Best of the Decade: 2007
I may be the only person to not think Gurren Lagaan was the best anime of 2007. Not even an honorable mention. I await your death threats.
Darker than Black
I’ve already said a lot on this matter here. Darker than Black excels at deliberate obfuscation. The viewer isn’t allowed in on the world’s secrets because the viewer is supposed to feel like someone who lives in the anime’s world. No one knows the secrets behind the gates. No one knows why contractors exist. Not even contractors know why they have to pay renumerations or why they have strange powers. At the same time, very few people seem to be seeking answers to these questions. Even people in the know seem to be more concerned with stopping the threat of contractors and keeping everything in the shadows rather than trying to solve the mystery. This is especially true for the main characters. Hei, Mao, and company don’t care about solving the mystery because it isn’t relevant to their personal goals.
Most anime series play upon some aspect of discovery or revelation. Someone, usually the main character, is seeking to discover some lost fact, trying to find a missing person, find their purpose in life, or otherwise come to some revelation. While Hei is seeking the truth behind his sister’s death/disappearance in the first season, and Suou is seeking her mother in the second season, Darker than Black is not about these quests. The overarching theme of the series is not “discovery.” Darker than Black’s theme falls more along the lines of H. P. Lovecraft’s work, which is to say that Darker than Black is about mankind’s futile attempts to fight against powers beyond their comprehension.
While Steven King’s The Mist doesn’t function within the Lovecraftian/Cthulhu mythos proper, it functions as a perfect mirror for Darker than Black. In both The Mist (the movie version at least) and Darker than Black, “gates” appear on Earth. With the appearances of these gates arrive forces of nature that tower over humanity. In The Mist, various horrific creatures bellow forth and wreak havoc across Maine. In Darker than Black, there’s a far more subtle invader: the contractor. Contractors possess abilities beyond human potential. Many can manipulate energy to violent effects. Some can perform supernatural feats like teleportation or time manipulation. Every contractor is “superior” to a human in terms of their ability to compete, much like how the creatures in The Mist are seemingly far more adapted to the whole “survival of the fittest” battle and readily kill and devour humans in no time flat.
Unlike The Mist, and more like the traditional Lovecraftian story, contractors exist just beyond humanity’s sight. The average human, at least in the first season, is unaware of the existence of contractors. The same is the case in a Lovecraftian story; humans are unaware that beings that have existed for eons dwell in the far reaches of time and space and are awaiting the time when “the stars are right” to rise up and vanquish Earth and all life that dwells within. And much like a story from the Cthulhu Mythos, when a normal human is confronted with this reality they are helpless to do anything about it. Misaki and her fellow cops are well aware of the existence of contractors, but they can do little to stop their actions. Try as they might, but their mere guns and training do little to stem the violence perpetrated by contractors who choose to use their abilities for actions we humans deem to be wrong or illegal.
Much like a Lovecraftian “hero,” Misaki is obsessively pursuing “BK201,” and like most Lovecraftian heroes she will lose herself in the process. While she doesn’t succumb to the madness of those that see “that which man is not meant to know,” she sees almost everything that she believes in destroyed in the process. The further she investigates into the contractor mythos, she finds that her superior is a conspirator in a vile plot, she’s all but forced to leave her life behind to pursue her goal, and she sees many innocent people die at the hands of forces that may as well be writhing masses of tentacles raping your mind and soul.
This sense of hopelessness also leads into the way that Darker than Black mirrors the Cold War. With the advent of contractors, countries seem to be vying for control of their powers and use them to infiltrate other countries to obtain secrets, kill targets, and carry out other deeds which a mere human couldn’t. At the same time these contractors are a constant threat to national security and the safety of the public. The race by the countries of the world to accumulate contractors and use them to achieve their own goals is like the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, and the ever-present threat of annihilation is prevalent in Darker than Black. The incident at Heaven’s Gate that wiped out much of South America is akin to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This let those in the know discover the true power of contractors: they’re the new “weapons of mass destruction.”
And with the Cold War came an oppressive, fatalistic sense of impending doom. When will the nukes come? Will we survive? Is there any hope? These questions are also asked by those that know about the contractors’ potential for destruction. These powerful “weapons” may aid in getting what we want, but they’re also devices that can lead to the deaths of everyone on Earth. So yeah, contractors are a clever allusion to the sort of nuclear fears that are often touched upon in Japanese literature and pop culture. The idea isn’t dealt with using the typical heavy hand of Grave of the Fireflies and other similar stories, but the idea is there.
Darker than Black is about the horrors of a world out of humanity’s control and the fact that humanity willfully allowed the world to come to this point. Humanity read from the Necronomicon and unleash eldritch horrors upon the world and promptly ran to its corner to cower.
Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei
Much like Darker than Black, I’ve already said a good deal about Zetsubou in another post. Unlike Darker than Black, there isn’t much left to say.
This being a comedy, there’s only so many ways one can say “that was funny.” One thing I haven’t touched upon is the way Zetsubou thoroughly destroys the concept of the harem anime. Zetsubou isn’t a parody of the genre. Parody implies a certain fondness of the source material, with the humor coming from the way the source’s stereotypes are poked fun of and teased. I see none of the fondness that one sees in a parody in Zetsubou’s treatment of the harem anime.
Each female character is mentally disturbed in some manner. Even Nami is a little touched in the head due to the fact that she’s pathologically, obsessively “normal.” She adheres to every stereotype of a “normal girl” despite said stereotype cannot truly exist unless someone deliberately goes out of their way to adhere to its tropes. Every other girl has her own problem. Chiri is obsessed with order and predictability. Meru refuses to communicate through any means other than text messages and even then she usually communicates in vulgar, insulting ways. Certain girls have fetishes that interfere with their abilities to function properly in society. It isn’t normal to want to pull the tails of animals or to take one’s yaoi fandom to extremes. Kaere outright has a split personality, and both personalities are illogical extremes.
There’s nothing redeeming about any of these girls. They all need serious psychiatric help. And that’s a fundamental criticism of the harem genre. The only way a woman could be driven to the sorts of extremes that are seen by members of an anime’s “harem” is if said woman was mentally ill. More often than not such characters have to endure actions at the hands of the “lead” male that border on sexual harassment and abuse, and despite the fact that they often show displeasure at being subjected to such actions they always run back to the object of their irrational obsession and ask for more. This isn’t a mere abusive relationship that they can’t escape because the male character often has no leverage or ability to pull back the woman. There’s no threat of physical violence. Tenchi doesn’t threaten to stab Ryoko with his space sword thing. At the same time, in order to compete for the affections of the main male these female characters are subjected to experiences that may as well be outright physical violence.
The only logical conclusion that can explain why a female would remain in such a terrible “relationship” when there’s other options and when the object of their desires has no way to keep her from running away is mental illness. These characters have to have serious issues that blind them from reality, and Zetsubou confronts this fact head-on. There’s no way in hell that any of these girls would be interested in a suicidal, neurotic, pathetic man like Zetsubou other than the fact that they’re just as sick as Zetsubou. That’s exactly the case.
The series isn’t poking fun at harem anime, it’s exposing the genre for often being the source of exploitive trash. While there are examples of harem anime that don’t fall to these levels, the genre has that potential and often meets and exceeds that potential. Zetsubou is a criticism of the genre and does that criticizing through humor.
Best of the Year
Baccano reaches the top spot for many of the same reasons Haruhi reached the top spot in 2006. Baccano is a masterpiece in terms of narrative storytelling. The series gives us the ending in the first episode, after which it proceeds to jump in time across several years to explain the events that led up to the ending given in the first episode.
Much like Haruhi, by giving us an ending that we don’t quite comprehend, we’re drawn into the story. How can this guy have his finger cut off, only to have them reattach themselves? Why are all these people meeting up and talking like they’ve known each other for a long time? Why is it that seemingly unrelated characters are investigating the events that took place on this train? By giving us the resolution without the events leading up to said resolution, we’re given a series of questions that will be answered throughout the series. It’s sort of like those old “I Spy” games you’d play in the car. You’d have a list of stuff you’re looking for on a Bingo-like grid, and whoever got a “Bingo” first won. That’s Baccano, to a certain extent. The only catch being that everyone hits that “Bingo” at the same time: the last episode.
Baccano is also the best pulp anime series since Cowboy Bebop. It plays upon the trappings of fantasy, ghost stories, gangster flicks and noir, and even throws into the mix a little modern stuff like Highlander. It’s a similar cocktail to Bebop, with the only exception being a lack of truly great music. Despite having a soundtrack that’s merely good, Baccano manages to be just as powerful a fusion of genre archetypes.
Baccano also has one of the coolest anime characters ever: Ladd Russo. He may not be as awesome as Sakiyama from Air Master, but he’s pretty damn close. He has such a gleeful manner to him. He genuinely loves violence. He’s sadism made incarnate. De Sade would be proud of him. He’s also one of the all-time great badasses of anime. He’s a normal human being, but he’s capable of going toe-to-toe with two particular characters who have significant advantages over him in terms of non-human potential. To say anything more would be spoiling things, but he pulls off some impressive moves towards the end of the series. And he does it all not though force of will, like many similar “badass normal” types, but through joy. He enjoys murder and pain and destruction, and it’s this love of mayhem that grants him his power.
Baccano was the most fun I had watching an anime series this decade. Haruhi might edge it out if I were to rank all of these series, but that’s due to Haruhi being slightly more clever in terms of its narrative tricks. But in terms of sheer joy, Baccano is top dog.