2012 has been an interesting year for watching anime. Unlike last year which had half a dozen or so universal favorites, this year gave us such a wide variety of shows that opinions have been... divisive, to say the least. As far as my own personal tastes go, there was no real all-time great material like Madoka or Penguindrum, but in reviewing what I watched there may have been more quality shows in general. But hey, that's enough big picture rambling, let's get to the list!
10. Waiting In Summer
Told as a flashback (and as the little cousin of Please Teacher!), Waiting In Summer feels very nostalgic, recalling that awkward, exciting feeling of the first time you fall in love. It's certainly not the first or best anime to attempt that, but it does succeed by depicting both the good and bad aspects of introducing romance into a group of friends. You could argue the Sci-Fi element of the story is nothing but a convenient plot device, but ultimately it helps add a unique charm to the setting. As the name implies, Waiting In Summer is a lovely Summer Vacation story that made me miss the days of being a naive teenager in love.
9. Kokoro Connect
Kokoro Connect begins with what looks like a setup for a gimmicky romantic comedy, but after a couple episodes that notion is quickly boiled alive in a cauldron of unrequited love, brutal honesty, and existential angst. The cast has an unusually realistic edge to them, equally capable of supporting their friends and falling in love as succumbing to anxiety and depression. The drama might be a little heavy handed for some, but with the show's unusual circumstances working as a catalyst it makes sense. Overall, Kokoro Connect puts an intriguing serious spin on the Five Kids in a Club setup and it's certainly one of the more unique series this year.
8. Humanity Has Declined
If Humanity Has Declined had maintained the level of brilliance it shows in its first two episodes, it would have easily been #1 on my list. At it's best it uses its fairy tale pastel colored, pseudo-post-apocalyptic setting (yes I just said that and I don't care if if doesn't make sense) to produce some the most hilariously bizarre, ruthless satire in recent memory. Leading the charge is the unnamed heroine, The Mediator, our viewer proxy who shows the writer's actually assume we are intelligent and observant as opposed to dense and sex obsessed. Unfortunately some of the self contained story arcs do lose their way and meander off into self indulgent territory, but even in the worst episodes Humanity brings more refreshing creative energy than anything I've seen this year.
7. Mysterious Girlfriend X
I had every intention of writing off MGX as trashy fetish fuel and really only gave it a shot based on shock value. But as the show's retro, almost macabre art direction and creepy circus organ soundtrack sucked me in, it quickly became clear to me this was something different. Rather than being offensive or exploitative, MGX's fixation on swappin' spit becomes this weird, desperate, fumbling form of intimacy between two lonely people. It evolves into an odd but relatively tame romance, exploring the awkwardness of sexual discovery in some very strange, roundabout ways. I'll admit the concept is pretty uhhhhhh hard to swallow so to speak, but if you get past that hurdle MGX is a fascinating and surprisingly sweet experience.
6. Binbougami Ga!
"Dumb Comedy With Heart" is one of my favorite anime genres and Binbougami was this year's best example. Filling in the gaps between the stock Jump parodies, snarky dialogue, and fan service is a surprisingly well rounded cast that avoids locking into the typical character roles you'd expect them to. While anime in general may be dominated by female characters, it's actually quite rare and refreshing to see a series with a single female lead. Ichiko's journey from condescending rich girl to caring friend might not be the most profound story to tell, but any character development at all automatically makes her better than most of her bland counterparts that dominate this genre. Funny, irreverent and occasionally heartwarming, Binbougami is arguably the most entertaining anime on this list.
Adapted from an actual novel (not the light variety), Another has a certain literary quality you wouldn't normally find in an otherwise standard horror mystery story. Sure there is plenty of creepy atmosphere and over the top death scenes, but there's also a great of attention to detail and meaning that keeps your brain engaged. By blending those elements together, Another strikes the right balance between suspenseful mystery, B-movie horror, and artistic statement.
Hyouka’s appeal can be a mystery (see what I did?) at first. The setting, while beautifully animated, looks old and wooden, the “mysteries” are inconsequential, and the dialogue is thick and measured – all fancy ways of saying “boring”. But then the series builds momentum as we get to know the cast and our Main Man Houtarou evolves into more than just the typical Slacker Protagonist he tries so hard to be. Hyouka takes what look like normal school anime staples on the surface (pool episode, the cultural festival, Valentine’s day) and turns them into character building opportunities, giving us deeper insight into their motivations and dreams. Mature but not cynical, Hyouka delivers its message with a subtle, understated beauty rarely found in television anime.
3. Regardless of Their Repeated Attempts, There's Still No Satisfying English Title
If Hyouka was Kyoto Animation's way of sitting you down for coffee and polite conversation, Chuuni is a cartwheel into the room and and a punch in your stomach. It laughs hard and it cries harder as the story oscillates between slapstick comedy, sweet romance, and emotional drama. What it may lack in subtlety however is made up for by a fun, lovable cast and an honest, unique message, not to mention great writing and director Tatsuya Ishihara's fantastic pacing. I'm not sure if Chuuni manages to be quite as profound as it tries to be, but it definitely succeeds at being meaningful without losing its sense of fun.
NIsemonogatari's biggest failing is that it's not as good as its predecessor, but being about 75% as good as Bakemonogatari is still very good. Shaft and director Akiyuki Shinbo visually establish an even better looking -monogatari world to play in, and while Nisemono may lack Bakemono's focused structure it does have a more interesting, unifying theme. Series writer NisiOisin uses his oddly specific life observations to explore the nature of what it means to be real or fake, taking us on a strange journey through his own fantasies in the process. It can be weird, funny, sexy, and maybe at times even unsettling, but no matter what it's always fascinating.
I've been trying to cut back on using the word "epic" but it's pretty hard not to pull it out when I'm talking about Fate/Zero. The expansive cast of masters and servants combined with the history and detail of the Type Moon universe make Fate/Zero bigger and badder than just about anything else this year. Bitter enemies and reluctant friends square off for physical and mental combat, all told with a beautiful, cinema quality presentation. What really puts it over the top though is the story at the heart of it all. Kiritsugu is not a hero by any means, but his misplaced ideals and ultimate failure are undoubtedly tragic. His fate, along with Rider, Kariya and the other characters, make Fate/Zero the richest, most rewarding series I watched in 2012.
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