Top 10 Anime Soundtracks of 2014, Part 2

As the long-awaited follow-up to the first post, here are my top five favorite musical soundtracks of all the anime I saw in 2014.

5. Space Dandy

Composers: various

Space Dandy was a hard anime to place here, because it had such a huge team of people handling its music, to wildly varying results. The show was an anthology series in the truest sense, with the creative vision changing from piece to piece, and that included sonically. Some musical moments in Space Dandy are truly sublime, like those scored by the ever-reliable Yoko Kanno (who shows up again a little higher on this list), or any embracing the show’s love of all things funky. Others are…well, there was that weird “High School Musical” episode. Overall, though, I don’t remember many truly bad music choices in this series, and it always paid the close attention to musical placement that you’d expect from a Shinichiro Watanabe series. And it was fantastic enough times to earn its place on this list at number 5.

4. Tokyo Ghoul

Composer: Yutaka Yamada

Tokyo Ghoul’s composer seems like a newcomer to the anime-scoring biz, only 25 years old and with no other credits to his name in the ANN encyclopedia apart from this one and its sequel. What a debut it was! Tokyo Ghoul has a richly varied score, servicing the show’s many tones from the gentle slice-of-life scenes in the Anteiku café to, of course, its gory battles. It gets extra points from me for doing so much of the stuff I really, really love in horror scores: ominous chanting choirs (but not in the over-the-top way that Death Note ruined for all future anime), atonal piano and string flourishes, and punctuated low-string ostinatos. Consider how many different timbres, moods and harmonic progressions the above-linked track explores, and that’s just the battle music. Yamada’s score alone is enough to get me to watch his name on future shows, but the way the show uses the music adds even more to its greatness. The show knows just where to place each weird little cadence, and many of its best scenes wouldn’t be nearly as effective without his energetic music (up to and including Kaneki’s psychological torture sequence in episode 12).

3. Ping-Pong The Animation

Composer: kensuke ushio (various episodes of Space Dandy)

Ping-Pong itself left me a little cold, and I didn’t end up finishing it. But it was hard to deny how good its music was, and how well it fit with Yuasa’s unusual direction. Heck, most of the time I found I was watching more for the music than for anything else in the show. Sports anime can live and die by their soundtracks and how much they do or don’t match the energy of the action on-screen. That appears to result in more and more of them, from Free! to Haikyuu, embracing music that’s heavy on the electronic beats to match their high-intensity matches. Ping-Pong does this, too, for much of its soundtrack, but its much more ambient and minimalist than its brethren, with its tracks slowly building as gradual processes rather than rushing at you head-on. It’s like this even in its non-electronic tracks, like the one I linked above. I use the word “minimalist” to describe film scores a lot, but few go so far as to make you ask “are you sure Steve Reich didn’t write this?” Ping-Pong does, and in applying techniques like phasing to the click-clack of its plastic balls, it takes the trends of sports-anime scoring to their logical and transcendent extreme.

2. Terror in Resonance

Composer: Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop, Wolf’s Rain, Escaflowne, Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex….need I really go on?)

It’s pretty much inevitable at this point that if Yoko Kanno composes the music to something, I’ll probably enjoy it on at least some level. Terror in Resonance was a muddled mess that I, nevertheless, still mostly enjoyed. It can’t just be excused as “not being what people wanted it to be about” like I saw its fans say; Terror in Resonance made it clear it wanted to say something about terrorism, and was way out of its depth in doing so. Yet, its smaller moments exploring the psychology of lost, abandoned children were powerfully resonant (hehe) in their grasp of the loneliness and ennui that comes from society leaving you behind. I don’t want to dismiss them because its larger aims failed.

Either way, though…those Watanabe production values! Especially the music!

Terror in Resonance is a little harder to categorize than most of Kanno’s scores. While she always traverses all over the stylistic map, there are certain trends that dominate one work or the other, from Cowboy Bebop’s jazziness to Wolf’s Rain’s orchestral heaviness. Terror in Resonance has its own distinct character for sure, but in a way that can’t be so easily summed up with a particular style. You’ll get the ballad linked above, in the style of Simon and Garfunkel or Pet-Sounds-era Beach Boys, or you’ll get gentle instrumental lullabies like this track. And then the steadily-creeping dread of this. And then…whatever this is. In general, it’s more atmospheric, less full of easily-hummable “tunes” than many of her other scores, but it sifts through a lot of different atmospheres. It shows the same great attention to detail, to episode, to moment that Kanno always does.

1. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders

Composer: Yuugo Kanno (Psycho-Pass, Birdy the Mighty Decode)

Hopefully this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, with how much I’ve gushed about how I adore the music for Stardust Crusaders on all my social media platforms. Maybe a surprise that I ranked it above a Yoko Kanno score. But now, you know…I really love the music in this show. Probably what I love about it is it’s just as weird, and wild, as the show itself. I talk about “variety” so much with music, but man, does Jojo’s score really show a lot of it, even though the series doesn’t vary much in tone from episode-to-episode. And it’s that variety that sells it so much for me. While none of the tracks alone are particularly bizarre or particularly “Jojo’s”—except for maybe the one I linked above—taken together, they’re a colorful rollercoaster of different instrumentations, moods and styles. It matches with the show’s own funhouse of Stands, environments and challenges as the characters make their way across Asia to confront Dio in Egypt. What’s more, the show has the bonus of bettering even the fantastic score and music direction of the 2012 series: not an easy feat!

Jojo’s is a music-obsessed series even in its silent manga form, so it deserves a killer soundtrack when transferred to film. From the unsettling dissonant strings of its tenser moments, to its characters’ distinctive leitmotifs, to the funky guitars of its sillier bits, Yuugo Kanno’s fun score more than delivers. It’s far from the most original music featured in anime, but it was the most entertaining and memorable for me. I was always aware of it when watching the show, but never in a way that pulled me out of the action on-screen. At the end of the day, there’s not much more I can ask for from an anime soundtrack, so I can’t help but give it no. 1.

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Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #2: I’m All About That Dandy

It’s been a busy year for fans of master director Shinichiro Watanabe. Not only are we getting treated to a blu-ray release of Cowboy Bebop this month (I just ordered it at the time of this writing), we saw two brand new shows directed by Watanabe this year. As usually expected of the acclaimed director, both were highly ambitious anime with high production values and great music, but my opinions on the two shows could not be any more different. Terror in Resonance, my biggest disappointment of the year for anime, will get covered in a separate post, but since I’m riding high on the wave of praise from my Kill la Kill, let’s talk Space Dandy.

When Space Dandy was first announced, everyone was calling it the second coming of Cowboy Bebop. It reunited Shinichiro Watanabe with the screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto, Studio Bones was producing the animation, it was about bounty hunters in space, and it held infinite possibilities with its episodic content. They even share the same currency of woolongs. There are parallels to be found between Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy, but to fixate on that connection is to overlook what makes Space Dandy special. Comparing the scripts, Dandy comes ups short. The plots are often flimsy excuses for jokes about dimensional travel and wicked-cool animation unrivaled by anything else that came out this year. Cowboy Bebop is an animator’s wet dream, functioning as a playhouse where an animator can do whatever they want and not have to worry about continuity. The titular Dandy and his crew die in the first episode in a blaze of glory, and continue on their adventures in the next episode like nothing happened. Eventually there is an explanation for the continuity resets, and while it makes for some cool sci-fi, American audiences are already so used to episodic animated comedies like The Simpsons that we could deal with no explanation. It’s still neat that Dandy went the extra mile, and rather than being a boring exposition dump of science mumbo-jumbo, it becomes a statement for what the show is all about; infinite possibilities in infinite universes. Space Dandy is a goofy argument for why animation should exist, and I could not be happier about that.

Despite having a restaurant called "Boobies." Dandy is definitely all about dat booty.

Despite having a restaurant called “Boobies.” Dandy is definitely all about dat booty.

Okay, so I guess I’ll reference Cowboy Bebop again here, even if Space Dandy deserves to stand on its own merits and totally does. Anime fans love to talk about their favorite episodes of their favorite anime, but I find that really hard to do with a medium that I remember more for its collective themes and developing character arcs rather than specific episodes. Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy, by nature of having adventures that wrap up in single episodes with changing genre and visual styles, practically begs viewers to pick favorite episodes. For Cowboy Bebop, my favorite episodes are the “Jupiter Jazz” sessions, the two-parter story that serves as the second act of the Spike vs Vicious story at the center of the show. Space Dandy is even more episodic than Cowboy Bebop due to its alternate-dimensions gimmick, and has more of a focus on comedy rather than Bebop’s bleak neo-noir drama. When I think of favorite Space Dandy episodes, I think of which episodes were the funniest or featured the most unique art style and animation. The Redline homage “A Race in Space is Dangerous, Baby” was the first episode I can recall where I was totally drawn in by both the humor and animation. The episode was written by Kimiko Ueno, who wrote most of the episodes for the show and could be considered the defining voice of Dandy next to Watanabe. She’s great at embracing the show’s absurdity, writing the best jokes while letting the animators do as they please. Any episode that ends with a metaphor for gay sex and becoming Space Buddha is a good episode in my book.

Space Dandy: deep allegory for Buddhism? Nah, I'm in it for the booty.

Space Dandy: deep allegory for Buddhism? Nah, I’m in it for the booty.

To be honest, one of the few disappointments I can say I have with Space Dandy is Keiko Nobumoto’s episodes. She brings her trademark bleakness to episodes like “The Lonely Pooch Planet, Baby” and “There’s Music in Darkness, Baby,” but they play out more like weaker versions of her previous stories in Cowboy Bebop and Wolf’s Rain. But she did write “We’re All Fools, So Let’s All Dance, Baby,” the Saturday Night Fever parody featuring a dancing disco alien named Ton Jravolta. While not the only episode based around music and dancing (“Rock n’ Roll Dandy, Baby” is another favorite of mine, written by Kimiko Ueno and directed by “needs to direct more shows” Sayo Yamomoto), it’s easily the most fun. The dancing animation is so much fun to watch, and as dumb as his name is, Ton Jravolta’s one of my favorite alien designs in the whole series. Any episode that ends with dancing cat sperm is a good episode in my book.

The joy of Space Dandy was all in seeing what new thing would be thrown at me next. Not all the episodes were winners, but even a bad episode of Space Dandy was ten times more interesting and enriching than your average anime. Well, okay, I didn’t really care for “A Merry Companion Is a Wagon in Space, Baby,” but maybe I just don’t like cutesy stories about needy kids. For fans of animation auteurs like Masaaki Yuasa and his protégé Eunyoung Choi, we were treated to two different episodes from them that, well, look like they were made by Yuasa and Choi. Yuasa’s loose-and-runny style doesn’t appeal to everyone, but in a series as committed to being something different every episode, it’s perfect for Space Dandy.

Had I been blogging during the show’s run, I would have loved to do a weekly blog on the series. Space Dandy isn’t a narrative masterpiece, but it’s less about narrative and more about a team of artists experimenting to their heart’s content without a committee telling them what to do. Anime is a medium with potential to break artistic boundaries, but is rarely allowed to do so because of the market’s demands. That Space Dandy was allowed to even exist is cause to celebrate. That Space Dandy is as excellent and unique as I hoped is cause to be hopeful for the future of anime.

Day 3 preview: ORAORAORAORAORAORAORAORA! *vogues*

space dandy jojo posing

Summer 2014 Anime: First Impressions Part 1

It’s not often that I find myself watching more anime in a winter/summer season than I am in spring/fall, but here we are! I stuck to five series in the spring: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders, Mushi-shi Season 2, The World is Still BeautifulCaptain Earth and Haikyuu! (I tried Ping-Pong and found it wasn’t for me.) And yet, I find myself following a lot more in the usual drought that is anime’s summer season.

Granted, many of these are continuations of spring series; Jojo’sCaptain Earth and Haikyuu! are all soldiering on for the next several months, at least. But there were also a number of new summer series – or sequels of previous series I enjoyed – that intrigued me. Let’s look at some first impressions.

I’ll be starting with the second seasons/reboots, and get to the brand-new stuff in a future post after I have two or three episodes to discuss.

FREE! ETERNAL SUMMER: Episodes 1 and 2

Haru (right) and Sousuke, a new rival for Rin’s affections?

Like a lot of anime viewers who are attracted to men, I had a blast with Kyoto Animation’s effort last summer to even the fanservice playing field a bit. I deliciously drank up both the sexist fanboy tears over its existence, and enjoyed the hell out of its homoerotic ab monsters, as they shed their clothes and glistened with pool water. Free! is far from ground-breaking television, but it does what it’s trying to do pretty well. Its characters are simple but never feel stereotypical, and are always entertaining and fun. And its storylines may be well-trod ground for anime about school clubs, but they’re written and directed well-enough that you’re drawn in anyway. Plus, it has the top-notch visuals one expects with any KyoAni effort. Needless to say, I was more than ready for season two this year.

The first episode makes it clear this new season is a show for existing fans, with many shot-by-shot visual references to the series premiere. I still found myself enjoying it, but wondering where the show was going. Well, with this week’s episode, now we know: The series introduced two fun new characters, a cute but somewhat mysterious boy from Rin’s past named Sousuke; and departed Samezuka captain’s energetic and even more girl-crazy younger brother. The former seems to be setting up for fresh tension between Rin and Haru now that Rin’s softened a bit, and both give us reasons to care about the Samezuka team beyond merely being the Vocal Adrenaline to Iwatobi’s New Directions, if you will. (Yeah, I haven’t watched Glee in a few seasons, either.)

SAILOR MOON CRYSTAL: Episode 1

Gaze in wonder at them pretty backgrounds. Ignore that Usagi’s hair kinda looks like tentacle spaghetti.

You could say I’m a pretty dedicated Moonie. I’ve read the entire manga, seen most of the old DiC English dub and I’m now making my way through the original anime as it gets released by Viz on Hulu. I’ve even seen the infamous live-action series. (I don’t think it’s quite deserving of said infamy, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.) I’ve written endless posts for Autostraddle and now, Bitch about its feminism, and how its queer characters helped me come to terms with my own sexuality.

So you could also say I’m pretty well-prepared to review this first episode of the reboot series of Sailor Moon Crystal, and yet, in many ways that extra level of familiarity is a handicap more than a helper. I’ve seen this first episode’s story so many times, in so many forms, it’s hard to talk much about it on its own. So let’s instead talk about the presentation of this first episode, and what it indicates about the different beast this reboot might be.

Sailor Moon Crystal is a Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood type of reboot; it faithfully follows the manga plot where the original anime diverged (albeit, not as much as in FMA’s case). It’s clearly inspired by the manga’s art style in its character designs, which were my least favorite things visually about this series; they look clunky and misplaced given the modern high-quality of all the other visuals, especially the backgrounds. More interestingly, the tonal and character-focus differences between the two main versions of Sailor Moon are already clear from this first installment. As I said in the Bitch article, there’s less camp and visual gags here than in the original anime, and the music is more dramatic, replacing the sleazy jazz of the old series. Usagi is also at the center of the story, with Tuxedo Mask merely looming imposingly in the background rather than saving her as he did in the previous anime.

It’s a little less fun than the old series, but should be just as, if not more, epic in its action-adventure with the eye-popping visuals. And the darker manga plot should reward adult fans of the series as much as the silliness of the first series did. Regardless, I know I’m too much of a Moonie not to stick with this one.

SPACE DANDY SEASON 2: Episode 1

SO MANY DANDIES!

Space Dandy is a series that I’ve always wanted to love more than I do. It’s a sci-fi parody show from one of my favorite anime auteurs, Shinichiro Watanabe. Its particular brand of sci-fi parody is cut from the same cloth as others I already adore (more on that in a moment). It already has a top-notch English dub airing at the same time as the Japanese version, something I love and hope to see more of as a dub fan (especially dubs from Funimation, like this is). So why does it feel like it doesn’t always land for me? Why, sometimes, am I glued to the TV, whereas other weeks it feels more like a fun background distraction while I get some writing done? Luckily, the show is episodic enough that that doesn’t matter too much if one doesn’t grab me a particular week. It effectively reboots itself the next week just fine.

All that said, this first episode in the new season shows some pretty strong promise for the show going forward. It’s a similar idea to the Family Guy “Road to the Multiverse” episode, except, of course, good, and not loaded with tired references. This week, when Dandy contemplates switching careers (which…about time, bro), he finds out that there are versions of his crew (him, Meow and QT) in every universe with differences in occupations and species, but from the same basic molds. It leads to the kinds of zany hijinks you would expect when they get all jumbled up in each other’s worlds, and endeavor to find ways back to their proper places. It includes some references (mostly to other anime, like Attack on Titan) but the real pull of the episode is looking at how all the different versions of these characters bounce off each other, and their madcap attempts to each get back home.

Space Dandy‘s episodic parodic nature makes it seem more like an American adult animated comedy than a Japanese one, which is why I’ve always thought it should have an even bigger U.S. audience than it already does. Its brand of affectionate sci-fi parody seems more indebted to classic Futurama and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than most other anime. But it has enough wit and craziness, and memorable characters, to charm you even if you don’t get the references, to anime, sci-fi clichés or anything else. All that means it’s the best pick this season to bring in non-anime fans, and luckily, they can check in anytime they want. This strong season opener suggests that there’s never a better time than now.

Up in Part 2: Terror in Resonance, Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun, Love Stage and possibly more!