Winter 2011 Season in Review – It’s Technically Not Summer Yet
These awards posts seem to be getting later and later. We figured we should post this before the current season ended.
Anyway, the winter 2011 season was an embarrassment of riches, with what will probably end up being the two best shows of the entire year, and a dear old friend returning for another go. The rest of the pack paled in comparison to these, which is probably why there’s not a lot of diversity on this list.
Winner: Puella Magi Madoka Magica
It’s rare to find a show that’s nearly universally liked, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica is about as close as we’ve come in a while. That’s probably because it has it all: complex and interesting characters, a compelling story rooted in classical tragedy, gorgeous animation from one of the industry’s most innovative studios, and character designs cute enough to warm even my cold, withered heart.
It’s a clever take on the conventions of the magical girl genre, but solid enough to be worth watching even if you have no idea what a magical girl is. It’s the masterpiece that I’ve been waiting for Akiyuki Shinbou to make for years: practically every shot is gorgeous, a work of art, and when it all comes together, it’s a sight to behold. The combat scenes in particular are breathtaking, particularly since they tend to take place in the trippy dream world of the witches’ realm.
It’s all the more impressive that it just fell out of thin air, an original property made by a team of talented veterans. I think that’s one of the reasons for its warm reception: no one knew what to expect. Anime producers, take note: this is what happens when you give top flight creatives the opportunity to make something of their own, rather than being chained to an endless stream of manga and dating sim adaptations.
I think Wandering Son is more accomplished as a work of art, but as anime, there’s no question what the season’s best show is. Puella Magi Madoka Magica everything most TV anime aspire to be, though that might seem like faint praise. –bear
Runner-up: Kimi ni Todoke Season 2
Kimi ni Todoke is the most stereotypical show of the big three: a shoujo romance about the shy girl who gets the prince of the school. But the show is never content to rest in its stereotypes, developing its characters with a far wider range of concerns and thoughts than a lesser show would even bother with, much less successfully convey.
Shoujo romances are about reasonably sympathetic and accomplished women being somewhat forcibly romanced by bishounen so perfect they might as well be gods in human form. To make the female lead as cripplingly shy and creepy as she is breaks the pattern in itself, but the real triumph of Kimi ni Todoke is to make its male lead human. In fact, the triumph of Kimi ni Todoke is that it makes all its characters human.
But providing human characters with real foibles and plots that derive from that is only part of the charm. The humor, well done if somewhat predictable, helps but is not determinative. What makes Kimi ni Todoke so touching is the simple purity it embodies—in its heroine, its story, and its message. This show presents a world where, after appropriate trials, goodness wins, and wins for (and by) being good. And it does this without feeling the slightest bit trite or forced in its resolution. How often can you say that? –3HM
Runner-up: Wandering Son
If Puella Magi Madoka Magica hadn’t appeared out of thin air to win the hearts of both antiotaku editors, Wandering Son would be the best show this season. As it is, the two are basically equal, in my opinion.
Maybe I’d love the Wandering Son anime more if I hadn’t already read the original source material. The manga, captivating in the beginning for its unique take on its child characters, slowly builds into something much more over the course of several volumes. The result is something that feels lifelike, moving at the pace of life (especially if you could only read one chapter ever month, I’d imagine). By the time the cast is in middle school, where the anime begins, each character seems like he or she could be an actual person.
The anime has no such luxury, covering volumes worth of backstory in a single episode, with only 13 episodes to build to a conclusion. Skipping ahead was a wise decision, and it takes the best slice of the show possible, but there’s no way it can convey the same familiarity with the characters.
And yet, the show is still superb. Much credit is due to the source material, which has some of the best storytelling I’ve seen in any comic, and the most nuanced portrayal of a transgendered character I’ve seen in any medium. But you have to respect the adapters, for so faithfully capturing the tone of the manga, and breathing its own life into the characters through incredible art, pacing, and voice acting. The result is the best anime I’ve seen at capturing the rhythms and drama of everyday life, with all its tiny heartbreaks, quiet disappointments, and subtle victories.
It’s wonderful, fascinating, and sadly underappreciated. If you complain about the lifeless repetition of anime and yearn for something different, more complex, more real, but still animated, Wandering Son is one of your best bets. –bear
Winner: Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Madoka succeeds in every aspect of the holy trinity of art, voices, and writing that good anime requires, but the story is probably the most unsung. The role of its magical girls is a subversion of even the genre standard, with not only the motives of its protagonists thrown into question—apparently selfless motives secretly revealing themselves to be a particularly insidious kind of selfishness—but also in the utter futility of their mission. This isn’t a fight for justice, or even survival, it’s a twisted cycle brought on by the sins of their forebears.
I’ll take an interesting character story over a convoluted web of intrigue any day, and Madoka delivers, hinging its story on the internal struggles of its characters to decide what is good or just, rather than the external story of monster battling surrounding them. It’s quicker to explore the intricacies of its characters than explain its setting, which is the sign of confident, mature writing, and it pays off in deep characters being pulled in interesting directions by their conflicting motivations.
It also doesn’t shy away from repeated dousings from the melodrama bucket, but I’m willing to forgive that, especially considering how well it fits the series focus on high tragedy. I’m always up for a character being hoist on their own petard. –bear
Runner-up: Kimi ni Todoke Season 2
One of the most annoying cliches of sitcoms and other havens of bad writing is a misunderstanding between characters, where two or more people are driven apart because each is confused on the other’s intentions or meaning, and neither is willing to ask the obvious questions that will resolve it all. It’s normally stupid, and obviously so, and leads to the audience tearing out chunks of hair in frustration. And Kimi ni Todoke devotes the majority of the season season to just such a conflict.
Why does this show’s version work, while other shows crash and burn from similar plots? Because of the writing: writing that gives us characters so developed, so human in the strengths and weaknesses, that the audience can see how the miscommunication is not just possible, but inevitable. It works from the most basic and understandable concerns of teenagers—that of basic insecurity, and the desire to avoid being hurt. It reminds us about why we didn’t ask out that girl we though might be interested in us back in high school, and why we might still regret that decision even now. And once it gives us all that, it then finds an equally realistic way to pull itself out again.
To this, we can add well-developed secondary characters, bursts of humor, and sympathetic antagonists. But these elements (save perhaps the humor) comes from the impulse that drives everything else about the writing: the desire to properly capture the hopes and fears and dreams of adolescents. And that, when as successfully realized as it is here, is surprisingly enthralling. –3HM
Winner: Wandering Son
One of the flaws inherent to animation as a medium is that hand-drawn figures can rarely capture the nuances of human expression as well as an actual human. It gives live action dramas an inherent advantage over animated ones, which is one reason why anime dramas tend to end up on the lighter end of the spectrum, full of cartoonishly exaggerated humor.
Wandering Son is far from a cartoon, though: it’s a serious, subtle drama that requires the visual reactions of its characters to convey its meaning, because it rarely makes sense for its characters to speak their feelings, since they’re usually incapable of understanding or expressing them, either because of their age, or because of the difficult nature of their circumstances.
That Wandering Son manages to wrest such evocative “performances” from its “cast” is not only an impressive technical accomplishment, but critical to the impact of the show. Between the expressive character drawing and the quiet, lingering melancholy of the mise-en-scene, Wandering Son perfectly captures the fragile insecurities of growing up outside the social bounds of normal, and the quiet dread of knowing your body is about to betray you, and turn you into something you don’t want to be.
I was worried that the anime would fail to bring this tone over from the original manga, but if anything, the fluid nature of anime makes the show even more effective. It might be a fraction of the length of its source material, but in the parts it does cover it is superior. –bear
Winner: Puella Magi Madoka Magica
While Madoka is the more conventional choice when compared with the more unusual Wandering Son in terms of story, those roles are reversed when it comes to art. Wandering Son is a perfection of the standard format of realistic dramas, whereas Madoka is about as experimentational as big budget magical girl shows have ever been.
From the detailed and unique character designs to the endless novelty of the witches’ realms (created by an entirely separate studio!), Madoka is as original as it is beautiful. Although easily recognizable as a Shinbou work (in the unconventional shot framing, if nothing else), it’s still noticeably different from his other works. And although it’s still a SHAFT production, it doesn’t seem to have as many of the cheap shortcuts the studio is known for in its visuals.
I’m sure the Blu-rays will be significantly improved, but even the TV broadcast is beyond most shows in terms of fluidity, originality, and quality. It’s simply one of the most beautiful series I’ve seen. –bear
Runner-up: A Certain Magical Index
I’ve made my opinion clear that Index is a bad show. The absurdly good animation quality is the main thing it has going for it, and even that occasionally got skimped on in one or two of the six episodes I made myself watch before dropping the series like a bag of moldy, maggot-ridden potatoes. It’s only after checking several reviews of later episodes on other sides and confirming that the animation quality righted itself later that I am willing to mention the show in the first place.
But when J.C. Staff wants to provide one of the most technically stunning shows on offer, they can do it, and Index gave many, many examples of this. At the top of its game, Index had some of the most mindbogglingly detailed and lavishly illustrated action, ever. Now, if they’ll just give us another Railgun series, maybe I’ll forgive them for blowing such a large budget on junk. –3HM
Best Character Relationship:
Winner: Sawako Kuronuma and Shota Kazehaya (Kimi ni Todoke Season 2)
I’ve fawned all over this show, both in the original reviews and on this page, and just about everything good about it is exemplified in the relationship between Sawako and Kazehaya. Taking a step away from the omni-competent yet arrogant romantic interests that shoujo romances are known for, Kazehaya is neither of those things. He’s popular, friendly, and caring, but also human, with the foibles one would expect of a teenage boy inexperienced in love. That sense of realism, along a healthy sense of Sawako’s strengths and weaknesses, is what makes the relationship so special, and so moving.
Is there an element of wish fulfillment in their fairy-tale romance? Of course. But it’s a wish that Sawako and Kazehaya have to work to see fulfilled. Their halting attempts at forming a relationship forces greater changes out of both of them then a simple realization of the other’s feelings. And that makes a surpring difference. –3HM
Runner-up: Madoka Kaname and Homura Akemi (Puella Magi Madoka Magica)
After watching the first episode, you’d be surprised to know that this pair is one of the most compelling relationships this season. Kaname and Akemi begin the series at odds with each other, so you’d never think that the plot of the entire series would hinge on the strength of their love for each other, but it does.
Not to give too much away, but later episodes take us through the show’s entire timeline—past, present, and future—and show the crazy foundation this relationship is built on. Like any good tragedy, it’s fuelled mostly by sacrifice, but those sacrifices would be meaningless if their bond wasn’t already convincing, and if it isn’t, strong voice work and good direction pour on enough pathos that you wouldn’t notice anyway. –bear
Runner-up: Shuuichi Nitori and Yoshino Takatsuki (Wandering Son)
Shuuichi and Yoshino are lucky to have each other. It’s something their adult mentor, Yuki, emphasizes every chance she can, and it’s true. The odds of even knowing, let alone being close with, someone else your age also questioning their gender are low, but it’s this relationship that forms the core that a character-driven show like Wandering Son is built on.
Even if they’re not romantically involved (much to Shuu’s chagrin), the two are inseparably linked by the gender lines each are trying to cross. They were made to be together, leaning on each other to explore the gender the other was brought up in. The show revolves around their attempts (along with Saori) to attempts to figure out their place in the world. It makes their separation all the more heartbreaking, and their quiet reunion that much happier. –bear
Runner-up: Moritaka Mashiro and Akito Takagi (Bakuman)
Bakuman, as I complained about multiple times, had trouble writing females characters that weren’t cyphers, doormats, or one-note wonders. What Bakuman could do was write men, and their wild youthful dreams. Moritaka and Takagi might occasionally come off as too idealistic (particularly the former), but their hopes and aspirations are perfectly understandable. The relationship between the two partners is the crown jewel of the show, however, as the two are similar enough to be friends and collaborators while different enough to naturally complement each other.
In a medium filled with harem or harem-like shows, where any male character save the protagonist has to be marginalized to free up time for yet another cute and sycophantic girl, Bakuman gives us something rarely seen: a look into a genuine friendship between men. That alone makes it worth mentioning. –3HM
Best Opening or Ending Theme:
3HM’s Pick: Level E (Opening)
Level E is a show about aliens living among us, and the OP drives that home at every turn. Walking along the street, standing next to you on the commuter train, businessmen, doctors, even cats: Anyone could be an alien. But the OP also builds up the similarity between aliens and humans, suggesting that maybe we have more in common than we think. It helps that “Cold Finger Girl,” the accompanying song, isn’t translated on Crunchyroll, as lyrics have no connection with the show. But the song is catchy and the music perfectly aligns with the visuals. It’s a song you’ll have trouble getting out of your head—assuming you wanted to in the first place.
Bear’s Pick: Wandering Son (Ending)
The competition wasn’t as strong in this category as it usually is, but Wandering Son’s ending is still solid. I’ve enjoyed Rie Fu’s singing in the past, but this is probably my favorite track of hers. It’s nothing groundbreaking or original (especially if you’re familiar with her voice), but it’s a catchy little pop song with enough melancholy to remind you that this is connected with Wandering Son. It’s a good palette cleanser, to slowly bring you out of the show’s quiet mood.
Best Show We Didn’t Write About:
Winner: Level E
I wondered if I would regret not covering Level E, but as it happens, I don’t. The show is all over the place in tone, in plot, and in theme. After a three episode comedy romp, it goes on to a surprisingly serious sci-fi horror story, before backing up and going on to craziness again. It would be impossible to write about the show under antiotaku’s traditional format.
That being said, it managed to be consistently amusing regardless of what it was doing. While the show suffers somewhat by losing straightman Tsutsui to cover for the alien prince’s hijinks (oh, right, he’s a prince; I didn’t mention that in my initial review), it did find enough other ways to keep the eternal troublemaker on his toes. Although, perhaps it says something that my favorite episode is one where he didn’t appear at all.
Despite this and some other missteps—particularly a tendency to rely on a deus ex machina to get out of certain plot jams—Level E is solidly entertaining, which is particularly surprising given it’s based on source material decades old. If you haven’t given it a look yet, make sure to check it out. –3HM
Show We Least Knew How to Read:
I really don’t know how to parse this show. It’s the latest from XEBEC, infamous for their unrelenting stream of tasteless, fan service-laden shows of dubious quality, and as such I didn’t really expect much from it. The first episode caught my attention for its twisted sense of humor that was actually funny, which is rare in anime, and particularly in this kind of late night garbage. I watched another episode at random (which was, coincidentally, reviewed by a special guest), and found that it was pretty cheekily honest about the depravity of its target audience.
It’s a show about fans of pornography, but blessedly unerotic, and pleasingly more brutal than pandering to its fanbase. It’s not a good show at all, but I think it just might be trying to mock its viewers for being just as depraved and pathetic as its characters. If that’s true, it’s worth mentioning. –bear
Most Offensive Show:
Winner: Loser: Freezing
I’m somewhat reluctant to hand down this award, as a) Mitsudomoe had a second season this winter, and I’m sure that show was up to no good, and b) I didn’t get very far into Freezing either. So my ability to properly compare shows is somewhat limited. But while I can’t say for certain that Freezing is the most exploitative show of season, I can say that it’s bad enough to qualify for the award.
Freezing isn’t disgusting just due to its sexual content, although there is plenty of that, but for its general tendency to turn its large cast of buxom women into objects of violent subjugation. The convenient clothing damage and the dismemberment go hand in hand to make the women weak and pliable; even the supposedly untouchable ice queen melts into a blushing schoolgirl at the ministrations of the protagonist. My main regret in writing for antiotaku is that occasionally I have to watch a few episodes of shows like this. –3HM
Runner-up: IS: Infinite Stratos
It’s not fair to say that IS is notably offensive by anime standards, as its failings are more for a distinct lack of novelty (or even sticking to interesting tropes) rather than for acts of genuine perversity. But, in preparation for April Fools this year, I decided to do a parody post on Infinite Stratos’s beach episode … only to find I couldn’t do it. The episode was so horrendously bad that the only way I could parody a positive review of it would be to write ultra-misogynist, outright piggish comments that I wasn’t willing to post even in jest.
Every beach stereotype possible was on display, as the female cast took turns engaging in pathetic display after pathetic display to get the protagonist’s attention and provide the audience with prime fapping material. In some cases, the established personalities of the characters was modified to fit into whatever fetish or moe trait was on offer, but most of the time, the characters had been flat and uninteresting enough that this wasn’t even necessary. It was a textbook example of anime pandering at its worst, and just for that, it deserves a mention of dishonor. Infinite Stratos was never destined to be a good show. But, as foolish as it sounds, I never expected it would ever reach a low quite as bad as this. –3HM