The Mike Toole Show
by Mike Toole,
Earlier this week, The Ringer ran a fun little feature about their writers' irrational favorite episodes of the 21st century so far; rather than being about the more widely acknowledged best stuff, like, say, “Ozymandias” from Breaking Bad or “The Rains of Castamere” from Game of Thrones or “El Contador” from Archer, it focuses on weirder, more daring episodes. While I do appreciate the writer who tipped that one Yu-Gi-Oh! episode where Kaiba wins, Justin Charity's choice of Haruhi Suzumiya's “Endless Eight” story arc is what really hit the spot for me. I pointed out my appreciation for both the piece and for picking “Endless Eight” on Twitter, and everyone on my timeline immediately started arguing.
That's the power of “Endless Eight;” almost a decade later, the story's as contentious as ever. I understand what the staff was doing and appreciate it, but at the same time, my friend and colleague Daryl Surat has pointed out that it's way more fun to think about and discuss “Endless Eight” than it is to actually sit down and watch the episodes in sequence; he compares it to Andy Kaufman's famous stand-up routine where he comes out onstage and quietly reads a book. Still, this got me thinking about some of my irrational favorites—the truly great episodes from not-so-great shows, the surprise favorites from bigger hits, that kind of thing. Naturally, there are gonna be some spoilers ahead; I'll try and keep them to a minimum.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya episode 1/11, “The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina Episode 00” - Here's a series that would go on to become a big favorite, but in its very first (or eleventh?) episode, the show does something remarkable: it introduces you to the entire cast of five main characters without actually introducing them. Here, they're the stars and producers of a halting, barely coherent high school student film, shot on camcorder, with minimal costumes, special effects, and acting. The episode is the film, presented almost entirely without comment or framing device, and it's a fundamental Haruhi Suzumiya experience, because it's all about the character attempting to do something exceptional, but mostly irritating the crap out of everyone. The Kyoto Animation folks do an exquisite job of using the medium of animation to communicate bad acting, cheap special effects, and editing/filming mistakes. Ultimately, we don't even get a good look at Haruhi herself, the title character, until 22 minutes into the 24-minute episode. Ignore the arguments about broadcast order versus DVD order and watch this episode first, with as little context as possible.
A Place Further Than the Universe episode 12, "A Place Further Than the Universe" – You always know you're at the end of the road when the episode title is the series title, right? That's almost always the deal with a show's final episode. But this episode is the penultimate episode, rather than the last one. It's a good choice—closure for the protagonists, a quartet of high school girls on an adventuresome and significant expedition to Antarctica, does come in the final episode, but the emotional climax of the story hits early. A Place Further Than the Universe has a relaxed charm to it that really makes you fail to notice how much you care about these characters until this particular episode, when you'll likely find yourself bawling along with them. The big moment isn't just about Shirase discovering one last bittersweet connection to her deceased mother, but about her friends' deep concern for her.
Ping Pong the Animation episode 10, “I Thought You Were the Hero!” – Ping Pong looks a little unconventional, thanks to the direction of Masaaki Yuasa, but its sports anime formula seems obvious enough. Here are two skilled table tennis players; Peco is the screwup, a highly talented player who loves the game, but resolutely refuses to practice and casually fails in competition. His friend Smile is the obvious favorite, a championship-caliber player who's fighting against his own lack of interest in the game. The series patiently builds Smile up as the protagonist, Peco's hero who always arrives just in time… and then ever so gently upends things. This episode is when you'll realize that all along, the hero spoken of in the prologue was never who you thought it was. Going all the way back to the manga, creator Taiyo Matsumoto makes no attempt to hide this twist at any point, you just will not notice it until it's time to notice it. This is the unexpected best episode of a very good series, brilliantly clever storytelling that bolsters the show's unique style.
Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi episode 7, "Flashback! Magical Shopping Arcade" – At the surface, Abenobashi seems like a bubbly, colorful comedy, in which Sasshi and Arumi, a pair of goofy 12-year-old kids, voyage through weird parody versions of the decaying Osaka shopping district where their families reside. It's in this episode that we begin to see what the show is really all about: peoples' irrational yearning for things to always stay the same. In this episode, Sasshi and Arumi see their neighborhood as it was before the shopping arcade came up, and get a sense of the place as part of a larger tapestry of time passing by. But the revelation doesn't send them home, because every trip through the looking glass to a weird alternate version of Abenobashi means that the shopping arcade will get to exist for a little longer, and that Arumi's planned departure for Hokkaido is kept at bay. This series from way back at the beginning of the 2000s somehow stays in print, which is good – it oughta be rediscovered, over and over again.
Madoka Magica episode 3, "I'm Not Afraid of Anything Anymore" - Episode 10 or 13 are usually pointed to as the high water marks of this compelling take on magical girl shows, but this episode still gets me with the sheer, abrupt simplicity of its climax. Madoka isn't ready to become a magical girl, but she's gradually being pressured into making the choice anyway; here, we truly learn that the cute little magical mascot character is a diabolical, emotionless monster, and the colorful dimension where the good guys fight against witches is a place of misery and death. The show presents a superb sense of mounting dread and inevitable violence; you'll know that someone is going to die at least three or four minutes before it happens, but it doesn't make it any less shocking.
School Days episode 12, “School Days” – Hey now, remember what I said about the last episode getting the series title? It's used well here, at the end of a bland-looking but surprisingly tough and sophisticated soap opera. The show's love triangle doesn't seem that unusual at first – shy Makoto has a crush on Kotonoha, and is helped along by Sekai, who has her own secret crush on Makoto. But there's no sweetness and light to this high-school crush—with startling quickness, the characters start lying and pitting their friends against each other. Despite that, there's very little foreshadowing to the infamously gruesome final act. There is cheap shock value at play here, but this is still a genuinely well-made and compelling finale about how quickly things go to hell when every single character succumbs to their worst impulses. The signature moment isn't when one of the characters abruptly kills another, but later, when the surviving member of the triangle learns the entire conflict was based on lies and misapprehensions. The memetic power surrounding this episode, which was kept off of TV because of a similar real-life murder, is so powerful that the new Tensai Bakabon show riffed on it just three weeks ago.
Hunter x Hunter (2011) episode 77, “Unease x and x Sighting” – Right in the middle of a shonen fighting series, something remarkable happens. I will say that this show's Chimera Ant arc is too damn long, the power creep of its characters too great, and the climax too drawn out. Despite that, this specific episode is a surprising tonal shift from the colorful, exhilarating action of the prior Greed Island arc. Here, the chummy and formidable fightin' duo of Gon and Killua have met Kite, an experienced hunter on the trail of a dangerous animal. Chimera arts devour other creators and take on their characteristics—so what happens when the ants start eating people, and multiplying at a furious rate? Kite grimly explains that they're trying to head off an event that could destroy mankind completely. In its best moments, Hunter x Hunter's Chimera Ant arc carries an incredible, oppressive sense of dread; the buildup starts right here.
Casshern Sins episode 3, "To the Ends of Agony” – Three episodes into this inventive re-imagining of Tatsunoko's colorful android hero, it's sinking in that the world is ruined, and Casshern is the one who ruined it. As he wanders the wasteland, Casshern finds something unexpected—a human being, and one who empathizes with his sense of failure and loss. His past arises once again to confront him in the former of Friender, his once-loyal robot dog; his old companion is furious at him. The savage twist comes in the episode's final moment, when Casshern thinks that he's earned the tiniest crumb of redemption… but it slips away from him. Anime is full of do-gooder heroes and troubled heroes and dark heroes and heroes who are villains; Casshern Sins' hero destroyed the world while trying to save it, and his attempts to find meaning in what remains make this a really compelling ride.
Azumanga Daioh episode 22, “It's Nice / Tricked / Kurosawa-sensei / Attempted / It's Not Over Yet” – It is almost impossible to separate individual episodes of Azumanga Daioh, both because the episodes themselves are collections of shorter vignettes about the weird and funny lives of a group of girls going through high school start to finish, and because almost every one of them has at least one unmissable moment. If I had to pick one, it'd be this one; I mean, sure, this episode doesn't feature Tomo grabbing the keys to Chiyo's house and hurling them into the woods, or Osaka's Mitch Hedberg-esque confusion of the words “escalator” and “elevator,” but it does have the part where Osaka wanders into a room to talk to her teacher, unconsciously clutching an enormous kitchen knife. For me, the most important thing that this episode has is the Yukarimobile, the culmination of a joke carefully cultivated over the show's entire lifetime. Prior episodes have dark hints about what a terrible driver the girls' homeroom teacher is, but here we get to see a Fast-and-Furious-esque reveal of her bashed, battered Mercedes Benz before we closely follow its chaotic, absurd trip down to the shore. Not everything about Azumanga Daioh has aged well (Mr. Kimura seems to get less funny as the years pass) but few episodes better showcase its rare and potent comic timing than this one.
Steins;Gate episode 2, "Time Travel Paranoia" – I zoned out on Steins;Gate at first, confident that it was just another otaku-centric flight of fancy. What got my attention in a big way was this episode. Steins;Gate has a fun cast in its gang of college-age scientific misfits, so when they glibly started talking about CERN and John Titor, the central figure in an old Coast to Coast AM BBS posting who claimed to be a time traveler, I was shocked to the core. These are real-life events, organizations, and juicy conspiracy theories! By the end of the episode, would-be scientist Rintaro Okabe and his pals have stumbled upon time travel itself. But they can't send a person back in time—just a text message. Even so, the possibilities, discussed in dry, matter-of-fact voiceover by the ostensible Titor, are tantalizing. This twist might've been old hat to players of the original video game, but it's one that made me watch every subsequent episode faster and faster.
Pop Team Epic episode 7, “Hellshake Yano” – Here's a show that trained its viewers to expect the unexpected, but I still don't think anyone expected this. Not satisfied with establishing a joke involving the characters lost in thought, then confessing they were thinking about fictional rock musician Hellshake Yano, here the animators reveal the rock god in full, in a bit that's delivered entirely by a couple of grinning artists in lab coats holding notebooks, flipping to each elaborately-crafted scene in sync as they describe a particularly notable onstage struggle that the metal guitarist had once overcome. Sometimes the gimmick of re-watching an entire episode of Pop Team Epic with minimal changes is tiresome, but in this case it's an absolute delight to watch it all unfold again.
Kotetsushin Jeeg episode 12, “Last Battle! Rise of the Great Bronze Bell!” – Not all revivals of old shows are created equal, and it took some time for this sharp-toothed, sanguine redux of 1975's Kotetsu Jeeg to find its footing. Eventually, the young heroes of Build Base get some purchase in their war against the evil Princess Himiko, and it's partly thanks to their mysterious friend Hiroshi. Is Hiroshi, in fact, the original Kotetsu Jeeg, from decades past? It doesn't always seem like that's the case, but in this episode, the character tips his hand in absolutely spectacular fashion, full of action and dramatic speech-making. A lot of these episodes have unexpected moments or daring approaches to storytelling, but there's something to be said for a show that simply dangles excitement in front of you, murmuring “Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it… okay, here it is!!”
Mazinger Edition Z: The Impact! episode 1, “Grand Finale” – That episode title is not being cheeky. They put the last episode first. They put the LAST episode FIRST. Director Yasuhiro Imagawa's decision results in a series debut that is cacophonous, action-packed, and only barely coherent; it's jarring and halting stuff, meant to show us the genesis of Go Nagai's robot hero Mazinger Z. but instead appears to showcase its apotheosis. But Imagawa is one of the best storytellers in the business, and doesn't act rashly—not a single moment is wasted, every second of drama and pathos and hot-blooding action links up to something important farther down the road. Seeing the big final battle first is a bit confusing, but it makes every single subsequent episode better as the plot elements and scenes gradually fall into place. When these moments are revisited at the end of the show, it feels like snapping that last piece of a giant jigsaw puzzle into place. Even with the full expectation that Imagawa's going to try something crazy—he always does—this is one hell of an opener.
Samurai Flamenco episode 7, "Change the World" - This show's setup seems straightforward enough – a harried police officer discovers that a “superhero” patrolling the streets is actually an earnest but dopey young actor, determined to be a friend of justice. The cop doesn't love the vigilante approach, but decides that the hero, who's dubbed himself Samurai Flamenco, is worth supporting anyway. After six episodes of breezy, fun Kick-Ass-lite antics, Flamenco and his friends are abruptly confronted with real monsters, who actually start murdering people. There's no foreshadowing here, no hints, no intrigue, the shift in tone and style just crashes right into you. Even more impressively, this insane left turn is just setup, well-crafted foreshadowing for another insane left turn further down the road of a series that affectionately lampoons and stridently elevates super sentai and superhero shows. With a couple of years left in the offing, so far Samurai Flamenco is the secret best TV anime of the 2010s, and it's unmistakably because of episodes like this one.
Cromartie High School episode 3, "Cromartie High (Co-Ed)" – Cromartie High School, in its heyday, had an improbable formula and rise to success—drawn realistically by its artist Eiji Nonaka, it depicts the lives of stereotypical high-school tough guys in a surreal world full of robots, Freddie Mercury doubles, and bizarre jokes. But Cromartie's goons and reprobates are a weirdly eccentric, thoughtful bunch; the series became popular enough to spawn a TV show and live-action film, before Nonaka declared that he was bored with the whole thing and walked away from it. This episode is all about that feeling you get when you're trying to remember a song, but can only hum it, because the lyrics won't come to you. First one character hums the song, then others take it up, adding to a slowly-building chorus of humming doofses. You'll smirk at the setup, and by the end of the episode, you'll be doubled over laughing at the expansive choir of students who can almost kinda remember that one song. By the time someone remembers it, it's beside the point!
Figuring out my favorite oddball, irrational episodes of big and small shows made me stop and consider anime I hadn't thought about in some time. Got any irrational favorites of your own? Mad that I didn't spend more time on fun episodes of shonen faves like Naruto or One Piece? Clue me in—and don't stop at 2015 or 2010, keep digging—there's some real gold buried at the beginning the century! There is also Angel Tales. Ha! I just made you remember Angel Tales, didn't I?
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