Best Anime Characters of 2009

While my recent posts on remembering the past have been about the entire decade, I’m keeping the annual Best Anime Characters entries limited to this year. Besides, if I were to actually pick best characters of the decade, it’s pretty obvious who would win.

Looking back, there were quite a few good characters in 2009, so it wasn’t entirely easy to pick favorites. Still, I think each character is more than deserving.

THE BEST ANIME CHARACTERS OF 2009

BEST MALE CHARACTER

Takizawa Akira (Eden of the East)

Eden of the East emerges as one of the most smartly written shows of 2009, and its male protagonist Takizawa Akira really stands out in the way he manages to turn many cliches and conventions on their collective heads. Takizawa is able to take the concept of an amnesiac main character and make it work, with his lack of personal knowledge never holding him back from accomplishing what needs to be done.

Unlike other characters who are able to shine on their own however, Takizawa is at his best when he’s alongside female protagonist Morimi Saki. Their relationship is an interesting mix of trust, good-will, and a genuine desire to see the other happy, and it keeps Takizawa a cheerful and overall optimistic guy even in the face of the harshest realities.

BEST FEMALE CHARACTER

Aisaka Taiga (Toradora!)

Anime these days is full of girls whose cold exteriors mask their true feelings and intentions. Under the term “tsundere,” it’s become a trope of anime, a cliche, and its execution easily mishandled and capable of leading to a character who is simply two layers thin. But if ever people want to look at what can be achieved with the tsundere character type, where the girl’s emotional development over the course of a series is never compromised, then they should look no further than Aisaka Taiga.

One of Taiga’s finer qualities is that she is very sincere even when she doesn’t want to be, and it goes a long way to make her an incredibly convincing character. To quote myself from my  article on her Saimoe victory, “Taiga’s reactions to circumstances don’t come from a set of patterns, but from a mix of thoughts and emotions that bubble forth uncontrollably, like a raging pot with the lid still on. You can tell from the bit that seeps over the edge that the broth inside is of the finest quality, though it’s only a hint of what’s actually there.”

But then Taiga doesn’t simply stay this way. As her friendship with Ryuuji grows, so too does she, and by the end you can look back and see just how much she’s changed.

Final Word

Taken in their entirety, the best characters of 2009 are-

Wait a second.

I forgot that there’s one more award left.

BEST CHARACTER, MALE AND FEMALE

Baron Ashura (Shin Mazinger Shougeki!! Z-Hen)

No, I’m not kidding. Baron Ashura is one of the most well-known villains in anime history. Their antagonizing of Kabuto Kouji and Mazinger Z provide a classic example of how to be an evil foil to the intrepid hero. In a sense, all subordinates in giant robot series can trace their lineage back to Baron Ashura. They’re cliche because they are the cliche.

Things have changed, however. In Shin Mazinger Shougeki!! Z-Hen, Baron Ashura gains a level of development that they never received in previous incarnations to the point of Baron Ashura becoming arguably more important a character to the series than even Kabuto Kouji himself. You get to see Baron Ashura’s motivations, fears, and hopes, and you get to delve into their past. Most of all, you learn that Baron Ashura is a man-woman not to be underestimated.

The Real Final Word

The main points that all three winners have in common this year is that they 1) Defied convention despite being firmly planted within a set of cliches and 2) Were made better by their fellow characters.

It’s not uncommon to see people claim that “there are no new ideas left” in fiction, let alone anime and manga, but even if that were true (and I don’t believe it is), Takizawa Akira, Aisaka Taiga, and Baron Ashura all show that just because something’s been done before doesn’t mean that those areas can’t continue to be explored. Ideas can be revisited countless times, and when combined with the exploration towards new ideas the result can often be more satisfying than having the two separate.

Personal Growth, If Not Physical: Toradora!

Sometimes I get filled with a certain sense of dread in preparation for a new show based on the information available at the time. “This seems oddly familiar…” is the prevailing feeling. Fortunately, sometimes this is just a false alarm and I end up with something far greater than my expecations. Such is the case with the anime Toradora!

When first reading up on the anime adaptation of the light novel Toradora!, there were a number of warning signs. All we had to go by was that there was a tiny violent tsundere girl played by Kugimiya Rie, master of tiny violent tsundere girls (and also Alphonse Elric), and that it would be set in school and characters would be in love with each other. And while I still quite enjoy these types of shows, the mere fact that I said “these types of shows” implies that a certain formula has been passively agreed upon between these shows.

“Uh oh, I’ve seen this before.” This was the feeling I initially had with Toradora!, but by the end of the first episode I knew how totally wrong I was. This carries on throughout the entire series, with the end result being an incredibly satisfying show to laugh and cry over. Toradora! is different. Toradora! is ambitious. And it’s ambitious within the context of this high school romance-comedy-moe, and that makes it all the better.

Toradora! stars Takasu Ryuuji, a nice fellow with a love of household chores who has reluctantly inherited the deadly stare of his departed Yakuza father, and Aisaka Taiga, a diminuitive girl whose aggression and unsocial personality are legendary at their high school. Though the two of them do not get along, once they realize their respective love interests are best friends with the other they decide to work together to achieve mutual happiness. After the positively energetic Kushieda Minori (best friend of Taiga) and the confident and honest Kitamura Yuusaku (best friend of Ryuuji), the main cast is rounded out by Kitamura’s childhood friend, the two-faced Kawashima Ami who also works as a professional model.

Toradora! takes its name from the first names of the main characters. Taiga is a play on the English word “tiger,” for which “tora” is the Japanese equivalent, and the Ryuu in Ryuuji means “dragon,” or when written out in Japanese romaji, doragon. The tiger and the dragon are famous rivals in Japanese mythology, and if you’ve played Art of Fighting, King of Fighters, or Super Robot Wars (Alpha, OG) then the concept should be somewhat familiar to you.

The character designs are genuinely appealing, being cute and full of life without drowning in its own pool of kawaii, and the backgrounds and animation are executed with skill and grace. The voice work is top notch especially with Kugimiya as Taiga, who reaches new and exciting levels of depth with Taiga on a level of Mizuhashi Kaori playing Ogiue. In terms of presentation though, the biggest stars are, as I’ve said in the previous review, the pacing and atmosphere. It was true then, and it still holds to the very end, except where the early episodes are slow and pleasant, the later ones are passionate and dynamic. And all throughout the show remains surprisingly subtle.

There are many factors as to why Toradora! succeeds, but I feel that the real reason is that the characters actually change. The Taiga you see in episode 1 is not the exact same Taiga you see by episode 13 or by episode 25. All of the characters influence each other, and the result is that you get to see some genuine growth by all of the characters as they deal with the ups and downs of young love.

If you want to know what the difference is between cash-in instant cup moe and honestly good, moving moe, the answers are growth and change. You care for the characters not because you want to see them preserved forever in a glass dome, but because you want to see them fight on, succeed, win in their own little personal battles.

Toradora! is joy. Toradora! is wonder. It’s also heartache and maturation and learning to accept one’s feelings even if there are consequences. So yes, it’s a romantic comedy anime, but if you do not like this sort of thing, scratch that, especially if you do not like this sort of thing, I still advise you to take a look.

I-it’s not like I want to be tsundere, okay?!

Yes, this is another post about Aisaka Taiga. Let’s call this a Taiga Weekend Carnival.

Previously, I’ve established my belief that moe is tied to empathy, it is the connection of viewer to character in regards to some type of weakness, though the character may not necessarily be weak, physically, mentally, or emotionally. Think of it as a character having relatable character traits-which-may-be-interpreted as flaws. In this regard, Aisaka Taiga, the tora in Toradora, is one of the most effectively moe tsundere characters I have ever seen, a tsundere moe on the level of Ogiue. Tsundere has become a very common trope in otaku-oriented media, so to describe what makes Taiga a very moe character is to explain why she stands out from her peers. And to explain that is to explain why Taiga is tsundere.

Taiga is a girl who has difficulty expressing her own emotions. When Taiga speaks, her words are the culmination of 1001 battles fought inside of her mind. It’s a violent battle, and the victor emerges not without a few scars. The result is that Taiga comes across as rude, blunt, perhaps even shy. Unlike many of her contemporaries at Tsundere Academy, who use their brash attitudes to actively hide how they feel, or Ogiue, whose tsundere is caused by years of deep-seated self-loathing, Taiga’s outward attitude is the consequence of falling short of a greater goal, that of being able to accurately express one’s feelings through words. Taiga is tsundere, but only because she can’t help it.

Clumsy, socially awkward, unable to convey the proper meaning in words when talking to others, this describes more than just Taiga, this describes a feeling that hits close to home for me and I’m sure many others. Even if we’ve gotten better over time, we can still remember the days when talking was one of the most difficult things we’ve ever had to do, and are reminded constantly that for us introverted folk, being social is not a natural talent but one that has to be learned and built upon. It is from the people watching that Taiga truly generates her moe.

Tsundere characters, be they the traditional type which slowly turn from tsun to dere, or the modern type which switch back and forth constantly, are generally girls to be sought, to be pursued. They are the goal. Taiga is not the goal. Taiga is us.

The Moe Heroine and the Yamato Nadeshiko

A “Yamato Nadeshiko” is defined as the traditional ideal Japanese woman. These qualities include being loyal to their husband, putting family first, modesty, and being skilled in domestic matters. Belldandy from Ah! My Goddess is a prominent example in anime and manga of a Yamato Nadeshiko, and the fact that Ah! My Goddess has continued to run for many years indicates that this type of character is relatively popular today.

Of course, the spotlight in recent years has been on moe characters, and while some character traits reinforce the idea of the Yamato Nadeshiko, others defy them. Key’s heroine of heroines Tsukimiya Ayu has loyalty as one of her important traits, but is also a clumsy tomboy whose cooking ability is on par with Homer Simpson pouring cereal. Tsundere characters such as Hiiragi Kagami are strong, capable, and put family and friends first, but are independent-minded and are anything but submissive. Aisaka Taiga from Toradora! meanwhile is a clumsy tsundere.

I don’t think the intentional increase of moe traits in characters is, at the very least on a basic level, “progressive feminism,” but I think it’s worth taking a look at how these characters relate to a concept with a long history in the society from which their fictional media are produced. In American fiction, particularly television and movies, there are certain stereotypes for female characters, particularly when it comes to romantic interests. The Girl Next Door can be considered a reaction to the Bombshell (or vice versa). Any time there’s a shy girl who turns out to be highly sexual, it’s actually just a simplified form of “what you see isn’t always what you get.” Though they are now recurring, even stereotypical concepts in fiction, their basis is in the trends of what most people want in their entertainment, at least as it pertains to female characters.

Granted, otaku are not “most people” in Japan or any other country in which they (or should I say we) reside. And when non-typical people look at something typical, I think there’s often a desire for something “different,” though perhaps not drastically so. But the line between “different enough” and “too different” is a very personal thing, and I think it’s the area in which disagreements regarding the validity of moe characters arises.