Your Top 5 Anime of 2014 (And Ours)
I'm not huge on list articles-- all too frequently, they feel like shortcuts around writing something more well-rounded, and they're also often deceptively difficult to create (I make some for Topless Robot from time to time). But counting down favorites is always a blast, and 2014's been a great year for TV anime. In creating this list, I started with about twelve entries and winnowed 'em down from there. I'm discounting sequels to established favorites, so no Jojo's, Mushi-Shi, or Fate/stay night. Honorable mentions? Haikyuu!!, Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun, and Super Sonico: The Animation. Now here's my 2014 top 5.
I knew this show was on to something from the first episode, which pitted a malevolent, spellcasting unicorn against a willowy gothic lolita maiden with silvery hair, porcelain skin, and a humongous sniper rifle. The discrete parts of Chaika the Coffin Princess wouldn't seem to add up to much-- you've got a cute girl with a funny speech pattern (the titular heroine talks like a caveman, only using weirdly complex words), a dour war veteran hero, his sardonic, smitten squadmate, and a transforming dragon girl that functions, at various points, as a nuisance, comic relief, or deus ex machina. The show's world presents an appealing mix of fantasy and science fiction elements. There are few strict, obvious villains, just stereotypical adversaries with their own motivations. But Chaika is greater than the sum of its parts, a tense, rollicking adventure story that seems, at its finest moments, like a lost 1990s Game Arts JRPG come to life as anime. The ending's a bit chaotic, but I still found Chaika’s spell too hard to resist.
4: Rage of Bahamut Genesis
It is utterly unbelievable that something this engaging came from a mediocre mobile phone game. Director Keiichi Satō wrings excellent visuals and atmospheric storytelling out of his staff in presenting the adventures of Favaro Leone, a puffy-haired, rubber-faced adventurer and opportunist. His running manzai routine with straight man Kaisar (a wronged nobleman) is fun as hell, and as he takes up with a mysterious half-demon girl, the show kicks into high gear, reverse-engineering action scenes from Hollywood fare like Pirates of the Caribbean and National Treasure to entertain the hell out of you. The cast is filled out by some likeably evil demons and a pretty creditable Joan of Arc stand-in. Kudos to Studio MAPPA - Rage of Bahamut is 2014's most pleasant surprise.
3: Parasyte: The Maxim
Madhouse would've had to try pretty hard to screw up an adaptation of one of the very best manga of the 1990s. Their modernized interpretation of Hitoshi Iwaaki's body horror classic, a tale of a boy and his super-intelligent, self-interested alien right hand, hits all the right notes - it's alternately hilarious, sickeningly gory, tense and action-packed, and even weirdly touching at times. The soundtrack is a bit of a dud, but it can't bring down the story's unsettling tone or crazy violence. My favorite part of Parasyte? Aya Hirano's triumphant comeback as Migi, the smart and gregarious parasitic right hand. Her star turn as a monstrous talking appendage might not net her the kind of roles she got at her mid-2000s peak, but it's damn good to hear her voice again.
2: Ping Pong: The Animation
In the original manga, Taiyo Matsumoto took the usual tropes of sports comics - an uphill struggle against adversity, a vain and trash-talking villain, a noble and seemingly invincible rival, and heroes with huge talent and even huger character flaws - and subtly shifted them to create a memorable series that got a live-action film adaptation a decade ago. This new interpretation fell to celebrated auteur director Masaaki Yuasa, and the resulting show is colorful, charming, and completely disarming. Yuasa's loose directorial style and the contributions by usual cohorts like Kunio Tsujita, Nobutake Ito, and Eunyoung Choi makes for a viewing experience that's both fresh and incredibly complementary to Matsumoto's manga. The ping-pong table action is frenetic and fun to watch, but this show's true genius is how it presents the heroes and villains of the story so obviously at first, but then gradually shifts perspective. In the end, like so many great stories, Ping Pong's hero isn't who you thought he was.
In a very good year for the medium, Space Dandy is still kind of an unbelievably easy choice for #1. Chief director Shinichiro Watanabe promised a worthy follow-up to Cowboy Bebop's indefatiguable world-conquering mojo when he announced this series, and he and an all-star team of artists, animators, and screenwriters delivered. The result is an electrified, candy-colored animator's playground, a showcase for established favorites like writer Keiko Nobumoto, celebrated veterans like storyboarder Toshio Hirata, new favorites like mecha designer Thomas Romain, and emerging talents like screenwriter Kimiko Ueno. The adventures of the “dandiest guy in space” and his crew of hapless miscreants is jam-packed with gags, parodies, and references to classics, but it's also got some surprisingly new and daring stories. At the show's heart, it's a whimsical and wonderful science fiction tale. I don't think it's as good as Bebop, but we need shows like this every year. The next step? Rallying support for a Space Dandy movie, baby!
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