While my good buddy Mike Toole handled the best manga of the year, ’tis now the time for me to do the same for some of the best anime to come down the ol’ pike in 2013!
However: this is not a typical “TOP TEN BEST OF” list based upon arbitrary numerical values. No sir! I don’t like doing those. Not because I don’t fancy myself as some immense arbiter of taste – I sure do, by golly – but rather, I know that a lot of you patient TR readers out there aren’t cramming every single anime into their mind’s gullet. So instead of a Best Of, this is the Ten Most Notable Anime of 2013! Anime that deserve attention, that broke from the mold, or did something otherwise remarkable or interesting.
10) Attack on Titan
This one’s a gimme, and for much the same reason that Mike also featured it for his 2013 list of manga. Although, in my opinion, the anime adaptation’s got a bit of a leg up on the original manga. While the manga occasionally looks rushed or muddled, the anime is almost consistently visually stunning. To the point where the studio responsible for the animation – a newer subsidiary of Ghost in the Shell‘s Production I.G called Studio Wit – occasionally stumbles on their deadlines here and there, leading to a few underwhelming filler episodes and clip shows.
But that’s all water under Attack on Titan‘s immensely enjoyable bridge. This show is dramatic and fascinating, moves at a breakneck pace with engaging characters, and is one of the few recent anime series of note that’s garnered a significant amount of attention from beyond the usual otaku-circles.
The remarkable thing about this is: Attack on Titan isn’t on Cartoon Network or late-night cable TV! No sir, Attack on Titan was only being streamed – subtitles-only – on Crunchyroll, with a dub and DVD release scheduled for next year. If you’d told me a few years ago that one of anime’s biggest hits of recent years would explode in North America without a TV broadcast airing, I’d call you a liar and a heretic.
But that’s a testament to Attack on Titan‘s rather universal appeal. Also, it allowed this to happen.
Here’s another one I’m stealing from Mike Toole’s list! (Although in fairness, we each came up with our lists independently of each other. Caveat!)
Nonetheless, Watamote, or rather, No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular!, is a stunningly insightful look at high-school misanthropy, no matter if you watch it or read it. In both manga and anime form, Watamote so totally nails the feelings of alienation, bitterness and misinformed judgment that come from puberty that it hinges on being uncomfortably unwatchable. More than a few times has this show triggered long-buried feelings of social anxiety, which is not something I expected from an anime show set in high school. As a high school-aged nerd myself, I watched anime to escape my feelings of anger and loneliness, and here comes Watamote to remind us of how utterly pointless that escape usually is.
Catch up on Watamote on Crunchyroll.
8) Short Peace
Switching gears a bit, here’s one of 2013’s more unique offerings: an anthology of four separate short films headlined by the wunderkind Akira creator, Katsuhiro Otomo.
Throughout the ’80s and mid-’90s, anthology films – or “omnibus” films, as they were known in Japan – were a relatively normal sight. You had your films like Robot Carnival, Neo-Tokyo (which actually got a bit of notoriety here in the west, as one of Neo-Tokyo‘s shorts, Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Running Man, got quite a bit of play on MTV’s Liquid Television), and my personal favorite, Memories.
Unfortunately, these “omnibus” films were often costly and rather difficult to exhibit. They were hardly box office draws, and Western audiences never seemed to really warm to the concept of watching a bunch of unconnected stories in different styles by different directors. It’s a shame, since virtually all of them were great.
Which is why it’s time to sing Hallelujah to Short Peace, the centerpiece of which is a brand-new 30-minute short directed by Otomo himself. Notably, that short film, titled Combustible, was exhibited in 2012 all by itself at several festivals, and even landed a coveted spot on the shortlist for animated shorts considered for the 2012 Academy Awards. It didn’t make the final cut, but hopefully that emboldens future endeavors from Otomo and his motley crew of Japanese auteurs to take more risks and make more of these wonderful short films.
Short Peace has yet to find any distribution in English, but hopefully it won’t suffer the same fate as the Genius Party omnibus films, which were only released legally in Australia.
And now, in a complete 180 from critically acclaimed short films, I would be remiss if I didn’t include on this list the exuberantly goofy Free!
Some backstory here: Over the summer, the Tumblrverse went apeshit over a leaked trailer from animation studio KyoAni, that was little more than a short commercial pitch that featured lithe, shirtless, taut high school boys in swim trunks and speedos, glistening with water all over their tight bodies.
Ardent fans of animated boy-flesh screamed in droves in the hopes that “Swimming Anime,” as they were calling it, would one day see a legitimate release. Well, their battle cries were heard, and “Swimming Anime” became Free!, a lovingly animated tribute to Fujoshi, a somewhat derogatory Japanese term that refers to female fans of animated men and the relationships between them.
Free! is sort of refreshing, really. After years of lovingly-rendered female boobs and crotches in anime, designed specifically to titillate and enrapture sad men, turnabout is indeed fair play. There’s enough room on this planet to placate any amount of sexual orientations with animated fanservice, no?
And if that’s your thing, Free! is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
6) “Kick Heart”
Before we get into Masaaki Yuasa’s wonderfully weird short film, let’s talk a little bit about crowdfunding.
See, everyone on this here Internet is familiar with Kickstarter. it’s a revolution! Rather than subject themselves to the cruel business world of the entertainment industry, enterprising young upstarts are taking their ideas directly to their fans! It’s allowed Double Fine to make a new adventure game! It’s also allowed a man to ask for 15 grand to take pictures of his naked butt at various landmarks around the world! (Link NSFW.) Kickstarter gives creators the freedom to unshackle themselves from the cruel world of producers and corporate middlemen, and allows their unfettered creativity to roam free!
In the anime world, back when I was answering anime questions every week, one question I’d get asked a lot was: “How come anime directors don’t take to Kickstarter?” There were a lot of reasons they didn’t, but it all came down to the rather closeted nature of the Japanese anime industry and their reluctance to adapt to new ideas.
Enter “Kick Heart.” Its director, Masaaki Yuasa, is a genius, and has given us such wonderful things like Cat Soup, Mind Game, and The Tatami Galaxy. Lo and behold, a chance encounter between film producer Justin Leach, Yuasa himself, and the producers at Production I.G gave birth to the idea that, hey, maybe this Kickstarter thing can work for anime.
I got to see “Kick Heart” at Anime Expo last year, and got to see Kick Heart and a Q&A with Yuasa himself. It’s a wonderful film, exuberant and entertaining as hell, and a real 15-minute blast of kinetic animated fun. Kudos to Yuasa and his crew for not only embracing Kickstarter, but using it to create something so far outside the mainstream idea of anime that it probably wouldn’t ever see the light of day without crowdfunding.
5) Little Witch Academia
And that leads us to one other major Kickstarter success of 2013: Little Witch Academia!
Back in 2012, the mad genius behind Gainax’s hit series Gurren Lagann, Hiroyuki Imaishi, branched off alongside some of his loyal staff and made a new animation studio: Trigger. They took a few odd jobs here and there, animating episodes of Idol Master and the opening for the 3DS game Project X Zone, but they skyrocketed to the rapt attention of the Western world when the first episode of Little Witch Academia, fully subtitled in English, ratcheted over a million views on YouTube.
It’s essentially an anime, all-girls version of Harry Potter, but the real draw of Little Witch Academia is the gorgeous animation. Every frame of animation moves with such fluidity and grace; each character avoids the common anime cliche where you can only distinguish characters by their hair color; and the story is sweet and charming without feeling like nauseating treacle. It’s a home run, and still up and ready for viewing on Crunchyroll, so get off your butt and watch it already, jeez!
The cool thing is that after that first episode went viral, the fans were of course champing at the bit for more. Rather than hem and haw with various production houses to find a budget, the creators took to Kickstarter. The second episode reached its funding goal in a matter of hours, and closed with a little over 600,000 dollars. Not bad.
Unfortunately, it’ll be a little while before that second episode gets released. Bummer! Apparently it takes time and energy to make beautiful animation. Nuts to that! What’ll we do until then?
4) Kill la Kill
Luckily, Little Witch Academia isn’t the only thing up Studio Trigger’s sleeves. Kill la Kill is their first proper TV series, and the only word I can use to describe it is: bugfuck nuts. Wait, no, that’s two words.
But I mean that it’s bugfuck nuts in THE BEST POSSIBLE WAY. Whenever characters engage each other in lovingly animated combat, the camera swoops and sways in anarchic directions, characters morph and fly about the screen, and the energy is absolutely gorgeous. And unending. Kill la Kill is the sort of show that emboldens someone of Hiroyuki Imaishi’s tremendous talents; not only is the plot absolute lunacy, in a post-apocalyptic Japan, a stern society of student council members rule over a high school with an iron fist, armed with special “Goku Uniforms” that arm their bearers with superhuman powers.
In other words, it’s a fucking blast and a half. Imagine the insane robot battles of Gurren Lagann in the guise of transforming anime high school girls, and you get the general idea. And yet, Kill La Kill never feels anything like a formulaic pastiche; the show doesn’t linger for even a second, eschewing portentous backstory for incredible animation and whacked-out brutality. If you’re like me and miss the heady days of ’90s anime that relished superbly-stylized cartoon violence, Kill La Kill is your love letter.
3) Wolf Children
Switching gears quite a bit from hyperviolence, instead let’s turn our attention to one of anime’s most promising and tenderhearted auteurs, Mamoru Hosoda.
(And for all you pedants out there: YES, YES I KNOW that Wolf Children was technically released in 2012, in a futile attempt to garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, but it was just released on DVD in North America just over a month ago. So nyahh.)
Mamoru Hosoda is a storied alumnus of both Toei Animation and Studio Ghibli: he’s responsible for the best Digimon movie as well as the best One Piece movie, and had a brief stint at Studio Ghibli where he was, at one point, slated to direct Howl’s Moving Castle. That didn’t pan out, Hayao Miyazaki took over, and instead Hosoda started up shop directing his own features.
His first, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, is a goddamn treasure that not many people have seen, so go do that right now. He followed up that critically acclaimed film with Summer Wars, which is also goddamn amazing, and then continued his hot streak with Wolf Children, a subtle, nuanced, and charming-as-all-hell family film about a human mother and her two half-wolf children. Hence the title.
There aren’t enough family fare in anime that either aren’t pandering kiddie garbage intended to sell toys or that aren’t from Studio Ghibli, so bless Mamoru Hosoda for making this film. It’s honest, sweet, and rather harsh and harrowing at parts. Wolf Children doesn’t shy away from some rather heavy topics, and yet it delicately balances it all without falling on the contrived side.
2) Harlock: Space Pirate
Now here’s a divisive one. Harlock: Space Pirate is Shinji Aramaki’s (the guy behind the CGI Appleseed movies) expensive, grandiose, and head-turning re-imagining of Leiji Matsumoto’s legendary Captain Harlock.
Views on the actual film have been decidedly mixed. It looks great, but older fans of Captain Harlock take issue with the direction of the story and the big twist at the end, while newer viewers of course can’t make heads or tails of all the different characters and plot developments. No matter; Harlock: Space Pirate isn’t on this list because it’s a transcendent film. This is up near the top of the list because of its sheer audacity. Harlock: Space Pirate is Toei Animation’s shot across the bow of the animation industry, trying to prove to the world that their CGI division can crank out a top-shelf CGI animated film on par with any other animation studio across the globe.
And, on that count, it’s worked. Major film critics take issue with the film’s plodding story, but they all seem to agree that it’s a visual feast. Not bad, Toei. Now all you need to topple those bastards at Pixar is an amazing script.
1) The Wind Rises
Speaking of Pixar, how would a list of 2013’s best anime be complete without John Lasseter’s longtime pal, Hayao Miyazaki? Especially if it’s the Oscar-winning auteur’s last film ever!
Granted, Miyazaki has threatened retirement before, after Princess Mononoke was released; but that was back in 1997, when he was at the ripe age of 56. He’s 72 now, and after two more decades of awards and accolades, I’d say the remarkably ornery director has earned his retirement.
Truth be told, I have yet to see The Wind Rises, because I’m not an illustrious-enough film critic to attend hoity-toity film festivals like Venice or Toronto. Also the film only screened for one week here in LA to qualify for an Academy Award. I, like the rest of you, will need to wait until its proper theatrical rollout in February of 2014.
Still, The Wind Rises is perhaps the most notable anime release of this year. From all accounts, it’s a gorgeous swan-song from one of the film world’s most respected voices; the story of the aircraft designer who crafted the Zero Bomber that destroyed Pearl Harbor, it’s a tale of one man (voiced by Evangelion director Hideaki Anno!) and his pursuit of beauty and function while being used by the brutal military-industrial complex that doesn’t care much for things like “beauty,” so long as they kill people.
There’s a lot of other great anime that came out last year, and no doubt I missed a bunch you all wished were here. That’s what the comments are for, folks! Until then, I’m going to sulk in a corner and wish I were a voting member of the Academy so I could get a The Wind Rises screener DVD.
More from Brian Hanson:
3 Cool Things From Otakon Vegas (Plus 6 Things I Hate About Las Vegas)
7 Other Weird (and Sometimes NSFW) News Stories About World of Warcraft and Other MMOs
Ten Manga and Anime Artists That Nearly Worked Themselves to Death