While 2014 wasn’t exactly a banner year for Japan’s animation industry, the humble island nation still managed to crank out more than a few good-to-great anime releases over the past year, be they TV series or movies or anything else in-between.
As the year winds down, let’s do the hip thing that all kids these days do on the Internet, and go back and list, in no particular order, the best anime that 2014 had to offer!
Anime is often many things, but “introspective” usually isn’t one of them. Once in a blue moon, though, we’re lucky to get something like Barakamon, which cuts right to the bone.
On its face, Barakamon looks more like a chore than entertainment. When I see an anime described as a “lighthearted slice-of-life comedy,” I typically can’t roll my eyes fast enough. Which is why, regrettably, when I did my Summer Anime Wrap-Up, Barakamon didn’t show up anywhere. And, folks, allow me to bow my head in shame and say: I done fucked up. Barakamon is one of the best of the year.
The set-up is pretty straightforward: a young man touted as a genius calligraphy artist is called out for being the haughty privileged jerk that he is by a noted art critic. This causes the artist to punch the critic in the face. Cut to: said artist exiling himself from his life in Tokyo to live in a remote island to reflect on his deeds, his art and his life. Along the way, he befriends a precocious little girl with few friends her own age.
What follows is a surprisingly touching story about personal growth and maturity. Not many Japanese cartoons have the deft touch of a skilled writer examining the soul of a young artist burgeoning into adulthood, which is where Barakamon shines. Definitely make sure to catch it on Hulu or Funimation if you can.
9) Fate/stay Night
While I wasn’t exactly flowing with praise about Fate/stay Night when I wrote my Fall Anime Review, I gotta say, after sticking with it, Fate/stay Night is a top-shelf production all the way.
Sure, it may rely a bit too heavily on Type-Moon’s airy, languid lore at the start, which is certainly daunting to any audience unfamiliar with it; certainly when compared to the relatively easy-to-digest Fate/Zero. But while Fate/Zero inundated you with a mass of characters of Game of Thrones proportions, Fate/stay Night wisely centers its sorcery epic on two main characters.
And speaking of epic, Fate/stay Night‘s production values are absolutely stellar. You’ve never seen fantasy battles animated before, anywhere, with such panache and acuity. Most anime of this type are more than willing to cut corners to save time and money; Fate/stay Night, however, wants to make sure you see every blow, every spell and every explosion in exhaustive and brilliant detail.
Production values alone make Fate/stay Night worth watching, but luckily, the plot – dense thought it may be – consistently turns and churns in interesting directions, while keeping the action carefully character-focused. If swords, magic and intrigue are your bag, Fate/stay Night has entertainment value for you in spades.
8) The Last: Naruto the Movie
Naruto warrants an entry almost automatically, simply for the fact that the now-omnipresent manga and anime cultural touchstone has finally made its peace with the world and concluded its sprawling ninja saga. Luckily, The Last: Naruto the Movie, the final feature film in the franchise, provides a touching tribute and a solemn reminder of why the spiky ninja kid took the world by storm in the first place.
The meat and potatoes of the film – the villains, their plot to destroy the world, and of course their timely end by way of Naruto and his friends – isn’t anything spectacular, albeit well-animated. The Last earns a spot on this list, though, for the rather touching way it fills in the gap between the climactic final battle in the manga and anime and its epilogue; of course I’m being vague here to avoid Spoilertown, but there was always a lingering feeling of a missing chunk of story between the “end” of the manga and its somewhat hastily added epilogue.
The end result is a surprisingly enjoyable film stacked to the brim with the lovable Naruto cast, running around in a big, silly motion picture for one last time. Naruto might’ve been goofy, overlong and bloated, but I dare say that no one can deny the manga epic’s particularly charming blend of action, comedy and character. Very few manga properties can last and prosper as long as Naruto, and The Last is a perfect example of why.
7) Rage of Bahamut: Genesis
When it comes to simple, pleasing, eye-catching entertainment, I can’t think of a single thing that compares to Rage of Bahamut: Genesis in the “simple pleasures” department.” It’s handsomely made! It’s lighthearted and fun! The characters are lovable! In almost every way, Rage of Bahamut: Genesis has everything else beat as far as sheer watchability.
I’ve already covered Rage of Bahamut in my Fall Preview Guide, but to reiterate; from the unlikely source of a popular Japanese iOS game comes a colorful, fun adventure tale of a brigand, a demon and a crestfallen knight, and the fantasy shenanigans they find themselves in. It’s a cheeky, charming fantasy cartoon with stellar production design and animation, and easily one of the most fun things I’ve seen on a screen of any size all year.
6) Space Dandy
Speaking of stellar production designs, nothing else on this list comes close to the awe-inspiring creativity of Space Dandy, Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe’s fever dream of psychedelic proportions.
Watanabe purposefully gave each episode’s individual directors free reign to do whatever they damned well pleased, which shows in Space Dandy‘s loose, freewheeling style. Very few shows this year, animated or not, went from an episode about a zombie apocalypse to an episode about Laika, the Russian cosmonaut dog.
Of course, this writeup is but a drop in the internet ocean compared to fellow TR writer Mike Toole’s sumptuous writeup on Anime News Network. I digress, though – Space Dandy is like a ball pit of animation fever dreams, a playground through which many of anime’s behind-the-scenes talents received carte blanche to write, draw and create the weirdest things they could think of and get away with it.
Space Dandy turned out to be slightly less than the sum of its parts, but oh, my God, what spectacular parts those were. It superbly demonstrates what happens when you give complete freedom to a talented and weathered crew of writers, directors, and animators. Sometimes chaotic, sometimes confusing, but always, always entertaining and interesting.
5) Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders
Describing Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure to the non-Jojo initiated seems like a daunting task. How the hell do I describe the bliss of a cross-generational story involving ghosts, vampires, horrifically gory violence and absurdly muscular dudes? To quote Jason Thompson on Anime News Network, “In a world of manga which are rip-offs of other manga, there’s nothing else like Jojo.”
Technically, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure‘s anime adaptation has been going strong since 2013, adapting the earlier and less well-known arcs of the manga for a TV audience. But Stardust Crusaders is truly where the property really shines. An all-powerful vampire named Dio is hellbent on revenge against the Joestar lineage, who sacrificed everything to trap him for decades, which leads the titular JoJo to recruit a ragtag group of thugs, sages and even dogs towards Egypt to put Dio out of commission.
Stardust Crusaders is the series’ strongest outing, pitting a hulking and badass Japanese teenager against an immortal vampire, and is easily where Hirohiko Araki’s opus hits its stride. And this adaptation is flawless in its execution of the manga’s taste for the extremes juxtaposed with the subtleties. The Jojo manga gets so, so stupid and insane that it crosses the line into pure genius, and this 2014 anime adaptation understands so much of what makes that process work.
It’s the Jojo manga essentially unfiltered, and for that reason alone, it earns its spot on this list.
4) Ping Pong
One of the stereotypes of manga and anime is that it’s completely geek stuff: robots, time travel, high school girls falling in love with a self-insertion character modeled after its audience, that sort of thing. But Japan has a pretty huge history of manga about, of all things, sports. Very rarely do any sports-related anime or manga come westward – the diagram of “sports fan” and “anime fan” don’t really intersect – but when they do, it’s worth paying attention to.
Enter Ping Pong, an artistic triumph devoted to the sport about paddling tiny white balls back and forth. But the genius of hiring acclaimed director Masaaki Yuasa, he of Kick-Heart and Mind Game and even a recent episode of Adventure Time, is what sets Ping Pong apart from the rest. Yuasa is a skilled and inventive animator, always trying new techniques and styles to fit whatever mood suits him, and in this case, his mood happened to be Ping Pong.
It’s a gripping story, told from several perspectives, about the lives, loves, and losses of high-school Ping Pong champions, except imbued with the strength of a truly devoted and brilliant director. Imagine Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn making a movie about foosball, and you get the idea. Some scenes combine several different forms of animation – hand-drawn characters interact with CG backgrounds and live-action. But it’s never stylish for its own sake. Yuasa makes careful, calculated decisions about filmmaking to compliment his story, and never distract from it.
Ping Pong has an expert craftsman taking something familiar, bending it, and making it unique.
3) The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Speaking of seasoned animators elevating works of relative simplicity, Studio Ghibli’s sublime The Tale of Princess Kaguya sees 79-year old Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata taking the reins on a surprisingly stylish adaptation of a 10th century Japanese fairytale.
The story of an otherworldly princess descending to Earth seems simple enough, but Takahata is smart in letting the actual fairytale wear its heart on its sleeve. This is not some post-modern deconstruction of myth, but rather a seasoned master telling a familiar tale well-told. The Tale of Princess Kaguya relishes in its period detail, from the painterly backgrounds to the character designs that seem ripped straight from 19th century Japanese woodblock prints. And yet, Takahata is keen on using modern animation techniques to bring his story to life. Images often blur with carefully crafted CGI, creating a powerfully adept blend of modern-day CGI magic with time-tested hand-drawn creations.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a rare film, anime or not, that is deliberately old-fashioned but told with the resources of modern-day filmmakers. It’s currently raking in many well-deserved Best Animated Feature awards from many critic groups (even though it got shut out of the Golden Globes) and all for good reason. Princess Kaguya is a comforting and yet bold relic of the past, audaciously told through the eyes of an expert filmmaker utilizing current tools. Studio Ghibli’s still got it.
In case I wasn’t effluviant enough in my praise of Parasyte in my Fall Preview Guide, let me reiterate: Parasyte is a triumph of storytelling and direction. It takes a simple premise and executes it with exacting precision and grace.
To put it another way, Parasyte consistently defies my expectations. The story itself might plod along in familiar ways, but the acting, writing, and direction constantly keeps me guessing. For an adaptation of a popular manga, though, this is sublime. While I love the adaptation of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure for hewing so closely to its source material, Parasyte does it one better by being so engrossing that I often forget this is an adaptation to begin with. The characters are so well-written and thought out that it is almost an agony to wait one lousy week to see what happens next.
Parasyte was easily the best show of the fall season, and if it keeps up, it might easily be the best show of the early 2015 season. Make sure to catch up on it if you’re a loser who missed out.
1) Terror in Resonance
As good as Parasyte is, nothing comes close to the emotionally devastating roller coaster that is Terror in Resonance. I sang its praises during the Summer Anime Wrap-Up, but after watching the show to its conclusion, let me say that nothing else this year came close to completely shattering my heart.
It’s a controversial show by its sheer definition – being a series about teenaged domestic terrorists bombing buildings and manipulating the public’s fear. But the writing is so sharp and nuanced that, even though the ending of the series was about what I was expecting, I was still a blubbering mass of tears and feelings.
Terror in Resonance is top-shelf storytelling at its peak, and if this list will probe anyone to do anything else, my hope is that it will spark someone to marathon the entire thing immediately afterward. It is, and I don’t exaggerate at all, that good.
Unless you disagree. But, hey, that’s what the comments section is for! Any glaring omissions? Any unusual choices? Share them below!
Previously by Brian Hanson:
TR’s 2014 Fall Anime Guide; 11 New Series, Ranked