Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Best Opening Themes of Fall 2011

Suffice to say, it's been hard to read the surface of the past Autumn 2011 anime season. Die-hard fans will admit that the summer usually brings lazier titles, while the winter is more of a hibernation, leaving the equinox seasons to be the ones to carry the load. Considering the restraints usually come off in the fall, the load certainly appeared hefty this season.

The same ideas of renewal and competition tend to go with the animation and music for the opening sequences--I'd say that only Mawaru-Penguindrum, Gintama', and Nichijô impressed me with their  opening numbers last season, while the other shows struggled for a unique display. Fall seasons usually are meant to be more impressive, although the lack of a Shaft animation again made me a little hesitant to rip through the fifty-plus opening songs from anime shows this season.

The general consensus? Better! Less fluff, more stuff! J-Rock seemed to dominate the airwaves a lot more than last year, perhaps in an effort to wake up fans before the winter slumber. Here's my personal rankings for the latest anime trimester—hopefully we won't be singing in baby-talk next winter.

(Pictures, once again, provided by the awesome folks at CD Japan.)

Last Place. "Nya Nya Kibun" ("Meow Meow Feelings") - Fuwawaka
(Morita-san wa Mukuchi OP2)

It's probably unfair to give a three-minute show's twenty-something-second opening theme last place, but there's just something grating about the out-of-tune cat-calls and animated reminders of the main characters that we already know from the first season's opener. While the show had a little heart in its first season, it lost what little momentum it had this season, its lackluster musical blip just fatty filler to pump the "show" to three minutes.

25. "Live for Life ~ Ookamitachi no Yoru" ("Live for Life ~ Night of the Wolves") - Aimi
(Ben-To OP)

The show itself has a slight pulse to it—the whole idea of people fighting over half-priced box lunches isn't so far-fetched—but the rock number from Aimi is drab. There's a fake sense of edginess to it, especially with hijinks going on in the background. The fight scenes are a bit dizzying, and the use of those digital print-out fonts used on bento lunches don't work for presenting the staff. A subtle reminder—save for the Dirty Pair bathing in giant martini glasses, characters and giant food containers don't mix.

24. "Zannenkei Rinjinbu Hoshi Futatsu Han" ("The Regrettable Neighbors' Club, Two and a Half Stars") - Tomodachi Tsukuri-Tai
(Boku wa Tomogachi ga Sukunai OP)

The theme to Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai ("I Don't Have Many Friends") starts out likable with its 8-bit upward climb and, by itself, is a catchy number that keeps the right key to make its wavering musical style fit together. However, the animation betrays it, wasted for cheesecake shots of the supporting characters. Girls in swimsuits up against wet glass, in maid dresses wrapped in ribbons, sitting on the main character's lap—this isn't pretending to be something it's not. The honesty is appreciated, but it turns the show into a mockery of "friendship".

23. "Terminated" - Minori Chihara
(Horizon on the Middle of Nowhere OP)

I've had the privilege of speaking with Chihara-san (who also voices Yuki Nagato in the Haruhi Suzumiya franchise) at New York Comic Con, and I had dismissed her as a soft-voiced singer before I had met her. She shows a much broader vocal range in this violin-strewn techno number, some of the notes actually a pleasure to listen to. Once again, though, the little things ruin the animation—too many big-breasted and nonsensical character designs drown out the action in the opening. Hard to button down what the show's about.

22. "Graffiti" - Gackt
(Sket Dance OP3)

Would one really consider Sket Dance hardcore? That's the sense I get by listening to Gackt's headbanger of a song without watching the animation. Look, Gackt was pretty funny as "Dante", the misunderstood Visual-K student, but it seems to me that a lighthearted comedy like Sket Dance doesn't require an edge to it. More and more, I'm starting to feel that the show's trying to grab a different audience with its openings when it really doesn't need to.

21. "Baby U!" - MBLAQ
(Beelzebub OP4)

Considering the solid debut of the Korean boy-band 2PM and their feature on the Blue Exorcist soundtrack, it was a matter of time before JYP Entertainment introduced another band to anime fans. This time it's MBLAQ, short for "Music Boys Live in Absolute Quality" (another absurd acronym—take that, SMAP!). While the song has snap to it with its dance-hall vibe, the opening animation just doesn't click with its static introduction of the Beelzebub characters. Perhaps someone might want to set Japan straight by telling them that the "baby" in the song in this case isn't the toddler type.

20. "Change!!!!" - 765Pro All-Stars

Eh, nothing much different than what you'd expect for an anime about idol singers, nor much different than the first season's opener.. That still makes it better than half of the opening themes this autumn.

19. "Okaerinasai" ("Welcome Home") - Maaya Sakamoto
(Tamayura ~hitotose~ OP)

It's quite possible that Maaya Sakamoto may go down in Japanese lore as one of the more resilient seiyû out there. She's appeared in dozens of shows since 1992, but her vocal prowess is finally being recognized—her 7th studio album You Can't Catch Me was her first to hit #1 on the Oricon charts in 2011, 15 years after her debut.

A little longer than the typical opening theme, "Okaerinasai" does a pretty good job of capturing Tamayura's attempt to reintroduce Japan to classical photography. The song is slow and reminiscent of a gentle breeze, peppered with stills from the show. It'd be interesting to see what this show does for tourism in the real town of Takehara.

18. "My Dearest" - Supercell
(Guilty Crown OP)

Compared to its erratic animation, "My Dearest" comes out like a philharmonic, an incredible boom to its soundtrack. The song's composition starts quite well, especially when the slow piano is joined with the chatter of synthesizer chops in the background, but the song bursts too far out of its box, a bit too grandiosely as the orchestral tones force lead soloist Koeda to stretch her vocal boundaries and sing too loudly. Points for effort, but I have a feeling it's bound to be carved up by critics for being too big.

17. "Light My Fire" - KOTOKO
(Shakugan no Shana III OP)

Something—no, make that two things—bother me about the opening to the final Shakugan no Shana anime. Aside from the woman with three eyes, one with an eyepatch(!), the animation does the job to summarize the show, but the music doesn't sit well. The Autotuning in the middle of the song doesn't help, yet it's the off-rhythm key-change that rubs me the wrong way. It feels like the TV size of the original was spliced together from two sections of the song that weren't meant to be taped together. As difficult as the middle is, the song does end with a solid sequence.

16. "Shonen yo, Ware ni Kaere" ("Boys, Come Back to Me") - Etsuko Yakushimaru Metro Orchestra
(Mawaru-Penguindrum OP2)

Oh, Etsuko-chan. You can sing music-box lullabies and toy-soldier marches to me any day of the week. I fell in love with "Nornir", the first opening theme to Mawaru-Penguindrum, but I suppose the transition to the second season left the staff scratching their heads over better ideas for the animation. The dreamy production of the song number brings back thoughts of Broadway mixed with Ikuhara's continued appreciation for Takarazuka theater, but I'm disheartened that the animation resembles the first half's OP too much, almost to the point that it appears some shots are recycled from the show. Would straying from the show's unique perspectives in the opening have hurt the show itself?

Hard to say if that question was rhetorical. Etsuko-chan could still sing me "This Is The Song That Doesn't End", and I would still be happy.

15. "The Love Song" - LM.C
(Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan - Demon Capital OP)

Perhaps it was distraction from other shows, but I wish I had gotten into Nura a little earlier. The animation sequence is slicker in its presentation than its actual animation, teasing the viewer with side-shots and close-ups of the characters before hitting us with an alla-breve tempo change and action sequence in the middle. The song from LM.C—no stranger to Shônen Jump anime shows, as they did the first OP, as well as two Katekyô Hitman Reborn! OPs—lodged in my mind, as I swore I heard it before. Compare "The Love Song" to My Chemical Romance's "Helena", and you be the judge.

(Note: not the actual CD single cover)

14. "Harukaze" ("Spring Wind") - SCANDAL
(Bleach OP15)

I tend to appreciate the Bleach openings when the animation staff decides to be a little random about the sequences. Fonts vary as much as the action and the character personalities do. I liked that sort of artistic mindset when it came to the manga's title pages, and I appreciate it when the animation reflects it. In particular, the latest OP for Bleach focuses more on the everyday and pulls away from any Soul Society scenes, a refreshing approach with a breezy melody and nice use of past screen captures in a chronological screen meld. You can only do so many darkly-themed openings for a series, I suppose.

13. "Departure" - Masatoshi Ono
(Hunter x Hunter OP)

I did a side-by-side comparison of the opening themes for the first episodes of the two Hunter x Hunter shows—the current one and the original from 1999—and got a real sense that Madhouse is trying to give the remake a new energy. The original series started with "Ohayo" ("Good Morning") and gave us only a sleepy glimpse of the show's foursome, but Masatoshi Ono's opening is sunnier and more vibrant, surprising considering that he's a member of Galneryus, a neo-classical metal band known more for harsher melodies. It appears that the choice to include as many of the secondary characters was a nice change, but the opening could end up doing some harm to the show if people start viewing the remake as an attempt to remodel Hunter x Hunter into the current One Piece / Toriko styles.

12. "Asu e" ("To Tomorrow") - Galileo Galilei
(Mobile Suit Gundam AGE OP)

I encourage a lot of people to listen to the full versions of songs used in OPs and EDs. If possible, get the single. There are some groups that totally deserve the business, and Galileo Galilei is one of them. Their "Aoi Shiori" ("Blue Bookmark") song for the AnoHana OP was one of the selling points that convinced me the show needed watching, and after listening to their space-venture of a contribution to Gundam AGE, I may start watching that show when I get the opportunity, too.

11. "Sky's The Limit" - Shihoko Hirata
(Persona 4 The Animation OP)

There aren't many examples of smooth blend of hip-hop and R&B in anime if you step away from bigger J-pop acts, but every now and then you get a sultry number that does the genre-mix right. Shihoko Hirata is one of the carry-overs from the Persona 4 video game, so it's good to feel the champagne fizz from the game starting off the show. It might be a little misleading for the funky number to be used for a show that's a little more haunting than your average sci-fi school drama, but the beat is rather slick, even with the rambling lyrics that tend to lose a little of their English meaning after a while. A pretty good display of animation as well, even though the reasons behind the use of newspaper clips and television fuzz aren't yet clear to me. One on the positive side of creative in my book.

10. "Bye Bye" - 7!!
(You & Me OP)

I could have placed this easy-listener from 7!! (pronounced "seven-oops!") higher for its creative use of the everyday items you see in school and fun transitions in animation, but I could have easily placed it lower for its lack of punctuation. I have a feeling the show's laid-back personality probably held the opening back a little bit. Don't get me wrong; the group adds a great melody to the song, and I could listen to it over and over again, but the song might have qualified too well for the "easy-listening" and lowered my motivation to the point of disconnect, much like some of the characters in the show.

9. "Oath Sign" - LiSA
(Fate/Zero OP)

Normally, I'm not the one to appreciate the opening sequence that decides to go right into battle-mode and pit the characters in random fights, but there's something artistic about the way they're shown in the Fate/Zero OP. If anything, it's a good bullet-point analysis of the seven forces interacting in the holy war, a notable display of their motivations and knights without any actual confrontation between the seven armies. The song itself—the debut single for LiSA, one of the two lead singers for Angel Beats!'s "fictional" band Girls Dead Monster—turns out to be a better listen in its longer, non-TV-sized form, but for the opening it has the right amount of electricity to indicate a storm on the horizon.

8. "High Powered" - Sphere
(Squid Girl OP2)

Let's face it; ever since Ultra-Prism dropped that SHINRYAKU SHINRYAKU SHINRYAKU SHINRYAKU pipebomb on your brain last year, you were dying for a second Squid Girl (Shinryaku?! IkaMusume) anime and the opening song that came with it. While the first opening wasn't bad, the second theme soothes the stress from that squeaky mallet to the noggin. Sphere (the idol unit, not the jazz-band ode to Thelonious Monk) have had some peppy songs ("Now Loading...SKY!" from Asobi ni Ikuyo!, for example), but none really seemed to fit the animation style. It feels as refreshing as a summer breeze to hear their music finally accompany the fun that comes with every episode of a show like Squid Girl.

7. "Buddy" - Maaya Sakamoto
(Last Exile: Fam, the Silver Wing OP)

Perhaps my ear for music is getting a little better, but the accompanying melodies to Maaya Sakamoto's "Buddy" sounded familiar. Why, yes, it's been composed partly by School Food Punishment, the quartet that composed the ending theme to last spring's [C], as well as the opening to Un-Go. The animation itself is ripe with Range Murata's soft character designs, dueling with computer graphics that could use a little more integration with hand-drawn art, but the song is a marvel with rigid strings, and Sakamoto demonstrates a bluesy style that goes with the panic in SFP's music.

6. "Youthful" - 99RadioService
(Chihayafuru OP)

Has guitar rock in Japan been molded by the likes of Weezer and Green Day? Perhaps, but some of the influences are more direct than that. The band 99RadioService actually cite Paul McCartney, Buddy Holly, and Jackson Browne amongst their influences (as well as AC/DC!), which might be why their song "Youthful" has such a cheerful tone. Twiddling keyboards, warbling lyrics, and strong melody provide a different perspective to the animation, perhaps to slow down the split-second action that goes with Chihayafuru's subject of competitive karuta. Either way, it leaves the mind feeling good after listening to this opening, and the CD cover might be the coolest one of the season.

5. "COOLISH WALK" - Working!! Girls
(Wagnaria'!! OP)

If you haven't seen the multiple parodies of the opening animations to Working!! (Wagnaria!! to we, the lawsuit-happy Americans), your YouTubes must be clogged.  After all, "Someone Else" from the first season was enough to make everyone drop what they were doing, put on their old Converse sneakers, and bug out like a Bosstone. The ska-punk-based riff was one of the catchier sounds from 2010, one so addictive that it may have driven someone ONE ONE SOMEONE ONE ONE insane.

There's no doubt this song is as noxious or as obnoxious (PANPANPAN! PAN! PAN!) as the first, the horns joined with accordions, xylophones and organs in a buzzy mash this time around. Still, there's just no way one can resist the dancing, carefree cast, and that's probably why the staff knew not to mess with a good thing, the animation almost an exact replica of the first sequence. It's a little disappointing to see a lack of originality, but if it's not broken, why break it?

4. "Brain Diver" - May'n
(Phi Brain: Puzzle of God OP)

Hard to say why "Brain Diver" grabbed my attention as one of the better openings. Perhaps it was the synthesizer power behind the song itself dissolving into a sense of subterfuge. Perhaps it was the animation not trying to overdo itself. Perhaps it was either or both of these, or maybe it comes from the intrigue that life-or-death gaming has brought the anime industry (Future Diary, Liar Game, Kaiji, the early stages of Yu-Gi-Oh!, etc.) Maybe it's just a big mystery that doesn't require solving or explanation. Hell, if this song was a Tootsie Pop, I would savor it instead of counting the licks.

3. "How to go" - School Food Punishment
(Un-Go OP)

I had mentioned School Food Punishment a few entries ago, and somehow the group has enamored the noitaminA block so much that they've basically set up camp there. After all, their debut single "futuristic imagination" was featured in the stunning ED for Eden of the East, and I've already mentioned "RPG" in the [C] series. So far, both of the animation endings they've touched have been quite the package, so it's good to see someone allow them to introduce a series instead.

I'm intrigued by the music of SFP being used for shows that involve real collapse, whether it be through infrastructure or society, especially since their songs have this sense of something as private as a nightclub or as glamorous as a disco. However, I do like their approach to "How to go", their music threatening to implode on itself with high-tempo drumbeats and ravaging pounds against a piano keyboard. Perhaps it's a breakdown of neomodern jazz, a symbol of how society in Un-Go is elegant on the inside, but brittle from recovery on the outside.

2. "Dilemma" - Ecosystem
(Gintama' OP2)

Right now, Gintama (with or without the apostrophe) is probably your best guarantee for entertainment in anime, and that goes double for the opening and closing animations for the show. The last OP "Tôgenkyo Alien" had two cases where the animation completely blindsided the viewer with sequences unique to the episodes, while the ending theme "Balance Doll" was a random roll of the dice in terms of what could possibly be shown.

I suppose that's what makes the serious sequences that much more valuable to the show. If there's one thing I've learned is that Gintama is able to floor you with satire or drama, but very rarely with both at the same time. The opening for the third season of Gintama' is fueled by the debut single from the three-woman, one-man unit "ecosystem", a surprisingly punk smash without the need for comic relief. Night scenes around the paradoxical Kabuki district crescendo into a chalk-drawn fight drawn over the city lights, distinct evidence that, at times, Gintama' can be as serious as Rurouni Kenshin once was.

Of course, until the preview images show where the mosaics for the penis jokes go...

1. "Kuusou Mesorogiwi" ("Fantasy Missolonghi") - Yousei Teikoku
(Future Diary OP)

I'm not a big fan of horror, but any opening that can stir the cauldron and make my skin crawl is the kind that gets my attention. I'm not talking about witches and vampires in particular; I'm talking about drama and terror that only comes from abnormalities in the human psyche. Shaft did an outstanding job in developing that sense of despair from their Sayonara, Zentsubô-sensei openings, as did Manglobe with their Deadman Wonderland animation this year.

The fact this series was animated by little-known Studio Asread (their first solo project since Minami-ke) impresses me beyond belief. The sequence commences with a haunting Gothic chant and an eye crying blood, only to puncture the operetta with violent violins, blood-spattered white-and-red imagery, and the piercing toll of a bell. Toys rotting into pools of blood, a bony dog carcass lying on a carpet of dartboards, the main heroine smiling like someone who could either give you a love letter or stab you in the face with its opener—this isn't the product of nightmares, this is the factor that produces them!

Most impressive is the song composed by Yôsei Teikoku ("Fairy Kingdom") and their enigmatic lead singer Yui (who claims to be over 325 years old). Considering their last impressive project was for the Kurokami animation, fluffier substance than the band's image portrays, it's wonderful to hear their music come unglued with the psychotic imagery, something that was severely lacking in the promotional video for the song. Even the title, derived from the Siege of Missolonghi during the Greek War of Independence, speaks of slaughter.

Even after just describing the opening to Future Diary, I may not be able to sleep tonight.

Next time: the Best Ending Themes of Fall 2011 (if I manage to wake up...)

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