Anime in America: Carl and Theron's Best of 2008

by Theron Martin and Carl Kimlinger, Jan 5th 2009
Carl: It's been a long, depressing year, so what better way to end it than with an overview of the perpetually reality-deprived world of anime? No crippling economic crises or shoddy health-care systems here. No sir; nothing but brightness, light, and enormous body counts. For those who don't know, my name is purported to be Carl Kimlinger, though not even I know if it actually is, and I'm one of several reviewers here at the Anime News Network. Along with Theron, I will be your guide as we drink deep from the warm jugular of the best of anime. I bid you welcome.

Theron: And I'm Theron “Key” Martin, one of the other staff reviewers for ANN. I've been doing this year-end piece in one form or another for a few years now and just can't seem to get away from it. In fact, it's one of the most fun things I do each year for this site. (Well, after our annual staff “come as your favorite Pokemon” get-together – and no, it's just a malicious rumor that I was Mewtwo this year. As for Carl, all I'll say is that alcohol must have been involved.) This has certainly been a turbulent year in the anime industry, what with ADV's licensing problems, Bandai Visual proving to be the failed experiment we all knew it was, Funimation picking up everyone's left-overs, and a slew of new distribution methods, not to mention a lot of interesting anime content coming out, so we have a cornucopia of options to choose from. What was the best, the worst, and the most notable of the year? Let's find out!

THE STANDARDS

Only content officially released in the U.S. during 2008 – whether on TV, in movie theaters, on DVD, or via legal downloads or streaming video – is eligible for consideration. For Series of the Year and Character of the Year, a minimum of eight episodes has to be available during the calendar year for consideration; in all other cases, the content just has to appear in some release during the year.

SPOILER WARNING: Although we have tried to minimize spoilers this year, the Death Scene of the Year award does contain a major early spoiler for Claymore, Scene of the Year award contains a mild late-season Code Geass spoiler, and Bastard!! of the Year contains a spoiler for Bleach, later on in the series.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are solely that of Theron Martin and Carl Kimlinger and do not represent Anime News Network as a whole.

Theron: And now, without further ado, the envelope please:

Series of the Year
Carl's Pick: Gurren Lagann
Runner-Up: Flag
Best of the Rest: Aria the Animation, Welcome to the NHK, Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl, Black Lagoon: The Second Barrage

Carl: Perceptive viewers will notice that Gainax cheekily structured Gurren Lagann's plot after the spirals that form its central motif, and that under the bombast beats a heart awash in the manly conviction that (in the words of Neil Young) it's better to burn out than to fade away. But in a way, that's all beside the point. Gurren Lagann is howitzer of a show, a brain-shredding explosion of outrageous entertainment that washes from the palate the sour aftertaste of stale anime. Of the remaining contenders, Yawara is the other big entertainer, a judo sports-romance that earns its spot with old-fashioned charm and a monumentally sympathetic title character. Flag, Lagann's stiffest competition for top slot, is tightly-crafted military suspense that addresses timely issues with clear-eyed honesty and compassion. Welcome to the NHK's honesty is more brutal than clear-eyed, wringing discomfiting laughs from the all-too-familiar desperation of its deeply damaged cast as they claw their way towards redemption. Aria is in many ways NHK's antithesis: a richly-realized sci-fi celebration of life told with a visual poetry that proves that a series needn't be artistically bankrupt to be uplifting. The Second Barrage almost didn't make the list, as it is sometimes forced and overly referential, but its muscular character dynamics and bitter corruption of action-movie tropes ultimately elevate it above such criticisms. Emma also got serious consideration, but was too narrowly focused to edge out the sloppier but more inclusive and perceptive Yawara. Director Kenji Kamiyama directs Moribito with the same cold perfection that turned me off of his Ghost in the Shell television series, and while I'm quite fond of Simoun, I found it too low-impact to consider.

Theron's Pick: Flag
Runner-Up: Moribito - Guardian of the Spirit
Best of the Rest: Gurren Lagann, Simoun, Black Lagoon: The Second Barrage, Kanon

Theron:
Last year I picked Death Note #1 based on its first third, but it tanked too much in its middle and later stages to make the cut again this year. Amongst other titles I seriously considered, Claymore misses the cut because each aspect of it is done slightly better by some other series in my top six and NHK's too-methodical use of Tatsuhiko as a fashion plate for various different types of disfunctionality ultimately disrupted the series' flow for me. Aria and Yawara may be worthy, but neither made it into my DVD player. Despite being weighted down by inanity and my general dislike for moe, Kanon squeaks in on the basis of great artistry, solid humor chops, and a number of very strong scenes. The Second Barrage earns its spot by doing everything well in delivering a boatload of bloody, intense, and fun action, while Gurren Lagann deserves its rank for all the reasons Carl stated. Standing at the other end of the sci fi spectrum is Simoun, the year's best yuri series, which is as abjectly different from GL as a sci fi title can possibly be. A delicate, pretty creation which skillfully mixes complicated gender, religious, political, and relationship issues with the occasional action scene, it starts a little slow but culminates in an emotionally and symbolically powerful final volume. Those three all stand below Moribito, which combines gorgeous artistry with impressive action scenes, strong storytelling and world-building, and a top-rate female lead to set a new standard for fantasy anime. Even Production I.G's darling can't top Flag, though. In an environment where slavish conformity to genre tropes is the norm, Flag dares to not only be different but very different, with its only nod to convention being the inclusion of mecha elements. Its documentary-style approach allows its storytelling to effortlessly jump around and focus on key scenes while spinning a modeled-on-real-world-events tale about strife in a war-torn Asian nation and the importance of a symbolic flag to the fragile peace process. It offers blistering sociopolitical commentary and never shies from being controversial while delivering hyper-realistic combat scenes, a compelling narrative, and an intensely intimate feel. A potent final volume secures its status atop the stack for 2008.


Movie of the Year
Carl's Pick: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Carl:
Competition was again scant (there being few opportunities to see The Sky Crawlers and Sword of the Stranger in the dank swamps in which I dwell), but this leisurely-paced science-fiction romance would likely be the cream of the crop even in more fertile times. Sweet, funny and unassuming, it easily trumps the ambitious but muddled likes of 5 Centimeters Per Second.


Theron's Pick: 5 Centimeters Per Second

Theron:
This is more of a default choice than an outright pick, since I didn't get to see The Girl Who Leapt Through Time before the year ended and there was really little other worthwhile competition which made it into wide distribution in the States in 2008. One could do far worse than to name a movie with beautiful background art and mature and complex storytelling as the year's best, however.



Character of the Year
Theron's Pick: tie - Balsa, Morbito; Honoka, The Third: The Girl with the Blue Eye

Theron:
What do my two picks have in common? Both are strong, capable, highly practical female warriors who take no-nonsense approaches in combat and, with rare exceptions, aren't needlessly flashy. Both also have well-defined personalities which make them far more interesting than just as warriors. In Balsa's case, she has the physique to make her convincing as a warrior and a subtly motherly way about her in dealing with her charge Chagum which gives her an added dimension. In Honoka's case, she has a poetic soul and is able to solve crises with empathy as often as with force, proving that she can be both bad-ass and sensitive. No new male character this year effectively steps away from the mold as much as these two do.


Carl's Pick: Inokuma Ya>wara, Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl

Carl: When I was still a young man, my eyes full of stars and my heart bursting with faith and love for my fellow man, my evil elder brother duped me into watching Xena: Warrior Princess, leaving me a twisted, misanthropic shell of my former self. Ever since, I have had an unreasonable aversion to female warriors. Sorry Theron. The lynchpin of her eponymous television series, Yaw>ara is a giant sympathy sponge, possibly the most insanely likeable character ever devised—all the more so because she is as flawed, selfish and naive as any real adolescent girl.

Duo of the Year
Carl's Pick: Tatsuhiro Sato and Misaki Nakahara, Welcome to the NHK

Carl:
My runner-up pick from last year has in the meantime blossomed into a true couple (or as close to one as such twisted people can get). Codependent, deceitful, and just plain unhealthy, their relationship is also the only hope either has for meaningful human contact. Who says that bad people can't be (sort of) happy?


Theron's Pick: Masane and Rihoko, Witchblade

Theron: I am disqualifying Kurau and Christmas from Kurau: Phantom Memory since a) I picked them last year, and b) that series only had its last volume out this year, so Masane and Rihoko are the next best choice. Mother/daughter pairs are very rare in anime, but even if they were more common this duo would be a special one. Not only is their relationship a cooperative one, but the chemistry they have is unmistakable. Masane without Rihoko in her life, or Rihoko without Masane, would be a sad, sad thing indeed.

Scene of the Year
Theron's Pick: Princess Euphemia carries out Zero's inadvertent Geass order, Code Geass episode 22

Theron:
Either the recapture of the flag in episode 12 of Flag (arguably the most triumphant anime moment of the year) or Masane explaining about her impending death to daughter Rihoko in episode 22 of Witchblade (arguably the most uncomfortable and yet heartfelt moment of the year) was going to be my pick until this episode aired in early October and delivered the year's most shocking and devastating plot twist. How many viewers felt a chill go down their spine or screamed at the screen as they watched an awful mistake by the hero destroy both a worthy peace agreement and the series' most decent and high-minded character? The second-long shot of Euphie with the machine gun was more unsettling than most entire horror series, making this whole sequence stand out even in one of the most sensationalistic series in recent memory.


Carl's Pick: Em>ma and William reunite, Emma Season 2 episode 5

Carl:
Theron's pick is yet another example of the leg up his ability to sit through commercials without pulling an Elvis on his television set gives him over me. Alas, having not seen the final third of Code Geass (and knowing Goro Taniguchi's grandstanding ways, I have no doubt it was jaw-dropping), I must plumb my own viewing experience for contenders. While Aria has more beautiful moments and Gurren Lagann more memorable ones, for some reason I am always drawn back to this delicate morsel of aching, classic romanticism.


Theron:
Um, Carl, there is this wonderful invention called TiVo/DVR, which can allow you to skip those commercials when watching it later...


Carl:
TiVo? What's TiVo? In my part of the world we still tune our TVs with rocks
and a sharp stick.


Death Scene of the Year
Carl's Pick: Sakura dies for the first time, Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-chan episode 1
Carl: Anyone wondering why I snubbed an obvious contender like Gurren Lagann's big death scene can chalk it up to a deeply immature desire to be unpredictable. I have yet to see Theron's pick, and after last year's admission of unmanly affect during the climactic sequence of Air, I decided to regain some masculine cred by giving my nod not to the saddest, but to the funniest death scene this year had to offer. The first time Dokuro splattered Sakura's pate, I laughed so hard I nearly choked. That should count for something.

Theron's Pick: Priscilla decapitates Teresa, Claymore episode 8

Theron:
I also almost bust a gut the first time Sakura died, but 2008 was too strong a year for great death scenes for me to even consider that one. Two other contenders I'd put above it are the final scene of Death Note and the end of episode 8 of Gurren Lagann, but neither of those even come close to matching the story impact of Teresa's death or the jaw-dropping sudden reversal against a heroine that it depicts. It is, without exaggeration, the series' defining moment, as many later episodes flash back to it and most of the character behaviors, motivations, and plot elements that come up in the present-time parts of the series either directly or indirectly trace back to that scene. Too bad Funimation gives the scene away in its trailers and volume 1 supplementary materials, thus hampering the utter shock value it had on fans when the fansubs first circulated.


Carl:
I would like to take this opportunity to point out that I have now passed up not one, but two chances to flaunt my rather unpopular opinion of Death Note. You can all thank me later, though I probably won't be listening since I'll be drunk and dressed as Squirtle.


Best Opener
Theron's Pick: “Shine,” Moribito (Runner-Up: “Inori ~You Raise Me Up~,” Romeo X Juliet)

Theron: One of L'Arc-en-Ciel's best songs + gorgeous visuals + full animation = win. Though the runner-up features an equally wonderful and appropriate song, its artistic quality doesn't hold a candle to Moribito's. (And yes, Romeo X Juliet can sneak in for consideration since its first couple of episodes streamed on Funimation's Web site starting in late December.) I also seriously considered Claymore's “Raison d'Etre.”

Carl's Pick: “Undine” by Yui Makino, Aria the Animation

Carl:
For suckers for warm, delicate vocals, this is the song to beat. The interplay of visual and musical rhythms as each episode's unique opening unspools is quietly stunning, and the song itself is simply beautiful.


Best Closer
Theron's Pick: “The World of Midnight,” Black Lagoon: The Second Barrage episode 15

Theron:
This one only played once, and uses visuals that are only a minor variant on the normal closer, but such a hauntingly beautiful and melancholy a capella number deserves recognition for bringing one of the ugliest stories you're ever likely to see in non-hentai anime (that of the so-called Vampire Twins) to an astoundingly sympathetic ending.


Carl's Pick: “Odoru Akachan Ningen” by Kenji Ohtsuki and Fumihiko Kitsutaka, Welcome to the NHK

Carl: I'd go with Theron's pick, but where's the fun in that? Though certainly not the year's prettiest song, Welcome to the NHK's closer is an abrasive slice of black humor that captures perfectly the series' nervous energy and uncomfortable psychological realism. It's also hilarious.

Best DVD Feature or Extra
Carl's Pick: Maria-sama ni wa Naisho shorts from the Maria Watches Over Us Season 1 and 2 Box Sets

Carl:
Silly, funny and utterly original, these SD “outtakes” didn't have to make it onto Right Stuf's box sets (check out Media Blasters' omake-less release of Magical Witch Punie-chan), but they did, for which I am duly thankful.


Theron's Pick: Marathon Feature on Dragon Ball Z boxed sets

Theron:
This feature allows you to play each disk with every opener after the first, every closer except the last one, and all of the tedious recap bits at the beginning of each episode cut out, which on the six-episode disks can amount to nearly a half-hour reduction in playing time. It is a wonderful option for those who want to just slog through the episodes, and a feature I dearly wish was more widely-used.


Guilty Pleasure
Theron's Pick: Code Geass

Theron:
I don't have a high opinion of this series from a reviewer's standpoint, and despise the character designs beyond oh-so-hot Kallen, but like with My-Otome (which I picked last year), it always keeps throwing out something that's interesting enough to keep me coming back.


Carl's Pick: Strawberry Panic!


Carl: Aside from the odd spike of sharply-executed melodrama, there is really no reason to see this series outside of the girl-on-girl necking. What my continued patronage of the series says about me is as good a reason to feel guilty as any.

Most Important Trend:
First-run releases of seasonal boxed sets.

Theron:
We both agreed on this one. Funimation's thinpack release of the first half of Aquarion back in March was not the first time that a series has been made available in a boxed set in its initial North American release (Maze: The Mega-Burst Space was released that way in 2001, and Avenger in 2005, and probably others, too), but this time it marked the beginning of a broad trend. In the ensuing months reasonably-priced 12-13 episode season boxed sets have gradually become the norm for first-run releases of titles with limited market potential, and Funimation isn't the only company doing them, either. Fans have been clamoring for something like this for years, and now it seems that they have become an economically viable option for U.S. companies.


Carl:
Call this “The Year of the Box Set”. Other burgeoning release strategies—specifically legal web broadcasting via sites like Crunchyroll—have the potential to change anime viewership in truly fundamental ways, but “The Year of the Alternate Release Strategy” just doesn't have the same ring.


DUB PERFORMANCE AWARDS


Theron: I don't feel qualified to do Japanese awards, while Carl doesn't feel qualified to do English awards, so we're each doing our respective specialty only.

Best Overall English Dub: The Wallflower
Best English Dub Performance – Male: R. Bruce Elliott as Rubel, Claymore
Best English Dub Performance – Female: Carrie Savage as Rihoko, Witchblade

Theron:
The increasing frequency of titles being released sub-only in the States is making this block of awards harder to do, and a lack of a clearly outstanding English dub in 2008 doesn't help. Black Lagoon, my pick for last year's best dub, has its second season hampered slightly by one weak but important performance and questionable handling of some multiple-language issues, so I'm going instead with the year's most fun dub for the Overall pick. (By all rights Shin-chan should win for making a series with such awful artistry tolerable, but technically this year's DVD release episodes first came out in 2007 on Adult Swim.) Though Rubel is a minor supporting role through the block of episodes released so far for Claymore, the sly tone R. Bruce Elliott gives the character is so deliciously (and appropriately) slimy that it trumps the original performance and stands out well beyond his line count. Rihoko is a more major role in her respective series, and Carrie Savage consistently nailed it perfectly.


Best Overall Japanese Dub:
Flag
Best Japanese Dub Performance – Male: Jun Fukuyama as Lelouch Lamperouge, Code Geass
Best Japanese Dub Performance – Female: Erino Hazuki as Akari Mizunashi, Aria the Animation

Carl: In keeping with Flag's pseudo-documentary approach, director Ryousuke Takahashi's cast—anchored by voice acting neophyte Rena Tanaka—delivers their dialogue with brusque matter-of-factness, spurning voice acting's usual compensatory over-emoting. The result is subtle, convincing, and when need be, devastating. The opposite tack was taken by Fukuyama, who pushes his Lelouch to delirious, often cruel heights, pinballing with hammy relish from hubris to righteous rage to despair, all while retaining just enough humanity to keep his evil genius emotionally grounded. Where Lelouch has Geass treading on the razor edge of camp, impossibly big-hearted Akari could easily have dragged Aria into stilted schmaltz; but filtered through Hazuki's earnest, sparklingly naive performance, she's one more reason why Junichi Sato and Kozue Amano's gorgeous slice-of-life fantasy is such an enchanting treat.

INDIVIDUAL AWARDS

Theron: Each of us has chosen three awards to hand out in cases that merit special recognition or damnation.

Industry Flub of the Year: Funimation's handling of Pumpkin Scissors, Red Garden, and Welcome to the NHK

Theron:
When ADV had licensing issues earlier in the year, many fans looked upon increasingly dominant Funimation practically as a savior for picking up and releasing, or finishing the releases of, numerous ADV properties that were going defunct, and their move towards heavy use of seasonal boxed sets has been praised by many. However, they made a major gaffe back in October by initially announcing that they would release the rest of these three series, which had only one volume each remaining to go, only as part of second-season boxed sets, not individually. This created a firestorm of criticism from fans (me included) who had bought volumes 4 and 5 of one or more of these series and were upset about having to essentially re-buy them just to get the final few episodes. Funimation took only three days to change its mind, but even so, the final volume of Pumpkin Scissors has yet to be seen (it has now missed two scheduled release dates as of this writing and is not even being solicited at some major dealers) despite the second season boxed set being out for weeks now. Not a good PR move!


Annoying Anime Habit of the Year:
Grossly misrepresenting Catholicism.

Carl:
I know I'm not the only fallen Catholic out there who finds this really, really irritating. With a slew of shoujo-ai tales set in private Catholic schools, this year has been particularly trying. In what universe do nuns not only turn a blind eye to, but actually encourage homosexuality in their charges? The nuns I knew would eat you alive just for mentioning the word. And then there's the anime habit of having cute Sisters hearing confession (bad School Rumble! Bad!). I may have surreptitiously snoozed through my religious education, but even I know that's a duty reserved for the patriarchy. Oh, and “cute Sister” is an oxymoron.


American Movie Rip-Off of the Year:
Strawberry Panic! episode 24

Theron:
Perhaps it was an homage rather than a blatant rip-off, but no one who has ever seen The Graduate would fail to recognize how much the climax of the Étoile election resembles the wedding scene in that American classic.


Most Improved Series: Zegapain

Carl: The first volume of Zegapain was so blandly boring that it wasn't until several months after the sixth volume that I screwed up the courage to attack the second one. I was pleasantly surprised to find a touching examination of pseudo-life (and an ambiguous romance) under all the bad mecha action and virtual-reality gibberish.

Complete Bastard!! of the Year:
Aizen, Bleach

Theron:
This was only supposed to be a one-shot award last year, but then Aizen just had to go and show his true colors. He deserves this award for what he does to poor Momo alone.


The Little Anime That Could:
Ramen Fighter Miki

Carl:
Miki barely qualifies as a 2008 series (its final volume was squeaked in a week into January), but it's a personal favorite of mine, so I'll take the time to shamelessly plug ANN's own ongoing broadcast of the series. Taking a non-existent premise and a modest budget, Miki's creators produced an inspired, boneheaded physical comedy with entertainment chops all out of proportion to its tiny ambitions. A scrappy series that makes advantages of its limitations, it is the embodiment of the little anime that could.


Theron: Well, that's it for this year. As much as we might try, Carl and I did not get to see everything that came out this year (indeed, he saw some stuff that I did not, and vice versa), so doubtless we have missed some worthy contenders. If you wish to comment about that in forums, please keep in mind that no title available only in fansubs can be considered. Any last thoughts, Carl?

Carl: I would like to thank the Gods of Chance for placing before me the opportunity to combine for one glorious moment my twin obsessions with anime and Neil Young. I'd write more, but I already have my turtle paws on. Squirtle, squirtle.

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