While streaming continues to be a valuable way for anime fans to experience new and favorite shows, the trusty DVD and Blu-ray Disc continue to be the archival format of choice, and many new releases found themselves a home on disc this year. Here are the best of the new-series releases from 2012, as we reviewed them, with all titles are in alphabetical order.
Lone-wolf swordsman Guts had no intention of pledging his allegiance to anyone, let alone the charismatic and ambitious Griffith, leader of the mercenary band the Hawks. But fate has conspired to draw them together -- fate, and maybe something else, something far darker than either of them know.
The first installment in this lavish new animated version of Kentaro Miura's epic fantasy manga bodes incredibly well for the rest of this prospective series. Not only is the animation many notches above the original TV series, but this version aims to adapt the whole of the original story, instead of just an abortive subset of it. It's the beginning of something very special.
2. Broken Blade
Giant robots or mecha are one of those anime subgenres that seem to have been played out, but every now and then someone finds a fascinating new twist on the material. Broken Blade takes place in a world powered by alternative technology, which has developed its own giant-robot species powered by a kind of psionics. Our hero has no psi talent, but stumbles across a mecha from a previous age which is powered by an entirely different tech ... and it's also hinted that it might be from our own future. That's just the setup, though: the real story is far more character-driven and intriguing, and doesn't rest on the mere invocation of a cool idea to be interesting.
3. Bunny Drop
This little treasure of a show accomplishes so much with so little, it makes larger and more ambitious shows seem top-heavy and clumsy in comparison. A thirtyish man with no particular direction in life is suddenly saddled with the responsibility of bringing up his grandfather's illegitimate daughter, when no one else in his family will step up and take charge. The little girl, Rin, is shy and quiet at first, but under his guidance she opens up and becomes a source of great joy in his life. Things grow more complicated when he tries to find out about her mother, who also refuses to take responsibility for her -- but more because she believes herself to be not up to the job. There's no special effects, no overheated drama, just a minutely-observed and perfectly-pitched story. No more was needed.
College student Kimimaro's perpetually broke despite working two jobs. Small wonder when he's offered a chance to enter the mystical "Financial District", where great real-world fortunes can be made in combat, he's sorely tempted. There's only one catch: to fight, you have to wager your future as collateral ... and losing may cost you your very existence.
The immensely clever and creative premise for this show could have been a mere gimmick, but it's used instead as the underpinning for a much smarter and more daring story than might be expected. A great example of a show that uses action and thrills to actually make its points instead of avoiding them. Highest possible recommendation.
A gleefully insane black comedy with a terrific premise (one adapted from the manga of the same name): a milquetoast with a fondness for folk music is drafted against his will (and better judgment) to become the fire-, bilge-, and vulgarity-spewing lead for an underground death metal band. Soon the strain of leading a double life leads his "real" persona to become that much more like his "fake" one, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, his family, and random strangers who get sucked into the maelstrom. The live-action movie version is also worth checking out, and about as unhinged.
For over thirty years and one hundred twenty volumes, the Guin Saga series of novels enthralled generations of Japanese fans until the death of its creator Karou Kurimoto in 2010. She didn't live to see this TV adaptation of the first ten or so books in the series, but she would have been proud: it does justice to the rousing, wide-ranging, Robert E. Howard / J.R.R. Tolkien-infected adventure story told therein. A warrior -- a giant of a man with no memory, but the head of a leopard -- comes to the aid of a pair of twins, the last heirs to an empire guarding a tremendous secret. The first half is almost entirely adventure; the second half is more akin to the backstabbing and politicking of A Game of Thrones, but no less intriguing. Get the Blu-ray Disc version to see the series at its most visually lush.
A rather luckless and unskilled samurai manages to land work as a bodyguard for a smooth-talking, handsome stranger who turns out to be part of a gang that kidnaps and ransoms royalty. As he's drawn deeper into their circles, he discovers everyone -- himself included -- has a great many secrets worth revealing.
Another understated masterpiece (along with Bunny Drop) brought to English-speaking territories courtesy of NIS America. For a samurai story, there's relatively little in the way of swashbuckling -- nothing like the over-the-top Ninja Scroll or Basilisk. But the pleasures found here are well worth savoring.
Anime adapted from video games often suffer from being beholden to the source material, so much so that those unfamiliar with the game are often at sea. Persona 4 was at risk for ending up as a complete head-scratcher, but the creeators managed a great balancing act: they do justice to the storyline, flavor, and even the look of the original game while at the same time creating something that stands nicely on its own. It's part murder mystery, part parallel-universe fantasy, and part strangeness for its own sake, but somehow it all works.
Arguably not just the best show released on DVD/BD in 2012, but one of the best shows in recent years, period. A reclusive girl whose one passion in the world is for jellyfish has her life (and her would-be career as an artist) upended when a woman who's a "Stylish" -- her geek-clique's code-word for a classy dresser and looker -- sashays into her life. Trouble is, this girl's actually a boy, and soon her gender-bending ways are making no end of trouble for this gang who pride themselves on having "A Life That Has No Use For Men." Funny, heartfelt, touching, and in the end, about something substantive and real, too.
If Sailor Moon invented the magical girl genre as we know it, Madoka Magica may well have re-invented it. A girl who wants very much to become just such a character discovers it can in fact be done ... but doesn't realize at first that it will come at a very dear cost. Great writing and dramatics aside, Madoka also delivers as a visual spectacle, with some of the most adventurous and experimental animation production this side of Revolutionary Girl Utena.
"Horrifying" is such an overused adjective that when you encounter something that lives up completely to the word, it's enough to rattle the bones. Shiki begins with what seems like a clichéd premise -- a family of vampires makes themselves at home in an out-of-the-way town and uses it as a feeding ground -- but then burrows so deeply into it and does such a thoroughgoing job of upending it that by the conclusion, all our sensibilities about who the "good guys" and "bad guys" really are have been completely subverted. Difficult to sit through, but even harder to forget.
Anime is often at its best when it's hopping genres, so does it come as a giant surprise that one of the best anime of the year was a mash-up of slice-of-life slacker/nerd comedy, time-travel science fiction, paranoid crypto-horror, and heartfelt drama? That's what you get when a self-proclaimed mad scientist-cum-genius invents a time machine by crossbreeding a microwave with a cell phone, only to discover the more you mess with the past, the more the future finds ways of evening the score. (The raucous, brilliantly-directed and -acted English dub is the cherry on this particular sundae.)