Echoes' Top 10 Anime of 2015: Different Shades of Cute
Another year has passed. And what a year it was. I can't say I much cared for 2015. He was always running his mouth, making trouble, and leaving me with the unenviable task of cleaning up his mess and paying his bills. What I am trying to say through this belabored exercise in personification is that 2015 was not that great of year for me. In fact, it was quite terrible.
But with a new year, comes new chances. The first of which I'll take advantage of is the chance to look back fondly at some of the bright-spots of 2015. Anime-wise, of course. While I did manage to watch a decent amount of shows this year, a few notables are still clogging up my voluminous to-watch-list. Foremost among these are Yuri Kuma Arashi, Charlotte, Ore Monogatari, as well as the latest installments of Jojo, Fate/Stay Night and Monogatari. How different the list would end up looking had I watched all of them is anyone's guess, but I thought it was worth giving them an honorable mention of sorts. (And also to excuse away their absence preemptively!) Additionally, I will only consider shows which started and ended in 2015 for the list, which unfortunately means Shirobako and Kiseiju/Parasyte will not be making appearances. For the record, Shirobako would have been a contender for the number one spot. It is nothing short of a masterpiece, and may become the subject of an article of its own in the future. Parasyte would have likely ended up somewhere on the list as well.
I will admit upfront that I found 2015 to be one of the weaker years in recent anime history. Out of the last five years, this was easily the nadir. Perhaps this impression is due to my turbulent personal affairs, or perhaps it can be attributed to not managing to consume the admittedly tempting titles previously mentioned. Regardless of the cause, I can only tell it like I see it. This point is also largely academic, as we live in what I consider a golden age of anime, where the selection is so vast, that an entire year of anime will always have a myriad of wonderful shows to enjoy for anyone but the grouchiest of grouches. Make no mistake about it, what was good, was still damn good. Speaking of which, it is just about time to dip our toe in the water with our number 10 selection!
10. Yamada-kun to 7-nin no Majo (Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches)
Starting off our list is a unique little gem of a show which surpassed all and any expectations I had for it. Ostensibly a comedic romp dealing with the much-explored (at least for us anime-fans) topic of body-swapping, Yamada-kun quickly sheds its frivolous huskand reveals its talent for powerful, emotional character-exploration. That is not to say the show does a 180 on you, as it remains genuinely hilarious throughout, expertly balancing the two forces.
Although the show has the makings of a harem if you were to look at its cast, the show possesses few, if any, of the undesirable traits associated with that label. Yamada himself is neither milk-toast, nor boring. He has personality from the get-go, being a delinquent of sorts, and every character introduced adds to the dynamic in a meaningful, enjoyable way. Rarely can I remember rooting this hard for the main couple to get together. They felt right for each other the whole way through. It did not hurt that Urara (portrayed brilliantly by Hayami Saori) was one of the most attractive and likeable characters I saw all year. They have genuine chemistry, and their personalities complimented each others' so well. They're both tough on the outside, but cute and tender as soon you pierce that exterior shell.
The main gimmick of the show being body-swapping through the act of kissing certainly sounds like the conceit of a show which aspires to lechery, but Yamada-kun is different. I am sure that the female authorship of the original manga helped in this regard. The way the excessive amount of kissing is handled is actually quite mature and sweet. And funny. It's funny too. Some characters take the kissing very seriously, while others come to view it as little more than a ritual; a tool to achieve their goals. It is a refreshing series, which managed to get me emotionally invested in the outcome, and whose ending did not leave me disappointed.
9. Non Non Biyori Repeat
The first of four sequels to appear on this list. I almost wanted to exclude sequels entirely this time around, but alas, there were simply too damn many good ones this year.
Non Non Biyori's second season offers exactly what we have come to expect from the series: Calm, humorous slices of life in the country-side. It does absolutely nothing to change up the formula, instead honing its already fine craft and giving us more of the same. Which, I think, is what we all wanted. There is something in Non Non Biyori that just feels so down-to-earth and real. Its comedy is slightly exaggerated, of course, but the whole atmosphere of the show conveys a world which feels like it could exist out there somewhere. Moreover, it feels like a world you'd be totally cool living in, despite it lacking any glamour or luxury. That is what Non Non Biyori has over just about every other slice-of-life show out there.
Well, that and Renge. Need I remind everyone of when “Candy Store” taught Renge how to ride a bike? Or when she wanted to make a rock out of wood? Cute doesn't even begin to describe it. Yeah, this is a good show.
8. Death Parade
The games may differ here at Quindecim, but the stakes are always the same: The destination of your soul.
Death Parade is one of those gems that really got people talking when it aired early in 2015. With its slick visual style, intriguing characters and -of course-, its episodic stories concerning recently deceased people who find themselves stripped of their memories and engaged in a seemingly mundane game. The game is, -of course-, anything but, ultimately serving as a vehicle to explore these peoples' flaws, sins, regrets and other earthly transgressions.
That in itself sounds like more than enough for a show to bite off, but Death Parade takes it one step further by simultaneously exploring the lives of the arbiters, the judges in this “world”, as well as one very special dark-haired woman who aids them. I was enthralled by Decim's questioning of the system, and by the individual stories of those who had passed. I was less enthralled by Ginti's antics, but for every scene where he was present, there was a scene of Nona acting mysterious and condescending. And that does make up for a lot.
Death Parade keeps you on the edge of your seat for the majority of its run-time, and has just enough grim humanity in it for my liking. It is not bleak or joyless, but it does frequently showcase the darkly primal parts of humanity. The show has enough moxie not to placate anyone's expectations, and thank goodness for that.
Working's third season struck me like a bolt out of the blue. Close to four years had passed since the second season ended, and my mind was not entertaining the possibility of as much as a conciliatory OVA. What we ended up receiving was not just a whole new season, but a satisfactory conclusion to the whole story, complete with character growth and a couple of confessions. While we did not get much more than a confession and a tease out of it, Mahiru and Sota's relationship was finally made concrete. Still, the highlight of the season has to be Sato and Yachiyo ending up together. Not only is it the most interesting relationship in the series in my mind (Sato being perhaps my favorite character in the show, rivaled only by the indomitable Yamada), but the pairing itself is just so sweet and unexpected. The way the two of them interact shows us sides of their characters hitherto unseen, and again, it is just so genuinely sweet.
The comedy also continued on par with the earlier seasons, with Yamada being the main contributor to my enjoyment in this department. Poor thing, she really hates having that “nice body.” They finally discovered her latent talent in this season too (apart from breaking stuff and annoying people, of course). She is apparently very good at locating people who are lost. Or maybe it's just that one person. Regardless, she (and Yamada) tends to quickly vanish soon thereafter, making this talent largely useless. I...don't think anyone is surprised.
Whenever I take a short break from this show and come back to it, it without fail surprises me by just how enjoyable and funny it is. When you're not watching it, it seems like there's not much to it. But once you load up an episode, you're always in for a good time. See you Working, you were one hell of a show.
6. Hibike! Euphonium
As someone who has never gotten beyond the humble apprentice stage of learning to play any instrument in his life, much less partaken in any organized activity surrounding it, the premise of Hibike! Euphonium does not conjure up rose-tinted images of nostalgic frolicking with friends and band-mates. Still, this show almost makes it feel as though I did. The sense of nostalgia evoked by this show is nigh-palpable, but unlike its more fluffy and frivolous predecessor K-On!, this vision is far from idyllic.
No, this is more akin to a real high-school experience; relateable to all but the most fortunate of us. Filled with the joy of youth, the joy of learning and accomplishing things with your friends, yes, but also littered with angst, shattering friendships, colliding interests and peppered with the occasional straight-up nastiness. Euphonium paints a picture where everything doesn't always work out through improbably convenient fixes, where some prosper, while others get left behind, and where the person you confess to may not feel the same way. All of this is beautiful in its own way, and the show spares no expense in making the visuals just as splendid as the emotions conveyed.
Kyoto Animation has no shortage of breath-takingly beautiful shows (in fact, just about every show they have produced looks absolutely gorgeous), but even by their irreproachable standards, Hibike! Euphonium is a visual feast. From the brass instruments, to the irresistible character designs, to the sprawling backgrounds, I cannot find a single thing to take issue with visually in this show. The animation is fluid, and the work on details elevates good scenes into the realm of the unforgettable.
While Hibike! Euphonium falls a bit short of KyoAni's best works for me, it shows that after a sojourn producing shows which just didn't hit my sweet-spot (specifically Free's first season and Kyokai no Kanata), Kyoto Animation is back with a vengeance. That alone is reason to rejoice. Any scene involving both Kumiko and Reina is another. Whether their lesbian flirtations remain all but a tease or not, they are just so cute together you can't help but smile whenever they interact.
5. Hello! Kiniro Mosaic
"Hello" indeed. This is literally one of those shows where I could just name a character and call it a review. The magnetic power of Kujo Karen may just equal that of the earth itself. Her relentless positivity, eccentric sense of humor and style, and of course, her absolutely incomparable voice-work, performed by the equally incomparable Toyama Nao. You could give that voice to a patch of mold, or a big granite rock, and it would still likely be one of my favorite characters of the year. She is so cute, so funny; It simply has to be seen (and heard!) to be believed.
While my unadulterated praise of Karen cannot help but overshadow any and all other qualities the show possesses, they are certainly not to be glossed over by any means. Just because the steak is the star, doesn't mean that the trimmings aren't important, after all. The show actually has quite the wonderful cast. Shinobu and Yoko in particular got a lot of spotlight shone on them this season, and while the core of their character has hardly changed, some important fleshing out was done to add a bit of dimension to their personality. Shinobu will always be a goof, but there is more to her. Even if that “more” may not entail great, or even passable, comprehension of the English language. Keep working at it, Shino, you'll get there eventually. Maybe. Possibly.
Kiniro Mosaic is nothing more and nothing less than immaculately cute, fluffy and funny. But in those realms, few can contest its reign.
4. Yuru Yuri San Hai!
The third season of Yuru Yuri also happens to be the final sequel on this list, and naturally, it is also the one I think is the very best. When I look at my shelf and see the huge blu-ray boxes of the previous seasons standing there, shining effulgently down, I remember just how long this series has been with me. Three seasons and several OVAs later, and Yuru Yuri has shown no signs of diminishing returns. In fact, this third season may just be the pinnacle of the franchise, giving us everything we have come to expect, and more.
What made Yuru Yuri great has always been its humor and its characters, the latter of which are nearly an ensemble cast. This point is pivotal to why this season is so effective. Rather than changes in style, themes or tone, Yuru Yuri keeps the show fresh by changing which characters, of groups of characters, interact. You may get a sweet (or awkward!) scene between two characters you suddenly realize, have never really talked to each other that much. They have certainly never been alone together before, and despite you knowing both of their personalities, the way these characters play off of each other may surprise you. This in itself may seem like a minute point, but the fact that small changes like this add so much to the enjoyment of the series is an enduring testament to how likeable this entire cast is.
Ensemble cast or not, we all have our favorites. Mine has been, and likely always will be, Toshino Kyoko. Much like the previously discussed Kujo Karen, she is a beacon of unfettered joy. Always filled with exciting and frequently moronic ideas, she lightens everyone's day, both those lucky characters trapped within the show's conceited walls, and us envious humans looking in. Her interactions with Ayano are to die for, they are simply glorious. Both Sakurako and Ayano grew particularly likable this time around, soaring to heights of charming far above those of the previous two seasons. There were some nice moments between Yui and Kyoko, some nice moments between all four members of the core cast, and even some more of Chinatsu's awesome sister. Except for the ever-elusive actual confession of love and subsequent relationship, this season has given me just about everything I could ask of the show.
And to anyone out there who may have anything negative to say about the show, all I've got to say to you is this: “It goes in my right ear, and out my right ear.”
3. Gakko Gurashi (School-Live)
Gakko Gurashi is a show which is often discussed largely in terms of its effective use of a dark twist in its first episode, and while this is laudable indeed, the show has so much more to offer beyond this clever gimmick. To give some context to this praise: I dislike zombie-anything. Zombie-games, zombie-movies, zombie-survival books, the whole shebang. You name it, I don't like it. The only exceptions I can name are Kore wa Zombie desu ka? and “Shaun of the Dead”, both of which are comedies more concerned with lampooning the concept than proper entries in the genre per se. Gakkou Gurashi, however, is quite sincere in its approach to the living dead, and I still find it absolutely wonderful. That means we are off to a great start.
Gakko Gurashi follows a group of four girls stuck living in their suspiciously well-equipped school after a full-on zombie outbreak has occurred. Their lives consist of building barricades, going on expeditions to secure food supplies and trying to keep their spirits up. As if that wasn't challenging enough for a group of young girls, they have to contend with Yuki, who is living in denial to such an extent that she still believes everything is fine and dandy. She even insists on attending class alone, her deluded mind convinced that she is surrounded by classmates, rather than by blood and debris.
Still, Yuki's refusal to face reality is a double-edged blade for the group. She is the heart of the group, always encouraging them to partake in games and activities, which helps them stay positive through their dark times. The humor is fresh and adorable, so much so that you can easily forget just what show you're watching at times. Much of it is light-hearted, which tugs at your heartstrings all the more once you again remember just what the girls are up against. It balances flashbacks and plot progression well, accomplishing a great deal in its one-cour span. When the show wants you to laugh and smile, you will. Likewise, when the show shows its flair for the dramatic, you will feel for the characters.
One small complaint I could issue against the show is that the second twist (and I won't reveal what it is, or when it happens, but you will know what I am talking about when you see it) was something I predicted almost as soon as the element was introduced. The hints they provided felt too obvious. Even so, I enjoyed this part of the show too. It is just so well put together, you can easily overlook small stuff like that. The show also looks very pretty, and has an addictive opening I won't stop listening to anytime soon. Gakko Gurashi is a success through and through, and I want more.
2. The Rolling Girls
Sometimes, life is kind of cool. Sometimes, someone takes what may just be your favorite band and makes an anime inspired by them. Sometimes, adorable anime girls cover Japanese punk rock. Sometimes, you get The Rolling Girls.
I can hardly be objective about this show. It is a combination of wildly beautiful visuals, adorable girls and The Blue Hearts, a band I have loved for close to a decade now. But I will try to explain why I love it so much.
The Rolling Girls follows a group of itinerant girls on their quest for heart-shaped stones, which may or may not grant their wielders immense power. The show gets off to an explosive start, quickly showcasing its kinetic and unique style, as well as its flashy brand of action. The characters, as well as the backgrounds are simply stunning to look at. It is evocative, beautiful and really pulls you in. Nozomi, Ai, Yukina and Chiaya comprise the main cast, and they compliment each other wonderfully. Their personalities virtually fly off the screen, and picking a favorite proved downright impossible for me until long after I had concluded my viewing. (Chiaya's singing voice finally tipped the scales in her favor at a later date.)
The show is heavily arc-based, as each new location offers a new set of challenges for the girls to deal with. While none of the arcs disappointed, the show is strongest at its beginning and towards the end. The ending is emotional, satisfactory, and borders on mad. Naturally, this is a good thing. I would say that the less you know going in, the better for you. The show has both spectacle and character. Let it carry you away with its music, visuals and charm, and never look back.
No discussion about The Rolling Girls is complete without mention of the music. As mentioned, the Japanese punk rock band “The Blue Hearts” inspired this show, and in more ways than one. The show's very title must certainly be a play on the band's song “The Rolling Man.” The show is also filled with covers of their songs, sung by the female cast of the show, used as background music throughout. The same is true of both the show's opening and ending theme. This music is nothing less than glorious, and I have no words to describe how fantastic this unusual pairing is. For those who missed it, Chroma spotlighted one of their songs during his December music extravaganza. It happens to be my favorite one: "Aozora". Additionally, every episode title is named after one of the band's songs. The finale, 'Mirai wa Bokura no Te no Naka' (The Future is in Our Hands), is the same song used as the opening for the anime Kaiji, for those who caught that back in '07.
The music is indeed so fantastic that I have listened to the tracks hundreds of times since their release, and Chroma was even kind enough to get me the autograph of Hanamori Yumiri, who voices Chiaya in the show, and is easily my favorite singer among the cast. Hearing her child-like voice singing Japanese slang and the punk-filled lyrics of The Blue Hearts is awesome. If I counted all the music released after this show as part of the package, this would easily be my number one pick. Not just of the year, but for a long, long time. Alas, there was one show, which taken on the show's merits alone, managed to edge it out.
1. Junketsu no Maria (Maria the Virgin Witch)
Historical settings are common in every form of media. These settings offer an easy way to make your story exotic, without having to forge a setting from scratch. Medieval Europe happens to be one of my favorites, and while there are plenty of medieval-style fantasy works in anime, rarely go we get a bone fide medieval setting; one concerned with the actual events and customs of the period. Despite the addition of deities, witches and succubi, Junketsu no Maria manages to tackle issues of the time rarely seen addressed in anime. Rarer yet is seeing them addressed in such depth, and with such maturity.
Set during the Hundred Years' War in France, the story follows Maria. Maria is a witch, and she does not care for war. Despite living in France, she does not pick sides in the conflict, instead focusing all of her efforts on minimizing casualties whenever she intervenes. Her meddling attracts the attention of heaven itself, who cares little for her disturbances of the natural order. She is told that she will lose all of her powers once she loses her virginity, and will also be kept under the watchful eye of Ezekiel, as to avoid further incidents until then. Maria will not be dissuaded that easily, and the story follows her struggle to continue opposing war, the tyranny of the Catholic Church, and even the celestial reign itself.
Junketsu no Maria is a wonderfully humanistic show in its approach to morals. Though by no means bereft of spirituality, the show has a clearly humanist, and specifically feminist, ethical-bent. Maria's god-given curse taking effect as soon as she loses her virginity perfectly represents the view most held then, and many hold to this day; that a woman's worth diminishes greatly, if not vanishes outright, as soon as her chastity does. Maria is also shown consistently refusing to submit to anyone's morals, even God's. She will take matters into her own hands, and do what she feels is right. She is more moral, more caring, and braver, than any of the supposed holy men shown in the series. That is not to say her opposition are painted as outright evil. The clergy may be corrupt, but it is still shown to be made up of individuals, with their own complicated feelings on these matters. In fact, the coldest and hardest to sympathize with character may well be the Archangel Micheal. “He” comes across as a pitiless officer carrying out ruthless commands with no regards for the consequences. The antithesis and antagonist to Maria, he values natural order above everything else; individual human lives are but a tiny part of a much bigger picture to him. I could go on and on with these examples, as the show is rife with issues both of the time, and of all time, that are masterfully examined through a historical lens.
The show also looks gorgeous. I.G did an impeccable job producing a medieval look, with great backgrounds, scenes of war, as well as character designs which fit the tone of the show perfectly. From the beautiful Maria and Ezekiel, to the sternly intimidating androgyny of Micheal, to the mundane humanity of characters like Bernard the priest, there is a wide range of designs at work in the series. Maria in particular is an amazingly expressive character, with striking eyes and emotive facial features. The fact that the majority of the cast have a more realistic look to them was a good choice, and makes perfect sense, as it contrasts them with the supernatural creatures of the series, i.e. the witches, succubi and angels. When Maria invokes her spells, conjuring forth creatures of myth, I.G really flex their animating muscles, giving us truly spectacular scenes of visual splendor.
Hanazawa Kana's casting as the angel Ezekiel is perhaps the most appropriate casting decision ever made. Of even more note, though, is Kanemoto Hisako's performance as Maria. Kanemoto, who I associate more with hyper-cute roles such as Ika Musume and Cure Peace, delivers what is easily my favorite performance of the year. Nuanced, endlessly compelling, with just enough stubbornness and intimidation when the time calls for it. She is of course appropriately cute when the times calls for that, too.
My lengthy ramblings on the philosophy and themes found in the show may give off the impression that the show is a dry, near-academic exploration of said topics, but this is not the case. These themes are intervowen beautifully with the show's dramatic, as well as its humorous, sides. The fact that the show has depth is only relevant because it is in addition to it having characters which are so easy to latch on to, characters which are so wonderfully explored and fleshed out. Some of this, especially early on, is indeed done through humor. If you stopped after just a few episodes, you would walk away with quite a different impression of the show. It starts you off slow, building up its setting and characters through jokes, many of which involve Maria's mischievous succubus, Artemis, in some fashion, as she enjoys ribbing her mistress for her lack of experience in certain fields. Maria's disastrous attempt at creating an incubus is also quite the riot.
Did I mention there's a wonderful romance developing through the entire series? Because there is. There is tragedy abound, and also the story of a kind, caring family of people who serve as Maria's anchor to the human world, which largely abhors witches. I could again go on, but I hope my point has come across. This show is true art, and true magic. It made me feel both emotionally and intellectually fulfilled at its conclusion. I will surely revisit it many times in the years to come, and I am sure I will come away with something new every time that I do.
And that's it. Another year of anime over. Whether your choices line up with mine or not, I hope that what you found gave you as much joy as mine did. And if you do agree with me about either The Rolling Girls or Junketsu no Maria, then spread that love around. Neither of those shows get even a tenth of the love they deserve. If you managed to make it this far, or hell, even if you just skipped to the bottom, thanks a bunch for reading. Here's to another year filled with shows like these!