There are two ways people look at a year: either from January to December, the regular old calendar year, or as a school year starting in August and ending in June.
Being a genius who constantly reinvents the stale standards of the world around him, my concept of the 'year' is slightly different. My New Year fluctuates somewhere between March and April, because it's somewhere during that time frame that I first watched Sword Art Online and became irreversibly fascinated with the world of fiction. I can't remember the exact date (or the exact month, I guess) but that's nice because I hate deadlines and this lets me write the Year In Review whenever I damn well please.
This year, however, things are slightly different. By 'things', I am of course referring to the state of my life right now, which is comparable to a training montage where a young shounen hero is forced to power up quick by repeatedly fighting a rabid grizzly bear with his hands tied behind his back. This past August I decided on a post-graduation whim to move to the lovely Texan border town of Rio Grande City to teach high-school English, and every day since than has been a perpetual adventure in maintaining enough of my emotional stability and sanity to avoid having a complete manic breakdown. In the distant future the school year will eventually end and I will no doubt emerge battle-hardened, but in the meantime my list of priorities has been somewhat reorganized. In the past, it looked something like this:
8. Grades, I guess
7. Combat existential dread
6. Convince my fucking ungrateful A Capella group that they've consistently underappreciated my solo voice
5. Lend my intellectual understanding towards the reviewing of anime
4. Form a thousand unique opinions about anime
3. Watch every anime
2. Find my soulmate
1. Write a book
Yes, despite my constant whining throughout my four years of college, it turns out that there are greater hardships than getting rejected by the same girl three times or having to cram for an exam. In the past seven months of dealing with cruel, vulgar teenagers in an unknown place with an unknown language and culture, I have learned the hard way that my previous life was actually set to easy mode. There were things called days off, basic respect, low expectations, and inherently supportive friends that allowed me the time to worry about stuff like 'which Hiroyuki Sawano track is most compatible with its show?' and 'what exact scenes and lines of dialogue could you trim from the Higurashi visual novel to make it more palatable to a wider audience without disrupting the emotional impact?' Now, my daily musings are closer to 'how do I balance the expectations of the students and the administration?' and 'oh God, how many more fucking 3rd periods are there before spring break?' Yes, my priority list has shifted into something more like this:
2. Combine every conceivable form of distraction and motivation to succeed in the classroom to the best of my ability while still staying sane
1. Write a book
So yeah, things have changed. I'm still me, but I'm a me that will never underappreciated the simple joys of going to Friday Night Magic or having a conversation without being referred to as a 'stupid gringo' ever again. I'm also a me that no longer feels the need to prove something by devoting myself singularly to one medium. Therefore (and this is the point of this long and winding exposition) I haven't watched nearly as much anime this year as I have in the past, and I haven't taken the stuff I've watched nearly as seriously. A lot of it I sought out specifically for the purpose of entertainment, prioritizing taking my mind off of work over artistic integrity. And you know what? I'm okay with that. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.
Anyways, that's enough preamble. The award ceremonies await. Let's give some anime some recognition.
Well, song of the year goes to Perfect Time for being incomparable running fuel, but even I'm not so low as to hand out a soundtrack award just for remixing the same catchy hook in fifty different ways. The winner here is Made in Abyss, because Made in Abyss does that neat thing where its music actually compliments the story while also being appreciable out of context. Hanezeve Caradhina makes for an excellent poster child as one of the only pieces of music I can stand to listen to at 7 in the morning on the way to work, but it's backed up by plenty of atmospheric gems like Tomorrow and Underground River that help give the show the immersive mythic vibe it succeeds by. I've said before that the Made in Abyss soundtrack feels like it's actually built from the sounds of the Abyss itself, and if you listen to these pieces I'm sure you can also hear the sound of wind echoing through the caves and ancient creatures howling in an alien world.
Yeah so obviously there are some spoilers here. I've tried to be as vague as possible, but since I can't figure out how to make a spoiler tag on this website I'll just say that if you haven't yet seen Your Name for some reason that you should probably skip to the next category.
The thing with twists is that the literal worst place to put them is at the end of something. Why would I care about how everything is gonna change if it's about to be over? No, twists belong in the middle of a story, when you've gotten all comfy and cozy and you think you know what's happening at least for the next little while and then BAM the conflict and premise get flipped on their heads and you can't even remember what you were thinking about five minutes ago, it just feels so long ago.
Your Name (or Kimi No Na Wa) is kinda famous at this point, and while lots of people point to the stunning Shinkai animation or catchy rock tracks that turn the movie's montages into AMVs, I think that the film's success comes down to its halfway-point shift when an innocent Freaky Friday rom-com is suddenly yet sensibly transformed into a apocalyptic time-travel epic. The stakes are raised, the curtains pulled back, and the stage lit up with the light of a falling star (or, uh, comet I guess) as Shinkai unveils his true conflict, an epic struggle across time and space to save the lives of thousands of innocent people. And yet, what's most impressive about this transformation from some kinky Parent Trap knockoff to a Doctor Who season finale is that it doesn't feel forced or stretched at all. Shinkai keeps his atmosphere, characters, and story fluidly intact: the magician's ultimate trick. What makes the twist so satisfying isn't its size, it's the way it felt like it had been there all along.
That said, this doesn't erase that scene where all the dialogue is just people yelling each other's names for 20 minutes, but hey, credit where it's due.
I rewatched Spice & Wolf, can I use that please? No? Okay fine, well with the knowledge that Holo and Lawrence should always be the winners here, I guess I'll hand over the award to the #2 duo.
This of course isn't to say that Araragi and Senjougahara from the Monogatari series aren't a great couple. In fact, if Holo and Lawrence are kinda what I feel like couples should be, Araragi and his crab are a lot closer to what I feel like couples actually are, something you don't see very often in fiction because the notion of a fated, all-consuming romance being something anyone can find is so very enticing. As I watched the final chapters of Monogatari unfold in Owarimonogatari Season 2 I found that there was something almost deliberately anticlimactic about their relationship that I appreciated. Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari never came back, Araragi never really overcame the awkward emotional distance that continues to persevere between them, and despite the show's demonstration that their relationship was solid it never really tried too hard to convince us that if there was a fated Monogatari duo it was Araragi and Hanekawa, a relationship that is just never going to happen because Araragi is happy with his current relationship.
So how does this make them 'Best Couple'? Well, as I said, they feel honest. Their relationship is a relationship I've had myself: something that makes me feel excited and committed, but that accepts practicality as an acceptable substitute for the mythical and is too modern to care about the concept of soulmates. As I watched their final episode unfold, I felt profoundly that since I had first started the horny abomination of a series half a decade ago I had, in some significant way, grown up.
Of course, another part of me still wishes the toothbrush episode had deleted scenes I could watch, so maybe I haven't grown up too much.
Anime sucks at making comedies. Okay, so some friends of mine have argued that there's a cultural barrier that prevents me from appreciating a lot of the humor, but I laugh plenty at funny moments in shows that aren't dedicated comedies so that can't entirely be the case. Anyways, this year I dropped Gintama for the third (and hopefully final) time, further cementing my code of never turning to anime when I want a laugh.
With one exception.
Today I'm proud to declare that the finest comedy in anime this year goes to none other than Sword Art Online, as slightly modified by Something Witty Entertainment. When it comes to the funniest moment it's hard to choose between racist Asuna, Klein's enduring nickname, and the rise of Fluffles, but that is nothing more than a testimony to how great this series is. I can't wait to see what they do with Alfheim. Personally, I'm hoping they make Leafa into Kayaba and have Asuna be so annoying that Oberon kicks her out.
Shiki. Shiki had the best ending this year, no question about it. There's nothing quite as thrilling as when a show gets progressively better with every episode leading up to the finale, then manages to top off everything it's done before with a thrilling, numbing, and brilliant conclusion. This vampire thriller is an epic, no doubt about it, proving once again that the West should just leave the campy premises to anime.
That said, Shiki's ending is, uh, well, kind of horrifying. It constructs an incredibly tantalizing argument for a kind of self-indulgent neo-liberalism that places the entirety of meaning on one's own life and happiness. Maybe it's my own secretly deeply selfish soul that resonates so strongly with the message, or maybe it's just the way that it's presented: not as a glorified given but as a terribly broken necessity in an incredibly vicious world. More optimistically, it's likely just because I appreciate stories that take strong stances on worldviews that are morally unpopular (see Nausicaa.)
Anyways, who really cares, it's fucking awesome and I'm getting chills right now just writing about it and listening to the incredible soundtrack (Shiki was definitely #2 after Made in Abyss.) The real moral is that I've gotta rewatch this thing.
All this started a while back with Sword Art Online, so I'm more than proud to be able to give it not one but two awards. While the plot continues to descend into progressively more nonsensical drivel, the visual effects are better than ever. The final fight scene in the Ordinal Scale movie was just absolutely shit-your-pants unbelievable, a dynamic action scene crisper than Lays and with more moving parts than a Rube Goldberg machine. The payoff was almost worth the 2 hours of horrible goddamn VR plot contrivances. Almost
Sword Art Online has always looked good, but this movie was on a whole other level. It honestly felt difficult to keep up with just how many flawlessly-executed fight scenes there were. I mean, every time a character opened their mouth the magic was broken, but as long as they were just yelling 'RRRAGH!' while Swordland played and the flashy-lights flashed, I could live once more in that glorious bubble back before I knew anything and Aincrad was the place of dreams.
Honestly, just watch the scene. Even if you never have any intention to follow SAO ever again, treat yourself to the future of animated action. No screenshot does it justice.
Somebody once told me that music can't control me, not to let my problems get in my head.
Then she said 'get out of here!' with her relic named Gungnir, and the next thing I knew she was dead...
WELL, THE NOISE START COMING AND THEY DON'T STOP COMING
GENJUUROU SAYS WE HAD BETTER START RUNNING
HIBIKE PUNCHES THEM INTO THE SEA
NO SWAN SONG? THAT'S FINÉ BY ME
Which moment, you ask? In Genki Zesshou Symphogear there are no moments, only the perpetually flow from hype to more hype. From the boss's 1v1 fistfight with an ancient superbeing to Chris's valiant stand to save the moon, everything in the first season of Symphogear was fist-pumping glory. If I had to pick one moment though, it'd probably be when Hibiki goes full rage-mode in the final fight. I've always been a sucker for rage modes, and I'm now a sucker for Hibike, and, well, watching that scene was like drinking a boot full of red bull and adrenaline extract.
Too bad it sucked after season 1.
For the actual best scene just spin a roulette wheel on Anne of Green Gables, but I like to think of this category as more 'the scene that swung the show around', a pivotal moment that stood out from the rest of the show up to that point as something truly exceptional.
That scene undoubtedly comes from Re:Zero, a show I initially dropped when it was airing because it seemed little more than a well-executed grimdark power fantasy. However, when people's enthusiasm failed to die down even after the initial wave of next-season-induced amnesia I decided to go back and push myself through, something I'm very glad I decided to do. The show is thoroughly imperfect, but the final scene of episode 13 is just a total home-run from start to finish.
This scene takes the fantasy that one's problems are entirely a product of their surroundings and grinds it to dust, demonstrating that Subaru's idea that he's now a popular hero just because he switched worlds is a delusion. He still has all his toxic qualities: his tendency to idolize and dehumanize the female figures in his life, his assumption that he's constantly important, and his fake and distancing way of socializing. As long as he doesn't try to grow up, he'll end up just as miserable and alone in this world as he did in the last one.
Unfortunately the show doesn't stick to its guns all the way through, providing him with Rem, a character who, in spite of delivering cutting truths, also gives him the exact kind of unconditional love that the show before seemed to be saying he had to earn. Oh well, I guess the viewers have to be made to feel safe somehow...
Tragic undercutting flaws aside, that scene and the entire arc it spawns are the shit. Give me a whole show that good and it'd be a favorite.
Most Unforgettable Character
A long time ago, so the legend goes, a group of some thirty people got on a bus together, not knowing that their quest for paradise would soon go off the beaten path. There were any number of oddities amidst their ranks: a obsessive couple, a pair of gun fanatics, a psychic, a catgirl, and a run-down old scholar. However, not even the most eccentric of them could have prepared them for...
Ode to Lovepon
Once upon a midnight weary
With some thirty people near me
I began to wonder, should we truly trust our host?
All around me others stirring
(And, well, one that's oddly purring)
There are murmurs that one of the many is a ghost.
Suddenly I hear beside me
Something that I find surprising
There's a girl whose smile is both hideous and thin.
Just when I think to accuse her
For who here would think but choose her?
She points to some children and cries "Let's execute them!"
Now of course I'm laughing coldly
What's she thinking, yelling boldly?
And is that a pair of pliers? Lady, you are truly done.
But, I fear I must disclose now,
Twenty others merely asked "how?"
It was then I knew the nightmare night had only just begun.
Worst Thing I Still Finished
I must shamefully confess that this is even worse than a year ago I could've predicted. Not only did I finish the first season of The Seven Deadly Sins, but I also watched the 4-episode OVA and I started watching the second season now that it's airing. I'm going to watch the next episode today. What kind of hideous consumer have I become? And let me clarify, The Seven Deadly Sins isn't something passably bad like Katy Perry or pink wine where you can just say it's the easy option: no, this show is real trash. The main character is constantly sexually harassing his teenage companion (I mean like, he'll literally talk to her while fondling her chest), the plot is a pile of contrivances, the continuity is slowly falling apart, and even the animation is pretty garbage! So, why did I watch it? Why am I continuing to watch it? Why don't I just go actually start Haikyuu or Naruto or literally any other battle shonen if I want my fix of one-vs-one fights and power-up moments? Well, there's a very simple answer:
Most Likely to Spawn a New Fetish
Shokugeki no Soma
And of Course, the Year's Top 5!
These are the FIVE BEST ANIME I have watched this year, which means that they're guaranteed amazing because my opinion is objective and absolute. Hey, one of them was a show that just aired though! That's a good sign. The imoutos haven't won yet, dammit (wait, say what? It's got pedophile undertones? Uhh...)
5. Made in Abyss
I love adventure stories, and Made in Abyss gave me the best one I've watched in a long while. It takes a special combination of solid character writing and astounding control of visual space to make me actually feel like I'm in the world of a fantasy anime, which is why I quit so many five episodes in, but this one did the trick. It's nothing especially complicated, but it captures the wonder of descending into a complex and unknown ecosystem laced with magical undertones pretty much perfectly, and it got me completely hooked. The last two episodes were the real selling point though, telling a convincing personal story that got me to cry while keeping the atmosphere intact. Give me another season please and thank you.
4. A Silent Voice
I had a bit of an anime lull, but this movie brought me back from it. This just feels like an extremely good movie by any standards, something I'm proud to show friends and family alike while still also finding a lot of personal enjoyment in it. It's gorgeous, it's well-directed, it's long enough to tell a complete story with several arcs, it's got grounded characters that interact in believable ways and have real problems, and it manages to tackle themes as grim as depression and suicide without ever feeling particularly grim itself. Sure there are some side characters that probably should've just been cut from the source material, but overall this movie is a stunning accomplishment and was easily one of the highlights of my year.
3. Karigurashi no Arrietty
I finally found my Ghibli movie. I was raised on Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke, and while all of Myazaki's classics will always inform everything I know about fiction, this quiet, unassuming film might just be my favorite the studio has ever produced. It's fully committed to the sad but beautiful world of the borrowers, reveling in the simple wonder of suburban nature from an expertly-crafted unusual perspective. Arrietty is never loud, never in a rush, and never too concerned with plot. A simple movie with a perfect ending, this one is definitely a favorite.
I talked about Shiki already, so I'll keep it brief. Shiki is good horror. Shiki is like if Urobuchi had helped write Code Geass. Go watch it (and stop at episode 20 to watch the two OVAs before the finale, because that's where they go chronologically and they are very important.)
1. Akage no Anne
Whaaaat I thought this was a list of the best anime I'd watched this year, not the best things created by human beings since the paleolithic era, and yes that does include stone tools. Akage no Anne (which translates roughly to God's Apology for Cancer) is a 50-episode slice-of-life show that reminds us why all anime should just be adaptations of stuff you read in high school English (wait, sorry, not all anime.) The trick to this show is that it's just really good at everything it does, weaving a concoction of bittersweet themes through a perfectly-paced character study packing enough attention to detail to make the period feel authentic without getting too bogged down in historical realism blah blah. Look, it's amazing, and if any part of you thinks "there is a potential world where I could enjoy an anime adaptation of Anne of Green Gables", guess what, this is that world, and this is your sign to go watch it. You're welcome.