Having safely avoided 2012's Mayan Apocalypse, CRN is looking back on the past year's anime releases, remembering all the suspense, excitement, laughter, and heartbreak we went through. There were gut-busting comedies, there were dramas and romances that touched our hearts, and then there were action extravaganzas that made us kick over our desks and go GTA on the first unfortunate human being we came in contact with.
Looking back, 2012 was a pretty damn good year for anime. What were CRN's favorites? Well, read on...
Hunter X Hunter- Yes, Madhouse's take on Yoshihiro Togashi's manga debuted in 2011, but as long as it's airing, I'll be watching, and that's what I did all this year. Hunter x Hunter is consistently enjoyable, and as lighthearted as protagonist Gon makes things seem, there's a deadly serious weight to the proceedings. Togashi is great at that, and now this series is working hard to contend with my long-running love for Yu Yu Hakusho.
Mysterious Girlfriend X- This show is so bizarre, and so very hypnotic. I'm not grossed out by the whole drool thing, and it's a bummer for those who are, because there's an oddball sweetness to the series if you can get past its very slippery theme.
Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine- Hands down the coolest and smoothest series of the year. It seems folks either loved it or just didn't care, but I can't really fathom the latter. So very happy that this one was legitimately streaming...
JoJo's Bizarre Adventure- ...and so very unhappy that this one was not. Maybe "Roundabout" was too expensive, or maybe, once again, not enough people cared. Either way it's too bad/so sad, because JoJo's is one of the most insanely fun anime around, even if David Productions' work leaves a lot to be desired and doesn't totally give Hirohiko Araki's wild manga the fluidity it deserves. I wrote more about why I like it a lot here.
Kids on the Slope- Here's another one I'll gladly put in the "cool" category, but for a much different reason than Lupin. Kids on the Slope is cool because its pacing lets you chill and grow with the leads in a way that feels leisurely without being dull. Oh yeah, and dat music.
Redline- Released in North America way back in January of the year, Redline and First Squad: The Moment Of Truth were pitched as 20th Anniversary titles for Manga Entertainment. Considering how little we've heard from that company since, the pair seem to have turned into more of a last hurrah. That also counts for anime of Redline's stripe. There's a whole lot of truth when the makers of Redline call their movie "once in a lifetime" and "the ultimate anime film; one that defies all logic." Famously, it was created over the course of seven years, at times taking several months for a single scene, and using 100,000 hand-made drawings. At Otakon 2010, Madhouse's Masao Maruyama stated that he expects it will be the last hand drawn animation of its complexity. Though it wasn't received with wide enthusiasm in North America or Japan, it's a crowd pleaser. It takes the Shonen Jump formula of friendship, effort and victory, projects it onto a complex, colorful universe, goes big, goes daring, and blasts off.
Gyo- This ufotable side project OVA adaptation of Junji Ito's absurd dead fish horror manga played in North America at the New York Asian Film Festival and was released on DVD in the UK by Terror-Cotta. The anime has problems. For an work with a lot of clawing, collisions, eye gouging and hair pulling it remarkably lacks a visceral feel. It also seems to have a hard-enough time just fighting to get the source material onto the screen that there wasn't much left over for thought to the structure or significance. Still, it's a horror OVA and that's rare and welcome these days. Directed, storyboarded and co-written by Takayuki Hirao, who worked on the fifth Garden of Sinners movie, with script assistance by ufotable production staffer Akihiro Yoshida and featuring a cast of non-voice actors such as gravure idol/pin-up subject Mirai Kataoka, the production was new talent trying out new things, which is also welcome.
Book of Bantorra- Before JoJo's Bizarre Adventure became the unlicensed darling of anime watchers who like an action story with flagrant amounts of gusto, there was David Production's 2009 Book of Bantorra. I'd been joking for a while that I'd forgive any anime company its shortcomings if they'd pick up the series. And, after it started to look like that particular book had been closed, Sentai Filmworks released the title on DVD this summer.
Think fantasy Metal Gear Solid meets super hero comics--adult characters with complex pasts and philosophies use super powers in inventive and visually interesting ways, as a plot explores one of those terribly complex worlds laid out in a series of light novels. Viewers may or may not find themselves invested in the convoluted plot or mechanics of a world in which being turn into stone books when they die, especially as it unravels in the late episodes. However, few wouldn't be drawn to the central figure--Hamyuts Meseta, a busty, Romi Park-voiced woman, who can send out Itano circuses of ESP fibers and utilize her super strength and a sling shot to take out armed battalions; a magnetic, dark figure called a villain by her subordinate Armed Librarians, not just because she's a hard-ass, but because she demonstrates a glee for chaos and violence. In a well animated exercise in unrestrained wild ideas, she's a fascinating crown jewel.
Fate/zero- The chessboard metaphor that the series sets up is perfect. In that exposition-heavy double opening episode, it lays out the pieces that the parameters. For all its mysteries and revelations, the cast of Fate/zero is nothing if not well defined. For the most part, they're adults with set world view that they're willing to stake all on. Then, the wild games plays out. You get to see Gen Urobuchi the experimental philosopher as these extreme personality types are set against each other. You get to see Gen Urobuchi the geek with fighter jets battling over a Cthulhu monster as mages toss fireballs at each other... then you get to see "Urobutcher" the sadist. This was the anime that kept me jazzed up episode by episode, always looking forward to next week.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica- The current queen of anime was streamed and released on home video this year. I don't know if this is going to continue to be loved as a classic by everyone decades down the line, but it comes to mind that Gurren Lagann turned five in 2012, and I imagine that Madoka Magica will hold up at least as well. For the moment, I'm going to call it correctly rated. It's not underrated in that while I'd recommend it to a friend, I don't think it's unjustly ignored by the masses, nor is it overrated. The characters, the direction and production are all excellent. Many anime fans embrace the medium for engaging characters presented in an inventive way and Madoka nails that.
Kids On The Slope- Kids on the Slope is everything you could hope for from a Shinichiro Watanabe directed adaptation of a Shogakukan Manga Award winning josei manga with Yoko Kanno music. Yet, I was ambivalent about this for a while. I'm a big booster of josei based anime, but if Shinichiro Watanabe was going to be a decade between anime again, I would have loved to see him do something that got the fans of Cowboy Bebop and Macross Plus excited rather than a nostalgic high school story. The latter is what anime does these days when it wants to go broad and safe--look at Studio Ghibli. In 2010 they were talking about the need for Arrietty to succeed and a plan to potentially dissolve production efforts in favor of a five-person copyright management company. They followed that with the release of From Up on Poppy Hill, a nostalgic high school story set two years before Kids on the Slope.
Fortunately we later learned that Watanabe has more projects in the cooker for 2013 and 2014, so I get to have my cake and eat it too.
Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine- Speaking of long awaited returns, here's the reemergence of Sayo Yamamoto - the woman who directed 2008's spiritual follow up to Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, Michiko and Hatchin. With scripts by Mari Okada, the woman who seems to write about half the anime being made, and designs from Redline's Takeshi Koike, the production looked like it'd offer an a feminist response to the take and kill madcap antics of the original Monkey Punch manga. The results weren't quite as exhilarating as I'd hoped. The literary mindedness and complex aesthetics come across like brittle ornament. The series is at its best when not-so-gentlemanly gentleman thief Lupin III and femme fatale Fujiko start playing too rough with the object of beauty, but for all its provocative imagery, it doesn't seem as dangerous as it needs to. There's a wealth going on here, much of which you will not experience in other anime. Yet, I still wish that either the fun stuttered the structure or the sharp edges of the structure cut through to some new truth.
Girls und Panzer- I don't think that I was alone in expecting fall 2012 truly be an outstanding anime season. I also don't I was alone in finding that much of it didn't live up to the promise. On the flip side of the anime that I thought would nail my interests or amaze me with artful production and ultimately underwhelmed, Girls und Panzer was the surprise delight of 2012. Here's an anime that just really got it-it delivered on what's compelling about team sports anime. At the same time, it was aware of the absurdity of its tank sport premise, and had fun with that without undermining the characters and competition that the sports anime conventions need to get the viewer invested.
Gintama the Motion Picture (aka Gintama: A New Retelling Benizakura Arc)- This year saw the long awaited return of cult comedy Gintama to home video. The movie is bookended by segments filled with the anime series' typical antics, with a middle that adapts one of the more serious stories featuring this crew of jackasses who occasionally fight ferociously to hang onto their makeshift social bonds. It's perfect Gintama. Maybe it's not the best introduction to the characters, but it's no worse than something like the direct to DVD animated movies put out by Marvel or DC.
Back when "Cool Japan" was credible, there was a notion that anime succeeded because it wasn't identifiably Japanese. Sure you had to call the "rice cakes" "donuts" but Pokemon wasn't covered with markers that it was Japanese. Dragon Ball, Naruto, and even One Piece are Japanese, but not overpoweringly so. In contrast, Gintama is the Shonen Jump hit that lets it all hang out--full of allusions to Japanese history and pop culture, not to mention puns and other word play, and the movie plays to that defiant charm. A big part of the bookend joke is Warner Brothers being fooled into thinking that they've landed a potential international cross-over hit with Gintama. Add in some top notch crowd pleaser action scenes to the typical Gintama foolishness and I'm sold.
Wooser's Hand to Mouth Life- I'm not as young as I used to be. I don't have as much time as I once did. As such, I can appreciate an anime about a dog that likes money and food, procrastinates rather than writing, and is funny for the span of three minutes. Best harem anime of 2012.
Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (manga)- After nothing since 2010, Dark Horse dropped two volumes of this must-read manga in 2012. At one point, Hollywood optioned the series for development, and of short someone brilliant adapting it, I don't think you can ask for more than what we got in '12.
The series, which I've called a liberal arts inspired manga, is about a group of underemployed Buddhist college graduates who enter into the none-too-lucrative business of moving corpses to where they need to be. Kurosagi is one of those manga that has a separate writer and illustrator. In that scheme, artist Housui Yamazaki delivers on the massive head wounds, maggots and other depictions gruesomeness that you'd expect from a corpse concerned manga, and which can challenge the stomach of even dedicated horror fans.
Then, there's writer Eiji Otsuka, an academic, editor and social critic with a real love of horror, otaku matters and knowledge. He's the best kind of geek writer, deeply engage with information and its implications. His top stories, and there are several in this pair of volumes, bring together social and technological developments, and weave them with cultural legacies. Examples here include episodes that weave together Second Life, identity theft and obscure psychological conditions; troubling "big brother" relationships and transmitted human motor instructions; aura reader, synesthesia and civilian judicial panels. Few manga are so dedicated to being informed and interesting. To pull that off while never losing sight of being a series of horror stories is quite a remarkable trick.
Message To Adolf (manga)- News that Vertical was bringing this book back to print was very welcome to anyone who didn't want to pay big bucks for a copy of the classic or wanted to be able to encourage others to read it.
Apart maybe from the difficult to obtain Phoenix: Karma, this is the work from the "God of Manga" Osamu Tezuka that I'd recommend as a starting point, not to mention a must for those who are already fans of the pioneering author. Leading into manga's boom years in the 00's, I found that many of Tezuka's most vocals supporters were first exposed to his work through Viz's release of Adolf.
Numerous factors converge in making this the most recommendable Tezuka work. The manga starts with a Japanese investigative reporter traveling to Germany to cover the 1936 Olympics, only to find himself tangled into a story of international intrigue involving Adolf Hitler, half German/half Japanese Adolf Kaufmann and Jewish Kobe resident Adolf Kamil. Many are drawn to Tezuka's more adult works, and even Tezuka Productions calls Adolf a "surprisingly serious and hardcore social drama." That he's exploring Western history will complement that approach well for many readers, as does the fact that it's late-career Tezuka from 1983. It is creatively illustrated and at times expressively cartooned, lampooning Fascist zeal, Hitler rhetoric and Wagner music. But being late Tezuka, it has a bit less of the sometimes mystifying of difficult-for-some to read experimentalism you'll see in earlier works, and it lacks the impulse to cut tension with gag comedy.
At the same time, it's quintessentially Tezuka. He applies the sort of cinematic vision that made him such a titanic manga author, fitting the ideas that he's working through into the framework of a thriller. Beyond that, there's a personal connection here. Tezuka lived in Kobe during World War II. And, as always, you can see him grappling with the subject, specifically how that place could contain an aspect of the conflict taking stage in Germany. There are plenty of Tezuka style dialectics here. You can see compassion and revulsion battling as he works through how hatred develops and how a good natured person could fall under the sway of fascism. As is often with the case of Tezuka, you can see the gears turning as he considers the subject. The final act is still controversial, but to my mind, it seems like a function of Tezuka dynamically processing the implications of history on the pages of his manga as much as it is a political statement.
Also of note is Digital Manga Publishing's Kickstarter funded released of Barbara. Written at a time that Tezuka was being challenged by a vanguard of young, daring manga artists, it's the God of Manga in a full 70's sexually charged head trip blitz.
Attack on Titan (Manga)- Now that everyone has seen the anime trailer, it's a little late to get in on the ground floor of this phenomenon, but there's still time to jump on this band wagon early. According to ICV2, while the manga has sold over 9 million copies in Japan, volume one sold less than 400 in American comic shops.
There are rough spots in Hajime Isayama's writing. There are definitively wonky bits in his illustration. However, neither really handicaps the manga's great trick. Isayama imagines something incredible. Mankind is brought to the brink of extinction by giant humanoids that apparently exist only to devour homo sapiens. The surviving community lives in a walled city, devoted to self-preservation. At the same time, tremendous creative energy is devoted to making it credible. The reaction of the society and the individuals, the organization of this group of survivors, even their blade wielding Spider-Man like tactics used to combat the Titans--it all takes on a sort of believable life of its own when meticulously depicted. For all its readily apparent flaws, Attack on Titan is one of the great speculative manga.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Box Set (Manga)- Ecological epic Nausicaä is a thrilling read, with all the visual creativity and dynamism you'd expect from its author, the master anime director Hayao Miyazaki. Though probably released as many times with as many different formats as any manga to come to North America, the new complete hardcover edition of this classic is a must for the bookshelf of any manga reader.
Hayao Miyazaki began serializing Nausicaä in Animage magazine in 1982. Eventually a 1984 movie was produced at Top Craft, setting the template for Miyazaki's upcoming work at Studio Ghibli. He then returned to the manga and continued to work on it off and on until its 1994 conclusion. As such, it's by far Miyazaki's longest manga. It's also his longest work. All those philosophical tenets and character types that caught your attention in his movies are developed and expanded. It's also pure Miyazaki--it's not constrained by budgets and production schedules, or filtered through having to work with other animators. So, if you've fallen under the sway of Miyazaki's work, this one is a must-have.
Sakuran (Manga)- Moyoco Anno's work has a big eyed, elegant lined vitality that you can't turn away from, no matter how painful the story it tells is, whether that's the anti-rom-com Happy Mania (one of the first josei to be released in North America) or male-grooming torture comedy Flowers & Bees (track down the Viz release - if for no other reason than it features a character suspiciously like the author's husband, Hideaki Anno).
Here, we get the beautifully barded story of a naturally rebellious girl sold into a life of service in the Yoshiwara red-light district, with the historical manga told over the course of a single volume.
While there's little alternative but to be appalled by the system in which the lead is installed, the manga does not invite a simple reaction. Its title is a term for derangement, wrapped around with word play of blossoming imagery and a high rank of prostitute. As that might suggest, Anno is not looking for a clean tragedy. When the lead rises in the rank of the courtesans, there's a bit about how, despite her coarseness, clients are drawn back to revisiting her within three days. As dark, and to many, difficult as the story might be, it draws the reader back to appreciate the attractiveness of the illustration and think about the subject.
Kokoro Connect- One of the most genuine and insightful dramas ever, both with it shedding a serious look on what it would be like to spend time as a different gender and delving into the characters and their problems. You cannot help but love every character (Inaba! HNNG...). They really did something different here, and while it suffered fierce competition this season in the drama department (Natsuyuki Rendezvous, Hyouka), it held its own and delivered a high school drama that actually managed to stand apart from the rest.
Eureka Seven AO- The original Eureka Seven easily became a classic. And so, six years after its end, BONES came with a sequel. It's quite an interesting series--you really need to have seen the original in order to enjoy it, yet it's nothing like its predecessor.
Kamisama Kiss- For the people who haven't heard me repeat this over and over yet: the director of this series is Akitarou Daichi. He did Fruits Basket and Bokura ga Ita before, so YES, he can direct really good romance. Think Bokura ga Ita in the classic youkai setting--you have PURE GOLD.
Saint Seiya Omega- I am forever addicted to anything Saint Seiya, even though it's just fighting over and over. It's what happens during the fighting that makes me still return to this show, alongside the excellent soundtrack. The nostalgia factor gives it a lot of kick, even with character designs by Umakoshi Yoshihiko. Basically, it's PreCure for boys, which is why I like it.
Sword Art Online- I don't think I can legitimately say I work at Crunchyroll without mentioning the year's flagship title. I know a lot of people have a lot of opinions about SAO, but they fail to keep in mind that not everyone has seen the amount of anime that they have. A lot of new fans were born thanks to SAO's simplistic, pathological storytelling, and that makes me appreciate it. The second arc, though... I am not commenting on. (I can't believe that Asuna didn't do a single thing through the entire ALO arc. "Yes, I am your damsel in distress. I will wait for you.")
Attack on Titan- The standout manga of 2012 pulls absolutely no punches, and has fast, detailed art to go with its grim, almost oppressive story. The titular Titans are horrifying enemies, the 3D Maneuvering Gear is a smart and original idea for action (whether human vs. Titan or human vs. human), and there's a terrible sense of urgency looming over the plot. Building a strong mythology with truly unique action makes this the new title to pick up this year--I can't wait for the anime, which is due later this year!
Kuroko's Basketball- While the rest of you girls were watching stuff with lolis and military equipment, I was watching a basketball-and-bromance epic. Which happens to star svelte, super-bishie young men. Aaaand is total slash bait. SHUT UP.
JoJo's Bizarre Adventure- I'm with Joseph on this--it's a terrible shame that this never got licensed here in the US. JoJo's Bizarre Adventure is a shining light in a sea of samey anime both in visuals and in plot, and brings back the old-school charm and gusto that brought me into anime and manga in the first place. Besides, where else can you find a superpowered martial artist teaming up with a cyborg Nazi to fight savage Aztec vampires?
Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I - The Egg of the King- Okay, so it's only 76 minutes long, but it sure as hell doesn't feel like it. We had a Berserk anime years ago, but these movies go out of their way to really capture the scale and power of the manga, and the rest of the story is on the way!
Sword Art Online- Yeah, so some people hate it. That's cool. Its popularity surprises me too, but Sword Art Online proved to me that you should never judge a book by its cover. I kinda hate the K-ON!-like character designs, and I really hate the painfully awkward "sister" thing in the ALO arc, but Sword Art Online is able to switch gears from being suspenseful to sweet to out-and-out badass, always keeping me on my toes. Here's hoping A-1 Pictures gets to do more from the light novel series!
Honorable Mention: Bodacious Space Pirates- In another instance of "you shouldn't judge a book by its cover," Bodacious Space Pirates hit me with a million things that would usually make me roll my eyes so hard they fall out of my head. Let's go down the list, shall we? Young female starship pilots of various fetish groups, including a meganekko and a sexy older woman, a main character who is a cute pirate and also works at a maid cafe, and their casual wear is school uniforms? Yeah, originally I'd say "count me the hell out" until I actually watched the show, finding a sharp and well-written comedy with great characters and surprisingly little pandering. I know all about the complaints, but I've always very strongly believed that you don't need plot as long as your writing is good--and this show's is great. More anime need to be like this!
Do you think this was a good year for anime? What were some of your favorites for 2012?
And that's not all for CRN's 2012 Favorites--tune in tomorrow to see our favorite VIDEO GAMES of 2012!