Anime in America: Theron and Carl's Best (and Most Notable) of 2009by Theron Martin and Carl Kimlinger, Jan 1st 2010
Carl: Blink and another year is gone. That's what happens when you get old. We blinked, and here it's time to rake through the ashes of yet another year's worth of anime, looking for the still-glowing embers of the good amongst the burnt-out hulks of the mediocre, painful and plain old bad. I'm Carl Kimlinger, staff reviewer extraordinaire here at the venerable Anime News Network. This will, I believe, mark the third time I have joined Theron in this particular exercise, which by my calculation makes me ninety-seven in reviewer years (they're like dog years, only shorter and minus the gleeful urination on furniture). So, with creaking bones and age-bent back, I swing open the doors of remembrance and welcome you to Anime in America: The Best (And Most Notable) of 2009.
Theron: I'm Theron “Key” Martin, one of the other staff reviewers. You know you're getting old when bifocals are in your near future (sadly, that isn't a joke) and when you have to rely on the time stamps on the reviews you've done in order to keep straight what did and did not come out in a particular year. On the plus side, watching lots of great anime makes you forget all the things you haven't accomplished yet in life, while having to sludge through bad anime helps you practice the classic “old man” behavior of falling asleep while watching TV. Still, doing these end-of-year pieces is never a chore.
Onto this year's awards. The increasing number of titles being virtually simulcast via streaming video has made this year's awards a bit more of a challenge to do, as legally streaming titles also have to be considered and not every title that has been licensed by a major company is getting released on DVD (such as Pretty Cure with Funimation). The vast majority of the awards ended up still being based on DVD releases, however.
Only content officially released in the U.S. during 2009 – whether on TV, in movie theaters, on DVD/Blu-Ray, or via legal downloads or streaming video – is eligible for consideration. The one exception is the Unlicensed Gem award, which goes to titles not yet licensed for American release which came out in 2009 in Japan and are most deserving of being licensed. In the cases of series split over two years, only content which first became available in 2009 is considered. 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 try to minimize spoilers, the Death Scene of the Year award does contain major spoilers for the end of Code Geass R2 and the early stages of The Beast Player Erin. More minor spoilers from other titles may also be present, but those should not be earth-shaking.
Carl: That I'd run with NANA for the top slot may seem a no-brainer to anyone who heard me recklessly declare it “one of the bestest series of all time!” in my review of the first set, but the decision was actually a pretty difficult one. I lay the blame for that at the feet of the bastards at Viz. If you were to press me for a list of the best anime series ever made—a task that I dislike, so please don't—Monster, Honey and Clover and NANA, all released by Viz in a giant orgiastic spurt at year's end, would all probably be on it. Honey and Clover is a slice-of-life romance of understated complexity and astounding sensitivity that manages somehow to be both achingly sad and hugely fun. Monster is a chilling thriller that hearkens back to the best of Hitchcock while adding an element of moral debate and haunting terror all its own. And NANA is a brace-your-feet-and-take-it-on-the-chin slug of adult drama whose writing and direction are so flawless that you almost hate it for it. And let's not forget the remaining two. Watching Baccano! is like being beaten with a whiskey bottle by Quentin Tarantino in a speakeasy (in a good way), and Skip Beat!, my token teen title, combines great humor, classic shojo romance, and a heartbreaking subtext of redemption into something robust and yet delicate. Every one, in a lesser year, could have taken the top spot. But NANA...NANA is something else. It doesn't just tear your heart out. It doesn't just make you think. It doesn't just entertain and make you laugh and reflect on your own life. It thrills, right to the bone. Watching NANA I think "Ah, this must be how it felt to watch Casablanca in '42." You can just tell it's special.
For the record, I did consider other titles for the list—Spice and Wolf for being bracingly different, Aoi Hana for being a lovely little yuri confection, The Beast Player Erin for being a wonderful children's fantasy—but my quintet of winners was so tight that nothing could get in edgewise. My opinion of Moribito remains unchanged, not because the show didn't change, but because I never mustered the motivation to watch the rest of it. In my defense, I will say that fantasy is not my cup o' tea.
Theron: For me, the top four choices were clear-cut. Moribito, whose final 15 episodes came out in 2009 after a long TV broadcast hiatus, steps up from last year's runner-up spot to become this year's champ because it does everything right: quality storytelling, top-rate animation, great soundtrack, one of the strongest of all female leads, and what may be the best visuals to date in series animation. It is a masterpiece which should set the standard for fantasy anime for years to come, and nothing else I saw this year could touch it. Baccano!'s story of immortals mixing it up with 1930s gangsters combines giddy fun with ghastly violence in a complicated tale which jumps back and forth between multiple related time periods. Even when being disgusting, it's endlessly entertaining, and is certainly 2009's wildest ride. I have not been quite as blown away by NANA as Carl has (honestly, I find Hachi and some of the stylistic elements to be rather annoying), but the dozen or so episodes I have seen so far have earned the series my respect for its mature, realistic, and unflinching handling of relationships and its bold portrayals of its title characters. If you don't think that this is a legitimate Top 5 series for the year then you probably haven't seen it. Spice and Wolf is just as refreshingly different as it uses a backdrop of medieval economics to frame a budding relationship between a traveling merchant and a capricious wolf goddess; where else can you watch entire episodes where the main characters just talk to each other and not feel deprived?
I had to think much harder about the fifth one since there was not a fifth series I saw in 2009 which stood out as dramatically as the first four. I cannot, in good conscience, pick the probably-deserving Monster because I never got around to seeing any of it (my biggest anime-related regret of the year), and Honey and Clover did not impress me anywhere near as much as it did Carl, so I looked elsewhere. After eliminating Sgt. Frog (the year's funniest release), Ghost Hound (the year's creepiest and most deeply psychological release), Clannad After Story (the year's elite moe title), Blue Drop (the year's elite yuri title), and Darker than Black (the year's best super-powered action title), I finally settled on Gonzo's creative reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet to be my sole teen-focused entry because it captures the deepest essence of Shakespeare's story of star-crossed love and adorns it with great action, appropriately dramatic flair, and painful sacrifice. Putting it over the top is an inventive English dub which uses Shakespearean-styled phrasing and terminology.
Carl: Um...Hayao Miyazaki? Need I say more? Like everything he creates, a wondrous work of unimaginable imagination.
Theron: Yeah, I'm pretty much an Evangelion fanboy, but this is a well-made, if sometimes rushed, reinterpretation of the original series with some impressively upgraded technical merits. I did also seriously consider Eureka 7 - good night, sleep tight, young lovers, a movie I think is vastly underrated because fans were expecting something different than what they got. Competition should be heavier next year, especially with Summer Wars and the second Evangelion movie likely to hit the States and the international release for the sharp-looking King of Thorn planned.
Character of the Year
Theron's Pick: Holo, Spice and Wolf
Carl's Pick: Johan, Monster
Theron: No possible debate here. (Okay, I guess Johan is a solid pick, too.) Enticing and endearing, Holo is fascinating to watch because of her fickle nature and complex personality. She is at turns sly, vain, playful, clever, and temperamental, easily being provoked to jealousy despite her haughtiness, and yet holding a terrible loneliness beneath the surface which pokes out in rare vulnerable moments. Though she has some tsundere aspects, she stands decidedly outside of that mold, instead offering a dynamic blending of traits that is almost never seen in anime. Her casual attitude about nudity and cute look don't hurt, either.
Carl: Rarely seen and yet ever-present, Johan is Monster's titular character, a force of such cold, terrifying evil that the mere mention of his name can make flesh quite literally crawl. He is both the series' driving force and its greatest invention: a monster in the truest sense, as in a beast for a hero to slay, and an abomination that defies nature in the most chilling way—by subverting moral order.
Duo of the Year
Carl's Pick: The two Nanas, NANA
Theron's Pick: Isaac and Miria, Baccano!
Carl: This took about one-quarter of a nanosecond to decide. Yes, I felt bad about leaving poor Isaac and Miria out in the cold (thanks for taking them in, Theron), but the ties that bind the two Nanas are so powerful, so unique, and yet so universal that no other duo this year can seriously compete. Theirs is anime's single most honest depiction of that intense form of friendship that defies categorization as platonic or romantic. Such is the power of their relationship that it not only shapes the course of their lives, but holds within it the potential to both save them and destroy them. It is hands-down the year's most intricate and uncomfortably real relationship.
Theron: Wow, this was an especially strong year for duos. I had to seriously consider the title couples from both Romeo X Juliet and Spice and Wolf for the strength of the chemistry each develops, and several others might have been worth considering in a weaker year, but 2009 brought out two even stronger contenders. Since Carl is going to cover the two Nanas, I'll take Isaac and Miria, who are so flawlessly in synch with each other, and so much comedic gold, that they demand recognition. Their kooky natures, dimwittedness, and talents for both disrupting the intended flow of any situation and succeeding despite themselves make them endlessly entertaining to watch. Though merely members of a broad ensemble cast, Baccano! would only be half as great without them.
Complete Bastard of the Year:
Theron's Pick: Grand Duke Montague, Romeo X Juliet
Carl's Pick: The guy(s) who leaked One Piece episode 403
Theron: The past couple of years I've done this one as an individual award, but Carl wanted to do it this year, too, so we're making it a regular award. Szilard Quates from Baccano! deserves consideration this year, as does, again, Aizen from Bleach (albeit for different reasons than last year), but neither of them tops Montague, who is a literal bastard in addition to a figurative one. The extremities of his ruthlessness know no bounds; he orders his son's beloved mount to be killed just to discipline Romeo and is even willing to burn most of his city to keep its populace under control, for instance. His motives for wanting to annihilate House Capulet are ultimately pretty petty, too.
Carl: I'll admit to being a bit duplicitous here. I was originally going to do an Industry Flub award regarding this incident, but that felt unfair to Funimation, whose only fault was trusting in the goodness of humanity. So instead I requested this award so that I could give it to those truly deserving of blame: the bastard(s) who leaked Funimation's simulcast, temporarily derailing the project and thereby pissing on everyone else's pirate parade.
Scene of the Year (Non-Death)
Theron's Pick: Tomoya and Ushio finally bond as father and daughter, Clannad After Story episode 18
Carl's Pick: Takemoto returns from his journey of self-discovery, Honey and Clover episode 24
Theron: Doesn't matter if you know this scene (the one centered around a certain line of dialog spoken in a field of flowers) is coming or not. For anyone who has watched the series up to that point, it is an emotionally overwhelming moment, certainly the most powerful such scene in 2009 and arguably one of the all-time great anime tearjerkers. No scene in this past year did a better job of accomplishing its purpose than this one. My runner-up scene, which was my pick until the second half of AS came along in mid-December, is Shurei facing down the leader of the Sa clan in episode 35 of The Story of Saiunkoku, which is one of anime's finest examples of a character transforming the power dynamics of a situation through sheer force of character. Balsa becoming a tiger in episode 13 of Moribito, and Orihime's confession/farewell speech in episode 141 of Bleach (and really, that whole episode), were also considered.
Carl: The selection of this award was a little epic in its own right. My first pick (Ryoko's first recital in Skip Beat! episode 9) turned out to have been released last year, likewise my second (Diva attacks Riku in episode 32 of Blood+, actually broadcast on Adult Swim back in 2007). My fallback scene (Triela and Pinocchio fight to the death in episode 13 of Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino), while powerful, was flawed enough that calling it by the epithet "Scene of the Year" seemed wrong, so I decided to break my unspoken rule against using scenes from my top two Series of the Year picks and gave the nod to this quintessential scene from my runner-up. There isn't anything overtly remarkable about the scene, but something about the tanned and confident Takemoto who returns to Tokyo makes this warm, funny scene unutterably satisfying. By the by, I haven't seen Theron's pick; while I did get the first two Clannad sets on the strength of my fondness for Air and Kanon, upon finishing I burnt them with three gallons of kerosene and sterilized the scorched earth with rubbing alcohol. Needless to say I never got around to watching After Story.
Death Scene of the Year (Warning: Spoilers!)
Theron's Pick: “Zero” kills Lelouch, Code Geass R2 episode 25.
Carl's Pick: Soh-Yon is executed, The Beast Player Erin episode 7
Theron: This was an especially strong year for quality death scenes, too. I was tempted to go with a certain highly emotional death scene in Clannad After Story until the ending of the series cheapened it for me, and Claymore, Romeo X Juliet, and Baccano! also had scenes worthy of consideration. (You could also count Evangelion 1.01 if you consider the destruction of its Angels to be proper death scenes.) Even within Code Geass R2, the death of a certain key supporting character in episode 13 was arguably more upsetting. The franchise's climactic scene wins out, though, not only because of its shock value but also because of how the circumstances behind it force a reevaluation of much of what happened in the second season. CG has always done a wonderful (if sometimes overblown) job of staging dramatic scenes and this is one of its finest.
Carl: For ugly, boot-to-the-testicles impact, this is the death scene to beat. But, while the scene itself is a fine bit of classical tragedy, what really sets Soh-Yon's execution apart is its reach. Her death is one of the series' defining moments, both a harbinger of things to come and the prism through which Erin views all subsequent events. It is also a frequent source of some of the series' most stylistically daring flourishes, including a bit of intellectual montage during the act itself that spares us the sight of unspeakable violence without sparing us its unspeakable horror. I haven't seen Theron's pick, as I still live in a cave with no TiVo.
Carl's Pick: "Dramatic," Honey and Clover
Theron's Pick: “Toki wo Kizamu Uta,” Clannad After Story (Runner-Up: "Tabi no Tochū,” Spice and Wolf)
Carl: I personally think that YUKI's er, nasal vocals get short shrift by many, but I will admit that this opener is very much about the visuals rather than the song. The opening montage of spinning, dancing stop-motion foods (most of them revolting, my favorite being the panty-shaped cake with the pool of yellow sauce at its crotch) is a bizarre, unique treat amidst the boring montage openings that dominate the market. And of course the shout-outs to Jan Švankmajer and Tim Burton don't hurt.
Theron: Moribito's “Shine” still deserves this for its technical brilliance, and Romeo X Juliet's “Inori ~ You Raise Me Up ~” is still a top contender for its wonderful song, but I gave those two the main and runner-up awards last year so I wanted some fresh blood this year. Of the ones premiering this year, the Clannad AS theme is a lovely song which perfectly sets up and complements the mood of the series, especially in its later stages. Spice and Wolf's opener also is a great song which, supported by appropriate visuals and lyrics, speaks to the underlying sentiment of the show: the loneliness inherent in the roles the main characters normally play. (The long version of it on the OST album ruins it, though.) Also worthy of consideration were Darker than Black's second opener, NANA's first opener, KenIchi the Mightiest Disciple's “Be Strong,” and Carl's pick, and for the same reasons.
Theron's Best Closer: “Afro Gunsou,” Sgt. Frog
Carl's Best Closer: "Ringo Biyori - The Wolf Whistling Song," Spice and Wolf
Theron: Yeah, it's the frogs dancing to a funkified dance beat, but it's energetic and adorable and Carl took the only other closer I was even faintly considering.
Carl: A bouncy, folksy lullaby accompanied by delightfully fairy-tale-esque SD artwork, it's the year's most purely enjoyable closer (excepting possibly Theron's pick).
Carl's Guilty Pleasure: Ikki Tousen: Dragon Destiny
Theron's Guilty Pleasure: Bleach
Carl: Exploding clothes, lesbians, crotch-in-the-face fan-service, and girls beating each other until they wet themselves. What's not to feel guilty about? Incredibly trashy, borderline incomprehensible and yet somehow riveting.
Theron: Had I actually remembered that the first half of the second Ikki Tousen series was out and gotten around to watching it, this one probably would have been unanimous; I always have found the original series to be trashy fun. Instead, I went for a series that really, really irritates me at times, yet I haven't missed a single episode that's been broadcast on Adult Swim and have certain key episodes lurking on my DVR. Now, the Bleach movies, that's a different story.
Theron: I'm not mentioning top-rate titles like Spice and Wolf II or Darker than Black: Gemini of the Meteor here because both can reasonably be expected to be licensed given that their first seasons were. Of the ones I did pick, Valkyria Chronicles (a last-minute replacement for Eden of the East, which I completely forgot has been licensed by Funimation) seems the most likely prospect, given that the game it's based on is available in the States. That Toradora!, one of the decade's best teen romantic comedy/dramas, has not already been licensed is both surprising and a little disturbing, especially given how often it gets mentioned by fans in Funimation's “what should we license” polls. Of these three, Cross Game is arguably the best of the lot but also probably the longest shot, as its gradually-paced story about love, loss, and baseball covering a scheduled 51 episodes does not seem conducive to good American sales. Still, if Big Windup! generates at least modestly good sales then it might have a chance once it finishes next spring.
Carl: When I saw Theron's list, I was horrified to realize that we had chosen the exact same series for this award. After checking in the mirror to make sure that I was indeed still me, I booted Eden of the East, which I too had forgotten was licensed (another look in the mirror), and Cross Game off my list and went back to the drawing board. That the spectacular, thrillingly oblique films of the Kara no Kyoukai horror series have yet to be licensed is a mystery on par with any presented in the films themselves. As for Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, this sobering and exhaustively researched look at what might happen were Tokyo hit by a massive quake may be a licensing risk, but as a dweller on the Cascadia subduction zone, itself due to slip at any time, I can attest to its efficacy as an educational scare tactic. I kept Toradora! on my list because, for all the reasons Theron mentions, it would be a crime not to. I have said before, but it bears repeating, that I would beat up grannies to see this series licensed. Multiple grannies, and not the mean ones: the nice, cookie-baking ones.
Carl: Geneon's messy demise put the fear of god into American anime licensors, but here at the cusp of a new decade it finally seems to be wearing off. Funimation went so far as to license and release a sports show (Big Windup!), Viz has unleashed a series of lengthy adult ventures (Honey and Clover, NANA, and Monster), and even Section 23/Sentai, themselves victims of the rotten market, have ventured a bit outside the norm to release the alienating Ghost Hound. Am I an idiot for thinking that maybe someone somewhere is eyeballing Den-noh Coil and Lovely Complex and saying to themselves "well, why not?"
Theron: Nearly all of the trends in anime this past year are just a continuation and/or strengthening of trends started last year (i.e. subbed-only releases becoming frequent, seasonal sets becoming standard, increasing streaming of titles, streaming simulcasts), so I went with the event that has had the biggest impact on the anime marketplace in America in 2009. Though all of their new titles are now being released subbed-only, at least the entities that were formerly ADV are legitimately back in the licensing game after all their troubles in 2008.
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.
Theron: The easiest pick here was the female performance. Yeah, it may seem odd to give this to an actress for voicing boys, but that is a testament to just how wonderful a job this newcomer did in these roles. Listen to each and you'll be hard-pressed to recognize that it isn't a boy actually voicing them; she even made Antonio sound like he was going through puberty in a series-ending “some years later” scene. No English or Japanese voice actress I've ever heard has ever done a more convincing job. Picking a stand-out male performance was tougher, but relative newcomer Bryan Massey seriously impressed with his rendition of the energetically deranged psychopath Ladd, just beating out Todd Haberkorn's wonderful interpretation of Keroro in Sgt. Frog, Robert McCollum's smarmy Kazuma in Kaze no Stigma, and J. Michael Tatum in a number of different quality performances, including especially William in Romeo X Juliet. Toughest of all was the Overall award, as the number of subbed-only titles released this year seriously cut into the available options. I ultimately decided to give it to Sgt. Frog over Bamboo Blade and Baccano! because it is one of the year's most fun dubs and the one that, arguably, improves most on the original.
Carl: In the "Overall" category I like to celebrate anime that do unusual things with their dubs. By that measure this award would have gone to Monster, which used actors with extensive experience in live-action dubs in order to lend itself gravitas. The effect was wonderfully unpleasant, but even so it couldn't compete with the gigawatt star power of NANA. NANA's dub is the acting equivalent of shock and awe warfare. An endless roster of A-list talent is thrown at Ai Yazawa's finely-tuned characters, resulting in career-crowning performances from the likes of Romi Paku, KAORI and Toshiyuki Morikawa—all of them miraculously merged into an organic whole. My pick for female performance is a bit of a cheat, as Megumi Ogata's association with the role goes back more than a decade, but that doesn't reduce the enormity of the feat she pulls off in giving life (and a certain level of dignity and likeability) to Evangelion's wimpy, f***ed-up antihero. Nobuyuki Hiyama gets the nod for both the cringe-inducing realism of his uber-nerd and the decency and proud acceptance of deviance that he layers underneath his social retardation.
Theron: Each of us has chosen three awards to hand out in cases that merit special recognition or damnation.
Best Kiss: Romeo and Juliet, episode 7, Romeo X Juliet
Theron: Yeah, this almost desperate kiss against a field of fireworks with the series' transcendent opening theme playing in the background is intensely theatrical, but what more appropriate place to be theatrical than a series based on Shakespeare's work? All the elements – music, visuals, storytelling, even the flash to the person left out – come together perfectly, and the way Juliet initially struggles against it before acceding to her desires gives it a powerful conviction. The year's second-best kiss also belongs to this series, specifically their joyful reunion kiss in episode 18.
Most in Need of a Sequel: Aoi Hana
Carl: I would give this award to Skip Beat!, which ended on an even more abrupt note than this little gem did, but Skip Beat! doesn't need a sequel. It would just be really nice if it had one. Aoi Hana, on the other hand, does. All about the friendship between its straight lead and her lesbian best friend, the series ends just as their relationship is poised to evolve, rendering much of the previous eleven episodes pointless. Without a sequel to explore that evolution, this series will never progress beyond merely good.
Who Needs An Editor? Award: Sentai Filmworks' subtitles
Theron: I probably should be nicer about this, since the fine people at Section 23 send me a lot of stuff to review, but there's no excuse for how frequently typos and grammatical errors have been popping up in their new-series releases. In the worst case (Ghost Hound part 1), they were averaging as much as one error per episode. This may not seem like a lot, but it's an amateur-grade, rather than professional-grade, effort. Some of the latest releases of the year did improve, but until they consistently get titles out without errors they should continue to be dogged on this.
Living Fossil: Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu
Carl: When I first saw this series on Crunchyroll I couldn't believe my eyes. Here, right before me was a beast I thought extinct years ago: the straight-up shonen romance, complete with dull, impossibly nice male lead and dumb fan-service jokes. And all of it presented without even a whiff of irony. It was like I was back at the turn of the millennium watching Love Hina again. Except with my hormones under control and a decade of romantic dreck under my belt. I almost enjoyed myself. After all, I love archaeology.
Biggest Bad-Ass Moment: Ilena cuts off her remaining arm and gives it to Clare, Claymore episode 13.
Theron: See, she's only got one arm left at this point, and yet she somehow manages to cut it off herself so that Clare has two arms and can thus get back in the proverbial game. That takes some serious chutzpah. (And also, I had to find some way to mention Claymore.) We won't even get into the whole ridiculous physical dynamics of makeshift limb transplants.
The Harry Potter Award for Anal Faithfulness in an Adaptation: Monster
Carl: Nothing left out, virtually nothing added: every line of dialogue painstakingly preserved, every panel, angle and design carefully replicated, every plot point and twist animated and kept on celluloid like objets d'art in a museum. To call Madhouse's reproduction of Naoki Urasawa's masterpiece conservative is like saying that Benito Mussolini leaned a little bit right. It is the most obsessively accurate filmic recreation of a manga property, perhaps ever. J. K. Rowling, eat your heart out.
Theron: And so the last year of the first decade of the 21st century fades into the past, leaving behind fond memories of frogoid invaders, psychopaths, giant wolves, and hackneyed CG dragons. (Er, wait, those don't seem like particularly sugar-plumy memories. . .) Anyway, keep in mind that Carl and I didn't necessarily see everything that came out this year, so it is possible that there are worthy contenders that we missed. See you next year!
Carl: I'm not sure, but I think I enjoyed myself. I hope you think that you enjoyed yourself half as much as I think that I think I enjoyed myself. Or something like that.
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