Please follow along with me as I go through my final countdown for this “Anime Year in Review” series. So far I’ve focused on characters, but now I will focus on the shows themselves. I present to you what, in my view, where the Ten Best Anime Shows of 2011!
On this site a few months back, I wrote a series review for Anohana. There’s not a whole lot I can add to what I wrote there, except to say that as good as I thought Anohana was, it did air in a very strong year for anime, hence why it didn’t finish any higher than 10th for me. If Anohana had aired in the relatively lackluster anime years of 2009 and 2010, it almost certainly would have been Top 5 material for me. However, amidst the fierce competition of 2011, it just barely manages to squeak on my Top 10 list, nonetheless edging out some pretty good shows in Mashiro-iro Symphony, Un-Go, and the first halves of Fate/Zero and Shana III. Ultimately, I have to concur with what my good friend Demi Soda (from Anime Suki) wrote: Anohana was the best “Melodrama” focused anime of 2011. If you wanted an anime show with powerfully palpable poignant life drama, Anohana was the show for you in 2011. I can certainly understand why this was the best anime show of the year for a lot of people. For me personally, though, the melodrama in the show could at times be a bit too thick, and for that reason it hasn’t aged as well for me as other shows on this Top 10 list have. Still, it was a very well-written, well-produced, and well-executed anime show that demonstrates how the anime world should never cease making good, sincere life drama shows like this one. Anohana shows how anime is often at its best when it takes itself seriously, and with a touch of class.
Ah, but another anime show that features a fair degree of life drama, and takes itself seriously, is Chihayafuru. You could say that Chihayafuru ultimately beat out Anohana by the nose of Chihaya. Chihaya herself serves well as the hook of the show, drawing in viewers with her initial “Beauty in Vain” presentation. The irony behind that cutting character critique is that Chihaya’s actions are never in vain, but always decidedly purposeful. Chihaya effectively shows how inner beauty, such as the inner beauty needed to stand up for people being wrongly bullied and ostracized, is more important than outer beauty, particularly when such outer beauty is portrayed in a vainglorious way. By going against the negative aspects of predominant social norms and expectations, Chihaya ends up embracing a cast of outcasts, turning them into dear friends and teammates. Together they form a motley but intensely inspiring crew, who’s enthusiasm for the game of karuta is often contagious. I myself knew nothing about karuta going into this anime, and it’s still not a game or sport that interests me, so it says a great deal about the deeper emotional appeals of this anime that it’s managed to make me care about karuta within the context of the anime because the characters themselves so clearly care completely about it. Yet, it is this same lack of familiarity with karuta that slightly limits my overall love for this show. I am a pro sports fan in general (pro hockey specifically), so I’m able to relate to a lot of what the anime is portraying at the level of “sports anime”, but on-screen karuta competitions themselves don’t always gain that sports enthusiast engagement form me. Still, Chihayafuru has been a wholesomely wondrous watch so far, often feeling like a good, old-fashioned, live-action Disney sports film to me.
8. Tamayura ~Hitotose~
Another awe-inspiring anime of 2011, when it comes to capturing that full sense of family and friends that classic Disney was known for, is Tamayura ~Hitotose~. This is an anime that largely fell below the radar screen of the online anime community, and in fairness, I can understand why. It’s mild, melodious, mellow. It’s like a bright light lava lamp, which serenely soothes subtly as you watch on in total relaxation. It’s not as loud, zany, noisy as most anime are. So I can see why it could get lost in the crowd of dozens upon dozens of other concurrently airing anime shows. However, there is, in my opinion, no purer form of “healing” anime than Tamayura ~Hitotose~. Even as a big yuri fan, I have to appreciate an anime that can present a main cast of very close female friends without even once making me perceive yuri subtext in the air. And so I think what ~Hitotose~ managed to capture here is platonic female friendship in its finest form. Now, I am a male, so I could be wrong here, but I get the sense that the way Potte, Kaoru, Maon, Norie, and Chihiro treat each other is a close approximation to how good female friends treat each other in real life. There is certainly a degree of idealization at play here, but it is grounded by how events do not always conspire themselves in the most beneficial of directions. For example, there’s an episode where every love confession fails, a rather ironic twist for a show seeking to affirm life itself as this show does. And yet, this show is one of the most heartwarming I’ve ever watched. If you’re looking for a show to brighten and lighten your mood after a hard day of work, than I heartily recommend sitting down with a comforter and cup of hot chocolate as you ease into another day in the lovely life of Potte and her friends.
7. Hanasaku Iroha
Ah, but what if you want a heartwarming show with kick, punch, and other assorted attacks? Well, then look no further than Hanasaku Iroha! One of the most controversial anime shows of 2011, due in large part to the (in)famous episode 3, which anime fans were starkly divided over. And yet, even as someone who was on the more critical side of that divide, I have to admit there there were few finer anime shows in 2011 than Hanasaku Iroha. This is because Hanasaku Iroha had one of the very best main characters of the entire year, who along with a couple important recurring characters (Satsuki Matsumae in particular), managed to give HSI some of the very best stand-alone episodes and arcs of the entire year of anime. Due to the sheer beauty of P.A. Work’s artwork and animation, matching the best that even Kyoto Animation can offer, it was easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment. Ohana sparkled not only because of her inherent character strength, but also because it was conveyed with equally sparkling artwork and animation. The full product hence shone illustriously during its greatest moments. While Hanasaku Iroha did have a few stretches of episodes that didn’t feel particularly impassioned, important, interesting; it more than made up for it by having a few stretches of episodes that were absolutely awesome. As time goes by, I find that I remember this anime show’s peaks more than its valleys, and so it’s no surprise that it has aged very well for me. Mari Okada has her weaknesses as a writer, but for giving us two excellent anime originals that were amongst the 10 best shows of 2011, I do tip my hat to her. As long as she doesn’t expect me to wear a dress, mind you.
6. Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son)
The obvious segue just screams out to be used by me, doesn’t it? ;) But no, Hourou Musuko deserves better than that. It treated cross-dressing as a serious issue, unlike what Mari Okada does in her anime original works, so I will treat it as a serious issue here as well. And, in fact, for a lot of people it is a serious issue. Gender identity is not unimportant. Nor is feeling comfortable in one’s own skin, and in the clothes that one wears. Given how anime has always played gender issues primarily for laughs (classic comedy anime Ranma ½ makes this clear almost in and of itself), it’s very nice to see an anime show breech the topic from a more relevant sociocultural perspective. Equally important, though, is that Hourou Musuko works simply as subtle drama, even if one isn’t particularly interested in its subject material. I myself have never felt inclined to wear a dress, and have never had substantial gender identity issues, but Hourou Musuko is careful and concise enough in how it presents these issues that it doesn’t really factor into what I take from this anime. Nitori’s story is compelling because he himself presents it simply, streamlined, straightforward. We don’t get lost in minutia, or abstract analogies. He likes the way he looks and feels when wearing girl’s/women’s clothing. He doesn’t beat around the bush or try to find some sort of powerful psychobabble pretext for it. And since he speaks plainly and clearly and maturely about this issue, it feels fine when the rest of the character cast speaks like this as well. I know that some say that these teenage characters act overly mature for their age, and maybe there is some truth to that, but I think it usually works in Hourou Musuko because it exemplifies the overall maturity and sophistication of the show itself. In other words, the show develops a certain tone and identity for itself, one that isn’t too far off from what you could see in a real life setting, and hence it all comes together nicely. Hourou Musuko was hence a very tight show, from start to finish.
5. Tiger and Bunny
In sharp contrast, Tiger and Bunny was a bit of a slow burner, much like those consuming fires that were featured time after time in Barnaby Brooks Jr.’s corrupted memories. That slow burn was probably Tiger and Bunny’s greatest weakness, but also its greatest strength. That obviously sounds paradoxical, so let me explain. While the first few episodes of the show are decently entertaining, it does take awhile for this show to truly shift into high gear, which may have made it seem a bit underwhelming at first. Being a more action-oriented show than most on this list, such a high gear is not only helpful, but called for. You don’t watch a show like Tiger and Bunny strictly for dialogue and character development, as its very premise demands a certain level of theatrical action, adventure, drama, and suspense. You expect clashing crashing conflicts, both physical and personal. And this Tiger and Bunny did provide in desirable ample quantity, in literally flying colors, red and green. But it did take awhile to fully get there.
That slow burn in the first half of the show, though, is what made later developments so coolly compelling. By slowly but surely pulling back the curtain on Barnaby’s background, the viewer is able to gradually piece together what makes this man who and what he is. We learn what makes him tick. Likewise, Kotetsu’s admirable and likable character is best displayed by showing how he perseveres through the less glamorous periods of his life and career, making it all so much sweeter when we see him later become a widely beloved and respected hero, looked up to by all his peers, and even his often aloof partner. Then there’s two specific arcs in Tiger and Bunny that spoke so succinctly to the American comic book fan in me: The Jake Martinez (similar to The Joker) arc and the Maverick (similar to Lex Luthor) arc. Comic book allusions awesomely abounded in this show, and that’s a big reason why it was one of the most awesome anime shows of the year for me.
4. Mawaru Penguin Drum
Ah, but if there was a reward for the most awesome and well-balanced character cast of the year, it would go to Mawaru Penguin Drum. There was no 2011 anime more driven by its characters, and their charismatic personalities, than what Mawaru Penguin Drum was. It holds the distinction of being the only anime to have 2 of my Top 10 male anime characters of the year and 2 of my Top 10 female anime characters of the year. From Himari instigating the great rock and roll time, to Ringo speaking breathlessly about Destiny, to Shouma barely being scratched by a roaring automobile, to Kanba dauntlessly dodging magical slingshots at point blank range, to Sanetoshi being more electrifying than Las Vegas, to Yuri being enchantingly yuri with Ringo, no 2011 anime clearly enjoyed itself more than what Mawaru Penguin Drum did. And hence those of us who watched it couldn’t help but enjoy it as well. Why, even Triple-H warranted a reference here! Gosh, how I wish Natsume and him would crush John Cena soon. ;) It’s fitting that MPD cutely referenced pro wrestling here since this anime had cool character catch-phrases to rival the likes of “Watcha gonna do when the 24-inch penguins come crashing down on you?!” Penguinmania is running wild, brother! Comedy gold of the year right there, with those penguins, if not the best anime comedy elements of the entire decade! During MPD’s weakest hours, you could always count on the penguins to keep you laughing, smiling, and entertained.
So why doesn’t this show place even higher on this list? Well, as much as I ended up loving Ringo, I eventually grew very tired of her futile pursuit of Tabuki during the first half of the anime. That didn’t resolve itself quite as quickly as I would have liked. Then there’s the trademark Ikuhara symbolism that cuts like a double-edged sword, in my opinion. Sometimes its fascinating and makes everything seem deep and enriching, but other times its incomprehensible to the point of being a bit of a negative. Still, MPD was the most unique anime of the year, and boy, was it ever a lot of fun to watch. In the end, I agree with Ringo more than Kanba. I love fate, since anything that resulted in me watching this show can’t be a bad thing.
3. Usagi Drop
And what Usagi Drop demonstrated gorgeously is that parenting isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. It has its decidedly daunting drawbacks, but it also has really riveting rewards. One scene in this anime stands out to me as I write on it now. It’s the scene, early on, when Daikichi takes Rin up on his back, and runs her home with a youthful vitality and zeal. And I think that’s one of the implicit messages of Usagi Drop. As people age, bonding with younger generations, particularly in a parenting/adult supervision role, is a way to ensure that you don’t lose your energy, vigor, or zest for life. Ultimately, that is what Rin brought into Daikichi’s life, as she implicitly demanded those elements from him: Energy, vigor, and zest. Daikichi had to run himself ragged in order to balance his work life with properly caring for Rin, but through such efforts I think that Daikichi may have realized how life is best when its active and lively. It is arguably better to be tired from a full day of activity than to be bored from inactivity.
Daikichi’s life was lacking in some areas before he met Rin, and so I think that a case can be made that she saved him as much as he saved her. I think this shows a possible ideal outcome for a good parent/child relationship: The child is able to offer something to the parent as worthwhile as what the parent offers to the child. With this being said, Usagi Drop didn’t shy away from displaying less ideal family situations, as we see through various friends and relatives of both Daikichi and Rin. This display gave Usagi Drop a great sense of authenticity about what it was saying about the life of a parent, and the life of a family. In the end, I would not have changed anything about the Usagi Drop anime. I mildly criticized one episode over on Anime Suki, but that episode worked perfectly well as a relative “break in the action” when all is said and done. Usagi Drop is probably as close to flawless as an anime can get. However, it wasn’t quite as ambitious an work as the ones that finished in the top two slots on this list. Now, good reader, we will see if Steins;Gate goes three-for-three.
And the answer is… It didn’t. But contrary to popular belief, there’s no shame in winning the Silver Medal. And indeed, Steins;Gate was a Tour de Force of Olympic proportions.
Like Tiger and Bunny, it was a slow burner which switched into high gear about halfway though the show. However, its first half was almost as great as the second half, due to whimsically winning witty dialogue. There was probably no anime show of 2011 that had sharper or wittier dialogue than Steins;Gate had. Indeed, I think I’d even put that dialogue ahead of Bakemonogatari’s, a show widely noted for its strong dialogue-driven nature. Now, I’ve already dealt extensively with what made Steins;Gate such an adroitly astounding show in what I wrote about the Male and Female Anime Characters of the Year, Okabe and Kurisu. That pair did more than words could say in making Steins;Gate such a thoroughly triumphant terrific viewing experience. The relationship between them was also one of the best and most sublimely sophisticated subtle anime romances that I’ve ever watched. The rest of the cast was also far from weak.
Mayuri was one of the most moe characters of the entire year, and her kawaii innocence and friendliness added marvelously to my emotional investment in the second half of the show, while consistently putting a smile on my face during the first half of the show. Meanwhile, Suzuha was one kickass character! She had some great scenes in this anime, and played the role of action heroine very well when the need arose. Daru worked equally well as the otaku touch-point character for the show. Shining Finger’s characterization ended up having much more depth to it than I first thought it would, and that added a lot of “Oomph!” to the most tense moments of the anime. Love him/her or hate him/her, Ruka was the Trap archetype polished to perfection. Finally, who wouldn’t want to take a ride on the Feiris Wheel? More seriously, Feiris, like Shining Finger, thankfully ended up being a deeper character than what I had first suspected she’d be.
All-told, this was an elaborately exquisitely excellent anime show, that would have easily been 2010′s best anime of the year if it had aired a year ago.
But no, it aired in a year in which one anime truly stood above all others when it came to taking the Anime World by storm. The fact that anime pulled this off in a very strong year for anime as a whole speaks to the magnificently magical masterpiece that it was. I give to you the No. 1 Anime of 2011. I give to you…
1. Puella Magi Madoka Magica
But for Steins;Gate, Mawaru Penguin Drum, Anohana, and Fate/Zero fans that may find my choice of 2011 Anime of the Year disagreeable, let me admit a personal bias to you in the interests of fairness.
I’ve always loved magical girl anime. The reason is elegant simplicity, much like Homura’s character design.
As a young lad, I loved He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. A cartoon where a Prince holds aloft a magical sword of power to become a mighty hero challenging a constantly cackling classic villain named Skeletor, a magic user of the highest order.
In my adolescence, I loved American comic books and pro wrestling, with colorful attire accentuating astutely colorful characters. Hulk Hogan and Superman captured the imagination.
Through my early adulthood and now into my early 30s, I love anime, including its distinguishing moe element.
The magical power of He-Man, the captivating color of super heroes, and the sweetly scented allure of moe. So what brings these altogether?
Magical girl anime is what brings them altogether. When I see a good magical girl anime show, I see much of my life flash before my eyes, along with the flash of the beloved transformation scene, a popular trope that has left me in child-like awe since Prince Adam used a sword to became He-Man, and Clark Kent disrobed to become Superman.
We live in an increasingly jaded age where magic (figuratively speaking) is often seen as quaint, if not juvenile. We live in a cynical age where selfless altruism is often seen as foolhardy.
The great irony of the magical girl deconstruction Madoka Magica is that even while it tears down the more questionable conventions of the magical girl genre, it also reaffirms the magic of the genre, and the altruistic ideals promoted by the genre, through the successfully heroic sacrificial act of Madoka Kaname. Oh, darkness was winning, and cynicism understandably abounded, right up until Madoka’s heroic sacrifice. But that is precisely why Madoka Magica manages to be so effective at reinforcing the spirit of magical girl anime.
You see, Madoka Magica appropriately addresses the antithesis to that timeless spirit. And it lets the antithesis win for a time. Sayaka Miki falls to that antithesis. Kyouko, and her entire family, were victimized by it. Mami was killed by it. Homura was emotionally numbed by it.
“The night is darkest just before the dawn” – Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight
When you cut Madoka Magica down to its very core essence, that is what it is saying. It is a message that does not ignore cold hard reality. But it is also a hopeful message, as it confirms that the dawn is coming. Kaname Madoka was that dawn in Madoka Magica, and that’s much of the reason why the ending to Madoka Magica was so beautiful, touching, and glorious. All the while not feeling contrived, easy, or intellectually shallow. The perfect solution wasn’t there for Madoka, but through careful thought, altruistic desire, and high ambitions, she found a good solution.
This is the key edge that I think Madoka Magica holds over Steins;Gate. Steins;Gate’s ending was nice, almost too nice. Steins;Gate deals with an antithesis similar to the one that Madoka Magica deals with, but in the end it shows a resolution as magically happy as a fairytale ending. Don’t get me wrong, Steins;Gate had a good end, but it was an end that lacked some punch because it divorced itself a bit from the real world, in my view.
Madoka Magica, on the other hand, never denied the existence of inescapable evil and loss. It simply argued that it can be overcome, at a price. As hokey as it sounds, that’s a message that stirs the young boy inside of me. The young boy that dreamed of highly hopeful heroes in capes like Sayaka Miki, of clever manipulators of technology and time like Akemi Homura, of graceful slayers of witches like Mami Tomoe, of stylish spear-wielding stars like Kyouko Sakura, and of sweet selfless souls like Kaname Madoka.
Madoka Magica inspirited the child in me, while engrossing my adult mind. A rare combo from the rarest of anime gems.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica is my No. 1 Anime of 2011, and it is one of my five favorite anime shows of all-time.
But, as the old saying goes, your mileage may vary.
That does it for this year in review series. I hope you all enjoyed reading my takes on the anime shows and characters of the past year. Everything you read is just my opinion, and other contributors to this blog site may well disagree. But still, I found it fun – tiring fun, but fun nonetheless – to pay tribute to 2011, a honestly great year for anime. I hope that 2012 will have more of the same.
Happy trails, and Happy New Year!!!