2011 feels like a banner year for anime releases, both in terms of quality and quantity. Everyone is rushing to go hi-def with their catalog titles, breathing new life into stagnant releases, while some shows that were lost in the limbo in the wake of the collapse of some of the major distributors here in the U.S. are finally getting to see the light of day again.
So with so many options on the table for that anime fan on your list, what should you get? Well, here's this (hopefully) handy list of titles below targeting those very specific animated interests of that friend or loved one who might love a new or classic boxset waiting for them on Christmas day.
Title: Samurai Champloo: The Complete Series
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Shinichir? Watanabe's Edo-era spiritual successor to Cowboy Bebop is a strange, beautiful, action-packed mixed of chanbara films, street style, and hip hop beats in the same artful way that CB was an homage to jazz and noir.
Also: I've already started my list off by cheating. You see, this set got a release back in 2009, but last year, FUNimation got the rights to the series back in 2010, re-releasing the DVD and Blu-ray sets back in May. Now, the current release doesn't have a couple of the bells and whistles of the previous one (it's missing the concept art gallery as well as bumper galleries and promo video), on Blu-ray it's still a hi-def presentation of one of the best shows of the last decade (Top 5, easily). And unless FUNimation monkeyed around with the gorgeous transfer from the previous release (the visual quality is sharp enough to cut your eyeballs in half) and the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix means you get to enjoy one of the best anime soundtracks of all time, no joke.
Title: R.O.D. The Complete Series
I don't know how many times I have to bring this up, you guys, but Read or Die is really, really good. Here's my getting over-excited about it a few weeks back:
The three episode OVA and 26-episode series that comprise Read Or Die is successful because it's such a strange mix of genres and concepts while also telling a fairly sentimental but no less watchable story about friendship among its four female leads. R.O.D. draws together elements of high-tech spy thrillers, the supernatural, New World Order paranoia, and "friends for life" melodrama in a strong, character-focused way that makes it one of the most easily watchable shows from early in the decade.
The $200 Aniplex Blu-ray release is pretty much the only way you're going to be able to see this series outside of buying the standard-def DVDs from 2004. While the Blu-ray isn't exactly a huge leap in quality (it's 1080i and the audio hasn't really been touched at all), the packaging and features are all in one place and the set actually looks pretty sweet (albeit not as nice as the way out of print, obscenely expensive book-style set from the initial DVD run).
Title: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, volumes 1-5
Format: DVD and Blu-ray
Why this? Why not Bleach or Naruto or even the previous FMA series? While I highly recommend that you pick up the original series in their great, big FUNimation boxsets from a couple of years ago, I can't wholeheartedly recommend those other titles the way I can with Brotherhood. I think it has something to do with the fact that both Full Metal Alchemist series dealt with growing up as a theme in a more compelling way that those and most any other title on this list.
At its core, that's what Ed and Al's adventures are about--not just trying to get back what they lost in their lives, but also seeing where all the heard choices come in when you turn away from childhood. At its core, Brotherhood is less devastating than the original series (which played just ruthlessly with your emotions) but it's such an interesting take on the material, hewing closely to the source manga.
The final set just hit Blu-ray and DVD back in August, bringing the last of the 64 episodes to disc in hi- and standard-def. Unlike R.O.D., you can be a little more conservative with the investment here, giving the anime fan in your life perhaps the first and second sets to get them started without breaking the bank (they run about $30 a pop on Amazon).
Title: Dragon Ball Z, Dragon Boxes
Speaking of nice, budget-priced starter sets, how would you like DBZ at $1 an episode? Not too shabby, right? FUNimation has been porting these Dragon Box sets from Japan since 2009 at $40 a pop, reproducing the entire series from the beginning with uncut and remastered episodes featuring 5.1 English audio (nice) and mono Japanese audio tracks (can't win 'em all). It also helps that the sets come in nice, handsome packaging that will stand out on your Dragon Ball Z fan's shelf when they start amassing a bunch of them down the line.
I didn't know this until recently, but apparently these are kind of the follow-up to the Japanese 2003 release of the series in what was then also called the "Dragon Box" set: an $1100 (!) collection with 147 episodes of the series, an action figure, and a book. Like the FMA sets, you could get one or two of these for someone and they'd be set for a while with a nice starter for their favorite series.
Title: Revolutionary Girl Utena boxsets
Right Stuf has been putting out these gorgeously-produced sets throughout the year, the first and second dropping this past spring and summer, while the third is getting a December 6th release. The 12 and 13-episode sets are a little pricier than some of the other titles on the list when it comes to cost per episode--around $30 for sets one and two and $60 for set three--but again, it's about being judicious in what you get that friend or loved one who's really into anime. You don't have to feel the need to complete the whole series for them in one go, and could simply use the purchase of the "Student Council Saga" set as an introduction, letting them decide if they want more of what Utena is rocking.
And given the amount of attention that Right Stuf has given to the release, the steeper price may just be worth it, thanks to 5.1 Japanese audio tracks, as well as stereo English dialog, commentary, documentaries, and booklets in sturdy, glossy art boxes.
Oh, the series: I'll let Wikipedia provide the synopsis for this swashbuckling adventure into gender politics (it's fun, honest!):
The main character is Utena Tenjou, a tomboyish teenage girl who was so impressed by a kind prince in her childhood that she decided to become a prince herself (expressed in her manner of dress and personality). She attends Ohtori Academy, where she meets a student named Anthy Himemiya, a girl who is in an abusive relationship with another student. Utena fights to protect Anthy and is pulled into a series of sword duels with the members of the Student Council. Anthy is referred to as the "Rose Bride" and is given to the winner of each duel. As Anthy is thought to be the key to a coming revolution, the current champion is constantly challenged for the right to possess the Rose Bride.
Title: Summer Wars
Format: DVD & Blu-Ray
Anime studio Madhouse's 2009 follow-up to The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), Summer Wars is oddly affecting in its own quirky, exuberant sort of way. The mash-up of elements described at the top there embellish what's essentially a heartfelt coming-of-age family story with a sci-fi twist. From The Girl Who Leapt Through Time director Mamoru Hosoda, the feature involves 11th grade math prodigy Kenji who is dragged by his 12th grade crush Natsuki out to her huge clan's 90th birthday celebration for the family patriarch. What starts out as a comedy of awkwardness (Natsuki's made up a few white lies about her Kenji, her "boyfriend" to impress her grandmother) turns into a sci-fi action comedy after Kenji is accused of being a terrorist responsible for disrupting a global social network that's also plugged into all of the major social services and power grid.
Now the inadvisability of connecting all of your vital services to one computer network aside, Summer Wars--even with its sci-fi bent in the second half--is all about tugging at your heartstrings, hinging on the parallel tracks of sticking by family at all costs as well as manning up to get the girl of your dreams, it's unabashedly a big, sloppy love note to all of us great big softies out there. It's also nice that it's not a spin-off/sequel/side-story for an existing animated property, and there is something to be said for giving a little love to original animated titles.
The U.S. DVD and Blu-ray feature a nice batch of interviews with the Japanese voice actors as well as commentary from the American voice crew and the price isn't too shabby (particularly when stacked against the almost $40 asking price for The Girl Who Leapt Through Time).
Title: Nausicaa Of the Valley of the Wind
Alternately, this could be titled the "When is Princess Mononoke getting a hi-def disc" category. Disney has been taking their time releasing the Studio Ghibli catalog to Blu-ray here in the U.S. Specifically, this very first Ghibli title is joined by the most recent stateside release from the studio, Ponyo, as the only domestic Blu-rays available. On the plus side, both features are available in DVD/Blu-ray combos and include plenty of special features related to their respective films. Contrast this to say, New Zealand where Nausicaa is joined by Laputa: Castle in the Sky and My Neighbor the Yamadas in getting the upgrade treatment in recent years.
Note: this release would be for the older, more patient Miyazaki fan in your house, given that even with all of the action in the feature, it's still a fairly dense and contemplative action-drama about the consequences of war and man's assault on the environment. This one is chock full of good, old-fashioned melancholy, the kind that could break your heart right in two if you'll let it.
Title: Robotech: The Complete Original Series
Who knew A+E would take bringing the first anime many readers of a certain age ever say to DVD so seriously? Here's me giving this massive brick of anime its due recently:
First thing up front: this is publisher A+E more or less successfully acting as archivists, releasing this pretty comprehensive collection of all 85 episodes of the original series along with a couple of the movies. And I'm speaking to U.S. viewers of a certain age here, I know, but if the Robotech franchise is at all your thing and you're looking to get the series as you remembered it as a kid, make no mistake that this is it, and this brick of DVDs needs to be in your home between your copy of that Criterion Robocop DVD and that copy of Rob Roy which you still insist is awesome. Short of a what would surely be a multi-million dollar HD upgrade, this is the best this probably the best presentation you're gonna get and you'd better like it.
Joking aside, beyond some quibbles with how some of the supplemental material is presented here, I'd recommend this set to practically anyone with an interest in the series that almost singlehandedly popularized anime in the West while telling an epic, surprisingly mature story of the cost of war.
I'm not going to recount all of the reasons here why this is a must-have set, save to say that as of this writing, the collection is around $60--not too bad for three complete series and a mess of bonus discs to round out the entire package.
Title: Clannad: Complete Collection
Format: DVD and Blu-ray
This list might be light on simple, heartfelt dramas, but consider Clannad the antidote.
From the official Section 23 Synopsis:
Tortured by his past and pained by an uncertain future, Tomoya drifts through life with an almost overwhelming anger and emptiness. But when he meets the mysterious, charming and shy Nagisa, his world seems to change. Drawn in by her gentle but lonely spirit, he begins to experience the joy life can bring. But as he discovers the reason for his new-found friend's loneliness, Tomoya also finds that life can be frighteningly fragile. Poignant. Compelling. Heartbreaking. Clannad is one of the most cherished anime of all time. And now it’s available for the first time in beautiful, high-definition clarity.
I don't know anything from "most cherished anime all time" but this 23-episode set is definitely worth it to the anime fan looking for something off the beaten path and takes its time getting there. And sometimes you need to mix your anime diet up: it can't all be action/adventure/comedy all the time--you have to mix it up with a little bit of wrenching family drama to see what else the form is capable of.
Title: FLCL: The Complete Series
Format: DVD and Blu-ray.
Alright, the second instance of cheating on my part here: I haven't seen the February-released FLCL set that dropped on Blu/DVD. So this is not me vouching for the quality of those sets, even though I've heard here and there that the Blu gets an "aight" at best thanks to the quality of the source video being reproduced/slightly improved here. It's an upscaled set and it deserves your money because FLCL is such an oddball artifact from the beginning of the decade when a few studios were flexing their creative muscles beyond the confines of "boy-meets-robot" (although it has that) and "boy-meets-quirky-girl" (it has that too).
With hindsight, FLCL and its follow-up Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi felt liks long-form digs at anime tropes through the lens completely bizarre, hyper-stylized art/music projects. FLCL has less of a plot than a collection of vignettes in each episode following 12-year-old boy Naota who lives in the shadow of his absent baseball star brother and his ridiculous perverse father and grandfather. It turns out that his greatest masculine role models in the series will be an alien (?) girl and the silent, winged robot that popped out of his head.
Featuring music by Japanese pop group the Pillows, it's another colorful and wonderfully odd series that deserves revisiting. The very nice price tag of around $21 for the Blu-ray set makes it extra attractive given that it's about a couple of dollars less than buying the single, two-episode DVDs and ports over many of the features from the previous release--with the exception of the slick booklets that accompanied the Pioneer sets. Also, you don't have to pay $200+ to get the whole series in one set as opposed to trying to track down the 2007 set and its handsome art box. Nope, you're just gonna have to let that one go.