2004 Year in Review
by Carlo Santos,
As always, the anime landscape shifts considerably depending on whether you're looking at the North American or Japanese market. Whichever side of the Pacific you skew towards, however, anime fans all share one common value: a love of great stories told through animation. (Or, yeah, maybe it's just about the gratuitous fanservice.)
Because of its no-limits visual language, anime has always been highly conducive to science fiction. Fans got a double dose of that this year with two high-profile franchises, Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell, making waves in video stores and in theaters. No story was bigger than Mamoru Oshii's much anticipated Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, which hit Japanese theaters in March and came to American shores in September. Hardcore anime fans and art-house theatergoers alike marveled at the astounding visuals even as they struggled with the pentasyllabic dialogue, much of which was quoted from more talented writers. Meanwhile, the more accessible but equally accomplished Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series began its DVD run in July, and its debut on Cartoon Network in November gave fans no more excuses to miss it.
For those who like their mechas gangly and their heroes whiny, ADV's release of the Neon Genesis Evangelion: Director's Cut DVDs at the beginning of the year provided new insight into the series' still-inexplicable ending. This was followed later on by the Evangelion Platinum Edition discs, which brought eye-popping digital quality to Eva fans and even more money into the pockets of ADV and Gainax. If Hideaki Anno's depressing future-vision seemed like too much, however, the richly-plotted, retro sci-fi of Last Exile was the remedy, proving that Gonzo can do eye-candy and CGI like no one else. (Linkin Park's victory at the MTV Music Video Awards also proved that Gonzo can do music videos just fine.)
Of course, part of anime's appeal is also its diversity of genre, and there were plenty of major releases outside of the mechas-and-machinery field. Director Satoshi Kon made his mark this year with the Tokyo Godfathers DVD release in April and his first original TV series, Paranoia Agent, which came to America in October. While Tokyo Godfathers showed Kon's sweet side, Paranoia Agent brought back the unique thriller elements that defined his directorial debut, Perfect Blue, and showed why Kon is anime's next great storyteller. If lighthearted comedy is more to your taste, then it couldn't have gotten much lighter than the Zen-like Azumanga Daioh, although there were plenty of earthy laughs with Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi earlier in the year, and with the midsummer release of the Excel Saga Imperfect Collection.
For straight-up adventure, 2004's standard-bearers were Wolf's Rain and Witch Hunter Robin, two unique tales that were gorgeous to watch and engrossing to follow—but it was the slick, paper-manipulating action of R.O.D. the TV that successfully combined cute and cool. Sword-swinging period pieces, meanwhile, came in the guise of a classic collection, the Rurouni Kenshin OVAs, and one series fresh out of Japan, Peacemaker. On the romantic front, viewers were most moved by the drama of the last depressing anime on this little planet, Saikano. Then there are the titles that simply defy categorization: the cheerfully spangled circus series Kaleido Star, the moody and intricately crafted Texhnolyze, and one-shots that cover the gamut from sublime to insane (the former being Memories, and the latter being Dead Leaves).
Old-schoolers who claim that they don't make anime like they used to could take refuge in some of 2004's conveniently packaged box sets. Animeigo gave us the Kimagure Orange Road OVAs and Movie, which cap off this classic shounen romantic comedy, while Tokyopop waded into DVD waters with the Marmalade Boy Collection, a shoujo romance that set the foundation for today's melodramatic love polyhedrons. And for those who like classic series dressed up with new animation, the Captain Herlock OVAs presented another stylish trip into Leiji Matsumoto's space-pirate universe, while Gundam SEED allowed us to relive the original Gundam story through new characters and 21st-century eyes.
By the way, anime is still more expensive than doing crack, but some distributors are finally making inroads on the much-reviled $25-30 price point. ADV's Essential Anime and Geneon's Signature Series lines have re-packaged some of their older series at a more affordable price, allowing budget-conscious fans to get their hands on titles like Nadesico, Sorcerer Hunters, Tenchi, and Akira. Some anime has even hit the sub-$10 mark in the form of ADV's Ani-Minis and Central Park Media's Anime Test Drive, single-episode discs that allow fans to sample a series for pocket change. With these new price options for licensed anime in the North American market, the hobby is becoming ever more accessible.
The homeland of anime itself saw a surprising number of significant theatrical releases. Already mentioned was Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, which hit Japanese theaters in March and helped build up the North American hype over the summer. Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo also stepped in with his pseudo-Victorian sci-fi tale Steamboy, while animation technology reached new levels in the entirely-CGI Appleseed. Not to be outdone, the master of anime filmmaking himself, Hayao Miyazaki, gave the world Howl's Moving Castle at the end of the year. However, ask a real animation aficionado about the most important anime film of 2004 and you might be lucky enough to hear about Studio 4°C's Mind Game. Even though screenings of this film were hard to come by, those that have seen it—or even just the trailer—will attest to Mind Game's groundbreaking visuals and storytelling that together present a pure explosion of imagination.
Looking at anime on TV, however, it all boiled down to everyone's two favorite words: Fullmetal Alchemist. As this series reached its gripping conclusion in Japan, fans came together in a way not seen since the days of big-name hits like Cowboy Bebop or Evangelion. The compelling characters, soaring plot and deep themes of FMA set a new standard for shounen adventure, and viewers following the series on Cartoon Network will discover these remarkable qualities soon enough. On the other hand, Inu-Yasha demonstrated how not to finish an anime, disappointing those who were following this series all the way to the end.
Sadly, some of the new releases in Japan did establish "gratuitous fanservice" as the principal theme of 2004, with titles like Girls Bravo, DearS, and Love Love presenting little more than empty-headed pretty girls for male fans to leer at. Meanwhile, Tenjou Tenge threw in some extreme fighting along with the panties and boobs, but that didn't help much. Surprisingly, Mai-HiME also had the potential to fall into the fanservice abyss, but the primarily female cast generally managed to keep their clothes on and the show has evolved into a memorable adventure series that's now at its midpoint.
However, the year was not a complete bust for shounen romantic comedies, as the gimmicky Midori No Hibi (guy's hand turns into a girl? No way, that's just WRONG) proved to be one of the funniest, most imaginative shows in recent memory. For even purer forms of comedy, fans turned to School Rumble, which some have compared to Azumanga Daioh in terms of structure with the thematic influences of Full Metal Panic! Fumoffu. Others point to the zany frog-alien invasion of Earth in Keroro Gunso as the comedy that kept viewers of all ages laughing.
Female audiences had their share of anime goodies as well, with the irreverent boy's-love comedy Kyou Kara Maou! quickly developing a strong fan base. It wasn't long before studio Bee Train came out with the similarly themed Meine Liebe, a bishounen-laced fantasy series based on a girls' dating sim (of all things). For shoujo titles with female protagonists, however, the most talked-about offering of the year wasn't even animated—it was the live-action series Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon.
The shadow of Fullmetal Alchemist hung so heavily over 2004 that many other promising action shows had to settle for second best. The start of the year saw the second half of the visually sumptuous Chrno (or Chrono) Crusade, with an ending that left many viewers depressed. In mid-year, Madlax paved the way with its evocative music score and a complex storyline that only made sense after spending 12 hours of your life watching it. More conventional fare showed up later on as Bleach debuted in October with a surefire formula: supernatural elements, feisty teenagers and a really big sword. Of course, fans of stylish swordfighting had probably already spent half the year following Samurai Champloo, the unique "hip-hop samurai" work directed by Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichro Watanabe.
As always, anime had its fair share of sci-fi releases in Japan, with the more notable titles each presenting unique views of the future. Studio BONES, still cresting high on FMA's success, released Kurau Phantom Memory in midsummer and presented a low-key, heartfelt series set in a technologically updated version of our current world. Gonzo's controversial and ultra-violent Gantz, while ostensibly a show about hunting aliens, also gave us a hard-edged look into the faults and failings of humanity. Bridging the gap between these two polar opposites and paddling down the mainstream was the ever-popular Gundam SEED franchise, which kicked off a new series by tacking one word onto its title: Gundam SEED Destiny.
The latter part of the year also saw a few new shows that deserve categories all their own. Rock 'n' roll anime BECK is "made to hit in America," while Yakitate!! Japan inspires us to bake really great bread, and Genshiken is an "otaku comedy" that's been surprisingly well received and pokes fun at the anime/manga subculture without insulting or pandering to it.
With so much anime being released in Japan and most of it being licensed in North America these days, it's hard to keep track of which ones are "important" and which ones you might like. Despite all the shows and movies mentioned above, there will probably still be plenty of other titles that fans would consider their highlights of 2004. So take these words with a pinch of salt, and remember that your anime highlights of the past year should be whichever ones you liked the best. After all, someone's got to stand up for the idiotically sugary Powerpuff-meets-CLAMP show Sweet Valerian. Because cute bunny explosions rock SO HARD.
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