There's a fun competition going on in Japan on the 2 chan forums. Each year, they look at the anime of the past year and decide who is the cutest anime girl among them. Many are nominated, but only one can win. In a long tournament that makes March Madness look the soul of simplicity, the selection process takes nearly half a year. But we have reached an excellent crystallized break in the action with the completion of the preliminaries and the entry of every girl into a tournament bracket.
Here's where all the action is being followed. And here is the breakdown of entrants by series: http://www.animesaimoe.org/entriesbyseries.html
With this source as a data point, we can proceed to the analysis, which is the most fun aspect of contests like these. What makes an anime girl moe? (Which means, attractive and appealing regardless of their ability to inspire lust, which allows anyone you're fond of seeing into the mix.)
First, I would say that the voters in this tournament are extremely skilled at picking rightful winners. Previous winners in this tournament include incredibly beautiful anime girls, like Rika from Higurashi, Sakura from Card Captor Sakura, Nanoha from Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha, and Azusa from K-On. I might disagree a little with the democratic process, but the results are close enough to the God's truth that the analysis can move forward unreservedly. Whoever is being voted cute, actually IS cute.
What we see is some series deliberately trying to have as cute and appealing girls as possible with the plot being just an excuse to show them off, which receives massive voter support -- and also series that concentrate on telling an epic story and being rewarded with universal love for all of their girls regardless of how minor their role because people think fondly of the story overall. The contest seems to be between these two groups. If you don't follow either strategy, you won't land many girls in the Saimoe tourney.
The leader in entrants by series (remember, this is only series that appeared in the 2nd half of 2010 and the first half of 2011, so for instance it doesn't include anyone from Idolm@ster.) are as follows:
To Aru Majutsu no Index: 18.
Strike Witches: 11.
Detective Opera Milky Holmes: 9
The World God Only Knows: 8
Amagami SS: 8.
Hidamari Sketch: 8.
Infinite Stratos: 7.
Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai: 7.
A Channel: 6.
Baka to Test to Shoukanjuu: 6.
Dog Days: 6.
Hanasaku Iroha: 6.
Hoshizora e Kakaru Hashi: 6.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: 6.
Sora no Otoshimono: 6.
To Love Ru: 6.
Ika Musume: 6.
Astarotte no Omacha: 5.
Steins; Gate: 5.
Shukufuku no Campanella: 5.
Seitokai Yakuindomo: 5.
Kore Wa Zombie Desu Ka?: 5.
Fortune Arterial: 5.
Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoku: 5.
The remainder can be swept under the rug, except maybe the lone Shana from Shakugan no Shana. She's extremely cute, so she'll probably go far in this tournament. One thing I like about the voters selection of these characters is that they're immediately gravitating around all the best anime series that were made in the last year. In terms of nominations not because the girls were especially featured to be cute, but simply because their stories were amazing, we can include K-On, Steins;Gate, Madoka, Nichijou, Hanasaku Iroha, Index, Baka to Test, Ore no Imouto, Sora no Otoshimono, and The World God Only Knows.
For those who did try to be cute, they largely succeeded. Series with extremely good artwork and stories where the main character develops a 'harem' of endless girls who are in love with him also succeeded, like Infinite Stratos, Fortune Arterial, Dog Days, Kore wa Zombie, Shukufuku, Amagami SS, To Love Ru and Hoshizora.
Strike Witches doesn't even include any guys. It exists solely to show off how attractive its female leads are, and relies heavily on panty shots and nudity to do so. You have to hand it to the series' single minded determination, it's second only to Index in prize winning girls.
The largest improvement in anime recently hasn't been the storytelling, though that has improved on average. It's been the art and animation quality. HD, widescreen technology combined with either larger budgets or better computer software has changed anime forever. Amazingly, almost every series has managed a distinctive anime look that fits its own story and no other, which helps differentiate the hundreds of girls shown off every year. What's great about this upgrade in sheer beauty is that story lightweights like Dog Days and Shukufuku can compete evenly with story heavyweights like Index on an even basis. Now everyone is drawn so well that you can enjoy almost any anime series for its moe girls regardless of what's going on. Hoshizora looks incredible -- that's about the only good thing about it. But wow! It looks incredible! There's simply no comparison between Disney cartoons, even Disney movies, and Hanasaku Iroha's art and animation. Iroha has blown the entire past away like the age of dinosaurs.
Because people are still fresh off of how good Madoka was as a series, I suspect Madoka will win the tournament. I think to be fair though, Yui from K-On should actually win, as she's the cutest girl in the tournament. Other options I wouldn't mind seeing win would be Astarotte, Aria, Kirino, Shana, Mikan, or Last Order. I'm clearly slanted in their favor due to their voice actors, but voices are an important part of cuteness. Even the website realizes this, by posting a breakdown of the entrants by voice actor:
Kana Hanazawa has 8. (tied for most)
Rie Kugimiya has 8. (tied for most)
Yukari Tamura has 6.
Aki Toyosaki has 7.
So as you can see, the people whose voices I appreciate are the same voices appreciated by the entire anime community. Maybe I should include Kanae Itou among the greatest voice talents though, who also had 8 characters, including Ringo from Ookami, Elsea from World God Only Knows, and Ohana from Hanasaku Iroha. I have to admit that's a wonderful lineup.
Anime might be breaking up into two different categories. Some series are intended to be more of art galleries featuring their fresh look, pretty voices + their opening and ending sequences, while only the minority are meant to be about the meaty middle with actual content. This isn't a bad thing. If there are only a few epic storytellers on Earth, like Key and Ryukishi and whoever made Madoka, there would just be a bottleneck if we only animated their stories. Instead we can rely on the talents from other fields -- music, art, choreography and voice acting -- for other anime, which still contains a great deal of beauty, while we wait for the next Key project to come out when it's good and ready. ((Little Busters!)) We win in terms of quality and quantity.