12. Ping Pong The Animation
If you’ve gotten this far in my list, you probably won’t find it surprising to learn that Ping Pong is not exactly a sports show. It contains sports – and has a variety of thrilling and aesthetically stunning matches, in fact – but in truth it is a story about people, and about what brings them to ping pong and to each other. Its characters bounce off each other and grow continuously, their sharp edges and loves and ambitions all reflecting in how they change those they compete with. Its scale stretches beyond the court, with ping pong serving as either gateway to or guardian from engagement with the real world. And all of its poignant turns are framed by Masaaki Yuasa’s tremendous direction, full of beautiful interpretive flourishes and scored by a careful soundtrack that constantly elevates the proceedings. Ping Pong demonstrates that any conflict can be made gigantic through empathy for the characters involved, and goes above and beyond with its tremendous aesthetic merits. Even if you don’t consider yourself a sports show fan, Ping Pong is something special.
11. Kino’s Journey
Kino’s Journey is, unsurprisingly, about the journey. Not just the overt journey, though it isa travel show – every episode, Kino and her bike Hermes visit a new nation, staying just three days before moving on. Through Kino’s adventures in these strange, mystical lands, Kino’s Journey eventually reveals itself to be about the journey towards greater understanding – of how people work, of why we do the things we do, of what purpose we can possibly seek in this world. And it doesn’t offer easy answers – Kino’s Journey is rife with ambiguity, its various fables and conflicts only muddying the waters of human nature further and further. But that is, like I said, not what it’s about – there are no easy answers, but as this thoughtful, pretty, and inventive show continuously demonstrates, the journey is its own reward.
Shirobako Gets It. There are too few anime out there that really handle the trials of adulthood, and too few shows that manage to portray constant hardship and pressure while still maintaining a light tone, but Shirobako is hardship-lightness-adulthood all around. Its stories of career scrabbling and anime production woes are both universal and poignantly specific, with its rich cast of characters coming almost immediately to life through the gracefulness of the storytelling. Across two seasons of fraught management at MusAni Productions, nearly every side of young professional anxiety is illustrated and explored, from the terror of being left on the fringes of your desired industry to the pressure of feeling so swamped by your daily life that you can’t even consider your long-term goals anymore. And that seems like it’d be a downer of a ride, but Shirobako is also just endlessly fun, and infused with a relentless optimism that makes it impossible not to root for its fraying heroes.
9. The Eccentric Family
The Eccentric Family takes the Ghibli sense of whimsy and magical realism and applies it to a grounded, thoughtful family drama. Written by the same writer responsible for The Tatami Galaxy, its story bounces through a handful of gorgeous little vignettes before pulling together into a exuberant exploration of duty, family, and the meaning of life itself. That might sound heavy, but Eccentric Family is anything but – it’s filled with moments of ecstatic beauty that revel in the little joys life has to offer, and its characters bounce off each other with the buoyant geniality of a truly loving family. It’s beautiful and deftly written and basically about as warm as a show can be.
I said in my 2013 year-end post that OreGairu is basically anime’s Catcher in the Rye, and I stand by that. OreGairu knows exactly what it feels like to be young, smart, and isolated, and it expresses that with both cynical wit and overwhelming empathy for its very flawed protagonists. Hachiman and Yukino build fortresses of superiority and psychoanalysis around themselves, but they can’t hide their desire for connection, or their underlying empathy. The show sticks pretty close to romcom formatting, and its aesthetics are only serviceable, but OreGairu soars where it counts – human characters, vivid dialogue, and a frank exploration of youth politics and identity. It’s pretty much the high school romcom I’ve always wished existed.
If you’ve read this far, you probably know I like stories about people. Flawed people, broken people – people whose sharp edges make them hurt each other even as they strive for connection. Monogatari really knows people, and it understands that it is often our weaknesses that defines us. And to illustrate this, Monogatari makes those weaknesses real. Its spirit-hunting stories are compelling in their own right, but each of them also dig at the souls of their central characters – it matches mystery with human truth point for point every season. And beyond its central metaphor, outstanding character writing, and very distinctive dialogue, Monogatari does so much else, too – the ways it plays with visual storytelling vary from season to season, but pretty much always come off as more driven and intelligent than virtually anything else out there. Whether it’s exploring power dynamics through shot framing, investigating the dark hearts of its various protagonists, or simply reveling in its own visual language and wit, Monogatari is always expressing something worthwhile, clever, and true.
Created right in the middle of Gainax’s golden age, FLCL’s about as good of a coming of age story as you could possibly imagine. Puberty sucks, and learning who you are is tough, and becoming an adult doesn’t really come with instructions – FLCL knows all of this, and instead of expressing it through an understated character drama, it chooses to go for the gusto. Robots popping from foreheads, guitars wielded as battle axes, wild visual slapstick crossed with awkward personal moments. It’s a show that comes off as crazy while actually featuring some of the sharpest, most grounded character work in anime, and all of this is backed by a delirious visual palette, a stacked animation budget, and one of the most iconic soundtracks in anime history. Growing up is hard to do, but FLCL still makes it look fun.