Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Top Ten Anime of the 2010s... Plus Another 15 That Deserve To Be Talked About

Oh look, another entire decade has ended. You know what that means, don't you? It means that I'm old... so very old...

It also means that just like everyone else with a keyboard and a desperate desire to fill the void between Christmas and New Year, I have to make a Top Ten list of the decade's best anime. Except let's be honest, there were so many more than 10 good shows and movies in the last ten years (imagine if there was only one good anime a year - would we even watch anything any more?), so after the more traditional top ten I decided to dump another 15 notable titles from the decade upon you, and you should watch all of them because they are all good.

But, without further ado, let's get cracking with that oh-so traditional top ten from 2010 through to the end of 2019:

10. Girls und Panzer

I was tempted to say my top ten begins with something of a guilty pleasure, but I feel in no way guilty about giving some kudos to Girls und Panzer as perhaps the decade's best anime for sheer entertainment value.

When I started watching the series, the prospect of another "cute girls in a club" anime wasn't exactly lighting a fire under me, and its first episode did little to grab the imagination, but then... ohh, then. Never mind its characters, it's the tanks that are the stars of the show, and as the series ramped up so did its confidence in putting the tanks through their paces in ever-more ludicrous ways, which piqued with its theatrical follow-up that all but jettisoned its plot in serving of a trio of fantastic, over-the-top action set pieces. Drop in a pitch-perfect soundtrack and you have a series liable to plaster a smile on your face almost every single episode.

9. March Comes in Like a Lion

As someone who has had to market this series to people in the UK (so full disclosure and all that), let me tell you that "Watch this anime about Japanese chess and depression" is a tough concept to sell people on - which is a shame, because it is incredibly good at delving into the worlds of shogi and, more importantly, mental health.

Rei Kiriyama's story of his internal struggles as he also vies to become a top shogi player are incredibly impactful, and by its second season March Comes in Like a Lion really comes into its own as it deftly handles another difficult issue in the form of bullying, which also proves a showcase for the series' extended cast who provide plenty of different perspectives on personal and professional success and the obstacles that stand in the way. Aided and abetted by SHAFT's descriptive, emotive visuals, it's impossible not to be swept up in the show's emotional vortex.

(Full disclosure: The UK home video rights for this series have been acquired by my employer, Anime Limited)

8. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

Picking an important Kyoto Animation work for the decade is an almost impossible task (made even harder by 2019's tragedy), but in terms of sheer technical execution I still find it impossible to look beyond The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya.

It would have been so easy to trim, chop and change the contents of the already strong source material, but instead this film presents it almost verbatim - a decision that would sink most adaptations, but a choice that is handled with such grace, intelligence and subtly here that it instead accentuates every element. You could make an entire article of important moments in KyoAni's growth into the powerhouse it has become, but this is certainly one of its most important watershed productions as the decade began.

7. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu

This one is another hard sell of a series - who wants to watch two men squabbling over an old and dying Japanese story-telling art form? Well, most of you reading this I suspect, granted, but from its already compelling starting point as a fascinating tale of two men's rivalry turned unlikely friendship, the series manages to pivot in some incredible directions.

By its second season, the series provides an incredibly thoughtful take on life, death and how the impending nature of the latter can inform the former. Chock full of striking visuals, as well as great characters and some wonderful rakugo stories to really exhibit the art at its centrepiece, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is jaw-dropping good, marred only by one particularly weird misstep towards the end of its tale.

6. Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky

This decade was the one in which I finally discovered Mobile Suit Gundam, but whenever the inevitable "favourite Gundam" questions arises it's always Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt to which I turn.

Strip away the layers of deeper lore from December Sky, and what you'll find is one of the best war movies ever written, which allows the horrors of armed conflict to etch itself deep into its cast... and by proxy, the audience. Watching the military machine swallow, chew up and spit out idealistic young men and women is abhorrent to watch - and that's exactly the point, which this film (or ONA if you watch the original version) hammers home with aplomb. Aplomb, and an unforgettable freestyle jazz soundtrack which is worth the price of entry alone.

(Full disclosure: The UK home video rights for this film have been acquired by my employer, Anime Limited)

5. Yuri!!! on Ice

I have a "troubled" relationship with ice skating. By which to mean my parents loved it when I was a kid so by default I was programmed to hate it. So the idea of watching an entire anime about ice skating seemed like anathema to me, but I caved in and decided to give it a try as the hype built around this series.

For once, the hype was right - Yuri!!! On Ice is the best sports anime of the decade. In a way, ice skating is perfectly paced and setup for an anime series, giving lots of opportunities to introduce, build and grow characters in front of an audience, and create tense set pieces where they compete against one another in a very direct way. Even so, the way this series goes about it is sheer perfection, building those relationships expertly and ensuring that the viewer is absolutely invested in everything that is happening around every character through to some genuinely tear-jerking moments, all nudged along by a soundtrack that may well be one of the decade's best.

4. Liz and the Bluebird

Often when we talk about an anime's emotional impact, we think about it in the grandest sense - huge emotional crescendos (or lows) that are simply pure emotion in narrative form.

The incredible thing about Liz and the Bluebird is that it is one of the most emotionally affecting films I've ever watched, and yet it relies on none of those moments of overwrought emotion. At its heart, this is a very simple story of teenage life and friendship, and two characters struggling to understand themselves in others in the midst of all of this, and yet the entire experience was an incredibly emotional one for me. Expertly directed by Naoko Yamada, and with so much character and importance imbued in every character's movement or glance, nothing is wasted and everything is loaded with importance. It's a simply stunning feat, that I suspect is equally as powerful even without knowledge of the Sound! Euphonium franchise from which it is born.

3. Gatchaman Crowds / Insight

If I was making a "most important anime of the 2010s" article, Gatchaman Crowds would win by a country mile. With its first series considering the explosive growth of a seemingly valuable social network that spirals out of control when abused by toxic elements, and a second series considering the impact of out of control populism leading to the election of an entirely unqualified and unsuitable political leader, boy am I glad that neither of these things came to pass in the real world during the 2010s...

Joking aside, the terrifying prescience of Gatchaman Crowds perhaps means that it hasn't aged so well in 2019, but its ability to plant its finger on the pulse of major socio-political issues just before they happened is evidence aplenty of its intelligent writing which delves into the concepts at its core in thought-provoking and even-handed ways. This isn't a series of dry political discussion however, as it's still entertaining and colourful with a stellar soundtrack to help it along into the bargain.

2. Shirobako

An anime about making anime could so easily have been an exercise in self-indulgence... and in many ways it was, glossing over the industry's issues with pay and glamorising the insane working hours. Set that aside and treat Shirobako as an informative love letter to the Japanese animation industry however, and you're on to a winner.

Much like Girls und Panzer (no accident that these two series share the same director), Shirobako is hugely entertaining whilst also proving effortlessly educational about the difficulties and pitfalls of anime production across various projects - it's catnip to any of us who are nerds about the production process, but it also has very intense human elements to it that offer a universal appeal.

1. Puella Magi Madoka Magica

I wonder how Madoka Magica will "read" to viewers today, or even more so a decade from now? For me personally, the series was a seminal moment in my anime viewing habits - an instance of "appointment TV" that came about prior to the full-blown explosion of streaming services, meaning that we had to resort to "other means" to ensure we watched the latest episode each week to keep up with the zeitgeist of online discussion... and avoid spoilers of course.

Madoka Magica was also an oddity in the way that it was promoted - little was revealed about the series prior to its airing, to the point where it almost slipped under the radar for many, while its opening episodes kept their powder dry until the infamous third episode where the other shoe finally dropped.

From this initial structural bravery, the series then accelerated into overdrive - every week was compelling as it unraveled another layer of its underlying premise, and equally unraveled another layer of the cast's collective psyche as they were put through the wringer. Imaginative visuals coupled with such a compelling story made for what is, quite possibly, the anime of the decade, which spawned many imitators over the years to follow, none of which came even close to the impact Madoka Magica made on viewers.

And those other 15 titles...

Now, in no particular order, on to the best of the rest (it sounds so cruel somehow to call these titles also-rans, when almost all of them are remarkable in their own particular ways):

Steins;Gate - Yes it starts slow (especially if you're not a fan of its sitcom elements), but when Steins;Gate puts its foot to the narrative floor I hope you're holding on to your Mayuri cosplay hat, because oh boy, this series is an intense, emotional time travelling journey.

Wandering Son - Admittedly I haven't rewatched this tale of gender and sexuality since it aired, and I've heard some suggest it hasn't withstood the test of time, but I still have a fond recollection of this visually and emotionally beautiful series and wish that it could enjoy a western home video release some day.

Wolf Children - Was this film Mamoru Hosoda at his peak? It's starting to feel that way, and even after multiple watches the emotional journey of family and motherhood crafted by this film still has a real impact, and rarely leaves my mind.

Bunny Drop - A prime example of making the best possible use of source material in an anime adaptation, Bunny Drop enjoyed all of the utter charm, comedy and sincere emotion of the manga while also stopping way before getting to "the creepy bit". A beautiful, easy watch that you can keep coming back to.

The Garden of Words - Yes, I know he made a little-known movie called Your Name, but The Garden of Words remains my favourite Shinkai film - arguably his most visually beautiful, and a quietly growing love story that eschews the grandiose moments of many of his other works. (Full disclosure: The UK home video and theatrical rights for this film have been acquired by my employer, Anime Limited)

Silver Spoon - Hiromu Arakawa brings the character-driven excellence of Fullmetal Alchemist, and transports it into a real world setting the author knows every well: an agricultural college. It's educational, it's a lot of fun, and its main characters (protagonist Hachiken in particular) are exquisitely written to provide two seasons of compelling entertainment. Let's hope for a third season some day... (Full disclosure: The UK home video rights for this series have been acquired by my employer, Anime Limited)

A Silent Voice - Honestly I feel terrible that this didn't make my top ten; this incredible story of bullying and redemption is another Naoko Yamada masterpiece that anyone and everyone should watch and be able to relate to. (Full disclosure: The UK home video and theatrical rights for this film have been acquired by my employer, Anime Limited)

Blood Blockade Battlefront / & Beyond - I daren't say it too loud, but I don't like Trigun. Thus, my expectations for another Yasuhiro Nightow work were suitably low... meaning that I wasn't ready for the sheer explosion of wit and insanity that this series (and perhaps even more so its second season) provided. A visual tour de force with enough great characters and stories and a fun premise to match.

Sound! Euphonium - Tales of after-school clubs and the drama inherent to them are ten a penny, but few of them manage to capture aspects of teenage life quite like this series. Protagonist Kumiko eschews all of the tropes of the genre, and the intensity of the club drama matches a time in the character's lives where everything seems like the most important thing to ever happen to them.

Re:Zero -Starting Life in Another World- - I suspect the 2010s will be remembered by many as "the decade of isekai" (which, when considering at one point it could have been "the decade of incest", I'd say we got off lightly)... and let's be honest, a lot of the output from the genre has been mediocre at best. Of the successful "trapped in another world" shows, only a few have really hit the spot - granddaddy of them all Sword Art Online, ridiculous comedy masterclass Konosuba, and this, Re:Zero, which took a simple premise and then just went. In some ways the series has more in common with Steins;Gate than its isekai brethren, but regardless its an intelligently dark tale that was a great week-by-week watch.

Mob Psycho 100 - As someone who hated One-Punch Man (yes, I know, sue me), I had zero expectations of Mob Psycho 100, only to be blown away by it. Of course the animation was great - that was the sole thing that persuaded me to watch it initially - but it was funny, stylish and smart in ways that transcended One-Punch Man's One-Note Humour. Season 2 only managed to extend that sense that this was a far superior work, and as a result it manages to squeeze into my top choices of the decade.

Astra: Lost in Space - The only 2019 entry into my list, Astra: Lost in Space is a tour de force of high-stakes drama and weekly cliffhangers, that made for a great piece of compelling "appointment TV" as a weekly simulcast. Its premise is a perfect setup for its mix of drama and character-drive story-telling, and it was almost perfectly paced as it put its accelerator hard to the floor for a while, then eased off to lull you into a false sense of security before going for it again.

Time of Eve the Movie - Yes, this is me cheating, as the original Time of Eve was pre-2010, but I'll be damned if I'm going to pass up the opportunity to talk about it again thanks to its recompiled film form. Yasuhiro Yoshiura's tale of androids, humans, and the blurred lines between them is as smart as it is enjoyable... and it's very enjoyable, from its heart-wrenching drama through to its slapstick comedy, not to mention the terrifying sharp switches between the two in places. If you somehow still haven't seen Time of Eve yet, don't let it pass you by for another decade. 

Giovanni's Island - This feels like the forgotten film of the past decade as everyone raced to works by Hosoda, Shinkai et al, before In This Corner of the World managed to grab the mantle for World War II anime films for the decade, which is a shame because Giovanni's Island is one of the 2010s most powerful animated films, taking a little-known part of wartime Japan and bringing it to life in all of its glory... and horror.

Waiting in the Summer - I feel like I'd be letting myself down if I didn't put an overwrought romantic drama on my list, and Waiting in the Summer is it for this decade. I mean, there was a Toradora OVA this decade, but that's pushing the rules a little far even for me... Anyhow, Waiting in the Summer isn't the greatest anime of all time, but it's incredibly good at what it does. It's teen cast and their various hang-ups all pack a real punch, and their resulting dilemmas are all relatable, even in spite of the crazy sci-fi, extra-terrestrial elements of the show. If you're looking for an anime to put on that is guaranteed to make cry, this one should be high up the list.

And there you have it, 25 of my top recommendations from the past ten years. You may now shout at me at all of the series and films I've neglected to give their due credit within this hallowed article...

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