Monday, December 29, 2014

My Top 15 Anime of All Time - Part Three

Welcome back!

(Part one)
(Part two)

If you read the first two entries, you read 15000 words about my favorite anime. That isn't too much if you compare it to a novel or whatever, but like... my favorite short story, David Foster Wallace's "All That", is only like 4000 words. Joyce's "The Dead" is about 15000 itself... you could have instead read the greatest short story ever written. Even if you've already read it like seven times that's still probably a better use of your time than this.

And this isn't even over yet, lol. Not quite. We're going even deeper into anime, into moe, into my mind. With these, the final shows, we see the absolute pinnacle of many of the principles I began to explain. We also see a few things that are totally unlike anything else on this list. Are you excited? Or maybe you should go read "The Dead" or "All That" 3+ times.

I'm not really sure where I'm going with this intro. I guess all I can say is... thank you, thank you for reading this. For the last seven years or so anime has been one of the major ways I waste time and money. I wouldn't go so far as to say it actually impacts my personality or changes the way I behave in most situations, but maybe just because I wouldn't say that doesn't mean it's true. What I do think is an actual fundamental part of myself as a person is the belief that introspection and articulation are important. So I think doing things like this, sincerely and thoroughly, is really important too, even if it seems really silly and excessive. I really hope you can learn something about me or about anime or whatever from it. But really thank you for reading it.

5. Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion, 26 episodes, 1995-1996, Gainax
The End of Evangelion, film, 1997, Gainax
Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, film, 2007, Khara
Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance, film, 2009, Khara
Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo, film, 2012, Khara

What could I possibly say about this anime that hasn't been said a thousand times before? In the almost two decades since its release, it's been dissected front to back by scholars on almost every tier of legitimacy. It's been analyzed as everything from a deconstruction of the mecha genre to a retelling of Christian gospel to a Freudian metaphor for puberty to a thesis for plausible transhumanism, and actually seems to be all of this and more. The plot, which is an absolute mess of timelines and timeloops where Anno seems hell-bent on making absolutely everything canon, has actually been sorted through into something coherent... by many different camps, who all produce extremely different coherent-seeming explanations. Asuka and Rei might be the two most popular waifus in the world. Even complete normies found themselves attracted to them! I honestly think there might be absolutely nothing I could say about the series that someone hasn't said before.

Even my personal history with the series was pretty stereotypical, but what else can I say? I found out about the show when I was around 13. By this point it had already become an absolutely legendary series, and that's how it was introduced to me. They had just started localizing the manga, which was getting hyped up in the anime magazines and stuff I was buying around the time. I remember buying the first volume and believing that I was holding something vaguely sacred, something that would definitely change me as a person. I honestly remember thinking that at the time. Your early teens are, of course, when you do possibly more changing than any other period of your life, and I think I realized that to some extent. More than that, the series represented some sort of... adult choice I was making. Like, anime and manga appealed to me somewhat because it seemed so serious and mature, and yet it was something I myself had discovered... unlike movies, books, TV shows, or music, where my parents etc had a strict superset of my knowledge, this was a medium all to my own, and one that seemed like it could be just as legitimate.

At first, this was based on the fact that, unlike the other cartoons I watched, Dragon Ball had violence and fanservice and a complicated, serial plot. But I knew there must be something more out there. And I found it, when I rented DVDs from Blockbuster and watched things like Ghost in the Shell and Akira and Grave of the Fireflies... but most of all I found it in Evangelion. I think I was incredibly lucky to see Eva when I was roughly the same age as the main characters. But probably people of every age have things that they feel lucky about in this way. Regardless, when I read Evangelion, I felt like Shinji. I felt like Rei and Asuka. My synch rate was over 400% with their angst, their alienation, their ambition.

I kept up with the manga as it was released but, of course, what really made me fall in love was when my parents bought me the complete DVD box set for Christmas. My first time watching it, I took it slowly... I watched only an episode a day, or even every few days... I wanted to savor it, savor every second. I wanted to feel like I understood every scene on the base plot, symbolic, and emotional level before I moved on. I watched the last few episodes when I was home sick from school with a fever, lying in my dad's bed and taking naps between episodes. People familiar with how the TV series ends probably can understand how bizarre my fever dreams were. I remember feeling completely emotionally exhausted in a way that I never had before and perhaps have never been since.

And after that, I absolutely gorged myself on the series. I honestly can't estimate the number of times I've rewatched it in whole, let alone the many replays of specific episodes or arcs. Even now, the vaguely ritualistic routine of sliding out each DVD case from the box, opening the slim case, popping out the DVD... it's all still 100% muscle memory. It feels like there was a long stretch of my early adolescence where Evangelion was either playing all the time or occupying all of my mind. And until I really started getting into One Piece and watching Haruhi and stuff like that, Eva was, as far as I cared, the absolute pinnacle of anime. Maybe just the pinnacle of art in general. For many years this show would have been so definitively number one on my list that the very idea of a list would have been silly.

Okay that was a lot of nostalgia. But, again, I don't think there was any aspect of my experience that was unique, or even uncommon. In fact, I had a friend in school that I lent the DVDs to that had basically the exact same love affair with the series. And it isn't like the show has universal appeal or anything. You'll see it on just as many "most overrated" as "favorite" lists. I think it's a lot like Final Fantasy 7... it's associated with so much hype and nostalgia that it gets some inevitable backlash from people who, over a decade later, look at it and say "That's it?". But don't let that distract you from what it actually is - funny, dramatic, sad, suspenseful, atmospheric, exciting, moving... just absolutely jam packed with quality content. I'm 100% certain I'm not the first person to compare it with Final Fantasy 7, either.

So to 13 year old me this was definitely just the coolest shit in the universe. But that doesn't really count for anything on the list, honestly. The question is if I like it now. To address that, we have to talk about the recent developments in the Eva franchise - Rebuild of Evangelion. These are somewhat controversial films, but I love them. I truly love all of them. And although, like anything that could be said about Eva, I know I'm not the only one to say it, but I think a defense of 3.0 is at least on the rarer side of Eva debates.

I don't think many people could have many complaints about 1.0. Not much deviates from the original series, besides some little hints at major deviations to come. For the most part, they just streamline some of the more unnecessary scenes and clean up the animation. Okay, clean up the animation is an understatement. This movie looks glorious. Studio Khara finally made the once impossible dream of not terrible looking cgi integration come true, which becomes just absurd with the Gainax staff's obsessive and almost fetishy depiction of all things military and explosive. The consistency of copy-pasting cgi models with all the detail of a Gainax creation really seems too good to be true. I couldn't get enough of shots of power lines, fleets of planes, tank batteries... and just straight up the most beautiful explosions I had ever seen. As later movies in the Rebuild series combined this sheer visual excess with absurd situations, I'm happy this first one was able to focus on making "sane" things ("merely" giant lasers, or mountains melting away, or giant robots jumping around). And then things like Ramiel's new form... I'll never ever get tired of watching it spin and morph. Actually, that battle is a great representation of everything great about the Rebuild style. The angel's lasers and transformations are masterful cgi, but things like when the drill bursts into blood show the best in classic animation, a callback to the 90s, when animation was a painstaking and meticulous prospect.

2.0 is where things start to get really crazy. This has to be my favorite anime movie of all time. The first one was great because it took something intimately familiar and brought it up to a level of polish that you probably felt like you remembered anyways. This one is amazing because it takes some things you think you might be familiar with and then goes absolutely insane. Like, think about the sequence where they go to catch the angel. This was a sort of "throwaway" angel in the original series, I'd say. Here it becomes, and this is not hyperbole, my absolute favorite action sequence in anything ever. I think it's just the sheer escalation. They start off running and it's intense and awesome. The angel transforms and they realize they won't get there in time, so Misato makes the path to help Shinji run faster. That's already pretty badass. And then when he gets on the straightaway, and runs even FASTER, and there's the sonic boom that knocks all the cars back, that's even more badass. The angel transforms AGAIN, into something even freakier. He gets under the angel and shouts "AT FIELD AT MAX" or whatever, which, just because they can, suddenly has this awesome super saiyan-y aura. Awesome. And then through the AT field, this humanoid angel thing emerges and pierces his hands with two lances. And there's a whole crazy sequence where Asuka and Rei have to help finally take down the core. There's a shot of Shinji after Unit 01's arms break and his arms are all veiny. Asuka rams her knee into two progressive knives jammed into the core. The angel explodes into blood which devastatingly pours into the city. And then there's this final shot of the gigantic explosion, obviously a cross, and the water dyed red, and Mt Fuji behind it, but EVEN THAT ISN'T ENOUGH, they have to make these cool little rainbow circles around the explosion glimmer and spin. You start thinking "this is cool" and then you think "wow okay yeah this is really cool" and then it escalates it further and further until you really can't articulate it or even process it anymore.

There's some people who dislike this, saying that they Michael Bayified Eva. I think this comes a lot from direct comparison to the original. Like, did they really need to change it from Unit 01 crushing the entry plug in its hand to biting it? No, probably not. These sort of decisions are really just there to try to make things shocking again. With over a decade to think about it, that scene probably doesn't seem too shocking anymore - the memories of it being a classic scene outlive the emotion of being "shocked". But I'm sure you were shocked the first time you saw it. I know I sure was. They need to escalate these things for them to have their intended effect again on the original fans.

Likewise with the other sides. Between the many brilliant and literally jaw-dropping action sequences, the movie somehow manages to have a ton of fun character shenanigans and emotional drama, too. I honestly have no idea how they managed to cram it all in. The pace has to be brisker but it still seems very thorough - Shinji's relationships with Rei, Asuka, Misato, Gendo, and his school friends are all explored. Like the intensification of shocking things, lots of choices are made to make these relationships feel fresh and interesting again. New subplots like the beautiful trip to the aquarium or the hilarious family dinner scheme make some ships set sail that haven't left port in years. Even the fanservice feels fresh and exciting again!

And after all these tricks of escalation, Anno takes it one step even further by allowing the basic plot itself to get thrown all out of whack. By the end of the movie, you aren't asking "how will they change up what I know will happen?" but "what the hell is going to happen?". This is, again, a necessary question for the Eva experience, and one that an experienced fan would never ask had they not thrown all expectation to the wind. Some changes feel strange and pretty unnecessary, like, why is Asuka the ill-fated pilot of Unit 04 now? Why is a bunch of stuff happening on the moon for some reason? What's the point of Unit 02's ultimately pointless Beast Mode, or, um, the entire character of Mari, for that matter? Other changes are extremely drastic with obvious effect - the entire 4th impact, and maybe instrumentality, being pushed way forward, for example. With the timeloop theorists basically proven right beyond a doubt, but the implications never more uncertain, I don't think anyone could know where the hell Evangelion was going to go at the end of the second movie. But actually, I don't think anyone was thinking anything at all at the end of 2.0. The mind doesn't hold up well for articulate though after something like this. Maybe just a vague dream of the glory that would inevitably be 3.0.

But I don't think anyone expected this... not by a long shot. Looking at the things remaining after 2.0 - the angels not yet fought, the plot not yet covered - I think people were pretty excited for whatever it was that 3.0 would bring. 2.0 had taught us to not take anything for granted, so in retrospect it might seem obvious that 3.0 would end up containing... absolutely none of those elements. It's so surprising because it makes so little sense. There was a ton of amazing, classic moments that they could have worked with. Any number of hypothetical movies - basically any subset of events with any sort of twist on the remaining original series, the manga, and End of Evangelion - could have been obviously great. I think there's a pretty credible theory that at one point it was much closer to that, much closer to something sane. Like, just all the shots in the preview that ran at the end of 2.0 that never appeared in 3.0. The rumor was a whole lot of work had to get scrapped after the 2011 earthquake... maybe Anno originally wanted to make what people wanted.

Instead we got this. This is, indisputably, a deeply flawed movie. The beginning is cool enough, a badass space fight that promises lots of Mari and Asuka action and hints at possibly another time loop. But then, instead, we're awkwardly and disjointedly caught up with what actually was a 14 year timeskip, a 28-year old Asuka that still looks and acts 14, and a whole bunch of other stuff that seems like a retcon and, by the time you've worked out how it isn't, you feel a bit cheated and dissatisfied. There's bizarre banter among the crew of this absurd looking Eva airship thing which engages in this silly fight scene after some brief crisis of "will it launch?"... the whole thing feels like you were dropped into some other show, of which you see just the final half of an episode from around halfway through.

This feeling gets even worse in the climax, when you watch the finale to some alternate universe Evangelion that you know nothing about. Everyone's in some big hubbub about lances, and unlocking gates, but instead of two different spears it's two of the same spear, and like... everyone keeps acting like you should know what's going on, and even Shinji eventually gets into it as if he has a clue... and even the music, like, they bust out Beethoven's 9th, which is the Evangelion "it's happening, oh my god, I'm going to cry!" anthem, and here it's more "what is happening, oh my god, I'm so confused!".

I mean, Evangelion has always been confusing, but at least there was some sense of like, climax and significance. You had 20+ episodes of "if an angel goes here, the Third Impact will happen". You didn't have to know why or even what the Third Impact was. You just knew it was a big deal. Or like, the lance... the angel was wrecking Asuka and seemed totally invincible, and then suddenly the lance dispatched it, one shot one kill. What it was didn't matter much; from what it did, you knew it was a big deal. Or the Evas themselves - each new one was a big deal, and you knew exactly what it meant... now they're up to like 13, random ones like 7 are popping out of corpses, there's two spears and no one knows why, and people are just running around Central Dogma like a playground. Things that used to have mysterious meaning but obvious significance now have confusing meaning and mysterious significance. The prevailing question isn't "how?" or "what?" but just "huh?".

The prevailing emotion, however, is something a bit more subtle, a bit better... and pretty much the reason that, despite the story which I loved being completely thrown out the window, I still love this movie. The feeling of being dropped into an alternate reality version of Evangelion is felt just as strongly by Shinji as by the viewer. After causing the Third Impact in 2.0, everyone resents and hates him. Rei Q is as distant and robotic as the original Rei was before Shinji met her. Only in Kaworu does he find any comfort and happiness. The post-impact Nerv headquarters are beautifully, unimaginably desolate... there's an aesthetic of loss there that is very rare and powerful... it reminds me of .flow more than anything. Basically the whole movie is just putting Shinji through the emotional wringer. Like, it isn't much more than that. And I think, maybe, the whole intent is just to have us relate to Shinji as much as possible. When we desperately want things to make sense, so does he. When we feel nostalgic for the simpler, more peaceful days, so does he. When we take some strange comfort in the scenes with Kaworu, so does he... Even when he suddenly and desperately grasps onto Kaworu's confusing lance-retrieval plan, we, desperate for some understandable climax, wish for it too. And man I sure did feel like Shinji as he's dragged across the ruined Geofront as I stumbled out of the theatre.

This is like the only way I can make sense of this movie, is thinking of it being designed with this purpose. And it's extremely effective at it. But does that make it a good movie? Like, they threw everything else away, just for that. Every other character went massively underutilized. There weren't many exciting action scenes and no fun friendly hijinks. It's still very strange, very shortsighted... The next movie feels like it would be impossible to make. It's the exact same feeling I had around the end of the series... before I saw End of Evangelion, before I really understood the meaning of what I saw... I felt disturbed, haunted. Nothing I had expected had happened or was even acknowledged. It was like the absolute end of sensibility... not just in the show, but everywhere. It had made so little sense to me that it felt like nothing would ever make sense again.

It was a powerful feeling, one that stayed with me longer than any other from the show (which is saying a whole lot!). And, as I obsessively rewatched the show, it was the one feeling that I could never get back from that feverish first day. But with 3.0, I felt it again! That alone, I think, makes it worth it. Of course, maybe it wouldn't seem like such a pleasant feeling had Anno not delivered with End of Evangelion... at this point, I think a lot is riding on the completely unknown factor that is the 4th movie. I think I'm somehow assuming at this point that I'll like it, and that, beyond that, it will bring back the sort of comprehensible satisfaction and significance of 2.0 and the original series... like, I'm already viewing 3.0 as a strange interlude that emotionally prepared me for the 4.0 that I love, but cannot imagine. I hope I'm right.

It's a complicated and draining feeling, but that's essential Evangelion. It's always been difficult - it demands attention and analysis, which is often not rewarded. You have to navigate red herring symbolism and baffling pseudo-scientific mythos while also being dragged on an emotional rollercoaster. You can't navigate a rollercoaster. You just have to embrace the experience itself. And Evangelion, although many things, is most of all just an unforgettable experience.

Best Girl Award: Rei Ayanami

Yes, it's Rei. After a decade of scientific analysis, we've reached the definitive and objective conclusion that Rei, not Asuka, is the best girl. The original kyuudere, the slow process of Rei's humanization is the true heart of the series. Of all the philosophical issues raised by the series (did you like how I dodged talking about them on the basis that they'd been discussed to death already?), Rei's introspection the nature of the self, the distinction of objects, and the permanence of memory were the most nuanced and interesting. There's a tenderness and fragility, but at the same time, a stoicism and competence. Probably my first waifu, although I did not know the word at the time.

4. Nichijou

26 episodes, 2011
Kyoto Animation

Nichijou is, hands down, the funniest anime I've ever seen. There's probably a moment in each episode that's funnier than anything I've seen in any other series. It has the best animation of any show like maybe ever... Kyoani attempts to do every conceivable animation style and nails absolutely all of them, exerting not just an godly budget but an ungodly amount of creativity. The soundtrack and voice acting are maddeningly catchy and on the top tier of professionalism. And it has such a heart, too - few other shows can capture the joy and love of everyday life like Nichijou. If this list was more objective, either this or Evangelion would be a clear number one, depending on if the universe is a good or bad place.

If I tried to cover every single good thing about this show, every single great scene... it would just be futile. So I think the only thing I can do is really break down the effect of watching this show, which I think is so unique to this show. It sucks, because there's so many scenes in this show that, if they appeared anywhere else, I'd feel totally compelled to spend many paragraphs explaining the appeal of. Here, all I think I can hope to do is try to impart just how fun, exciting, and beautiful this show is, and convince you to try it yourself. I think it might have the widest appeal of any show on the list, so long as you get past the strangeness of some elements. And then the wonderful surprises you'll have!


I really can't overstate how funny this show is. Back when I talked about YuruYuri, I mentioned how a lot of moe-elements were compromised for the sake of comedy. This goes roughly ten thousand steps further. I mean, it usually isn't a big deal for me if an anime is really funny or not. A lot of the shows I really love don't venture far from very safe, relatable, and good-hearted humor. It's enough to make me happy, but not usually like, laugh out loud funny, and that's fine. Nichijou, though... I'm having a hard time thinking of any show, anime or otherwise, that's made me laugh this hard. In fact, I think there's probably a scene in almost every episode that I've found funnier than any scene in almost any other show.

So what's so different about this show? What makes it so funny? I don't think it's so mysterious, it's more just a perfect storm of elements where the biggest miracle is that they all manage to work together so well. There's an element of extremely imperfect characters - characters that are depraved, neurotic, and misguided are much funnier than those that aren't, something that has been a fundamental science of sitcoms since Seinfeld. Like YuruYuri, Nichijou manages the seemingly impossible miracle of having these flawed characters also be incredibly endearing and, on another level, "perfect". Lots of sitcoms have attempted this - with often brutal levels of hamfistedness - but anime's gift of moe allows characters to subtly occupy both the spaces of "target of ridicule" and "beloved person".

This duality keeps the characters in a safe space between being so beloved that you couldn't bear to see them suffer, and so disconnected that you couldn't empathize with their suffering. With the characters secure in this place, the anime then absolutely delights at maximizing the hilarious suffering. There's everything from Curb-esque social awkwardness to Hanna-Barbera slapstick to existential crises so bleak that they somehow become funny. There's disaster brought about by personal ambitions, the cruelty of others, or just unlucky circumstance. People are misunderstood, their feelings inadvertently exposed, their intentions twisted, and their plans fail, again and again and again.

But they also succeed! Happy comedy, that lost relic of family sitcoms in our parents' era and the Family Channel sitcoms of our little siblings today, finds itself in rare form in Nichijou. There really is comedic potential in the inverse of all of these. A kind surprise can be as funny as a cruel prank. A plan working out miraculously can be as funny as a cumulative total disaster. It's much harder to do, as so much comedy functions through having a "fall guy". And if you aren't actually endeared to the characters, being told you ought to delight in their happiness falls flat. It's corny if it's done too often and feels lame if even slightly less than hilarious. But it's right here.

And so is like... everything else I've ever found funny. I was talking to a friend of mine a bit ago about how he wanted to have a "worldwide humour conference", where every country could explain what their culture found funny and why, and the countries could come together to expertly use all of these elements. I think Nichijou is the closest we'll see to the product of this. There's satire occurring on every level of the show's structure, and with every level of aggressiveness - critique, deconstruction, parody and pastiche. Running jokes, usually relegated in anime to just a few recurring character gags, is taken to an art form akin to Arrested Development, making a dense web of callbacks and references. There's jokes that operate through repetition or delayed timing. There's wordplay and puns, allusions to Japanese folklore, and probably a ton of other stuff that's lost on me. But there's also simple jokes that I think anyone on Earth could understand. And, perhaps my favorite, there's some stuff that operates through sheer absurdity, through surreal subversion of the expected.

It's this last element that drives home the overall effect of all these different forms of comedy. Although hilarious on their own, the juxtaposition between them really highlights the appeal of each. And, beyond that, the variety creates a feeling that anything could happen. It doesn't even have to be anything sensible. This is a feeling I get more in things like Tim and Eric than anything else, a sensation where any given joke could go in any direction to any extent. Somewhat paradoxically, this feeling is made even stronger by having seen it before... knowing where and how far the joke goes only heightens a delightful feeling of anticipation. There's something so joyful about having a fun time watching a show where anything could happen, where the punchline could be anything.


And I mean... anything, like, really really anything. The freedom of animation, of Kyoani's cheat-code level budget, of their meticulousness and unbounded creativity... Like, is there anything this show can't do? Can you name one single thing? And, somewhat inversely, could you have really imagined anything this show does do? Everything not only defies expectation in form, but in excess. If you heard that there was a sequence where Mio mistakenly gives her yaoi drawing to Yuuko, and then has to chase her down, there's no way you'd be able to picture the Red Line-level chase action that follows.

It's a feeling of omnipotent transcendence, where the joke of a chase is transcended by the art of a chase scene, the principal fighting a goat transcends the absurdity and becomes a fight scene that people who search Youtube for things like "anime fight scenes" watch and love. Absurdity transcends into meaning and meaning transcends into absurdity. The plotlessness transcends into definite storylines and definite storylines transcend into perpetual jokes. Running gags transcend themselves through switching up formulas and addressing subjects that initially seem beyond their scope. Things that start out as a parody move into brilliant and sincere examples of the trope. Forays into extremely diverse emotions and aesthetics are treated with reverence and expertise. It's like, they started from a very small and reasonable core, well rounded and suitable for most anime, and then started rapidly expanding into every direction.

And somehow, from all these dramatic surges in every direction, the end result is something just as well rounded and complete as the original circle. Even though the range is absurd and the depths they go excessive, the end result is something that feels a lot like the world of most other real anime. With all these absurd elements all coexisting, it seems like having a cohesive, real world is impossible. However, it succeeds, in a miracle that I don't think has occurred outside of here and One Piece. And it isn't in spite of the bizarre elements, but somehow because of them, that this rich and vibrant perpetually living world exists. The cast of characters is huge and varied but everyone is consistent. It's enough to see your favorite minor characters in the background to understand all sorts of unseen plotlines. It really feels like the characters, no matter how bizarre and minor, are living consistent and continuous lives beyond what we can see.


Back in the big moesplanation for K-On, I talked about how the ultimate feeling of moe was the feeling of falling in love with the entire world of the anime, and how wonderful it was to escape into it for 22 minutes or so, and to carry a bit of it with you day to day. This is really what Nichijou is about. It doesn't really even use moe to do it, that much. Although the characters are all cute and lovable, the real endearing factor is this sense of hilarity and possibility that I described in the previous two sections. After laughing yourself to physical exhaustion and feeling that anything could happen, after creating a beautiful and fun world that feels real and perpetual, Nichijou's final trick is to make you realize just how similar its world is to ours.

Sasahara-senpai confusingly states in episode four that everyday life might just be a series of miracles, a point restated, much later and more convincingly, by Mio in episode 25. It's the sort of cheesy line you could be told a thousand times, and it will always seem meaningless and trite until the second you actually experience it. Nichijou makes its best effort to prove it to you. Sure, there's a ton of extraordinary and supernatural events that would make anyone do a double take, making the title of the series ironic, but there's just as many truly everyday miracles that make it an accurate description. All the bizarre elements that make it seem like anything could happen create an attitude that carries over to the show's many more mundane premises. Through this, you begin to feel like all sorts of wonderful (or wonderfully disastrous) things could happen at any time in your real life too.

And beyond even that, there's the beauty of the uneventful, too. The silent and mostly still shots that punctuate each episode show the overlooked beauty of things like a traffic light or a convenience store. This spotlight is turned to hidden moments of humility and generosity in "Things We Find Cool". The spontaneous poetry of "Everyday Thoughts", the light sweetness of "Love-Like", the wonderful aimless scenes of hanging out or enjoying a meal... the message is clear: there are fun and beautiful moments lurking in the most mundane and everyday situations, even for us. Nichijou doesn't just get us to fall in love with its world, but with the whole of our world too.

I don't usually have complaints about the otaku industry, which panders to me so hard and birthed my beloved moe, but the fact that this show sold so poorly and will never have more episodes is a tragedy that almost undoes all the good feelings that this show had instilled into me. I can only hope that eventually it gets the love and respect it deserves. Please watch it. I can almost guarantee you'll love it. Give it... three episodes, maybe, not counting the OVA. Please give it a try. It has all these wonderful things... not just once or twice, but... every episode has examples of almost everything I was talking about. This is a show everyone deserves to try.

Best Girl Award: Mio Naganohara

Oh boy, this was a hard one. Sooo many great characters in this show. Mio gets the edge for me not for any one reason, but for the number of great things about her. She's long-suffering, but also sort of deranged, so you get that wonderful mix of despair-moe-satisfaction. Her obsessiveness works wonderfully with the overall trend of escalation that leads to many of my favorite scenes. Her wooden cubes are cute and her raspy, screamy voice is a miracle of the universe. So many classic scenes with her... I don't think I could even begin to list them.

3. Monogatari Series

Bakemonogatari, 15 episodes, 2009-2010
Nisemonogatari, 11 episodes, 2012
Nekomonogatari (Kuro), 4 episodes, 2012
Monogatari Series Second Season, 26 episodes, 2013
Hanamonogatari, 5 episodes, 2014

So, we just covered the two series I believe to be the objective best. Where could we possibly go from there? What makes me like this series even more? Well... I dunno. I feel like I could go in all sorts of directions with this one.

I could look at it at the medium level, how it blends a focus on still photography (with its landscape shots and inserts), cinematography (with its editing, "set construction", and "camera work"), animation (with its action sequences and shifting style), sound (with its voice work, OPs and EDs, and score), and literature (with its long monologues and title cards). This sort of mixture is, I think, fairly unmatched and looking at how each play to their strengths is pretty interesting.

An extremely intricate background/foreground emerges from simple patterns, emphasized with a bold red

Or I could look at each of those mediums separately. Each of them is done with an expert level of professionalism, where it feels like they had reached a peak of refinement of an accepted style. In actuality, though, everything Shaft gives us is wholly unique and creative. And, beyond that, there's just a slew of things across every medium that appeal to me so specifically that it almost freaks me out, at times. The heavily use of contrast between parallels and asymmetry, the colouring contrasts, the quick shots of symbols or scenery, the focus on architectural structure... I could go on and on and on.

Background with both parallel/structural and graphic/asymmetric elements

All of it combines across the contributing mediums to create something that I feel is the "Shaft style", which is probably best exemplified here. I think I'd be more than happy if all this writeup did was get across the features and appeal of this style. But that seems... almost impossible. There's just so many features that feel "really Shaft"... explaining why they feel that way is difficult enough, but to address the underlying features that link them all together - I'm not sure if I can explain it at all. I think my best shot is just to put in as many screenshots as I can, and do my best to explain what each of them exemplifies. And I'll also hopefully be able to show a little just how wonderful this show is on the level of sheer aesthetic appeal... although these downsized jpegs are no substitute for watching the show yourself in glorious 1080p.

Various "face faults" or "animation breaks", where the animation style will change drastically for a shot, often as a parody of another series. They perhaps depict an "inner" emotional state. Shaft loves these.

I could talk about all that, but then, I wouldn't even get into the actual content of the show. It's a harem, the first of the genre on that list. So I could talk about how harem functions as a genre as compared to slice of life... basically, you take the same "have a bunch of girls, make them all really lovable" concept, but drop a male protagonist in there that they all fall in love with. Viewers are supposed to self-insert as the dude and root for their favorite girl to win their affection... I'm largely not a fan of this genre, being an addicted yuri shipper and usually aiming for the opposite of self-insertion when I watch anime. Monogatari switches up the formula, deconstructing many harem tropes. It also defies what seems to be an unspoken rule about making the main character as bland as possible, to best facilitate self-insertion, and the result is... undoubtedly my favorite male character in all of anime. So it could be interesting to look at this genre-wise and see how it operates within harem standards.

Straight up architecture porn. Note how anime allows for things like perfect focus through all depths and complete control of building design etc. The contrast between the straight lines of the buildings and the plants is beautiful. The slightly surreal element of the trees being colored with a single gradient is classic Shaft, too.

Of course, the best way to look at that would be to look at the characters... how they develop the relationship between each of them and Araragi so that you feel like each has a chance, how they all stay relevant, and how they all try to make themselves your favorite. Every character in this show is fantastic. They're interesting and lovable when they're introduced, and, as they develop - each going through significant arcs of character development - they just become even more interesting and lovable. There's that same feeling of mystique and intrigue going on that I talked about in Saki, except this time it's an extremely tangled hierarchy of strength and knowledge that manages to make every character elusive, fascinating, and significant throughout the show. All the characters in this show are so good and lovable despite being so strange and flawed, and figuring out how the hell that works would be fascinating work.

Two very different aesthetics, created through color scheme and the structure of the shot itself.

Harem shows are usually pretty light on the actual plot that drops girl after girl into the main character's life, but Monogatari is an exception. Supernatural plots with complicated internal logic usually make my eyes roll, but again, this is an exception. There's all the variety of a "monster of the week" show, but each arc feels unprecedented in significance. Nisioisin makes classic plots of vampires, cults, possessions, etc and makes them feel fresh. He has a time travel plot that somehow manages to be sensible yet interesting. And he doesn't take the easier route of keeping these plots wholly separate, but delights in throwing his characters together, kickstarting new plots from old overlooked details, and all sorts of other things that seem like they'd be a continuity migraine. Untangling these threads and looking at the roles character motivation plays in them could be a lot of fun too.

A gruesome and awesomely kinetic fight scene, where Araragi's blood keeps changing colour between every shot

Of course, one of the beautiful things about this show is how, even with all these exciting things going on, it still indulges in spending an entire episode on a single inconsequential conversation, if it wants to. These conversations always manage to be both intricate and dense but also actually conversational. Not really sure how that works. Most everything else treats the intricate and the conversational as mutually exclusive, as opposite ends of a spectrum, and you just try to get a good compromise between them. Not so with Nisioisin, he goes deep in both directions. How?? And the subject matter, too - character development, plot development, straight up jokes, and philosophical discussion are all blended seamlessly. This is all delivered with writing that captures each character's unique personality and social quirks. Conversational writing is a fascinating subject for me, so I'd love to unpack just how he does it so well, and how he moves the plot through 90% conversations and 10% fight scenes.

Tons of detail in the background for basically no reason? Plus the balancing of this shot is just wonderful.

Or we could take a long look at the PLOT, too... I haven't really touched the whole idea of fanservice at all on this list, I just said that it was a bit much in Sakura Trick. And here, where there is so, so, so much more than in Sakura Trick, you might expect me to say that it's like, a lot much. Well... I mean, I'm not the hugest fanservice fan. It isn't really a huge deal for me either way. If it was, this list would be very different (Strike Witches top 5 ez). But I am a... well, I was gonna say "healthy young man", but maybe we'll just leave it at "young" hahaha. Shaft takes all the old fanservice tropes and deconstructs them, making them fresh and self-aware, but also still, y'know, doing them with full effect. Then they aim niche, hitting many of my own particular favorites and (very persuasively) introducing things that I don't think anyone could anticipate. I think if I ever wanted to get into the heart of fanservice, and my own sexuality, and the role of various paraphilias in anime, stuff like that, this would certainly be the anime I'd go about studying. But oh man I certainly don't want to do that lol.

Classic super up-close hyper-fetishy shots

Even if none of it is your cup of tea, there's a certain pleasure in seeing beautiful people. Like, you can look at this like marble nudes in a gallery, if you prefer, and I think it's still impressive. This isn't just some throwaway statement to try to justify why there's so much fanservice going on here... this is a rare union of a focus on abstract aesthetics and titillation. Usually the emotions of aesthetic rapture and arousal are seen as oppositional goals, like, this dichotomy has been around since Aquinas, Joyce was obsessed with it for a bit, this is a big deal. The fact that there's a lot of elements in this story that are arousing to some people and simply beautiful to others and, to perhaps the majority of the fans, both simultaneously, is something I think is very rare. Usually, if it happens, it's almost accidental, but I think here they aimed, again, not for the compromise, but the simultaneous attack on both ends. Exactly how they pulled that off could warrant some serious study.

Beautiful shot of the super-lewd Black Hanekawa against a desaturated background. Impossible to capture: her flowing hair

If all of that sounds a little elaborate for something so crude, well, that fits the series perfectly. This is the only show that I've seen praised (often by completely different people) for its depth of thought and also its alluring eroticism (also simultaneously disparaged for being pretentious and also a blatant fanservice cashgrab). The subjects discussed range from epistemology to morality to language to social norms to love to family dynamics to... geez, I feel like almost anything you can think of. The scope begins with relevant plot concerns and then zooms out to speak of things generally. And it's all fascinating. Just examining the show's stance on a few issues could easily provide a ton of things to look at.

Ararargi's room - are the banana chair, mochi couch, and zeppelin symbolic of something? What about Tsuhiki's fried egg? Man, I dunno.

There'd be so many ways to look at it, too... You can start at what the characters say on the subject, but then, the characters are so well defined that you can probably speculate what other characters, not even present in the conversation, would say if were they there. Does the viewpoint of a character still factor into the "show's viewpoint" if deduced but not expressed? Sure, why not. Or how about the show's heavy, heavy use of symbolism - some of it blatant, some of it subtle, and some of it probably projecting. Even stuff like the background choices and the seemingly pointless "throwaway" shots of objects or scenery probably could have some interesting philosophical implications. Probably at a certain point you'd feel you were going "too deep", and you probably are... but I think there's a sort of fun in making meaning of things that the series really enables and functions through on a fairly basic level. Exactly how that works would also be fascinating.

Arararagi does a handstand after losing a bet with Hachikuji. I think this still image somehow has comedic timing.

Of course, through all of this philosophizing, there's still plenty of time for jokes. Although I think it's certainly less funny than Nichijou, and the types of humour much less varied, there's still a lot of very funny scenes in this series. I love how the type of comedy feels very distinct for each character, and each character has their own little stable of gags. There's lots of parody of classic animes and little slivers of Japanese pop culture. Sometimes the density of the jokes itself becomes the funniest joke. Sometimes you're laughing and you aren't even sure why. I think the great struggle to articulate what makes things funny might make some ground through new avenues by studying this show.

Karen strikes a pose - the expressiveness of the characters always moves me.

And beyond humor, this show really moves across the entire emotional spectrum in unique ways. There are scenes where I've felt like I was gonna cry from despair and, in other scenes, from triumph. There's scenes of angst and longing, and scenes of community and friendship. They go for a feeling of everyday satisfaction in some conversations and a sense of urgent and rare joy in other conversations with the same characters, and they ace both. If they want to do suspense, they can make you dig your nails in. If they want to horrify you, you'd better keep some lights on. Rare and powerful emotional aesthetics, like the "final disc of a JRPG feeling" and the "first time you go to Zeal in Chrono Trigger feeling", make memorable appearances. I think if I just summarized how the show made me feel, in the simplest terms, episode to episode, scene to scene, that would make a fine writeup too.

Senjougahara points out the Summer Triangle... I think at this point I'm more just finding scenes I really like lol.

So yeah, I could probably talk about all of that. It would take a very, very long time. And almost everything I did explain, I'd want to get in depth which for each and every arc. Like, last time I tried to talk about this series, for my top 5 anime of 2013 list, I ended up writing more for each of the 5 Second Season arcs than I did for any of the other 4 anime. And there all I was trying to do was explain why I thought they did a good job with the plot and characters. There's just too much stuff! So much so that I had to go with this lame trick structure. Sorry. I feel like with this and Evangelion I've made the same dodge of "there's too much to say! What's the point!?" while still somehow writing a bunch of words. And, like Evangelion, I'm still feeling like the best is yet to come in this series (if Shaft gets around to it). I'd be really amazed if it manages to ever bump itself ahead of the next two series in my books, though. Those two are basically sacred (are you hyped yet?).

Meanwhile, at Shaft...

In a complete inverse of Nichijou, the Monogatari series is one of the best selling anime of all time and the first definitive blockbuster in the era of Blu-Ray anime. That is, in the era where people started gladly paying 90 bucks for two episodes or 700 for a season's box set. This was the show good enough to make people do that crazy thing. And thus prove to studios that aiming for a small but obsessive market was just as financially viable as going for broad but moderate audience, which, of course, jump-started the whole moe-feedback-loop that basically is the spine of this whole list. Thank you, Monogatari! Appropriately, to me, this has always been in my mind the anime of the modern age. Like, it isn't real anime, but I think this lies in the exact center of all the audiences all the studios aim for with all of their shows. When people on mainstream forums talk about anime and say things like "Isn't anime for perverts and weirdos?" and then other people say "Well, they aren't all like that, check out Cowboy Bebop/Samurai Champloo/Attack on Titan" (depending on how old they are)... the anime both of them are vaguely and fearfully assuming must exist, this is its final form. There's like fifty shows I don't watch every season that, to me, just seem like some worse subset of this show, and feel entirely unnecessary. The best OPs of any show ever. A beautiful multimedia blend executed creatively and expertly. The miraculous fusion of dense and casual conversation and lewd and sophisticated displays. Broad and fetishy, both in eroticism and philosophy. Full of meaning and the fun of looking for it. And, through all this, genuine emotional resonance in all imaginable directions.

Best Girl Award: Shinobu Oshino

This was the hardest one yet. Also the one I feel is most likely to get me knifed in some dark alley behind Comiket. The waifu wars in Monogatari are TOO REAL. I kinda want to do my full rankings, but that's just begging for trouble. Shinobu wins for me because she exemplifies best one of the coolest parts of Monogatari, that the girls aren't just varied in personality and design, but some are like, ancient vampires or ghosts or 100 year old tools or whatever. And it isn't just a gimmick for them - these roles actually have plot relevance! And yet the characters still very empathetic and lovable anyways. Shinobu is a wonderfully tragic character, but her arrogance makes her almost... tsundere towards life itself. Ugh, I'm sure I could come up with something better than that but... it's so stupid I want to leave it. Every aspect of her design is addictively cute, especially her voice, oh my god, her voice. I think explaining the appeal of the character in any sort of depth would open up like another dozen cans of worms so we'll stop there.

2. Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Puella Magi Madoka Magica, 12 episodes, 2011
Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie: Beginnings, film, 2012
Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie: Eternal, film, 2012
Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie: Rebellion, film, 2013

Okay like... everyone knew this was coming. Anyone who knows me and is reading this list. Anyone who has ever heard of this show and is reading this list. Like, I dunno who would be surprised by this inclusion. Probably more people are surprised that it's only #2. The worldwide fervor over this franchise feels like it went three straight years without being at all diminished. Or maybe that's just because my personal fervor has kept it somewhere near the forefront of my mind for three straight years. The whole world of this series - the events, the designs, the characters, their relationships... they've all settled into my mind as the sort of persistent idea in the same way as concepts like "food" or "sleep". And I think it'll be there for a long, long time to come. Unlike Monogatari, where there were so many things I wanted to say, so many angles I wanted to approach it from, so many elements I wanted to cover... here, I feel like there's almost nothing I can say. I don't think there's anything I can say that will explain why this show is so special to me. Or any combination of things. But of course I'm gonna spend a few thousand words trying anyways!

(Oh, and, just a warning... I think, given how I'm planning on writing this section, I'm probably gonna drop a lot of spoilers... I figure anyone who has any interest in watching this show probably has by now, but if I'm wrong, take caution.)

Madoka came out before (actually, right before, and this isn't a coincidence) I started picking up any and all new Shaft shows by default. I learned about it after the second episode had aired, and people started getting hyped up. People were saying things from the basic, but tempting "magical girls but dark and it's really good" to the seemingly-ridiculous-but-amazing-if-it-ends-up-true "Faustian re-imagining of eschatological myths" and I was sold as soon as I knew aokiume was doing character designs. The first episode honestly blew me away as soon as the first shot of Madoka running along the checkered floor. There was some sort of boldness to it, some sort of energy that persisted all through the opening sequence into the godly opening. The next few acts didn't so much blow me away with any sort of unexpected twist, but for the opposite - they were so in line with exactly what I wanted that I was almost shocked. All my favorite tropes and cliches... the family bonding, the friendly banter, the wacky teacher, the mysterious transfer student and her warning... everything basically went completely according to plan, all the way up until the first witch's barrier.

As soon as the little "witch intro" plays for Homura, I found myself stunned by a sort of creative energy that I simply could not have prepared myself for. The mixed-media style was genuinely freaky and full of intriguing mystery, with overt codes and symbolism that I prayed would not end up shallow. I was being reminded of everything from Yume Nikki to Persona (the film, not the games) and the idea of a magical girl show with this sort of enemy seemed too good to be true. It turned out to not even be good enough. Cause, oh man, when Mami showed up (again, exactly to the generic schedule), I remember distinctly thinking "this transformation scene is gonna be good". But as soon as the music started, I realized whatever I could imagine was actually an insulting underestimation.

This would prove to be a pattern throughout the entire show - I would be bowled over by some new development, I would think "okay, now I get it, now I see what this show is going for" and "Oh my God, I can't believe we're getting another x episodes of this, this is the greatest show ever", and then, of course, something else would happen that would knock me right over and I'd think "okay, okay, now I get it...". This would happen at least every episode, usually multiple times.

On episode two, though, I really had no idea what the show was going for. There was excerpts of Faust on the wall, the runic alphabet being spammed turned out to have meaning and, when decoded by /a/, raised more questions than it answered, and even all the information we were being explicitly told seemed suspicious and almost covering for something. All of this was used by various camps on /a/ to promote or decry any and all imaginable twists. Factions claimed evil Kyubey, evil Mami, evil Homura, evil mom, evil Sayaka, evil Hitomi, evil teacher, evil Madoka (???)... really, really, anything you could imagine. They'd get into big arguments that would fill threads up to 500 multiple times a night, even days after the episode had aired. There was a sense of being in an anime watching community with a strength stronger than anything I had felt since Endless Eight. I personally stayed fairly impartial... if I had pet theories at the time, I can't really remember them. All I was sure was that if this show kept delivering kinetically awesome and aesthetically enrapturing sequences like Mami's battle with the witch, this show would quickly become one of my favorites.

Which, of course, was another massive underestimation. This episode is where shit, so to speak, gets real. A much bleaker overall tone settles upon the episode as little tragedies like Mami's backstory, Madoka's home life, and the relationship between Sayaka and Kyousuke become clear. Then, after throwing up a billion death flags in about five minutes, Mami's battle with the witch still manages to end shockingly bad. The show felt like it had lost its innocence in a major way. Like, look at the ED! This is when people started throwing around words like "deconstruction" or "Magical Girl Evangelion". Shaft wasn't just in it to make a magical girl show, this was going to be the magical girl show to end all magical girl shows, the one that would make us realize how silly all other magical girl shows were.

At least, it would were it not a show where wishes can be granted... and a major character dies... it seemed like basic mathematics to me. No way Mami was gonna stay dead! As such, I think it was this episode that the real despair started settling in. The show was starting to deviate from what I expected but, more relevantly, made me realize that what I was expecting was something pleasant and fun. In spite of what I had seen thus far, in spite of the recently leaked information that Urobuchi was the writer, I really believed the longterm formula for this show would be a happy team of magical girls fighting creepy witches. Mami would be revived, Homura would come around, and they'd be like a darker Precure. But nope. Like, really obviously nope.

And as soon as there was this disparity from what I expected from the show, what I wanted from the show, I couldn't help but ask why. Why didn't they save Mami? Well, it was out of fear - fear of having the same fate as her, right? That alone felt disorientingly fresh - a series where death wasn't trivialized, where characters really were paralyzed by fear in a significant, rational way. It was the first toe in the great pool of philosophical inquiry that the show would eventually plunge into. Meanwhile, the hypnosis-suicide plotline and witch labyrinth's crazy new aesthetic showed that the series' scope was still widening in all directions.

The philosophical discourse continued in the fifth episode, where the introduction of Kyoko brought a radically different perspective to all the preceding events and elements. The "mechanics" of the particular magical girl "system" move from accepted laws of the series to points of discussion and debate. Is being a magical girl something to optimize and exploit, or is there a higher ideal of justice you ought to aspire to? The question easily extends to any real vocation but is also conflated with things like if you think Kyoko or Sayaka is cuter. This leads to people debating the point on every level of discourse, often simultaneously, which is just the craziest thing to witness. The whole idea of analysis of the world's systems by the characters themselves is itself rare, something more familiar to fans of Fukumoto than magical girls. The even more important question of "is this magical girl business worth it in the first place?" becomes even more relevant. And although people were content to debate all this stuff online with words, the episode itself ends with a badass fight. Just for good balance.

So now we have a show with magical girls fighting freaky witch things but why they do it seems irreconcilably different and they're liable to just straight up die. Or whoops maybe they're all already dead. The whole "soul gem zombie" thing is another thing that I think this series handles with a rare realism. This sort of element isn't uncommon in a lot of series, a sort of "sacrificing one's humanity to do something" factor, and usually it's sort of just waved away. Same with things like witnessing a death. For the sake of having the plot advance smoothly, a lot of characters recover with unrealistic speed to these sorts of insane psychological horrors. It's sensible plotwise as the actual realistic response to this sort of thing, I think, would just be crippling despair. And that's Madoka. Again and again. Crippling despair.

Then, just because no one could stop them, the series opens three more giant cans of worms and dumps them all over everything. Kyubey's deception placed him pretty solidly in "villain" territory for most people, but his hyper-rational materialist explanation to Sayaka at the start of the episode gave him some fans. I was stunned by the level of directness employed as questions of "what is the body" and "what is the soul" were addressed as simple and practical matters. The "science" of the show was still mysterious, but this willingness to engage directly with it promised that there would be no stone left unturned - a promise they, of course, made good on. Then, swinging wildly in the opposite direction, Kyoko's tragic backstory drops the religion bomb, raising all sorts of questions about the role of God in a world with magic, the true morality of Kyoko's actions, selfishness and selflessness... The chilling flashback seems to make the opposite promise, showing that some things will always fall outside of rational thoughts, that some disparities can never be reconciled, that some things will never make sense. In the center of these hyper-rational explanations and these subjective human mysteries is Sayaka, who, between having her Soul Gem stepped on and declining the apple, is really just being dragged through the wringer at this point.

But it gets worse, of course, as the final and wormiest can is thrown in her face - NTR. NTR is about the cheapest shot you can take at a character, but that doesn't mean it's ineffective. Given the history we have by now with the characters, the hopelessness with the whole Soul Gem situation, and an established theme of self-sacrifice, this is less a surprise attack but the detonation of a big bomb with a long fuse. Sayaka's breakdown in Madoka's arms is powerful and beautiful - I remember the first time I saw it being stunned by the voice acting quality, and thinking "even that is the best ever" - but even more stirring is the witch fight at the end, possibly my favorite of the series. It manages to express so much of Sayaka's despair just through the kineticism of her actions, and little touches like musical notes on her magical launch pad thing are heartbreaking. Plus it just looks SO COOL. I think it was at this point that we started, without discussion, replaying the episode as soon as it had finished and immediately watching through it a second time.

And I guess what we need now is yet another twist that just recasts everything we've seen this far into even deeper shadows. Great! I think a lot of people said they saw this coming, but I think there's some satisfaction in that, too. I remember dreading the reveal... I didn't want it to be true, I wanted there to be some hope left in the series. Poor Sayaka! This is another case where I think a lot of shows might have an element like this, but they wouldn't get so deep into the real psychological horror that this would mean. Like, think about it... she's in love with this guy, and his talent at violin, so even though she sees Mami die, she becomes a magical girl so he can play again. That's how much she loves him. She saves her friend from dying! Justice! She can battle the witches that killed Mami! She almost dies fighting for these ideals, and then finds out she's actually been dead all along. Her friend that she saved wants to be with the boy she likes, and she feels like she can't stop him, knowing that she's basically a doomed RC zombie. So basically at this point she feels like she has no self-interest anymore, and really just wants to do as much good as possible. This begins her ultimately tragic rampage of self-sacrifice. That concept, of a person deciding that there is nothing in the world for them, and only seeing themselves as an agent of some ideal... it's very fascinating to me. But how do you go any further than that? When a person lacks any sort of self-interest, how do you make them suffer any more? Oh...

In a last ditch attempt to save Sayaka, Kyoko and Madoka head into her labyrinth... and if you think this is gonna end well, we've been watching very different shows. The action is brutal, the symbolism heartbreaking, and the ultimate double KO that ends the fight manages to shock me as much as Mami's death did before. This effectively ends the plotline of Sayaka and Kyoko, which I think you could be forgiven if you'd forgotten it wasn't the main story. Issues of Kyubey's motivation, Madoka's decision, Homura's origin, and Walpurgis Night all had been bubbling on the backburner, and now they're... thrown, boiling, into our faces. Kyubey's plan is finally revealed in full to be... using the thermodynamic-defying powers of magical pubescent angst to defy entropy and prolong the universe? Sure. Nothing could possibly have more gravity on any major scale. And, at the same time, this again creates this extreme contrast between the very distant, alien concerns of Kyubey against the brutal and immediate human problems facing Madoka... driven all the way home into your gut with stuff like weeping over corpses, futile cries for help, and Homura actually looking a bit desperate.

Okay, this is a brilliant episode. I had been pretty impressed by the resolution of the whole Sayaka/Kyoko plotline. The fact that it ended so unpleasantly wasn't really a surprise, but I couldn't really have prepared myself for how it felt when basically half of the major characters died. There was a sort of hollowness and exhaustion like near the end of Evangelion, where it really seemed like the show couldn't go on. And I certainly couldn't have expected this. Okay, the time loop theories about Homura have existed since episode one, I'm pretty sure. Granted, at the start, they were more just conspiracies, about as convincing as "the colours of the numbers on the kitchen clock show who will die". The evidence came together piecemeal, slowly but steadily - the time stopping magic, the insider information... By the time this episode came out, I was pretty convinced. There's something very satisfying about picking up a pet theory and eventually seeing it confirmed, bit by bit.

And this was probably the best possible way they could have exposed it... no explanation, just jumping right into Homura's subjective history. This episode is just... everything. There's rare and awesome scenes of Mami and Madoka fighting as magical girls. There's like a half dozen "bonus" witches that show up just long enough for us to confirm that they're as freaky as the rest. You get to see Moemura all shy and incompetent and Madoka all spirited and confident - and their personalities in the alternate timelines feel sensible with the different choices they had made. There's scenes with some of the most confusing emotional aesthetics I've dealt with - how am I supposed to feel about watching Homura make bombs or steal guns from the yakuza? There's some of the most devastating and tragic scenes in the series... it feels like all five girls straight up murder someone at least once each in this episode. Somehow it actually manages to feel, in terms of emotional impact, like watching the entire run of the show thus far again several times over. Like a super concentrated but lossless digest of the show. And like it does with the impact of death and a few other elements, the whole "retry until you get it right" Groundhog Day timeloop scheme isn't unique by any stretch, but the true horror of it is exposed in this show in a way that I've never seen elsewhere. Homura's distressed, robot-like focus makes perfect sense in the context of her life... it's the first time I've seen a character who operated like that and also seemed "realistic". By keeping the scope focused and skipping exposition, they managed to get all this into one episode. Until I saw the next two I figured this would be the best episode of anything ever.

And then we move into the penultimate episode, where Shaft acts with total insensitivity to our sanity. The scope of the show suddenly widens, starting with Sayaka's funeral and going into Madoka's mother and teacher's reactions. On a completely other hand, Kyubey explains the symbiotic relationship between humans and the Incubators... usually this sort of plot element really bugs me, where the plot involves a massive "retconning" of actual history. Kyubey goes as far as to claim that humans would still be living naked in caves if it wasn't for the Incubators. My beef with this sort of plot is that it often seems dismissive or ignorant of actual historic research. Like, the more they try to be "believable", the more it seems like they're actually arguing that the actual historic causes are unknown, which isn't the case 99% of the time. And like, claiming Cleopatra and Joan of Arc were magical girls... I dunno, it sort of rubs me the wrong way. I suppose it could also be argued that they're merely stimulating an ultimately fruitful interest in actual history, too. Oh and I also have beef with any sort of argument where something inhuman basically says "well hey, you humans are doing it too"... this sort of "tu quoque" usually just seems lazy, and it seems to disregard the fact that humans are actually pretty special, even as far as sentient beings go. But I guess this is sort of subverted in that Kyubey actually is trying to argue that Incubators and humans having symbiotic relationships with humans and livestock, respectively, are all good things... Ugh, I don't really want to get into this right now.

And that actually I think is the more prevailing effect of the scene, and most of the scenes in the first half of this episode - the show is now just delving into things, worming in to whatever it can. Like, after Madoka and Kyubey's discussion, Madoka's mom and her teacher drink at a bar with a big mural of Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam. Why? Why is that there? What is that supposed to make us think? Shaft, please, stop, what are you doing? And then the tearful conversation between Homura and Madoka where the truth finally comes out... and the families going into shelters, suddenly causing you to realize just how much real-world effect all this magical nonsense is having... it's overwhelming, there's no other word for it. The show is actively trying to affect you on every emotional level and on every subject. The more times Homura resets the timeline, the more powerful Madoka becomes - both as magical girl and eventual witch. But if Homura ever stops resetting, she'll become a devastating witch, too. And you know she can't win against Walpurgis Night, it's the most foregone fight in the series. That's why they can go all out on it: Homura's military-fetish-in-effect assault, the witch's incomprehensible attacks... it's a hammer blow to your already cracked mind.

So like... why is this show on my list? This utterly hopeless show that probes uncomfortably into every realm of thought, where characters suffer and die, where people cry and scream, where most things are grey and many scenes take place at night... isn't anime supposed to make me happy? What happened to all that stuff about comfort and healing? What about the whole "fall in love with the whole world" thing? Like, is this even anime? What the hell is going on?

Okay well probably if this show had a different ending, it wouldn't have made the list. Maybe. I really can't imagine what my reaction would have been if Madoka had failed. I think the brilliant thing is that, despite Madoka's success seeming so impossible, her failing always seemed unimaginable. I really honestly believed all along that it would all somehow end happily... maybe that was stupid of me, but I would have kept believing it, no matter how many times I was told I was wrong. Madoka's solution was defiant of everything before it - in the typical fashion of the show, which, somewhat paradoxically, never feels anything like typical. The whole rewriting of the world development is a bit complicated and confusing, but I feel Shaft's level of exposition is a good balance of direct and demonstrative. Scenes like Madoka's conversations with Mami, Kyoko, and Sayaka are all touching in a sort of "complete" sense, like, something being put to rest. The Ultimate Madoka scenes are as jawdropping as they are incomprehensible, working with their own twist on an aesthetic of "transcendance" that goes back from Evangelion to 2001. What a satisfying and beautiful ending.

And then there was Rebellion, but I think I'll actually skip talking about that for now. This section is very long as is. I liked it a lot, but not as much as the show. There was a lot of really amazing scenes and some great plot elements and interesting twists but I think they also just made some poor choices in pacing and presentation... It's complicated, I don't think it would be appropriate in writing that's supposed to be just praising things to high heavens.

So let's do that some more: Madoka is an absolute masterpiece of a show. I can't say it's as "objectively good" as Evangelion or Nichijou because I think this is something not really designed to appeal to anywhere near as many people. I think you have to have some familiarity with the magical girl genre to get the right sort of shock from it. And if you don't think the girls are cute, you can get the hell out... like, I honestly can't imagine what it would be like to watch this show if I wasn't so endeared to all the characters on so many levels, if I didn't find them moe. Even now, I think even a diehard otaku of just the right tastes watching it for the first time (if such a thing can still exist) wouldn't get the same experience as one would when watching it when it aired. It came out in the same season as Nichijou - that alone creates an entirely different emotional world than someone watching it without that contrast. The insane theorizing, the debating of so, so many topics, the delay of the last two episodes, everything... this show was a phenomenon in the truest sense of the word. The season it was airing was truly miraculous.

Best Girl Award: Madoka Kaname

Madoka is my second favorite anime character ever. Throughout the whole show she displays remarkably little agency, basically doing... well, she almost kills Sayaka one time by throwing her thing off a bridge. I think that's about it. I see a lot of people giving her grief over this... poor misguided fools! They can't see that Madoka really is the good girl. She's boundlessly optimistic and only wants to do what's best for her friends. In this world of despair, failure, and fear... doing nothing is really all she can do! The only time she screws up is when her mom tells her to, lol. Madoka's graceful, simple love is so beautiful... it feels powerful and all encompassing, and yet so small and innocent. Little things, like... the short flashback she has when she's trying to save Hitomi from the cult, remembering the warning her mom gave her... or the fact that she's the class health officer... she manages to be consistently downright adorable with all the suffering around her.

And then she becomes God. This act of self-sacrifice and self-transcendence is so beautiful that it's little wonder people started a slew of online churches and cults within hours of the final episode airing. Her final role is to relieve people who wish for happiness the burden of causing unhappiness, making happiness no longer a zero-sum game. If you work to make the world a better place, you are never working alone, because she is working with you. What a beautiful message! Most people make Ultimate Madoka their ikons, but for me the best scene is right before that. Everything from that first shot of her transformed... her bow blooming and bursting into flames... the shot that turns the sky blue... flying to rescue magical girls through time and space... it's so beautiful, it's too beautiful, I think it's my favorite sequence in anything ever. I remember when I was in Japan the summer after it aired, I saw some computer display in a store playing it... it was pretty common to see episodes of Madoka playing on basically everything with a screen the whole time I was there, but this time it was right at that scene... I had to stop and watch, I felt like I was gonna cry. It's just too much, it's just way too much.

1. Hidamari Sketch

Hidamari Sketch, 14 episodes, 2007
Hidamari Sketch × 365, 16 episodes, 2008-2009
Hidamari Sketch × Hoshimittsu, 14 episodes, 2010
Hidamari Sketch × SP, 2 episodes, 2011
Hidamari Sketch × Honeycomb, 12 episodes, 2012
Hidamari Sketch: Sae & Hiro's Graduation Arc, 2 episodes, 2013

Hidamari Sketch is a 4-panel comic by aokiume and adapted to an anime by Shaft. It's about the Hidamari Apartments, a six-apartment complex across the street from Yamabuki High School. The inhabitants of the apartments are all close friends, and the series follows their day to day lives. If you ever found yourself feeling an implacable, unrootable, dissatisfaction with life, a feeling that something is wrong on a level so fundamental that you can barely even imagine that something else could be better, something else that could be right... the thing you were trying to imagine is this show. If, ultimately, the reason I like anime is to feel a sense of warmth and comfort that makes me appreciate the world a little more, then this show is the sun.

There is about a billion things I like about this show. Sometimes I watch it and my mind buzzes as I try to catch every little thing that I like. Other times I try the opposite - I try to look for things I don't like, things I see as even a little flawed... but I come up empty, and I'm overcome by a feeling of completeness and satisfaction at witnessing something perfect. Most of the time, though, I don't think about it either way. I just watch it like you watch waves on a shore or trees in the wind, feeling as mindless and natural as a midafternoon nap on a sunny day. Hidamari Sketch is something special. There's something about it that's different than any other show and I don't think I could ever put it into words.

Uh, but we're gonna try. Probably the simplest way to start would be to look back at other shows on this list and talk about how Hidamari does it better. It checks off every point on the "requirements for real anime" list I came up with for Lucky Star. But, even though it was made in a world where this formula is well known, it has the same sort of innocence and documentary-esque naturalism as Azumanga Daioh. It doesn't feel pandering, nothing seems forced, and there's no "awareness" of media or genre that interferes with its native innocence.

This takes the principles of moe to an ideal, but it doesn't feel like an extreme or a limit, but rather the "natural place" for the concept. The characters are extremely cute and behave extremely cutely in a way that doesn't feel forced or performative. Everyone in the show is pretty real... even more outlandish characters like Yoshinoya-sensei and the Principal have "bits" and "quirks" that seem impossible, but these are balanced by a underlying reasonable nature. I think a lot of comedies have characters where their "bits" all revolve around making some unreasonable decision or deliberately going against the progress of the scene. Like, it's one of the easiest ways to write a joke - the group wants to do X, "wacky" character wants to do not-X, everyone has a good laugh. And Hidamari still allows these "bits", but no one is defined by them... at the core, they're reasonable, realistic, people.

It's weird 'cause the way to write a character like this seems, on paper, like... it wouldn't be much deeper than the paper itself, right? 90% of all their traits and actions can be answered by "what most people would think" or "what most people would do". It seems kinda bland compared to characters with such deep obsessions or compulsive traits that you really have to work to imagine them in a lot of situations... sometimes it's really fun and compelling work, yeah, but there's an inherent unreality to them. The Hidamaris seem like real people. They naturally seem like they can handle a great range of emotions and situations. There's nothing forced or performative.

But, at the same time, this is an incredibly and meticulously constructed series. The "Shaft style" of "cinematography", also seen in SZS and the Monogatari series, here comes to a full bloom. It's more limited in aesthetic breadth, but now perfected. And I don't say that lightly - I really do believe basically every shot of this anime is conceptually perfect.

I don't mean perfect as in "perfectly depicts reality". Even if they wanted to, Shaft's meager budget couldn't touch the Godliness of Kyoani on that metric. However, from these monetary constraints, something uniquely beautiful has emerged, and a new style of perfection. I am going to try to explain exactly what I mean, but I think it is much easier to understand if you watch the show. I've included a lot of screenshots in this writeup, some of which talk about the same aspects I'm writing about, but a lot of the style only emerges when you see the images in the context of the show. But I think there's also a lot of techniques used by the show that work subtly, or have implications that aren't obvious, so I want to write about it too.

The major technique of the show's style is iconification. The show works by replacing depiction of things as they actually appear with representational symbols. To an extent, this is something that every anime does: you know that you are seeing just a drawing that doesn't look exactly like the original, but you can still identify it. I mean, really, if we take this idea as far as Magritte, there's nothing in most visual mediums that is "real". Everything is a suggestion of something in your reality that your brain can identify.

That's obvious, right? But in HidaSketch, the aim is to push the limits of identification. That is, when they depict a flower, they aim to display only the very essence of what makes something recognizably a flower. They ask the question "what is it that makes someone understand that this is a flower?". Sometimes they stop at this, creating a beautiful minimalist style, where a shot might only have a few objects and a few colours. The simplicity of seeing the lawn as just a green region and the sky as a blue region feels serene. Sometimes you want to experience the absolute minimal amount of stimulation in a show, and HidaSketch caters to this, understanding that, sometimes, things can even be overwhelming on the level of basic visuals.

In this fashion, they also drop the backgrounds of many shots (this also saves budget), replacing them with simple patterned designs. There's a lot packed into these choices... dipping into the colour theory you're sure they're learning about in class, Shaft codifies the characters' moods through the general hue and brightness of the background - basic stuff. The layman awareness of it creates a sense that it's not only "artsy", but it's a humble and simple type of artsy, the sort of thing that a high school arts student might create. It feels like the backgrounds emerge from the foregrounded character, in a way. It's super charming!

And beyond that, and possibly beyond any actual meaning... I think there's something else going on, sometimes. Like, sometimes they use stripes, and sometimes they use dots. Why? Why those two specific colours? Does it mean something? Are there secret messages encoded to experts (only upper year art majors will get this!)? Or maybe some ura-pattern emerges from proper indexing of the background designs? And do these (unlikely to actually exist) codified messages relate to how... sometimes I really feel like, without thinking about it, that these choices are correct? Like, I'll see some shot, with, say, a pointillist background in blue and white, and think, yeah, those are the right colours... why? I'm so sure they're right, that they're the perfect colours, that it's the perfect pattern. And, even more mysterious, it looks good, like, really beautiful! I love the endless feeling to the backgrounds, the sort of... spacial-temporal escape they give, and the various emotional effects all come through strong.

Okay so this is the sort of "simplification" process, where stuff is reduced to the minimum that makes you recognize the thing or have the emotional response. But then there's also a sense of "composition"... shots will end up actually being very complex through arrangement of these simple icons. Complex and beautiful, of course, will all the possible latent codification and the forefronted emotional signification of each simple element. And, despite the complexity of these shots, there's still a peaceful feeling of simplicity, of destimulization. There's only a few times that any one thing becomes visually complicated and potentially "intimidating", but we'll come to that in a bit.

Major themes of these mise-en-scenes are basic geometric shapes and primary colours... a general sense of simplicity, almost necessity. There's often a contrast between repeating simple elements and a single complex element that spreads across them. Or like, a repeating simple pattern out of center, making the whole pattern a complex element... the appeal of these sorts of compositions I honestly don't think I can drill down to any deeper. I know it's similar to stuff I like in music, too... people singing long, rich, shifting, chords over simple, repetitive beats... or things like, uhh, 3:56 in mum's "Smell Memory"... I think I like that synth run for the same reason as I like the poster in Sae's room. Does that make sense? It barely makes sense to me. Luckily it doesn't really have to... I just like both things.

And, on the subject of rhythm, we come to the real genius realization of these techniques: the editing. Through this process of composition, each entire shot can be immediately and simply codified into a meaning. So, instead of shots conveying some part of a continuous diegesis, each just relates some coded action that ends up telling the story. It's like... heiroglyphics. Or maybe instead of analogy, I'd be better to just give an example. Let's take some made-up sequence of Miya and Yuno walking home from school, carrying on some conversation, and then going to Yuno's room and eating a snack. If you were to convey this in conventional cinematography, it'd probably be, what... a shot of them walking from the school with the school behind them, a few back and forths between their faces, an overhead shot of them on the street, shot of them climbing the stairs, shot of opening the door, maybe from inside the apartment... you know the deal.

The Hidamari method is like... anything. Anything at all. You can convey crossing the street by showing an X (representing Yuno) and a paw print (Miya) moving across the street. You can just show Yuno's mailbox or even just the number 201 to signify going to Yuno's room. Or you can show the traditional shots! That's fine too! You can do their dialogue in a million different ways... shots of the objects of their discussion, shots of their faces in everything from "realistic" to fullblown "wideface", even just their eyes, their "icon" (the X or pawprint) shaking or bouncing... each meaning something slightly different, but advancing the story in the same way. Maybe just a shot of a key and the sound effect of a lock unlocking to show entering the house. Maybe just a picture of the food they eat.

The reason for this editing style is probably budget, especially in the first season, but the effects are twofold: first, because no actual complete action needs to be conveyed in the shot, each idea can pass in a completely arbitrary amount of time. They can cross the street in a frame or in five minutes. This allows the rhythm of the editing to become completely in service to the emotional meaning of the sequence. Similarly, they can avoid any shots that would be less than ideal. Don't have a good way to show Yuno climbing the stairs? Just don't show it. Just play the sound, or show footsteps, whatever.

This is what I mean when I say the show is perfect: there's only the shots they want, conveyed the way they want, lasting exactly as long as they want. There's no necessity, there's nothing they have to show. Everything is conveyed in it's purest form. Like, how could it be better? Honestly, how could it be better?

And I haven't even gotten to the best part of the design: the characters! This is what I alluded to earlier when I talked about the visually complicated symbols. More generally, there's a class of symbols the show uses that are given special attention. Things that are given special focus and depiction, moving past a simple signifier into a particular object of admiration. In the first season, this was often done by just showing an actual picture of the object - later, more commonly just a detailed drawing. On the editing side, this same effect is captured by the occasional use of what I always consider a million dollar shot - as in, Shaft threw a million dollars at it. On some shots, for whatever reason, the fps seems to triple, the movements become beautifully flowing, the camera spins and zooms freely...

So what's up with the mixture of simple codes and these beautiful, detailed, representations? I have a theory... I think it's all about the visual art mindset. When beginning composition, you start with general sense of the layout of the scene, the lines of perspective, the balancing of colour and shape. This is how most scenes are, and it shows the Hidamaris' perspective as they generally see the world - as a place of artistic potential. That is, that every scene could be the perfect place for a painting, that every emotion could result in some beautiful pattern blooming. And then, when there's an object given special focus, that's them seeing a specific subject that appeals artistically. There's a sense of wanting to capture everything about the object in reality, to fully capture the beauty of that object. It's cool, cause you feel like you're seeing everything not just as they see it, but as they appreciate it.

The most beautiful thing of all in this show, just like real life, are the people. And it's only right that they get the most artistic appreciation. Each character has the full range of iconification applied to them, appearing from fairly "realistic" depictions, to more 90s styled "anime-y" builds, to 2010-Kyoani moeblob models, to wideface in every aspect ratio you can think of, to literally just icons - Xs and circles and stuff. And these aren't one-time distortions for a certain gag - they're recurring "versions" of the characters that are all equally "real".

On one level, this is awesome just because every version of the character seems cuter than the last, taking your heart on a rollercoaster, like, wow, don't they look cute and funny as almost emoticonized sets of dots and lines? But on the next cut, the eyes are filled out and the hair has a beautiful shine to it, isn't that nice too? Okay but seriously, what could be cuter than on the next cut, when they blob way out, the faces go ultra-widescreen, the eyes become just lines, well, you'll see how they top that...

It's a venerable smorgasbord of cuteness! No scene ever ends up in direct competition or escalation with any previous one because of this addictive variety. Each attack on your heart comes from an entirely new angle. If it seems too stimulating, don't worry. Because it will kill you. Instantly. You will literally be dead. And then it will be quite relaxing. That's how cute this show is. So cute you transcend this mortal coil or whatever.

Oh yeah, and on another level, I think the reason this works is because of a weird sort of iconification that usually takes place around the show instead of inside it. Okay so normally, in an anime, if you like the character, you seek out fan art and such of the character after seeing the show. I think this is pretty common. Often the fan art is like... really good, like, often cuter than the actual art of the show itself. And even though it isn't "canon" or whatever, you think of the character in the fan art as the "actual" character too, right? Like, she becomes even cuter in your mind, on the strength of the fanart. Well, first off, this is different in Hidamari because no other artist will ever draw the Hidamaris cuter than Ume-sensei and the Shaft animators and yes this is an actual open challenge and I would like you to send me as many attempts at counter-evidence as you can muster.

And also, it's different with Hidamari 'cause like... I think more than just you liking one particular piece of fan art, or one artist, even, the process of looking at fan art and expanding your "scope" of the character is itself what makes the character more memorable and enduring. Now, in your mind, she doesn't have just one shape or depiction, she is, in your mind, now a plurality of appearances, and, more importantly, a core essence of what makes her recognizable as her. Like, after seeing hundreds of thousands of Mikus, I now recognize a certain length and curvature of twintails, or the font on her arm, or even just her shade of green as "Miku".

In Hidamari, I think this process happens from the show alone. Yeah, maybe only after you watch the show with NEET devotion, but for me... these characters occupy a space of visual recognition that I think is on par with like... "sloped surface", or "triangle", or "container". Such is the power of their continual reemergence, each time cuter, each time more endearing... Like, before, when I was talking about moe, about keeping the character in your heart, this is like... keeping them in your visual cortex. Like, searing the character into your retinas. Moeverload. Etc.

Man, I keep saying this stuff trying to make it sound as dramatic and powerful as possible, but then it ends up sounding a bit negative, hahaha. Is it enough for me to just say that these characters are super-moe now? Can I get away with that? And that, in their iconification, every aspect of the entire Hidamari world takes on some form of moe? Because I think, again, I was really just working my way around to that. In the end, it's about love. It's about making things distinct and belovable.

And maybe that's enough... about the design of Hidamari. No wait, no, it isn't enough, not even half enough. I took so many screenshots when I was writing this, so many more that I can remember and I want to include. So many scenes where I'd want to just go top to bottom and explain why I love absolutely every choice they've made. Like what would be ideal is if I could do commentary, pausing liberally, taking two hours for each episode, and explaining how I think everything works, and why it works, and why it's great. But even I realize that's a bit excessive. And we want to go a lot excessive, so we're gonna start talking about the morality and message of the show.

The show basically operates entirely without conflict. It's a show without problems. I mean, things go "wrong" in the show, sure. Yuno forgets her homework or drops her keys in the toilet. Maybe Nazuna is homesick or Sae and Hiro start fighting. These motivate a plotline and might seem like conflict or issues, but underlying them is a certain assurance... it's an assurance that, not only will the problem get solved, but the lessons learned will be so complete and valuable that the problem, in retrospect, was really just an opportunity. There's a transcendental attitude to these "problems" that the characters take, where Yuno, in her nightly bath, can realize that the most important things to her have and will always survive any trial.

Moreover, these problems always center around or are solved by communication or introspection. Many episodes are entirely motivated by nothing more than one character trying to do something nice for another character. There is nothing that the "power of friendship" cannot resolve in this show. Yes, that ultimate shonen cliche is the moral backbone of HidaSketch, but I mean, really think about it: isn't it actually obvious that interpersonal relationships are the most precious part of life? Don't you realize that empathy is the most valuable quality to have? I mean, don't you understand that the ethical contract with the Other is the very perception of consciousness and time? Okay, maybe no one besides Levinas really understands that.

It's the sort of thing that you hear a thousand times and you can ignore it simply because you've heard it a thousand times. You can feel like you still know it to be true, but actually believing it is something completely different. This goes not just for Hidamari's morality, but whatever things you find important. There can be a thousand texts that espouse those values, but only some will make you truly believe in them. Those are precious. This show does it for me. When I watch it, not only does it make sense to me, but it feels like what it's saying is so obviously true that any other way of thinking is... incomprehensible, impossible. Most of the time, I find that my mind is constantly at odds with itself, a tangle of endless hypocrisy, every action I take going against at least some of my ideas. But while watching this show, I feel at rest. The things it says to me, I feel in my gut, as certainly as I possibly could.

And what other stuff is it saying? There's the power of friendship, sure, but what else? Well, lots, as you're about to see (unless at this point you've basically thrown in the towel and are just fast-scrolling through). And yet, it isn't like Infinite Jest or Gravity's Rainbow or The Brothers Karamazov, books that talk about everything in humanity. HidaSketch says very little, but it has a very small scope. It never pretends to be anything more than a slice of life. These are just some girls, at just one high school. It's just a short three years of their life. As leisurely as Ume-sensei wants to dole out their precious daily lives, time is passing.

There's no pretense that Hidamari Sketch is about anything more than high school. But if you believe that there's nothing still worth learning, truly learning, about the high school experience, pretentiousness has gotten hold of you. Does HidaSketch talk about the dread of the void, or the history's jagged spear, or decaying age? No, of course not. Our glimpses into non-high school perspectives are brief (usually through the landlady), and, although rich in their own way, decidedly not the focus.

No, no, the focus is on the lessons you really ought to learn in high school, and probably did, and probably believe deep down, but it's nice to see them be the focus again. Like, how do you decide what to do after school? Do you just do something you enjoy? Do you do something you're good at? Something important? Well, this show seems to think that you should find something you enjoy doing that makes people happy. Then you should focus on doing your best at it and improving and not worry about if you're good enough or if it's important. That sounds nice. Doesn't that sound nice?

Or um, how do you be a good friend? Always think of your friendship in terms of the time you spend together! It isn't about what they can do for you, or even what you can do for them, but how you can make that time together precious! How do you live on your own? Well, you learn to find new ways to improve yourself, and depend on your... Or hey, what is art? Is it what makes people happy? Is it important for people to see your art? To like it? Well, in 365, there's this one episode where Yuno...

I could go on and on like this, obviously... but I know you won't believe me just in text. Even if you agree, you won't believe it. I mean, that's the whole appeal of the show - to make you really believe. But maybe you don't agree with those ideas. That's okay. (you're just horrible! no. just kidding.) This show fits in perfectly with my morality, which is a sort of like... idk think the best of everyone to the extent that everyone is above you but you are in communion with them thing Alyosha thing etc. To see such a cute and wonderful anime that espouses these views, or, uh, at least does enough that I can say things like this without feeling too ridiculous. And we had the communion, too, in wide threads and the #wide irc channel and all that... Such good times we spent together, only trying to enjoy each others' company and our mutual interests, cheering each other up and helping each other out, no superiority or ulterior motives... and that, too, is a part of the show for me now.

And that's really the attitude that put this show at #1 - the special signification of the entire Hidamari mindset for me. It's become vaguely sacred, if not just because it's become vaguely sacred. Like, once I got it into my head that this show was special, it became more special. Does that make sense? I mean, I think it happened, regardless if it makes sense. One's love for a piece of art can easily become self-perpetuating, with the "logic" you adopt because of it allowing you to "appreciate" it further. Sounds a bit deranged, maybe, and really goes against my teenage views on art, which were all about drilling into some objective quality, taking a detached, clinical interest in art, analyzing it and judging it... but nah. What you need to do is love art, go a bit crazy for art, let it seep into your life and how you think a little. Why not? If you aren't gonna let that in, why bother watching it in the first place?

I think it was Hidamari itself that was a big part of teaching me that important lesson, and making me believe it. The characters are always so affected by things - art and events and emotions and each other. There's long periods of humble introspection and gentle improvement. It's a tender feeling, full of sentimentality, that seeks to eke out the maximum emotional resonance any experience can have. It's the feeling of looking at anything and thinking, where is the beauty here? Where is the humanity? How can I find something meaningful and wonderful in today? What a beautiful way to look at the world! And if you agree with me, but maybe don't feel it as deeply as you think you could, please watch this show.

With these twin pillars of iconification and moralization, Hidamari generates what I'd refer to as an aesthetic. It's a very loaded word that I've been throwing around a little haphazardly at times but I find it extremely useful. To me, an aesthetic is a system of feelings, beliefs, and images/texts that are all united by some underlying concept - that concept being the aesthetic. To me, the moment a work becomes most rapturous, most engrossing, and most meaningful, is when it seems to have a fully realized aesthetic. Where every new element clicks into this system. Stuff like having a sense of persistence to the world, even in the unseen areas, is a prerequisite. As is having characters that can function as "real people" and have what Tao Lin refers to as the "seven threads" of perception. Otherwise the aesthetic is flimsy.

After that, I think the most important quality for the aesthetic to have is potential. You want to see everything in the "light" of the aesthetic. You want to produce your own works that adopt your understanding of the aesthetic or the elements of it you find most interesting. There are some aesthetics I like that have a sense of "completeness" to them, but even these have a certain potential of timelessness, or of resistance, that is, that their resistance to new elements unnecessarily complicating them is still a productive function of the aesthetic.

As an aspiring writer or whatever the hell I am, I find the most compelling reason for me to work is to convey an aesthetic that I have forming in my brain. Images or ideas or lines will occur to me, all resulting from an underlying pattern of assumptions and emotions. It is that pattern inside me that burns, that I long to see realized in a concrete way. I'm straying a bit from the topic here but Hidamari has been really helpful and motivating in this regard, not just in my desire to realize the specific aesthetic qualities I find "latent" in Hidamari (more on this later), but in understanding the value of aesthetic realization in the first place. I used to write stories starting with the plot, or, usually, with the "twist", and it was very frustrating and unproductive.

Now I have like... a whole complicated system in my brain of aesthetics and symbols, characters and stories, all relating to each other in a jumbled code that not even I fully understand, probably. But the writing just... flows out! And I think it's better than ever! I'm not gonna say it's great, or anything, but I'm happier with it than any of my previous writing. And it's more fun to write than ever! It's fantastic! I'm preparing soon to collect and "release" everything I've written in the year 2014. It's like, a ton of stuff, and some of it I really really like, and I'm super excited to get it all up and out there. I've never thought less about being a big successful writer because never has the allure of "having written" been so disconnected from the fun of writing. There's no expectation! I just love the process! Thank you, aesthetic-based writing! Thank you, Hidamari!

So how did Hidamari help me with this? Well, I think a big part of it was... drawing Yuno in my notebooks. I really like drawing Yuno in my notebooks. I mean, I always liked doodling, and I'd often have little "universes" in my notebooks before, with recurring characters and stuff. But that always seemed totally disconnected from my "serious work" (tryhard writing shamelessly emulating whoever I was reading at the time). When I started drawing Yuno a lot, it seemed like... it was something I could explore. This character, that I liked, represented so many things and was represented by so many things in the show, right? And all of that was still Yuno... so, was the Yuno I drew also Yuno? And in some way, could I then start to expand the show's aesthetic onto my own pages, into my own writing?

I'm not sure if I'm getting across my thought process very well here. This isn't really too important. Maybe a better example is... the sun. Hidamari Sketch is all about the sun - "Hidamari" means "sunshine", if you didn't know. They don't really talk about it much explicitly, but there's lots of blue skies, everyone's casually mentioning how warm and sunny it is in connection with their happiness... there's certainly a lot of sun going around. So I, too, became all about the sun - drawing suns often in my books, coming up with silly sci-fi plots about the sun being an ancient supercomputer, making endless sun metaphors, thinking long and often about how strange and wonderful the sun is... it opened up yet another angle of inquiry into One Piece - the Sun Pirates, and Eines Lobby and Mariejois seeming to be in perpetual sunlight, and the phases of the moon, and all that. Such is the power of a packed signifier like the sun! And it's because of its role in Hidamari, this sacred sunshine show, that my whole sun-cult thing got started. Yay!

If you look through my notebooks, you'll see so many like this - things that keep getting drawn, concepts that keep coming up. So many had their start in Hidamari, or, because they also appeared in Hidamari, became stronger and made Hidamari stronger. Like the whole White Flag thing... that was just 'cause I got a little figure of Yuno holding a white flag in 2011! That's it! That's the whole reason why! (well, also the existing meanings of the flag... and one of the NA clubs in Infinite Jest... but this was like 90% of why). And flowers, and stuff... oh man, I can't even remember my pre-Hidamari opinion of flowers. It doesn't even matter. Again, it might seem silly to let it be this "powerful", to let it hold so much influence over... what's influential, but the whole idea is about making art powerful! Hidamari taught me that! And the process by which you can develop this aesthetic, and codify these images... Hidamari taught me that, too! This is getting to sound like the end of "Blame Game".

Oh man, this is getting pretty rambly. We should probably close it off soon. This was... incredibly challenging for me to write. There was a lot of ideas that I really struggled to put into words. But I think it was incredibly rewarding for me to be able to articulate these things, even if confusingly to everyone else. To summarize as briefly as I can... Hidamari Sketch has this really cool style where everything is iconified and thus perfect. It also has a solid moral base that I agree with. It taught me to work from my feelings and beliefs and to generate and explore aesthetic spaces. Hidamari itself has one of the most wonderful aesthetics I've ever experienced.

It's this last point that I think we should end on: what is the Hidamari aesthetic? What is the feeling you get when watching this show? I'm not content to just say that it's the most moe thing ever, although it certainly is. There's a warmth to it that's a little different. They try to pin it down on the show itself... in one of the final scenes animated (thus far! i hope), the six inhabitants stand in a circle in the backyard and discuss their feelings towards Hidamari Apartments. The warmth they feel, the comfort, the familial connection, the fun, the cheerfulness, the sunniness... it's feelings I experience every time I watch the show. And yet, there's something more... something even deeper. And looking for that, too, puts a smile on my face.

Best Girl of All Time Award: Yuno

In the final scene of that episode, Yuno has a dream of standing alone in a field. It's a recurring nightmare from the start of the episode... but this time, reassured by the discussion with her friends, it changes. I won't try to summarize it further, it's something that must be experienced. But just watch that blooming, that rushing... and know that it is how my heart feels when I see Yuno.

Like the rest of them, Yuno is a reasonable and realistic character that's not without her quirks. She rushes to grow up but can't seem to shake certain childish qualities (least of which her height). She indulges in all manner of play, delighting in simple pleasures even when they bewilder her peers. She loves the spontaneity and creativity of Miya-chan, and sometimes is ashamed of being too reserved to act in the same way. But then, she takes solace in what she feels is a growing maturity, and looks forward to being able to be an even more reliable figure in her friends' lives.

Her art mirrors these aspirations. As she stumbles and succeeds on her quest to become an artist, she's always looking to mature and learn. Her humility can sometimes be her downfall, but she cherishes praise. Yuno will keep a kind word in her heart forever, and understands the value of her contributions to others' lives. She is, in essence, an ideal artist.

And that includes the other side, too... when Yuno's work is criticized, even kindly, it is something she takes deep. Her introspection sometimes becomes loopy and self-defeating, her quality suffers from indecisiveness, she is afraid to take bold steps. But that's okay! Those are the struggles an artist must face, I think. Before every period of confidence must come a period of doubt.

And beyond this, a sense of melancholy that I feel pervades the whole series is best realized in Yuno. This is the latent aesthetic I hinted at before, something that I find extremely compelling, extremely illusive... It won't be now that I capture it, that I understand it, but some hidden sadness lurks in the shadows of this show. I think it is almost cliche now to look at a slice of life anime and go "well, what about the real version, y'know? Where everybody's sad?", like, that was literally done to death in the best (or maybe worst way) by TK. But, y'know, there is something compelling about looking at the unreal elements in a show, and wondering... are there shadows there? Are there gaps?

As it has with it's "vertically integrated" iconification, Hidamari seems (at least to me) to contain it's "real" versions and "sad" versions in the show itself. It hints even at its "adult" version, I think, sometimes. But if there are answers to Yuno's "real" demons, I haven't found them yet. It's the process by which I look that's so compelling. It's seeing sad Yuno, and seeing her become happy, and then thinking of your own sadnesses, and happinesses, and thinking, well, what about Yuno? What would Yuno do?

Well, she'd probably turn to her friends. Yuno is a great friend. Kind, appreciative, attentive, knowing when to do unto others and when to let them do unto you... Every friendship Yuno has on the show feels special and real in its own way. Especially, of course, the Miya x Yuno friendship, the absolute peak of the S-class friendship in my book (possibly an actual book). This is the sweetspot for yuri for me. I'll indulge in stuff past this, sure, but this is where the true yuri feeling blooms. I'd go into this more but this writeup could suddenly double in length again.

I could go on forever about what makes Yuno great, but do I really need to? You know how these things are. I just hope all of you out there will one day find an anime with a character that you like this much.

Okay that's it

Next is prolly top 15 manga or something.


Anonymous said...

I knew from the second this was posted that you were going to say some retarded moe slice of life no content stylized (shitty animation no budget production but if we say it's stylized then people can't complain without white knights coming to our defense) animu. Don't bother writing a top video games list because we all know you'll out mine craft at number 1.

Keatsta said...

hi george