Top 10 Favorites of 2012 - With Echoes
2012 has been over for a while already, but it's still January, so I reserve the right to crank out an obligatory "favorites" list before it's officially too late! These are obviously my personal choices, but I'll go into each entry and explain what made the title stand out to me. I have a few holes in my watching this year, so I'll mention upfront that I have not yet seen Fate/Zero, Kokoro Connect or Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita; all three of which sound like interesting shows that might've made it onto my list if I'd seen them. Considering them potential honorable mentions!
I'll quickly go through my philosophy on what qualifies for the list, to avoid any confusion. The show has to have begun airing (distribution in the case of non-televised OVAs) in 2012 to be considered, and any show that's still ongoing will not appear on the list. Fair enough? Great!
When I initially thought about compiling this list, I thought that this year had been a little dry, but now that push has come to shove; it's much harder than I thought to narrow it down to just 10. Oh boy. Alright, time to lift the curtain and get this thing started!
There's been a glut of zombie-themed entertainment over the last few years. With successful comics-turned-television-series like 'The Walking Dead', about a billion zombie apocalypse games and movies, a lot of us (myself included) are experiencing zombie burnout. I never thought they were that compelling a monster to begin with, but that's another discussion entirely! The zombie mania has even crept into anime, with the incredibly popular Highschool of the Dead and the balls-to-the-wall insanity that is Kore wa Zombie desu ka? In the latter, the protagonist himself is a zombie. In Sankarea, our protagonist hasn't quite turned undead yet, but he probably wishes he had. Furuya is obsessed with horror, and has an insatiable thirst for anything to do with zombies- an interest which he's had and held onto since he was far too young. He even goes as far as to fantasize about dating a zombie. Creepy enough for you? Things are about to get a whole lot worse.
Furuya, through circumstances which I shan't divulge here, actually ends up getting his wish. Is dating the undead all that it's cracked up to be in his disturbed mind?
While it may seem like this would be an oddball comedy (and it definitely has those elements to it as well), what really makes this show shine is the character drama, especially the development between the series' namesake and potential zombie bride, Sanka Rea and her obsessive father. It goes places you would not expect it to (whatever you're thinking, it's almost that bad, but not quite!) and manages to handle the sensitive subjects with great care, making them dark and tragic for both sides of the equation but never feeling so mean-spirited that it ventures into exploitative territory. The visuals, which seem a bit Shaft-inspired to me, are impressive. True to the zombie theme, the series has a lot of dark imagery and walks a fine line between the inviting, hauntingly beautiful and the downright creepy with its gorgeous, pale zombie heroine.
Overall, Sankarea is a versatile series which excels in a lot of different aspects, making for an overall impressive package. There's little else like it out there that I've seen, but at the same time, it's not strange enough to repulse the average viewer.
Hah! Bet you didn't see this one coming. Actually... chances are you didn't see this thing in the first place. It's neither prolific nor particularly popular among those who have seen it. Perhaps it's the horror fiend in me which cries out in joy when something like this is released, but whatever the reason is, I thought Gyo was a thoroughly unpleasant experience...and that's a good thing.
You may know this OVA by its alternate title: "Jaws VI: This time, they're on land!" Yes, Gyo is about a massive amount of sea creatures conquering the land-dwellers. Ika Musume would be proud. Now, you might be thinking: "How does a shark or a gigantic tuna even move around outside of its watery home!?" Well, it grew legs. Natural, right? All manner of mutated sea creatures flood the streets, exuding strange, reeking gases and slaying every human they find. The story starts out following a small group of girls as they suddenly come face-to-face with one of these beasts, and thereafter takes a survival horror focus. It has some downright surreal scenes down the line, and is positively disgusting from time to time. There's not a lot of gore, but there are a lot of gross-out moments, as well as a sex scene involving a threesome. Don't put it on when you've got your grandma or your nephews over, s'all I'm saying.
It's hard to pin down exactly what I liked so much about Gyo, but it has a great atmosphere throughout. The sense of despair and desperation is conveyed very well, and the strange creatures are a nice touch, offering some variety in the often derivative "end of the world" scenario. The art style and character designs are also very well done; I think they'd feel right at home in a Mamoru Hosoda movie like Summer Wars. You know, except for the murderous Leg-Sharks. The manga Gyo is based on is written by Junji Ito, who also wrote Uzumaki. If you've read (or seen the insane live action adaptation of) that, you'll have a sense of what to expect. Gyo isn't quite as bonkers, but it's just as solid, if you're into that kind of thing.
8. Tasogare Otome Amnesia
Another horror themed anime, I'm detecting a pattern here. However, "themed" is the key word here. Tasogare Otome Amnesia (also known as 'Dusk Maiden of Amnesia') has a consistent horror atmosphere, often taking place at night in dark basements or just poorly lit, creepy rooms. However, it's never genuinely scary or even terribly creepy, but I don't think it's necessarily trying to be. Regardless of the creators' intent, the show functions very well as a horror themed supernatural drama without the need for scares. While in Sankarea, our protagonist found himself in the arms of a zombie, in Tasogare Otome Amnesia, the romantic interest is another form of undead- a ghostly apparition. Her name is Yuko, and she's what makes this show work, hands down.
Before I delve into just what makes Yuko such a lovable spectre, let's talk a little bit about what else the show does right. I mentioned the horror atmosphere, and a lot of that comes down to the great visuals. Both character designs and backgrounds have a lot of personality and are absolute mood-setters. The wooden school, the sunsets and the dark color palette make this a visual feast. The opening bears special mention; it is a wonder both to look at and to listen to! It's a great choice and a fantastic fit, thematically. While Yuko undoubtedly steals the show, the supporting cast are by no means slouches either. They get their time to shine; be on the lookout for Kirie's arc in particular.
So what makes Yuko so great? Well, she's actually a complex character, and has a magnetic personality. She takes charge, and isn't shy about what she wants, be it romantically or otherwise. Her confidence is both compelling, frequently incredibly funny, and even downright sexy. She's a ghost who no one except the male protagonist can see, and she gets him into all kinds of trouble. As you might have guessed from the series' title, Yuko is suffering from memory loss, and the search for the truth about her past is the core mystery of the show. I shan't spoil any of it, but it's a rewarding and emotional reveal that takes the series to the next level.
Tasogare Otome Amnesia is a delightful show, with great atmosphere, an intriguing mystery, emotionally involving drama and a cast of lovable characters. Yuko is one of the best female leads in recent memory, rivaling Senjogahara and Holo.
7. Yuru Yuri♪♪
A.K.A. the second season of Yuru Yuri. It's the only sequel on the list, but I've no choice but to include this one. The first season was on my favorites list last year, and the second season easily makes it into this year's list as well. What I said back then still holds true; the show has changed very little, and that's absolutely a good thing. It's still sweeter than a sugar cube and more adorable than yawning kittens. It's also (and this is the key part) fabulously funny. The character designs are simple, but ingeniously so and are oh-so-incredibly moé. I found it particularly impressive that the opening and ending (which were amazing in the first series) were actually arguably even better this time around. Great stuff. I'll just leave it at this: The show might be fluff, but it's the very best kind of fluff there is.
Incest toothbrush. Incest. Toothbrush. Incest-toothbrush. In-cest...toothbrush? Super-duper-sexual-mega-innuendo. There, now I don't have to talk about that anymore. It's there. I don't like it. The series is still great.
The follow up to the mega-hit Bakemonogatari, Nisemonogatari continues in its predecessor's footsteps, focusing on Ara-ra-ra-ra-gi's encounters, and ensuing entertaining dialogue with girls of different supernatural varieties. This time, this includes his two younger sisters, Tsukihi and Karen, also dubbed "the Fire Sisters." The strong visuals are still present, and they're a joy to behold. While the concept might not be as fresh as it was in the first season, I think it held up very well, keeping my interest throughout. It's a series where I'm always anxious to see the next episode, and its unique charm has not yet begun to fade. I blazed through the thing in just a day, and that's something I very rarely do these days. There's a whole slew of new openings to enjoy as well, the standout for me being 'Platinum Disco', by the now ubiquitous Iguchi Yuka. It has to be said that the fanservice went a little out of control this season, which is a double-edged sword. Bakemonogatari itself was a very sexy show, but it was more restrained. I think there's something to be said for maintaining a more classy approach to the sexuality, but I understand the desire to see more fanservice as well. The Kanbaru scenes alone almost makes me think it's worth it.
Regardless of your view on the fanservice contained within, this is certainly a show well worth seeing, probably even more than once. And to prove I'm just not talking out of my rear, I'll be picking up the Aniplex Blu-Rays when they hit the shelves.
Into the Top 5, and we've got an exemplary show to kick us off. Now, I'll be honest, I was not impressed by Hyoka's early efforts. The first six or so episodes, somewhat ironically the actual "Hyoka arc", were pedestrian and failed to grab me in any way. From thereon and out however, the show went up, up, and kept soaring. The show follows the exploits of the perpetually unenthused, lazy savant Oreki and the eternally curious Chitanda as they solve mysteries, most of which are quite mundane when you think about it. Don't let that deter you though, the mysteries are usually clever and interesting. What's even more impressive about the show is the character development and occasional flares of moving drama the show features. Of particular note is the focus on the side characters Satoshi and Mayaka, who by the end often end up being more interesting than the leading pair! The exploration of Mayaka's character in the school festival arc was particularly potent, and as a nice bonus, it made me go out and buy the excellent, excellent 1986 anime movie They Were 11.
The visuals in Hyoka need a special mention. They are absolutely breathtaking. The animation is up to the usual high KyoAni standard, and might even exceed their usual efforts. It certainly had me entranced. If you're unsure about the series, you at least owe it to yourself to check out the gorgeous opening animations.
Hyoka's mysteries might not seem too interesting at first, but if you give it some time, you'll find that they are more than worthwhile. This isn't 'Jacob's Ladder' or 'Shutter Island', so don't expect any "What a twist!" moments. The strong character dynamics (including a stellar supporting cast) makes sure the series is never boring, and meticulously crafted visuals makes this series a tour de force, providing an example of just why animation is a medium we adore so much.
4. Sakamichi no Apollon
Shinichiro Watanabe and Yoko Kanno. What's not to like?
Watanabe's return to anime ended up being quite different from what people expected from the Cowboy Bebop/Samurai Champloo-famed director. There's no action, no bombastic, larger than life characters (maybe one?), and far from the strange worlds we're used to seeing from him. Sakamichi no Apollon instead opts for the real world setting of 1966, Japan. There is one aspect that reminds us just who's directing this though, and that's the strong focus on music. Sakamichi no Apollon is directly about music, specifically contemporary jazz as of the 1960s. Of course, there's more to it than that, as is to be expected. As wonderful as the jazz is (and it's quite, quite wonderful), it is more of a tool to bring a group of people with different backgrounds and personalities together through their love of music. And cue the angsty coming of age drama. The drama is well handled, and doesn't strain credulity at any point. It's very easy to get emotionally invested in the success of these characters, both on and off the stage. Sadly, the series does feel a little rushed in its final episode, but that's a small price to pay for the excellent pacing, drama and musical joy you get in the rest of the series. Oh, and it's gorgeously animated as well, especially the scenes of them playing their respective instruments. I've already had success spreading this series around like wildfire, so I think it's a nice tool for bringing the people who are looking for something more mature into the flock as well.
It bears mentioning that the series could easily be interpreted as being more about the relationships between the leading male pair than anything else. I'll just quote/paraphrase Daryl Surat (from the Anime World Order podcast) and leave it at that...
"This show is about love at first sight, a coming of age love story between two guys named Kaoru and Sentaro. Anyone else who claims otherwise is lying. It is stupendously and awesomely gay. All the women in the show are just beards to conceal the true romance.
...There is a secret room underneath the record store that only men are allowed into. And we will make beautiful music together.... just us dudes."
Take from that what you will. It's an incredible show regardless of how gay, or not gay, it may be.
3. Ano Natsu de Matteru
This one needs a special introduction. You may be familiar with AnoHana, the tear-jerking drama from 2011. That show happened to be my top pick for 2011, and Ano Natsu de Matteru happens to be directed by the same guy, Nagai Tatsuyuki. (He also directed Toradora!. Be on the lookout for this beastly man.) The shows are also thematically similar, taking place in summer and dealing with strong adolescent feelings. In the case of AnoHana: loss and acceptance. In Ano Natsu de Matteru, there's a stronger focus on romance. It's also more of an adventure, what with the leading lady being an alien from outer space and whatnot.
What the series really excels at is getting you to be emotionally invested and evoking the right mood. The English title of the series is "Waiting in the Summer", and summer is right. This feels so much like a warm summer day you could swear you felt sweat pouring, so much that you could swear you felt the sunbeams warm your cheeks. It has that honest quality of an innocent adventure. A group of friends making a movie together in the summer heat, romantic feelings blooming, friendships strengthening and sometimes falling apart. It draws you in, and evokes that sort of nigh-magical sensation. I liken it much to a Key work in that regard. The combination of the supernatural and the emotional works wonderfully for the series.
With warm colors, warm characters and a solid mix of comedy, drama and romance, Ano Natsu de Matteru adds up to one irresistible offering.
2. Sword Art Online
As I'm writing this, I'm imagining the sound of half the internet crying foul play, chucking empty soda cans and beer bottles, while the other half applauds enthusiastically.
Sword Art Online is easily the most controversial show to emerge out of anime this year, and perhaps (I don't have the numbers) the biggest hit of the year in terms of popularity. People love this show. People hate this show. Hipsters get to act cool and pretend they don't care about this show. I don't want to oversimplify this either. It's not a dichotomy where you either love it or hate it. People like and dislike the show for a myriad of different reasons. I'd go through each and every point of contention in regards to the show, but I don't think there's much of a point in that. People have made up their mind about this series, and I'm sure it'll remain a controversial conversation-starter for a good while to come. I have to admit, it feels nice to unapologetically love the biggest new thing on the block. For once.
With all of the meta-talk and qualifying out of the way, I'll briefly try to go into what I thought worked for the show; what made me put this show near the top of the list.
[The following segment contains discussion which includes someplot SPOILERS, skip this segment if you've not yet seen Sword Art Online.]
The Setting. The idea of living in a virtual world is cool. There's no denying that. You could feel like you were flying through the sky, battling evildoers, meeting other strange and exotic races, scaling the most beautiful mountain and probably simulate all sort of sensations we could only dream of now. Also, you can marry an elf. Don't judge me! Sword Art Online brings this setting to life in a convincing and fun way. There's a balance between the awe one would feel witnessing such a world and taking part in such events, and the terror of knowing every virtual step you take could be your last. This setting is excellently realized.
The Characters. I liked every main character in this series. Every single one. As overpowered as Kirito may be, he's a relatable and compelling enough character that I found myself rooting for him all the way through, and that's really what's key to a story like this. If you don't care about the main character, everything else begins to crumble. As much as I like Kirito, I like Asuna even more. Seeing them get together and be torn apart at a surprisingly early point of the series was heart-wrenchingly effective. That also brings me to one of my few complaints, and that is, indeed, the absence of Asuna in the third act. Now, don't get me wrong, I absolutely adore Suguha, but whenever Asuna isn't on screen, all I'm left thinking is "Where is Asuna"? "Why isn't Asuna here right now?". Silica also happens to be the cutest thing in recent memory as far as I'm concerned. Excellent character designs help a lot here, as does stupendously stellar voice acting. Haruka Tomatsu does a fantastic job as Asuna, perfect casting. However, the runaway winner in terms of sheer performance has to go to Taketatsu Ayana for voicing Suguha. In the emotional scenes, she becomes that character. It's so convincing, it's almost scary.
Sense of Grandeur and Ambitious Fun. That's a convoluted category if I ever heard one, but it's the best I could do. There's this presence of unbridled ambition present in the show. The creators weren't afraid to just go for it, whether that be an epically animated boss battle, following through with actual romantic development, or just having an episode focused entirely on a small side character. I always felt like there was something fun and great waiting just around the corner, and they usually delivered. That sense of anxious anticipation is missing from so many current works of fiction. They didn't pull their punches, and even in the scenes where you knew deep down that they wouldn't kill off the main character, they did a fantastic job of sowing that tiny seed of doubt in your heart.
Ultimately, it comes down to Sword Art Online working for me on an emotional level. I was drawn into the world. I was drawn to the characters, and grew to love them over the span of the series. I cheered for their success, and that alone is a tall order. That complete suspension of disbelief is not easy to pull off, especially when it comes to someone as cynical and jaded as myself (I prefer the term "experienced", thank you very much!). Whatever Sword Art Online did to sweep me off my feet, I hope there's a lot more of it to come in the future.
P.S. Yui needs to become a real girl. Otherwise I just won't be able to sleep at night.
1. Chunibyo Demo Koi ga Shitai!
Chunibyo Demo Koi ga Shitai! is an absolute marvel of a show.
Between this and Hyoka you can color me officially impressed with Kyoto Animation's output this past year. Speaking of animation, the visuals are incredible. From the sublime character designs to the comically overdone fantasy battle sequences, you could not have asked for better treatment of this material. Everything looks polished, appealing and meticulous. The soundtrack is another commendable part of the series, functioning just as well in comedic and cute scenes as it does during dramatic, emotional climaxes. It has to be said that the "cute" tracks go above and beyond, though. Whenever that first note of the first track played, I knew I was in for a great time. Perfect mood-enhancing score, simply immaculate. The opening and especially the ending are also just lovely. I never skipped them.
Visual meticulousness and good music are obviously just the icing on the cake, otherwise this would not be up here holding the number one spot. Let's discuss the actual cake in all its sweet, pastry glory.
Chunibyo is the perfect storm. It manages to pull off an amazing balancing act, and excels in everything it attempts. As the series kicks off, we laugh and smile at Rikka's relentlessly ridiculous antics, as well as Yuta's desperate struggle to put his past of similar misdeeds behind him. The humor is the freshest and most consistently funny I've seen in years. And that's quite a statement, since last year was filled with comedies which I absolutely adored. (e.g. Shinryaku! Ika Musume, Working!!, Carnival Phantasm.) While all of these shows are great and I'm absolutely not taking anything away from their accomplishments, Chunibyo's got them all beat. Rikka's deadpan deliveries and utter commitment to her act is pure gold. The parodical incantations that were dreamt up to name all of her "attacks" are perfect examples of things you could totally see someone who's knee-deep in her own delusions of grandeur thinking were the coolest things on Earth. And sometimes, though you might'nt admit it, there might just be a part of you that agrees with her. Just a little bit. You know it's true.
The comedy is only half of the equation, however. I shan't divulge any of the details, but there is a stark shift in focus along the way, which results in many of the episodes having a genuinely dramatic focus. This kind of shift has killed a lot of potential greats over the years, and anyone would be right to be skeptical just hearing that description. Few shows can keep that many balls in the air, and one end of the equation usually ends up falling flat. Not so in Chunibyo. The dramatic elements are pulled off with the utmost grace and finesse. To steal a quote from my copy of Funimation's FMA release: "It seriously approaches perfection." Surprisingly, there's even comedic elements thrown into the serious episodes, and it doesn't break the flow. As the characters are so well defined and their eccentricities and idiosyncrasies are so well known to us, it adds to the drama-it doesn't take it away. The romance itself is amazing, I sincerely don't think I've rooted this hard for anyone since I saw Clannad: After Story. Strong compliment? You bet, but this series earned it.
In closing, I've not a bad thing to say about Chunibyo. It looks incredible, it sounds incredible, it has characters with surprising depth, humor that is nigh-unrivaled in contemporary anime and a romantic pair you can wholeheartedly root for with all of your heart. It's adorably cute, but never panderingly so. Rikka is easily the character of the year for me, and fittingly so, because Chunibyo is the anime of 2012. According to me, of course.
Whether you agreed with the list, or just found yourself rhythmically shaking your head along the way, I hope you enjoyed reading, and more importantly, I hope your past year was filled with good viewing experiences, regardless of whether they match up with mine. I know SAO's a contentious one!
In closing, I'll say that this was the year I decided to import my first Japanese release, and yes, as you might have guessed, it was indeed Chunibyo. 65 dollars for 2 episodes? That's a bargain if I ever saw one.