I don't watch a whole lot of anime anymore, but I don't foresee it as anything I am going to grow out of. First of all, I think implying that anybody has to "grow out" of something like anime is a really problematic statement. Secondly, I still think that anime is in a unique position to produce some pretty fantastic things, combining the long-form narrative of TV dramas with the freedom of expression and creativity that animation provides. And, although I have not watched much, the series that I have viewed have been some pretty exemplary examples of the medium.
Spice & Wolf is an odd show, a slowly-paced period drama that relies much more on character interaction and economic theory as sources of conflict than it does on action. It works, however, on the strength of its leads and writing, as it actually makes the life of a medieval-era traveling merchant exciting without delving into the realm of implausibility too often. Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is the closest thing to a Japanese Monty Python's Flying Circus that I have seen. That statement is misleading, since the two shows are nothing alike, but the spirit and humor of SZS strikes me as most analogous to Monty Python, i.e. it is often brilliant and often culturally-relevant and/or absurd. Bakemonogatari turns what could have been another hum-drum harem show into an unforgettable viewing experience, thanks to the sharp writing and, more so, the uncompromising directing. It succeeds by playing with conventions, rather than playing them straight. Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt works both as a love letter to western animation (particularly of the Tartakovsky and McCracken variety) and as a quintessentially uninhibited piece of enjoyable vulgarity and affectionate satire with unexpectedly feminist undertones. The most recent series I have enjoyed, which I marathoned last week, is The Tatami Galaxy.
This series was directed by Masaaki Yuasa, who is emerging as one of the most creative people in contemporary anime. I need to watch more of material, but I did see his 2008 series Kaiba. Briefly, Kaiba was about a universe where people and creatures were able to store all of their memories externally in little chips, allowing their mind to be transferred freely to different bodies and objects. The first half of the series was compelling and thought provoking, as we traveled with our amnesia-ridden protagonist to different places, meeting different people and seeing how this technology impacted lives and identities. It waned in the second half, however, as the convoluted plot took over and incidental characters, through whom we were able to grasp this world, were pushed aside. It didn't become bad, but it lost a lot of the charm, whimsy, and ingenuity that really made me like the show. I thankfully can say that this is not the case with The Tatami Galaxy, which only becomes stronger as it progresses, leading to an amazing finale.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Our hero is a nameless protagonist, referred to as Watashi (Japanese for "I"), who has just finished his second year of college. He feels that he has wasted these past two years, that he has not accomplished the "rose-colored campus life" he had sought at the beginning of freshman year, and, as such, he wishes that he could start over.
And he does.
The show largely consists of a Groundhog Day-esque loop, where, at the beginning of the episode, freshman Watashi picks a particular club to join (tennis, movie, softball, etc.) in the hopes of becoming popular and meeting a "raven-haired maiden" with whom to share affections. Inevitably, it never works out, and, by the end of the episode, he regrets his choice of club and desires a do-over. By force unknown, he is sent back in time and is allowed another chance, although he is unaware of the loop and treats each time like the first one.
The genius of the show is how it treats these loops, balancing the right amount of consistency with enough variation to keep each episode novel and interesting. Although the episodes seem baffling at first, midway through the series, you are able to grasp the complexity of everything going on. Even though each episode tells a different story, these stories are all small parts of the lives that are constantly going on around Watashi. Thus, what seems odd in an earlier episode becomes clear in a later loop, when Watashi is now an active part of that particular group committing the oddity. Each episode is just one angle, just one piece of the hugely complex puzzle of characters and stories involving Watashi's friends and acquaintances.
Watashi, however, never stops to appreciate all of this. He is neurotic and misanthropic, striving for perfection and always dissatisfied for never reaching it. He is relatable, though, and ultimately likable, precisely because it is so easy to understand where he is coming from. It is so easy to view something like going to college or moving to a new town as an opportunity for a fresh beginning, to start over and become the person you have always wanted to be. Of course, it never quite works out the way you plan it, but is that a bad thing?
Here are some constants. Watashi's closest friend is another outcast named Ozu, a shady character whom Watashi perceives as nearly demonic. It is hard to disagree, considering his ghastly appearance, free-spirited nature, and his constant use of lines like they are "tied by the black string of fate." Yet, the viewer cannot help but suspect that Ozu, by virtue of being so active and lively, is a good influence on Watashi, despite all of his sketchiness. Watashi also exhibits unadmitted affections towards a girl named Akashi, a stoic first year engineering student. She always opens up slightly more than usual with Watashi, and she always loses a small doll that Watashi finds. It hangs from the light in his room, and, although he means to return it, he never does.
At this point, I realize I am diverging from a recommendation into a full-fledged review, which is making this entry impossible to finish. And, the more I think about it, the more I do not want to spoil the ending right now. Let me just say that it concludes in one of the most inventive, satisfying, and appropriate ways that I have seen in a story recently, especially considering how uncommon a trajectory the entire series follows. Every episode is on Youtube. If you want a show that deftly walks the line between fantasy and reality, that is funny, affecting, and invigorating, watch The Tatami Galaxy.