Another year has come to an end, and with it a bevvy of shows, of which I’ve sampled over 40, and finished about half of these. Not as good as past years, but there were a couple of pretty underwhelming seasons this year. You’ll note there are 9 shows in this post, not ten. I’ve decided to go back to my 2013’s list method, and have as many shows as I think deserve being on the list, be it 3 or 13. And this year has 9 such shows, for me. There’d be “Notable Absentees” and “Honourable Mentions” at the end of the post, so if you don’t see a show, keep on 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).
9. Hibike! Euphonium (Sound! Euphonium)
Euphonium is not a perfect show, which you can tell from its position on the list, but it’s still good enough to make the list. Ironically, even though it’s not a split-cour show, it feels more like half of a grander show than actual split-cour shows I’ve watched this past year. It tells a small and coherent dramatic story, while hinting at much more to come. Its characters, of which there are many, range between fully-realized to not fleshed out sufficiently yet, but they feel real, and they, and the show, carry the charm of the so-called “KyoAni Mastery of Small Moments.” The show had several highlights, and was consistently good after its first arc. Recommended, but I’d recommend waiting for the 2nd season, myself.
8. Junketsu no Maria (Maria the Virgin Witch)
Its name and premise (a witch uses succubi to control the war, and will lose her powers should she have sex) aside, Maria is a pretty tame and classy story. Its titular character is clear-headed, strong-minded, and has a strong presence in every scene she’s in. The show deals with war, its ramifications, and the ways greed and hope intertwine in the daily lives of those who stand to benefit and suffer from it. It moves to discussing faith and self-determination, realizing your goals, standing against outside edicts. It’s a heady mix, and the show isn’t afraid to deal with conflict, or to raise interesting ideas. I have to say that more than any other show on the list, my memories of the show aren’t as clear as they’ve been when I watched the show, but it’s full of spunk, and even if the execution is not flawless, it’s a spunky, charming show, that invites further thought. The humor, when it does pop up, is actually entertaining as well.
7. Gakkou Gurashi! (School Live!)
I mentioned in my piece on Shiki how the genre closest to horror is “moe slice of life,” as both rely on atmosphere. Well, one of the two surprising things about Gakkou Gurashi! is that it’s taken this long for a proper horror anime coupled with “cute girls being cute,” and no, shows that take Cthulhu or Zombies and remove all the horror from it don’t count. The other surprising thing is how much I liked the show, seeing as usually I’m not a fan of the “moe slice of life” genre, nor am I a fan of most of anime series’ attempts at horror, that usually don’t end the best.
But Gakkou Gurashi! makes it work. The “moe slice of life” covers sometimes poignant character arcs, as the over the top merry-making covers fears of the future and wounds from the past. It could be said that the show is using its cheery facade to try and mask the rigors of daily lives for its characters, just as it does for us. And you get pulled in. You get pulled into the drama of living in an impossible situation, of hoping the smiles could go on forever, just as you know the end is inevitable, and not pretty. The horror at the end of the moe is what horror is about, as is the horror at the root of being unable to escape your situation, and yourself. And from this tension, a precious little drama, full of amusing and touching moments, and more than a handful of sad ones, emerges. Definitely my surprise pick of the year.
6. Concrete Revolutio: A Superhuman Fantasy (Concrete Revolutio: Choujin Gensou)
Concrete Revolutio seems like a mess. It seems like a show about superheroes, and about a mystery. It’s quite simple, really. It’s a collection of vignettes, of actions and their consequences, which comprise a larger tapestry about “justice”. It’s about how we reconcile the different ideas of justice various people hold, and how we reconcile our own ideals, and ideal selves, with reality. It also asks us to consider media involvement, how we react to symbols, and how we judge who is “right”. In other words, it asks us how we make up and decipher our reality, and then it asks of us to reconsider, and to spend more time thinking about it. The show’s character take a back-seat, but are still distinct in their own right, and its story is more of a vehicle for the specific segments, but the show makes it work, amidst a tapestry of interesting and colourful characters, a couple of heart-felt moments, and ruminations that might repeat at times, but offer enough variation on the subject to create a relatively nuanced discussion. So long you play along and hold up your end, which I think is worth doing.
You can still look at it as the story of individuals against a rich backdrop that is inspired by real events in Japan’s history, which it comments on, and it’d still be true. You can think of it as a reflection on older media titles and their view of heroism. The show can bend, and will give you based on what you take out of it, even if I believe the socio-moral aspect is its true beating heart. And there’s a lot of heart in the show.
You can read my post-episode thematic breakdown of nearly every episode here, and a helpful timeline since the time-skips can be disorienting.
5. Ushio to Tora (Ushio and Tora)
I like shounen battlers. It’s not easy liking shounen battlers, as most are of very suspect quality, or are of decent quality, but filled with fillers to hell and back. There’s a reason I coined the term “shounonsense” for all these newer Light Novel adaptations. So, what better as a fresh of breath air than an adaptation of a manga published between 1990 and 1996? Ironic, isn’t it? We have our dynamic duo who can’t get along and hide their fondness underneath punches, we have damsels who need to be saved but who also get to do the saving. We have an ancient evil that must be purged, and we have manga-style funny-faces galore. There’s nothing here that should be “special”, but it’s not in the premise that greatness lies, but in execution. Ushio to Tora brings back the joy of such shows, of likeable characters, of fights with emotional weight behind. I like the chemistry, I like the humor. And I love the way this show leans heavily on emotions and tears, rather than run away from them.
I like shounonsense, and Ushio to Tora is a show from when I began watching such shows, and helped remind me why.
4. Death Parade
After admitting to liking shounonsense, it’s time for another reveal that is inappropriate to make as A Serious Anime Critic™, and that is that I like shows exploring the darkness within human soul, that focus on it, and even revel in it. But, it’s because I like shows about human nature, and that’s a part of it. Death Parade goes to both ends, it’s a show about the “darkness” in human souls, but it’s also about the light, and the loneliness. It’s a show that first shows you this so-called darkness, but then shines the light back on you, who judge others so, and tells you that you do it because you lack compassion, because you lack the empathy necessary to understand others. And that too, is part of human nature.
This show is designed as an ongoing mystery, in the way that it asks you questions, leads you to come up with hypotheses, and then it shifts them to another question, and then another, and another. A carefully constructed montage of human moments, with touching moments and an ongoing story that runs through them all. There are a lot of moments to like throughout the show, but the mystery and growing understanding of the situation heighten the anticipation, until the crescendo of Chiyuki’s story’s finale shines as one of the highlights of this year’s anime.
And Decim remains alone. Still Decim. And slightly changed. And so are we, still the same after watching the show, but slightly changed, and richer. And that too, is humanity.
You can read my episodic notes on a handful of episodes from the show here. I do recommend watching the prequel short Death Billiards, not mandatory, but it sets the game of “The Tiger or the Princess?” well.
3. Gatchaman Crowds Insight (Gatchaman Crowds Season 2)
Gatchaman Crowds might not have been my highest-ranked show in the 2013 list (it ended 3rd), but it was my favourite one, the show that felt like it’s been made just for me. So this show was the one I most looked forward to this year. Did it deliver? Oh yes it did. The show has a simple message, which is “think your actions through. Think them from multiple sides,” but even if Gatchaman Crowds’s main message is always quite simple, its delivery and demonstration of it are nuanced. This season could stand on its own, but then you end up missing just how nuanced and careful the construction of the whole thing is – Gatchaman Crowds Insight takes everything it has said and done in the first season, and goes, “Oh really? Are all these things we said are good and bad really so? What if we switch it around, so the good guys call for censure, and the bad guys call for liberty?” And so it forces us, and itself, to look carefully, and stop making blanket statements.
But a simple core message is only part of Gatchaman, and its charm and greatness comes from all the other elements of humanity’s social existence and experience it touches on, to greater or lesser degree, and its understanding of humanity. The show does play things too quickly, or to extremes, now and then, but the core rings true. Gatchaman Crowds’s first season was a work of belief in humanity, while the second is a high-order satirical allegory that serves as a cautionary tale about where human greatness can lead us. Watch Gatchaman Crowds. Watch both seasons. And then follow its twin invitations – believe in humanity, and think. What more can you ask for from a piece of media? I dunno, but I cherish the existence of such a show in the unlikely field we call anime. It’s so very un-anime-like.
2. OreGairu Season 2 (Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Comedy wa Machigatteiru. Zoku / My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU 2)
Speaking of shows that built on their first seasons, we come to OreGairu season 2, which got the #2 spot over Gatchaman Crowds because it’s the most improved second season of the last few years for me (perhaps of all time, even?). I rewatched season 1 earlier this year, and I gotta admit, I think it’s a fine show, but I’m still not a huge fan of it. It’s got standard light-novelish comedy, it’s got some cute characters going on, and it’s got a whole bunch of unhappy people trying to hide that fact. It’s somewhat above-average standard fare.
So, imagine my surprise when season 2 has been hitting it out of the ballpark on a consistent basis, nearly every episode, from the season premiere to the finale. The show was done with faffing about, and accepting its characters moodily telling themselves how they’re better than everyone else, or how no one understands them. The show understands its characters, and made sure we do too. They’re hurting. Every single one of them. They’re trying to find sure footing, and they’re trying to find comfort. Most of all, they all want the hurting to stop, so they could stop hating themselves, but they hurt themselves because they hate themselves.
And the show had shown us the journey for understanding, for reaching out. The journey for growing up, even as we’re torn between the urge for things to stay as they are, and the understanding that the more we strive for it, the more things change, and the more they hurt. We hurt one way or another. And this is a story about growing up, and of hurting others, and being hurt. No longer a fluffy light novel filled with tropey comedy, nor filled with “cool characters,” this show is something anime is sorely lacking in – a drama that understands (young) people, and isn’t afraid of breaking down their most intimate relationship – with their self-image.
Some might say it’s ironic that the show is most “genuine” when dealing with the concept of fakeness, but I say it’s inevitable.
Speaking of “breaking down every single interaction,” check out my super in-depth episodic notes for the show, coupled with a lengthy semi-editorial write-up per episode.
Speaking of “inevitability”, there’s a trend you notice when you look at the top shows I’ve picked over the last three years, 2013’s Kyousougiga, 2014’s Ping Pong, and this year’s Shirobako – they’re all proper dramas that could work just as well as western dramas. Shirobako is the most “western drama” of all three productions, lacking Kyousougiga’s extreme fantastical elements, and Ping Pong’s heavy reliance on highly stylized animated shots. But it has its own fantastical elements, and is as carefully directed as anything else on the show.
Shirobako is a simple show about people trying to make ends meet while following their dream. It’s a simple show about the opposition and hardships we face in the grind of our daily lives as we must meet the demands of higher ups, juggle deadlines, and work around and sometimes through obstinate or outright malicious co-workers. It’s a show about the world we must live in, and the future we want to create, and how to navigate between the two of them.
It’s a show about people. People we like, people we dislike, but people like us, which we grow to understand and appreciate. It’s a show that’s not doing anything new, or special, so long you’re looking only at the top end of western dramas and an even smaller section of the top end anime shows. It’s a show about executing anime series, that gets this high because it’s so well done, so well polished, and has a big heart underneath. Watch it, and then ask yourself why you’re not watching purely western dramas as opposed to most anime crap. Watch it, because aside from raising the question, it’s also the answer.
Watch it, because it’s about life as you know it, or will, and because amidst the tears, there are also smiles.
Why shows ending in 2015? 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.
I had 9 shows make the cut, while last year would’ve had 7 shows make this cut, so while there were more “great shows” this year, there were still far less “distinctly above average” shows this year for me, but there are a handful of shows that still merit mention, or are missing for various reasons, so let’s get to that.
Honourable Mentions: Shows that barely made it in, or won a dubious award.
- Akagami no Shirayuki-Hime / Snow White with the Red Hair – This show is ambling about, story wise, and sometimes it just doesn’t progress as plot-lines are introduced and discarded. Not all characters get enough screen-time either, and it’s prone to preaching at us. But, a show that manages to carry itself off of two characters’ chemistry and had me smiling throughout on a weekly basis is definitely worthy of “Most Heartwarming” show of the year.
- Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works – I actually liked the first season. I liked its chuuni-ness and action. The second season was poorly-paced and relied on unearned character investment to hold scenes that fell flat otherwise, so “Biggest Downgrade from Season 1” goes to Fate/Stay Night. Better luck with Heaven’s Feel, Ufotable!
- Kagewani – Kagewani is a show I only gave 6/10 to, and it’s an anime short. An anime short that nailed the atmosphere of horror, even as it otherwise delivered a lackluster performance. But a short! And horror! That succeeded at horror atmosphere! That’s so surprisingly rare that I wanted to highlight it 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:
- One Punch Man – One Punch Man looks amazing, almost enough to get it up to “Honourable Mentions,” but most fights were one-sided, so felt like empty spectacles, and aside from the one great episode with Mumen Rider, the show just fell flat for me. I don’t care for anime humor, and the show’s humor was very much not my taste either. Would’ve liked a show focused on Genos and Mumen Rider, though.
- Yona of the Dawn – I just didn’t get to it, but I plan to. Even as I watched less anime this year, I was keeping busy in other ways.
- Yuri Kuma Arashi / Love Bullet: Yuri (Lesbian) Bear Storm – Didn’t finish it, but while it’s certainly the most artistically notable, and most “play-like” show of the year, it’s been leaving me cold thus far. I’m still open to it surprising me, but it’s no Penguindrum, Ikuhara’s previous work.
- Parasyte: The Maxim / Kiseijuu: Sei no Kakuritsu – I really dug the first third of the show, but then its pacing began to falter, so the second arc while “good” was not as enjoyable, but then nothing good came out of the last arc, in terms of pacing, or character development, or enemies. It just slowly died out. A shame.
- Durarara!!x2 – I watched the first cour, and a bit of the second. And while it had moments of greatness that reminded me of Durarara!! at its best, it was mostly filled with other, lesser, content. I do plan to catch up by the time next week rolls around, to watch the final cour as it airs. I do hope it gets back to form.
Anything you find egregiously missing, or disagree with?