Archive for December, 2011

No spoiler policy: The following review will not mention important plot points or describe scenes in detail. It will only analyze themes and contents in broad terms.

Those interested in spoilers are welcome to visit the plot summary page instead.

With this movie, the K-On franchise begins a new chapter in its conquest of fans’ hearts. The words ‘a new beginning’ get thrown around a lot for every franchise that enters a new medium, but the significance of the event is much greater for K-On than for almost any other recent anime title. The reason for this is twofold.

First, the challenge K-On faces here cannot be denied. The series has charmed many with its loose storytelling, disposing almost entirely of cliffhangers, twists and climax scenes present in other titles. The plot progression has always been as carefree as the lives of the five girls it follows. But the transition to the silver screen, commonly seen as a ‘step up in the world’, imposes limitations that may be particularly hard to swallow for a slice-of-life series. Can K-On, a story about ‘five girls having fun’, meet the demands of scale and pacing… and yet preserve what made it special in the first place?

The second reason is what the series stands to gain if it plays its cards right. The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi was an excellent movie by KyoAni, but it was also nearly inaccessible to anyone but followers of the original series. The storytelling style of K-On, on the other hand, offers it an incredible opportunity to broaden the ranks of its fans. The simple premise of the show allows anyone to dive right into it without preparation. Few people are willing to watch midnight anime shows, but taking a stroll to the nearest cinema might be a different matter altogether. This would mean nothing if the movie were to be dismissed as just another ‘otaku movie’, of course, but this is K-On, the series featured on children’s news programs and the originator of the ‘tehe-pero’ buzzword spreading among female middle school students.

The two points need to be remembered when reviewing the K-On movie, as they leave their imprint on every artistic decision therein.


As with any other K-On installment, the music in the movie can be divided into in-universe music, played by the characters, and the insert songs present in your usual anime. The movie’s timeline is set before the HTT group’s graduation ceremony, and so the in-universe performances are a reprisal of songs already familiar to fans from the first two television series, with nothing new added to the repertoire. The movie’s soundtrack, on the other hand, includes three new songs: “Unmei wa Endless” with Toyosaki Aki’s Yui singing the opening theme, “Ichiban Ippai” as an insert song, and “Singing!” with Hikasa Youko as Mio in the ending theme.

The tracks known from the main series are used expertly to reestablish HTT as a band with its particular style, as well as to show the characteristics and relationships of individual members. The first HTT piece we hear is “Curry Nochi Rice”. The track is carefree enough in itself, but the circumstances in which it is played make it seem even sillier, reminding us never to underestimate the unfathomable depths of Yui’s psyche. U&I returns as Yui’s most heartfelt creation, showing her gratitude towards the important people in her life. “Tenshi ni Fureta yo!”, the song forming the centerpiece of the movie’s plot, represents the bonds between all the HTT members. At the same time, the old tracks are used to cover new ground and develop the characters further. The HTT members experiment with English translation of their songs, Yui and Azusa exchange their parts mid-performance, and Yui dives into the audience to personally address each of her friends with her vocal part. The creation of “Tenshi ni Fureta yo!” becomes as much a journey in search of the essence of HTT musicality as it is a token of gratitude for Azusa.

The soundtrack songs contain the same duality. Despite being all-new content, the tracks will make all fans feel right at home with the OP/ED structure known from the original series. Yui’s bubbly and hectic vocal sets the mood for the movie and acts as a theme for the HTT itself, accompanied by shots of the characters’ daily lives. Mio’s ending performance offers a more impassioned performance, reminiscent of the second season’s “No, Thank You!” and contrasting strongly with HTT’s lighter tracks. A staff interview mentions that the ending theme of the movie can also be considered to be the theme of the K-On franchise itself – it presents the feelings the girls hold toward their group and music in general.


The challenge put before director Yamada Naoko by the producer side could be summed up in just a few words: a scale befitting the silver screen. The idea put forward was “London” – five girls up against the world in what Yamada referred to as a ‘complete coming of age story’.

But anyone expecting the usual Hollywood structure out of this movie is in for a surprise. It seems not even London can win against the ‘my pace’ spirit of the HTT girls. If the travel preparations would normally be considered no more than cinematic ‘necessary evil’, K-On finds delight in showing the process. The graduation trip idea comes about as a result of a misunderstanding, picking a travel destination involves hours’ worth of shenanigans and Yui packing her things is a worrying sight…. Before the girls set foot on foreign ground, the viewers will be well-reacquainted with all their personality quirks.

Even when they finally reach Britain, Yui and her friends have no intention of conforming to any standards. It helps that all of them are virtual trouble-magnets, making it completely unnecessary for them to seek out great adventures on their own. They face the adversities of London with great aplomb, forcing their own brand of common sense upon the city.

It soon becomes obvious that London is just another stage for the interplay of the zany personalities that we all know and love. Yui romances with her guitar, Mio is torn between her passions and defense mechanisms, Ritsu takes potshots at her friends, Mugi gets lost in her own little world, while Azusa should honestly get paid for playing the caretaker of the group. Same old, same old.

It is therefore something of a surprise when the journey turns out not to be entirely meaningless. With the backdrop of a vastly different nation on the other end of the globe, the HTT members realize that they can be themselves regardless of the circumstances around them, and that it is up to them to decide their own goals in music and life.

—The Verdict

The box office results so far are enough to call K-On a financial success, unrivaled by any recent late-night anime adaptation. K-On achieved this through tapping into the otaku resources (encouraging repeat viewing by handing out commemorative film strips for every three tickets bought) while remaining fully accessible to a much wider demographic. This was a huge battle for director Yamada, one full of difficult choices. She mentions the character designs were altered ever so slightly for the movie by making the characters’ eyes smaller, and explains that she wanted “characters that female viewers could easily identify with, not ones focused on appealing to a male audience”. On the other hand, the director made sure not to stray far from the roots that made the series popular in the first place, commenting that she was “careful not to make HTT’s performances too successful”. K-On, she explains, is not a story about the way to stardom. “The girls never played for a nameless crowd, but always for somebody important to them.”

All that’s left is to thank the staff for their hard work and recommend the movie to anyone willing to give it a chance. It’s a new step in the journey of After-school Tea Time – a must-see for old fans and a possible starting point for many new supporters.

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I got around to compiling this plot summary from the notes I took after the screening of the K-On! movie. I wasn’t taking notes while watching (too busy enjoying the thing myself), so there are probably some missing tidbits, but everything in a reasonable cause-effect relationship should be here.

  • HTT makes a playback performance of one of Death Devil’s songs

  • The band discusses an image change and discovering new musicality… but nothing comes of it

  • Yui tells the other third-years that Azusa has only seen them screwing around all the time, and they should do something upperclassmen-like for once

  • The girls agree to prepare some kind of present for Azusa, but Azusa interrupts the conversation before they can get to anything specific

  • Yui hears the volleybal club girls in their class mention a graduation trip and tries to convince the others HTT should go on one too, but she gets shot down by Ritsu, who tells her they should be thinking of Azusa’s present first

  • Yui consults Ui about Azusa’s present. Ui tells her that there is nothing in particular that Azusa wants – just spending time with the band seems to be the most precious thing to her. Ui jokes that the third-years could fail their exams and stay with Azusa for another year as a present…

  • Azusa walks in on her sempai as they are discussing the ‘repeat year’ idea. In a panic to cover up the topic of the discussion (without giving Azusa the idea that they failed their exams or something, as she did hear the unfortunate keywords) Yui comes out with a big declaration: the third-years are going on a graduation trip after all!

  • Azusa tries to politely refuse going with them on the trip (since she’s not graduating, and she’d be a bother, and…) but her resistence doesn’t last long…

  • Time to pick the trip destination! The girls each pick a location (Mio: London, Yui: Europe, Mugi: onsen trip, Azusa insists she can go anywhere, Ritsu I forgot, Hawaii?)

  • Yui offers to pick the location at random… and cheats, putting Europe on every piece of paper. She gets busted by Azusa in no time flat and forced to wear a paper-mask kind of thing as a penalty

  • The girls turn to Ton-chan as their randomizer. Ton-chan is not particularly cooperative, taking hours to pick one of the choices… but finally settles on London, to Mio’s badly concealed exaltation

  • Azusa walks out of the clubroom to call her parents and ask if she is even allowed to go abroad… everyone uses this opportunity to call their parents (the whole trip planning started with a lie, after all)

  • Azusa walks back in to see the other members putting away their phones… and realizes that their safety abroad is largely dependent on how well she can keep her ‘reliable’ sempai in check

  • Somewhere around this point, the third-years come up with the idea to make a song for Azusa’s present. But they immediately think it cannot be just any song. It needs to be something on ‘a world scale’, worthy of Azusa.

  • Yui, in a conversation with Nodoka, expresses surprise at the notion that Europe is not a country. She also corrects Nodoka that no, they are not going to England, they are going to London…

  • Yui packs for the trip in a scene which marks the first appearance of the Hirasawa parents in the show… or of the Hirasawa parents’ legs, at least. Ui helps Yui pack, cramming instant noodles into Yui’s travel bag…

  • The girls go to reserve a tour, but have so many places in London they want to go to that the travel company employee recommends they should take a no-guide tour with full freedom of activities. Azusa agrees to plan the whole trip.

  • Without agreeing to do so beforehand, all the girls except Mugi end up bringing their instruments along for the trip, because ‘it wouldn’t feel right otherwise’

  • All kinds of Yui&Azusa cuteness ensues aboard the plane

  • Some small trouble occurs in London when retrieving Mio’s baggage. The problem is resolved soon enough, but not before Mio incurs some trauma against conveyor belts and things that spin in general

  • Photo frenzy!

  • Yui confronts the door of a British car… London: 1 Yui: 0

  • The girls get to their hotel… or rather, a hotel. Turns out they got the address wrong. Resolving the issue seems to be beyond Azusa’s linguistic ability, and things start looking grim when even Mugi admits the hotel staff speaks too fast for her to understand… Mio saves the day, as it turns out she can perfectly understand any and all English, as long as she doesn’t have to directly face the scary foreigners…

  • The girls end up having to walk more than they planned to, and Azusa learns that going on a trip abroad in brand-new shoes is not always the best idea. The rest of HTT get her to admit that her feet are hurting, and the whole group change plans to go shoe shopping first. Azusa gets a free ride on Yui’s travel bag, too.

  • Everyone gets hungry, so they decide to eat… sushi. But things will not be as easy as they think at the sushi restaurant.

  • The owner of the sushi restaurant gets to confirm Yui and Ritsu’s English ability. Or rather the non-existence of such…

  • Turns out they will not get to eat unless they perform for the guests (or that’s what the two aforementioned bakas understand from their ‘conversation’). Mugi steps forward, apparently ready to resolve the misunderstanding… but in fact ends up just requesting help in finding a keyboard (she didn’t bring hers, after all).

  • With two minutes to prepare a performance, Yui saves Azusa in a pinch by helping her kouhai tune her instrument by ear. London: 47 Yui: 1

  • They end up playing Curry Nochi Rice of all things, because Yui spots an Indian among the customers…

  • Turns out they ended up performing because the band of Ritsu’s friend (from the live house episode) is also in London and had arranged for a guest performance at the sushi restaurant

  • HTT finally reaches their hotel, still hungry. Ui’s instant noodles save the day. (Did the girl really predict things this far ahead…?)

  • Angsting about the song for Azusa, more Yui&Azusa bonding, and London sightseeing snapshots ensue

  • Ritsu forces Mio to board a ferris wheel despite Mio’s newly-gained fear of spinning things… but boy, does Mio end up being grateful when they see the entirety of London stretching out before their eyes

  • HTT gets a more formal invitation to perform at a Japanese culture promotion event from the band they met at the sushi restaurant

  • Sawa-chan turns up in London and brags about the ninja outfits she made (with Jun, Nodoka and Ui as models). HTT flatly rejects the idea of performing wearing those, though.

  • The performance is relatively successful, but almost causes the girls to be late for their plane due to Yui stretching things out (there was a cute baby in the audience, or something)

  • On the taxi to the airport, Azusa falls asleep from exhaustion, showing how much it took out of her to plan and oversee the whole trip. The third-years realize that the song they make for Azusa shouldn’t be any different from their ‘normal’ music, because their style was the thing that brought them all together in the first place

  • The girls get back to Japan, and we have a time shift forward to graduation day, when they organize a last class live (with some help from Sawa-chan)

  • We get a glimpse of how hard Ui had to work not to find out about the secret song despite Yui being Yui… Ui is ❤

  • The third-years gather on the school rooftop before their first performance of the still-titleless song for Azusa. The tension levels are incredible, and nobody is sure if they can make the song as perfect as they want it to be… when, at the last moment, Yui has a flash of inspiration, creating the final version of the lyrics we all know. And finally…

  • “Tenshi ni fureta yo!”

So much for a dry plot summary from me. I’ll come back with a review/favorite scenes post later.

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I mentioned not long ago that Shana – Final would become painful once the cool characters started dying off. Well…

RIP Decarabia

My favorite character of this season just got one-shotted. To tell the truth, the treatment he got was not that bad for a non-humanoid villain. The one to one-shot him was the good guys’ main commander, possibly even the strongest character on the good guys’ side. She achieved that through a surprise attack and still had to follow up with a comment that that single blow took a significant part of her power reserves. There are much worse ways to die.

As a farewell gift, 10 reasons why Decarabia owns:

  • He’s socially awkward, annoying many people at strategy meetings

  • He doesn’t need a cell phone to call anywhere in the world

  • He decides to risk his neck for the greater good when necessary, even if he could concentrate on saving his skin (No good deed goes unpunished?)

  • Enemies have been sneaking/teleporting directly into his main base for the last three episodes… He takes it in stride

  • He uses full honorific titles when discussing how to handle the above-mentioned crisis with Tempest Hoof

  • He turns the tide of battle by casting support spells on mooks. That’s the path of the white mage Negi Springfield didn’t take.

  • He teleports attacks away instead of blocking them.

  • He uses ‘yue ni’ (therefore/thus) when explaining why he is going to attack with full force

  • He lets out the final attack even as his body is being torn apart.

  • It’s hard to say if the attack even connects with the target… but it blows everything up anyway.

Now, who’s dying next on my favorite character list?

Tier I

  • Decarabia

  • Hecate

  • Snake of the Festival

  • Chibi Lord of Guze with confusion Unrestricted Spell

Tier II

  • Bard Lord of Guze

  • Herald Lord of Guze

  • Rose & Suit Flame Haze

  • Sabrac

Edit: Glad to see I’m not alone in my sentiments.

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Another, the horror novel adaptation that the people at P.A. Works want to use to broaden their creative horizons, will be on air in January. So far, we have only seen tantalizing glimpses of what the show has to offer in its promotional videos. Let’s make the most of what little we have, then.

“Hey, Misaki-san. How do you write ‘Mei’?”

“It’s the kanji for ‘a cry’. The one in ‘resonance’. The one in ‘shriek’.”

You don’t need to be Japanese to have experience answering the question “How do you spell that?”. The most troublesome words, regardless of language, are usually proper nouns – names of people and places. If the language uses a single alphabet, it’s not so bad. You just list the letters used one by one. However, with Japanese and the kanji system it uses, things are not quite so easy.

Some common names, like the female name Aiko, for example, have several dozen ways they can be written in kanji (or hiragana, or a mixture of both…). The same problem even works in reverse – write your name down and you still have to tell everyone how to read it if you want to be sure they get it right. The illustrator and essayist Ootagaki Seiko (大田垣晴子) bemoans this in one of her works, stating that nobody has ever read her name correctly on the first try because of the much more common reading ‘Haruko’.

But with the relatively small number of sounds the Japanese phonetic system has to offer, the issue is not limited to just names. The language is riddled with homophones, different words sharing the same pronunciation. The word pronounced ‘idou’, for example, can be referring to at least four commonly used meanings, ranging from transit to the art of medicine.

Which makes it no wonder that most Japanese are both used to and quite skillful at clearing up this kind of ambiguity. Two common ways are:

a) naming one of the simple, single-kanji words of native origin (Wago, 和語) that use the desired kanji (even if the pronunciation does not match)

b) naming one or more of the Chinese-origin kanji compounds (Jukugo, 熟語) that use the desired kanji

The first one is simple enough, as there are usually no more than a few valid readings for the person explaining to choose from. The second one, on the other hand, is all up to the speaker’s imagination, with numerous options to choose from. And that’s where things get really fun.

From a pragmatic point of view, you would want to use the most common and least ambiguous words available. But, reality being far from ideal, you will usually end up using the first thing that comes to your mind. Watched a horror flick last night? You might find yourself explaining ‘absorption’ with the word ‘vampire’ (literally blood-sucking-demon in Japanese). An avid mecha fan? Be careful not to let the infamous ‘combine!’ command (合体、 gattai!) slip when pointing to the kanji for ‘body’. There is human subconsciousness at play here, and you never know the result before you try. But even if you stop before blurting some embarrassing words out loud, the process still reveals the vocabulary that feels most familiar to you at the time, your personal lexicon. If you’re perceptive enough, you can sometimes glimpse a person’s hobbies and interests in the words they pick here.

Mei is kind enough to explain her name both ways… but why does she bring up the reading for ‘shriek’, of all things? That’s not one of the words you want friends to associate with your name, and certainly not what Mei’s parents had in mind with the name, either. Her expressionless face hints it’s more than black humor. Does Mei delight in gory literature? Are tortured screams a common topic of conversation at school? Or is she so used to hearing shrieks that the word came naturally to mind?

We don’t know. We will never know what is going on inside another human’s head. We can only tell there is something wrong. And that’s where the unseen horror begins.

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As you might have heard from other sources already, Madoka got its hands on the Animation Division main prize in the 15th Japan Media Arts Festival organized by the Japanese government’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Previous award winners in the category include such titles as Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) and Sen to Chihiro Kamikakushi (Spirited Away).

What hasn’t been translated yet is the reasoning behind the award, something I decided to fix:

Reasons for award

Continued from last year, the winner of the main prize is a television series. It is highly regarded for being an anime-original concept, not a manga or novel adaptation. This ambitious work subverts the well-established concept of mahou-shoujo. It is a skillful trap that shakes the viewer’s beliefs about the genre to the very core with its critical approach.

The cute-looking creature called Kyuubey offers a contract where girls can have a wish granted in exchange for becoming magical girls and fighting against witches. The horror hidden within human ‘desire’ and the powerful emotion behind a still greater ‘miracle’… both of them are born in the human heart, like two sides of the same coin.

The anime takes full advantage of the nature of a TV show, keeping viewers guessing for a whole week after every episode. It brings the escalating clash of beliefs and the beautiful imagery accompanying it to the highest possible standard. The work is overflowing with energy coming from the desire to create something revolutionary.

We award the prize full of expectation that the work can become a catalyst to bring about a new age.

Congratulations, yet again, to the staff behind Madoka.

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Continued from Part One, my true favorites of this year.

#6 Nichijou

There are times when Nichijou is hard to watch, when the near-lack of linear plot progression (something the director has admitted to doing intentionally) leaves the viewer vulnerable to the disappointment of an unfunny gag. Or, worse yet, two unfunny gags in a row. But on the other hand, I can easily get stuck on youtube rewatching the ‘best of’ moments of the show.

As bumpy a ride as it is in terms of story, Nichijou never fails to be spectacular one way or another. The three-seconds rule scene is probably the most over-the-top presentation of the concept we’ll ever see, despite nothing physically impossible happening there. The hallway chase, the Mio vs Police fight, the card tower silent cartoon homage…Nichijou is ripe with scenes to be remembered, a virtual handbook on animation tricks prepared by the folks at the Kyoto Animation studio.

Inexplicably, when the last episode ends, you realize you’ve grown attached to those characters and the time spent with the series feels all too short…

#5 K-On the Movie

The series which has made itself a fair share of enemies through sheer popularity. K-On is not particularly revolutionary nor ambitious in terms of plot, setting or characters. Nevertheless, it has captured the hearts of countless fans of all over the world. It is also questionable whether the form of a feature-length movie is suitable to a franchise which has so far worked best with short, fluffy pieces. But rather than climbing to new heights, what the series is doing here is making a statement. As box-office come in, fans jokingly note that the late night anime franchise easily surpasses the numbers of Spielberg’s Adventures of Tin Tin

But the movie which will mostly be remembered for its extensive advertising campaign and the varied audience it has managed to bring to the cinemas is not a bad piece of work in itself. Surprisingly subtle on some occasions, the movie paints the bonds of trust and reliance between the light music club members with fresh and vivid colors. At the same time, it never stops being that light-hearted comedy fans have come to love. I’m looking forward to when this new installment becomes widely available to western viewers.

#4 Hayate no Gotoku -Heaven is a Place on Earth-

As a comedy series about a butler struggling against the never-ending string of misfortunes in his life, it would seem Hayate no Gotoku would be no less of a challenge to adapt for the big screen than K-On. But the actual result is very much a pleasant surprise.

It turns out any problem can be solved with enough fortitude and effort. Hata Kenjirou, the author of the original manga, poured out hectoliters of sweat to prepare this all-original story and overlook its transition into an animated movie. It all pays off in a single piece of brilliantly balanced work. Humor, action, romance… even a wistful moment or two, everything has its own place in this tightly-paced theatrical release.

People who have never had contact with the penniless butler and his companions can watch this as a easily digestible story. Loyal fans of the series will enjoy the rich attention of detail that comes from having the original author on board all through the creation process. This is not a movie that will change how the franchise is looked at, but it does not waste even a second of the viewer’s time either.

#3 Tamayura -hitotose-

There are two types of anime slice of life series that stand out: the Azumanga Daioh type which includes large amounts of comedy, and the Aria type which just aims for a soothing atmosphere. While comedy shows can keep on coming out year after year and still feel mostly fresh, the latter type always has to struggle with the great series of the past, Aria itself being the most likely culprit.

Tamayura at first feels like it will also be weighed down with such comparisons. With the setting being ‘merely’ a coastal city in Japan, and the main characters being quite ordinary high school girls, it can’t quite match the fantastic setting of Neo Venezia, and the scope of stories it can present is also limited to what can imaginably happen in our own everyday lives. There doesn’t seem to be much a series like this can surprise us with.

But then the writers reach for something Aria never would – themes of death, heartbreak, rejection and fears about an uncertain future. Handling those in your average show requires a fair share of skill. Making them work in a slice of life show intended to bring a smile to the viewers’ faces requires true mastery. Thankfully, Tamayura was blessed with staff talented and experienced enough to handle the task, many of whom have previously worked on Aria itself.

The main lead is cute and ditzy and all you could expect from a slice of life protagonist. Oh, and she’s trying to regain her love for something which only brings back painful memories. As the young girl slowly comes to terms with her past, the people around her struggle with their own ambitions and tragedies. Often, they do not speak about them openly, trying to deal with everything by themselves. But humans can only take so much without the support of another.

Tamayura is never exploitative or artificial in its presentation of human drama. It’s the show’s subtlety that makes its blows so heavy when they strike home. But miraculously, this is still a healing-type show that makes you feel better after every episode. It accepts life as it is, sprinkling just a bit of hope on every image it portrays.

As Tamayura is still airing, I thought it reasonable to give it third place. But it was competing head-to-head with another, no less impressive show:

#2 Hourou Musuko

This series came out of nowhere with a large cast of characters with convoluted relationships already in place (it adapts the original manga starting from chapter 30!), making the first episode more than a bit confusing. Some characters apparently decide to change genders mid-episode to add more flavor to the bewilderment. But as soon as you have time to sort things out, this series starts hitting, and hitting hard.

Hourou Musuko is not a series that meets viewers’ expectations. I doubt anyone watches anime expecting serious stories about transgender kids. But that is good, since the series doesn’t even have to make it clear that it will not follow standard otaku checklists and plot developments. Those would be impossible in the first place with the characters involved.

And what characters they are! The side characters in this show are more intricately developed than most leads in average shows. It should be difficult not to find somebody you can empathize with, even with the very specific problems most of the cast is dealing with. Everyone has their flaws, but there are no villains either, just imperfect, difficult human relationships.

The story details the everyday lives of the main characters, focusing more on their internal turmoil than any outside developments. But every episode is filled to brim with content, directed expertly by Aoki Ei and easily surpassing his current work at fate/zero. The cliffhangers here are all emotional and, as much as they whey the appetite for the next episode, they never leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.

Recommended watching for anyone with enough attention span to work out the relationship net between all the characters. Interest in the subject matter of gender identity is not required to enjoy the great drama Hourou Musuko offers.

#1 Puella Magi Madoka Magica

This series has a 200-page literary review on it entitled “A Cage Named Maturity – On Puella Magi Madoka Magica”. I doubt most people had the opportunity to read that analysis, but it presents the show as coming from a long tradition of Japanese alien-type horror, where the terror is born not from the incomprehensible, but from the understanding of a horrible, horrible truth.

Regardless of whether one agrees with that particular statement or not, Madoka’s horror roots were not everyone’s main concern when the show was still airing. There is the genre subversion, Shinbo’s artistic presentation, the references to other animated and literary works, the Ume/Urobuchi conflict, the religious references in the finale, the charade and its breakdown… If it takes two hundred pages to analyze just one aspect of Madoka Magica, think how many pages it would take to do the show justice.

But one of the beautiful things here is that Madoka is in no way difficult to understand if you want to enjoy it on a basic level. The emotional roller-coaster the series offers is enough to satisfy those just looking for a ride. And this is how entertainment should be, accessible and challenging at the same time, possible to be enjoyed by almost anyone.

Madoka also did a lot for the medium in general, showing the potential of an original story that doesn’t have to stretch things out with filler and proving the expressive power of an individual (Shino, Urobuchi, Ume, Kajiura) where we are used to discussing things in terms of studios.

But personally, I can only thank Madoka for twelve episodes’ worth of unforgettable fun.

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This is my 2011 Anime Top Twelve listing for Anibloggers Choice Anime Awards (ACAA). Thanks to kiddtic at Kidd’s Anime Blog for organizing this, and I hope everyone has fun predicting the results.

It is a given that everyone’s list is going to be subjective, and this one is no exception. The criterion I decided to use to the decide the ‘best’ series is ‘impact factor’. Am I going to remember the series a year from now? What about five, ten years?

There is more than one way to make a series memorable. The obvious one is to make something innovative or even revolutionary. Another is to make something that is good enough to become synonymous in the viewer’s mind with the genre it represents. But a few twists in an otherwise average series are often enough to make it stick in memory for a long time.

This criterion is not the same as enjoyability, nor does it even necessarily reflect the quality of the series that follow, but it lets me answer the question: “what series do I want people to hear more about?”

Honorable mention: Kami-sama no Memo-chou

For the whole ten minutes that Kamimemo was not either riddled with fillers or otaku checklist fanservice, the series managed to ask some tough questions about those too weak to keep up with the system. The neet detective Alice confesses that what crushed her spirit and cut her off from society was the feeling of responsibility for every death in this world, deaths that she cannot prevent. Reviewers of the show were often outraged at her words, calling her attitude nothing more than hubris. But can the girl endlessly cursing her own powerlessness really be accused of too much pride? Or is it just that some ideals are just too great, never meant to be held by simple humans?

Honorable Meniton: Usagi Drop

Cute and as inoffensive as it gets. The series that took some themes that couldn’t possibly be interesting and made them fun to watch every week. Its only shortcoming is the lack of some outstanding, memorable scenes or a climax point. Still, this is a rare title that can be recommended even to people who have little to no connection with anime.

Honorable Mention: Ikoku Meiro no Croisée

The show that tried to kill us all with cute overload. But it also introduced a deeply flawed male lead, who can neither heal his trauma nor change his jagged personality overnight. As it was slowly revealed, the characters all had good reasons for their attitudes and behavior, rewarding viewers with small surprises every episode. And although the series is set in France, it is actually interesting how the creators portrayed the Japanese customs of the olden days – sometimes showing appreciation, and sometimes a more critical view.

Main List:

#12 Gyakkyou Burai Kaiji – Hakairokuhen

Watching Kaiji on a weekly basis is suffering. The second season has horrible pacing issues to begin with, but waiting a whole week to see our main character sweating for twenty minutes in front of the same pachinko machine he was agonizing over last week is not what most people consider fun.

And yet the fact remains that Kaiji is one of the more unusual anime series out there. This is a tale of a good-for-nothing man who falls to the pits of hell because he was too naive, and yet stands a chance of crawling back out only because of his faith in the good heart of others. Forever balancing on the thin line between hope and cynicism, Kaiji is an anime experience not to be easily forgotten.

#11 Shakugan no Shana Final

I’m not your usual Shana fan. I’ve never seen the first season, and the first movie had me cheering on the antagonists until the very end, giving me little reason to support who I felt to be dull main characters. And now, the third season is setting me up for a similar experience.

The main character joins forces with the main bad guy – they both want to change the world for the better! The antagonists get a tearful reunion with their master – poetry and metaphors fly left and right to describe the anguish of the time they spent apart. The one time the main bad guy’s second in command ignores his orders, he quickly and decisively stops the insubordination… and compliments the unruly subordinate for their loyalty and proactive approach, calmly explaining why following the original plan is a better idea. Even the bit villains have more personality than their heroic counterparts…

This show is going to become very, very painful once the truly interesting characters start dying of like flies.

#10 Rou – Kyuu – Bu!

A series detested, quite rightly, for its fanservice approach to elementary school girls. Other than that small ‘detail’, it is probably worth mentioning that the sakuga of the characters’ faces at times brings to mind the infamous twisted faces of the first season of Higurashi. Past episode three or four, the amount of novel content squeezed into a minute of the anime more than doubles, meaning that any semblance of plot is also lost. Suffice to say, this anime is quite bad.

But it still manages to have better characters than most anything out this year.

The basketball baka Hasegawa Subaru, who can honestly think of nothing but the ball and the goal. But the basketball he meets in reality cannot match his ideals – and when his dreams and ambitions fall apart, he realizes he has nothing left to cling on to.

The basketball baka Minato Tomoka, who forgets about everything the moment her hands grip the ball, when the soft-spoken shrinking violet gives way to a merciless competitor. But she is sane, sane enough to realize that a place to be is more important to her than her ambition, even if tearing her fingers away from the ball proves as painful as peeling off skin.

I’m not sure if anyone wants to see a second season with the same quality and approach to fanservice, and I don’t expect the novels to ever get translated, so I take this time to give a single salute to the original author, Aoyama Sagu.

#9 Fate/zero

Great production values, Urobuchi Gen’s story, Kajiura Yuki’s music and the director of Hourou Musuko, Fate/zero has it all to become a legend.

And yet the anime adaptation of Urobuchi’s novels struggles with consistency. It has difficulty with establishing its characters, and Aoki Ei doesn’t handle the epic fight scenes too well, trying to copy the presentation of a novel instead of using the strength offered by a visual medium. As with any adaptation, stuff gets lost in the transition, and its up to the staff’s skills and guts to take risks to make up for those shortcomings. This time around, Ufotable is not entirely successful, and the anime that could be great ends up being merely good.

That said, the epic scale of this series and the unique storytelling that Urobuchi offers cannot be denied. This series can only be fairly judged once it completes its run next year. I give it a high 9th place in expectation of what is to come, but cannot rank it above the consistent series that follow.

#8 Chihayafuru

It’s always a blessing to have a show that’s merely good at its worst, and a true pleasure at its best. An unusual mixture of josei-style romance and a sports manga, Chihayafuru does more than well enough on both fronts.

The karuta genius Wataya Arata gets a romantic head start by inspiring our main character during her childhood days, but his main rival Taiichi seems more real a character with every episode that we watch him struggling to overcome his faults. Karuta itself, a sport that most westerners will never once play in their lives, seems attractive enough in this portrayal. The tactics and ability required, the teamwork and the hard work, all of it is presented in top-grade fashion matching the classics of sport anime.

With a cast of quirky characters and a good balance of the romantic and the intense, the serious and the humorous, Chihayafuru is simply great entertainment.

#7 Mirai Nikki

Having watched the first two episodes of the show, I thought the idea had a lot of potential. I decided to take a look at the original manga… and I ended up reading all through it in two or three sittings.

The original author can’t draw to save his life. He can’t write a proper story, either. But he has guts, much more of them than anyone should be allowed. The twists are ridiculous to begin with, but they seem crazier with every chapter anyway. When the final chapter comes, the ludicrousness has long gone through the roof, reaching the distant stars.

But it kind of makes sense. And it’s hell of a lot of fun.

The anime turns the manga drawings into something more consistently resembling human beings. And it gets a competent director. The biggest ass-pull moments get cut out and the transitions between scenes start making sense. The adaptation is on its way to significantly surpassing the original material, as rare as that is. I’m looking forward to seeing some future scenes animated, while those of you who have avoided spoilers can still expect a whole bunch of twists ahead. This series might not be as intellectually engaging as Death Note nor as consistent in its psychoses as Denpateki na Kanojo, but the fact that it attempts both is entertaining enough.

(Continued in Part 2)

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