The Best Anime of 2015 Amy McNulty & Mike Toole
Every year I hear the same complaints – anime ain't what it used to be, this season is weak, that season doesn't have a single good show, blah blah bah, etc etc. The fact is, every season and every year yields greatness. We've had an exciting year that has seen multiple good Gundam productions (the irresistibly goofy Gundam Build Fighters Try, the ambitious Gundam: The Origin, and Gundam IBO, which is flirting with greatness but hasn't convincingly sealed the deal just yet), a new TV adaptation of the classic Heroic Legend of Arslan (I sat through Hiromu Arakawa's dour, unsexy character designs to get to the good part of the story), and hits both big and small, from GANGSTA. to Wakako-zake. I liked each of these shows, but here's my top five.
5. Yuri Kuma Arashi
A show by Kunihiko Ikuhara is kinda like a meteor shower – a special occasion, not easy to predict, and one that's likely to be spectacular, if a bit confusing. With Yuri Kuma Arashi, the storied director intrigues the viewer right from the start, with a title that alludes to a famous real-life bear attack from the turn of the 20th century. His story, one of forbidden love, ostracization, and adorably fierce-looking roly-poly little bears, lifts its images out of classic horror cinema, biting the likes of Kubrick and Argento to construct the world of Wuthering Heights Academy, a private school fenced in by the massive, brutalist, and ever-expanding Wall of Severence that keeps the bears out. The show begins with a murder, as heroine Kureha loses her girlfriend to a bear attack, so right from the start Ikuhara juxtaposes Yuri Kuma Arashi's intensely cute characters with shocking violence and an uncomfy amount of extremely abstract sexual imagery. The director eventually runs out of time and space for his big ideas, but the show is still hypnotic throughout—one that I'm looking forward to revisiting on Blu-Ray.
4. Death Parade
One of 20th century cinema's most striking images is that of Antonius Block playing chess with Death, in Igmar Bergman's classic The Seventh Seal. But, Death Parade asks us, why play chess with Death when you can play air hockey, bowling, or darts? Death Parade further tweaks the formula by pitting newly-deceased souls against each other, revealing their personal tragedies bit by bit as they square off in a variety of pub games. A virtuosic performance by creator, scribe, and director Yuzuru Tachikawa really comes together when Decim, one of the afterlife's judges/bartenders, starts to question the fairness of the process. What begins as series of grimly satisfying revenge fantasies makes a series of exciting left turns, pinned together by a pulsing, unapolagetically jolly opening tune by BRADIO.
3. Sound! Euphonium
It took a long time for me to really get excited about something from Kyoto Animation. I've known about this little family business, nestled in the hills of Uji, since they turned out the beautiful but sparse OVA Munto. They've refined their craft immensely in the intervening years, but I was always on the trailing edge of taking in fare like Lucky Star and K-ON—until Kyoto Animation decided to adapt Sound! Euphonium, a series of novels by Ayano Takeda. The resulting TV series, which takes place in that same Uji, rendered with breathtaking weight and depth by director Tatsuya Ishihara and his art director Mutsuo Shinohara, perfectly captures the mise en scene of high school band – rows of chairs and music stands, shining brass instruments, scales, tuning exercises, section rehearsal, all of that good stuff. Its central character, Kumiko, is a young euphonium player trying to play it cool despite living in a whirlwind of social and romantic anxieties brought on by life in the band. The band teacher is handsome but strict and demanding, her section leader is charismatic but intimidating, and Reina, a trumpet player whom Kumiko feels like she wronged in junior high, is utterly mysterious, both fascinating and intimidating. The drama is good, the music is great, but what makes Sound! Euphonium excellent is the moment that Kumiko really commits to her instrument and the band—it perfectly captures the first time you really, really want to be great at something.
2. One-Punch Man
I've been reading ONE and Yusuke Murata's brilliant action/comedy manga in the pages of Shonen Jump since its inception, so I kinda saw One-Punch Man coming a mile away. But all Shonen Jump adaptations are not created equal. Fortunately, Space Dandy director Shingo Natsume has brought with him the Space Dandy approach, with individual key animators encouraged to create wildly expressive images during their cuts. The wow moments in this tale of Saitama, the world's most overpowered hero (who's perpetually bored and exhausted as a result) are a powerful hook, but what will keep you coming back to One-Punch Man isn't merely its action, but its razor-sharp comic timing. Saitama vanquishes comically overpowered bad guys with almost insolent ease, blithely ignoring their apoplexy at his disinterest. To throw my hands up and use a tired metaphor, the series is a knockout.
1. My Love Story!!
With their original manga, Kazune Kawahara and Aruho struck upon an irresistible concept—a typical shoujo love story, filled to bursting with passion, blooming flowers, and star-crossed romance. But the protagonist isn't a moony-eyed shy girl, but the boy she's fallen for—a good-natured but hulking brute of a young man named Takeo. This series does appeal to me for personal reasons—like Takeo, I'm a big, awkward guy with a booming voice, and in more ways than one, my high school life mirrored his. Under the stewardship of reliable hitmaker Morio Asaka, the TV anime adaptation of My Love Story!! strikes an excellent balance between comedy and romance; you'll laugh hysterically as all of the cutesy-wootsy flowery shoujo imagery cascades around Takeo's weirdly cherubic ogre-face, but the show does such a good job of conveying life's first real romance, when you simply cannot believe that someone so amazing is actually interested in you. Cementing the show's appeal are seiyuu Takuya Eguchi and Megumi Han as Takeo and Rinko, his shy, soft-spoken, but inexorably plucky and devoted girlfriend. My Love Story!! is 2015's one series that, more than any other anime I saw, left me giddily anticipating each new episode for the entire week leading to it. It stole in past the competition and snatched the top spot away effortlessly.
5. Prison School
On paper, this show doesn't seem to be my cup of tea. After being admitted to a formerly all-girls high school, five perverse boys are caught peeping and are subsequently imprisoned and tortured by the power-crazed Underground Student Council. Seemingly pornographic premise aside, it only took one episode for Prison School to win me over. In the vein of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, this series derives much of its humor from taking itself way too seriously. Even though the boys could have walked away from their situation at any time, their meticulously-plotted escape efforts consistently kept me on the edge of my seat. (For some reason, being expelled and having their misdeeds exposed to their parents was tantamount to the death penalty for our heroes.)
4. Death Parade
Stylish, philosophical, and endlessly surprising, Death Parade is a darkly gothic series about life and death that made me want to learn more about the show's world and the fascinating characters who inhabit it. On the other hand, the series’ entertaining array of one-shot morality tales headlined by compellingly flawed guest characters was so intriguing, I would have been happy with a show all about that. Nevertheless, I was glad to see the series develop an overarching narrative that shone new light onto its mysterious key players.
3. My Love Story!!
Despite being relatively devoid of conflict, My Love Story!! managed to reel me in with its clever premise and penchant for trope subversion. The series jettisoned the eye-roll-inducing melodrama found in many shojo romances, instead focusing on a healthy high school relationship between two oddball teens who were adorably in love. The close friendship between Takeo and Suna added another layer of depth to the series and set the stage for some of the show's most entertaining stories. My Love Story!! may not be anime's first ugly duckling tale, but it's certainly one of the best.
Slice of life series about ill-defined afterschool clubs are a guilty pleasure of mine, and The Walking Dead has made me a certified zombie fiction addict, so it should come as no surprise that School-Live! instantly struck a chord with me. Cleverly combining two seemingly disparate genres, this show made for compulsive summertime watching. Even after the first episode's big reveal, the series continued to focus on common themes found in banal slice-of-life series while still making the audience feel a genuine sense of peril for the core cast. I also loved how certain characters’ willingness to play along with Yuki's delusions constantly left the viewer wondering what was real and what wasn't.
Notice the small ° above the title? Even the name of the season is a joke (as was Gintama') that pokes fun at the subtitles that are often attached to sequel series, like Naruto Shippūden and Dragon Ball Z. Following a two-year hiatus, Gintama was the series I was most looking forward to in 2015, and it didn't disappoint. After nearly three cours’ worth of comedic episodes, this latest incarnation has only recently entered its first “serious” arc. Since I've always preferred this show's comedy to its drama, this season's silliness-to-heaviness ratio is fine by me. At its best, Gintama combines overblown gross-out gags, scathing satire, trope subversion, and delightfully devious characters to form a truly unique comedic experience.
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