Shirobako Gets It. There are too few anime out there that really handle the trials of adulthood, and too few shows that manage to portray constant hardship and pressure while still maintaining a light tone, but Shirobako is hardship-lightness-adulthood all around. Its stories of career scrabbling and anime production woes are both universal and poignantly specific, with its rich cast of characters coming almost immediately to life through the gracefulness of the storytelling. Across two seasons of fraught management at MusAni Productions, nearly every side of young professional anxiety is illustrated and explored, from the terror of being left on the fringes of your desired industry to the pressure of feeling so swamped by your daily life that you can’t even consider your long-term goals anymore. And that seems like it’d be a downer of a ride, but Shirobako is also just endlessly fun, and infused with a relentless optimism that makes it impossible not to root for its fraying heroes.
Here’s my essay on Shirobako.
Shirobako is not yet available.
The Eccentric Family takes the Ghibli sense of whimsy and magical realism and applies it to a grounded, thoughtful family drama. Written by the same writer responsible for The Tatami Galaxy, its story bounces through a handful of gorgeous little vignettes before pulling together into a exuberant exploration of duty, family, and the meaning of life itself. That might sound heavy, but Eccentric Family is anything but – it’s filled with moments of ecstatic beauty that revel in the little joys life has to offer, and its characters bounce off each other with the buoyant geniality of a truly loving family. It’s beautiful and deftly written and basically about as warm as a show can be.
Here’s my review of The Eccentric Family.
Eccentric Family is available at Amazon.
I said in my 2013 year-end post that OreGairu is basically anime’s Catcher in the Rye, and I stand by that. OreGairu knows exactly what it feels like to be young, smart, and isolated, and it expresses that with both cynical wit and overwhelming empathy for its very flawed protagonists. Hachiman and Yukino build fortresses of superiority and psychoanalysis around themselves, but they can’t hide their desire for connection, or their underlying empathy. The show sticks pretty close to romcom formatting, and its aesthetics are only serviceable, but OreGairu soars where it counts – human characters, vivid dialogue, and a frank exploration of youth politics and identity. It’s pretty much the high school romcom I’ve always wished existed.
Here’s my review of Oregairu.
OreGairu is available at Amazon.
If you’ve read this far, you probably know I like stories about people. Flawed people, broken people – people whose sharp edges make them hurt each other even as they strive for connection. Monogatari really knows people, and it understands that it is often our weaknesses that defines us. And to illustrate this, Monogatari makes those weaknesses real. Its spirit-hunting stories are compelling in their own right, but each of them also dig at the souls of their central characters – it matches mystery with human truth point for point every season. And beyond its central metaphor, outstanding character writing, and very distinctive dialogue, Monogatari does so much else, too – the ways it plays with visual storytelling vary from season to season, but pretty much always come off as more driven and intelligent than virtually anything else out there. Whether it’s exploring power dynamics through shot framing, investigating the dark hearts of its various protagonists, or simply reveling in its own visual language and wit, Monogatari is always expressing something worthwhile, clever, and true.
Most of Monogatari is available at Amazon.
Created right in the middle of Gainax’s golden age, FLCL’s about as good of a coming of age story as you could possibly imagine. Puberty sucks, and learning who you are is tough, and becoming an adult doesn’t really come with instructions – FLCL knows all of this, and instead of expressing it through an understated character drama, it chooses to go for the gusto. Robots popping from foreheads, guitars wielded as battle axes, wild visual slapstick crossed with awkward personal moments. It’s a show that comes off as crazy while actually featuring some of the sharpest, most grounded character work in anime, and all of this is backed by a delirious visual palette, a stacked animation budget, and one of the most iconic soundtracks in anime history. Growing up is hard to do, but FLCL still makes it look fun.
FLCL is available at Amazon.
Considering this is the only Masaaki Yuasa show I’ve actually seen, you can expect The Tatami Galaxy to gain some company over the coming year (edit: Ping Pong has arrived!). In spite of that, I strongly doubt the rest of his work will top it – though The Tatami Galaxy does feature Yuasa’s signature direction and a completely unparalleled visual aesthetic, it is equally buffeted by the sharp, lunatic writing of the source material, written by the author of The Eccentric Family. Either way, as I said in my review, The Tatami Galaxy is a ride. From a stint in the bike thief mafia to a daring blimp rescue, from colorful, impressionistic visuals to vivid, mile-a-minute monologues, it never lets up and it never calms down. As its protagonist desperately seeks the richness of life he never seems to find, the audience is treated to a rich spectacle as relatable as it is insane. There’s nothing quite like The Tatami Galaxy.
Here’s my review of The Tatami Galaxy.
The Tatami Galaxy is not available outside of Japan. Life is cruel.
Though I love Monogatari for its sprawling, convoluted ideas, Katanagatari proves Isin is equally capable of telling a focused story as well. It works as a witty, poignant love story. It works as an engaging collection of vignettes, a travel diary in an evocative, beautifully depicted time of adventure. It even works as a meditation on the meaning of humanity, and on the ways we are all prisoners of history. Like Seven Samurai, it perfectly captures the strange beauty inherent in the end of an era – as the age of swords and heroes draws to a close, Katanagatari’s characters cling to relevance, power, or just each other. It made me laugh and made me cry, and it’s easily one of my favorite shows.
Here’s my review of Katanagatari.
Katanagatari seems to currently be out of print, though a few copies of its special edition are still available.
Though it’s not at the top of my list, I think it’d be difficult to argue any anime tries to do more than Utena. It’s a story about adolescence and sex and identity and gender and performance, and maybe those are all actually parts of the same thing. It weaves in ten thousand visual motifs and then muddles them just for the hell of it. It catalogues the emotional hills and valleys of over a dozen characters, and yet even at the end you could still call half of them mysteries. It features an episode where a girl is repeatedly chased by elephants, and another where that same girl lays an egg. It also features the most thoughtful and piercing exploration of gender politics I’ve seen in the medium. It’s strange and circuitous and funny and profound, and if nothing else, it’s almost certainly one of the best anime of all time.
Here’s my essay on Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is available at Amazon in an incredibly stylish box set.
Considering it sits at #2 on my all-time list, I think it’s fair to employ a little hyperbole here: of everything I’ve seen, I believe Madoka is probably the “most perfect” anime there is. Its visual aesthetic is creative and stunning, its soundtrack is powerful and evocative, and it tells a gripping, smartly composed story of friendship, sacrifice, the tragic cycles of living, and the greater spirit of humanity. Its narrative and thematic elements lock into place like a perfectly crafted music box, and yet it still leaves room for rich interpretation. Though I like all of Urobuchi’s works, Madoka stands on a tier far above the others – its aesthetics are by far the most impressive, and beyond that, it’s also the most pure, iconic expression of the anger and hope at the heart of all his stories – an understanding of the callous nature of the universe forever challenged by the indomitable, irrational spirit of charity and love that makes us human. Madoka is a triumph.
Here’s my essay on Urobuchi’s philosophy.
Madoka Magica is available at Right Stuff for the price of your firstborn child.
It might seem odd to place Eva over Madoka, considering I just stated I consider Madoka the “most perfect” show. But it’s true – Evangelion is not perfect. It has tonal issues throughout the first half, it meanders through a slowly building central arc, and little cracks and flaws indicative of its troubled creation are apparent throughout. But for all that, I strongly believe Eva is the best anime of all time. Why? Because it understands people. Because it respects and cares about people. Because it is people. There is just so much truth and empathy in Evangelion’s depiction of its characters that I find it hard even beginning to compare it to other anime.
And that character truth doesn’t just stand alone – the entire show is carefully constructed around it, with Anno’s wonderful, claustrophobic direction and all the show’s grand, apocalyptic aspirations working in service of the fundamental honesty of characters like Shinji, Asuka, and Misato. Because it is so very, very true, and because it is so deeply, honestly afraid, Evangelion’s statement in favor of human connection isn’t just a truism – it’s the bravest, most optimistic choice imaginable. In the context of how true and how overpowering the emotional struggles of its characters are, nothing short of apocalypse seems worthy of depicting them – in the mind of a scared, lonely boy, the decision to accept the pain of living might as well be the rebirth of the universe. Evangelion uses all the tools at anime’s disposal to tell the smallest and most important story in the most resonant, insightful, authentic terms imaginable, and in doing so it easily establishes itself as the most successfully ambitious anime there is. Flawed, convoluted, and deeply personal, Evangelion is anime’s masterwork.
I don’t have a NGE post, but here’s my analysis of the Rebuilds.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is available at Amazon, but End of Evangelion has been out of print for years.
And that’s the list! Did I miss your favorite? Probably – I can only watch and only like so much. Is there something you think I’d like based on this list that I haven’t seen already? Let me know! I’m always on the lookout for more shows, and though I’ve got a plan-to-watch list of more than a hundred titles, I can always let a new show cut in line. Either way, I hope you found something interesting in my list, and feel free to leave any stray thoughts in the comments!