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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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