- Trailer: NISAmerica trailer
- What it’s about: Two hundred years ago, a swordsmith created a legacy that would shape the future of Japan. The thousand blades he forged decided the victor of the civil war, but those weapons were just practice. His true masterpieces – the 12 Deviant Swords – passed into legend. Now, a wily courtier named Togame has sought the help of a legendary martial artist in tracking them down.
- Why you should watch it: It’s a beautiful show. From top to bottom. The painterly and stylised art style, the choreography and animation, the incredibly varied character designs, the eclectic yet fitting soundtrack, the plot, the characters, the themes and the way that the writers and director manage to pull them all together into an even greater whole. The relationship between the two protagonists has one of the most fun dynamics I’ve seen in anime: simultaneously sweet, funny, and continuously changing as they learn more about each other and themselves. I particularly liked the casual intimacy, in a medium that often struggles to have characters physically close without playing it for laughs. Each episode works almost as a standalone, but when strung together form a truly beautiful story. The show gives its themes space for elaboration without becoming navel-gazing, and keeps things moving with a blend of comedy, action, and conversation.
- Caveats: If you’ve tried any of the writer’s other works – particularly the Monogatari series – you’re likely familiar with the sheer weight of dialogue he heaps onto every scene, and Katanagatari is no exception. Characters will talk while they walk, eat, relax, and fight. It’s all well-written stuff, but I know that it bothers some people so it’s worth mentioning up-front.
- Themes: The burden of legacy. How you need to abandon the past, abandon the expectations placed upon you and the grand goals you set for yourself, and simply live. After all, time brings an end to all things, and the moments that pass will never be recaptured. Living for others and not yourself is the act of a tool – a sword – not a true person. But despite being a show about mortality and futility, it manages to convey a bright message all the same.
- Similar works: Samurai Champloo, Hitsugi no Chaika and, oddly enough, Spice and Wolf.
- Trailer: Preview trailer
- What it’s about: Gods have come to the world, and have decided to have some fun by running it as an RPG. Through performing heroic tasks and killing monsters in the gigantic labyrinth known only as the Dungeon, their followers gain incredible power, wealth, and status. To date, the goddess Hestia has only managed to attract one person into her Familia – the idealistic young adventurer Bell Cranel. But after a chance dungeon encounter provides Bell with the more concrete goal of becoming as strong as possible as quickly as possible, things begin to change for both of them.
- Why you should watch it: It’s a fun, fast-paced fantasy action show. DanMachi makes the conscious decision to just embrace the tropes of stories like this and run with them, and the result is a polished, charming coming of age story. It manages to balance comedy, action and plot pretty well, and throws in light romantic notes to keep things interesting. The creators have effectively managed to boil down the source material to exactly what’s needed to keep the show moving forward – there’s no wasted space and at least one big “spectacle” scene in every episode. Hestia herself has proven a very popular character, but it’s Bell who carries the show as the naïve but well-meaning (and increasingly bad-ass) protagonist. In short, it’s great light entertainment aimed at a primarily young male audience.
- Caveats: Well, it’s inevitably going to draw comparisons to Sword Art Online, much of them deserved. I do wish that a show about adventure had been a bit more…adventurous with the story it wanted to tell. Still, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to the classic tropes if you can put a new shine on them, and DanMachi pulls that off quite nicely. The harem elements start to grind as Bell picks up an increasingly preposterous set of admirers without realising that a single one of them is interested in him romantically. Critics nit-pick the loss of the detailed stats and explanations; it’s a valid criticism, but I think it managed to strike a nice balance between exposition and leaving some stuff for the source material itself to expand on.
- Themes: Nothing all that ground-breaking – it’s a pretty typical “power of heart” shonen action show, where not giving up is the key to both victory and the hearts of beautiful ladies alike.
- Similar works: Sword Art Online is easily the closest comparison. They even share the same voice actor in the lead role.
- Trailer: PV Trailer
- What it’s about: The border between the world of demons and the human world is paper-thin. Strong negative emotions invite Horrors across the gap – monsters who possess those in despair to wreak havoc. Until recently, the threat of these Horrors was kept in check by the order of Makai Knights. All of that changed when the Makai Knights were accused of witchcraft, and the order has been hunted to all but extinction. Leon Lewis wants to live up to the ideals of the Makai, while wrestling with his own desire for revenge against those who burned his mother at the stake.
- Why you should watch it: An adaptation of a long-running and hugely successful live-action series, Garo has a rich world and mythology to draw upon. The show spins a grand tale of heroism and vengeance. The real heart of the story, though, lies with the characters. They’re all well-written, and the voice actors (especially that of the scheming advisor Mendoza) put in some stellar performances. Leon’s character arc in particular is excellently realised – while he starts out looking to be your cookie-cutter brooding teenage angst-magnet, his struggles and failures throughout the show serve to temper and strengthen him into a genuine hero by the end.
- Caveats: The show struggles a bit in some of the early episodes with balancing the need for impressive fight scenes against its animation budget. Garo is a show that gets steadily better as it settles into its pace, but there’s no real “wow” moment to hold out for. If the first few episodes don’t appeal to you, feel free to drop it.
- Themes: Garo is at its core a story about not giving into negativity, of suffering and coming out stronger on the other side. The destructive outcome of doing that is shown physically in the creation of Horrors, and more personally in Leon’s ongoing struggle with his own rage and bloodthirst. Every character in the show suffers or has suffered losses, and they all deal with it differently.
- Similar works: The live-action show is an obvious place to move onto if you enjoyed this. It has a completely different setting and set of characters, but the lore and the themes are much the same. Shingeki no Bahamut is another anime to look at, if you haven’t already seen it.
- Trailer: English dubbed version
- What it’s about: Some years ago, something strange happened. Across the world, the force of gravity suddenly flipped, and thousands of lives were lost as people and buildings “fell” into the open sky. Of those affected by the inversion, only a handful – those who were lucky enough to be in shelter – survived, and have since retreated underground. They live their lives upside-down, knowing that only a thin skin of earth separates from from the gaping void below.
- Why you should watch it: This is science fiction as it should be – an imaginative, speculative concept made real and put on the screen for all to see. The animation and background art are gorgeous, with particular attention paid to shots of the sky that’s so terrifying and mysterious to both halves of the cast. But it’s the cinematography that’s most intriguing. The movie really can be watched with your monitor flipped upside-down as, even within the story, the perspective regularly changes to get the audience to focus on a particular character’s viewpoint. The plot itself is a nicely-executed adventure story with a tinge of action and romance, and it’s involving enough that the hour and a half run-time will pass in a flash.
- Caveats: I wish that the same effort put into the landscapes had been lavished on the character designs. That’s not to say that they’re bad, by any means. Rather, they’re just standard when the world around them is a step above.
- Themes: Prejudice, rebellion against authority. Seeing things from a different perspective.
- Similar works: The Time of Eve and Pale Cocoon. If you want something a bit darker but with the same sci-fi dystopian vibe, Ergo Proxy
- Trailer: PV Trailer
- What it’s about: Favaro is a bounty hunter with a rogueish charm, surviving on his wits and combat skills. He’s made more than a few enemies in his time, including the relentless former nobleman Kaisar. By pure accident, a young woman of mysterious origins overhears one of his taller tales – about visiting the mythical land of Helheim – and mistakes it for the truth, taking him on as a guide.
- Why you should watch it: Bahamut was one of the biggest surprises of 2014. By all rights it should have just been another generic card-game adaptation of the kind that we’ve seen dozens of times before. Instead, what we got was a flawlessly animated major action-adventure series reminiscent of Pirates of the Caribbean or The Road to El Dorado. The cinematography and direction are incredible, not just for a card game adaptation but by any standard. The characters are distinct, likeable, and consistent, with clean attractive designs. The story is leavened by a dose of humour (mostly well-executed sight gags), and the world itself is more interesting than I’d expected. It’s just a really fun show to watch.
- Caveats: Shingeki no Bahamut is at its strongest when the episode isn’t actually progressing the central plot all that much. The story itself is, at its core, a pretty generic fantasy adventure; it’s the character interactions that make the show what it is, and where it rightly spends most of its time. There’s a noticeable dip in the quality of the CGI elements in the middle of the run. But even at its worst, it’s still good television.
- Similar works: The aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean. Within anime, Hitsugi no Chaika, Garo: Honoo no Kokuin, and Samurai Champloo.
- Trailer: English dubbed version
- What it’s about: Fourteen years ago, there was a coup in Neo Verona. The reigning Capulet family were slaughtered down to the last woman and child by their rivals, the Montagues. Or so it was thought. A single survivor, the duke’s young daughter Juliet, was smuggled out of the castle and kept secret for over a decade while the ground was laid for a rebellion against the Montagues and a restoration of the Capulet dynasty. Juliet herself is unaware of her heritage, and has been fighting as a vigilante against the increasingly corrupt and violent city guard in defence of the people, when she runs into a young noble named Romeo – the son of Duke Montague.
- Why you should watch it: It’s an excellent example of the “action romance” genre, and balances both halves incredibly well. At the same time, the plot spins out at a perfect pace, neither lingering nor rushing through Juliet’s progression and her coming to terms with her destiny. The animation and character designs are clean and well-executed, and the soundtrack (including a Japanese cover of “You Raise Me Up” as the title song) adds an emotional depth to every major scene. It’s also interesting to see an “outside view” of Shakespeare’s work; it’s a different story than the one you might know, more fairy tale than Greej tragedy, but it’s still quite well told. The English dub is well worth picking up if you don’t have a strong preference for subs, as there’s some poetic lines from the original work put in now and then that add some flavour to the script.
- Caveats: There is little effort put into creating nuanced antagonists. Montague himself is a classic moustache-twirling tyrant and the traitors, turncoats, and city guards are unambiguously evil. This simplification carries through into the plot itself, with much of the original tragedy excised and streamlined. As a standalone work the show is excellent; as a reflection of the classic play it’s a little lacking. This is not exactly a fair comparison to make, though.
- Themes: Much like the original, doomed love is where the meat of the story lies. Acceptance of one’s duties and obligations, and heroic sacrifice to see them through, is also a primary focus for Juliet’s “coming of age” as well as several secondary characters.
- Similar works: The Twelve Kingdoms. If you want more adaptations of classic Western literature, try Zetsuen no Tempest or Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo
- Trailer:Note that the promotional materials for this show were created to be deliberately misleading, painting it as a simple Slice of Life show. Nonetheless, here’s the official preview trailer
- What it’s about: Yuuki Yuuna is a Hero. That is, she’s a proud member of her middle-school Hero Club, and she spends her days helping others with tasks great and small. As it turns out, however, the club is a front. It’s an excuse to gather together girls with the potential to use Holy Magic in defense of the world against the alien Vertex threat. This looks like a dream come true for the valiant Yuuki, but nobody seems to be able to give a straight answer about the details of the threat they face.
- Why you should watch it: The show is quite explicitly modeled after the hugely successful and influential Mahou Shoujo “deconstruction” Madoka Magica – just look at the character designs and colour schemes and you’ll get a good idea of the roles each of the girls are going to play in the show. That said, the series takes its own path, spending a great deal more time developing its characters and showing them living their lives, and all the while the audience waits for the other shoe to drop. The audience gets a sense that something is off, something is wrong, but without anything specific to put a finger on. This tension is maintained marvelously. The show slowly builds upon itself, reaching a crescendo, allowing for all of the built up emotion and uneasy feeling to spill over. The result is a consistent ride of trepidation that never lets up.Backing this up is some seriously gorgeous artwork for the “battleground” world and an energetic soundtrack that keeps up handily with the action set pieces.
- Caveats: First off, this is unapologetically a Mahou Shoujo series, complete with fan-servicey transformation scenes and butt-kicking middle school girls. What “twists” there are are also spread across the whole series, so you’re going to be spending a great deal of time watching general Slice of Life scenes with the characters interacting in a relatively normal middle school environment.
- Themes: Sacrifice and altruism, friendship and family. Power comes with a price, but that price is worth paying to protect those you care about. As the show explicitly states, anything is possible if you try hard enough with your friends.
- Similar works: Madoka Magica, Selector Infected WIXOSS.
And with this last non-anime entry, I’ll be getting back to posting recommendations for actual anime series and films shortly.
- Trailer: Book 1 Trailer
- What it’s about: The follow-up to the massively popular Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra follows Aang’s successor: a headstrong teenage girl from the Water Tribe named Korra. While she lacks Aang’s spiritual centre, she nonetheless excels in the more physical aspects of her identity and is eager to begin fulfilling her duty as the Avatar. Blocking her progress, however, is her ongoing struggle with mastering the fourth and final elemental magic of Airbending. With the only surviving airbenders housed in Republic City, far away from her childhood home in the Water Tribe, and with mounting rumours of civil unrest requiring the attention of the Avatar, she sets out to find her destiny.
- Why you should watch it: In one sentence: it’s a more grown up version of A:TLA. The morality is more ambiguous, the conflicts less one-sided, and the characters older and explored in greater depth. At the same time, it doesn’t hesitate to draw heavily on the established lore and the fantastic visuals and soundtrack of its predecessor. Korra herself is an interesting character. Her inexperience with diplomacy and sheltered childhood causes her to lean heavily upon the combat-oriented aspects of her nature to pull her through any conflict. But this is a new age: a mechanised, democratic age. Is there any place for the “spiritual balance” role of the Avatar today?
- Caveats: There are a few nits to pick. The writers’ insistence on including a love triangle (until the excellent third season) has a definite negative influence on the plot. Not enough time is given to flesh out the antagonists for the first two seasons, largely due to funding constraints (it was never made clear whether they were getting another season or not). Korra as a character stumbles more than she progresses, falling back into old habits only to relearn the lessons that earlier episodes should have instilled in her.
- Themes: Spiritual balance, and the ongoing struggle between tradition and modernity. Finding one’s place. Each season has its own motifs and themes, usually personified in the villain character and their particular motivations.
- Similar works: The Twelve Kingdoms, Romeo x Juliet, Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic
Trailer: “White” Trailer
What it’s about: The world of Remnant is aptly named. In the face of an innumerable horde of deadly beasts known as the Grimm, humanity has been forced back and back again until only a handful of regions scattered across the continents remain. Only the harnessing of the mysterious and powerful substance known as “Dust” and the ongoing efforts of the elite Hunters allows for some semblance of normality within the sanctuaries. The story follows an unlikely batch of new candidates looking to become Hunters, a group of first-year students who stumble into a conspiracy that threatens to upend the delicate political balance keeping humanity united.
Why you should watch it: The show’s two big selling points are its fight choreography and its soundtrack. Both are absolutely first-rate and the show’s major set-piece battles are some of the most stunning action scenes I’ve seen in animation. RWBY is decidedly Western in its humour and plot development – it feels a lot like something Joss Whedon might have put out back in the Buffy days. The cel-shaded computer-rendered animation is definitely unique, but if other series could pull off the same feats seen here I’d be more than happy to it taken up more widely.
Caveats: RWBY very much runs on the “Rule of Cool” – logic takes a backseat to what the creators think will look great in a fight. The show also spreads itself a little thin. This doesn’t matter so much with the first season, as you’d expect a lot of time set aside for character introductions and dangling new plot hooks, but they keep adding more and more in without resolving what’s come before, and it’s starting to feel a little top-heavy – particularly since every new character introduced means that much less time for developing the core group.
Themes: Each of the characters goes through their own little arcs with their own takeaway message, but the overall theme is that of living up to expectations (or in Blake’s case, repudiating them), of taking charge of one’s own destiny. Ruby is years younger than her peers, Weiss has her family reputation, Jaune his parents, Pyrrha her celebrity, etc.
Similar works: Soul Eater.
Given that this blog is meant primarily as a back-up storage for the blurbs I’m using on Reddit, I’ve been oddly hesitant about putting up those rare examples of stuff *other than* anime that I regularly suggest on /r/animesuggest. That said, I’d be annoyed if I lost them, so I’m going to take the opportunity over the Christmas holidays to upload them here.
- Trailer: No official ones for Book 1, though this unofficial one works nicely.
- What it’s about: The world is split into four political factions, defined by their mastery of a particular Classical element (Fire/Water/Air/Earth). Bridging the societal gap is the Avatar – a hero capable of using all four elemental magics, cyclically reincarnating into each nation in turn. One hundred years ago, the Avatar went missing, and the militarised Fire Nation took advantage of his absence to set about subjugating or slaughtering the other nations. The story follows the recently re-awakened Avatar as he seeks to master his birthright and return balance to the world.
- Why you should watch it: Avatar is that rare fish: a show that, while nominally for kids, has enough witty humour, action, and an intelligent enough plot to entertain adults as much or more. Once the show hits its stride it begins to weave a cohesive story together with fantastically choreographic fight sequences, goofy jokes and character development. The show’s story continues through three seasons and culminates in one of the most viscerally satisfying finales in Western animation. The world, its cultures, and its magic system are all well-realised and explored in depth over the course of the show.
- Caveats: It takes a few episodes for the show to find the right pace and confidence in itself. Until then, it errs a little too far on the “silly” side for an adult audience (though it’d still be perfect for its target demographic).
- Theme(s): Balance (physical/spiritual, emotional/intellectual, etc). Moral courage. Living up to expectations.
- Similar works: The obvious choice would be its sequel, The Legend of Korra, which expands on the same themes in a later version of the world. In Japanese animation, shounen such as Hunter x Hunter or Naruto are the closest parallels.