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...

Monday, 31 December 2018

My Anime Top Ten - 2018

"Ha!" I thought to myself as I sat down to write this, "Making a Best of 2018 anime list is going to be easy. I mean, there wasn't that much good stuff this year, right?" Cut to five minutes later, and me squinting at a list of 25 series and films that was still threatening to grow at any moment if I were to just think a little harder.

No matter what the naysayers may wish to opine on the matter (I find they usually say "nay"), 2018 has been another good year for good anime, and just like any other year the slew of titles we find ourselves buried under each year still provide more than enough gems to make the whole endeavour worthwhile.

So what were the true highlights of this year? Well, let's start with some honourable mentions that I had to cull, from the most recent Bloom Into You (which I'm ditching on a technicality because I've not quite finished yet), through to some genuine, heart-warming surprises like Mitsuboshi Colors and After the Rain that don't quite make the cut. It was also a strong year for film to make life difficult, with Mirai, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms and I Want to East Your Pancreas all notable and not far off my eventual list. There were also some harder TV anime choices that missed my top ten - Violet Evergarden deserves a place in so many ways, but didn't sway or swell my heart quite like my final selections, while the same can be said for After the Rain - so here's my final cut of the things I would mark out as well worth watching from everything 2018 had to offer.

10. Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan

This series probably doubles as my "why did everyone forget about this so quickly?" lament of 2018 (and yes, I know you'll respond by saying "because Netflix", but still...), as I really can't think of any other series that straight-up charmed me in the way that Dragon Pilot did this year. Its story of a misfit girl desperate to try and find a place - and more to the point a place she actually desires rather than one of mere convenience - is another of Mari Okada's semi-autobiographical masterclasses, and the result is as entertaining as it is beautiful. The show's visual style and character designs will be an acquired taste but they fit the outlook of the show like a glove, and its mixture of humour and human drama is expertly paced and laid-out to a tee, to leave me desperately struggling to avoid writing a cliched "it made me laugh and made me cry" line... but it did both of those things, and ultimately that's a vital part of Dragon Pilot's appeal. It's been a strong year for Mari Okada, but this was still my 2018 highlight from her oeuvre. 

9. Penguin Highway

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

Let's be real here for a moment: Penguins are the best animal. With that in mind, why wouldn't I sing the praises of a film with the word "penguin" in the title? Ironically, the penguins of Penguin Highway aren't really all that important to the plot in a literal sense, as this adaptation of Tomihiko Morimi's novel is more interested in its smart-alec young protagonist and his worldview, shaped through a prism of weird mystical science and the schism between what you actually know and what you think you know.

For their debut feature-length film, Studio Colorido have created a gorgeous, eye-catching film, and suffused it with life and heart via a mostly snappy script that makes great use of its source material and adds another inflection point on the chart for good Morimi to anime adaptations.

Oh, and those penguins really are adorable.

8. A Place Further than the Universe

Hey, you know what I was saying about penguins? Well, guess what... my next pick features them too, albeit as just one brief blip on a group of high school girls on an expedition to the antarctic.

As tired as the criticisms of "cute girls doing cute things" anime might be, my expectations were to find a run-of-the-mill but mildly amusing story here, but A Place Further than the Universe truly surprised from beginning to end. Rather than just perfunctory friendships, this is a series that really gets the complexities of human relationships - how you can love someone like family, apart from those times when you really can't stand them. This in itself linked into the show's examination of actual family, culminating in 2018's first moment where I couldn't stop bawling at the end of an episode of anime, which wouldn't have happened had I not come to love the show's cast of misfits learning to get along over the course of their daft, entertaining but educational adventures.

7. Lupin the 3rd: Part 5

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

Having been surprised by just how terrific the return of the "real" Lupin the 3rd was in Part IV of the series, I have to admit I expected little of Part 5 of the franchise - was there really anything more they could do with this ageing character in our modern times?

As it turns out yes, there was plenty for those involved to get their teeth into. Dropping Lupin into a modern, technology-filled world for this series seemed like it should be a misstep, but as it turns out pitting this master thief against social media and, ultimately, off-brand Mark Zuckerberg with family issues, was a work of genius, offering countless hungrily taken opportunities for social commentary and to open a window to the world we find ourselves in now.

This series brought us Lupin at his most relevant and his smartest, boosted as always by his entourage, not least new addition Ami who eased the path into the show's world of technology ably to become a cornerstone of the show in her own right.  I don't really want to consider the question of whether Part IV or Part 5 of Lupin the 3rd is better, but the more I think about it the more I suspect that this year's iteration may win out in a straight fight between the two.

6. Revue Starlight

Mention the work of Kunihiko Ikuhara to me, and I'll probably sigh and make a complicated face at you. Well, that and explain how I watched all of Revolutionary Girl Utena in a 72-hour period and how that was a terrible idea. In short, I have a complex relationship with his standout works that trends towards dislike - his use of repetitive narrative structures irritates me, and the abstraction inherent throughout his work often feels laboured to me. I love what he tries to do, but rarely enjoy its actual execution.

Thus, I approached Revue Starlight expecting the worst - a series not created by Ikuhara himself, but clearly heavily influenced by his approach. With that in mind, I was surprised and refreshed to find myself fascinated by it, and more importantly enjoying it tremendously. The show's theatrical setting made for a perfect foil for its staged narrative, its characters were compelling, and the twist in its tail over half-way through the series was bananas in all of the best ways and was almost (but not quite) redolent of Puella Magi Madoka Magica's outstanding episode 10 in the way it stripped so much of its story away to reveal the wiring under the board.

Although its production struggled here and there, Revue Starlight also boasted some tremendous animation that I still can't quite get out of my head, as my mind occasionally wanders to swords clashing theatrically, or the almost hypnotic sight of uniforms being manufactured for the show's regular auditions. Some might call this series Ikuhara-lite as a pejorative - I call it exactly that as a compliment of the highest order.

5. Megalo Box

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

I've never watched Ashita no Joe (please don't hit me), so why would I care about a 50th anniversary remake with a weird cyberpunk sci-fi aesthetic? Because it's bloody amazing, that's why.

Megalo Box is, when all is said and done, a great example of sports anime done right - the perfect blend of out-of-ring human drama coupled with in-ring conflict, ensuring that the two are intertwined deliciously. The triumphs of "Gearless Joe" throughout are palpable - the kind of moments that leave you punching the air in delight; the moments that see him lose his footing or have the rug pulled out from under him are heart-rendingly painful; the cliffhangers where it seems like all hope is lost are the pinnacle of the "what do you mean I have to wait a week to find out what happens next?" despair that is lost outside of the week-to-week of a TV broadcast schedule that I suspect will one day be lost from visual media forever.

Backed up by the year's best soundtrack, and a visual style that brings an old-school vibe to its animation but with thoroughly modern sensibilities, few series can beat Megalo Box's presentation either, making it an almost complete package that shouldn't be missed.

4. SSSS.Gridman

Where to place Gridman in my top ten was a tough choice, mostly because it's the series I'm the most unsure about in terms of how I'll feel about it come this time next year. As of right now, I'm fresh from the experience of watching it in the moment, and it's a series that traffics intensely on its immediacy, both in terms of its own week-by-week story and also the way it layers its homages to Evangelion and far beyond throughout.

In all honesty, I nearly didn't watch this series at all - the related Japan Animator Expo short left me cold, and my knowledge of tokusatsu is perfunctory at best. Yet none of that matters - or rather, it all matters if you want it to, but Gridman has layers far beyond being a love letter to Ultraman and its ilk.

What makes the series work so well is how those layers build up over the course of the show. We start with our protagonist, clueless but press-ganged into saving the city. Then we have our "villain", as her motivations for serving as antagonist develop and branch out the deeper we go. All of the show's other characters have important parts to play and also develop in their own rights too, as part of a broader narrative that I found utterly compelling from start to finish.

I'm more than willing to concede that Gridman sees Trigger arguably leaning too hard on its Gainax roots, and it certainly trades heavily in both its particular brand and the nostalgia and knowledge that comes with it, but I don't think of any of that should dampen the praise for its ambitious, smart and tightly delivered narrative which barely puts a foot wrong throughout.

3. March Comes in Like a Lion (Season 2)

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

I liked the first season of March Comes in Like a Lion a lot - it's the kind of series I'd wax lyrical about and espouse to anyone, especially as a great example of the breadth of story-telling that anime can provide to show that it's not all about Boruto's Dad or fan service. However, I'll also admit that at times the first series of the show dragged a little, occasionally even feeling a little lacking in focus and direction.

Not so this second season - with all of its cast and core ideas in place, it really spreads its wings and flies. More specifically, the mainstay of this series focuses not so much around its main character, but Hina, as she suffers bullying at school. In short, the way this entire story arc is handled is incredible, bringing across all of the anguish and raw emotion of the situation - not just for Hina herself, but for everyone around her from relatives to friends and even to teachers. It's the kind of thing they should air in schools, quite frankly.

Even outside of this standout arc, this second series of March Comes in Like a Lion feels more confident and assured, and everything that it tries its hand at sees it hit the mark and achieve whatever it sets out to.  Given how lofty those goals and subject matter are, that's highly impressive, and enough for me to waive any concerns about the season starting in 2017 to ensure that it makes my 2018 list.

2. Devilman Crybaby

Were it not for Masaaki Yuasa at the helm, I may not have ventured into the world of Devilman via this Netflix Original series. Boy would I have missed out - not only is this series a perfect vehicle for Yuasa's expressive style and intense excesses, it's also a fantastic story to boot.

Of course, Devilman Crybaby is a visually engaging series from its enticing opening credits onwards, and every time you think you've got a handle on what it can throw at the screen it finds something new (and usually shocking) to surprise you and reset your expectations. None of this would matter in isolation though, and the show's narrative moves at a steady clip and quickly, handily builds up its characters so that before you know it you care about their plight; their trials and tribulations - and there are certainly plenty of those.

The result is a series that refuses to take its foot off the accelerator or hold anything back at any time as it barrels on towards its shocking climax - a refreshing feeling when so many other series tend to feel like they're always hedging their bets or trying to elongate a story arc. In other words, Devilman Crybaby's appearance on Netflix blew away the New Year cobwebs like a 250,000 Volt electric shock - and I'd willingly go back for another dose.

1. Liz and the Blue Bird

Given the success of A Silent Voice, I simply assumed that we'd already seen Naoko Yamada at the pinnacle of her career - I mean, how could you top its emotive tale of redemption? By making Liz and the Blue Bird, as it turns out.

Now, to be clear, this Sound! Euphonium spin-off (although it seems unfair to even call it that in a sense) doesn't have any of the grandiose emotion of A Silent Voice... but that's almost what makes it so powerful. Instead, Liz and the Blue Bird is a subtle tale of normal, everyday girls and their normal friendships, and the forces - both internal and external - that can push and pull at those relationships, wearing them down over time on one side, building them up on the other.

Watching these characters struggle with themselves and others in the face of these forces, at a time when adolescence makes all of those forces feel magnified, always carries the potential for drama, but this film carries it all with a magical lightness of touch and a deft but expressive hand that gives so much weight to everything that happens in this quiet, contemplative piece.

Of course, Liz and the Blue Bird looks great - changing up its character designs from mainline Sound! Euphonium as if to make the tenuous nature of their connection clear, and obviously relishing its leaps from the real world to the fictional allegory within the book which encompasses the film's title. It also sounds great too, in its own melancholy way. But it's the way this movie feels which really makes it stand out unlike anything else I've watched this year, with an emotional resonance that is hard to describe but has a hefty, tangible and relatable impact upon the viewer. It's a film I almost watched again the day after I first viewed it, simply because I was still feeling its lingering effects and wanted to confirm them. That never happens to me, and it marks out just how special Liz and the Blue Bird is.

One might even call it the best anime I've watched in 2018...

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The Halfway House - Winter 2018 Edition

I hate to alarm you folks, but we're already half-way through the first anime season of 2018. Yes, it's mid-February already, and yet it seems like only yesterday that I was writing about my hottest shows of 2017.

Still, in keeping with that whole "writing about things" state of mind, this seems like a perfect time for me to dig out some of my highlights from the currently airing state of shows, to celebrate what's worth watching (and catching up on if you're not already watching) from the winter line-up.

A Place Further Than the Universe

We've all had those discussions with people who shrug off vast swathes of anime as "cute girls doing cute things", and to some extent you can see the core of the point being made in a lot of those cases - as much as I love, say, Hidamari Sketch, for all of its unceasing talk of friendship it only occasionally hits upon the true nature of spending time with the people you would call friends.

By contrast, A Place Further Than the Universe nails how friendships work utterly. Its tale of a disparate group of girls who invest themselves in what initially seems like an impossible prospect of journeying to the Antarctic is perhaps one of the most realistic depictions of friendship I've seen from this kind of anime - at times, these girls can barely stand one another, stomping all over one another's feelings due to their own foibles, deliberately pressing one another's buttons or (in one of its most powerful episodes) trying to sabotage a long-standing friend's plans through sheer jealousy. Yet, every relationship on show here remains intact, because all of this is part of the unspoken "contract" of friendship - you deal with the irritating habits and peccadillo of your buddies and forgive them their indiscretions, because you know that they'll do the same for you and none of these problems ever truly overshadows the shared goals or interests that brought you together in the first place.

In a weird kind of way it's actually quite inspirational to watch, and director Atsuko Ishizuka (No Game No Life and HaNaYaMaTa) is perfectly placed to not just bring about this story with style, panache and colour, but also with an emotional core that captures everything from humour to heartbreak with an easy hand that is hugely entertaining. Coupled with a unique hook which itself is being played out far from idealistically - this is no dream trip to the south pole, but a research venture being carried out with too few people and too little money -my only concern now is that the show won't have time to wrap things up in a satisfying fashion given that seven episodes in we're literally only just setting sail.

Mitsuboshi Colors

The biggest problem with Mitsuboshi Colors is that every description I want to write for it invokes Yotsuba, and as soon as you compare anything to Yotsuba it instantly loses because... well, what's going to beat Yotsuba?

Anyhow, this manga adaptation takes in a trio of young kids - girls, of course - who have set up an "organisation" to protect their home town... which, of course, is simply an excuse for them to have a secret base, make up adventures to go on and generally goof around.

The surprise here is just how funny every episode of the series has been thus far - I didn't expect to be laughing at poop jokes in 2018, yet the childish innocence of our trio and the willingness of the townsfolk to play along with their flights of fancy is charming and lets the humour flow. It doesn't always knock it out of the park, for sure, but there's a decent enough ratio of good gags and moments to make every episode feel worthwhile. Besides, where else this season are you going to see what Ghost in the Shell's Batou decided to do with his life after leaving Section 9?


In terms of my surprise of the season, this is top of the list - a show I started watching in the expectation of hating it and dropping it in short order, only to find it currently sitting at or close to the top of my favourite shows for the winter.

At its core, the show's conceit is pretty simple - when two members of a dysfunctional family are kidnapped in broad daylight, panic gives way to the grandfather of said family cooling mentioning that he has the ability to stop time for everyone except them. However, what should make the rescue of protagonist Juri's brother and nephew instead leads them into a terrifying dilemma and seemingly insurmountable danger.

While its "time freezing" idea is a simple but joyful one in itself that is wonderfully depicted within the series, where Kokkoku excels is in how it uses this premise. When you take away police and passers-by, turning them into virtual mannequins, and then pit our plucky family up against a gang of criminals, what should be a warm, welcoming town instead becomes the home of a claustrophobic pressure cook housing a high-stakes game of cat and mouse. It's an over-used phrase to suggest that anything "has you on the edge of your seat", but that's truly the case here - every scene is filled with tension and the sense that the cast are walking a tightrope of life or death, and the presentation of the series as a whole does a lot to accentuate that.

Yes, Kokkoku has its lazy moments - on several occasions it shoots for the bottom of the barrel when it needs to find a credible threat to Juri - but thankfully these missteps are offset against a show that is a show packed with drama and horror that it leverages to reach the pinnacle of dramatic tension every single week.

After the Rain

I don't know anyone who wasn't a little worried by the premise of this "teenage girl falls in love with middle-aged man" series - yet somehow, here we are almost halfway into the show, and a lot of expectations have been subverted by this charming little show.

Admittedly, After the Rain still has a lot of work to do to sell me on the romance at its core - a teenage girl falling for a kind man who helps her out when she hits a low point is utterly believable, but there's still not a whole lot for me to hang my hat on as to why the idea is even humoured by the other party in said relationship.

For now though, it's just about doing enough for that core relationship to function, and the rest of the series is sumptuous enough to do the rest of the heavy lifting. For starters, the show is beautiful to look at - not just colourful and eye-catching in its world and designs, but also sporting a splendid attention to detail around its characters, particularly our young protagonist Akira Tachibana, who makes up for her curt speech by speaking volumes in her movements and body language. The show also has a strong grasp of comedy alongside an innate understanding of Akira's troubles and desires, and the two become closely intertwined elements that power the series through as an enjoyable experiences that never gets too bogged down in its minutiae.

Violet Evergarden

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

Who knew that a Kyoto Animation series would look this gorgeous? Oh, right, everyone did, my bad.

Thankfully there's more to Violet Evergarden than just jaw-droppingly gorgeous character designs, animation and backgrounds - the show has a lot of heart too. In a sense, it's an unusual series - not particularly interested in the trappings of war, but far more interested in looking at the aftermath of a major conflict after weapons have been lowered and what effect that's had on the people captured within the story's focus.

At the centre of this, of course, is Violet - a girl brought up knowing nothing but war, and now having to come to terms with peacetime as someone who has thus far lived her life as an emotionless killing machine. Her blunt take on the people she meets and their situations has worked well thus far in putting over some interesting stories, and at the time of writing it seems that we're going to reach deeper into the psyche of Violet herself as she has to face up to her past more fully. I'm looking forward to seeing where that goes, and if it can blend that with the other elements that has made Violet Evergarden work well thus far then we could be set for a memorable series.

March Comes in Like a Lion - Season 2

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

Of the shows continuing from the autumn 2017 season, March Comes in Like a Lion is one that I took some time to get around to for no particular reason, but boy am I glad I did.

Anyone who has seen the first series of this show will know that it's a visual tour de force that does an incredibly good job of handling difficult subject matter, no least protagonist Rei's efforts living with depression, but incredibly this season season manages to top all of that substantially.

This is thanks to a long-running story beat surrounding Hina, who finds herself the subject of bullying at school. Now we all know how bulying narratives normally work in anime - character gets bullied, struggles, then somehow finds a way to turn the tables and get one over on the bullies, and they all live happily ever after.

Not here however. Hina ignores the bullies. They bully her more. She goes to a teach. They tell her not to cause a fuss. She goes to her sister. Her sister is powerless. And so the cycle goes on. It's stark, bleak and highly emotive, but it also perfectly captures the horrific nature of persistent bullying, where there are no simple answers and the structures that are supposed to be in place to prevent and/or correct bullying are wholly inadequate or ill-equipped to deal with the problem. What really makes this story work is that it doesn't simply chronicle this from afar - instead you see it up close and personal from the point of view of every character involved, whether it's Hina's brave attempts to struggle through in the knowledge that she's done nothing wrong through to her sister's increasingly desperate demeanor and her teacher's difficulty in coping with the burden placed upon her.

Honestly, in isolation its a story that should win awards and plaudits wherever it goes, and even more incredible is that it's woven into a story that takes in so much of the human condition, from physical and mental illness through to the simple joys and pleasures of life. While you need to watch the first season of March Comes in Like a Lion to enjoy this one, that's no excuse not to check it out - it's a must-watch show, pure and simple.

The Ancient Magus' Bride

I've left this continuing show from the autumn until last simply because I'm still not too sure what to say about it without my thoughts turning into a word salad - in short, I like it, but for reasons even I can't quite discern.

Above all else I suspect my enjoyment of the series comes less from its characters - although they're growing on me constantly - and more from the show's world. There's something delightful about the way its depicted - a world of magic and the supernatural where there's menace around every corner, but not in the sense of "bad guys" that want to ruin everything but rather natural dangers or those who are simply operating to different means and ends than you or I.

As mentioned though, I am warming to Chise and the rest of the cast - the series is slowly but surely laying out the personalities, flaws and troubles of the main players and then providing opportunities to understand, learn and grow as people that is proving most satisfying. However, it's the living breathing world of The Ancient Magus' Bride, warts and all, that keeps me coming back every week.

So, there you have it, my breakdown of "things that are good to watch and that" this winter. What are you folk currently watching and enjoying? I'm always all ears for more recommendations.

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.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Reverse Thieves Secret Santa 2014 - Barakamon

Following on from my viewing of Log Horizon, this year's Secret Santa pickings have turned out to be a great opportunity to watch recent shows that I'd hoped to catch but never got around to, and thus my second selection for 2014 was Barakamon.

Out of nowhere, this seemed to be a series which built an impressive amount of hype from those watching it as it aired, although in this case the hype may have done it a disservice by frequently involving the phrase "it's like Yotsuba&!"  Allow me to begin by saying that Barakamon cannot hope to occupy the same planet as Yotsuba, let alone the same strata of entertainment.

The series tells the story of a young, ambitious calligrapher named Seishuu Handa, who finds himself disgraced on account of punching an old man with a stick who also happens to be a big name in the calligraphy world himself - an attack predicated upon said old man suggesting that his work might be lacking in any real sense of self (a common theme that runs through anime as commentary on Japanese society, no doubt - see this series and the currently airing Your Lie in April).

In the wake of this attack, Handa finds himself shipped off to a remote island in the hope calming him down, offering him a period of self-reflection and, perhaps, an opportunity to discover a previously hidden side to his artistry. For Handa's part, he doesn't mind his exile so much, as surely it'll give him the peace and quiet he needs to work doggedly on his calligraphy.

Of course, this proves to be anything but the case, as Handa instead finds himself constantly bothered by overly helpful neighbours and, more frequently, a group of kids led by the loud and excitable young girl Naru. This offers countless distractions and irritations that Handa could really do without, but perhaps these distractions and his being forced into the bosom of this village's society is exactly what he needs to truly find himself.

If all of that sounds rather predictable, then... well, it is. Thankfully, Barakamon is a series more interested in the journey rather than its character development, and so any kind of narrative arc to the series can take a back seat for the kind of comedy manga adaptation fare you might expect. As these kinds of series go, Barakamon is largely pretty mediocre - it has its funny moments but they're relatively few and far between, particularly in the early running of the series which feels like it's trying way too hard to force the issue in terms of both characterisation and making its gags hit.

Thankfully the series does at least calm down, find its footing and ultimately get into the groove of what it attempts to offer, and with that new-found confidence comes more good jokes and one-liners, more enjoyable character interactions and some saccharine yet sweet moments that provide an enjoyable pay-off (even if one or two missteps arguably hijack what should have been some of the better scenes). It still isn't hilarious, nor does it have anything approaching the charm of Yotsuba (while we're making such comparisons), but it's broadly fun and feels better paced, and with some solid animation to keep it trucking the overall experience is a decent one.

Ultimately, my opinions of Barakamon could be seen as a case of "damning with faint praise" - I simply can't get excited about the series, nor can I reel off hysterical moments, because it never moved me to any great degree beyond the occasional laugh or smile. Its relatively unique setting and premise allows it to stand out from the ever-crowded pack of anime comedy, and it's certainly competent at what it does, but I suspect if you removed the "calligrapher on a remote island" angle this show would have been forgotten about no sooner had it begun.

On another day this may have been one of the better comedies on the block, but in a year which brought us Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun and Sabagebu, as well as less overt comedies like Shirobako, it's hard to give it a look-in when it comes to 2014's final reckoning.

Reverse Thieves Secret Santa 2014 - Log Horizon

This 'blog may be defunct but its writer most certainly isn't, and who would turn down the opportunity to spend their December being forced at gunpoint (okay, I may be exaggerating here) to watch anime that some random stranger thinks you might like. Probably. Maybe. Possibly. If you're really lucky. Yes, that's right, I threw my hat into the ring for the Reverse Thieves Secret Santa jamboree again this year, and this marks a brief return to the site after a six month hiatus. Heck, it is Christmas after all...

While it seems like almost everybody I know spends every single episode of Sword Art Online poised to tear it apart at the slightest misdemeanour (as well as a fair few major ones, admittedly), I've broadly found myself enjoying that series' sense of place and world-building, and of course its whole "living, breathing people trapped in a video game" scenario is clearly what led my Secret Santa to one of their selections for my perusal this year - Satelight's adaptation of light novel series Log Horizon. Given that its been recommended to me many a time before, I of course jumped at the chance to finally sit down and watch it in its entirety.

For all of my excitement, I have to confess that my first impressions of Log Horizon were... less than glowing. Visually, the series has a decently broad aesthetic and imagines its world - where 30,000 MMORPG players suddenly find themselves trapped in a very real version of Elder Tale, the game they've been engrossed in thanks to the release of a new expansion pack - rather nicely. However, the animation quality itself leaves a lot to be desired and certainly feels cheap, especially compared to the obvious budget afforded Sword Art Online. More egregious for me in its early running is that Log Horizon simply doesn't care about the origins of its premise, spending no time at all thinking up a plausible reason why people would suddenly be transported and trapped in a video game world and waving away any questions about that fact as far as it possibly can. Yes, people are upset at this jarring change in their circumstances, but that lasts for all of five minutes before everyone simply gets on with their new lives as if it was nothing unusual at all.

Thankfully, as the series progresses it becomes clear that there is method to this madness - yes, Log Horizon doesn't give a monkeys about why humans have been dropped into a video game world, but what it does care about is what happens when this occurs. In fact, it cares a great deal about this, and the show's greatest joy is watching its cast, led by the tactical genius Shiroe, come to understand the socio-economic and political impact of the descent of 30,000 new (and not to mention immortal) full-time residents of Elder Tale upon its world. At this point, the series morphs into how you'd imagine things turning out if Spice and Wolf author Isuna Hasekura wrote Sword Art Online, as the show explores the newcomers relation to the world's now-sentient NPCs known as the People of the Land, examines the impact of realising that there are opportunities beyond the mechanics everyone is used to from their time in Elder Tale as a mere game, and plenty more besides. This is blended with just enough action and set pieces along those lines to keep people on that side of the fence happy, without ever losing what is certainly a fascinating and thoughtful treatment of its subject matter.

This is all helped along greatly by the show's main cast, a growing motley crew of individuals who all bring something unique to the table yet interact in a believable way. Admittedly not all of the cast get the character development they deserve (Akatsuki, I'm looking at you), but with so much else on its plate its actually impressive how much Log Horizon manages to cram in on this level alongside its broader strokes that effect the whole world.

After that auspicious start and a fair number of episodes of doggedly trying to convince me of its cause, Log Horizon finally succeeded in winning me over to its cause. How much so, you ask? So much so that I've now caught up with and am watching its currently airing second season each week, that's how much. It might not manage to avoid all of the typical light novel tropes - Shiroe can be a self-insert character with the best of them at times, complete with a small but passionate harem that grows around him - but it still offers up perhaps the most unique take on the otherwise tired "trapped in a video game world" story I've seen, even offering a twist on the question of what happens when players die in that world. Its insistence upon viewing its concept in decidedly original ways is ultimately its biggest draw, and the fact that it manages to do so intelligently yet charmingly is why Log Horizon turned out to be very much my cup of tea... and there's nothing better than a nice cup of tea on a cold Christmas Eve, right?