2014 has proven to be an interesting year for new anime debuting in its homeland, largely as it has seen many attempts to break out of the same hackneyed moulds of the past decade, while others just can’t help to fall back into these lazy habits no matter how interesting the new idea may be (Rail Wars I’m looking at you!).
Unfortunately it is these lazier concepts (harem, ecchi comedies, magical girls, high school fantasies) which remain the most effective hooks for new or less discerning anime fans, a rather sad development which has made its way across this side of the world too. Thankfully there are still studios willing to embrace new ideas and avoid delivering the same mind numbing interchangeable and indistinguishable run-of-the-mill shows – the only caveat being that they tend to slip under the mainstream radar.
With that in mind, this year’s top ten list of what are my personal picks of the best new shows from Japan felt like a part compromise as it was hard to truly decide which titles grabbed me enough for inclusion. As subjective as this is, I don’t know if this is an indictment of my tastes becoming more selective or if the standards in anime are dropping but it is what it is.
So here we go with MIB’s Top Ten anime release from Japan in 2014, and as usual agree or disagree as is your wont.
10. Free! Eternal Summer
Okay, let’s get this out of the way – this is NOT a shonen ai show. Not even close. Yes, it has a group of hunky teens in a swimming drama and they form a close bond but there is no romance between any of them. What there is, however, is plenty of well animated swimming races, typical high school trials and tribulations and some great comic interaction between the likeable and strong cast. Even a non-sports fan like enjoyed this how and for once, provides fan service for the girls.
9. Wizard Barristers (Wizard Barristers – Benmashi Cecil)
Directed by Yasuomi Umetsu, who gave us the notorious Kite, this is less creepy and violent show about a young female barrister, Cecil Sudo, in a futuristic Tokyo where magic is prohibited but wizard barristers are on hand to prove if its use was lawful or not. It may be a little fan servicey thanks to a perverted frog (!) but this colourful and energetic series provides us with sufficient action comedy entertainment with a nice twist on the magical girl concept. A guilty pleasure show.
8. The World Is Still Beautiful (Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii)
A pleasant surprise in that the story of a young princess being forced to marry the heir of a neighbouring land for the good of the peace is hardly original. What makes this show is the wonderful female lead, Nike of the Rain Dukedom, is strong willed, straight talking and resilient young woman as well as a fun comic foil. Her husband, Livius of the Sun Kingdom, may be a mere child but the pair have an undeniable chemistry, creating both laughs and drama.
7. Terror In Resonance (Zankyou no Terror)
When a number of terrorist attacks hit Tokyo, a mysterious masked duo called Sphinx accepts responsibility via YouTube videos. Demoted-police detective Kenjirō Shibazaki breaks rank and takes on the investigation of this case, entering into a cat and mouse game with Sphinx, aka two teen boys who refer to themselves as Nine and Twelve. A tense and well plotted show, this could have been as a good as Death Note had it not been crammed into eleven short episodes.
6. Ronja The Robber’s Daughter (Sanzoku no Musume Ronja)
If you ever wondered what a TV anime from Studio Ghibli would be like, this adaptation of a novel from Pippi Longstocking creator Astrid Lindgren provides the answer. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, this is a Ghibli co-production and employs CGI animation yet still has enough of Ghibli’s trademarks to warrant interest from fans. The story follows the adventures of Ronja, the young daughter of the leader of a gang of bandits as she explores the world outside of her castle home. It might be intended for a younger audience but it is completely accessible for adults too.
5. Silver Spoon 2 (Gin no Saji 2)
This may be cheating a bit including a second season in this list but you can’t argue with quality, and Silver Spoon 2 is a fantastic follow up to the original. It delivers more of the same all the while exploring a whole new scope of ideas set in the world of agricultural education. Yugo Hachiken and friends return, along with some new faces as they tackle horse riding, a pet dog and the strains of family commitments. Hilarious and heartfelt a third season would be very welcome!
4. One Week Friends (Isshuukan Friends)
Another sign MIB is getting soppy in his old age. The story centres on glum schoolgirl Kaori Fujimiya who distances herself from her schoolmates until Yuki Hase tries talking to her. He learns that an accident left Kaori with a condition that erases her memories at the end of every week, thus she avoids making friends she knows she will forget. A rather sweet and touching little series that handles its subject with a maturity and intelligence you’d not expect it to.
3. Parasyte – The Maxim (Kiseijuu: Sei no Kakuritsu)
This sci-fi chiller has taken awhile to reach the screen – both big and small, with the original Manga debuting in 1988! As this TV series hits the halfway mark, the first of two live action films will have hit the cinemas, telling the story of Shinichi Izumi, a high school student who instead of having his brain taken over by an alien parasite, has to share his body with one. Gory, clever and good looking this highly anticipated series is one which actually delivers in spades.
Another unexpected surprise that turned out to be a real diamond in the rough. Calligrapher Seishū Handa is sent to the country after hitting a judge at an exhibition. There Handa meets and gradually integrates with the locals of this backwater town, including boisterous six year-old Naru and her friends. The fish out of water concept rarely fails and this cheeky comedy is homerun hit from the first episode by dint of the varied and strong personalities featured. More please!
No 1 – PING PONG – THE ANIMATION
So how does a series which is arguably the worst drawn, poorly animated and shoddily presented take top honours? I wish I knew but there you are. Another story which has been around a while, with the manga debuting in 1996 and a successful live action film being made in 2002, this animated version came seemingly out of nowhere but struck a deep chord with almost hypnotic prowess. Focusing on a group of young lads skilled at table tennis, the verisimilitude of the script, sound and the characterisations lifts this show above the norm and indeed its discordant visuals. Whatever voodoo was at work here to make this sublime outing the most rewarding and affecting show of the year, it needs to be bottled and shared out among all anime producers ASAP.
And that concludes the countdown of my Top Ten anime titles released in Japan for 2014. It may have been a struggle to finalise a definitive list of bona fide great shows for the years but plenty of enjoyable ones bubbled on the outside which were in contention for those final spots. They include Tokyo Ghoul, Terra Formars (the latter subject to the most ridiculous onscreen censorship ever seen), Gugure! Kokkuri-san, Shirobako, Denki-gai no Honya-san, Shingeki no Bahamut: Genesis and Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun.
I’m sure you all have your own personal favourites which may or may not have appeared here, or you’d have a different ranking, so rant away if you feel so inclined.
If 2014 wasn’t quite the vintage year for new anime it could have been can 2015 provide a turn around and knock our socks off with some future classics? Or will we see another run of stale ideas and concepts with studios just coasting along with lazy fan service heavy dross? Not long until we find out!
Thanks for reading and until next time, this is the Man in Black saying Sayonara!