Monday, March 21, 2011

The Top 15 Best Themes of Winter 2011

Last fall, I ranked the Top 15 themes for the anime season and had a pretty good time rediscovering the music of Japan. Like I had mentioned before, those first 90 seconds can mean a lot to a series, and sometimes the final ninety can also set an equal pace for the next show. However, with the lack of new and/or impressive shows this season, it was a wonder if the themes would be better in order to convince fans to keep watching or if they would worsen from the quality of the shows themselves.

Only one way to find out. I've taken a look at the major opening and ending themes for the Winter 2011 season and ranked the best 15. I promise you that they all have at least used their instruments properly (which is why Oniichan no Koto is NOT ranked here).

[All CD cover images come courtesy of CD Japan. OP = Opening Theme. ED = Ending Theme.]

Honorable Mention: "Immoralist" - Yui Horie (Dragon Crisis! OP)

You can't blame Dragon Crisis! for trying to be dramatic with their opening theme, an array of the main characters glancing at the camera like they were to mean business. It's a weak display of the show to first-time viewers, but it's not like the music is terrible. I'm probably giving the show's opening this spot out of pity, as the ending theme and animation are just horrendous from a musical perspective.

Well, maybe the music is pretty bad. It seemed pretty boring and uninspired.

Actually, you know what? The hell with you, Dragon Crisis. You frustrated me long enough with your wishy-washy nature.

Honorable Mention: "Sekai to Issho ni Mawarô yo!" ("Let's Revolve With The World!") - Love Roulettes (Rio Rainbow Gate! OP)

It's chintzy, totally plastic in its presentation, and likely over-embellished, but it's peppier and deserved eye candy for those expecting it. It grabs the viewer around the neck and leads them through animation and music that fits the form. Yeah, it's faker than 75% of the breasts in the show, but it's mindless and more fitting of this position.

15. "Itsu Datte" ("Anytime") - Daisuke (Wandering Son OP)

The opening animation for Wandering Son is likely a bit too plain for some fans, as there are no appearances by any of the characters to really present the show in its minute-and-a-half introduction. However, it's pretty clever regardless. Presenting the credits in its three-dimensional style not only gives depth to the classroom, but we're given a sort of temporal geometry when we see how all of the credits are spaced in relation to others. Pretty nifty typographical trick.

The song's not so bad either.

14. "Perseus" - Yamazaru (Tegami Bachi Reverse ED2)

The ending theme for the second Tegami Bachi Reverse season is a pretty good example of what some shows are trying to do—save time and space by presenting the next episode's trailer within the ending animation (also done by Wandering Son). In addition to the animation's Final-Fantasy-esque trip that Lag and Niche make between castles, we get a solid dance-pop number from Yamazaru that sounds a little like Quruli's music.

13. "Sawakaze" ("Fresh Breeze") - Tomofumi Tanizawa (Kimi ni Todoke 2 OP)

Kimi ni Todoke is one of those shows that depend on the lightness of the soundtrack behind it. Giving the show something other than a piano-based opening sounds preposterous, but the music accompanying Tanizawa's lyrics treads lightly around the animation. Perhaps the buttery sounds are the reason the animation only lasts a minute—it must have snapped like a spider's web upon its composition.

12. "Ma-Ka-Se-Te Tonight" - Iori Nomizu (Kore wa Zombie desu ka? OP)

There's not that much to the opening animation for KoreZom, save for the decent overlap of computer graphics and traditional art. It's mostly in place to show off the group's fighting talents with an energetic rock song from Nomizu, the voice actress for Haruna in the show. It probably won't be as memorable as others, perhaps due to the animation providing a little too much while withholding a lot of the identities of the other characters.

11. "Wagana wa Shôgakusei" ("Our Names are Elementary-School Students") - Marui Sisters (Mitsudomoe Zôryôchû OP2)

Never mind the idea that the name of the song doesn't make much sense; Mitsudomoe itself was never meant to be coherent. This opening is meant to be thrown around like pillows during a sleepover pillow fight, each of the Marui sisters' personalities shining through boh visually and vocally. Naturally, this makes for hectic animation to accompany it, but it's a fun listen, especially with recorders used for the background music.

10. "Daydream Syndrome" - Marina Fujiwara (Dream Eater Merry OP)

It was a shame that Dream Eater Merry was claimed off the licensing waivers so quickly this year, but it was a deservedly good show for what it was worth. The opening had the spark that likely sold me the keys to a vehicle with a good motor, plenty of good background music with a strong voice in Marina Fujiwara, who finally was called up to the majors after multiple appearances on Touhou soundtracks. Good stuff.

9. "Shining Star" - 9nine (Star Driver OP2)

I'm certainly not going to back down on my opinion that Star Driver had me at the opening theme for Season 1, but if the animation and music for Season 2 were used in their places, I wonder just how interested I would have been. Granted, you get a good song from 9nine with some great melody, but the animation rubbed me raw. Using the first snips from the Season 1 opening to create the Season 2 opening...feels like there have been some originality lost. You get a solid opening, yes, but I'm mindful of the overused "naked-girl-looking-at-you" motif.

8. "For You" - Rie Fu (Wandering Son ED)

Rie Fu is one of those singers in Japan that has a great balance of cultural influences, her voice weathered by exposure to 70's performers such as Joni Mitchell and The Carpenters. While her talents have been used in action shows such as Bleach and Darker Than Black to bring down the mood at the end of the shows, her song "For You" at the end of Wandering Son is accompanied only by cherry blossoms and the two main characters. While its plainness likely brought it down, the song is sweet and quite pleasant to follow, fitting well with the show.

7. "Magia" - Kalafina (Puella Magi Madoka Magica ED)

I had the good fortune to meet with the girls of Kalafina and their producer Yuki Kajiura at Anime Boston in 2009, and it was a thrill to hear them perform. While most female groups in Japan try to impress with style reserved for unicorns and rainbows, Kalafina have been allowed to go the opposite direction; "Magia" is a haunting contemporary-classical piece that feels windswept and stormy, while the animation depicts the hidden danger the show's opening theme never displays. Even the details are spectacular; note how Homura's shadow turns to look back at Madoka's shadow in concern.
6. "Honki Sentai Gachi Ranger" - Masaaki Endô (Honki Sentai Gachi Ranger OP)

Probably an unfair choice for this song, as it only appeared in the first episode of the Mitsudomoe Zôryôchû as a "spin-off", but the song was a perfect complement to the ode/parody to the tokusatsu "ranger" shows out there. It was upbeat and totally captured the energy (and unintentional comedy) of these live-action shows. The producers were even able to flag down Masaaki Endô, one of the founding members of JAM Project, to do the song. It was a much better display of energy than JAM Project's actual submission for the season, "Vanguard", which was weakened by the Cardfight! Vanguard show.

5. "Connect" - ClariS (Puella Magi Madoka Magica OP)

I was pretty impressed by the talent we saw in ClariS last season when they performed the opening to Oreimo, but I'm well aware that freshman success is often followed by sophomore slumps. The middle-school-duo-that-sounds-nothing-like-one didn't fail to impress with this potent opening to Puella Magi Madoka Magica, the song quite tight in its performance.

However, it's the animation that doesn't quite put it at the top. Now, SHAFT didn't animate it badly, but Madoka's transformation sequence just feels creepy to an extent. Never mind the fact that we haven't seen the transformation sequence in the actual show yet—it just feels shudderingly weird to see Madoka getting transformed by a kiss on the forehead by the ghostly naked image of herself.

4. "Cold Finger Girl" - Chiaki Kuriyama (Level E OP)

Yeah, I know. The animated opening to Level E felt a lot like the opening to the Men In Black animated series intro, but the music to that show was so rigid and mechanical. They should have used something a little off the beaten path like this song from Chiaki Kuriyama (yes, Gogo from Kill Bill, that Chiaki Kuriyama!). This is smoky-blues-bar rock-and-roll that fits the animation's fast pace and solid-color style. A fantastic opening that is so alcoholic it requires a Black Label chaser.

3. "Dadada!" - Group Tamashii (Beelzebub OP)

In all honesty, I was a bit concerned by Beelzebub's concept and character designs, but I'm happy to see the show has developed into strictly the Shônen Jump comedy it was meant to be. The opening theme and animation aren't trying to be overly artistic like some of its brethren—appropriately enough, Group Tamashii, a band of comedians, were recruited for the job, and "Dadada!" comes out as a fitting ode to the yankii lifestyle. The animation itself has its moments, a handful of funny scenes mixed with a vortex of fire that makes characters indistinguishable, but the song carries the sequence and matches a lot of the characters themselves, displaying false macho bravado while it sings about taking care of the son of the Devil.

2. "Destin Histoire" - yoshiki*lisa (GOSICK OP)

So far, GOSICK has been proving to be a series worth following each week, and its opening theme manages to distinguish itself from a lot of the other shows. The song from yoshiki*lisa (stage name for TV talent Risa Yoshiki) is a good synthesis of a pop ballad, not really straying out of the lines when the stencil for a typical opening theme is provided.

However, the artwork done for the sequence and the movement of the scenes are what carry the opening well. The heaviness of the outlines and the lack of true detail in the colors provided for the designs makes the animation appear to come to life as a picture book composed of tarot cards, and the scenes are short enough to explain the bursts of comedy and drama without actually going into the story. Calling it a photo album for the show also isn't justice; the counteractive movement of the panels give it the sense that someone is winding the crank in the background. Perhaps this is the closest thing we can get to a pop-up book in animation.

1. "Harinezumi" ("Hedgehog") - Hitomi Azuma (Fractale OP)

Sometimes the best animation opening for a series is the one that shows almost nothing at all. We saw that from Star Driver's opening from last season, the characters mostly held back while Takuto dashed with the music. This time around, we're not even sure who is being featured in the opening animation. Naturally, the OP for Fractale goes the route suggested by its name by leading the viewer through a fantasy of computerized fractale-laced images, working from the inside out.

The animation is possibly something a good computer-graphics student could produce, but it's the music alone that gets the job done. While the song itself is powered with the digital drive of electronica, Hitomi Azuma provides a wondrously uplifting voice with tinges of Irish folk—you should listen to her sing "Down By The Salley Gardens" in the ending theme, a traditional Irish song penned by William Butler Yeats. Couple that with finger cymbals and the slow drift of an ocarina, and you get a song that is influenced by a multitude of nations, perhaps fitting with the theme of global mentality in the show itself.

In general, the music and sequences for this year's shows were not as impressive as expected, but the choice gems we found were pretty good. Guaranteed you'll find an ULTRA-PRISM song next season, though.

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