I had to stretch to get a top 10 this year. I’m ready to admit that. Last year, it was easy – in fact, it was too easy, and I ended up expanding my list to twelve shows basically by necessity. But this year didn’t have quite the top shelf of 2013, and so concessions had to be made. There are certainly a couple notable absences here, with I’m guessing the biggest ones being Kill la Kill, Space Dandy, and maybe Nozaki-kun. The reason for those absences is simple – I didn’t like any of those shows very much. If you’re looking for a general “all the shows that enjoyed positive appraisal among the kinds of people who make a point of appraising shows,” I’m guessing all three of those would be included, but this is my list, and I’m gonna talk about what I wanna. (Incidentally, if you are looking for a list like that, my fellow critics at ANN all contributed their own top five lists to this recent retrospective – and that’s all shows that started in 2014, so even my list over there is pretty different). My list may be a little shorter this year, but it’s still got some real gems, and considering three of the year’s best shows aren’t included simply because they aren’t finished (Shirobako, KimiUso, and Parasyte), I’d say we made off okay. Let’s run it down!
#10. Witch Craft Works
Yeah, starting off with something really silly and ridiculous. This slot could frankly be a number of different shows – Chaika for the spring and fall, JoJo for the spring and summer, etc – but I’ve found this year that it’s pretty important every season give me at least one giddy piece of comfort food, and this year the top comfort food honor goes to Witch Craft Works. It’s frankly a pretty dumb show, and the plot barely makes any sense, but this isn’t a show about the plot. This a show about stupid witches getting repeatedly blown up, about the “generic male MC” constantly flailing around and getting alternately kidnapped and princess-carried by a variety of badass witches, and about fight scenes and comedic direction that are actually far more effective than they have any right to be. This is by the director of Girls und Panzer and Shirobako, and the dude does good work – Witch Craft Works is not a weighty show, but if you’re looking for a good time, you could do a whole lot worse.
When Rage of Bahamut began, it seemed very possible we had another Baccano-caliber action-adventure classic on our hands. Beautiful animation, an engaging world, a lively cast of characters, and a high-speed, contagious sense of fun and invention. Its first five episodes jump from waterwheel duel to zombie attack to giant enemy crab to demon-whale torture dungeon, offering plentiful gifts of action and comedy along the way. Bahamut’s second half unfortunately can’t compare to the opening salvo, as the show gets bogged down in generic fantasy dramatics and loses both its creative edge and top tier production quality, but it’s still a fun, fine show overall, and its stellar ending does some work to make up for those late-season doldrums. Rage of Bahamut is good times all around – perhaps not the Raiders of the Lost Arc of anime, but certainly a strong contender for the Temple of Doom.
There’s a pretty great balance to Barakamon. Fifteen minutes of Yotsuba-lite, soft-and-fluffy slice of life, five minutes of sharp Art Instinct critique. The cast is endearing, the production is excellent, the jokes build naturally out of the characters and the circumstances of their world. Handa is easily one of the best characters of the year, with his young adult trials in creation likely ringing true for anyone who’s spent too much time obsessing over their art. And Naru is basically a concentrated ball of happiness and good times, with her great child actress’s performance and the show’s excellent animation lending her a spirit very few child characters can match. It’s a coming-of-age story set about ten years after most anime end, filled with small insights and lovely friendships. It’s a warm little show.
#7: Samurai Flamenco
“Messy” doesn’t even begin to describe Samurai Flamenco. The show is about half a dozen shows at once – sometimes it’s a grounded modern drama, sometimes it’s a wacky action-comedy, sometimes it’s just a straight-up super sentai show. Sometimes its characters go to space, and that’s okay. The problem with Samurai Flamenco is that to even describe it is kind of to ruin it – it’s a ride you really have to experience for yourself, and all I can say that remains truly consistent throughout the show is its great grasp of character, its clever and self-effacing sense of humor, and its deep love for and belief in heroes. Samurai Flamenco believes in heroes with every bone in its strange, constantly genre-jumping body, and it wants you to believe in them too. The production is frankly a mess at times, and your tolerance for its various wild shifts will depend on your ability to embrace a show being several different shows at once, but the whole of Samurai Flamenco is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
Look, it’s more Mushishi. The original show was one of the most beautiful, atmospheric, poignant, and quietly insightful anime we’ve ever received, and the second season ably lives up to its legacy. Mushishi is essentially a series of classic fairy tale fables written for adults, with all the harshness and ambiguity that implies. Its world takes the deep-forest universe implied by works like Princess Mononoke and makes it a fully living place. Its touches of supernatural influence evoke majesty and wonder even as they offer sharp reflections on human stories of loss, obsession, family, and anything else the show chooses for meditation. The music is as carefully chosen as you’d expect from such a master of atmosphere as director Hiroshi Nagahama, and the show is filled with beautiful backgrounds and standout moments of otherworldly beauty. This show could just as easily be number one as number six – it doesn’t personally resonate with me as much as the shows higher on this list, but it’s easily as aesthetically impressive as anything else this year. Mushishi is an instant classic, one of those shows that proves what anime can do.
#5: Sekai Seifuku
Speaking of “what anime can do,” here’s a show where a tiny girl in a skimpy outfit attempts to take over the world by making the entire planet her family. And it’s actually great, goddamnit. Costumes aside, Sekai Seifuku is actually a remarkably sensitive and sharply written show with a very strong sense of identity. The humor really helps – Sekai Seifuku rides a long way on the charmingly surreal jokes of the Zvezda corporation, and one-off episodes like The Time Kate Decided To Kill All Smokers and The Time Zvezda Had To Re-Pollinate Their Reactor are surprisingly biting and poignant respectively. But Sekai Seifuku is also more than that – though it has a couple lesser episodes in its midsection, the show overall builds to some really touching points about the perspective of childhood and the families we choose. Its narrative plotting is sometimes thin and always tinged with absurdity, but its emotional resonance is absolutely solid. Sekai Seifuku is a surprisingly excellent show.
Terror in Resonance inspired some serious grumbling throughout its run, but its base strengths cannot be denied. The show is a beautiful thing – its shot framing, use of lighting, and overall aesthetic are gorgeous, and its fairly naturalistic visual style combined with its incredibly well-chosen shots allow it to look truly “filmic” in a way few anime can match. The soundtrack is equally good, elevating many of Resonance’s highlights from simply arresting to truly iconic. But even though all of this helps, it’s actually for Terror in Resonance’s ideas that I put it this high on the list. Though its narrative was messy in some ways, its reflections on adolescence, modern society, and generational conflict provided a fundamentally stable platform for a story that was really all about the hopeless optimism of teenagers with nothing to lose. Resonance is about being treated as a child, and about the things only children can do, and at its best moments, Resonance makes the ambitions of youth seem like the only thing you can hope for in light of all the evils of the world. Terror in Resonance is a beautiful production selling a beautiful hope.
Monogatari just keeps getting better, huh? After a wildly experimental first season, a polished but controversial sequel, and the stopgap of Tsubasa Family, Monogatari Second Season found the show in an absolutely stable groove, offering poignant reflections on identity and truth while weaving circuitous paths through its broad, dynamic cast. Monogatari’s characters are starting to grow up now, and Hanamonogatari is as strong an example of that as anything – Kanbaru’s quest to find out who she is and where she must go is Monogatari at its most clear, most grounded and human. The aesthetics are as pretty and purposeful as ever, the storytelling has never been sharper, and the characters leap off the screen. It’s a coming-of-age story and a love story and a eulogy all in one. Monogatari’s final act is finally coming into view now, and each step on the journey feels like a gift.
Goddamn is Ping Pong good. If the top show on this list weren’t riding on the back of dozens of episodes’ worth of momentum, Ping Pong would be the easy king of the year. Its visual style is both completely wild and perfectly controlled – though Yuasa has sometimes appeared to be experimenting for experimentation’s sake, here, all of his visual genius works in perfect service of the story. The writing stretches and breathes, and the characters are all fully fleshed-out individuals. The story bounces from exciting matches to vivid emotional setpieces, with moments like the episode five montage bringing all the show’s talents together. It’s just all there – Ping Pong is one of those absolutely fully-formed productions, a story about finding joy in competition that’s constantly delighting with new visual tricks or character shifts or gripping turns of fate. Ping Pong isn’t about winning, but the kind of love that brings us to challenge ourselves, and because of that, even when its characters are defeated they are champions. Ping Pong is a basically perfect show, one that will be watched and rewatched for years to come.
It kind of feels like a Return of the King nomination, doesn’t it? “Oh yeah, Hunter x Hunter is ending, better give it a lifetime achievement award for being so dang good all the time.” And honestly, I wouldn’t be against that – it’s true, HxH does deserve a lifetime achievement award. For four years, Hunter x Hunter has consistently dazzled with great pacing, dynamic storytelling, and just generally top-notch adventure fare. Madhouse were handed a stellar manga, and they’ve worked wonders with it.
And yet, this choice isn’t a lifetime achievement award. Because even though Hunter x Hunter was always good, this year it was even more. As HxH drew towards its end and the epic Chimera Ant arc neared its finale, Hunter x Hunter went far, far beyond “a great adventure story,” and became something truly incredible. Hunter x Hunter’s last great arc moved from war story to spy thriller to Grand Drama of the Human Race, and it’s a massive credit to the storytelling that after all the show had excelled at, it actually felt most natural as a story of what makes us human, of the desires that drags us down and the ambiguous spirit that empowers us. Individualism versus collectivism, love versus loyalty, debt and obsession – Chimera Ant thoughtfully examined a wide range of heavy themes while juggling dozens of characters and a half-dozen individual narratives, and all of it came together into some of the most chilling and touching moments I’ve seen in the medium. Chimera Ant basically broke me, I’m not ashamed to admit – it was tragic and beautiful and almost too good to stand. It’s sad to see Hunter x Hunter go, but it couldn’t have left us a greater parting gift.