Shelf Life The Year in Review
by Bamboo Dong,
Another year has come and gone, with mountains of anime to go along with it. And while readers and numerous ANN staff alike have given their thoughts on the top five new shows of the year, I wanted to impart my thoughts on what I think are some of the top physical video releases of the year. I chose these releases either because the shows themselves were fantastic, or they've somehow stayed with me throughout the year. Because I couldn't narrow it down to five, I instead took the easy way out and broke it up into multiple categories, ranging from "underrated gems" to "music shows." Incidentally, as I was going through the 2014 release list, I realized that there were quite a few releases which I gave "Rental Shelf" at the time, but have managed to make a greater impact on me than some of the releases that I gave "Shelf Worthy" to. I still stand by my rankings, as many of them had elements that pushed them out of the top category, but it was interesting to me to see which shows made a lasting impression and which didn't.
This isn't a completely exhaustive, nor definitive list of all of my favorite releases of the year, nor is it an all-inclusive list of everything decent that was released this year, but for those who haven't been keeping up with street dates or home video releases, I hope you can find something here worth checking out.
Top Releases of the Year (in no particular order)Attack on Titan Part 1 BD+DVD, Part 2 BD+DVD
Regardless of how you feel about Attack on Titan and the monstrous hype that it's generated, you can't deny the massive effect that it's had on the anime world. It's gathered a very large and very dedicated fan following, and even those who have never watched anime before are being sucked into the Titan machine. It has immense mainstream crossover appeal, with marketable characters, a heavy dose of shock, and action that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It is the action show that many action shows wish they could be, if not for the ability to draw viewers in and keep them hooked week after week, then at least for its ability to print endless sheets of money.
The show is merciless, barreling through episodes, killing people when necessary, and tossing others aside—all for an elusive answer that feels like it's always one step beyond the horizon. It's carried by a relentless surge of momentum that's perpetually hurtling ahead, sweeping the characters with it whether they're ready to go or not. That's what gives the series its juice. It doesn't matter that the dialogue is kind of cheesy, and that the pacing is a little clunky at times. What matters is that there's always something propelling the series forward, be it impending attacks, questions of "how?" or "why?", and mysteries about Eren's dad's infernal basement. It's for these reasons, and Attack on Titan's powerful explosion into the anime world, that these releases sit squarely at the top of my list.
Flowers of Evil Complete Collection BD
Flowers of Evil is kind of the opposite, in that merchandising basically doesn't exist (although you can buy Nanako's gym shirt and wear it under your clothes all day), and it's pretty polarizing. Either you love it, or you hate it, and much of it revolves around how you feel about its unique but slightly off-putting usage of rotoscoping. Unlike the clean, almost Uncanny Valley-esque rotoscoping used in AKB0048 and Love Live, its presence in Flowers of Evil is jerky and unsettling.
But that's what makes the series so wildly effective. The character details in Flowers of Evil are scant enough that the movements convey more meaning than anything else. When characters walk down the street, they teeter and lurch, like any human who has to contend with gravity and the imperfection of the human body. Bodies recoil when others smack into them, and when long conversations are held, characters shift uncomfortably. The end result is an atmosphere that is almost oppressive and suffocating, but perfectly balanced with its subject matter.
This show may not be for everyone, but it's almost guaranteed to make you feel something, whether for better or for worse. Those who have the patience to sit through it will be immensely rewarded with a cathartic mid-season scene unlike any other, and a series that is as eerily beautiful as it is different.
Kill la Kill BDs
Kill la Kill is not a cheap series to collect—at MSRP, the entire series will set you back $200 on BD and $150 on DVD for just 24 episodes. But undoubtedly, it is one of the most thrilling anime series to come out in a long time, thanks to the brilliant minds at Trigger. With its slapstick comedy, outlandish action scenes, over-the-top scenarios, and yes, nudity, it is a celebration of the animated medium, bundled into a story about vengeance and ambition.
Every now and then, a series like Kill la Kill comes out that reminds people of why they started watching anime in the first place. It stands out in a sea of carbon copies afraid to stray from the marketable norm, and dares to have fun in its outlandishness. It may not be the easiest release on your wallet, but it will entertain you for years to come.
Short Peace BD
Then there are releases like Short Peace, which again embrace the versatility of the animated medium, and use it as an empty canvas to explore whatever ideas may pop into the artist's head. Supervised by Katsuhiro Otomo, the release is a compilation of four short films, including Shuhei Morita's "Posessions," Otomo's "Combustible," Hiroaki Ando's "Gambo," and Hajime Katoki's "A Farewell to Weapons." Each presents a different vision, and each is magnificent in its own way. If there's one thread that ties them together, it's that they each have ending shots that will linger in your memory for months to come. "A Farewell to Weapons" chooses the comedy route, but viewers are not likely to forget the parting scene of an angry, naked middle-aged man running after a robot, or "Gambo"'s cryptic last revelation.
Films like these, much like Kill la Kill, offer viewers a breath of fresh air, which is priceless in this day and age when so much mediocre anime is readily available for free. It will shake off any cobwebs that any jaded anime fan may have collected, and it's a must-see for those who profess to love animation.
Music Shows Worth Checking Out
Love it or hate it, it seems like idol shows are also here to stay. With their large cast of lovable (and crush-worthy) characters, their pop-filled soundtracks, and their infinite ability to churn out piles of merchandise, idol shows have been inhaling money in Japan and trickling their way stateside. Despite any reputation they may have, they're not all bad. In fact, some of them are definitely worth checking out, even if you have an aversion to sugary tunes.
Uta no Prince Sama - Season 1 BD, Uta no Prince Sama 2 BD
For the ladies, there are shows like Uta no Prince Sama, which borders on campy and is just a touch trashy, but is wildly entertaining nevertheless. Adapted from an otome game, it follows a girl named Haruka who dreams of someday composing music for her favorite idol, Hayato. She gets into the prestigious Saotome Academy, a school that churns out pop musicians, and is immediately surrounded by an adoring collection of beautiful men who love her for a variety of reasons.
While Uta no Prince Sama never quite gets past the challenge of dealing with a large cast, what it lacks in cohesive pacing, it makes up for with its bevy of beautiful men. After a season of getting to know all the characters, the men decide to form a boy band, crooning and hip-thrusting their way into the hearts of maidens everywhere. The songs are a little on the cheesy side and the dance choreography is more awkward than an eighth grade dance, but what's there looks surprisingly good, thanks to A-1 Pictures' efficient and money-saving animation decisions.
As far as otome adaptations go, Uta no Prince Sama is a shamelessly delightful romp you won't regret checking out, especially if you have a predilection for upbeat tunes and hot dudes.
AKB0048 next stage BD
This year also saw the home video conclusion of AKB0048, a must-have for fans of the mega-popular AKB48. While the series does contain some fresh tracks written specifically for the anime, the vast majority of its dozens of insert songs are AKB48 staples, like "Aitakatta," "Heavy Rotation," and of course "River."
Those stumbling into it blind should be warned, though... the premise is a little strange. Unlike traditional idol shows, this one takes place in the future, in a time when humans have spread into the universe, and entertainment (specifically "idols") is strictly controlled or banned on most of the planets. Everyone is depressed and lifeless, and it's up to the guerrilla efforts of AKB0048 to bring joy and happiness to the citizens of the universe. The sub-plot is just as strange (and perhaps a little creepy)—the girls push themselves to be the best, in the hopes that they'll inherit the names of their predecessors, real-life AKB48 members both current and past. It's a bit self-congratulatory (let's face it, AKB0048 is 100% a vanity project), but seen in a darker light, it's also an inadvertent confirmation that idols are not so much people, as they are husks pre-approved by the idol industry.
Still, dodginess aside, AKB0048 is essentially an AKB48 Greatest Hits compilation, which already makes it worth checking out for fans of the group. Those who aren't put off by rotoscoping will embrace the dance routines, which give the series a lot of pizzazz. Despite the bizarre premise and somewhat unsettling depiction of the idol industry, AKB0048 is a lot of fun, and highly recommend to those who already like the group.
Love Live! School Idol Project Season 1 BD
I would of course be short-changing myself if I didn't mention Love Live, which has been blowing up in Japan, and which has a fairly devoted following in North America, considering the set is perpetually out of stock. (It is currently scheduled to be released again in early January.) And while it is more of a standard idol anime (there are no robots or idol-banning planets in this one), it packs enough heart to make it memorable and instantly loveable.
The series follows a trajectory more commonly assigned to sports shows—it takes place at a school on the verge of shutting down. The news upsets many of the students, but it hits especially hard for a gal named Honoka. When she learns that other schools have their own idol groups, she decides to set up her own in the hopes of entering the Love Live! Tournament, with the end goal of boosting enrollment at the school. In this case, their Koshien is the Love Live, and their members are the starting players.
What makes it so appealing to such a wide demographic is that the series is refreshingly wholesome. Despite having a main cast of nine cute high school-aged girls, there isn't a drop of fanservice in the show. There are no panty flashes, no upskirt shots, no voyeuristic locker room shots—it's a show that can appeal just as much to women as it does to men, who are still undoubtedly the main market. And with universal themes like friendship and hard work, it's as uplifting as it is innocent. Bolstered by a long list of catchy tunes and an affable cast of characters, it's definitely one of my personal favorite releases this year.
"Underrated" may be a controversial word here. Each of the releases I'm about to mention has its pack of passionate fans, especially across the Pacific, but stateside, none of them really got the hype that I thought they deserved.
Love, Election and Chocolate Complete Collection BD
Here's a title that isn't perfect by a wide margin (the linked review details my beefs with the crumbling tail-end of the series), but it's managed to stay with me throughout the remainder of the year. Based on an adult visual novel, Love, Election and Chocolate is a great example of an eroge adaptation executed in such a way that it's much more accessible to a wider audience. It smartly chooses to focus on one possible romantic pairing, preventing a watering-down of character development, and largely redirects most of its energy into its story. Namely, the "Election" and "Chocolate."
The series, which follows the members of the Food Research Club, is a delightful (if overly simplified) microcosm of our political system. It runs through some of the numbers behind running a successful campaign—both in terms of votes necessary at different stages of the election, the amount of money needed to pay for exposure, and others—but also dips a little into the more realistic side of running for office, like knowing how to pander to voters. It's not as "realistic" (or good, honestly) as Mamare Touno's Maoyu or Log Horizon (both terrific 2014 releases), which is ironic considering both of those titles are set in fantastical places, but it does do a fun job of weaving in real-world situations into an absurd fictional setting.
I think one of the reasons this release has stayed with me throughout the year is because I was so surprised by how delightful and surprisingly involved the series was. I was expecting shallow fanservice, but instead, received a thoughtful series about classroom politics and teen romance. It's for this reason that I put it on this list, and I hope that others may be as pleasantly surprised as I was.
Love, Chūnibyō & Other Delusions! Complete Collection DVD
It's actually pure coincidence that this title is so similar to the other one, though it's included for similar reasons, in that it's a series that probably slipped under a lot of radars. The title mentions "chūnibyō," a term that translates to "2nd year of middle school disease," or more localized, "8th grade disease." Those afflicted with this condition tend to either have a staggering sense of self-importance, believe themselves impervious to wrong-doing, or believe that they have magical powers.
In Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions!, it's more of the latter. The characters are all in various stages of their chūnibyō phase, with some still firmly convinced that they have powers, and others forcibly trying to bury that part of their past. Delightfully, these delusions are handled with finesse, letting viewers see both sides of the story with minimal ambiguity. Fantasy and reality are cleverly juxtaposed, with fight scenes that cut between energy blasts and magic hammers... and mundane shots of the characters flailing at each other at the train station. It's a smart way of visualizing the characters' fantasies in relation to the real world, and something that could've easily been mishandled.
What makes the series so memorable, though, is the way that it uses this light-hearted idea of delusions and fantasy to segue into its final act, an emotional and powerful story about a character's past trauma and the way she deals with it. It's not always easy for series to transition so deftly between comedy and drama, but Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions! totally nails it. If you're looking for something a little off the beaten track, give this one a peek.
Undoubtedly, 2014 was also a great year for fans of older anime, especially those titles that could no longer be purchased without extensive bargain bin diving. It was a particularly poignant year for me, as many of these titles were gateway staples for me, consumed voraciously when I was still a "n00b" (do kids these days still say that?).
Ranma ½ BDs
Viz's Ranma ½ boxsets are a beautiful flashback to the times when convention dealer room tables were heaped with Ranma ½ manga, and everyone seemed to know the words to "Jajauma ni Sasenaide"... or at least the first few syllables.
Blessedly, Ranma ½ not only stands up to the test of time, it's just as funny and charming this time around, with its trademark hijinks and its endless iterations of body/species-swap jokes. There are a few nuggets here and there that feel a little outdated—I have a much bigger bone to pick in 2014 regarding the bad ching-chong Chinese accents than I did in the 90s—but it's nevertheless an exuberant and delightful viewing experience that seldom gets old.
With new technology also comes some new perks. The Blu-rays are uncropped, and the restoration process has given the series a much-needed spit-shine. The boxes are vibrant and sturdy, and it's obvious that this re-release was supervised by people who loved the series. While it's a must-buy for folks like me who watched Ranma ½ during their formative nerd years, it's also a great pick for all the young 'uns who want to get their hands on a classic.
Card Captor Sakura Complete Series BD
Also on the list is Card Captor Sakura, which is a little more recent as far as "classics" go (it didn't land on our shores until 2000), but for a 15-year-old show, it still packs a punch. And for those who never quite got around to picking up every Pioneer volume, this modern BD release from NIS America thankfully packages all 70 episodes into one box. Bonus: unlike many of NIS America's longer, harder-to-find-a-space-for-on-the-bookcase releases, this one is standard DVD height, making it a very efficient to collect the series
While parts of the series follow a monster-of-the-week formula, it has an emotionally fulfilling story that may even make some viewers sniffle. Like many good magical girl shows, the themes of friendship that permeate the series are amongst some of anime's best, and it's hard not to appreciate every character's open honesty with those around them. The episodes are creative and fun, and despite its long run time, it's hard to ever get bored. There has never been a better time to collect Card Captor Sakura than with this release.
Sailor Moon Part 1 BD
One can't really mention magical girl shows without also tipping the hat to Sailor Moon, which has been beloved around the world for 20 years. And while it's difficult to talk about this particular release without also jotting a footnote about its video issues, there are still many things to celebrate about it.
For starters, it's wonderful that it's even out at all. For years, Sailor Moon was the show that everyone loved, but was just too difficult to get a hold of for the average buyer. But now it's finally available, and with a brand new dub that's leagues above the old one. Some might bemoan the burial of Serena and Darien (perhaps someday we'll get the Sailor Moon equivalent of Dragon Ball Z's "Rock the Dragon" nostalgia set), but it's hard not to love the way Stephanie Sheh navigates the ups and downs of Usagi's tantrums.
This isn't quite the "definitive" release of Sailor Moon, but it is a good start. And if anything, 2014 will be the year that Sailor Moon came back in full force and back into the commercial spotlight.
Cowboy Bebop Complete Series BD
As long as I'm talking about universally beloved shows, I have to also mention Cowboy Bebop. The series is the same age as Card Captor Sakura, but perhaps because of its retro-futuristic setting and its snappy character and mech designs, it feels much newer. Indeed, if there's one thing that Funimation's gorgeous re-release has shown is that shows like Cowboy Bebop never seem to age. Its themes are just as relevant as ever, its subtle and beautiful depictions of human relationships are just as effective as ever. And of course, it still looks amazing, especially now that it's on Blu-ray.
It certainly helps that the series was completely unique when it came out, a designation that it's managed to keep after all these years. Between its sharp aesthetics and its timeless soundtrack, even after 15 years, it still feels ahead of its time. There is a reason why people have never stopped liking Cowboy Bebop, and this latest release is about as good of a release as you're going to get.
Cat's Eye Season 1 DVD, Season 2 DVD
If we're talking old school, though, Nozomi Entertainment has resurrected Cat's Eye, a smoldering 1980s action romp that reeks of its era. From its skin-tight unitards to its lithe and slightly muscular heroines, it is the precursor to many of the women-who-steal-things-at-night shows that came after it.
Shows like Cat's Eye have always been fun collectibles. One doesn't need to have watched the series when it first came out to enjoy it (I wasn't even born yet). They manage to be perfectly preserved time capsules, all while still being entertaining enough to enjoy today, even for those who aren't pre-disposed to liking 80s shows. With its fun action sequences (and really bizarre aerobics dance routines) and its bad-ass ladies, it's easy to see how shows like this have earned the honor of being re-released time and time again. If you're looking for a piece of the past, Cat's Eye is the way to go.
With any year recap, I feel like I could keep going for several more pages. There are plenty of personal favorites that didn't make it onto the list (Watamote, Silver Spoon, Log Horizon), but if someone were to ask me, "What are some titles from last year that I should check out?" the above would cover much of it (with a caveat for music shows, which are a little less universal).
What are some of your favorite DVD and Blu-ray releases from this past year? And which have you been eying, but just never had the chance to buy?
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