Thursday, January 14, 2016

My Top 10 Anime of 2015 - Part Two

Five more Japanese shows you could watch!

If you have the same sort of taste as me.
In which case you probably already knew about them and watched them.
So uhh...
(Part one is here)

5. Yuru Yuri San☆ Hai!

Now it's time for the REAL LIST with REAL ANIME. No more "shonen", no more "survival action", or "fight scenes" or any of that garbage. We're gonna have CUTE GIRLS, doing CUTE THINGS, and that's IT, that's the WHOLE SHOW. That's YURU YURI. 2015 was a landmark year for the franchise, with the hour-long camping OVA, two followup OVA episodes, and then an entire third 12 episode series. It was a bold declaration of intent from TYO Animation, who took over the license from Doga Kobo. Their version was a more subdued take on the series, focusing more on faithful adaptation of the manga, which split the fandom. I can understand some fans' resentment... the irrepressible genkiness and bizarre fantastical sequences is a big part of what made the first seasons stand out. With YYSH, everything is, in general, just a little less extreme.

But this isn't just a loss, it's a compromise TYO needed to make to bring out a more human side to the show. After two seasons, they've become comfortable with the characters, and know viewers are open to the idea of storylines and developments that don't necessarily lead directly to jokes. Our familiarity allows them to write scenes off the simple novelty of putting seemingly disparate characters together, or letting formerly minor characters be the focus of entire acts. The results - like Akari's conversation with Sakurako's little sister, or Chizuru's quest for friends, or (my favorite) the charming silent straw millionaire sequence with the student council president - are home runs, enlivening and widening the scope of the series. By showing us more characters in more everyday situations, the show's charming yuru-energy becomes a more universal guarantee.

Of course, the yuru-energy is just half the story... and half the title. Just as we're ready to see these characters evolve further beyond simple memes, we're excited to see their relationships treated as more than just punchlines. I know (although I may not want to admit) that it'll never reach the levels of Sakura Trick, but the escalation of yuri content in YYSH brings it to a wonderful sweetspot between meaningless/joking and serious/explicit. The focus was still on the established pairings of Ayano/Kyouko and Sakurako/Himawari, where they provided substantial arcs that actually felt like progress. However, fans of Akari/Chinatsu, Chinatsu/Yui, Yui/Kyouko, and more all got some love, in a way that felt significant without devaluing the feelings of those that preferred other pairings. Seriously, the way they handled this cannot be praised too highly. Many episodes felt like some of my favorite yuri comics, a feeling that few other anime have ever provided.

But really, the reason it became my highest ranking "real anime" this year isn't what changed from previous series, but what stayed the same: hilarious and endearing characters, blissfully relaxing atmosphere, and simply some of the cutest art design imaginable. For four years, these characters have retained their adorable moe appeal, and this third season has only driven it further home.

4. The Rolling Girls

I am a man of simple tastes. This is not hard to see. You look at this list and you think "wow, this idiot sure likes moeshit". It is obvious. But then, you look at my favorite manga, you look at the 76 volumes of One Piece on my shelves, and it's a different story. You think "wow, this idiot sure likes fight scenes". It is not bad to be an idiot. You are often happy. It never even occurred to me that I might be able to get both. That I might be able to have cute girls doing shonen things. It never even registered to me as a want, until Rolling Girls.

Like any good shonen, the premise is bizarre enough to get you interested, simple enough to get you hooked, and loaded with potential. In the aftermath of a great robot battle, Japan's prefectures have split into warring nations. In the interest of safety, regulations permit only assigned combatants from each state to fight each other in representative battles. These fighters, called "Bests", often hold mysterious heart-shaped stones that give them superpowers. Nozomi, our main girl, teams up with some unlikely allies to travel across Japan to gather these stones at the behest of the mysterious Chiaya. Okay. You sold? If so, good news: it's like a hundred times better than you can possibly picture.

It exceeds first as a shonen working in the proven One Piece mode: our heroes show up in an exotic place in turmoil, get the lay of the land, manage to help out in the big showdown, and set off again, having gained something through the experience. In most shonen, the help of the protagonists usually comes from their strength, from beating up whatever bad guy is terrorizing the place. But our girls are often some of the weakest people involved. Thus, the problems they face are more varied than the standard "punch evil", and their contributions more nuanced and involved. Beyond the sheer appeal of the variety, it's a great message of one's feelings and determination winning over any circumstances.

That isn't to say it doesn't have great action sequences, too: the fight scenes, races, concerts, and, yes, even robots, are all given plenty of love and that sweet sweet Attack-on-Titan-profit budget (way to go, Wit Studio!). They're smooth, kinetic, impactful, bursting, colourful... packed with little visual motifs, charming pastiches... just an absolute joy to witness, really some of the best work in this mode this side of Redline. It completely nails that shonen spirit where you go "oh man I can't wait to see these two fight", and then "oh my god that fight was just as amazing as I hoped it would be" and then "I'm gonna watch that fight again" and soon enough "Oh god I have a severe addiction to watching this fight scene, I haven't left my room in days".

And the characters! How did they manage to make some characters so cute, and some so cool, and some so goofy, and some so endearing, some so mysterious... and so many that are so much at different times? It's one of those shows where even the most minor character could be your favorite - even one-arc bit-players have compelling stories and lovable quirks. Shonen operates best when so much love is put even into these areas, where things that ought to just be "functional" are seen as opportunities to make memories.

The setting itself is given just as much love. The intricacies of the political situation are confusing until you realize just how bizarre they actually are. And from this basic premise of warring prefectures, so much fun emerges. Everything is presented as an over-the-top parody of the prefecture's real-world traits. Some of the jokes go over my head, but things like Tokyo becoming "Always Comima", a 24/7/365 Comiket spoof, give me a frame of reference that is hilarious enough. It's a world that's bursting with potential, where everything seems possible, and you can't wait to explore every inch of it.

Ahh, and there's so much more! Yeah, it's a 10/10 shonen action series, but it's so much more! The awesome twists! The dozens of silly subplots and running jokes! The awesome classic rock aesthetics, with punkmoe covers of The Blue Hearts songs! Watch this show! Seriously, give it a try! The first couple episodes might confuse you, but you'll get into the rhythm soon enough. It's a wonderful experience, unlike any else!

3. Owarimonogatari

This one is, uhh... less for everyone. This is first off only for people who have watched all of Bakemonogatari, all of Nisemonogatari, all of Nekomonogatari (Black), all of the godly Second Season, all of Hanamonogatari, all of Tsukimonogatari... phew, what a mouthful... and if you've done all that, and not once been turned off by the rambling conversations, their degenerate subject matter, the symbolic overload, the defiantly anticlimactic climaxes and shockingly pivotal mundanity, y'know, the Monogatari-ness of it, I probably don't have to sell you very hard on Owarimonogatari. But I will anyways.

As you'd probably expect from something called "Endstory", the three acts presented here - "Ougi Formula", "Sodachi Riddle/Sodachi Lost", and "Shinobu Mail" - shore up many of the story's fragments for what seems like the final showdown. Of course, it seems like the actual ending is still far away - NisiOisiN is still churning out novels, and Shaft's promise to animate them all has never been stronger (Kizu incoming!!) - but with this, we certainly enter some sort of "endgame", a new tier of "all bets off"ness, where the answers we receive are definitive, and the fundamental mysteries of the series begin to be addressed.

First off: Araragi. How did he become the disillusioned and apathetic teen we met at the start of Bake? You might have forgotten, the way he's always running around trying to save girls, but when he first caught Senjougahara, he was in a pretty bleak way, and not just because he'd recently become a vampire. The way his heroic side was slowly teased out of him in various shapes and forms formed the tension of several arcs by providing a motivational dilemma, but we never really knew the basis. "Ougi Formula" tells the story of Araragi's lost faith in one of the series' most mundane but humanly dramatic episodes. The way such a seemingly minor incident left such a deep psychological scar feels real... something about the process of working all the way back, through memory and emotion, and making some small revelation... it's so intense, but the end result is so simple, so clear... combined with the whole "bottle episode through time" setting, it becomes something systematic and logical, but also claustrophobic and rushed, an amazing duality.

This resolution, though, only asks another question: how did Araragi get the ideals he was robbed from on that day? Oh, and... how did he get so good at math? We reach further into Araragi's past, connected through the thin thread of the mysterious Sodachi. "Sodachi Riddle" and "Sodachi Lost" unfold through many layers of mysteries, each revealing yet another facet of a growing horror that lurks in his past. The "hints" scene, especially, is a brutally visceral way of showing how ignorant Araragi still is about many of the tragedies that surround him. After five episodes of ever-growing tension, the final conversation between Araragi and Sodachi may seem anticlimactic, underwhelming. But it is in the very fact that it doesn't dispel any of the tension, any of the horror, that it functions so well.

These emotions bleed right into Owari's final arc: "Shinobu Mail". What happened to Araragi during the events of Nekomonogatari (White), back in Second Season, after he left Gaen's house and before he showed up to kill the Tiger? Did you forget about that? Did it linger in your head only as a minor incompleteness, a point of repressed confusion? Did you resign it to that place where you left all the unanswered questions you may have had about the series, questions so fundamental you figured they may never get answered, like uhh, why are so many apparitions showing up in this town, anyways? "Shinobu Mail" begins as a straightforward story to answer a straightforward question, but the way it sneaks through so many other events, incidentally answers so many other questions, and brings back so many threads from the most obscure fringes suddenly thrusts the arc into revelation overdrive.

I spent basically all of this arc reeling from one thing or another, sitting bolt upright in bed on several occasions per episode. If it wasn't from the feeling of "OH, that explains that!", it was from sheer excitement. This arc delivered again and again on every sort of quality I want from the series. How many hype scenes does this have? The fight against the armor, the return of Gaen, the appearance of the "first"... How many hilarious scenes? Basically anything Suruga says, the shameful trip to the bookstore... How many heartrendingly dramatic ones? Oh man, the final phone call? Suruga and Shinobu's argument at the shrine?? If this isn't NisiOisiN and Shaft going all out, I don't know if I can handle what is. It also gave us the single best frame of animation in 2015:

Whew! That's a lot of development in just 12 episodes! A whole lot of questions answered and secrets revealed! At first, these stories may seem fairly disparate, but one agent motivated all of them - Ougi. As she has for so many of the incidents since the start of Second Season, the mysterious Ougi (voiced by the wonderful Kaori Mizuhazi - Miya-chan!) is the instigator for all of Koyomi's reflection and storytelling in Owari. The hype of seeing this bizarre entity move further into the spotlight and exceeding all expectations is matched only by the hints we see at conflict to come... Hanekawa's immediate distrust of her was so satisfying to see... every concern viewers had were validated, but that in turn only raised further concerns... and the lines drawn between Ougi, who knows nothing; Hanekawa, who only knows what she knows; and Gaen, who says "there is nothing I don't know"... But, if Ougi knows nothing, perhaps is nothing, is she outside of Gaen's scope?? And hey, what was it that disappeared Hachikuji?? Even after all these mysteries were revealed, there's still so many more... Koyomimonogatari's starting, Kizu's in theaters, and 2016 gears up to be another banner Monogatari year!

2. Hibike! Euphonium

Kyoani does it again!! After four years of markets, mysteries, swimming, and everyday life, they return to their original home-run formula: four girls! playing instruments!! in a high school band!!! Okay but if you went into this expecting "K-On but brass", you might be a little surprised. This isn't light music, and the plot is thus complex and heavy. Anime set in school clubs often use their setting as just an excuse to bring characters together, but Hibike! is first and foremost a school band story. As a four-year high school trombone veteran myself, I found it almost painfully nostalgic at times. It has all the highs and lows - the cliques, the internal conflict, the wavering attitudes, the uncertain motivation, but then also the camaraderie, the excitement of discovery, the satisfaction of improvement, and the joy of accomplishment!

We experience all of this with one of the most endearing casts of characters in anime (although they lost out to my #1 pick). Kyoani's famous talent for "background waifus" has never been so key, as almost everyone in the band has some story to tell. Simply through basic observations of their instrument choice and year, you start to infer all these little relationships, connections, habits... it really feels like a living, breathing school, one where any facet can be explored with any amount of depth without it ever becoming forced or overly basic. It's this that lends such weight to the struggles these characters face, as you truly feel the effect of their choices and conflicts on a level beyond just the main characters, and beyond their sum as a group, but as a collection of individuals. The scene at the end of episode 3, where they hear Reina playing alone, is a wonderful example... the effect is magnified so much more because you know just how everyone else is hearing it.

Of course, the inverse is also true - when the band unites and succeeds, our familiarity, or our belief in the possibility of familiarity, with each individual makes it all the more sweet. It's a lot like the band itself in that regard... the best possible harmony is made through the strength of unique individual voices. The connection between the emotional harmony and literal harmony, although naturally motivated through the plot of the show, proves to be extremely rewarding, as we see the happiness of the characters coincide with the beauty of their music. This harmonious feeling extends to the greater world of the show, too... Kyoani has always lead the pack in terms of background design, environmental effects, and general quality of animation, but Hibike! sees them set a new standard for beauty in anime. It really feels like the feelings of the characters bloom outward, enveloping the whole world, which itself feels just as rich and alive as our own, a wonderful moe feeling.

This is all well and good for the first seven episodes. Then: a miracle. A single subplot, just one of many, one that, like the rest, seemed to hold real human depth and potential, but had no guarantee of ever developing... one that I may have held some personal interest in and proactively followed, but had no serious hope of seeing come to fruition... I speak, of course, of the relationship between Kumiko and Reina, and of episode 8, the crowning achievement of humanity. Immediately after I watched the episode, I began work on a writeup explaining exactly why I liked it so much. This spiraled out of control, rapidly mutating into some sort of Hibike-manifesto, one that hoped to explain everything about episode 8, including, but not limited to: the appeal of yuri, the dynamics of shipping, basic astronomy and music theory, the function of symbolic representation... it became pretty insane. It's still coming. Eventually. Trust. It'll be my masterpiece. I still haven't watched past episode 8 lmao.

Cause isn't that enough? Could it really get any better? Kyoani visuals, top tier voice acting, wonderfully rich atmosphere, beautiful soundtrack, perfect balance of tension and relief, of progression and tranquility, of dissonance into harmony... Just an absolute 8/8 show.

1. Shirobako

Ahh, but if that was the attitude I had, how many times would I have quit watching Shirobako, wholly believing that it couldn't possibly top itself? This unassuming story of an anime production company had already bloomed into a rare masterpiece by the end of its first season, but the improvement through the final twelve episodes was far more than I could ever expect. "More of the same" would have been good enough to make this list, but they managed to escalate the plot in all directions and capture whole new emotional avenues without sacrificing any appealing aspect. I'll break down this miracle in more depth, but if you're just skimming this or something, let me tell you clearly right here: watch this show. I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone. I'd much rather you spend your time watching it than reading this, lol. But anyways:

The reassignment of the staff - especially Miyamori's promotion - allowed the show to shift into new perspectives and levels of involvement without losing any of the familiar focalization. That is, because we followed these established characters into their new roles, we can more easily empathize with their new burdens. One of the greatest strengths of the show was always the believability of the world formed through the realistic perspective of each and every character, and this shift in roles and responsibilities is proof of the strength of this characterization. All I mean by this is when Yumi became character designer, it inherently meant a lot, because I knew Yumi, I knew what it meant to be character designer, and I was excited to see it through.

Of course, these new roles are immediately put to the test with the studio's new high profile anime. The shift between an original story, mainly beleaguered by the director's indecision, and an adaptation, beset by all sorts of external crises, not only escalates the range of challenges, but wisely shifts the crew we've come to love away from the blame. Not that everything is completely harmonious within Musashino - the standoffish Hiraoka being the most antagonistic coworker yet. But all of these "villains" (with the exception of maybe "funny story") end up well developed, reasonable, and ultimately sympathetic, too... The moments when you finally "come around" on these characters are some of the series's most beautiful and satisfying... he just wanted to go to Cannes! ;___;

That's the basic functionality of the story, but it really can't capture the feeling of watching it. I honestly think the closest thing to it is The Wire. You have all these characters, all working towards slightly different ends, all motivated through their unique personal histories, all reasonable, three-dimensional, sympathetic, human. The world they inhabit is complex and often foreign, but is explained to you in a natural, continual way that makes it feel as deep and real as your own. There's a myriad of parallel subplots that poke into each other in intricate ways that always satisfy by following understandable logic, but surprise just enough to keep you guessing. I honestly cannot think of a single development in any plotline that wasn't well motivated by established character traits and goals, but some twists will still shock you. Through an extremely delicate process of balancing that you just know must involve dozens of spreadsheets, they managed to have each episode feel like it significantly progressed each subplot, while also having a central thematic focus expressed through one particular important development, while also maintaining a traditional multi-act structure, complete with a supremely satisfying ending. How?

I mean seriously, the ending of every episode is so good. Again like The Wire, it either dumps a million questions on you with a last-second twist, leaving you to sort out the complex ramifications, and eager to see more. Or, it brings it all home on a note of such completeness, such finality, such beautiful emotional satisfaction that you could be content with the whole series ending at that moment... but also eager to see more. The finale is an accumulation of everything that came before it, in a way that gives new significance to every decision, every connection, every revelation, every drop of sweat or tear, pushing them all forward into a moment of completeness and clarity not only within the story, but of the show itself.

Is it enough for me to call it The Wire of anime and write two paragraphs of similarities? No, of course not. Wire-fanboys, who are generally not to be messed with, would point out that I barely scratched the surface of the appeal of the greatest show in TV history. They'd be right, I'm nowhere near close to explaining the joys of Shirobako (lel). Seriously, some of the things this show achieved are simply impossible to imagine any other series even attempting. I already described it's uniquely convincing pro-work mentality last year, and this season's greater challenges and triumphs did nothing to diminish its effectiveness (although I guess it didn't escalate it enough either, cus im still neet lollll). Or what about the meta-aspect? An anime about making anime could be insufferably "clever" with jokes and allusions, but they wisely stayed their hand, making only subtle and moving tributes and genuinely sneaky Easter eggs. The one exception, where they went all out with the flashback/metastory in the second half of episode 19, is just so amazing and moving that any sort of indulgence would have been forgiving. Seriously, the cut back to Miyamori watching the projector? How can one single transition be loaded with so much meaning, so much emotion, so much resolution?

Okay okay but that has nothing on the end of epsiode 23. You know the scene I mean. Already in the episode we've been treated to one of the series's most fantastical but satisfying "action" sequences. The last and tallest hurdle in the road to production has been cleared with a soaring leap. We, the audience, see the solution already, and there's a great satisfaction in that - I remember cheering out loud as soon as I realized - but when Miyamori finally comprehends what's going on? Jesus, even just picturing it makes my eyes water. Like it's seriously absurd, that scene just makes me full-on weep every time I see it. Even going in thinking "lol I'm definitely not gonna cry this time" is absolutely futile, it's a complete breakdown as soon as she looks back and smiles, aaaaaaaaaaaa... I mean, it's up there with episode 8 of Hibike!, that's all I can say.

You probably get the idea by now. It's an absolute miracle of a show, one that explains and exemplifies the joy of anime. It has a huge but memorable and lovable cast. It cuts deep all across your emotional spectrum. There aren't too many like this. Try it!

Okay, that's it for anime 2015

Wow, what a year! There was stuff that didn't make top 10 that I woulda put in top 5 for some other years. 2016 is starting off alright too. I thought the winter season looked like a wasteland, but Kyoani no Phantom Oppai is good stupid fun, Galko is... what it is, and Koyomimonogatari is probably the best surprise I could imagine. Spring looks stacked, and the rumours for summer and fall are good too. Is 2016 gonna be the year of NEETing out all the time and watching anime? Or is it "productive member of society" time? I guess we'll seeeeeee~~

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