Best Anime of 2011 – Mawaru Penguindrum

Mawaru PenguindrumSlice of life meets dark fantasy meets mind-f*ck meets surrealism meets arcane symbolism and plenty of other good stuff. In a medium which produces so many titles catering to Otaku with so-so stories, cliched plots and tacky sexism comes a title that is willing to engage the audience in a visual war that is unrelenting and all conquering. Each scene is packed with meaning, the way characters interact, their routines and rhythms and the gradually darkening world around them. Sure it comes in sugar sweet packaging but this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing as we get a psycho-sexual trip through an anime landscape filled with so many tropes that are picked apart in a post-modern way. It’s just the way the writer and director Kunihiko Ikuhara operates.

Whether the audience will understand any of what’s going on will be dictated by the degree of their understanding of Japanese culture and how many times they’ve paused a scene and looked up things on Wikipedia. Not that it matters because you can sit back and just enjoy the ride but it seems a waste because so few anime push the boundaries or experiment. Wait, that’s not true. So few anime push the boundaries and manage to maintain any forward momentum.

I’ve already written about this but I love it. It’s the first show since the first season of Heroes that had me on the edge of my seat, desperate to see what happens to each character I care about, where every scene and moment can take a fantastical and dark turn full of visual and aural inventiveness and the story line goes where I don’t expect it.

Sometimes I think it’s just me. I’m a snob and my taste is too different, too individual and too niche and I’m pretentious. This is the first title where I can say that people will like it. People will like it because of the content on the screen and not just the pretty images but the (potential) symbolism behind everything which allows conversations to blossom. Nobody anywhere will have cause for complaint. You will be entertained at different levels. People may not “get” it and it might not get into the top three of many lists but they sure will like it. Me? I love it!

You’re probably not convinced by my babbling. That’s okay. Just know that you’ll be missing out on one of the best anime of the year.If you do need convincing then here’s someone smarter and more articulate than I am waxing lyrical about it.

Runner-up: Steins;Gate

Mayuri and Rintarō in Akihabara Steins;GateI had been meaning to write up my thoughts about this anime for a long time but never got around to it. A shame really because as it aired over the year it wormed its way into my affections.

After watching the first few episodes of Steins;Gate the signs were not overly positive. I found that my viewing experience was like being mired in a swamp, desperately scrambling to bits of high ground before slipping back into energy draining mush. I found it slow to build, visually sharp but muted and the mix of Akihabara culture and Back to the Future quaint. The little details and snatches of everyday life were nice but their repetition was grinding. It served a purpose because of the time travel and parallel universe elements which were subtly done. I even hated the opening and end themes.

As I continued to watch it gradually won me over. The little details and snatches of everday life grew ever more important and all of the things that I noticed from earlier episodes gained new meaning, the way things changed grew in significance and the breathtakingly intelligent design in the plot became clearer. The most important element was its central character Okabe Rintarō. Initially he seemed like a crackpot inventor but through the use of time-travel and parallel dimensions we saw a real humanity emerge and I empathised with the guy as he struggled and almost broke through the repeat torture of botched missions along some time line as he strived to save his friends and maintain people’s happiness. His blossoming romance with Kurisu was heartening and heart-breaking but it was his brotherly love for Mayuri that spoke the most. Hell, who wouldn’t want to be a protector of Mayuri, the show’s secret weapon.

Mayuri Cosplay in Steins;Gate