Animation Talk- Best of Anime in 2015

Well another year has almost gone by meaning it’s once again time to talk about the highlights. As a whole this has been one of the strongest years for anime in recent memory and despite a few disappointments here and there, there’s been a lot of strong content to check out. So without any further ado, let’s jump in.

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This category goes to things that aren’t exactly show specific, but nevertheless wanted to point out. That includes theme songs, characters and stuff related to English dubs. Anyway let’s get started:

 

Best Anime Opening-Mazeru na Kiken by Kinniku Shojo Tai (Ushio & Tora)

 This was a pretty good year for anime openings for me as there was a good mix of great standalone songs, and made-for-series theme songs. With that. I had a pretty hard time deciding which I liked best but in the end I had to give it to Ushio & Tora’s . When I first started on the show, I came in expecting it to be a GAR-fest and the opening ended up delivering on that in spades as it’s 90 seconds of pure testostrone filled visuals and enough to even give Fist of the North Star’s opening a run for it’s money. It also works really well as a standalone song, mixing together heavy guitar rock and bits of japanese folktale music making for a theme song that makes for a really blood-pumping opener.

Honorable Mentions: Raise Your Flag by Man On A Mission (Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans), Ai no Prison by Kangoku Danshi (Prison School), Flyers by Bradio (Death Parade)

Best English Dub- Tokyo Ghoul

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This has been a pretty good year to be a fan of of English dubs as between the rise of Broadcast dubs, Sentai Filmworks getting some of their shows on Toonami and a surprisingly decent number of California-based dubs, there’s been plenty to go around. As with every year though there’s a handful of dubs that managed to rise above and beyond, this one being no exception as my two of my other favorites Blood Blockade Battlefront and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure were pretty close in quality to this one. In the end though I had to give it up to Tokyo Ghoul as Mike McFarland once again demonstrates why he’s one of the best ADR Directors in the business.  The voice direction in the show carries his usual level of high quality and the voice work itself delivers on a variety of fantastic performances from Austin Tindle’s Kaneki fully capturing both personas of the character perfectly to Monica Rial’s surprisingly creepy Rize and of course J. Micheal Tatum’s delightfully hammy Tsukiyama. It also manages to nail things pretty well script wise too and enjoys a script that’s liberal enough to have a little bit of fun with itself but not so much that it ends up overriding the material of the series itself like a few other Funimation dubs this year. I’ve had my share of issues regarding Funi’s dubs this year but when it comes to this one, I’m willing to give credit where credit is due.

Honorable Mentions: Blood Blockade Battlefront, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, A Lull in the Sea

Available for streaming on Funimation

Best English Voice Actor- Erica Mendez

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Coming into this year I was already fairly impressed with her work on Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic as Aladdin and what I’d seen of her as Ryuko Matoi in Kill la Kill but I still wasn’t sure how much her performances were going to stick with me. Between then and the end of the year though, she’s managed to nab a lot more roles and all of them have proved to be pretty stellar. There’s been a lot of individual performances from actors that I’ve really enjoyed this year but she’s managed to deliver in everything I’ve heard her in this year (the one thing I haven’t being SAO II since you couldn’t get me to touch that series again with a 10-foot pole) and has proven to be pretty versatile as she’s handled a variety of different characters and played all of them effectively with my particular favorite probably being her work in A Lull in the Sea as Akari. Erica Mendez is quickly becoming a household name when it comes to California dubs and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her work in the coming year.

Honorable Mentions: Austin Tindle, Max Mitterman, Micah Solusod

Best Anime Character- Gouda Takeo (My Love Story!)

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Shojo has long been a genre dominated by predatory pretty boys (with more than a few putting the extra emphasis on predatory) as the romantic leads so a show instead opting to go with a giant manly-man (who’s usually a side character if they appear at all in this genre) and an extremely gentle hearted one at that is certainly quite unexpected. Especially when he’s made the actual protagonist  as opposed to our heroine Yamato. This could have just come off as a blatant attempt to subvert the usual genre tropes and nothing more, but Takeo proved that he’s a more than worthy lead. He’s a character with a heart as big as himself, and he’s the kind of clumsy and awkward guy that you can’t help but root for, despite the fact that he technically gets his happy ending pretty early into the show’s run. As a bit of a big guy myself it’s nice to see a protagonist that doesn’t have to adhere to the usual standards of attractiveness and he’s proof that what really matters is on the inside (I swear this is the only time I’ll be this sappy).

Honorable Mentions: Klaus von Reinhart (Blood Blockade Battlefront), Maria (Maria the Virgin Witch), Mumen Rider (One-Punch Man)

2015dos

This category is centered around genre stuff. Unlike the best series which we’ll get to afterwards, this for things that stood out really well as a genre piece moreso than as an overall series. That said there’s still plenty of good stuff to be found here, so let’s take a look:

Best Mecha Series- Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded-Orphans

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So similarly to last year it hasn’t exactly been the best one for mecha series(mainly because there were surprisingly few), and to be frank I can’t recall the last good one we’ve had in the last half-decade. As  such, it’s once again a Gundam series that rises to the mantle of carrying the genre for the year and this time it’s a serious one. Compared to a lot of the Geass-clones that have plagued the genre for the last few years, this show prides itself on having a lot of grit more than anything else (which is certainly a surprise given the writer is none other than the queen of melodrama herself Mari Okada) and carries it’s darker elements as being associated more with the overall setting of the show than any attempt to hamfist it in. It certainly does have it’s share of drama though as it centers itself around the theme of family and brotherhood while also being a pretty darn cool robot action spectacle with  plenty of great mecha fights to go around. This is my first “real” Gundam series (I’ve seen bits of Wing, G Gundam and SEED growing up but never watched any of them in full) and it’s certainly proving to be a great entry point.

Honorable Mention: Comet Lucifer

Available for streaming on Funimation, Daisuki

Best Romance Series- My Love Story

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So to be frank aside from a couple of other series there hasn’t been too much in the way of legitimate romance series this year (though the Kiyoshi X Hana “romance” in Prison School will always be dear to my heart) but dang it, it would feel weird not to bring up this show when it comes to genre stuff so there you go. For years entertainment media has convinced audiences that showcasing a healthy, stable relationship in full force would be boring since there’s no tension and has instead fed us melodrama and occasionally horrifically unstable relationships because that’s way more dramatic. However My Love Story proves that not only can a show about a happy couple be interesting, it’s downright infectiously charming. The chemistry between the two lead characters helps to sustain the show pretty well and while it doesn’t carry itself with too much drama, there’s just enough of it to keep things from getting too saccharine and it makes for a show that’s as genuine as it is sugary-sweet. In a world where the media actively veers from happy relationships, My Love Story is here to remind us that they’re happy for a reason

Honorable Mentions: Snow White with the Red Hair, Yurikuma Arashi

Available for streaming on Crunchyroll, Hulu

Best Comedy Series- Mr. Osomatsu

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It’s been another solid year for comedies and there’s been a few standouts but the best for me proved to be a darkhorse than I don’t think any of us saw coming. This series opened up at full throttle by parodying pretty much every big hit it could get it’s hand on before eventually introducing audiences to it’s own brand of comedy and I’ve been laughing ever since. Series director Yoichi Fujita (who’s also directed a little anime comedy you might have heard of called Gintama) clearly knows how to make people laugh, and the show brings that out in spades as it’s cast of loveable jerks never fails to make me crack a smile. Of course while it’s great for laughs it’s also proven to be surprisingly witty and it’s depiction of our NEET protagonists makes for some occasional social commentary. I certainly wasn’t expecting this series to be such a standout, but now I’m glad it’s here to grace us with it’s presence.

Honorable Mentions: Prison School, Gintama season 4, Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE!

Available for streaming on Crunchyroll

Best Action Series- One-Punch Man

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Okay so I’m not being terribly original here, but you can at least give me some credit for putting it here instead of as best comedy. While OPM is two parts comedy and action, the anime adaption put a bit more focus towards the action side of things and in the biggest way possible. Director Shingo Natsume aka the other mind behind Space Dandy besides Watanabe managed to assemble a crack team of animators (so no it doesn’t have anything to do with the B-word and the animators themselves have said as much) to deliver on a glorious spectacle. The show features some of the best action animation highlights of the year and every episode has at least one impressive  sequence or two, with the finale in particular featuring what is hands down the best TV animated fight I’ve ever seen. Of course OPM is also a comedy and it does pretty well for itself in that area in addition to using it’s superhero ranking system as workplace commentary, but even if those elements don’t quite work for everyone it’s hard to deny that as an action piece it’s knocked out the rest of the competition this year with one solid punch.

Honorable Mentions: Ushio & Tora, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders Egypt Arc, Blood Blockade Battlefront

Available for streaming on Hulu, Daisuki

Best Drama Series- My Teen Romantic Comedy Snafu TOO!

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So truth be told I got into this series while the second season was airing, but there’s a solid difference in quality between the two seasons so I don’t think I’m being too biased here. While I enjoyed the first season’s more cynical approach towards high school and teen relationships, I’m also glad the show was willing to acknowledge that point of view isn’t exactly sustainable when making the transition to adulthood and this season demonstrates that in full. Especially so in regards to the protagonist Hikki who’s cynicism, while effective in dealing with problems on a superficial level, ultimately serves to make himself unhappy and that as he grows closer to those around him, he inevitable has to start changing even if the prospect of getting hurt by others terrifies him. Of course he’s not the only one going through changes in this season as our two heroines and other various members of the supporting cast are also forced to take a deeper look at themselves and where they stand in regards to the relationships they’ve made. Sadly this season ends on a bit of a cliffhanger and it’s hard to say when we’ll get more, but this sequel made an already solid show really strong, and while some may feel the second season’s approach against cynicism is a betrayal of the first, it’s definitely where this series needed to be headed and I’m looking forward to getting more some day.

 Honorable Mentions: Noragami Aragoto, Death Parade, Maria the Virgin Witch

Available for streaming on Crunchyroll

 

2015tres

 

And now we’ve finally arrived at the best series for the year. You may notice that I have two series listed here instead of one, but that’s because I’ve picked the best based on two sub-categories: best adaption and best original work. While both adaptions and original projects both carry the intent to pick up an audience, they’re generally trying to accomplish different things as an adaption has to be a good piece of entertainment while maintaining the strengths of it’s source material where as an original work needs to stand completely on it’s own two feet and draw in a crowd on it’s own merits. As such I feel it’s only appropriate to bring up which two series did the best at tackling those things so without any further ado, here they are:

Best Series (Adaption)- Blood Blockade Battlefront 

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I liked both of Yasuhiro Nightow’s previous works Trigun and Gungrave, and Rie Matsumoto’s direction for Kyusogiga helped to make that series my favorite of the year it came out so when I saw this series was going to involve those two minds melding together I was pretty excited. That said I wasn’t expecting it to nearly as much of a standout as it ultimately ended up being one of the year’s strongest success both in terms of quality and financially since it’s finally given BONES their first genuine hit in a long time. The show’s loose storytelling could have proved to be overwhelming in the wrong hands, but even at it’s most dense it’s never too difficult to follow and it’s really east to get caught up in the show’s ficitional version of New York as it provides a mismash of everything from aliens to the supernatural. Although while the series generally functions in an episodic manner and especially so for the manga going by what I’ve heard of it, Rie Matsumoto also managed to inject some of her own themes through the Black/White storyline that persists through most of the show and it’s really effective. In blends into the source material pretty well and not only does it manage to avoid feeling out of place, it helps to enhance several of the show’s other elements as well in regards to Leo’s coming of age story and finding his own sense of self-worth. I know people sometimes have the tendency to look down on adaptions that feel like more of the director’s product than the original author’s but there’s something to be said for ones that manage to insert the director’s ideas without negating what makes the source material great and this series stands as proof that it can be done right. While I can’t say I’m exactly foaming at the mouth for another season, I certainly wouldn’t mind one, and even if we don’t this is a perfectly solid piece on it’s own.

Honorable Mentions: One-Punch Man, Noragami Aragoto, Maria the Virgin Witch

Available for streaming on Funimation, Hulu

Best Series (Original Work)- Yurikuma Arashi

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2015 was a solid year of highs for anime as we got a pretty good plethora of good content, and so much of it that I can actually name no less than 14 shows I really enjoyed. That said while there’s been a lot heavy hitters this time around, in the end there’s just no beating an Ikuhara show for me. This series continues director Kunihiko Ikuhara’s bizarre mix of sexual themes and over the top visual symbolism found in both Revolutionary Girl Utena and Penguindrum to create yet another interesting piece of art. Though where Utena and to a much lesser extent Penguindrum briefly explored lesbian relationships, this one is all about gay prejudice in society, the value of true love over sexual desire and of course loads and loads of bears. As with pretty much anything Ikuhara related it’s an acquired taste, but if you dig his sense of style then you’ll be happy to know it’s all over the place here and delivered in his strangest fashion yet. Given the show’s subject matter, I briefly considered putting it as my top romance series of the year but sadly the show doesn’t have as much time as Ikuhara’s other two series to devote to characterization and while our three heroines are certainly likable, there was definitely plenty of room for them to be fleshed out better. As such I’d probably have to say that among Ikuhara’s three masterpieces this one’s the weakest, but calling something a weak masterpiece is hardly an insult, and what it does do well, it does extremely well. Ikuhara’s done it once again as the overall package here is more than enough to make this show an easy pick for my favorite among this year’s original works (and in general), and also strong enough to stand as one of my favorite anime yet.

Honorable Mentions: Death Parade, Yatterman Night, Gatchaman Crowds Insight

Available for streaming on Funimation, Hulu

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And that’s 2015 for me in a nutshell. All in all this was a much stronger year than I was expecting as there’s been a lot of things I’ve liked and surprisingly few things I was disappointed by (Gangsta‘s probably the only anime adaption that failed to meet my expectations this time). With 2016 on the horizon there’s looking to be quite a few big adaptations and anticipated sequels coming out of the woodwork, with more than a few I’m really excited for. With any luck, it’ll be just as good of a year if not better than this one and even if it doesn’t I can at least say that this was a tough year to beat.

 

Animation Talk/Recommendations-10 Best Samurai Jack Episodes

So if you’ve been on the inter-webs recently you’ve likely noticed that everyone’s in a hubbub over a little show called Samurai Jack being brought back from the dead for a new season in 2016. The show has been held up throughout the years as a beloved classic, and having reviewed the show a year ago, I can confirm that it’s stood the test of time fairly well. So if you need a refresher on what made the series so great or haven’t seen it and are curious to see what all the excitement’s about, here’s a list of my 10 favorite episodes from the show in honor of it’s revival.

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10) The Birth of Evil

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Every story needs a beginning, but in this case we’re going to the beginning-beginning. This is the episode that finally explained Aku’s origins as well as the origins of Jack’s legendary sword (which oddly enough despite being forged by several gods, none of them were Japanese ones) and it’s the only episode where our titular hero is nowhere to be found, with the story instead being told through the perspective of his late father. Given this was told as a two-parter it’s one of the show’s more cinematic pieces and it’s chockful of the show’s usual brand of action and direction, making for a really nice prequel and one that answered a couple of burning questions.

9) Jack and the Scotsman

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Samurai Jack is a show with little to no continuity so it’s nice to get a recurring character besides our hero and villain, and the Scotsman proved to be a welcome addition to the series. Out of all the episodes he’s featured in though, his first appearance is definitely his strongest. In addition to being another solid action piece for the show, it’s really fun to see his brash personality play off of Jack’s more reserved persona, making for some good comedy and one of the better uses of the “handcuffed together” scenario (and as I type this my mind is now filled with horrifying images of the slash fics this may have inspired) as the two are forced to work together in order to fight off the various bounty hunters after their heads. With Jack being something of a lone wolf half the time, it was nice to see him find at least one ally in the future, and their team-up here proved the two most dangerous men on the planet are even more dangerous together (darn, I did it again!)

8) Jack Remembers the Past

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The series carries with it, many different moods and stories, but this is one of the few that’s genuinely about our hero himself. Given Jack’s story started off with him being sent off to train against Aku, there wasn’t really anytime to see his childhood before that so this serves as a window into what his life was like before disaster struck. More importantly though, it serves as a reminder that Jack is pretty much alone, as there’s still no way for him to actual return to his home and his look back on bygone days helps to make this one of the show’s more quiet entries and proof that dialogue isn’t always necessary to strike an emotional cord.

 

7) Jack and the Blind Archers

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Speaking of silence, it’s pretty much impossible to do a list like this without this episode being in there somewhere. This early entry in the show’s run features Jack being pitted against a trio of mystic archers in order to gain access to a wish granting well that could return him back to the past (bet you can’t guess what DOESN’T happen!). What really makes this one stand out is that it was one of the first episodes in the series to prove how well direction could carry a mood even without much dialogue, something practically unheard of for western animation at the time (and in some ways is still the case unfortunately). The silent samurai movie nature of it, makes for a really cinematic action piece and while the ending twist isn’t too surprising it caps off the tension of the episode pretty well  and if you need an example of how well the show can handle that kind of style, look no further than this.

6) Jack and the Lava Monster

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Like the previous episode, this one is another action centric entry but this one has some actual story  to it giving it an extra punch. In this one Jack encounters a monster that’s actually the spirit of a Norse warrior who tried to resist against Aku’s hostile takeover of his homeland, only to be cursed by the demon. Now he’s stuck in this body and unable to ascend to Valhalla with the rest of his brethren unless he can die a warrior’s death at Jack’s hands. This makes for a pretty tragic tale in addition to the usual epic fight scene with the combination making it a standout among the show’s earlier entries. It also makes for one of the show’s darkest when you consider this was an episode of a children’s cartoon where the main character was effectively helping a guy to commit suicide. Nighty, night kids!

5) The Premiere

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It wouldn’t be fair to do one of these without mentioning the episode that started it all.  The premiere is a great introduction into Samurai Jack’s world, displaying everything from how epic, to how downright weird the series can get as we see the beginnings of Jack’s fight against Aku and his first encounter with the distant future he now finds himself trapped in (the latter of which involves talking dogs). All of the show’s sense of direction, fight choreography and killer soundtrack can be found full force here, making for a perfect segway into getting people interested in the show. One of the things that stands out the most about it though is the climatic battle between Jack and Aku’s robot army which features what still holds up as one of the most cleverly constructed middle fingers to violence censorship ever conceived.

4) The Good The Bad and the Beautiful

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So this one isn’t as widely remembered as some of the others but it’s pretty solid. This episode is a western spoof featuring Jack on the run from a pair of bounty hunters…who also happen to be divorced and spend just as much time stabbing each other in the back as they do trying to kill Jack. If the premiere is everything great about the show in movie form, then this one is everything fun about it distilled into 22 minutes of pure entertainment. It’s funny, action packed, and clever, making for a great testament to the kind of material you can generally expect from the show when it’s just out to have a good time. 

3) Jack v.s. Aku

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Despite what the title of the episode implies, this one is almost entirely comedy and as far as that goes, it’s the show’s best effort. In a surprising moment of self-awareness, Aku realizes just how repetitive the battles between him and Jack have become so he offers to settle things in a mano-a-mano fight to the finish. Of course Aku being the slippery devil that he is, tries to cheat his way through the battle with Jack trying to counter all his plans, making for a hilarious “I know, you know, that I know” setup (Light Yagami would be proud).  It’s always nice to see a show have the balls to make fun of itself, and this episode succeeds at that in spades.

2) The Tale of X-9

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Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a robot mook? The answer’s probably no, but too bad because Samurai Jack shows it to you anyway, and the result makes for one of the show’s strongest entries. We follow the titular X-9 who used to be one of Aku’s elite robot enforcers until he decided to settle down and live the quiet life with his pet Lulu (sweet thing). That is until Aku calls him for one last job in trying to get rid of Jack and holds Lulu hostage to ensure he goes through with it. Since X-9’s name doesn’t happen to be Samurai Jack though, his fate is sealed the moment he encounters our hero and it makes for a pretty sad ending. I’m a fan of noir spoofs (mainly because noir is impossible for me to take seriously) and this delivers on all fronts, so the next time you encounter a robot mook in a game, you might wanna think about who he could be leaving behind before you slaughter him. You monsters.

 

1) Jack and the Spartans 

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This is another one of the show’s most looked back upon episodes and for good reason. This one features Jack teaming up with a small army of Spartans in order to help defend what remains of their domain, and while at first glance it seems like an obvious homage to the movie 300, it actually aired well before that and is instead a tribute to an earlier film called The 300 Spartans as well as the novel that inspired it. As such, the episode is shot in a deliberately cinematic fashion, ramping up the show’s usual mix of direction, action and storytelling considerably. It’s an episode that stands at the pinnacle of the show’s sense of style, and shows just what it’s capable of accomplishing in a mere 22 minutes when all of it’s elements are in perfect harmony. It also helps that this episode has nothing to do with Aku, making for a great standalone piece, and one I’d highly recommend if you haven’t seen the show before, but are curious as to why it’s so highly regarded. The show has a lot of greats, but this is by far one of it’s most brilliant.

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And there you have it. Samurai Jack is a show with a lot of style, and these episodes are prime examples of said style at it’s best. As we look onward to the new season, it’s hard to say what else the show will end up accomplishing, but I’m certainly looking forward to finding out.