Well, I said that I was going to post a new “Best of 2009″ list for every week in December, and darn it, I did it! (^_^) It sure was a lot of work, but of course, I had to save the best list for last. Ladies and gentlemen, here are my ten favorite new anime releases of 2009.
Now, the word “new” can most certainly mean different things in the world of anime fandom these days. There are the new series that are coming out in Japan each season, and then there are the new series that are just being imported in America this year. So just for clarification on why Series X doesn’t appear on this list this year, let me outline the three ways I consider a series to be “new” in 2009:
1) Anime series had to have had its first volume released on R1 DVD in 2009. (no continuing series or re-releases)
2) Anime series had to have its first episode legally available online for American viewers in 2009 (no fansubs)
3) Anime film had to have had a nation-wide American theatrical release in 2009. (no festival screenings)
Now it’s obvious that one company dominates the list this year. It is not just because of my own personal bias, there is certainly a logical reason for this. FUNimation is monopolizing the anime industry here in America, so most of the new releases this year have been from them. Five out of my top ten are FUNi titles, which is consistent with the top ten lists put together from Chris Beveridge (5 out of 10) and Amazon.com (4 out of 10) this year.
But enough talk and disclaimers, let’s get to the list!
|10) Kanamemo (Crunchyroll, July 5, 2009)
Kana Nakamichi is a young girl who loses her house after her only family member, her grandmother, passes away. So she goes out in search of a job to support herself when she discovers a newspaper delivery office staffed and housed by a colorful cast of young females. The timid Kana takes a job at the office and begins working and living with these crazy girls.
I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a huge fan of moé series, but because of this, I’m the first to tell you that most of them are just pure crap. But when one moé series comes around that turns out to be really good, I have to take special note of it. Kanamemo is one such series.
What makes this one stand out so well is just how lovable every character is. Every one of them has such a bold and wild personality, and the clashes they present when they interact with each other are so damn funny and amusing. Be it diving into seriously inappropriate territory or spontaneously breaking into silly musical numbers, this little gem of a series continues to entertain its viewers episode after episode.
|9) Bamboo Blade (FUNimation, November 24, 2009)
Toraji Ishida is a bad high school kendo instructor with practically no money in his bank account. One day he is shooting the breeze with an old pal of his, and they issue a challenge to each other. Since they both went on to become high school kendo instructors, why don’t they relive their days of competitive glory with their two teams going at it? If Toraji’s team wins, he gets a lifetime supply of sushi, which would be the perfect solution to his little financial crisis.
So he sets off to recruit a team of new freshmen to revitalize the club and win that precious all-you-can-eat sushi prize. Among his finds is Tamaki Kawazoe, a soft-spoken shy girl who is a phenomenal kendo player. Now with this star fighter on his team, does Toraji finally have a competent kendo lineup?
On the outside, Bamboo Blade looks like your typical moé fluff anime series, complete with a harem of highly characterize pretty girls, a weak female lead, and silly comedic antics. But when I had the chance to review it last month, I discovered that this is actually a wonderfully written series that mixed interesting character relations with the excitement of competitive sports.
|8) To Love-Ru (“Trouble”) (Section23, December 15, 2009)
Rito is your typical high school boy who has a huge crush on his cute classmate, Haruna. But just around the time he is finally ready to confess his love to her, a big breasted alien babe, Lala, appears out of no where completely buck naked. She turns out to be an alien princess, and by Rito accidentally groping her bountiful bosoms, he is now betrothed to her. And so hilarity ensues as the boy must keep his alien fiancee at bay while still trying to get with his human crush.
I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a huge fan of ecchi series, but because of this, I’m the first to tell you that most of them are just pure crap. But when one ecchi series comes around that turns out to be really good, I have to take special note of it. Trouble is one such series.
(See what I did there?)
What makes Trouble stand out so much is just how damn sexy it is. There are a lot of female characters, and every one of them is very attractive and appealing in an unique way. But unlike most ecchi series, Trouble also has more than just its eye candy to keep the show moving. While it dives heavy into cliches quite often, it is actually very funny. Its excellent comedic timing will actually keep you laughing despite its corny setup.
Now, I do take issue with Section23′s choice to name the series To Love-Ru, which seals its fate that no English speaker will ever say the name of this series correctly. The title is actually called Trouble, but it is spelled using English words that would be pronounced differently to a Japanese speaker (“To Love” is meant to sound like “toe rub”, i.e. the “troub-” in “trouble”). It’s a pure visual pun and they always write the proper pronunciation in Japanese to make sure everyone knows how to pronounce the title correctly. But alas, Section23 never writes the proper title anywhere in the English release. So shame on you, Section23, for making us all sound stupid trying to say this title.
No Thank You! (biggest disappointment of the year)
Ponyo (Disney, August 14, 2009)
Ponyo tells the story of five-year-old Sosuke, a little boy who lives on a cliff near the sea. One day while he’s playing near the ocean, he spots a goldfish with her head stuck in a mason jar. So he frees the fish from the jar, puts her in a green bucket full of water, and keeps her as a pet. He names her Ponyo.
The movie absolutely starts off strong with some beautiful imagery with Ponyo as a fish, but after she turns into a human, all the excitement is washed away and the audience is left with about 30 more minutes of plot developments that make no logical sense. When the film alludes to the potential of something remotely exciting or climatic just around the corner, it quickly crushes that hope by showing that, in fact, everyone is just standing around doing nothing. This final act is as bland and dull as unflavored oatmeal.
Ponyo completely misses its mark on whatever it was trying to aim for. I think that critics let Miyazaki off the hook way too easily because it would simply be blasphemous to ever say anything bad about him. But don’t let that name in the credit fool you. Ponyo is not a good Miyazaki animated film. Hell, it’s not even as good as most American animated films. And I just really hope the old man finally retires after turning out this, his second stinker in a row.
|7) Baccano! (FUNimation, January 27, 2009)
Man, how do you summarize this series?
Set in a depression-era America, Baccano is a series of individual stories and individual characters that somehow end up intersecting and interacting with each other. This includes stories of mafia wars, psycho assassins, and of course, immortal alchemists.
Two things really got me with Baccano, and the first was its style. This is probably going to be the closest we get to a Guy Ritchie style of action flick in anime. A lot of emphasis is placed on the music and fashion of the era, and the story is told in bits and pieces and completely out-of-order. While the series could have probably done better if it had cut out half of its cast, it was certainly very interesting to watch.
The second part that got to me was the dubbing. Through out the year, I really started to appreciate anime dub adaptations as they are quickly becoming a lost art form in the industry these days. But with a story set in America during the great depression, the English voice actors over at FUNimation got to play around with some amazing accents that really spoke at a level that no Japanese cast could ever pull off.
|6) Eureka Seven – good night sleep tight young lovers - (Bandai Entertainment, September 24, 2009)
As a kid, Renton was separated from childhood friend Eureka after a military squad barged into their house and abducted the girl right in front of his eyes. The boy grows up to become a mech pilot and joins the Gekko military crew. But the Gekko crew is not at all what they appear to be, and their ulterior motives will reunite the boy with his long lost love, and thrust the two into immediate danger.
What I really enjoyed about this film was that it was not simply a movie adaptation of the anime series. It was a completely new and original story using the same characters in a completely new environment. This way, new viewers weren’t missing anything by not seeing the TV show beforehand, and fans of the series got a chance to see their favorite characters portrayed in a whole new light.
But another part I enjoyed was how quickly Bandai released this movie in the US. The film very explicitly says that it begins in April 2009. The director did this on purpose so that when the film debuted in Japan in April 2009, theatergoers would say, “Wait, April 2009? That’s right now!” Although Bandai screened the film screened in America five months later in September 2009, we got to have the same experience the Japanese did when we found out the sci-fi film begins in the present day.
|5) Big Windup! (FUNimation, August 18, 2009)
Mihashi is a spineless wimp of a high school baseball pitcher who nervously joins his new school’s hardball team. When the new school’s spunky female baseball coach spots him lingering around the practice field, she forces the reluctant boy to throw a few balls to their team’s catcher, Takaya.
The catcher quickly realizes that Mihashi isn’t a bad pitcher at all, he’s just been misguided and underestimated by his former teammates. Now with Takaya’s brilliant game play strategy and Mihashi’s dormant pitching ability, the brand new Nishiura high school baseball team is on their way to greatness in this fantastic 26-episode sports anime series.
For me, the core of this series is in its portrayal of the game of baseball. The level of detail is so incredible that you’ll actually feel like you’re watching a real baseball game during these few episodes. You’ll start keeping track of the inning, the count, the batting order, and the score in your head as each episode progresses. This is a fantastic way to draw in fans of the sport and keep them interested in this fictional story.
|4) Mainichi Kaasan (“Everyday Mama”) (Crunchyroll, April 1, 2009)
Everyday Mama is the autobiographical anime series about manga artist Rieko Saibara and her family. Her (late) husband is an alcoholic deadbeat. Her son, Bunji, is a hyperactive 6-year-old, and her 4-year-old daughter, Fumi, already knows how to use her cuteness to get what she wants. The series takes a humorous look at how Saibara juggles her professional career with being a full-time mother to this dysfunctional family.
What is amazing about this series is that since this gag comedy is based on Saibara’s real life family, it feels authentic and familiar to the viewer. This humor manages to translate flawlessly into English as apparently parenting and child rearing is just as difficult in Japan as it is over here.
But on top of that level of familiarity, Saibara also manages to create a series that has you rolling on the floor one second, then crying your eyes out the next. Although her husband and kids can be a real pain-in-the-ass most of the time, her love for these characters in her real life shows through in each episode with many sentimental, bittersweet moments. It is a very personal project from one manga artist that still manages to be one of the funniest series out there.
Honorable Mention (not quite anime, but needs to be on this list)
20th Century Boys Live Action Movies (VIZ Media, December 15, 2009)
In 1969, Kenji and a group of his friends build a little clubhouse in the middle of a field. Out of boredom, the boys write the “Book of Prophecies”, a sci-fi scripture on how they become super-heroes who protect the world from an evil organization in the year 2000.
Nearly 30 years later, the now adult Kenji begins noticing that everything they wrote in that “Book of Prophecies” was starting to come true. So sets up an epic saga as Kenji reconnects with his old friends to figure out what they wrote in that book 30 years ago, and just which one of them is trying to make it a reality.
And when I say epic, I mean epic! The original comic ran for 24 volumes in Japan, and each one of the live-action trilogy films lasts for nearly 2.5 hours.
Of the parts that I can compare to what I read in the manga, I saw the most perfect live-action adaptation possible. The actors they selected were dead-on perfect doppelgangers to their fictional counterparts, especially in the more “cartoonie” looking characters. All the costumes and props matched the original artwork, and many of the scenes were shot like the comic panel-by-panel, frame-by-frame.
I named 20th Century Boys my #1 Manga Release of 2009 several weeks back. While we may never see an anime adaptation of this series made in the future, I feel quite satisfied with the way it was brought to life in these three films.
|3) Romeo x Juliet (FUNimation, June 23, 2009)
Romeo x Juliet takes the old Shakespearean classic about the star-crossed lovers and sets it into a world more appropriate to anime. The entire house of Capulet has been slain by Lord Montague, and the sole survivor is young Juliet. The poor girl is kept hidden away disguised as an orphaned boy her whole life. When she grows older, she spends her days as a masked crime fighter protecting the streets of Neo Verona, when she finally meets the dashing Romeo and his flying horse.
Yes, Romeo has a flying horse, just like in the original play by Shakespeare. ;-)
First and foremost, I must talk about the unique dub that FUNimation created. Almost every line from start to finish in this series is so brilliantly thought out to recreate the feeling of watching a Shakespearean-inspired story. Even little subtleties like having Juliet yell, “Never you mind!” when she’s mad rather than simply saying, “nevermind!” brings this ambitious idea to full realization.
From the perspective of an English-speaking anime viewer, I think this is the first time I have ever felt the dialogue actually matter while watching an anime show. The art of language just doesn’t translate from Japanese to English, so FUNimation took it upon themselves to adapt life and creativity back into this script.
And as ridiculous as it may sound to have Juliet as a caped crusader or Romeo to have a flying horse in an adaptation of the classic play, I’ve really got to give the folks at Gonzo credit where credit is due -
They wrote one fantastic story!
Gonzo kept the best aspects of the original story, and that is the tragic beauty of the two falling for each other despite being destined to be enemies. But on top of that premise, they made the two characters absolutely believable. Through the emotions they display on their animated faces and the actions they take within the story, you believe that these cartoon characters are actually in love with each other.
|2) Chi’s Sweet Home: Chi’s New Address (Crunchyroll, April 15, 2009)
Fed up with having to hide their cute and curious kitten Chi from their landlord, Yohei and his family move into a new, pet-friendly apartment complex. Now Chi is able to wonder around and play with the dog, cat, rabbit, and bird that live next door to her, and also make friends with stray cats in the area. But after her curiosity leads her far, far from home, how will the little kitty find her way back to her new address?
Broken up into little 3-minute episodes, Chi’s Sweet Home was the highlight of my week for most of 2009. Every Saturday (“Chi’s Sweet Saturday”, as I’d like to put it) at 1:00 pm EDT, Crunchyroll would post four new episodes on their website. If I was home, I’d be there watching the streaming video as soon as it turned 1 o’clock. If I wasn’t home, it would be the first thing I do when I got home that night. I don’t remember the last time I’ve been so devoted to a series like this.
So what makes Chi so good?
Well, it’s adorable. D’uh! Just look at any frame from this anime and tell me it is not the cutest thing you have ever seen! You would have to have a heart of coal not to fall in love with this kitty.
But besides for all the cute, artist Konami Konata manages to perfectly capture the fun and excitement that comes with being a pet owner. Cat lovers across the world can easily identify with Chi’s silly antics, and it will keep you laughing, smiling, and saying, “awww!” with each and every tiny episode.
|1) Evangelion 1.01: You Are (Not) Alone (FUNimation, November 17, 2009)
An event known as “Second Impact” changed the world when a massive explosion in the arctic melted the polar ice caps and flooded over Japan. Fifteen years later, Tokyo-3 has rebuilt itself as a retractable underground city, and a whole new generation of kids has been born and raised in the post-Second Impact era.
Then one random day, a giant monster appears and moves his way towards the city. The Japanese military are useless against stopping the approaching Angel, so they call on the government agency NERV to take care of the monster. NERV commander Gendo Ikari enlists his estranged 14-year-old son, Shinji, to pilot the giant bio-mechanical robot known as Evangelion. And so suddenly thrust into battle, we begin the epic story of a timid and reluctant teenager who suddenly becomes mankind’s final hope against the Angels and Third Impact.
… but really, do I need to explain the plot to you? Are you the only otaku in the world who has not seen Eva before?
The 1995 anime TV series was a landmark achievement that turned the giant robot genre into a psychological trip that dove deep into the human condition. It blew my mind when I first saw it eight years ago, and it still goes down as my favorite anime series of all time.
Director Hideki Anno set out to create a brand new remake of his anime masterpiece over the course of four theatrical films. Evangelion 1.01: You Are (Not) Alone is the first of these films, and it retells the first six episodes of the TV show. While the film does not diverge too far from the original just yet at this stage of the series, it still offers enough visual enhancements to make this fanboy nearly blow his load while watching it.
Every scene has been completely redrawn with digital animation and enhanced with 3D computer generated images. The character designs look fresh and revitalized, the animation flows very smoothly, and the background images are lush with colors and crisp details. It is remarkable how most of the iconic scenes that we have been familiar with from the TV series will look completely different with 15 years worth of technological advances.
Evangelion 1.01 is everything you remember from the best anime show of the 90’s redone with glorious modern animation technology. It is the ultimate visual feast for any Eva fanboy, and so it earns its place as my #1 Anime Release of 2009.