Thursday, December 14, 2006

My favorite anime of 2006 -- Simoun, Suzumiya, NANA, et al.

I'm already looking at what new shows are coming up in January, so perhaps it's time to look back over 2006.

What a year it was! I sat down to do a personal top ten and came up with a top three or a top fifteen. And the top three are competitors not just for the top anime of this year, but for my favorite anime of all time:

Simoun -- I have never enjoyed an anime more. Great characters, great emotions, a fascinating alien society. A wonderful and mysterious conclusion. True art. I have compared it to Shakespeare. And the fact that all the voice actors are women, even those who play male parts, gives this show a special feeling. The sound director got outstanding performances from the entire cast, which is a large and impressive one. The light dusting of yuri adds to its appeal.

Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu -- The best animation ever in a TV anime, brought to us by Kyoto Animation. A bizarre and interesting story and one of the funniest anime ever. The episodes were shuffled from their chronological order, leaving some viewers angry and perplexed and me delighted. It marked the arrival of Hirano Aya as a top seiyuu. In Haruhi, she created one of the great characters in anime. And there was wonderful seiyuu work as well from Sugita Tomokazu and the inimitable Gotou Yuuko.

NANA -- This show leaves me emotionally exhausted every week. Such real, deep, suffering and exalted characters, and a story that just won't quit. The perfect adaptation of a great josei manga. And NANA has taken late-night anime to a higher range of TV ratings in Japan, broadening its appeal to a female audience that normally stops watching when the dramas finish, at 11 pm.

Those are my top three. But there are so many more. These next three are almost at the same level:

Asatte no Houkou -- A realistic-feeling story based on a magic event. Very beautiful direction -- spacious and calm -- by Sakurabi Katsushi, the director of Tsukihime. Extremely atmospheric, and with strong voice-acting from Itou Shizuka and others.

Bokura ga Ita -- The best shoujo romance anime I've ever seen, at least the equal of KareKano. Psychologically deep and complex. The performance by new seiyuu Sasaki Nozomi is glorious. She may have the most moé voice I've ever heard, and she uses it to create strong emotion. The look and direction -- by Artland and Daichi Akitaro, the director of Fruits Basket -- are pretty and poetic.

Hataraki Man -- Totally unique and deeply involving, especially for those of us who have worked in a similar world. The central character is a workaholic editor at a popular magazine. The stories deal with her work, her life, and her relations with the people around her. Serious and comic by turns, Tanaka Rie elevates herself to the seiyuu elite, if she wasn't there already. No two characters could be more different than Chii (Chobits) and Hiro, the Hataraki Man. This show is the only late-night anime besides NANA to have entered the top ten anime TV ratings this year.

And now we come to a group of nine anime that would belong in my year's top ten, if I could have limited the number to that:

Saiunkoku Monogatari -- It's a Saturday-morning shoujo historical romance, set in a fantasy analogue of ancient China. With nine popular novels to work with, the first series has 39 episodes, and another series will start in the spring. Seiyuu Kuwashima Houkou creates a great character in Shuurei, the cute but serious teenager who is a brilliant scholar with ambitions to help her country, and who is loved by its young king (played by Seki Tomokazu), and others.

Honey & Clover 2 -- Not the equal of the first series, but the equal of almost any other show. Perhaps my enjoyment was tempered by the fact that I had read the entire manga by the time I saw it. But this, like NANA and Hataraki Man, is anime at a higher intellectual and emotional level.

Shinigami no Ballad -- A neglected short show, six separate episodes with some touching stories of death and near-death, presided over by a cute, white-clad shinigami played by the fascinating voice of Kobayashi Akiko.

Hanbun no Tsuki ga Noboru Sora -- Such a wonderful hospital romance that it has been made into a TV drama. Started this year's trend toward basing anime on popular light novels. After her triumph in Honey & Clover in 2005, Takahashi Mikako began this year, which has been a great one for her, starring as the tsundere sick girl Rika.

Otogi Jushi Akazukin -- So it's a Saturday-morning fairy tale for kids. But it has some of the best backgrounds, animation and colors I've ever seen, some nice variations on fairy tales, and great voice-acting from Tamura Yukari, Sawashiro Miyuki, Kugimiya Rie and others, with guest shots from such stars as Kuwashima Houkou. What's not to like?

Negima!? -- Unbelievable visual invention from director Akiyuki Shinbou, who has developed steadily from Tsukuyomi Moon Phase, through PaniPoni Dash!, to this. Fans of the first anime or the manga may be a bit put off by the great liberties he takes with the story, but visually this is truly art. The colors are unbelievable. The seiyuu cast is large and exciting. And the humor is good, too.

Kanon -- Kyoto Animation has taken it upon themselves to remake a classic anime, and they have made it even better. This show defines moé. The animation is near the level of the studio's Suzumiya Haruhi, and director Ishihara Tatsuya (AIR, Suzumiya Haruhi) draws out the emotional trajectory with delicacy and restraint.

Soukou no Strain -- A complete surprise, this looked like a mecha show but turned out to be a shoujo-ish SF adventure with mecha dressing. Kawasumi Ayako and Yukana make it their own personal playground and show us what real voice-acting is. It mixes genres in a profligate way, but ends up pleasing those of us who don't demand the strengths of standard mecha SF. It has lots of angst, lots of fanservice, uneven humor, and an interesting story based very loosely on A Little Princess.

Lemon Angel Project -- A little show about a group of aspiring idols. Few other people liked it. I thought it was one of the nicest shows of the year, with a real story, real feelings, and some enjoyable characters. The young teen idol who was the star had the weirdest voice imaginable, but it worked to produce the emotion the story required. And it was the first appearance this year of Chihara Minori, whose role as Yuki in Suzumiya Haruhi later took her to prominence.

There are so many other shows I enjoyed. Kashimashi was the first of two shows this year in which a boy turns into a girl. The protagnist is reconstructed by aliens after a tragic accident. The humor works, the shoujo-ai (?) romance works, and the voice-acting is wonderful: Ueda Kana, Tamura Yukari, Horie Yui, Asano Masumi. But I had read the manga here, too, and that may have dampened my enthusiasm. The other show in which a boy becomes a girl, Otome wa Boku ni Koi Shiteru, is like a mix of Maria-sama ga Miteru, Kashimashi and Strawberry Panic. Horie Yui does a great job as the boy whose deceased grandfather makes his attending a girls' school a condition of his inheritance. S/he is a lovely character: strong, funny, natural, and romantic.

I enjoyed Nishi no Yoko Majou, but the story was too rushed. It needed 24 episodes rather than 12. I watched Kirarin Revolution for a while: it's a pure shoujo aspiring-idol show for young girls, but still seemed to me to have something. However, the repetition of tropes finally got me down. Kin-iro no Corda is a prototypical reverse harem, but the bishounen are real people, not ciphers, and the lead girl, played by Takagi Reiko, is a wonderful character.

And there are many good shows that I just didn't personally like as much as others did. Ouran High School Host Club had a great performance from Sakamoto Maaya and humor that really reached some people. But not me. Red Garden is a good show, but anything with monsters is hard for me to enjoy, and the plot and character development move slowly for me. Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto has animation that at least rivals Kanon's, and an interesting setting at the end of the shogunate in the late 1860s, but the story doesn't reach me, and the sorcery seems out of place. ARIA the NATURAL and Mushishi were good shows, but I found the plots insipid and just never cared about the characters.

Higurashi no Naku koro ni
was excellent in its way, but violence to innocent people doesn't do much for me. Welcome to the NHK has some good parts but in the end I lost interest. Perhaps I just didn't like the guy. I never got into Black Lagoon, but I love Toyoguchi Megumi as a seiyuu, and from what I've read, it's something I should take another look at. The Third was not a good show, but she was outstanding in it. Noto Mamiko in a new kind of role was a revelation in Witchblade, but once again...monsters.

And so, on to the end of the season and into the new year!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Saiunkoku Monogatari -- pics of characters and seiyuus

Saiunkoku is one of those shows with so many characters and names that it's easy to get confused. Wikipedia is useful, but I find that a table with little pics of the characters really helps.

I've added pics of the voice actors. Hopefully, that will not confuse the issue. The number of older VAs is interesting. This is a big-time Saturday morning show on NHK and BS-2, so I guess they can afford the greater expense: my understanding is that older seiyuus always get paid more than younger ones, even young stars.

I fell behind on this show and have only just caught up to episode 29, which was broadcast yesterday. I have to say that the events of the past few episodes have been very involving. This show is really moving ahead. And Shuurei remains one of the most wonderful characters I've seen, due in no small part to the great Kuwashima Houko, her voice actress.

We'll get to the end of the first 39-episode season next spring -- and a new season will start in April. There are nine volumes of novels, so there's lots of material for Yoshida Reiko, the series designer, to work with. The anime and the novels both have good official sites.

I have an earlier character page for this show, but I let it fall behind, and in any case I think the Wikipedia character page is doing a similar thing more reliably. I've made the current page as a handy guide to characters and seiyuus. So far, almost all the named characters up to episode 29 are covered -- 28 characters in all, lol -- with spoilers up to episode 20. The most recent English sub is episode 22. For anyone who can read Japanese, the Japanese Wikipedia pages are outstanding.