The final part of my Twelve Days of Christmas posts in which I talk about my top four moments of the year.
4. Shirobako – A Meeting Between Artists
Spend enough time following the anime scene and you’ll invariably encounter stories and urban myths surrounding individual artists and companies, from infamously oddball directors to staggering acts of marketing incompetence. One of the most popular examples of this comes from the idea that manga artists, if allowed input over the adaptation or distribution of their works, will quickly become an overbearing presence, displaying a level of excessive demands & control normally found with divas or egotistical rock bands. Stories such as Sailor Moon creator Naoko Takeuchi being an sufferable nightmare to deal with or the creator of Hellsing insisting the correct English title of Alucard be Arucard (because it’s Dracura spelled backwards obviously) have persisted as behind the scenes rumours for years now.
Shirobako does little to dispel this notion once Musashino Animation starts work on adapting popular manga series, The Third Aerial Girls Squad. Well into pre-production of the show they discover the mangaka, Takezou Nogame, has rejected their proposed character designs, demanding several revisions with only the vaguest hints as instructions before he is finally satisfied. This fraught relationship comes to a head when he eventually rejects the storyboard for the final episode, leading director Seiichi Kinoshita to sleuth out the elusive author’s location and physically barge past his managerial team to gain an audience.
The meeting was not what I expected. Rather than some pompous egotist, Nogame turns out to be a gentle and polite man quite open to discussion. Sure, he has firm beliefs that the work should follow his own themes (understandable considering he was burned by a poor anime original ending in a previous work) but is happy to discuss what they mean to him. What’s more, by conveying their own personal interpretations of the cast and story, both author and director gain valuable insight and respect towards the other, helping each to move forward past their individual stumbling blocks.
There ended up being no dictator or bogyman, just another artist trying to do the best they can with something they love. The only villain in the story turned out to be the incompetent publishing staff that acted as a wall between the two. It’s a great message to have. Though disagreements may arrive, the thoughts of the creator and director ultimately share the same drive that compels all artists at heart. It’s easy to be cynical over the cold-heart business practices of anime studios and production committees sometimes but this particular scene epitomised Shirobako’s message that nobody would choose and stick with such a low-paying, hour consuming profession as the industry without the same spark of passion.
3. School Live – Mastering Foreshadowing
It would be easy to just say ‘whoa that twist, wasn’t expecting that!’ and leave it like that, but chances are if you read the press releases or preview guides pre-season like I did, then it would have already been spoiled (although I did forgot until right before it occured). Instead I’m talking about the framing and setup of the reveal that slowly creeps in throughout the entirely of the first episode, serving as possibly the most effective example of foreshadowing I’ve encountered in anime. Even aspects that originally frustrated people, such as Yuki’s obnoxious moeblob persona actually serves as a masterful form of misdirection, being so in your face that you might not notice the subtlety behind the other character’s actions. Why does Kurumi carry a shovel around? Why does Miki constantly walk into Yuki’s lessons without knocking? Why are there quick distance background shots of cracked glass or out of focus scenes of people milling on the school athletic track? Why is there a dog on school grounds and why is Yuri so worried about the girls chasing it around? With Yuki behaving the way she does it’s easy to shrug these details off as just the type of random quirkiness you’d expect from a high school gag comedy. There are even blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nods to future plot twists if you’re paying extra attention.
On repeat the tone of the episode takes a drastic change. Instead of fun high jinks, the events are heavy with fraying nerves and tension, while the more energetic things become, the greater the sense of encroaching hysteria. By making you focus on the wrong things, the real meaning and tone of the episode is obfuscated to the point of dismissal. There are few series I know of that have mastered the slow decent into misery and madness (Higurashi, Berserk and Infinite Ryvius are a few examples), and even less that successfully hide the fact until it’s too late. In that regard School Live has one of the most effective openers I’ve ever encountered.
2. My Teenage Romcom SNAFU – A Trip to the Ocean
There are some that feel that beyond all the bells and whistles SNAFU is just another healing anime about a self-pitying cynical nerd insert who deep down wants the male respect and female pseudo-harem of a typical light novel protagonist. On the surface it’s a little hard to argue against such reasoning as the show is clearly built around that vague conceit, yet to dismiss it in such a way is to really miss the forest for the trees. Rather than some indulgent reassuring confirmation of the characters life choices, SNAFU’s ultimate message is that of gently, but firmly encouraging self-actualising and improvement as individuals. It isn’t saying you’re fine the way you are, but that you have the potential to be with enough effort and experience. The world will never revolve around you, but you can at least be a positive part of it.
I could honestly wax lyrical about the entire show in such a way, but Bobduh’s already done so in a far more eloquent and insightful manner than I’d ever hope to achieve. Instead I’ll just mention one of the many fantastic scenes from S2 when Hachiman’s teacher Shizuka takes him on a trip to the sea to discuss his problems. Hatchiman admits he’s been deliberately keeping Yukino and Yui out of his concerns to protect them, but rather than supporting his noble act of sacrifice, Shizuka calls him out for causing more damage to their friendship by not trusting in them. The subject eventually moves on to Yukino in particular, in which Shizuka mentions the hope that he will be able to help her in some way. However, rather than state his importance as a saviour like the little good male lead he is, Shizuka flat out states he isn’t necessary for it to take place. If Hachiman doesn’t succeed, someone else will eventually get through her shell and assist in the healing. He isn’t the hero of Yukino’s story; just another supporting cast member. She will be the person to save herself and the one to help give the initial push of support could be anyone in the world. It would just be nice if it was him. Not because he’s special, or even a kindred spirit but because he’s a friend.
1. Garo – Leon Bares His Soul
Watching the first half of Garo, it was easy to take a dislike to the conflicted protagonist Leon. Unlike his happy-go-lucky father Germain, noble and charming royal cousin Alfonso or the cool and confident alchemist Ema, Leon’s chief interactions with the world were sullen indignation or brash anger. We had his tragic backstory, but it was hard to feel sympathetic towards a super-soldier knight of justice with a dad as cool as his, whose reaction to most conversations was either glowering or muttering. This dude surely couldn’t be trusted with a weapon as powerful as the Garo armour, right?
Of course the answer turned out to be no. Faced with his personal demons, Leon fails to control his rage and instead of protecting the people, causes a great calamity with many casualties, and is subsequently stripped of his powers and friends, left to quietly attempt suicide.
Season two opens with his survival and nurse back to health by a family of peasant farmers. Expecting more moaning and teenage histrionics, I was surprised to see him quickly bond with this surrogate family and find a measure of peace living a simple life. This small piece of normalcy was apparently what he had wanted all along. This is further laid bare when he reunites with Alfonso and finally opens up in a frank, honest manner. No melodramatic speeches, no screaming or crying; just a man talking about his life.
I’ll admit this type of delivery is particularly resonant with me; it’s what made Oikura’s tale of depression so affecting in Owarimonogatari, or Mereum and Koala’s conversions towards the end of Hunter X Hunter emotionally devastating. We had previously been shown the flashbacks to Leon’s youth, but actually hearing him so candidly speak of his pain floored me. This was a child ripped from his mother’s womb and forced to live on the lam, travelling from place to place to avoid being detected. He lacked some of the most fundamental aspects for a healthy upbringing in a mother’s love and place to call home. He was effectively stripped of society. Germain must have tried his best but was clearly too flighty a person to deal with such trauma. Displaced on the very fringes of a culture that had taken so much from him, Leon was exposed to the very worst of human desire in the form of Horrors, yet it was taken as a given that he be the saviour to those he had grown to resent. His empathy was treated as a given due to him wearing the armour and nobody quite saw his struggle in living up to this standard as anything more than teenage rebellion. Leon was a fundamentally wounded soul who couldn’t bear the weight of this own pain, yet was expected to do so for complete strangers. He was more or less set up for a fall.
Leon does eventually discover the unconditional love and a place to belong that most people take for granted, prior to it being taken away from him. It’s yet more tragedy to his life story; however, finally experiencing the joys of he was always meant to appreciate steels him with the determination to save others from the same pain.
I have to say, for a show about men in silly cgi armour killing Dark Souls cast-offs, I never expected to encounter such a brutally honest and empathetic portrayal of a conflicted hero simply trying to find a small measure of happiness. Garo ultimately didn’t make it into my top ten favourite anime of the year, but this particular arc stood with me long after more successful series had been and gone.