I promised two recommendation posts during the last week of December, and while I altered my original schedule by bumping one post up by a week, this one is a couple days late. In my defense, I spent last week sick and sleep deprived, staying home to “rest up,” which resorted in a gross display of even more willful sleep deprivation. In fewer words: I was cranky and lazy. Okay, so this post is in the wrong year but it’s still in the right week. As my favorite Cheon Song-yi would say: SAWRY,
Before I dive into my 2014 favorites, I’ll say that my love of good anime is an old interest revived. Code Geass wasn’t my last watched anime pre-2013, but it’s one of my more memorable and beloved shows before I “lost interest”—Last Exile, which I marathoned in 2011, is an exception. So, just when I thought anime was a thing of my past, the Shingeki no Kyojin wave buried my Tumblr dashboard. From its diverse and complex characters to its storyline and high-quality animation, SnK reminded me not only how addicting anime can be, but what anime can accomplish that live-action can’t. That’s not to say live-actions are incapable, but in similar fashion to books, anime presents fewer restrictions. They can prove much more imaginative and captivating. Many on this list could do well if acted through real people, but a universe like Akatsuki no Yona are better left as they are.
In present-day Japan, Tokyo is struck by terrorist attack when bombs explode in one of the city’s skyscrapers. Although the bombing leaves parts of Tokyo in a short-lived power outage, the attack takes zero fatalities. A video uploaded to the Internet prior to the incident reveals a masked duo—referred to as “Sphinx”—as the culprits. “Nine” and “Twelve,” together with the voluntary “aid” of Lisa Mishima, work to carry out an intricate scheme to ‘wake up’ the world. As they plant bombs throughout the city, ace detective Shibazaki scrambles to decode Sphinx’s riddled videos in time before detonation.
The perspective of ZnT is one namely of sympathy as viewers watch through the eyes of our protagonists, Nine and Twelve. What Sphinx initiates are, by definition, acts of terrorism—but a key point is that Sphinx doesn’t kill people, nor is it their goal. Sphinx’s plans are so thought-out and sophisticated in their execution that no one dies, which eases the audience into sympathizing with their motives. Or does it? I wasn’t sold but I couldn’t stop myself from simultaneously rooting for them either. However, ZnT goes wrong in its construction. It’s in thinking that everything presented can be patched up in eleven episodes, yet it would have faired better at 20+ episodes instead.
Even so. ZnT is one of those shows that dangle a hook at the very start, opening with one of the best heist and high-speed chase scenes. From that moment, I was a caught fish—and surely, I thought, a dead one once episode eleven comes to crush my soul. It’s a show I walked into not knowing what to expect, but between the mysteries and suspense lies a foreboding, melancholic touch that makes the heart ache. I left ZnT wounded and crying—confused, even—and throwing my hands up in ire, but damn, what a good anime. And well-made, too. Although I can pick out flaws in the writing of ZnT, the production and animation are five-star quality:
Middle school student Shouyou Hinata has a passion for volleyball, for despite what he lacks in height, he is determined to make up through agility and speed. With no on else interested in forming a team, Hinata practices on his own—even stealing the gym when the girls’ team steps out. But during his last year, Hinata accomplishes what he always dreamed about: participation in an official school match. His team, having little practice under their belt, prove second-rate. Their first match pits them against “King of the Court” whiz Tobio Kageyama, who swiftly trounces Team Hinata. Crushed and playtime-hungry, Hinata vows to exact revenge. Now in high school, Hinata applies to the Karasuno High School Volleyball Club, but he’s left in shock when he unexpectedly discovers that his rival, Kageyama, is also applying.
Well… I’m sorry for judging you, Sports Anime Genre. And I’m sorry that I still look down on you, even after latching on to Haikyuu!! with all my heart. But to be fair, I did watch Free! after binging on what had been the currently available Haikyuu!! episodes, and that show is nothing in comparison. (If you’ve seen Rei in his butterfly swimsuit, that’s a pretty good description of the show itself. And, also to be fair, Free! probably isn’t a good display of what the genre offers.) My disinterest in the genre derives from my disinterest in sports, but also from its tendency to lean on fanservice—no matter how small. (Because fanservice is everywhere and certainly not limited to sports.) Haikyuu!! is my exception, and I suppose what drew me to the show is my personal history with volleyball.
My love for the game doesn’t emulate Hinata’s, but his devotion became part of my weeks’ highlights. Even the show, with A grade animation and clean art, made my Sundays something to look forward to—a detail that I partly attribute to pace. Matches don’t drag out, and they succeeded in holding my interest. Because Karasuno’s volleyball club isn’t filled with prodigy players, or athletes with outstanding abilities (minus Kageyama), the show focuses more on their faults AND strengths, improving both through teamwork. Consequently, whether Karasuno’s matches become their victories are 50/50. When I expected Hinata’s weak point—his height—to make a 180 and become his strength by miracle of some crazy level up, I was left surprised. Karasuno turns Hinata’s “weakness” into an effective weapon rather than the show implementing a random power flux. Haikyuu!! had me glued to the screen, sometimes biting my nails in tension, rooting for our fallen underdogs. The game doesn’t always sway in their favor, but Haikyuu!! wouldn’t be as watch-worthy if it did.
One might call Handa Seishuu a talented calligrapher, but a certain gallery owner disagrees. “Textbook-like,” he says, in reference to Handa’s works. “[It’s] written for the sake of winning.” But his words don’t stop there. “Did you try to overcome the wall of mediocrity?” he asks. “What an uninteresting piece.” With a burn-free history of winning, the critique is too much for the twenty-three year old to take in stride. Instead, Handa shows his wounded ego by punching the
poor elderly man who uses a cane in the face. In order to reflect on his actions, Handa is sent to an isolated village on Goto Island by his father. It’s here he meets boisterous six year old Naru. The two form an unlikely friendship as Handa learns to overcome his artistic slump and, in the process, mature into a better human being.
If there’s one show on this list that I want everyone to watch, it’s Barakamon. Equally hilarious as it is heartwarming, what makes Barakamon worth watching are the characters who generate the story: Handa, childish and quick to anger; mouthy and aggressive Naru with a passion for bug catching; Hina, a shy girl who finds a reason to cry about everything; aspiring mangaka Tamako, infatuated with BL (but will profusely deny it); tomboy Miwa, always teaching Naru the things she shouldn’t; and Hiroshi, whose lifestyle in itself screams mediocrity. For a show largely about Handa’s arc of personal growth and self-discovery, he doesn’t undergo a complete transformation, but he’s well on his way—something that he can attribute to his newly formed friendships, and most of all Naru’s.
Barakamon is a real treat for all that it puts out, but Naru steals every scene with ease. No matter what anyone says, Barakamon‘s central storyline belongs to Handa, but the the true star is Naru. As a child, Naru lacks life experience, but nonetheless proves surprisingly insightful in her childhood acuity, and the manner in which she plays off Handa is a wonderful mix of hilarity and heartfelt moments.
Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-Kun / Girls’ Monthly Nozaki-Kun
Episode Count: 12
>>Watch: Crunchyroll, Hulu
When highschooler Chiyo Sakura confesses to her crush, fellow student Umetarou Nozaki, she doesn’t expect a signed autograph in response—and yet that’s exactly what she gets. Nozaki, a shoujo mangaka that goes by the penname “Sakiko Yumeno,” mistakes Sakura as a fan rather than a girl in love (and he being the object of her affection). If only his ignorance stopped there, but it doesn’t. When Sakura further clarifies that she wants to be with him, he invites her over to his house… as his assistant.
GSNK, by synopsis alone, doesn’t sound like a winner, but it’s a mistake to brush it off as another common rom-com. What makes GSNK stand out among the stinking heaps of cliche rom-coms, or romance in general, is that GSNK is in fact a shounen satire of shoujo. That said, there is an entry bar one should meet in order to fully appreciate GNSK, which is to say that experience with shoujo tropes is beneficial for the viewer.
You don’t need to suffer through a swamp of generic romance to enjoy GSNK, but those who have will revel in it and take more from the humor. (And if you need a starting point, I will gladly direct you to at least twenty different shoujo. All different stories, of course, but how can you tell when they all fall victim to the same dull tropes, drama, and “twists”?) I’m not one for re-watches, but GSNK is a show I can watch repeatedly and still laugh through the same parts. I dare you to see why. *aggressive nudge*
There are a couple reasons AnY may repel you, one being the art. It sidles into generic form, and for someone who banks on great art and quality animation, I took a gamble. That leads me to the second reason: our pampered protagonist, Princess Yona. She is whiny and spoiled to the core, but what else can anyone expect from a coddled princess? Uh, a lot, apparently.
I made the mistake in backing out of the manga early on, repulsed by the unworldly and self-absorbed Yona, but this is what makes her character growth satisfying. Yona thankfully doesn’t sprout from the mean brand of spoiled brats, but a life lived in luxury exempted her from hardship—that is, until her cherished Soo-won murders her father. As Soo-won performs a successful coup, Yona flees with her loyal bodyguard Son-hak. The journey she takes hereon leads down a bumpy road, and she takes a beating in more ways than one, but it’s this path that builds her into a better person. Here I’ve only glimpsed at her developed future self, and seeing Yona transform from babied royalty to compassionate but cut-throat bad-ass is worth the watch—and that’s not the half of it.
AnY offers a flavorful dish of girl power for viewers to chew on, and it never runs short—but this is just an appetizer. The true selling point rests in the narrative’s rich context and overlaying conflict amidst action, adventure, and romance. It’s everything I’d hope Akagami no Shirayuki-hime would be but wasn’t, for whatever AnY lacks in art and animation is made up through fleshed-out characters and story. Of course, it’s not a show for everyone, and don’t forget that teenage girls own the target audience. It’s not as heavy or bleak as I’d prefer, meaning that subject matter isn’t presented in a more gritty, emotional way where I truly feel for Yona. Instead, comedic moments often (but briefly) overshadow the serious tone, but for all this show offers, I have little to complain about.
Called the “Human Metronome,” piano prodigy Kousei Arima once dominated the world of classical music competitions. Upon the death of his mentor—his mother—an eleven year old Kousei suffers from a mental breakdown mid-performance and vanishes from the music scene. For two years, he avoids the piano and insists that he can no longer hear the sound of his music, joylessly meandering through life. He gets up, goes to school, and comes home to an empty house and dusty, untouched piano. His mother’s death doesn’t manifest as mere shock, sadness, or even depression, but perhaps a blend of all that and then some. He is haunted by the memory of her: those overbearing expectations and his inability to meet them. He’s angry, sad, afraid, and he’s disappointed in himself. He’s lost, but an encounter with carefree violinist Kaori Miyazono lights a new path. It’s one of healing, and it leads straight back into world of music.
What I both love and fear about Your Lie in April is its theme of love and loss. As emotionally invested as I am, nothing but horrified dread fills me at the prospect of what I may find at the end. At the same time, it’s what continually draws me back. No matter how small, there is a piece of everyone to be found in Kousei. You may not know a thing about classical music, but we all reach a point of feeling astray—and maybe even becoming used to that feeling. Even more relatable is the struggle to re-discover that one thing you pour your heart into. Only for Kousei, it’s learning that he never did, and now that he does, how can he implement these emotions into his performance?
Where this show turns ominous is through worrisome foreshadowing. (And excuse me if I’m getting ahead, as I am ahead in the manga.) Kousie’s top-notch talent grows through his experience of loss, so what will continue to push his ability forward? More loss. We can pray for a happy end, but I feel this is much more likely to conclude in I’M-REALLY-SAD-BUT-I-WILL-SURVIVE! tears. (Because the anime will adapt the manga in full!) I’ll be sad, super sad, but thrilled I came across such a touching story. And you should be, too.