What's Your Biggest Guilty Pleasure?
Now, right out of the gate you might be asking, "what is a "guilty pleasure"? Is it a show you love that you acknowledge isn't particularly great? Is it a show you love that everyone else demonstrably hates? Why should anyone feel guilty about enjoying anything at all? We're definitely not here to answer that question - we asked our editorial team to tell us their biggest "guilty pleasure", following the simple guideline "a flawed show you love anyway". Pretty simple, right? Don't forget to tell us yours in the forums!
Theron Martin – My-Otome
Of the hundreds of anime titles that I own on DVD and/or Blu-Ray, there are about a dozen that I rewatch in part or in full on at least a yearly basis. Of those, the one that's probably held in the least regard is My-Otome, a kinda-sorta sequel to the well-regarded My-HiME which essentially reincarnates most of the original cast into different roles in a post-apocalyptic future while also mixing in numerous prominent new characters. Though popular enough that it garnered both prequel and sequel OVA series (both of which have also been released in the States), it's never gotten the acclaim that its source series did, and objectively speaking, I can understand why; two of its lead characters, Arisa Yumemiya and Princess Mashiro, can be grate-on-the-nerves-level annoying (the former especially in the English dub!), many other new characters aren't as endearing as they're supposed to be, it has some stupid naming conventions in places, it's far from a stellar artistic achievement, and it has some potentially squicky romances. And yet despite all of its faults I still keep coming back to it.
One of the chief reasons why is that I have always found the reimagining of the carry-over characters and their new roles to be amusingly inventive; in fact, there are several that I like better in this version than the way they are in My-HiME. The underlying sense of grand drama in the story has also always captivated me, and that is supplemented profoundly by one of the truly great examples of anime character growth: as unlikable as Mashiro is early on, seeing her grow out of being a spoiled princess who's little more than a joke and towards being a proper and responsible ruler is quite heartening. We also can't forget the killer Yuki Kajiura soundtrack, one which I have fruitlessly been seeking for years now. (I couldn't even find it on my trip to Japan last year, though I came close.) And it does have some fairly sharp action scenes and quite funny omake, too.
So yeah, it's far from being the greatest anime series out there, but it's still one that I quite enjoy.
James Beckett – Twin Star Exorcists
Twin Star Exorcists has many problems. As of this writing it is forty-two weeks into its fifty episode run, and for every success it's had there have been just as many rough patches. The production values are incredibly inconsistent, ranging from being occasionally quite excellent to sometimes downright terrible, with most of the episodes falling somewhere in between. While originally fairly faithful to the manga it is based off of, it has drawn a lot of ire from fans due to its inclusion of, among other things, an anime-only mascot character, and original arcs that have come to completely overtake the story in its back half. The show's pacing has been inconsistent at best, with every good string of episodes being separated by filler that only occasionally passes muster. If I'm being honest, it's kind of a mess, and the many people who dislike have very valid reasons for feeling that way.
So of course, I love this show, in spite of its numerous flaws. There are multiple reasons for this, some perfectly logical, others purely rooted in emotional attachment. It holds a special place in my heart as the first series I got to review for Anime News Network, and so much of my growth as a writer and a critic can be rooted in covering this ugly duckling of an anime week to week. I've also always been attracted to underdog stories like this one, and I find myself rooting for the series to live up to its potential, even when it constantly trips itself up in the process.
If I'm being completely honest, I'm also just a sucker for sappy romance, and Twin Star Exorcists has it in spades. Over the course of my many reviews for the series, the one constant joy that the show has provided is in watching its protagonists, Rokuro and Benio, grow up together, and eventually grow to love each other. The initial premise had a lot of potential to be off-putting, what with the two of them being destined as teenagers to eventually marry and sire the savior of all Exorcists; in spite of that, though, the two form a bond that is not only sweet, but earned. Over the course of the last year these two have shared their trials and tribulations together, and they've supported one another through everything, be it the mundane worries of sharing a home together or the more pressing issue of saving the world from evil demonic forces. I've found many romances in this medium to feel somewhat trite, often even artificial, so to encounter a relationship that feels so unexpectedly real has been a genuine treat.
True, maybe I'm a little biased, since I'm recently married myself, and therefore much more susceptible to this kind of silly YA romance. I will fully admit that. Still, I love Twin Star Exorcists, warts and all, and I'm glad to have followed it for the last year, through thick and thin. Do I feel guilty for loving it so much? Maybe. Do I regret it? Absolutely not.
Sam Leach - School Rumble
School Rumble might not quite fit in as a “guilty pleasure”, but I feel safe in assuming that it hasn't exactly left a big impact on the world. Compare it to other romantic comedies of the era (Ouran High School Host Club is smarter, funnier, better looking, packs more of an emotional punch, etc.) and the show comes off as inoffensive and average at best. But what if I told it it was OBJECTIVELY one of the greatest shows ever made?
Okay, that might not be how opinions work, but out of all the shows that I love from the bottom of my heart (mostly action stuff like One Piece, DBZ, and FLCL) School Rumble stands with the best of ‘em. I've watched the 50-some episodes about seven times through its entirety and it manages to get me choked up and teary eyed every time. Something about this series and its cast speaks to me on a weirdly spiritual level, especially when it comes to Kenji Harima (who, let's face it, is the real main character of the show).
School Rumble is the perfect example of an anime that was there for me during tough times. The series is fairly mediocre on any technical levels, but that's almost a part of the art. There are extended plotlines where Harima, an obvious self-insert for the original author Jin Kobayashi, is trying to make it as a below-average manga artist, and suddenly all the flaws of the character, the show, and the author only become that much more endearing. Somehow, this disposable slapstick comedy about love triangles and wacky misunderstandings manages to be a startling, humility-filled reflection of something impressively sincere and human.
Nick Creamer - Yozakura Quartet
I have serious reservations about the base nature of the term “guilty pleasure,” but you're not here to read me being pedantic, you're here to celebrate some shows! And as far as that goes, I'd say Yozakura Quartet fits the bill for being a show that's kind of a mess, but specifically the type of mess I'm very, very fond of.
Yozakura Quartet is essentially a shounen action show constructed as a series of small arcs, in the style of something like Noragami. Though the title refers to a quartet, the anime actually stars a half-dozen principle characters, along with a whole bunch of lesser recurring figures. The show takes place in a town that straddles the edge between two realities, where weird supernatural stuff happens all the time, and the town's guardians are tasked with keeping it all together.
Structurally, the show has basically no cohesion whatsoever. It's constructed as a series of relatively self-contained arcs, but they're all framed as building up to a larger confrontation that never actually happens - such is the fate of adaptations of ongoing manga. The show's arc structure also means it doesn't really build any tension throughout, and it also seesaws between action and slice of life tones in a way that makes very little feel dramatically meaningful. The show is also fond of fanservice that runs the gamut from “awkwardly misplaced” to “grossly conceived,” and its characters are all pretty simply written people.
But for all those negatives, Yozakura Quartet can be a remarkably charming place to spend some time. The show's slice of life foundation is the key - more than a series of adventures, Yozakura Quartet really feels like a bunch of characters who live in a specific town, and sometimes get called to defend that town. Early episodes dedicate as much time to going out for ramen and managing town infrastructure as they do fighting baddies, and all the downtime builds a sense of affection for the characters even if they're never all that deeply explored.
On top of that, the show has possibly the best-executed action setpieces of any show in the last five years. Blessed with a remarkable crew of talented webgen animators and helmed by genius animator Ryo-timo, the fight scenes in Yozakura Quartet are fluid and astonishing. The show's loose structure and diverse set of powers mean no two fights are anything alike, and even just watching two of the leads spar is a treat. Yozakura Quartet is one of those rare shows whose action scenes can always speak for themselves.
So that's Yozakura. Kind of a mess of a show, but also beautiful and thrilling and endearing. It's very close to my ideal comfort food.
Lauren Orsini - The World God Only Knows
I never thought I'd enjoy a show about a real life dating sim. But I loved The World God Only Knows and now it's time to stand and be judged for my lack of taste.
Our hero is Keima Katsuragi, a dating sim master and 2D woman aficionado. A ditzy demon named Elsie mistakes Keima's digital prowess for real life seduction, and recruits his help in ridding hot chicks of their demonic possession. From there, a revolving door of babely damsels in distress inexplicably fall for Keima and glam up his formerly solo life. You want dating sim cliches? You got them. Each girl is a cookie cutter version of a dating sim love interest, from an idol singer to a sporty tomboy to a shy librarian. Not to mention a half-baked premise that seems dreamed up out of a gal game fan's least believable fantasy.
And yet, I adore this show. I buy very few figures, but I have an Elsie Nendoroid on my desk because she is a character that resonates with me like no other. While all of these characters have such clear roles straight out of a gal game, their personalities are wholly unique. Keima is not your generic everyman protagonist, but a prickly recluse who isn't always likable. Elsie wriggles her way into Keima's family members hearts—and ours. And the nature of the plot, which has Keima seducing girls struggling with problems (or else demons couldn't have possessed them in the first place, apparently), means that we see each character together with her imperfections. The story forces them to undergo character development—or else Keima fails. Put together with glossy animation and a powerful soundtrack, it's pretty addicting.
The World God Only Knows isn't a show with something important to say. It's an otaku fantasy! Still, it's a very enjoyable one, with lively writing and gorgeous production values. And when I find characters I love to watch, I'm not choosy about their pedigree, even if they do come from the anime equivalent of a cheesy dating sim.
Anne Lauenroth - Valvrave the Liberator
Watching Valvrave the Liberator is like playing with your relative's kindergarten-aged kids on a holiday. Assuming you're not exposed to young children on a regular basis, you enter the playroom full of your very adult expectations of how the world works, only to be utterly baffled and mesmerized by the exuberant creativity of a child's mind. Watching them add new rules to their only just invented games without batting an eye, never hesitating to come up with – from your own, boring adult's perspective – the most improbable solution to what you thought would surely be the end of the road is a thing of beauty. It can also be highly confusing, so better to leave all expectations (and, in case of Valvrave, also brains) at the door to fully enjoy the ride.
And Valvrave offers quite the ride, from an explosive start already brimming with twists and turns to an equally insane finale in its second season, with a lot of jaw-dropping moments that are best described in 3-letter abbreviations in between. We follow our group of immortal body-swapping teenaged space vampire protagonists as they found an intergalactic resistance out of their school's backyard after discovering a boatload of memory-eating mechs underneath. The premise alone is one to best savor slowly, accompanied by a nice, cold drink on the side.
In best tradition of Code Geass, Valvrave wallows in its twists, always seeming to aim for a "no, they did not" reaction followed by several exclamation points above everything else. Even if these twists tend to be less grandiose than the ones its spiritual ancestor had up its sleeves (and rarely pack any of the emotional punch), part of the fun is guessing which jokes the creators are actually in on. I'm guessing most, if not all of them. It's silly verging on ridiculous, but it's almost always entertaining.
Then there's "that" scene in season one's episode 10, which has since become infamous. As someone who's come to despise vampire stories over the years, I found it rather refreshing to see the "bite" stripped off any notion of romance or seduction and called by what this moment has always been a metaphor for. It's dark and disturbing and, considering the show's more outrageous inclinations, surprisingly honest. It's unfortunate that, also by nature, Valvrave isn't the kind of show to reflect on such a scene's ramifications (and dramatic potential) any more than a child would on a brilliant accidental game idea before becoming obsessed with a new toy.
Valvrave isn't particularly well written or thought through. It sacrifices any possibility of character development in favor of quick kicks and thrills. My enjoyment of it still didn't stem from a so bad, it's good approach. I don't think it's bad. It mostly achieves what it wants to achieve, and it's having a blast doing so.
Paul Jensen - Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend
I think that Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend made a mistake early on by looking like a more distinctive show than it turned out to be. With its “let's make a visual novel” premise and a constant stream of self-aware commentary from the characters, it got a lot of folks’ hopes up. Here, potentially, was a series that could take a witty look at the increasingly stale harem comedy formula and use it to create something fresh. What we got instead was a by-the-book genre piece that leaned on the fourth wall as a source of humor but never quite made its way into the realm of outright satire or genre deconstruction. If you went into the show's first season hoping for more, I wouldn't be surprised if you walked away disappointed.
Personally, I enjoyed it anyway. All I wanted out of Saekano was a harem comedy that didn't suck, and that's exactly what I got. I tend to enjoy any kind of fiction that's willing and able to poke fun at itself, so the characters’ frequent jabs at one another over their adherence to genre tropes made me laugh more often than not. Couple that with a functional (if somewhat generic) story and you've got a series that's neither boring nor head-splittingly dumb, which in my experience is a bit of a rarity in this genre. Saekano also benefits from respectable production values, which are put to use with an understanding that there's more to fanservice than simply throwing scantily-clad characters at the audience and waiting for the money to pour in. There's room for artful direction in everything, and that includes raunchy comedy.
So no, Saekano isn't going to breathe new life into a genre that's become infamous for recycled ideas and half-hearted presentation. It's neither insightful nor creative enough for that. If, however, you meet it on its own less ambitious terms, it can be a pretty entertaining series. I'll admit that I was happy to hear it's getting a second season this year. After all, if you're going to watch a standard-issue genre piece, you should at least expect it to be a good one.
Jacob Chapman - School Days
I haven't just watched School Days (multiple times), I've even played the visual novel—and gotten all the endings. If you're not familiar with School Days, I can assure you there is absolutely zero excuse for this. The source visual novel is almost intentionally abhorrent, and there's no way to play through it without being a giant two-faced skeeze in some way along the journey. Getting a happy ending only means you were smarter about hiding your lies and infidelities, to say nothing of all the weird porn. It gets nasty, and I can't in good conscience recommend it.
Of course, it's much easier to recommend the anime version, because you're just watching rather than playing as its truly reprehensible protagonist Makoto, who plows his way through no fewer than eight different women while worming through the motions of a relationship just earnestly enough to drive his two main love interests crazy and ruin their lives. School Days is my greatest guilty pleasure because despite its overwhelming badness, and despite the occasional fan theories about this show being some kinda satire of harem anime, I can't really claim to enjoy it in a "so bad it's good" way. Yes, it does have terrible animation, writing, editing, and a bizarrely barren soundtrack where music almost never breaks the unbearable awkwardness of each painful new conversation. It's <em>bad</em>, but it's just not wacky or incompetent enough for me to claim that I'm enjoying it ironically. The truth is that I enjoy School Days for exactly the reason it was intended to be enjoyed: maniacal, meaningless madness. It's like building a faulty rollercoaster or letting all the wild animals loose in a theme park tycoon game. You're just letting your inner monster out in a harmless way.
The original visual novel is renowned for its hyperviolent bad endings, but none of them are remotely as grim and violent as the finale the TV adaptation decided on. It's a chicken and egg situation where I'm not sure which came first: the insanely unsympathetic characterization of its cast or the decision to make its ending as insanely cruel as possible. Whatever the case, these two things railroad into each other so beautifully that if you have a sadistic itch to scratch, it's surprisingly easy to shotgun School Days in a single afternoon. The evil part of your brain watches a milquetoast harem protagonist finally snap and just start taking advantage of all the women who are inexplicably drawn to him, and the good (?) part of your brain gets to revel in the karmic carnage that follows. School Days is absolutely horrible, but it's excellent at rewarding the part of your brain that wants absolutely horrible things sometimes.
So if you find yourself yawning and rolling your eyes through one too many anime that have turned all safe and syrupy harem on your watchlist (lookin' at you, Interviews with Monster Girls), you can let out your inner monster with School Days! Laugh off your frustrations as it takes all those otaku romance clichés to their most morbid possible extremes, and then fill the emptiness that follows with something that makes you feel like a good person again.
Rose Bridges - Hetalia
There are the anime I love that I consider legitimately great and accessible works of art, and eagerly recommend to friends who are new to the medium. And then, there's Hetalia. I think every serious otaku has at least one favorite that screams "that's so anime!" Even just explaining its premise would provoke, at best, raised eyebrows. There are few anime that come loaded with as much baggage there as Hetalia does. A comedy about the World War II-era nations of the world as homoerotic pretty boys! What could possibly go wrong?
Hetalia's troublesome reputation actually might have helped me love the show. It meant I came in with extremely low expectations, figuring I would find it horribly offensive. I should have known better; I'm a huge World War I/II history buff, after all. A significant chunk of Hetalia's humor comes from (well-researched!) history facts and references. Even all its ships are based on real-world alliances. Its "edgier" humor is mostly based on broad national stereotypes, like Germans being strict or America's political interventionism. I found it more similar to the stereotype-based humor in raunchy American comedies, and less like other anime. And of course, I can't go without mentioning that it's basically catnip for fujoshi, probably the biggest contributor to its popularity. Like ClassicaLoid right now, Hetalia managed to pick two of my favorite things—history, and campy pretty boys—and combine them into a show that's the perfect blend of what I like in anime. Or at least, what I like in dumb, five-minute anime comedies.
It's still firmly a guilty pleasure, though, and not just because of that ominous reputation. Especially as the seasons go on and it becomes more self-referential, its writing can be clichéd and repetitive. The art and animation are pretty standard low-budget fujoshi fare, though fifth season Hetalia: The Beautiful World was a major improvement. Also, the fact that it doesn't make jokes about the Holocaust doesn't mean Hetalia can't still be deeply offensive—mostly with countries outside of the titular Axis Powers. I usually skip the Russia episodes, where Hetalia dismisses the country's aggression toward Eastern Europe as him being "yandere." Luckily, those moments are few and far enough between that they don't ruin my enjoyment of the show, but they have for some of my friends.
Hetalia is not a show for everyone, and that's okay. It's too bizarre and uneven to be a must-watch for anybody. It's hard to deny, though, that it's for me. I have cat plushies of Germany and Italy sitting next to me as I write this. Yes, they're my ship, too. I might not be proud of it, but there's something that keeps me coming back to this zany gag anime that feels like Model UN on acid. I am truly "Hetalia trash."
Amy McNulty - Marmalade Boy
Fun, fluffy, and more than a tad melodramatic, Marmalade Boy was one of the formative contemporary, slice-of-life manga and anime of my youth. There shouldn't be anything shameful about liking this girl-meets-boy teen romance, but not everyone agrees. I remember well over a decade ago there was a story in the anime community about an American parent discovering her daughter borrowing the manga from a library and calling for it to be removed because the parents of the two main characters divorce and essentially “spouse swap” and form one big, happy commune family. On paper, this certainly does sound tacky, although it's far from the focus of the series.
High schooler Miki Koshikawa's life is upended when her parents come back from a Hawaiian vacation cheerfully announcing they're getting a divorce—to swap spouses with another Japanese couple they met on the trip. They're also all moving in together, along with the other couple's teenage son, handsome but somewhat odd Yuu Matsuura, who seems to enjoy teasing Miki. (He's the titular “Marmalade Boy,” kind of sweet but also bitter.) Before they can figure out they're destined to be together, Miki is dealing with a crush on her childhood friend, Ginta Suou, and Yuu has an ex-girlfriend, Arimi Suzuki, who just won't let him go. Then there's Miki's best friend, Meiko Akizuki, who's having a clandestine affair with one of their teachers, despite being pursued by playboy and popular student Satoshi miwa, who grows close with Yuu. That's just the setup—there are plenty of additional rivals for both Miki's and Yuu's affections along the way.
Every character is madly in love to the point of practically believing they can't live without the objects of their affection, although there are a number of teens in real life who feel that way, too. Tears falling as melodramatic music plays is a fairly common occurrence throughout the series, although there are plenty of fun and cheerful moments in between. Toward the end of the anime, there's a ridiculously bad anime-original storyline where Yuu studies abroad in the U.S. and the Americans are hilariously and distractingly stereotypical, but that's part of the trashy appeal. Marmalade Boy is not so-bad-it's-funny, it's just addicting-even-if-it's-often-unbelievable. Admittedly, maybe there is plenty to be embarrassed about as a fan of this series. However, I can't be the only one who couldn't get enough of all the melodrama. There's currently a sequel manga in Japan set thirteen years later called Marmalade Boy Little.
Rebecca Silverman - Leda: The Fantastic Adventures of Yoko
Back when my sisters and I started to get into anime, our mother, possibly hoping we'd get over Gundam Wing more quickly, basically bought any and all VHS tapes she could find that looked remotely anime-ish. I have a lot of old favorites from Mom's adventures in shopping, things like the three random episodes of Dragoon, Devil Hunter Yohko, or The Adventures of Kotetsu. (Mom bought us Jungle de Ikou! as well; I swear we only liked it for the music!) Those are all still fun in their way, but the one I just can't stop loving is Leda: The Fantastic Adventure of Yoko.
Originally dating to 1985 and released in the US in 1997 by The Right Stuf, Leda is a sci fi/fantasy mess of a film. It's about Yoko, an ordinary Japanese high school girl, who composes a piano piece to help her confess to the boy of her dreams. Somehow while she's playing it on her Walkman, the music transports her to another world where she almost immediately gets eaten by a flower only to burst forth from its petals in a metallic battle bikini. Yoko teams up with Yoni and a talking dog to save the world from Zell, who appears to be evil Just Because, and eventually her music takes her back home where she runs up to her crush. As far as plots go, it really doesn't do itself any favors – the world is never realized, Zell's motives don't come into it, and Yoko never quite forms a bond with her new buddies. It's also about as 80s as you can get without being a Cyndi Lauper music video, from the hair to the colors to the music – so much of its own time that it feels ridiculous when taken out of it. Add to this the British dub that has Yoko calling herself a “bobby soxer,” a term for an adolescent girl that was really only used in the 1940s, and you'd think I love this for its unintentional humor.
And yet…there's something else about the film that keeps me rewatching it. Yoko's anxiety being relieved by her music is very recognizable, and the fact that her song can take her to another world is the sort of universally appealing idea behind many children's classics. Her mission there, as foretold by Leda years before, ultimately gives Yoko the message that she is capable and can face her fears – how scary can it be to talk to one boy after you've taken out an evil villain while wearing metal undies? For an anxious kid, that was a message that didn't (and doesn't) get old, no matter how poorly it is told. The fact that Yoko was able to return home to safety after her adventure is also appealing. She doesn't lead a terrible life or need a new world to fully belong; she just needs a reminder and a brief escape from reality. For me Yoko's story is an allegory of anxiety, where she learns that nothing can really stop her unless she lets it. Maybe that's putting too much into the tale of a 1980s bobby soxer's strange trip to another world – but sometimes it's the weirdest things that bring you comfort and remind you that you can do anything if you try.
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