5 Favorite Episodes
After a hiatus from writing about anime, I figured I could simultaneously celebrate my birthday and ease myself back into the process by writing about my five favorite anime episodes. Picking a top five or top ten series list is difficult because of the endless criteria I could use to rank shows. However, when it comes to individual episodes, it’s a lot easier to break the content down and compare my feelings of each option.
Although I still can’t provide a specific order for these five episodes, they are still my overall top five favorites. Spoilers for each show, of course!
Chihayafuru Season 2, Episode 24
While the entire series is a beautiful exploration of both niche passions and competition, this episode stands out as the most romantic. And romantic is the most appropriate word to use here. Chihayafuru features a love triangle, and although it seems to be the show’s main draw at first, it becomes more like a representation of how romantic each character’s feelings towards karuta are. In competition, a “love” of the game is always mentioned, but Chihayafuru expands that feeling to encompass all meanings of “love.”
Chihayafuru is so successful at this because of how it blends shoujo/josei stylistic elements with the rich cultural context of karuta as a sport, but also for how it treats its competitor characters and their skills. Chihayafuru does not feature the kinds of brutal physical advantages you might find in a show like Haikyuu!!. There are no characters who are so tall, so strong, so naturally imposing that other characters fear them. Characters are instead described as having “studied”. They’re hyped up on the basis of their composure or mental fitness more than their speed or strength (though speed is still a major highlight).
Episode 24 is the best example of these unique qualities, as well as the culmination of their development. The episode features some of my favorite imagery of the series, including the wonderful metaphor of Arata’s intense composure as a spinning top. The showdown between Shinobu and Arata is also the first time we as viewers get a real glimpse of what separates the up-and-comers from the top level of competition. Chihaya herself works as an excellent mediator between the viewer and the sport; we learn all the intricacies of Shinobu and Arata’s play through her desire to emulate them, which is much more engaging than a simple spectator explaining the match to us.
In the end, Episode 24 shows us how an intense match between two of the strongest players in the show can be finished by an action as simple as Arata dropping his hand onto a card he was defensively guarding. The show’s second season ends after finally giving us a look into the dynamics of top-level play. Originally, this was a bittersweet note, since a third season seemed unlikely and a localization of the manga even less likely. But now that Season 3 is on its way, a whole new element of excitement has been added to Episode 24.
Yuru Yuri Season 1, Episode 3
A lot of Yuru Yuri episodes were in the running for this list, but none of them can turn a bad day around quite like Episode 3 can. If I’m ever sad or frustrated, watching this episode will brighten my mood without fail. It comes packed with all the hilarity of a typical Yuru Yuri episode, plus some bonus heartwarming sentimentality.
Admittedly, the first five minutes aren’t that funny or interesting, but once the ball gets rolling, it doesn’t stop. Kyoko is at her most ridiculous for the entire episode. You can tell she always wants to have a good time while keeping her friends entertained, even if that means she has to play the boke sometimes. Every activity or interaction is a chance for her to invent a silly game or make a dumb joke. She pushes the jokes just before the point of being obnoxious, so she always come across as endearing. Combined with the occasional show of consideration for her friends (such as going out to buy the forgotten miso), Kyoko achieves a likable balance between jester and genuine. Though, I may be biased since my own personality is so similar to hers…
Anyway, despite most of my favorite gags not being established yet, Episode 3 is surely one of the funniest in the series. The comfy young-20’s situation of hanging out in a friend’s apartment makes for the perfect stage to act out some feel-good jokes. Really, that comfiness is what pushes Episode 3 ahead of any other for me. It conjures up a lot of pleasant memories, and makes me want to arrange a party with my own friends. Plus, it lends itself to the best episode ending of the whole series.
Once the other girls leave, Kyoko and Yui head off to sleep. Inevitably, Kyoko needs a midnight snack, and the two girls cutely share a cup of ramen. Hunger satisfied, Kyoko begins to apologize for imposing on her friend and being a nuisance. She explains how she knows Yui can get lonely sometimes, which puts all her antics in better perspective. She really isn’t self-centered or ignorantly obnoxious–she just tries to generate a lot of fun and excitement to lift the spirits of those around her, to keep everyone company. In that sense, what Kyoko does for Yui is the same as what this episode does for me.
Hibike! Euphonium Season 1, Episode 12
Surprisingly, Episode 8’s moonlight hike doesn’t make the list. My love for that episode is well-documented, but overall I find it less impactful and impressive than Episode 12. At least, I feel that way now, even if I haven’t always or won’t always. Episode 8 is a portal to another universe where the streetlamps have candies for bulbs and the rain falls down like chandelier crystals. It’s beauty and magic is undeniable, but Episode 12 is what makes me cry.
The first half of the episode deliberately builds up to its climax. Episode 12 is not afraid to show us the same scenario multiple times in just a few minutes. It is not afraid to bring back Aoi and wrestle with her relationship to the themes of the show. It is not afraid to put the viewer through what Kumiko is going through. We feel the seemingly hopeless repetition and struggle, and we confront the character who represents the fact that–ultimately–we don’t have to experience these pains. There is no reason that our (Kumiko’s) decision to work hard in band is more correct than Aoi’s decision–except for our belief in that decision.
Setting the ideological balance up in this way is crucial because of what we know Kumiko’s character flaws to be. She struggles to make decisions, to listen to her heart, to face up to the pains of conflict and failure. Reconnecting with Aoi at the exact moment she is most likely to give up, and yet not giving up is a huge development for Kumiko. She decides she wants to improve, no matter what it takes. No matter what pains she exposes herself to as a result.
And KyoAni makes sure to devote all their talent and effort to animating that resolution in the most spectacular way. That scene of Kumiko running is a marvel. The color composition, the lighting, the voice acting, and obviously the camera movement so impressive you have to watch it a second time to be sure it actually happened. We’re given such a clear look into the hurricane of emotions raging inside Kumiko, a character who previously seemed awkward and quiet. If you look for an emotion, you’ll find it: rage, frustration, hatred, arrogance, craving, fear, despair, jealousy…it’s all there.
Love Live! School Idol Project Season 1, Episode 12
Love Live! is amazing. It is an unrealistically ambitious multimedia project that somehow succeeded beyond all imagination in every venture. A bunch of dysfunctional high schoolers decide to “become idols” to “save their school”–two actions that are in quotes because of how absurd it is to suggest those are things you can just do. Yet, despite one of the most ridiculous premises in storytelling history and Rin acting like a cat on cocaine every episode, Love Live! is one of the best drama and sports anime of the decade. And it accomplishes that without ever being reduced to a moe/fanservice vending machine.
Episode 12 makes the cut for demonstrating how gripping Love Live! can be, even in comparison to traditional drama or sports anime. After falling unconscious during a performance and learning how far she’s also been pushing her fellow idols, Honoka enters a legitimate depression. The show suddenly foregrounds the interpersonal challenges faced by nine diverse people all chasing a nearly impossible dream. The issues of who’s sacrificing what, who’s blaming who, who doesn’t understand someone else’s feelings, and more al come to light at once. It’s a very real look into the tensions that lead to most bands/idol groups/sports teams failing.
Honoka, seeing all of this, begins to think that everyone would be happier if they weren’t chasing after this far-off dream. They kept the school from closing, so isn’t giving up okay if they’re all struggling so much? She expresses all of these concerns and fears to the group. Even though they all must have thought about these issues too, they are seriously hurt by hearing the girl who originally united them in the pursuit of the impossible now back down.
The girls’ argument on the rooftop rips away any delusions of these characters being simple props for verbal tics or moe gaps. They affirm themselves of all being so human: vulnerable, passionate, stubborn, alive. When I first saw Umi slap Honoka for quitting, the entire show morphed before my eyes. This is an episode (and that slap a moment) that comes completely unexpected, yet upon closer inspection, was promised from the beginning. The impossible dream and the hard work it would take to achieve that dream weren’t simple excuses to see a bunch of idols interact. That dream always had a price of pain, and Episode 12 makes sure you understand that.
Sangatsu no Lion Season 1, Episode 10
If Chihayafuru expresses competition as true romance, Sangatsu no Lion expresses it as true melodrama. The shogi gameboard is a place where communication occurs, as well a place around which communication occurs. The players communicate to each other as they play, and also as they discuss famous matches or analyze their own matches after the fact. Naturally, these discussions tend to focus specifically on gameplay, but occasionally the errors or habits of gameplay can only be explained through a more emotionally-directed communication. Sometimes a player’s feelings have to be grappled with to understood their gameplay or mistakes. But sometimes the gap between gameplay and emotion isn’t bridged, and communication remains stuck beneath the shogi pieces.
Episode 10 is one such time. Rei is taunted and guilt-tripped by Kyoko at the start of the episode, to which he offers no real response. As he enters the match with Yasui, nothing is expressed between the characters except for their moves on the shogi board. All that Rei has learned about Yasui’s family situation and alcoholism is put aside for competition–for the sake of competition, even. Although the match has been established to have some emotional significance for both players, none of that is ever expressed by the players. Even when Yasui eventually speaks, it is only to avoid the truth by talking about plays he could have made within the game, not changes he could have made in his life.
Yasui loses and exits the shogi hall, leaving behind a Christmas gift for his daughter. This is yet another emotional expression left within the game of shogi, as his efforts to reach out to his daughter remain abandoned in the shogi hall. Rei rushes out to return these feelings to Yasui, and Yasui begrudgingly takes back the gift. However, he doesn’t appear to head towards the station and thus his family. He heads in the same direction, presumably towards a bar.
Seeing his small attempt to communicate outside the gameboard be received so sourly, and realizing that his own emotions are never recognized for being anything more than moves on the shogi board, Rei explodes with expression. He unleashes all the conflicted feelings inside of him–from his double-sided hatred of weak or careless players, to his own stress and loneliness at having nothing in his life but shogi.
This is the first time I felt I was witnessing Rei’s true feelings about anything, and the scene came as a cathartic surprise. Sangatsu no Lion lays the melancholy on thick in the beginning, but of course that isn’t all that Rei is feeling. This outburst is a full-fledged exposure of what’s been bubbling up inside of him. The score and animation work to push this scene on par with Hibike!’s running scene, and the result is an equally complex rending of emotion.