The year that was 2015

Sometimes I think things were different "back then", but I can't remember specifics on why. It's one thing to say today how things were, it's another to write it as I live it. I don't expect this to be of interest to others. This year I decided to write a collection of thoughts about 2015, so in the distant future I can better recall what anime was like this year.

Anime isn't my life, it's only a part of my life. I don't watch everything made, and these days I prefer to wait until a series (season) is over before picking it up. This means I'm behind the times and much of my 2015 viewing was my 2014 backlog. I also fill my time watching older shows instead of only watching new ones. It's highly likely I didn't watch the best anime made this year. This is only from my perspective.

How Much Fuel Is Left In The Harem Tank?

Interesting question. Haters would claim the genre bottomed out years ago, but I've decided I like tsunderes and I'm okay with weak "romance" so I've gotten into a groove ratcheting down my expectations to watch the same tired crap over and over. Saekano: How to raise a Boring Girlfriend is the harem show which caught me off guard, even though I initially dropped it after 10 minutes. Trying it again a month later, I realized the back stories, characters and concept can still come together enough to honestly like in this genre. What's troubling is how few titles measure up to this low bar.

Other odd harem entries mixed things up. Monster Musume: Everyday Life with Monster Girls is the same harem formula... with girls that are monsters. I guess the idea being if you're going to do harem stuff, turn the weirdness up to 11. And it sort of works. Fruit of Grisaia got a second season to complete its story. This turned into a surprisingly fun adventure despite its atypical harem start (although that was wacky too). Not the most incredible titles to name, but at least some shows make the effort to be worth picking up.

Then there was Chivalry of a Failed Knight and Asterisk War. A guy at a futuristic high tech academy is an underdog. On his first day he encounters a pink haired tsundere girl in her underwear, she gets pissed and challenges him to a duel - which he of course wins, then she falls in love with him but won't admit it. She's also a princess. With their friendship established, there's also a fighting tournament to tackle and.. wait, which anime am I talking about? Both of them. Anime has always been highly derivative. That's not even an anime thing, that's a Japanese culture thing. But we've moved from the same concepts, to invasion of clones IN THE SAME SEASON. I found myself curious if one would be "better" than the other. It turns out one pulled ahead, and it wasn't the one with better animation / character designs. Chivalry of a Failed Knight at least the fights in the tournament were entertaining enough to watch.

Wait, wasn't that the plot for Street Fighter?

Video games always struggled to make sense of why you're doing anything, with many early games having no story. Pac Man? Asteroids? Mario Brothers? No story, you play it to have fun. Gaming changed over time with the story playing a bigger role, but fighting games like Street Fighter never got into it (or the story is so incredibly stupid you'll pretend it doesn't exist). A wide selection of fighters from wherever gather to do combat in a duel... Why? Uhh... FIGHTING TOURNAMENT. Okay, no one cares. The point is you fight each other. The tournament isn't so much an story element as it is an excuse for fighting. That's acceptable if the point of your game is interactive skill based (or button mashing at least) combat.

It's a different story with anime. So there's this guy with a harem, but there's all this action and fighting.. Why? FIGHTING TOURNAMENT. Uh, no. This reveals the severe draught of creativity in anime. With unlimited possibilities (considering the source material is often manga or light novels) the best excuse to inject action is a fighting tournament? To make matters worse, the fighting is typically terrible as well. Too often fights come down to "energy blasts". The hero emerges victorious by using his "secret technique" to create a "super energy blast". When shows utilize limitations, strategy and theory, it's stuff seen before somewhere else. Then there was season two of Testament of Sister New Devil, a show where the point is basically powering up girls by fondling them - which is strange because the male lead does nothing but rescue them anyway, making that kind of futile. Anyway, fights were of the "uber blast" variety, but then the second season becomes a fighting tournament. Even shows starting with (admittedly terrible) plots, are giving up and just doing fighting tournaments because "stories are hard".

I think this proves the downward spiral created by anime becoming so insular. No one can come up with anything better for a harem plot than fighting tournament? Everyone inside the industry is apparently drained as far as ideas go. Unfortunately the appeal of modern anime is lacking to outsiders. The similarity in current shows also accelerates the burnout rate of fans, which traditionally only lasted a few years anyway. Some stuff I watched gave me hope though.

Surprise of the year: Yuki Yuna Is A Hero

A group of young girls form a hero club. They use a cellphone app to transform (magical girl style) into heroes that save the world. That's how it starts, and appeared so vapid I doubted I'd make it to the end. However, the deeper it went the more I liked the story, particularly after a plot twist (or two) are revealed. The characters seem mundane at first, but later grow into their situation and reveal what their purpose is.

Yuki Yuna is a Hero finished at the end of 2014, so it wasn't until a few months into the next year that I got around to watching it. I still don't hear much about this anime. I guess the fact I was surprised it didn't suck kinda hints at why most ignored it. That's another issue anime has, even good shows are hard to differentiate because they get lost in the pile. A part of the blame goes to the anime itself, but you hear plenty of people all jumping in the fray tearing the latest hyped title to pieces because of lack of originality and so forth, yet there are some good titles slipping under the radar with few talking about them.

Favorite / Surprise : Parasyte: The Maxim

Parasyte was a manga in the 1980s, never made into an anime until now. The way it plays out in an anime produced in 2015 is totally awesome. This kind of thing gives hope anime has untapped gems just waiting to be made, or perhaps even remade. I know a HUGE number of people would sell their organs to see Gunm (Battle Angel Alita) properly fleshed out and run to completion.

Another interesting thing about Parasyte is being so typical for a 1980s style anime. But lets be realistic, if made back then it would have been a high budget multipart OVA with ultra-gore, and poorly told story. Studio Madhouse did this show justice in the story told, which is quite good. Although it's very old school in doing the symbiotic / alien thing, years later the quality of the material shines through. Also enjoyable was the soundtrack which fits perfectly. It's the anime was waiting for dubstep to be invented.

Favorite: Food Wars

Take your formula shounen fighting show and apply it to cooking. Is that all it takes for me to like an anime? Not quite. Food Wars shows that if you're going to take on a (kinda silly) anime concept: OWN IT. The success of Food Wars is a matter of execution. It takes food battles serious enough to make them exciting, yet very willing to make a joke at it's own expense. Instead of shying away from fan service like an embarrassment, Food Wars revels in it. Yes, fan service becomes an actual feature when utilized as a comedy gimmick. Whatever it's doing, this anime seems to know exactly what's required for fun.

It didn't quite hit perfection though, particularly by the end when it began to putter out. The problem? The school competitions become a Fighting Cooking Tournament. Done the right way, I could watch this stuff for years. Done the wrong way (Cooking Tournament), this will burn me out fast. I'm looking forward to see how it plays out, and I hope things go well.

Disappointment : Cross Ange

Many would say Cross Ange is thoroughly bad, but I didn't mind it at first. I'm rarely disappointed since I don't follow the hype-train. I watch shows knowing little about them, with an open mind and no real expectations. Usually see where it's going, or I'm presently surprised by improvement. Cross Ange through me for a loop. Well animated, interesting designs, a sci-fi fantasy world which is brutal, oddly sexy and quite mysterious. There's a lot going on in Cross Ange. Maybe too much. Okay, WAAAY too much.

How will it all tie together? It doesn't and that's the problem. As the show progresses, piles on more and more random stuff until it becomes obvious the story can't bear the load. Eventually the viewer wises up to the situation and has to decide to keep watching or drop it. I doubt many hung on for the end expecting good results. I think most like myself kept watching because we were already watching it. While I felt a little screwed investing in this show, I admit it was never boring even if a travesty in how it stayed entertaining. Cross Ange had plenty of potential, and someone thought this show was worth investing a fair amount of resources into. I wish the breaks were applied in the planning phase to spent an extra week or two ironing out the story. I can't explain how the plot for this show ended up so sloppy, but it did.

Worst Anime: Trinity Seven

If a kid were to attempt writing "the most awesome thing ever" and proceed to jam everything he thinks is cool into it, with no regard on how to integrate it, or why it should be there; you'd get something like Trinity Seven. Or a lot of other shows, but in the worst case scenario: Trinity Seven. This is becoming more commonplace: anime grafting in features done before but in totally incoherent ways. You can strap a weed-whacker to a birthday cake because you like them both, and maybe it sounds cool, but it's only going to make a mess. So went Trinity Seven, a show I can't even describe because it's that garbled.

There have always been shows which are abstract, or maybe just stupid. But how does nonsense like Trinity Seven get green-lighted for an anime? It boggles the mind.

Other things in Anime (for me anyway)

The best anime I watched this year, wasn't made this year. But it's always worth celebrating when I can say I watched one of the best anime ever made. From The New World was that title this year. So many things I love in sci-fi, fantasy, anime and general good story all coming together in such an awesome title. Complimented by a wonderful soundtrack and a visual style giving it a surreal feel - things which make you appreciate it being an anime.

From The New World is actually based off a novel. This isn't the first time it's been done, and other examples turned out pretty well too (Crest of the Stars and Moribito). I wonder how many great Japanese Sci-fi / fantasy novels which would make great anime. I hope eventually studios can tap this fresh(er) source of creativity.

It's been brewing for a while, but I'm getting worn down by inconclusive series even though this isn't a new problem. The appeal of a "half plot" is waning in my eyes, so until the story has progressed and/or something accomplished, I think my ratings for such shows will go down in the future. I honestly hate that my sense of dread/relief about an anime ending "on time" tends to overshadow perception of quality. On the other hand I can't deny the graveyard of open ended shows which never went anywhere but had potential. Especially demoralizing when the manga is over, but the anime is stuck in half way point limbo years ago, making the chance of concluding close to zero.

My appreciation for compactness has grown, because I feel if an anime dawdles too long it won't have the stamina/budget/interest to reach the finish. A good example would be Yamada kun and the 7 witches which packs a lot of stuff within 12 episodes, including quite the turn in the story later on. I was relived to see Fruit of Grisaia conclude in a 2nd season, which turned out quite well. The 2nd season for My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU impressed me even more, yet I feel apprehensive it may not reach the finish line.

As I wrote all this I realized harem shows almost never resolve in any kind of ending. I wonder if that's not a factor exasperating the problem.

Compactness doesn't exactly mean short in length, so short segment titles (anime of about 4 minutes in length) continue to confound me in how to rate them. They lack the length to have detail in their story or depth in characters, yet somehow cut all the filler garbage out, thus compacting their entertainment value.

Among other things I finally finished the Urusei Yatsura TV series over the summer. It's taken me about 2.5 years to go through. It was fun... at first. I'm still thinking of the review, but no one seems to talk about later episodes being a wasteland. Before this, Maison Ikkoku was my go to title, which also took me about 2 years. That's about 5 years of anime from Rumiko Takahashi, so I wonder if maybe next summer I'll give Inu Yasha a try. That would violate my 100 episode limit mantra though.

On the studio side, Gonzo needs to stop. Just stop. I've become a fan of P.A. Works, not because they make "pretty" anime, and not even because their shows are good. This is a studio that takes chances, and sometimes they're a serious dud, but they try anyway. They have no formula for repeat success, so each success feels earned. I have a similar sentiment towards stuido Gainax, although their fondness for non-happy endings way got old with me a while ago.

An oddball title to mention, but I watched Birdy the Mighty (the original OVA) this year, and really enjoyed it. It's hard to describe how a title can come together just the right way through sheer quality, without needing the usual grab bag of anime crutches to appeal to the viewer. Having watched the remake (Decode) first, I now wonder why they decided to re-do a show which doesn't need fixing. Even more curious if considering how the remake falls so short.

I like to end the year on a positive note by reviewing a title with my highest rating. This year that was A Lull In The Sea.

Words I decided I don't like any more, and won't be using if possible: narrative. Although I decided to stop using it a while ago, I no longer use literally after hearing it misused so damn much. Just had to get that off my chest.

Character of the Year Migi
Parasyte Maxim

What to call an alien creature thing that takes over your right hand? If you don't have a date Saturday night you might call it your girlfriend, but I loved the quirky name Migi, which simply means "right" in Japanese. Aside from bizarre appearance, and strange voice, what makes Migi so intriguing is a matter of motivation. Migi has no wants or desires; it is driven purely by self preservation. Its fellow parasytes are hostile, and humans pose as much of a threat. Attached to Izumi's arm, it's left with no choice but cooperation. Migi considers this partnership nothing more than a necessity, and is candid it will kill or do anything required ensure its safety - even if it involves those close to its host. Migi is unique enough to stand out, but also so well leveraged in the story and context of Parasyte Maxim.

2015 Verdict: Good

I grade a year on how much good stuff there was. Low quality doesn't count. This is one of the intentions of my review section: I watch crap so you don't have to. Very strong shows remain rare, but there was enough quality around to fill the time throughout the year. Anime characters remained a big concern for me. They've become too rigid, like multiple choice options mixed and matched instead of fluid and dynamic traits seen in human nature.

Anime I Reviewed This Year:

54 reviews in 2015

Chaika the Coffin Princess (okay) Wolf Girl and Black Prince (weak)
Fruit of Grisaia (good) Trinity Seven (sucks)
Comic Artist and Assistants (weak) Blue Spring Ride (okay)
Gungrave (good) Amagi Brilliant Park (good)
Himegoto (weak) Irregular at Magic High School (weak)
Yuki Yuna is a Hero (good) Amagami SS (okay)
Idolmaster (meh) Testament of Sister New Devil (weak)
Cross Ange (meh) Parasyte: The Maxim (excellent)
My Little Monster (okay) La storia della Arcana Famiglia (weak)
Isuca (weak) Kancolle (meh)
Nakaimo (sucks) School Days (unrated)
Love, Chinibuyo & Delusions (good) Oreimo (weak)
From The New World (excellent) Saekano (okay)
Yamada-kun & the 7 Witches (okay) Re-Kan (meh)
Sound Euphonium (meh) Is It Wrong To Pick Up Girls... (weak)
Hanasaku Iroha (good) Wanna Be the Strongest (weak)
Garaga (weak) Angel Links (meh)
Moyasimon (good) Da Capo III (sucks)
Samurai Girls / Bride (weak) Maid Sama (meh)
Glasslip (weak) Monster Musume (meh)
Food Wars (good) Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers (meh)
If Her Flag Breaks (weak) Charlotte (okay)
Btooom (weak) Nyan Koi (okay)
My Love Story (okay) Plastic Memories (meh)
Shimoneta (okay) Blade and Soul (sucks)
Kenzen Robo Daimidaler (meh) Asterisk War (sucks)
Chivalry of a Failed Knight (meh) Lull in the Sea (excellent)