The Best Anime of 2015
Gabriella Ekens & Theron Martin
5. Noragami Aragoto
When the first season came out in 2014, Noragami quickly established itself as one of the anime nearest to the mainstream. Combining elements of shonen and shoujo with fun reimaginings of Japanese mythology, it followed the recipe for a crossover hit – and as a bonus, turned out to have moments of genuine substance. In between the setup and filler, it contained a surprisingly intense meditation on grief and the sometimes tumultuous nature of family. This second season, however, immediately shed the elements that bogged the first down to become a constant barrage of emotional gut punches. Bishamon's arc was a near-tragedy about an individual overburdening herself with responsibility. Meanwhile, it turns out that our lovable scamp Yato actually struggles to distance himself from a toxic upbringing. Noragami tackles these complicated situations with an emotional maturity that I haven't seen on display in a mainstream work since Fruits Basket. And despite containing several high stakes revelations per episode, Noragami never loses the sense of levity that brought people to it in the first place. Consistently improving on an already standout first cour, Noragami S2 sneaks its way into my top five.
4. Maria the Virgin Witch
Genuinely “feminist” anime (meaning shows that are explicitly about the status of women in society) are quite rare. As such, it's a big deal that 2015 treated us to not one, but two great ones. But while the other darling's women-friendly credentials were visible far in advance, this one came as a total surprise. For one, the title, Maria the Virgin Witch, evokes a sleazy experience. The production team didn't tell me anything. The original manga lacked quite a few of the subtleties on display in this manga. As far as I'm concerned, “where did Maria come from” is one of my top anime mysteries.
A work of historical genre fiction, Maria the Virgin Witch is about a pacifist witch who plots to stop the Hundred Years War. Her efforts antagonize both the earthly Church and the heavenly order, who brand her a heretic. Eventually, the archangel Michael punishes her with an ultimatum – that she'll lose her powers alongside her virginity. This all flusters Maria, who's as sexually frustrated as she is righteous.
This all turns into an examination of how “purity culture” puts women down. It tackles issues like historical roles for women, rape, and how the patriarchy harms men with surprising sensitivity. Beyond all that, it's also just a well-researched and lushly realized adventure. Maria saves lives, finds herself, and falls in love – all alongside her owl/sex demon companions.
3. One Punch Man
One Punch Man does for shonen what Ouran High School Host Club did for shoujo. A loving parody of the genre that also works as a sincere, even outstanding example, One Punch Man feels like it's been around for much longer than it really has. Maybe it's Marvel's total domination of North American pop culture, or the recent string of superhero anime (Tiger and Bunny, Samurai Flamenco, Concrete Revolutio) that didn't live up to their transformative expectations. Either way, One Punch Man was ripe to hit, and did so with all of the strength of its much-vaunted hero, Saitama.
Most shonen stories are about watching a plucky hero climb their way up the power scale. One Punch Man starts at what should be the end of that template – an invincibly strong protagonist – and asks, what's the conflict from here? Past this point, it's an articulation of the post-adolescent ennui afflicting many young adults who were fans of shonen action in childhood. Once eager idealists, many twentysomethings find themselves in ruts similar to Saitama's (albeit without the ability to leap buildings in a single bound.) On another, it's a critique of corporate culture as breeding this disaffection. When Saitama finally enters the “proper” channel for his talents, he finds his fellow heroes alienated from each other by the organization's capitalist meritocratic structure. Finally, it's just an examination of what heroism is – selflessness, generosity, and the rest of those clichés – made more powerful by the fact that the obstacles are emotional and structural rather than physical.
It helps that One Punch Man is one of the most lushly animated works of televised animation ever. From the crew that brought us Space Dandy, this show is a sakuga nerd's wet dream, featuring a ludicrous breadth of motion (both subtle and hyperbolic) in every episode. More knowledgeable students of animation have already expounded on this in length. But going in, know that this is an exhilarating visual experience even for those who don't know the first thing about getting drawings to look like they're moving. A powerhouse on multiple fronts, One Punch Man easily bypasses the competition for the rank of 3rd best show of 2015.
2. Blood Blockade Battlefront
The raddest time in anime this year, Blood Blockade Battlefront is the best of both worlds – a hot date that turns out to have a great personality. The lovechild of Yasuhiro Nightow (Trigun) and Rie Matsumoto's (Kyousougiga) demented imaginations, this show crams a ludicrous amount of content into what's technically twelve episodes.
If One Punch Man is the year's animation showcase, this is the directorial one. After this and Kyousougiga, Rie Matsumoto continues to prove herself anime's most talented newcomer. Nobody else could've made this amount of content per episode intelligible, let alone one of the most entertaining and visually innovative shows I've seen in years. Right from the beginning, Hellsalem's Lot – a version of New York City that's become a hub for all sorts of interdimensional happenstance – appears fully formed. Familiar urban landscapes illustrated like Norman Rockwell paintings teem with creatures straight out of Space Dandy. It's such a lush setting that the first season ends on an apocalyptic confrontation with Satan and yet the story feels nowhere near done
Beneath all of this incredible style, it's almost hard to believe that this show finds room for some quite poignant substance. The initial narrative about Libra versus the forces of evil turns into a powerful exaltation of the human spirit's capacity for resilience. Hellsalem's Lot is a supernatural land of plenty, a cornucopia of temptations that no human was meant to handle. Under these circumstances, mere survival is a victory, and every day a joyous celebration of continued living. That's how Blood Blockade Battlefront balances a tone of both high-stakes horror and the carnivalesque – destruction is omnipresent, but continuously averted by common, human decency. Blood Blockade Battlefront comes away with the message to live every moment like it's your last – but also work hard to ensure the next. Who knew humanism could be such a blast.
1. Yuri Kuma Arashi
Kunihiko Ikuhara has masterminded several anime that many consider incomprehensible. At the same time, he's beloved by a certain subset of anime fans – myself included. So the winter debut of his long-awaited third title, Yuri Kuma Arashi, was an event…. Especially since the title translated to something like “Lesbian Bear Storm.” Sweet baby Jesus. Ikuhara is known for his absurdist approach to same-sex romance, but that title is ridiculous. Could he be becoming a parody of himself? And is there any chance that a new show could live up to the sky-high expectations brought on by Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum?
Judging by the show's placement on this list, you probably know the answer to that. It's fantastic, and also totally about bears and women kissing – if more the latter than the former. You see, Ikuhara is a surrealist, so he'll use symbolism as a jumping off point for complicated stories about abstract ideas. Consequently, Yuri Kuma Arashi isn't literally about bears, but rather something more grounded, even radical – in this case, a polemic against the mistreatment of women who love women in Japanese media and society. On the surface this type of story doesn't seem all that special. Genre media is oversaturated with anti-discrimination yarns where supernatural creatures serve as a stand-in for oppressed groups. But they're rarely this specific and angry. Yuri Kuma Arashi is livid about how anime usually portrays lady-love. Lilies and bears represent the two extremes in their misrepresentation – chaste pedestalized “friendship” or violent sexual predation. The show depicts a love story between two women, Kureha and Ginko, who learn to shed their mutual societally-enforced preoccupations about gender to love each other as individuals. It cites specific, powerful forces as contributing to their victimization, from the educational system to religion to other anime. It demonstrates how systems of oppression turn victims into victimizers, and what it takes for people to break free of that. As a raw denunciation of misogyny and homophobia, it may be unique in anime.
Ikuhara remains one of the few anime directors who I'd call world-class. He's consistently able to tell radical stories of outstanding power in what's largely a commercial medium. With only three complete works, he's already made an indelible impression on anime as a whole. But please, don't let this be the last – anime needs more of these stories, more honesty, more love. We're all better off for it.
For me, 2015 had two outstanding series and a whole pack of other contenders which were similar enough in quality that picking the top three representatives required splitting some hairs and playing favorites. Not among those are a few series which were highly-regarded but simply did not work for me; for instance, I only made it halfway through Yuri Kuma Arashi before I gave up in frustration (I can't stand Ikuhara's style, amongst other complaints). Among the ones that I did also consider are Yatterman Nights (a couple of particularly weak episodes held back another surprisingly good series), Noragami Aragato (the best sequel series I've seen this year and probably my #6 pick), Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend (much cleverer than expected), and Blood Blockade Battlefront (sharp, but certain aspects of its style annoyed me). The ones that survived the cut are:
5. Is It Wrong to Try and Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?
No way would I have expected this series to make the grade based on its name, but it proved to be an unexpectedly good take on the “emerging young hero” story (even with mild harem elements mixed in) and a substantial improvement over its source material. The iconic look of the hero's patron goddess, the diminutive-but-stacked Hestia, caught the most attention, but the series also featured an intriguing setting, some unexpectedly-involved character development, great artwork as fantasy series go, and some truly outstanding battle scenes; while my #3 pick is a better action series overall, this one still had three of the five best action scenes I saw in anime all year. When it comes to staging dramatic battles, it has few equals in any year.
4. Sound! Euphonium
This one I'm a little conflicted about including, as it is a case where the series never really resonated with me and yet I still have to acknowledge how well-made it is. The high school band experience that it shows is just so far divorced from my own (I was practically the epitome of a “band geek”) that I had trouble relating, and at times it felt too much like a pure “cute girls do band” series, but ultimately I decided that its technical merits are high enough and it has enough quality drama and characterizations to overcome my objections.
3. One-Punch Man
Through the ten episodes which have aired by the time of this writing, this series can practically do no wrong by me. It has a fun visual aesthetic which I can fully get behind, plenty of fantastic action sequences, and a surprisingly endearing lead, but what draws me to it as much as anything else is the way it lays bare the inherent flaws in a ranked super-hero system. No doubt much of what happens here is meant to be a metaphor for how talented individuals can be swallowed up by the system in real life, but just as sharp is its observations on how fickle the adulation of the public can be. Oh, and it has a killer ‘80s metal-styled opener, too.
2. Maria the Virgin Witch
This was my most-anticipated series in 2015, and it lived up to my expectations and then some. The technical merits are pretty high, but what I loved most was how thoroughly and accurately the series grounded itself in exacting historical detail while still utilizing a prominent supernatural component. I also liked how smoothly it worked in its philosophical elements and debates/commentary about religion without (usually) getting cumbersome with symbolism, and it did that without distracting from its occasional bouts of raunchy fun. Maria sometimes took being bull-headed to annoying levels, and occasionally the writing seemed to be sending conflicting messages, but those are minor quibbles in a series that is very well-made on all fronts. For much of the year this was locked in as my topic pick, but one summer season title did eventually top it. . .
This was a close call against Maria, but I feel I have to give it the top spot as a show of respect for the seemingly-impossible feat it pulled off: mixing “cute girls do cute things” elements with a zombie-apocalypse scenario, and doing so without in the slightest detracting from either its cutesy side or its horror side. Its inspired trick for doing so? Have one of the central girls be mentally unable to accept what's happening and the rest of the girls play along with her delusions as a means to keep their own sanity in a really awful situation. But there is far more to it than that: creative examination of the zombie state, mysteries to be unraveled, potent emotions in play, subtle symbolism, layered meaning for seemingly-straightforward scenes, beautifully well-handled flashbacks, strongly-defined personalities, and engaging interactions between them. A few harrowing scenes even (basically) give it an action component. The gimmicky nature of the first episode might not sit well with everyone, but even that is brilliantly-executed in retrospect. If you want to see what can happen when a concept truly maximizes its potential, watch this series.
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