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A setting is important in creating the atmosphere of a story, but it is often times overlooked as an element. There still has to be a believability to it even though it might take place in a fantasy world.
Which manga or anime has done a really good job with world building? Is there a world set in a different universe from ours that seems almost real because it's so well crafted?
My pick is Shiki. The story is set in your typical rural Japanese village, but it's presented in the manga in a way that makes it very creepy and isolated. Just one look and you think, "Nope. I don't want to be there!"
I think he reason why the world of Shiki is really effective in conveying its omnious tone is the artwork of Ryu Fujisaki- he does a really good job with the harshly inked backgrounds and lighting. When it's daytime the village seems quaint and almost harmless, but when it's night... eek!
I'm obviously biased, but the most recent Anime that I really like, Psycho-Pass also has great numbers of "futuristic" buildings and a wonderful town as its setting. It feels like a distant future, but yet believable in my eyes. I think the reason is in the city where the story goes, it portrays the definition of "dystopian future" but not as strong as Akira.
Another Anime that I can think about is... Spirited Away. I remember how the earlier scenes where Chihiro and her parents are visiting a ghost town, I was really amazed by the amazing details which were made by Ghibli.
I'm not so sure about the extent of realism or believability, i.e compared to something like hard-sci fi, but there are settings which are grand in scale and rich in history that have impressed me. Take One Piece as an example, I hold pretty much 0 interest in the main cast. It's more about the world they live in. It's fantastical, and stacked with powerful figures with conflicting agendas, some with even greater puppet masters lurking in the shadow. All of them have a role in shaping the world order, and it's the way they interact that intrigues me the most.
A different case is Blame!. The art goes a long way in establishing a stark and bleak world of immense scale, where civilizations ending and entire races becoming extinct is just like a drop of water in the ocean. I felt a sense of insignificance while reading and it translates into my real world experience of having lived in a modern mega-city of over 20 million people. It is not a barren world, but a world with constructs and architecture befitting of the grandest interstellar civilization, yet there is virtually no one there to occupy the space. Much of it remains enigmatic and it only further propagates the worst kind of loneliness and isolation.
Other of Nihei's work are very much like Blame! in their bleakness. They sort of come together to form a macrocosm of intrigues by being 'maybe' or 'perhaps not' related, leaving me hungry for more.
I'm going to have to go with One Piece. The world was pretty much built from scratch. A complete fantasy world with it's own politics, races, animal species, geography, weather, money system, many island cultures, architecture, technology, history, etc., with tons of unique characters to fill this world. And the story is only half way over. By the end, the level of detail in the world building will be incredible IMO.
I love history, and therefore, I was ecstatic when I read Magi and encountered all these references to the "Old World" such as the Middle East, Mongolia and China. It's like an alternate version of our own world in the past (except with magic!) so that was cool to see. Ohtaka mentioned how she wants to include a place that's cold later on, and I'm looking forward to seeing how she will depict the Magi world's circumpolar north.
I think when I comes to world building there are two things to consider. One is how vibrant and alive the world created feels and the only is how well the series avoids the dreaded info-dump to do it.
In that sense, I think One Piece was probably my favorite. If you'll forgive a bad pun, it opened up a complete view of it's world "one piece" at a time.