Monday, January 23, 2017

Top 10 Anime of 2016 - Part Two

"Here, it’s all ravaged grasses, clouds gone cold, evening distances, distances."

(Wang An-Shih (translated by David Hinton) on things that aren't anime)

Okay here's 5 more I hope you read em, and then download em from somewhere and watch em and feel some type of way.
(Part one is here)

5. Mob Psycho 100

With One Punch Man such a crossover hit that merchandise is showing up in videos like this, it seemed inevitable that ONE's other major series would also get an adaptation. The effortless humour and charm is the same, as is the enticing world building, and compelling psychological realism. Mob's near-limitless psychic power isn't too different from Saitama's OPness either, but, again, the battles are still exciting despite everyone knowing the inevitable victor. There's really no reason that any fan of OPM shouldn't check this one out too.

But this is a very different beast, too. Instead of the superhero metropolises of OPM, we get an intimate look at the schools of Seasoning City, where the small dramas of Mob's life unfold. Where OPM sets up monstrous disaster to motivate some realization, the process is reversed with Mob: his social anxieties and ambitions seem to manifest into the spirits he battles. The result is a more psychologically intense series, but a very morally grounded one; you really see Mob maturing as an individual, and feel that you might be too. Don't think this is some srs Dostoyevskycore thing, though - it's really hilarious, too, and the diversity of the cast, with psychics, frauds, spirits, and "civilians",  reaches many types of humour that OPM can't.

The biggest difference, though, is that Mob never received anything like OPM's Murata redraw, meaning the anime has to come straight from ONE's more, uh, amateur style. Where the OPM anime was glorious in its ability to bring Murata's already cinematic frames to life, Studio Bones had far more freedom in their adaptation. The result is some of the most unique and stylish animation we've seen in ages.  The original ONE designs are made iconic, and thus remain meaningful even when their depiction is most extreme.

And I do really mean extreme: Bones busted out the pencils, the crayons, even the heavy acyrilics, mashing these up with bold CGI work that delights in juxtaposition, rather than trying to covertly prop up lazy animation. The result is a series where everything surges freely in whole new dimensions. A fight scene escalates not just in intensity, but in the very materials of its composition; characters' emotions explode out of themselves to restructure the scene around them on the most fundamental levels. It's an absolute joy to watch, always unexpected but never underwhelming. 

But even better than the extremity of this depiction is the depicted aesthetic itself, which falls somehow between the electro-psychedelic-punk of cult movies like Electric Dragon 80000V or music like Boredoms, the charming earnest but innocent distance of something like Tonkatsu DJ Agetarou, and the frantic allegory and irreverence of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei. If you can't imagine that bizarre intersection, just remember your adolescence, when there was nothing cooler than being cool, and everything seemed possible and maybe even imminent. That's what this show is about. 

4. Flying Witch 

Lately there's been a lot of debate around the idea of "the next Miyazaki". Usually this seems framed around the magnitude of their projects, their ability to cross demographics, and, ultimately, their box office success. But I think far too little is being said about the qualities of the works themselves that lead to this success. I think for too many people, especially in the west, Miyazaki has become synonymous with anime films of a certain magnitude, which not only limits the receptive possibilities of other possible projects (like can you imagine how Akira would be marketed to the west in the post-Spirited Away era?) but does a great disservice to Miyazaki's unique wonders. 

All of this tangential rant is obviously to say: if you want that real Miyazaki shit, you shouldn't necessarily look to other huge movies, but something like Ishizuka-sensei's wonderful series Flying Witch, and it's excellent adaptation. It's the simple story of Makoto, a trainee witch, who moves from the city to the countryside to continue her studies. You meet her friends and family, both magical and muggle, through a collection of largely adversary-free adventures.

The story takes a slow pace to match the laid-back rural environment, and there's a charm to the small hints of the people, allowing the wonderful effect of being able to extrapolate complete and pleasant lifestyles from these subtle details. Even the magical community is presented with this assumed familiarity, making the supernatural as natural as any home - imagining the day-to-day life of the magical cafe, for example, is wondrous but easy.

Because it isn't just about imagining the day-to-day, it's about the wonderful things that emerge from within it. Through either Makoto's city-slicker curiousity about agriculture and nature, or her non-magical family's awe at her witchy ways, the viewer always has a perspective that brings out the novelty of the world. This feeling of discovery combines with staple slice of life feelings like delight in small sensory pleasures, enjoying the company of friends, sentimentality and memorializing - all those classics - to create something both fresh and familiar, something like a fun but relaxing vacation.

But I think the true beauty of this attitude is how it blends the magical and non-magical worlds. Cooking class is as shocking as magical reactions, harvesting fiddleheads is as delightful as mandrake, and the canopy of an apple orchard is as enchanting as the back of a flying whale. This, I think, is the most essential aspect of Miyazaki's work, and it's alive and well in Flying Witch, too: that our natural Earth, and the feelings it evokes, is as wonderful and beautiful as any fantasy.

3. New Game!

Alright, here we go, real anime time. This is like, the dessert to Shirobako. Which was my AOTY last year. Like, above Hibike. And I LOVE dessert. So I'm saying a lot by this. I'm saying that this is again a show about people working together towards a creative goal: reasonable but quirky and ultimately lovable people, and a goal that is exciting and dear to the viewers' heart. Although it isn't as complicated as the world of Shirobako, their office environment hits a sweet spot from that chaotic potential and the more reliable structure of an American sitcom.

This balance is achieved wonderfully when it comes to the series' general attitudes towards work, too. As simple as possible, the lessons are like: 1. Work is Hard but 2. a. You Improve and b. You Have Comrades to Help You which makes it Not So Bad. We all know the horrors of Japanese work culture, and yeah, New Game! liberally sugarcoats them, much more than Shirobako, but to the extent that it engages with them, it provides an effective encouraging message of optimism and appreciation. It is from this appreciation that, like Shirobako, some of the best moments emerge: when you finally see the trailer for their game, you share in the awe of the characters, and in their triumph.

But the best parts of the show come from its other lessons about work, or about not-work, as it were: 1. You Are Fairly Paid in Proportion to Your Contribution, and thus 2. You Should Enjoy the Time and Money You Have Earned. Now, this is neither the time nor place for a radical leftist rant about the flawed ideology that informs these ideas: this is dessert time, it is time to accept them at smiling face value. And, of course, to enjoy New Game! as one of the best and purest all-girl moe slice of life shows... perhaps ever. We all know that that's like, the best genre hands down, so uh, that's saying a lot.

Compared to the typical high school setting of a SoL show, the non-work plots of New Game! emphasize even further their relative scarcity, and thus preciousness. Work-life balance is achieved through magnitudes of pleasure - again, probably an unhealthy attitude, but I digress. And the positives of work bleed into play: as with Hidamari Sketch (another show I am fond of, to say the least), Aoba's artistic ambitions enchants her world with meaning and potential. The result is a wonderland depiction of Tokyo, feeling especially fantastical in contrast to the static layout of the office... the show almost becomes a dessert to itself.

But the real treat is the aesthetics: Doga Kobo have seriously stepped up their game with this one. It feels like an undeniable challenge to other studios: for too long have 4-koma adaptations costed on voice acting and the cuteness of the original, taking only the most basic directive approach, sometimes hardly animating at all. Doga Kobo says: look to Kyoani. There is no reason we can't do the same. Well, okay: there is a gigantic financial reason. But we can try. And here: succeed. The direction is dynamic and immersive but not overwhelming. The animation is smooth and modern without being overly flashy. The characters are cute, so very cute, this is one of the cutest shows I've ever seen, and that has to be the most important part.

2. Flip Flappers

In the five years since Madoka, we've seen many alt-mahou shoujo shows try to recapture Shaft's globe-spanning magic, with, uh, varying success. Like varying between "OK" and "trainwreck". Most of them just try to go with some subset of what they figure must've made Madoka work: complex twist-heavy plotlines with mostly grim outcomes, intense and violent battles between magic girls, existential-going-on-nihilistic themes, surreal other worlds, etc, etc. And sure, that stuff was in Madoka, and it was great, but it wasn't really what made it great. The true lesson of Madoka is one that only Flip Flappers has picked up on: you can do whatever you want. It's that simple.

Do you want to plunge your characters into a psychedelic ura-dimension? Of course you do, basically every show is doing that one. But what aesthetics? Whatever you want! Flip Flappers riffs on the worlds of C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, and George Miller. It is both Disney and Miyazaki. It gives us Tron vs Super Sentai vs Evangelion. It invokes the aesthetics of Yume Nikki and Silent Hill and Orange Milk Records album covers and things even beyond that, things that connect to nothing we knew before, nothing that we can describe in our crude human tongue.

And what do you want to have them do in this smorgasbord of the imagination? It has to be something thrilling, right? Flip Flappers understands: where many lesser series conflate edginess with tension or climax, moving towards the supposedly "gripping" sequences popular in Western TV, FliFla's combat and action sequences, because of their brightness and flashiness, can be bolder, more dynamic, more intense. The quality of the action choreography cannot be overstated: everything is charged with a visceral *punch*, everything surges with it, every directorial choice frames it.

The animation, too, nails every note in the direction. I've heard it claimed on /a/ that absolutely zero CGI was used in the development of the show. I don't know if that's true, but the point is that it's believable: the undeniable display of sheer effort permeates every frame. As such, beyond any particular impressive shot, it's the sense of potential that enlivens the series... it truly feels like, at any second, absolutely anything could happen. With other series, you can sort of feel the animators relax sometimes, right? You can feel the direction settle down, the keyframe count dip, and you temper your expectations accordingly. But never FliFla.

The quality of presentation is actually such that the usual patterns of signification are reversed. What I mean by this pseudo-Semiotic statement is that usually, especially in this genre, we're invested into the outcome of action scenes because of the plot, because of the ramifications it will have on future developments... but with FliFla, we're absorbed through sheer aesthetic ecstasy, we want to see more, even if we have no idea what is actually happening. This may seem unimportant, just another testament to the strength of its sensory storm, but the effect it has is profound... You end up in roughly the same psychological place as main character Cocona, confused and adrift but adventuring, secure in knowing that, unlike the blatant twist-baiting that plagues other "crazy" anime, or the disconnects of significance that can replace "woah!" with "huh?", you're right where you're supposed to be with FliFla's plot: having a blast.

But what *is* the plot? Again, we must look to the indulgent freedom of the true Madoka legacy... It's at once a very simple adventure story through a myriad of mashups of setting and genre, with well-defined Macguffin and antagonist roles. But it's also a strange pastiche of the Evangelion "project" structure - the titular lab, the frantic scientists, Dr. Salt even does the Gendo pose. And it's still a magical girl show, too: a story of transformation and camaraderie and resulting empowerment. And also a Pynchon-esque paranoid crisis of reality. And and a drama about desire and family and connections. Oh and of course excellent yuri too.

Look, I say a lot of stuff about "real anime" and "the point" of anime and most of it I hope is obviously just BSing around for fun (the rest is non-obviously BSing around for fun), but if I could speak seriously about such an idea, I'd speak about FliFla. The final product of this limitless indulgence is a smoothie of pure energy and love, something that I cannot imagine in any other medium, something so strong and so wonderful that the whole wretched entrenched industry and shameless devotion and relentless consumption is more than justified.

But it's got nothing on our #1...

A true masterpiece of competition and the human condition and yuri...

An achievement so beautiful that it will be spoken of in hushed tones for decades to come...

I speak,

of course,


1. Ping Pong Girls (Again)

okay look this show is ACTUALLY GOOD i have asked the opinion of many LITERAL GENIUSES and there was a CONSENSUS: ACTUALLY GOOD. just listen to the soundtrack omg the soundtrack is actually amazing like just listen starting at 17:21 in episode 10 like holy shit the sound it makes when it hits the sweet spot??? and then the song change??? how did they do that??? is this actually the best single moment of anime in 2016 yeah obviously it is like if u dont watch this show youre actually literally dumb its PING PONG SAKI like if u dont want ping pong saki then seriously why tf are you watching anime

oh wait no

1. Hibike! Euphonium 2

Yeah, it has to be this, the Joanna Newsom of anime: something so beautiful and sincere and meaningful that it almost becomes painful, almost impossible to even witness. Okay no I'm not just talking about the yuri aspect. I mean yes Nakatani Nio, author of Bloom Into You, probably the greatest yuri mangas running today, did say it "depicted everything [she] want[s] to do in yuri" but that isn't the only thing I care about. Actually I made a chart to figure out exactly how much yuri factored into this list. You can see that it's sort of a thing but not everything.

Really, the important chart is this one (spoilers). Yes, this is an emotional show. Like with Divers, I went in as emotionally vulnerable as I could be, hoping to be affected as much as possible, and it worked, it really really worked. The very feeling of letting go to that extent, to letting yourself be overwhelmed, it's so cathartic, so invigorating... Every week, for 20 minutes, absolutely nothing else mattered. A new emotional tide came in, the other 10060 minutes were washed away. It's similar to the feeling I described here, a great re-centering of importance in the world: geopolitical crises and personal anxieties were only a single facet barely influencing the only real and meaningful thing, which is feelings. This realization probably isn't "legitimate", it might not hold up to much scrutiny, but for those 20 minutes, it was well beyond believable, it was simply felt.

The aesthetic quality of the series is of course a big part in this nearly hypnotic immersion... it's Kyoani, so it probably goes without saying that it's beautiful and wonderfully animated but I really have to emphasize that this is Kyoani at their best, which, in the naturalistic mode, is simply the best. Hyouka has finally been surpassed. And stuff like the direction and the voice acting and the music and the performances (how many versions of "Crescent Moon Dance" did they record? I seriously get chills thinking about it) and the editing and the mise en scene and the art direction and the character design and everything, absolutely everything is flawless, this is the result when a group of extremely talented people set out with an extremely large budget to make a masterpiece and succeed.

The plot itself, though, is a little imperfect. Or at least not exactly what I wanted 100% of the time. And I think that adds a lot to the overwhelming emotional resonance of the show, too... I never felt entirely secure, there was so much potential in both directions, it felt like I was somehow engaged in it, that my emotional struggles in witnessing it could somehow influence the plot... Again, a very irrational feeling, but one I legitimately felt. Of course here I am talking about the yuri aspect, which I think I probably downplayed the significance of before. I have a hard time talking about the importance of yuri to me... I talked it about it a bit in this video, but I barely scratched the surface, really...

I dunno, I don't think there's a whole lot I want to say about this one. I've already said a lot of words about this series. It's just... beautiful.

Okay yeah that's enough

Gotta move on, I have a lot more 2016 blog posts to do before they become completely irrelevant.

2017 seems like it'll be an even shittier year than 2016 judging by everything said and done by the Trump administration and so anime might be even better? This season we got Little Witch Academia and Gabriel Dropout and motherfucking Maidragon so yes probably.

No comments: