes up for it with determination and humble competency. Our view of Helvetia is usually focalized through her, as we learn about her new life alongside with her. Her quest to connect with her comrades, learn the trumpet, and honor a mysterious memory are all both compelling and cute. Oh man, she is so cute... I remember at first I didn't much like the especially long bang sort of thing, the like, reverse ponytail, but now with Onodera and stuff I really like it. And, as you might expect from such musically delightful show, where everything from the OST to the cricket sound effects sound perfect and beautiful, where the title itself is "Sound of the Sky", Kanata's voice is just straight up my favorite in all of anime.

6. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, 14 episodes, 2006
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, 14 episodes, 2009
The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, Film, 2010

Okay this is a big one. Without this show, this list would definitely not exist. Without this show, I probably wouldn't be going to Japan next month. Without this show, my life would be completely different. Thank you so much, Haruhi. I think. I really had never watched a show like this before. And I don't mean in that I had never seen a show that was similar to this show, although that's also true, I mean that I had never watched a show in this way before. Haruhi was the bridge between casual anime-watching and the obsessive attitude I have now. Haruhi was the bridge between anime that was "cool" or "exciting" and anime that is "comforting" and "moe" (real anime). Haruhi wasn't the first anime I liked, but it was the first anime I truly loved. Thank you, Haruhi, probably.

In 2004, I first discovered 4chan. At the beginning, I browsed /b/ exclusively, an attitude that seems completely inexplicable now, when /b/ is probably the board I'm least likely to visit. By 2006, though, I had started branching out, mainly looking at /v/ and /mu/. I also decided to check out /a/. At that time, my experience with anime was very limited and very typical. I had started watching Dragon Ball Z on YTV, and then had started reading the manga when I realized that there was a lot of content I was missing out on. That got me into reading shonen manga in general, and buying anime magazines and stuff. I watched Cowboy Bebop on a set of burned DVDs my dad got at his work, I bought the Evangelion DVD box set because I heard it was good (another life-changing event). We only had dial up internet, so I was limited basically to DVDs and things that aired on TV.

My mom's house got high speed internet in the summer of 2006. I can remember this because TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain had just come out and I was staying up really trying to find the entire thing on Limewire on my laptop in my bed at my mom's house. I realized that I could download anime pretty soon after. So, naturally, I went to /a/, where all anyone was talking about was Haruhi. The premise seemed pretty cool, seemed like it was up the alleys I had then of sci-fi and philosophy (I was such a different person! 15 year old me, who are you?! Where have you gone inside me?!), and the animation impressed me, and the ending theme was really catchy ("is this a dancing anime?" was a really popular meme at the time).

Haruhi was the first show I watched because I saw /a/ talking about it and wanted to see what the fuss was about. Nowadays, I pick shows largely based on how many threads I'll have to miss out on if I don't watch it. Haruhi was the first show I made an effort to watch as it aired, so I could discuss each episode as it came out. Nowadays, if I fall behind in a show, it must be due to something on the scale of a personal emergency. Haruhi was the first show I argued about - about who the best girl was, about where the plot should go, about how good it was. Nowadays, half the fun of anime is the shitposting. I really had never engaged in a show this way before. It changed everything.

This seems like a whole lot of pointless reminiscing... well, it is, but for me, the memories are the anime. I could never, and would never want to, separate the experience of discovering this show for the first time with my feelings for the show itself. And besides that, what can I really say about the show that hasn't been said a thousand times before? Haruhi is a cultural phenomenon, a show with appeal that cut through every demographic and brought millions into the fold of the cult of anime. The premise is bizarre and confusing, with an overhead of explanation that would usually make me cringe away, but it's so powerful and simple in execution that the appeal is obvious. The characters, although few, are so dynamic and archetypically bold that they carry the weight of a much larger and blander cast. I feel like none of the hundreds of derivative shows made in the wake of Haruhi's success have gambled on such a crazy premise or such potent characters. It feels like Haruhi was made in response to those hundreds of safe shows in an attempt to shake things up, but it actually came first! This show was a revolution, not just to me, but to everyone who gave it a chance.

Ah, but we still have to address the biggest controversy, and most memorable memory, in a show wracked with them every step of the way - Endless Eight. For those of you who don't know, here's a quick little breakdown of what Endless Eight was, and how it was the most nonsensical, totally insane thing that Kyoani could possibly have done. So, it's 2009. Kyoani has struck gold bigtime with the original series of Haruhi, and turned a very tidy profit with Lucky Star and Clannad (probably top 20 for me) in years since. Fans of the Haruhi light novels knew that there's tons of other great adventures just begging to be adapted. And then it happens - Kyoani announces season 2! With 28 episodes!! People, all of /a/, including me, are freaking out: our God Herself has returned to us!

And then the first episode of season 2 airs and it's... the first episode of season 1. Well, sort of. It's the first episode chronologically of the first season. Okay. Already, when the first season aired, there was some trickery where the story was played out of order, so people were bracing themselves for some sort of "prank". But that was fun and mysterious, a big part of the original's appeal. And as Kyoani replayed the first seven chronological episodes, the feeling was more of just... disappointment. But like... they promised it was a new season! And it was 28 episodes, so, what could they do, just play the first 14 twice?

Our prayers were answered in episode 8, which was brand new: "Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody", a mindbending time-travel adventure that somehow miraculously makes sense no matter how much you think about it. People were joyous. A new episode, and one that suggested a Kyoani on top of their game. Even after, when we returned to the first season for episodes 9-11, people rejoiced - the new 14 were just going to be inserted throughout the first season as they occurred chronologically. What an awesome concept! And what great episodes they would be!

But then it happened. I hope you'll forgive all the drama of this buildup, but I just want everyone to be on the exact same page with the situation going in. I want everyone to, as much as possible, understand just how utterly incomprehensible Endless Eight was, and how completely insane and memorable that summer was, and how it is still one of the best experiences I've ever had watching anime. Okay, so episode 12 is another new episode. It's titled "Endless Eight". It shows Kyon and the gang getting dragged around by Haruhi over the last two weeks of summer. Even though Kyon just wants to finish his homework, Haruhi fills his every waking second with every summer cliche she can think of - fishing, festivals, movies, bug-catching, etc, etc. It's a great episode!

And then next week... the title is, again, "Endless Eight", and... the same episode plays? But it isn't quite the same. Everything's been remade. The dialogue is basically the same, but a few words have changed, and all the voice acting's been rerecorded. The shots are roughly the same, but from different angles, and people wear different clothes... everything's been redrawn, reanimated. Hmmm... And then, halfway through the episode, things change, majorly - they discover that Haruhi's unconscious God powers have caused the last two weeks of summer vacation to loop endlessly. In fact, the loop has repeated 15,498 times, with only Yuki retaining her memory of each repetition. Wow! It's a crazy premise, perfect for the series' great blend of sci-fi speculation and repeatable character drama. They set to trying to figuring out how to break out, but fail, and the episode ends the way the previous one did.

The third time, people have figured out what was going on, and when the episode starts the same way as the rest, there's a general sense of appreciation at another pretty brilliant arc. This is because they assume, very rationally, that this will be the last episode. It makes a lot of sense - one episode of just the loop, one episode where they figure out what's gone wrong, but fail, and one episode where they break out. But nope. Haha. Nope. No way. Then the fourth episode: Endless Eight again. The fifth. By this time, some people are getting pretty frustrated. Some people are just skipping through the episode to see if they've solved it. Others, including me, have started watching streams of the raws, figuring nothing much will be lost in the translation. Light novel readers are explaining that the whole Endless Eight thing comprises like one short chapter and certainly doesn't do anything too crazy, e.g. repeat the exact same text for over half the novel.

People now see the brutal significance in the title. People are upset. There's tweeted pictures of ripped up novels and destroyed figures (a phenomenom that repeated itself when Haruhi's voice actor "came out" as being in a romantic relationship, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms). Directors at Kyoani release statements apologizing and/or washing their hands of the Endless Eight situation to literal cheering. As for me, if there is one thing I've learned about the internet, it's that, no matter what happens, no matter what your feelings are, you ought to be able to appreciate a good shitstorm. And this was Grade-A material: people were angry 24/7 for weeks on end.

But, of course, it finally did end. On August 7th, 49 days after it began, the loop was broken when Kyon demanded that Haruhi help him finish his homework. A pretty silly reason, sure, but it didn't matter - it was over. I remember the chatroom I was watching a stream of the sub in explode when we realized what had happened. I remember threads occupying all 10 pages of /a/, and several pages of other boards. I feel like I would have heard cheers in the streets.

That was the first reason I love Endless Eight - that feeling of triumph. There was a satisfaction unlike anything else. I really do mean that. Like, in a story, if something you want to happen happens, there's some happiness, sure. But you know that, since you're liking the story, if something different had happened, you'd be pretty happy too. Or maybe it's a story you don't like and it ends, or changes so you do like it, but that's different, because here we weren't just being freed from what we disliked, but being rewarded with more new episodes that we would like. In a bad story, you can only see that you began to like it in retrospect - you don't immediately feel that sense of new good things approaching. There really isn't anything at all like it, the sense of triumph I had watching the end of Endless Eight. And it wasn't just my triumph, either, but the triumph of tens of thousands of likeminded peers that I had been suffering with, in threads and chatrooms. I think the feeling must be more like really passionately watching sports or something. I dunno.

And thinking about this triumph makes you start to feel the second reason I really love Endless Eight - the immersion. This isn't just the triumph of the watcher, but the triumph of the character, too. Never before has the suffering of the character been so closely aligned with the suffering of the viewer. You, too, understand the tedium of helplessly watching the same events unfold again and again. Especially for Yuki - her tragedy of 15000 years of life dawns on you with a subtle and growing horror (did you notice that she stops reading books during this arc? Probably because... she's read them all already?) and makes you extra-sympathetic for the (masterpiece) Disappearance of Haruhi movie. And for Haruhi, this arc is the best demonstration of her "powers". Before, with things like the messed up ordering of episodes or the rapidly switching genre tone, the idea that it was Haruhi's transcendent powers messing with stuff was brilliant, but it was also genuinely funny and enjoyable. You never got the sense of how powerful and devastating an unconscious God could be since she was always on "your side". Now... not so much.

Even more meta, I think, is the "political" statement Kyoani made with this arc, which is my absolute favorite thing about Endless Eight. Since the first Haruhi, the slice of life genre emerged as the de facto anime premise as studios realized that having a few likable characters doing nothing was far more profitable than any amount of characters doing anything (as beautiful a realization as universal gravitation and general relativity imo). This was, of course, largely spurred on by Kyoani's own Lucky Star, and right after Haruhi S2 they made K-On, the genre's magnum opus. But in Endless Eight, I see a sort of blunt critique of the genre. The fact that so many slice of life summer-episode cliches made it into Haruhi's list makes sense in-universe, but the specific way they were depicted (and redepicted, and redepicted...) straight apes so many specific tropes of the genre. Kyoani is basically saying, if this is what otaku want, just this, over and over and over, that's what we'll give them, just this, over and over and over. And it's true. That's what I want. Just that. Over and over and over. I want it season after season. And when I think about that, when I try to watch them with that mentality, I love these episodes even more. So maybe it backfired? I'm not sure. Maybe there's some other level, where the candy-like indulgence of anime like this is unhealthy, and Kyoani's statement is terrifying and true. But anime is all about the base level. And if it seems like this sort of statement is beyond a company that is basically a business, really consider how much effort went into this. Think about how much money it cost to reanimate and rerecord the same episode eight times. Think about how much design work went into finding new designs and new cinematographic layouts for the same characters and situations. They aren't idiots, they must have known what reaction they would get. Why did they do it? This is my guess, but maybe even more interesting than any explanation is the mystery of all of it.

So that was Endless Eight, a truly bizarre and wonderfully memorable interjection into what is otherwise a very solid and appealing show. The animation is beautiful, the acting professional. The genre pingpongs between high school romantic comedy and abstract heady sci-fi but handles the whole spectrum expertly. Although many have tried this format, many MCs have tried to replicate Kyon's inner wit, many main girls have tried to capture Haruhi's quirky energy, none have ever succeeded like this. And I feel like none ever will.

Best Girl Award: Haruhi Suzumiya

Although I won't call her God because of another character on this list, I respect and can appreciate the religious choices made by followers of Haruhiism. I think this sort of genki-strange character works best by giving the show excuses to jump into ridiculous plots, and Haruhi's power is literally unparalleled in this regard. Not only can she drag the group to the pool, she can make cats talk, change the genre of the show, and rearrange the episode schedule. And behind this, the rare moments of tenderness and appreciation she lets sneak through are heartmelting.

Alright, that's it for part 2!

I hope you learned something (maybe far, far, too much?) about why people like me love anime. Overall I'm pretty satisfied. There's a lot of things here that I've thought about a lot and tried to write about, and now I feel like I've finally said something sorta articulate and definitive about it.

Seems like I'm putting more work into this project than any other blog post, or possibly any other piece of writing, ever, which umm... not sure how to feel about that. But really, for better or worse, this is a big part of my life right now, so maybe this is worth trying to explain as deeply as possible. Probably whatever else I would have done with this time would have been an even bigger waste, at least.

Anyways, see you in part 3! If you think YOU'VE seen ANIME... NAWWW. You ain't seen NOTHIN'.

1 comment:

Steven Ye said...

best girl in haruhi is haruhi? are you shitting me?