drama

Zipang

Zipang

Zipang

  • Trailer: Opening animation
  • What it’s about: The Japanese AEGIS Cruiser Mirai is on its way to a routine joint training exercise with the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor when it is caught in a strange storm. When the rains and wind pass, they find that there’s no satellite signal and no sign of their escort ships. They soon discover that they’ve left the 21st Century behind – the date is June 4, 1942, and the Battle of Midway is about to begin.
  • Why you should watch it: It’s a fantastic war drama, posing an interesting question: should the crew of the Mirai support their homeland, or maintain neutrality in the hopes of bringing their own future to pass? There’s no right answer, and each of the characters wrestles with the issues that arise from holding information and military power that could turn the tide of the greatest war in modern history. Refreshingly for a show about war, neither side (nor any of the characters, in fact) are made into simple bad guys. Everyone has their own ideals, their own ideas about what to make of the situation that they’ve now found themselves in.
  • Caveats: This is a drama with action scenes, not an action show with dramatic scenes. Don’t go in expecting explosions and battles in every episode. Also, the show was produced for the purpose of drawing people into reading the manga, and the ending is an obvious invitation to do just that. Finally, the CGI scenes are pretty basic. Thankfully, they’re not the focus of the show, usually being simple transition and establishing shots of the fleets and aircraft.
  • Themes: Do you sacrifice a known and prosperous future for the lives being lost in the present? Where does ones duty lie – to country? captain? friends or strangers? Can a people brought up in peace truly judge the actions of soldiers fighting to defend their homeland?
  • Similar works: John Birmingham’s Axis of Time novels have a very similar premise (though it’s an American fleet transported back, rather than a single Japanese cruiser). Within anime, Flag and, to a lesser extent, Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion

evangelion

  • Trailer: English dubbed trailer for the first Rebuild movie.
  • What it’s about: Shinji Ikari did not set out to be a hero. In truth, he’s not qualified for the role, and he knows it. But when the alien “Angels” responsible for devastating Earth 15 years ago reappear and begin to lay waste to Japan once again, he’s told that only he is capable of piloting the Evangelion weapon system developed to defend humanity. Reluctantly, Shinji steps up. But there are good reasons not to place the weight of the world on the shoulders of a fourteen-year-old boy.
  • Why you should watch it: It’s not hyperbole to say that Neon Genesis Evangelion has a claim to being the greatest anime series ever produced. Others might have a more general appeal, or spin out a more epic tale, or have slicker production, but the impact that NGE has had on the medium since its first broadcast cannot be overstated. It would be worth a watch just to be able to pick out all of the references and allusions to it in your other favourite series, but on top of that it’s actually a good story. Binging through the whole show is far too easy. The characters are believable in their actions and motivations in a way that’s quite rare, there’s enough action going on to satisfy any mecha fan, and there’s enough depth to keep the attention of a more cerebrally-minded audience. The direction is supremely self-confident, and the writing doesn’t beat you over the head with its intent. It’s a show that has a lot to offer, and thoroughly deserves its reputation.
  • Caveats: To get it out of the way, this is quite an old series and it shows in the artstyle and animation. It actually holds up a lot better than its contemporaries, but for a viewer accustomed to modern anime aesthetics, it’s going to take a little getting used to. Secondly, the watch order: watch the original series all the way through, then watch the movie End of Evangelion. Give it a while to percolate before trying out the Rebuild movies.
  • Themes: Um, well. There have been entire theses written on this show and the different meanings and interpretations that can be pulled out of it, so I’m not even going to attempt a full summary. It’s safe to say that there’s a lot of Freudian subtext going on throughout, and the idea of the “hedgehog’s dilemma”, the yearning for close relationships coupled with an inability to commit or engage on that level without hurting one another, is a pretty central theme. Facing up to one’s responsibilities and the personal struggle with both depression and self-loathing is another.
  • Similar works: Madoka Magica is often brought up in the same breath as NGE for being another show that reflects and reinterprets the assumptions of its own genre. To see where Anno started off, try his directorial debut Gunbuster. It’s a little rough around the edges, and is a much more traditional mecha action show than Evangelion, but the connections between the works are there to see if you want them.

Yuuki Yuuna wa Yuusha de Aru

Yuuki Yuuna wa Yuusha de Aru

yuyuyu

  • 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.

Shigofumi

Shigofumi

shigofumi

  • Trailer: English subtitled trailer
  • What it’s about: On rare and special occasions, the dead can contact the living. Fumika is one of those responsible for delivering these post-mortem letters, these “Shigofumi” to their recipients on Earth. The contents vary from person to person – some express hope, others forgiveness, still others hatred or warnings. They are all, however, the true final feelings of the departed.
  • Why you should watch it: Shigofumi is an unusual series. While more or less entirely episodic, there is still an overarching narrative that follows Fumika’s development and interactions with an expanding cast of characters, from talking staffs to workmates to a select few living people who stumble upon her while she’s performing her duties. The show is quite deliberate in its pacing, with a sombre, almost eerie soundtrack. More importantly it manages to tell each episode’s story in full, without stretching out or condensing it beyond its limits. Each arc addresses different issues, but there’s a continuity of theme and tone and the show remains compelling throughout.
  • Caveats: As mentioned above, this is an episodic series. While Fumika herself receives a good deal of character development, the secondary cast isn’t all that interesting.
  • Themes: The primary theme is death, and the way people waste their lives over trivial things. There’s also a recurring focus on abuse and the way it damages the soul – the show is relatively hopeful in its message about recovery and moving on from it, though.
  • Similar works: Angel Beats!

School Days

School Days

school days

  • Trailer: Trailer for the Visual Novel and Anime
  • What it’s about: Itou Makoto is your standard hapless Japanese teenager. He has a crush on Katsura Kotonoha, a girl who commutes to school on the same train, but has no idea how to translate his desires into an actual relationship. In the end, it takes a girl from his class intervening and pushing him every step of the way to initiate things. But once the shine of Itou’s new relationship begins to wear off, his eye starts to wander.
  • Why you should watch it: From the description, the show might appear to be your standard school romantic-comedy anime. And indeed the first few episodes fit into that genre pretty well, albeit with the relationship moving a great deal more quickly than is usual for that kind of show. The reason for the “rush” through the initial relationship stage becomes apparent once the groundwork is laid.The show transitions first into a drama and then into a tragedy, with things going seriously off the tracks. Itou proves himself to be a surprisingly realistic incarnation of your typical teenage boy, flush with hormones and with no real sense of responsibility or consideration for others. The phrase “harem deconstruction” gets thrown around a lot, but I’m not quite sure how accurate that is.
  • Caveats: Things take a while to really amp up. The show is infamously controversial for some of the choices it makes. It’s also quite hard to discuss without spoiling too much. The character designs lean towards the “ridiculously large eyes” end of the anime spectrum.
  • Themes: Teenage stupidity and its consequences. Lust, love, and limerence.
  • Similar works: Genji Monogatari Sennenki. But bear in mind that it’s aimed at a different audience – older women rather than younger men.

Legend of the Galactic Heroes

Legend of the Galactic Heroes

lotgh

  • What it’s about: Two space-faring polities – the autocratic Galactic Empire and the democratic Free Planets Alliance – have been at each other’s throats in an on-again off-again war for centuries. Neither is able to break the stalemate, and millions continue to die in the endless jostling for position and advantage through large-scale fleet actions. Amidst this ongoing tragedy, two military geniuses begin to make their names, each rising quickly through the ranks of their respective militaries to face off against one another. Yang Wenli of the Alliance wants nothing more than an equitable end to the conflict, but his superiors have other ideas –a noble crusade against the “Evil Empire”. Meanwhile, Count Reinhard seeks to topple that Empire from within and save his sister from her gilded cage as the Emperor’s mistress.
  • Why you should watch it: Calling Legend the magnum opus of Japanese animation would not be an exaggeration. An epic space opera that sprawls over a hundred episodes, it’s an in-depth examination of war in all its hideousness and glory. Political backstabbing and manoeuvring behind the scenes, tactical space battles, personal conflicts and rivalries, and the small-scale everyday tragedies faced by the civilians – the series has it all. Despite the initial assumptions that come with an “Empire vs Republic” story, neither side is entirely in the right. There are heroes and villains on both sides. Great effort was put into establishing the characters; the series holds the Guinness World Record for the highest number of voice actors, as not a single repeat performance is given despite the gigantic cast. The classical soundtrack complements the action perfectly. If you’re a fan of the medium at all, you’re going to need to explore the series at some point.
  • Caveats: There is currently no legal way to watch the show unless you find an old copy of the tapes on eBay. The whole thing is, however, available on most major streaming sites. The largest caveat to the show is the sheer time commitment that it demands. Unlike typical long-running series, though, there’s very little filler in Legend. Every episode nudges the plot forward in one direction or the other, or opens up a new exploration into the characters themselves. If you’re unsure whether or not you want to start, try watching the prequel movies My Conquest is the Sea of Stars and Overture to a New War first. They’re standalone films that also serve as a good lead-in to the series itself. If you do watch Overture, you can skip the first two episodes of the series, as it covers the same material. Finally, it must be noted that the series is from the early 90s, and it shows in the animation and sound design. This is a story where you come for the plot and characters; if you’re after whizz-bang graphics, look elsewhere.
  • Themes: I don’t even know how to sum this up here – you could write entire theses on the thematic development of the show. In short: rivalry, ambition, loyalty and betrayal. Power, the right-to-rule, legitimacy, the nature of peace, the nature of war, democracy, autocracy, bureaucracy.
  • Similar works: The closest work I can think of is David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which has the same kind of epic scope and shows protagonists on both sides of the conflict. In anime, maybe Zipangif you want more of the same kind of rivalry that you see between Wenli and Reinhard, maybe check out Death Note or Code Geass.

Aoi Bungaku Series

Aoi Bungaku Series

aoibungaku

  • Trailer: No Longer Human trailer
  • What it’s about: A series of self-contained arcs, translations of six famous pieces of classic Japanese literature into anime form. The common theme across all of them is mental anguish, whether in the form of depression (No Longer Human), obsession and phobias (In the Forest…), or outright insanity.
  • Why you should watch it: Every story in this series, regardless of the director, leaves you slightly on edge. Psychological anime tend to use mental illness as a plot device to serve a larger story; Aoi Bungaku puts it front and centre – the protagonists’ sicknesses *are* the story. The most successful of the batch, No Longer Human, (which follows a life slowly falling apart under the inability to cope with depression) was later adapted into a stand-alone film.
  • Caveats: The first story is about depression and so is naturally going to be a little slow and, you guessed it, depressing. If you don’t like a particular story, skip ahead to the next one – each is by a different director and they all have different approaches to the subject matter.
  • Themes: Mental instability, in all its flavours.
  • Similar works: For similarly introspective anime, try the works of Shinkai Makoto such as Garden of Words or 5cm per second.

Monster

Monster

monster

  • Trailer: Fan-made trailer
  • What it’s about: A talented young brain surgeon named Tenma with a bright future ahead of him is forced to make a decision on who to save: the mayor of the town, with political connections to the hospital director, or a young child caught up in a grisly murder. His decision has wide-ranging implications, as people around Tenma begin dying off and he’s forced to come to terms with the consequences of his choice.
  • Why you should watch it: Monster is, perhaps, the most suspenseful anime produced in the last decade. It’s a thoroughly mature psychological thriller, a cat-and-mouse game between one man seeking redemption and another well past hope of it. It’s an incredibly ambitious project, to the point where I’m surprised that it received a full adaptation. Every one of the major actors that are closest to Tenma’s quest are given their own character arcs, their own goals and motivations, and an intricate web of connections to the spider-like antagonist is steadily built up. Much attention lavished on psychology and atmosphere.
  • Caveats: The show is long, at 70-something episodes, and isn’t afraid to spend its time exploring tangents and branches away from the main trunk of the plot before returning to it down the road. Even as the tensions build, it remains quite a slow burner of a show – it’s never going to be described as a “roller-coaster”.
  • Themes: The nature of evil (nurture/nature) and the possibility (or impossibility) of redemption. The show is essentially an anime version of Frankenstein (the Mary Shelley novel, not the Hammer Horror movie or its derivatives), so it also follows a lot of the same themes found there.
  • Similar works: As mentioned above, Frankenstein. Sticking with the Western canon, there’s a lot of similarities to the classic TV series The Fugitive, too.

Selector Infected WIXOSS

Selector Infected WIXOSS

selector

  • Trailer: PV Trailer
  • What it’s about: Ruko Kominato hasn’t made many friends at school. To encourage her to socialise, her brother buys a pack of cards from the hit new collectible game WIXOSS. But underneath the regular game lies a second level, where girls chosen as “Selectors” fight one another in the hopes of having their greatest wish fulfilled.
  • Why you should watch it: While not always a solid predictor, WIXOSS has proven a successful enough advertisement for the tie-in game to cause it to sell out of all stock across Japan. That said, the card game itself is largely tangential to the actual plot of the series, as the characters struggle with their desires and the costs associated with pursuing them. The character development is first-rate from the first episode onwards – they’re all flawed in their own way and trying to patch up their own holes.
  • Caveats: The show has a shaky start, so give it a few episodes before making up your mind. It’s also going to get compared to Madoka Magica a lot, which is a little bit of an unfair standard to be expected to reach. The card battles, not being central to the story, aren’t really meant to be predictable – they’re there to move the plot along, not to get you strategising. The animation gets a little lazy at times, with background characters frozen in place.
  • Themes: Faustian bargains, how you reach your goals being more important than what they are
  • Similar works: Madoka MagicaYuuki Yuuna wa Yuusha de Aru

Harmonie

Harmonie

harmonie

  • Trailer: PV Trailer
  • What it’s about: Akio’s passions are anime, manga, and tinkering with a natural talent for music, and he’s all to happy to share this world with his friends. But he can’t help but glance over at the popular kids in class, particularly the happy smile of Juri. When he’s offered a narrow opportunity to forge a connection with his crush, he seizes it, and in so doing risks opening old memories that might be better left buried.
  • Why you should watch it: Harmonie is one of the better entries to have come out of the annual “Young Animator Training Project” in recent years. It’s a nicely packaged story of breaking out of one’s shell, striking up a new relationship and sharing hopes, dreams, and exposing vulnerabilities. The animation is smooth and high quality, the voice acting is superb, and the soundtrack is quite impressive. I particularly liked the open ending, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the characters.
  • Caveats: If you can’t find it by searching by name, try “Anime Mirai 2014”, the name of the competition which it was created for
  • Themes: Groups, individuals and the connections between them.
  • Similar works: Colorful. The Garden of Words