First off, I’d like to wish everyone a belated Happy New Year. Yes, yes, we’re a few days late, but it’s a busy season!
Joking aside, 2014 was a truly amazing year for anime fans. Whether it was an update of a classic, a continuation of a hit, or some show about girls making anime, there truly seemed to be something for everybody. It was one of the best years in recent memory, which made selecting a short list incredibly difficult.
That’s a great problem to have, though. Last year was truly incredible, and it’ll be difficult to match going forward. Because of this, if you don’t see your favorite series on the list, don’t freak out. This is a personal list, and it took several weeks of careful planning and consideration to really decide what shows would take home the gold stars this year.
5. The Kawai Complex Guide To Manors and Hostel Behavior
The Kawai Complex Guide To Manors and Hostel Behavior was one of those truly surprising shows that hit in the spring. The series is a slice-of-life dramedy, that revolves around Kazunari Usa, a high school student who is taking his first major steps toward manhood. With his parents transferring out of town for work, Usa decides to stick it out on his own, and move into the Kawai Dormitory Complex.
Sounds awesome, right? Not quite.
The Kawai Complex is a quirky place, populated by the absolute outcasts of society. Whether it’s the eccentric middle-aged man that’s into bondage, or the alcoholic secretary who can’t keep a boyfriend, there’s never a lack for excitement or misunderstandings.
It’s not all bad, though. The landlady’s daughter, Ritsu, is the girl of Usa’s dreams. And, while she’d rather be face-first in a book than talking to people, the two will inevitably have to get closer, if they hope to thrive in this den of crazies.
Basically, this is a modern-day take on Maison Ikkoku. And, really, that would be enough for me to recommend the show whole-heartedly.
That said, though, The Kawai Complex Guide To Manors and Hostel Behavior was a rare gem, that was able to really capture the essence of what made Takahashi’s classic so special, so engrossing, and own it. The characters are charming, the dialogue is well-written. There’s a wonderful chemistry between the cast members, who just play off of each other and build a fantastic, playful energy between one another.
The plot, while straightforward as can be, is deftly delivered, offering countless memorable moments. Milestones of adolescence like heartbreak and that ever-important first job are given life as the quirky, awkward times that they are. Viewers will cringe with each tug at the heartstrings, and cheer when those obstacles are finally overcome.
On the flip-side, those lighter moments, like squirt gun fights in the summer, impromptu concerts in the fall, and even the random centipede sighting are delivered with a playfulness that really brings out the humor in life’s little goofy moments.
4. Gugure! Kokkuri-san
Gugure! Kokkuri-san is just plain fun. The series is a comedy of godly proportions, as stoic girl Kohina Ichimatsu accidentally summons ancient god of knowledge Kokkuri-san. Of course, in this day of Google, he’s… not exactly needed anymore. And, well, it turns out that Kohina doesn’t live well. She’s closed off her emotions, and fancies herself to be a doll. On top of this, the house is a mess, and she lives on a diet of cup ramen and cup ramen.
Kokkuri takes pity on the girl, and takes it upon himself to become the girl’s guardian. And, like Pringles, once someone gets his first possession, the hauntings don’t stop. One by one, the house is taken up by a growing number of spirits, from a freeloading tanuki to a clingy dog spirit, and a cat spirit with an obsession with dolls of all sorts.
Gugure! Kokkuri-san is the type of show that’s just pure energy from start to finish. The jokes are genuinely funny, and the visual gags hit far more often than they miss.
What’s especially notable, though, is that the show’s humor can switch from goofy and light-hearted, to absolutely dark at the drop of a hat. Certain setups take incredibly twisted turns, that can lead to a character being carted off by police, or even fitting themselves for a noose. The show is bipolar in the best way, and proud of it.
3. Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun
Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is a comedy series about love manga. Well, kind of.
The show revolves around high school student Chiyo Sakura, a cute redhead with a crush on schoolmate Umetarō Nozaki. Nozaki’s tall, handsome, and a bit dense about the ways of love.
Nozaki’s not like most boys, though. He’s a talented manga artist, with a particular knack for shoujo manga. Under the pen name Sakiko Yumeno, he draws one of the hottest titles on the market today. And, when Chiyo tries to confess her feelings, Nozaki mistakes her proclamation as a request for an autograph. Twice over.
Yeah, not a great way to start things off. Chiyo’s plans go further off the rails when Nozaki drafts her to become an assistant. Chiyo’s a bit of a “glass half full” type of person, and uses this as as chance to get closer to her beloved. As they work, though, Chiyo begins to see more of Nozaki’s life, as she encounters other hapless helpers and character inspirations.
And that’s the crux of it. Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is a straightforward slice-of-life comedy that revolves around Chiyo and Nozaki’s lives, as they make manga together. Chiyo tries to get closer, but things inevitably fail due to one reason or another. There’s no crazy character development, no gigantic story arcs, and no unnecessary filler. The series understands that it’s a comedy show first and foremost, and dives headfirst into that duty with gusto.
Unlike Gugure! Kokkuri-san, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is a character-centric show. Much of the humor is derived from the cast, and how they interact with one another. That’s not to say that the series is a one-trick pony, of course. Each of the cast members, from the easily embarrassed Mikorin to Seo, the crass girl with a siren’s song, is eccentric, and often defined by some key characteristic. More often than not, these traits turn established conventions on their head. The players work well together, with a wonderful chemistry that sells the show’s unique brand of humor.
Shirobako is a show about cute girls trying to make it in the anime industry. What’s not to love?
Joking aside, the series is one of my dark horse favorites from 2014. Shirobako revolves around five girls, who were former club members in their school’s Animation Club. On their last day of classes, the girls vowed to join together again, to create their dream show. Sadly, life gets in the way of things. Two of the girls, Aoi Miyamori and Ema Yasuhara, are living the dream. They’re working together at Musashino Animation to create Exodous!, with hopes that it’ll become the next big thing.
The others, though, aren’t so lucky. Shizuka “Zuka” Sakaki is a struggling actress, who can’t seem to nail that one big role. Misa Tōdō is a computer animator at a studio known for its automobiles. It’s boring, soul-crushing work, but it pays the bills. Midori Imai, an aspiring scriptwriter, is still working her way through university.
The series revolves around these five girls (mostly Miyamori), as they try to find their own places in life. Whether it’s mastering one’s trade, finding a true calling, or just getting the hell out of a job that one despises, there are challenges and trials that await everybody. All the while, poor Miyamori has to deal with the horrors of the production desk!
Truth be told, I went into Shirobako with no expectations. While I heard of the show, and I know that a few friends and colleagues were looking forward to it, I wasn’t sure of what to expect at first.
I’m glad I took the plunge, though. Shirobako, in a lot of ways, plays out like a more down-to-earth Animation Runner Kuromi. Miyamori stars as the show’s heroine of sorts, and the viewer sees most of the goings-on through her eyes. We’re there when she celebrates the first episode’s airing, just as we are when she’s pounding on the door of a famed director, desperate for help and advice. We see her nervous breakdowns start to manifest in her world, and we’re there when she celebrates a job well done with donuts.
All the while, the series uses its setting to fantastic effect. This is a show about making anime, and viewers are taken through an idealized version of the sausage factory, from key animation, to dubbing, to CGI. There’s a lot to absorb, even amid the countless cultural references and clever homages that sneak into every episode.
The characters themselves are simply amazing. Everybody, from the five main girls, to the foppish animation director, to the long-suffering producer, is immediately likeable and relatable. The writing is top-notch, with snappy, natural-sounding dialogue and a fantastic chemistry between each othe players.
There is a playful sense of humor when needed, though it rarely overpowers the rest of the show. Welcome interludes help to break up the action, and round out the various cast members.
In short, watch Shirobako. You can thank me later.
1. No Game, No Life
While much of the list was difficult to decide upon, it was pretty clear that No Game, No Life would take the crown for 2014.
The series revolves around a brother and sister named Sora and Shiro. The two are dropouts in society, who have instead opted to spend their lives in pursuit of the perfect opponent. Online, they play as “Blank”, and are revered as legends in everything, from online games to video poker. They’re unbeatable, invincible, the perfect gamers.
One day, the two best a mysterious opponent in a game of chess. At the moment their victory is sealed, Sora and Shiro are transported to a magical realm, where all conflicts are settled through games. This includes everything, from arguments to full-on wars. It is here that their mysterious opponent reveals himself to be Tet, the Lord of Games. Tet tells Sora and Shiro that, if they are able to win in this world, they will have another chance to square off against him.
One thing leads to another, and the two find themselves in charge of the human kingdom, who suffered for generations until their holdings were little more than a city. Determined to seal the ultimate victory, Sora and Shiro stand proud, and proclaim that they will conquer the world, one game at a time.
I can’t say enough things about No Game, No Life. Really.
The world is a delicious blend of high fantasy and science fiction, populated by elves, beastmen, high-tech angels, and countless other fantastic creatures that are merely hinted at in this season. The characters are charming and lovingly designed, from the eternally suffering Stephanie, to the knowledge-addicted Jibril, to Sora and Shiro, themselves. Everyone seems to jockey for that spot of the most prized character, to the point that they’ll continue to steal the spotlight from one another.
The story is a grandiose tale, that spans worlds, universes, and even dimensions as Sora and Shiro embark on their quest for domination. The delivery is tight, and there are enough threads that linger after each episode that fans will be starving for the next episode.
At the same time, there’s a silly sense of humor, mostly at Stephanie’s expense. The jokes can border on the lewd at times, though they hit their mark more often than not.
The real attractions in the show, though, are the battles. There’s no real combat in the show, whatsoever. When the gloves come off, it’s always settled by a game, be it chess, cards, or some other amusement. Still, these scenes are wonderfully handled. The pacing is amazing, with a delightful sense of tension that really sells the stakes of each match-up. Chess games are played on a massive scale, with gigantic pieces coming to life on the board. Games of Shogi are played in an alternate dimension, where losing means disappearing forever.
Or, my personal favorite, is a game of shiritori (it’s like “The Alphabet Game”), where plants are eliminated, and entire solar systems are incinerated in an instant.
If there were one complaint about No Game, No Life, it would be that there isn’t more of it. The series ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, where the journey isn’t quite finished, and there’s certainly room for a second season. Hopefully, fans won’t be waiting too long for another chance to visit this one!