I’m going to go about this in my usual biased way, ignoring anything that didn’t interest me and selecting the shows that were great, the shows that were good, and the shows that might have been good were it not for some serious flaw. Ongoing series that have not completed a single season will have judgement deferred until next year. (Too often a promising show is ruined by a bad or missing ending.)
Outstanding Anime of 2011
Mahou Shoujo Madoka Majika a.k.a. Puella Magi Madoka Magica re-examines the fundamental premise of the traditional magical girl show. That by itself would not be enough to make it “outstanding”. The genre has been parodied often enough, and CLAMP saw the potential for tragedy as far back as Magic Knight Rayearth. What’s important is that this is a really well-thought-out story, masterfully executed with a terrific ending.
Mawaru Penguindrum. Hey all you fans of Neon Genesis Evengelion! How about a show that explores the same themes with a lot more insight, has a much better constructed story and is better drawn? (Warning: this is a challenging show in which metaphorical scenes alternate with scenes from the main story. Since the main story itself has strong fantasy elements it is often unclear what should be taken literally and what is figurative.)
Notable Anime of 2011
Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Boku-tachi wa Mada Shiranai (AnoHana) is this year’s entry in the “sweet tearjerker” category. Frankly this is no Clannad, but it is pretty decent.
The first season of Bakuman is recommended for any outsider who wants to understand how the manga industry works, including the pressures that can cause a manga series to end up in a way that neither the author nor the fans would really have wanted. That said, it is unrealistically romanticized and somewhat dated. (Mashiro does all his drawing with pen and ink, with nary a computer in sight.) A second season is currently ongoing. (It seems even less realistic.)
Gosick is a stylish and entertaining thriller with a heroine who starts out unsympathetic but ends up loveable. To appreciate this it is important to realize that in spite of the references to classic detective stores, this is not a detective story–it is gothic-horror-romance. It also helps to realize that it is set in the 1920s in an alternate history universe where not only is there a kingdom called Sauville between Italy and France, but World War II actually started in 1925. (This probably had the fortuitous effect of allowing Japan to be on the right side.)
Ikoku Meiro no Croisée tells the story of a little Japanese girl living in Paris in the 1890s. It is beautifully drawn and utterly charming, though highly implausible.
Natsume Yuujin-Chou San is the third season of the highly regarded series about a lonely boy and the yokai and human friends that he makes. There’s nothing more that I can say about this that I haven’t already said about earlier seasons.
Nichijou (My Ordinary Life) is funny, charming and surreal. Though I’ve complained repeatedly that Kyoto Animation is in a cute-high-school-girl rut, they continue to do high quality work.
Usagi Drop is a smart and charming josei story about a single man who adopts a little girl. (Warning: the anime ends innocuously about half-way through the original manga. The manga goes on to an ending that most American readers find annoying at best. So it is probably a good idea to just watch the anime and ignore the manga.)
If Only It Had an Ending!
The following shows would probably have made my “notable” list except for the lack of an adequate ending. I may be able to recommend them in the future if they get another season that wraps them up properly.
Dantalian no Shoka a.k.a. The Mystic Archives of Dantalian almost makes my “notable” list. I really like the characters, especially the confident and cool-headed hero. But the ending is frustrating, raising more questions than it answers.
Fate/Zero is a dark, stylish story with a premise right out of a video game. Seven wizards summon the spirits of seven legendary heroes and proceed to battle to the death for a wish-granting McGuffin. I started this late since it a a prequel to 2006’s Fate/Stay Night which I didn’t much care for. However Fate/Zero is from a different studio and I find it much more enjoyable. The interplay between the gleeful, over-the-top heroic spirits and the tragic, doomed wizards turns out to be a lot of fun. (The wizards range from misguided to outright evil, since they are all basically using black magic. The heroic spirits run the range from inspiring to horrifying.) The final episode ends with a ridiculous cliff-hanger, but a new season is promised for next Spring, so I may have more to say on this one.
Yumekui Merry, the story of a “dream demon” trapped in the real world, does provide a ending to its story arc, but it leaves Merry having made no progress in her quest to get back home. Perhaps worse, we have not been given enough backstory to make Merry a compelling character.
Disappointing Anime of 2011
I’m sorry to be beating a dead horse here, but there is only one show that clearly belongs in this category. Fractale was the most overhyped, overambitious anime in a long time. It is admirable that the director wanted to do something great, but he overpromised and underdelivered. The show has a nice look and nice music, but the story is poorly thought-out and the ending is contemptible.