More and more new shows were released directly to streaming in 2011, but there still remained a healthy number of premieres that showed up on physical media as well: DVD and Blu-ray Disc.
Note that some of these titles also had streaming releases during the year (Guin Saga, for instance), but are distinguished here by having physical media releases during that timeframe.
All titles are in alphabetical order.
Ko Ichinomiya’s family motto was “Never be indebted to anyone.” One day Ko finds himself having to go back on that maxim in a big way when he’s mugged and left at the mercy of the very, very strange assortment of folks who live under the Arakawa Bridge. Most confounding is Nino, the girl whose deadpan ways and matter-of-fact personality present Ko with what look like a challenge: I'm going to win her over! But Ko soon finds if he wants to win her (or anyone else) over for real, he’s got to do some getting real himself.
Every year spawns at least one show whose synopsis doesn’t even begin to explain what’s so charming and inventive about it. Arakawa takes the time to listen to its quirky characters and let their behavior speak for itself, instead of shoehorning them into a story that has nothing to do with who they really are. It’s another magnificent little discovery courtesy of NIS America, a boutique anime distributor who during the course of this year have gone from being an obscurity to a name to watch closely.
Last year’s most strikingly original, if imperfect, series was a brilliantly strange hybrid of The Bourne Identity and The Social Network. Meditating on many things—the disenfranchised and disillusioned younger generations of the first world, the nonstop gamification and technologization of everyday life, and the power of money in the modern world—Eden of the East managed to wrap up all those heady ideas in a mix of thriller, mystery, and even romance.
These two back-to-back feature films released this year as the conclusion of Eden of the East were originally planned as a second season for the TV series, but even in this condensed form they don’t make you feel like anything’s missing. The ending is also not what you might expect: there’s no giant chase, fight or violent showdown (something the TV series approached in its final episodes), but instead a series of simple but enormously influential decisions by key characters.
The show’s thesis is twofold: not just that the technology we have surrounded ourselves with is inherently empowering, but that the revolution that comes of such technology will be over before we ever know it happened. In ten years we’ll look back on this one and think of it not as dated but a sign of the very turbulent times. It’s no surprise the only other show in recent memory that had this much to say about modern life was Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, also courtesy of screenwriter Dai Sato.
Shinji and Rei are young and have—literally—the burden of the world on their shoulders. They pilot the giant war robots known as “Evangelions,” mankind’s last line of defense against the alien “Angels.” Now they have a new team member in their midst, the fiery Asuka—and what little stability their team has may now be thrown for a loop. Worse, they face Angel attacks that far outstrip anything ever seen before, to the point where the first Angel attack that left half the planet in ruins may be nothing but a fond memory.
The second installment in this rebooted, revamped, re-animated version of Evangelion delivers and exceeds all the promises made by the first installment. The whole series has thus far been a solid improvement on the original: it’s more tightly paced, with more sharply-drawn characters and a better sense of what exactly is at stake (hint: it’s a lot). The final installments are due out sometime late in 2012, right around the time the world is predicted to end. Very appropriate.
4. Guin Saga
In 1979, Japan saw the first volumes of a fantasy series that that would spawn over one hundred and twenty installments over the next thirty years. The Guin Saga gave audiences an epic fantasy with a cap E: the sprawling story of a mysterious warrior with the head of a leopard and no recollection of his real identity, and how he becomes the epicenter of an upheaval that transforms his whole world.
Various attempts to launch a live-action adaptation never materialized, but this animated version captures the vast majority of the spirit of the books, and makes them accessible to audiences who’ve never opened them. Guin makes a great anime hero—not just by dint of his exotic looks, but because he does all the things that make him worthy of the label. Bonus points are awarded for the lush symphonic score by Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu.
He is the last in a line of warriors privy to a secret fighting style that uses no weapons—where the fighter becomes the weapon incarnate. She is a master fighter as well, but her only weapons are her mind and her ability to find a way to win a battle that seems all but unwinnable. Together, they embark on a quest across Japan to find twelve weapons of untold power before they fall into the wrong hands … assuming their own hands aren’t also the wrong ones as well.
A mere plot summary doesn’t do the remotest justice to Katanagatari. It’s not just the remarkable, striking animation and character design (striking even by anime standards!) that makes this a standout, but the crackling, David Mamet-like dialogue, which makes most of the martial arts in this show verbal as well as physical.
A visually arresting, note-perfect adaptation of Tow Ubukata’s cyberpunk novel trilogy (now published in English courtesy of VIZ subimprint Haikasoru), which plays like La Femme Nikita crossbred with RoboCop. A teenage prostitute, Balot, is left for dead by one of her johns, but resurrected by a secret government agency who outfits her with a new body—and also equips her to take revenge. Problem is, her enemies were also rebuilt by the same people, and are not that easy to do away with.
Great action sequences and slick, high-grade animation make this a standout, but what really makes Scramble worthwhile is the attention to story and character. The more we find out about Balot, the more we want to know what she does—and the more uneasy we are with the choices she ultimately makes. An even longer director’s cut edition of the film is due out in 2012, and two other installments are said to be on the way as well.
Rin Ogata had dreams once of becoming a ballet dancer, but a leg injury prematurely ended her career and sent her back to school in search of a more mundane way of life. There, she discovers an on-campus club devoted to “Ridebacks”—vehicles that are part motorcycle and part Transformer. To her amazement, and no small amount of jealousy on the part of her clubmates, she finds her dancer’s instincts give her an edge with the vehicle that few others can approach. Such finesse comes in handy when the club turns out to be a front for an antigovernment revolutionary cell, and Rin is soon thrown headfirst into an uprising she might well have originally waited out on the sidelines.
Most shows involving giant robots (or in this case, relatively modest-sized ones) are vehicles—pardon the pun—for feverish machismo and pumped-up emotion. Rideback’s approach is different: not just because it has a female protagonist, but also because it doesn’t make her into a substitute man, and provides her with a story where she prospers because of her better instincts and not in spite of them. That and the machines themselves are a wonder to watch.
8. Summer Wars
Young math whiz Kenji’s summer vacation plans are completely thrown out the window when he’s asked to pose as a fiancé for his female classmate Natsuki. But that’s nothing compared to the chaos that erupts when he inadvertently destroys the cryptographic protection on “OZ,” the worldwide computer network which is hooked into literally everything. Now his new family has to rally all their troops to make sure a rogue AI doesn’t ruin the whole planet’s summer.
Most techno-thrillers are aseptic stories where the computers have more personality than any of the leads. Summer Wars not only puts people first in its story, but hints that we should do the same thing in our own lives, too. And like Eden of the East, it has some sly things to say about the way we need human connections more than we do digital ones.