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