Ask anyone for post-2000 anime recommendations and you're guaranteed to receive at least one of the following responses.
"You should watch Aria."
"I definitely recommend Aria."
"What do you mean you haven't seen Aria?"
If I said Mars of Destruction was the only anime I had seen from the year 2005, I wouldn't be lying except that Akagi also happened to air in 2005.
What do you mean you haven't seen Mars of Destruction?
Best known for its extensive catalog of otome games, video game publishing company and development studio Idea Factory occasionally produces anime series and OVAs based on their properties. In 2005, Idea Factory produced a twenty-minute OVA for a visual novel they developed for the PlayStation 2, Hametsu no Mars, or Mars of Destruction. As best as I can commit it to words, Mars of Destruction is a sci-fi story about a virus from Mars that arrives on Earth, infecting people in Tokyo and turning them into "Ancients". This woeful cartoon has the distinction of being one of, if not, the worst rated anime on both MyAnimeList and AniDB. For such a minor blip in the grand scheme of things, how does Mars of Destruction get one over (under?) other legendarily awful productions such as M.D. Geist and Garzey's Wing?
Despite the game's rapid descent into obscurity, the tie-in anime that was destined from inception as a throwaway extra stands out as such a blinding example of terrible, it refuses to be forgotten long after the game proper was buried in a bargain bin. In a succinct twenty minutes, Mars features a nonsensical story rife with clichés, regrettable acting and dialogue, thoughtless direction, amateurish animation, shameless parallels to Evangelion, evisceration of generic anime girls, and the vocal talents of a young Chihara Minori (Yuki Nagato from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya) who couldn't have known better. Being a mere promotional video attached to a low tier game release, Mars of Destruction may not have been so disastrous as to shutter Idea Factory or force a renowned creator into early retirement, but it is exceptional in how immediate and aggressive it is in being bad. Thanks to its short run time and dubious interest from the rights holders, the anime is easily found on YouTube for the benefit of future generations of anime viewers.
I am aware I am being facetious. Since even I'm not comfortable saying Mars of Destruction defines anime in 2005, let's talk about Aria.
2005 appears to serve as another intermission year for the medium, biding its time for the coming storm of major titles that would change the game. Although 2005 is relatively subdued in comparison to 2006, the quiet can be read as the earliest signs of a new direction anime was set to take in the upcoming years. What began with Yokohama Shopping Log would blossom in full earnest with the arrival of Aria the Animation.
"Slice-of-Life" is a phrase many like to use in reference to anything and everything taking place in conflict-free settings populated by charming teenage girls leading pleasant lives. In this case, Aria indeed hits all the alleged characterizations of a true "Slice-of-Life" anime. Based on a manga by Kozoe Amano, Aria depicts the daily life of gondolier-in-training Akari. While slice-of-life stories are often pigeonholed into Japanese school settings, Aria bucks the trend before it was even widely established by taking the audience to Neo-Venezia on the terraformed planet of Aqua, formerly known as Mars. In complete contrast with the vengeful Martian menace in Mars of Destruction, Aria features humanity prospering on this newly-aquatic Mars.
What is immediately striking about Aria is the richly detailed world, modeled after the real-life Venice. However, Aria is most concerned with crafting its unique atmosphere via the day-to-day experiences of Akari, revealing finer details of the setting as it goes along. The slow pacing invites viewers to relax and take in the sights, while the dialogue presents such an optimistic view of humanity and the exploration of new frontiers that perhaps someone might actually be led to believe that humans will peacefully settle on Mars by the 24th century. In place of conflict, Aria's episodic format presents Akari with certain tasks, such as befriending rival gondoliers and undergoing intensive training on a secluded beach. As Akari grows into a practiced gondolier, Aria offers bits of wisdom that encourages viewers to better themselves through hard work and a positive attitude. Aqua may be an unreachable utopia but it hopes to impart the mentality to improve to the audience, to live a fulfilling life wherever they may be.
For a slice-of-life show closer to that familiar school setting, Kamichu! may fit the bill. The story of "the first middle school girl god in Japan," Kamichu! stands out for its beautiful production values, featuring such exhaustive attention to detail that it has been justly described as Ghibli-esque in its presentation. After declaring herself a god, Yurie Hitotsubashi is worked to the ground by Matsuri Saegusa to save her family shrine after the local god runs off. At first, Yurie appears to have none of the powers expected of a god, but as she continues performing actions that can only be considered miracles, more people begin accepting her as a god and her fame spreads across the country.
Being a god is hard work but the atmosphere of Kamichu! suggests it's not such a bad life. The Ghibli comparison is apt when innumerable gods emerge throughout the town, dwelling on rooftops and in neglected alleys unbeknownst to the regular townsfolk. Only Yurie and a few others can perceive their existence and the effect these gods have on the town of Onomichi. The fantastical has a pervasive presence, yet much time is devoted to Yurie's life as a normal schoolgirl, getting through summer homework and approaching the boy she likes. Kamichu! has that right magical touch that elevates the mundane into something to be appreciated, something so many lesser slice-of-life anime fail to understand; that real life is being reflected and it should be celebrated with sincerity.
One exemplary anime from 2005 with a steadfast commitment to setting is Emma: A Victorian Romance. Very much a romance story and very much set in Victorian England, Emma is a rare title that gets as far away from modern-day Tokyo without having to go into space or some other fantasy locale. Adapted from a manga by Kaoru Mori, Emma tells the story of a working class maid and a man from a wealthy merchant family who meet and fall in love. Of course, class distinctions get in the way and it seems the two are not meant to be together. Despite an Indian prince's arrival on the back of an elephant, Emma is grounded in realism, doing away with typical anime shorthand to convey the situations and emotions behind them. The audience doesn't need exaggerated expressions and deformed characters shouting at each other to get the embarrassment and anxieties of the characters across, allowing the circumstances to speak for themselves. The effort involved in maintaining the authenticity of Emma's London, at the cost of all stylistic shortcuts, deserves much praise.
From 2005 onward, "atmosphere" becomes one of those recurring terms when talking about modern anime. In our confusion to label anime that fails to give us a taut plot and heated battles, we've compartmentalized these shows under "slice-of-life" without really thinking about what it means and its relation to atmosphere. Another term, iyashikei, came about to incorporate both atmosphere and the transient healing quality of certain shows that have fallen under the slice-of-life category. With very little knowledge about 2005 prior to this writing, I've had to overlook plenty of other noteworthy shows, such as Kyoto Animation's first visual novel adaptation Air and the highly-regarded Mushishi, an excellent example of atmosphere that I unfortunately could not include in time. Despite my repeated use of the term "slice-of-life," there is no easy catch-all phrase for this mellow breed of anime.
Then again, whether it's "slice-of-life," iyashikei, or "shows with zero giant robots," whatever you like to use to describe this kind of anime, none of that matters since 2005 is the year that Mars of Destruction happened, among other things. Let's just say that 2005 was keeping anime incubated for a stronger year.
Next time: 2006, the year when we needed to establish a new level in anime.