Michael Huang’s Year-End Roundup

2006 was the year I joined an anime club and got caught up with newer shows again, kicking off what is for me the Second Age of Anime Indulgence (the first was my first years of fandom in college). I’ve never downloaded and watched and been involved in the anime scene as much as I did this past year. With that in mind, here’s the shows that I discovered this year and thoroughly enjoyed. Rather than pick a single favorite or rank them by number, I’ve broken them down into categories.

Note: this list doesn’t even pretend to be comprehensive, and not every show is technically from 2006. These are just shows I saw in 2006. I obviously haven’t watched a great deal, and I’m pretty picky in what I choose to sample. Any complaints/suggestions about what I missed are welcome as it gives me a whole list of more things I can watch. :)

With that–here we go!

Originality Awards
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The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni shine this year as being the most original shows in concept and execution. Both are striking in their post-modern, metafictional approaches to standard otaku stereotypes and storylines. Neither show, however, forgets the heart and both have scenes of genuine emotional power, ensuring that both titles will probably be remembered when the 2006 season is long gone. And Kyoto Animtion’s superb technical work on Haruhi forever raises the bar for the quality of TV animation. I highly anticipate the announced second season!
Honorable mention: FLAG, with its tale of a photojournalist in the middle of an Iraq-style insurgency, addresses current issues in ways rarely seen in anime. I didn’t finish watching it though, and the pacing felt a bit off to me.

Kickass Award
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Black Lagoon, the Second Barrage…duh. Coyote Ragtime Show tried, but ended up mired in its own cliches. Black Lagoon continued its excellent, fluid animation quality and kickass action sequences, and manages to even fit in some character development along the way. But it never forgets the reason for its existence: our fanboyish desire to see a big-boobed girl with a gun in each hand blow the bastards to bits.
Honorable mention: Diebuster (Gunbuster 2): Gainax recovers, somewhat, from the slump of utterly generic and formulaic shows by reuniting the FLCL team, with a little help from that odd man Hideaki Anno. The final few episodes were exciting and satisfying in ways Gainax hasn’t been in a while, and included some terrifically fluid giant robot battles.

Laugh ‘Till You Die Award
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Ouran High School Host Club is perhaps the most delirious send-up of shoujo manga and anime…well, ever. The heroine, Haruhi, is the shoujo counterpart of Kyon–a sarcastic commentator on the follies of bishounen male escorts with yaoi tendencies. The show begins to falter a bit when it tries to have character development at the expense of satire, but finds it footing again near the end. It’s the most popular showing at my anime club for a reason.
Honorable mention: School Rumble Ni Gakki started off very strong, with a delirious parody of Battle Royale and various other genre parodies, but seriously ran out of steam in the second half of the season. By the time it ended–I think around the magical girl parody episode–it seemed tired and desperate for ideas. But the first half was gloriously funny, with enough laugh-out-loud moments to make me gasp at times.

Emotional Satisfaction Awards
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This is a tie between Honey and Clover and Welcome to the NHK!. H&C, which ended this year, is bar none the finest anime about twenty-something life, particularly the time between college and career. It’s not only a refreshing departure from the terminal adolescence of most anime, it was startling in how accurately it depicted the interior struggles of its characters without lurching into unbearable melodrama (I’m looking at you, Saikano and Kimi Ga Nozumo Eien!). Some of the closing images of the final episode are so incredibly perfect in their poignancy and appropriateness for the moment. It also deserves a mention for the superb use of insert songs, and making me addicted to listening to Suneohair.

NHK succeeds for similar reasons, though the content of the stories couldn’t be more different. A story about broken failures and their struggles, it resonates deeply while warning of the dangers of being a social outcast; it identifies strongly with its characters while suggesting, just barely, that second and even third chances in life are possible and that there can be hope at the end of the tunnel. Raw in its depiction of the depravities of otaku (and even then not as much as the manga), it is the flip side of such fan-celebrations as Genshiken, but it’s also so much more. (As I said in my full review.)

Honorable Mention: Iriya no Sora UFO no Natsu: give it credit for trying to be a different kind of sci-fi love drama. Once in a while, it tries to depict what real emotions look like, thought the story feels rushed and overly dense (its novelistic roots really show). In the end, it falls flat both plotwise and emotionally, but it’s chock full of great ideas that perhaps more time and skill can develop further.

Thought Provocation Award
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Monster (yes, I know, not a 2006 show–but I watched it this year) is perhaps the most compelling portrait of evil in anime. Refusing to shy away from difficult questions and never giving in to easy solutions, it faces squarely what a good man is to do in the face of genuine, psychopathic evil. One of the things that irritates me about anime is its frequently naive pacifism, but Monster severely challenges that standpoint without giving in to gung-ho callousness. Moreover, every major character is developed thoroughly, and even unlikable characters are revealed to have understandable, if contradictory, motivations.
Honorable Mention: Mushi-shi stands out for its tautly written, atmospheric, and poignant episodes. A kind of anime Twilight Zone as if M. Night Shymalan were directing, almost every episode succeeds in setting a melancholy, ghostly feeling. It is one of the very few anime that encourages a contemplative mood when the credits roll, and deserves a commendation merely for that.

Guilty Pleasure Award
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Zero no Tsukaima–aka Harry Potter as filtered through otaku harum anime cliches–is also consistently funny in its first half, and manages to not only stay interesting but also wrap up nearly every major plot point in a satisfactory way. Sure, it’s utterly predictable (I guessed almost every major plot twist at least two episodes ahead), and the characters are all harem stereotypes and never really develop beyond them. But…Louise is so cute when she’s angry! Tsundere power!

And that does it for 2006. In the coming year, I’m looking forward to the high powered anime literary adaptations of Les Miserables and Romeo + Juliet, as well as more Haruhi and more Zero no Tsukaima. See you next year!

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