Anime in America: Theron and Rebecca's Best, Worst, and Most Notable of 2014by Theron Martin,
Rebecca: Thank you! And may I say, these are very comfortable recliners. It's exciting to be here to discuss the thrills and chills of 2014's anime offerings, especially since I'm usually writing and talking about manga. Don't get me wrong, I could do that for hours, but even I like to put down the books and watch a little television sometimes, and there were definitely some interesting shows this year! It's also been a busy year personally, moving into a new house and immediately rescuing another cat, which brings my sister and I up to more cats than normal people have.
In the world of anime in America, the biggest developments were unquestionably on the Sailor Moon front. I had the privilege to be present live for Viz Media's announcement at Anime Central that they had all of the original series as well as the stream for the new series; in fact, I still have a video recording of it on my phone to remind me of how electric that moment was. Also on the physical front were the releases of numerous prominent titles on Blu-Ray for the first time and the willingness of companies like Discotek to take fliers on nearly forgotten older titles like Dallos and Ringing Bell or overlooked relatively recent ones like the infamous School Days. On American TV, Doraemon finally made its American debut, while Attack on Titan's featured run on Toonami signaled the possible establishment of a new gateway title and an era ended when Bleach finally wrapped after eight nearly continuous years of Adult Swim/Toonami broadcasts. For new titles simulcast streaming from Japan, the most significant trend seemed to be a distinct increase in fujoshi-oriented series. I also thought it was a particularly strong year for comedies and (especially in the last quarter) fantasy series.
Rebecca: I agree, it's been an eventful year. The release of the so many older favorites on Blu-Ray made things very exciting (and hard on the wallet!), while I've been personally thrilled to see releases of a lot of older titles. Itazura na Kiss was one Discotek brought us that I never thought I'd get to own, and the re-release of Cat's Eye by Nozomi made for another nice surprise. I personally have been very happy with the increase in female-oriented shows, and there seems to have been a magical girl resurgence as well, with titles like Sailor Moon Crystal, Yuki Yuna is a Hero, and Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Ilya, among others. Of course, I feel like we have also seen an increase in stories that just sort of fizzle out as well, although that may be due to the fact that we simply get more series now. In any event, it's made picking awards fun!
WARNING: Although we have tried to minimize spoilers, certain awards include major spoilers for the final episodes of Sword Art Online II and School Days and late-season episodes of The Fruit of Grisaia and Fairy Tail II.
Theron's Pick: Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun
Runner-Up: Yuki Yuna is a Hero
Best of the Rest: Hanayamata, Rage of Bahamut: Genesis, Engaged to the Unidentified
Rebecca's Pick: Yona of the Dawn
Runner-Up: Fate/stay night Unlimited Blade Works
Best of the Rest: The World is Still Beautiful, Hanayamata, Chaika the Coffin Princess
Of Rebecca's picks that I haven't already commented on, Chaika was a series that I enjoyed very much (I am also a huge fan of Scrapped Princess) and thought had many interesting twists, but for me it always fell just a little short of greatness and its final episode certainly didn't help on that. Yona of the Dawn was one of the Fall season titles that I was interested in, but I did not make it past episode 2 because I already had a whopping 10 other titles I was following (a personal record, and I'm still amazed that I kept up with them all) and had to cut something. And after watching the final episode of Yuki Yuna, I think I would have to have a long debate with myself about whether it or Nozaki-kun deserves the top place more, so I will leave that ordering as is for now.
Rebecca: I found myself agreeing with those of Theron's picks I'd seen, and some of them were contenders for my Top Five as well. An overloaded school year made me have to drop a couple of shows that I wanted to keep up with, and sadly Rage of Bahamut was one of them, and I never even got to see Yuki Yuna, which will be remedied shortly! But Monthly Girls Nozaki-kun is hands-down one of the funniest shows I've seen since Daily Lives of High School Boys, and it also restored my faith in its original mangaka, whose Oresama Teacher had me doubting her humor skills. The only one on Theron's list I didn't really care for was Engaged to the Unidentified, which just wasn't my taste. As for my list, I'm still pretty happy with my choices, though I might, upon reflection, have gone with Nozaki-kun instead of Chaika, as I was considering. Knowing me, I'll keep debating that with myself for way too long.
Rebecca's Pick: Little Witch Academia
Theron's Pick: Hanasaku Iroha: Home Sweet Home (Runner-up: Wake Up, Girls! – Seven Idols)
Rebecca: While there were other, more complex, films released this past year, none of them quite grabbed me the way that Little Witch Academia did. The art had a fascinating mix of classic fantasy, art nouveau, and Harry Potter tribute that gave it an “anywhen” feeling. That certainly kept my eyes busy as I tried to take in as many details as I possibly could, noticing more each time I rewatched it. (Watching each time for the face the dragon makes at the end, of course.) But what really made this a stand-out to me was the reason Akko enrolled in the witch academy in the first place: her childhood hero. Akko saw Chariot, a sort of witch/magical girl hybrid, perform as a little girl and never lost her love of her. Other witches, including her friends Lotte and Sucy, disdain Chariot, but Akko doesn't let that get her down. She's both endearing and annoying and tends to express herself in the loudest way possible, but she always does her best, and ultimately her belief in her hero allows her to pull through. It doesn't make her a better person, which I kind of appreciate, but it shows her friends and rivals that there she's more than just a fangirl. It's the kind of movie I would have loved as a little kid and still really enjoy today – because like Akko shows, sometimes it's worth it not to change what you love, even when you get older.
Rebecca's Pick: If Her Flag Breaks
Rebecca: I wish I'd had the time to see Theron's choice! If Her Flag Breaks really looked like it was going to be harem schlock and then completely surprised me by becoming a humorous parody of it instead, while still maintaining just enough genre conventions to keep it grounded. While the girls all did fit into the stereotypes, hero Souta uses his gift of being able to see people's choices represented by flags on their heads to either cultivate or destroy his relationships with them, oftentimes flat-out saving their lives. His inner monologue about his feelings, mostly annoyance with the more stereotyped characters, gives the show a metafictional edge, and sort-of hidden RPG character roles in the girls' names are a nice touch, especially when you remember that they all live in Quest Dormitory. If Her Flag Breaks isn't the best show of the year by any means, but it kept me watching until the end when I'd expected to barely make it through an episode. Talk about a nice surprise!
Rebecca's Pick: Yona, Yona of the Dawn
Theron's Pick: Favaro Leone, Rage of Bahamut: Genesis
Rebecca: Characters don't always get the chance to grow and change as much as they might in any medium that is constrained by the number of episodes, so when one comes along in a show who does evolve naturally without making the story drag, it's pretty exciting. Princess Yona is one of those characters. When the show starts she's a spoiled little princess whose biggest concerns are her freakishly red hair (her opinion) and how she can get her cousin Su-won to like her. Within twenty-four minutes, however, her world has been turned utterly upside down with Su-won's hostile takeover and murder of her dad. She's thrown upon her own resources, and while she does have help, she's the one who has to come to terms with the fact that nothing she knows is useful in her new situation, plus the guy she liked is out to kill her. Slowly, she begins to change. She accepts her new situation, decides to take an active role in her new life, and strives to become a stronger person. By the point we are at as of this writing, Yona has become a woman to be reckoned with and continues to try and improve. Her refusal to just lie back and be trod upon by her life makes her one of the most interesting and strongest characters of this past year.
Rebecca's Pick: Nike and Livius, The World is Still Beautiful
Theron's Pick: Hero Club, Yuki Yuna is a Hero
Rebecca: Whether you see them as a romantic couple or just a great pair of friends until that age gap is a little less creepy, Nike and Livius are hard to dispute as two people who can get things done. Of course they have to get over their differences first, but watching them go head-to-head in order to achieve heart-to-heart is a bit like watching a fantasy version of Pride and Prejudice. They need to become friends before they can become spouses, and that they keep making the effort throughout the story is a nice change of pace from many romances out there. There's no love at first sight here, and their relationship is the stronger for it.
Theron's Pick: Prime Minister Honest, Akame ga KILL!
Rebecca's Pick: Dio Brando, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders
Rebecca: I'll be honest – I've hated this guy since he killed the dog back in season 1. He is ruthless and generally evil, willing to stoop to pretty much any level in order to achieve his ultimate goal. His unscrupulous actions and burning hatred of the Joestar line have caused him to forsake his own humanity, and there isn't anyone else I can think of who is as full of hatred and vitriol as him. The colloquial meaning of the word “bastard” was pretty much invented to describe this guy, and I'm seriously considering gluing his picture in the dictionary to prove it.
Rebecca's Pick: Ultear casts a spell to save everyone...except herself, Fairy Tail II, episode 22
Theron's Pick: Mimori Togo becomes anime's first physically disabled magical girl, Yuki Yuna is a Hero, episode 2
Rebecca: Reformed villains are hardly a new phenomenon, but if done correctly, their shining moments can be stunning. For Ultear, her great good thing is to turn back time so that at least some of the tragedies resulting from the dragon battle can be prevented. The cost of this spell? Her own time. It is the ultimate sacrifice for a woman who spent most of her life being jealous and angry, despising everyone for perceived wrongs. She has her change of heart at just the right moment, and her sacrifice does what it is meant to. It's a selfless moment we see in magical girl shows but rarely one performed by a character like Ultear, which makes it all the more poignant and powerful...and all the less likely to have a happy ending for the caster herself.
Theron's Picks: Tie – Sekai says “good-bye” to Makoto in her own special way, School Days episode 12; Yuuki passes on, Sword Art Online II episode 24.
Rebecca's Pick: Makina's mom is shot by Yuuji for her mistreatment of Makina, The Fruit of Grisaia episode 9
Rebecca: I was going to go with something that was meaningful, the death of a character who really made an emotional impact on both me and the story. And then I remembered this one, and how ultimately satisfying it was. This was a woman who had her husband murdered in front of her daughter, then spurned that child in favor of the other because she was traumatized, disinheriting her and basically pretending that she didn't exist. Then she took out a hit on that same poor kid. This is the kind of evil that we see in the old fairy tales, so I thought it was appropriate when Yuuji came in and just shot her in one of the more understated deaths in anime. He didn't let her monologue about her reasons, didn't allow for any explanations that might have excused her. There were no fancy camera angles or speeches: it was a simple hit carried out with no apparent emotion, which suited the moment and the monster. It may not have been the most meaningful death of the year, but it damn sure was the most satisfying.
Theron's Pick: “Evolutionary Invasion Objects,” Nobunagun episode 2
Rebecca's Pick: “What Kind of Test is That?!” Love Stage!! Episode 6
Rebecca: While I feel a little sadistic picking the episode that crushes the hopes and dreams of protagonist Izumi, this is nevertheless the one that I kept coming back to as I pondered the category. Since we met him, Izumi has shunned the family business, i.e., show business, in hopes of making his debut as a manga artist. Unfortunately, he's not much good at it. Or good at it at all, really, something he is blissfully unaware of...until this episode. He's been issued an ultimatum by family manager Rei, who tells him that if a publisher doesn't pick up his manga, he'll have to go into show business. Keep in mind that Rei knows full well how awful Izumi's drawing is – he's basically set him up to fail. So not only does Izumi have his dreams crushed, he also has to come to terms with the fact that he was set up for it by someone he trusts in a very harsh dose of reality. The voice, animation, visual metaphor of Izumi in the garbage, and music all come together to show his despair, and Izumi's final action, to basically just give up and tell Ryouma that he can do what he likes to him, sets the stage for Ryouma to both realize that he's not that kind of guy (after several questionable moments earlier in the series) and to become someone who can emotionally support Izumi, not just desire him physically. It's a turning point for the characters and the show.
Theron's Pick: “EXISTENCE" by SiM, Rage of Bahamut: Genesis
Rebecca's Pick: “Hanaha Odori Reya Iroha ni Ho” by Team Hanayamata, HaNaYaMaTa
Rebecca: I considered “ideal white” as well, along with Yona of the Dawn' s instrumental opener, but ultimately went with this. Apart from the fact that it gets stuck in my head, it really captures the nature of the show as well. HaNaYaMaTa is a sweet, light story about dance and the friendships formed because of it, and “Hanaha Odori Reya Iroha ni Ho” manages to portray all of that. The rhythm is upbeat and steady, the dancing is beautiful and makes you want to join in, and the voices are soft and sweet without straying into squeaky or shrill. You could take it out of context and choreograph to it yourself, which is another sign of a good song in a show about dance. While there may be other, catchier songs this year, this one stands out to me simply because of how well it suits its story.
Rebecca's Pick: “Hoshikuzu no Interlude” (星屑のインターリュード) by fhana, Celestial Method
Theron's Pick: “aLIEz” by SawanoHiroyuki[nZk]:mizuki, Aldnoah.Zero (second closer)
Rebecca: While the show itself turned out to be a disappointment, there is no denying that Celestial Method's ending theme is both a nice song and host to some gorgeous animation. Each character moves in a way that compliments his or her personality, with different gaits and postures, and the motions of walking, sitting, standing, and running are so gorgeously animated that you wouldn't think they were part of a mediocre TV show. The movements are also nicely in time with the music, making the whole thing feel more like a music video than the closing animation of a series. It may not be the most striking song of the year, but it is some of the most memorable animation.
Rebecca: You mean you got “Let It Go” out of your head? Lucky!
Theron's Pick: Hardbacked booklet, Hanasaku Iroha: Home Sweet Home
Rebecca's Pick: Q & A session, One Piece (Runner-Up: J. Michael Tatum discusses fashion, Karneval)
Rebecca: Funimation's commentary tracks can really run the gamut between interesting and “oh god, take the mike away from them.” But they do tend to have a sense of humor and the final commentary on the release of One Piece Season 5 Part 6 really shows it. Rather than having people discuss the show or just sit around gabbing, ADR Director Joel McDonald conducts a series of interviews with the main cast based on viewer questions. The locations range from Brina Palencia's telenovela film set (her parrot was deported!) to Sonny Strait as a crazy man at the food kitchen where Patrick Seitz is working while Colleen Clinkenbeard robs a bank. McDonald's dippy delivery, as none of this phases him, helps make it especially funny. It's totally bizarre and a lot of fun, and they even manage to throw in some dub vs sub jokes, an argument that will probably never really be outdated. All the fancy artboxes and episode booklets can't quite compare to how much this made me laugh, although J. Michael Tatum's analysis of the characters' clothes in Karneval came close.
Rebecca's Pick: Monster High Kowa-ike Girls
Theron's Pick: Koe de Oshigoto
Rebecca: This award goes to titles that we didn't necessarily find to be great but nonetheless found enormously entertaining. My pick probably says more about what I like than I should be sharing: a series of shorts based on a toy line from Mattel! The anime take on Monster High is a mesmerizing combination of advertising and American children's culture seen through a Japanese lens, which is already interesting because the original dolls draw pretty heavily from Japanese pop culture, so there's this weird endless feedback thing going on. The focus of the show is on Draculaura rather than Frankie Stein, who tends to dominate the American cartoons. All of the characters have undergone some serious personality changes and the plots are short and cute. But really, at the end of the day the reason I keep coming back and watching this is because it's cute and silly and about funny monster girls who do goofy things and have weird powers. There are worse things.
Rebecca: “Hey, I have an idea! Let's base an entire show around how much this guy likes ponytails!” And lo, it came to be. Gonna be the Twin-Tail is pretty much an ode to Soji's double ponytail fetish. He can classify a girl's personality by what kind of twin-tails she wears, obsesses over them, and loves them beyond reason. So when aliens come and plan to steal all of the twin-tails, forcing girls into other, personality-changing hairstyles, Soji can't take it lying down! Lucky for him, he can transform into a battle maiden with twin-tails! Let's save the youthful hairstyle! In all honesty, this show really isn't meant to be taken seriously and can be very entertaining. But as far as stupid concepts? Yeah, this one has my vote.
Rebecca: Oh, man, I forgot about that one. I think I blocked it out...
Theron: The real identity of the historical Jack the Ripper, Nobunagun episode 13 (and kinda 12) Rebecca: Livius' nude scene(s), The World is Still Beautiful
Rebecca: Maybe this isn't as odd a choice as I thought, but honestly, nothing seemed more out-of-the-blue to me this past year than when the ending theme to this fairly tame shoujo fantasy came on and there was naked Livius (who at the time I assumed to be much younger) with his ass on my screen. It was in no way what I was expecting and didn't have a whole lot to do with the show, either. It is also getting this award because I was watching it at my parents' house and my dad walked by as the ending theme came on. His facial expression was priceless – it clearly came out of left field for him, too.
Rebecca's Pick: Nobunaga the Fool
Theron's Pick: Trinity Seven
Rebecca: This award goes to titles which started with a good premise and/or first few episodes and then collapsed. Nobunaga the Fool may not have had a whole lot of promise to begin with, but in its early episodes, perhaps even in its first half, it was an over-the-top exercise in lunatic history, mashing together characters like Oda Nobunaga with Joan of Arc and Leonardo da Vinci, while re-enacting battles from actual history. It was good, dumb fun...until it tried to get serious. Jeanne (Joan) got reduced to the boobs of the operation, a couple of tortured romances cropped up, and villains became cackling madmen rather than calculated plotters. A real effort was made with Nobunaga's sister Ichihime, but that floundered in the end. You only have to look as far as Nobunagun or the French manga City Hall to see how well this kind of plot can work, but Nobunaga the Fool overstepped its bounds and try to be something deeper and more meaningful. I'm not sure if that makes the story foolish or me a fool for watching to the end.
Best Japanese Dub Performance – Male: Yuki Kaji as Yukine and Kou, Noragami and Blue Spring Ride (Runner-Up: DAIGO as Shogo, Love Stage!!)
Best Japanese Dub Performance – Female: Naoko Takano as Magical Ruby in Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Ilya
Rebecca: Yona of the Dawn has one of the overall strongest casts I've heard in a long while, with everyone playing their roles with emotional nuances to the point where even background characters become memorable. The best example of this is Nobuhiko Okamoto's two-episode stint as Heang-dea, a random guy in Hak's hometown, who effectively turns his small line count into some of the best in his episodes. Yusuke Kobayashi's Su-won is highly nuanced, with his guilt at killing his uncle and forcing his cousin out coming through even as he makes harsh governmental calls, and Chiwa Saito's performance as Yona grows stronger with her character – the shift from wilting blossom to warrior princess is ongoing and impressive. Everyone plays off of each other very well, particularly Tomoaki Maeno's Hak and Masakazu Morita's Gija, to create a set of voices that doesn't just add sound to the story – it helps to tell it.
But since I can't give all the awards to one show, Yuki Kaji's two turns as two different tortured young men also deserves praise. He actually had quite a few roles in 2014, but his stints as Yukine in Noragami and Kou in Blue Spring Ride are definitely among the strongest. Both boys are differently tormented and tend towards the understated, and Kaji manages to make them sound like two totally different people rather than making us say, “Oh, he's using his Yukine voice on Kou.” His performance in Blue Spring Ride felt a little stronger, but that simply may be because as a shoujo hero, Kou gave him a bit more to work with. However he made both characters really come alive, no small feat when one is literally dead and the other emotionally so. An honorable mention goes to DAIGO from Love Stage!!, who voiced the character based on him, Shogo. He started off weak and got audibly better with each episode, more than holding his own by the end. It was impressive and helped to make Shogo even more of a standout character.
Finally, the female performance I found myself praising the most this past year is Naoko Takano's role as the magical wand/artifact/guardian Magical Ruby in Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Ilya. Forget Luna, Jamapi, or even Kyubey – Ruby is the absolute creepiest magical guardian out there. She talks like a pervy old guy, she harasses Ilya and gets her into awkward situations without providing much help, and she's just generally nuts. Takano's performance gave a flying ornament personality and expression, making her a memorable character. Never has a transformation object been so alive, and since there's only so much animation can do on that front, the credit has to go to Takano.
Best English Dub Performance – Male: Gildart Jackson as The Major, Hellsing Ultimate episodes 9 and 10.
Best English Dub Performance – Female: Jessica Calvello as Zoё Hange, Attack on Titan
Art Imitates Life/Life Imitates Art: Sword Art Online II episode 24 and Codex Vahlda
For the Ladies: The bevy of female-oriented fan service
Rebecca: I'd actually like to give this award to multiple shows. Female-oriented fan service was an interesting trend this year, and as someone who doesn't find boobs enthralling, that's a pretty good thing. So thank you, Free! Eternal Summer, for your lithe-bodied fan service. Thanks, The Fruit of Grisaia, for your from-the-back nude scenes of Yuuji. Kamigami no Asobi, you were kind of silly, but thanks for the lovely and occasionally underclothed males, and thank you, Fate/Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works, for Archer in his tight, ab-defining outfit. And who could forget naked Livius in the ending theme of The World is Still Beautiful for those who prefer their men younger? But, uh, Love Stage? That weird sky censorship thing should never have happened. You should work on that.
Most Bizarre Series: World Conquest Zvezda Plot
Most Desperately in Need of a Sequel: Blue Spring Ride
Rebecca: I understand anime existing as a means to promote the original manga. Sure, you make your money how and where you have to; that's how business works. But Blue Spring Ride not only stopped before the story was complete, it had the brazen gall to do so right after introducing the romantic rivals. On the one hand, that's a gutsy move, and they aren't required to take into account the fact that the manga isn't available in English. On the other hand, it was not only annoying, but it also made the ending less satisfying than it might have been. And it's not like false endings haven't been written for shows before. So this comes off as a combination of “too faithful” and “kick in the pants to viewers,” which is an excellent way to drag down an otherwise very enjoyable show.
Rant of the Year: Hatoko Kushikawa at Jurai Andou, When Supernatural Battles Become Commonplace episode 7
Best Performance in an Idol Show: “Snow Halation,” Love Live II episode 9
Rebecca: I thought long and hard about this, but ultimately had to give the award to Love Live II's “Snow Halation.” The use of lights, soft colors, a more individualized choreography, and a catchy, pretty song really put this above the other song performances across this year's idol shows. That it was preceded by one of the silliest snow scenes I've witnessed in some ways made it more striking. For a show with such high melodrama content, “Snow Halation” really pulled everything that makes the series work together in one performance that assures us that the girls will triumph in the end.
Rebecca: Gosh, this recliner is comfy. Are you sure I can't take it home? Anyway, overall I feel like it was a pretty good year, with even the lesser shows having something to offer, even if that was only something to laugh at. Now I'm looking forward to 2015 and I hope you all have a good one!
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