Another year came to an end, I’ve sampled nearly 60 shows, watched about half to completion, and it’s time to see which shows stood out (in a good way). If we’re frank, this year hasn’t been nearly as good as 2013. Had I used the cut-off criteria of 2013, only the top 7 shows would’ve made it in, compared to 12 that passed that bar in 2013 (and Aku no Hana that passed using different criteria). But even if the year as a whole was weak, the top shows were still worthy of your time. There’d be “Notable Absentees” and “Honourable Mentions” at the end of the post, so if you don’t see a show, keep reading!
Only full series had been considered, no OVAs or movies of any sort. The names link to the show’s description and information on My Anime List (MAL).
10. Shingeki no Bahamut: Genesis (Rage of Bahamut: Genesis)
One of my favourite films is the first Pirates of the Carribean film, which I describe as a 10/10 performance by Johnny Depp, lifting a 5/10 film to the realm of 7/10. The show had a great sense of action and fun going for it early on, which in the second half all but abandoned it for slow and tepid non-action weighed down by a non-character taking center stage. The first half of the show and the finale though are more than worth the price of entry. Just like Pirates of the Carribean, loveable rascals with an extreme penchant for getting in trouble and over the top facial expressions while swashbuckling dominate the show. Zombies join on our crusade to bring down a CG dragon, as we cross against angels, demons, drunk gods, and inflatable ducks. How can you not love a show so in love with its own irreverence?
Did Sword Art Online II give everyone what they expected from it? If they disliked it, I bet they got what they expected. If they were fans of the first season, then perhaps they did not. The amount of action and the stakes within the second season hadn’t been as high as they were in the first, but I think that was in a good way. Having read the source material, which contains the strongest part of the series, I think the adaptation was more than solid, as all material they’ve cut only helped the flow of the material, and the only thing I found objectionable was the fixation on Sinon’s butt.
The series had great visuals and great music, it had solid character development in the first arc, in Sinon’s character, which also filled holes in Kirito’s characterization, as she was depicted as similar to him. The second half had a story that was almost entirely Kirito-less, a coherent exploration on the theme of “home”, as the place you belong, and “memories” as the construction of the place where you belong.
And yet, although it was a solid story, with character development that is far better than what most current shounen can show (not to mention the production values), it can’t get higher than 9th place. It was the show I expected, it was perhaps even slightly better, but it wasn’t the experience I hoped for. But if you enjoyed the first season, I do think the material here is better and tighter than first season’s, and more than worth your time.
8. Kill la Kill
Kill la Kill promised us fast-paced action of the sort we’ve had in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Kill la Kill promised us discussion of themes, of fascism (fashion), of self-respect, of two opposing sides coming together, of self-control. Kill la Kill had promised a great many things, but most of what is has given us was a spectacle. The third work by Studio Trigger was very much like the other two (Inferno Cop and Little Witch Academia), in the sense that it stood and shouted to the world, “Notice me, I’m right here!” And Kill la Kill, while it didn’t really deliver an exploration of female strength and/or sensuality, and didn’t really deliver a meaningful reflection on the nature of power structures, and its pacing was far slower than we were led to believe, was certainly noticeable.
Noticeable, loud, and at times charismatic nonsense flooded our monitors, buoyed by impeccable music insertion that often erred on the side of classics, and a visual design that was purposefully intrusive and over the top. Kill la Kill was boisterous nonsense, and one of the more memorable experiences of the year. More guts than show, but it certainly showed up! Definitely a show I’ll be looking to revisit, without undue expectations.
Turns out that it’s important for me to have a “feel good” show most every season, be it Gingitsune, ‘Inari, Konkon, Koi Iroha’, or Barakamon. Barakamon is the best show out of the bunch at that. This is a story we’ve seen or read numerous times before, of a brash and young city boy going to the countryside, learning manners and the wisdom of life from ye olde rustic folk. We’ve had a fair amount of that here as well, including actual “morals” that young Handa was taught, but that it was being told by all the kids, who were ably acted and drawn (including the true star of the show, Naru, being voiced by a 10 year old actress) made it all so enjoyable. It had a nice artistic style, it had a good mixture of gags, and humor based on the character personalities, it had actual musings on the nature of art and growing up, and it was comfortable. Every season needs such a show, and Barakamon is better than most.
6. Gin no Saji 2nd Season (Silver Spoon)
There are very few shows that feel like actual slice-of-life shows, like someone took a slice of someone’s actual life and made a show out of it. This year, it’s only been Gin no Saji’s second half. A story about high school students, but with conflicts you usually get out of university shows. Considering in this agricultural school the kids are learning how to carry the burden of their families’ fortunes, it makes sense. And this is what this show was about, it was about dreams, it was about how sometimes you have to abandon your dreams, and even have to abandon school, just so your family won’t starve. It was about the harsh limits of helping one another, when it could result in your family drowning as well.
Though this show’s gags were still as present (and dare I say, funny) as ever, this was a show dealing with serious issues, issues related to growing up and finding your way in the world, and the very real costs of these things. Not uplifting, not depressing, just real.
5. Sekai Seifuku: Bouryaku no Zvezda (World Conquest – Zvezda’s Plot)
What a strange little show this has been. Woefully underappreciated and underwatched, at that. “The world has been unkind to me, so I’ll try to unite the entire world!” is a common scheme in anime, by villains. Charles zi Brittania from Code Geass, Ikari Gendo from Neon Genesis Evangelion, and even Fate Testarossa’s mother in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, all were villains who shared this dream of easing loneliness through unification.
Enter Zvezda, a secret organization bent on world-domination, and our heroes. A bunch of lonely misfits who eked a family for themselves. And this was the show’s recurring theme, which could be seen in every one of its seemingly disparate episodes, the quest to create a home, the quest to have a place where you belong and are appreciated, a group that would be family.
The show had pretty sharp humor, but unlike what was often said of it, it took everything seriously. All those gags of blowing up our secret base or someone exploding due to eating spicy food? They were referenced later, they had ramifications. A great cast of characters, even the unlikeable ones, were all relatable. It seemed far-fetched, but it hit close to home. This show had a blend of the fantastical and of the mundane that was anything but mundane, and was truly fantastic.
Last year I’ve watched the entirety of Fairy Tail’s first season. This year I’ve watched the entirety of Hunter x Hunter. It’s definitely a shounen. It has the same themes of friendship, and the same tropes of growing stronger to achieve our goals, of losing and coming back, of taking up the previous generation’s place at the top of the pyramid. But it’s actually more serious and self-reflective than most such shows, and the focus on friendship as an actual theme to explore, rather than merely a plot-driver or a power-up source have been nice. The action often left a lot to be desired, and not all arcs had been equal in quality and statue.
I say that not all arcs are of equal quality, but they’re all worthwhile. They all have themes you can discuss, and the friendship at the core of the show is always front and center. Trying to reduce this show to under three paragraphs is hard. Do you discuss the nature of humanity, as ugly as it can be, as curious as it can get, as seen in Chimera Ants’ Arc? Do you discuss how the present pays for the past’s decisions, as in the Elections Arc, do you discuss the nature of cooperation explored within the Greed Island arc? I’m not sure a thematic discussion does the show justice, but you also can’t discuss the show without mention of all of these themes.
Which brings me to the show’s latest portion, that aired during 2014, for the most part. The finale of The Chimera Ant arc, and especially the Elections Arc that followed made me tear up on a consistent basis, seeing the struggle and pain to contain one’s emotion, to accept not just one’s emotions, but those of our friends, who are hurting, had been too much, in the best possible sense. It’s a show about two friends, first and foremost, and what a friendship it’s been. It’s not my favourite long-running shounen, as Fairy Tail’s first season still holds that title, but it was probably the best. It’s definitely the best drama-shounen I’ve watched.
I’ve said before how a show can have flaws and still be a perfect show. I’ve said that about last year’s top show, Kyousougiga (Capital Craze). Samurai Flamenco has a lot of flaws, including several episodes it seemed its animation staff had walked out on it. It has tonal shifts, and at some places is a hilarious throwback to the super-sentai shows of my youth, while at others it is a grounded treatise of heroism in the real world and caring for others, while in yet another part it’s an anime version of Sophie’s World or Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
And yet, when you look back at it, all of what Samurai Flamenco has given us, with the exception of two episodes, was pretty… great? Yeah, I’ll say it’s been great. It also made up sense, and as a whole while it shirked away its realistic and grounded treatment of the subject, it had never been about anything but what it means to be a hero, and what it means to uphold justice. This show began on the 7th spot on this list, but I realized that similar to my rating of Shinsekai Yori (From the New World, 2013’s runner-up), I was just finding niggling excuses to not rate it as highly as it deserved. No, Samurai Flamenco is not a perfect show, but it’s still a great one. Warts and all.
(This pick is my most “personal” one. It’s my “Gatchaman Crowds” of the year, in how I loved its discussion of various themes.)
2. Mushishi Zoku Shou (Mushishi Next Chapter / Next Passage)
“More of the same” is often flung as an insult, but it really depends on what the original was like, and is usually a bad thing when you wanted plot-progression and character-development and got none. And then you have Mushishi, an episodic show, a magical show, that is a collection of timeless fairy tales, placed in rural japan. “More of the same” for Mushishi, one of the modern anime classics, is high praise. After a seven year absence, Mushishi returned, strong as ever.
The second episode, when all the mushi flew out of the their shells was a moment of concentrated magic and awe. The ravens’ assault in another episode was the second-most dreadful experience anime had passed to me this year, and it’s done so in an understated fashion. The story of the girl who could not remain in one place lest she drowned her loved ones and who could not cry about it made me tear up. It wasn’t always even, and a couple of episodes felt half-baked, but the whole called Mushishi is an instant-classic, a timeless collection of tales.
Remember Agent Smith, from The Matrix? This would’ve been his favourite anime of the year. No, not because it has robots, because it’s a show about inevitability. As many shows, it dealt with humans thinking they have to reprise their old roles, or the roles their parents set out to fulfill, such as Dragon (Ryuichi), only to see how they can break free. There was also the inevitability of the hero coming to save the day, but I’m not actually talking about the in-fiction sort of inevitability, but the sort that marks a story superbly told.
You see, every scene in the show, every major point, was a natural outgrowth. Not just of the fiction, but of how it was delivered. No moment came as a real shocker, but that didn’t dilute the sense of wonder and awe inspired by Peco and Smile’s relationships, their burgeoning sense of self, but only enhanced it. It’s even transcended the rote “Sports Show Inevitability”, where two best friends are destined to fight, becuase it carried all the weight on its own, by building it up, one step at a time.
The show had a unique visual flair and fluidity that screenshots cannot capture, and made much use of visual metaphors, bringing to mind samurais and fantastical monsters. This was a story of friendship, a story about individuality in the face of others, and cooperation in the face of the weight we all carry as individuals. This had been a triumph, on both a narrative level, and the structural artistic level. You owe it to yourself to watch it. It’s as much a drama as it is a sports show. It’s 100% human, and Agent Smith’s favourite anime of 2014, nonetheless.
Why shows ending in 2014? Because this is when I made the list, and on one hand shows that are still running might yet falter or pick up, and if we do this yearly as the year ends then shows straddling two years will never get a chance to get mentioned.
Also, while spots 8 downward wouldn’t have made it to last year’s list, spots 3-6 were incredibly neck-and-neck in how I’d rank them, and their order could easily have shifted about.
Honourable Mentions: Shows that barely made it in, or won a dubious award.
- Isshuukan Friends / One Week Friends – Make the time to watch the first 4 episodes as a self-contained and heart-touching OVA. I liked what came after a lot as well. I think it touched on the true hallmarks of what makes up a friendship, and unlike others, I don’t think the show spared Hase any punches. You can read my notes for the show here.
- Log Horizon – Honourable mention for “Best Worldbuilding” – The show actually looked critically at how the rules of an MMORPG would translate to a setting where people live in. It also did some very real work at inspecting the nature of communities. You can read my notes for the first season here.
- Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai! Ren / Chuunibyou, Love & Other Delusions 2nd season – Promise me a Romantic Comedy’s “the next day”, where the couple is actually together, only to have half the episodes be OVA material, and to end on the same spot where the first ended, will you, KyoAni? “Biggest Disappointment”. Read my notes, and post-finale rant, here.
Notable absentees: These are shows which didn’t make the list, and are likely to raise eyebrows by some people, so let’s get it out of the way:
- Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun / The Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun – One of the best-written anime comedies I’ve come across, with actual characters and punchlines written to fit the characters. Alas, weighed down by bad comedic pacing, and letting scenes and punches hang in the air for too long. I’ll probably enjoy the manga, but the anime just wasn’t good enough for me.
- Space Dandy – Too episodic for me. The first couple of episodes didn’t draw me in. I might watch it at a later date, over an extended period of time.
- Zankyou no Terror / Terror in Resonance – Watched 10 out of 11 episodes. It didn’t end up doing or dealing with much of what it set out to, and I think Kill la Kill which was guilty of the same issues was much more memorable. You can read my episodic notes for it here.
- Hanamonogatari – As an OVA, this wasn’t supposed to show up. I planned to watch all of Monogatari Second Season and use Hanamonogatari to place it in this year, but after watching the first arc I was reminded I can’t and don’t wish to watch more than an arc of Monogatari at a time, so it wasn’t meant to be.
- No Game, No Life – Ended 20th on the list of shows I finished. Wasn’t nearly as clever as it pretended to be, its ideas didn’t always mesh up, and had a couple of episodes that were a complete drain in tension. It was fun, but there were more fun, and better shows. You can read my episodic notes for it here.
- Aldnoah.Zero – Tried to pass off bad characterization within the show, too many ass-pulls, a gloriously nonsensical finale. Underwhelmed doesn’t begin to cover my reaction. You can read my episodic notes for it here.
Anything you find egregiously missing, or disagree with? Looking at the list, there’re probably shows for everyone to like, and for everyone to dislike strongly here, as with any list!