July 7 is the date of one of Japan’s most beloved festivals. It is called “Tanabata” (written as “seventh evening”). In English it is often called the “Star Festival”. It is also one of the most commonly referenced festivals in anime.
The festival is based on a rather charming myth that goes something like this:
It seems almost a requirement now to bemoan the current state of anime as compared to the golden age of past (which for most people seems to be 5 to 15 years ago.) But it is easy to fool oneself about this. We tend to remember only a few great animes and forget the much larger number of really bad ones, and the even greater number of mediocre ones.
With that in mind, here’s what I think are the highlights and lowlights of the year. It won’t surprise me if some of these are cited nostalgically by future critics bemoaning the miserable state of anime in 2015.
The usual caveats apply: I haven’t sampled everything and my tastes are not yours. Series that are continuing into the Spring are not generally eligible, though I am making an exception for one that has no overall story.
The anime industry is clearly suffering from the bad economy. Fewer series were produced. Fan service shows (a mainstay of the second-tier studios) have gotten raunchier. Even if you think that’s a good thing, it has to be a sign of desperation.
Still, the year has to be judged by the best that is produces (remember Sturgeon’s Law.) By that measure 2009 actually wasn’t all that bad.
Outstanding Anime Series of 2009
Amazingly there were 3 series this year that really stood out, each with its own unique visual style.
Bakemonogatari (Ghoststory) Finally a series from Shaft that I can wholeheartedly endorse. Macabre, funny, twisted and solidly entertaining.
Higashi no Eden (Eden of the East) OK, the ending feels a little abrupt, but the show as a whole is brilliant, like nothing I’ve ever seen. A dark story, but funny and clever, consistently surprising and fascinating.
Kemono no Souja Erin (Erin the Beast Player) A great fantasy story, quite long but carefully written with no waste or filler. Warning: the drawings may remind you of a children’s book, but this is not for little kids.
Special Honorable Mention
Ponyo was actually released in Japan in 2008, but Americans had to wait until 2009 to see it. The bottom line: Hayao Miyazaki is back and near the top of his form, at least if you like things like Totoro.
Noteworthy Anime Series of 2009
Aoi Bungaku (Fresh Literature). This selection of stories by noted twentieth century Japanese writers is not for everyone, but I rather liked it. The stories are fairly dark; in an earlier post I half-jokingly said that contemporary serious Japanese literature is mostly about suicide in one way or another. This series did nothing to refute my thesis.
Clannad After Story People who had played the game seemed to like the ending more than those who hadn’t. Still, if you like this sort of thing, this is another solid adaptation of a Key visual novel by Kyoto Animation. Get out your handkerchiefs.
Kimi ni Todake is indeed an angsty shoujo romance, but this one is special. The heroine, who has more than a trace of ASD wonders wonders why she has no friends and tries to reason out logically what she needs to do to get some. The results are a bit strange, but surprisingly successful.
Mainichi Kaasan (Everyday Mom/Mom’s Life) Sure the character designs are horrifying, but this adaptation of the gag manga about a manga artist and her family is the most consistently funny show of the year. However you may need to have kids of your own to appreciate the humor.
Summer Wars. It’s cyberpunk vs. Japanese tradition in this movie. As science fiction it has a few refrigerator moments, but the depiction of the quarrelsome but supportive traditional extended family is priceless.
Toradora Finally–a harem comedy with a decent ending!
Interesting, but Not to My Taste
There were several shows that were worthy efforts, but which for various reasons I found unwatchable.
Genji Monogatari Sennenki OK, let’s get real. The Tale of Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century, is not the world’s first novel. Perhaps it’s the first novel written by a woman, or the first example of chick lit. In any case The Golden Ass, written by Lucius Apuleius sometime in the 2nd century, reads much more like a modern novel.
This anime adaptation of Gengi is beautifully drawn, and the convoluted writing has been cleaned up to make it comprehensible to a modern audience. Unfortunately I can’t make myself care about the endless love affairs of a beautiful but narcissistic prince.
Kuuchuu Buranko (Trapeze) A daring, innovative visual style. I couldn’t make it through even one episode.
To Aru Kagaku no Railgun (A Certain Scientific Railgun) There are many people who really like this, and it clearly has a lot going for it, including fine animation and interesting characters. Unfortunately I find the character of Kuroko so revolting that I just can’t watch the show.
Kyoto Animation Jumps the Shark
Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (Second Season). There was plenty of reason to fear that the sequel would be a disappointment, given that the writers had cherry-picked the best of the source material for the first season, but nobody expected something as bad as this. Stretching what was at most 5 episodes worth of material to 14 episodes had the fans dumbfounded and furious.
Haruhi illustrates the sort of mistake that talented people can make when they get too arrogant, but Sora o Miageru Shoujo no Hitomi ni Utsuru Sekai (Munto) is a work of total mediocrity: an uninspired story, flat uninteresting characters and bad animation with obtrusive CGI.
You may not feel that K-ON belongs in this category. It was a tremendous hit, pretty to look at, funny and fun to watch. However compared to Lucky Star, the same studio’s earlier adaptation of another gag manga about high school girls, K-ON falls short. Lucky Star is just as plotless, but it is funnier with much better developed characters. The main innovation in K-ON consists of cranking the moe factor up to 11. This is no substitute for good writing.
Cross Game. There’s nothing obviously special about this sports/romance anime, except the fact that it is well-drawn, well-written and has lovable characters. It is a long, slow-moving series, but consistently enjoyable.
Kobato. I’m still not sure whether this is going to turn out to be brilliant or a disappointment, but it is rather cute and charming. Charm can only take you so far though. They need to prove that there is a real story here.
Inuyasha Final Chapter. It’s very simple. If you were a fan of the original series, you will want to see the ending. If you didn’t see the original series, the sequel has nothing to offer you.
The story finally ends, in a suitably anticlimactic manner. It feels like the folks at Kyoto Animation are as sick of it as we are.
So why did they do it this way? I suspect that the real reason, regardless of the rationalizations they may have come up with, is that the production company ordered N episodes and they only had enough source material for N – 7. KyoAni has a lot of talent, including some of the world’s best animators, but coming up with new story ideas is not their forte.
Incidentally, the ending provides the strongest evidence so far for what I called “Theory 4” in my Spoiler Notes for Haruhi Suzumiya.
Part of the appeal of Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya as it was originally broadcast was in the uniquely confusing way that it was presented. It created a sort of meta-story in which the original story was further illuminated by the viewer’s own reaction to the way it was presented. The viewers didn’t mind that the show was messing with their heads because the whole thing was so wonderfully entertaining.
Now with the second season Kyoto Animation seems to be trying for the same kind of “mess with the viewers’ heads” effect, but the original inspiration is no longer there. Instead of applauding, the fans are up in arms. Particularly infuriating is the “Endless Eight” storyline which has so far repeated the same episode 4 times with minor variations. This isn’t fun; it’s just annoying.
Probably any possible sequel would have been a disappointment, but it appears that KyoAni may have destroyed the value of the franchise. Furious fans are already vowing not to buy the DVDs.
Which of course is true, but necessary. Haruhi wouldn’t fall for a nice guy. She wants a partner in crime. These guys are funny to watch, but I really wouldn’t want to get too close to them.
A strong-willed girl wants to meet aliens, time-travelers or espers…but she never does…or does she?
Of the hundred or so anime series broadcast in 2006, this was by far the biggest hit. The quirky story, clever writing, hilarious characters and first-rate animation caught the attention of millions of viewers. It catapulted the small animation studio to the front ranks, and made a cult idol out of Aya Hirano.
Now it is available on DVD, but unfortunately in a degraded form.
When they announced that The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was going to be released in Region 1, my worst fear was that the clueless American distributors would ruin the story by releasing the episodes in chronological order, instead of the original broadcast order. Now it seems that my worst fear has been realized, but it is not the fault of the American distributor. Indeed they seem to be making an unusual effort to salvage the situation.
Here is my understanding of what happened, and what a long-suffering Anime fan can do about it.
OK, maybe I should clarify the previous post.
First, I intend to buy the DVDs even if they mess them up badly. That’s the only practical way that I can show my appreciation to the people who created the original series.
Second, I’m not that hard to please. All I really need are two things. One should be a given: that they include the original Japanese soundtrack with Aya Hirano as Haruhi and Tomokazu Sugita as Kyon, along with decent subtitles. The other I’m a little more nervous about: that they include the episodes in the original broadcast order.