Over the past 365 days I have given you my recommendations for the anime you should be watching in the winter, spring, summer, and fall and followed that up with dozens of reviews. So now, as the year comes to a close, it's time to take one more look at them all to find the five best anime series of 2014.
But before we get down to it, the ground rules (which I shall bold in the vain hope that people will read this before commenting).
1) The series must have finished its run in 2014. This means that still airing shows like Parasyte are not eligible, but 26-episode anime that started in fall 2013 are. Moreover, anime with split seasons where the second half has not yet aired—e.g., Aldnoah.Zero—must also wait till next year for consideration.
2) Movies, TV specials, and OVAs don't count. (Movies will get their own little section below.)
So without further ado, here are the five best anime of 2014 in no particular order.
Kill la Kill
“Over-the-top” is the only way to truly describe Kill la Kill with any brevity. If you take a “hero-bent-on-revenge” action flick, add in a helping of scantily-clad, sword-fighting magical school girls, and then dial everything up to 11, you might just have an inkling about the nature of this anime. Set in a society built around a fascist high school, it follows a teenage girl fighting her way to the top of the school to defeat the school president and learn the identity of the person who killed her father.
With an army of students wearing superpower-granting school uniforms to fight through, to say this is a series full of action is an understatement—and amazingly the quality of the animation is completely up to the task. Beyond the action and animation, there is also a ton of excellent comedy in the form of everything from sight gags and slapstick to sexual humor and clever puns. And if you look beyond the surface, Kill la Kill is also a metaphor for going through puberty and growing up—just one presented in the most over-the-top way possible. All in all, it is an excellent anime, the likes of which we are not likely to see again any time soon.
No Game No Life
We've all seen or read some work of fiction where a character is pulled into a fantasy world and then proceeds to save that world—all while frantically trying to return to his or her home world. No Game No Life is a fun twist on that formula. This anime follows a brother and sister whisked away to a world where all conflict is resolved through games—and as hardcore, shut-in gamers, the pair enjoy this new world immensely and have no desire to return to ours. Moreover, they're not really out to save the world as much as conquer it—thus proving they are the best gamers in both worlds.
No Game No Life is an anime brilliant in its clever moments. In each game where the pair play against the denizens of the fantasy world, there is some trick—some insight—they use to come out victorious. It's not an anime where it's “if” they'll win, but “how”—and that “how” is always a joy to see. More than that, it is a hilarious comedy full of both sight gags and wordplay. And to top it all off, its bright color palette makes it a joy to behold from start to finish.
Psycho Pass 2
In a world where the mental state of the populous is constantly scanned automatically by an omnipresent system, it is the police's job to arrest or kill the mentally unstable whether they have committed a crime or not. But when a murderer who cannot be scanned by the system appears, it falls to the one detective willing to think outside the system to stop him.
Psycho Pass 2 presents a compelling cyberpunk mystery with a villain who is attempting to strike at the heart of the system itself. Each murderous situation he sets up—while often ending in a bloodbath—reveals something more about how the system works and the rules it has to follow. On the other end of the story, we have the police whose absolute adherence to the will of the system is often what allows the villain to continue on untouched. All in all, it makes for a great cop drama in a futuristic, dystopian society.
Barakamon follows a young calligrapher who, after punching an aged gallery owner for negatively reviewing his work, enters a pseudo-self-exile on a rural island far from Tokyo. There he meets precocious first grade girl Naru and, through her childhood wisdom and her utter joy at life on the island, begins to develop his art in new and creative ways he would have once thought impossible.
When it comes down to it, Barakamon is the story of a man learning to find his own place in the adult world. What could have so easily been just another fish-out-of-water comedy extolling the virtues of a simpler way of life while condemning the hustle and bustle of modern society is instead a heartfelt tale of unlikely friendship, growing up, and the creation of true art. Even if coming-of-age or slice-of-life tales are not usually your cup of tea, Barakamon is certainly still worth a try. It truly is among the top of its genre.
Sword Art Online II
Over its 24-episode run, Sword Art Online II tells three distinct stories from three different genres. First is a cyberpunk murder mystery, where an unknown player is shooting people in a VR game and apparently killing them in real life. The second is a fun fantasy adventure where the cast comes together in a true ensemble fashion to play a VR online game without any real world stakes. The final story is one of growing up, finding your place in the real world, and dealing with life's inevitable tragedies.
Sword Art Online's strongest aspect is that it can tell stories like these set in unique, fantastical worlds and still feel like it is presenting a single, unified narrative. This structure also allows for everything from speculation on the possible uses of VR technology in the near future to looking seriously at how young minds deal with the emotional stress of taking a life. And if thematic exploration isn't your thing, there is always a healthy portion of exciting adventure tied together with excellently choreographed action to be found in the series.
Bonus List: Five Best Anime Movies of 2014
If you are more interested in anime feature films, here are Kotaku’s picks for the best five to hit theaters this year. (Click the links for the full reviews.)
Bonus List #2: Five Anime That Should Have Been Recommended
Midway through each anime season, I recommend five anime that are worth watching. Of course, sometimes great anime slip beneath my radar or don't become truly great until their second halves. So while these anime didn't make their season's list for one of the reasons above, they probably should have.
Monthly Girl's Nozaki-Kun: When a high school girl confesses her love to the boy she likes, he misunderstands her, thinking she has discovered his secret: that he is actually a famous romance manga author. Thus, he invites her to be his assistant and together they attempt to discover what exactly makes romantic situations “romantic”—often with hilarious results.
Selector Infected WIXOSS: One day, a friendless young girl finds that she is a “selector,” a girl entered into a card game tournament where, if she wins enough, her greatest wish will be granted. Of course, things are far from what they seem on the surface as both winning and losing carry dark consequences all their own.
Silver Spoon (Season 2): Silver Spoon (Season 2) follows the continuing adventures of a teenage boy who, after a mental breakdown, moves to the country and goes to an agricultural high school. This season focuses on the difficulties that arise from taking on too much responsibility, the importance of being able to say “no,” and the sacrifices needed to follow one's dreams.
Chaika: The Coffin Princess Not all anime have to be deep or profound to be enjoyable—sometimes, there is nothing better than a straightforward fantasy adventure like Chaika: The Coffin Princess. The story follows a brother-sister pair of partially retired assassins as they befriend a young girl on a quest to retrieve her father's body for burial—the twist being that her father was an evil emperor who ruled the world for hundreds of years.
Mushishi (Season 2) Mushishi is nothing so much as a loose collection of feudal Japanese folklore and fairytales tied together only by the occasional appearance of the main character in each story. It is a series that is equal parts beautiful and haunting—often bringing more emotion in a 22-minute episode than most series can bring in their entire runs.
Well, there you have it: the best anime series and films of 2014 as well as a few anime series that are finally getting their well-deserved recommendations. To vote for the best anime of the year, head over to Talk Amongst Yourself: Ani-TAY and click on your favorite in our 2014 anime poll.
For all of our Kotaku anime reviews, click here.
Kotaku East is your slice of Asian internet culture, bringing you the latest talking points from Japan, Korea, China and beyond. Tune in every morning from 4am to 8am.