This year, I started thinking what kind of new thing I could add to my yearly round-ups this time. My mind then came to how I’m always trying to praise the technical parts of each anime: the settings, animation, storytelling, etcetera. So that’s why I decided to take some of the awards I usually hand out, like “Most Imaginative Setting”, “Best Animation”, “Best Script” and “Best Story”, and dedicate an entire post to them, showing a bit more of what the year had to offer than just the one best. Also, as an extra to each post, I’ll be listing my top 40 series of the year, starting today with #40 to #31.
Overall, 2011 definitely wasn’t the best year we’ve ever had. I’d say that it was below average if you’d compare it to the past ten years, though it’s probably not the worst thanks to quite a number of solid series that even though they weren’t amazing, still were very solid to watch.
#Top 11 Best Settings
Honorable Mentions: Appleseed XIII and Hunter X Hunter
With this top list, I’m highlighting the settings that really delivered something special and really well thought out this year. First, I want to include some honorable mentions, though. The reason these two didn’t make the list is very simple: because they already had incredible settings, but their 2011 versions didn’t really add much to them to warrant a place here. Especially Hunter X Hunter is exactly the same as it was ten years ago. Appleseed meanwhile did add some interesting extra tidbits, but it’s too early to see whether they actually paid off. In both cases though, it still goes that they contain very imaginative settings Hunter X Hunter completely subverts the shounen genre, while Appleseed’s bioroids are definitely interesting science fiction.
Fate/Zero also had both the tasks of expanding upon the universe created in Fate/Stay Night, and also prevent new viewers from being lost. And well, it actually succeeded. It presented a modern interpretation of the quest for the holy grail, and yet it is full of historical references due to the inclusion of all sorts of famous historical figures. It takes a look at what it means to be a king, with huge themes being laid upon chivalry. It’s not finished yet, but with the way this is going, next year this show may show up even higher on this list, if I’m doing it again.
One annoying thing about Steins;Gate is that it was set in Akihabara, and the part of it that celebrates the otaku culture was nowhere near my interests. However, the part that was near my interests totally made up for it. This show had some well researched plot threads about time travel, and used some particularly imaginative concepts, yet at the same time restricted itself with some strong constraints. It pretty much was an interpretation about time travel that I had not yet seen before, and even though some parts were a little hard to buy, I still really appreciate the effort.
#9: Ikoku Meiro no Croisée
There are a lot of things that can make me consider a setting to be great. In the case of slice of life, I want it to be believable, and get the feeling that the world the characters are in are really alive. Ikoku Meiro no Croisée pulled this off. Here, it really holds a candle over Tamayura, Sato Junichi’s other slice of life series this year. It actually bothers to animate a lot of other people that walk around in the setting, but what really set it apart was how well it used the fact that it took place in 19th century France. Satelight have a bunch of French connections, and they used them really well for this series. Every episode is chock full of historical references, cultural differences and customs that even taught me things I didn’t know yet about Japanese life.
#8: Level E
Level E is about aliens on earth, and I especially love the creativity it throws in all lof its arcs to make this idea come alive. The amount of ideas that it uses earned it a place on this list,, and it’s just really interesting science fiction that keeps throwing you for a loop. The short story nature of this show means that it can show a lot of different aspects of its setting, which it makes gladly use of.
#7: Natsume Yuujin-Chou
This series made the list, because it’s just so dam believable. There are a lot of series about youkai, but few do it as well as Natsume. You really get the feeling that the world Natsume lives in is alive, and that the youkai in it are a core part of it due to the really strong characterization on nearly every one of the characters. This series also doesn’t’ just animate one town in Japan, it actually portrays multiple locations in the country that Natsume lived at, and it does an absolutely wonderful job at it.
#6: Hyouge Mono
This show… is unbelievable. After so many over the top portrayals of the Sengoku Era in the latest year that pretty much raped the era, this one comes along, does exactly the same, and yet it does it with an incredible portrayal of historical accuracy that puts every other installment just to shame. This is just a completely bizarre combination between accurate portrayals, with an incredibly detailed look at pottery, art and architecture, combined with characters making the silliest faces imaginable,consciously hammy overacting and a ton of parodies on the postmodernism that nowhere near existed yet in those ages.
#5: Last Exile ~ Ginkyou no Fam
Last Exile definitely gets the award for the grandest setting of the entire year. No other setting can top it, and if it wasn’t for some shoddy storytelling here and there, it actually would have easily made the number one spot. There has been an incredible amount of creativity and details into each location. The story here is epic and it actually manages to expand upon the setting of the first Last Exile massively.
What really surprised me about this series is how actual it was. But even without that, the creators gave a very interesting vision of the future here. Again, the semi-episodic nature of this series really helped, because in this way it could show a lot of different technologies that were all really well woven into the story of each episode. This show also examines what kind of impact these technologies have upon the people who live in it, and all of that together make it into one of the most solid settings of the year.
#3: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica
The reason why Madoka Magica’s setting is awesome would mean to delve into spoilers, which is not something I’m going to do. Let me just say that as a deconstruction of the mahou shoujo genre: it really did its job well.
#2: Tiger & Bunny
This is a series that really took a very imaginative setting, and had its way with it. The concept of Hero TV, a television series in which superheroes are followed on camera and paid by sponsors already stood out from the very first episode. It’s a great parody, homage and criticism of modern society at the same time, and yet at the same time it also is a great concept for a really fun and enjoyable series. The creators really struck gold with it.
#1: [C] The Money of Soul and Possibility Control
None of the setting sthis year came as close to C in terms of ambition, though. It really wanted to do something interesting, and while it would have been even better if it had more episodes, it still really stands out as the ballsiest setting of the entire year with its focus on economics, delivering this crazy premise where people gamble away their futures with a ton of similarities to modern stock trading. More than any other series this year, this concept stood out for doing something different from the usual anime, and it definitely was a very interesting ride from start to finish.
#Top 3 Best Background Art
#3: Yumekui Merry
Shigeyasu Yamauchi is an amazing director. While he can’t do anything about bad stories, he really knows how to make graphics speak for themselves, and he knows a bunch of very good background artists who help him with this. The best example of this was Casshern Sins a few years ago, but Yumekui Merry has the same utterly gorgeous backgrounds. The nature of this series allowed the creators to come up with a ton of different designs and settings that all looked equally stunning.
#2: Hana-Saku Iroha
Hana-Saku Iroha gets a place on this spot due to how incredibly refined every single one of its backgrounds was. Seriously, there just are no weak spots whatsoever: every background just looks amazingly detailed and life-like. The use of CG is brilliant, in the way that the creators know how to use just enough to make the different drawings stand out, yet stay away from the “3D-look”. And it kept this going for 26 whole episodes. This may be much more grounded in reality than Yumekui Merry, but these creators found a way to show eye candy in every day situations.
#1: Last Exile ~ Ginkyou no Fam
No TV-series however, came close to the backgrounds that Gonzo delivered this year. I mean, people are often on Gonzo’s case that their visuals look rushed. But that’s the thing with their visuals: they’re either really good, or rushed through due to lack of budget. The cloudscapes look amazing, the landscapes are full of creativity. These people even brought entire cities to life in the most imaginative locations, with in particular the architecture of the huge and grand buildings in this series standing out as a feast for the eyes.
#Top 5 Best Animation
Now this year, the category for “best animation” is an interesting one, because this year didn’t have a show that had the jaw-droppingly awesome kind of animation like in previous years with Full Metal Alchemist, Bounen no Xamdou or Seriei no Moribito. So instead, I started to think about which series did warrant a mention for this category this year, especially because I’m certainly no expert on the subject. At first I really thought to include series like Guilty Crown but the more I watched it, the less impressive the animation became. In terms of overall quality, I think that Fate/Zero does stand on top. The action scenes are consistently well animated, even in the non-action scenes, and there is plenty of movement through he entire series, not to mention how crisp the creators made everything look. The entries below here all did something special with their animation, because in terms of consistency, this one is unbeatable this year.
A-1 really knows their animation. And there is one thing that they were really, really good at this year: continuous movement. Characters hardly ever stopped moving in this series, and instead of the usual shortcuts you see in anime, they were really well animated while making all sorts of poses and elaborate body movements. This really was a series where the difference between key animation frames and inbetween animation frames was really thin.
#3: Dantalian no Shoka
Gainax only had one series this year. Perhaps it was because of this that the animators could fully focus themselves on trying new stuff out, and that is exactly why I gave it a spot on this list. Dantalian no Shoka’s episodes actually experiment a lot with different art and animation styles (not to mention that it has this year’s Osamu Kobayashi episode) that brought many different styles together, and made them work.
I just had to place Blood-C’s animation here in this top list. I know that it’s definitely not the most consistently animated series: the quiet scenes do take quite a few shortcuts. But especially the early episodes had action scenes that just made my jaw drop. The animation here was incredibly fluid, and yet the characters moved around like nothing limited them. Usually with frame-rates like this, characters only look around, change angles, or just stand still. Here though, the direction of the movements was fully brought to life with that incredible fluidity.
In the end though, I do have to give this year’s best animation award to the X-Men. This show had excellent animation, that on top of that made use of some of the most gorgeous artworks and character designs. This show had a lot of movement, but also a lot of detail. A combination that is really hard to get right, as the more detail you put in your character-designs, the harder they are to animate. This is a syndrome that Madhouse knew fully well, and they actually averted this with the X-Men. The results were just gorgeous.
#Top 5 Best-Looking Graphics
#5: Heartcatch Precure
Of course, I have to mention Heartcatch Precure. It already was gorgeous in 2010, and its finale in 2011 did it justice in terms of pretty looking graphics. The final battle had some really nice animation. It doesn’t win this award this year because of how little episodes aired this year, but it still is a truly gorgeous series that’s full of eye candy.
#4: Last Exile ~ Ginkyou no Fam
Traditionally, I hand out this award for not the series the best animation, but the ones that simply look the best. Last Exile made this list because beyond anything: it has shown how good CG can look when done well. The aerial battles in this series look just amazing, with Gonzo pushing its CG to even more boundaries than it already did before it died for the first time.
#3: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica
This show had two kinds of animation: normal, and completely crazy. The contrast between them in particular looked really good, and shaft put a ton of abstract eye candy in all of the different settings and dimensions hereto make this one heck of a gorgeous looking series.
#2: Yumekui Merry
I mentioned Yumekui Merry above already, but its backgrounds aren’t the only thing that looked absolutely amazing in this series. On top of the background art, the artist also put an amazing amount of detail and colours into the foreground art, brilliantly making use of CG for shading everything and making everything come together. It’s clear that the creators had a ton of inspiration when they started on this series, and by the end of the series this seemed nowhere near run out.
I originally introduced the category f “best looking anime” years back, in order to differentiate between the series that may not have the best animation, but still have visuals with undeniable charms. This year though, there is one series that has them both: X-Men both was incredibly animated and it looked completely gorgeous. Madhouse just went all out on this series and even though the storyline may have had its problems, it never failed to deliver gorgeous images with amazing use of colours.
#Top 5 Best Music
#5: Hyouge Mono
Bee-Train actually walked away with this award for the first four years I did these yearly summaries. Hyouge Mono’s soundtrack is too restrained for this to pull this again, but I still want to pull out a honorable mention to its originality. Again, Kou Otani is experimenting with a lot of different things, the use of instruments is great and this soundtrack always manages to strengthen each scene it appeared in.
This may be a strange choice at first, but when watching this series, it really caught my attention how fun it actually was. The soundtrack here is completely over the top, which sounds this series perfectly, There are many different tracks which with their sheer power completely enhance the value of the scenes they’re played in, and they especially make the food battles even more fun than what they already were.
#3: Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae wo Boku-Tachi wa Mada Shiranai
Now this is a soundtrack that fits its accompanying series to a T. Incredibly emotional, and it did exactly what it needed to do for the roller coaster that was Ano Hana. Every time it was played it was exceptionally well timed, plus the piano pieces in particular are just beautiful.
#2: Tiger & Bunny
Now, Yoshihiro Ike is one of my favorite composers. Above anything, he’s consistent, and always delivers something that is unique and highly atmospheric. It worked really well for Tiger & Bunny, with his violin strings that hardly ever seemed to die down. He could be both upbeat and downbeat with the same style, and he nailed both the exciting and dramatic parts of this series perfectly.
#1: Dororon Enma-Kun Meerameera
There is one soundtrack though, that stood light-years above all the others this year. There is just no contest with this one. What the creators had done here is completely un-rivaled by every other series this year. The creators here took a ton of classic tunes from the seventies, and gave them a modern coating and a new meaning through the series. They were all sung with a wonderful voice that makes them even more fun to listen to. Without a doubt, the most creativity has gone into these series to make them sound good and unique.
#Top 4 Best Scripts
#4: Level E
With this list I give a nudge to the best written scripts of the years: these are the series that are just technically really well written and constructed. Level E is the prime example of this. As a collection of short stories, every of the stories made its impact, and did something really clever with its script. It was a master of trolling and also its variety was very impressive. All of them were well written and incredibly fun to watch.
#3: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica
Madoka Magica on the other hand, stood out because of how well it used its format as a continuous storyline. Gen Urobuchi really delivered a storyline that made optimal use of its time. where things flow seamlessly into each other. It leaves no episode wasted, yet it does pay enough attention to building up in the first few episodes. The script itself does a great job in fleshing out its purpose as a mahou shoujo deconstruction as well.
Un-Go meanwhile is a combination between the two series above, taking the best of both, and then putting in some more. It both shines with its individual stories, but in its second half its plot also is very well constructed and put together. On top of that, the creators also put as much dialogue in this series as they could muster. Dialogue that was full of hints to the different mysteries in this series where you really need to pay attention in order to catch everything. Because of this, the pacing is fast, and this definitely isn’t a series that you can just sit back to, but that really was part of this series’ charms.
#1: Hyouge Mono
The best written script comes from Hyouge Mono, though. It’s a show about some old guys talking to each other, but it does so wonderfully. The script it has to back up its views on aesthetics is incredibly solid and the way in which it describes everything in this series is just un-rivaled. The ramblings of the different characters also did a great job on giving detail to every major character involved.
#Top 4 Best Stories
#4: Tiger & Bunny
And finally, I’d like to present my list of series that had my favorite stories of the year. Tiger & Bunny was really well put together. especially in the way that it used its unique setting. It made great use of its individual stories to build up its overarching plot, which got more intriguing with every episode. Unfortunately it couldn’t keep up with this and so the finale dulled in a bit, but it still was one of the best stories of the year.
#3: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica
Madoka’s story rocked because of how well everything fitted. The story flowed really naturally here, in the way that it slowly deconstructed the Mahou shoujo genre and really gradually began to lose all of its innocence. All the major arcs here fit, and it found a great purpose for all of its characters.
#2: Mawaru Penguin Drum
Penguin Drum’s story isn’t for everyone. Unlike Madoka above, it does not answer everything about its story, and it’s really something where you have to read a lot in-between the lines. The story in Penguin Drum isn’t just told through its dialogue, but also its visuals, symbols, and emotions. The heavy use of flashbacks also gives this series a very non-linear and vague approach, but when it all comes together, it does come together wonderfully.
Here there was no mistake: Steins;Gate had the single best story of the entire year, period. It had a weird way to look upon time travel, but it used that to create a story about time traveling unlike no other. There were a ton of layers in this series I just loved how it kept intertwining them in the most unexpected ways. That was just brilliant. It took a bit to build up, but it was definitely worth it.
#My top series of 2011: #40-31
I’d like to try something more elaborate this year. Usually I end each year with a top 20, but this time I’m going to list my 40 favorite series of this year, counting down ten shows each day. So here it is: the first part of my list of favorites of 2011.
#40: Kimi to Boku
Kimi to Boku was a peculiar show. For starters, it was a slice of life with the majority of characters being guys, rather than girls, but also it made no attempt at all to avoid getting on the viewers’ nerves. In particular Chizuru was consistently annoying, but the rest of this show also had this “bored” atmosphere. And yet, when you came down to it, it did have very well written characters. The end of each episode always made sure that the characters and their development came together. It was annoying sitting through it, but that alone is enough to give it the final place in my Top 40 of 2011.
By far the most underrated franchise of 2011 was the Marvel Project. It made a really bad start with Iron Man in 2010, but after that they all delivered, but hardly anyone seemed to really notice them. Wolverine had its flaws: it had really simple characters, plus a bit of an acting problem. But when it came to the action, it was exactly what it promised to be? This series shows that even on a short budget, you can create an exciting action scene with creative camera work, great stunts and a pacing that doesn’t drag but keeps you on your seat. This show was simple, but actually quite effective.
The X-Men meanwhile lacked Wolverine’s problems of a small budget, acting problems and simple characters: these really are iconic characters who work great together, and the animation in this series was drop dead gorgeous, as mentioned above. Instead, the problems here were with the plot, which in the end boiled down a very crappy conflict. Wolverine had some pretty nice anime original characters, but Hisako in the X-Men completely unbalanced the series, taking away the spotlight from the real main characters of this series. Nevertheless, the action and atmosphere in this series made up for it.
#37: Appleseed XIII
For the record, I’m going to consider OVAs with 13 or more episodes as TV-series, because they very well might be, and are much easier to compare to TV-shows than time-constrained OVAs. Even though much hasn’t come out yet for this series, but it left me impressed. It’s definitely a series that’s very good at storytelling, and it uses its own setting very nicely in its stories. Its big flaw is that its acting leaves a lot to be desired. Especially Deunan acts much more feminine than what she was in the movies. So feminine that it feels like she’s on a non-stop period or something. This girl really needs to learn to control her hormones.
#36: Phi Brain
Phi Brain was just a series whose entire concept just didn’t make any sense. The whole thing about a world in which puzzles are so important that people make death defying puzzles, just to test this guy who happens to be the “Phi Brain”… it really was hard to buy it. And yet, after 13 episodes, that’s exactly what I did. This show can be rather stupid at times, but not when it matters. Its characters were surprisingly well fleshed out and fun to watch, the different puzzles were interesting to watch and very creative. Most of the puzzles are puzzles that you could try to solve yourself if you have the patience and the pause button.
#35: Kamisama Dolls
Kamisama Dolls was a show which nailed a combination between action, drama and comedy. It didn’t have too much of either, and all of them had good parts to really show off, making it a very diverse series and even though the story really left you hanging, and it devolved into a cheesy harem over time, it still brought consistent entertainment with some very good animation. It had some nice character development, the chemistry between the characters was great, and even though the story didn’t really live up to what it promised at the start due to some characters refusing to move out of their stereotypical roles, I still liked this a lot.
Comedy sequels that are as funny as their predecessors are already rare. So imagine my surprise when Mitsudomoe actually surpassed itself here. The first season had some very annoying flaws and jokes it milked too much. This season was much more stream-lined. As a result, it was a really hilarious series when it hit its stride. Sure, it was wrong on so many levels, but the chemistry between the different characters really rocked. What also made it a great series is that for once, it knew that it wouldn’t be able to fill 13 episodes, so it just stopped at 9. Seriously, more series should do that.
#33: Deadman Wonderland
This year of course also had its share of series that were just way too short. Deadman Wonderland was probably the show in which it was the most apparent: it rushed through its story and in the end left us hanging for a second season that will probably never arrive (it completely bombed in terms of DVD sales). But yet, the story that it tried to tell was completely crazy. In fact, unlike probably many others, I preferred this as a completely crazy and psychotic show over Mirai Nikki, due to the completely messed up system that the characters were thrown in. It had neat ideas behind its characters, and even though it had some weaker episodes here and there, the better episodes were very solid entertainment.
Ah, No6. How I would have loved to put this show a little higher on this list. It really had the ingredients: terrific acting, great animation, an interesting post-apocalyptic setting and most importantly: character who just kept evolving. Seriously the characters kept developing in every single episode. Unfortunately, it’s stuck at place 32 due to that ending of its. This was a very believable series, so it doesn’t really work when the creators suddenly start pulling all kinds of nonsensical twists from out of their asses, just to wrap everything up in one episode, where it also went completely against the characters.
#31: Hunter X Hunter
Hunter x Hunter is another series that would have been much higher up my list of this year, if it weren’t for one thing: the existence of the first Hunter X Hunter series. It’s just too similar. I’m essentially rewatching a series here. The differences that are there are just minuscule, and the rest of the series will have to prove that a remake of this series was warranted for fans of the old series. But still: it remains one of the best shounen series ever. In 12 episodes it already did so much. Compare that to all other shounen genres, who keep having contests to see who can shamelessly drag on for the longest. 2011 was a year that broke a lot of subtle trends like this, and because of that I can call it a successful year.