Tuesday, January 27, 2015

My Top 5 Anime of 2014

What, you thought 34000 words about anime was enough?

Ha ha no way, there will always be more to say about anime!

First some Honorable Mentions and Exclusions:

There's always a laundry list of SoL anime that I feel bad not including (like, really feel bad, on an emotional gut level, picturing the girls upset etc). This is really similar to all the hip hop mixtapes I want to include on my top albums list, 'cause they had a few sweet bangers, but they just don't have the complete experience I need from a show. Like Locodol I loved to death, but it is kinda a one-note show. Conversely, sometimes shows give me too much, like Hanayamata, which, despite being beautiful and ultimately happy, was just too much of an excruciating rollercoaster.

What other stuff... Free! and Chuunibyou's second seasons didn't really disappoint, being as cute and beautiful as Kyoani shows ought to be. The former had some especially interesting stuff about competition and expectation and stuff. I just think they're outclassed by the shows that made the list. Nisekoi was pretty fantastic, absolutely gorgeous and funny, but it could have been so much more... having read the manga, I think they had an opportunity to do an insane 20 episode show with a consistently advancing and powerful arc, but Shaft saw too much money in later seasons and decided to let it go slack at times. Yuki Yuna was a pretty crazy show... on paper it seems pretty ideal, probably the best and boldest work in the Madoka "mode" since Madoka itself. The character designs were good, the plot compelling, the action dramatic... but it had a sort of "hollowness" that prevented me from getting too invested. I don't think it's worth really getting into explaining it here. Kill la Kill's second half was exciting and satisfying, but sort of stumbled on the grand escalation that I expected from it (whereas Gurren Lagann escalated like a rocket to the moon in its second half).

I'm not gonna include Sakura Trick 'cause I already wrote about it in the top 15 writeup... plus, like, it operates on an entirely different metric of quality. If these other shows fall on some spectrum of artistic merit, maybe an emotional plane of resonance or something, Sakura Trick goes straight up on my z-axis, one mile for each girl-on-girl kiss. It really isn't a sensible comparison. Also, I'm not including the latest season of Saki or the latest forays in the Monogatari series (Hana and Tsuki - both glorious) simply 'cause I've written so much about them recently anyways.

Anyways, let's get going with our top 5!

5. Space Dandy

In my top 15 of all time list, I got pretty in-depth into what I called "real anime", and the "real" appeal of anime. Obviously this was a bit tongue-in-cheek. The feeling of moe I think is very unique to anime and is certainly the most precious feeling I associate with anime, but it isn't actually the only unique and precious anime-feeling. There was a time when Cowboy Bebop or Samurai Champloo were about the coolest things I could imagine, and hey - it isn't the anime that's changed, it's me.

But if you're watching Space Dandy expecting it to be like other Watanabe works, you're gonna be... not disappointed, probably, but... confused? Dandy is closer to a parody of Spike or Mugen than a proper successor. Instead of hard-hitting emotional storytelling, there's bawdy comedy and irreverence. Instead of subtle examination of real-world issues, there's a total disconnect from human meaning. Instead of worldbuilding and aesthetic exploration, there's a fragmented universe full of inconsistencies and contradictions. Space Dandy feels like the crazy anime that someone like Ed might watch in the world of Cowboy Bebop (which is already a pretty crazy show, in many ways).

So despite all of that missing, your Watanabe-type anime watcher might still be lured in to giving Dandy a chance. There's a lot of good reasons to. The animation is beautiful, always dynamic and expert, even through the show's insane variety. Even amateurish or low-budget segments, like the surreal Fish episode, have a wonderfully executed deliberate charm. The sound direction is similarly great, with awesome BGM, great OPs and EDs, and hilarious voice work (both in the original and the dub!).

That's probably enough to give it a shot, at least long enough to realize how hilarious it is. Most episodes take the standard sci-fi arc of exploration, realization, decision... it's a routine that anyone who (or who's dad) watches Star Trek will know by heart - the crew finds some mysterious planet or species, eventually you figure out what's going on and how it "works", and then some problem that must be solved emerges. But Dandy, who takes Zapp Branigan's parody of Kirk to new extremes, subverts expectations again and again. The instant you figure out where an episode ought to be going, it's derailed by his brashness and stupidity. Or maybe you're right, but you don't know how right you are, as tropes are taken to extreme levels - like, you could predict the general plot of the Groundhog Day-style episode, or the zombie episode, or the multiple Dandies episode, but you'd never guess just how crazy it would get. Nothing - not the death of the crew, or the entire universe - is off limits.

And neither is any emotional ground, either. Once you're softened up by all the funnies, the show occasionally spills out its heart and makes you realize that all the things you wanted from Watanabe never went completely away. Dandy, at times, is actually pretty cool! The universe, despite its randomness and inconsistency, hints sometimes at a intriguing lore and logic that might actually persist. Like, just cause you know you'll never understand the galactic war between the two empires or whatever in any satisfying way doesn't mean it isn't fun to think about. And just because most aliens and planets don't seem like they could support any longterm sensible development doesn't mean you can't half a laugh imagining if they did. And, best of all, sometimes the show asks you more than just to wonder and laugh... sometimes, like, I remember one episode where Dandy is surfing on the "time stream" specifically, there's a feeling of calmness and grace. Like, sometimes this show captures some of the magic that must actually come from some sci-fi type space adventure. And sometimes the show actually tries to get you to cry! Pretty successfully! But they had a dog episode!! That's not even fair!!

4. Barakamon

Every year lately there's one or two "unconventional" slice of life shows, that is, non-high school slice of life shows. Sometimes they still have cute girls so I kinda want to watch them, but they usually have a bunch of non-cute characters too so it's also kinda whatever. I usually decide what shows I'll try initially by reading the Anichart descriptions and looking for male pronouns. I am the driving force of this medium. Ha ha ha ha.

But at any rate, I gave this one a try anyway, and I'm sure glad I did. This is the story of a sophisticated, city-slicking, and slightly misanthropic calligrapher who is exiled to a rural island village after punching a gallery director. He befriends the local youth, learns to have fun, and reinvents his artistic work. Yeah, that old chestnut.

This is sort of a weird one, in terms of conventionality. Sensei's situation - the overbearing legacy of his father, the need to break free with his own work - is pretty cliche, but the realm of calligraphy is a new frontier for the story. At the same time, though, calligraphy is kinda cliche as far as "Japanese arts" go, which feels super relevant given how much the series deals with the traditions of rural Japan, and the differences between that and modern Tokyo. Between this and last year's Non Non Biyori (prolly my 6th favorite show of 2013), and not to mention my own time in Japan, I feel very comfortable with this "gap", like, I feel familiar enough with both sides that I can anticipate and really enjoy a lot of the "fish out of water" type gags. And yeah, these are often the conventional sort of jokes, with archetypal characters, and he learns the lessons you probably expect, probably in ways you won't be surprised by.

So why was this show so refreshing? Why did it feel like a big breath of fresh sea air? How does a bunch of cliched elements add up to something that feels unlike anything I've seen before? It isn't just that it's a unique combination (although I think that's part), nor is it just that you're aware at all times that it could be more cliched (the show is actually pretty restrained in a lot of ways... it makes known jokes, but usually not the most obvious joke). It could be because it's funny, like, really riotously funny, or because the characters are super duper endearing, or that the setting is depicted so consistently picturesquely.

Cause really... does it matter if we've seen this sort of thing before? There's a reason these jokes, these characters, and these stories keep cropping up - because they're good! And especially the lessons... This is something I got into during my Hidamari writeup, maybe I can summarize it less rambley here... There's a million texts that talk about like... to become a true artist, you have to find a personal place of expression, etc, etc. And because there's a million texts that say it, it's probably just a truism in your mind, something you don't even have to think about. At a certain point, I think you stop believing it, on a deep level. You might know it to be true, but you don't believe it.

I'm kinda dodging the exact meaning of this by using a lot of italics, but this is something that I think is pretty easily experienced. Give the show a chance! I think a lot of people like it. And maybe, like me, when you see Sensei struggling to break through, and when you see him finally succeed, those lessons will feel true and meaningful.

3. Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu ka?

Okay okay but if we didn't have at least one show like this, what would be the point? Like, why would I watch anything ever if I didn't also watch shows like this? This is - get this - a show that's just about a bunch of girls hanging out! There's like, no drama or plot or anything. Isn't that mindblowing??? How could a show like this exist??? Seriously, though, GochiUsa doesn't do a whole lot to deviate from our beloved "real anime" formula. And it doesn't have to.

I'm not gonna reiterate the appeal of these shows to me, or the appeal of moe in general... last time I did that, it took like 10000 words. Instead let's focus on this specific implementation, and all the great stuff it does right. The major premise of this show is that the girls all work at cafes. This charming and cozy environment is perfect, and elements of small responsibilities and pleasant routines are quintessential moe-feelings. Maingirl Cocoa is some sort of transfer student or something who starts working there - it isn't really explained what she's doing there, and it doesn't have to be - so you're introduced to the setting with a natural focalization through her. Plus, the stories of her trying to become closer to Chino are super endearing - it's great when a SoL show can have an actual relationship arc like this.

Less major but even more deviant are the bizarre supernatural elements of the show. There's a talking rabbit that houses the spirit of the cafe's owner, for example. Usually this sort of thing feels unnecessary... not so much for the actual element itself, which is (of course) cute and funny, but for the exposition it seems like it should demand. GochiUsa dodges this elegantly, dropping hints about the "magic" of the show without feeling a need to give a complete, explicit, explanation. And then they get really crazy when they introduce a writer character who wrote a novel with the same title and general premise of the anime, creating a strange impossible meta-loop, something I have a particular fetishy interest in. Awesome!

And beyond that, this feeling of unreality or magic seems to permeate the rest of the show. I've talked at length (and thought at even greater length) about the gap between the reality of a "realistic" anime like K-On! and actual real life, and I guess a basic conclusion I've reached is that a) there's a significant difference and b) it doesn't matter. What I'd like to see explored even more is how far this gap can be pushed, how unreal a show can be before we lose the essential sense of moe - that what is being depicted is in some way "human" or "Earth". Nichijou, Aria, Sora no Woto... these are all shows that I feel push some limits in what we consider "reality" without losing anything of "humanity". GochiUsa does too, in subtler ways. Like, the city it takes place in - where on Earth is it? It feels like an impossible hybridization of many assumed ideal places... it reminds me of Dean Blunt's "Flaxen", but I don't really want to explain why. Or the pool they visit in a few episodes, it's like... a Final Fantasy location. Or why are there so many wild rabbits?

You might be like "wow high school + cafe + rabbits what a revolution ps im being sarcastic", but it's enough to make the show feel fresh while still operating with all the appeal of the genre, which is awesome. I think it's pretty cool that there's this genre that has a bunch of required components, and just on the strength of those components it can be appealing and worth watching, and then beyond that, they actually have a lot of freedom... There's no demand that they write a compelling plot, or complex characters, or have "twists" or whatever... Sometimes it feels like it's those elements that really reign in a world, that actually hold all the disappointment. In SoL there's the ability to let a simple idea float in the abstract, in the ideal, for 13 episodes, holding you in its perfect heart. With GochiUsa, we see yet another small step of exploration in the wonderful aesthetic world of moe.

2. Shirobako

With the last two shows, we looked at feelings and ideas we've seen a million times before and I tried to convince you that was OK. With these next two, we're gonna get into stuff we've never felt before. Shirobako is an anime about the anime industry. It makes me feel a whole new emotion. It is scary and powerful and beautiful. See, what I have felt a million times before, have felt since before I can remember, is a low-level but omnipresent dread: the dread of employment. How many texts tell you that having a job sucks? How many texts unilaterally present that message? And of those that show an alternative - how many do you think of as "unrealistic", "naive", or, at the very least, definitely not "for" you? These are honest questions, this is something I am honestly very curious about. For me, at least, the answer is: uncountably many, all of them, all of them. But this show is different. This show makes me want to get a job.

Crazy, right? I could hardly believe it. I kept telling people this, expecting every time for it to sound like a joke when it came out of my mouth. It was something that before I had always felt in passing, lasting as long as I wanted something I couldn't afford. But this show made me think things like "taking on responsibility can be rewarding", or "things are more meaningful if you have to work hard to achieve them", or "being an instrumental part of a large project's success, even if it wasn't the most decisive part, lets you take pride in the success of the project", or "by working through difficult things with coworkers, you can become comrades"... things that I thought maybe other people might believe at their job, but had never even grazed me.

It was so effective simply because it was so good! There's so many aspects to this show that I love, I'm not sure where to even start, and I feel like I'd never finish. The structure and pacing was perfect, with the overall arc of the show's completion never diminishing the energy but with a good balance of episode to episode focus and resolution. This lets you both be super satisfied at the end of each episode, and then like, super super satisfied at key points of resolution.

And man like, I think satisfied is a bit of an understatement. This show got me like, super pumped! The passions of the characters are so infectious... You really want to see the anime succeed, you really want to see the problems resolved. That seems like it might go without saying, but sometimes you realize just how disinterested you can become in the plot of an average show when something like this really knocks you for a loop and compels you. And like... it's anime! How can you not feel passionate about the show when it's about the very real struggles that brought you it? The show reminds me a lot of this thing they were playing at the exit of Comiket... playing on a big screen, on a loop, was a five minute video about the value of supporting anime. It had a bunch of clips of anime characters thanking the viewer, and a message talking about how anime couldn't exist without the fans, etc etc. Maybe it was just cause I was sleep deprived and had just been marching around in sweaty doujin paradise/hell for twelve hours, but I was extremely moved! It made me want to cry, and I did! It's the same with this show - getting a little insight into the whole process, just a little feeling of what's actually involved... it's powerful! It's a whole other side to your personal anime project, and you realize that it's just as large, has always been there, so it's almost like... double, like you get hit with everything all over again.

Despite the fact that it could so easily, the show rarely indulges in any tired meta-commentary, aside from extremely rare and minor jokes (which are usually genuinely funny) and allusions, tributes, homages, etc (which are affirming and heartwarming and awesome). Plus, these events typically occur in the upper "echelons" of the plot. This is one of my favorite aspects of the show, so I want to explain it in depth. It's sort of similar to the hierarchies of characters I love in Saki and shonen shows and even Infinite Jest and The Wire and stuff. This skews much more towards the latter examples... basically, that some characters in the show have a separate metric of their position in the company - the lead animators, the director and stuff... don't you get hyped when you realize that some character is a really important person? Don't you wanna find out what sort of person that is? This is a feeling I get whenever I can, even in real life, and this show delivers it in spades. It's super exciting to see Nabe-P or Rinko do basically anything... let alone KANNO.

This sort of balance, where you love all the characters (and I really do, even in this gigantic cast) but you're more excited to see more of them, it's addictive. It makes it seem like a real inhabitable world, one where you'd be happy to have any role and would feel ambition to succeed in it. Like, this is the real feeling of the show, that despite the stress, despite the struggles, despite the terrible pay and hours, you'd love to have Miyamori's job. It's surreal. I dunno. I have a lot more to say about it but it's only half over!! I'll come back to it some other time. I still have a lot to say about our next show.

1. Ping Pong

Okay so obviously I'm not usually Mr. Job-guy, but what about... competition? It might shock you to learn that, unlike many other anime bloggers, I am not an all-star athlete. And even crazier, I play a bunch of video games! Well, that isn't quite right. I play a few games, basically just Super Smash Bros Melee and In the Groove 2, but I play them obsessively and competitively. My level of skill in these is in a weird place. On one hand, if you don't follow these games and don't seek out players of them, I will probably appear to be freakishly, dementedly, good at them. You will probably never meet someone better than me. But if you do follow these games, you won't have ever heard of me, and there's nothing I can do to impress you.

I spend a lot of time playing these games, but not compared to the people who are the best in the world at them. I spend about as much time playing them as I want to, though... I don't resent not practicing further. But I also want to be better. I think. My competitive mindset is like... confusing, even to me. It's just questions: "If I'm gonna play something, I might as well play well?" "If I'm gonna play something, I might as well win?" "If I'm gonna play something, I might as well have fun?" "Winning is the most fun?" "Improving is the most fun?" "When you get better, you have more options, so you have more fun?" "The most important part is the friends and memories you make?" "Winning is the most complete experience?" "When you and someone else are both good at a game, you have an automatic comradery?" "The important thing is to be good enough such that there's no one who plays the game who could totally disregard you?" "I am good enough now?" "I should work hard to be good enough?" "I will never be good enough?" "Is the feeling at the top satisfying?" "Is there a feeling at the other end of the respect you have for a better player?" "Should you respect better players?" "What sort of reverence should the hierarchy of players have?" "Should you be happy to be a low level player because you are still an integral part of the system which enables the good players to be good players?" "Is the goal to become the very best?" "Is there some level where skill can never entirely be a joke?" "Is the goal to make a living playing the game?" "Is devoting your life to a game disgusting?" "Is a good outcome where your opponent is happy to lose to you?" "Should you be happy when you lose?" Questions like that. I have no answers.

What does this have to do with Ping Pong? Well, lots of shows claim to be about competition, or have some sort of competitive element, but the way they actually deal with these sorts of questions is... disappointing. Usually it's a quick "for my friends!" or "play to win!" sorta thing, pretty easily dismissed... earlier I was talking about how some shows are great in how they take a cliched statement and make you believe it all over again, but these sort of platitudes are pretty useless to me, working from an assumption that already prioritizes the game, and not at all dealing with how the game actually interacts with your life outside of it. DFW tears through these sort of blank statements in "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart", and he'd know, having authored Infinite Jest, definitely the best text I've ever read that deals with competitive mentalities.

Oh but Ping Pong is pretty far up there too. It doesn't try to comprehensively answer or even ask all of these questions, but I knew from very early on that this wouldn't be some dodge, some nonanswer, or some depiction of nonhumans in a world of 100% ping pong. The scene where Smile and Peco go scope out Weng, that's when I knew. There was something very real about their friendship, about the strange privilege they had in blowing off their club. It wasn't only that I had felt that way before, some sort of elite separation, occasionally, in some small doses, but it was a feeling that I aspired to, a feeling that I associated with improvement, and of the better players. And yet it wasn't glorified, it wasn't unilaterally positive, it felt real, it felt like something that I could actually feel, and feel some complicated way about.

Scene after scene was like this... completely understandable, and just on the fringes of my experience. It was both familiar and something that spoke to the promise of success I had not yet had. But this isn't any sort of static philosophical presentation, it's a straightforward but compelling story of high school ping pong players. It's a very intimate and human story, one that unfolds from the middle, as we learn the history of the characters organically as time marches forward. Characters are introduced in archetypal roles and function perfectly within them - this series plays to shonen sports tropes just enough that I get all that "this guy is the best player yet! how will he beat him?" flavor of excitement.

Then, we get development, and they manage to flesh out the characters without defying the expectations you have of them. It isn't about twists, about tricking you into thinking a character is one way when they're another, but a gradual arc that explains their current behavior and makes them into human beings. Everyone is in a place of dissatisfaction, everyone is working for something to bloom. More than just competitiveness, the attitude of the show towards life in general... that you need to look for some satisfaction in your life, some happiness. It isn't an answer you arrive at via some other process, some simple "success" or "dream". It's a long process of coming to terms with yourself and the world that affects and is affected by everything you do, but also transcends all of them.

This sort of attitude seems very negative in the abstract - that happiness is something that eludes all efforts to capture it, that it operates outside any other system, that you can't rationally arrive at or work to achieve... it's like, what's the point? But it isn't impossible. You watch these characters, who you archetypically know, and might even aspire to, in some ways. You watch them have these realizations, make these choices. And it's inspiring, because it's so cohesive, so sound... there isn't a single development that isn't motivated entirely through the characters' interactions - no cheesy hidden epiphanies, sudden changes of heart... The characters really deserve nothing less.

And it deserves nothing less than this presentation: the diegesis isn't a depiction of reality, but of feeling. The perspective is the boiling blood of the characters! Every distortion and sketchiness is but the overflowing emotions! The wonderful splitscreens, montages and overlays smoothly convey context and development without stumbling for a beat. You can convey so much in a single insert of a character smirking, and also withhold just the right amount. Or like, in the wonderful table tennis sequences, how you can tell who's winning without them ever explicitly saying... Repetition of sequences and lines creates a codified script with symbols and locations taking on character of their own, rich and meaningful enough that so much is implied from only the most basic scene's scenario. The best example is the recurring flashbacks that inch forward each repetition. They both intrigue and hint at current emotional states. It's never like the show is shamelessly holding things back, but there's always the feeling that something more will come, some realization. And oh man, if you've seen this show, you'll probably know what I'm referring to when I say that this show had one of the most beautiful realizations - haunting, complete, satisfying... and in retrospect, so wonderfully obvious! Like, listen to the music he's always humming...

I'm not sure if I'm really getting anywhere, writing about this. It's a show that needs to be experienced, and I really think almost anyone could appreciate it. It's a masterpiece that could only exist in the medium that doesn't involve high school girls. It might be the only one.

Haha well that's it

What a great year in anime! And 2015 might be even better? This season alone has a ton of good stuff... Yuri Kuma Arashi is probably my favorite, Ikuhara + Akiko Morishima = greatness is just basic math. Koufuku Graffiti is like... wow... I'm sure glad I don't need my goggles, 'cause they'd just be getting steamed up... from all the cooking. The Rolling Girls is totally sweet too, loads of fun action and hilarious dialogue. If these, plus Shirobako's second season (which I've held out on starting until I finished this list), were 4/5 of my 2015 list, I wouldn't be the slightest bit disappointed.

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