Your Top 5 Anime of 2014 (And Ours)
This one is gonna be my sappy slot. I'm not sure if everyone has a sappy slot reserved in their top five this year. (Maybe a "comedy" slot instead?) I sure felt like I needed a warm and fuzzy entry in light of how grim and/or bizarre the rest of my list ended up being, and Barakamon trumped all other easy-viewing experiences this year by a far cry. It won me over with its great animation, comic timing and realistically adora-noxious leading tyke Naru right from the start, and it only kept getting funnier and sweeter with each new episode. Daisuke Ono, who plays the show's other lead, an angsty artist adrift in his 20s, has always been a hilarious seiyuu and after hearing him tear it up in both Barakamon and Gugure! Kokkuri-san this year, I kinda never want to hear the seductive bishounen cliche from him again. His comic persona is way more convincing. Speaking of great voice performances, Naru and all her little friends were played by actual children rather than pitchy voice actresses, and it adds immensely to the show's idyllic boonies charm to hear real little kids screaming, laughing, and playing. It's a simple but enriching dramedy packed with great sensory detail and belly-laughs, just a little unlike anything else I've seen before, and I highly recommend it for your chicken-soup-anime needs.
4: Mushishi: The Next Chapter
Mushishi has always been more commercially successful in Japan than here, but it came as a shock to everyone when this second season popped up for the show a whole eight years after the show's original run had finished. I was always a fan of the original series, but right from the introductory special that aired several months before "The Next Chapter," this revival season was on a whole other level. The special, "The Shadow That Devours the Sun" did something that the show's never really done before by connecting all the characters from season one together in a love letter to the normally episodic series' overarching themes and opening avenues of development for the normally static Ginko. Then season 2 officially began and yielded A+ episode after A+ episode. The vignettes were more profound and insightful than they'd ever been before, clearly the cream of the ongoing manga's crop, and director Hiroshi Nagahama was working on a whole new level to meet the challenge. Not only were the episodic stories outstanding in their depth and execution, but the series was truly challenging Ginko for the first time (albeit in very small ways) by tying him directly to Tan'yuu when previously he hadn't been tied down by anything, for reasons fully and beautifully explored by hands-down the series' strongest episode: "Cushion of Grass." At its very best, Mushishi can feel like a religious experience, and 2014 was definitely its very best.
3: Tokyo Ghoul
This one was the big surprise of the year for me. Sure, it's based on an insanely popular manga, but so were World Trigger and Terraformars, and the less said about those two the better. From the first episode to the last, Tokyo Ghoul combined brisk pacing with nuanced characterization in an adaptation that is vastly divergent from its source material while still capturing what makes makes that source so uniquely compelling. There's a lot going on character and theme-wise, but there's also a ton of great action and gore, with barely an extraneous frame in the entire series. I greatly value that economy, especially when it comes along with such cinematic direction. Director Shuhei Morita is undeniably talented, and his artistic thumbprint is all over this show, listed as having storyboarded and directed all 12 episodes. It reminded me a lot of the original 2003 adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist in its high expectations of audience engagement combined with wide accessibility, to say nothing of its last episode which I would easily call the best final episode of an anime this year for its sheer brazen chutzpah. It's one of my favorite flavors in fiction: a story about cruelty that is not in itself cruel, but deeply compassionate toward all its relentlessly tortured souls, good, evil, and in-between. I loved the ride and I'm greatly anticipating the second season this coming winter!
2: Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders
In making this list, I realized that my top five choices were all predicated on "consistency of entertainment." My favorite anime are the ones that seem to be demanding my attention in their execution, determined to put on a show and hold me in rapt attention start to finish, limited animation budget be damned. Nothing vaults this hurdle quite like Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, which is quite possibly one of the most consistently entertaining things ever created by man. While other Jojo's sagas have their charms, Stardust Crusaders was always the one that most captured my attention through the lovable camaraderie of its five central super-psychics and the ticking clock they must beat in an insane globe-hop to Egypt. I was first turned on to the franchise through the crusty old Stardust Crusaders OVAs as well, but this TV adaptation blows them clear out of the water. It's not only the new series' sense of humor about itself that elevates the bizarre material, although that is a massive plus. The show also features an outstanding soundtrack to match its music-themed character naming scheme, and some downright brilliant sound design choices. Sound effects are a huge part of Jojo's, even in silent manga form, and bringing JJBA's innate musicality life so well gives the already compelling story whole new levels of enjoyment. I feel like I laughed for a week straight when I found out "Walk Like an Egyptian" had been licensed for the show's end credits theme. Bless you, Jojo's Bizarre Adventure.
1: Space Dandy
If something can be consistently entertaining for episodes upon episodes, it's already won my heart. The only level beyond that is to give me something I've never seen before, or provoke my mind in ways it's never been provoked before. Needless to say, Space Dandy is the former rather than the latter, but oh what a former it was. As an exercise in pure artistic creativity, regardless of taste, regardless of sense, and regardless of marketability, Space Dandy was a revelation, so I'm really happy it made a splash on Cartoon Network and found the enthusiastic audience it deserves. Every single episode was "something new," at very worst re-painted chimeras of past Watanabe projects, but at best purest transformative joy in animated form. It also gave my favorite anime studio, BONES, an opportunity to return to form with their gorgeous color design sense and lovable rounded shapes that I hadn't seen fully realized from the studio in several years. The whole show is an artist showcase for some of the most talented veterans in the business alongside many promising newcomers. Animation directors Sayo Yamamoto and Masaaki Yuasa parade their outstanding visuals alongside the musical stylings of LUVRAW and Yoko Kanno, and the sharp comedic writing of Kimiko Ueno or the brain-bending high concepts of Toh Enjoe. Not all of the material works, but all of it is borne from passion, demonstrating more powerfully than ever that Shinichiro Watanabe's greatest talent as a director just may be finding and fostering the talents in dozens of other people. It was a joy to find new surprises in each new episode this year, so here's to more surprises in 2015!
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