It could have been easy to give a simple mention of each of these titles and get this year covered in one post, but as the essay titles indicated this year had to be covered in more detail, respecting the reader and the blog while also bucking tradition and giving more. Luckily, the latter half of 2004 felt the same way...
Being a visual medium anime has to do something to really catch viewers' interests at times and while the year had a few worthy contenders, like Windy Tales and Tweeny Witches, no anime from 2004 did that as well as Gankutsuou–The Count of Monte Cristo. Based on the legendary novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, Gonzo took the story and put it a new spin on it, while also giving the entire show a look that, to this day, is still one-of-a-kind.
Simply from a storytelling perspective Gankutsuou took the tale and put it into the far-future year of 5053, even having the titular Count live on Luna, a colony on the Moon that houses the worst criminals. After saving Viscount Albert de Morcerf from certain death at the hands of Luna's bandits he finds the opportunity to make his way to Earth, Paris in particular, so as to enact the revenge that he's wanted to do, much like the original novel. While the story stuck to the novel's original time period, specifically in terms of social classification and general attire, the show also fully embraced its futuristic shift, with the poor people living a world of dirty pipes and grunge, while the rich live in a seeming-utopia, and grand battles are dealt with by way of giant robots that are piloted by the duelists when the need arises. The idea that the rich are in fact the ones who are caged like birds was indeed brought up and it helped push the thought that these people were truly living in their own fantasies.
While it could have simply relied on its mix of sci-fi and renaissance and delivered just on that, Gankutsuou went above and beyond by also delivering a vision that at first confuses but quickly becomes the key element that makes the show visually memorable. While the characters themselves were traditionally animated, the backgrounds were rendered in 3D, but the craziest and most-memorable element came in the form of how the characters were dressed. Every major character's shirt, jacket, pants, shoes, and even hair were simply Photoshop textures that the characters animated over. In concept it's absolutely ludicrous, simple, and could have easily gone horribly wrong, but Gankutsuou managed to not only make it work but it became the aspect that easily defined the show the most. Add in a masterful soundtrack by Jean-Jacques Burnel, bassist for the UK band The Stranglers, and Kouji Kasamatsu, and this alternate telling of Dumas' literary classic would definitely stay in the minds of anime aficionados as long as they could "Bide their time, and hold out hope!" Luckily, Gankutsuou is still streaming as of this essay and can be had on DVD for cheap.
Combining the character drama of Ashita no Joe with the fantastical and outrageous imagery of baseball manga Astro Kyudan, along with a seasoning of the "bishonen" look of The Rose of Versailles, Ring ni Kakero introduced a fast-paced, action-packed, and visually-accentuated style to shonen fighting, let alone boxing, manga that laid the groundwork that Fist of the North Star would then bring into a non-sports environment, forever changing the way shonen manga would be seen by not only Japan but the world at large.
Ring ni Kakero 1 followed Ryuji Takane, the son of a deceased boxer, and his journey of making his way up the junior boxing ladder with hopes of one day going pro, becoming world champion, and beating his ultimate rival/friend, the prodigy Jun Kenzaki. This first season (of four, most recently in 2011) focused on the Champion Carnival, where Ryuji fights his fellow regional champions to see who will make up Team Japan in the upcoming Jr. Boxing World Tournament. With the likes of Toei doing the animation, Yosuke Kuroda adapting the story, Shingo Araki and Michi Himeno doing the character designs, and Susumu Ueda making the music sound old-school but not "old", the anime maintained an excellent production quality to it, even if the animation itself went "cheap" at times; having an masterful voice cast was simply icing.
RnK1's greatest asset, though, aside from its simple but highly memorable characters, was its pacing. Whereas shonen is now infamous for its slow pace and never-ending battles, RnK1 had a great pace and the battles tended to be short; only two fights in this season go beyond one episode. Still, Ring ni Kakero 1's blueprint would completely change the world of shonen and is still followed to this day, influencing the likes of Yasuhiro Imagawa's G Gundam, Sunrise's GaoGaiGar, SNK's The King of Fighters, and many others. Unfortunately, this show has never been licensed for North American release and has no official English translation, so one has to reply on "dubious methods" to see this show at the moment.
Like where many anime fans first meet up en masse, Genshiken took place in a university which houses both an anime and manga club, but the "Genshiken" itself was a club about more than just those two hobbies. It's essentially an "Otaku Club", where fans of all sorts can gather and relate to each other. That relation and expansiveness was what made Genshiken work, because each character had a love/fetish to him/her, whether it's gaming, cosplay, model building, or even being the "hardcore otaku" who is willing to risk living expenses and even physical health to get a precious item.
What made the show relatable to all, though, was the inclusion of Saki, a girl who only joins the club because her boyfriend Kohsaka is an otaku (well, there's also the blackmail). Saki is at first dismissive of these otaku and their lifestyles, but simply by being around them and seeing their openness in regards to others and themselves she eventually comes to accept these people as her friends and even finds minor aspects of otaku culture that she can relate to. She never becomes an all-out otaku like the others, but through Saki the show's loving nature towards the idea of the "otaku" came in full force, showing that everyone has a bit of that crazed fanatic in them.
One could argue that the show might be too forgiving and even romanticizing of the culture, but Genshiken showed why some people take pride in calling themselves "otaku". For most people, though, the truth is somewhere in the middle, between Otaku no Video's criticism and Genshiken's love, and it's up to everyone to find where they fit. The show, as well as its second season, is still in print and available for purchase as of this essay, plus there is a new show that follows the "next generation" of the Genshiken airing right now!
The story of a young girl, Fuu, who inadvertently travels with two ronin, Mugen and Jin, during her search for a mysterious "Man Who Smells of Sunflowers" was simply a framework that Watanabe used to explain why these three kept getting into all sorts of trouble. While there is an overarching story to Champloo, the show followed Bebop's lead by making it all about the journey itself and what it entailed rather than what the end result of it all was. Truly, some of the best episodes were one-offs that relied more on the anachronistic environment than anything else; watch the series' baseball episode for an excellent example of what made the show work.
The mix of "traditional" chambara elements like the time period and swordplay with more modern elements like clothing styles and even graffiti resulted in a Japan that was unlike most other adaptations of the country out there at the time, and the use of both hard-hitting hip-hop beats, featuring Fat Jon and the late Nujabes, as well as slower R&B tunes resulted in possibly the most "rebellious" anime series of the year. Its 2005 airing on [adult swim] took the hip-hop style even further, replacing traditional censor "beeps" with DJ-style “scratches”. Unfortunately, like its older brother, that rebellious nature did hurt the series slightly, as low ratings resulted in the show getting canceled on its original Fuji TV time slot in September after 17 episodes; after a four month hiatus the last nine episodes started airing the following January on the same channel. While it may not have become the "scion" that Cowboy Bebop is considered now, Samurai Champloo still blazed its own path by having its elements compose a magnum opus and can still easily be scored to this day, no rap battles needed.