Because no anime blog is complete without a proper Top 10 list.
I’ve seen some people calling this a weak year for anime, but I’m not sure it’s that so much as it’s just a very top-heavy year—the upper tier was a massive cut above the pack, making the rest of the shows seem a little lackluster in comparison. It also featured some disappointing adaptations and originals, and any time you get excited for a series and it doesn’t live up to those expectations, it can make the whole year feel weaker. Fortunately, off-the-radar “sleeper” series had a very good year, particularly when it came to comedies and sports shows, and a few strong sequels and long-running series helped give 2014 a much-needed boost in terms of quality.
Probably the most welcome trend of the year (as I mentioned in my Fall retrospective) was the influx of longer-running series, as many of the titles on this list are either sequels or were greenlit for a sequel along the way. I love a good one-cour if that’s all the show needs to tell its story (Ping Pong is a perfect example of this), but I also hate it when a manga adaptation ends in medias res or an original series gets a rushed finale, so that willingness to make longer works again makes me optimistic for future anime endeavors. And c’mon, who doesn’t like spending more time with their favorite characters, especially when those characters have more story to tell?
In other retrospective news, this marks my first yearly Top 10, an exciting achievement in its own right. I’ve always been swimming around in the anime waters, but I dove in head first this year, watching (and reviewing) the premieres for every licensed new series for both the summer and fall seasons, and I’m gearing up to do the same thing again as the Winter 2015 season gets going in the next couple weeks. It’s been a fun adventure and I’m immensely grateful to those of you who have shared, followed, and chatted with me, encouraging me to keep writing, (over)analyzing, and improving. So thank you so much for your support, and here’s to geeking out together in the coming months as well.
Because of the way anime broadcast schedules work (with shows carrying over from one year to the next, and some series getting greenlit for second seasons), I did have to create some eligibility guidelines. The general rule of thumb is that a show needs to be complete before it’s eligible. This includes long-running series that finished in 2014 (like Hunter x Hunter) as well as sequels (like Mushishi: The Next Passage or Free! Eternal Summer), but eliminates currently running series (like Yona of the Dawn) and split-cours (like Fate/stay night or Aldnoah.Zero). These shows will be eligible for the 2015 “best of” list instead.
Of course, things get a little trickier with shows that ran as if the initial episode count was the entire series, but then announced a Season 2 at a later date. My ruling here is that, if the official Season 2 announcement came at the very end of Season 1 or later (as it did with Baby Steps and Tokyo Ghoul), then Season 1 counts as a “complete” work and is eligible for the 2014 list.
Oh—and I’m not going to bother grading these like I do for my seasonal reviews. It’s the Top 10 of the year, so it’s safe to assume they’re all good-to-great series, and any would make a welcome addition to your watch list.
Make sense? Bully! Then let’s get to it, starting from the bottom and working our way up to the best of the year.
Honorable Mention(s): Sports Sunday (Baby Steps and Haikyuu!!)
Available on: Crunchyroll (even CR combined them into one post: here’s a link to the regions)
Episode Count: Each have 25
Baby Steps in a Sentence: After a chance meeting with classmate Takasaki “Natchan” Natsu, top student and skilled note-taker Maruo “Ei-chan” Eichirou finds himself drawn into the world of competitive tennis.
Haikyuu in a Sentence: Undersized spiker Hinata Shoyo joins the Karasuno High School volleyball team, where he and a group of lovable dorks must learn to work together in order to return their school’s team to its former glory
These two basically canceled one another out for the #10 spot, because I just couldn’t seem to rank one ahead of the other. They aired on the same day during the same seasons, which meant I often watched them back-to-back, which also means they’re inextricably connected in my head. And I didn’t want to cheat and wedge 11 shows onto my Top 10 list, so… here we are.
In a way, each show fills in the gaps where the other one is lacking – Haikyuu with its high energy and dynamic animation, Baby Steps with its complex characters and dedication to realism—which is maybe why it’s so easy for me to combine them into a single “series.” Oh, and another similarity: Both shows have announced a Season 2, which means there will be plenty more volleyball and tennis matches in the future. Here’s hoping for a few more Sports Sundays before too long.
You can read my Series Reviews (because of course I reviewed them in a single post) for more.
Available On: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: A near-death accident renders ninth-grader Iki Hiyori stuck between the human world and the afterlife, capable of seeing and interacting with kami and spirits—including the down-on-his-luck “delivery god,” Yato.
Content Warning: It’s been a while since I’ve seen it so I might miss something, but I remember violence (against adult/teens); suicide; harassment; and some fanservice
Animation studio BONES has a knack for adapting character-focused action/adventure manga series with a mixed-gender cast that treads the line between comedy and tragedy, providing a story that is slightly off the beaten path from your standard action anime fare and is, for whatever reason, right up my alley. Last year it was the criminally underrated Blast of Tempest, and this year it’s the all-too-short Noragami. This series blended grim and tragic story lines and characters with good humor, an effortless sense of coolness, and supernatural fight scenes (no one does good old-fashioned 2D action quite like BONES); and the complicated interplay between the main trio kept me entertained and invested throughout.
#1-9 on this list were easy locks, but man, this 10th spot gave me fits. And, in truth, I wasn’t expecting Noragami to be the winner, largely because its final anime-original arc was a big comedown from the material that came before it (the damselfication of Hiyori was particularly annoying) and killed a lot of the show’s building momentum. But despite its issues, of the many series that were fighting for this #10 spot, Noragami is the one I’d most like to rewatch or hear about a Season 2 announcement (the manga is even on my reading list, so clearly the show did something right). And hey, it is my Top 10 list. As long as I’m writing it, I may as well sneak a personal favorite in along the way.
9. Hozuki’s Coolheadedness (Hozuki no Reitetsu)
Available on: Crunchyroll (the list of regions is too long to list, so here’s a link)
Episode Count: 13
In a Sentence: A supernatural workplace comedy that follows the demon Hozuki as he works with his boss, colleagues, and “tenants” to keep Japanese Hell running smoothly.
Content Warning: Like Noragami it’s been a while since I watched it, but I remember some lewd humor, suggestive language, and mild nudity; also, it takes place in Hell, so comedic torture is kind of the name of the game here.
As soon as I saw the cover art for Hozuki no Reitetsu (“Cool-Headed Hozuki,” although the title is untranslated on CR), I pegged it as a potential hidden gem, and this was one case where first glances proved true. An unapologetically weird, relentlessly clever, and frequently dark comedy, the series takes place in Japanese Hell (well, mostly—we also get to spend some time with Satan and Beelzebub over in European Hell, and up in Chinese Heaven with a playboy Celestial Beast) and is chock-full of mythological, historical, and literary references and gags.
Not that it isn’t above pop culture jokes, slapstick comedy, and toilet humor, mind you. One of the strengths of Hozuki is its willingness to poke fun at just about everything from the “high” to the “low” end of the cultural spectrum, and it does so with a winning blend of dry observation, wit, and a steady touch of Monty Python-esque absurdity. But overall the series is distinctly Japanese, very funny but also very referential. CR’s translator busts their hump to make the material as accessible as possible to a western audience, but it’s still a tough series to recommend to anyone without at least a basic knowledge of Japanese history and literature. Still, if you’re willing to have some jokes fly over your head, then this really is one hell (har har, I’m hilarious) of a good series, and one of the happier surprises of 2014.
I don’t have a review for this one, but I did translate the opening theme for funsies, which was as difficult as it looks and gave me even greater respect for the translator who had to tackle this beast.
8. Yowapeda (Yowamushi Pedal)
Available on: Crunchyroll (United States, Canada, Caribbean, South Africa, and Central and South America) (listed as “Yowapeda”)
Episode Count: 38
In a Sentence: High school freshman (and total otaku) Sakamichi Onoda finds himself drawn into the world of road racing when his climbing skills catch the eye of the school’s competitive cycling team.
I never knew I could care so much about road racing until Yowapeda rolled onto the scene and made me fall head over heels in love with its goofy humor, gripping races, and bromance-tastic character dynamics. The road races are entertaining and well-animated, clipping along at a (mostly) reasonable pace, but what really makes this show stand out are the personalities of its characters and the way they interact with each other.
The series is populated with infectiously likable oddballs, and even the antagonists are treated as real (if not exaggerated) individuals, given motivations, personal connections, and backstories. Seriously. Sooo many backstories. And while that kind of attention to its characters can sometimes slow down the pacing of the races themselves, it generally works in the show’s favor, giving weight to the big moments and making it tough to know exactly who you’re rooting for.
And then of course there’s Onoda (my pick for Male Anime Protagonist of the Year, by the way), who embodies Yowapeda’s sense of optimism, earnestness, and sympathy for others. At its best, this is a show about building unlikely bridges between people, and about how spheres we think of as separate (anime and sports) can come together not only to coexist, but to actually enrich one another. I’m not sure if it’s a sports show for anime fans or an anime show for sports fans, but either way it’s great fun, and I’m enjoying the heck out of its second season, too.
7. Black Butler (Kuroshitsuji): Book of Circus
Available on: Funimation (U.S./Canada), Crunchyroll (South and Central America, UK/Ireland, Australia/New Zealand)
Episode Count: 10
In a Sentence: At the orders of Queen Victoria, Earl Ciel Phantomhive and his demonic butler Sebastian infiltrate the traveling Noah’s Ark Circus to investigate a string of recent missing children’s cases.
Content Warning: Graphic violence (against both adults and children); abuse; brief sexual content
Note: This is a continuation of the Black Butler story as told in the original manga. It ignores all anime-original material. If you’re interested in watching BB, I recommend watching the first 15 episodes of Season 1 (available on Funimation and Netflix), and then skipping straight to Book of Circus. The manga is also available via Yen Press, if that’s more your style.
Of all the sleeper shows on this list, Book of Circus might be the one that surprised me the most. Black Butler had always just been in the “pretty good” category for me—I enjoyed its self-aware humor and occasionally found myself drawn into its darker story lines, but it was never something that really stuck with me until BoC stormed onto the scene this summer.
What began as a mystery with a hearty splash of comedy slowly but surely morphed into a genuine horror story, and the most powerful tragedy of the year. It also serves as a vicious critique of Victorian society, and really of any society that creates sharp socioeconomic gaps, forcing people to become “those who steal” or be relegated to the role of “those who are stolen from.” And the line between the two proves very thin indeed.
Protagonists Ciel and Sebastian reveal new facets of their characters and settle ever deeper into their roles as antiheroes (and arguably worse than that), but the real stars are the Noah’s Ark Circus and the characters who inhabit it. The circus setting proves perfect for Black Butler’s own tonal blend of silly and sinister, creating a veneer of light over an increasingly dark story, and the performers themselves leave a lasting impression on both our MCs and the audience, left to resonate long after the credits roll. This isn’t an easy series to watch, but man, is it ever a good one.
You can read my Series Review for more.
6. Space Dandy
Available on: Funimation (U.S./Canada), Cartoon Network
Episode Count: 26
In a Sentence: Bumbling space adventurer Dandy, robot Q.T., and cat-like alien Meow travel the universe(s) discovering new planets and life forms.
Content Warning: Violence (fairly cartoonish and mostly against adults); the female fanservice is pretty tongue-in-cheek, but it can get annoyingly excessive at times
Despite an underwhelming premiere (I maintain it’s the worst episode of the series), Space Dandy quickly found its comfort zone and became… well, whatever it wanted to be, really. SD used its character’s “alien hunter” occupation and the multiverse theory to basically do whatever it wanted, bringing in a parade of guest directors, writers, and artists who had total freedom to send Dandy and his pals to whatever planet or dimension they saw fit.
As a result, was a kind of sandbox of creativity, both in terms of its writing and its artistic style, which could vary as wildly from week to week as the stories themselves. SD was technically a comedy and certainly knew how to be funny, skewering everything from high school musicals to zombie flicks to court dramas, but it was adept at tackling more somber genres as well, handling hard scifi and straight adventure admirably, and—perhaps surprisingly—providing moments of thematic depth and character growth that resonated emotionally as well. It even proved capable of being a straight-up work of art, best encapsulated by the stunning “A World With No Sadness, Baby,” which remains one of the best (if not the best) anime episodes of the year.
Granted, not every episode was memorable (although the vast majority were at least entertaining, and some were out-and-out brilliant), but it was a delight to see these short films come to life each week, and a blast to piece together the bigger story (yes, there’s a bigger story!) as well. Series Director Watanabe Shinichiro (of Cowboy Bebop fame) didn’t bring us exactly the show we were expecting, but what he gave us was something wholly unique, an ambitious enterprise that hit far more often than it missed. Simply one dandy of a series, baby.
Click here for Part 2 and my Top 5 shows of the year!