More of the best and brightest from the past decade
Continuing from part 1, there’s no introduction needed here, on to the second part of my look back at a decade jam-packed with amazing anime.
Little Witch Academia
If Inferno Cop set the tone for Trigger’s comedic sensibilities and stylistic elasticity, Little Witch Academia assured us that the new studio was equally capable of conjuring up a visual feast with a big sweeping heart. I feel a little guilty putting the original short here instead of the series the followed a few years later, as it is in all respects better. You’re just going to get a much better-realized and fleshed out story and cast over 25 episodes than you will in 25 minutes. But Trigger has yet to top those slam-bang first 2 minutes of pure animation-as-wonderous-spectacle magic so I don’t feel too bad.
Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine
When doing my gut check for this list, Lupin came up a lot. The 2010s was god damn Lupin renaissance. Part IV was a fun blend of Miyazaki and Takahata’s sensibilities with a more serious approach to serialized storytelling, Part 5 successfully brought the gang into the modern world (hearing Kiyoshi Kobayashi as Jigen, a role he has been doing for over 50 years, complaining about bitcoins is wild) while smartly examining what makes them timeless and paying homage of the long history of the franchise, and Takeshi Koike’s grittier films have been bloody treats. But before all of that was Sayo Yamamoto’s The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, criminally ignored in the series numbering and hands down the boldest entry in the franchise’s 50 plus years. In casting Lupin and the rest as supporting characters to Fujiko, a character typically used as a mere plot device or ignored altogether, and her story of identity and agency, Yamamoto took Lupin to a new level and threw down the gauntlet on all future entries. Lupin has never been more challenging, introspective, and daring. And it’s not even about him.
Macross FB7: Listen to my Song!
There had to be at least one Macross piece here. I could have put the second Frontier film, The Wings of Goodbye, which smartly reworked much of the second half of the shakily written series, or Delta, the most recent entry which didn’t blow the doors off the franchise but was charming enough. Instead, I’m choosing the shameless 90 minute commercial for Macross 7 Blu-rays. The setup is simple: the cast of Frontier, completely ignoring their jobs as mercenaries/highschoolers/pop stars, binge-watch their way through a cropped high definition 7 (which is both a TV show and canonical past events) on VHSes thrown at them by an extra-dimensional bird that is probably a reincarnation of a secondary antagonist from the series. Then they put on a Fire Bomber tribute concert. FB7 offers no apologies or pretense for what it is. Macross has always found fun ways to lean into its commercial interests (namely toys and music) with panache and FB7 is the biggest lean yet. There’s probably something in there about culture rediscovering its past and inspiring a new generation or maybe it’s a forward-looking vision of how peoples’ lives are thrown for a loop over abrupt Netflix content dumps. Whatever the case, this silly thing existing continues to charm to hell out of me.
Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt
Gundam has expanded a great deal over the last 40 years and this last decade has had a great mixture of different iterations for a wide variety of tastes. Build Fighters and G-Reco have their lighthearted joys, The Origin offers up a greasy buffet of well-produced fanservice and backstory, AGE is there if you want to punish your children I guess, and there’s Thunderbolt, which presents the One Year War as an event so traumatic that it cracks the world and its people to the core. Based on Yasuo Otagaki’s ongoing manga, we’ve so far gotten two outstanding animated Thunderbolt installments that chart the rivalry of two pilots on opposite ends of the war destined to kill each other. Thunderbolt‘s presentation of war is all about the little details. The debris of shattered lives floating in space colony wreckage, soldiers clinging to rituals for stability, national politics only heard from afar or out of focus, propping up inspiring symbols as propaganda to fuel the meat grinder of war. Nothing will ever be so fully committed to tearing off the veneer of the commercial machinations of the franchise like 0080, the robots do get plenty of time to show off how cool they are after all, but Thunderbolt is a solid dive into Gundam‘s “war is hell” facet.
Mob Psycho 100 II
I’ve got nothing bad to say about Mob Psycho‘s first season; it was a fun adventure with a charming dynamic between the main character and his mentor with some truly noteworthy animation from Bones. It just failed to leave a lasting impression in the long term. There’s a lot of anime, it happens. So to my surprise, its second season hit me like a god damn truck. Building off a sturdy base, Mob II starts off stronger than ever and just keeps on getting better. Bones firmly marries the flashy animation and a willingness to experiment with different mediums with powerfully emotive storytelling in ways too rarely seen. Each episode is a unique treat, overflowing with heart, humor, and craftsmanship. While the psychic on psychic action gets chaotic, Mob never loses sight of the need to continue the journey of being kind to oneself and others.
The Night is Short, Walk On Girl
For my second hard-fought Yuasa pick for the decade, the director returns to Tomihiko Morimi’s surreal vision of Kyoto as a college town full of colorful rogues, school clubs with unusual authority, and shady activities that run at all hours of the night for an adventure about testing the waters of adulthood, spreading cheer, and the joy of human connection. While it shares several characters and locations with The Tatami Galaxy, Walk On Girl requires no prior knowledge to enjoy its unfailingly positive spirit. There’s an almost delirious joy to the way the various vignettes unfold and fold into each other that makes the “night that felt like a year” hard to let go of.
After more than a decade spent working on short manga series and novels following Revolutionary Girl Utena and its movie, with only brief dips back into anime, Kunihiko Ikuhara returned with his densest work to date. A labyrinthian tale of the power of family in the face of a cold society wrapped in his signature surrealism and playfully theatrical metaphor, Penguindrum is a lot and the level of abstraction asks a lot of its viewers. Years later and after several viewings I’m still grappling with it, but the joy of Ikuhara pieces is how they stay with you long after they finish. The ideas and imagery hanging around in the back of your mind, just waiting to suddenly snap together. Penguindrum is without a doubt Ikuhara’s messiest work, clearly desperate for another handful of episodes near the end, but it is also his most ambitious attempt to dissect the cruel mechanisms of societal exclusion. In his later Yuri Kuma Arashi and Sarazanmai, lessons of brevity were clearly learned and as a result, work better as more intimate allegories, but nothing else this decade threw me for a loop and still has me turning it over like Penguindrum.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
What can I say about Madoka that hasn’t already been said? It was one of the most talked-about anime series of the decade. It remains an absolute home run. While certainly not the first by any stretch, Madoka represents the first big example of one of my favorite trends in anime of the 2010s: short, sweet, intensely focused rides through rich thematic territory. With anime productions trending shorter to avoid risk, this seems to have pushed a lot of creatives to just go for it and load their works up to the brim with ideas. This isn’t to say anime suddenly got smarter but there’s now much less time to spread messaging over and this has resulted in an embarrassment of riches. We’re not seeing as many shows spend dozens of episodes slowly dance towards a point anymore because the industry has shifted. And Madoka uses its limited run time masterfully, wasting no time throwing its audience into its complex exploration of heroism. It put writer Gen Urobuchi on everybody’s radar and he’s followed it up with several beloved genre deep dives, with the bloodsoaked puppet epic Thunderbolt Fantasy being my favorite, and launched a seemingly endless stream of spin-offs (including a self-hating follow-up movie that I’m partial towards) and copycats, but there’s always going to be a special place for Madoka in my heart.
I don’t buy into the idea that discussing plot or twists ruins a story, but etiquette demands that one not speak of the particulars of Samurai Flamenco‘s plot trajectory, for the ride itself is a major part of the experience. Starting out as a small scale, good-hearted take on Kick-Ass, with a lovable doofus taking up the name of his favorite childhood superhero idol and setting about trying to make his neighborhood a little nicer. And it does this with charm and character to spare for a time, then life starts coming at Masayoshi fast. Little remains stable in the Samurai Flamenco experience and you’ll regularly question what kind of show you’re watching, but a constant is Masayoshi’s heartfelt sense of love and duty to those in need. Pop culture in the 2010s was dominated by superheroes and Samurai Flamenco, through its indomitable spirit, stands among the very best.
Like Devilman Crybaby, Shiki is a harrowing experience. Spending the first half following citizens of a rural Japanese town slowly becoming aware that a group of vampires has taken up residence and is growing its ranks, Shiki builds dread person by person. They see their friends disappear only to return days later, changed. And then the script flips and the vampires’ struggle to survive becomes the focus. There is not a happy ending to found here. Over the course of two dozen episodes, Shiki slowly but surely sucks the air out of your lungs. Its horror is one of watching a situation methodically head towards the worst possible result, and with each attempt to change its course fails, you see the hope drain from the cast. And then there’s the hair. Good lord, the distracting hair.
Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
Anime had no shortage of great dramas in the 2010s. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a handful of thoughtful and considered character stories with strong thematic undercurrents. But there was only one Rakugo Shinju; a story about the art of telling stories, the artists who tell them, and the power art can have in shaping lives. Drawing you in with a deceptively simple first act, Rakugo eventually unfolds as a multigenerational saga of beautifully realized, painfully human characters who stay in the mind long after the final credits roll. Rakugo even plays around with what kind of story it is several times. Starting as something like slice of life comedy before its lead insists on tragedy, and ultimately becoming something resolutely life-affirming, encompassing the wide spectrum of experiences that make up the tapestry of living a life.
Shinichiro Watanabe’s return to space opera may not have been the second coming of Cowboy Bebop, a hope born from marketing that didn’t quite get what it was selling, but what did emerge as a wonderful anthology of space bums drifting around the galaxy hoping to make some easy cash catching aliens that crackles with creative energy. Dandy‘s overarching narrative only begins to develop beyond the very basic premise in the final stretch of episodes as that allowed the murder’s row of creative talent space to run wild. Credits include the likes of Sayo Yamamoto, Shingo Natsume, Keiko Nobumoto, Masaaki Yuasa, Eunyoung Choi, and many more from major positions like episode direction, writing duties, and animation all the way down to a character design contribution from Katsuhiro Otomo. One time Dandy and the gang form a band and spent most of the episode arguing about merchandising. A failed dance off ended the universe several weeks before the finale. Stories frequently end with the cast being killed in accidents they caused, with one episode even following Dandy into the afterlife. As with any anthology, they’re not all perfect, though so many of Dandy’s adventures still bring a huge smile to my face.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Isao Takahata’s final work is perhaps the only Ghibli film wholly undersold by the studio’s pedigree. At once a modern technical marvel, the recreation of a woodblock print and watercolor look in digital is stunning with every frame, and something from a time when humanity was younger and stories were wilder, less weighted by the need to deliver comfortable yarns to multi demographic audiences. Kaguya is vibrant and primal. The presence of a script at times feels like a formality, its images and motion saying more than flimsy words ever could. Released at a time where Ghibli was winding down regular production, the undersung cofounder delivered easily the studio’s most idiosyncratic work and one that put the rest of the catalog on notice. It is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Again, what a decade.