Spring 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.
The 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.
All 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 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.
ef - 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."