Monday, 1 January 2018

My Anime Top Ten - 2017

I'm back, baby! Okay, I'm not really back, but now I no longer have an official "home" for my musings this is the time of year when my fingers get decidedly itchy. The people must know what anime I enjoyed in 2017, and they must know immediately.

So, after a three-year hiatus, it's time to perform a little necromancy on this blog to share my top ten anime of 2017. You know you want to hear alllll about them, don't you?

10. Recovery of an MMO Junkie
EDIT (02/02/2018): In the month or so after writing this post, it's become clear that the director of Recovery of an MMO Junkie, Kazuyoshi Yaginuma, has consistently expressed opinions that are virulently anti-Semitic and pro-fascist (read more here). In light of these revelations, I can no longer express any kind of support for this particular anime series, so while everyone is entitled to their own thoughts on how a creator's opinions should be tied to their work (and I am leaving my initial thoughts untouched in light of that), I am personally expunging this series from my top ten list.
I wasn't originally planning to watch this series and certainly didn't expect much of it, but having been coaxed into checking it out I could see why.

Recovery of an MMO Junkie takes so many of the things that have been done before in other anime but absolutely nails their execution and presentation. Primarily, this series takes its premise of relationships within an MMORPG and plays with them in a very believable - and perhaps most importantly - a very modern way. While the characters themselves fret about the disparity between their online and real-life personas - be that on the basis of character or gender - actually it doesn't matter, as the shared passions of these people eases the transitions between online and offline.

There's no big drama to come from the revelation that a man plays a female character online or vice versa - it's perfectly normal to those steeped in these online worlds - and while this shouldn't be such a refreshing revelation from an anime series it somehow still is. This serves as a solid basis for an adorable cast of characters having a fun time which is suitably infectious for the viewer and makes for one of the the autumn 2017 season's stronger shows.

9. Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid
Oh joy, another monster girl anime - we all know how I loooove those. If it wasn't for the promise of KyoAni's visual goodness (and the fun Interviews with Monster Girls coming along to soften my stance on said monster girls), I may not have even watched this show. Thankfully I did, and few series gave me more joy in 2017. Every week I couldn't tear myself away from the opening credits, I adored most of the cast, its best-placed and timed gags made me laugh uproariously, and every so often an episode would pull the emotional rug out from under your feet to remind you how attached you'd gotten to the cast. I don't have anything profound to say about this show - it was simply a rip-roaringly good time.

8. Blood Blockade Battlefront & Beyond
I loved the first season of Blood Blockade Battlefront, even if those hugely delayed final episodes killed its momentum ultimately. Given its change of director, I wasn't expecting too much of the second season, but I'm very happy that it proved me wrong.

In essence, Blood Blockade Battlefront & Beyond gave me exactly what I wanted out of a return to Hellsalem's Lot - never mind any "big picture" machinations, just give me the main cast dealing with whatever insane problems comes their way. The result is pure entertainment each and every week - characters who were neglected somewhat in season one got their time to shine, the main cast got to do their bit but were giving enough breathing room so as not to become tiresome or repetitive, and the show's soundtrack accentuated each and every journey into the maelstrom in a way which somehow managed to one-up the first season.

7. Princess Principal
Whenever I want to tell people how good this show is, they ask me "What's it about?" Then I start with the words "Well, it's set in steampunk London..." and they recoil visibly and try to exit the room/Skype call/aircraft etc.

Yes, Princess Principal is set in Steampunk London (steampunk post-Brexit London one could argue, where London has walled itself off from a United Kingdom run by self-serving bonkers politicians), but that doesn't really matter. What does matter is that every episode is an enjoyable - and often self-contained - spy thriller. The series actually manages to be pretty varied narratively as it builds up its cast and finds various missions to deploy them into, while still having some delicious twists to its tale just as things might otherwise become stale.

So, rather than talk about "steampunk London" now, I'm just going to show people the opening credits to this show - if that sells you on Princess Principal with its eye-catching visuals and James Bond-esque opening theme, you should certainly watch the rest of it.

6. In This Corner of the World
My first thoughts when I left the cinema after watching In This Corner of the World were filled with picking over the movie's problems - and by problems, I mostly mean "ways in which it was different from the source material".

I still stand by some of my complaints as to how this film shifts the way the story ends in particular, replacing the dread of simply knowing what happens to the people of Hiroshima next as their tale ends to graphically depicting it and continuing through. However, none of that should take away from an incredible film that neatly sidesteps the Grave of the Fireflies comparisons by offering a very different depiction of World War II Japan. The way the film depicts the mundane against a backdrop that is anything but is played out expertly and in a way that still has plenty of visual beauty about it, and it's a film that I'll be watching again without a doubt as soon as I get around to it in 2018.

We live in a time where any discussions of war, and World War II in particular, seem more rich with meaning than ever, and while In This Corner of the World has little to say about the politics of the time, in a sense that makes it even more powerful and important as a reminder of what the grand gestures of political leaders can do to the normal people beneath them.

5. Scum's Wish
I've often complained about romantic anime's unrealistic take on relationships, where characters take 50-odd episodes just to hold hands. Well, Scum's Wish is the antithesis of that, with its cast of horny teenagers who just want to fuck.

Thankfully, it isn't quite that simple - the cast of this show are horny teenagers (or, as we call them, teenagers), but rather than just turning that premise into soft porn we're given a far more complex state of affairs as the basis for all of its drama and machinations. Rather than just wanting sex, it's more that these characters assume that sex is the answer to every interpersonal question in a way that is uncomfortably redolent of teenage thinking, and watching characters pursue deeply flawed relationships while missing the point of the relationships they already have is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of the experiences of puberty.

Scum's Wish manages to be sexy and uncomfortable in exactly the right doses, making it a stand-out of the year - not to mention the sheer audacity of the show to have a character wearing a hat with the show's own logo branding on it. We have truly reached the end times of anime marketing.

4. Land of the Lustrous
This autumn season show was initially on my "I'll get around it it eventually" viewing list, before everyone I know and respect started yelling at me repeatedly for not watching it. So I did, and they were right.

Within minutes of the first episode starting I was sold on Phos as a protagonist, and watching her screw up but carry on regardless in the face of the criticism of her peers was hugely enjoyable. Little did I expect the levels of character growth and progression she would demonstrate - no, be forced  to demonstrate - across the course of the show.

Watching Phos grow and change is a wonderful experience - sometimes joyous, sometimes sad, sometimes something far more intangible than such binary emotions. Her journey is offset brilliantly by the warm visual comedy and snappy dialogue, to create an engaging an easy to watch series that still has plenty of depth to it. Phos' story is clearly nowhere near over, so I really hope we get to see more of it.

3. Made in Abyss
I had a couple of people warn me off Made in Abyss before is started airing, but because I'm a rebel I ignored them. Boy was I glad I did.

For starters, Made in Abyss is perhaps my favourite series of 2017 visually - its treatment manages to meld beautiful vistas and the horror often contained just beneath the surface beautifully. For the first few episodes that was my major drive to keep watching the show, but as it descended into its titular abyss so it grabbed me more and more.

Above all else, the show uses that titular device is such a compelling way - on a surface level the depths of the abyss simply destroys humanity body and soul, but this is really just a great excuse to study the characters who have (or are currently) delving into those depths and what the experience has done to them. Rather than simply offer a parade of messed-up characters, there's a real nuance to Made in Abyss' major players - Ouzen is the obvious poster girl for this, but even Riko and Regu are clearly being changed by their experiences in the depths, and that's before we get to Nanachi and Mitty. Oh, poor, adorable, horrific, lovable, disgusting, cute, nightmarish Mitty.

Then, of course, there's episode ten - perhaps the most uncomfortable thing I've ever had to bear witness to in anime. I'm one of those people who has over-used the word "visceral" to the point where it loses its meaning, but Made in Abyss probably deserves the tag in this episode. Yet, its horrific content is all justified and powerful in its execution (take note Inuyashiki), and as much as I gritted my teeth and wanted to make it stop, I didn't stop watching, and the experience enriched both the show and my own comprehension of it. If I were talking "episode of the year" here, this would probably be it, but make no mistake - the rest of the series has a lot to offer too, and I can't wait to drop back into the abyss for its second season.

2. Re:Creators
An anime about anime characters coming to life in real-world Tokyo - seems like a ludicrously simple premise, doesn't it? In truth, it is, but much of the beauty of Re:Creators comes around the fringes of its narrative about two factions of anime characters battling to determine the future (or lack thereof) of the planet.

While I came to Re:Creators for a hugely enjoyable cast of characters, fantastic action scenes and a Sawano Hiroyuki soundtrack that reminds you what the man can do at his best, I stayed for the show's constant discourse on the nature of creativity which plays brilliantly alongside the escalating conflict at the core of the show. In turns funny (including the greatest recap episode you will find in anime) and heartfelt, this is definitely a show I'll want to watch again to luxuriate in and savour.

1. Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
I wasn't the only one worried at the end of the first season of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju - having laid out its tragic, compelling and fascinating back story, it felt like there was little more for the series to say.

Boy was I wrong. Yes, it makes some missteps along the way and not every element of the story jumps out at you, but Yakumo's struggle - with old age, with self-loathing and with his own past - is an incredible dramatic arc who's power I really can't express in words. Artfully, carefully presented, this is not the kind of story you expect to see in anime, but even beyond the value of its unique nature it's a human story that impacted me massively. No other show this year has seen me finish an episode, then go for a long walk just to think.

So, there you have it, and I think it says a lot about how strong 2017 was for anime that there are still plenty of honourable mentions that I left out. Of course, Yuri on Ice doesn't strictly qualify here as a 2016 show but is always worth mentioning (although to be honest it's more deserving of a "best of all-time" discussion rather than "best of the year" to my mind).

In terms of actual 2017 shows, KONOSUBA produced one of the sequels of the year - slicker, snappier and funnier than its already entertaining first season; Owarimonogatari had a worthwhile twist in its tale to bring Ougi's story to a climax of sorts; Tsukigakirei was the cutest tale of young love you'll ever find while Tsurezure Children offered a smorgasbord of the funniest tales of romance. Humour of a different kind - with plenty more besides - came from Saga of Tanya the Evil, a show I expected to hate but fell utterly in love with.

Rage of Bahamut: Virgin Soul would have made my top ten easily if it didn't flub its ending so disappointingly, while it was more of a wrench for me to leave out season two of My Hero Academia as it did so much right and so little wrong. New Game was also a close contender with its sequel in a similar (if slightly less impressive) vein.

In film, the BLAME movie made me want to read the manga and thus accomplished its mission (well, kind of - I've not actually started reading it yet), while Napping Princess made me realise that I will love pretty much anything Kenji Kamiyama does as long as we pretend Cyborg 009: Call of Justice doesn't exist.

If 2018 can give me even half of the great viewing experiences I had in 2017, I'll be more than happy.

No comments: