2015 was a weird year for my own personal anime fandom. Due to an increasingly hectic schedule, as well as an acute case of anime burnout, I spent the majority of the year disengaged from the scene. Gradually, however, my life became more manageable, and my interest in anime resurfaced. Yet, I took my time choosing my point of reentry. If I was diving back into anime fandom, then I needed to be judicious; I needed to choose an access point that was sure to hook me. I wanted back in, but I wanted to do it “the right way.” Bakemonogatari was that way. I watched it. The show really spoke to me, and, what is more, it inspired me to start making my own contribution to fandom in the forms of blogging and podcasting. Basically, I owe the existence of any anime-related content that I put out this year to the Monogatari franchise. Be kind to it, people.
But, this isn’t a column about our favorite old anime. You all came to read about what we liked from 2015.
I was reminded once again this year at how much variety exists in the medium. There really was something for just about everyone, as is typically the case with anime (despite existing stereotypes). I’d like to mention three anime from this year that I found particularly noteworthy. All of these are shows I find great for different reasons. Rather than trying to do everything pretty well, each of these shows really leans into its strengths, doing one or two things exceptionally well.
The one 2015 anime that had me at hello was One Punch Man. What a visual treat this show is. There were plenty of shows with good animation sequences this year, but none consistently produced such fluid and attention-grabbing animation as OPM. It has such an energy about it, such a sense of fun and excitement, that the DBZ-loving fourteen-year-old in me simply had to keep coming back each week. In addition to enjoying the anime on this level, OPM also effectively functions as loving meta-commentary on/general fun-poking at the shounen battle genre. Saitama really does kill anything in one punch…spoilers. He also makes funny faces. It’s silly, and it’s such a good time.
Of course, a bunch of anime I saw this year would not have appealed to teenage me (or early-twenties me, if I’m honest) in the least. Sound! Euphonium came along for me at just the right time. In the earlier days of my fandom, I would have walked right past a show about a group of high school girls in concert band without thinking twice about it. Thankfully, I’m older and wiser now. No other 2015 show I saw this year has as likable a cast of characters or as much heart as the latest KyoAni joint. The likes of Hazuki and Natsuki and Asuka were so easy to root for that I found myself emotionally invested before I knew it. If you only saw an outline of the plot of this show, you’d believe that not a hell of a lot actually transpires during its thirteen episode runtime; this is typical for KyoAni shows, though. Instead, it’s the moments that take place between the bullet points that are meaningful and memorable. It’s quite something to see the creators give as much attention and weight to such ordinary moments as the characters are living them. This leads to the setting feeling really homey and your connections with the characters feeling very personal. Euphonium is an easy show to fall in love with. It was a shoe-in for this write-up.
As fond as I am of good characterization, however, I find the thematic content of a piece of fiction even more important. Perhaps no anime director produces works as thematically aspirational as Kunohiko Ikuhara. His shows have been thoughtful treatments of complex issues such as gender identity and the meaning of family. He hasn’t made many, so it matters when he does put out an anime. And what he makes is usually good. Really, really good. His 2015 effort, Yuri Kuma Arashi, is no exception. While YKA tells the tale of the friendship and forbidden romance between a human and a bear, the story is very much a vehicle for Ikuhara’s messages about gender-queer women struggling in Japanese society, the sinister and harmful nature of a culture based on conformity, and what it means to accept another. It’s not that the characters are unlikable or unimportant; rather, they exist chiefly to carry forward the themes. But, I don’t mind when those themes are as unique, as fully explored and as deftly handled as they are in YKA. Combine the literary nature of the work with striking color choice, immaculate architectural design, beautiful backgrounds and outstanding music and you’ve got yourself an anime worthy of the title “Best of the Year.”
While I didn’t see as many 2015 anime as I would have liked, I tried to go back and catch up on as much as I could. Please feel free to angrily tweet me or send in some hate mail for not shouting out your favorite show(s) of the year. In all seriousness, if you want to get in touch, I always enjoy discussing this stuff with like-minded folks, so drop me a line.
Death Parade wins. The End.
… you’re still here? You want to know why? Cool, ’cause I want to tell you.
First let me start with why the other shows, namely fan favorites One Punch Man and Hibike Euphonium, fell short. In my mind, if there was to be a 2015 anime Trinity, that would be it. Asking the AOTY question, I could respect any one of those three as an answer by name alone. If a convincing argument could be made, maybe even Concrete Revolutio or Digimon Tri, not that I would agree, but I’d understand. (And if any of you say Gangsta you can leave!) I would accept each show on the principle that it pushed the medium forward in some regard, some more than others.
I compare One Punch Man to a dirty doujin. In most cases, it saves it’s animation climax until the very end, unless it’s an exciting episode, then we might get two. And what a climax it is, but that’s not what I ding it for. As an adaptation, it falls short. Many of the gags are manga-centric, leveraging the fact that there is no animation to make sudden transitions or speech bubble gags. In fact the whole idea of the one-punch-finish is that it’s over in a flash, something that the stasis of time in a single manga panel does well; remaining on the screen for any longer than a second undermines this very nature. That is not to demean it’s inherit value, it lit the fandom aflame in a way rarely seen. Come 10 years from now, One Punch Man will surely be remembered as a classic.
No one can watch an episode of Hibike or One Punch Man without the pretty sakuga causing their jaw to hit the floor. But here, Hibike is the superior of the two. Part of this is due to the fact that there is no existing visual comparison source, i.e. this is based off a light novel. Take One Punch Man‘s original manga and the fluctuation of its art: it’s almost as if the proverbial Yusuke Murata stood over the story boarder’s shoulder, telling them where to apply the sakuga – for Hibike there was no such guide. The consistency of the animation allowed you to be immersed in the mood of the show, while the AAA grade sakuga enhanced what was already present. Compare this to One Punch Man where quality of animation was a cue of how pumped up I should be. It’s true that anticipation is one of the 12 Principles of Animation, but realizing what is occurring onscreen for yourself is a more powerful experience. And when that happened, I was able to relate to teenage girls in a band club, something I never was.
How many original concept anime where there this year? Think back to all the big hits, the highlights of each season, which (if any) were not attached to prior seasons and creators? Concrete Revolutio is one that comes to mind. Looking at it from the perspective of how many fandoms it envelops while still managing to make sense (even though all the naysayers wrote it off at episode 1 – haha I told you) is impressive, but causes the series to be incredibly dense. To fully enjoy the table d’hôte of Concrete Revolutio, one must posses a working knowledge of the many tropes of kaiju, super sentai, magical girls, and Showa Era Japan outside of anime – a task not for the feint of heart, but a truly rewarding one. While it might well be the smartest show of 2015, the barrier of entry is far too high for the casual anime fan. Concrete Revolutio was the show everyone watched, but hardly anyone understood.
I could go on in this manner for every show of 2015, systematically disqualifying them one by one. But it’s not that every show that wasn’t Death Parade had issues, nor that Death Parade was flawless; so why is it anime of the year? It was the most ambitious original project by a new auteur this year, and kept pace with the heavy hitters – or outright surpassed them.
The new name you need to remember is Yuzuru Tachikawa. Expanded from the 2013 Anime Mirai short Death Billiards, Tachikawa wrote, directed, and worked on both the screenplay and storyboard of Death Parade, developing the idea into a full series that is breathtaking in every sense of the word. I often say what we watch can make us into better people. And this show did.
While it may not be as robustly animated as Hibike or One Punch Man, it certainly isn’t lacking either. Scenes of sakuga in the show were used to heighten emotions of desperation or extreme sorrow. Sometimes something is so effective you don’t realize it’s there until you separate yourself from it, and that is most certainly the case with Death Parade. Often times shots will hold on a bar stool, or a chandelier, letting the sound design tell you a drink is being poured, or a character is walking across the room, providing another sensual layer to draw us in. The knowledge of knowing when to show, or in some cases not show, impressed me. Anime is a limited medium. Sometimes it’s not about breaking the limitations, but how you work within them.
‘Strip all animation away, and what do you have?’ I don’t feel like many shows this year survive the question. The whole pull of Death Parade is an emotional one, trying to quantify the life and actions of a human being, but more than this: it asks if it can be done, and if it can, how & should it carried out. The show resonates on a primal level, playing in the murky area between good and evil, searching for reasons and meaning in the imperfectness of the soul. But it’s not so nebulous; each episode has a conclusion, and that may be the greatest strength of all. You get to judge the judgement.
Coming up with a top 10 for 2015 was tough. From the commercial side of things, I only really loved Khara’s Animator Expo project, and the rest of what I watched ranged from mixed (Death Parade) to acceptable (Hibike! Euphonium) to solid (Miss Hokusai), with nothing in particular sticking out. In the indie space, Masanobu Hiraoka’s L’Oeil du Cyclone was a classic but much of what was freely available was hit or miss, while Onohana’s such a good place to die, Ryo Okawara’s Sugar Lump, and this year’s GEIDAI shorts eluded me. Even if I compartmentalize and focus only on individual scenes, several of my mainstays – Shinya Ohira, Norimitsu Suzuki, Kou Yoshinari, Shinji Hashimoto, Hiroyuki Okiura, Mitsuo Iso – let me down, producing unexciting or stagnant work.
It wasn’t all bad though. The circle of animators associated with Shingo Natsume and BONES turned out great scenes for One Punch Man. Not much unites the styles of Norifumi Kugai, Gosei Oda, Yoshimichi Kameda, Toshiyuki Sato and newbies Toya Oshima and Toshi Sada; but their solidity, heft, and confidence was a welcome reprieve from the amorphousness of webgen, whose stock of tricks is getting staler and staler by the year, something made all the more apparent by a B-team effort like Yoru no Yatterman.
Above all others stood Yutaka Nakamura. I still think he hews too close to the model sheets, especially with the faces, but talent like that can’t be denied. No longer “just” a superb effects and CQC guy, Yutapon’s animation has a sense of space and a mastery of variable timing that feels like he’s constructed his own coherent universe. Of course, his work has been like that for a while but with 2015 being the desert it was, Yutapon is the clear favorite for Animator of the Year.
Elsewhere, Arifumi Imai provided some fantastic “fuck you!” action. His scenes in Rolling Girls, the Naruto movie, and One Punch Man showed an acute understanding of form, color, and overall ballsiness. Given how drab most anime have been in recent years, Imai’s presence was a welcome burst of vitality. The same could be said of Shingo Fujii’s appearances in Go! Princess Precure. Fujii’s command of perspective and photography made for some exhilarating fights and though not background animation per se, I can’t think of a more appropriate use for the Russian term Тотaльная мультипликaция (‘total animation’) than here. The GoPri designs may have been a poor fit for Fujii, but that’s all the more reason to be excited about whatever he does in 2016.
The Little Witch Academia team at Trigger deserve some credit too. Yeah, the sequel didn’t really warrant the price of admission but it presented the chance for Trigger’s brightest to show off, and it’s rare for a film to mix distinctly ‘anime’ action with the conventions of the West (multiples, secondary action, Warner-like plasticity) and make it seem effortless. Can anyone think of a young studio with a lineup as stacked as Shuhei Handa, Takafumi Hori, Yuuto Kaneko, Shouta Sannomiya, Masaru Sakamoto, Mai Yoneyama, Kai Ikarashi, not to mention veterans like Yoshinari, Imaishi, Sushio, and Amemiya? It’s a shame the creative leadership at Trigger is so inept as the most we’re likely to see from these guys this year is an Okada-led disaster.
Honorable mentions to Ryoma Ebata’s Absolute Duo OP, the final episode of Ninja Slayer, Inoue and Nakamura’s work in Bubu & Bubulina, Nobuhiko Genma’s POV shot in Gundam Thunderbolt (more interesting in theory than execution), and the ever-meticulous hands at Kyoto Animation, whose 2016 output is all but assured to be better than what they churned out in 2015. Oh, and Bakemono no Ko, which I didn’t see but whose animation is surely top notch (Koike! Hamasu! Otsuka! Honda! Aoyama! Kubo! Inoue! goddamn), even if the critical opinion on the film is fairly negative.
When it comes time to make a decision on making these “Best of” year-end lists, I try to avoid picking titles I liked because it was suited towards my taste. I try and think beyond myself, as pretentious as that sounds. Just because a show is well animated doesn’t mean it’ll have a lasting effect on the medium. The same applies towards well written stories and characters. Sure, all of these things help make a series entertaining and memorable, but I’m looking for something more. In this year of 2015, my pick for anime of the year goes towards a title that made me completely rethink how I look at anime. And that anime was “Wakako-zake.”
Wakako-zake is a series about a young woman named Murasaki Wakako. After a long day at work, she unwinds by going to pubs to order dinner and have a few drinks. And that’s the entire series. Every episode is Wakako getting something to eat and internally reviewing her dining experience. This is a show that takes a simple pitch and smacks it out of the park so hard it hits the jumbo-tron, setting off the most beautiful explosion of creativity and craftsmanship.
While Wakako-zake is in the “slice-of-life” genre, this is the type of “slice-of-life” where it looks at the good days and bad days. Some episodes, Wakako is getting off work after taking the blame for an error caused by another co-worker and she’s frustrated by it. Or you’ll have an episode where she just finished taking a jog on her day off and is looking for something to eat after her workout. Its not just a simple comedy, it is the truest form of this genre. It is literally a brief moment in to this persons life.
Which leads me to the biggest thing about this show I loved, Wakako is the most human character I’ve seen in anime in a very long time. She’s an introvert who values hard work and loves food. Wakako keeps to herself and likes to listen in on the conversations of the people around her. She’ll judge people for not liking certain foods or even how people eat certain meals. Outside of her expression after eating something, there’s nothing cartoonish about her character and I found her to be extremely relatable.
And all of these aspects of her personality are revealed by how she eats and talks about food. Every meal isn’t just a way to fight hunger like most people, its an experience with each and very dish. She’ll eat foods that are bad for you when she’s feeling down, or when she’s feeling good she’ll eat something a more refined and expensive with a warmed bottle of sake. She’ll even get dishes from her college days when she’s feeling nostalgic. With every new menu item she orders another side of her personality exposes themselves.
On top of that, its very well animated. Wakako has a very distinct design and every piece of food looks absolutely delicious. When the episode is over, you’ll be wanting to go get something to eat yourself. Not only that, but there really isn’t a wasted frame in the entire show. Every shot is paired beautifully with the Wakako’s inner monologue about how the food should be eaten. Even the moments where its focuses on other characters in the bar, they all tell a story without much explanation.
For example, in one episode, Wakako is eating Roasted Ginkgo Nuts when one of her nuts flies off the nutcracker and hits an older gentleman who’s eating the same meal. She apologizes and he laughs it off. He’s red in the face. His large glass of sake is almost empty. He leaves by saying good night and stumbles off into the night. All that we’re told is he’s meeting his daughter’s fiancee tomorrow morning. This guy is only on screen for less then thirty seconds by the way. So in the extremely brief amount of time, we’ve gotten this guy’s story just from animation clues and one line of dialogue. He’s nervous about his daughter growing up and getting married. He’s not angry, he’s just acting like a parent worrying over their kid. And being able to express all of that in a nonessential character in that way speaks volumes about the show.
All of this, good animation, a well-rounded, relatable character and a definite example of what the “Slice-of-Life” genre should be is all expressed in two minutes. Every episode is only two minutes in length. Two, and the first thirty seconds is dedicated to the opening credits. So really its only ninety seconds worth of content in each episode. While this two minute format has been used multiple times before now, its typically only been used for comedies. Comedies with zero character and extremely crude animation that’s roughly on par with Flash cartoons you’d find on Newgrounds back in 2003. But Wakako-zake saw this format and completely turned it on its head by actually giving it a little dignity.
Because of this, Wakako-zake made me completely rethink my outlook on these series with extremely short lengths. You can write a story with a compelling character with good animation in a short amount of time. Its how you use those brief moments you have to leave an impact on your audience that counts. Every frame and line of dialogue needs to have a purpose. Time limit shouldn’t restrict you from doing that. And more importantly, the viewer shouldn’t jump to conclusions about a series just because of episode length. Also, out of all of the other series on this list, you can watch this entire series in thirty minutes.
So yes, that’s my pick for 2015.