Saturday, 2 January 2016

Film Ramble: Top Ten Anime Shows Watched in 2015

Having grumbled about what a disappointing year it's been for genre cinema, I should perhaps admit that there may be another reason for me thinking that way: I've spent 2015 catching up on about two decades of the best anime I've missed.  And where I struggled to even fill that other top ten, this one was torturous; I could easily have added another five entries without bringing in anything that was less than superb.  That spot directly below, in particular, could have gone to any one of a number of shows: Le Chevalier D'EonKurau Phantom Memory and Durarara!! were all just as worthy, and largely lost out simply by being watched in moments when I didn't have my list-writing head on.

Point being, these ten shows are all exemplary, and eminently worth your time; nothing made it in by virtue of being merely good, and there's nothing I wouldn't recommend wholeheartedly to just about anyone with an interest in genre fiction, anime fan or no.

10. Spice and Wolf

In attempting to summarise this show, the best I've managed to come up with is "romantic medieval economic thriller", which on the one hand does it absolutely zero favours, but on the other is pretty much on the money.  (The same can be said for my backup description of medieval furry romance, but let's not go there.)  Spice and Wolf is partly about the developing affections between merchant Kraft Lawrence and rural harvest wolf-god Holo (yes, you read that right) but just as much about exploring its somewhat fantasized but still remarkably authentic-feeling recreation of medieval Europe, all the way down to episodes that revolve around the intricacies of currency conversion and medical theory.  That it manages to weave genuinely exciting plots out of such elements is among its achievements; another is just how unique it feels, and how fully committed to its off-kilter reality.  Trust me, you've never seen a show remotely like Spice and Wolf, and that alone should be good reason to seek it out.

9. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

Despite its good reputation and its pedigree - Gurren Lagann is from Studio Gainax, makers of Neon Genesis Evangelion and other masterpieces - I was quite ready to dislike Gurren Lagann after the first few episodes.  It was noisy, bombastic, weirdly designed and altogether a little obnoxious.

Then - hell, I don't know, it just won me over.  Basically, it kicked my arse.  That's the show that Gurren Lagann is; if you don't like it, it pummels you until you do, whilst shouting crazy slogans and bouncing about like a five year old mainlining sugar.  Yet for all that, looking back, it wasn't half as dumb as it seemed at times, and I struggle to think of anything I've watched that was more absurdly epic.  Long story short: I loved Gurren Lagann, but there were points where I didn't like it a great deal, though they were pretty scarce by the end.  Oh, and anyone who rates it highly should really watch Diebuster, which does all the same things a little better in the space of about three hours.  Just saying.

8. Angel Beats!

An astonishing example of anime's ability to throw a dozen things in a blender that have no right to be anywhere near each other, Angel Beats! is an insane mix of low-brow comedy, high school romance, gun fights, tragedy, extreme cuteness, musical interludes, philosophy and rampant emotion.  The fact that it just about holds together is an accomplishment; the fact that it does so while hitting some genuinely heart-wrenching notes in its closing episodes is plain astonishing.  I've seen reviews that complain about its unevenness of tone and the fact that it tries to cram too much into a half series, and I wouldn't say that those points are exactly unfair, but I'd rather see an overabundance of ideas over too few any day of the week - and if Angel Beats wants to accomplish more than the average full season can in half the time then I'm not about to criticise it for that.

7. Ergo Proxy

I sometimes wonder over how many self-proclaimed science fiction fans don't watch anime, given how many seminal works it's produced and how far ahead it is of US and European cinema in that regard.  Ergo Proxy is a case in point, a work of startling imagination and originality that deserves to be vastly more well known than it is.  Ergo Proxy starts out feeling like cyberpunk - extremely good cyberpunk, mind you - and then grows stranger and more challenging, though never at the expense of telling a compelling story.  It's dense as hell, admittedly, the kind of show that demands a rewatch or some poking around on the internets to understand its every nuance, but since when is that a bad thing?  Plus, the characters are flat out tremendous, from adorable child robot Pino to the badass but brattish Re-l, to sadsack Vincent, whose secrets are set to remake the world.  Ergo Proxy is a heady concoction indeed, dark, thrilling and original, and if you're ready for something more demanding then it might even beat out some of the entries below.

6. Haibane Renmei

A rewatch, this, of one of my all-time favourite shows, and had I not already seen it three times already it would likely have rated higher.  Simply put, Haibane Renmei is a fine, humanist work of fantasy that everyone should see at least once, and it's a terrible shame that it's not easier to track down a Region 2 copy these days.  Following new arrival Rakka in her quest to understand the strange community of privileged, angel-like beings she finds herself born into, Haibane Renmei is a work of rich imagination, hypnotic and incessantly surprising from its beginning to its haunting, cathartic end.

It's also the oldest show on this list, hailing from all the way back in 2002.  Yet, though the animation has dated somewhat and wasn't cutting edge in its day, everything else holds up wonderfully: the score is just about perfect, the characters and backgrounds are delightful, the setting is unique and real-feeling, and all told I can't recommend this beautiful series enough.  If I wasn't focusing on new stuff here then it would be rated much, much higher.

5. From the New World

Wow, is From the New World really down to number five?  When I watched this at the start of the year I was certain nothing was going to top it.  Ignore that cutesy-looking picture, and the equally cutesy-looking box art that some idiot settled on, From the New World is a startling and startlingly bleak bit of sci-fi, telling its tale of a distant future where every human has the power to destroy their world utterly and of the society that's developed to protect itself from its own membership with verve, artistry and nary a moment of filler across twenty five episodes.  A stunning show in nearly every way, and its presence here at the middle of the list isn't a mark against it but a testament to how astounding the rest is.

Also, its quietly apocalyptic closing credits sequence is perhaps my favourite single piece of animation this year:

4. Shangri-La

I've been planning this article in my head basically all year, and, like From the New World, it took a long time for Shangri-la to get bounced from the top spot.  It was one of the first shows to really make an impression on me in 2015, and the passing months have only taken a little of the shine off it.  In fact, looking back, it only feels more original; what on the surface veers close to a great many anime tropes is actually rather brave and unconventional if you delve more deeply.  There's the way that it treats heavily on climate change, the breadth of characters, or the way the plot keeps refusing to go to the places you expect it to.  Unlike some of the other shows in this list, it doesn't set out to reinvent the wheel, but it comes awfully close in so many different ways that it's actually more satisfying as a whole.  Take, as one example, lead character Kuniko: judged on appearance alone she's not much different from countless anime heroines, and yet in practice she's tough and feisty in all the right ways, she's never above doubting herself, and as the show develops, it becomes her ability to pick herself up from disasters in believable fashion that makes the character compelling every bit as much as how handy she is with a giant metal boomerang.

Although, thinking about it, that giant metal boomerang is pretty cool too.

3. Toradora!

I'd assumed for a long while that LoveFilm's selection process was basically random, but Toradora! was the show that made me wonder if there wasn't some guiding consciousness there.  Here was a show that was idling away somewhere in the middle of my "not especially interested" list and I was less than pleased when it got picked over series I was actually eager to watch.  I mean, what the hell was this?  Some kind of teenage high school love triangle thing?  That cover doesn't include one single giant robot punching another giant robot.

And now here we are, the end of 2015, and oh man I love Toradora! so much.  It's a show so good that even though I didn't much care in theory for what it was - actually a love quintet, but far more a coming of age drama / romantic comedy - I still adored it utterly.   Toradora! is one of the wittiest, most genuine, most affecting works of its type I've ever come across, a show peopled with characters that start out as tropes and then reveal impossible amounts of depth, until what seems a fairly straightforward set-up winds up as a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on the complexities of human relationships.  Which I realise sounds kind of intense, so I guess I should reiterate how damn funny and charming Toradora! is right from beginning to end.  And whoever it is at LoveFilm who seems determined to dictate my anime watching, I hope I get to buy them a drink one of these days.

2. R.O.D the TV

You know how I bounced Haibane Renmai down because it was a rewatch?  Well, so is R.O.D the TV and it's still at number two.  Because, yes, it's actually that great.  A sequel to perhaps my favourite OVA of all time, Read or Die, and the Read or Dream Manga series  - hence that odd title - R.O.D takes the sort of tremendously strange idea that could probably only work in anime and then runs headfirst with it.  In its alternate world, papermasters have telepathic control over paper, bending it to any shape and purpose.  When three papermaster sisters find themselves guarding famous author Nenene Sumiregawa they're also drawn inadvertently into increasingly shadowy events, and ultimately a war between two dangerous and amoral world powers - one of which happens to be the British Library.

Honestly, it really was a toss-up by this point, and it's probably fair to say that half the reason R.O.D the TV missed out on the top spot was because I wanted to favour a more recent show that's easier to lay your hands on.  Still, it's tremendously refreshing to see anything that features a primarily female core cast and builds most of its themes and drama around the intricacies of female relationships, whilst at the same time feeling no need to belabor that fact.  In fact, the best moments in R.O.D are all constructed around subtleties of character interaction that accumulate over its course until, in its bleaker second half, the very real prospect of harm befalling any of its core cast is practically painful.  Which is a long-winded way of saying that I really love these characters, and for that reason over any other, I really love the show that exists around them.

1.  Xam'd: Lost Memories

It don't even know how to begin to talk about Xam'd.  It's a complex show, busy with themes and characters and places and plot lines, and perhaps the fact that it takes a while to tune into - along with the fact that it does't make much effort to explain its terminology, of which there's a lot - is going to be off-putting for some.  And yet every one of those elements is utterly marvelous, and so the effort pays off in spades: it tries to do so much more than almost any show I've seen, finding new ways into familiar ideas and creating a rich, detailed, lived-in setting, while all the time looking and sounding absolutely stunning, and throughout its twenty six episodes it barely slips up for a moment.

More than anything, Xam'd made me think of Ghibli's output - partly due to some direct nods, partly due to its determination to understand and forgive its more villainous characters, but mostly due to its sheer humanity - and there can be no higher compliment.  For that matter, it's so good that I've determined to track down as much work by Studio Bones as I possibly can, which isn't exactly a chore when their output includes shows like Full Metal Alchemist and Eureka Seven, but still.  Xam'd is splendid, epic, smart and haunting science fiction, and in a year when I've watched a great deal of extraordinarily good anime, I'd still recommend it without hesitation over everything else I've seen.


  1. None of the retro 90s stuff made the top 10? Ah well.
    Have you a new project for 16? Can i suggest 90s tv sci fi?
    I cant be the only one who enjoyed lexx...

    1. No value judgement on the 90s stuff there, I just haven't watched any full length series; if I do this again next year then I'll be surprised if Cowboy Bebop doesn't rate highly. And ... new project, same as the old project. I have half a shelf full of 90s anime still to get through, and I'm sure there must be more I haven't discovered yet. Plus, Lexx aside, I think I've seen most of the best western sci-fi TV from the time, it would basically be that and Space: Above and Beyond.