Thursday, December 27, 2012

Favorites of 2012

That time of year, I guess. A few caveats before I begin.

I'm not a anime blogger; I'm a fansub editor. Thus, I don't feel any compunction to watch every show or even to sample all the new ones. I have a relatively narrow range of anime interests, focusing on science fiction, comedy (romantic or otherwise), slice-of-life, and cats. I don't watch mecha unless Youko is in the cast, so that eliminates, for example Eureka 7 AO and Aquarion Evol. I dislike harem and most moe-blob shows, which eliminates the eroge and VN adaptations. And as a grandfather, I don't like shows about violence against, or exploitation of, children, which rules out Jormugand (a good show) and Btooom! (junk). Despite their sci-fi premises, neither Accel World nor Sword Art Online interested me; there have been too many virtual-world series recently.

I can be lured outside my comfort zone by compelling characters, compelling stories, or preferably both. Normally, I don't watch sports anime, but Guardian Enzo steered me to two of them in 2012, and he was right about both Chihayafuru and Ginga e Kickoff. On the other hand, I'm having difficulty staying engaged with Psycho-Pass, despite the thrilling plot line, because of the over-obvious intrusion of the authorial voice in the proceedings.

So with those caveats, here are my favorite show of 2012, in alphabetical order. I make no claims that these are the "best" anime series this year; they're the ones I enjoyed the most.
  • Acchi Kocchi. Yeah, I know it was incredibly exploitative of the moe trope. Nonetheless, I found it consistently funny, not to mention very soothing to watch. It was clear from the get-go that the central relationships would hardly change, but they were funny relationships, and the humor was unforced.
  • Ano Natsu de Matteru. The most enjoyable romantic comedy of 2012. Although it was almost a remake of Onegai Teacher (a prequel, actually), it succeeded in its own right by creating believable characters and letting them carry the story through to a proper conclusion. It never put a foot wrong.
  • Chihayafuru. Who'd have thought that the most exciting sports anime this year would be about karata? Chihayafuru transcended its genre - indeed, all its genres - to provide an engrossing show that kept faith with the ethos of sports anime while providing believable characters, strong development, and some engaging romance. I regard it as one of 2012's miracles that this unclassifiable show is getting a sequel.
  • Ginga e Kickoff. This show is heartfelt, honest, and smart: a sports anime about kids' soccer that neither makes the kids into supermen nor dogs them with insurmountable obstacles to be overcome. The slow knitting together of the team, the small issues of growing up that each of the characters has to face, and the growing sense of friendship among the team members are all portrayed impeccably. Even the low-budget animation doesn't mar the appeal of this show.
  • Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita. Non-linear, obtuse, savagely satirical, and at times hysterically funny, this show said more about the human condition with less preaching than any other show in 2012. The decline of mankind, and the rise of the "fairies" as a distorted mirror of our civilization, were the themes of a story that appeared to run backwards in time, with a nameless protagonist and no apparent plot. Only at the close of each two episode arc did the pieces seem to click, then to be undone by the next set of episodes.
  • Natsume Yuujinchou Shi. The fourth season of Natsume was as good as any of the previous three and in some ways better. The blend of supernatural comedy and human growth was pitch-perfect. There was plenty of air time for Nyanko-sensei and the youkai, but also a strong emphasis on Natsume's increasing comfort with his adopted family and the human world in general. Is there enough manga material left for a fifth season? I certainly hope so.
  • Nazo no Kanojo X. Another fine romantic comedy, portraying the joys and perils of adolescent romance from a sufficiently different perspective to provide an original experience. In retrospect, the "drool" factor acted as a alienating device to keep the viewer both engaged and distant at the same time, allowing the show to be appreciated from several viewpoints simultaneously. If Tsubaki was a bit generic as the hero, Urabe was an original creation, brought to life with a terrific performance by a new voice actress, Yoshitani Ayako.
  • Polar Bear Cafe. One of the most underrated shows of 2012. It gets almost no respect. No Crunchysubber ever picked it up, even though its songs cry out for translation. The core cast of characters (Polar Bear, Penguin, Panda, Hanako-san) are supplemented by representatives from across the animal kingdom and the human spectrum. The comedy arises purely from how the characters bounce off each other - from Polar Bear's endless trolling, Penguin's constant complaining, Panda's enduring laziness, Hanako-san's charming naivete, and the quirks of all the others. There's no great point to the episodes, but then again, there was never much point to Seinfeld, either. This show makes my Thursday mornings.
  • Shin Seki Yori. The best science fiction series of the year, and the best horror series as well. Here's a dystopia that doesn't shirk from the conclusions of its premises and appears to be driving its characters - and its viewers - into a corner. While I see influences from Forbidden Planet (monsters conjured up from the subconscious) and the 21st century's rash of mass shootings (fiends armed with psychokinesis rather than with guns), the bleak vision in this series is both original and ominous. For all its outdoor, rural setting, the show is constricting and claustrophobic. I almost feel like writing an analysis about it, but I'll spare everyone.
  • Tsuritama. The best anime ever made about fishing. No, seriously, this was a fine, character-driven comedy, mixed with just a tidbit of science fiction. The quartet at the center of the show - Haru, Yuki, Akira, and Natsuki, not to mention Tapioca the duck - bounced off each other and grew up in the process. They also, just incidentally, saved the planet from an Extraterrestrial Threat that turned out to be one of the best MacGuffins in a long time. Beautiful animation and terrific scripts made up a short series that, like Anu Natsu, never set a foot wrong.
Honorable mentions: Binbougami ga and Haiyore! Nyarlko-san, anarchic, over-the-top comedies that only rarely erred by trying for sincerity; Hyouka, with its KyoAni-perfect depiction of the pleasures and boredom of high school life; Lupin III: A Woman Named Mine Fujiko, for its gritty retake on the Lupin legend and its fearless embrace of the author's fetishes; Poyopoyo, the best short comedy (about cats, too); Thermae Romae, an extremely funny show made on an animation budget of three bottlecaps; and Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun, the most engaging of this fall's shoujo romances.

I wish everyone a safe and happy holiday season. See you all again in 2013.

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