The Mike Toole Show
2012: Well, That Happened, I Guess

by Michael Toole,

We're at the absolute tail end of 2012, and you know what that means: lots of year-end top 10 lists! There's the top 10 anime of 2012, the top 10 manga of 2012, the top 10 youtube AMV hits, the top 10 video games, the top 10 toys, top 10 weird concepts for anime shows, and of course, the top 10 anime shows that I'm totally too old to be watching.

But I'm not big on top ten lists. Hell, I'm not even all that into the idea of annual year-end navel-gazing, but the fact is, this week's column was was originally going to be a Key/KyoAni affair until I realized I just couldn't eat the whole thing in two weeks (I'm almost done with Kanon, but still have two courses of Clannad to power through). The unfortunate demise of kids’ science fiction TV champ Gerry Anderson seemed like a good alternative (his work's huge in Japan, and he's influenced multiple anime productions) but I'm still waiting on some research materials for that one (shipping from Japan is real dicey this time of year). So I resigned myself to figuring out what happened in 2012, and started making a list. After the list topped two pages, I figured I was on to something.

2012 started off like a lot of recent years; we'd recently had grim tidings from Bandai Entertainment that they'd be ceasing new releases, but they still worked through their catalog, getting the last bits of Tales of the Abyss and Star Driver out. A bit of ambrosia came from the unlikely Manga Entertainment, who finally delivered Redline on DVD and blu-ray, much to the frustration of those of us who wanted to give it as a Christmas gift.  A number of fans I've talked to are surprisingly divided on Redline; I'm in the camp that lauds its eye-popping visual style and unbelievably rich production values, but detractors who point to its simplistic plot and dialogue... well, they ain't wrong. Redline's since been priced down by the seemingly moribund Manga, making it cheaper than ever to own this eye-popping piece of animated adrenaline. I don't care if you don't like simplistic plotting, get it anyway!

In Japan, winter 2012 was similarly kinda quiet-- not many of January's shows looked too exciting. I think the fact that the enjoyable but very safe, middle-of-the-road Bodacious Space Pirates seems to be the broad fan-favorite of the season tells you all that you really need to know about it. In theatres, the winter's box office boss was actually Berserk I: The Egg of the King. I actually just watched this movie, since it came out on our shores last month, and I want to complain about it. Not because it's bad-- it's actually pretty damn good-- but because it doesn't bring a whole lot to the table, in spite of having a theatrical budget and being from those great auteurs at Studio 4°C. Kentarou Miura has been churning out the Berserk manga for basically forever-- it always sells well despite his weird, erratic schedule-- and the first part of the serial was adapted as an anime TV series in 1997. This series, despite its cheap TV animation, went on to become a great favorite, at least in North America.

The trouble is, this new Berserk movie adapts the exact same arc that the TV series did. (In fairness, it's the best part of the original manga, which is never bad but goes to some pretty weird places later on.) And they don't pull a radically different spin on things, with some chronological tweaks and new perspectives; nope, it's pretty much the exact same dialogue and situations. I'd rate the experience as going to see a new Star Wars film, and having it turn out to be a fairly decent CG redux of the first movie. Yeah, it's pretty good, but shouldn't they have done something differently? A buddy on twitter pointed out that new movies like this would be great at attracting new fans-- that's a fine point, but a lot of the commentary I've seen from Japan has been existing fans of the franchise-- remember, Berserk fandom is pretty big already-- complaining about all the stuff they left out. Well, we've got two more Berserk movies in the chute-- the first one recently hit home video here, where it's been topping Amazon's bluray charts, and the second one just hit home video in Japan. I hope it brings more to the table than the first one, because Berserk is awesome.

Not long after Berserk made its way through Japanese theatres, The Secret World of Arrietty finally hit American ones. Disney's been slowly ramping up their attention to Studio Ghibli releases-- sure, it kinda took Spirited Away winning an Oscar for that to happen, but at least it's happening. Besides, Arrietty, based on Mary Norton's The Borrowers, seemed like a good bet anyway. Turns out they were right-- a fairly wide release for the niche family animated movie raked in almost $20 million, and it's gone on to do a tidy business on home video. I'd be shocked if it wasn't submitted for Oscar contention, as well.

One thing about the release grinds my gears a bit, however, and that's the simple fact that we had to wait almost two years to get it. That's two years of Japanese theatrical release, home video, UK and European release and home video, and then finally North America. It just seems weird to have to wait that long, considering that Japan gets Pixar movies a few weeks after their American release. I think that if a fairly average Ghibli movie can pull $20m (in fairness, I liked Arrietty a lot, but it was safe as houses), a really good one with a decent ad campaign and an expedient release could do way, way better. I hope we find out eventually, because we're not gonna find out with From Up on Poppy Hill, Goro Miyazaki's bracing 2011 foray into making an actual good animated movie. That one's being handled entirely by GKids, the New York film house who are now custodians of Ghibli's theatrical back catalog in the US, and most fans around here won't see it at theatres until 2013 proper. With both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata readying films for Japanese release in 2013, it'll be interesting to see if those go to GKids or Disney.

As the saying goes, spring showers bring... polar bears?! Apparently, they do. Polar Bear Cafe, the gentle zoo animal sitcom based on Aloha Higa's josei manga, has turned into a neat little tiny global favorite by dint of its distribution on Crunchyroll. But Polar Bear Cafe is just one of several really good shows that debuted in anime's spring 2012 season-- we also got Fate/Zero’s second season, Space Brothers, Lupin the 3rd: Fujiko Mine, Kids on the Slope, Kuroko's Basketball, Yamato 2199, AKB0048, Queen's Blade Revolution... yeah, that's kind of a weird list. Basically, almost every type of anime nerd, from grizzled old veterans to starry-eyed newcomers, from mecha nerds to idol singer worshippers, got something really good to watch in the spring. That's pretty rare these days, and set the bar awfully high for the rest of the year. Best of all, both Polar Bear Cafe and Space Brothers are still going, and they're still very good shows.

AKB0048 isn't still going, but its second season is imminent. I'm sure some (most?) of you are raising your eyebrow at me even mentioning this series, a high-gloss affair from Satelight that acts as a vehicle for the nearly-unavoidable idol supergroup AKB48. But the fact is, AKB0048 is a visually stunning piece of proof that Macross helmer Shoji Kawamori, whose tastes took some odd turns in the 2000s, has still got it. It surprised me, too-- I instantly loved the look of the show, with its overbright colors and crazy backgrounds supplied by the great Thomas Romain-- but I avoided it initially, both because it seemed outside my sphere of interest and because there wasn't a legal streaming option for it. After numerous friends wouldn't shut up about it, I finally took a bite of the series, and it tastes pretty damn good. You'll either have to embrace or put aside the show's crazed themes of guerilla fighting idol-singers and their continental army-esque otaku fans, but we did that for Macross 7, right? Well, some of us did, anyway. The problem is, just like Macross 7 and Macross F, there's no legal way for folks in these parts to enjoy AKB0048-- I'm sure it has something to do with music rights. That's another thing that really grinds my gears, actually-- in this age of widely-available legal streaming, there are still shows coming out where your only options are to pirate, or not watch at all. Lookin’ your way, Jojo's Bizarre Adventure!

It's been building up for years by now, but 2012 was definitely the year that legal streaming of anime hit the mainstream hard. Crunchyroll are masters of the game and improve their offering every season, but both Funimation and the Anime Network have been quietly refining their own streaming channels. Even putting these premium services aside (Crunchyroll, Funimation, and Anime Network each cost $7-8 per month), there are tons of free options, like Crackle, Hulu, and good old Youtube, and streaming media juggernaut Netflix has a large, popular anime catalog too. I have plenty of friends who've quietly resisted the allure of streaming anime and doggedly hung on to their DVD releases, but it's getting harder to resist the trend when you can literally go to the store and buy a tiny $60 box that pumps anime straight to your TV. Is anyone out there still staying away from these services entirely?

The other side of this coin is that, in 2012, it seems, physical media has continued its slow, lazy decline. Actually, that's kinda unfair-- the DVD business hit the skids hard between 2007 and 2010, and it really seems to have stabilized. The market isn't as flooded as it used to be, but each month still brings several new DVDs and blu-rays from a variety of publishers. Hell, we even got a new player in 2012, albeit a weird one-- S'more Entertainment, a small coalition of former boutique record label folks, who took a shot at releasing Bo-bo-bo Bo-bo-bo-bo and Galaxy Express 999 TV. Unfortunately they fouled both of ‘em up (Bo-bo-bo is bilingual but has no subtitles despite the packaging's claim-- instead, there's a PDF with scripts. Meanwhile, GE999 is hardsubbed fairly low-quality), but it'll be interesting to see if S'more finish their little experiment or try to learn from their hard lessons with the medium and do some more releases.

Funimation, Sentai, Viz, Nozomi, Discotek... heck, even the ailing Media Blasters had good stuff in 2012.  But the hard media biz in general still gets a little smaller every year, and I kinda worry about what might happen if Best Buy goes under. The big box electronics stalwart had a really shitty 2012, with corporate scandals, layoffs, and store closures galore. Granted, they don't move as much anime as they used to, but I'm still not eager to see anime DVDs become an online and convention-only experience. But for now, DVDs and blu-rays are still cheap and plentiful-- well, except in the case of Aniplex USA. They're seemingly the only example of a Japanese publisher who set up camp in North America and are really sticking around-- previous attempts by Toei and Bandai Visual failed pretty hard. At first, Aniplex's similar high-price, low-volume approach seemed just as foolish and just as likely to fail-- but then their spendy Garden of Sinners blu-ray set sold out. Then, their limited-edition OreImo DVD set sold out. Then, their BD release of the Ruroni Kenshin OVAs sold out. Uh-oh!

Granted, since then, none of Aniplex USA's offerings have sold out-- even the extremely popular Fate/Zero seems to be a victim of its sky-high price tag, and is still easy to obtain if you've got the $350 per box set. OreImo and Garden of Sinners have new, cheaper sets out, and it's still nice and easy to get Blue Exorcist-- possibly because the show is being dubbed and shown on Viz's Neon Alley, making those $35 subtitled-only DVDs seem a lot less attractive. Still, Aniplex USA's approach is an intriguing (and, for cost-conscious fans, worrying) indicator that anime might survive in America by getting more expensive.

2012 had some TV news, too. After a surprise April Fool's Day airing of old Toonami programming, Cartoon Network were so inundated with requests for the hitmaking block's return that they brought it back at the end of May. On its face, this seems like great news, and it's pretty good to have anime on the tube. The thing is, this Toonami is a very different animal, broadcasting late-nite once per week instead of the old weekday afternoon/evening formula. I'm sure that it's converting new fans with adult-oriented anime like Deadman Wonderland and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, but the block in general doesn't have much new material and struggles to keep up, ratings-wise, with old episodes of Family Guy. Honestly, I was really hoping that Cartoon Network would start showing kid-friendly anime on weekday afternoons again, and I kinda wonder how long Toonami's resurgence will last.

Speaking of TV stuff, fall of 2012 brought us Neon Alley, Viz's peculiar online-streaming content channel. When I first heard about Neon Alley, I was fairly enthusiastic-- it had marquee titles that were both boomingly popular and in need of some more exposure (Tiger & Bunny, Berserk, Blue Exorcist). But then the details came out-- Neon Alley would only be available on the PlayStation 3, and it wasn't on-demand. Instead, it's a weird linear cable-esque channel with broadcast hours. In an age where VOD services and PVRs have killed the idea of appointment TV, here was... more appointment TV. Neon Alley's now available on the Xbox 360 as well, but I still think it's a lousy idea. Fortunately, I'll be able to get Tiger & Bunny on blu-ray soon enough.

Back in Japan, Evangelion's renewal continued apace, with the third installment of Hideaki Anno's 4-part redux speedily breaking Japanese box office records. I still have mixed emotions about the Renewal project in general; the new films are very enjoyable and highly accessible, but it's hard not to think of them as nostalgia pieces, and wish for a guy of Anno's talents to do something new instead. But Evangelion has never just been about the cartoon, so I figure that as long as the figurines and DVDs and Dorito tie-ins continue to sell, we'll get some more Evangelion.  Finally, I can't deny that I've been jealously eying the release calendar, wondering when the hell we'll get Evangelion 3.0 screenings and DVDs on our shores. Hurry up, Studio Khara and Funimation!

Another piece of nostalgia that came back for good in 2012 was Space Battleship Yamato. That one's not a big surprise, either-- Yamato's been quietly heating up after successful animated and live-action films in 2009 and 2010, and the new Yamato 2199 release has an excellent pedigree. The producers have taken a novel approach to funding and distribution for this one-- it's tailored for TV, but every few episodes debuts as a theatrical movie first, then goes to DVD and blu-ray (subtitled in English and somewhat affordable for foreign fans at $50ish per disc), before eventually hitting TV airwaves. For an expensive-to-produce series in the age of internet piracy, that's actually kind of sensible. Things are happening over here, too-- Yamato: Resurrection has gotten picked by Funimation, probably as a test-drive for whether or not the Star Blazers franchise still has legs. Somewhat more ominously, the hugely expansive official website has disappeared, and been replaced with a glib message about a new website and what reads like a nasty parting shot at former webmaster and Yamato superfan Tim Eldred, who's set up a new Star Blazers fansiteof his own.  Needless to say, I'll be watching that story with great interest.

But what's been the biggest new hit among anime fans around the world in 2012? In the first half of the year, maybe it was Fate/Zero. Lately, though, it's hard to argue against Studio A-1's Sword Art Online. Despite thin plotting and some weird imouto baggage in the second half, SAO really seems to be the show that everyone's watching-- I grew tired of it myself after the first half, but the show's got a simple yet intriguing concept (an MMORPG that can kill you in real life! ...wait a minute, can't World of Warcraft do that if you play it too much anyway?) accessible stories, and a romantic pair of heroes in Kirito and Asuna. I really doubt that the franchise is done for-- there's more light novels, after all, which means more grist for the anime mill-- so it'll be interesting to see what Aniplex USA decides to do with the series. I hope it involves an inexpensive box set and a dubbed airing on Neon Alley, at least. Did you like Sword Art Online?

Despite the fact that it aired in Japan in 2011, one series really stands alone in terms of its visible impact in North America, and that's Puella Magi Madoka Magica. If you ask me, 2012 was the year of Madoka in the American scene-- the show's colorful magical girl characters were prime cosplay targets at conventions, Aniplex USA's lavish, almost-actually-worth-it collectors sets drew raves from fans and critics alike, the manga adaptation has appeared regularly on the New York Times bestseller list, and perhaps most tellingly, a series of roadshow screenings of the new Madoka Magica digest movies has enjoyed an almost freakishly high rate of tickets sold per screen-- almost every screening is a sellout or near-sellout, despite the fact that audiences are acutely aware that much of what they'll see isn't new material. I look at a lot of trendy shows with a cynical eye, but I think Madoka (remember, call it “dokes” for short!) is completely deserving of the hype, an artful series that both embraces visual and story archetypes of beloved magical girl stories and smashes them to little itty bitty pieces. Evangelion has influenced mecha shows that came after it to this day-- expect dokes to have a similar effect on magical girl stuff.

For me, the last big story of 2012 starts with Kick, and ends with Heart... or Starter, if you prefer. After the popular crowdfunding service launched an avalanche of video games, books, films, and consumer products, an anime studio finally jumped into the ring when Production I.G. and director Masaaki Yuasa passed the hat around to fund Kick-Heart, a 10-minute short about a weird romance between a masked wrestler and a nun. I love everything I've seen and heard about Kick-Heart, but it's the kind of project that seems destined to never find an audience. It brings to mind Yuasa's long string of critical favorites, like the film Mindgame and the TV shows Kemonozume, Kaiba, and Tatami Galaxy-- yet none of them has really found an audience, at least over here. So, for the first time, anime fans had the chance to directly fund something bold and experimental and weird-- and guys, we did it! Kick-Heart got a hearty $200,000 in funding from fans, and it's already in the can, with just voice recording and final post-production and release remaining. I hope it's the first of many. (The second of many can be Ninja Scroll 2. Okay, MADHOUSE?! WRITE THAT DOWN!)

So, what does that leave us with? Manga, that's what. The manga boom is behind us, but like anime, manga has carved out its own niche in the American pop culture landscape, and it ain't going anywhere. Manga's big story of 2012 is definitely Shonen Jump Alpha. Even though it launched way back in January, SJ's total abandonment of its still-popular print magazine in favor of going online indicated a major shift in how we read popular manga in America-- we all collect some, sure, but there's still lots of good manga that works as one-and-done stuff that you just want to read and discard. Shonen Jump Alpha is optimized for this-- you pay $25 per year, you get a year's worth of weekly reading material on your computer, tablet, or phone, and then you're done. In fairness, Yen Press beat them to the computer, but they didn't make the same kind of splash that Shonen Jump did.

Let's not discount books, either. Sailor Moon remained the ostensible sales champ, though Kodansha have gotten that one just about wrapped up by now. Kodansha's other offerings have been a mix of reprints (oh boy, Love Hina!) and new hits (oh boy, Attack on Titan!). Viz continue to have a broad offering of both fun stuff and critical favorites. Seven Seas brings us many adventures of pint-sized girls, be they centuries-old vampires, relatives of famous detectives, or Alice in Wonderland herself. Yen Press... well, as long as they keep publishing Yotsuba&!, they can do whatever the hell they want in my book. And Vertical, who take so many risks, brought some new goodies to the table, like The Limit and Heroman. They're still doing great Tezuka books-- I'll keep buying those, but I guess you can't release them all at once, can you? Finally, Digital Manga have been using Kickstarter to minimize their risk-- I loved their release of Tezuka's BARBARA, but still question whether a Kickstarter for Unico was really that necessary. Either way, we're getting it in the spring!

What's ahead in 2013? Actually, the real question is, what's ahead in 2013... besides Mad Bull 34, which comes out on DVD in February, THANKS DISCOTEK! Well, conventions just keep getting bigger. We're gonna get new Tiger & Bunny stuff, and new Hunter x Hunter stuff, and new Yamato stuff, and new Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z stuff. I'm pretty happy about that. But I'm more happy about the new stuff that we'll be getting that isn't based on decades-old properties. Just think: before the springtime, did anyone really rate Polar Bear Cafe? Or Space Brothers? Yeah, they had popular manga, but look how good the anime turned out! More than anything else, what keeps me stoked about Japanese animation year after year is the new shows. They show up every season, and wash away all the fatigue and cynicism for the medium that builds up. Keep ‘em coming, Japan. And happy new year!

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