[With the holidays and the end of the year comes a time for reflection, as well as the end of the season. What better way to spend it than thinking about our favorite Japanese cartoons! Here are the shows we regarded best over 2012! -Josh]
What an interesting year of anime.
2012 brought with it a host of shows across all genres, meaning that there was a little bit of something for everybody.
There were more than a few surprises in 2012; shows that I never would have given the time of day had it not been for positive word of mouth. Admittedly, I struggled to put this list together. There were a lot of great series this year and it's regrettable that I couldn't give them the love they deserve.
In any case, on with it!
5. Girls und Panzer - Actas
Out of all the shows on this list, none surprised me more than Girls und Panzer. It's the kind of anime that I wouldn't even think of watching, as at first glance it appeared to be a shallow attempt at fanservice. Josh T and another friend's constant praise put the show on my radar, but it wasn't until I found myself sick one afternoon that I gave Girls und Panzer my time.
Man, am I glad that I did.
Simply put, Girls und Panzer is an underdog story of the most basic kind. It's the tale of a ragtag group of girls facing insurmountable odds in an attempt to prove themselves to the world. I'm a sucker for these kinds of stories, and it certainly helps that Panzer pays attention to all the right details. The cast is charming and the battles well-scripted and choreographed. Yes, there's some fanservice here and there, but it's never really the focus. The premise is also much easier to swallow because Girls und Panzer does a swell job of establishing its world and the rules within it. Of course at first it all seems odd, but after a few episodes, the idea of tank battles as some kind of sporting event stops being all that weird.
Again, I have to stress that the show features some amazing action sequences that make full use of the tanks as a mobile weapon. I was particularly thrilled by the battle on the snowfield, which employed some genius tactics and kept me on my toes the entire time.
I know at first glance this show might not seem all that appealing, but Girls und Panzer is awesome.
4. Chihayafuru - Madhouse
Another surprise that really threw me for a loop. I'm an English teacher in Japan by day, I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've played karuta with my students. I'm practical a pro judge of the game at this point.
Maybe that's one of the reasons why I found Chihayafuru so captivating from the get-go. Karuta is a simple game that's played with a high level of energy, making for a much more entertaining experience than one might initially imagine. Wrapping an underdog story around the game was a genius move, especially since it's so deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. I'm sure a lot of viewers appreciated getting an inside look at a less spoken of aspect of Japan, and I myself enjoyed the faithful recreation of something I've witnessed and participated in so many times.
Yes, Chihayafuru perhaps drags its feet way more than it needs to in regards to its main romance, but the rest of the core cast has such a fantastic dynamic that I never really felt all that bothered by it. Chihaya and her quest for national victory never stopped being entertaining, and I can't wait for the second season.
3. Chuunibyou Demo Koi ga Shitai! - Kyoto Animation
This one shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody if you've been following along with my weekly recaps. While this is something of a spoiler for my Final Impressions piece, let me state it clearly: I loved Chuu2. Kyoto Animation is certainly no stranger to school settings, and in many ways, Chuu2 is their most standard work in their entire portfolio. A love story at its most pure, the show does an amazing job of recreating freshmen year of high school in Japan, complete with the innocent romance that follows.
Chuu2 seems like the perfect set up for a harem anime, and yet it never actually goes there. Instead, it's more concerned with exploring the wacky lives of a small group of students who each have their own little issues they're trying to overcome. Chuu2 spends most of its episodes content with watching these characters form friendships and bonds with one another. When the drama does kick in, yes, it seems a little bit forced. The saving grace is that it doesn't spend too much time on said melodrama. The romance on the other hand is handled with shocking sincerity, beginning and resolving itself in an organic manner that actually makes sense.
Of course, when you factor in KyoAni's typical high production values and incredible filmmaking talent, Chuu2 becomes a must watch. I'd be a fool if I didn't mention the crazy action sequences that take place in the minds of the characters. We haven't seen real action from KyoAni since FMP TSR, but they clearly haven't lost their touch. Explosions and crazy weapons are the order of the day, and if you were wondering how Chuu2 visually distinguishes itself from every other romantic comedy, that's how.
2. Hyouka - Kyoto Animation
At first glance a series with no real direction beyond seemingly pointless everyday mysteries, Hyouka's true worth reveals itself in the details and subtlety of the character interactions.
The show starts off slow and many folks believe that the arc that comes before the school festival is the show at its weakest. Those same people will tell you that it's with the school festival arc that Hyouka truly comes to life, placing the spotlight on the characters and their complex relationships. Chitanda, for all of her curiosity, is quietly battling with her own issues. Hotaro constantly struggles with his desire to stay out of everybody else's problems and exert the minimum possible effort. Satoshi and Mayaka both battle with their own feelings toward each other, and in the former's case, his feelings of jealousy toward his best friend. Nothing is as it seems, much like the mundane mysterious Hotaro and his friends spend their days solving.
While the writing certainly does an admirable job of bringing out the characters' personalities, the stunningly beautiful animation also shoulders much of the burden. Increasingly subtle and nuanced, KyoAni's technical skill is a sight for sore eyes. Character postures, small and detailed motions and shot choice all do an incredible job of bringing the cast of Hyouka to life.
Hyouka is the most beautifully quiet show I've watched all year.
1. Fate/Zero Part II - Ufotable
This was actually a much closer call than I was expecting it to be, but the final half of Fate/Zero managed to push Hyouka into spot number two.
The finale of the 4th Holy Grail was truly a sight to behold, as Ufotable brought out all the stops for the climactic servant battles we'd been waiting for all this time. Characters died, Master's were betrayed, and crazy motorcycle combat was had as super powerful heroes from ages long ago clashed swords. More cinematic than nearly everything else on TV (save for maybe Hyouka), Fate/Zero is a beautiful series to look at, even if you're completely detached from the characters and story. I mentioned it in my Final Impressions of the show earlier this year, but there's a small moment in one of the final battles that, on a visual level, sums up part of why Fate/Zero was so fantastic. Saber is facing off against an entirely CG opponent and uses a car for cover. The car is hand-drawn, and she proceeds to push the vehicle forward, using it as a shield against the cover fire. The juxtaposition of the CG animation with the gorgeous more traditional style really sold to me how much care and love was put into this project by the staff at Ufotable.
Look, there's a lot I could say about Fate/Zero, but the simple point I'm trying to make is this: Fate/Zero is truly exceptional. Ufotable has created a strong piece of drama and action, one that not only gets better upon repeat viewings, but will likely be fondly looked back on as the year passes. Ufotable has stepped up to the plate as a studio that anime fans will have to keep their eyes on from here on out.
I know I'll be watching.
Honorable mention: The Wolf Children, Ame and Yuki
In all honesty, I was tempted to put Mamoru Hosoda's latest animated film, The Wolf Children, in the top slot of this list. Upon further thought, I figured it'd be a bit unfair to put a feature film up on a list of TV anime. It'd be regrettable if I didn't get to mention The Wolf Children at all though, so here I am.
A simple film about the struggles of growing up and raising children, Hosoda's latest is a quiet film that never tries to tell a story with a clear ending. This is purely a slice of life piece with a somewhat fantastical angle in the way of werewolves. A charming fairytale-like story for children, a nostalgic look back for older parents, and perhaps a look into the future for the rest of us, The Wolf Children is the best film I've seen all year.
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