As 2014 draws to a close, it is once again time to look back, reflect, and reduce all our experiences into ranked “best of” lists. Whereas often the year is dominated by one major blockbuster, 2014 was a somewhat eclectic year for anime, featuring a smattering of very good shows (and very bad ones), stunning displays industry talent (and incompetence), some very pleasant surprises (and rather unpleasant disappointments), and, alongside the annual prophecies of doom, a few reminders of how imaginative, innovative, and beautiful the medium can be.
So, without further ado, here’s a list of my ten favorite shows of 2014.
Knights of Sidonia / Sidonia no Kishi
This gritty space opera marked a first this year when it was exclusively licensed for distribution in the English market as a Netflix Original Series. Set in a bleak future where humanity is forced to fight an alien menace known as the Gauna, Knights of Sidonia drew us in with its cool scifi world-building (generation ships! a third gender! bears!), space politics, and high-stakes action, which had a touch of the same humanity-is-at-stake, no-character-is-safe desperation and suspense of last year’s mega-hit Attack on Titan. Unfortunately I can’t say that I was as enthusiastic about the visuals as I was about the plot: while the full-CG animation worked well for the dynamic mecha action sequences, the character acting felt consistently doll-like and unnatural, leaving us cold during some pivotal non-robot scenes. Despite these pitfalls, we appreciated the ambition of Sidonia, and will be looking forward to a second season in 2015.
Missed it? Watch it on Netflix.
Though certainly not the most ground-breaking entry on this list, Noragami stood above other supernatural action shows this year with its strong source material and stylish, crisp visuals. Following the exploits of Yato, a broke minor deity on a quest for fame, and Hiyori, a schoolgirl whose soul has trouble staying in her body, Noragami presents a supernatural world that is intriguingly morally ambiguous. While the show was sadly too short to really do the manga justice and got bogged down a bit in the second half with a somewhat annoying character arc, great chemistry between Yato and Hiyori as well as some pretty nifty action sequences (as expected from Bones) still made Noragami one of our favorite watches this year.
Hozuki no Reitetsu / Hozuki’s Coolheadedness
This dark supernatural comedy won me over with its sadistic humor and bizarre setting. Chronicling the daily tribulations of Hozuki, an ultra-competent bureaucrat in Buddhist hell, Hozuki no Reitetsu provided plenty of laughs with a healthy mix of high- and low-brow humor, not to mention a few lessons on the finer points of Japanese mythology. Director Hiro Kaburaki and Wit Studio brought hell to life with sumi-e watercolor-style backgrounds and consistently polished visuals, but the real star was Hozuki himself, whose no-nonsense attitude, strange hobbies, and deadpan delivery (thanks to a great performance from Hiroki Yasumoto) never failed to amuse. Though a little obscure at times for western audiences, Hozuki no Reitetsu stood out as one of the most original comedies we saw this year.
Kill la Kill
Studio Trigger’s first foray into TV anime, Kill la Kill came heavily burdened with expectations from fans expecting another Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. What we got was not quite that, but it was an incredibly entertaining twenty-four episode romp featuring creative fight scenes and larger than life characters. This action comedy was, as expected from director/writer team Hiroyuki Imaishi and Kazuki Nakashima, bombastic, frenetic, crude, and heaps of ridiculous fun. Although I can’t say that Kill la Kill was a masterpiece, I will say that I was never, ever bored while watching it, and gosh darn it if it doesn’t feature the best friendship between a girl and her school uniform that anime has ever seen.
2014 saw not one, but two shows from much-beloved Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe. While Terror in Resonance, after a spectacular first few episodes, crashed and burned in a fiery wreck of bad writing, Space Dandy developed from a mediocre scifi comedy into one of the strangest and most wonderful shows of the year. Saying that Space Dandy is episodic is a bit of an understatement; in fact, it’s more helpful to think of the show as an anthology of some of the best talents in the industry working around a theme than as any kind of cohesive narrative. Consistent Space Dandy was not, but it did put out some amazingly imaginative and visually stunning episodes over its twenty-six episode run.
Gundam Build Fighters
Sure, Gundam Build Fighters is basically an extended toy commercial, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the best and most enjoyable toy commercial I’ve ever seen. Revolving around an international tournament where participants battle with Gundam plastic models (or gunpla, as the cool kids call them), the magic of this show is that it whole-heartedly embraces its premise while never taking itself too seriously to have fun. The creators took full advantage of over thirty years of Gundam history to stage creative battles featuring some great mecha animation, but the real draw was the diverse and colorful cast of characters. With plenty of winking references for hardcore Gundam fans and enough unbounded enthusiasm to draw in those who have never even thought of touching the franchise, Gundam Build Fighters was a winner for us in 2014.
2014 was chock full of sports shows, covering cycling, baseball, basketball, swimming, ping pong, and, yes, volleyball. This Jump adaptation is a fairly standard sports story in many ways, focusing on an underdog team and an energetic protagonist with dreams of rising to the top. Where Haikyu!! stands out is in the execution: snappy direction, a lively score by Yuuki Hayashi, consistently above-average art and animation, a goofy sense of humor, and a ridiculously likable cast led by reluctant teammates Hinata and Kageyama made this show a pleasure to watch each and every week. Haikyu!! represents classic sports anime at its best—you just can’t help but want to cheer for the Karasuno boys.
Ping Pong the Animation
If Haikyu!! represents the typical sports anime, Ping Pong is about as atypical as you’ll find. This show came with a considerable pedigree, based as it was on a manga by Taiyo Matsumoto (Tekkonkinkreet) and directed by art-house favorite Masaaki Yuasa (The Tatami Galaxy). Though Ping Pong was not quite as polished as some of Yuasa’s other work and utilized an art style that some found off-putting, the show’s greatest strengths were its compelling, well-realized characters and thoughtful narrative about friendship and the price and rewards of ambition. It is not often that we are treated to such a unique vision as Yuasa’s, and thus Ping Pong easily made its mark as one of the most interesting shows of the year.
This slice of life comedy earned its place here by being exceedingly and unrelentingly charming in its depiction of a neurotic young calligrapher’s life in the remote countryside. Balancing the rural exploits of an endearing ensemble cast (led by talented child-actress Suzuko Hara as the precocious Naru) with an exploration of Handa’s struggle to grow as an artist, Barakamon reminded us that beauty and inspiration can be found in the simplest things. Despite straying a few times into somewhat syrupy territory, Barakamon at its best was funny, heartwarming, and sincere, a combination that had us from episode one.
Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun / Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun
It’s hard to say what exactly is so great about Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun. Perhaps it’s the way it lovingly parodies shoujo manga tropes by flipping expectations and gender roles on their head. Perhaps it’s the smart direction and impeccably-timed visual comedy from Mitsue Yamazaki and studio Doga Kobo. Perhaps it’s the diverse cast of wacky, lovable characters, or the winning performances from Yuichi Nakamura, Ari Ozawa, and the rest. Perhaps it’s Mikorin’s gentle smile. Whatever it is, it made it easy to pick this ensemble comedy as our favorite show of 2014. There wasn’t a single episode of Nozaki-kun that didn’t make me laugh—my only complaint is that it had to end.
Didn’t see your favorite show from 2014 on here? Tell us what we missed in the comments, or check out all 210 anime from 2014 in this AMV:
*NB: To qualify for this list, the titles were required to:
- End in 2014 (split-cour shows were counted as one season)
- Be legally available in English
- Not be a movie (still waiting to see Princess Kaguya)
- Not be a sequel (but for the record, the second seasons of Mushishi and Silver Spoon were both excellent)
- Not have started earlier than 2013 (for those looking for Hunter X Hunter and Space Brothers)