And so, another year of anime winds to its end. There have been surprises and disappointments this year, and my ultimate list doesn’t really look much like what I’d expected to find, but in the end, anime is anime. At the beginning of this year, I was looking forward to crowning two of 2014’s better series – Your Lie in April and Parasyte. Unfortunately, both of those shows kinda lost their way in their second halves, which was sad for everyone. Later on, at the year’s halfway point, I was again excited about my end-of-year list – I already had a good seven or eight shows I felt were top ten-worthy, and was beginning to think this would be a year to rival 2013. Unfortunately, the year’s second half only really gave me the last couple shows I needed, and so here I am, recognizing just enough shows to fill out a full list. This year didn’t end out quite as strong as I’d hoped, but ultimately I probably shouldn’t complain about any year that featured enough shows to fill a list plus honorable mentions.
And I actually do have an honorable mention, one I honestly feel a little bad not including on my list proper. Although not all its sequences were equally strong, Studio Khara’s Animator Expo definitely deserves a mention – you might have heard of it just because of Me! Me! Me!, but the whole thing is full of wonderful, creative little vignettes. If you’re interested in the visual potential of anime, or just want to see some cool short-form pieces, Animator Expo is a can’t-miss experience. The third season is still available online (here’s a particularly good one), so I’d definitely check that out. I should also probably mention One Punch Man, since I get the feeling not mentioning it means it will dominate the comments. Yes, I watched it, and no, I didn’t think it was that great. Strong animation, but everything outside of that felt pretty mediocre, and so you won’t see it here.
But that’s all preamble. You guys are here for the top shows, and top shows you will have – shows from a wide span of genres and creators, shows to thrill and shock and make you cry. Every year in anime brings new treasures, so let’s buckle in and run down the best in one more year of Japanese cartoons!
Considering this show comes from the same director as Kyousogiga, it almost seems like it’s a disappointment that it’s “only” the tenth-best show of 2015. And that’s honestly kind of true; Blood Blockade Battlefront is a messy show, full of loose narrative edges and weaker episodes and comedy that’s better left unmentioned. But in its best moments, this show shines almost as bright as its director’s last work, featuring beautiful environments and lively music and a whole bunch of crazy, inventive battles. Matsumoto really knows how to create a sense of place, and the place BBB visits is a compelling retro-fantasy New York full of cutthroat thieves and deadly trans-world monsters. BBB is not a truly great show, but there is definitely a seed of greatness in it, and as far as inventive action-adventure goes, it’s right near the top of the pack.
Of course, BBB isn’t exactly on the top of that pack, because that spot belongs to JoJo. After a thoroughly underwhelming first half, Stardust Crusaders came rallying back this year, featuring high-stakes gamblers and evil birds and the ominous, ever-present shadow of Dio himself. Though there were still a few loose battles here and there, most of Egypt Arc represented a welcome return to form for JoJo. The episodes integrated the humor into the actual stakes of the battles, and those battles were far more inventive and high-tension than anything in the first half. Pet Shop, Vanilla Ice, and Dio Brando represent three of the best fights the series has ever seen, beautiful and ridiculous and legitimately nerve-wracking. Stardust Crusaders was a messy and occasionally dispiriting journey, but it sure ended strong.
#8: Yuri Kuma Arashi
And in yet another case of “what’s a show by this person doing all the way down here,” Ikuhara’s adventure with lesbian bears sadly clocks in down at number eight. There were a lot of truly great things about Yurikuma, from its sense of humor to its lovely aesthetic to its well-chosen horror movie riffs to its overall narrative ambitions. But the show was also compressed into too few episodes, and the end result was that the audience never really got to know most of the characters. Yurikuma is an unabashed “message piece,” but the strength of fiction is that you can dress your messages in an individual human context, to make them feel personal and true. Yurikuma failed at that, but it’s still a rich and creative and funny and beautiful little show. I have a lot of respect for an ambitious failure.
Yep, the show about the witch who couldn’t have sex or she’d lose her magic powers was one of the best shows of the year. Name and (actually pretty great) sex jokes aside, Maria the Virgin Witch ended up being a really compelling drama, full of well-drawn characters and smartly interrogating the nature of faith and arrogance of “saviors.” Maria actually did exactly what Yurikuma attempted to – it took some really difficult, highbrow concepts (“how can the blunt pacifism of a social outsider engage with the ugly, complex realities of human conflict,” for one), and grounded that in a specific human context on all sides to make for a challenging but also emotionally resonant story. The show unfortunately failed somewhat to stick the landing, but outside of that, it succeeds as a medieval drama, as a thought experiment, as a comedy, and even as a character-focused romance. It’s just a quietly excellent show all around.
#6: Death Parade
A show with a name like “Death Parade” normally wouldn’t be my speed, but the followup to 2013’s Death Billiards ended up being a surprisingly robust and actually very sensitive story. It certainly had plenty of ugly, tragic voyeurism, but the show went in the best direction it could with that – these rigged death games are the awful thing, not the people who are trapped in them. Forcing people to act their worst doesn’t prove anything, and even in that situation, many people will demonstrate the best of human nature. And in addition to being alternately funny, shocking, and genuinely moving, the show was also just marvelously well composed, demonstrating a talented young director backed by some stellar animators. Death Parade was morbid, yes, but it was also beautiful, personal, and occasionally even inspiring. A welcome surprise.
Insight was a narrower show than its predecessor – it didn’t have something to say about everything, it had a few key things to say about a few inescapable topics. Through the brief and terrible ascendancy of Tsubasa and Gel-chan, insight explored the double-edged nature of social harmony, the danger of assumed righteousness, and (as always) the ever-present, ever-terrifying power of crowds. The conclusions the first series reached were challenged, and the dangers of social power were turned back on those who’d use it to seek their own kind of justice. But it wasn’t just a lecture – like Maria the Virgin Witch, insight grounded all of these contrasting forces in compelling personal stories. There were long scenes of this show where characters like Jou, Rui, Tsubasa, and Hajime would just sit down and talk out their feelings on how society was moving, and those were actually some of the best scenes of the series. Gatchaman is smart and creative and grounded in a shaken but resilient faith in humanity, and its sequel ended up being a worthy and almost necessary compliment to the original series.
Seasons will change, anime will pass, and Monogatari will continue to be very good. Owarimonogatari actually comes on the heels of one of Monogatari’s all-time weakest arcs, but though this season doesn’t necessarily rally to the sustained heights of Koi and Hanamonogatari, it’s still a rich and beautiful show with more to say about its characters than almost anything else out there. Second Season solved the “Araragi problem” by dancing around him, but Owari directly challenges him, using characters like Ougi and Shinobu to tug at the things that make him interesting in spite of his perversions. There are remarkable treasures in these episodes, from Sodachi’s breakdown to Shinobu and Kanbaru’s nearly fatal debate. There are satisfying reprises from classic characters, and great new tricks, like Ougi’s snakelike presence. Shows that go on this long have a tendency to repeat themselves, but Monogatari just continues to dig deeper, building on character development and its internal visual vocabulary to consistently arrive at lovely new surprises. As long as Monogatari stays this good, it’s welcome to stick around.
#3: Sound! Euphonium
You can pretty much always count on Kyoto Animation for a beautiful and well-executed production, but Sound! Euphonium is so much more than that. Telling a wide array of personal stories and coming together into a rousing story of talent, passion, and the fleeting nature of youthful glory, Sound! Euphonium is the studio’s best show since Hyouka, a basically perfect monument to the power of careful execution. Sound! Euphonium doesn’t win out through wild creativity, or through characters who keep surprising you – it simply tells a very strong central narrative with absolute grace, bringing characters to life through many small details of direction and animation and letting the contrast of their various stories illustrate its themes in the most natural way possible. Euphonium nails the fundamentals, and that is a rare and valuable thing – as far as “understated adolescent dramas” go, this is about as good as they can get.
#2: Oregairu S2
And representing the opposite pole of adolescent dramas, Oregairu is all individual personality, rising above its competitors through the incredible intelligence and specificity of its character writing and dialogue. Oregairu’s first season was already one of the best-written anime of the last, well, many years, and the second season actually handily rises above its predecessor. Not only is the character drama here more intense, not only does the show largely discard its light novel humor roots in order to really stab at the humanity of its characters… but even the execution here is far better, with the switch in studios resulting in more expressive characters designs, stronger character acting, and much more evocative direction. Oregairu S2 strikes at the heart of insecure, unhappy adolescence, and its characters feel more real than you pretty much ever get in anime. It’s challenging, heart-rending, and witheringly smart. It is the best at what it does.
But even for all that, Oregairu is not my top show of the year. No, that honor goes to a show that didn’t even start in 2015, a show that at this point last year was already impressing on a weekly basis. Shirobako is my top show of 2015, and it isn’t even much of a contest. The show deftly manages a cast of dozens of endearing characters, juggling personal conflicts and larger narrative threads and constant jolts of comedy. It’s an adult drama that simultaneously reveals and canonizes the struggles of anime production, coming across as a fatigued love letter to the industry that built it. It’s full of great gags and relatable personal trials and little moments that bring its characters to life, highlighting the everyday melancholy of stuff like telling your parents you’re okay on the phone while heating up one more microwave dinner. And it consistently veers off into wonderful little gifts, creative twists that run from The Day Anno Saved Christmas to watching a character break down as they remember the shows that made them love anime in the first place. Shirobako broke my heart half a dozen times, and I still get chills thinking of the trials its characters went through. Shirobako portrays the beauty and sadness of life as it is, and there are few higher artistic goals than that.