Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Best Anime Season Since Spring 2006

BakemonogatariSpring 2006 was the best anime season I can remember, with three anime masterpieces starting their runs: NANA, Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu, and my all-time favorite, Simoun.

Now we have another season to rival it. At least through a half-dozen episodes, there are three summer 2009 shows that I could end up rating as masterpieces: Aoi Hana, Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, and Bakemonogatari. (mouseover images for captions, click to enlarge)

And this is a summer season, of all things. Fewer shows debut in summer than in any other season, with spring and fall being the two major anime seasons. Summer is usually an anime down time. Not this year.

Now, there are other new shows I am also enjoying -- Spice & Wolf, Kanamemo, and Princess Lover, for example -- but they are not in the same league. Except for Koshimizu Ami's world-class voice-acting in Spice & Wolf, they are just good entertainment.

Aoi HanaThe three potential masterpieces all have something special. In Aoi Hana, it's the delicate feelings and relationships, so well matched to the watercolor backgrounds and the amazing direction and storyboarding: unhurried, but every second having a purpose, creating an aesthetic whole.

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, as Vexx said in the AnimeSuki forum, is one of the most consistently adult anime I've seen. It is so adult that it can have a sullen, immature 13-year-old as its main character. The earthquake situations are fairly real, but not played for sensationalism at all. What counts are the vivid characterizations and relationships, and their continuous development.

In Bakemonogatari, Shinbou Akiyuki finally gets source material that lifts his jittery visual inventiveness to a higher plane. The jump cuts, odd angles, walls of text, and seizure-inducing repetitive backgrounds all suit the beautiful anomie of NisiOisiN's novel. And we keep getting amazing characters, especially the violent, affect-less lover, Senjougahara.

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0All three of these new anime seem to me to be aesthetic wholes, with everything in them contributing to a satisfying vision.

Why do I consider the three 2006 shows masterpieces? Simoun created a unique world, gave us new feelings about gender, had characters that were vivid and real and interacted in strong ways, and had a consistent story that took its characters to new places in their lives. I particularly liked the way the plot gradually unwound at the end, so it didn't end at a high point, but only after the characters had begun to adjust to the plot's conclusion

NANA's excellence is based on the strong characters and story of the original manga by Yazawa Ai. She took two very different young women and led them through a life in Tokyo among rock stars. Each was trying to find her real life, either depending on men or firmly independent. And they discovered the problems of either approach. The anime, sometimes against the wishes of the mangaka, found ways to convert the original book into a real animated story.

Suzumiya haruhi no YuutsuSuzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu, like NANA and Bakemonogatari, had an excellent written work to depend on. But the producers took great liberties and created something fresh and compelling. Re-ordering the episodes cut the ground from under viewers' feet, as did the initial movie episode. With voice and animation, they created an archetype in Haruhi. And Kyon's jaded comments tied the whole thing together. Once again, nothing was wasted in that show, everything contributed to a satisfying whole.

Since 2006, the only other show I would call a "masterpiece" is the feature-length anime by Shinkai Makoto, 5 Centimeters a Second. To me, this is a Buddhist religious film: a string of haiku exposing the sinews of the real world, and a story -- or series of stories -- showing the basic unsatisfactoriness of human life. It was high art, the best animated film I have ever seen, and one of the best films, period.

Now, to use the word "masterpiece," is probably going a bit far. Are these Hamlet or War and Peace? Perhaps not, except maybe for 5cm/sec. But they are far above the normal run of good anime, and I rated them on Anime News Network as "exquisite" masterpieces. I would rate them as high as many pop culture "masterpieces," such as Catcher in the Rye or E.T.

These shows all have a rich texture of plot, character, image, sound, idea, and emotion. The staff and cast give order to this complexity, creating real works of art.

Simounef - a tale of memories came close. It had a consistent aesthetic and interwove its stories in a way that worked. It is no accident that the music was by Tenmon, who does the music for Shinkai Makoto's shows, too.

I haven't finished the series of six Kara no Kyoukai films. It may also be a masterpiece, in part because of the way it uses Kajiura Yuki's music. The characters are vivid and consistent, in their bizarre ways. The show creates a feeling and does not let go.

The recent series of short episodes, Eve no Jikan, may be too brief to consider, but it is of a very high aesthetic level, with strong characters, a consistent tone, and a compelling science fiction background.

Honey & Clover came close for me, too. A fairly adult story with fairly adult characters interacting in emotionally affecting ways. But it petered out for me a bit along the way. That could be because I had read the original manga.

Maria-sama ga Miteru is a show I love, and it is certainly consistent in tone and has affecting characters and situations, but somehow it doesn't reach me in the deep way that the similar new show Aoi Hana does. I think the writing, direction, and animation are not quite as sharp.

What shows do you consider masterpieces, and why? I only really started watching anime in 2004, and I haven't seen that many earlier shows. Except for Ghibli. And I find that my personal taste tends to exclude shows that can be described as "shounen."


omo said...

I think I might agree with you.

Sorrow-kun said...

Spring 2006 also had, from memory, Higurashi, Ouran and ARIA The Natural. I probably didn't quite appreciate it at the time as much as I do now (considering it's been so long since we've had another season like it), but yeah, I definitely agree it's the best season of the last few years by a reasonable way. So it's a big call to say this season has been as good. But goddamn it's been so refreshing to have so many great titles airing at once. In the last couple of days I've found myself thinking, as anime fans, we are so blessed. It's not often that I find myself thinking that, let alone saying it openly.

As for shows which can be considered "masterpieces", well, that's not a word I through out willy nilly. Even ARIA The Origination, which is a gem, I wouldn't quite consider to be a "masterpiece". Some of the works of recent years that I consider to be a masterpiece include Mushishi, Gankutsuou, Monster and Honey and Clover II. There's not too much else, in all honesty.

Panther said...

I prefer spring 2007 as the season of greats and masterpieces for me, though 2008 had a masterpiece too. But you are right, summer's greats have been TM8.0 and Bakemonogatari.

I could write a whole post up on what were great, but in general, I guess it remains up to what we like and consider "greats" and also which season just happened to air the "greats" for us, that makes us think that season and year had the most number of "greatest" anime shows.

hashi said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. "Masterpiece" is a big word. Really, I just mean a show I would call a masterpiece in the ratings on on ANN. But when I realized that people call good movies like E.T. masterpieces, I thought it wasn't so far-fetched.

We certainly all have our favorite styles and genres, but within those, I think we can judge which shows hit the top.

I was going to dispute Panther's choice of spring 2007, then I checked my old schedule, and I see what you mean. My personal favorites of that season were actually Touka Gettan, ICE, and Hitohira, but I see some shows that are widely considered excellent: Gurren-Lagann, Moribito, Claymore, Lucky Star, Ookiku Furikabutte, Dennou Coil. Moribito and LS are my favorites among those, and no shows from that season reach the top rank for me, but a case can be made.

@Sorrow-kun: I feel blessed, too. Shhh. In any case, I am grateful to the creative people who make these shows for us -- or if not for us, for the Japanese public. It's easy to complain, and there's lots to complain about, but there's a lot more to be grateful for.

DeathBySnuSnu said...

Wow, this struck me as a bit of a surprise, since I was already writing off the season as one of the worst in recent memory.

I originally started out with 4 new shows to follow, which quickly dropped to 2 after I realized how stupid Needless was and being bored to tears by the dreadful Bakemonogatari. Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 is decent enough, but hardly something I'd consider a heavyweight. At this point, the only summer show I really look forward to each week is Canaan.

hashi said...

@DeathBySnuSnu -- We all like different genres. I think I mentioned that I find myself not liking anything that could be called "shounen." Perhaps you like those and not other kinds of shows. To give an example, I only lasted about five episodes of Gurren-Lagann. It was cute, but the humor was quite unfunny for me, and I couldn't get into the characters or the story.

But I respect the fact that shounen fans think it's outstanding. I'll have to give it another try sometime. I am enjoying Canaan, although less now than at the start.

looseleaf said...

So far, Bakemonogatari makes this season for me, although I wouldn't really call it a masterpiece when half its episodes are not aired yet. To me, masterpieces are something special, something that amounts to a so-called breakthrough in the industry. The first season of Suzumiya Haruhi was a classic example. Regarding other anime, I thought Toradora was brilliant; probably a notch lower than the category of "masterpiece" though. Twelves Kingdoms also deserve a mention.

Shana-nee said...

Maybe reading the Manga of Aoi Hana before watching is kinda bad.XD I stopped watching and reading because I'm tired of those never ending love triangles. XDDD

But Oh well, I shall go back and watch them. I trust your judge in this >DDD

Anonymous said...

Hmm I think your tastes may have softened a ~teensy~ bit because the past three years have been full of cookie-cutter moe/ecchi/fanservice sub-par stuff.

I'll admit that Aoi Hana and Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 are very well done anime. Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 has an extremely high degree of touching realism and characters with real-life personalities and real-life feelings; the series seems to be very on par with the popular Japanese animated movies that get localized internationally. And Aoi Hana's characters are unique and distinctive to themselves with subtle charm and touching moments.

I think they're excellent shows but I'm not sure I'm ready to rank them with NANA and Simoun... or maybe they're just a different category of excellence.

I feel what made NANA a class of its own was its ability to weave deeply and intricately into complex relationships consistently for forty seven episodes, combined with stellar vocal performances by OLIVIA and Tsuchiya Anna. The intense emotions of real-world situations and not cookie-cutter regurgitation of stereotypes made NANA such a real, and powerful anime.

And yeah, Marimite does seem to have lost some of its charm in the 4th season. The first two and the OVA's were superb, but the same luster seems to have dropped off.

Maybe I just haven't been into anime enough as much lately in general...

hashi said...

@Anonymous -- I can see we share some taste. Your description of NANA is one I'd like to have written. I'm not ready to give these shows a final grade yet, as I said -- endings are the hard part -- but so far they are on track for the highest grade.

I think it has to do with what I perceive as a kind of mastery in all three.

Aoi Hana is just so perfect in the way it conveys people's feelings. They seem to be given just the right amount of weight, to me.

TM8 is not quite so perfect in that regard, but it gives us feelings we don't often see in anime: the real teen dissatisfaction, a mother's love and pain.

And Bakemonogatari is something like Suzumiya Haruhi in having its own style and characters that are unique and fantastic (i.e., with some fantasy in them).

As I say, in all three cases, I feel the staff and cast exhibit a kind of mastery of what they are doing. No-one is challenging Simoun for me yet, though.

I actually disagree about Marimite 4. I thought it was as good as the first two series, whereas the OVAs didn;t do as much for me.

Crazyanimegyrl said...

First and foremost, I like your blog! ^_^

Yea I think Aoi Hana, Bakemonogatari and Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 are some of the best!

But... gotta add Higashi no Eden, Casshern Sins, Natsume Yuujinchou (1st and 2nd Season) and lastly, Kanamemo--- love the heck out of episode 4 musical... The Dairi is a Demon! LOL! ^_^

digitalboy said...

no doubt, this is one of the best summer seasons ever, probably. Lots and lots of greats, I haven't even seen Tokyo Mag or Aoi Hana yet, but Bakemono is great, I'm loving Kanamemo for my own reasons, and there are a couple of sleeper hits like Umi Monogatari and Taishou Yakyuu Musume. And I havne't even seen Umineko or the new Haruhi yet.

But by far my favorite this season is Canaan. Fucking incredible show that keeps blowing me away again and again every episode.

and I've gotta say, I thought Spring 07 was quite an epic seasons (Gurren Lagann, Lucky Star, Darker than Black, etc.)

moritheil said...

You know things are going well when shows that are "just good entertainment" aren't worth mentioning.

I also think this summer was quite excellent - Endless Eight and all.

Anonymous said...

huh. i guess i'll give simoun and tokyo magnitude 8.0 a try...

Anonymous said...

After watching more into the season I'm compelled to take back my previous comments about your standards. There is a uniqueness and depth in feeling this season, and although 2006 was still outstanding, it's not to say that there aren't genuine classics and masterpieces right now. I guess I just wasn't in the mood to watch the current genres and appreciate them at the time. My apologies.