Glancing Upstream: Spring 2014 Retrospective

Summer Premiere Week is upon us, meaning I’ll soon be hard at work panning the simulcasting stream for gold nuggets. But before we turn our eyes ahead, let’s take a quick look back at the Spring season and see how it held up.

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Oh, and this is a spoiler-free zone, so please read through and keep your eyes peeled for a series that catches your eye.

Overall

Spring 2014 didn’t have quite the quantity of great shows as I initially thought it might (the SF genre was particularly disappointing for me this time around), but it made up for it with three things:

  1. Two absolutely top shelf works of art
  2. A group of solid fantasy/magical realism shows
  3. A squadron of really entertaining sports series

I give the season a B+, because even though I “only” watched 8 series this season, I wouldn’t give one of them a grade lower than a B.

Rankings

This was my first attempt at ranking series, and it turns out it’s an impossible process. Anyway, ultimately it’s just opinion, but feel free to throw down in the comments. I like discussions as long as they’re respectful.

 

1. Ping Pong

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Available On: Hulu, Funimation (subs only)

Boy, I never would have thought a show could beat Mushishi out of the top spot, but there you have it: Ping Pong was just that good. So good that I caught myself applauding, tearing up, even shouting “My GOD, this is good!” at my tablet on more than one occasion. So good that it actually pissed me off a little, like, “Well’p, I quit, I’ll never write anything of this caliber.” That’s how good this series was.

About once a year I find a show that I consider “perfect.” By this I mean that every element – story, character, art, music, etc. – came together to tell exactly the story the series wanted to tell in exactly the way the series wanted to tell it. This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with personal enjoyment, mind you – sometimes the “perfect” show is my favorite show of the year (Uchouten Kazoku), but just as often it isn’t (Tsuritama). But favorite or not, I’m tremendously grateful these shows exist, because they represent the heights that anime can achieve, a dizzying blend of qualities coming together to form a cohesive, beautiful whole.

The amazing part is that we may have gotten two “perfect” series this year – because honestly, in terms of sheer quality, Mushishi is right there with Ping Pong. Ultimately, though, I had to choose one Number One, and Ping Pong’s overarching story structure and focus on character growth made it just a little more engaging for me as a viewer (I prefer novels to short stories, simply put). But hey, I got to agonize over which of two A-range series to rank first, and that’s a damn good problem to have.

2. Mushishi

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Available On: Crunchyroll (subs only)

Haunting, wistful, beautiful, and meditative, every week Mushishi succeeded in drawing me into its eerie, lovely world, leaving me feeling as if I had experienced something instead of merely watched it. But then, I’d seen the first season and read the manga, so I knew what to expect. Mushishi is quality, plain and simple, and proof that anime can be art as much as entertainment.

3. Yowamushi Pedal (“Yowapeda”)

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Available On: Crunchyroll (listed as “Yowapeda”) (subs only)

Yowapeda has been consistently good from the start, but the story really shifted into another gear when it hit the Inter-High competition. While I rank Ping Pong as the best sports series of the season, Yowapeda was probably the one I ENJOYED the most. Optimistic and sincere and ridiculous, it’s one hell of a fun ride, and I can’t wait for Season 2 to start up this Fall.

4. Isshukan Friends (“One Week Friends”)

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Available On: Crunchyroll (listed as “One Week Friends”) (subs only)

At one time I thought this was going to be my favorite show of the season. It never quite achieved either the jaw-dropping excellence or pure fun of the shows above it, but it was lovely and quiet and emotionally honest, painted in beautiful watercolors that perfectly captured the tone of hopeful sadness that permeated every frame. It’s a great, character-driven series about friendships, memories, and the connections we choose to make – and lose – and desperately hold on to.

5. Hitsugi no Chaika (“Chaika the Coffin Princess”)

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Available On: Crunchyroll (listed as “Chaika -The Coffin Princess-”) (subs only)

I admit it: I nearly dropped Chaika after the third episode. Now I’m so glad I didn’t. A likable cast, a solid fantasy world, and a steadily evolving (and increasingly intriguing) plot put this one solidly in my anime sweet spot. There’s something delightfully old school about it, as if it could be on a schedule in 1994 as easily as 2014. It was never anything brilliant but what it did it did well, and the first season finished on a strong final arc that leapfrogged it over a couple other shows and made me very excited for Season 2. YMMV here, but if you’re a fan of old-school fantasy adventure tales, I think you’ll enjoy this one as much as I did.

6. Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii (“The World is Still Beautiful”)

 

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Available On: Crunchyroll (listed as “The World is Still Beautiful”) (subs only)

This one started strong, stumbled around a little aimlessly in the middle, but (like Chaika) finished with an excellent final arc that boosted it over a couple other series. There are some problematic elements here, to be sure – pacing and world-building were a little weak, and I was forever waffling between liking the male lead and wanting to smack the shit out of him – but some great side characters (Neil! Grandma!) and an absolutely fantastic female lead (Nike!) helped this one overcome a lot of its faults. We’ll probably never see a second season, but I’m excited to pick up the manga, which is a pretty solid seal of approval, I’d say.

7. Haikyuu!!

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Available On: Crunchyroll (subs only)

I adored this show for the first few episodes, but it lost some momentum along the way, and its sincerity and straightforwardness often serve as a double-edged sword, adding to the exuberant tone but robbing the series of any real tension. It’s still lots of fun, though, and nicely captures the feeling of what it’s like to play on a team (I found myself missing my old basketball teammates in a way I haven’t in quite a while). Plus it’s an ongoing series, and hey, it took me a couple cours to really fall in love with Yowapeda, so we’ll see how I feel in another 13 episodes.

8. Baby Steps

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Available On: Crunchyroll (subs only)

Don’t get me wrong – every series on this list is a good one, and I would never tell you NOT to watch Baby Steps. Unfortunately, SOMETHING had to be in last place, and while I acknowledge that Baby Steps is very good at what it does, I just don’t enjoy it as much as the other series on this list. It’s more of a “pure” sports series, focused almost exclusively on Ei-chan and tennis (as opposed to, say Ping Pong or Yowapeda, which are more about the characters than the sport), and I think the problem here is that I just can’t seem to get invested in the matches. As such, I actually preferred the early episodes when it was Ei-chan hanging out at the tennis club, because the character interactions were more engaging for me than the sport has been.

Again, this one’s a big YMMV, and like Haikyuu!! it has another cour to work with, so we’ll see what happens. Right now, though, it’s the show I’m least excited about each week, and for that reason more than anything it fell to the back of the pack this Spring.

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