2011 has ended, as years often do. Soon the new year’s anime will be starting; I haven’t taken a close look at them, but I’ve heard there isn’t much to be excited about. So rather than worry about the upcoming year right now, let’s take a moment to stop and reflect on the year that has passed, and rank the ten best anime of the year.
Some rules regarding what I consider eligible to receive a ranking: I’m counting anime (so no J-Dramas or My Little Pony) that aired on TV (so no movies or OVA) starting in 2011 (so no Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu for #1 anime five years running). I’m also excluding any anime that were just continuations of a series that began prior to 2011. There were a few good second seasons that aired this year, like Ika Musume 2 and TWGOK 2, but those shows have already received consideration during their original airing years, and it’s time for them to step aside and make room for new blood. Shows that aren’t done airing or shows that I haven’t finished watching are fine, though, so long as I’ve seen enough of them to have an opinion. All the descriptions below are going to contain spoilers, so maybe you should just read the titles and then go off and watch all of them?
The Top 10 Anime of 2011, in Ascending Order (the last shall be first and the first shall be last)
10. Usagi Drop
Usagi Drop was a mellow show about a guy in his early thirties who suddenly found himself responsible for taking care of a six-year-old girl. It spent a little time on the troubles of being a six-year-old (they won’t let you use sharp knives and you sometimes wet the bed) but the focus was more on parenting, and the ups and downs of fatherhood. It’s a little idealized, because Rin is calmer than most six-year-olds I’ve met, and meeting her at six years of age means that Daikichi didn’t have to e.g. change her diapers. It was heartwarming to watch, although the pacing was very slow and relaxed, which meant that sometimes it verged on boring, and the times when Rin was interacting with other kids or Daikichi was interacting with other adults weren’t as interesting.
9. Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko
Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko was a harem comedy about a guy who moves to a new town to live with his hot aunt and extreme hikkikomori cousin. A bit more contemplative than your average harem comedy – like Kyon from Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu, the protagonist has a tendency to narrate the events in his life, which invites the audience to try to see things from his point of view and consider multiple angles on the problem. The main strength of this show was the depth of its characters: the haremettes were much more than simple collections of moe traits. They were treated as actual people, with beliefs and desires and personalities that stood on their own, instead of being defined in terms of how they related to the harem protagonist. Unfortunately, the plot was really disjointed; nothing seemed to lead into anything else, loose ends were created and then immediately dropped, a new character was added for the last two episodes and we never found out what her deal was. Also, the show sometimes got a little preachy with its message, which as far as I could tell was something along the lines of “it’s not fair to exclude people from society just because they’re completely socially incapable”.
8. Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai
Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai was a harem comedy about an after-school club for people who had trouble making friends. It had some funny jokes, and some interesting things to say about why people close off their hearts from one another. It also had a crossdressing maid. I feel like it was a better treatment of the topic of “outcasts from society” than the show at #9 was. Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko put all the blame on society, while Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai takes a more mature approach. Sometimes people don’t have enough friends because they’re not very likable. The main problem with this show was excessive fanservice. The show went to pains to show its female characters in various compromising situations and states of undress. And I can live with that sort of thing if it’s say, Sena, whose physical attractiveness is a plot point and who looks good in her butterfly hairclip, but when it starts to involve the so-called “imouto sub-harem” who are, like, pre-teens, it becomes kinda creepy and uncomfortable.
Nichijou was the first thing Kyoto Animation had done in a while that actually interested me. It was a fast-paced gag comedy, sort of in the style of Lucky★Star, but with even less continuity, less realism, and a larger cast. The visuals were heavily stylized, in a manner that reminded me more of a Shaft show than KyoAni. There were a lot of great jokes in this show, and the characters were almost all enjoyable, which is impressive given how many there were. But it wasn’t a character driven show, it was a gag driven show, and some substantial fraction of the gags did fall flat. Some of them were probably puns in Japanese I didn’t get, or required more Japanese cultural knowledge than I have, so if you’re Japanese or fully Nipponized, you might enjoy the show more than I did. Not that I didn’t enjoy it! I really liked about 70% of it, but that last 30% put it below the six shows it’s below.
6. Level E
Level E was an occasionally dark comedy about aliens secretly living on earth, and in particular one alien who had a tendency to cause nothing but trouble for everyone – a troll from outside the solar system. Level E had a definite 90’s vibe about it. Not in terms of the animation, which was at a respectable 2011 level, if no great shakes, but in terms of the writing and character designs. Level E was a show that had not heard of the moe revolution, and in general eschewed modern anime tropes. It was refreshing to see an anime so unlike anything else that gets aired these days. The comedy was in general quite strong, and this show had some of the funniest bits this year. The first and last arcs, particularly, had amazing payoffs. However, those payoffs came at something of a high price. The first couple episodes were really weak, and I was almost ready to drop the show. Level E spent a lot of time setting up its payoffs; some of them were really worth it, but some of them weren’t. A show with some incredible parts, but not for those who can’t delay their gratification.
5. Hanasaku Iroha
Hanasaku Iroha was a slice-of-life coming-of-age story about a Tokyo girl, Matsumae Ohana, who moves out to the country to live with her grandmother and ends up working at her inn. Hanasaku Iroha marks the beginning of the shows I can recommend without reservation – the fact that it’s only at number 5 on the list isn’t a slight against it so much as a sign that there were a lot of great shows this year. Ohana is an earnest girl who tries hard and gives it her all, and if she’s a little foolish sometimes, we can forgive her. She has a wry sense of humor, too, and an adorable tendency to coin words. As the story unfolds, she progresses from being a flighty city-girl to taking responsibility for herself, then to taking responsibility for others and things larger than herself. It’s a story of “bonboru”, of passionately striving for your goals, and it’s funny and touching and engaging and cute. It’s got a great cast of characters and it’s attractively animated. And the protagonist has flower-shaped hair ornaments.
Steins;Gate was a sci-fi time-travel drama thriller with harem elements. It starred Okabe Rintarou, a researcher and inventor who stumbled upon the secret of time travel and got caught up in a conspiracy so twisted it violated causality itself. The time travel drama was for the most part pretty good (the actual time travel mechanics got a little incoherent, but time travel mechanics are hard), but where the show really shined was in its characters. The show spent around eight episodes at the beginning focusing not on time travel conspiracies, but rather on fun slice-of-life stuff between Okabe and his mostly-female group of lab assistants. The slice-of-life stuff was great on its own merits, but it also made the drama more dramatic once first act was over and the time travel conspiracy got into full swing. When the bullets started flying and Okabe started having to struggle to protect the ones he cared about, the slice-of-life episodes meant I cared about them too. I was invested in what happened to these characters, I wanted just as much as Okabe did to return to peaceful days in the lab with his harem of assistants. And so the drama had much more emotional impact than it otherwise would have.
Fate/Zero is a modern fantasy action drama about a group of mages competing to be the last one standing in the Holy Grail War, summoning the souls of famous heroes like Alexander the Great to fight for them. (Actually it’s set in the mid-nineties, so I guess technically it’s a period fantasy action drama. They use fax machines and CRT TVs!) The combat scenes in Fate/Zero are some of the best animated action scenes I’ve seen in anything anywhere. When the heroic spirits fight, it is a wonder to behold. So much so that it almost turns into a downside. It’s hard to sit through the dialogue, and there is a lot of dialogue, when you are constantly thinking, “stop yapping at each other and get back to the awesome fight scenes already!”. The dialogue is good, with lots of interesting characters scheming at and with each other, and debating each other over their conflicting philosophies. The characters are well-designed, represent a wide variety of ideas, and are all striking in their own ways. But the fight scenes are so good that it’s hard to appreciate the rest of the show, sometimes. Usually I have trouble appreciating action scenes because I want the show to get back to the interesting talky bits, but Fate/Zero has made a believer out of me.
2. Mirai Nikki
Mirai Nikki is a horror drama thriller about twelve people who are given diaries with a limited ability to read the future and told to kill each other, with the last one standing earning the powers of the God of Spacetime. So there is some interesting Death-Note style survival game content, where people try to exploit the powers of their Future Diaries to kill the other players without being killed themselves. But where this show really shines is in the romance between the male and female lead. The male lead, Amano Yukiteru, is a spineless coward who has been unwillingly thrust into this survival game. The only reason he’s still alive (so far), is the female lead, Gasai Yuno, who is also a competitor and is head-over-heels in love with him. So in love with him that she’ll fight like a cornered animal to protect him. So in love with him that she’ll kill anyone who looks like they might become an obstacle to their relationship. Yuno is a grade A yandere, but unlike most shows, Mirai Nikki doesn’t treat their yandere as a villain, or play her off as a joke. She’s deadly serious, but Yukiteru needs her if he’s going to survive the attacks of the other players, so they have developed a relationship. And it’s absolutely fascinating to watch this relationship evolve, between the coward and the crazy stalker, against the backdrop of the survival game.
1. Puella Magi Madoka Magica
My pick for best anime of the year is Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a deconstruction of the magical girl genre. It’s hard to describe what makes this show so great – essentially it takes the idea of a magical girl series and looks at it through the darker lens of the real world, where you can’t get something for nothing, where every trader is out to exploit their counterparties, where if you fight long enough against a powerful enemy, you might get hurt. So you have these young girls thrust into a secret war where there is only despair waiting for them, and they still struggle to try to protect what they love. There’s elements of tragedy, elements of psychological horror, and still elements of the passion, friendship, and justice of an ordinary magical girl show. The closest thing I could compare it to would be Bokurano. Madoka does for mahou shoujo what Bokurano did for mecha. Madoka is much better executed technically, though. The animation is Shaft at their best, the near-future visual style of the cities is all the more impressive for how understated it is, the character designs are all wonderful (see above, for example), and the writing is sharp. I’ve tried not to give away too much of the plot in this review, because the various twists and turns in it are the best thing about the show. But I went into it totally blind, expecting just a high-quality magical girl show, and I was blown away.
Agree? Disagree? Argue with me in the comments!