|This photo describes 2011 as well as ALL OF ANIME.
This is the year that Akiyuki Shinbo struck gold and lightning. This is the year that someone finally freed Kunihiko Ikuhara from his cage to make another anime. Most importantly, this was the year Japan was rocked with one of its worst earthquakes. That Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 anime that came out a while back about a "what-if" worst case scenario is now the reality we face.
While this year had its share of manga and light-novel adaptations about Japanese high schoolers who look like white people engaging in wacky hijinks, that was not all the year had to offer. This year saw an excellent crop of original anime not adapted from other sources. Original anime is incredibly essential to the health of the industry, since original anime takes advantage of its format far more than stories that come from other mediums. It also gives anime studios a chance to do something other than adapt some dude's light novel and keeps animators from getting frustrated from constantly doing someone else's work. Without animators, you have no show, so it's important for these animators to make their own thing; otherwise, they'll go into other industries such as video games.
When creators and anime studios do their own thing, it can result in some amazing anime franchises such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Macross, Space Battleship Yamato, and Mobile Suit Gundam. If it wasn't for these original shows, the industry would be in a much different place, and that place would be a wasteland.
2011 added at least two new additions to this pantheon of instant classics, the more notable one being Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Much has been said about the Puella Magi cyclone and much more will continue to be said--its interesting, if problematic, deconstruction of the "magical-girl" genre, the way it compares to Evangelion, or that it ran around the time of the Japanese earthquake (causing a bunch of people to complain that a national tragedy was stopping them from getting their Japanese cartoons).
This show set the Internet ablaze when heads started to roll, when the dark twist erupted out of the cute dolls' mouth. It's hard to believe it now, but when this show was coming out, the public perception was that this was another late-night otaku pandering magical girl show. A lot of people were turned off by the art style and supposedly generic premise, but (SPOILERS!) only a few episodes in, the show dropped the facade and callously killed off one of the shows main characters. That one moment threw out the rulebook and sprung forth one of the cleverest narrative hooks in anime history. From that point onward, the Internet anime fandom exploded.
Wiki websites were formed, forums were stuffed with reactionary posts and speculation, and a whole bunch of people who initially dismissed this show were caught with their pants down and had to reconsider the entire show ("Hey, guys, I was drunk on vodka when I wrote that preview entry"). Looking back on those first few episodes, the signs were there the whole time. From the LCD nightmare designs of Gekidan INU Curry's Witch Barriers and the resume of Akiyuki Shinbo, who directed the 2004 magical-girl show Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, which was unconventional in its own right, this supposedly similar show seemed different than the others when you looked under the hood.
But the part that gave it away was the writer, Gen Urobuchi (or as his fans calls him, "Urobucher".) This man was infamous in the visual novel scene for creating insanely disturbing stories and killing off major characters for little to no reason. For example, before Madoka Magica, Urobuchi's most famous work was Song of Saya, a visual novel about a guy who has suffered brain damage and now sees the world as a literal meatspace filled with disgusting organs and monsters. That kind of resume would spoil the surprise head trauma of Episode 3, so the production studio Digital@SHAFT initially tried to hide his name in the credits until the cat got out of the bag.
Perhaps this was for the best, since Madoka Magica was the turning point in Urobuchi's career. He would go on to write for several other original shows such as Fate/Zero, PSYCHO-PASS, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet and the upcoming movie Expelled from Paradise. Madoka Magica was also the launchpad for studio SHAFT; Madoka Magica was not their first show, but it was their first original anime, all other shows adaptations of other source material (see NisioIsin's Monogatari series.) With this original anime, SHAFT proved it has what it takes to be one of the best anime studios.
While nowadays we are all used to streaming new anime the day they air in Japan, the sad truth is that the "Dokes" wasn't being simulcasted in America. Although the Japanese got a one time Nico Nico livestream of the entire series, for some reason no one picked it up for same-day streaming in the West. No one except the licensers knows for sure why this was the case, especially since many other shows were being simulcasted at that time. (Perhaps the show fooled even the licensers with its cuteness.)
While this year featured an increase of simulcasted shows, there were several times when simulcasters dropped the ball this year, having not yet learned the complete craft. It's a shame too, since several of the shows that didn't get picked up were some of the year's best titles. In 2011, American audiences had no legal way to watch Madoka Magica, as well as other shows that would later appear on Crunchyroll. (In addition, AnoHana and Season 2 of Kaiji, two other popular 2011 shows, were not licensed until 2012 and 2013, respectively. If only people in 2011 knew about "Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji: Against All Rules," maybe more people would have watched that show.) While these shows weren't streaming during the day they aired, it's a moot point now, since all of these shows are now legally available in English, but it was during this year that anime became more like American TV watching culture. With video sites, comments, forums and columns dedicated to being an internet water cooler, anime could now be watched and enjoyed on the same level as American TV. The only difference being is that instead of a water cooler, you had flame wars.
Much like the above three shows mentioned in the last paragraph, Mawaru-Penguindrum debuted in Japan and wouldn't get to see the light of legal streaming and distribution until Sentai Filmworks licensed it for release in 2012. The 24-episode TV series done by Brains Base marked the return of Kunihiko Ikuhara, the man who did Sailor Moon R and Revolutionary Girl Utena. He also did the surreal Revolutionary Girl Utena movie, after which he was figuratively barred from doing anime ever again (save for some work on Nodame Cantabile in 2007 and Aoi Hana in 2009). That is, of course, until Brains Base let him out of his prison cell to make Mawaru-Penguindrum.
Describing what exactly Penguindrum is about is nearly impossible, there have entire podcasts that barley describe what Penguindrum is really about. It is a difficult thing to write about, since the show has a lot of moving parts, but to break it down to its bare minimum, the show is about apples, stars, fate, sacrifice, holes in the sky, trains, brothers, sisters, incest, stalkers, exploding bears, gas attacks, terrorism, parents, love, DESTINY, FABULOUS MAX, SURVIVAL STRATEGY...and love potions made by frogs excreting on a teenager's back. Perhaps due to this random mix, even though the show has been out for a few years, there are still things that we don't know about Penguindrum. What does the eyecatch in the middle of the episode really mean? (What the hell are those branching paths?). The ultimate testament to Penguindrum's quality is this mystery--that no one knows for sure what it's about and that everyone can have multiple interpretations on what they think it's about.
This is one of the strong points of original anime, this mystery surrounding it. Since there is no light novel or manga that came before it, there is no way for anime fans to spoil the show for other people. However, even though Penguindrum and Madoka Magica weren't legally available for U.S. residents, they still were able to cultivate a fan base due to the power of Bit Torrent. (There's not much reason to use Bit Torrent nowadays, since the legal option is far convenient than downloading several video codecs, a torrent client and hoping to GOD that someone seeded that 5-month old fansub.) While 2011 was a good year for anime fans that were willing to get their hands dirty to watch overlooked anime, it made it hard for people who only used the legal option, especially when it came to the year-end awards. Naming the best anime of the year, but not being able to nominate Madoka or Penguindrum is like the Oscars not being able to nominate The Godfather. (However, they still had good things to choose from, such as Tiger & Bunny, Steins;Gate and Chihayafuru to name a few.)
It was a great year to be an anime fan in America. However, it wasn't particularly a great year to be an anime fan in Japan, or an anime studio, or really any person in Japan. 2011 was, of course, the year the Great East Japan Earthquake shook the nation, causing the Honshu Island to move 2.4m east and the Earth's axis by about 10cm. The resulting tsunami that followed shortly afterward and the nuclear meltdown that happened at Fukushima completed the triple whammy, delivering a demoralizing blow to Japan, the true impact of we won't know for years. This national tragedy did unite the world in helping Japan and even though Japan went through so much that short time frame, they have endured and survived this nightmare disaster. As for the impact that this had on the anime industry, several anime and manga that were running during the time of the 3.11 Earthquake took an extended time off, including Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which took a month long break and wrapped with final episodes that dealt with a situation unsettlingly similar to the Japan earthquake.
|Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, an 2009 anime
whose 2011 rerun was cancelled
As such, anime will continue to move on. There may be changes, there may be setbacks, but anime will live on in some form or another, whether it's 2D or 3D, hand drawn or computer graphics, adaptations or original properties. There is some hope in the animation industry; the amazing success of Madoka Magica reminded everybody that original intellectual properties can be successful. This year also put Aniplex USA on the map as the company to eventually license Madoka Magica. The popularity of shows that Aniplex produces would become the core of their business model of selling popular anime for high prices. While Aniplex has been able to succeed where other companies have failed, the trend will be streaming anime for little to no cost.
Whether streaming anime will be the start of a golden era, no one can say for sure. The true impact that 2011 had on anime won't be known for years. Will the earthquake have a lasting effect on the anime industry? Will streaming be the go-to method for watching anime so that we don't have to buy $90 Blu-rays with 2 episodes on a disc? Only time will tell...I guess we should check back in another 50 years.
Next time: The time machine is running out of fuel! Quick! Back to 2007!