2011; what it mean to me? Well to look back, dig deep, and investigate would mean having to consider something that wasn’t a list of some sort. And while something like a list surely would offer up some kind of marquee-type value to the site, I find it much more important to point out what made the year stand out in regards to content.
With a year fraught with very real tragedy and fear when and after Japan was hit by one of the great natural disasters of our time, it is on the other hand encouraging that changes for the anime industry have indeed been in the chrysalis stages, and only seem to be accelerating again. It’s no accident that the concepts behind many of the year’s standouts seem to be coming from places not as often tread by the typical fan wank, and are edging to what is hopefully a positive new turn for the medium in regards to risk, which is something so many seem to have been dreadfully allergic to for years. While there was indeed more of the same bouts of helplessly pander-heavy shows, and milquetoast offerings, there were also some standouts that seem to indicate what I mean.
Early in the year, my initial reactions were that shows like Level E were looking toward manga’s past for potential answers, while Yamamoto’s ill-fated Fractale did the same whilst seeking a bold new bent on familiar themes. Right away the vibe was that the studios were actively looking for paths less familiar to the current generation of animators on a work level, possibly in hopes of creating a new language. And while both of these series diverge in regards to actual quality storywise, it was interesting to see this precedent so early on. Also highly worthy of note, was the inclusion of Horou Musuko, which not only offered a bold premise and story, but it also came with a rare visual palette that immediately sent me shivers. It was as if studios across the board were suddenly ready to play ball, and offer up not only something truly new, but almost completely out of the realm of anime familiarity, which is always a plus. Despite some minor story issues, it remains a standout and must-see. However, it took another show to unexpectedly take this lead further and do what few shows have in recent years. (Something I’ll get to in a bit, please be patient.)
Moving into Spring season, and with an entire world rattled by catastrophy that seemingly had no end, several shows offered up unique twists on what could otherwise be considered standard fare. The big surprise winner for me being the wildly fun and retro-tastic Tiger & Bunny, which offered up a dazzling mix of comedy, action, and drama that has been greatly missed for some time. By taking the american superhero subversion that has been occurring in the west, and giving it a Japanese consumer-satire sheen atop of it, it ends up being not only a fitting tribute to pop culture’s costumed cousins, it also grants them hearts in the best manner the Japanese can provide. It’s rare when such a reinterpretation works so well, and this is that moment where even new viewers can be allowed into a whole new world they have often felt left out of. Also standing out at this point was Hanasaku Iroha, which seemed ready to tackle not only a simple tale of familial strife, it also had cultural identity wholly on its sleeve. In a rare move for recent anime on tv, a call for balance was brought to the table. And while shows like Nichijou offered often beautifully animated absurdism ala Azumanga Daioh via David Lynch, there was still a hint of deeper concern happening within Iroha that left a lingering impression, even if the show didn’t always deliver what it set out to. Even Steins;Gate, while occasionally interesting, seemed ready to take its place alongside the ever growing pile of “cool idea that needs just a little more time to cook” shows that Nitroplus was involved with this year. Regardless, effort was seen shining in unexpected places, which was encouraging.
As summer came in, so did some great surprises in the form of a most unusual family drama, and the return of a long-missing master with a whopper to tell. Upon first hearing that the popular manga by Yumi Unita was to become a tv series, worry began to fill my heart, and not only for obvious reasons. Could a story this laid-back, and in the moment work even for a noItamina series? It’s great to be proven wrong sometimes, and Usagi Drop remains a heartfelt and often truthfully sweet testiment to the changing face of family. Featuring the second awkward dad this year (the first being Kotetsu T. Kaburagi of Tiger & Bunny, of course) to have not only a great handful to deal with, but also an unerring wish to be the best dad he can. He may not be the sharpest crayola in the box, but he’s doing his damndest. And it’s great to watch him try. It’s extremely rare to see such sincerity at work in anime, and the show’s 11 episodes often shine brightly because of it.
So what were my favorites overall? If I had to make a thoughtful decision, I suppose two won me over due to their audaciousness, while the third did by playing things straighter than most, with just enough contemporary thoughtfulness to make it count.
First has to go to Puella Magi Madoka Magica, an out-of-nowhere project that reminded of how much I’ve missed the full potential of anime. Confession time: coming from a very sincere place, I can’t say that I have ever truly enjoyed anything directed by Akiyuki Shinbo. Aside from being an efficient stylist with little to actually say, he has never come off as more than this, and had yet to do anything substantial on a story level. And yet it took collaborating with Gen Urobochi to rise to unheard of heights by doing his own tribute to the very best of 90s “edge anime”, and offering something that resembles an solid human theme, not to mention some vital life questions. (A fitting counterpoint to the often comfort-food territory of the Magical Girl show) Using the history of maho shoujo lore to tell what is essentially a treatise on female roles and the responsibility that lies ahead in an ever unpredictable new world. Somehow defies what I still find to be an unfocused story in the first half (populated mostly by types rather than characters). So when the footing is found, the wins often outnumber the losses despite a large need for some additonal characterization. It’s a bumpy ride, but I remain ultimately satisfied by what I see as one of the most visually haunting shows in years. Where Chihayafuru maintains a stalwart heart, and longing for simpler ideals, Madoka Magica reinstills an unyielding, provocatively forward mind. Positing that the value of intention only goes as far as we are willing to see them through with clear eyes, and often not to what we imagine them to be. And yet, despite the false footing it starts on, it somehow eventually wields an immediacy that is sorely lacking right now. The packaging is striking, and the choices within are unrepentantly anti-fan. Simply put: the Blu-ray release can’t come soon enough.
When word came around that long out-of-action anime auteur, Kunihiko Ikuhara was to make his return with the series, Mawaru Penguindrum, I must admit that it was with a great deal of reservation. So many years had past since his work on 1997’s crossover hit Shoujo Kakumei Utena helped usher in an era of surreal, cerebral television anime, and I couldn’t help but be worried if the medium had long left his parade charge behind. Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong as Penguindrum remains as baffling, yet startlingly entertaining from start to just recent finish. Again tackling much of the same territory he did with Utena, albeit in a world outside of merely school, Ikuhara’s obsessions with multiplicity, and justification are in full force for a new generation to parse and muse over. Whether fate comes from without or within, it could also be considered another grand questioning of the things that the average person uses to account for their disposition and actions. Also in force is Ikuhara’s lampooning of old anime’s cost-saving techniques of stock footage, perhaps even commentating on anime’s often samey nature which is more than welcome. Overall, a strangely touching and occasionally frustrating series that’s never satisfied with being one thing. Well worth the trip.
Honestly, if you had told me that my favorite series of the year was to be an old-fashioned sports-anime mashup about competitive karuta and ancient Japanese poetry directed by Madhouse regular, Morio Asaka, I would have called you straight up…well..mad. Chihayafuru makes no bones about what it is, and makes it’s strengths look so effortless. But it takes a great amount of craft to tell a tale like this, and not lose one’s way in the process. There are so many places this could have gone wrong, and somehow the series continued to warm the heart and challenge modern anime with its tale of a trio of young people captured by an affinity for the senses. As the game of karuta requires, it is all about attentiveness & impulse. And the expected shoujo elements somehow play quite beautifully with the game-centric elements of the plot, which like in all sports anime (or even movies), are more representative of where a character is at a certain point. A series like this could never work without a likeable lead, and Chihaya Ayase is as well-rounded and likeable as they come. She contains the beauty and spiritual shell of a typical heroine of this ilk, but she also has with her an enthusiasm that is often blinding to the point of clumsiness in terms of the closest things in her life. And in how the two young men in her life represent major parts in what has led her to a path away from a more manufactured existence is palpable. They both have their qualities, so none of that ever rings false. And as I just mentioned, through Chihaya, and a group of memorable characters, the series also wins where Hanasaku Iroha was merely scratching at; offering another look at a possible Japan with one eye toward the future, yet with a true sense of identity not wrapped in consumerist plastic. Intelligent and pleasing all around, Chihayafuru is my personal favorite for 2011.
Not such a bad year despite all that happened around it, which in itself is an awe inspiring testament. May inspiration & hope continue to spring forth.
Until Next Year..