- Trailer: PV Trailer
- What it’s about: Humanity is engaged in a total war with the alien Hideuze, with all aspects of society geared towards a victory that looks increasingly unlikely. During an engagement, one soldier is separated from his allies and crash-lands on a strange, water-covered planet. With technology unlike anything the natives have ever seen, he slowly adapts to their relatively carefree lifestyle.
- Why you should watch it: It’s a fun “coming of age” sci-fi story, harking back to the old Heinlein classic Stranger in a Strange Land.The animation and soundtrack are both top-rate, and there’s a decent mix of humour, action, and character development moving the plot along.
- Caveats: The first ten minutes are (deliberately) hectic and confusing, and ultimately have very little impact on the rest of the story. This is ostensibly a Gen Urobuchi work, but he was fairly hands-off on its development, so don’t go in expecting grimdark philosophising.
- Themes: Re-adapting to civilian life. Integration, identity and society. Xenophobia. societal order, war, adulthood, and human nature, coherently working as a statement on the human cost of utilitarianism, a reflection on how the individual relates to their society, or even a positive message about the trials of entering the working world. It’s a pretty, smart, engaging little adventure, and perhaps the most overtly optimistic of all of Urobuchi’s works.
- Similar works: The aforementioned Stranger in a Strange Land. Expelled From Paradise. In terms of a “mecha anime that’s not really about the mecha”, Robotics;Notes
This show is one of the hardest to discuss without spoiling in advance, simply because from the description it sounds utterly unlike anything the average anime fan might be looking for, unless they’re into “magical girl” series. That is, until it changes. That said:
- What it’s about: Madoka Magica begins with the standard “Magical Girl anime” set-up – the moral and upstanding Madoka is approached by two strangers. The first is an adorable-looking alien named Kyubey, who offers to fulfill any wish a teenage girl might have, provided that she’s willing to sign on the dotted line and risk her life fighting against strange and dangerous beings known as “witches”. The second is a mysterious girl her own age named Homura, who strenuously warns Madoka against taking up the offer.
- Why you should watch it: Madoka Magica is one of the most highly-rated anime series of all time, and for good reason. It’s often called a deconstruction of the magical girl genre, though there’s some argument as to how accurate that description is. Whether it is or not, after the show gets going, the brakes come off the train as the plot careens towards an action-packed conclusion, with a massive amount of character development stuffed in along the way. The package is completed with a gorgeous soundtrack and a unique approach to animating action sequences that makes this an incredibly memorable series.
- Caveats: This show is the reason for the standard recommendation that people try out several episodes of a show before deciding whether or not to finish it. Also, once you strip away the thematic elements that define the show, it is at its heart a Magical Girl series. If you’re utterly unwilling to countenance watching it based on that, then, well, fair enough.
- Themes: Utilitarianism. Faustian bargains. Hope, despair, and sacrifice. Some see Buddhist or Christian overtones.
- Similar works: Anything by Gen Urobuchi (Psycho-pass, Fate/Zero). Steins;Gate. Selector Infected WIXOSS tries to do for the “card game anime” what Madoka did for the Magical Girl genre. If Madoka *does* get you interested in seeing other decent Magical Girl shows, give Revolutionary Girl Utena or Yuuki Yuuna wa Yuusha de Aru a go.
- Trailer: English dubbed version
- What it’s about: The criminal organisation “Inferno” is looking to expand its operations to a global scale. And it’s making rapid progress, in large part thanks to its policy of assassinating the heads of other crime families – a task it delegates to the mysterious “Phantom”. One day, a Japanese tourist is caught up in one of Phantom’s missions, and shows enough aptitude to be given an ultimatum: train to kill the enemies of Inferno, or be killed and discarded.
- Why you should watch it: The central question posed by the show is this: How much of your own soul are you willing to sacrifice in order to survive? At what price freedom? It’s a fantastic story – the writer (Gen Urobuchi) spins out an expansive plot filled with backstabbing, plotting and murder, and fleshes it out with characters that are both self-aware and with rational motivations. Phantom leans heavily on its action-packed assassination missions for exciting the audience, but it doesn’t neglect development of the arcs of even of the secondary characters. Everything has a cost in the world of Phantom, and nobody gets a happy ending.
- Caveats: I feel personally that too much focus was given to introspection – while not full-on wangsty, it edges towards it at some points. The characters are all far too young for what they’re supposed to be doing, to the point of breaking suspension of disbelief. This wouldn’t be so bad if you could be left to imagine that they’re all *really* in their mid-twenties, but the show rubs your face in it towards the end. Adding to the “suspension of disbelief” factor is the “action hero” nature of the characters, who are able to walk through a hail of bullets without being touched.
- Themes: Guilt, indoctrination, the cycle of violence.
- Similar works: Psycho-pass explores several of the same ideas, particularly with its idea of “enforcers”. Speed Grapher and Darker Than Black are also of a kind, though they’re superpower shows at heart. Outside of anime, the first half of the show resembles Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series, with elements of Besson’s Leon the Professional thrown in for good measure.
- Trailer: Fan-made AMV
- What it’s about: The Fourth Holy Grail War: A battle-royale between seven pairs of mages and heroic legends summoned from the past, fighting to the death. The winner is granted an artefact capable of fulfilling their greatest wish, no matter how large.
- Why you should watch it: Fate/Zero balances psychological and philosophical discussion against heart-pounding action, with little filler or fan-service to get in the way. The animation quality is simply one of the highest out there – the common joke is that ufotable could have bought a small country with what everyone presumes they’ve invested in this series. But the heart of the show is in the character interactions. This is not a “coming of age” story; every character arrives on the scene with a well-established identity and a coherent set of ethics and morals. The plot is an excuse to throw them up against one another and see what shakes out. The story is gripping and it does a decent job of contrasting different philosophies, with particular attention paid to the problems of Utilitarianism and confronting Nihilism.
- Caveats: This is an adaptation of a story set in a large existing body of work (the so-called “Nasuverse”). As such, the first episode is basically a gigantic infodump where it tries to set up enough context from the source material that the rest of the show can get right down to action without interrupting to explain the mechanics. You have to watch the first episode to understand what’s going on, but it doesn’t sell the series particularly well. Also, the ending, while spectacular, does leave a lot of things unfulfilled, a lot of questions that are only going to be answered in the follow-up Fate/Stay Night re-adaptation coming this Autumn. Everything between the first and last episodes, however, is solid gold.
- Themes: Conflict of ideologies, with particular focus in the second half given to Utilitarianism. The nature of leadership, the place of chivalry.
- Similar works: Anything else by Gen Urobuchi – Madoka Magica is a good place to start. Outside of anime, the Visual Novel of Fate/Stay Night is an obvious follow-up. It’s a *major* time-sink, but definitely worth the effort if you enjoyed Fate/Zero. Or you could just wait and see how the upcoming anime adaptation turns out.
And now, in no particular order, we begin with:
- Trailer: PV Trailer
- What it’s about: A near-future cyberpunk procedural drama. A computer system has been developed that can automatically and instantly determine a person’s psychological state and their likeliness to commit crimes. Its diagnoses are so accurate that society has used it to entirely replace the justice system. If your “psycho-pass” reading is too high, you’re a threat to society and should be locked up.
- Why watch it?: It’s a “dark” action-based story, and as an anime it’s probably the most easily-translatable to a Western live-action drama that I’ve ever seen. It’s an exploration of a deeply flawed utopia that expertly balances philosophical discussion with heart-pounding action. At the end of the show you’re left to decide for yourself which, if any, of the various powers were correct in their actions and motivations.
- Caveats: This is actually a pretty solid all-round show. That said, the literary references are a little pretentious, and the female protagonist is annoyingly naive in the first episode or two. She does quickly become one of the stronger characters through development, though
- Theme(s): “He who fights monsters should take care not to become one himself”. The price of peace – how much individual liberty is it worth to maintain a stable society?
- Similar works: Ghost in the Shell. Also, any of the other works by Gen Urobuchi are a good starting point – Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom is the closest from a storytelling perspective, but Madoka Magica is much better and has received an almost ridiculous level of critical acclaim. Shinsekai Yori addresses many of the same themes, but it takes a very different approach. Outside of anime, Minority Report, V for Vendetta or Blade Runner.
Psycho-pass is an important reminder that, ultimately, anime is the product of a non-Western culture. Specifically, people who rag on it for being unoriginal or retreading ground covered by classic sci-fi authors need to remember that a lot of those authors have only been translated into Japanese relatively recently, or never made a big impact. So they were never part of the ongoing literary discourse outside of a very narrow band of Western-looking sci-fi connoisseurs.
The stuff shown here is in many ways utterly new in that context; where even a moderately well-read Western viewer looks at the show and instantly says “Philip K Dick did this 50 years ago”, it’s going to be the first exposure for a lot of Japanese viewers to these ideas and motifs. And, hell, if the show convinces any of its viewers to go to a library and pick up a copy of one of the works it mentions, then I’d call the thing a success.
The second season of Psycho-Pass starts up pretty soon. I’m not expecting it to live up to quite the same standard, as the crew behind it has changed somewhat, and the vision of the new writer might not match the intentions of the earlier one. That said, I expect it’ll still be a fun ride.