Here we go with the second part of the much belated rundown of my personal top picks for 2015.
8. Owarimonogatari – Dat Punch
A part of me desperately wants to talk about episode five’s retelling of Oikura’s past in her own words as it’s easily one of the most affecting examples of someone laying bare their emotions in recent years. However, as I started to compile this list the more I noticed a trend towards favouring self-examination arcs that began to feel a tad repetitious. So, seeing as there’s there’s an even better example in the next post, I’ll lighten the tone a little and just mention that one time Senjogahara dragged Hanekawa from one half of a classroom to punch Oikura across to the other. Senjogahara may be known these days more for her sharp retorts than stationary tropes, but if pushed hard enough she can still royally fuck you up with ease.
Still not the best girl though.
7. Yatterman Night – Celebrating (& Desecrating) your Idols
Long running franchises that rely heavily on nostalgia towards their roots have always been a double-edged sword as far as I’m concerned, having the potential to damage your fond memories as much as nurture them. They can also prove impenetrable to newcomers trying to find a way in. Maybe that’s why I still find the Gundam universe dull and confusing, with a bloated sense of its own importance (that, or I try crap examples like G Reco). I was expecting a similar response to the first episode of Yatterman Night, a reimagining/sequel to an almost 40 year franchise that feels antiquated by today’s standards. That’s not what happened and by the end of the first episode I was so sold by the world of Yatterman that I started searching online for episodes of the original show.
What made Yatterman Night work was it understood how to pave a path between celebration of its own goofy roots and making an accessible story to a new generation that has never experienced the show, putting us in the perspective on someone both on the outside, yet personally touched by the events and characters through storybook tales of classical heroes and villains. Rather than demand you care about the campy world of robot dogs and masked vigilantes, it presents someone who does, someone who retains a childlike sense of wonder and majesty towards a time now deemed irrelevant in a sombre world lacking in innocence. The scene where Leopard stumbles across an old portrait of the Doronbow gang is the crystallisation of this moment. Out of context it’s just a crumbling poster from the past, but to her it appears like a holy relic, with the light shining down from the shed roof framing it like a treasure from some recently opened tomb or the centrepiece in a cathedral. It’s a fantastic idea that helps the show tell its story in a way that’s respectful and light-hearted yet also darkly subservice. Night ultimately had some stumbles along the way, but even now I’m amazed that it managed to combine a story about toy robots fighting and costumed crusaders blasting off again within the context of a thinly disguised North Korea commentary.
6. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure – D’Arrrrrrrrrrrby
Like quite a few people out there I was pretty let down by Stardust Crusaders, finding the slow crawl through hit-and-miss battles of the week ultimately sacrificed the greater narrative and killed any tension in the race against time premise. Thankfully the upcoming Diamond is Unbreakable seems to fix many of my annoyances, with more imaginative fights with actual thematic weight and a more relaxed setting proving a natural fit for the weekly villain formula (Persona 4 comparisons are definitely apparent). Regardless, after all the hype surrounding the famous third arc I couldn’t help but feel it was the weakness offering so far.
That said there were highlights, such as Dio’s eventual appearance showing what the entire show could have been like, or watching an evil Freddy Krueger baby forced to eat their own shit. But towering above even those was the encounter with my favourite villain of the entire arc, D’Arby the Gambler. Here Araki finally decided to stop using the cast as punching bags preceding Jotaro going all One (thousand) Punch Man and ending things, by removing the physical element entirely and having a clash of wits from the cast, with their very souls on the line.
Obviously this doesn’t go for Polnareff, while Avdol is relegated to Speedwagon duties but it finally allows Joseph to reveal his old trickster roots, something that had been almost entirely removed in Stardust Crusaders in favour of Engrish meme-shouting. Of course it’s Jotaro that steals the fight; using his trademark brooding coolness (ie sullen dullness) as a weapon against D’Arby, who, like the good troll he is, desperately wants to see his opponent panic and despair. Of course being a troll, when given nothing to feed off, his confident veneer slowly begins to implode, revealing his own insecurities and weaknesses. Jotaro capitalises on this perfectly, using Star Platinum to play mind games with D’Arby, who being so wrapped up by the cards in front of him, doesn’t pay enough attention to his opponent and so begins to confuse deadpan expressions and trickery for a master hand. The more worried D’Arby gets, the more brazen Jotaro becomes with his bets, offering Avdol’s and finally his own mother’s souls on his junk cards, culminating in a literal nervous breakdown right there at the table.
This was easily of the most exciting, suspenseful and ultimately rewarding enemy encounter Stardust Crusaders managed to create in its entire 52 episode run and it did so without throwing a single punch. It was bloody fantastic and marked a real step-up in terms of Araki focusing his creativity for character interplay rather than just power level gimmicks.
5. Yuri Kuma Arashi – A Perfect Finale
As much I respect Ikuhara’s works, his tendency to obfuscate real-world commentary behind loose symbolism is something I find refreshing and infuriating in equal measure, particularly in regards to his endings. The conclusion to Utena was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve encountered in an anime, but the act of sitting through it was a draining experience, while Penguindrum was so dense with big concepts that by the time it decided to wrap them up via train journeys, magical staircases and cryptic speeches, my brain had shut off and I was literally unable to process anything it was saying outside the most general terms.
Yuri Kuma largely sidestepped this issue by only being twelve episodes long. That’s not to say there weren’t problems elsewhere, particularly in terms of character development, but by being given such a limited format the show needed to simplify things, both in terms of visuals and narrative, and quickly get to the point in its story of two girls discovering love despite larger external expectations for them confirm to the stereotypes society (as exemplified by manga and anime) put on their sexuality (ie. that of a chaste soft-yuri Lilly or a predatory Bear). It still managed to contain all the usual Ikuhara-isms you’d expect, but was nowhere near as indulgent which allowed his message to be heard loud and clear. Kureha and Ginko find love and go forever beyond the influence of those who will harm them. It gets better after high school basically.
Theirs is a small personal victory even if the status quo hasn’t changed. The influence of the Wall of Severance’s physical societal enforcement still towers over the city, while the Invisible Storm’s malicious hate-mob still represses and bullies those that don’t conform to their narrow world view. There is still hope from these small acts of defiance, so long as a few people heed the call. It may only be a trickle now, but one day it may well lead to a flood.
Yuri Kuma might follow many of the same story beats as Utena’s finale did all those years ago but that ending is as important today as it ever was and this show improves upon it. Well done Ikuhara.