The Markings of a Good Season

It's the busy review writing period, which is my half-assed excuse for not having posted anything on this blog for ages.

While everyone’s writing about the season that’s just started, I figured it’s a good time to go against the grain and look back at the season that just ended. Reviewing seasons is a completely different kettle of fish to reviewing a single series… there are multiple things to consider such as the number of “good” series (momentarily ignoring that there’s never a complete consensus about whether a given series is good or not), the variety on offer and whether the current trends are for the better or the worse. I don’t think there’s too much disagreement that Summer 2009 was last year’s best season (and arguably the best in anime for a long time), but in the wash-up, if our reviews are anything to go by, it was a season that had a lot of “good” titles, but only one “great” anime. (This post was originally going to be significantly longer, but I’ve split it into two parts. Arguably it weakens my argument, but it’s just much more manageable this way, and it’s not so blatantly tl;dr.)

Titles from that season Spice and Wolf II, Aoi Hana and Taishou Yakyuu Musume all received a rating of “7” from our various reviewers, while Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, which started off much stronger than it finished, ended up with a rating of “6”. Personally, I thought Akira was a touch harsh with Aoi Hana, and while I agree with zzeroparticle‘s number for Moe Baseball Girls, in my weaker, more fanboy-ish moments, I let the occasional “very good” (or more accurately, “very moe”) descriptor pass from my lips. The series which I do consider to be undoubtedly “great” from this lot is Shinbo‘s Bakemonogatari. It’s without review, because it’s still ongoing, and while I won’t be reviewing it personally, it’d surprise me if the person who does review it gives it a lower rating than the series listed here (not that I’m putting pressure on them at all).

So, what’s an appropriate descriptor for a season that supplied such a variety of good anime? Seasons like that happen pretty damn rarely, so I don’t have a problem with calling them “great” (which, in case you haven’t already realized, is a word that I revere and don’t like to use frivolously). The benchmark, in my opinion, is Spring 2006, easily the best season that I can remember since I started actively keeping up the latest series. It’s a season which is largely remembered for Suzumiya Haruhi, which I still think is the most influential anime of the latter part of last decade, but it also supplied Ouran High School Host Club, Higurashi, ARIA The Natural, Nana and Simoun and that’s just for starters. Not only are all these seasons memorable and enjoyable, they all had a lot to say about the direction their respective genres would take in subsequent years. ARIA is pretty much seen as the benchmark for slice-of-life moe anime now, Nana likewise for josei. Ouran High School was meta-self-aware to an extent that few comedy anime had reached before it, while Higurashi brought both popularity and credibility to the mystery horror anime genre. The quality, and variety on offer and the influence titles from this season had on the future of anime was immense, and I hate to understate it. It was a watershed season that I have qualms about calling “brilliant”.

If we take this as the standard, where does this leave Winter 2010? Of the series that started airing then, Durarara! is the only ongoing anime that I’ve followed into the next cour. Maybe this is a bad sign of itself but, without bothering to look at the numbers, there did seem to be a very large proportion of one cour series this season, which tends to be the case in Winter seasons. So I doubt this is reason for alarm. We’ve reviewed half a dozen series from the season so far, and if we momentarily assume that our takes are indisputable (they’re not), only two of the series were good: Nodame Cantabile ~Finale~ and Sora no Woto. I’ve also seen Hidamari Sketch × ☆☆☆, which I rated an “8” on MAL. Hidamari Sketch is a very difficult anime to try to describe, which is why I’ve never been able to write a review for any of the series (and I highly respect people who are able to blog it episode-to-episode). It’s qualities are almost intangible. When I’ve tried to write about it, I can never do it justice, since my description of it comes off as a derivative moe series when it’s not… it’s so much more than that.

It’s a bit of a strange thing to say, but I’d almost make the argument that Hoshimittsu and Finale don’t count when it comes to evaluating the season. Both are their respective franchise’s third seasons, and while both are worthy additions to already highly regarded narratives, they really only appeal to their respective (and already deeply entrenched) fanbases. I can’t really say much about Finale… in all honesty, I’m still only about half way through it, but Hoshimittsu, though probably the best season of Hidamari Sketch to date, isn’t the memorable and (almost) torrid exclamation point to a story that series like ARIA The Origination and Honey and Clover II were for their respective franchises. In their time, they both managed to reach beyond the hardcore fans that had followed those series since the beginning… new fans (and even a handful of dissenters) were drawn in from the exposure and buzz that these series were generating during their last run. There wasn’t all that much discussion for Hidamari Sketch and Nodame Cantabile this season, on the other hand, (a weak second season probably didn’t help in Nodame Cantabile‘s case), and as solid as they were, I’d rue to call either of them “influential”, certainly compared to their respective first seasons.

This is where I’ll be wrapping up for now, so I’m sorry if this comes across as abrupt. In the next post, I’ll be exploring the recently finished season in more detail, particularly discussing Sora no Woto and Durarara! before making a call on whether Winter 2010 was a good season of anime or not.

8 Responses to “The Markings of a Good Season”

  1. It seems the new series weren’t that well-accepted overall, except for the most-hyped ones like Durarara, BakaTest, and Sora no Woto. Their relative success seems to reflect viewer desperation for something good, rather than the quality of the actual shows themselves (since all of them ultimately got pretty mixed and apologetic reviews).

    I got the impression that people who followed niche shows entering their second (or third) cour were more impressed. Again it seems the most-hyped ones, namely Railgun and Kimi ni Todoke, had their worth artificially inflated.. but there was a good selection of solid stuff to choose from that covered the lack of gems in the new lineup.

    My guess is that if you were sticking to something good already you probably didn’t mind it whether the new shows were underwhelming. It certainly felt that way to me and mine, but we’re always willing to shovel through the dregs to find something appealing.

  2. Your opinion of Hidamari Sketch is a bit higher than mine. I always found the show very watchable, whose even, pleasant atmosphere and mild quirkiness stuck with you long enough to let you enjoy each episode. But ultimately I’m left with very little substance to remember it by. While I can vividly recall the elegiac beauty of Aria or some hilarious jokes from AzuDai, all the details of past Hidamari episodes have evaporated from my memory. It’s too vanilla; it strives to be fluff, albeit quality fluff, but nonetheless fluff that doesn’t make any lasting impression after the fact. I can’t see it winning over fans outside the genre, so I wouldn’t even recommend it to someone unless I already knew they liked s’life/comedy.

  3. I haven’t been blogging, let alone watching anime, for a long time, but I consider Winter 2010 to be a very “dry” season. In each previous season, there were at least about three to four good series and one or two great series.
    Winter 2010 produced perhaps two to three good series (four if you’re being generous) and one great series–or none at all. Most of the time, it seemed like a continuous stream of moe and ecchi, with a few mediocre action series. Since I haven’t been following Hidamari Sketch, I can’t vouch for the series. Same goes for the third season Nodame Cantabile. It was difficult to get past the first episode of Sora no Woto, and I dropped it after the beginning of the second episode. I haven’t seen Dance in the Vampire Bund, so perhaps that might go on the list. I know I’ll be crucified for this, but Durarara!! was not quite intriguing as I thought it would be. In fact, I haven’t gotten past watching the fifth episode. The only true series I watched fully was Hanamaru Kindergarten, and I can at most only call it a good series.
    That leaves me with one or two good series and no great series. Perhaps it’s just my preferences of each series–after all, judging whether a series is good or not seems futile since the term “good” is subjective–or I have been very unforgiving of the series of the past season.
    By the way, great post. It’s interesting to see what each thinks of the requisites of a “good season.”

  4. @Hogart
    Yeah, maybe so, but if we’re thinking from the general point of view (and also taking the opinion that there are just too many sequels these days), then it’s much harder to give sequels from already established series much weight in how you evaluate a season, unless they manage to be ground-breaking in some fashion, and start attracting fans who weren’t there from the beginning. I don’t think you can really say a season is good and imply that the industry is in good shape if all the good shows you’re watching are sequels. To me, that indicates a shortage of creativity or adventurousness among studios… they’re falling back on surefire hits without trying to expand their audience with something a little more risky.

    The “vanilla” criticism of Hidamari Sketch is probably apt, but I don’t agree with the “fluff” criticism. It might not be as executed as brilliantly as ARIA, but like ARIA, it’s a story about a group of girls growing up. There’s substance there (as well as a good amount of moe humour, which is obviously the main hook), it’s just not as apparent as something like ARIA. You’re right though, it’s a genre anime with limited appeal. That’s why I don’t think it has much weight in any evaluation of the season. It’s not a strong reflection of any particular trend… it’s just an anime that resulted as a sequel from something that was fairly popular and its presence in this season’s line-up is both coincidental and incidental.

    I’ll be dealing with a lot of what you brought up in the next part of this article, which I’ll post tomorrow. It’s interesting that you brought up Durarara!, since in the next article, I’ll pretty much say that, while it’s probably a good anime, it’s also a very flawed one. I daresay that, at this stage, it’s overrated. I haven’t seen Hanamaru Kindergarten despite the consensus that it is quite good, while Vampire Bund is so forgettable that it’s not really worth discussing when evaluating the season, IMO. Same goes for Chu-Bra and Ookamikakushi, among others. Thanks for the kind words.

  5. It seems to me that everyone thinks higher of Aoi Hana than I do. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the show, I just thought the plot was lacking. I still consider it one of the best shows of 2009.

    You’ve been looking back, so I’ll (digress from the topic of this post a little) and look forward: to this season. In all honesty, I’m watching more anime this season than I did all of last year. In 2009, I watched (not including trash I had to sub): Bakemonogatari and Aoi Hana. Every other series I dropped, or are so unmemorable that I can’t recall having ever watched them.

    This season, I’m watching Senkou no Night Raid, Angel Beats, Rainbow, WORKING!!, Durarara!!, B Gata H Kei and Arakawa Under the Bridge. I honestly believe that this season has the capacity to be great. It won’t be a watershed season (Which, by the way, I’m not too sure Summer 2006 was), but I think it’ll be the best season we’ll see for a while. Shows like Senkou and Rainbow explore darker topics that anime these years seem to shun; Arakawa and B Gata H Kei are pretty solid screwball comedies (at least, that’s what they look like at the moment), so on and so forth. (To be honest, I like Angel Beats, but I can’t articulate why.)

    Not only does this season offer high-quality individual titles, it also runs the gamut of genres, another criterion which you (rightfully) pointed out is pretty key for determining a good season. I’m pretty optimistic about this one. Talk to me again in June.

  6. I feel the last two seasons can be summed up as “meh”, and this one isn’t any better so far. Very few shows seem to want to try anything different, and when they do they quickly seem to fall in line with the norm and deliver an underwhelming show overall. I mean, it’s not like there wasn’t potential in the winter lineup, and there were a few new shows that showed flashes of brilliance.

    It’s probably a red herring, but based on what I’ve watched I think it’s the 12/13 episode cours that ruined most of them. The shows either had too many episodes or too few, full stop. Those shows that didn’t suffer because of that problem were ones that were so insipid I didn’t care to pay attention anyway.

    If I were to give a more personalized opinion it would be because the art of storytelling seems to be lost. Only a handful of shows tried breaking routine to begin with, and even fewer of them were worth watching for more than just pretty pictures, fanservice, or some insipid sentiments. It’s like the writers have no time to even be coherent in some cases.

  7. @Akira
    Yeah, this season is going to be interesting, and I have no idea what to make of it at this stage. There are a lot of titles with potential (and potential to be pretty bad as well). Senkou no Night Raid is probably the hardest to gauge at this stage. It could end up anywhere between “brilliant” and utter trash.

    In the other article, I kinda railed about judging seasons based on the worst that they’ve offered. The fact of the matter is, crap series with no sense of storytelling have been around for ages, and will always be made. I don’t think lazy writing is something which is trending in any particular direction… arguably, it’s a consequence of the monetized nature of the industry. Even if it is, I don’t think it matters until it starts gravely affecting the number of good series we can find in a given season, which, at this stage, I wouldn’t say it is. If we look at the better end of what was on offer last season, there were a few good series. It wasn’t a great season by any stretch of the imagination, and you have to be pretty kind to call it a good season. That’s why I’m settling with “solid” season for now. Perhaps that assessment will change in time.

  8. Interesting read. I have not checked out any show of the new seasons so I can’t comment on that. Would like to know though that if you have two seasons, first one has 3-4 above average shows but about 5 really bad shows while the second has 1 average but no bad, is it fair to consider the first season a better one? Reading all the comments and the blog above, it seems that a season is really judged based on the top 5-6 shows:)

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