Another great year. Maybe not as great as 2006, which produced three classics: Simoun, NANA, and Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu. But 2007 was full of interesting shows.
The top ones for me are one show from last spring -- Lucky Star -- and two from this fall -- ef ~a tale of memories~ and Blue Drop: Tenshitachi no Gikyoku.
Lucky Star began by alienating much of its potential audience. The humor was so unemphatic, and the show had such spare drawing and animation that it was unrecognizable as KyoAni work. But although it may not have had many belly laughs in it, I found myself laughing quietly in my bones from start to finish.
Hirano Aya really created something in Konata's comic burbling voice. The sly earthiness of that voice was the foundation of the whole show, it seemed to me, setting up the other voices to seem even more moe. And the script provided the kind of humane absurdity I love in a comedy. The un-KyoAni-like animation was KyoAni-like in two things: in its great consistency, and in the smooth animation of movement.
ef ~a tale of memories~ was a complete surprise. The preview made me fear that the voice actors -- who came over from the game -- might not be up to the task. How wrong I was. This show is true art, made by Shinbou Akiyuki's protege Oonuma Shin from an ero-game by minori.
Once again, many animephiles were put off by the show's style. Its visual complexity seemed pointless and confusing. In fact, every one of those odd angles and strange palettes has an emotional purpose. This show is great romantic melodrama, underpinned by powerful music from Tenmon, who does background music for Shinkai Makoto's work (e.g., Byousoku 5cm). The interwoven romances are fascinating, and the characters really have individual character.
Blue Drop: Tenshitachi no Gikyoku expertly traces the emotional currents in a girls' school with a difference: the top girl in the school is actually the commander of a hidden alien warship, in disguise. And her new roommate is the only survivor of the annihilation of the population of an entire small island in Japan five years before. Humans don't realize that the disaster was caused by a malfunction in the hidden ship's propulsion system.
The life of girls at the school is interwoven with the progress of an impending alien invasion of Earth, and with the progress of the relationship between the commander and the survivor. I guess the yuri undercurrents may have alienated a slice of potential viewership here. The leads are played by Yajima Akiko (Crayon Shin-chan) and Sawashiro Miyuki (Shinku in Rozen Maiden), both of whom seem to me to be at their best. Yajima-san's 40-year-old voice fills her character with youthfulness.
It's a little early for final judgments, and Blue Drop and ef could yet end badly, but I have come to trust the people making them, and I don't think that will happen.
My judgments are rooted in my personal taste, and there are other good shows that just didn't happen to suit me, or weren't in genres I appreciate. I couldn't watch more than a few episodes of Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann, for example. The pacing and the style of humor just didn't do anything for me. But I could recognize what a good show it was, in its way. Anyway, here are comments on some shows of note, by season:
Nodame Cantabile -- My enjoyment of this show was probably impaired by the fact that I knew the story too well, having already watched the TV drama version. But the music was wonderful, and so was Kawasumi Ayako. Her Nodame may have been the best seiyuu performance of the year. And Seki Tomokazu was her match as Chiaki. Real character development all round.
Kyoushirou to Towa no Sora -- I took this strange show a lot more seriously than most people did. It won me by its bizarre storytelling and eroticism. Yahagi Sayuri and Matsuoka Yuki were both outstandingly moe.
Manabi Straight -- Here's another show that I loved at first, but that seemed to dry up as it went along. The emotional bonding of Nonaka Ai and Hirano Aya's charcters in episode 4 made that one of the year's outstanding episodes for me. The animation was sharp, bright, and attractive.
Hidamari Sketch -- This is one of those shows that I will praise, but that I haven't finished watching. In that, it resembles Negima!?, another show from Shinbou Akiyuki's group at Shaft. The animation was great, the voice-acting superb, the humor enjoyable. But I could get all I needed in a half-dozen episodes. I think that ef~a tale of memories~ takes Shinbou's style to the next level, both in the effectiveness of the images and in the strength of the story.
Les Miserables ~Shoujo Cossette~ is a well-made and emotionally strong show that is just nearing the end of its 52-week run now, in December. Nazuka Kaori does a fine job in the title role, but it is Victor Hugo's classic story that gives the show its punch.
Emily of New Moon -- More or less completely ignored by animephiles, this show was one of the best of the year. Good animation and backgrounds, a solid story (by Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables), and excellent voice-acting, particularly from Kawakami Tomoko (Utena, Misuzu in AIR) in the title role. Beautifully evoked feelings.
Hitohira -- The first half of the series was very strong, with complex relationships well portrayed. But it seemed as if they they were spinning their wheels by the end. Kawasumi Ayako, and particularly Yukino Satsuki, were brilliant in this show.
Hayate the Combat Butler -- It has some funny episodes, and has clearly maintained its popularity, but it became very same very soon, for me.
Claymore -- Outstanding voice-acting by Kuwashima Houko and Paku Romi. Hou-chan's performance is another candidate for best of the year. Loathing monster anime as I do, it was amazing how long this one held my attention. One of the best shows of the year, with some shocking drama and real style.
Seirei no Moribito -- More outstanding voice-acting, particularly from actress Andou Mabuki. The animation, when it was at its best, was to die for. The story was interesting, but seemed to take a long time to play out.
Touka Gettan -- Few people liked this show, but I loved it. It was a brilliant idea to have the story go in reverse order -- episode 1 was chronologically the last episode in the story. But like other shows directed by Yamaguchi Yuji (e.g., Yami to Boushi to Hon), it seemed more interested in playing with its world than in telling the story, and a lot of episodes seemed like filler, as far as the story was concerned.
However, this show was one of the highlights of my own anime year. The performance of 15-year-old Hayami Saori as Momoka was wonderful, and her singing of the ED was even better. And one of the episodes written by seiyuu Noto Mamiko was very sharp, making me think she may have a second career awaiting. The sparkling animation and backgrounds were a never-ending source of delight. Carnelian's character designs were animated by Nishida Asako with her usual sensual flair.
Saiunkoku Monogatari II -- It started well, but I have had trouble finding time to watch more. Perhaps the 39 episodes of season one were enough for me. Kuwashima Houka continues to help make Shuurei a great character, the first female official in a kingdom that is a fantasy version of ancient China.
Darker than Black -- A story well told and well animated. The relations among the "contractors" -- friend and foe -- were fascinating. The voice-acting was terrific, particularly from Kiuchi Hidenobu as Hei. Directed by Okamura Tensai (Wolf's Rain).
Dennou Coil -- Outstanding animation from Madhouse, and every so often an episode stands out, but in general I don't find the show very interesting. The seiyuu cast is stunning, particularly with Kuwashima Houko and Paku Romi (as in Claymore).
Emma 2 -- A good show that I am just finishing. Excellent voice work and writing, with some beautifully portrayed emotion. Kobayashi Sanae as the fiancée, Touma Yumi as Emma, and Touchi Hiroki as Hans are particularly effective, in my opinion. A Japanese sensibility understands so well these nuances of feeling and conflicts between love and society.
Koutetsu Sangokushi -- I'm not going to call this show "good." But I mention it as the most bizarre adaptation of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms I have ever experienced. The yaoi undercurrents between Miyano Mamoru and Koyasu Takehito are wonderful.
Sky Girls -- This show seems to have slipped under everyone's radar, but is quietly and enjoyably proceeding toward 26 episodes, propelled by the wonderful voices of Kawasumi Ayako, Gotou Saori, and Itou Shizuka. The revealing outfits of the girl pilots promise more fanservice than the show actually delivers. Perhaps that turns off both people who like fanservice and people who don't. And the fact that the relationships in it are more important than the fighting probably turns off a big whack of fans. But the voices and the evolving friendship among the members of the team have brought me this far -- despite the silly monsters.
Mononoke -- Fascinating animation. Good seiyuu performances (Sakurai Takahiro, Tanaka Rie, Kuwashima Houko, Yukana, Hayami Shou, Seki Tomokazu, Midorikawa Hikaru, Namikawa Daisuke). But perhaps my taste is not elevated enough for this. The stories I saw just didn't engage me.
Mushiuta -- A weird story involving people being taken over by symbiotic insects. The story didn't grab me that much, but the way the seiyuus made the relationships work did. Nabatame Hitomi and Asanuma Shintarou were excellent. And in this show Hanazawa Kana established herself as one of the most moe voices in anime.
Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei -- Dark comic brilliance from Shinbou Akiyuki and seiyuus including Kamiya Hiroshi, Nonaka Ai, and Sawashiro Miyuki.
Potemayo -- A bizarre and funny little show. It's a comedy about a small toddler-like creature that the protagonist finds in his refrigerator beside the mayonnaise. Kitamura Eri as the male protagonist is excellent. Hanazawa Kana as Potemayo shows she can do hilarious grunts and squeaks as well as moe.
School Days -- Of course, you can't talk about 2007 without talking about "nice boat." All I'm going to say is that the show was basically garbage, even before the violence started. But it did have an unexpected ending. And it did create anger and frustration in the viewer, so it was not without its emotional effects. For those who don't know, "nice boat" was a reaction posted in a Japanese forum when an episode of the show was suddenly taken off air because of the violence in it and replaced with images of what looks like a ferry in a Norwegian fjord.
Genshiken2 -- It took me a while to start this show, but I've marathoned up to date, since I am enjoying it so much. Perhaps the romantic aspect has hooked me. Certainly the portrayal of the travails of the characters has. The voice-acting is excellent, particularly from Yukino Satsuki, Kawasumi Ayako, Hiyama Nobuyuki, and Mizuhashi Kaori.
Sketchbook ~full Color'S~ -- I love some episodes of this gentle slice-of-life comedy, but sometimes a pall of sameness seems to descend. Being fairly calm already, perhaps I don't need further calming. However, Hanazawa Kana's moeness is off the scale at all times.
Ghost Hound -- Production I.G.'s "20th anniversary production" seems unaccountably to be being generally ignored. The animation is good Production I.G. work, and the story and voices (Fukuyama Jun, Houshi Souichirou, Yajima Akiko) work very well for me. A show with atmosphere.
Minami-ke -- I didn't really get the first episode. I thought it was too imitative of Ichigo Mashimaro, especially with Inoue Marina's wholesale theft of Orikasa Fumiko's Miu voice. But since then, the show has grown and grown. Inoue-san, Chihara Minori, and Satou Rina are doing very well. There are a couple of LOL moments in every episode. And now we have warm, humane, rather loony versions of both the trap and the reverse trap.
Clannad -- Since I watch anime for emotion rather than animation, KyoAni's visual magic is enjoyable but not a deal-maker. In fact, I was lukewarm toward this show until the past two or three episodes, when my tears started to flow. Works for me. It's great to see KyoAni hire such big-name seiyuus as Nakahara Mai, Kuwashima Houko, Nonaka Ai, Noto Mamiko, Yukino Satsuki, and Inoue Kikuko.
KimiKiss ~pure rouge~ -- Director Kasai Kenichi has given this game story a maturity and complexity that remind me of his Honey & Clover2. Fine performances from Tanaka Rie and Koshimizu Ami, and particularly from Ikezawa Haruna (Yoshino in Marimite) as Mao-oneechan.
Kodomo no Jikan -- I mention this show not for its quality, especially, but because it has the most obtrusive censorship I have ever seen in an anime. The version intended for broadcast clearly must have preserved much of the loli fanservice of the original manga, but then the distributors at the last minute decided it had to be censored. This was done with ugly animated squares, screens, and noises. The show is actually about the life situation that drives the third-grade protagonist to her "adult" acting-out, but the censorship makes even that aspect of things hard to follow.
ICE -- I'll just mention a couple of OVAs that might have escaped people's attention. ICE is a bizarre yuri sci-fi story with muddy animation and some amateur voices, but I enjoyed it a lot. I sometimes find amateur voices more emotionally believable than polished pros.
O-kane ga Nai -- This show is for people who don't mind a little aurally graphic yaoi in their anime. Especially for those who want to hear Fukuyama Jun as a somewhat unwilling uke. I kid you not. But I found the story interesting through one episode, at least. Perhaps because it's the first yaoi anime I've ever seen.
You'll notice the complete absence of anything like Gundam. Sorry, I still don't really get the appeal. Gundam00 seems fairly uninteresting to me, well-made as it may be. I enjoyed a number of episodes of Gigantic Formula, but for the relationships rather than the gundams. Dragonaut just seems poor to me. As for mainstream science fiction, I watched a few episodes each of Toward Terra... and Heroic Age but lost interest. They are both still on my "to watch" list.
Finally, although I'm not really including films in this survey, I have to mention the greatest animation of this year -- and perhaps of any year: Byousoku 5cm, by Shinkai Makoto. This is more than just art, it is religious art. The filmmaker Ingmar Bergman said that all true art is art in praise of God. Byousoku is a Zen version of that. It is like a series of haiku moments showing us a world more real than reality.