Summer 2011 Season in Review – Blown Away
American TV has slowly started experimenting beyond the standard “debut every series in September and see what sticks” model, but it’s still the case that fall is the season where the big ticket items are debuted. Similiarly, the big anime seasons tend to be spring and fall, with the winter and particularly the summer season left to left to flounder with continuing shows and one or two decent new offerings.
That was certainly the case last summer, as noted by our very tepid awards post for summer 2010. It was not the case in winter 2011, with some remarkably solid offerings including Madoka, which is still the most likely candidate for show of the year. It’s also not the case here, with some strong continuing series being equaled or bested by shows that debuted this season. Neither of us were prepared for how remarkably strong, on balance, this season’s offerings were.
It’s unfortunate that the strength of the best series of this season eclipsed some other gems. When the most competitive category is “Best Show We Didn’t Cover,” that’s a good sign that summer 2011 was a great three months for anime. And that remains true even though the second most competitive category was “Most Offensive Series.”
As bear didn’t have a chance to watch most of the summer shows, this post is written entirely by 3HM.
Winner: Usagi Drop
Praising Usagi Drop is easy for me to do, because even the minor complaints my coblogger developed while writing about it didn’t seem that important to me. I never felt the series was too preachy, and I was willing to forgive the moments where the show made Rin a bit too perfect. For the show, with minimal fanfare and an almot sublime indifference to creating an exciting plot, managed to do something better: It created a moving one.
Among Usagi Drop’s many strengths is its universality. This is a show that literally anyone can appreciate. You don’t need to be familiar with in-jokes of the otaku community to understand the humor, or an ability to suspend disbelief to accept the plot, or a high tolerance for fanservice to appreciate … well, the show doesn’t have fanservice. What it does have is real human emotion, something so rare in an age of flashy action and risque humor.
Usagi Drop takes ordinary people in what is an increasingly ordinary situation (broken, single-parent families) and crafts a effective drama out of the simplest of things. Despite having an unconventional art style that deliberately tells the audience they are watching something drawn, it’s the least cartoony thing this season. In my years of watching anime, I’ve developed a simple rule: Never bet against a josei show. This series is a great example as to why.
Runner-up: Hana-Saku Iroha
In an odd coincidence, the two shows under consideration here share a deep interest in two things: family legacy, and Japanese culture. Bear has talked at length at how traditionally Japanese Daikichi is, and the family connections are obvious. Yet Hana-Saku Iroha is about something quintessentially Japanese (a hot springs inn), and it is about family too, as three generations of the Shijima clan work out their various issues and grapple with the legacy that has been left for them.
Hana-Saku Iroha is more like an anime than Usagi Drop, and that hurts it overall. There’s a bit too much focus on showing off the cast of high school girls and a bit too little on keeping the narrative tight and always moving forward. But the narrative does move, and in surprisingly effective ways, as the cast matures and changes, with some of the adults showing far more growth than the teens. Whatever its faults, you never doubt that the show is providing you with a cast of real characters, each with a role to play.
By the time the finale has worked its magic with a surprising yet satisfying ending, the audience is both satisfied and begging for more. Yet, to a certain extent, that’s the point, as the show—always a coming of age story at heart—shows that this development of character can never truly come to an end. We are always learning how to be better people. Hana-Saku Iroha gives us some idea of where to start.
Winner: Usagi Drop
This is a really odd award to pass out, for we don’t quite know who really deserves it. Much praise has to go to original creator Yumi Unita, who created the concept and worked out basic driving relations that characterize the plot. Yet it’s obvious that Production I.G. brought in their own tweaks, with the comparatively rookie series composer and director doing outstanding work in fleshing out the scenarios and breathing life into even the slowest of moments.
Regardless of who should get the most credit, the writing remains remarkably true to life throughout. Particularly pleasing to me is how much the show doesn’t pretend that all problems have easy solutions, or even solutions at all. It might gloss over the burdens of parenting here and there, but it captures the most basic parenting concept of all remarkably well: to be a parent is to decide to put one’s child before oneself. And by making that choice, it leads to a joy that those focused only on themselves can never experience.
Runner Up: Natsume Yuujin-Chou
I’m not certain what’s more unique about Natsume Yuujin-Chou: that’s it’s daring enough to stretch its character development over three seasons and counting of the show, or that it manages to remain engrossing even with its slow pace.
Like some other shows we’ve covered here at antiotaku, the ostensible plot for each episode is not the real point, as each either points out an element of Natsume’s personal development, or leads him to make another step in becoming the man he’s meant to be. Yet unlike those other shows, the outward plots of Natsume Yuujin-Chou are moving events in themselves, not given short shrift or lacking for cathartic impact. This is a show that can smuggle in its moral without sabotaging the story that carries it. That takes skill, and this series has shown that it has it, again and again.
Winner: Hana-Saku Iroha
PA Works has stunned me with their work ever since True Tears convinced me that even romantic melodrama could be worth watching in HD. Since then, they’ve continued to put out series after series that, regardless of the overall merit, has been one of the prettiest things then airing. Hana-Saku Iroha continues that, with excellent character designs, lively motion, and an aesthetic sense that is absolutely right for its topic.
The stunning realistic backgrounds aren’t just beautiful to look at in themselves, but convey a sense of care and love to the inn and its surroundings; that’s a sense which the animation staff want you to share. The way the younger versions of Hana’s mother and grandmother are depicted reflects a sense of generational connectivity, one which ties into the themes of family. This is a show which is not only visually phenomenal, but which uses that technical precision for a point.
Runner-up: My Ordinary Life
Kyoto Animation has made only two series since we started up this blog and both have been slice of life shows which, by usual lights, are the place where animators more or less have a free pass to slack off. And yet both times they’ve come in for a mention here, because the quality of their product, both in the little touches and in the most manic moments, are so wonderfully done.
My Ordinary Life should be dragged down by its relatively basic character designs (a carryover from the manga) and simple style. But Kyoto perpetually finds ways to liven up those basic designs, from the most subtle of expressions to—far more common—wacky super deformity. This is a show that could have gotten away with a whole lot less, yet it continually offers more. There’s a lot to complain about some of Kyoto’s recent decisions, starting with their inability to make a Full Metal Panic sequel. But they are incapable of making a visually uninteresting show, and this is another testament to that.
Runner-up: Usagi Drop
Usagi Drop is another example of an unconventional art style, one which manages to be consistently beautiful without breaking the bank. Part of that comes from the style itself, where photo-realism is replaced with simple drawings that still convey a wonderful amount of emotion. Of particular note are the “watercolor” scenes, like the one above, that bear felt a need to praise in multiple reviews, and which set the series apart from its competitors.
Of course, if you look closely, you can also see an attention to detail even in the “normal” scenes. Little touches like the unconscious tics of the characters, the way children and dirt seem to go together, and unbridled cuteness of the kindergarten age cast that never becomes too grating: all these are testimonies to the skill of the artistic team, united behind a shared vision of what Usagi Drop should be like. Everything about the animation serves that end.
Best Character Relationship
Winner: Rin Kaga and Daikichi Kawachi (Usagi Drop)
I really hope no one was surprised by this pick. A father-daughter relationship is one of the rarest things in anime, owning to the general lack of parental figures in an medium that is mostly directed towards teens and twentysomethings. When such a relationship does arise, it’s one of a man obsessively guarding his daughter, serving as a parody of a protective parent.
Daikichi is certainly protective of his ward, but in a way that remains, like everything else in the show, true to life. Theirs is a real relationship because it is always developing and always goes both ways, with Rin changing her new father just as Daikichi tries to help his new daughter mature.
I remember once listening to a relatively new father talk about all those stereotypical expectations of how becoming a parent changes you, and then he blurted out, “Well, it’s all true!” Usagi Drop is an exploration of those changes, and that makes the relationship between Daikichi and Rin the core of the series.
Runner-up: Kyouhei Kuga and Hibino Shiba (Kamisama Dolls)
This pick might be a bit more of a surprise than the last one, particularly as I know that Hibino wasn’t always liked within much of the anime blogosphere. It’s something of a surprise to me as well, as I was expecting to dislike Hibino for the moment she stood up in the first episode and I took the full measure of her … unrealistic character design. But however stereotypical or exaggerated her character design might be, there’s nothing exaggerated about her character, or how she interacts with Kyouhei.
In a world with anime “romances” based on unrequited crushes, immature and violent denials of affection, or behavior that would get people arrested for stalking, Kyouhei and Hibino explore their feelings for each other in a surprisingly normal way. The less edifying examples of relationships around them only highlights how unique their relationship is, and the mature way by which Hibino finally accepts Kyouhei’s intentions while acknowledging her own ranks among my favorite romantic resolutions in anime.
Kamisama Dolls might have been excluded from most of the other award categories due to tough competition and a plotline that obviously needs a second act. That doesn’t keep it from having been a good show, or one which deserves notice here.
Best Opening or Ending Theme:
Winner: Dantalian no Shoka
Many things in anime look pretty. But it’s far rarer to find something that is genuinely beautiful. That’s what the opening of Dantalian no Shoka gives us. It’s not just that the animation is lovely (the show might have gotten an animation runner-up slot in a less crowded season) or the music far classier than your typical anime fare. It’s how the whole package works together, with the Victorian trappings, the hint of Gothic horror, and the classic choral work all mixing together to provide a sense of what this anime will be about.
Based on the opening, one would expect Dantalian to be about a man and his supernatural partner facing magically empowered threats and defeating them, while slowly exploring how their relationship is only one part of a much larger history that stretches the bounds of time and space. And at the show’s best, that’s exactly what we get. Of course, the show is only sporadically at its best, for reasons I’ll detail below. But watching this makes me wish it could have been more than it was.
Runner-up: Hana-Saku Iroha/My Ordinary Life
The original openings for Hana-Saku Iroha and My Ordinary Life are very different in style and tone, but they share two things in common: Both are made by some of the most talented animators in the business, and both more or less perfectly capture what their respective shows are about. When both series hit episode 14 and it was time to roll out a new opening, I didn’t expect either show to be able to top what they already had. Silly me.
As it happens, both series kept the same singer and the same basic outline, but went back and doubled down on all the things that made the original opening great. For Hana-Saku Iroha, that was the sense of urgency and of youthful striving, and an appreciation for the labor involved in making an inn work. For My Ordinary Life, it was a sense of silly irreverence, which both highlighted its characters and gave them their due, and yet at the same time showed you exactly how lighthearted and wacky the show would be.
Maybe I’m wrong, and the second opening for one or both series didn’t top the original. You can watch Hana-Saku Iroha’s here and here and My Ordinary Life’s here and here, and make that judgement for yourself. Of course, since both shows are streaming on Crunchyroll and you should watch them anyway, you could just do that instead.
Best Show We Didn’t Write About:
Winner: Natsume Yuujin-Chou
I wasn’t as impressed with the premiere of Natsume Yuujin-Chou’s third installment as I was expecting to be, but I’m happy to report that the overall quality of the season was superb. Natsume successfully combines elements of the slice-of-life, Japanese horror, and coming of age genres into a remarkably unique package that, while slow moving, is still engrossing and lovely to behold.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect is Natsume’s personal growth, as he slowly opens up to the world around him and becomes a better man through helping others. Also intriguing is the basic theme of each season, with the first mostly focusing on his changing relationships with spirits, the second showing him form deeper relationships with humans, and the third slowly tying those worlds together. All those elements have been there from the beginning, so it’s fascinating to watch how those themes evolve and intertwine as the show goes on.
The best part is that we already know that there will be another season next winter, and we can be fairly certain that Crunchyroll will pick up that too. I eagerly await that day.
Stiens;Gate is only the runner up for this category, but it’s not for lack of ambition. Stiens;Gate starts off a confusing mess with only the faintest hints of what is going on or how it connects to our mentally unstable protagonist. Yet by the end it has woven a surprisingly coherent saga with not just one but three methods of time-travel explored in depth and everything tied together in the end.
While I think a show like Stiens;Gate has a wider base of appeal than Natsume, I gave it the runner-up nod because I think its flaws are also more obvious. There are some episodes which strongly reflect the show’s dating sim roots, and they stand as some of the weakest in the series for sticking so close to that formula. (There’s also one urban legend which is so ignorant of basic biology as to defy belief peddled as fact by the show.) And I’m sure, if I watched the show and dug at it hard enough, I’d uncover some plot holes here and there; with a plot as convoluted as this one, they’d be hard to avoid.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Time travel is a damn hard subject to get right, and Stiens;Gate gives us the best take on it we are likely to get out of anime for a long, long time. With stellar voice acting, animation that might have gotten a runner-up nod in a weaker season, and some surprisingly effective drama that springs out every now and again, it’s a wonderful production that deserves better than half-hearted praise. Best of all, like basically every show we’ve praised this season, it’s available streaming.
Runner-up: My Ordinary Life
At the end of the day, only two things can make a slice of life show worth watching. The first is genuinely funny comedy, which most anime creators mistake for “cute girls being klutzes.” The second is real, albeit incremental, character development and a sense that, despite the slow pace of the series, there is a sense of progression. (This was something the first season of K-On! had, by the way, which the second one lacked.)
My Ordinary Life manages to include both of those elements. The show’s stellar animation (see the award above) is a wonderful match for the absurdist sense of humor that characterizes the work. Yet there’s also a sense of development and change, particularly as the show hits its halfway point. My Ordinary Life does one of the most daring things a comedy can do, and that’s disrupt the established dynamics. And it pulls it off wonderfully.
As the previously separate elements of the show’s world are connected together, they also grown dramatically. I will be the first to admit I never expected anything resembling drama or emotion out of this series, and the show would be fine even if it lacked for it. But the few moments they do have are something quite special. If you haven’t taken a look at this series yet, I encourage you to do so.
Most Obvious Attempt to Appeal to an American Audience
Winner: Tiger & Bunny
It’s not unheard of for an anime series to be set outside of Japan, but it is rather rare. Tiger & Bunny is obviously set in an American-lite city, however, with English as the printed language of choice and a multi-ethnic population that feels unique to the States. (What’s more surprising is that the English names, signs, and other bits of writing actually appear to have been written by someone with a fluent grasp of English.) Even the sense of blatant commercialism that pervades the city is a stereotypically American phenomenon.
Even more than the setting, the themes of the show is classic American comic book. The art style (and the Japanese protagonist) gives away that this was an anime production, but the heart of the show is based in Batman and the X-Men, DC and Marvel. That the show manages to take the legacy and stay true to it while making something unique and original is even more impressive.
Tiger & Bunny isn’t a great show, but it’s a very solid one: in production, in writing, and in appeal. It isn’t just angling for a favorable reception in the States. It deserves one.
Normally, I’m used to a show which takes the high expectations I have for it and flushes them down the toilet. Much less often, I approach a show with minimal expectations and am at least moderately surprised by how it manages not to be trash. Blood-C manages to do both, faking me out with a lackluster opening only to craft a surprisingly involved tale of conspiracy and brutally enforced failure, only to wipe out nearly almost all that goodwill in the end.
Much of that disappointment stems from the exploitative violence of the ending, which I harp about below. But it also comes from the fact that Blood-C created a very elaborate deception that drove the plot, but failed to give any convincing reason for it. At the end of the series, I still have no idea why the antagonist did what he did, what he was testing, how would he know if he succeeded or failed, why he continually interfered with the experiment, what another character did to counter him—basically, I don’t know anything about the show save the raw emotions it generated. And that makes the finale not a cathartic explanation of what we have seen, but an admission that we’ve just been jerked around for 12 episodes for no real point.
Runner-up: Dantalian no Shoka
Dantalian no Shoka introduced itself to us as a Gothic horror piece with some distinctly anime trappings. Maybe, in fact, that’s what the original light novels are like. But Gainax wound up taking a subject matter that is not within their usual fare experimented with it a bit too much, leading to travesties like the fifth episode, but far more often a general sense of aimlessness, one which makes the protagonists more like spectators observing other people’s problems. There’s hints of a greater underlying conflict, but the show almost seems to function like a trailer for some other, better series, stretched out between episodes of fluff and self-indulgence. A more focused adaption might have given us the series I was hoping Dantalian would be. I suppose we’ll never know.
Runner-up: Kami-sama no Memo-chou
Kami-sama no Memo-chou was the first series I wrote about for this season, and my initial review was almost entirely positive. In particular, I liked how it introduced its protagonist, addressed deeper social issues in its opening mystery, and had a strong supporting cast. Toss in some very pretty visuals and a mystery that wasn’t complete crap, and you had a great introduction to a series.
I only recently learned that the intro episode for Memo-chou was an anime original episode, but in retrospect that makes a lot of sense. I can say that nothing after that introduction really justified my original enthusiasm. The character development remained fairly static, Alice remained a remarkably annoying and stereotypical female lead, and the mysteries went from silly to pointless rather quickly. I actually dropped the series halfway through out of boredom, unable to connect with any of the characters and uninterested in the plots. I wanted to like this show. It just didn’t give me much reason to.
Most Offensive Show:
Winner: Manyuu Hiken-chou
Manyuu Hiken-chou is the inevitable result of the boob mania that infests much of the anime world. Not content with just having characters with absurdly large endowments, Manyuu Hiken-chou insists on building its plot around it too, featuring an alternate history Japan where breast size is tied to political power, and the rapacious Manyuu clan regularly terrorizes local villages by kidnapping girls and—I am not making this up—using magically enchanted swords to decrease their breast size and transfer that to the clan’s own women.
That concept would be bad enough, but Manyuu Hiken-chou treats its concept as an invitation to violent lesbian antics, with breast groping and sexual assault a regular feature of the first episode. (I think someone on the staff is fond of bondage, too.) It goes beyond just highlighting how horrible the Manyuu are, to the point where it is very deliberately encouraging the audience to partake in that and enjoy it too, even as they might outwardly condemn it.
The worst part is? From what little I’ve read about the direction of the series after the first episode (and there was no way I was going to go any further than one episode), it turns into a comedy series. But there’s a level of degradation that you just can’t turn into comedy. There’s a level of degradation you can’t even turn into drama. And wherever that level is for you, I assure you that Manyuu Hiken-chou will be past it.
Runner-up: Mayo Chiki
Mayo Chiki wasn’t the only show I could have considered here for the “sexually exploitative runner up” slot. This season also featured R-15, which was a nonsensical show about an academy for “geniuses” of every stripe, that had it’s protagonist a “genius” porn writer. An even better candidate would be The Dark Rabbit has Seven Lives, which vies the fall season’s Maken-ki! for sheer number of panty shots (including one scene in the first episode which is basically an extended panty shot). I only made it through one episode of R-15 and couldn’t even bring myself to finish the premiere Dark Rabbit, so one would think that this would make either of them worse than Mayo Chiki, which I actually watched enough of to properly review.
But while I suppose it’s possible, and in fact likely, that either R-15 or Dark Rabbit would further degrade itself, Mayo Chiki still left me with the most negative impression, not because it showed more skin or had a worse concept, but because it was the most hypocritical. No one would ever confuse Dark Rabbit for having engaging characters or moving drama. But Mayo Chiki pretended that it did.
Thus, Kanade is a sweet girl who loves her friend Subaru and wants to help with Kinjirou’s problem, but only when she’s not putting the two of them into extremely dangerous and/or degrading situations for her amusement. Kinjirou is gynophobic, but only when it suits the plot. Subaru comes off the most schizophrenic, flipping from stereotype to stereotype, each keyed to maximize the fanbait for the particular situation.
I got the feeling, in short, that Mayo Chiki didn’t realize it was a bad show. Deep down, the staff felt they were concocting a heartwarming romantic tale. And to be fair, I’ve seen shows with plenty of fanservice and some degree of cliche be good dramas, or comedies, or even romances. But to pull that off, you have to make sure the exploitation doesn’t directly undercut the very points you are trying to make. There, Mayo Chiki utterly fails.
While shows that involve both sexual exploitation and violence are more likely to qualify for this “award” than shows with just a lot of sex (see Manyuu Hiken-chou, above, and Freezing, winter 2011), we’ve yet to nominate a show for this award just for violent content. With its finale, Blood-C makes that cut. Blood-C was always an excessively violent show, and only increased its bloodlust as the series progressed. But near constant censoring and a tendency not to linger on the deaths of the innocent kept it from being too extreme, even though one knew the DVDs probably would be.
That changed in the final episode. As the town is slaughtered by monsters, the form of censoring switches from white/blackout to blurring, thus making sure even the audience at home knows not just that the villagers are dying in droves, but the varied and grotesque manners of their deaths. We don’t see the gritty details of screaming men and women being impaled, ripped limb from limb, or blended into a puree. But the show makes sure we understand exactly what is going on.
This level of detail isn’t needed to establish the villainy of the antagonist—a simple slaughter would do for that. Nor is it done for his entertainment, as he doesn’t even care to watch. It’s being done for the enjoyment of the audience. We are expected, on some level, to appreciate the “artistry” of it. Much like Manyuu Hiken-chou encourages the audience to derive excitement from rape scenarios, Blood-C, as it wraps up the TV portion of the project, invites us to gawk and stare at insidiously creative brutality.
Blood-C’s ending is offensive, ultimately, because of what it assumes from its audience. That, ultimately, is what unites the three shows taking the award away this season: an impression that the show is, by design, catering to perverts and/or sociopaths. What also unites these three series is how incredibly obvious they are about it.