Here it is, the last of our 2015 Staff Picks. We've already gone through our favorite video games and manga of the past year, so we're down to just anime. This year we decided to skip the overall listing, which works out since there's actually zero overlap among our contributors' favorite lists. So, without further ado, we present our contributors' favorite anime series and movies of 2015!
#3: Teekyu/Takamiya Nasuno Desu
Very often, “best of the year” lists give undue precedence to new things, neglecting workhorses like Teekyu that are so consistently good that they fade into the background. Teekyu is an anime about girls in a tennis club with 2-minute episodes. On paper it sounds like forgettable trash, but in practice, it’s instantly memorable, very intentional … trash. This year MAPPA handed the reins over to studio Millepensee (though director Shin Itagaki stuck with the project), which has resulted in more polished character designs, and … well, that’s about it. Teekyu’s lo-fi animation, breakneck pace, and surreal, often pun-centric comedy make it hard to recommend to any but the most hardcore anime fans (and even they might need to watch each episode twice to get all the jokes), but it’s managed to remain thoroughly entertaining week after week and season after season. And the best joke of all is that this dumb little cartoon has been successful enough to get not only four seasons in 2015, but a spin-off called Takamiya Nasuno Desu (which is just about as great as its big sister). Next year we’re getting ANOTHER Teekyu spin-off, and I couldn’t be happier.
#2: Little Witch Academia: The Enchanted Parade
Two years ago I named Little Witch Academia as my second-favorite anime of the year, and this year Studio Trigger finally delivered on their promise to make a bigger, better second OVA episode, backed by $650,000 of Kickstarter cash from international fans including myself. The Enchanted Parade is everything I hoped it would be and nothing more, which is actually just fine. Little Witch is comfort food — a lovingly crafted fantasy movie full of warmth and magic that tells a simple story about kids believing in themselves and each other. The elements that The Enchanted Parade adds to the formula — new cast members, a new setting outside of school grounds — rock the boat just enough to keep things interesting without taking too many risks with such a nascent franchise. Trigger did well to keep it all self-contained as well; in the event of a TV/film expansion of the franchise, which fans have been clamoring for, loose ends might make it difficult to connect the stories together. As with the first episode, though, this one is all about the animation. While the early sequences emphasize comedic character animation, the film really shines at the climax, when a series of spectacular broom maneuvers and attacks from a giant monster showcase the team’s formidable action and effects animation abilities. I was pretty blown away by the initial cut of the film, which screened at Anime Expo in July, but it says something about Trigger that they made corrections to the animation on top of that for the Blu-ray. Trigger maintains a standard of quality when it comes to Little Witch Academia that few productions can boast.
#1: Animator Expo
Despite keeping up with a lot more simulcasts than usual in 2015, there weren’t very many TV series that impressed me this year. In fact, my favorite anime of the year isn’t a traditional “series” at all. Animator Expo is a collaboration between Studio Khara (Hideaki Anno’s studio, staffed by an army of ex-Gainax animators) and Japanese media company Dwango, who is presumably bankrolling the whole deal to get their name out there and promote some musical artists via animated music videos. Every “episode” of Animator Expo is a short film created by a Khara animator (or, as is very often the case, an unaffiliated animator with friends at Khara) with near-complete freedom of expression. Though Animator Expo started in late 2014, this year we’ve seen some of its most memorable entries, including balls-to-the-wall monochromatic insanity in Hiroyuki Imaishi’s "Sex & Violence with Machspeed" (a spiritual successor of a sort to both Dead Leaves and Panty & Stocking), a psychedelic trip into the hamster-piloted mind of a high school girl in FLCL director Kazuya Tsurumaki’s "I Can Friday By Day," and a nostalgic CG send-up to Gainax’s legendary Daicon animations (as well as the soon-to-be-bygone age of physical media) in "Cassette Girl." If it all seems a little transparently self-referential with its tongue-in-cheek callbacks (the title character in "Obake-chan" is totally just Rei Ayanami), straight-up remakes (Evangelion, Ultraman), and promos for Anno’s manga artist wife Moyocco ("Diary of Ochibi" and "Memoirs of Amorous Gentlemen"), that’s because the whole idea is one big throwback to the early days of Gainax. This is animation by and for animation nerds, with no hand-wringing over sales numbers or return on investment. Anno & co. may have grown up and their work may be polished and professional now, but the creative spirit of Gainax lives on in their dedication to making anime for anime’s sake.
At 26 years of age, Wakako has experienced more than enough to justify escapism via the purchasable delights of booze and appetizer/entrée. When I first read about the concept of Wakako-Zake, I thought, “It’s moé Bukowski?!” I was not wrong, save the moé part; Wakako is a woman who takes shit from everyone, like everyone does in real life, but vents it all on her own via sensory appreciation. This 12-episode series overtook my Twitter feed by storm, and I could not be happier that it did so. The series brought joy to so many through Wakako’s simple interactions with dishes and exclamations of delight. That, in and of itself, is a miracle. Pshuuu.
#2: Death Parade
While it was love at OP (having missed my chance to see "Death Billiards" at Otakon), the Death Parade series proper completely won me over within two episodes for its art, atmosphere, animation (Madhouse), and use of multiple perspectives. Further episodes wowed with plot threaded throughout games of chance and skill, with a wonderful twist on the competitive gaming formula, that leads up to one hell of a finale. You can read my mid-season review here, but all you really need to do is watch the first few episodes. The adeptness with which the rest of the series follows suit only grows. Reasons this series is on so many Best Of lists number many, but it’s on mine for the tender portrayal of the frailty of human consciousness and all the consequences of pressure. That the series evokes the phrase “true to life” despite being a cartoon about gods, mannequins, and weigh-stationed souls says so incredibly much.
#1: Yuri Kuma Arashi
Anyone who reads my reviews knows I love picking apart imagery, and there’s really no other director out there who proffers more to chew visually than Kunihiko Ikuhara. Combine that with a story which I’m convinced fights to bring to light the prejudice against lesbians in Japanese society, and what you get is a politically aimed auteur piece. These are the kinds of stories I find most enthralling — stories that change things or at least have the power to do so. The fairy tale structure of Yuri Kuma Arashi, let alone the commentary in involving an actual fairy tale (of sorts), only increases the appeal of the series for me. As trigger for thought, initial bewilderment due to Ikuhara’s penchant for variations on visual themes and repetition proved to be a barrier to enjoyment for many but was pure cocaine to me. A 10/10, 5-star, two thumbs up anime if ever there was one.
#3: The Perfect Insider
This is a bit of cheat since the show literally finished up in the last week or so but I loved The Perfect Insider so much, it didn’t seem fair not to have it here in the lists. Following the shocking double murder of a convicted murdering genius and her own uncle at the island facility where they worked, a researcher and his student try and solve the murder knowing the killer is still with them. Using brain power rather than physical strength, the duo navigate the clues and uncover twist after twist deliberately left by the killer to solve the case before the police become involved. I loved how the story took time to deal with our heroes and the places they came from emotionally to explain how they were able to solve the case while at the same time live with a killer in their midst and in their heads. Serial killer shows and movies usually try and paint the perpetrator as evil or damaged without trying to balance the scales. The Perfect Insider just gets on with it and has you asking all the questions with the protagonists like every good mystery should. (Full review coming soon.)
#2: Food Wars
From opening shot of Food Wars, I knew I was going to like Soma Yukihira, because anyone as dense as he was couldn’t possibly NOT survive the trials of Totsuki Academy. He strolls into battle with a smile on his face and an answer for everything, as if he's got an invisible cloak protecting him from harm. It’s not like he wanted to go, though; his father forced him to attend the culinary institute to beef up his experience ,but what Soma needs is opponents, not experience. He gets that at Totsuki, from crazy meat-loving buxom blondes to the chilling sister of his own nemesis, Erina Nakiri. Along the way he picks up his crew of crazies, wallflowers and fellow warriors to join him in taking on the creme de la creme of Totsuki. It might be just Fist of the North Star with food, but it’s entertaining, the cast say and do things that defy logic, and the show hums along with a happy ignorance. Plus, there’s more of the show to come if ANN is to believed. Woo-hoo! Delicious!
#1: Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers
Well, this turned out to be quite the surprise. You’ll recall that I said that Rokka was a mix of Tolkien, Journey to the West and the local culture the show had created. Thankfully, the show didn’t fall into the tropes I had feared, but it went in a direction that I couldn’t have foreseen and for that, Rokka wins my overall best of 2015 anime out of the three presented here. The simple fact is that the show made me care about every one of the characters as they were not the easiest to like from the beginning and then asked me to not care about one of them as a seventh character joined the fray. In the end, the show had the bravery to deal with this one problematic character rather than rush to tie up all loose ends. Even if the show never gets any further seasons, Rokka sets itself up with a hell of a natural cliffhanger. (Full review coming soon.)
New Monogatari animation projects have been coming out reliably per year and that makes these end-of-year posts easy for me to write. Thematically, Owarimonogatari confronts the subject of the end, and after three series and three OVAs, it’s hard to believe the end would ever come. The story has entered the final phases of certain character arcs and while Owari is not the clear-cut ending to the series that the title implies, it certainly feels like the party is winding down. The tone of the series has grown progressively more somber and introspective, to the point where the classic Monogatari cleverness sometimes deflates the mood its striving for. I’m not sure if Owari has a chance of standing high in the ranking among the best entries in the series, with its muted tone and off-balance delivery of drama and comedy, but it does mark a period of transition, setting up what I hope is a more wholly realized story that achieves the sort of maturity that Owari wanted for itself.
#1: The Love Live! Movie
I really don’t want to acknowledge the Love Live! movie as one of the best anime of 2015, but I have to be fair. Unfortunately for those not near a major city in America with a theater willing to cater to anime nerds, odds are you’ve missed out on watching this movie in the most ideal setting, that setting being a dark room occupied by a breathless, sweaty mob. The sort of energy felt in the room was unlike anything I’ve experienced before at other anime movie screenings. Consider that, for me and a roomful of other New Yorkers, watching an extended segment of the Love Lives frolicking around an accurately rendered New York was an absolute trip. When a cartoon as plastic as Love Live! can bring the whole room to tears, I can’t deny that that is something special. There probably have been other anime this year with far greater artistic ambitions, some that deserve the longevity with which they’ll stay in mind after 2015 passes, but there’s a good chance nothing else now or in the immediate future might stand out quite like Love Live.
#3: MY Love Story!!
MY Love Story!! gives us one of the, if not the, most lovable male leads ever in Takeo Gouda, the adorable female lead Rinko Yamato, and the un-leading man of the century in Makoto Sunakawa. This show approaches love from a variety of angles, in each case deepening the characters and their relationships. Oh, did I mention this high school romance that defies conventions on just about every level? And it manages to keep its exploration of inverted tropes interesting for twenty four episodes, to boot! Yes, the male lead is a tough guy who’d be a sidekick in any other show, and yes, his sidekick would be the lead in any other show, but the best part is how little time this show spends in the high school setting. Also, it’s directed by Morio Asaka of Chihayafuru fame, and if you’re having withdrawals from that series MY Love Story!! can help fill that void.
#2: Sound! Euphonium
Kyoto Animation’s 2015 Spring offering didn’t make the best first impression. The teaser art seemed to hint at a fanservice angle, but thankfully it soared past my initial low expectations. Sound! Euphonium, for me anyway, managed to convey an authenticity in the characters that I’ve never experienced in their earlier works. A part of it was no doubt the source material, but the better portion was in the way the characters moved. In the members of the Kitauji concert band club, I saw echoes of my students of years past. Their affected poise, the subtext in the space between their words and their gestures, all of it powerfully evoked real high school life in a way no work has done before.
All year I’ve opined that Shirobako would only be appreciated by, well, anime bloggers. Time will tell, but it seems like the show definitely has more fans than I gave it credit for. It didn’t win me over right away, at least that’s what I thought. By the time the second cour came around earlier this year, I noticed it was the first thing I’d watch every week. When the emotional climax of the show came and as my vision blurred, I realized how much this show meant to me. Seeing these characters pour all of their hopes, hearts, and toil into their productions, I couldn’t help but become invested in them as well. As an added bonus, we get a great look at how the anime we all love is made, with all the struggles and exhilaration that come with it. Shirobako works so well on every level, and it's easily my top anime of 2015. Now where’s my Goth Loli-sama baseball spin off? Or my Racing Queen Okitsu anime for that matter?!