Anime in America: The Best (and Most Notable) of 2011by Theron Martin, Jan 5th 2012
Theron: Good day, ladies and germs, and welcome to this year's edition of “J-Pop America Happy Fun. . .” er, “Anime in America 2011.” (Yeah, that's it.) I am your host, staff reviewer Theron “Key” Martin. And across the aisle from me is. . .
Carl: . . .Carl Kimlinger, also staff reviewer, here to face the cold, hard realities of the present after months of trying to relive his youth. Don't look at me like that; everyone does it sometime. But now it's time to put away the Night Ranger LPs and face down the best and worst that the just-passed year had to offer (anime-wise). Welcome.
Theron: Enh, I was more of a Tiffany fan. Anyway, 2011 was an entirely different Pokemon from 2010, wasn't it? In 2010 we saw what was probably a decade-high peak in quality anime series writing, but the anime movie releases were so thin that we didn't even bother to give a Movie of the Year award. 2011 was the complete reverse, as we had one of the deepest movie fields ever but a comparative dearth of top-quality writing in series. While we certainly saw many good series, truly great ones were even rarer than normal, which resulted in Carl and me both struggling to fill out our Best of Year series lists instead of the normal struggling to make cuts. (A certain prominent magical girl series getting licensed but not released this year did not help matters, either. Expect it to show up prominently next year, though.) Thus this year's awards will likely be more controversial than normal. But hey, that's where the fun is, right?
Carl: If I may break in here, did you just dis Night Ranger? I'd just like you to know that I'm 53% sure that Night Ranger could beat Tiffany up. Maybe even 55%.
Theron: Yeah, but did Night Ranger ever appear in a Playboy spread or get hotter-looking as they got older? Anyway, onto business.
Any content which saw an official, widespread release in the U.S. market during 2011 is eligible for consideration for these awards. Titles which have only officially shown at conventions or in a handful of theaters, or which are rereleases or releases of content that was previously legally streamed, do not count here, although new features added to them (such as an English dub or DVD/Blu-Ray extra) do. Titles which came out in Japan during 2011 but did not become available in the U.S. by official (i.e. legal) means are only eligible for the Unlicensed Gem award. In the cases of series split over two years, we consider only the part of the series which became available in 2011. Also, a new clarification this year: We've decided that a series of movies whose components are released as one set count as a series, rather than individual movies, for purposes of this exercise. That applies specifically to The Garden of Sinners in 2011 and will also apply to Broken Blade in 2012.
Theron: How weak was this year compared to last? None of my four new picks in 2011 would have cracked my Top 5 in 2010, so I struggled mightily over choosing my top two picks. Bunny Drop's endearing look at a man who volunteers to become a single parent comes closest to matching 2010's writing quality, but it took a definite hit for its weak artistry and some mood-killingly trite content in its late episodes. The Garden of Sinners is Type-Moon's masterpiece, with excellent technical merits and a convoluted, out-of-order story which mixes in magic and gory mayhem as it explores some of the darkest recesses of the human soul. A strong ending which puts the whole series in perspective secures its spot in this list, but it revels a little too much in its dark side to earn a top spot. Cross Game earns a repeat placement for its final quarter on the strength of having one of the all-time-great series finales. It would have earned top honors if the entire series had debuted anew in 2011, but some of its weakest episodes were in the early part of this run. I adored Hana-Saku Iroha from first blush and found its beautifully-rendered and nicely-animated look at a girl trying to find her path in life at a traditional Japanese inn to be compelling and involving; an especially strong finish bumps it up to my #2 spot, and the problems that some had with its third episode were not deal-breakers for me. I was strongly tempted to give it the top spot, since it has a complete package of storytelling, characterization, and visual quality, but I ultimately pulled the trigger on Angel Beats! as my #1 because I found it to be the single most entertaining series that I watched in 2011. No other series had a better concept or put together a more satisfying mix of humor, action, music, character development, and emotion. It has some of the year's most gut-bustingly funny moments (rocket-powered student desks!), great insert songs with beautifully-animated performances, a generally high level of technical merit, and the classic Key touch at wringing out tear-jerking moments. Yeah, it is a little heavy-handed at times, but its final episode is also a sterling effort which embodies the desire for closure that lies at the core of the series. (Hmmm, that's four out of five with a “strong finish” comment. Coincidence?)
Amongst other candidates, the series which came closest to making the cut was Fate/Zero, which I have found to be enormously involving despite it being my first exposure to the franchise and despite how prone it is to being talky. Gosick would have been strong enough if I was only looking at its final three-fourths, as it got tremendously better once its main plot started to surface and the character development became more entrenched, but it simply started out too weak. Croisée in a Foreign Labyrinth fell a little short primarily because it never achieved much real substance. Tiger and Bunny looked like it has promise but I never kept up with it; same with the widely-praised Chihayafuru and Stein's GATE. And Wandering Son? I recognize that it's a quality series but did not find it entertaining or involving in the slightest.
Carl: As Theron says, it was a lackluster year for series. There were tons of series I liked and thought were good: wacky comedies like Arakawa Under the Bridge and My Ordinary Life, crossover action vehicles like Tiger & Bunny and Darker than Black 2, oddities like Katanagatari, straightforward adventures like Guin Saga and Allison and Lillia, gentle dramas like Croisee in a Foreign Labyrinth, Kobato., and Hana-Saku Iroha. There were very, very few, however, that came even within spitting distance of greatness. Bunny Drop and Cross Game were the exceptions. In my mind, both are unqualifiedly great. I still regret cutting Cross Game out of last year's awards, even more so given the thoroughgoing perfection of its last episodes. It remains the series closest to real life, a flawlessly balanced mixture of dry humor and slow-building emotion that just happens to include loads of baseball action. Bunny Drop is pretty close to real life itself, an insanely warming story made realistic by gimlet-eyed characterization and an unerring sense for the difficulties and details of its newly-formed family unit. It earns top spot not for being realistic, however, so much as for its power to evoke the goodness and emotional beauty of parenthood without preaching or getting saccharine. I literally found it rejuvenating my faith in humanity – no mean feat given its desiccated state. My final three picks aren't even close to that plane. In a better year, the period mystery Gosick wouldn't even be on my radar. I consider it the mystery comrade of overachieving action series like Chrono Crusade and Shana. Strong chemistry, an accelerating plot, and a hard-hitting final act all contribute to a series that goes farther and deeper than you'd expect. A substantial jump up the ladder but still several rungs short of greatness are Wandering Son and Garden of Sinners, two very, very different series that share a knack for challenging viewers and taking them outside their comfort zone. Sinners does so by presenting a stunningly beautiful, achronological series of twisted films about supernatural murder and mayhem. Son, a gorgeous, frank look at the lives of transgendered children, unsettles in a very different manner, asking difficult questions about gender and identity and refusing to provide pat answers.
Among those culled from my list, Hana-Saku Iroha was a strong contender, but I failed to keep entirely up with it and so missed its apparently excellent ending. I agree with Theron on Croisee and would like to assure him that he needn't feel bad about not finishing Tiger & Bunny as it ended far too weak to warrant real consideration. Angel Beats! was my Wandering Son I guess: a series whose quality I'll acknowledge but that left me so totally cold that I never followed it past episode two.
Movie of the Year
Carl's Pick: Summer Wars
Theron's Pick: Evangelion: 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance
Carl: This was a good year for wallowing in the past via film. Evangelion, Trigun, Eden of the East, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (and apparently Clannad) – if there was a television favorite of bygone times that didn't take a spin on the big screen it wasn't for lack of trying. As much as I liked and even loved those movies – excluding Clannad, which I didn't watch – it was a little dispiriting that everything came with a franchise attached. That's where Summer Wars comes in. Genuinely original and completely self-contained, it requires zero prior knowledge to enjoy. It's also sweet and smart and blessed with a staggering visual imagination. It's the only movie this year that I found myself revisiting. . .and enjoying more with every visit. Mardock Scramble slipped under my radar, by the way, something that I very much regret.
Theron: I have been either formally or informally doing this exercise at ANN for at least eight years now and cannot remember a previous year when I even came close to saying that seven movies got at least some consideration for this award - and those are only a fraction of the total body of anime movies actually released stateside in 2011. Others in my thought process included Summer Wars (probably my #2 pick), The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, the Eden of the East movies, Clannad: The Movie, and Mardock Scramble (probably my #3), but ultimately I went with Evangelion 2.22 because it accomplishes a singular feat: it successfully reinvents a series that was itself an industry-changing reinvention of classic mecha series and it does so in spectacular fashion. The new Angel designs rock, every ounce of the original's intensity remains, and the big tweaks to the plot take the story and certain characters in interesting new directions. It did not win by a lot but did enough right to edge out the competition.
Theron: This award goes to a series or movie which defies expectations the most, either for the better or for the worse. And boy, was this a tough one for me; it was the last award I chose because no 2011 title greatly surprised me either way. Astarotte's Toy was an early contender but ultimately proved to be nearly as pervy as its initial premise suggested, and a certain magical girl series which really deserves this award didn't get released in time, so that leaves me with Blue Exorcist. Admittedly, I haven't seen the later stages of the series, which I'm told take a serious nosedive, but the early episodes at least proved to be far better than what the concept suggested that they could be.
Carl: If I was being completely objective, this award would go to Full Moon, which managed a complete turnaround from episodic fluff to highly effective melodrama forty episodes into its run. Unfortunately I watched it so long ago and so many times since that I can't really remember if it surprised me or not. So instead my nod goes to this modest little charmer of an action series. Seven is a series about teens with special powers fighting evil rocks. Yes, rocks. That the series somehow coaxes rousing entertainment from that premise has to qualify as one of the world's better magic tricks. The basic ingredients – solid characters, eye-popping action, a wry sense of humor – are simple, but their effect can be pretty startling. Of course, part of that is because expectations were so low, but hey, that's what makes it a surprise.
Character of the Year
Theron's Pick:: Ohana Matsumae, Hana-Saku Iroha
Carl's Pick: Kotetsu T. Kaburagi/Wild Tiger, Tiger & Bunny
Theron: I'm sure this will also be a controversial pick, since I know that some who watched Hana-Saku Iroha hated Ohana. I found her to be far more interesting than just the standard “earnest girl” or character out to discover herself, though, and did not find in her behavior the abject abnormalities that some have claimed to see. She goes through the growing pains of “a bud on the verge of blooming” more naturally than most anime girls of a similar age and shows a capacity to still be childish even as she learns to be more mature and responsible. A realistically distinctive character design also contributes to the radiant presence she brings to her series, a feat which is often attempted in anime but rarely accomplished even half as well as it is here. Even when she's not the focus of events she can still grab your attention.
Carl: There are better characters out there than Wild Tiger. Cross Game alone is brimming with them, and Bunny Drop is awash in the kind of people that you could bump into on a street – only better written and probably more likeable. Tiger's got a lot of presence though, and scruffy middle-aged charisma to spare. Few characters can match him for influence on their respective series – he pretty much makes Tiger & Bunny – and fewer still for the ability to convincingly swing from funny to cool. With his striking look, unchanging character, and unbending adherence to principle, he's as much an icon as he is a character, and that's exactly what makes him great. On the Ohana question, I side with Theron; she's a lovely girl. Anime is full of lovely girls, though, and not so much with great guys.
Duo of the Year
Carl's Pick: Victorique and Kujo, Gosick (Runner-Up: Allison and Will, Allison and Lillia)
Theron's Pick:: Mikiya Kokuto and Shiki Ryougi, The Garden of Sinners
Carl: This was very close to being a tie. Both duos are charming pairings of strong women with mild-mannered men who are as comfortable ceding the reins as they are taking charge, and both leave a long lingering warmth once they're gone. Allison and Will have the advantage of being more subtly written, as well as having the easier, more comfortable relationship. The series also follows them deep into adulthood, where we see their meeting-of-equals relationship perfected. Victorique and Kujo have the advantage of intensity, particularly on Kujo's part (Will can be a bit of a milquetoast), and the more dynamic relationship. Dynamism ultimately wins, but only just.
Theron: Carl's picks were both ones that I also strongly considered, and for pretty much the same reasons. I also looked seriously at Waver and Rider from Fate/Zero, who have developed a dynamic which tends to make them the series' clowns but can also be satisfyingly serious; episode 9, especially its climax, strongly sells their merits. Ultimately, though, the final installment of The Garden of Sinners allowed Mikiya and Shiki to win out. Theirs is one of anime's most troubled, hard-won, and deserving loves, and to see the series ultimately come down to that, despite all of the gory ugliness entailed in the journey, was a real treat.
Theron's Pick:: Assistant Warden Tsunenaga Tamaki, Deadman Wonderland
Carl's Pick: Marquis Albert de Blois, Gosick
Theron: Carl's pick was also my top choice until I remembered this immense prick. The cruel way he entices regular inmates to participate in deadly games, and pits his Deadmen against each other in gladiatorial-style battles, is bad enough, as is his practice of having random body parts removed from Deadmen who lose but don't die. However, he most deserves this award for railroading an innocent middle school student into being put on Death Row using a falsified confessional video and then off-handedly announcing (as said youth's defense attorney) that there's no point in trying to appeal. That business disgusted me so much that I almost stopped watching the series. Whether he's insane or not is debatable, but he is undeniably a bastard.
Carl: Victorique's father kidnapped her mother, impregnated her against her will, and kept her chained to a slab until she gave birth. Afterwards he confined their daughter to a dungeon, forcing her grow up not knowing compassion or even human speech. And all so that he could join in a world war. Bastard.
Scene of the Year
Theron's Pick:: Shinji rescues Rei, Evangelion: 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance
Carl's Pick: Aoba realizes that Ko wasn't lying, Cross Game Episode 50
Carl: This is what I like to refer to as a "Magic Eye" moment, when a show focuses just right and suddenly the elephant or sailboat or whatever that was hidden in all of those squiggly lines jumps into focus. I'm loath to say too much about its actual content, as I'd hate myself if I ruined it for anyone else. Suffice to say it involves the end of a baseball game, but is only peripherally related, with the most important part happening not on the field but inside Aoba's head. It isn't a complicated scene visually or even narratively – the full import of her realization only takes a second to hit – but it's a real game-changer. It is exceedingly rare that a scene so perfectly focuses an entire fifty episodes' worth of evolving feelings and changing character into a single moment. It gives everything that happened before a new shine, and makes for a seriously great half-episode to follow. It almost single-handedly catapulted the series from "Best of the Rest" to Runner-Up, something no single scene has ever done to my recollection.
Theron: Carl's pick and mine have been my judging standards for this award since back in the spring; the only scene which has even came close to competing was Rune Balot's stunning rage against her attackers in one of the climaxes of Mardock Scramble. Carl choosing to honor that wonderful Cross Game scene - the scene right before the eyecatch, which I felt brought the entirety of the series together in one truly sublime moment - leaves me free to talk about this climactic Evangelion moment, which is lavishly-animated and intensely dramatic enough to be a powerful scene in its own right. When taken in the context of the franchise as a whole, though, it looms even larger, as it represents a major turning point. Shinji has long been reviled (and not without justification) as one of anime's biggest anti-heroes, but this represents the first time in the entire franchise that he whole-heartedly goes after something because he wants it, rather than because he's expected to or has no choice. We've seen a desperate Shinji many times, but never before a truly fiercely determined and genuinely heroic Shinji. It is a tremendously fulfilling moment which will doubtless have deep ramifications for the remaining two movies.
Death Scene of the Year
Carl's Pick: The Jinnouchi family kills Love Machine, Summer Wars
Theron's Pick:: Kaguro fatally injures Gen, Kekkaishi
Carl: There are multiple ways in which I am cheating by choosing this particular death, not least of which is the fact that Love Machine was never strictly alive to begin with. There's also the fact that it happens in two stages, one during which he is stripped of his powers and the other in which he is utterly destroyed. It hasn't been a particularly good year for death scenes, though, and even if he isn't really living, Love Machine is still very much a character, so roll with it. His demise is definitely the most spectacular (in the power-stripping phase) and most satisfying (in the utter-destruction phase) that the year had to offer.
Theron: I agree fully that this wasn't a particularly good year for distinctive death scenes; for the first time in ages I didn't have a specific one in mind going into 2011's final two weeks. I ultimately chose this one because, while not necessarily the most effectively dramatic one this year, it is certainly the one which had the deepest and most pervasive impact on its series. (This description could also apply to the death of Phoenix at the very beginning of X-Men, but Gen's death wins out because he was a well-established character at the time, whereas Phoenix wasn't for anyone not familiar with the source comics.)
Opener of the Year
Theron's Pick:: “My Soul, Your Beat!” Angel Beats!
Carl's Pick: "Tameiki no Hashi," Allison and Lillia
Theron: Carl's pick made my final cut, as did Deadman Wonderland's “One Reason,” with its hard-rock beat and chain-gang prisoners wearing mascot heads, and Hana-Saku Iroha's ambitiously-animated second opener. The Rosario + Vampire Capu2 opener “Discotheque” also deserves special mention for turning the main female cast members into disco idols, complete with go-go dancer outfits and lip-synching. Whatever else you can say about Key-based series, though, they usually have strong openers, and this may be the best of the lot. It uses a beautiful song backed by equally beautiful animation of the title character (i.e. Kanade) playing the featured piano theme. A rock version of it used in episode 4 is also great.
Carl: If I had any difficulty in assigning this award, it was for want of variety. Like my eventual choice for Best Ending, "Tameiki no Hashi" and its closest competitor, Dantalian's opening pseudo-hymn, are most remarkable for their beauty. I would have liked to have given the award to something like Darker than Black 2's rocking (and beautifully-animated) "Tsukiakari no Michishirube," but Allison's is simply the better song. That it gives you a nice sense of the series' world and characters and features perhaps the year's finest collusion between sound and visuals doesn't hurt its case either.
Closer of the Year
Unanimous Pick: "Saga ~ This is My Road," Guin Saga
Carl: This one sparked a nasty little battle in my head. There was a pretty strong field overall, including Blue Exorcist's danceable "Take Off" and both of Gosick's beautifully crafted endings, but the real blood was spilled over the trio of "Down By the Salley Gardens" (Fractale), "For You" (Wandering Son), and "Saga." It's a cruel match-up that pits two of my all-time favorite vocalists against my deep and abiding love of English (okay, Irish) folk music. Hitomi Azuma's version of Yeats' "Salley Gardens" is lovely in its minimalist way, and Rie Fu is typically fabulous and perfect for Wandering Son, but ultimately "Saga"'s crystal vocals and gorgeous panoply of Guin Saga's art won the day. Kanon has been sending shivers up my spine since Angel Heart's "Gloria," and "Saga" is among her finest.
Theron: No debate for me, as “Saga,” with its lovely song, fitting lyrics, and even lovelier visuals of its main cast members, has been a favorite of mine since Guin Saga popped up in our Spring 2009 Preview Guide. Although a few other series offered some good choices, Angel Beats! gets Runner-Up honors for its collection of closers. The regular version is a good song paired with a cast picture which regularly updates (in sometimes comical fashion) to reflect the progression of events in the series, the ballad which serves as its alternate closer for episodes 10 and 13 is an emotional powerhouse, and its variation on the regular closer for its OVA episode, which requires having seen all of the previous closers to fully appreciate it, is riotously funny.
Carl: As a rule I don't pay much attention to extras, but this was one I was actually anticipating. I've wanted to get my hands on this fifty-minute sequel to Junichi Sato's circus spectacular ever since ADV took a pass on it during the series' original release. It was worth the wait. It's a gem, distilling everything that makes the series good into a single, self-contained story about losing and finding your way in life. I had long despaired of seeing it stateside, so this was a real treat.
Theron: OVA episodes, whether full-length or short omake, have become such a common feature on DVD/Blu-Ray releases that one has to really stick out to get my attention these days, and none did in 2011. Normally I wouldn't consider an interview for this award, either, but this 55 minute interview with Guin Saga's creator is one of the most fascinating interviews that I've run across in my seven years of professional DVD reviewing. It was probably the last full-length interview she gave before her death in 2009 and provides tremendous insight into the thought processes and work ethic of one of the world's most prolific novelists. Anyone who's interested in The Guin Saga franchise and/or in becoming a novelist should check it out.
Theron: In a recent ANNCast, Zac commented that so much fan service-intensive content is coming out these days that connoisseurs of T&A can afford to be picky. As one of those connoisseurs, I fully agree; in fact, I've said on multiple occasions that not all fan service is good fan service. Queen's Blade 2 is one of the premier examples of good fan service, at it shows plenty of quality nudity and scantily-clad, fantasy-style female warriors while also managing to engage in actual action, storytelling, and character development. It's one of the better trashy series out there. The Rosario + Vampire pantyfest is a lesser example in every fan service respect, and it irritates me at times with its use of hackneyed tropes, but the notion of a harem made of a vampire, a succubus, a witch, and a snow woman amuses me and Moka is one of my all-time-favorite sexy character designs.
Carl: It's a show about a wannabe nymphomaniac trying to deflower herself using the loserest guy in class and falling hard for him instead. Just writing that sentence made me feel dirty. And yet I find the show consistently fun and even sweet – in a wash-yourself-afterwards kind of way.
Carl's Pick: Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Boku-tachi wa Mada Shiranai.
Theron's Pick:: Ben-To
Carl: This award goes to the title(s) which never simulcast or otherwise got licensed during 2011 which we feel are most deserving of (and viable for) being licensed. Truth be told, anohana probably isn't the safest bet for licensors on the prowl, but it's so perfect, who freaking cares? Drama whiz Tatsuyuki Nagai's beautifully-formed tale of childhood friends torn apart and brought back together by tragedy is a first-rate tearjerker, a decidedly odd romance, and a perceptive drama about growing up and growing apart all at once. It is equally capable of making you reexamine your past and breaking your heart right in two. When and if someone licenses it, expect to see it here again – just a little further up, in the Best Series list.
Theron: At the time of this writing I'm not completely caught up on Ben-To, but the seven episodes I have seen have shown a terrifically fun execution of what seems like a stupid premise: a league of pitched battles in supermarkets over half-priced dinners, complete with formalized rules, nicknames, and its own culture. The fight scenes are thrilling, dynamic examples of slugfest choreography, the fan service has its own distinctive style, and the quirky humor frequently hits the mark. That this one never got picked up for simulcast streaming, when so many lesser series did in the Fall 2011 season, boggles the mind. It should be a sure-fire license for the first half of 2012.
Most Important Trend/Event
Theron's Pick:: Aniplex's high-end marketing business plan
Carl's Pick: Higashi Nihon Daishinsai
Theron: I agree with Carl that no single event in the world since 9/11 has probably disrupted AN Entertainment industry as much as the March tsunami and earthquake did for anime, but I'm going to take a more purely industry angle here. Aniplex has apparently been successful enough with its first couple of ventures into making premium anime releases available at a premium price aimed at upper-level collectors that it's doing it again with Fate/Zero and, to a lesser extent, Puella Magi Magika Madoka. In this case I can't applaud their business model, because while it seems to be good for them, I don't see it as good for the industry as a whole and it certainly isn't good for fandom in general. Aniplex seems more intent on forcing hard-copy anime releases into a more expensive (and thus easily profitable) collectable mode than on making it readily available to eager masses of fans who would gladly pay a reasonable price for it, and I shudder to think how the industry might be shaped if more companies start taking this approach. I doubt that I have much to worry about in the long run, because Aniplex is definitely alienating fans with this tactic and will probably eventually suffer a backlash for it (not to mention the negative effect that this will have on discouraging fansubs and illegal streams), but what impact will they have on the industry in the process?
Carl: Could it really be anything else? Devastating on a scale that is nearly impossible to wrap your head around, the quake and subsequent tsunami will influence not just anime, but the very culture and history of Japan for years to some. Nothing else that happened this year, no business decision, law or trend, can possibly compare. That said, I agree with Theron that Aniplex releasing excellent series in box sets that cost more than a decent used car is most worrisome. I don't like the precedent it sets one bit, and am most fervently praying for their complete and total failure. Sorry guys, but that's just the way it is.
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 Japanese Dub: Bunny Drop
Best Japanese Dub Performance – Male: Kosuke Hatakeyama as Shuichi Nitori, Wandering Son
Best Japanese Dub Performance – Female: Sumiko Fuji as Sakae Jinnouchi, Summer Wars
Carl: It feels a little bit cheap to choose my series of the year for the dub award, but no other dub took as many risks or reaped as many rewards as Bunny Drop's, so what could I do? The series gathers a patchwork of bon-a-fide anime stars, hardened veterans of the supporting-character circuit, and total amateurs to inhabit its large cast of characters, and it pays off beautifully. The pleasures of the dub are many and varied, from the authenticity of children being played by actual children to the meaty roles thrown to the underutilized likes of Hiroshi Tsuchida and Yumi Uchiyama to Maaya Sakamoto's atypically ugly turn as a really, really bad mother. It would not be the unadulterated pleasure that it is without them. Kosuke Hatakeyama isn't much older or more experienced than Bunny Drop's children, but he turns in a performance that the hoariest of veterans would envy. He navigates the ins and outs of Nitori's daily life with poise and sensitivity, playing him with a light femininity that never devolves into okama affectation. Sumiko Fuji, on the other hand, is pure shock and awe, bringing all the authority of her years as a yakuza film star to her role as the Jinnouchi clan's iron-willed matriarch. Imagine Bette Davis voicing an imperious animated granny and you have some idea of what Fuji does here.
Best Overall English Dub: Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva (Runner-Up: Durarara!!)
Best English Dub Performance – Male: Andy McAvin as Œufcoque, Mardock Scramble
Best English Dub Performance – Female: Kari Wahlgren as Celty Sturluson, Durarara!!
Theron: Durarara!! was nearly a lock for the Best Overall English Dub award for most of the year, as the one prominent weak performance it had (Michelle Ruff's Anri) was completely overshadowed by its many great ones. The Professor Layton dub sounded perfect, though. Its lip-synching might not have been the greatest, but all of the roles were flawlessly-cast, performed exactly right, and sounded legitimately British when they were supposed to. Only the lip-synching issue keeps me from proclaiming it as one of the best dubs in recent years. Lip-synching was not an issue for Kari Wahlgren, whose headless character communicated as much with body language as with typed words, but her terrific interpretation of one of anime's least conventional characters handily topped all other female English dub performances in 2011. The best male performance was a much tighter competition, as I strongly considered Bryce Papenbrook (son of the late Bob Papenbrook) for making Masaome into such a hip teen in Durarara!! and Fred Tatasciore for sounding exactly right as Hank “Beast” McCoy in the X-Men anime, but long-time veteran Andy McAvin wins for doing a masterful job as the “universal item” used by Rune Balot in Mardock Scramble. Here he steps away from the villainous roles he normally plays to deliver a career-best performance by infusing just the right touch of sympathy and emotional expressiveness into a character striving to justify its own existence.
Theron: Each of us has chosen three awards to hand out in cases that merit special recognition or damnation.
Carl: Anime is full of strangely specific fads, but even by that standard this year's rash of diminutive girl sleuths and their guys Friday is odd. Victorique and Kujo made their debut in January, and less than half a year later they were hanging out with Dalian and Huey and Alice and Narumi. Each pair has its own distinct flavor – if Victorique and Kujo are Holmes and Watson, then (mystery nerd moment!) Alice and Narumi are Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, and Dalian and Huey are Nick and Nora Charles – but they're definitely spawned from the same genetic material. Now if only they could clone a series' quality as well. . .
Theron: With apologies to Bon Jovi. Sentai did some great dub jobs in 2011 but will, unfortunately, likely be more remembered for its two huge mishaps. Loups-Garous involved a character who was a girl in the original Japanese becoming a boy in English, while Guin Saga's second half was punctuated by some truly terrible singing, occasional use of comical accents in situations not intended to be funny, and a couple of disastrously badly-acted individual scenes which would make even the most ardent dub fan wince. Granted, the indisputable problems only compose about five minutes of the roughly 273 minutes of dubbed content in this release, but they're plenty bad enough to stink up the whole joint.
The Jackass Award for Life Imitating Art: My Ordinary Life
Carl: Not once, but twice this year – once in September and again in October – someone replaced bicycle seats at the University of Tokyo with broccoli. Why would someone do such a deranged thing? Because it's in their favorite TV show of course. The pranksters were apparently inspired by My Ordinary Life, which featured a similar broccoli-for-bike-seats prank. Thankfully no one lit themselves on fire, but I still like to think that Johnny Knoxville would approve.
Worst Reimagining of An Established Character: Storm, X-Men
Theron: Fans of Marvel Comics' mutant titles have long been used to popular characters occasionally getting reinterpreted, but I can't be the only longtime X-Men fan who takes issue with the way Storm is portrayed in this anime adaptation. Since her inception back in the mid-70s, Storm has been one of Marvel's strongest female characters in every sense; her proper, dignified, and strong-willed behavior remained even through a punk phase and she had enough force of personality to simultaneously lead two different mutant groups even while depowered. Madhouse's version neuters her character, taking away everything that makes her personality distinctive and limiting her powers so artificially that she barely participates in some fights.
Train Wreck Award: Fractale
Carl: Theron suggested this award when I was casting about for ideas, and I knew instantly what show to give it to. Fractale opened with a great sci-fi concept and a world of adventure spread out before it. It was easy to see it being a sort of television version of early Miyazaki, full of spirited invention and classical adventure. What it actually became was a muddled mess that couldn't decide whether to be a whimsical slice of life, a graphic thriller, or a vague parable about, well, something. The animation grew sloppy and uncontrolled, the tone pinballed wildly about, and interesting ideas ended up orphaned in the mix. It was as complete and total a narrative and artistic self-destruction as I've ever witnessed.
Theron: Actually, I thought Carl was going to use this award on Demon King Daimao, but whatever. . .
Carl: I'm tricky like that. Just when you think I'm gonna go left, I go right. Which is probably why no one likes driving with me. For the record, Daimao's self-destruction was a nauseating spectacle, but it didn't hurt me the way Fractale's did, and I'm a very vindictive man, so the award stays as is.
What's In A Name? Award: Welldone the Pussyhand, Mardock Scramble
Theron: I give this to the year's best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) character name. And no, you probably don't want to know where the name comes from. Trust me on this.
Theron: And that's it for this year. As always, Carl and I sampled almost everything that came out legally in 2011 but hardly had a chance to watch out everything, so it is entirely possible that we simply missed something fitting. But that's what the Reply thread is for, isn't it? Any other last thoughts, Carl?
Carl: With all of the big re-release box sets I've been reviewing, I was even less thorough in watching new anime than usual, so be kind to me. Oh, and by the way, Theron? Damn you for mentioning Bon Jovi. Damn you. Now where did I put Slippery When Wet?
Theron: At least you don't still have Hold An Old Friend's Hand on cassette. . .
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