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Top Ten Anime DVD’s of 2003
by Don Houston

Japanese anime continued its rise to prominence in 2003 with a growing number of releases in many categories from the popular science fiction and spy genres to the whimsical comedies and romance so many fans appreciate. A growing number of companies, led by ADV Films, Bandai, and Genome (formerly Pioneer), have addressed this long-neglected market niche with an ever-growing list of series and stand alone projects that often show more intelligence and care than your typical mainstream release. Those who formerly wrote the genre off as “cartoons for children” have found that given a chance, there’s something to entertain everyone, young and old alike. On a technical note, 2003 saw companies employ a host of techniques, including the cross-use of traditional hand-drawn cels with CGI to update the look of the genre, and DVD extras that transform our favorite shows from Japan into DVD's worth keeping, rather than watching on cable television (in edited form). Anime came a long way in 2003, as did the market for domestically produced animation (for a great look at the year in animation, read Jason Bovberg’s top 10 list), and with that said, with the help of some other reviewers, here’s a look at some of the best anime of the year.

1. Spirited Away:
Disney released three animated movies by legendary director Hayao Miyazaki this year: Kiki’s Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, and Spirited Away. All three are excellent movies, but Spirited Away is the best. This modern day fairy tale revolves around a young girl, Chihiro, who stumbles into what appears to be a deserted amusement park with her parents. After eating some food at an empty stand, her parents fall under a spell and turn into pigs. As night falls, the park comes alive with strange beings. Chihiro must find a way to cure her parents and escape the magical land she finds herself in. Populated with interesting characters, stunningly beautiful backgrounds and a powerful story, Spirited Away is a great movie, animated or otherwise. This is the perfect DVD to screen for people who are adverse to Japanese animation. (Synopsis by John Sinnott, Review by Aaron Beierle)

2. Arcadia Of My Youth:
Matsumoto Leiji is one of the founders of modern day anime with a style all his own. One of his most beloved characters is Captain Harlock, a space pirate fighting the good fight after his beloved Earth falls into the enemy hands of the Illumidus Empire. Arcadia of my Youth introduces us to the world of this young pirate who roams the darkest edges of space in a story that shows people that some things, especially freedom, are worth fighting for. Thankfully, the folks at AnimEigo prove once again that they are the Criterion of anime and this restored movie is but one example of why they are held in such high regard. (Review by Don Houston)

3. RahXephon:
Set in the near future, a young pilot, Ayato, is thrust into a world of intrigue and danger by virtue of his ability to activate a powerful alien robot with his mind. Over the course of the series, we get to see a variety of interesting characters and situations that all grow to fit their circumstances, proving once more that a well written anime series doesn’t have to be for kids. The show explores themes that are light-years ahead of most domestically produced animation and the technical aspects combine sound and visuals equally advanced. The people at ADV Films have earned their share of praise by releasing the DVDs with some excellent extras and a great transfer. (Disc 1, Disc 2, Disc 3, Disc 4, Disc 6 all by Don Houston)

4. Noir:
Noir is the story of two young female assassins in search of their past. Each episode guides the viewer through a multi-layered story that can stand-alone but also contributes to the larger whole as they uncover bits and pieces of the truth, even parts that they don’t care to hear. This series was one of the best sounding made, using music and sound effects on a level only dreamed about by their competitors. The replay value of the DVD’s combined with the extras made this series yet another crowning jewel in the ADV empire. (Disc 1, Disc 2, Disc 3, Disc 4, Disc 5, Disc 6, Disc 7 all by Don Houston)

5. Sakura Wars: The Movie:
Sakura Wars: The Movie is a story set in the 1920’s about an opera troupe from Japan that fight hordes of demons with steam-powered robots. If that premise doesn’t sound too bizarre for you, keep in mind that the anamorphic widescreen presentation was matched by the use of a great 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack in the best recent movie of a series to date. It’s quirky enough to grab your attention and nicely compliments the various related series put out by various companies. Kudos to the people at Geneon (formerly Pioneer) for raising the bar a bit with this release. (Review by Don Houston)

6. Battle Of The Planets: Ultimate Boxed Set:
In an effort to provide fans of classic anime with the best of both worlds, WEA released a boxed set of a dozen episodes of an American favorite, Battle Of The Planets, along with the corresponding episodes from the original Japanese release, Science Team Gatchaman. The show detailed the exploits of a team of enhanced youngsters who fight an evil being that seeks to conquer the Universe with a variety of nefarious schemes. The original show was released in Japan over 30 years ago and the remastered episodes looked better than they have in a long time. If that weren’t enough, they added in extras that included an audio commentary by the voice actors and interviews with a number of people associated with the show (no small feat considering the age of some of these people). This show was one of a handful that really contributed to opening the American market to anime. (Review by Don Houston)

7. The Animatrix:
This year's high-profile Matrix sequels, Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions, couldn't help but suffer from stratospheric expectations generated by the standalone brilliance of the first film, a wicked advertising campaign, and a multimedia assault that included The Animatrix, an anthology of nine Matrix-related anime short films. The Wachowski Brothers enlisted seven anime artists from around the world to helm these thrilling, violent, and mind-bending films, and the result is a cornucopia of styles and palettes, all with a firm foundation in the distinct world created by the talented brothers. Many of the shorts have direct ties into the narrative of the live-action films, and they can illuminate your understanding of the Matrix films' sometimes-labyrinthine plot complexities. Image and sound quality are top-notch, and the supplements will enrich your appreciation of anime in general. (Review by Review by Jason Bovberg)

8. Read Or Die:
Read Or Die is one of those rare releases that almost no one knows about yet displays a lot of inventiveness, intelligence, and enough quirky humor to appeal to a great many non-traditional fans of the genre. It shows a young female librarian fight a host of historical figures, all with special abilities that haven’t been copied a thousand times over, in an effort to prevent a madman from gaining access to a powerful book. Aside from having a strong female lead and intelligent writing, the show boasts a great picture and soundtrack, making this an original worthy of your attention. Manga is not one of the most prolific producers of anime but with shows like this one, they are proving their worth to many of us. (Review by Don Houston)

9. L/R (Licensed By Royalty) - Deceptions (Vol. 1):
With all the fantastical plot devices in the wide world of anime, it’s easy to forget that sometimes shows will come to rely on the gimmicks too much, thereby weakening the writing and characterizations in order to focus on the fiction aspects of the material (like giant robots, space travel and the like). One show that is firmly planted in reality is Licensed By Royalty, released by Geneon (Pioneer). The show follows a couple of agents as they protect the royal crown from all threats, internal and external, with more wit and cunning than any James Bond movie, and just as much style. If you like spy movies but hate anime, you might just change your mind after watching Jack and Rowe address the many threats they encounter. (Review by Don Houston)

10. Excel Saga:
How can you describe Excel Saga in a paragraph? Hmmm. It is kind of like a whacked version of Monty Python on acid. Even that isn’t quite right. It is a very funny, fast and furious, sharp edged humorous anime that does not take itself, or anything else, seriously. Every episode is a parody of a different style of movie or show. Excel Saga parodies space operas, Dragon Ball, low-budget action films, Captain Harlock, dramas, Fist of the North Star, cute animal shows, Gundam, romance anime, Mighty Morphing Power Rangers and even American anime fans. It makes fun of every aspect of anime, and does it well. The reason the series succeeds is because even though there is a lot of seemingly random action and events in every episode, most of it does have some meaning in the plot. That they can sustain the humor and still advance the overall plot through out the 26 episodes is amazing. A very good transfer and excellent on screen notes make this bizarre series one that every anime fan should at least check out. (Synopsis by John Sinnott, Review by Don Houston)

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