Watson Watches: the wrap-up party

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It’s been nearly a year since the first Watson Watches article was published, and the time has now come to wrap up this particular series for good. As I wrote back in that first article, the goal was not to attempt to convert Watson to otaku-hood, but simply to gain a different perspective than many of us, after years of watching (and/or writing about) anime, were used to seeing. This final post is to get Watson’s conclusions on the shows that I forced very nicely requested he try out, and also to ask him a few more generalised questions about his experiences.

Using any kind of ranking system that appeals to you, how would you score each anime that you were given to watch in terms of purely subjective appeal?

Azumanga Daioh was my favourite out of all of them. It gets 6 cutesy female characters out of 7, with a bonus allocation for the surrealism and absurdity that made it into each episode. The visuals weren’t fantastic, but they certainly seemed to fit most of the time and the same applies to sound. It was light, it was fun, and sometimes that’s exactly what I want to watch. In fact, it’s the only anime I’ve watched for this that I wished there was more of. Kaorin deserves her chance with Sakaki, that’s all I’m saying.

Kill la Kill comes in second. It looked a bit rough and ready, and didn’t waste any time on extravagances like scene-setting or similar fripperies. But to its credit it made no bones about what it was going to be, and played to its strengths in that regard. I have no hesitation in awarding it an entire 36-page catalog of ridiculous lingerie battle outfits (although I’m sure the designers have plenty of ideas along those lines themselves). The only reason it doesn’t get more is that it was a little too fast-paced and ridiculous for my tastes. Well, that and I couldn’t find an appropriate place to use the phrase “disgraceful titstravaganza” in my article about it.

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Third place is more of a struggle, but I’m going to give it to Free!. The series was absurdly good-looking, and I’m not talking about the improbable physiques. In fact, the only rippling of anything that I’ll mention is the water, which also looked fantastic. Unfortunately, the fact that I was impressed by the background and visuals so much is actually a bad thing in some ways. When I’m watching something critically I’m usually down in the core, working the story and characterisation gnomes to death, and Free! falls into a bit of a hole in those regards. This let my attention wander to other things. As a result, I can only give it 3 glistening masculine bodies with moisture rolling off them. If it had committed to either being more fully story-driven or providing spectacular slice-of-life moments I would have given it more.

Death Note scrapes in to fourth place, mainly because I liked what it was trying to do. Having a purely psychological central conflict was an interesting direction to go, and I think it deserves credit for the attempt. As I said in the article, its failures were of degree, not direction, and I really do think it was a good attempt. Unfortunately its failures were just too jarring for me to think much of it. The main characters – I hesitate to use the term protagonists – certainly didn’t do it any favours. In terms of the amount of intellectual power it’s bringing to bear, I can’t honestly say there’s enough to light a small city. Or even a small house. Maybe a small room. 40 watts, at best.

This leaves AnoHana in fifth place. It wasn’t exactly brimming over with interesting ideas, and it didn’t really handle the ones it did have all that well. Some aspects of it even annoyed me, which is not a good sign. It barely qualifies for one mysterious flower seen on a fateful day, and be grateful that I don’t start pulling petals off it for the way it wilfully ignored one of the more interesting characters.

And finally, Kuroshitsuji. Despite the freedom to choose any ranking system I like, I simply cannot think of something that’s appropriate for something that made me regret watching it so much. What’s fitting for a show that doesn’t respect its source, its setting, its audience, or even itself; and whose creators apparently care so little for it that they can’t be bothered with even the most obvious implications of their decisions? Victorian insults, that’s what. You are a zounderkite, sir, a zounderkite and no more. Good day to you, sir. I say good day!

Using the same ranking system, would these scores change if I asked you to now rate each anime from a more objective standpoint?

Some of them would, yes. The scores above are heavily biased by my personal feelings about the shows. Being more objective about them… hmm.

Obviously, top place would go to Free!. Stunning visuals, along with no weaknesses in any technical area, earn it a full 5 glistening masculine bodies with moisture rolling off them.

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Kill la Kill
romps in to second place, earning an entire 72-page catalog of battle lingerie, as well as a bonus centerfold that comes in a sealed section. It makes its weaknesses work for it, it’s totally upfront about what it’s doing, and it does the hell out of it with great enthusiasm.

I’d put Death Note in the third slot. It doesn’t have the same technical advantages as the first-place winner, but it does have a thoroughly interesting central conceit in the battle of wits between the main characters. A selection of 100-watt bulbs, suitable for lighting up a modest house.

Azumanga Daoioh makes fourth place. Its production values aren’t that great, but it uses ordinary slice-of-life moments to convey moments of whimsy and humour quite skillfully. 3 cutesy female characters total – it’s not bad, but it’s not going to set the world on fire.

Neither is Anohana, come to that. Down in fifth place we have a show that isn’t actually bad, but neither is it actually good. The only things that really stick out about it are all mild negatives – the story is a bit confusing and unclear, the characterization seems shaky, and unless you really like emotional angst the plot isn’t going to do you any favours. Again, it only earns one mysterious flower – although at least this time the petals aren’t in danger.

And finally, bringing up the rear, is Kuroshitsuji. Once again there’s nothing particularly bad about it in most respects, and it even has a creative element in the idea of the demon butler. But even though I am doing my best to be objective about it, I just can’t overlook the cavalier attitude towards continuity and the setting as a whole (and that’s being as polite as I can be about it). For a show that expects to be taken seriously this is a crippling flaw. At best it’s a totty one-lung, and as Victorian insults go that’s about as generous as I can be.

Although these anime titles were chosen based on the potential for eliciting an interesting response rather than on any consideration for your personal tastes, would you say it’s been an overall enjoyable experience?

Yes, it has been enjoyable. I’m not much of a TV kind of guy usually, so I didn’t have a lot of background to make comparisons with, but that also let me take the shows on their merits. Even the shows I didn’t think much of had their thought-provoking aspects, and this was a pleasant surprise.

One of the things I found most enjoyable, though, was having the chance to discuss the shows with an informed community. Artemis’ questions provided an excellent springboard for considering my own thoughts and reactions to the shows I watched, and being able to see what other people thought also contributed to the experience. So I’m going to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved for their role in this; both the audience for engaging with the articles and Artemis for coming up with the shows, the questions, and a forum for the ensuing discussion. This helped the whole endeavor turn out as pleasantly as it did; I think it’s quite likely that if I’d just been watching the shows for and by myself, I would have felt differently about the whole affair.

Having watched these shows, have you come to any particular conclusions about anime as a whole?

There are a couple of things that seemed to come through in most of the shows I watched, and a couple more that I’m inferring from them.

The most obvious thing to me is that anime seems to make extensive use of a pre-existing body of knowledge which its viewers are presumed to have. The characters, settings, jokes, plots – just about everything is based on this shared ‘cultural context’ (which I’m putting in quotes for want of a better term). I won’t say it completely relies on these factors, because it’s possible to enjoy the shows without having them, but until one develops that basis the experience is likely to be fairly mystifying. It’s like watching a conversation full of in-jokes and shared experiences; you might understand all the words being used but you’re sure you’re missing a lot of what is actually being conveyed. It also means that newcomers watching a particular anime are effectively watching a different show to experienced fans, which I find interesting in a philosophical sense.

Secondly, and also fairly obviously, is a very different attitude towards sexual behavior and presentation than I’m used to. How much of this is intended as titillation to draw a bigger audience and how much is a genuine cultural difference is an open question. In any event, it seems clear to me that the creators deliberately include such things, and expect the audience to approve of them (or at least accept them as fairly unexceptional). This raises some other questions in turn, of course, about the society that generates these people and their views… but fortunately, that lies outside the scope of this article (and my pay-grade, come to that).

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As for the inferences, anime doesn’t seem particularly interested in trying to attract more people into its viewing population. The assumptions made about cultural context means that the barrier to entry is significant to those who don’t share it, and this doesn’t appear to be viewed as something worth trying to overcome on the part of the creators. It might also mean that those who have successfully overcome that problem to become part of the viewership have a tendency to be dismissive of newcomers or ‘the uninitiated’. I don’t know if this is an issue or not, of course, but I’ve certainly seen it happen in other circumstances so it’s a possibility. I think it’s also worth pointing out that this accessibility issue no doubt contributes to anime being so widely misunderstood.

Another inference I’m drawing from this is that anime tends to use this cultural context as a sort of shortcut. There’s a sense that there’s a list somewhere of stock characters, settings, themes, and ideas about how the world works and so on – and I get the feeling it’s a fairly rare piece of work that doesn’t draw heavily from said list. If everyone is already familiar with these prefabricated elements, then this saves a lot of time and effort: you don’t have to say why this particular character is an antagonist, the audience can just look at his spiky hairdo and know instantly everything they need to about his character, motivations, actions, and likely fate. Of course, for viewers who don’t share this understanding, the result contributes even more to the impermeability of the genre as a whole.

Would you now consider yourself an anime fan, and/or do you feel like you might now seek out other anime to try in your own time?

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call myself a fully-fledged anime fan. That implies a level of dedication I’m not sure I can truthfully commit to. But I’m certainly more charitably inclined towards anime than I once was. As for trying out other anime… well, yes and no. I’m certainly willing to try it. In fact, I’ve already watched a few other anime that I enjoyed a lot.

I’ve always been a bit of a sci-fi fan, and Planetes was a good fit for that. It was so good that I ended up watching the whole series, and mostly I think it was an excellent piece of work. I felt it was let down slightly by the last few episodes, which seemed to be out of keeping with the tone that had previously been established, but that was really a case of it not quite living up to itself. On the whole I thought it was great.

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By rights I ought to have hated Working!!, but weirdly enough I liked that too. Perhaps the silly aspects of it and ridiculous characters helped me not to take it too seriously. It certainly didn’t hurt that the show didn’t take itself too seriously either. Incidentally, having now seen inside Japanese family restaurants, the portrayal is surprisingly accurate, at least in physical terms. Obviously I can’t really comment on what relations between staff are like.

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However, all the anime I have watched so far, even outside those that Artemis chose for these articles, have been the result of a recommendation made by someone else. If it wasn’t for those recommendations then I probably wouldn’t have bothered with them. Personally I’m fine with this, as there is a large amount of anime produced and I don’t have the time, knowledge, or frankly the inclination to try and keep up with everything that comes out and judge it for myself.

You suddenly have the power to create/be in full charge of creating your own anime series! What would it be like?

I’m going to approach this from the perspective of what I would want to watch as a viewer. If I wanted to make a huge mountain of cashy-money, or change the world, then obviously different answers would apply. But let’s not worry about that right now.

I think the most important thing to me is characterization. I want characters I can engage with, who act and react in ways I find plausible and in keeping with the setting. Plot and storyline are also very important, but I’m willing to accept limits on them in order to get strong, well-realised characters. Where development of those characters is in order, I want them to get it. After that, I think internal self-consistence is next on my list. The implications of events will have to be acknowledged in some way.

Getting more specific, I want a fantastical setting. Reality is all very well, but I spend quite enough time there as it is. When I watch anime I want to escape that, not be immersed in it, so I want a setting that allows for fantastic characters, events, and abilities. But I also want an internally self-consistent one, as I mentioned above, and for me the easiest way to combine those would be with some sort of far-future science-fictional setting. I can’t think of a better one than that of The Culture, from the late Iain M. Banks Culture series (The Culture, Culture Series). Let’s not delude ourselves about this, The Culture is space opera, not hard science fiction – it makes no attempt at scientific realism. But that’s ok with me, because it does do a fantastic job of dealing with the implications of the technologies and ideas that it introduces. Banks’ stories focus on the human and political aspects of the universe he has created, and that’s what I like them for.

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Having just decided on a fantastic setting, I’m now going to say that I think I fairly muted and realistic visual aesthetic would suit this show best. That will make the fantastical visual effects stand out all the more when they come up, and help the focus stay on the characters rather than the settings. Something like that used in Planetes would suit me nicely. Good fluid animation is absolutely necessary, in order to help with the air of realism.

The real problem, of course, is the limited number of episodes an anime has available. Banks’ stories can be accused of many things, but excessive brevity is not one of them. Unless one of his short stories can be successfully adapted, then we’re probably looking at an original story using the same setting and themes. Somehow getting the important setting details to emerge from the show as you watch it will be crucial, since there won’t be time for lengthy episodes of exposition or background, so a skillful writing team will definitely be required. As a bonus, this also rewards attentive viewers.

The soundtrack is a somewhat less certain area, since I’m not really a music expert. I think something inspired by classical or baroque sensibilities would suit the setting and visuals well, but if the musicians want to include modern instruments and themes then I’m ok with that. What is most important is that it fits with the overall ‘feel’ of the show; we don’t need another forgettable electronic-rock/synth-pop opening song here.

Speaking of feel, this is going to be a drama. It’s certainly going to have some lighter moments, since wry commentary is definitely one of the things that emerges from Banks’ work, but these are set against a backdrop in which bad things can happen, and are all the more significant for their relative rarity.

So there you have it. That’s a show I’d like to watch, and it’s what I’d make if I had the chance.

Question of the post: Final thoughts and/or questions regarding the Watson Watches series? And based on his response to these questions, do you have any specific anime recommendations for Watson? (As this post will likely garner comments from several bloggers, Watson has requested that recommendations be limited to only one or two titles per person.)

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27 thoughts on “Watson Watches: the wrap-up party

  1. I mean…I can’t NOT recommend Gankutsuou, can I. You practically ordered it in your tailoring, good sir. Also because it is The Greatest Anime, a metaphorical hill I have previously and will continue to die on. And also The Castle of Cagliostro, just because it melts my heart in all respects.
    Thanks for being such a good sport about all this – it’s been quite a lot of fun.

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    • And thank you for your thoughtful participation. It has been fun, but any performer is only as good as thier audience. If I have been good (and let’s be honest, I have) then those engaging with the articles deserve much of the credit.

      Interesting you should mention Gankutsuou. That was one of the shows Artemis originally asked me to watch, and I even wrote an article about it that for one reason or another didn’t get chosen. There were some things I liked about the show a great deal, and other things that bothered the hell out of me. I’m putting it on the pile marked “good ideas, flawed execution” for now.

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  2. I’d like to thank you for putting these together over the months, as they have been really nifty to read! Of course, none of this would have been possible without Watson himself either, so definite congratulations his way as well for being a trooper and sticking with us all this time.

    It’s also nice to see that they managed to get into some additional series as well outside of confines of this particular project, so that’s swell. I feel he made made a lot of valid points about things such as potential barriers to entry or the “learned language” a lot of work tends to bank a lot on, as it were. Live action works and such have their own as well, of course, but certainly there are a lot of very anime-specific elements that have developed independent or even opposed to that and are not always portable between the formats.

    As far as any final recommendations go: As Watson enjoyed Planetes so much as to finish the series and should they want more like it, I definitely suggest Space Brothers. The manga is still ongoing, but for the TV show that has since finished one gets just shy of a hundred episodes of very paced progress of seeking astronaut status. Lots of characters over time, but also giving them the time to be breathed in and their viewpoints / backgrounds understood. So, it isn’t one to fit in for a weekend binge session or two. I feel it tries to balance aspects of realism, comedy asides, and character heart in a way that holds up over a long period of time outside of the normal 13-26 episode format, while still having a reasonable finish line one can see demonstrable progress towards completing.

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      • I feel like my own part in these articles has been relatively slight compared to the time and effort that Watson has put into them, but I’m really glad you enjoyed reading. 🙂

        As a matter of fact, I also haven’t yet gotten around to watching Space Brothers. I know a lot of people out there have been raving about it, and I’ve been meaning to try it out sometime, but the amount of episodes does put me off a little – the number of anime I like that happen to be over about 50 episodes are extremely few. Still, I trust your recommendation; I’ll definitely give it a go at some point.

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  3. Having watched more anime series than I can remember, I sometimes wonder how much my current enjoyment depends on the tropes I’ve learned to recognize. I don’t think it’s too many. Azumanga was one of my first series, I loved it then and I love it now. I think great shows make their mark even if you don’t get all the references.

    Watson: glad you liked Planetes–it’s on my personal top ten list (along with Azumanga). I liked Working too, but I was lukewarm until the second season, when Inami stopped punching people so often.

    And, to hop on the “Let’s recommend shows to Watson!” bandwagon:

    Mushishi: a timeless and fantastical setting, and stories told beautifully.
    Hyouka: from Kyoto Animation, the same people who made Free, only the animation is even better (it’s the best-animated TV series I’ve ever watched), and I think the story(ies) have more meat on their bones.
    Knights of Sidonia is a hard-SF story with a fascinating monster, interesting characters, and has a truly alien look and feel about it. Though some people are put off by the CGI.
    Genshiken: The first season might explain some of the cultural tropes, and it’s a clever and funny series to boot.

    Not sure these shows are available through (ahem) traditional means, though …

    Anyway, thanks again for your thoughts!

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    • You’re welcome! I am entirely willing to acquire shows from an Entirely Legitimate Source, so problems with traditional means could perhaps be overcome. I look forward to seeing what these shows are like.

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      • If my opinion still counts for anything after subjecting Watson to the likes of Kuroshitsuji, I second most of the above recs. Mushishi is just fabulous, Hyouka is hands down the best production Kyoto Animation has ever done, and Knights of Sidonia, while not what I’d call flawless, is still a really interesting and in some ways quite unique sci-fi show. (I even got used to that awkward CGI after a while.)

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        • I have ranted at length about Kuroshitsuji, both in public and in private, so unless there’s some pressing reason to I will not provide an encore right now (I make no promises about the future, however!). But I want to make it abundantly clear that none of the problems I encountered with it were a result of your opinion or recommendation. If you reckon these shows are worth a look, then that’s a point in their favour.

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  4. Hmm…I think I might’ve heard an explanation concerning the discrepancy anime and sexual imagery/expected norms. The story I heard is that when Japan rolled a new set of anti-pornography laws, they placed some extremely strong sanctions against sexual imagery everywhere except cartoons, rationalizing that since technically no “real person” was hurt in the making, it was O.K to be less strict. Of course what this meant in practice is that all the pornographers who got booted out of live action filming flooded the animation market for its relative freedom, bringing their audience with them as they did so, and altering Anime as a whole from the script to the drawing board all the way to its intended audience to this day.
    While it’s unlikely to be the full explanation, it may at least explain the existence of shows like Kuroshitsuji to a degree, so I thought it worth a mention.

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    • That’s very interesting. I had thought it was just a culture difference between what I’m used to and the country that is the source of the anime, but it looks like there might be some ‘external influence going on as well. I wonder if some knowledgeable anime expert would be able to point to a timeframe in which this shift occurred?

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  5. With as caught up in our own little world as we anime fans tend to get, I think it should very much be emphasized how important it is we take into consideration “outsider opinions” like this. I have found Watson Watches to be informative, and one of the better mirrors to the medium I’ve seen. Unlike many other newcomers, who are either a little too accepting of what they see or just mock the supposed strangeness without examining it in any meaningful fashion, Watson is tough, but also understanding, giving opinions that I don’t always agree with due to my own experiences and interpretations, but I never once thought were unfair. As was said before, anime is a medium very dependent on context, and I’ve no idea how he would react to those series if he had more experience with anime, but as it stands just that he watched more anime on his own is, by itself, a pleasure to read.

    Now for recommendations to Watson.

    From what I’ve gathered of your taste so far, I can’t help but suspect that anime from an older (in this case I mean 80’s-90’s) generation might suit you a little better. Couple that with your affinity for sci-fi, and more than a few titles come to mind. Since there’s a limit on how much one can recommend, I’ll refrain from spending that up with the most obvious titles that I’m sure you can find on your own, nor will I list some of the longer space shows I love so much, as tempting as that may be. I have a feeling that Macross Plus might be up your alley, and if you have the time, check out Now and Then Here and There. If nothing else, your reaction to those should be interesting.

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    • Let me say right now how much I appreciate that comment. Initially I wasn’t sure how these opinions would be received, and to know that people think well of them warms the cockles of my heart. “Tough but understanding” is exactly what I was trying to achieve, so I’m very pleased to know that it hit the mark. Thank you very much for your feedback.

      And thank you for the recommendations, too. I’ve come across the word ‘Macross’ once before, in the context of ‘Macross missile massacre’, so I’ll see what the source is like.

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  6. Thank you for your opinion, Watson! Very informative and fun to read. I have to recommend you Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It’s long, at 110 episode, but it has excellent characters, a true epic. Basically it’s War and Peace in space (okay, that’s not entirely accurate, but you get the idea). I think it’s only available through fansubs with no legal release though. You can start with the main 110 ep series, other part of the franchise are prequels or side stories.

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    • Glad you liked the articles! I’ve never watched anything that long, but if it’s worth the effort I guess it would give me something to do in my copious free time for quite a while. Thanks for the recommendation.

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  7. Watson,
    Thank you for a thoroughly enjoyable read. You have treated the assignment with devotion-to-task and attention to detail – both very ‘Japanese qualities’!
    It is a valuable commentary that arouses my interest in several other titles.

    Might I add that your writing style is excellent, and that you are obviously intelligent and think into things deeply. (Qualities I admire, and wish I had more of myself.) Also – you’re quite the dry comedian. Surprised me a few times. Good!

    As to anime, well I came to it late myself (at about the age of 48) and am now thoroughly hooked, but agree that there is SO MUCH OF IT, “Cannot keep up!”

    I was delighted that you closed by mentioning one of my favourites: “Planetes”. (Azumanga Daioh being another.) Planets is very excellent, very high quality, and you comment on final eps noted and agreed upon. i noticed that the anime deviated significantly from the manga in places.

    Finally to your vision of a futuristic sci-fi anime based on the ‘Culture’ series. I need to confess that it’s the first time I’d ever heard of it(!!), despite spending my teens and 20s reading tons of sci-fi.
    A very ambitious vision indeed – and yes: your fantasy more than a practical proposal.

    Which leads me to a proposal of my own. I am a writer – principally of science fiction – (a *published* writer that is, find me on Wikipedia), and also a New Zealander – not that that should count for me (or against me!), and finally an anime buff – so inevitably I began writing a book intended as ‘anime’. Not quite as epic as ‘Culture’, but If you want to read and comment on my progress so far, I’d be immensely grateful. Come across to my blog ‘SteamedUp” and leave me a message. Cheers!!

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  8. Thanks for all your patience, opinions, and cleverly worded write-ups, Watson! As far as getting an enlightening outside perspective is concerned, I think the project was a huge success. Plus, I know who to call if I ever need to come up with a rating system.

    Even though I used to loved plunging into everything on my own back in the day, I don’t tend to watch anything without good recommendation anymore. That is why I’m grateful for Artemis for sorting through the garbage every season so I don’t have to. ^^ Looks like you’re already a little bogged down in recommendations, but I’ll leave one and just back up Kyler’s suggestion for Now and There Here and There. The art is deceptively childish which might be a turn off, but you’re probably fine if you enjoyed Azumanga Daioh. I’d say it’s not very tropey, nor is it very long, but it might leave you feeling punched in the gut a few times.

    Here’s the one I’ll add (and I’m sure Artemis will back me up on it): Seirei no Moribito.
    Well developed characters and fantasy setting, varied character designs, high quality animation, solid pacing with a strong ending, and even though it’s been years since I’ve seen it, some of the soundtrack still sticks out in my head as pleasant.

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    • I do indeed back the Moribito suggestion up. While some anime fans have been fairly vocal about not liking it, I think a lot of them might feel that way because they were expecting much more action and were instead presented with quite a bit of slice-of-life material, despite the fantasy setting and first couple of adventure-packed episodes. I actually really dig the fact that there’s so much time invested in the world-building aspects of the series, though.

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      • Yes, that’s a pretty big deal for me too. Solid world-building allows for a show that is detailed, plausible, and most of all internally self-consistent (Kuroshitsiju, take note!); all of which make a big difference to my enjoyment of it.

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    • And thank you for your contributions, too. As I’ve mentioned before, the audience and their participation has been a big help in making this a success. Coming up with a suitable system for scoring is always a bit of a challenge, especially in an area in which so much boils down to personal preference, but as long as everyone involved is pleased with the outcome I think that’s the main thing. I’ll add your recommendation to my list of things to check out.

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  9. Props for sticking with the project and treating it with such high regard, Watson. It’s great to read through a sincere aggregation of someone’s anime opinions that’s so well thought-out and organized.

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    • I’m pleased you liked it. I had a good time doing it, and although Artemis deserves a lot of the credit for organisation I will admit to doing a fair bit of the thinking. In any case, I’m glad it all turned out so well. Thanks for your kind words!

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