Synopsis: Drawn to the mystique of the unknown, Hunters travel the world in search of terrifying creatures, incredible riches, and unexplored lands. Gon Freecss is a naive-yet-determined young boy who aspires to join the ranks of these individuals, in order to find his missing father Ging – a master of the profession himself. To reach his goal, he partakes in the formidable Hunter Exam, a series of tests that push the participants to their physical and mental limits, with a Hunter License as the prize. During the exam Gon befriends vengeful Kurapika, doctor-to-be Leorio, and skilled assassin Killua, who have entered for their own reasons. But with the sinister Hisoka standing in their way, will Gon and his friends be able to succeed in obtaining their reward, or even escaping with their lives?
Why You Should Watch: Like I said with My Hero Academia, I’m pretty much a shonen junkie at heart, and when it comes to top-shelf shonen, I can’t think of anything that really out performed this reboot of Hunter x Hunter. I was already fairly familar with the series going into it, having both read some of the manga back when I used to ride the high seas of piracy, and also having been a huge fan of author Yoshihiro Togashi’s previous work, Yu Yu Hakusho, whose anime adaption I had previous considered to basically be the best shonen anime ever made, both because of it’s pacing and the strength of it’s characters and the strength of its material. That still largely remains true, but Hunter x Hunter edges it out in a few areas. For one thing, it’s one of the best looking battle shonen adaptions out there in terms of animation and storyboarding (not that Yu Yu Hakusho slouches on that either), and while the early episodes are a little more conservative on those ends, the show only looks better and better the further it gets into its run. It also does a lot more to play around with the usual tropes of the battle shonen formula, and by extension has more room to play around with its characters and themes. The basic plot of Hunter x Hunter can really be described in one quick sentence: A boy named Gon goes on a journey to track down his missing deadbeat dad, Ging. In the process of getting there though he befriends a child assassin, gets hunted by a murder clown, has duels with death row inmmates, and that’s all just within the first arc of the show.
Like many shonen, Hunter x Hunter is no stranger to the outlandish, but it also goes to great lengths to explain what affects things like a group of superpowered bandits, or an army humanoid monsters would have on an otherwise grounded world, and it both adds to the surrealism, and allows for more serious consequences to the actions taken by the characters than what a lot of similar shonen stories tend to do. That applies even as the show plays around with various genres over the course of it’s run, and whether it’s a story about dealing with the mafia, or being trapped in a giant video game. Togashi puts enough detail into the mechanics of whatever he’s doing that it’s kind of impossible not to roll with it. In effect it kind of makes the series more of a giant toybox for Togashi to throw ideas around in, rather than a big overarching plot, and while having a shonen be so arc heavy sounds like something that would get annoying quickly, it works because it gives Togashi room to explore some really big ideas that a more linear structure wouldn’t allown. The Chimera Ant arc in particular is a great example of that as it takes the sudden emergence of a group of unknown insects and turns it into a powerrful tale about the dual sided nature of humanity, and how we can be capable of both empathy and unspeakable cruelty, making what is technically the show’s biggest detour, into one of it’s biggest highlights. That I feel, really sums up the appeal of Hunter x Hunter, as in the words of Gtying in the final episode “it’s important not to forget about the sidetrips because they’re the ones that hold what you’re really looking for”. It’s a story that’s much more about the journey than the destination (which is fitting since while the show does techinically get to its intended destination, it still leaves some loose ends) and the journey taken is one I’ll never be able to forget.
Synopsis: One night, Madoka has a terrible nightmare – against the backdrop of a desolate landscape, she watches a magical girl battle a terrifying creature, and lose. The next day, the teen’s dream becomes reality when the girl – Homura – arrives at Mitakihara Middle School as a transfer student, mysteriously warning Madoka to stay just the way she is. But when she and her best friend Miki are pulled into a twisted illusion world and meet a magical creature named Kyubey, the pair discovers that magical girls are real, and what’s more, they can choose to become one. All they must do is sign a contract with Kyubey and agree to fight witches that spread despair to the human world, and in return they will be granted a single wish. However, as Homura’s omen suggests, there’s far more to becoming a magical girl than Madoka and Miki realize…
Why You Should Watch: There really isn’t anything I could say about Madoka that hasn’t been said already by people much smarter than me, but that mostly speaks to just how powerful this show became. When I first checked it out way back in 2011, I wasn’t particularly into shojo, or any anime that didn’t feel traditional masculine, let alone magical girl shows, so I found myself being caught between it’s haunting atmosphere and my general aversion to magical girl stuff. I eventually decided to stick with it, and it turned out to be a pretty smart decision. The show’s earliest episodes lure you into something of a false sense of security as Madoka and her friend Sayaka find themselves thrust into the world of magical girls with the help of a fluffy mascot named Kyubei, and while the incredibly nightmare-like designs of the witch labyrinths they explore are terrifying, the show doesn’t really show it’s hand until the infamous twist of episode 3, and everything goes downward into a spiral of darkness from there. As the show progresses Madoka and Sayaka slowly realize that the finer details of being a magical girl might be a little more than they signed up for, and Kyubei isn’t nearly as benovolent as he first appeared as he’s more than happy to twist the emotions of these girls to meet his own ends (quite literally in fact as it turns out to be part of his job description. It all leads to the girls finding their lives torn apart by the cruelty of how the magical girl system actually works, and writer, Gen Urobuchi, takes a genre that is known for it’s unbridled optimism, and adds a shockingly harsh dose of reality to it. The show never pulls any punches on that end, and its commitment to that has spawned many imitators over the course of this decade, making the show perhaps the single most influencial anime since Neon Genesis Evangellion.
Yet, what many of it’s clones have failed to grasp is that while the girls do go through a heavy amount of suffering and cruelty, Urobuchi still understands that hope lies at the core of any magical girl story, and while the show’s ending certainly isn’t a giant pile of sunshine and rainbows, it still champions that hope in the midsts of despair can be powerful, and that it’s always worthwhile to fight for something better, even if the most ideal outcome isn’t always feasible. That message has stuck with me over the years, and it was the show’s great delivery of that message that helped to turn me from someone who avoided magical girl shows like the plague, to a guy who’s more than happy to burn through 200 episodes of Sailor Moon, and check out some Precure . Puella Magi Madoka Magica was and still is, a revolutionary piece of work, and it’s undoubtedly worth checking out if you somehow haven’t already because it’s not just the most influencial and important anime to have come from this decade, it’s a heck of a magical girl show.
Synopsis: Kamba and Shouma Takakura have taken care of their sickly younger sister Himari since their parents disappeared years ago – that is, until the day she died. But as the boys grieve by her hospital bed, Himari sits up, adorned with a strange penguin hat. Suddenly, the three of them are transported to a vibrant world where the hat, using Himari’s body as a puppet, charges these brothers with a task: find the Penguin Drum and their sister’s life will be saved! Now aided by some odd penguins they received in the mail, the duo must find this mysterious item or risk losing the sister they care for so much. However, they aren’t the only ones with their sights on the Penguin Drum, for new enemies await them around every turn, all connected in ways they would have never imagined…
Why You Should Watch: There’s a lot I could say about Penguindrum, whether it’s about its themes or its characters, but I don’t feel like anything I could mention would even begin to give this show justice, and how powerful it is. The story follows a trio of orphaned siblings named Shoma, Kanbe, and their sickly sister Himari who live together happily until one day Himari’s illness kills her, and she’s revived the spirit living inside of a penguin hat who demand her brothers locate something called the Penguindrum if they want to save her life. This leads to them getting mixed up with a young girl named Ringo who’s been secretly stalking her teacher, and things somehow get even weirder from there. The siblings as it turns out, have more than a few secrets of their own, and one that very specifically ties into a real-world terrorist attack, and the burden its left behind on the famlies of the vicitms.
If you couldn’t already tell from how bizarre this all sounds, this is another Kunihiko Ikuhara show, and while I’ve talked about some of his other works from this decade, this one was actually my introduction to him as a director, and his style of work. Similar to Yurikuma Arashi and Sarazanmai, Penguindrum is bursting from the seams with crazy visual metaphors and surreal storyboarding, and while it’s not as well animated as Sarazanmai, the more classical shojo look of both its character designs and backgrounds still make it a visual feast, and it holds up well almost a whole decade later (well as much as it can considered the quality of Sentai’s stateside release for it). I also feel like, compared to the two aforementioned shows, or even Revolutionary Girl Utena, it’s a really great introduction to Ikuhara if you’re coming to his works from a more casual point of view, as the story itself is a little more tightly scripted than some of his other works tend to be, making it entetaining even if you don’t understand everything it’s trying to say, and characters are a lot more fleshed out as well. Shoma, Kanbe, Ringo (who in addition to the best character in the show, is probably the actual protagonist)and all the other members of the cast are given plenty of time to have their motivations explored, and all of them feel like real people, no matter how outlandish their goals might seem at first.
However, even with everything else the show has to offer, the real strength of it lies in what it has to say, and boy howdy does this show has a lot to say. Penguindrum is about a lot of things: the previously mentioned affects of terrorism, unwanted children, parental abuse, and how people can pass the crimes of parents onto their kids. Ultimately though, all of those ideas tie into one core idea, haunting each of the characters: that the past is inescapable, and you’ll be punished for it forever (a theme made more direct by the villain being a literal ghost of the past). But even through all the budens they carry, the show argues that people don’t have to be defined by their pasts or who their parents are, and whether its through finding people who accept you, or choosing who you consider to be family for yourself, you can rise above your circumstances. It’s a message that feel can resonate with a lot of people, and it’s certainly one that hit pretty close to home for me, which is why I’m still looking so fondly back on the show all these years later. There’s been a lot of great anime this decade, but few have captured both the beauty of anime as an artform, and as a tool for storytelling quite like Penguindrum, and it’s not only my favorite anime of the decade, it’s my favorite anime period, and one that I really hope will continue to stand the test of time.