The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

2012: A Year in Review

2012 has been an unusual year where nothing really charged to the forefront and shocked the fan base.  There’s no Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (1,2), Gurren Lagann or Madoka Magica to really define the year.  Chihayafuru and Fate/Zero are strong holdovers from last year.  Space Brothers, Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, and Kids on the Slope are rather pleasant changes of pace for the industry.  Sadly, none of these had the impact to be the overall flag bearer for the year.  However, 2012 cannot be called a wash.   Though opinions are fractured, there’s been no lack of quality shows and we have picked our favorite fourteen.
Introduction by: Shadowmage

Shinmaru on: Aquarion EVOL
Aquarion EVOL is a dumb, silly series, but its heart is in the right place. Its world is quite weird; it’s filled with metaphors and actions that make sense only when viewed through the lens of EVOL’s peculiar logic. Part of what makes the show so charming, though, is that it encourages the viewer to dive headlong into its world and drink it in. The characters aren’t weird purely for the sake of being so; they’re not viewed with a sense of ironic detachment. Rather, they are given the respect of being able to express who they are without judgment. That’s what makes the oddities of EVOL’s world so cohesive: They feel genuine and earnest. Above all, that’s what is most appealing about Aquarion EVOL.

Level Ezzeroparticle on: Tsuritama
With its splash of vibrant colors, kooky personalities including the alien Haru, the socially awkward Yuki Sanada, the “Fishing Prince” Natsuki Usami, and Akira Yamada, the head of an organization called DUCK (think Men in Black), and a whacked out premise that changed as quickly as the tides, Tsuritama was going to be quite the abnormal experience.  But as much as the mishmash of oddities it presents feels mind-boggling at times, at its core, the show is about the heartwarming friendship that develops between Yuki, Haru, and Natsuki, one that allows them to overcome their individual flaws or hangups so as to be able to come together and save the world.

Kylaran on: Nisemonogatari
Cute-erotic has never seen a champion so great as Nisemonogatari, which blends Nisio Issin’s overtly sexual yet serious cast of school-age teenagers with Shinbo Akiyuki’s trademark modernist artwork into a cohesive animetic tour de force. Arguably better than its predecessor in certain regards, this show has a sharp narrative focus on the main character, Araragi Koyomi, and his two younger sisters, which in turn reigns in SHAFT’s sometimes wild artistic imagination. Less text during scene transitions and a simplified color palette, this series highlights all that is great about a sequel that simply has a different name. Strong voice acting tops off all of the goodies this show is stuffed with; Chiwa Saito again leads an entire squadron of top-notch voice actors to bring the characters on paper to life. Also, it’ll be a while before anyone forgets that Nisemonogatari introduced two person tooth brushing as an intensely erogenous act to a wider audience.

Level EShadowmage on: Psycho Pass
Imagine if Google served as judge, jury and executioner of a nation’s police system delivering capital punishment at the speed of 4G.  This is the world of Psycho Pass where the human psyche has been deconstructed to an algorithm and crimes can be predicted by the system even before they are committed.  However, unlike Blade Runner or countless other science fiction tales of dystopias, Psycho Pass is set in a utopia where society is predominantly benefiting from the system.  The show is not focused on some evil mastermind trampling the masses; it looks at the implications of a system that reduces human will to a science and the micro-fractures it causes to the people living under it. Also, as the title is a pun on the word “psychopath”, there’s plenty of deranged individuals stabbing, raping, maiming and blending.

TIF on:  Space Brothers
Though a bit of an anachronism now (with regards to NASA), Space Brothers (Uchuu Kyoudai) manages to give the viewers a glimpse of Japan and America’s space program partnership.  With the story mostly fixed upon Nanba Mutta’s bid to become an astronaut for JAXA, we go through the selection process, the methodology around said process, and how the respective space based organizations operate.  Extremely optimistic and idealistic, Space Brothers will undoubtedly appeal more to audiences who still look up at the stars and dream.  The rest of us wont be bored, though, because there’s always Mutta’s humorous antics, an interesting cast of characters, and some heartfelt drama towards the end.

Level EAC on: Wolf Children
Studio Ghibli titles often serve as the benchmark for wholesome quality anime, and there are only a few that really challenge them in their own game. Wolf Children is one of them, and director Hosoda Mamoru has demonstrated that he has what it takes to make an endearing movie about family and self-acceptance. Its beauty comes from the down-to-earth narrative approach and the depth of the cast’s character development. Poignant and unforgettable, Wolf Children is a type of drama that one does not come across so often these days.

Reckoner on: Kids on the Slope
Anytime director Shinichiro Watanabe of Cowboy Bebop fame steps into a directing chair, it is a highlight all on its own. Kids on the Slope is a compelling coming of age tale of two boys, Sentaro and Kaoru, who through a passion for jazz music manage to form an endearing friendship that changes their lives forever . Most striking about Kids on the Slope are the soaring production values which really bring the jazz performances to life. Not to downplay the story’s content, which because of the 1960’s Japan backdrop is quite interesting, but there is no anime out there that compares in animated musical performances. I have some reservations about the ending since it is much too rushed, but this soulful, jazz story is easily the best Noitamina show of the year.

Level EShadowmage on: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure
There are times where I wish the statement “this is not a 10 out of 10; this dials it to an 11” wasn’t so overused. That way I could appropriate it as my introduction when a real oddball comes shattering through my office windows. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is a super campy shounen action series with over-the-top Dragonball Z-esque fights, and a fabulous visual aesthetic.  This show would be the epitome of retardation if it didn’t push its flair to such an unbelievable extreme that it circles around the grading scale, glides through negative numbers and then somehow lands on “awesome.”  If you want to feel the joy of a 7 year old kid watching the triumph of a super hero doing super hero things, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is where the party is at.

AC on: Lupin III – The Woman Called Fujiko Mine
If I can describe The Woman Called Fujiko Mine in one word, it would be “unconventional”. The Lupin III franchise is known for its unique character designs and stories on flamboyant heists, but this title takes things to the next level with its avant-garde aesthetic approach and a more dark twist to the plot. The Woman Called Fujiko Mine oozes style from start to finish, and with a female lead as foxy as Fujiko Mine, this is the kind of show that one should not miss if he wants something a little different from your typical anime series.

Level ETIF on:  Humanity Has Declined
As Space Brothers is optimistic, Humanity Has Declined is just as staunchly pessimistic and cynical.  Set in a world where humanity is dying out, this stylish piece of satire shows us, through the adventures of the unnamed main character, plausible reasons for why humanity is dying out.  Unabashedly poking at every piece of society from consumerism to bullying, you get the idea that the author is making sure that we know humanity’s biggest detriment is humanity itself, though perhaps not for the usual paranoid reasons we all think, such as nuclear holocaust.  Starkly contrasted by extremely colorful visuals, the most adorable little mascot antagonists, and an upbeat score, Humanity Has Declined should keep most fans of dark humor smirking all the way to the end.

Shinmaru on: Hunter x Hunter
Hunter x Hunter made many strides in 2012. For one, the series covered the Yorkshin arc, a tense tale of vengeance and deceit that still stands as one of the all-time greatest shonen storylines. It’s not simply that Madhouse had great stories to adapt, however. The studio also got into a groove with the series, production-wise. Gon’s battle with Hisoka in the Heavens Arena arc and Kurapika’s fight with Uvogin in the Yorkshin arc deliver some of 2012’s most thrilling, energetic animation. The overall production seems more confident, as well: Direction, cinematography, sound direction, etc. are all leaps and bounds better than they were when the show began. Hunter x Hunter is primed to remain strong going into 2013.

Level EReckoner on: Jormungand
A larger than life story about the world of arms dealing filled with an incredibly charismatic cast has made Jormungand a very fun, but also intriguing adventure. Studio White Fox did not necessarily have the highest budget to produce this show, but a combination of great directing and an incredible sound track filled with all sorts of ethnic tunes more than make up for it. Although Jormungand’s action may be lacking at times, and some of its humor is unfunny, it is the depth of its characters and the complexity of the overall narrative that beautifully ties together this story into something special. Although not perfect by any means, Jormungand stands to be one of better manga adaptations of the year.

zzeroparticle on: Hyouka
Although our introduction to Kyoto Animation’s Hyouka was veering towards the mundane, the series really started coming to its own when it began exploring the origins behind the Classics Club’s founding, sparking a tale that uncovers the murky past of 1960s Japan.  The anime, which had previously been unexciting, turned into an engrossing work as it revealed the tragedy that occurred at the school during that turbulent period.  Hyouka would go on to do one better during the story arc centered upon the school’s Kan’ya Festival as it kept us riveted with an endless barrage of clues, events, and brilliant moments of character development, ending it all in a manner that is highly satisfying and will not be soon forgotten.

Level EKylaran on: Chihayafuru
There are a few shows that so gracefully cross the divide between shounen and shoujo in the anime world, and Chihayafuru’s eponymous main character certainly doesn’t seem to have enough grace at first glance. However, this show has certainly done all that– and more. It’s brought the world of competitive karuta to a much larger audience, weaving the history of ancient Japan with a modern romance of the purest kind. In doing so, it relies not only on the techniques of shoujo anime, where shots of characters are often decorated with bubbles and flowers, but also unbelievably detailed CG animation for a ton of scenes that range from the falling of cherry blossoms to the intense movements of the karuta players themselves. Madhouse has proven themselves again a dominant force in the anime industry by taking an already highly regarded manga and transforming it into a sleeper hit among anime fans.

AC: When it comes to choosing the best title that the year 2012 had to offer, it basically boils down to just two: Chihayafuru or Wolf Children. Chihayafuru was a unique experience for making something special and surreal out of a traditional and niche Japanese sport, whereas Wolf Children illustrated a story about family at its finest. If I have to choose just one, Wolf Children wins by a hairbreadth because of the undivided attention given to characterization. The movie shines as the crown jewel of the anime industry, and is one of the titles which reminded me why I love anime to this day.

Kylaran: A hard choice, but Humanity Has Declined tops my list of the many entertaining shows of this season. Kishi Seiji has been able to fully capture every bit of wit and every drop of drama from the original novel, and blended it with a theatrical approach to a story that isn’t exactly the most realistic of worlds. While arguably it was never able to truly represent some of the most difficult areas of the story in animated form (particularly towards the end of the series), Humanity Has Declined deserves a gold star for trying its best. Furthermore, Nakahara Mai’s performance in the series as the main character has been absolutely fantastic; her words helped carry the series to comedic heights that few other shows could rival during their time on screen. This series best embodies a rare example of how the cynical, fantastic, and theatrical can combine in a show to provide a thoroughly unique experience that few will forget. In this sense, its flaws are minor compared to the brilliance of its most illustrious moments.

Reckoner: Of all the series that have finished airing in 2012, there is none in my mind that can compete with Fate/Zero.  This story about the Holy Grail War, a battle royale in which its participants embark on a complex, spiritual journey of self-discovery, proves to be a highly engrossing and intriguing character study. Furthermore, Fate/Zero is also aesthetically beautiful; studio ufotable delivers a high grade visual experience with some of the most intense and riveting action sequences you will ever find in a television series. Few series come along like this which can both be thrilling for its sheer spectacle, and intellectually compelling at the same time. It is for this reason that I consider Fate/Zero unequivocally the best anime of 2012.

Shadowmage: This is the time when I see the flaw in my master plan to vote in Gundam Unicorn as my favorite anime of 2010 after only the first OVA episode.  Much like that year, I have a row of 8/10s and no strong favorite among them.  Gundam Unicorn could break the stalemate, but that means it may win my “best of” every year ’til 2014 (save 2011).  So, I asked myself “if my local subtitle producer flaked out what would I find Japanese raws for?”  The answer: Fate/Zero.  Out of all the shows this year, this was the one that felt like a minor crack addiction that I would snatch up on first sight of a new episode.

Shinmaru: 2012 to me was a year of many good anime but few great anime. The addition of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and Hunter x Hunter into the equation made this choice a bit tougher for me, but considering that both are unfinished, I have to go with Aquarion EVOL as my anime of the year. Its earnest silliness, consistent charm, stylish visuals and cast of goofy, lovable characters won me over almost immediately and didn’t let go until the finale was complete. The best thing I can say about EVOL is that it’s corny in all the right ways.

TIF: We’ve had a ton of shows that are both stylish and substantive this year. Kids on the Slope has amazing visuals and characters; the newest incarnation of the Lupin series breathes necessary life into a franchise growing steadily archaic; Nisemonogatari is a worthy successor to Bakemonogatari; etc.  Each show is great, but with flaws.  However, one show in particular really grabbed me and kept me waiting in anticipation week after week and that was Kyoto Animation’s utterly gorgeous Hyouka.  Demonstrating the prowess that a superior animation quality can bring to any mediocre content, KyoAni outdid themselves with facial expressions, subtle movements, and even some quirky animation choices during expositions.  Toss in superior acting, simple but effective mysteries done right, and outstanding characters, and Hyouka easily rises to the top.

zzeroparticle: 2012 felt like a year where the anime that aired were reasonably enjoyable though none had quite the impact that last year’s shows did. Still, if you were to point to one person whose influence was felt, it would have to be Gen Urobuchi. Although Gen Urobuchi is no stranger to visual novel enthusiasts, anime fans have gotten a taste of what others have known: that Urobuchi is damned good at creating scenarios that subject both the characters and the viewer to the strains and tortures that, though cruel, are absolutely captivating.  We are treated to all of that in Fate/Zero, my anime of the year, which raises troubling questions about one’s purpose in this life and features a clash between pragmatism and idealism that is fascinating to see play out.

Despite it being a year throughout which sequels of major franchises or adaptations of hit cross-media content were rolled out faster than the dishes for a large holiday feast, no one show could rise to become the defining series of 2012. Indeed, simply by looking at the variety in our own choices for best of the year, it becomes clear that there were plenty of shows that could have become a brightly shining star on the anime map. Unfortunately, most of these series stumbled on the last few steps of the way up. What this year has been able to prove to anime fans is that cross-media and franchise names continue to be strong forces in an industry with the potential to provide entertainment through a wide spectrum of genres. Compared to last year, which will be remembered for Madoka Magica, Steins;Gate, and Mawaru Penguindrum, this year’s offerings are numerous in volume: there was simply a ton of great series to watch over the past twelve months. If anything, anime needed a strong year like this one to show that it’s still got a lot more to offer than light novel adaptations of some very silly stories.
Conclusion by: Kylaran

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