My watching habits took a sharp turn in the second half of the year for personal reasons. I am rarely able to watch most of the shows in a given year that I might enjoy, but this year in particular I’m certain there are gaps in my experience. Despite that, I have a surplus of TV series/OVAs/movies I feel comfortable putting on a top 10. People will always say “[x] was a bad year for anime,” but frankly, this year seemed about the same, quality-wise, as any other year. I found plenty to enjoy!
Honorable mentions: Little Witch Academia 2 (didn’t grab me quite as strongly as the first, but I enjoyed it), the Love Live! movie (tons of fun to watch in the theater; don’t think the movie itself will stick with me), The Boy and the Beast (a good, straightforward family movie), Death Parade (wish I got more out of it, but the good parts are real good)
10. Psycho-Pass movie
The good season of Psycho-Pass is one of those shows where I appreciate the craft and feel comfortable saying “I think this is a good show,” but it doesn’t engage with me to the point where it crawls in my mind and makes a home there. This movie isn’t much different, in that sense; however, I like how it expands on the idea of its society’s monolithic system of control, and on the state of the world itself. Seeing something like colonialism and its impact on a world trying to rebuild itself thought about is a marked step up from the entire second season of this series. And Psycho-Pass does have at least one character I still legitimately care about in Akane. There are a couple of moments where you can see that she wants to scream about the truth about the Sibyl System at the top of her lungs, but can’t, and instead has to deal with rotten shit being thrown her way. It’s tough for one person to change an entrenched system, y’all. A good standalone story in this universe.
9. Maria the Virgin Witch
It took me a bit to warm up to Maria the Virgin Witch. Weirdly, I actually thought the sexual humor was decently funny, but I wasn’t immediately sold by the premise. I was on the precipice of dropping this show early on! Slowly, however, the conflict among the church, the commoners and soldiers fighting a war, and the naive but good-hearted Maria built and hooked me. I like that for the most part the story doesn’t take the easy way out — Maria flying out to battles and scaring people off with magic is merely a cheap bandage placed on top of a lot of messy, ugly human behaviors and motivations. Her actions have unintended consequences that others take advantage of. People on all sides were genuinely compelling characters set against each other: Galfa, the dudes in the church, Ezekiel, the other witches, etc. The one thing keeping me from moving Maria up higher is the ending. For an anime that dealt with its conflicts with a reasonable degree of nuance, the ending seemed too easy. Oh well.
8. Symphogear GX
Parts of Symphogear GX frustrated me. I appreciate its attempts to give each character a specific conflict to overcome. Unfortunately, some work way better than others, and the ones that don’t work bog down the propulsive, ridiculous narrative force that defines Symphogear. But, god damn, when it works Symphogear GX is such a good dumbass popcorn show. The over-the-top nonsense the first episode begins with is so beautiful. Every time Hibiki gathers herself from being knocked down to punch the hell back harder than ever is a gift from the gods. I wasn’t heavy into Maria, Kirika, and Shirabe after G; now, I like them as much as the other Symphogears. The main villain wasn’t all that great to me, but her subordinates! If another season of Symphogear is made and the creators don’t find a way to magic them back into the story, then SOMEONE FUCKED UP HARD.
7. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders
Deciding where JoJo would land on this list was difficult. I didn’t dislike the first half as much as some seemed to, but I would be hard-pressed to deny that it lacks the pacing and urgency that made the first season of JoJo so delightful. It’s emblematic of the struggles of translating manga to anime: some bits that work in manga form, where the reader controls the pace, just don’t work stretched out and slowed down in anime. The second half, though, is fantastic. It’s not simply that the show hits the point in the story where the battles get weirder and more creative — the staff also seems much more energized by the shift to Egypt, giving episodes an interesting visual polish. This isn’t just the best, most consistent animation JoJo’s has had, but the shot framing, lighting, sense of space, etc. give the battles the melodramatic stakes I want from this show. This is going to sound like a backhanded compliment, but I can’t wait to see what these folks do with Diamond Is Unbreakable.
6. Yuri Kuma Arashi
Another tough show to rank. The criticisms people have of this series — the characters aren’t always engaging enough, the story is really crammed into too few episodes, among other things — are absolutely valid. But, damn, the way Ikuhara approaches melodramatic emotional symbolism, humor, and that overall feeling of just fucking GOING FOR IT attracts me to his work so much, warts and all. It’s like he’s cooing right into the part of my brain that loves anime. There’s tons of ridiculous (and totally lovable) elements to this show (KUMA SHOCK, robot bears, “Let’s search evil!” etc.), but somehow they work with the themes of discrimination and how it festers, manipulation, escaping the narrow confines of one’s world, and how you shouldn’t give up on love, even if someone gives you a sniper rifle and tells you to shoot a bear. Sure, it could have been better, but all I know is that I started this anime bewildered and ended it hyped for LOVE.
5. Prison School
This might be the show I’m most shocked I enjoyed in 2015. I really did not like the first episode of Prison School. The gross-out humor in particular rubbed me the wrong way. Somehow, though, I stuck with the show and was won over when it became an old-time prison break film with five horny ass, dumb as hell teenagers. The way Prison School continually riffs on that basic structure had me laughing with every episode. I had no idea that I wanted to see a friendship tested over the shame of choosing an action figure over your friend, but there you go. It’s also appreciated that despite the teenage ugliness of the characters, the story has a certain affection for all of them, even the underground student council. The thick melodrama of the visual style also works so well for me — all chiaroscuro and people in positions of power leering down at the lowly fools who think they’re in any position to speak out against the punishments they must endure. And in a medium where shows often don’t stick the landing, Prison School ends well, and in a way where I would absolutely watch more Prison School that goes in the direction the finale indicates.
4. Kuroko’s Basketball S3
I am going to miss the hell out of these basketball boys. As I wrote during my 12 Days post on this series, the third season of Kuroko’s Basketball blends the best aspects of the first season (compelling games, characters, and relationships) and the second season (highly improved aesthetics, games that didn’t look like garbage). It pays off everything built in the first two seasons in highly satisfying fashion. After season two, I feared the series had gone too far with the absurd basketball powers — it turns out I just needed to give a shit about the clashing teams again, and for the abilities to mesh in interesting ways. Who knew? The themes of friendship and teamwork build and build and result in an explosion of nonsense, hilariously unrealistic basketball ability that had me pumping my fist like I was watching an actual NBA game. I might be overrating this show a bit; however, I legitimately cared about most every character in this series, so fuck it. After each episode, I NEEDED to see the next one.
3. Gatchaman Crowds Insight
Gatchaman Crowds Insight is the counterargument that the first season (which I liked) needed. We’ve seen good come from social media (particularly people given voices who would be denied them in mainstream discourse), but like other mediums, its very nature can influence snap judgments, dogpiling, misinformation, and all that other fun stuff, with the added immediacy and access to people that comes with the Internet experience. Insight runs with that reality full force and uses it to examine the balance between freedom of a populace to determine its own path, and the responsibility of that populace to make decisions that matter and are of long-term benefit. I like how Insight couches various concerns and political/philosophical approaches within the motivations of its characters. Joe wants CROWDS out of the hands of the people, even if he accomplishes that through means he doesn’t necessarily agree with. Tsubasa wants simply to help people who need help. Rui wants people to have some basic form of autonomy, even if CROWDS is an imperfect solution. That clashing of ideals makes Insight one of the most compelling stories I watched this year. It’s a lot of heavy stuff filtered through a neat superhero narrative that builds and pays off everything mostly well (I still think the conclusion is a touch optimistic, but it’s fiction, so hey).
2. Sound! Euphonium
This series (and my No. 1) are increasingly the types of stories I find myself falling in love with as I get older — lots of small, personal stories coalescing into a cohesive whole. Euphonium does a splendid job of capturing that tumultuous time in life when people begin discovering who they are, what they’re passionate about, and thrash about wildly trying to make something happen. The pressure cooker environment of preparing for a music competition is the perfect encapsulation of the teenage experience: a lot of fumbling about trying to make something work while surrounded by petty rivalries, skittishness, and super awkward romance. Whether it was Kumiko navigating awkward misunderstandings and attempting to not have feelings blow up in her face, or Reina looking clear-eyed at her goals, or Asuka throwing people off with her mask, so many individual characters and stories — big and small — feel so alive in Euphonium. Even more than Kuroko’s Basketball, it feels pretty darn great when everyone pulls together for that final performance. During a time when my anime watching habits went totally awry, Euphonium was one show I absolutely could not miss.
Shirobako and Euphonium are cut from a similar cloth. At heart, they’re about a disparate group of people — all with their own flaws and quirks, dreams and passions — coming together to make magic happen after periods of duress, frustration, and near-collapse. If there’s one thing that puts Shirobako ahead of Euphonium for me, it’s that I feel a stronger tug toward a story about adults balancing passion with the reality of working life. That’s just my bias. Of the many things Shirobako does well, what I perhaps love most is how the series bridges the various generations at Musani. The mix of old-timers, veterans, and new folks makes Musani feel like a living, breathing being. Nobody is there to fill space. When I think about Shirobako, it’s not simply the big moments like Shizuka finally taking the first step to her dream that come to mind — it’s also two longtime animators at a ramen stand shooting the breeze about work and family, about their sons who want to enter this ridiculous industry for whatever damn reason. It’s finding that the crusty lifers had as much passion and verve as you once upon a time. It’s taking a bit of time to drink and whine about work even when you’re the ones causing the most conflict. It’s suddenly finding that somehow, some way, you bumbled your way into becoming a source of wisdom to bestow on fresh-faced newbies. It’s not believing in yourself, but knowing great people who can help you do that.
It’s loving your job and hating it, possibly in the same moment. It’s finishing something and feeling proud, but knowing that life doesn’t stop for a damn moment.
Whatever my feelings about 2015, I can be happy that I watched a great show that will stick with me for a long time.