The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

2013: A Year in Review

2013 may not have seemed like much while we made our way through it, but looking back upon it, it was a damn fine year for anime. We had shows that were well-produced and widely beloved. We had shows that took huge risks and were incredibly polarizing. We had shows that aimed to do a few things really well and did just that. There’s a nice variety, as well, in subject, genre, and, building upon the previous year, length — plenty of short series came out this year. As always, the cries of anime’s doom are highly exaggerated. We at The Nihon Review loved a great deal of anime this year. Here are our favorites.
Introduction by: Shinmaru

Shinmaru on: Aku no Hana
Perhaps the most polarizing anime of the year, but I’m on the side who was won over by most of the choices in the series. (“Most of” because the ending didn’t work particularly well for me, but even that isn’t to the point where I’d say the show was ruined.) The rotoscoping uglies up the characters in a way I found weird and fascinating, and it also gives the setting a haunting, empty feel. It’s almost as frightening as an actual suburb! The pacing also greatly appealed to me. I love how Aku no Hana allows moments to stretch until the breaking point. (Yes, I am that guy who adored the endless walking scene the episode after the incredible classroom destruction scene in the previous episode.) It often achieves the sort of gloomy, dreamy mood that makes me fall head over heels in love with a work. It’s a daring show that alienates as much as it attracts, but I’m firmly on the side that wants more.

Reckoner on: Attack on Titan
For popcorn entertainment, few titles of 2013 can match the sheer spectacle of Attack on Titan. Humanity’s fight for survival against the titans is brought to life by director Araki Tetsurou; his bombastic style combined with Hiroyuki Sawano’s primal, raw, and loud soundtrack creates an awesome display of intense and riveting action scenes. Attack on Titan does a fantastic job at convincing you of the gravity of the situation and immersing you in an intense and brutal world. The series is not without some significant flaws, the pacing is a bit wonky at times and it is not terribly subtle or deep, particularly with its character development, but it is definitely one of the most fun shows of the year and one of the few great gateway anime to have come out in recent times.

Shadowmage on: Blast of Tempest
I had many preconceived notions when I started Zetsuen no Tempest, but I never expected it to be good.  The show started off as a fujoshi bait series about two stunningly handsome males doting over a dead girl and featured an overly convoluted plot that borders on pretentious.  As a Studio Bones production, the animation started off solid, but it eventually falls off leaving a melodrama that could have been pure torture, but it ended up absolutely riveting.  The show outright states that it is a product of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the claim is not without merit.  If you want a series with an actual complete vision both well conceived and realized, this is a series you shouldn’t pass up.

TypicalIdiotFan on:  A Certain Scientific Railgun S
If any of you have been following the Raildex threads in the forums, you know I have a love-hate relationship with the franchise.  I hate Index, I love Railgun.  For all the heat this opinion draws, I stand firm in my belief that what makes the latter the better show is the direction.  Tatsuyuki Nagai continues to impress me with his ability to get the most not only from the source material, but the actors and actresses who bring the characters to life.  This is no more evident than with Rina Sato (Misaka Mikoto), who does a marvelous job exposing the vulnerability of the eponymous Railgun.  The detractors believe that the less impressive second half of the series kills Railgun S’s candidacy for best of the year, but I disagree.  The Mikoto version of the SISTERS arc is just way too impressive to ignore, and raises the bar all on its own.

Shinmaru on: Eccentric Family
It took a while for Eccentric Family to click with me, but once it did, it grew on me a lot. The comedy endeared me to the show in the first half. I liked watching these goofy tanukis be silly and screw around in this modern world. Their “idiot blood,” in the show’s parlance, often manifested in amusing ways. But the turning point for me came when the series dove headlong into the family drama with the frog brother and working out the tanuki leadership. I didn’t care about the leadership position so much; however, the family coming together to execute this absurd, messy plot to finally make things right is so much damn fun. Every character is a lot of fun, really. Eccentric Family’s cast is one of those where I’d love to be in a cafe somewhere sipping a drink and reading a newspaper while they’re chatting about some nonsense at another table.

AC on: Hanasaku Iroha: Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home is perhaps an improved version of the main series back two years ago. The series had a mediocre onset and gradually became a sentimental coming-of-age story. Perhaps more importantly, the story centers around Ohana’s character development and maturity. In Home Sweet Home however, it centers around her mother Satsuki and reveals a part of her life that none of us have seen before. It still has similar sentimental tones but the story is more succinct and the singular motif of Satsuki’s maturity and development into the type of person she is now is an endearing account of the Matsumae residence. The story of Hanasaku Iroha ultimately tells us how, more often than not, frictions in the family result from similarities rather than differences and that all will come back together again at the humble abode.

AC on: The Garden of Words
If an anime is done by Shinkai Makoto, one should know what to expect from his works: sentimental stories and a penchant for scenic backdrops (especially clouds). The Garden of Words is no different. Shinkai captures real-life settings in Tokyo and beautifully reanimates them with his masterful artistry, from the lushfully greenery of Shinjuku Gyoen National Park to the translucent rain drops of the summer drizzle. The surreal setting and story of a boy’s experience with an enigmatic lady whom he regularly meets in a gazebo he calls his sanctuary makes the movie feel more of a transient dream. Though it may be not Shinkai’s greatest work of all time, it still demonstrates his prowess in making emotional anime titles.

Shadowmage on: Kyousougiga
Kyousougiga is probably the most pleasant anime I’ve seen all year.  It’s an incredible joy to watch the visually crazy but overall lighthearted adventure series about a looking for her mother in a world created from a living painting.  Unlike most anime these days, the show is not about wish fulfillment or power fantasies, its a sweet story about family and a desire to return to happier days. Normally, these kinds of narratives love to slather on the sappiness to a sickening level, but the show runs through a brisk 10 episodes not letting sentimentality overwhelm the joy.

Reckoner on: Little Busters Refrain
A lot of anime viewers were confused throughout the first season of Little Busters. There were many questions regarding its plot and purpose because of how much of the story revolved around a bunch of silly friends having fun together with some vaguely connected drama interspersed throughout. Little Busters Refrain is the answer to all these concerns, and for those who stuck around for this second season, their patience is greatly rewarded. This is where Little Busters reveals itself as a touching tale about the end of childhood and the need to overcome life’s difficult challenges. It is a beautiful tale about friendship that manages to resonate emotionally with its audience on a profound level. I have some significant reservations about the ending, KEY never seems to get their endings right, but the journey of Refrain is just so damn great that it almost does not matter. Give it a chance and I am sure you will be pleasantly surprised.

Slashe on: Maoyuu Maou Yuusha
A story about macro-economics in a fantasy setting, Maoyuu turned some viewers off because of its unconventional manner of storytelling. It eschews any names, referring to characters by titles instead; focusing on exploring the world rather than its characters. This has arguably led to author Mamare Touno‘s works becoming bogged down in excessive world building at times, a flaw also found in the recent Log Horizon. However, the lore and setting shines with realism and insight because of its attention to detail and tendency to question the tropes we’re used to. It exemplifies a non-western approach to narrative that feels refreshing compared to the Three Act Structure or Hero’s Journey that we are used to, presenting a myriad of viewpoints to further its concepts instead of focusing a main protagonist. I could keep gushing, but I’ll simply quote Monty Python: “And now for something complete different…”

Slashe on: My Teenage Romantic Comedy SNAFU
Oregairu was a comedic drama that both analyzed and subverted social relationships and traditional romcom tropes from a social reject’s perspective. The protagonist had a way of using the darker side of human nature for a force for good. It presented several insights about social politics and the throes loneliness, not with contempt or despair, but rather with absolution and hope. What really makes this show special was simply how honest the protagonist and the story felt, portraying a sense of isolation that felt so relatable. The presence of a genre-savvy cast and all round intelligent banter put this show just heads and shoulders above the other light novel adaptations of the year.

AC on: Shin Sekai Yori
Right from the onset, Shin Sekai Yori gives off strong vibes that this is not going to be a typical anime series. The storyline depicts the whole new world as one virtually different the one we know, and vividly retells the bloody and disturbing history of mankind. Perhaps as equally intriguing as the world of Shin Sekai Yori is the lives of the four protagonists and how their lives are slowly changed forever once they stumbled upon the secret of the world that no one should know. While the narrative and animation quality can be inconsistent at times and the plot does have a few plot holes, in overall the sheer conspiracy of the world is enough to render the series thoroughly absorbing.

TypicalIdiotFan on:  Space Battleship Yamato 2199
Hell, in the last decade, Hollywood has been remaking everything that was ever filmed.  Seems fitting that Japan would follow suit.  It should also be very telling what kind of year we had for anime when one of the best is a blast from the past  Having never watched the original Yamato series nor the western version (Starblazers), I was unfamiliar with the Leiji Matsumoto / Yoshinobu Nishizaki classic.  Though not exactly the same story as the original, this stylish remake is crisp, fluid, tense, engaging, and damned rewarding.  What it reminds all of us is that, at one point in our past anime was about telling a fucking story first, and warping our brains with tsunderes, fanservice, and power levels second.  I sincerely hope that modern anime creators take a look at this amazing example and rekindle that creative spirit that has been lost.

Level EShinmaru on: Watamote
Watamote is such a wonderful dark comedy. Its main character is a ridiculous, satirical cartoon who somehow elicits sympathy due to how spectacularly she fails at her main objective of achieving popularity despite being totally unsociable. Watamote’s core formula — Tomoko conjures a reason why she isn’t popular, formulates a plan of attack, and messes it up in the most cringeworthy way — is consistently funny rather than hopelessly bleak because Tomoko learns and becomes more thoughtful in increments. Many of Watamote’s hardest-hitting punch lines are a bit mean-spirited, but there’s always a reachable light at the end of the tunnel that makes the laughter OK. It’s like you’re sharing in an awful memory that you can laugh at rather than rubbing someone’s face into the dirt. The visuals also supplement the comedy well; Shin Oonuma often lays it on too thick in his direction, but the depth of Tomoko’s delusions need that sort of gross extravagance. Watamote made me laugh hard every episode.

Reckoner on: White Album 2
While it may not have the flash or fireworks of other titles around, White Album 2 is one of this year’s more impressive titles. There is a distinct lack of anime romance titles out there that carry itself with the grace and dignity of White Album 2. It never seeks to grab the audience’s attention with extreme drama, or crazy plot developments; the show has enough confidence in itself that the strength of its storytelling is enough to entice the audience. Most importantly, it creates characters that are not only likable, but sympathetic. When all the drama unfolds in the story, even though everyone is at fault, you find them so understandable that you can hardly blame them for their actions. The characters feel like real people who make very human decisions, which often results in hurting other even when not intending to. Accentuating the whole experience is the show’s sound track, which creates a somber, slightly melancholic atmosphere that compliments the story splendidly. Lovers of restrained romanced dramas with nuanced characters and excellent atmosphere should not miss on White Album 2.

AC: To be honest, unlike the last few years, there aren’t particularly outstanding anime titles this year that immediately grab my attention. There are at least 3 great ones that I can consider as the best for this year: Shin Sekai Yori, Chihayafuru 2 and Aku no Hana. Shin Sekai Yori’s world is a riveting experience but occasionally suffers inconsistency in execution. Chihayafuru 2 however, demonstrates consistency and avoids the pitfall that a lot of second-season series suffer but brings nothing new to the table. Aku no Hana’s controversial artistic approach and RL-dramatic narrative are disturbingly engrossing but suffers from pacing problems. If I were to vote which is the best, I’d have to say Aku no Hana: despite how many people cry foul over the ugly character designs, I reward series that dares to be different in any way. The series is one huge gamble that eventually pays off and I believe that there ought to be more controversial anime titles that challenge the status quo in the industry.

Reckoner: While I do think there were many very good anime in 2013, there were few that really stood above the crowd. I’m tempted to nominate Hunter x Hunter because it posted possibly one of the greatest year of anime episodes there will ever be, I already consider it the best shonen manga adaption of all time, but the fact that it is not yet finished makes me think I should wait for that choice. Considering this, I must default to Shin Sekai Yori as my best anime of 2013. No other title this year is as ambitious, masterfully directed and scripted, and as gripping as this dark apocalyptic tale. I absolutely adored its sophisticated setting, deep characters, and psychological thrills. It impacted me in a way that very few stories ever manage to achieve. Anime like Shin Sekai Yori are what continue to remind me of why I came to love anime in the first place, and assures me that Japan is not yet creatively bankrupt. Suffice to say, I hope to see more of the same in the future.

Shadowmage: Yamato 2199 is the blast from the past I’ve always wanted, and it unquestionably one of the best anime of this year. Kyousougiga almost charmed its way to the top, but the finale was not quite up to scratch with the rest of the series. The best of the year, however, is Shin Sekai Yori.  This is a series that tells a deliciously dark story about what kind of society can be created if each and every single person had a latent psychic ability to end humanity.  Full of moral quandaries and tragic but effective solutions to those quandaries, the show is the kind of edge-of-your seat thriller that comes once every several years.

Shinmaru: It can’t be anything but Yamato 2199 for me. I love the weird world of Shin Sekai Yori and the visual splendor of Kyousougiga, but the tight writing, excellent cast and beautiful space battles in Yamato 2199 won me over from the first episode. It drew me in to this tight-knit crew and the race against time to find a way to save Earth. It’s such a well-worn story at this point, but the execution in Yamato 2199 is ridiculously good. This is a series I will remember for a damn long time.

Slashe: When I look back at 2013, I’m discouraged by not only the dearth of romance/drama anime, but also by the absence of the kind of sublime masterpieces that 2012 was so plentiful with. My only solace was the surge of interesting (albeit unpolished) genre/convention bending experiments this year, with Yahari Ore no Seishun Love wa Machigatteiru possessing close to all of the aforementioned three attributes. Oregairu was a comedic drama that subverted and analyzed social relationships and traditional romcom tropes from a social reject’s perspective. It brought forth several insights about social politics and loneliness, without contempt or despair towards its protagonist, but rather with absolution and hope for the future. It brought smiles and tugs at my heart consistently, with my anticipation each week being the highest throughout the year for the entire series.

TypicalIdiotFan:  This isn’t really tough for me.  The best anime of 2013 is Shin Sekai Yori, bar none.  As much as I adored Railgun S for its direction, Yamato 2199 for its reminder of all things good, Tempest for its twists and turns, or Servant x Service for being quirky without being insulting, I just can’t get away from the story of futuristic dystopian psychic societies and the dark secrets that lurk behind every corner.  When viewed as a whole work, SSY contains one of the most gripping and nail-biting storylines I have ever seen put in animated form.  It is, pardon the pun, a brave new world for anime, and an utterly ballsy choice for adaptation.  If we could get more shows with such a willingness to push envelopes, I would be a happy son of a bitch.

The internet has a tendency to be fatalistic about things that do not precisely conform to its impossible standards.  No, anime is not dying, and there is no great need for it to be “saved.” So long as you’re not asking for a series that shakes the very foundations of the medium, there are many great shows that can stir the hearts and souls of viewers as profoundly as an Evangelion. Attack on Titan proves that Japan can still produce shows that break out from the late night niche mold. Flowers of Evil and Watamote proves that anime creators can still can be subversive.  And Shin Sekai Yori proves that their ability to blow minds with their sheer audacity is still in tact.
Conclusion by: Shadowmage

Top of page