The year of Our Madokami two-thousand and fifteen has come to a close, which means bloggers and critics across the internet have an excuse to post countdown listicles! And being incredibly lazy myself, I am no exception. Overall, 2015 was a huge improvement over 2014. Last year I struggled to even round out a top ten list, and ended up with some of the lower spots going to the few shows I’d actually finished that weren’t actively bad. This year, I struggled to trim the list down to just ten. I said in last year’s post that you’d have to stay tuned for Parasyte and UBW, but it turns out I’m a liar. After some late-game stumbles and a stacked Winter season, neither one is making a showing after all. Woops. Even KimUso and MonMusu, shows I thought were rather solid, didn’t make the cut this year. It feels a little like watching your favorite sports team end a losing season with a blowout win. Anime really needs to spread the good shows out a little better. Anyways, before we get into the nitty gritty, I’ll go over the typical disclaimers: First of all, this is my list; my totally biased, inherently subjective list. If Your Favorite Anime didn’t make the cut, I probably didn’t see it, or didn’t like it. Sorry. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am down in the comments. Second, only series that ended in 2015 were eligible for this list. This list also does not include films, as I find they are just too different in terms of structure and production to be meaningfully compared to TV series. OVA series will be counted, but on-disc bonus episodes will not be considered in the rankings. Lastly, there may be stray Spoilers wandering about these paragraphs, so read with caution. With all that in mind, let’s get started with…
#10 – Rokka no Yuusha (Braves of the Six Flowers)
Yes, really. Shut up. Go ahead, get the Flamie reaction faces out now. “Redcrimson’s shit taste was the seventh brave all along!” Hardy-harr, you guys are hilarious. Do your worst, I don’t care. I liked this show. So the dialogue was banal, the pacing was glacial, the character-writing was sorely uneven, and the show bombed so monumentally that the regular edition of the NA was actually cancelled; I won’t try to deny any of that. Still, at the end of the day, I have a weird kind of respect for Rokka. Rokka feels like the ultimate result of a conversation that ends with the classic “Well, why don’t you just make your own anime”. I can only imagine the original author as a frustrated Light Novel fan who was sick of Magic High Schools and very salty about cute Kuudere girls always losing to Tsundere princesses. Rokka is like the most earnest kind of fanfiction; the kind the tries to “fix” the problems the writer has with the material, while desperately trying to align itself with the original. In that sense, Rokka is very Light Novel-y in the strict mechanics of its writing, but its structure and storytelling gimmicks are actually somewhat impressive.
Rokka initially bills itself as a swashbuckling fantasy-adventure about six courageous heroes banding together to defeat the Demon Lord, where The Hero and The Princess slowly fall in love, where courage and friendship wins the day! It’s not until episode 3 that Rokka tips its hand. This story isn’t about any of that at all. Yes, the Big Twist of Rokka’s premise is that it is, in actuality, a whodunnit murder-mystery. One with the stock Clue characters replaced with epic fantasy heroes, and the snowed-in mountain lodge replaced by a magically-sealed forest temple. And honestly, the show kinda had me sold right then and there. I’m a gigantic sucker for mystery for its own sake, and Rokka’s take on it was pretty much instantly engrossing. Crime-thriller mysteries in sci-fi settings are a dime-a-dozen, but sword-and-sorcery fantasy? That’s a new one on me. And Rokka is largely successful as mystery series, I’d say. It obeys its own rules, misdirects at the right times, and hides its clues in plain sight. I had the culprit pegged long before the final reveal, though some of that was due to sheer storytelling economy. Only three characters got dedicated backstory episodes, and two of them had a next-to-zero chance of actually being the perpetrator.
Adding in the unique Meso-American aesthetic, Rokka has some pretty nifty things going for it. It’s a damn shame that Rokka was an obviously troubled production from a fledgling studio, and that we’re probably never going to see any more of it. It’s not exactly the most sharply-written or technically impressive thing ever, but Rokka has a lot of cool ideas. That counts for a lot around here.
#9 – Junketsu no Maria (Maria the Virgin Witch)
Maria may not have the number one spot on this list, but it certainly walks away with the gold medal for Most Unfortunately-Titled Show of 2015. Almost as unfortunate as the fact that simply having words like “virgin” in the title of an anime immediately conjures up only the worst possible connotations. Luckily, Maria handily defies all of those connotations. The show certainly has sexual themes, sexual imagery, sexual humor, and even sexual sequences… But that’s because Maria is about sexuality. In particular, the contradictory ways society dictates female sexuality. It’s about a few other things as well, including the obvious religious implications. However, the show’s myriad themes are handled with an emotional maturity and gravitas that was honestly pretty astonishing.
Maria has me all but convinced that Goro Taniguchi is not actually an anime director, but some kind of Anime Wizard cursed to summon shows that forever fall just short of the truly sublime. Taniguchi has previously helmed the sci-fi cult classics Planetes and Infinite Ryvius, shows that are generally well-regarded but rarely talked about. He also gave the world Code Geass, as well as the fondly-remembered shounen battle series Scryed. Both of which went as far as to air on American TV, an accolade that very few anime directors are bestowed more than once. Sadly, Maria too is a show that rises far above its initial premise only to fall just short of timeless profundity. A regrettable misfire of an ending abruptly curtails what was looking to be a transcendent masterstroke. Taniguchi adds yet another “pretty great but not truly great” show to his resume, but I sure hope he continues to try and break his streak.
Still, Maria has an endlessly likable and compelling cast, diverse and noteworthy themes, and better action choreography than most action shows. Like Rokka, this show also sold abysmally, but it was certainly a welcome edition to what will probably end up as the most bountiful Winter season of the decade.
#8 – Shirobako
I said in my full review of Shirobako that it wasn’t quite My Thing, and that still stands true. In terms of sheer execution and watchability, Shirobako is way above most of the other shows on this list. Alas, here it is at 8th place. Part of that comes down to me having little else to say about it. Shirobako is very pretty, the characters are terrific, it’s a very passionate show exploring a surprisingly uncommon subject, and that’s kind of it. It’s an impeccably well-made thing that just doesn’t quite grab me on a deeper level than that.
Watching Shirobako was like watching a good documentary. It’s was really good at teaching me stuff and conveying the the creators’ passion for the subject, but those were my only real takeaways when it was all over. Don’t get me wrong, that is certainly not to insinuate that Shirobako is an emotionally sterile show, but it definitely seemed a little overtly didactic and far too real for my sensibilities. Having to relive all my terrible job interviews and asshole coworkers certainly works for an immediate visceral experience, but also kinda just feels bad man. I guess it’s just difficult to like a show that makes me feel like shit, even if it’s sorta doing that on purpose. I had the same problem with Aku no Hana, to the point where I had to drop that show for being too good at what it was doing. Similarly, Shirobako is a show I respect a whole lot, but I don’t see myself buying any Miyamori Aoi scale figures anytime soon. And that’s a pretty reliable litmus test for me, believe it not.
I feel like every time I talk about this show, it ends up being overly negative. I guess that’s because I feel like I always need justify not being head-over-heels for a show that, by most reasonable measures, does everything right. So do take my defensive ramblings with a grain of salt, here. Shirobako is absolutely still one of the very best shows of the year. There’s certainly nothing else quite like it, though I suspect that may change given the show’s surprising financial success.
#7 – Gakkou Gurashi (School-Live!)
Anime is an industry that trades in escapism. Big shiny power-fantasies, saccharine romances, and soothing everyday ennui dominates the market. So it’s easy to dismiss a show like Gakkou Gurashi, whose outward appearance is deliberately invoking the latter of those elements. But even beyond the reveal of the show’s Big Twist, Gakkou Gurashi is far more clever than it lets on. It’s an interesting amalgam of two popular genres, yes, but that’s been done before with mixed results. It’s what the show is doing with that twist that makes all the difference to me.
Gakkou Gurashi is a show about escapism. Not a show that trades in it as a marketing commodity, but a show that explores escapism itself. Gakkou Gurashi explores our instinct to shy away from hardship, both as a necessary coping mechanism and as a dangerous vice. This is exemplified in the characters of Miiki and Yuki, whose arcs revolve around their contrasting methods of engaging, and disengaging, with their circumstances. The show’s final shot before the last end credits roll is a message written on the blackboard by Miiki, addressed to the old friend who abandoned her after literally barricading herself in from the world outside. The message reads: “I decided to live after all, and it was worth it.” The writing is well, pretty much on the wall here. Though Yuki’s fantasies and Miiki’s cloistered defenses are much-needed sources of strength for the School Living Club, there’s ultimately no escape from engaging the world on its own terms. Eventually, the walls of the fortress the girls have built for themselves come crashing down and the terror of the outside world comes shambling in. Though the girls ultimately triumph, their idyllic little oasis is gone forever.
The show knows they’re better for it though, and in as direct a metaphor as the show can muster, the girls hold their own graduation ceremony before moving out into the world beyond their fallen fantasyland. The real world, though typically devoid apocalyptic events, is still a scary place. A little bit of comforting escapism can be therapeutic or even necessary. But truly living means engaging with the real world, otherwise you might as well just be a mindless zombie. Though I felt the dual-genre gimmick was a bit of a double-edged sword, Gakkou Gurashi still displays an otherwise remarkable amount of ambition and technical merit while remaining an endearing, genuinely poignant show.
#6 – Gatchaman Crowds Insight
Finding good anime sequels is like hunting for cryptids. In that I’m pretty sure at least one must actually exist, but nobody ever seems to find any evidence of them. So color me shocked that 2015 might as well have been the Year of the Sequel. The vanguard of which is the follow-up to 2013’s eccentric and brilliant Gatchaman Crowds. Crowds was essentially a persuasive essay in the form of a Super Sentai TV show, and Insight follows suit as more-or-less a narrative counter-argument. While Crowds certainly wasn’t short on social commentary, Insight takes things a step further by painting itself as overtly political.
Insight’s major conflict isn’t about stopping menacing aliens from trolling the world into oblivion, it’s about stopping the most amicable dictator in the universe from being democratically elected. Line’s like “You should never have come to Japan, where people are so easily swayed” read less like dialogue and more like the show just shouting into the storm. Insight plays out like the origin story of a dystopian YA novel. Crowds saw the masses given control of a more horizontal society, but Insight isn’t satisfied with that ending.
Given the power of absolute choice, it’s not unlikely for people to simply embrace the illusion of choice. People will often go with the flow, and the one who shapes the atmosphere controls the people. People will rarely ever assume the worst of themselves as individuals, and like to think they’re in control of their own destiny even if they’re only conforming to a popular opinion. It’s a hard truth of human nature, one that Insight explores from both an ideologically fascinating and deeply personal angle. I ultimately thought Insight was comparatively weaker on the whole than season one, but it’s still easily one of the strongest and most captivating sequels to an anime that I’ve ever seen.
#5 – Death Parade
To be honest, I almost passed up watching Death Parade. Winter was already pretty stacked, and I still haven’t seen the original short it was based on. Trying to turn a one-off short into a full series seemed like a fool’s errand in the first place, and my initial impression of “The Saw Movies but with Bar Games” had me rather skeptical of the whole idea. Over time, the show began to generate positive buzz, and garnered praise from people whose taste I put a good amount of stock in. I eventually decided that I couldn’t write this list without at least giving Death Parade a fair shake. Obviously, I was pleasantly surprised to have my preconceptions blown away. Instead of finding the edgy “Cast thine eyes upon the dark folly of humanity” schtick that one might expect from a show called “Death Parade”, I was shocked to find a nuanced exploration of human nature as a complex, contradictory, and confounding labyrinth of moral greys and emotional complexity.
Is it noble for a woman to sacrifice her soul to save the husband she cheated on? Is a police detective who takes the law into his own hands any better than the monsters he puts away? Is it right for humanity to be judged by those devoid of humanity themselves? It turns out Death Parade is less a typical Death Game Anime and closer to being a goofy, vaguely Eastern version of The Seventh Seal. The show smartly utilizes its ghastly death game premise to not only ask interesting questions, but to build surprisingly effective vignettes. Death Parade is a valiant exercise in episodic storytelling, but also a triumph of just soundly economical television. Most of the games last only a single episode, but each one explores its own set of layered, compelling characters while reflecting on the larger themes and the overall story of the show. A feat that’s accomplished through a combination of arresting visuals and precision screenwriting. And that’s not even touching on the show’s main overarching story, which is a fun and poignant character-piece all on its own.
If Death Parade has one chink in its armor, it’s the show’s undue devotion to the framing narrative. Fortunately this also has the upshot of packing the show with a tremendous set of supporting characters(Nona a cute), but I can’t help but feel like the whole thing would have benefited from a much looser, more abstract framework. Still, Death Parade is a fun ride and a gorgeous production, with the year’s most instantly memorable OP thrown in for good measure.
#4 – Oregairu Zoku (My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU Too)
I said in my full review of S1 that OreGairu’s biggest problem was its unfortunate tether to the “RomCom” portion of its title. Well, I could never have predicted that S2 would not only solve this problem, but even improve on the things the show was already pretty damn good at. Anime sequels rarely outdo their predecessors, but it’s practically unheard of for a sequel to markedly surpass the original in nearly every way. Even the change in production studio seemed to be an unexpected boon for OreGairu. To move from a fairly well-known and respectable studio like Brains Base to a largely innocuous studio like Feel, whose biggest claim to fame was the production of Kiss x Sis, would typically spell the death knell for a show like OreGairu. Yet with nothing to lose and seemingly everything to prove, Feel managed to churn out the more visually impressive version of OreGairu. Season two’s cinematography was sharper, the characters were more emotive, and even the color palette was more subdued and deliberate(though I did kinda miss Hikki’s distinctive green hair).
Though what really elevates S2 so far above its predecessor is the script. Again, the second season takes a massive risk by essentially severing the show’s chain to its Light Novel origins. All in order to draw almost exclusively from the dramatic well its characters had dug in S1. Something that could have backfired spectacularly if it wasn’t handled flawlessly, but the show somehow pulled it off. The show built on its web of relationships and its penchant for teenage theatricality to construct a complex, compelling and totally rock-solid character-drama. To the point where the material was often operating on a level that seemed far beyond its original marketing demographic. Sensei often had to come in every few episodes to directly explain to the audience what the hell was going on, but even that only continued to anger LN readers and confuse the show’s usual demographic. I can’t really bring myself to feel bad for them, though. Maybe that makes me a terrible person, but if pissing off pedantic LN readers and the reddit userbase is the price to pay for engaging and nuanced teen dramas, I won’t exactly be losing any sleep over it.
#3 – YuriKuma Arashi
People like Kunihiko Ikuhara are why I, after a decade-and-a-half, continue to watch anime. YKA is a show that acts as both a pointed commentary on Japan’s treatment of LGBT communities, and a love-letter to camp horror and Takarazuka theatre. In other words, it is quite possibly the Most Ikuhara Thing ever to exist. YKA is both clever and poignant, but certainly not without problems. It’s apparent very early on that 12 episodes just isn’t quite enough to comfortably fit in everything this show wanted to do.
The result is less a TV show and more an abstract depiction of Ikuhara lecturing the audience for 4 hours. In the grand scheme though, this seems like a small price to pay for a show this impassioned and angry. YuriKuma may be all pink and sparkly on the surface, but it reflects a lot of dark, ugly truths about discrimination, oppression, and our collective complicity in the social-systems that perpetuate them. Like ZanTero from last year, YKA is a show more about ideas and messages than story or characters. Yurikuma has a point to make, and it’s not going to let things like subtlety or traditional story structure get in the way. This definitely hurts YKA strictly as a narrative, but where the show makes up for that is with its incredible eye for color and shot composition.
This is not exactly the most lavishly animated show ever, but it’s a thing of beauty all the same. YKA boasts some of the most striking single shots of the year. From Ikuhara’s pet motifs of theatre and fairy tales, to cult horror iconography, YKA invokes an impressive array of imagery and styles. YuriKuma is never quite the same show twice, but still manages to build its disparate pieces into a cohesive whole. It’s certainly rough around the edges, but I’m pretty confident that Kunihiko Ikuhara has forged a third straight masterpiece from YKA’s raw materials. Fingers crossed that he doesn’t decide to take another 15-year vacation, anime desperately needs auteurs like Kunihiko Ikuhara.
#2 – Owarimonogatari
Yet another year, yet another Monogatari on the list. I feel like I’ve almost run out of praise to heap on this franchise. Monogatari has become a veritable anime institution over the years. Had my blog existed back in 2009, Monogatari would have likely run away with at least three #1 spots by now. So it’s weird to think we’re actually entering the home stretch of the story here, but far be it from Monogatari to get complacent in the end. Owari is yet another shining feather in Shaft and Nisio’s cap.
Like Hanamonogatari last year, Owari introduces us to a couple new characters and uses them to reflect on the growth of the main cast. It’s a simple trick, and one that I wasn’t actually sure the show could keep using without diminishing returns. If there’s one thing Monogatari excels at though, it’s using characters in smart ways. But the real star of Owari might be the villainous Ougi, a character so overtly unsettling that even pixiv seems to hesitate in sexualizing her. You would almost expect Ougi to show up to your house in person and mock you for looking at lewd fanart of her. With her invasive screen-presence, snake-like movements, and cold black eyes, Ougi alone is a triumph of Monogatari’s sharply-honed identity. In fact, Ougi would probably be among my absolute favorite Monogatari characters if she wasn’t so goddamn terrifying. I’ve played VNs where you get erotically devoured by Monster Girls if you lose, and Ougi is still a bridge too far. Of course, Ougi’s prominence mostly reflects on Araragi, who gets some desperately needed growth in this outing. The first two arcs delve into Araragi’s past, and the formative regrets that inform his self-sacrificing personality. While the final arc brings closure to Shinobu’s past, exposes her own deep-seated insecurities, and explores how both reflect on the pair’s continued relationship.
Senjougahara, Kanbaru, Hanekawa, and even Yotsugi get some show-stopping scenes of their own, letting Owari play out almost like a Monogatari greatest hits compilation. And you know what? That’s totally fine. After 70+ episodes, Monogatari has earned that much. After building so many nuanced characters and exploring so many compelling themes, just about anything this show puts on screen for five minutes is going to have more emotional truth and insight than most entire shows. Owari is as distinctly Monogatari a thing as there ever was, and still somehow finds ways to reach astonishing new heights. While it’s hard to believe we may actually have to bid our fond farewells sooner rather than later, no matter how things end, the legacy of this franchise seems nigh unimpeachable at this point. Monogatari is a sprawling, goofy, self-indulgent thing, and it is an extraordinary show.
#1 – Sound! Euphonium
The conquering hero. The new champion. The kingslayer. If there was ever anyone who could hope to loosen Monogatari’s despotic grip on the #1 spot, it was Kyoto Animation. Though after some dismal showings in the last few years, it was starting to seem less and less likely that we’d ever see another true masterpiece from KyoAni. Then, along came Euphonium. A show whose subject matter was so alien to me that I didn’t even know what the hell a euphonium was until the show started. That the show claims the number one spot despite that should say all that needs to be said.
Great art is often relatable not in its surface elements, but in its underlying core. Euphonium is at its heart, in the grand tradition of great anime dramas, a gorgeously articulated story of emotional growth and self-acceptance. Though somewhat paradoxically, it is also happens to be a great ensemble piece. Something that anime rarely ever manages a firm grasp on. The story primarily focuses on the contrasting struggles of Kumiko and Reina, but cleverly supplements that focus with an all-star supporting cast. Even relatively minor characters feel like dynamic, fully-realized people with their own interior lives. While the half-dozen or so major characters all feel like they could just have easily been the main characters of a different show. Stuffing so much character work into a 13-episode show is certainly an impressive feat by the writing staff, but I think the real reason it works so damn well comes down to KyoAni’s enviable technical prowess.
I would go so far as to say that the crew at KyoAni have virtually perfected character animation. The cast of Euphonium aren’t just written with nuance and personality, they’re animated with it, practically infused with it. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and Euphonium proves that old adage as an anime truism. Simply the way some characters lounge around during practice speaks volumes about their personality, their headspace, their circumstances, and their relationships. But the show doesn’t stop there. Not content with only masterful character-animation, Euphonium also has incredibly striking cinematography. It seems like every scene of Euphonium is stunningly composed and colored. The kind of craft that makes me want to mount every frame on my wall. “Every frame” might be the slightest of hyperbole, but Euphonium works to make it feel true.
What would normally be the most immediately memorable moments, the goofy reaction faces, the big musical sequences, end up taking a backseat to the show’s much quieter moments. Kumiko and Reina’s hike up the mountain, to uh… literally make beautiful music together, ends up eclipsing nearly every other sequence in the show. I’m fairly confident that someone who has never seen this show before could watch it with no subs and all the dialogue muted, but still walk away with a pretty clear grasp on the characters and conflicts. Euphonium is a painstakingly calculated show that manages to seem like it’s still totally organic, and that’s the weird contradictory secret that makes for truly great stories. And Euphonium is more than just great, it’s the best anime I watched all year.