And so 2013 comes to an end. This has been a big year for me in blogging, what with it being my first year in blogging, and so a lot of these shows hold a possibly unreasonable place in my heart. Nah, I don’t think that’s actually true. I think we’ve just had a great year, and that blogging really has done what I always wanted it to – force me to apply a more critical eye to my media, which, contrary to popular belief, has actually made me appreciate my favorites even more.
And there sure were plenty of favorites! As I said, this has been an excellent year in anime, with tons of genres, styles, and themes represented by stylish, confident productions. If this is your first time checking the blog, let me introduce myself by saying I’m a horribly biased shithead who wouldn’t know a good action show or comedy if it comically murdered me. I like people, and I like ideas, and my list reflects that (if you’re looking for Attack on Titan or Maou-sama, you can find my reviews of those here and here). I like to think I’m pretty good at telling good writing or direction from bad, but everyone has different things that appeal to them, and so you can consider the numbering here a mushy compromise between favorite and best, though the list overall encompasses both. I’m not gonna give you synopses here – if you’re interested, each title links to that show’s description, but that’s not what you’re not paying me for. These comments will cover why I loved these shows. I was aiming for a top ten, but when compiling the list, the shows that immediately bubbled to mind ended up numbering twelve, and instead of arbitrarily cutting two off I’ve decided to honor them all. Also, I’m only counting shows that ended in 2013 here, so no Kill la Kill or other half-finished two-parters. So here it is: my top twelve anime series of 2013!
All that talk about preferring character or theme-based stories, and I start off with a hilarious action show. But Jojo is really just that good – absurd, energetic, with wonderful visual design and a magical ability to always top itself. It’s kind of like Raiders of the Lost Arc, in a way – popcorn entertainment’s apex predator. The dialogue is hilarious (and hilariously self-serious), the show’s use of color and sound design is fantastic, and breakneck pacing and narrative creativity (some might call it insanity) keep things from ever getting old. Remember how awesome you thought Dragon Ball Z was, back in the day? Well, Jojo is your nostalgia polished up and brought back to life.
#11: Maoyuu Maou Yuusha
Probably the most controversial choice on my list, but it’s not really a question for me. Yeah, this show had weaknesses – the pacing was inconsistent, the romance and humor were both hit or miss and kind of weird tonally, and, well, stupid fanservice is stupid. But the show’s so damn ambitious! The idea of using a cliche fantasy setup to instead explore the course of history, human nature, and the pursuit of a just society… goddamn! And that conceit doesn’t stand alone – in all the aesthetic qualities relevant to that goal, I think it succeeds admirably, featuring solid characterization, regularly understated dialogue, and a keen understanding of the rules of drama. Succeeding both as a general commentary on human nature and a specific story relevant to a specific world is no small task, and this show actually makes that challenge a strength, with its personal threads regarding education and self-worth culminating in one of the most powerful speeches I’ve ever seen. Overall, I’d say this show’s weaknesses are just inconsequential in light of its strengths – I’ll take any number of flawed works if they’re laced with this much passionate ambition.
It works as a well-realized Bladerunner-esque detective thriller in a thoughtcrime-happy dystopian future, and it works as one more of Urobuchi‘s passionate attacks on the inherent inhumanity of utilitarian systems, as well as the definition of human beings as agents of change within their environment (along with some other interesting smaller ideas, like the questions it raises about career choice, and its cynical thoughts on internet culture and the artistic instinct). This isn’t even really my kind of show (the detective stuff doesn’t do all that much for me), but I loved the writing, I loved the style, the procedural episodes were sharply done, and the show overall features a much more vibrant cast than pretty much anything else Urobuchi has done. Fun, smart, and very stylish, it’s another pillar of Urobuchi’s ridiculously fast-growing canon.
#9: Shinsekai Yori
Though Shinsekai Yori is indeed a great show, this position comes with a couple caveats. Personally, I’d say I enjoyed this show the least out of anything on this list – in fact, it was sometimes a struggle to get through. The pacing is a serious problem, and the central characters a worse one – I never felt emotionally attached to the protagonists, and it took until the last act for the story to become truly gripping episode to episode. That said, what this show does well, it does so damn well. It’s a creative, ambitious sci-fi epic in one of the most evocative and smartly portrayed “dystopian” futures I’ve ever seen. Setting is paramount in this show – the world of Shinsekai Yori truly breathes, and works perfectly to underscore the show’s thoughtful, ambiguous themes regarding society and human nature. The show is full of rich imagery, the story is expansive in scope, and the ultimate antagonist is one of the best characters I’ve seen in any medium. I don’t even know if I enjoyed my time with Shinsekai Yori, but I was certainly impressed, and lessons and moments from this show have stuck with me even now, only growing sharper in retrospect. This show is a rare, precious thing.
Clocking in as the second Urobuchi piece on my list (and if I included movies, it would be the third), Gargantia is both extremely dense idea-wise and disarmingly light in execution. It inspired plenty of mixed reviews (or, well, largely negative ones), but personally, I was a fan of almost everything it did. I really liked the visual style and world it created, for one – Gargantia is just an enjoyable place to spend time. I was also a big fan of how it used shifts in genre and pacing to actually simulate the jarring shifts in Ledo’s lifestyle – many people complained about the shift into and then out of slice of life, but I felt that was a very effective way to demonstrate the world Ledo has stepped into, as well as how it changes him. And finally, I think Gargantia is possibly the most thematically dense of all Urobuchi stories – its story deftly reflects on issues of societal order, war, adulthood, and human nature, coherently working as a statement on the human cost of utilitarianism, a reflection on how the individual relates to their society, or even a positive message about the trials of entering the working world. It’s a pretty, smart, engaging little adventure, and perhaps the most overtly optimistic of all of Urobuchi’s works.
#7: White Album 2
We just don’t get good romance in anime. We get romantic comedy, for whatever that’s worth – many episodes of gags scattered with random moments of emotion, designed to keep you entertained long enough to trick you into caring. But dedicated romantic dramas? They’re a rarity. And truly great ones, ones that actually make you hurt with their acuity, their tension, their conjuring of a powerful, poignant tone?
White Album 2 is really good, and it’s pretty much all based in the fundamentals – character and dialogue. Its protagonists are layered, flawed, and human, filled with weaknesses and insecurities. Its dialogue reflects those layers, with each conversation being both lined with subtext and reflective of an actual understanding of chemistry and banter. And its conflicts emerge directly out of those characters – trapped by their hangups, inexperience, and small acts of selfishness, these people seem destined to love and to hurt each other. It’s almost hard to recommend this one – hopefully if I say “so good it’s painful to watch,” you’ll understand I mean that in the best possible way.
As the most dedicated comedy on my list, TWGOK is a bit of an outlier, particularly since it’s the third season of a show that up until now I’ve never found more than “watchably entertaining.” The explanation for its presence here is pretty predictable, though – this is the season it decided to be something more.
Not that the comedy is bad – on the contrary, TWGOK is one of the funniest anime I’ve seen, possessing good spontaneous wit, some great episode-long conceits, and a satirical slant that gave the first two seasons a real vivid edge. But a smart, successful comedy merits about a 7/10 from me, and that’s what the first two seasons clocked in at.
This season? This season kills it, both thematically and emotionally. On the message side, season 3 draws all of the series’ cynical observations regarding visual novel/harem assumptions together into a stirring breakdown of anime storytelling and wish-fulfillment fantasies (think School Days except empathetic instead of sadistic). And on the emotional side, this season makes that indictment personal – deeply personal, the kind of resonance you can only achieve through sensitive writing, strong direction, and richly portrayed characters. Smart, funny, emotionally taut, and thematically unforgiving, TWGOK S3 is my personal surprise hit of the year.
#5: Gatchaman Crowds
If this list were based on thematic ambition alone, then yeah, Gatchaman Crowds would be right at the top. Virtually everything in this show works in service of its ideas – it juggles concepts of leadership, social responsibility, internet culture, anonymity, human nature, and the role of the government with, if not total grace, at least comfortable assurance. And these ideas really do weave together in compelling and insightful ways, and that thematic richness is far from its only strength – the show has a great visual aesthetic (the character designs are a particular highlight), breakneck pacing, a solid sense of humor, and a standout soundtrack. Discussions of this show inevitably center themselves on the show’s compelling explorations of heroism and society in the internet age, which makes it easy to forget how fun the show is – it bounces lightly from topic to topic, buoyed by the irrepressible Hajime, who clearly sets the priority list of “intelligence always, but giddiness first.” It’s very busy, and the ending clearly strains to reign in all of this show’s very compelling threads, but overall it’s a fun, exciting, and constantly engaging ride with a whole goddamn lot to say.
“This spirit of quarrelsome comradeship which he had observed lately in his rival had not seduced Stephen from his habits of quiet obedience. He mistrusted the turbulence and doubted the sincerity of such comradeship which seemed to him a sorry anticipation of manhood… these voices had now come to be hollow-sounding to his ears.” – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
“And I think you’ll find, once you get past all the Mr. Vineses […] you’re going to start getting closer and closer – that is, if you want to, and if you look for it and wait for it – to the kind of information that will be very, very dear to your heart. Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior.” – J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
That’s right, motherfuckers – starting my entry on a light novel adaptation with some Salinger and Joyce. But it’s appropriate – really, it is. Yeah, this show’s prose isn’t on the level of the great narrative poets – but its insight is exactly the same. This is a show about the crippling self-doubt and assumed identities brought on by precocious youth, all told from within that young, paralyzing shell. It’s also a comedy! And a bit of a romance. But overall, this show, far more than any other anime I’ve seen, actually understands what it’s like to be young, smart, and insecure – the loneliness, the self-effacing humor, the urgent, bestial need to find strength in weakness, to condemn others for your own strangeness or make that strangeness your fortress. It’s poignant and personal and sharp, and it’s effortlessly joined my all-time favorites.
#3: Monogatari S2
Monogatari is anime. Wacky, indulgent, unique, personal, offensive, insightful, broken, triumphant – when I think of “why anime” or “what anime does” or (most importantly) “what anime can do,” Monogatari is right there at the top of the list. I wasn’t always the biggest fan of this series – my copious writing on the subject was a reflection not of how much I enjoyed it, but how interesting, creative, and purposeful it’s always struck me as being. Which is a valuable thing! We need more shows that try ambitious experiments in perspective, that focus so single-mindedly on making strong thematic points, that even engage in active conversation with their audience. Those are compelling goals!
But this season did all that and so much more.
This season worked. Not as an intellectual experiment, not as a subject of criticism – as a set of poignant stories. As a coherent work of art. Each individual segment worked as a twisted, distinctively written, powerfully directed vignette while also contributing to the whole. The characters’ mindscapes defined both their outward realities and their narratives. The direction and writing actually played off each other, as opposed to each telling a compelling but divided piece of the story. The choice to finally separate from Araragi’s perspective, combined with this season’s much stronger fusion of writing and direction, resulted in Monogatari finally coming into its own as a mature, cohesive, powerful work of fiction. Monogatari is no longer just an evocative indicator of what anime might be capable of – Monogatari is now a confident example of What Anime Can Do.
The first of our two essentially flawless works of the year, Kyousogiga is the brash younger sibling – wild and reckless, full of visual flourishes, exuberant worldbuilding, and mythic symbolism. The set of character-establishing vignettes that compose the first half are breathtaking – each one builds a more vibrant character in one episode than most shows manage in a full season, while simultaneously elaborating the show’s beautiful world and pushing the central narrative forward. And when all the players are revealed, the narrative crashes into an exploration of family ties and life’s purpose that encompasses a dazzling array of worlds and visual setpieces while never straying from the show’s central, intimate human conflicts. It’s one of those perfect mirror-balls of a show – the themes reflect the world reflect the characters reflect the narrative, and all are vivid apart but richer for their reflections, expressing a unified poignance that seems absurd for a show so inclined towards constant, whimsical invention. For me, I prefer the writing and humble polish of my top pick – but this is the flashier of the year’s two stars, and is in no way disparaged by the comparison.
#1: Uchouten Kazoku
Hopefully no surprise here – I said it in my review, and I’ll say it again: Uchouten Kazoku is the best show of the year. It’s one of those rare shows we get once or twice a year that seem to come from a future where anime is already a respected art form – it’s confident, graceful, well-written, beautiful, and always focused on its grounded, intensely human priorities. Everything in this show works in service of its core themes – family, tradition, responsibility, and the eternal question of life’s purpose. Thoughtful character writing and whimsical vignettes build to moments of stunning beauty, perfectly relating those little treasured memories that make up a life. The direction and writing fade in the way only masters can manage – never ostentatious, this show’s formal qualities are always working in service of immersion, resonance, meaning. And it succeeds grandly on all three counts – Kazoku’s whimsical Kyoto feels like a living, breathing place, virtually every character is nuanced and understandable, and its themes should resonate with anyone who’s ever questioned their life’s path. It’s a gorgeous, intimate gem, and we’re lucky to have it.