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Thursday, 3 February 2011

Looking Back ~ Top 10 anime of 2010

So, I thought I'd get right in and start off with my top 10 anime of 2010.

In a way, 2010 was the first year I was really into anime. I started watching anime in early 2009, but it wasn't until 2010 that I grasped the concept of seasons, and that I could decide with ease which ongoing series I could choose and watch. So 2010 became the first year I started getting involved with ongoing anime series, up until that point I'd only watched a few ongoing series and had mainly concentrated on the vast amount of anime there was to watch that had finished airing.
With this new knowledge I ended up starting a lot of series each season, often too many for me to balance with my academic work and other hobbies, so several series have made their way into my 'on hold' list. However I still finished a good portion of the series I started watching, and easily enough that I can decide on my top 10 anime of 2010.
This list includes series that ended in 2010, but didn't necessarily start in 2010.

10. Tamayura

Tamayura was a short OVA released at the end of 2010, running only 4 15-minute episodes from September to December. While it seemd to slip under the radar a bit, Tamayura instantly struck a chord with me when I saw it was a slow-paced slice of life OVA by the director of ARIA, which is one of my favourite series of all time. And while Tamayura couldn't possibly hope to capture the same scale and depth in just 4 short episodes that ARIA did over the course of its 3 season run, the essence was still there. The main characters each with their individual quirks placed in a utopian setting and left to just do their own thing. 

While this may sound like a recipe for disaster, or at least boredom, the beauty which these characters can see in such mundane, every day things really does allow the viewer to appreciate the smaller things in life, as long as they're in the right mindset. While ARIA does this through Akari's personality and experiences, Tamayura sets it up in a very clever way and uses photography as the staple for the series. Photographs, that which can catch a moment of beauty and preserve it forever.

9. Ore no Imouto ga Konnani Kawaii Wake ga Nai

Ore no Imouto's take on otaku life in Japan, while not necessarily 'accurate' is at least credible, as it doesn't paint the country as the otaku wonderland that some seem to believe it is. The first few episodes display this best, and in a sense that's good as these are the episodes that are there to draw people in, and they manage to do so. What Ore no Imouto does well is the drama between Kirino and her family and friends, how the different people react when they learn about her hobby and how the relationships are eventually fixed. It also examines friendship within the otaku community. 

However, after the first few episodes Ore no Imouto does seem to lose its way a little and meander a bit too far into the realm of fantasy. I won't totally fault the series for this, though, as it generally remains entertaining even if it isn't what the beginning of the series set us up for.

The characters in the series are either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what you want. In their character designs most of them are oozing with moe, but in terms of personalities, most aren't particularly developed. Kirino gets the most screen time, and this will either keep you happy or frustrate you to no end. Kirino is not a particularly likeable character, however, she is relatable. Well, her position is. Most people watching this series will find at least one point where they can think 'I know how that feels', and in some respects that helps Ore no Imouto, where Kirino's character lets it down. The rest of the cast are likeable if not occasionally a little bland. My personal highlight of the cast is Kuroneko, one of Kirino's 'otaku friends' (though she often doesn't show it), who manages to be a forthright, mature and overall plain likeable character from her relationships with the other characters to her older sister role at home and her openness about her hobby.

Ore no Imouto is not a spectacular series by any means, it has plenty of faults, but it's enjoyable nonetheless.

8. Amagami SS

A high school harem based on a dating sim isn't an original concept, and Amagami SS's fairly generic appearance may only harm it. Amagami SS does nothing more than what it says on the tin '6 girls, 6 story arcs', however, it does what it sets out to do very well. It is in all senses a harem series and it delivers 6 very satisfying tales of high school romance. The characters may not seem much at first glance, particularly our protagonist Junichi, as you'd be hard pushed to find a more generic looking character.

However, as you watch the series, the individual traits of each character start to become apparent and they each build their own personalities. Each of the girls is memorable in their own right, and while 4 episodes is a short time, the 4 episodes we see of each girl are well-constructed and do justice to the blossoming relationship between the characters. Junichi also has admirable character traits that aren't instantly recognisable, but as we see his interactions with each girl over the course of the series they become more apparent.

The 6 story arcs approach is a good one for this series. In other harem series like Kanon or Clannad there's an ongoing narrative, where the protagonist is given a set time in which he helps each of the other girls with their problems. In most cases in Amagami SS the girls don't have such problems and the main driving element is the relationship between them and Junichi and this wouldn't work with an overarching story.

Amagami SS doesn't do anything that unique, and while that may not be a commendable quality, everything Amagami SS sets out to do it achieves and in the end presents a very entertaining series, full of romance and likeable characters.

7. Kaichou wa Maid-sama

Kaichou wa Maid-sama is the type of series I can't help but love. A classic example of a shoujo, romance, comedy series, similar in style to the likes of Special A and Ouran High School Host Club. Kaichou wa Maid-sama is primarily an episodic series with the occasional longer storyline spanning a few episodes, most noticeably at the end. It's a format that's worked before and continues to work well here, keeping the series entertaining and fresh.

If you watch Kaichou wa Maid-sama, you'll generally know what you're getting into. Misaki is our heroine, Usui her love interest. Misaki will generally be a strong female lead, but in her occasional moment of weakness Usui will step in to help (this happens about once per episode). The main elements that keep you watching a series like Kaichou wa Maid-sama are the characters and the comedy, and Kaichou definitely delivers on both of them.

There's a fairly wealthy cast of memorable characters who each have their own roles over the course of the series, ranging from merely comedy to relief to having story arcs based around them. Most of the characters are given some back-story or development throughout the series, and while it's largely in vain with the series' finale, it does make them seem that little bit more 3 dimensional as characters. Our main characters Misaki and Usui both fit their roles perfectly, displaying all the necessary traits for leads, but remaining unique as characters and not falling to genericness.

Of course, the main draw of the series is the relationship between Usui and Misaki. This mainly consists of Usui teasing Misaki and Misaki stubbornly denying any feelings she has for Usui. Their relationship's development is one of the best parts of the series, with Usui coming on much more strongly than male leads in similar series. At times it can feel we've seen it before, particularly on Misaki's end, but it's entertaining, involving and certainly has its touching moments spread nicely throughout the series.

6. SoRaNoWoTo

When So・Ra・No・Wo・To was first announced, the first thing that came to most people's minds was K-ON!. An endless list of comparisons was made between the musical elements, the art style, the character designs, the characters themselves and so on. Even after the series finished airing, plenty were happy to just call it a K-ON! clone and discard it, but for those paying closer attention it wasn't that simple. While there were certainly aspects reminiscent of K-ON!, in essence it was far more like ARIA and similar series.

So・Ra・No・Wo・To creates a deep, beautiful and at times quite dark world with a rich history and culture. It then proceeds to explore that world through the characters the series follows. The characters themselves may at first glance seem standard archetypes, but each has a history that is explored over the series and adds a noticeable depth to them. The bulk of the series is seen through the eyes of Kanata who, like Akari in ARIA, is new to the setting and so can see mystery or beauty in that which the other characters see as every day. This appreciation for the land she's in acts as the perfect gateway for the viewer to become immersed in this world. The episodic format follows a similar goal in that it allows each episode to explore different aspects of life in Seize and the area the girls live.

Unlike ARIA, however, SoRaNoWoTo takes the chance to explore a war-torn past and introduces some very heavy and dark elements through it. It's not afraid to show the horrors of war and the long lasting effect it has on people even after its end. Every character's past has been heavily affected by the war and each character's life has been changed because of it, and over the course the series takes they each have to confront that past. So・Ra・No・Wo・To is more than just a group of girls getting together to play music, it creates a vast world, presents us with deep characters and tells a beautiful and touching story.

5. Shiki

Generally when one hears a description that includes 'isolated village' and 'mysterious deaths', it's hard not to think of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, so just as with So・Ra・No・Wo・To and K-ON!, comparisons between Shiki and Higurashi were inevitable. Whether the comparisons are just are more up to how the viewer interprets the series. Higurashi spends an entire first season creating nothing but questions for the viewers, then proceeds to throw out answer after answer in the second, revealing the entire mystery to the viewers. Shiki on the other hand condenses this heavily into one season, setting up the questions in the first few episodes, answering them in the next, and then spending the rest of the series on the equivalent 'battle with Miyo', though this doesn't harm the series. As we are shown the answers fairly quickly, we're then treated to seeing how each of the main characters tackles the mystery in front of them, and who comes to the correct conclusions, how they do so, and their actions from there.

What I felt Shiki did well in comparison to similar series was its ability to show the human side of all of the characters. None were presented as either good or evil, all were just fighting for survival. This allowed the viewer to sympathise with any character, where other series with the same setup might not allow this. The characters themselves are very varied, and in the best of ways. As I said before, there are no good or evil characters in Shiki, they're all merely human, and just like normal humans they come with a variety of personalities. Some are selfless and will do what they can to help others, some will make sacrifices to achieve their goals, believing it to be for the greater good, some just aren't nice people and take joy in others' suffering. They all have their own ideals and their actions are defined by them. It's likely that almost all of them will, at one point, spark some emotional response from you.

The plot of Shiki is followed from the viewpoints of several different characters, each of whom get involved in the events of the series for different reasons. The way the events unravel throughout the series kept me very interested, and there are plenty of plot twists in this series from the first revelations early on to some events that take place long after these mysteries are revealed to the audience. The slightly open ending does leave possible room for a sequel, but generally the series is well contained and complete in itself. I feel the series would benefit from being just a few episodes longer, as events tend to feel slightly rushed towards the end, but it doesn't mar what's otherwise a very good series.

(*whew* managed to get through that spoiler free, I hope...)

4. K-ON!!


K-ON! quickly became a moe phenomenon upon the release of its anime adaptation in 2009, experiencing huge popularity. A sequel was not unexpected. The first season condensed the first 2 years of Ho-kago Tea Time into a short 13 episodes. K-ON!! would then take a further 26 to see the girls through their next year and the graduation of the four older girls. For those invested in the series and the characters, this was already guaranteed to be a touching and tearful finale to the series. The subtle signs over the course of the series leading up to this end helped the realisation that this would indeed be the end of K-ON!.. Except for the film.

In general K-ON!! continues the formula that the first season laid out; a generally episodic series with occasional ongoing elements such as the approach of an upcoming performance. However, while K-ON!! may follow what the original started, the second season eclipses its predecessor in almost every aspect. The increased length of the series allows for much more time to focus on each of the characters, and while character development may not be at the forefront of K-ON!!'s mind, the increased screen time allow us to get to know characters we skipped over or barely glimpsed in the first season. The episodic plots are each enjoyable to watch, but on top of that there are several stand out and memorable episodes for various reasons, be it memorable events or simply interesting premises. Many episodes also contain nods to the season's finale that add extra emotion to the season. Even the already excellent animation gets an improvement from KyoAni, making it look that little bit crisper, cleaner and smooth.

As expected, a variety of new songs have been written for the second season, and if you like the style of K-ON!'s music, these will probably sit well with you. The new OPs and EDs all reflect the essence of the series well, and have surely already become fan favourites among the series' now rather large backlog of music.

Most importantly though, what K-ON!! does well is have fun. It's a series that doesn't take itself seriously, yet it still maintains that down to earth slice of life feel. It's all too easy to get swept away by it's casual pace and light-hearted fun only to find yourself deeply invested in these characters. They may not be the most developed or deep characters, but they're certainly among the most likeable in anime. Each one has their own quirks and charms that become ever more apparent over the series and saying goodbye to them at the end of the series is definitely every bit as emotional a moment for the audience as it is for the cast. 

3. Angel Beats!

We have already seen AIR, Kanon and Clannad adapted into very successful anime series (courtesy of KyoAni), so even those who aren't familiar with the KEY games now know what sort of story we might expect in Angel Beats!, an original anime with story written by KEY. Most likely, a school life setting, a group of loveable characters, a fair quantity of humour and a series overflowing with emotion. Angel Beats! fits these characteristics perfectly. At the beginning of the series we're presented with the premise that this is the afterlife, the characters don't know why they're here but they do know if they fall into a regular pattern of life they'll disappear. So, naturally, they rebel and the mysterious character only known as Tenshi is there to prevent that. What follows is a beautiful series, full of heart-wrenching scenes as the characters learn the true reasons they're there, the identity of Tenshi and the mysteries of the afterlife.

Angel Beats! sports a very large cast of characters, and while some don't quite manage to leave a memorable impression, the majority are distinct personalities in the series who you'll quickly become emotionally attached to. Unfortunately, a large portion of these characters aren't given the development they deserve, and many remain mysteries even until the end of the series. This is one place where Angel Beats! loses potential and could have been vastly improved upon had the series been 24+ episodes in length. However, even while the majority of the supporting cast isn't given the time they should have, the main cast and select few supporting characters who are really given the chance to develop have such a powerful influence on the viewer, it becomes forgiveable. These are the characters the truly emotional scenes will build around, and tears will be shed. From as early as the second episode we start to receive hints as to the true reasons for the characters' presence here, and as the answer slowly becomes apparent we witness some truly touching moments. Friendships grow, dreams are fulfilled, relationships blossom and on more than one occasion a truly inspiring and powerful scene will emerge.

Possibly the largest surprise of Angel Beats! is the music, with the OP, ED and insert songs selling incredibly well, competing even with the releases that came with K-ON!!. The soundtrack for Angel Beats! is incredibly well suited to the series, with a song to fit every mood the series creates. The opening and ending songs are both beautiful additions to the soundtrack, the opening accompanied by Tenshi's very memorable piano performance and the ending playing over a simple yet moving image of the characters as a group. The musical success is also helped by the series' band Girls Dead Monster, who provide several of the insert songs of the series.

This series is one that truly makes the audience feel, and for that a lot can be forgiven. The problems Angel Beats! has are not once too great for the emotional pay-off, and that's why you watch a KEY series. KEY has always had this amazing storytelling ability to allow you to laugh with their characters one moment and weep along side them the next. You truly care about these characters, and for all the ups and downs the series has, the ending is all the more amazing for the emotional investment you've been forced to make.

2. FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

By now FullMetal Alchemist should need no introduction as one of the most well-known shounen anime of the last decade. The first season was highly praised for its fresh take on the shounen genre and it's rather dark themes. However, because of it's release early in the manga's lifespan a large portion of the series had little to do with the manga it was based on. Eventually it was decided a faithful adaptation should be produced, and so we were handed FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

Based entirely on the story of the manga, Brotherhood's story differs vastly from the original series', though they do have some similarities which primarily stem from their shared roots. Comparisons to the original should be left for another time, however.

FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood creates a wide world and introduces a vast cast of characters, each with their own story to tell. It's plot tackles politics, religion, racism and a variety of other themes, not the least of which are sin, despair and redemption. The first three are usually tackled on a larger scale, for example in the history and people of Ishval, the war that took place there and the repercussions it had. The second 3 are generally explored on a more individual level, as each character has a past they must tackle. The inclusion of the Homunculi being named after the seven deadly sins is the biggest hint to the theme of sin, but it's present in other aspects from the very beginning of the series. The act of human transmutation and the idea it treads on God's domain fit well with the themes of sin and religion, and there are plenty of other smaller nods to these running themes throughout the series.

One of the strongest elements of FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood's plot is how tight the majority of it is. Even a passing comment in conversation could then be brought up again at any moment. It gives a feeling that the story has been well thought out, everything's been planned and much of it is interlinked. It feels much more complete because of this and there are very few if any dangling plot threads left by the end, even the frayed ends of the threads seem neatly tied together.

The cast of FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood comes (literally) in all shapes and sizes. There is a huge amount of diversity among characters, and this creates an incredibly interesting cast. While the series primarily follows Edward and Alphonse's journey to regain their bodies, a lot of attention is given to the wealthy list of supporting characters. Van Hohenheim is also given a complete new back-story that is the essential point to the new story. Many characters who never appeared in the original series come to be key parts in the story that unfolds in Brotherhood, also bringing, for the first time, culture from countries outside of Amestris. The expansive list of developed characters in FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is definitely one of the more important factors of the series, as it's this cast allows the series to explore many different and often dark themes in a number of ways, while also vastly increasing the many different elements and stories that create the overall plot.

1. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is the film adaptation of the 4th book, of the same name, of the wildly successful Haruhi Suzumiya series. The original novels received their first anime adaptation in 2006 which gained instant popularity among anime fans. The second season released in 2009 then lost it a vast amount of that popularity. After forcing the fanbase to wait 3 years between seasons, then airing the now infamous Endless Eight and holding back the heavily implied story arc The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, people began wondering what KyoAni had been thinking. With the end of the series, when most were about to give up all hope, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya was announced as a film to be released the next year. To pull the Haruhi franchise back, it would have to be good.

Luckily, both for the fans and for Kyoto Animation, it was. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya clocks in at a little over 160 minutes, and it uses every bit of time to its advantage. Once again, while Haruhi's name is the one in the title, this movie centers around Kyon. Everything about the film is designed specifically to get us into the head of Kyon. His inner monologue, now a staple of the series, is just the tip of the iceberg in the variety of techniques used. The audience is lulled subtly and yet quickly into seeing everything the way Kyon does, this happens through the way events are presented, the camera angles, the music, everything reflects Kyon's emotions and state of mind. This is done perfectly throughout the film.

Putting Kyon aside briefly, the other character that gets the most attention is Yuki. Yuki, as a character, has always appeared as a constant in the Haruhi universe, never showing any noticeable signs of change. Regardless of how she may appear, however, Yuki has developed. More slowly and less noticeably than the other characters, but the change is there. This development in Yuki's character is then emphasised greatly in the course of the film. And just as Yuki's character is given a large amount of development in Disappearance, so is Kyon's. Kyon's character is thoroughly analysed throughout Disappearance, and the conclusions drawn by the end are extremely satisfying.

Of course, none of this character development would be possible without the plot. Disappearance stays very true to the original novel, changing and leaving out very little, if anything at all. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is easily both one of the best and one of the most interesting tales in the series. As with most Haruhi plots, it's based around the paranormal elements that hang around the series, however Disappearance takes a slightly different angle on the ideas, and while the film certainly has plenty in terms of the usual supernatural elements, how it gets there is new and unique.

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya takes the already great story from the original novel and does everything it should when adapting it to film. Everything is taken into account; the direction, the scope, the music, the visuals. All the right choices were made in the creation of this film, and it really shows. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is almost certainly one of the best, if not the greatest, anime films of all time.

And that's my list. Thank you for reading (I really hope someone reads it as it took me three days to write), and I hope you enjoyed hearing my long and rambling opinions on what I thought were the 10 best anime of 2010.

Now, I should also mention that there are some anime that were released in 2010 that, had I watched them, could be on this list. The two that I most regret not yet watching are Durarara!! and Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha: The Movie 1st. Either could easily have the potential to change this list, Durarara!! because I've only heard good things about this series and Nanoha: The Movie because of my personal taste in anime and my love for the series.

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