Saturday, 28 January 2017

Film Ramble: Top Ten Anime Shows Watched in 2016

Okay, I realise I'm getting to this so desperately late that it's barely worth posting; in retrospect doing not one but two year's best top ten articles was a wildly bad idea, and one I'm sure I'll be discontinuing in future.  Or perhaps I could just learn how to write about things briefly, that would probably work too.

Last year saw a combination of seeking out new anime and catching up on a few of the acknowledged classics I've missed, and the results were pretty great, all told - certainly more successful than they'd have been had I focused on one or the other.  There are tons of classics out there, and anime is in a pretty good place at the moment, not to mention more available than ever.
(Though, the story of the blood, sweat and tears I had to shed to find a copy of my number one show for a reasonable price could fill this post all by itself, so there's still plenty of room for progress!)

At any rate, here are my ten favourite anime shows watched in the whole of 2016:

10) Love, Chunibyo and Other Delusions

It's easy to fall into the trap of favoring older anime over newer anime, just as it is to fall into the trap of favoring older anything over newer anything - and I suppose that in a sense that's what I'm doing by placing a show I adored in such a lowly spot.  That's the problem with watching a lot of absolute classics, I suppose; and there's also the fact that it's been months since I watched Love, Chunibyo and Other Delusions, and though I remember I adored it, I can't remember exactly why.  It certainly had something to do with how it made me laugh out loud, before sucking me in by degrees into genuinely caring about two deeply flawed but adorable characters, before punching my heart right out of my chest.  And why is it only anime that can do that?  Suckering you in with comedy until it has you right where it wants you and then laying on the emotional hurt?  At any rate, Love, Chunibyo and Other Delusions finds that perfect balance between romantic and comedy that eludes so much Western entertainment, just as its skewering of geek culture is hilariously cruel and affectionate in exactly the right blend.

9) Chaika the Coffin Princess

And here we are again, another recent show - by my current favourites, Studio Bones - and another thirteen episode-er, which seems to be about the perfect length for novel, out-of-left-field shows these days.  Of everything here, Chaika the Coffin Princess is the only show I've watched where I felt the need to track down the Manga, and if that's not a recommendation then I don't know what is.  It's a weird, giddy fantasy with a fabulous premise, which starts with the daughter of a defeated evil lord dragging around a coffin and hunting down his dismembered body parts and just gets odder from there.  It has splendid lead characters and a dark sense of humour that still manages to be laugh-out-loud funny; oh, and the action sequences are rather good too.  Really, this is just about everything I want from a fantasy TV show, and it's immensely frustrating that there's no legal way to see the concluding season in the UK.

8) Knights of Sidonia

Ah, Knights of Sidonia, how many and copious are your flaws - that never-not-quite-wooden CG animation for a start! - and how distrustful I was of you at first, and how much I fell in love with you the more you went off the rails, until by the time one of your recurring cast was a cute-voiced alien tentacle with a face like a cat's bum I was wholly sold.  You might come for the harder-than-usual sci-fi plot, and, for example, the fact that for once we have a giant craft moving in space that behaves something like how a giant craft moving in space might behave, with all the problems of stopping and turning that might well entail.  But if you stay, it'll likely be for the show's distinctiveness and steadily increasing eccentricity, perhaps best exemplified by the gloriously mad opening theme tunes.  Think that combining Japanese dance pop and military marches is a remotely sensible idea?  Then you might just have a lot of fun with Knights of Sidonia.


7) Eureka Seven

From the aforementioned Studio Bones, creators of last year's favourite Xam'd, and considered one of the high points of that studio's landmark-studded output, I had high hopes for Eureka Seven.  And, in fairness, most of them were met: the production values are top notch, the music is among the best in any show I've comes across, and over the course of fifty episodes, the show tells a one-of-a-kind romance unlike anything in anime or elsewhere: one that feels genuine throughout its many highs and lows, and especially in those moments when you really just want to bash our young lovers' heads together.  Eureka Seven is that rare work that tries, with genuine imagination, to take an established trope - in this case, the perennial anime favourite of giant robots - and turn it into something fresh and new-feeling, partly by pillaging from surf culture and partly by building a meaningful sci-fi universe from the ground up.  There aren't many really epic science fiction stories, in anime or elsewhere, with this kind of breadth and depth - and with that in mind, the fact that it maybe doesn't contain quite enough story for its prodigious running time is an easily ignored flaw.

6) Ah! My Goddess

I think probably my favourite anime franchise of all time?  Yeah, why not.  I don't know that I've ever come across anything so fundamentally sweet-natured and basically likable as Ah! My Goddess at its best.  Spend much time in the company of well-meaning nerd Keiichi and the goddess, Belldandy, who he inadvertently summons to be his live-in girlfriend, and you find yourself having a little more faith in human nature almost by osmosis.  Their relationship, and the fact that they're both legitimately nice people, is the absolute heart of the show.  Then again, perhaps the reason that it works so well is the wicked sense of humour playing around that centre: have any two young lovers been put through quite so many (and such outrageous) ordeals?  Ah! My Goddess really finds it feet with the addition of Belldandy's marvelous sisters, immature tech genius Skuld, who'll do anything to keep Keiichi and Belldandy apart, and older Urd, who'll do anything to get their relationship past first base.

5) Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

There was a phase, and quite a lengthy phase too, where I was not only ready to call Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood the best anime show I'd seen this year but the best anime show I'd seen ever.  That lasted all the way through its practically flawless first act, and well into its flawed but possibly more interesting second act, and it was only when I realised that the entire last third was going to be only verrrrrrry long fight that my interest began to flag a touch.  Still, what a fight!  And what a perfect first third!  And what consistently spectacular animation!  Even if it didn't quite live up to its potential - and maybe nothing could have - this is still exactly how you go about doing a series of such length, with such fluid handling of multiple arcs and an absolutely gigantic cast of characters, practically all engaging enough to carry their own shows, that the result is hard to believe even as you're experiencing it.

4) Cowboy Bebop

It breaks my heart to rank Cowboy Bebop this low, and I can't shake the feeling that had I just watched it then maybe the show would be appearing much higher, for Bebop is without doubt one of the masterpieces of serialized animation: a show that favours fantastic writing, exquisite characterization and its own idiosyncratic and heightened brand of style, while also delivering consistently great animation.  The thing that makes Bebop truly stand out, however, is that it consists almost entirely of one-and-done episodes.  It's not a weakness, by any means, especially when some of those episodes are among the most perfectly formed short stories you'll ever encounter; but if Cowboy Bebop has one failing, its that what arc plot there is feels malnourished by comparison.  The trick, then, is to go in knowing that's not what you're here for: watch, instead, for the characters, for the wit, for the sense of cool that drips from every facet of the design and finds its peak in YĆ“ko Kanno superlative score.  After all, Cowboy Bebop is a legend for a reason, and one that still feels fresh nearly two decades on.

3) Puella Magi Madoka Magica

A show that's already become legendary and has already proven influential, though it's a little tricky to spell out to non-anime watchers just why: explaining that something is a savage subversion of magical girl tropes is hardly going to snare the attention of your average person on the street.  And, though it's absolutely true that Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a perfect genre take-down, making the most innocent cliches terrifying, you could have no knowledge whatsoever of Sailor Moon and its ilk and still recognize this for a work of genius: the way the plot peels away its concept to display darker and darker layers without ever betraying its central logic should certainly do it, and if not then there's always the eye-grabbing incorporation of mixed media into traditional anime art, which looks both amazing and unlike anything out there.  In the end (and like another, older show that pops up below, and also gained initial fame for skewering a beloved sub-genre) Puella Magi Madoka Magica goes so much further than its contemporaries: it's fine work in its own right, and the fact that magical girl anime will forever after be a little bit petrifying is the icing on an already splendid cake.

2) Fate/Zero

Here's my advice: if you see the names Type-Moon and UFOTable together on something then watch that thing at your earliest opportunity, because it's likely to be terrific - but particularly if you're a fan of highly involved fantasy with a heavy side order of horror, brought to life with some of the most vivid, detailed animation you're ever likely to set eyes upon.  Amid their collaborations, however, Fate/Zero is a pretty great place to start, if only for its irresistible premise, which finds modern-day mages battling with the aid of summoned mythic heroes in an epic, deadly battle royale, with the holy grail as the prize and no end of betrayals and bloody secrets to be revealed before the end.  Packed with scenes so striking that I still remember them clearly months later, Fate/Zero is an epic piece of dark fantasy, and one that should appeal to just about anyone with a sympathy for the subgenre.

1) Neon Genesis Evangelion

There are people out there who consider Neon Genesis Evangelion to be grossly overrated, and would argue that the facts that its creators ran out of money well before the end and that mastermind Hideaki Anno was pretty clearly just working out his own deep depression through the medium of a giant robot show somehow mean that it can't be one of the absolute masterworks of serialized storytelling of the last fifty years.  I'd like to say that those people are gravely wrong - I mean, they are - but I can also just about see that Neon Genesis Evangelion isn't for everyone.  If, for instance, you don't want to be actively traumatized by your entertainment, then maybe it's not for you.  And if you'd prefer the climatic battle of your giant robot show to occur on screen, rather than, say, watching the protagonist's mental collapse from the inside, then again, you might do better to look elsewhere.  For everyone else, though, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a uniquely provocative slice of anime unlike anything before or since, and something you owe it to yourself to watch if you care at all about the medium, world cinema, original sci-fi or the right of crazy people to make mind-boggling works of art.

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