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.