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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Top 10 Nakama

The nakama is a dynamic that's been seen time and again in anime; a sugary staple that’s as pervasive as it is polarizing. Friends 'til the end as they say. A nakama can fit anywhere along the scale of heartwarming-ness versus cheesiness, but as the maturity of the intended audience increases, the whole friendship schtick tends to grow more transparent. Subtlety is always appreciated and if pulled off correctly, i.e. without being boldfacedly plastered all over the screen, the power of friendship can make for a satisfyingly uplifting climax.

I'd like to honor my personal favorite nakama's; the ones that are tight-knit and super-synergetic, without being teeth-clinchingly corny. Before I do, however, here are some criteria:

-The nakama has to have great chemistry as a single unit, which doesn't stop the individual interactions from being dysfunctional. In fact, Vitriolic Best Buds often make a nakama more authentic and enjoyable, rather than less.

-I have to actually like all of the characters. If I think the nakama is solid, but find one or two of its members to be annoying twitbaskets, then it will not qualify.
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Honorable Mentions

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
The SOS Brigade is a powerful little after-school club in more ways than one. Throughout the novels, the bonds between the members of the three motley factions solidifies to an admirable degree. It's particularly pronounced (and touching) when both Koizumi and Yuki announce that they'd rather betray their own organizations than turn on the SOS Brigade. That's right, even the ambiguously-aligned Koizumi had been swayed by the power of friendship.

So, why doesn't the SOS Brigade place? While there's a lot of steadfast loyalty and respect amongst the members, their chemistry could use a lot of work. None of them really mesh remarkably well together (besides Haruhi and Kyon, of course). And yeah, Mikuru isn't the most endearing or likable character, despite (or rather due entirely to) being moe-incarnate.

Hayate no Gotoku!
Hayate is one of my favorite manga and most of the credit goes to its wonderfully eccentric cast. Colorful, expressive, and distinctive, Hayate's ensemble army of miscreants is teeming with wacky hijinks. The only problem is, well, the most important aspect of the nakama is missing. That is, the nakama itself.

Hayate still gets an honorable mention since there are brief moments here and there where a few characters get caught in a bind and another (namely, Hinagiku, Hayate, or Isumi) swoops in to save the day. Basically, if the cast were to hypothetically get all chummy with each other, things would start clicking from the get-go. But, alas, there just haven't been enough serious disasters to spark this merging of the hearts and minds.

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10. Wolf’s Rain
This one's sort of a no-brainer. Kiba is grade-A hero material with Tsume filling in as the brash muscle, and Toboe linking up with Hige for some teenage sibling affection. These wolves are dead-set on reaching Paradise and, when banded together, ain't nothin' gonna stop 'em, be it rogue wolf hunters or Lord Darcia himself. In theory.

The last episode is just...heartbreaking when it's proven that even the adamantium bonds of our fearsome wolf-pack cannot withstand the wrath of the unhinged, demonic Darcia. In particular, Tsume's reaction to the death Toboe is one of the most heartrending and touching scenes in all of anime.

So, why doesn't our bromantic lupine love-circle place higher? Not to fault Wolf's Rain by any means as the series has far too much on its plate, but there's just not enough focus on the nakama itself. Again, it's more a case of “that's just how the show is” rather than something that was detrimentally omitted, but by the time the wolves do form those inseparable bonds, their fates have long since been sealed.

9. Gundam SEED
In a series chock-full of Heel Face Revolving Doors, it's quite a sight when everyone finally puts aside their differences to combat a greater evil. While the nakama of SEED isn't even technically formed until the final arc, the Three Ships Alliance is certainly a force to be reckoned with. With fabric-of-reaity-rending figurehead Lacus Clyne at the helm and backed by Rebellious Princess Cagalli Yula Athha, childhood friends Kira Yamato and Athrun Zala finally get a chance to team up and smite both diabolical factions through some good old fashioned third party intervention. It's something that we've been dying to see ever since Athrun spotted his old pal in that Gundam way back at the start of the series.

Like Wolf's Rain, however, more time devoted to this nakama would have been appreciated. But just seeing old comrades reconcile after, ahem, killing each other's colleagues is enough to leave your skin prickling with feelgood.

8. Ouran
Okay, okay, this series kind of cheats with its parodical slant as it gets away with piling all the fetishistic stereotypes into one music room. Heck, there's even a hint of unsettling mojo in the air, what with the incessant twincest and Tamaki and Kyouya's bizarre mommy-daddy routine. However, it's worth remembering that Ouran is an affectionate parody, meaning that the Host Club really are close friends that care for each other. Even Haruhi and Kyouya reveal their tender sides towards the club every now and again.

It's also nice to see that Ouran goes one step further and subdivides its nakama accordingly. The twins pretend to fawn over each other for the sake of slightly-squicky manservice, but actually do find it distressingly difficult to leave each other's side. Honey and Mori have that lineage thing going on and Tamaki and Kyouya are opposites that complement each other all too well.

Again, I mainly take issue with the lack of our eccentric hosts actually working together as a single, focused unit. Sure, the finale counts, but the only way to see more “Don't f*ck with a room full of cross-dressing bishie manservants” is to go digging through the manga.

7. Clannad
I can't really think of much to say here since Clannad is all sprightly execution with no spark of originality when it comes to its characters. Yes, they're all stereotypes, but damn if they're not a lovable bunch of misfits. 'Course, it's all up to how much you can stomach moe, but I find the adorable grouping of Tomoya, Sunohara, Nagisa, Kyou, Kotomi, Tomoyo, and Fuko absolutely irresistible.

My primary beef with Clannad's nakama, however, is that it's completely absent during the most significant part of ~After Story~. Yes, that part. Sure, there's a cozy Christmas reunion at Nagisa's house right before that part, but it flew by so quickly that it felt perfunctory and even a tad insincere. Call it a withering deconstruction of the power of friendship if you want, but seeing all those familiar faces disappear into the void of the grown-up world was disheartening.

6. Toradora!
I mentioned that Hayate's bright, colorful cast gripped me from the get-go but failed to do much outside of putzing around as free-radicals. Toradora! is what would happen if you took all of that unfettered craziness and built a cute and charming romantic comedy out of it. With straitlaced clean-freak, Ryuji; bellicose bruiser, Taiga; self-centered snob, Ami; airheaded ball-of-energy, Minorin; and eccentric everyman, Yusaku; Toradora!'s nakama is a well-oiled comedy routine that's always firing on all cylinders due to how well the characters play off of each other. Throw in some unresolved sexual tension and, well, you have the perfect romantic seasoning to spice up the pot.

One of Toradora!'s creative touches is the story itself, which eschews conventional relationship progression in favor of blindsiding scenarios that would put any group of friends under immeasurable stress. The last arc is often described as "love it or hate it" for how overwrought the whole shebang comes off as and just the fact that the crew emerges hand-in-hand is tear-jerking in and of itself.

5. Yu Yu Hakusho
Woah woah woah! A shounen-action series actually landed on this list? That's right, shounen-action isn't all like Bleach or Naruto where declarations of friendship need to be repeated ad naseum like an automated motivational spiel.

Something that is stressed quite often in Yu Yu Hakusho is sacrifice. Kuwabara gives up his life for Yusuke during the Dark Tournament and Yusuke repays the favor in Chapter Black without a moment's hesitation. Heck, even Yusuke's first death way back at the start of the series wrings a waterfall out of Kuwabara and they weren't even friends back then.

I could go on about how the characters are well-developed and how their infighting and bickering only proves how close they really are, but I think it's best to go the Hiei route, which is oft-traveled by the series itself. That is, tread lightly on the subject of friendship and let it speak for itself instead of slavishly blaring it out of a Vuvuzela at the climax of every single brawl.

4. Higurashi
Friends help you move; real friends help you move bodies, natch?

Okay, okay. To be honest, during the back half of Kai, something unexpected stirred inside me during the pivotal climaxes. The fruit of friendship was indeed overripe, but for some reason, I still caught myself cheering vociferously for the Hinamizawa crew.

The charm of Kai stems from all of the misfortune that haunted Keiichi and co. like an overhanging plague back in Season 1. In fact, Higurashi's first outing could be seen as an eye-opening reality check on just how fragile and ephemeral bonds formed within a cheerful circle of friends really are, as in, the ugly devastation that can be wrought with just a single white lie. Simply put, it's just plain tragic to see someone be consumed by insanity and take a few of their soulmates along with him/her, over and over again. And when that vicious cycle is finally broken...well it's hard not to smile at the fact that a good ending has been reached.

3. Aria
It's common knowledge that Aria is a show about nothing and while that's the pith of the plot, the series is quite rich in other ways besides the rampant Scenery Porn.

Aria has an unusual twist of pitching in older characters to serve as mentors or “Big Sisters” to their younger peers. It's an concept that's been explored in other series, but never quite so elegantly as in Aria. Maria-sama, for example, pours it on far too thick (and with too much sugar) whereas Aria's soeur relationships are handled with subtlety and nuance, like they should.

Granted, the friendship bomb doesn't really hit until the final season, but it's a season lathered in one unforgettable Crowning Moment of Heartwarming after another, all of which serve as a reminder that time is fleeting and all those relaxing moments spent shooting the breeze with one's friends should be cherished.

2. Azumanga Daioh
Another no-brainer. AzuDai is nothing but girls and good times and what really brings the series to life is how believable the characters are. And not just the characters themselves, but also how they cling and clash throughout their journey through high school. There's no moe-drama to be had here, just adolescent antics that are so wholesome and genuine that you can point to more than a dozen scenarios throughout AzuDai's run and confess that you've actually been there and know the feeling all too well. For better or for worse, depending on if you were the Yomi or the Tomo.

It's also quite significant that, as time passes, our beloved cast grow notably closer and closer until the dawn of graduation where saying farewell is a bittersweet ordeal. It's worth remembering that while conflict is an excellent avenue for character growth, time is a more genuine approach that is often woefully neglected.

Oh, and if you're wondering where Lucky Star is, well, I really, really don't care for either Tsukasa or Miyuki. See the criteria.

1. Gintama
I'm not going to lie; nothing even comes close. Not only are these screwballs my favorite cast of characters, but they're by far my favorite nakama of all time.

Like Gintoki's hair, Gintama has always had this inexplicable shine to it; a shine that cuts through the soppy cliché-ridden murk and delivers some truly tender climaxes. The series takes a page from Yu Yu Hakusho by having everyone be wholly dismissive to the notion of friendship, in spite of the fact that it's the driving force behind all of their actions.

Terms like “lousy companions,” “irremovable stains,” “obnoxious bonds,” and “that thing I protect,” are tossed out in staunch opposition to the acknowledgment of a nakama. And yet, the members of Yorozuya and Shinsengumi will not hesitate to go down in the line of fire for any of their comrades. Heck, Gintoki himself is in such denial that he doesn't realize how irreplaceable of a friend he really is and is gobsmacked that essentially all of Kabuki-cho would defend him with their lives during his run-in with a bout of debilitating amnesia.

Finally, yes, yes, the only reason Gintama beats the likes of AzuDai is because I have a thing for featherbrained, wacky, outlandish characters. What can I say?

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And there you have it. Ten nakama that are armed to the teeth with tenacity. Now, if you’ll excuse me, even as a solemn introvert who enjoys fictional life partners as much as real ones, I still feel the need to clean out the layer of sugar now encrusting my fingernails.

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