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A no-frills top 20 list from Chad Clayton.

January 22, 2010

20. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (Season 1)

I'm rather hard-put to call The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya one of the "best" anime of the Aughts, since I didn't like it that much, but I figure it deserves some small mention for being among the most noteworthy titles of the decade. While it hasn't become the Landmark Series of the Aughts like some thought it would, Haruhi gave us a glimpse of what the so-called "moe" genre could be if writers and producers bothered to put the least bit of effort into them. It wasn't a perfect series -- it had its share of problems -- but it was tolerably entertaining even for people who don't buy into the whole "moe" shtick.

Perhaps more interesting than the show itself, however, was the bizarre following the show attracted. This show attracted a substantial following of fans who loved its titular character far more than was healthy. Also entertaining was the meteoric rise and fall of the series' prestige. Despite the fact that Kyoto Animation had stored up a seemingly infinite amount of goodwill amongst fans after Haruhi and Lucky Star, they appeared to fritter every last bit of it away with Haruhi's second season, which included the much-maligned Endless Eight arc. It was an astonishing thing to witness. Congratulations, Kyoto Animation: you just became the next generation's Gainax.

19. Aria

There's really no hiding it: Aria is less a concise story than a sweeping celebration of sentimentality and schmaltz. In terms of action, it makes certain episodes of Winnie the Pooh seem thrilling by comparison. Yet, in spite of its lack of dramatic tension, the show actually works beautifully. Despite its occasionally saccharine taste, there's a genuinely sweet earnestness and playfulness to its reflections on friendship, memory, and appreciating life. It also retains a sense of humor about its abundance of treacle, though it runs the joke into the ground very early on.

Furthermore, Aria gains big points for its inclusion of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Cat. President Aria, who looks like the result of a one-night stand between Garfield and the Michelin Man, adds a much-needed sense of comic relief and whimsy to the proceedings.

18. Paranoia Agent

It's kind of embarrassing to put three different titles by one director in my Best of Decade list, but despite its relative lack of success, Paranoia Agent was the most effective suspense TV series this decade has produced. Granted, that's not such a huge commendation, considering that few anime do suspense (let alone horror) all that well, but Satoshi Kon comes much closer than most other directors. If there's anything to hold against this series, it's that Kon isn't really breaking any new ground -- he's still using the same themes as when he made his directorial debut -- but at least the presentation works nicely.

17. Kamichu!

A lot of people are under the impression that I hate moe, which isn't an entirely unfair assumption. But my actual beliefs are a bit more nuanced than that. If I thought moe was nothing more than a protective feeling for a fictional character, I wouldn't have much of an issue with it. But any intellectually honest person would be forced to acknowledge that the moe phenomenon is inextricably tangled with an obsession with young girls (many of whom can only be politely described as mentally and/or developmentally stunted) that wavers between "worship" and "poorly repressed lust." This, I obviously have a problem with. The former is simply an emotional phenomenon. The latter is a fetish that borders on, and at times flirts with, pedophilia. Obviously, shows catering to the latter are pretty much guaranteed targets of my ire.

I make the above distinction not to rationalize my putting so-called "moe" series on my list, but simply to affirm that being associated with moe is not in itself a death sentence. Azumanga Daioh, Yotsuba&!, and Kamichu! are light, entertaining series that can be enjoyed by pretty much anyone, and the reason can be found in the characters. These titles are inhabited by characters you just can't help but like, not characters carefully crafted to push all the right otaku buttons. Kamichu!, in particular, is far more influenced by Miyazaki than m.o.e. or whatever Kyoto Animation has done recently. Despite (or maybe because of) this, Kamichu!'s entrance into the U.S. market was largely unnoticed. I'm not going to argue that it's a perfect series, but it is one of the more underrated series of the last 10 years.

16. Cat Soup

Does Cat Soup represent all that anime can be, given some drive and ingenuity? No, not really -- no more than something like Spirited Away or Haruhi, anyway. It does, however, offer a welcome respite from the endless loop of harems, magical girls, giant robots, and shounen action we call the anime industry. It exists well outside the popular conception of what anime is, but difference isn't its only merit. This is a banquet of the bizarre, more impressionistic than spectacular. It's more apt to weird you out than give you a visceral thrill, but it does serve as a reminder than anime is much more than the fairly limited range of things fans like to obsess over.

15. Tokyo Godfathers

Tokyo Godfathers may not be Satoshi Kon's best film, but it is far and away his most humane film. Taking a genuinely sympathetic view of its titular homeless outcasts -- a drag queen, a drunk, and a runaway -- this anime adaptation of Three Godfathers is an exciting, and at times touching, ode to simple charity and human value. It's arguably Kon's most "normal" film, but it's certainly his most accessible.

14. Spirited Away

Spirited Away is the lone Ghibli entry on my list, which might be surprising until you consider that I haven't seen Ponyo or Earthsea, and Howl's Moving Castle was by no means one of the best anime of the decade. In many respects, Spirited Away is a classic Miyazaki adventure and all that entails, but it's also more inventive, more whimsical, and all-around...better than most of his work. While Miyazaki's limited range as a director is a solid argument against the godlike status some fans have given him, it's hard to argue with his formula when the results are this good.

13. FLCL

Some people love FLCL with all their hearts, others hate it with an inexplicable passion. Since I trust my eyes and ears more than I trust fandom, I predictably fall somewhere in between. I think it's a pretty cool coming-of-age story, if a little wacked out, and it's got one of the best soundtracks of the last few years. The best I can say is this: don't bother listening to either side of the debate; just watch the damn thing yourself and form your own opinion. Whatever your conclusion is, at least you reached it yourself.

12. Black Lagoon

While the submarine scene alone was enough to garner Black Lagoon a consideration for my Anime of the Year, it makes my Anime of the Decade list for being one of the best "popcorn" action series of the last decade. Funny without going out of its way to be comedic, and serious without becoming unbearably dark, this is something to watch when you get sick of teenagers brooding over something or other.

11. Princess Tutu

The Aughts have produced plenty of magical-girl series, some for young girls and some for people who shouldn't be allowed near the local playground. Most of them have been dull as dishwater (Pretty Cure, I'm looking at you), but Princess Tutu stands head and shoulders above all of them. While the series is fundamentally pretty traditional magical-girl stuff, its class-act presentation and dark fairy-tale framework make it something that can be enjoyed by both children and adults -- for the right reasons. It's probably the best show of its kind since Utena.

10. Kino's Journey

Kino's Journey was one of the most pleasant surprises of the last ten years. This low-key offering was an excellent example of exactly what anime storytelling can be given some passion and effort, even if it doesn't have grand spectacle or a massive budget. While regrettably only 13 episodes long, this study of human nature through parables has the rare distinction of feeling neither drawn out nor cut short.

9. The Place Promised in our Early Days

While no one will accuse this of having a production to rival Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, The Place Promised was one of the few movies of the last decade that could rival Oshii's budgetary behemoth in sheer visual impact. As a bonus, the gorgeous, light-soaked visuals come without scads of inane quotations and desert-dry philosophical musings. While this film was really made for adults -- it's hard to imagine the very young being able to connect with this material -- it's a rewarding watch for anyone who can take a bittersweet emotional experience.

8. Galaxy Angel (Season 1 through Galaxy Angel X)

By all rights, I should have hated Galaxy Angel. It belongs to the "wacky anime comedy" genre, which I've come to loathe for the most part, and it was based on one of those videogames where you pretend to date imaginary characters. So imagine my surprise when the series turned out to be hilarious farce, full of clever gags, impeccable comedic timing, and characters that are likeable enough to carry some surprisingly credible "serious" episodes. While it did start to wear out its welcome around the final season, this was probably the standout "standard" comedy of the last decade.

Please note that this entry makes no reference to Galaxy Angel Rune, or whatever other GA titles that have come out since then. It strictly refers to the first series. In the interest of keeping things mostly positive, I'll leave it at that.

7. Cromartie High School

Cromartie High School was quite possibly the greatest anime comedy of the Aughts, mainly because it was so different. Instead of lacing broad farce with incessant in-jokes that only a fully indoctrinated fanboy/girl would ever understand, Cromartie High School was a hilarious study in the logic of stupidity.

6. Azumanga Daioh

It's not terribly surprising that the success of Azumanga Daioh inspired a metric ton of situational comedies surrounding a group of high-school girls and their everyday lives. What is surprising, however, is how few of them have managed to get it right. Azumanga Daioh's success comes not from wacky antics or the sickening cuteness of its characters, but its effectiveness at portraying the sheer awkwardness of growing up. While this plotless wonder doesn't always hit the mark, it hits frequently enough to make it an enjoyable low-key watch.

5. Alien Nine

Despite its unassuming exterior, Alien Nine was by far one of the most troubling anime produced this decade. To be perfectly honest, it's not such great shakes as a straight-up narrative, but as a deconstruction of the magical girl genre and an allegory for the traumas of growing up, it's surprisingly effective. While the subject matter is familiar territory -- three girls are appointed to defend other schoolchildren from alien invaders -- the approach is as dark as midnight. Apart from the fact that the girls are forced into a dangerous position without their consent, some of the action scenes are surprisingly brutal. One scene in particular, where protagonist Yuri is attacked by three boys wearing alient headgear, is so intense that it has reportedly triggered flashbacks in some abuse survivors. While I cannot comfortably recommend Alien Nine to everyone for that reason, it is a worthy watch for those to whom the material isn't toxic.

4. Fighting Spirit

Fighting Spirit is a prime example that quality doesn't always equal commercial success in America. It was a total disaster from a business standpoint (sales were shockingly bad), but it was also one of the most well-crafted shounen action series ever to see American shores. It was action-packed, genuinely funny, and had some of the best-written characters of the last 10 years. So what went wrong? Multiple things, really, but mostly, you'd be hard-pressed to sell ANY 75-episode TV series with no TV backing. Especially one about boxing; sports anime generally hasn't done that well with the American anime audience. But you know, it would have been nice if we had a successful series where the protagonist becomes strong through hard work and perseverance, and not because he has some amazing inborn talent or is the Chosen Hero for some fantasy world.

3. Saikano

Although many people don't like to acknowledge it, there is no such thing as an objective review. You simply can't separate a value judgment from the person who made it, because the judgment is based on a single person's experience. I say this because I readily admit that Saikano is melodramatic, maudlin, and more than a little bit manipulative in places. But the series -- especially its ending -- struck an incredibly raw nerve for me. I watched the entire series in one night, not long after the war in Iraq had started. It played on many of the fears I had in the aftermath of 9/11 and the wars in the Middle East: fear of losing loved ones, fear of widespread war, fear of the end. Few stories, and no anime, have ever moved me like that before or since.

Will I ever watch Saikano again? No, I don't need to; once was enough to prove Saikano the single most frightening anime of the Aughts. Higurashi and Elfen Lied may have done an okay job of making crazy faces, throwing blood everywhere, and dicing up little kids, but for me, only Saikano touched the true meaning of horror.

2. Millennium Actress

Go figure that the best Satoshi Kon film -- as well as the best anime film of the Aughts -- is the one that no one really talks about. True, Millennium Actress is more artsy and less accessible than Paprika or Perfect Blue, but it was the film that truly cemented Satoshi Kon's status as one of the premier anime directors of the new generation. This film is a true rarity in anime: a genuinely funny, touching, understated tribute to a life lived through the cinema.

1. Haibane Renmei

Anyone who's talked to me about the subject knows that I don't care for writing hierarchal lists. I can come up with my 20 favorite anime of the last 10 years without that much trouble, but past that, I couldn't care less about putting them in any specific order. If they're all great, who cares about the exact placement? Even so, I figured I should probably pick one as my single most favorite.

While I really enjoyed all 20 of the shows on this list, Haibane Renmei is the one that I kept coming back to while making this decision. That's not because it's particularly amazing in any one respect; in fact, people looking to be impressed will walk away from this series disappointed. But then, that may be the reason I liked it so much: instead of trying to impress, it focused its energy on doing the small things well. There's a rather bloody scene in the first episode that, while hardly spectacular, gives a visceral sense of genuine pain. The story, while relatively free of melodrama and histrionics, had some of the heaviest emotional weight of any series this decade.

I doubt there's much I could say about Haibane Renmei that hasn't already been said by someone else, except that this series had a sense of emotional density and truth I won't soon forget.

- Chad Clayton

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