Thought I’d throw this up on here instead of twitlonger. For me, 2014 means it either first screened in 2014 (so no Kaguya-hime) or it finished broadcasting in 2014 (so Shirobako, Parasyte, etc are ineligible). No honorable mentions either because if you limit yourself to a Top 10 you better commit to it. None of this wishy washy “every decent anime of the year gets a spot” kinda shit. Top 10 lists aren’t really reliable in retrospect but they’re a good way to spread the word about some slept on gems and I hope anyone reading this checks out the entries on this list that they haven’t seen yet.
1/Wonder (Mirai Mizue)
2/Ping Pong (Masaaki Yuasa)
3/Space Dandy (Shingo Natsume/Shinichiro Watanabe)
4/00:08 (Yutaro Kubo)
5/Mushishi Zoku Shou (Hiroshi Nagahama)
6/nini (Saho Nanjo)
7/20min Walk From Nishi-Ogikubo Station, 2 Bedrooms, Living Room, Dining Room, Kitchen, 2mos deposit, No Pets Allowed (Mahiro Maeda)
8/Tamako Love Story (Naoko Yamada)
9/Lupin the IIIrd: Daisuke Jigen’s Gravestone (Takeshi Koike)
10/Ai Mai Mi: Mousou Catastrophe (Itsuki Imazaki)
Haven’t seen: My Milk Cup Cow (Zhu Yantong), Legend of the Forest Part 2 (Macoto Tezuka). Keblujara (Akihito Nonowe/Isao Sano/Konoka Takashiro), Mrs. KABAGodZILLA (Moe Koyano), Toruru’s Adventure (various), Binetsu  (Saho Nanjo)
1/Wonder (Mirai Mizue): I think this one needs an introduction since I imagine most normal anime fans don’t follow indie animation. Mirai Mizue is an acclaimed abstract animator who co-founded the prominent indie anime label CALF (I’ve written more about his career here for those interested). Wonder was a kickstarter-backed project where Mizue drew 24 frames of animation a day spanning a year, from April 1st 2012 to April 1st 2013, and was finally released to the public early this year. The project was like an Oulipo-style constrained writing experiment where the ritualistic nature of drawing a set number of frames day in/day out would serve as a motivator for creative evolution. Mizue says that initially he didn’t have many ideas and filling out the full 24 frames was a chore but by the end he had so many ideas 24 frames a day wasn’t enough. The final result is a year’s worth of accelerated artistic development compressed to eight minutes and in that respect alone it’s worth watching.
But I don’t think that will convince many that Wonder is the best of the year. Part of it, I think, is a bias against abstract art. It looks pretty and all but without CHARACTERS and PLOT how can it have THEMES? The key to understanding Wonder is to look at Mizue’s influences: Norman McLaren, Fantasia, and the Absolut Film movement. All three in their own way embody this idea of animation as visual music, where shapes and motion replace tones. Wonder very much belongs to this tradition as an “animated symphony” of sorts and its themes are expressed primarily as recurring motifs. Mizue has always been fascinated with biology and, more generally, the conflict between biological entities and their geometric organization. Wonder starts at the microbial level and develops with cells evolving into higher and higher organisms. Sperm cells inseminate an egg which then morphs into a dancing silhouette. Snakes ball up around a focal point where an image of a cow is inserted for a split second. The sun appears as the source of life and power with its rays stretching out into the sea. It’s the cumulative effect of all these images whizzing by that makes the ending so satisfying, something that finds sublimity in the formation of life alone. It doesn’t need social actors, or characters of any type, or even human figuration to deliver an emotional experience that can inform us about the world.
In terms of 2014 anime, nothing came even close to Wonder in this respect. It’s the only anime this year that can reward over a dozen rewatches and in pure breadth of technical ability few animators are in Mizue’s league. Wonder may not have complicated subtext, and its images never create an impression of dramatic space, but Mizue’s finely-wrought surface is deeper than every commercial production of 2014.
2/Ping Pong (Masaaki Yuasa): But that doesn’t mean commercial anime is doing poorly! That two of the biggest anime studios in Japan, Madhouse and Studio 4C, have been cutting fat checks for Masaaki Yuasa to go off and make lavishly produced experimental anime for over a decade despite almost all of his projects bombing proves that the anime industry is doing better creatively than is often thought (arguably better than Hollywood right now, but that’s a different discussion). The last few years have seen Yuasa strive for greater independence with the consolidation of his inner circle, the formation of his own studio, and the pioneering of crowd funding methods. It’s ironic then that the “Yuasa show for those that don’t like Yuasa” Ping Pong is 100% pure Yuasa, every episode storyboarded by the man himself without any of his usual collaborators doing crazy standalone episodes. It’s also his most tightly scheduled show and the usual polish of Yuasa’s work is thrown out in favor of something rawer. It couldn’t have come at a better time: with this resurgence in sports anime, Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga is an excellent rejoinder to the idea that spirit and hard work are all that it takes to make a great athlete. Ping Pong argues that innate talent is the bottom line and rather than invest in the usual handwringing over Who Will Win?! (A: the main character) the show focuses on how various players confront this fundamental truth. Why they want to play the sport, what they’re hoping to get out of it, et cetera, and the interesting personalities that fill the main cast give this relatively simple premise plenty of legs. In fact, despite the fact that Ping Pong “is not really about the sport”, it takes the act of playing a sport more seriously than any of its contemporaries. A cerebral approach to the sports melodrama. While there’s still an argument to be made for Tatami Galaxy as Yuasa’s best TV anime, Ping Pong is definitely in the running and easily the most accomplished TV anime of the year.
As an aside; Yuasa definitely has the biggest claim for Man of the Year. Working himself so hard on a number of different projects that he was getting 30 minutes of sleep a night, but never letting that impact his work or causing unprofessional behavior. With a new “studio” (or whatever Science Saru is) I hope Yuasa can exert as much control over his projects in the future as he did here.
3/Space Dandy (Shingo Natsume/Shinichiro Watanabe): No show this year was better at bringing out the sodium chloride than Space Dandy. It had a weak start (the show’s biggest detractors love to boast that they never made it past episode 3), Junichi Suwabe’s Dandy wasn’t as suave as Spike or Mugen (many missed the overt Space Adventure Cobra parody), it had the unfair expectation of meeting/surpassing Cowboy Bebop (an entirely different type of show), and worst of all it was popular with the Toonami crowd. You can’t argue with the facts though: pound for pound, Space Dandy is the single best collection of episodes produced by BONES in the last five years going on ten. Watanabe has always had a skill for assembling the best of young and old talent on his projects but Dandy went even further, the final stafflist resembling something out of a bullshit hype-crazed 2ch post: Goro Taniguchi, Keiko Nobumoto, Yasuhiro Nakura, Toshio Hirata, Fumihiko Takayama, Katsuhiro Otomo, solo episodes by Kiyotaka Oshiyama and Michio Mihara, the list goes on. Even some of the episode premises sound like insane counterfactuals designed to excite staff whores. “An entire episode with dozens of parallel universe characters all designed and animated by different people”. “An episode written by hard scifi novelist Toh Enjoe about the interaction between second-, third-, and fourth-dimensional space”. It’s no wonder Kenichi Yoshida complained that Space Dandy made it hard to recruit animators for G-Reco.
However, what elevates Space Dandy above merely being a collection of standout individual episodes is its committed focus to ideas. The plot’s surprisingly deliberate metastructure means each episode can go crazy, even to the extent killing off the leads, and not hinder the following episode staff’s creative autonomy. I find Ben Ettinger’s description of the show as “space opera via the cartoon” to be apt as the main appeal of Dandy for me was how it channeled speculative scifi concepts through the unpredictability of a Saturday morning cartoon. The main cast all have their own charm too and Dandy especially gets an unexpected level of development in the back half as his laissez-faire attitude is given a something of a philosophical basis. Each episode, even the weaker ones, usually have at the bare minimum an interesting setting, and more often that not the main issue isn’t too few but too many ideas to fit the 20 minute run time (see: all of Nobumoto’s episodes). Even the comparatively weaker first cour was far and away better than anything that was airing in its season. That’s why I find it unfair to damn Dandy for episodes like 3 and 19 because in every respect Dandy is a worthy addition to the likes of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. It’s not like those two didn’t have their share of middling episodes either, and Dandy’s highs are just as high as the best episodes of Bebop and Champloo. An easy recommendation for both casual and hardcore fans alike, stuck-up herbs need not apply.
4/00:08 (Yutaro Kubo): I’m still disappointed for missing the GEIDAI graduate exhibition USTREAM this year but I’m really glad I got to see this one, by all accounts one of the two highlights from this year’s class (the other being Zhu Yantong’s ‘My Milk Cow Cup’). Despite the breadth of talent they employ, Tokyo U’s GEIDAI program is most well known for having Koji Yamamura as part of their teaching staff. While Yamamura’s influence is evident for many of their graduates (Ryu Kato is a notable example), no-one from GEIDAI really had the claim to be Yamamura’s successor until Yutaro Kubo showed up out of nowhere last year. Kubo assisted Yamamura on his Hyuga episode of Kojiki (the closest thing to a KA credit in indie anime you’ll likely get) and animated the music video “crazy for it”. 00:08 capitalizes on that momentum well. In a year where many of the GEIDAI seniors focused on personal, diaristic films, Kubo went for full-on formalism. 00:08 takes an eight second cut of a man picking up and drinking a tea cup, loops it, and introduces progressively robust interstitial segments between the frames. The effect distorts our perception of time as we still pass through the sequence linearly even when Kubo’s tangents become increasingly lengthy and bizarre. Despite the rigid structure, it’s a really psychedelic watch. It reminds me of Yamamura’s early quasi-serial films Hyakkazukan and Suisei, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was Kubo’s intent. However, Kubo bests those films by a greater range of styles and modes; any weaknesses he has as a draftsman are almost entirely obscured by ever-shifting form. It’s animated cubism, Kubo never completely sketching out his figures but using the montage effect to simulate (and subvert) wholeness. This film was a grower for me and I now realize Kubo is one of the most promising new face on the indie anime scene from these last few years. ARTE has made 00:08 legally streamable online here.
5/Mushishi Zoku Shou (Hiroshi Nagahama): It’s Mushishi. The ballot writes itself. Instead of justifying why it’s #5 I probably ought to justify why it isn’t #1. The first season of Mushishi not only pruned a lot of the weaker stories from the manga but went through them in a mostly linear fashion.
Zoku Shou is a grab bag of random episodes from the manga sequenced out of order, meaning a story from volume 2 might be followed by a story from volume 5 and so on [edit: Someone must have been trolling because the last time I checked Wiki I swear it had random volume numbers for the episodes. Turns out Zoku Shou actually is more or less the 2nd half of the manga. It’s just that the second half is something of a tonal grab bag anyway]. It’s not that Zoku Shou’s episodes are weaker; it’s that they aren’t paced together that well. The second season might even have as much of an emotional breadth as season one but similarly themed stories are clustered together and create an impression of monotony. Still, this is a relatively minor complaint as a season of Mushishi B-sides is still Mushishi and many of Zoku Shou’s episodes are easily among the year’s best. It’s a testament to the dedication of Nagahama that the show is as good as it is. Even when an episode’s story is lacking in pathos, Nagahama’s careful storyboarding presents us with a richly evocative depiction of the natural world. It’s like a collection of animated nature poetry. This season also reminded me why Nagahama is my favorite Ikuhara-taught director. Almost all of Zoku Shou was storyboarded by Nagahama, as opposed to only 3 episodes in the original, but it’s hard to tell the difference given how strongly Nagahama enforces a consistent aesthetic on his projects. I also have to give props for his decision to delay episodes rather than release them in lower quality: Mushishi wouldn’t be the same without Umakoshi’s careful attention to detail (the mushi are animated on the 1s!!). When you think about it, Mushishi Zoku Shou has been airing for practically the entire year, from the initial special in January to the final episodes in December (though we still have that ‘movie’ next year). That something so staunchly indifferent to the bottom line and fully committed to its creator’s vision can survive in the anime industry is really encouraging.
6/nini (Saho Nanjo): I think the reason I like Saho Nanjo’s self-made videos so much are because they remind me a lot of Koujiro Shishido’s web videos from nearly a decade ago: wordless, introspective portrayals of intensely physical situations. While Shishido’s films were all about closeted homosexuality, Nanjo’s seem to be focused on illness and impairment. It makes me wonder if this isn’t partly autobiographical because of how profoundly felt the visuals are. Nini is easily Nanjo’s best yet, and his draftsmanship and command of mood are drastically better here than in his previous efforts. It’s slightly inscrutable: there’s this recurring metaphor about the boy’s mother as nature and the film takes place in this disembodied dreamscape whose imagery is hard to disentangle (It’s snowing inside (emotionally) despite it being sunny and warm outside? Or is it that the boy has been bedridden for months?). Still, it’s something I’ve come back to more than once over the year and that’s saying a lot considering all the chintzy indie stuff that gets dumped on Youtube/Vimeo these days (technically not 2014 but Ryosuke Oshiro got a lot of undeserved buzz this year imo). I see this film as (hopefully) a prototype for Nanjo’s future work and his first properly ‘mature’ outing. It makes me really wish his remake of Binetsu, which he made right after this, was available online. Nini can be viewed here on Nanjo’s Youtube account.
7/20min Walk From Nishi-Ogikubo Station, 2 Bedrooms, Living Room, Dining Room, Kitchen, 2mos deposit, No Pets Allowed (Mahiro Maeda): The Khara Animator Expo came out of nowhere this year and thank God for it. Given the sheer number of Ls from Trigger in 2014, Khara’s resurgence has been great for those of us nostalgic for classic Gainax. Though there have been a number of interesting entries (Me!Me!Me!, The Dragon Dentist, Carnage), Mahiro Maeda’s cumbrously Owen Land-length titled short wins the prize for the best so far. I’ve yet to see the hour long interview with Maeda about Nishi-Ogikubo that might confirm some of my suspicions, but the fact that Maeda was given a lengthy interview about it indicates its relative prestige over the others. Maeda is an eccentric personality in the anime industry – an ascetic who doesn’t drink or smoke with a literary mind towards his projects – and it’s a shame he doesn’t get many opportunities in the director’s chair. Nishi-Ogikubo is something of a cross between Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Tom & Jerry where a women finds herself shrunken to miniature size but appears to her unshrunken boyfriend in the form of a cockroach (knowing Maeda, it’s likely that this is an explicit reference to Kafka). It’s a simple conceit but one where the execution makes the payoff (protagonist waking from her dream sees a cockroach on the floor implying that it’s her boyfriend before he enters the frame and crushes it with a magazine) effective. Takeshi Honda et al’s handling of the animation is commendable too. It’s not just that there are a lot of exceptional cuts here but that a comprehensive style was developed for the film. There’s a great sense of the disparity in scale between the woman and her boyfriend and Honda seems to have messed with the framerate for stylistic effect. When the woman first wakes up the slower framerate matches her grogginess and when the action picks up Inoue, Ohira, Hashimoto and others help create a suitably fluid and dense expressionistic chaos. If this is any indication, I can’t wait to see what Khara will do for the remaining 23 shorts next year. The film can be streamed for free here.
8/Tamako Love Story (Naoko Yamada): Really surprised how much I enjoyed this one because when you’ll boil it down TLS is little more than a date movie. Maybe it’s because I’ve started to appreciate Yamada as a director this year. Her stuff is generally sentimental and kitschy, but the systematic and analytic way she goes about it means I can’t help but root her on. Since K-On!! and Love Story are such massive improvements over their first iterations it makes me wonder if Yamada likes to throw every idea into her initial efforts as an experiment for the followup. For Tamako, the annoying bird and related subplot from the original are confined to a disposable and easily-skipped short film at the beginning a la Pixar. The film proper is focused exclusively on the two leads with a minimum of distractions. Yamada even said she designed the film to be approachable for new audiences because she wanted young couples who don’t normally watch anime to watch it in theaters. She also storyboarded the entire film (rare for franchise features) and her style seeps through in every shot. Not just that patented KyotoAni telephoto cinematography but all the amateur filmmaking contrivances (stop motion, time lapse, some fairly beautiful abstract sequences) are her and her alone. It’s a feel-good film and while I don’t think it has the narrative organization of a Hyouka or a K-On!! that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a watch. In an era where KyotoAni’s shows are increasingly poorly scheduled, where cinematography seems to matter to them less and less, and where awful selections from their personal LN label torpedo shows with promising staff choices, TLS is a reminder why anyone ever cared about this studio to begin with. It would easily fit in with their golden age shows like Hyouka, K-On!!, and Nichijou, and comes recommended to anyone who enjoyed any of those three. I can only hope that we’ll see more of this from the studio next year and less JC Staff-tier romcom nonsense like Amagi Brilliant Park and KnK (oh….).
9/Lupin the IIIrd: Daisuke Jigen’s Gravestone (Takeshi Koike): The perfect remedy for those that got burned with 2012’s Fujiko Mine failing to live up to its potential. Koike’s presence as director and AD means no more gross cross-hatching and plenty of swagger in the storyboards. Most importantly, it means Lupin’s 1970s pseudo-Europe feels fully-realized. Koike is the kind of artist to conceive a fleshed-out universe and dwell in it for a while. The block-shaded, run-down scifi Americana that defined Trava and Redline arguably informed the visual framework for all his minor works during his first decade as a director. The Lupinverse that he debuted for Fujiko seemed to follow suit (it looks like a goddamn graphic novel!) but the absence of Koike from the project severely hindered that show’s success. Thankfully, he didn’t let the concept die and Gravestone shows that even without an enormous staff of expert animators Koike can manage to make something cool. There’s a spirit of playful homage throughout the OVA that reminds me of Dezaki’s Lupin specials: it’s as if the film knew it was a ‘minor’ work and focused on fun over labored artistry. I could even forgive the weird sex club scene that alienated a lot of people since it was an explicit reference to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, complete with repetitive piano music and masks. It’s this parodist quality to Koike’s art that I enjoy the most, how he builds these impressive symbolic universes and let’s us loose to explore them. There are rumors that the Mamo tease at the end means Koike will be back in 2015 for another OVA focusing on Zenigata and I honestly can’t wait. If Gravestone is any indication Blue Jacket Lupin might end up being the series’ best since, well, the era of the Dezaki’s specials.
10/Ai Mai Mi: Mousou Catastrophe (Itsuki Imazaki): While short shows are still mostly ghettoized as trashy 4koma adaptations the last two years have seen a coordinated attempt to elevate the form. Whether by experimenting in longform storytelling (Pupipo), adapting better material (Tonari no Seki-kun), trying different genres (Yamishibai), using a nontraditional visual style (Nandaka Veronica), or simply having better animation (Yama no Susume) it seemed like this year’s selection for short shows was the most legitimate it’s ever been. I wasn’t crazy about any of the above but I definitely appreciate their attempts. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed Imazaki’s Ai Mai Mi. Ai Mai Mi’s second season, like the first, is a deranged comedy in the vein of 2011’s Plastic Nee-san in that takes the stereotypical slice of life setup of a couple of girls in a high school club and compresses the scenarios to absurdity (“Mai and Mi have a race to carry molten lava to a shinto temple using their bare hands/mouths in order to resolve a dispute about whether the voice actresses they follow on Twitter are virgins”). A big reason why the comedy works comes from Imazaki’s drawings, which always feel on the verge of instability. It’s similar to what Shin Itagaki was trying to do with Teekyuu but that show was too conservative in its draftsmanship and writing for me. Imazaki, on the other hand, is willing to take the neo-Kanada style in a completely new direction. Some have compared his newer style to Yuasa but I disagree: his compositions are full of Kanadaesque tells and his character designs have this willful stupidity about them that can’t be found in Yuasa’s art.
Furthermore, Ai Mai Mi can be seen as an advertisement for the advantages of the short format: Imazaki did nearly everything on his own, including animation, storyboarding, writing, editing, sound design, even some voice acting on minor characters. It’s impressive too because taken together, aside from a weak first episode and some poor filter usage that can obscure his drawings, Ai Mai Mi might be the most consistent short series of the year. It’s rewarding to see how far Imazaki has come. He’s always been on the periphery of relevance and this new format has offered him the perfect opportunity to make a name for himself. His Danna ga episode 11 was great too and tonally far removed from Ai Mai Mi so I’m eager to see where he goes from here. MIP of 2014.
Overall, a solid year. Each season had at least one show worth watching and the smaller stuff helped pick up the slack. Probably will end up weaker than 2013 – if only because there’s still indie stuff from 2013 that haven’t gotten disc releases yet – but definitely stronger & more consistent on the commercial front than last year. People get pessimistic about the state of anime but honestly right now the industry is in as good as a shape as it’s ever been. If you insist on watching the higher profile shows like Parasyte or Bahamut or Log Horizon don’t be surprised when they turn out to be really cliched and predictable (not bad in and of itself obv). But if you limit yourself to the artsier fare then it’s harder to remain pessimistic: I can safely say the above list is more diverse in terms of genre and directorial style than everything I’ve seen from Hollywood this year (and the last several years too) and if you care about animation at all I recommend checking them out.