This post is something of a spin-off/sequel from the last, this time looking at the events, particularly the episodes, displayed in anime this year that were memorable. While others on the aniblogosphere formatted their annual reflection in the 12 Days mold, I’ve instead distilled my list of awe-inspiring moments to five episodes in one post, not because I’m trying to be different, but more because twelve is… err, a big number. The Nihon Review, as a whole will also offer our reflections with the annual Year in Review article (coming soon, stay tuned), and there’s been a lot of debating and horse-trading behind closed doors as we figure out our definitive list of anime highlights and what we want to say about each title. But for now, let’s just look at some individual episodes. (Warning: major spoilers ahead.)
Puella Magi Madoka Magica – Episode 10
At first I wasn’t sure whether I should list episode 3 or episode 10 of Madoka Magica here, but after giving it some thought I went with ep 10. While the plot twist that defined episode 3 was arguably the most shocking moment in the show (even despite the fact the episode was littered with death flags in the lead up) episode 10 established Akemi Homura as one of the most tragic and heroic characters we saw all year. After suspecting it was the case for much of the show, Homura’s time-bending power was finally revealed. But what truly mattered in this episode was the way each repetition of her time with Madoka, with each iteration culminating in the inevitable against the Walpurgis Night, chiseled away at Homura, transforming her from a frail girl to a cool-headed, resourceful decision maker. The biggest plot twist came after Sayaka became a witch, with the subsequent battle taking such a toll on the girls’ psyches that Mami went postal, killing Kyouko before being stopped by Madoka. Urobuchi Gen seems to love running his characters under a bus, and this moment, along with the “no-winners” scene where the Walpurgis Night was finally slain, showed just how hopeless the circumstances of a magical girl in Shinbo Akiyuki‘s twisted universe really are.
Usagi Drop – Episode 1
The story of how Kawachi Daikichi first met and came to adopt his late grandfather’s illegitimate daughter Rin made for one of the most tender and heartfelt episodes of the year. The astonishing thing about the first episode of Usagi Drop was how amazingly well executed it was. I’ve seen many an exceptional anime flounder with attempts at episode 1 dramatic punches, but Usagi Drop‘s was pitch perfect, aided by the fact that the two most important characters, Daikichi and Rin, were instantly sympathetic. Daikichi is a hard-working salaryman who isn’t extremely close to his family, but still gets along with them while Rin is simply a ball of concentrated sweetness. All of the interactions amongst the family members were believable and realistic, but it was Rin’s earnestness and Daikichi’s sensitivity that won out. That scene where Rin places flowers in her (grand)father’s coffin just gets me every time.
Mawaru Penguindrum – Episode 24
Mawaru Penguindrum was filled with mind-blowing episodes (I struggle to think of one that wasn’t), but I went with the finale, not just because of how emotionally climactic and cathartic it was, but because of the way the revelation of the Penguindrum brought so much of the story together. Much of the speculation in the lead up to the finally appeared to be divergent and I’d strongly argue that it’s pretty much impossible to reach the end of episode 23 and claim to understand the entire show, or even to predict the ending, without lying (although it’s impressive how close Kylaran got). With the key piece of information about what the Penguindrum actually was, people are now able to go back and figure out exactly how it was passed between the Takakura siblings, and have a decent stab at its meaning. I honestly think it’s only a matter of time now before Ikuhara Kunihiko‘s intent with Mawaru Penguindrum, along with the messages he wanted us to find after sufficiently unraveling its symbols, motifs and references, are almost completely understood.
The Idolm@ster – Episode 20
What an amazing surprise! This is the most recent episode of The Idolm@ster I’ve seen, an anime that our old friend, Akira (see Moe Fundamentalism), has been “forcing” me to watch. I was indifferent to the show at first, and slowly warmed to it but was never prepared to completely give myself in to what seemed like an overly idealized portrayal of Japan’s idol industry, populated by a group of well-meaning, but empty-headed pop stars. Sure, it was fun stuff, and well executed for what it is, but not exactly deep. With that said, there was one girl who stood out early on, Chihaya, whose determined attitude mixed with a dab of introverted self-doubt was appealing to me. Then episode 20 happened, and it was a complete game-changer. A dramatic story about Chihaya triumphing over her demons thanks to a mix of heartfelt friendship and honesty, the episode culminates in what has easily been the best (and arguably best animated as well) performance scene I’ve seen from the show so far. I still have five episodes left to go, but my attitude towards it has changed completely.
Moshidora – Episode 9
Prior to Yuki’s death in episode 9, Moshidora had been a largely analytical series examining management in the unusual setting of a high school baseball team. It was interesting stuff, but not exactly heavy on impact. However in the last two episodes, ep 9 in particular, the series displayed a massive amount of raw emotion, as Minami dealt with Yuki’s passing and all the regret, grief and frustration that it brought to a head. The scene in particular that broke my heart was the one where Yuki’s mother revealed to Minami at Yuki’s bedside that there was no hope for her, but she had still lived on nine months longer than the doctors expected her to. The entire baseball team watched on, with not a dry eye in sight, and by that stage, mine weren’t either.
An honorable mention goes to episode 12 of Steins;Gate, which was just as mind-blowing and heart-wrenching as any episode I’ve listed here, but the honest truth is it’s too devastating for me to think or write about for any serious length. What episodes have I missed? What moments spun you through a loop in 2011?