Your Top 5 Anime of 2014 (And Ours) Rebecca Silverman
5: Chaika the Coffin Princess
I'll admit that this was initially a nostalgia-based choice for me – I loved Scrapped Princess, whose original author is the man behind this series as well. But as I kept watching, I became enamored with the show for its own merits – it isn't just a Scrapped Princess rehash with a different setting. Tohru is almost an anti-hero in that his actions prior to really getting to know Chaika are somewhat morally suspect. That he becomes devoted to her doesn't necessarily change that fact, but it gives him a little more depth than your average fantasy (post-apocalyptic sci fi?) hero. His close relationship with Akari was initially a draw for me as well; I could really have done without the whole pseudo-incest subplot where Akari's in love/lust with him. I don't think it added much, and it certainly took away from what had previously been a very nice sibling relationship. That aside, the cast of characters is varied and interesting, from the enemies to Frederica the Goth Loli dragonbeast, and some of the non-human character designs are really striking, particularly the hellicorn from the first episode. What truly amazed me about the series, however, and earned it a spot on my list, is that Chaika herself, with her childish, broken language, wasn't annoying. It takes a lot to make a character who is basically a walking trope – cute Goth Loli girl who can't speak properly and carries a big gun – into someone we can care about and really get behind. Learning the truth about her was depressing on her behalf, watching her come to care about Tohru and Akari was heartwarming as it opened her world, and most importantly, she was treated like a person rather than a moe draw. Ultimately I loved this show because it went above its genre roots and was just as good as the author's previous effort, if not better in some ways, and that kept me coming back week after week.
I was torn for this number four spot, but ultimately decided to go with this adorable story about dance. As a dancer, I really appreciated the love the characters showed for both the activity and the act of choreography. The animation of them practicing and performing also rang very true to me with the way that everyone was just a tiny bit off in their rhythm and movements, because that's generally how amateur dance performances work. That it introduced me to a new form of dance was a very nice bonus, and I loved the rhythmic quality to the movements and soundtrack. The character relationships were interesting as well, with everyone having to slowly come to terms with each others' different personalities and the expansion of the initial small friend group to include others, which is never without its growing pains. The struggle the girls had to get their group recognized, and to get strict parents to sign off on it, was another note of realism that I particularly appreciated, since from my own experience of dance at that age, schools can be very leery of allowing space or time for dance when there are more important things out there, like sports or drama. Some things were totally over the top of course, like Naru's ludicrous clumsiness. Sure, it made for a good plot point when they were performing and gave her a personal challenge to overcome, but her total lack of balance and coordination felt really overdone. (Hana also felt a bit over-exaggerated, but that worked better for the show.) I suppose at the end of the day, this show is one of my favorites of the year for its sweetness, frank determination, and charm. That it has some nicely animated dancing and great use of rhythm only further solidifies its place in my heart.
3: The World is Still Beautiful
There are a few things I am an unabashed sucker for, and two of them are a strong heroine and a happy ending. This show has them both, along with a story about people learning to get along despite their differences and a really sweet romance. The relationship between Nike, Princess of the Principality of Rain, and Livius, the Sun King, develops slowly as both try to adjust to their arranged marriage and each other's customs. Nike won't let anyone hold her back as she refuses to be subordinate to Livius, and while his learning curve is pretty steep, there are plenty of rewarding moments as they reach new understanding of each other. The show is often very self-aware in its humor, which helps to break up the slower episodes, of which there are a few – The World is Still Beautiful takes its time getting where it's going, and that can drag occasionally. Likewise Nike's single song to call the rain gets really grating by about halfway through the series. The first time you hear it, it's quite pretty. The fourteenth time? Not so much. But each time she calls the rain there is a sense of wonder, partially because of the reaction of the Sun Kingdom's people, who have never seen rain prior to her arrival, but also just because calling rain is something that she can do. After watching a few episodes in a row, it becomes tempting to go outside and try belting out “Tender Rain” yourself, just to see what would happen. At its heart, though, this show is about overcoming prejudice and learning to like both yourself and someone you thought you never would. It makes overcoming adversity just as much an emotional concept as a physical or political one, and it does it with shoujo flair. Sure it's a little uncomfortable that there's such a large age gap between Nike and Livius (visually, at least), but by the end of the series it doesn't really matter. Disney's not the only one who can show that love can conquer all – Dai Shiina does a pretty good job herself.
2: Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works
For sheer gorgeousness, you just can't top this latest iteration of Type Moon's franchise. Everything is beautiful – Saber's armor, Rider's movements, the food Sakura cooks, how Shiro uses magic...I'm fairly certain that these animators could make cleaning a toilet beautiful. In fact, this show looks so good that it can even distract you from the moments when everyone's just sitting around explaining stuff to each other, and that's no small feat. It helps, of course, that this version of Fate is following a storyline that we haven't seen expanded upon before, and while I do like Saber, Rin is my personal favorite character. UBW gives us the chance to get inside her head to a degree (Shiro still is the main character) and to understand why she is the way she is a bit better than the previous TV series have. Likewise Shiro proves to have more personality than he had in either the original TV series or the UBW movie – he has actual emotions! It's kind of exciting. Sakura and Fuji-nee still suffer from one-dimensional characters, although I tend to think that I'm seeing some signs of something in Sakura, and increasing Shiro's friend base at school has certainly helped to flesh him – and the others – out. Also a plus is the fact that, while music and shots from the original visual novel are incorporated into the show, it generally feels less like an obvious adaptation of a game and more like an organically flowing series. Right now my chief personal complaint is that we didn't get to see enough of Rider moving – I just love the imagery and it reminds me of modern dance somehow. But putting that aside, I've found this to be a highly enjoyable show with beautiful visuals and improved character development. Since it spoiled me with those first two long episodes, I've been saving up two to watch at once to prolong the experience, something I can't bring myself to do with my number one choice...
1: Yona of the Dawn
I picked this as a sort of “eh, looks interesting” for my weekly streaming reviews and it very quickly proved not only to be my favorite of the three, but my absolute favorite series of the year. Yona herself is a terrific heroine – she begins as a stereotypical princess in distress, selfish and a little airheaded, but when her world gets upended by her cousin (and crush)'s hostile takeover of her kingdom and his cold-blooded murder of her father, Yona rises to the occasion. But she doesn't do it immediately. The poor girl has been through hell, and it takes her a little while to really think things through, giving her a believable path to the determined young woman she is by this point in the story, eleven episodes in as of this writing. She cultivates her knowledge and her relationships and prepares to do what she has to, even when she knows it won't be easy either physically or emotionally. That she's aided by possibly the most competent man in the universe, the inimitable Hak, certainly helps, and watching their relationship evolve is also a major draw of the series. Hak just wants to keep on protecting Yona from the world, taking on all of the trouble himself. Yona wants to help him fight, and while they don't out-and-out clash over this, it's a subtle struggle that's tempered by the fact that Hak is in love with Yona. (Yona, meanwhile, manages to not get 98% of his attempts at flirtation or outright declarations.) Su-won, the cousin who stole the throne, is an interesting villain in his own right, clearly conflicted about what he's doing, and all three main characters' voice actors do an amazing job, particularly Yusuke Kobayashi as Su-won. In fact, most of the voice cast is really good, which helps to make none of the background or one-episode characters feel unremarkable or unnecessary. The animation isn't as pretty as some other shows, and I really debated switching this and Fate/Stay Night on my list, but for sheer enjoyment and being the series I look forward to watching the most, Yona's story really is my number one.
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