Spring 2011 Season in Review – Army of One
The main advantage to taking over an anime blog for a season is that there’s no one to contest your choices for best shows of the year. (Save you, gentle readers, which is what the comment box is for.) The Spring season started off with a greater number of watchable shows than there were are the start of the year, although few aspired to the same level of greatness of a Madoka. Combine that with the fact that some of season’s best shows are continuing into the summer (and are thus ineligible) and the field dwindles down to a handful.
Having to cover a season by myself has the downside of there being more than a few shows I just didn’t get around to watching at all. I don’t think I missed any of the season’s great shows, but feel free to chime in if you know of one or two that slipped by me.
Winner: Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai
I’ve thought long and hard about how to do Anohana justice here, and I’m still drawing blanks. I could talk about the depth of the characters, the alternating bursts of intense emotion vying with the subtle interactions of daily life, the traumatic past event that colors everything every character does and is. I have talked about all those things in reviews. But even if I were to repeat all that, that wouldn’t quite capture what makes Anohana what it is.
What Anohana is, is a tale about growing up, and learning to both accept and honor the past while moving past it. It’s a story about the ways teenagers try to hide who they are, and become what they are not. It’s a show which has a message, but never makes the characters subordinate to the message, tools for getting the moral across. It’s a show that runs the gamut of human emotion, only to bring things back to where they really belong.
It’s not a perfect show. I made my complaints about the ending perfectly clear in my review of the finale, and there are a few too many resorts to classic fanservice that I choose to blame on the storyboarding rather than the direction (more on that later). But in terms of a show that delved into the human psyche, touching on all the themes of growing up while mixing in a very real tragedy into the midst of that, it did almost everything right. Unless 2011 keeps dropping gems on us, it will likely make the top five shows of this year. There’s no way it won’t be in the top ten.
Runner-up: Deadman Wonderland
Deadman Wonderland manages, almost, to restore my faith in the shounen action series as a genre. Not because of the darker subject matter or willingness to kill off its cast, although neither of these detract for the show. No, it makes its impact by showing that such shows don’t have to waste multiple episodes on a single combat, or have a cast of dozens of characters, each with their own fighting style and nemesis to defeat, to drag on a story for as long as possible. The show distills all the basic elements of the genre, but puts it into a package that I am willing to watch: one whose plot will end sometime before the invention of cold fusion.
Observant readers will notice that Deadman Wonderland doesn’t get all that many secondary awards, but Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko does. Deadman gets a slot here anyway, for two reasons. First, Denpa Onna gets plenty of love in the “Best Show We Didn’t Cover” category, which readers can take as what I would have written had I simply given it a runner-up slot (which it probably deserves). Between that and the other awards, I think it gets enough attention.
Second, while the individual aspects of Denpa Onna’s production are typically superior to anything Deadman Wonderland can come up with, Deadman’s finished product is leaner, more focused, and thematically engaging. Denpa Onna takes its wonderful elements and wanders in circles with them for about three to four episodes in the middle of the show, before returning to the good stuff. Deadman Wonderland grabs the audience by the lapels (or perhaps a more sensitive location) and starts with a sprint, which never lets up throughout its entire run. No one will mistake Deadman Wonderland for a particularly visionary or innovative work. But it’s proficient, it’s effective, and it fires on all cylinders throughout, and there’s something to be said for that.
Winner: Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko
Anime comedies, and animation of all types, has an automatic advantage over live action comedy, in the sense that characters can go superdeformed, backgrounds and change suddenly to highlight a mood, and slapstick can reach absurd levels. Perhaps because of that advantage, anime comedy writing tends not to be particularly innovative, or clever, or unique. At best, there’s just enough creativity to get to the next wacky disaster.
Denpa Onna’s writing, by contrast, is as innovative, clever, and unique as it comes. Having most of the cast be either insane or firmly committed to avoiding serious topics by misdirection led to some of the most non-sequitur, bizarre conversations I’ve ever heard, yet somehow everything still made sense. Denpa Onna is a show that respects the internal consistency of madness, and by the end of its run the audience has learned to understand it.
If Denpa Onna stopped there, it would have some of the best comic writing of the year, vying last season’s Level E. But Denpa Onna also manages to dip its hands into serious topics like trust, what it means to love, and how to find confidence in oneself. Even in the midst of rampant craziness, it stays focused on the perils and challenges of adolescence, which I suppose is a form of craziness in its own right. It’s hard to manage the mood swing from silly to serious, but Denpa Onna pulls it off.
Runner-up: Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai
If Denpa Onna is a comic show that flirts with serious topics, Anohana is a serious show that flirts with comedy. And while it is quite funny at times, its main concern is always with the characters, their internal drama, and how that spills out into the world. Sometimes it comes in drastic ways, as with Matsuyuki, and sometimes with more common forms of escape, like with Anjou and Poppo. What unites everyone is that they are running away.
The writing shows a certain care to let the characters express themselves naturally, to the extent they would be willing to in a situation, and no more. My one disappointment with the show, and the reason why Anohana is only the runner-up here, is because in one crucial moment in the finale, it seems to violate this. Given the radically inconsistent nature of most anime writing, the qualitative difference between a single misstep and and a show which just doesn’t care is obvious. Anohana is clearly in the former camp.
Winner: Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai
I’m not certain if Tatsuyuki Nagai is the best anime director currently working in the business, although he certainly is in the top five. I am certain that he’s one of the most underutilized, with only five full series to his credit in six years, and two of those kept from reaching master level due to the subject matter. Of the three that remain, both Toradora and the second season of Honey and Clover are shows everyone, and I mean everyone, should watch.
If Anohana does not fall into the same category as those greats, it’s not through the fault of the direction. Nagai can communicate with a few shifting eye motions or a simple change of camera angle what many directors could only get across with neon signs—and more importantly, he chooses the subtle way whenever it would work better. A sensitive character drama is exactly where someone like Nagai excels, and that is exactly what Anohana is aiming to be. It’s a wonderful match, and I can’t wait to see what Nagai will try his hand at next.
Runner Up: Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko
A part of me wants to view Yukihiro Miyamoto as a more disciplined version of his boss, Akiyuki Shinbou; the same commitment to the outre is there, but it’s combined with a patient understanding that a show exists to tell a story and entertain an audience as much as it does to be a artist gratified by enacting a personal version. Like Anohana, Denpa Onna has a subject matter that matches perfectly with the director’s style, and it plays out deftly. The comic writing wouldn’t shine nearly as well without the sense of timing that Miyamoto brings, or would the animation have its particular effectiveness had Miyamoto not given his own affect to it. The past six months have given us a glance of what the talent at Shaft can do. I’m eager to see what they might bring out a season or two down the road.
Winner: Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko
Shaft is a studio that is quite capable of providing top-tier animation work (Madoka proved that) but often fritters away such talent for avant-garde gimmicks, live action inserts, or other effects that strike the viewer as much as the artists indulging their whims as considering mood and tone. Denpa Onna, like Madoka, maintains a consistent vision throughout; Denpa’s is less innovative than its predecessor, but more in keeping with a “real world” setting. However much Denpa Onna might deal with crazy people, it’s still about the trials of ordinary life, and the art is subordned to match that.
That doesn’t mean that the show lacks for distinctive flair, just that the distinctions between this and any other show with A-list animation can be difficult to pinpoint. Clean lines, attention to detail, and fluid motion are all givens here. The best I can point to is the character designs, which are uniformly attractive yet somehow unlike any style I’ve seen before. There seems to be a particular emphasis on facial expressions, hair details, and highlighting the cuteness of the cast, and it works surprising well.
That emphasis on character carries through into how they move. Ryuuko’s mannerisms just feel different than Maekawa’s, and at times one can spot the family resemblance between Erio and her mother, in spite of their drastically different personalities. It’s something near impossible to describe in words, but it’s obvious from the very first episode. And it continues to impress for the entire series run, with not a single wasted frame I could notice. That, given Shaft’s history of cutting corners when they think no one is looking, is the most amazing and gratifying part of the whole production.
Gosick has very serviceable animation, lacking in explosive action sequences for most of its run but making up for it with a general attention to detail. It’s not animation that jumps out at the audience with how good it is. But if you pay attention, you can see the details of a flower garden, or a stained glass window. And in the few action scenes it does have are uniformly excellent.
Where it particularly shines, however, is in the character designs, specifically with Victorique. Not only does she get multiple wardrobe changes throughout the series (which is actually a difficult thing for animators to do, as they need to reestablish how a character would look in a different outfit), but her every change in mood, physical reaction, and adopted mannerism gets exquisite attention. They also thought through how to keep Victorique distinct from her mother Cordelia—and attentive watchers can tell them apart—just as the other doppelganger relationships in the show gets some subtle yet distinctive tells. It’s a quality production throughout, and deserves a notice.
Best Character Relationship:
Winner: Victorique de Blois and Kazuya Kujou (Gosick)
I knew about halfway through Gosick’s run that it would be winning at least a runner-up slot for this category, and as it stands I can’t think of a show that tops it. Gosick makes plenty of narrative missteps throughout its run, including one in the finale that all but ruined the show for me, but I could count of the relationship between Victorique and Kujou to be strong, engaging, and continually advancing. The usual temptation with a tsundere relationship is to have the tsundere flip back to being cold and distant whenever it would help with the comedy or drama, but Gosick never backtracked. It was my main fear about the relationship, and I’m happy I was proven wrong.
The main problem with the relationship was that it was much better than the show that carried it, so a part of me was always waiting for the latter to catch up. Instead, what we had was a relationship that always felt it deserved more than what the surrounding plot and supporting characters were willing to give it. Normally it’s the characters which are the weak link of an anime production. Here, oddly, it’s the reverse.
Runner-up: Shiro and Ganta Igarashi (Deadman Wonderland)
The more I think about it, the more Shiro and Ganta’s first meeting seems emblematic of their relationship. Shiro, hearing Ganta wants to die, obliges and tries to kill him, but seem not at all surprised when her actions convinces him to live. Shiro thus remains Ganta’s savior and his nemesis throughout the series, giving with one hand even as everything Ganta cared about was taken by the other.
The full ramifications of that have yet to come to fruition, and probably won’t until the end of the series. But everything about the show works with that tension in the background. This tension saves what would otherwise be a fairly typical relationships (within the standards of the genre, anyway) and makes it into something far more special. Shiro is the one whom Ganta has come to value above all else, and she is also, unbeknowst to him, the one he has sworn to kill. That secret is a constant reminder that, whatever happens in the show, there is always the potential for things to become much, much worse. Given the setting of Deadman Wonderland, that is a marvelous accomplishment.
Runner-up: Meiko Honma and Jinta Yadomi (Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai)
I was tempted to put “Meiko Honma and everyone else” as the recipients of this award, because every member of the cast has unfinished business with Menma. That would be cheating, however, and even the other characters admit that Jinta and Menma’s relationship is special. Jinta forsakes the world when Menma left and it’s Menma who drives him back out again. And even as he reunites with his friends at her instigation, he still wants to keep Menma for himself.
Menma and Jinta are only in the runner-up spot primarily because Menma’s deeper issues, insecurities, and concerns don’t get a proper hearing. There’s perhaps too much focus on how Menma helps Jinta and not enough on how Jinta aids Menma, particularly in the later episodes. But, much like the other two relationships on this list, it’s a pairing that drives the narrative forward in an irreplaceable way.
Best Opening or Ending Theme:
Winner: Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai (Opening)
While the ending sequence for Anohana was quite lovely in its own right, the opening did a better job—a practically flawless one, in fact—of capturing the essence of the show. From the beginning it shows the main cast haunted, both by Menma and their younger selves. The lyrics, visuals, and “story” of the opening all reflect the wistful nostalgia that Anohana toys in, but also the deeper bonds of devotion that the cast has let go dormant. And it shows, with just a few brief glances, how they all resist, resent, but secretly desire the return of those old days.
You can see the OP here (all the videos on youtube I can find are mirrored), and honestly, if that doesn’t convince you to watch the series, then I doubt anything will. For me, from the moment I saw it, I was convinced that Anohana was going to be a very special show.
Runner-Up: Deadman Wonderland (Ending)
The opening for Deadman Wonderland is exactly what you would expect: a rock number, in surprisingly good English, about violence, vengeance, and the cruel, cruel world of the show, with imagery to match. The ending is something far different: a peppy j-pop song about how beautiful and full of hope the world is. It’s a remarkable mood swing after whatever horrible event a particular episode ended with (and there nearly always was one), and one that doesn’t stop being effective after multiple viewings.
The visuals also follow with that pattern of hope, with the slow moving Ferris wheel in the background the show’s metaphor for the freedom Ganta seeks for himself and his friends. Accompanying this are various slides of the character’s lives years before, before fate came and ruined their lives. It’s a bit spoilerish about certain plot revelations, revealing Shiro and Ganta’s childhood together episodes ahead of the story, but it remains the flipside of the aggressive, unforgiving opening. It’s the sort of ending that suggests that even with all the misery and darkness you’ve just seen, the dawn is coming. It will remain for a future season to prove if that was only meant ironically.
Best Show We Didn’t Write About:
Winner: Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko
Having discussed the animation, direction, and writing of Denpa Onna above, in uniformly glowing terms, I now have to talk about the plot. This requires me to admit that for the middle section of the show, there isn’t one. The show, near as I can tell, covers three or four of the light novels on which it is based. The first novel’s plot is summarized in my initial review. The second one, however, meanders between the growing love triangle between Ryuuko, Erio, and Makoto, which follows all the usual tropes (boy is too clueless, girl(s) are too shy to directly express their intentions) to keep the plot in stasis.
Even here, the narrative manages to do interesting things. One particular gem is how the show presents a spiraling narrative, taking the same event from three different perspectives, but starting each time a little earlier and ending a little later, until a full picture emerges. It’s clever and engaging; however, it also consumes three episodes. In a twelve episode run, that’s a lot of time to waste.
The third book, covering the last four episodes, returns the plot back to something resembling on track and starts dealing with the themes that made the show so arresting at first. It also introduces a new character, which makes sense in a novel format but comes off as a bit late here. The central problems Denpa Onna faces are those related to making the transition from novel to show, particularly when the show won’t have time to complete the full story.
The novels wrapped up (at eight volumes) just as the show was getting started. With luck, the final volumes will also get their turn at being animated, but perhaps in a more condensed fashion. There’s great material to work with here, and Shaft’s production is uniformly excellent. But more care could be taken in making the transition from novel to anime as effective as it could be.
Most Unexpected Political Message:
Winner: [C]: The Money of Soul and Possibility Control
I couldn’t in good conscience put [C] into the “Best Show We Didn’t Write About” category, even as a runner-up, because I’m not convinced it was a good show. While I thought the finale did what it needed to do, the battles that make up the backdrop of the series remain nonsensical and arbitrary, whole swaths of background terminology are never explained, and the show talks about vague concepts like the “future” or the “present” like everyone knows exactly what is being talked about. On many levels it’s a narrative mess.
Still, as social commentary I think [C] is more intriguing than Fractale (its predecessor on the noitaminA block), for the simple reason that its commentary keeps expanding and deepening. At first, the show’s “deals” appear to be a j’accuse against selfish capitalism, where all transactions are a zero-sum game. Then comes the concept of Midas Money, which entres get for putting their future up as collateral and which has increasingly detrimental effects on society.
The main antagonist for [C] spends all his efforts at trying to keep the workings of the financial district from damaging the real world, by pouring in Midas Money as a stimulus to keep businesses afloat and people employed. Only as the show continues does it come out that doing this is literally selling away the future to preserve the present, which itself reaches deeper and deeper levels of stagnation. The introduction and overuse of Midas Money literally rewrites the world, making it a darker, lonelier place.
From here, it would be safe to conclude that the makers of [C] are really opposed to the stimulus spending that Japan has done over the past few decades to try to get out its recession. With an absurdly high debt-to-GDP ratio and little noticeable improvement as a result, it’s easy to draw connections between massive deficit spending and “selling away the future.”
Just this message, however, wouldn’t be all that unique—although I agree with it (and would happily go on a long rant about current US policies following Japan’s mistakes if this were a political and not an anime blog), it’s not something that hasn’t been said before. What makes [C] interesting is how much the show links “the future” with children, such that by the end it’s impossible to distinguish the two.
Since entres put up their own future as collateral, it’s only a matter of time before Kimimaro sees an entre lose it all, and finds that while the latter is untouched, his three children vanish as if they never existed. Since one’s asset is the the entre’s future personified, Kimimaro’s asset is heavily implied bear resemblance to his future daughter, just as his father’s asset, remarkably similar in appearance, was the sister Kimimaro never had.
Further effects of selling off the future to save the present affect first of all the children of Japan: when Midas money is flooded into the Japanese market to avert a catastrophe, playgrounds empty out, birth rates plummet, and formerly full classrooms are left with only a handful of students, as children are retroactively written out of existence. When Kimimaro “saves the future,” he finds a Japan filled with children; the economy might not be as strong, but there are large and lively families.
It’s a message that was part of [C] from the very beginning, as Kimimaro states he only wants to live a normal life and support a future family. But it slowly expands and takes on greater meaning, until the entire series stands as a rebuke to modern Japanese society, which perpetually favors current stability and financial security over the risk—and it always entails risk—of bringing new life into the world. A Japan that isn’t willing to have children, [C] suggests, is a Japan that has traded away its future.
Most Offensive Show:
Winner: Loser: This is the part of the awards post where I regret not having my coblogger around, because I can always count on him to try out some of the most disgusting series of the season just so he can have the privilege of complaining about them. Well, ok, I had the two shows in this category last time, but the plain fact is when I’m trying to cover a 30+ show season singlehandedly, the natural fits for this category are the first ones I don’t bother to check out.
Of the shows I reviewed at the start of this season, the hands-down winner is Hidan no Aria, which combines the usual over-the-top fanservice and flavorless harem girls with plots so absurd that it would insult your intelligence and mine just to repeat them. (Follow the above link and check the comment section if you need proof.) That easily trumps A Channel, which can only compete with frequent flashes of skin and quasi-lesbian hijinks.
But that leaves several promising entries completely unmentioned. There’s Oretachi ni Tsubasa wa Nai taking up the traditional extremely fanservice heavy harem show slot, and Hen Zemi serving the perverted comedy market. Then there’s 30-sai no Hoken Taiiku, which is based on—I can’t make stuff like this up—an illustrated sex guidebook for 30+ year old virgins. And then there’s the second season of Seikon no Qwaser, about which the less said, the better.
Frankly, with increasing number of shows coming out each season (this summer features 20+ new series), antiotaku just might not have the time anymore to give this category its due. Take it for granted, however, that there will always be shows that could easily qualify for this category. Flat-out morally offensive shows made up at least a fifth of this season’s new releases. We’ll see over the next few weeks if the summer season has a similar ratio.