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    The Anime DVD Highlights of 2010

    So there you are, barely able to move off the couch, so stuffed with sprouts that they have to set up 'No Naked Flame' warnings around you just to satisfy European Health and Safety Regulations, and all your grandparents, uncles, aunts, parents, and pet dog have filled your wallet full of gift vouchers, as they know full well that you are the weird one in the family, the one who likes those abominable foreign cartoons, and that if they attempted to actually buy you a DVD, they'd get it wrong and pick up Avatar the Last Airbender by mistake. On the bright side, there's really only one DVD shop left on the high street, so when you can eventually shift your bloated hulk out of the door, you won't have a lot of window shopping to do. But what to get? What titles to pounce on in the January sales? These are some of the shows that caught my eye over the last twelve months, and may be worth keeping in mind, when you're looking for a bargain.

    You'd think that there wasn't a recession on, what with the way that anime keeps flooding to our shores. But take a closer look, and you'll see that there has been a retrenchment of sorts, a slight winnowing of numbers, and a concentration on more quality. There is a little less anime out there, but it's of consistently higher quality than before. That said, when it comes to the existing back catalogue, imports, and re-releases, you won't feel the absence at all. MVM this year embraced the new boxset mentality wholeheartedly, and most of their catalogue is now available in collection form. Even this year, I got to see anime from them I never saw the first time around, with collections for Gungrave and Ergo Proxy in particular making my eyes smile. Also, bargains were ever present from other companies, and golden oldies from now defunct ADV like Pani Poni Dash, Utawarerumono, and 009-1 were quick to fall on my doormat, while I grabbed a very nice looking Fantastic Children Collection from Beez. I've also got a head start on the January sales, and have an Anime Legends Collection of The Big O from them on order. As always, if the previous year's anime won't suffice, there's always a show from yesteryear that you will probably have yet to watch.

    And of course there is the import option, and with Funimation last year introducing their Super Amazing Value Editions, which drop whole series to the price of what would have been a single volume a few years ago, you too can enjoy something like School Rumble, or as I am finding perfect for this Christmas, Kanon, a show that is now a steal at $30. The US back catalogue is also just as fruitful, and I found gems like Roujin Z and The World of Narue last year from CPM.

    But, the focus of the article is on anime new to UK shores in 2010, and here, in no particular order are ten of my favourite titles of the last year.

    Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone
    2010 hasn't been the most fruitful year for anime feature films on DVD, not helped by the postponement of a fair number of titles. I'd put the January release of the 2-disc special edition of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time at the head of my list, were it not a re-release, and were the Blu-ray not scheduled for March 2011, to coincide with the belated release of Summer Wars (one of those postponements). In fact with titles like Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva, the annual dose of Bleach and Naruto in feature film form, and the Death Note compilations, it was looking a pretty bleak year when it comes to major, mind-blowing feature film. 2010 boiled down to just three titles, Ponyo, The Sky Crawlers, and Evangelion. I haven't seen Ponyo, although as always a Miyazaki film can be counted on as a sure bet. The Sky Crawlers is another Mamoru Oshii journey into philosophy and the meaning of everything, albeit with gorgeous visuals and edge of the seat dogfight sequences. It almost makes it seem as if Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone takes the spot by default. Don't let that fool you, as this re-imagining of the Hideaki Anno masterpiece is itself a stunning cinematic marvel. He's retelling the Evangelion epic in four completely new anime feature films. This first film sticks the closest to the television series, and with just a few alterations is a faithful recreation of the first six episodes. Except that the animation is all brand new, the quality is truly cinematic in a way that the TV show could only dream of, and it suits the widescreen format down to a tee. It's out on Blu-ray as well, which really should be your first port of call if you can play the higher definition format. Manga Entertainment have the first sequel scheduled for later this year.

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    Baccano!
    I jumped the gun on Baccano!, as I was uncertain if its stylish brutality would get past the UK censors. I needn't have worried, as this sort of thing is right up Manga Entertainment's street, and they were all over it in short measure, releasing a four-disc boxset a few months ago. You're probably expecting a narrative at this point, an explanation, summary, or brief précis of what this show is all about. You should be so lucky. That first episode that so confused me is an indication of how this series progresses. It's a continuity nightmare, a fractured narrative set across several years, featuring countless characters. It has a back and forth, piecemeal approach to storytelling that makes Tarantino movies look simple and straightforward. On the face of it, Baccano! is a Prohibition era crime story, broadly concerned with three events that link a cavalcade of characters together in unexpected ways. There is a mafia turf war in 1930, there is the Flying Pussyfoot incident a year later, and then there is a young girl's search for her brother in 1932. Added into the mix are a bunch of immortals, and alchemists searching for the secret of eternal life, stretching all the way from the 18th Century to the 21st. And the way the narrative twists, turns, jumps back and forth, and generally has an anarchic life of its own will probably leave you breathless. But it's a good sort of breathless.

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    This show is up there for anime of the year for me, and if its free-wheeling fractured narrative visual cool is your thing, then also look out for Durarara!! from the same creators, which is currently being released by Beez Entertainment,

    Sherlock Hound
    If retro is your thing, then you can't get much more retro than Sherlock Hound, released by Manga Entertainment some 11 months ago now. If you were enamoured of those shows like Dogtanian, Willy Fog, Mysterious Cities of Gold, and Ulysses that used to play on TV when you came home from school, then Sherlock Hound will tug those heartstrings of nostalgia for you, even though it didn't make it to UK terrestrial TV. The big selling point here is that this television series had one Hayao Miyazaki working on it. Actually the big selling point is that Sherlock Holmes and his contemporaries are cast as dogs, but you probably already knew that. Sherlock Hound and Dr Watson together investigate crimes and help those in need in this 26 part series, occasionally hampered by Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, and often up against their most villainous foe, Professor Moriarty. Occasional assistance comes from Hound's housekeeper Mrs Hudson, while Moriarty wouldn't be complete without his henchmen, Todd and Smiley.

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    Romeo X Juliet
    You haven't read Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Japanese. Not even studio Gonzo (who have so much trouble when it comes to concluding their own, original stories) could mess up when The Bard was providing the source material. But with their visual flair and imagination, they could translate Romeo and Juliet into a whole new, fantasy realm vernacular that would refresh the classic tale with a whole new outlook.

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    Romeo X Juliet is set in a fantasy realm of indeterminate time period, where Neo Verona is the centre of a vast continent, floating high in the sky, and where noblemen travel in style atop Pegasus like dragonhorses. It was 14 years previously that the Capulet family, rulers of Neo Verona were brutally slain by the Montagues, who usurped their throne and began a reign of tyranny. Only one heir to the Capulet name survived that night, a young girl named Juliet, and now as she nears her sixteenth birthday, she hides among the citizens of Neo Verona, disguised as a boy, protected by the surviving retainers of the Capulet family. And while Prince Montague's grip on the city ever tightens, his son Romeo is about to come of age. These two young hearts are set on a tragic collision course. This is also one of those rare times that the English dub truly transcends the original language, and the show takes on a life of its own as a result. Look for an MVM label.

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    Soul Eater
    Shonen! It is the most common genre in anime, the basic entry point of the medium that appeals to a target audience of teenaged boys. It's full of lengthy battles, good versus evil, and lots of levelling up. Let's face it, there is always shonen, but consistently good shonen is almost an oxymoron. This year we had Naruto finally drag itself out of filler hell, and immediately drop back into slow motion first gear as it embarked on the Shippuden saga. Bleach dove head first into that vacant spot in filler hell with the Bount arc, while D. Gray Man, a rather promising show, turned into a predictable and dull disappointment, that went onto eternal hiatus when Funimation stopped licensing it halfway through. Thank God then for Soul Eater, which is just the breath of fresh air that the genre needs, bright, stylish, inventive and original. It's the most fun that I've ever had with a shonen show, and if you are thinking of trying such a show, Soul Eater should be at the head of a very short list.

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    Soul Eater is set in a world that was once terrorised to submission by the darkest of souls. Evil people's souls gradually turn from bright and shiny, into warped red Kishin Eggs, and it's the Kishin that go ahead and cause trouble. It was the shinigami that saved the world by reaping these Kishin, and by reaping the evildoers before their tainted souls can hatch. Chief among them was Death himself, but the ultimate personification of mortality can't handle all this by himself, which is why he's now the headmaster of the Death Weapon Meister Academy. Weapon Meisters are those people who have the skills and talent to reap souls. They do this by using human weapons, partners who literally transform into weapons to reap souls. To graduate and become a shinigami, a Meister and his weapon need to reap 99 evil souls, and one witch, after which the weapon will become a fully-fledged Death Scythe. Soul Eater introduces and follows three unconventional partnerships, Maka and Soul Eater, who aspire to ultimate coolness, Black * Star and Tsubaki, who are hampered by Black * Star's ego, and the son of the Grim Reaper himself, Death the Kid, for whom symmetry is the ultimate goal, and his twin weapons, Patty and Liz.

    Released by Manga Entertainment.

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    Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood
    They say that Fullmetal Alchemist is a shonen show as well, but for me it has long since transcended that genre to become something truly amazing and special in its own right. Fullmetal Alchemist is Shonen in the same way that The Lord of the Rings is a little fantasy story. Technically true, but the least useful description to apply. This is the second incarnation of the Fullmetal Alchemist story. The first, brilliant incarnation was thrown off track halfway through when the animators surpassed the manga creator, and had to make up their own second half for the show. That turned out to be so good that it begat a feature film. But since then, Hiromu Arakawa has completed the manga story, and it was the ideal time to bring Fullmetal Alchemist back, but this time in widescreen, with a Brotherhood suffix to differentiate it from the original series, and this time it has the clout of Manga Entertainment behind it. We're two fifths of the way through the story, and we're already seeing events and characters that the first series didn't cover. It's a show that should be on every shelf. Just don't bother with the Blu-rays.

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    Alchemy is the art of the transmutation of matter by means of an incantation, a mystical circle, or sheer willpower alone. For centuries charlatans and the deluded pursued the creation of gold by alchemical means but to no avail. But in Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, alchemy is a realised science. Set in an alternative world during the early years of the twentieth century, the transmutation of elements is indeed a reality, and the state regards such talent highly indeed. Full Metal Alchemist tells the story of brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric, two precocious alchemists who are on a quest. The young brothers had attempted the unspeakable, resurrecting their mother. But the Law Of Equivalent Exchange cannot be flouted, only objects of equal mass can be transmuted, and the dead cannot be brought back to life. The attempt failed disastrously. Now, Alphonse is a disembodied spirit bound to a suit of animated armour, while Edward has replaced his leg and arm with metal automail, but it's his prodigious facility with alchemy that has earned him the name, Fullmetal Alchemist. Now they search for a means to restore their bodies.

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    Rin - Daughters of Mnemosyne
    If I had thought that Baccano! would come a cropper at the BBFC, I held out no hope whatsoever for Rin - Daughters of Mnemosyne, but just as with that show, this has Manga Entertainment written all over it, with its tale of immortals, sex and violence. Ingeniously set across several decades, it tells the story of an undying private detective with a taste for vodka, and the cases that she investigates, as the mystical nature of her origins comes back to haunt her. Did I mention the sex and the violence? This is the sort of anime that used to get tabloid headlines back in the nineties. It's relentless, hard-hitting, and refreshingly free of the moe and cute tropes that seem to infuse modern anime. But unlike those old, so-called video nasties that I grew up with, Rin - Daughters of Mnemosyne has one hell of a story to back it up. It's the best of both worlds. It also turned out to be one of the first television anime in the UK to get a native PAL transfer, a trend that has continued as the year has progressed, making the future of UK anime on DVD pretty rosy indeed.

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    Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit
    Talk about sneaking in under the radar! It was the latter half of the year when MVM finally got round to releasing Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit on UK DVD, and at first glance I had completely dismissed it as just another fantasy anime. Its rather tortured US release didn't help much either when it came to this show's notoriety. It's only when I finally started watching it that I realised that it was none other than Kenji Kamiyama of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex fame behind the camera, and this story was anything but just another fantasy show. With great characters, sublime animation, an awesome soundtrack, and a story that just grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go, Moribito is one of the best anime releases of the year. It just oozes quality from every frame. And letting MVM keep copies of this unsold for any length of time ought to be a crime.

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    Arriving in Yogo after two years away, the spear-woman Balsa has nothing on her mind but getting her spear repaired. She certainly doesn't expect to rescue a young prince who has been thrown into a raging torrent. The prince's mother invites her to the palace to thank her, but it's more to lay a burden upon her than to endow her with riches. Prince Chagum has been possessed by a water demon, at least that is the opinion of those who know of his nightmares, and it's the Mikado's duty to rid the land of water demons. So it is that Chagum's father has ordered his death. The second Queen pleads with Balsa to take her son and keep him safe. It's a good thing that Balsa has a self-appointed mission to save eight souls. If she can protect Chagum, that will be the eighth soul. Hiding in plain sight, Balsa goes about raising Chagum as a common member of society, but the water demon's egg that is gestating in Chagum hasn't finished with him yet. Meanwhile, there are those in the royal court who realise that with the 'death' of Chagum, the ill omen that lies over the land hasn't lifted as yet. The great drought is still imminent, as two worlds draw ever closer together.

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    Bamboo Blade
    This really shouldn't count, as only half of it is a 2010 release, the second half is due at the end of January 2011, but Bamboo Blade turned out to be a breath of fresh air when it debuted in the UK, back in November. It's a high school comedy, which is common enough, but is centred on sports, which is rare to the point of this probably being the only example in the UK. But it is kendo, sword fighting with the aforementioned bamboo blades, which is close enough to Manga Entertainment's remit to make it a natural fit. It has a cast of characters to die for, and it is thoroughly entertaining, surprisingly good fun, with some stunningly well animated kendo at the heart of a light-hearted, warm, and delightful slice-of-life comedy.

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    Toraji 'Kojiro' Ishida is a layabout and loser teacher at Muroe Private High School, and it's usually his pay packet that he loses. He can barely afford to feed himself, and is reduced to scrounging off his students. He also half-heartedly coaches the school's kendo team after school hours, not made easier by the new school year meaning the departure of the old team, and the few remaining members intimidated by a couple of bullies who like waving big sticks around. But a night out with an old friend, and coach of a rival school's kendo team changes all that when he makes a bet. If his girls' kendo team can beat his Ishibashi's kendo team, then he'll be able to eat for free for a year. Now all he needs is to recruit a girls' kendo team. The ideal recruit would be Tamaki Kawazoe, daughter of a kendo master who grew up in a kendo dojo, but she would rather watch anime instead.

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    Eden of the East
    Careless Monday was a bizarre day in the history of Japan. Some unnamed terrorist launched ten missiles at Tokyo, resulting in significant property damage, yet claiming not one life. The next year, college graduate Saki Morimi is celebrating her graduation with a trip to the US with her friends. But she ditches them for a side-trip to Washington DC, as she wants to see the centre of the world. She also has a daft idea about tossing a coin into the White House fountain. It's an act that would have got her intimately acquainted with the Department of Homeland Security, were it not for the appearance of an even bigger threat, a naked amnesiac Japanese guy holding a gun and a mobile phone. Security momentarily hoodwinked, Saki has a brief moment of solidarity with her fellow countryman, and lends him her coat to preserve his modesty. They go their separate ways, until Saki realises that her passport is still in her coat.

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    The guy having ditched the gun tries the phone, only to get through to a rather useful voice. He may not know who he is, but Juiz obviously does, at least she knows enough to direct him to his apartment. He isn't there long when there is a knock on the door. It's Saki, looking for her passport. But not far behind are the police, looking for a couple of terrorist suspects who raised a stink at the White House. The two will have to work together to get back to Japan safely, and it's a good thing that Akira still has his wits, even if he hasn't got his memory. For there are far greater questions to be answered… Who erased his memories and why? What's with the hi-tech looking phone, and the voice on the other end, Juiz, who keeps imploring him to work towards being a saviour? Why does everything he asks Juiz for get done almost instantly? Why does he have over 8 billion Yen stored on the phone that pays for these whims? Who are the twelve Selecao, who is the Supporter, and just what crazy game has he got himself into?

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    That's all you need to know about Eden of the East, probably the best anime released in years. It's even better than Moribito if you're wondering, but then again, it has a director in common, Kenji Kamiyama. This hi-tech, cyberpunk mystery is so of today that it almost feel real enough to touch, with its tale of societal disaffection, mystery, all revolving around mobile phones and inventive apps. The only, tiny flaw is the cliffhanger ending, but that's okay, as Manga Entertainment have the two movies that conclude the story as well, due for release in 2011.

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    Other Possibilities
    These were my favourite titles of the year, but if they don't tickle your fancy, you may want to try Fate/Stay Night for romantic fantasy action, Mahoromatic - Something More Beautiful for cyberpunk saucy comedy hijinks, Blade of the Immortal for supernatural Samurai moodiness, Sengoku Basara - Samurai Kings for Samurai action fun, Vampire Knight if you are in an Anne Rice frame of mind, Aquarion for ridiculous mecha fun, X: The TV Series for supernatural Clamp style, Rozen Maiden for a sarcastic living doll and her human servant, and of course there was the return of Lina Inverse in Slayers Revolution!

    A Taste of 2011
    And if you want to save up your Christmas money for next year's new releases, things to look forward to include, the aforementioned Eden of the East movies, Summer Wars (and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time Blu-ray), Redline, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Evangelion 2.22. In terms of TV series, there will be Slayers Evolution-R, The Tower of Druaga, more Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, High School of the Dead, the second season of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, K-On, Birdy the Mighty Decode, House of the Five Leaves and Tatami Galaxy. And we finally, finally get our hands on Lucky Star! It looks to be another exciting year for fans of anime.

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