The first title on my list, however, should surprise nobody who was active in the fan community four years ago. Its sequels are still selling well today, its theme songs have become anthems and the script was often rumored to be "untranslatable" by fans trying to rationalize the length of time it took to appear in the US. The series I'm talking about is Shaft's Bakemonogatari.
Takes and introductions
The premise for Bakemonogatari is almost as generic as it gets: a Japanese schoolboy has a brush with vampirism and ends up befriending a selection of impossibly cute young girls, each of whom need his help with a supernatural problem of some kind. In the hands of lesser creators the series would have been a typically forgettable harem adventure. Instead, it made selling tens of thousands of discs look easy.
Naturally, Bakemonogatari fever was more a carefully-calculated commercial exercise than a happy accident. Prolific author NisiOisiN had already earned a reputation for his quirky writing style steeped in pop culture references; pairing his story with Shaft's eccentric director Akiyuki Shinbo turned out to be a match made in heaven. Talented names were drafted for every aspect of the production to bring the original light novel's simple formula to life in a feast of adventurous visual storytelling and sharp dialogue. Even the fan service had an unusually artistic flair, making Bakemonogatari a joy to watch for viewers who loved the genre--and those who hated it.
At the time it was airing on television, Bakemonogatari was infamous for its endless struggles with deadlines and incomplete animation during some important scenes. This would end up working to the creators' advantage as the (delayed) home video releases were snapped up by fans eager to see the finished work. In addition, more episodes were created than could be broadcast in a standard anime block. There was a great deal of fanfare when the last three episodes were eventually posted online as ONAs (original net animations) to complete the final arc.
Bakemonogatari wasn't the only hit that year to dabble in the emerging net anime format. Originally planned as a television series, Hetalia Axis Powers was forced to fall back on online distribution when there was a media outcry from overseas against the content of the show. Hetalia uses cute characters based on national stereotypes to present a comedic retelling of world history, often from the World War II period. Although most viewers could see that no harm was meant and creator Hidekaz Himaruya pokes fun at Japan just as much as every other country, it's not surprising that it caused some friction once word got out.
Fortunately, the change in formats didn't seem to harm Hetalia's popularity; after all, it had originated as a web comic rather than taking a more traditional route to mainstream success. The anime's blend of humor, real world historical trivia and charming male leads swiftly became a phenomenon in the fujoshi community. Its simple format and lack of ongoing narrative meant that the world of Hetalia has been able to expand over time to incorporate an increasingly large cast of characters.
Like Hetalia, there was a historical flair to its setting, this time looking back on Japan's "Warring States" period. The Sengoku BASARA television series followed famous warriors from Japanese history as they fought to end the reign of one of anime's favorite recurring villains, the terrifying Nobunaga Oda. What set it apart from countless other feudal adventures was the way the show embraced its over-the-top origins. Real samurai armor from the Sengoku period was used as inspiration for some of the most flamboyant costumes in anime, then fused with colorful pyrotechnics, dancing soldiers, demonic powers, a giant robot and dialogue so crazy that it could be mistaken for a parody script. Simply put, Sengoku BASARA should not be taken too seriously.
In recent times there has been a rise in awareness of a subset of female fans unflatteringly dubbed "rekijo", women with a genuine interest in history who tend to gravitate towards anime, games and manga titles based around the Sengoku and Bakumatsu periods. It wasn't long before the industry realized that there was money to be made in catering to their hobbies and a flood of commercial tie-ins soon followed. Sengoku BASARA arrived at the perfect time to capitalize on this; unwilling to stop at the usual soundtrack CDs, t-shirts and figurines, the series would come to inspire regional snacks, condiments, drinks and eyewear. It would also promote local festivals, castles, theme parks and museums across the country, as well as being used to advertise local elections and law enforcement campaigns. Official tours were arranged to the battlegrounds from the series and the voice cast recorded themed travel CDs to entice fans to make their own Sengoku BASARA pilgrimages across the country. Capcom had never been strangers to exploiting opportunities to raise the profile of the original game series in the first place; once the anime had started to gain momentum with a wider audience their marketing department became an unstoppable force.
Not bad for a gratuitously over-the-top action romp with a plot that can be found in any high school history textbook.
If it hadn't been for Bakemonogatari, the series which headlined my article might have been K-On!, a gentle comedy about a group of girls who join their school's "Light Music" Club. Kyoto Animation's loving adaptation of this simple, niche-sounding concept generated a flurry of promotional activity, capturing the imagination of fans who rushed to buy as much merchandise as possible, many going as far as joining lead character Yui in her journey to master the guitar. The K-On! girls even crossed over to the real world, making music history when their character song CD topped Japan's weekly Oricon chart. At the height of its popularity K-On! was everywhere.
There are many explanations for its success, ranging from being accessible to a wide demographic to what sounds almost like the opposite, appealing to otaku who wanted to watch cute girls messing around without being distracted by too much plot. Whatever the case, the series definitely tapped into a thirst viewers had for a rose-tinted view of school life. The Light Music Club was the idealized group people wished they'd been able to participate in back when they were still at school.
While the other shows I've described so far weren't intrinsically tied to the time of their debut, the noitaminA title Eden of the East probably best captures the spirit of the era itself. It's an odd beast, both inviting enough to entertain a general audience and geeky enough to keep hardened fans on their toes at the same time. Eden of the East's themes of isolation, conspiracy and disenfranchisement crop up in an increasing number of productions these days, yet here that bleakness is used to tell a more uplifting kind of modern fairytale. The plot is driven by believable technologies from the near future and plentiful references (and tributes) to western movies. I'd love to know what the next generation make of this slice of early 21st century social commentary.
Retakes and reintroductions
Of course, not every memorable series in 2009 was destined to leave a lasting impression for the right reasons. Despite being a strong seller and talking point, the only sequel on my list is also the most controversial: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. The original had been well received back in 2006 and hopes were perhaps unreasonably high when it was revealed that Kyoto Animation would be slipping some new episodes into its rebroadcast three years later.
WARNING: The next section contains mild spoilers for the television series The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.
The reaction to the new episodes was mixed, to say the least. The first went down very well, only to be followed by what was termed the "Endless Eight" arc. Eight consecutive episodes, spanning almost two months in broadcast terms, were devoted to showing the same events about the characters being trapped in a Groundhog Day scenario over and over again. There was a desperate atmosphere of disbelief in the fan community which grew more intense every time a new episode aired; would it finally resolve the story, or would the producers really keep going?
It should be noted that the "Endless Eight" episodes weren't exact copies of each other. New dialogue was recorded, scenes were shot from different angles and some parts of the story would be changed occasionally, gradually revealing more of the plot over time. Hardcore fans swallowed their disappointment over the missed opportunity and embraced the experiment, noting that the audience were made to feel as trapped and confused as the characters within the show. The reaction elsewhere was more one-sided. For several months any mention of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was met with almost unanimous disgust on many Internet forums.
There was one other prominent trend during the year 2009: remakes. The most surprising of these was Studio Bones' return to the popular Fullmetal Alchemist series, starting over from scratch with a retelling titled Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. It seemed like an extraordinary thing to do when the original television series had been so popular only a few years earlier.
The new adaptation replaced some of the voice actors and followed Hiromu Arakawa's original manga much more closely. It wasn't long before the plot of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood justified the remake's existence by heading into unknown territory and making the earlier adaptation feel utterly redundant. Having never read the manga myself, I was shocked to discover just how much had been shuffled around or removed by the anime producers the first time around.
It could be argued that anime producers were playing things safe by reviving older projects with ready-made audiences instead of taking risks. It was fortunate, then, that the sheer quality of the new titles battling for attention alongside them prevented the rush of nostalgia taking over completely.
2009 was great for anime if you lived in Japan. What made it even better was that it would turn out to be a revolutionary year for anime distribution elsewhere, too. The biggest development was the emergence of streaming site Crunchyroll as a major player in the digital delivery field. They'd been dabbling in legal streaming the year before, but it was at the start of this year that they launched their ambitious project to bring long-running properties Naruto Shippuuden and Gintama to fans around the world. Crunchyroll's more global focus made this a significant leap forward, as did their new payment model: users could choose to pay a small subscription fee and view episodes the day they aired in Japan, or pay nothing and watch the same content a week later with advertisements.
As a foreigner used to US-only initiatives and unfair region locking, it felt as though Japanese television anime was finally coming overseas. At last, fans in the west could provide solid viewing figures for their favorite shows directly to the production companies in Japan and their distributors. Although Crunchyroll's platform has continued to go from strength to strength in the years since, competitors have stumbled in providing anything close to its quality.
It's worth mentioning that the same year most of the world was treated to its very first anime simulcasts was also the year the format hit its first major snag outside its country of origin. Someone illegally distributed content from FUNimation's region-locked One Piece stream before its scheduled Japanese broadcast, causing damage to the reputation of the Japanese licensor and endangering their critical relationship with the show's advertising partners. There was a danger that the One Piece stream would be cancelled permanently in the wake of this incident; worse still, it was possible that the backlash would spread to other streaming projects. It wasn't until the series returned to FUNimation's site three months later that the panic died down.
Decades from now, will fans still consider Bakemonogatari a must-watch, or will one of the shows I passed over like A Certain Magical Index be considered 2009's lasting legacy? Which of this year's celebrated creators will go on to achieve even greater things in the future? Will people ever forgive the team behind The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya for "Endless Eight"? I can't wait to find out!
Next time: Put on the brakes! We forgot something back in 2007! We have to go back!