THE TOP 9 "NEW TO ME" ANIME SERIES OF 2006 (conclusion)Continued from Part 1.
Again, just a reminder, these shows are ones that were "new to me" this year, not necessarily shows that first aired in Japan this year.
#4 Windy Tales
I had actually been wanting to see Windy Tales since around March 2005, when someone on another message board compared to Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou ("Yokohama Shopping Log"), but I didn't actually get a chance to see this anime until someone uploaded all of it fansubbed to YouTube.
It's a show about a couple of high school girls, the only members of a photography club at the school, who, one day, are taking pictures of clouds (and the wind) on the roof of the high school when one of the girls, Nao, notices a cat perched on the edge of the roof. Nao jumps over the safety fence and tries to get a picture of the cat, but the cat jumps off the edge. However, instead of falling to its death, a mysterious gust of wind keeps the cat suspended in air, which would be a surprising enough sight in and of itself, but then Nao notices that there are dozens upon dozens of other cats floating in the air. She tries to take pictures of them all, but she leans too far over the edge of the roof and falls off, almost to her death but another gust of wind saves her at the last second. Nao is unharmed, and, printing out the pictures from the camera, notices a picture of her math teacher, Taiki, that she seemed to have taken while she was falling. She tries to see him, but finds out that he has taken a sabattical to visit his home village. Nao, Miki (the other member of the photography club), and Jun (a male classmate who spread a rumour that Nao had tried to commit suicide and now feels sorry for spreading it) decide to try and find the cat first, but, after fruitless searches through alleys and on top of walls, Nao heads for the now closed-off roof from which she fell and finds another classmate, Ryoko, who seems to know what's really going on: the cat can manipulate the wind to "fly", and the teacher, Taiki, has the power as well, and he taught it to her, though she isn't as good as he is. Nao, Miki, and Jun decide to head for Taiki's village, where all of the wind manipulators in Japan are meeting up for a Wind Festival wherein they chart out the weather for the coming year or so in Japan. The kids find a mentor in an old gasoline station attendant, who teaches them the "Wind User" basics, and so begins the low-key adventures of the "Wind Cat Sisters".
Despite the slight supernatural elements of the storyline, the whole series is pretty much a down-to-earth "slice of life" coming of age drama about a group of friends with some mild comic relief, but only coming directly from the characters in a natural way, nothing forced. If you don't like slow-paced, character-driven shows where nothing terribly exciting happens, you probably shouldn't bother. But I'm a slice-of-life anime fan, so this sort of anime appeals to me greatly. Like the similarly-paced Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, Windy Tales is the sort of show that tries as much to create a calming atmosphere in the viewer as it does to tell a good story, and it does so splendidly, with a watercolour palette colour scheme and wind noises supplementing the sparse musical score, which is mostly piano with some soft guitar. And, as is also the case with Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, the literal atmosphere is almost a character in and of itself, always present in the background and manifesting itself in the clouds, hair, and trees almost as though there was some kind of intelligence behind it (and, in Windy Tales, that is at least somewhat the case). And, another major selling point of this show is the unique look of the artwork, with abstract, deformed character designs that almost looked like these characters were cut-out from construction paper and then had their expressive faces sketched on.
Unfortunately, I think this anime is just too "different" to ever be licensed.
(Episode 1: 1/2/3.)
#1 (3-way tie) The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
Eh, I can't rank my top 3 "new to me" anime, so I'll take the lazy way out and declare a 3-way tie, and I'll start with the anime that I believe to be the most widely-acclaimed of the three, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya might, at first, seem like a typical high school comedy anime, but appearances can be deceiving. It's the story of an eccentric and capricious high school girl named Haruhi Suzumiya as seen through the eyes of an ordinary high school boy known to the viewer only by his nickname, "Kyon". On the first day of her arrival in her new school, she announces to the class that she is completely uninterested in normal humans and only wants to socialize with time-travellers, aliens, and ESPers (psychics). She is bored in class, and, while she is athletically gifted, she is notorious for joining clubs for a day and then leaving. When Kyon, the only person she'll listen to, half-heartedly suggests to her that she start her own club, she enthusiastically embraces the idea, enlists Kyon as the first member and her second-in-command (before he can even say "no"), and proceeds to take over a practically abandoned club room that had been more or less vacated by the literature club, whose sole remaining member, Yuki Nagato, a bookworm with a monotonic voice, is content to let Haruhi do her thing as long as she can continue reading. Haruhi enlists Yuki and a couple of more members for the purpose-elusive SOS club, Mikuru Asahina, a teenage girl whom Haruhi chose for her big-busted lolita mascot value (and whom Haruhi likes to abuse by making her wear all sorts of embarassing costumes), and Itsuki Koizumi, a suave transfer student, and they all soon help to make Kyon's ordinary life a lot more interesting in ways Kyon can barely understand.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya stands out above the pack of anime comedies for having intelligent writing, dry humour, and some real depth, not so much in terms of the true natures of the characters, which are actually revealed fairly early in the series, with a lot of hints even earlier than that, but more in terms of the bigger picture "implications" once the truth is known. And it bears stunning animation quality for a television series (where, for example, when characters play instruments in one episode, their hands are actually shown playing the instruments in tune with the music rather than just repeating the same 4 or 5 frames over and over). And the ending theme song animation, "Hare Hare Yukai" (Sunny Sunny Happy), has got to be one of the most parodied ending sequences ever, though I prefer the opening song for the "bounciness".
(Chronological order episode 1)
(Broadcast order episode 1, "The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina".)
#1 (3-way tie) Ouran High School Host Club
2006 has really been the year of the Haruhi, with two anime comedy series about high school girls named "Haruhi" who become associated with rather unusual school clubs, but, whereas Haruhi Suzumiya was the driving force behind the unclearly-purposed club that she started on a whim, Haruhi Fujioka finds herself reluctantly enlisted into a club due to unfortunate circumstances.
You see, Haruhi Fujioka is a rather androgenous-looking middle-class girl who is just starting at the ultra-prestigious Ouran High School, a school for the idle sons and daughters of the ultra-wealthy and ultra-powerful that Haruhi is only able to attend after working hard to get a scholarship, and, while looking for a quiet place to study, she happens across a music room that she assumes is abandoned, only to find that it is the room used by the Host Club, whose members get paid by girls to go on dates, though it's nothing salacious. What the girls are paying for is to be flattered by the most popular boys in the school. When Haruhi enters the club room, she is mistakenly assumed, at first, to be a gay boy by the club members, but a customer is a customer, so the various "hosts", all of whom carefully cultivate their public personas so as to fill some kind of bishounen (pretty boy) stereotype among fangirls, offer themselves to her. In an attempt to flee the room, she backs into a vase that the club was going to sell off at a fundraising auction with an expected bid of around 8 million yen (around $80,000 U.S.), so, to pay it off, the club (most of whom have figured out, by that point that Haruhi is a "she", since she's not really trying to hide it) makes Haruhi the "dogsbody" (lowly servant) of the club, and they decide to dress her up in a boy's high school uniform and pass her off as a boy for the rich-but-not-too-bright-or-too-sharp female students to date.
Haruhi also becomes a point of fascination for the club members, as they are so isolated from the realities of the "proletariat" that she is the first Japanese commoner that they have ever really befriended, and they set out to familiarize themselves with such exotic (for them) delicacies as "Instant Coffee" and "Cup Noodles". Tamaki, the leader of the club, tries his best not to be condescending towards the middle-class Haruhi, but, in telling the others not to be condescending, he usually ends up being very condescending himself, thinking Haruhi is a lot more poor than she actually is, which irks Haruhi, but she recognizes his sincerity and that he doesn't really mean to offend her, so she doesn't stay offended for long.
While Ouran High School Host Club borrows a lot of styling cues from high-concept, mind-screw shoujo shows like Revolutionary Girl Utena, the story itself is fairly straightforward and accessible, with some depth, with a clearly defined subtext about class differences in Japan, as well as a more vague subtext about Haruhi not being particularly interested in gender roles. Ironically, though, in attempting to fashion Haruhi into a "boy", the members of the club, especially Tamaki, begin to awaken some adolescent feminine undercurrents in her personality. But it's not a show designed to be analyzed too much, it is a comedy, and a funny one at that, possibly the best shoujo comedy series since Super GALS!
(Episode 1: 1/2/3.)
#1 (3-way tie) Ichigo Mashimaro (Strawberry Marshmallow)
Well, this is an easy show to describe: cute grade-school girls go about their daily activities in the cutest of ways. Four cute girls, actually: Chika Itou, the ordinary one, Miu Matsuoka, the bossy and mischevous one, Matsuri Sakuragi, the glasses-wearing, ferret-owning, shy, timid, and easily-hurt one, and Ana Coppola, a rich girl who was born in Cornwall, England, but moved with her parents to Japan around a half-decade before the start of the story, when she was about six years old, and who has more or less forgotten how to speak English. Chika and Miu are 12-years old and are in sixth grade, while Matsuri and Ana are 11-years old and are in fifth grade. The other major character is Chika's older sister, Nobue Itoh, who is a chain-smoker always short on the money needed to support her habit. Nobue is a 16-year old high school student in the original Barasui manga, though, in the anime, she claims to be a 20-year old college student largely to get around a Japanese television prohibition against showing underaged characters smoking. That's pretty much all you need to know. The stories, like one about the girls making an ashtray over the course of just a single evening for Nobue's birthday, are really just pretenses to show how the girls waste so much time doing something simple, more often than not due to personality conflicts instigated by Miu.
Generally speaking, if you don't like low-key slice-of-life stories, Ichigo Mashimaro is not a show that you'd have any interest in seeing, though you might get a kick out of the often slapstick comedy if you have enough patience. On the other hand, if you liked Azumanga Daioh, this is supposedly more or less the same thing with different characters (though I can only rely on what others have told me, since I've still never seen a full episode of Azumanga).
Also, Ichigo Mashimaro is somewhat controversial, since, although it's about young girls, the target audience is actually college-aged men. If you watch the short preview episode, "Episode 0", in the extras of the first disk, you will see that it actually aired very late at night (25:55 = 1:55 a.m.), in time slots where the only viewers whatsoever is the small otaku niche audience. It does lead one to ask what the intended appeal is supposed to be. If you're a viewer like me, the appeal is simply that it's a cute, slice-of-life comedy, and that's all. Some other people who like the show tend to get more defensive, saying that the appeal is a nostalgic one, showing a version of childhood friendship that is somewhat idealized but not too saccharine, or that it appeals to people who appreciate the moé aesthetic, where you're charmed by cute things. Then there are detractors who claim that the only people who are into shows like this are closeted lolicom fans, but I think that's a gross and unfair oversimplication of the appeal. Though, I will concede that the anime is a bit toned down from the original manga, which has some mildly suggestive elements, particularly how Nobue herself seems to have some kind of weird lesbian lolicom attraction to her sister's young friends, sometimes being so bold as to trick them into kissing. While the anime Nobue smiles and sometimes says that her sister's friends are cute, in the episodes I've seen, she hasn't kissed any of them.
That's it. Before anyone asks, I still haven't seen Nana, which is supposedly another show that's big with shoujo fans over here.