2014: The Anime Year in Review

It seems that it’s more or less a requirement for experienced anime bloggers to complain that the current season and the current year are the worst ever, a far cry from the glory days of the past. I’m pretty sure that 5 years from now bloggers will be bemoaning the dreadfulness of the 2019 season, as compared to the glory days of, say, 2014. Each year brings us a mountain of crap that is quickly forgotten, plus a few shows that people will remember fondly and even rewatch in future years.

So as usual in my annual review I will mostly ignore the shows that failed (and especially those that didn’t even try) and focus on shows that provided solid entertainment and may have some chance of being remembered fondly in future years.

Outstanding Anime of 2014

Mushishi familySeason 2 of Mushi-shi (Crunchyroll) is a rare example of an anime that aims to be high art. There is no middle ground here: such a show always seems to end up either great or unwatchable. Fortunately this one continues to hit the “great” mark.

Manaka from EDNagi no Asukara (Crunchyroll) (started Fall 2013) had some slow moments but looking back I can’t think of any other show in the past year that affected me as strongly. What starts out looking like a whimsical fairy tale turns into a powerful work of high fantasy.

After workAmagi Brilliant Park is just silly, but it is inspired silliness, perfectly executed and hilarious from beginning to end.
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Sword Art Online 2 Ends

Players with Urd2014 actually had some nice surprises in anime. One was that the second season of Sword Art Online (Crunchyroll) was much better than the first.

It wasn’t that I hated the first season. If you remember my posts from that time you will recall that I thought that the first half was very weak while the second half redeemed it just enough to make it worth watching. The second season is a much better work from start to finish. I won’t hesitate to recommend it–though you still probably need to watch the first season first. (You might be able to catch up from the flashbacks in the second season but you wouldn’t really understand the characters without having seen what they went through.)
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Sword Art Online II–Anime Quick Take

There’s not too much that I can say about Sword Art Online II (Crunchyroll). If you liked the first season you are probably already watching the second. If you are unfamiliar with the first season you can read my comments here.
SAO - Kirio in gunsight
The new season has Kirito in a new game world tracking down a new supervillain with a new companion (a girl who plays a cold-blooded sniper in the game, but is attempting to use the game to deal with her real-world panic attacks.)

I actually like the new season a bit better than the first. SAO was Reki Kawahara’s first published work and I think his storytelling skills improved as the series progressed.
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Sword Art Online Ends

I am going to moderate my earlier harsh criticism of the show. The second half of Sword Art Online is much better than the first half, which may reflect a gradual improvement in the writing skills of the young author Reki Kawahara. On balance SAO is a lightweight but entertaining story, though it is not on the same level as Accel World which is based on a later work by the same writer.

The first half was all about Kirito, who by himself just isn’t a very interesting character. The second half opens things up by adding other major characters. There’s Asuna of course, who only had a walk-on role in the first half. Then the second arc adds Suguha who is actually the most interesting and complex character in the series. Yui and Recon are minor characters but they add interest.

The first story arc has a villain who vanishes after the first episode and remains offstage until the very end. The Alfheim story arc has a much more entertaining villain who has the decency to show up every so often and reveal new heights of evilness. More importantly, the Alfheim arc alternates between the real world and the game world, making it clear that events in the game world have real world consequences. (Sure, we knew in theory that events in the SAO game could have real consequences, but since we never saw the consequences it didn’t have much emotional effect.)
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Sword Art Online sort of ends

More specifically, the Sword Art Online anime series hasn’t ended but the story arc about the “Sword Art Online” game did end. It fact it ended so abruptly that many fans seem frustrated, let down and angry.

I’ve been pretty critical of this show in the past (though obviously not critical enough to stop watching it.) Still I’m going to stick my neck out and say a few words in its defense.

I felt that the writing in the first half of the series was not very good and probably reflected the immaturity of the author. However in the last few episodes I think it has become noticeably better (though it still isn’t at the same level as Accel World which is based on a later work by the same author.) Much of this is due to the fact that Asuna has changed from a bit player to a major character. She’s a much more engaging character than Kirito and their interaction makes him seem less shallow.
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Sword Art Online, Accel World and Reki Kawahara

In my last, very negative post about Sword Art Online I said “I find it hard to believe that this comes from the same author as Accel World.” Which raises a reasonable question. Both series are based on light novels by Reki Kawahara. Why is the writing quality so different?

Accel World isn’t Shakespeare but the writing is well above average for a fighting anime. It has interesting characters with some depth and complexity who experience real growth. Sword Art Online on the other hand feels like nothing so much as a work of fan fiction by a bright 14-year-old.

The biggest problem with SOA is the protagonist, Kirito, who is basically a male Mary Sue (or, if you prefer, a “Marty Stu”). He’s a mysterious loner who rides into town, defeats the monsters and rides off into the sunset as the maidens sigh. He’s so powerful that the fights, however beautifully animated, tend to lack dramatic tension because we know he can beat anyone and anything in a fair fight. He’s awkward with women but it doesn’t really matter–the cute girls seek him out because he’s just so totally awesome.

(Of course that’s just in the game world. He’s probably less impressive in the real world, but that doesn’t matter because we never see the real world.)
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Sword Art Online–Midseason Thoughts

In spite of my initial qualms I’ve been faithfully watching Sword Art Online but I find that I am liking it less and less. My first reaction was to be startled at how dark the premise was. Now I feel disappointed that they have taken that very dark premise and turned it into a very very lightweight fighting anime.

First let me say something positive about the show. The animation is very good.

It’s very good and very cute-looking. Everywhere we look we see cute girls, one cute boy and lots of ruggedly handsome men. How does that square with the scene in the first episode where Kayaba forced everyone to use avatars that looked like their real bodies? Where are all the overweight nerds with skin problems? How likely is it that so many cute girls would want to play a game that is almost entirely about killing monsters?
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Sword Art Online–Anime Early Impressions

Sword Art Online (Crunchyroll) has certain similarities to Accel World which isn’t surprising since both are based on light novels by Reki Kawahara. However the differences are more striking than the similarities. The most important difference is that Sword Art Online, in spite of its cute drawing style, has a premise that is incredibly dark and grim.

It is so grim that in spite of the high quality of the writing and the artwork, I’m not sure I will be able to continue watching this. So far it has been remarkably depressing. Honestly this makes Fate/Zero look like a cheerful diversion.

Like Accel World, this involves an online game that is made to seem as real as the real world through the use of direct brain-computer interfaces. In Accel World the game is still just a game and what really matters is how they players apply the lessons they learn from it to their real lives. In Sword Art Online the real world has ceased to matter. The players are trapped in the game and their success in it has quite literally become a matter of life and death.
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