The Best Anime of 2015
Nick Creamer & Rose Bridges
5. Death Parade
I didn't have the highest expectations for Death Parade. I'd enjoyed the preceding short, Death Billiards, but don't really count myself a fan of voyeuristic death game shenanigans. But the full-length series embraced its premise in the most satisfying way possible, filling its episodic stories with characters worth caring about and weaving them together with a backing narrative that felt more like a celebration than a wake. A strong visual aesthetic and the show's excellent grasp of genre shifts (tragedy, comedy, romance, mystery!) added strong complements to a show with far more heart than I'd anticipated. Death Parade was a welcome surprise.
And so begins the flood of sequels dominating my list. 2015 had some interesting shows, but many of its best were actually just reprises of great 2013 shows, with Owarimonogatari presenting a solid followup to that year's transcendent Second Season. The arcs this year haven't been as strong as the show's peaks, but individual standout episodes, like Sodachi's recounting of her past or Gaen's stories about Shinobu's old partner, still demonstrated how strong Monogatari can be on both a visual and emotional level. The show is building on years of character development and aesthetic polishing, and yet it still manages to find new ways to surprise and impress.
Next up on the sequel train, Gatchaman Crowds insight offered a strong followup to what was likely 2013's most thematically rich production. Gamification, anonymity, the nature and purpose of leadership, the fluid nature of social power; it's all here, it's all investigated, it's all swirling together in a sharp and engaging stew of wacky characters and cool designs and straight-up philosophy debates. Instead of trying to talk about basically everything, insight doubled down on the original's points about mob behavior, offering both stern general warnings about the danger of assumed righteousness and lots of nice individual highlights, like an election episode that perfectly skewered the nature of the modern political machine, or a TV talk show that emphasized the mercenary complicity of the 24 hour news channel. Gatchaman Crowds is smart as heck, but it also never loses its sense of fun. It's a very compelling thing.
When they're at the top of their game, no studio can match Kyoto Animation. Their best directors effortlessly capture the beauty of live as it is lived, building universal dramas out of tiny little emotional moments. And this year's Sound! Euphonium is one more tremendous feather in their cap, a perfectly composed story of competition and friendship and ambition and regret. Euphonium feels consistently filmic in a way few anime can match, its beautifully framed shots and consistently gorgeous animation elevating one of their most focused narratives yet. The show is full of great characters and resounding dramatic moments, respecting the individuality and interiority of its broad cast while still drawing sharp thematic parallels between them. It's beautiful and funny and romantic and warm, a tightly written drama and a nearly perfect show.
And coming in on top of the sequel pile, it's the return of the straight-up best high school drama I've ever seen. This show's first season was already better at illustrating full human beings and creating banter than basically anything else in the medium, but TOO! actually represents a huge leap up from the original series, augmenting its core “holy crap this show is good at writing characters” strengths with more focused drama and much stronger direction and animation. There are endless ranks of anime about sullen high school loners, but SNAFU is the best of them at both articulating what makes a character like Hachiman tick, and pointing towards what he really needs to learn. SNAFU is equal parts insight and heart, consistently skewering its characters for their issues, but only because it's also challenging them to do better. It loves its characters, and the way it poignantly illustrates their failings and complexities makes it easy for me to love them too.
2015 was a strong year for anime, and I found it very difficult to decide on a fifth place. Honorable mentions go to Concrete Revolutio (just because I don't think I can recommend it until I know how it ends) and My Love Story!! (it didn't grab me every episode, but it was fun and extremely sweet when it did). I'd like to note the Japan Animator Expo shorts "Kanón," "The Diary of Ochibi" and "On A Gloomy Night" as some of the year's most interesting animation, too. Now, for the actual list…
Who thought for once that a show with such a sleazy title would rank among the year's best? I sure didn't. Not only is it that, but Maria the Virgin Witch has a strong feminist streak to it, too. The protagonist is a headstrong teenage girl, sure of her talents and her desire to use them to make the world a better place. She's less sure of her sexuality and her relationships with others. Maria also lives in a magical version of late-medieval Europe where her enemies are eager to use her uncertainties against her. Those parts can get pretty serious, juggling complicated issues like sexism and religion, but luckily Maria the Virgin Witch still knows how to have fun. It's a raunchy sex comedy, too, making penis jokes right alongside the historical commentary. With all that plus a host of multi-faceted characters, exciting magical battles, and a sweet, awkward romance at its heart, this gem from the winter season is still well worth your time.
I didn't know much about the original manga when I started One-Punch Man. I came in with no expectations, and the show still managed to completely overwhelm them and thrill me. It functions as a sort of shonen equivalent of Ouran High School Host Club: parodying the sillier examples of action anime, while also embracing it sincerely. One-Punch Man is also full of broader social satire that should be instantly relatable to any young adult viewer. Saitama becomes a superhero through a mid-life crisis, only to find it becomes just as routine as any other job over time. One-Punch Man's superhero system is also ridiculously bureaucratic and stratified. In the midst of this, the actual battles are still among the most entertaining and best-animated ones you'll find in anime. Saitama, Genos and their allies face off against everything: crab- and mosquito-people, self-made supermen, Lovecraftian sea monsters and bald cultists. There is never a dull moment in One-Punch Man, which is all I need from an anime some days. It's constantly hitting you with entertainment, and it looks good doing it.
3. Death Parade
There are lots of beliefs about what happens when you die. Death Parade adds another: you go to a bar where you play games like darts, bowling or Twister to decide your cosmic fate. Of course, it's less about your performance and more about what it reveals about who you were when you were alive. That's a good premise for a thought-provoking morality play all on its own, but Death Parade doesn't stop there. It judges the system itself, and the arbiters' emotionlessness and removal from the world as a part of it. It also follows one human woman who falls through the cracks in the system, as she comes to terms with her sad, short life and finds a new lease on it in the afterlife. Death Parade blends all these elements across only 12 episodes, creating an engrossing, tearjerking story by the end. It's one that could even draw in non-anime fans; I showed this to my stepdad and he was hooked. Death is one of life's great equalizers and, like it, Death Parade is a show that crosses all boundaries.
I'm a pretty big Trigun fan, so I was psyched about a new Yasuhiro Nightow adaptation—especially one animated by Studio Bones. Blood Blockade Battlefront is every bit as stylish as that combo suggests, looking exactly like the real New York City would if overrun by extradimensional monsters. It even has a fast-paced, jazzy soundtrack to match.! Many of the show's early episodes are just playing around with this premise, and showing off the colorful members of the Libra crimefighting organization as they take baddies down. It gradually reveals as much as substance as style, especially in its original material. The two lost, corrupted Macbeth siblings parallel protagonist Leonardo Watch's own relationship with his sister, adding a heartrending emotional depth to the series' frenetic action. It all builds toward a stirring conclusion, leaving you completely fulfilled, while still eager to drop back in on this world. Blood Blockade Battlefront is super-popular in Japan, so hopefully this is not the last we'll see of Hellsalem's Lot. It's just hard to imagine future seasons topping this stellar first one.
Kunihiko Ikuhara is one of anime's greatest auteurs. He directed the most memorable seasons of Sailor Moon, and his previous original works—Revolutionary Girl Utena and Penguindrum—are both masterpieces. Still, I wasn't sure what to make of it when I heard he was making a show about a "Yuri Bear Storm." Of course, nothing is what it seems, and Yuri Kuma Arashi ended up as an allegory about the status of queer women in Japanese society and media. There are plenty of other threads, too, about bullying and religion, references from Suspiria to Psycho, as well as the sheer cuteness of dancing chibi bears. Yuri Kuma Arashi also boasted gorgeous, storybook-like artwork, and some meaningful, moving use of music. (And some purely fun uses, too, like Life Sexy's rendition of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor.) It's a very complete, and yet rather simple story, especially when compared to Ikuhara's other works. It's a political statement, but also a story of girls processing grief and falling in love. Much of what makes Ikuhara so good at what he does is how well he captures core, universal feelings and experiences underneath all the dense symbolism. Yuri Kuma Arashi will make you think and feel, and its mastery of that balance earns it my top spot for 2015.
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