A Very GLORIO 2020: Gee’s Highs and Lows of the Year

Like many people, this year has been rather busy for me for a variety of reasons both personal and practical. So rather than my usual arbitrary awards show with bespoke categories, I’ll just be going through all the anime I watched in 2020 in chronological order and giving each one the words I think they deserve, for either good or ill.

In the context of anime it’s easy to think 2020 would have been a rough year, but in spite of it all, I managed to find some genuine hits. So let’s talk about the anime I watched to completion this year.

Despite a relatively thin slate, Winter 2020 will go down in my personal memory as one of the strongest seasons in recent history. In these opening months, three contenders for my anime of the year would appear before 2020 really kicked off. As a result, this post is a little frontloaded as I have to write about three of the year’s best anime before getting into slog in the middle.

Id: Invaded

Id: Invaded is the strongest proof I’ve found all year that something can be unapologetic genre trash and still be an entertaining and even emotionally compelling experience. A sci-fi crime thriller where special individuals stop criminals by entering the surreal mental space of killers through a device of mysterious origin, Id: Invaded is the kind of anime where that same premise can also be stated as, “Brilliant Detectives enter the Id Wells of serial killers through the usage of The Mizuhoname.” Upon reading that last sentence, you’re either like me and go, “hell yeah, let’s go,” or you’ve already stopped reading this article because clearly my taste in anime can’t be trusted. That’ll decide whether Id: Invaded is worth your time.

But despite that apparent trashiness, Id: Invaded has some real stories to tell about grief, justice, and revenge. I’m not saying any of it is subtle, but it is effective. The rushed ending prevents Id: Invaded from achieving generational greatness, but it’s one I’ll always have a soft spot for.

Do it like a samurai.

Dorohedoro

Dorohedoro is one of my favorite manga of all time, and a lot was riding on Mappa’s adaptation. I’m happy to say that overall, the Dorohedoro anime is almost everything I could have hoped for. From its stellar cast to the gorgeous art direction by Shinji Kimura of Tekkonkinkreet fame, Dorohedoro did a magnificent job of capturing the manga’s uniquely bizarre appeal. Dorohedoro tells the of Hole, a human ghetto preyed upon by the world’s amoral Sorcerers. Caiman and Nikaidou, two denizens of Hole, embark on a Sorcerer killing spree in their hunt for the one who cursed Caiman.

Such a basic description simply fails to truly describe Dorohedoro though. It’s the anime where a man with a lizard head eats wizards, a giant cockroach in sneakers plays baseball, and even if we’re all violent psychopaths, the real Dorohedoro were the friends we made along the way. It’s a black comedy that never loses its heart, even if half the cast might seem heartless. Its appeal is its bizarrely welcoming ugliness. And Mappa knocked it out of the park. While the CG characters are an unfortunate compromise, everything about the anime’s actual presentation showed to me that the people working on it truly understood what makes Dorohedoro tick.

As just a minor example, the anime featured a whopping six ED sequences, each with a different song and accompanying visuals, along with hilarious bullet point lists at the end of each episode, emulating the cheeky factoid lists featured in the original manga. It’s the kind of extra mile that nobody necessarily needed Mappa to do, but the fact that they did speaks volumes to the anime’s commitment. That heart and soul can be felt throughout every element of the Dorohedoro anime and I consider myself truly blessed to have such an excellent adaptation of a manga I love so deeply. There’s nothing in this world I need more than the announcement of a season 2.

Keep your hands off Eizouken!

Focusing on the lives of three girls and their struggles to realize their dreams of making anime, Eizouken is a celebratory work about what it means to be creative. It understands the specific type of obsession you need to have to be an artist and proudly presents those qualities to the rest of the world. But simply being a lovingly rendered depiction of the creative process would merely make it pretty good. What makes Eizouken really soar is its wonderful cast of characters. Asakusa, Misazuki, and Kanamori are easily some of the most likeable to come out of anime in years, with an interpersonal dynamic that feels both entertaining and genuine.

Social media loves the dour Kanamori, as do I. But as an artist who also specializes in mechanical design, my heart truly feels at one with Asakusa, from her neurotic perfectionism to her fascination with how the mundane can inspire the fantastical. She might be the most realistic portrayal of an artist I’ve ever seen in fiction. Rather than generically tortured, Asakusa is a frantic mess of ideas and self-doubt. Sometimes this leads to moments of inspired brilliance, but it often dovetails into a toxic feedback loop. Luckily, she’s centered by a couple of great friends. Misazuki indulges Asakusa’s flights of fancy with a lighthearted positivity. Meanwhile, Kanamori grounds Asakusa with compassionate advice veiled in pragmatism. No artist wants to be told that it’s okay to release an “imperfect” work, but most artists also don’t get nearly enough sleep to be healthy if left to their own devices. I legitimately believe every artist in the world would be fortunate if they had their own Kanamori in their lives.

Works by enthusiasts for enthusiasts often run into the risk of being too granular for laymen to understand, but this compelling character dynamic helps keep Eizouken appealing for all audiences. There are so many more things I could write about concerning Eizouken, like Kana-money’s blunt words of wisdom, the story’s own wrangling with what it means to be a super fan, or Masaaki Yuasa’s masterful direction, but suffice to say, if there’s any anime on this list I could recommend without any caveats, it’s Eizouken.

Somali and the Forest Spirit

Oh yeah, Somali and the Forest Spirit was here too I guess. I hate to be flippant, but beyond its undeniably gorgeous backgrounds, Somali failed to really do much with its adventures of a precocious girl and her weird robot dad. With the recent news of the manga’s cancellation due to the author’s health issues, it’s a shame that this will probably be it for the story.

If Winter 2020 was the triumph of quality over quantity, Spring 2020 was the opposite. Spring 2020 was the season where I watched the most anime. This is strange, because much of this season wasn’t very good! That isn’t to say all the shows were bad, but many of the anime I watched this season were seriously compromised in one way or another.

BNA

Between this and Great Pretender, it’s hard to tell which anime disappointed me more in 2020. BNA never reached Great Pretender’s fantastic heights but I guess it never sunk quite as low either. A Studio Trigger anime helmed by legendary animator Yoh Yoshinari and scripted by the always reliable Kazuki Nakashima, BNA had so much going for it. A girl comes into her own in a city inhabited by the world’s animal-human hybrids. And again, Studio Trigger. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s hard to tell exactly who to blame. On one hand, Yoh Yoshinari’s directorial ability is shakier compared to his fellow Trigger peers Hiroyuki Imaishi and Akira Amemiya. On the other, much of BNA’s missteps can be directed at its unfocused writing. It’s immediately telling that the single best episode (and the subject of the screenshot above) is the filler one-off directed by Imaishi himself. Whenever BNA’s primary plot came into focus, the anime just couldn’t seem to decide on what to do. It doesn’t help that Promare aired less than a year ago, from the same studio, with much of the same narrative themes, but executed far better and with even greater visual flair.

While neither BNA or Little Witch Academia TV are explicitly bad, Yoh Yoshinari is now zero for two on TV. He’ll always be the man who directed the Little Witch Academia OVAs and animated Asuka’s last stand against the MP Evas, so I genuinely hope he manages to find his footing as a TV director going forward.

Appare-Ranman!

Actually I take that back, Appare-Ranman! might be 2020’s most disappointing. I’m genuinely not sure how you fuck up the premise of wacky races in anime America, but somehow, PA Works found a way. Lame cast other than Crazy TJ, a distinct lack of actual racing, all culminating in a clash with a villain that added nothing to the story. Appare-Ranman! serves as the grim reminder to all anime fans to not judge a work by its premise alone, because anime will always find a way to make even the most entertaining concept fall completely flat.

Kaguya-sama Love is War Season 2

Probably my personal highlight of Spring 2020. The best thing that can be said about the second season of Kaguya-sama is that unlike most anime comedies, it makes the smart decision to evolve its status quo. While that might seem counterproductive if you’ve already found a working formula, this allowed Kaguya-sama to develop new jokes based on its changing interpersonal relationships, something that couldn’t happen if the characters had stayed the same as they were in season one. I mean who woulda guessed the Ishigami redemption arc would be so compelling?

Kakushigoto

Kakushigoto is probably 2020’s best dad anime, with a competent mix of heartwarming moments and misanthropic comedy. The premise is a simple one. Kakushi Goto is a crass manga artist of middling popularity who must hide the truth of his occupation from his young daughter in fear of the embarrassment it would cause. It mainly works on two accounts. First, it’s another piece of media about artists that genuinely gets artists and knows the best ways to poke fun at them. I’ve never seen such a fantastic portrayal of imposter syndrome in media. Second, it is never implied that Kakushi has to find some balance between his career and his family life. Right from the get go, you know that his daughter Hime is and will always be his first priority, and everything else, from prospective love interests to approaching deadlines can go take a hike.

That said, a shaky ending that feels rushed on account of having to fit 12 volumes of manga into 12 episodes mean I left Kakushigoto on a bit of a down note. Still, you can tell it had its heart in the right place.

Listeners

I’d love to pick Dai Sataou’s brain over Listeners. Not because I find the anime itself to be particularly interesting or well written, but because Listeners is bad in a way that is just confounding. I have no clue how something like this was allowed to be made in the way it was. There’s no anime more than this one I’d love to read a post-mortem for.

Wave, Listen to Me!

Wave is 2020’s obligatory dirtbag comedy about bad people acting even worse. Minare Koda is one of the most appealing losers in fiction. They never act like she’s some plucky underdog that was dealt a bad hand. No, Minare is a hot mess in the sense of being both hot and a mess, and probably deserves half the misfortune that comes her way. Her relatable brand of millennial bitterness and disassociation made her an entertaining character whose foibles and internal monologues often hit closer than some of us expected. That said, it’s hard to tell if Wave had legs beyond its 12 episode run, I could already feel the antics starting to run thin toward the end. Still, if Minare Koda ever decided to drunkenly stumble back into our lives, I’d certainly give her another chance.

Shin Sakura Wars the Animation

As someone who always wanted to get into the Sakura Wars franchise, boy this anime did a piss poor job of doing it. Acting as a sequel to the recent video game, Shin Sakura Wars the Animation doesn’t really do anything notable to convince me the Sakura Wars franchise as a whole is worth my time. And that’s a shame, because there are so many individual elements that are right up my alley. The anime just combines them in a way that doesn’t work. At least we’ll always have Kohei Tanaka’s music.

In hindsight, Summer 2020 was also a bit of a lull in notable anime. Great Pretender’s inconsistent Netflix airing schedule (along with its eventual inconsistent quality) made it an unreliable staple of the season, leaving No Guns Life and Deca-Dence to pick up the slack to varying results.

Great Pretender

No anime this year was as heartbreaking as watching Great Pretender’s fall from grace. Kicking off with arguably one of the strongest first impressions of the year, Great Pretender’s undeniable sense of style, boundless energy, and enthusiasm for high stakes capers made many of us at Glorio think we were looking at an all time great. Sadly, Great Pretender proved to be something of a one-trick pony, rehashing the same arc over and over with little variation, making its big twists less impressive with each iteration. I made the comparison multiple times throughout the year on the podcast, but Great Pretender really could have benefitted from taking notes from Lupin the 3rd on how to reinvent an old premise and keep it fresh. As it stands, Great Pretender went from an anime many of us thought would be a contender for AOTY to a resigned obligation on our weekly watch list.

No Guns Life Part 2

No Guns Life is the pulpy B-grade anime that comes out in a season that gets by almost solely on its gimmick. Inui Juzo, the gunheaded noir detective continues his adventures to stop the evil Beruhren Corporation and solve the crimes of his fellow Extended cyborg brethren. Frankly there isn’t much to say about the second season compared to its first. If anything, Part 2 reveals the limitations of the anime adaptation of the cyberpunk Seinen manga, simply lacking the technical skill or time to achieve its lofty ambitions. Still, Juzo is such a likeable jumble of neo-noir stereotypes that I’d probably still tune in for a season 3 if it ever got announced.

Deca-Dence

Deca-Dence was the real dark horse of this season, initially starting out as your standard plucky underdog story before blindsiding you with its dystopian tale of capitalist exploitation. Its second episode is such an excellent swerve in expectations, Deca-Dence’s gigantic leap in ambitions is admirable, even if it eventually falters in a few ways. Natsu and Kabu’s dynamic is a compelling one, and watching Kabu’s political radicalization is one of the most satisfying bits of character development I’ve seen this year. On one hand, it boils down into an extended bit about Kabu basically being socially invigorated by his attachment to his world’s equivalent of a video game NPC. On the other, Natsu’s sobbing desperation to define herself through her materialistic value speaks deeply to how capitalism poisons a person’s sense of self-worth.

It’s because of how strongly Deca-Dence takes a stance on the inevitable corruption of capitalism that the anime’s final stretch ends up being a little disappointing. Like many Japanese works, Deca-Dence eventually takes a more reconciliatory stance toward system that has dominated the lives of its inhabitants, even pushing Natsu out of the spotlight as an active character in the narrative. With only 12 episodes to work with, I can forgive Deca-Dence for making the best of its limited runtime, but it’s still unfortunate that the emotional core of the anime would be steadily pushed out of her own story.

Still, there’s a lot to like about Studio NUT’s debut work. A charming art direction and a likeable cast make it one of 2020’s easiest anime to recommend.

Fall initially looked pretty grim. It was around this time of the year when Great Pretender’s flaws were really becoming apparent and there wasn’t much else on the slate. Thankfully, we had Akudama Drive to sustain us.

Jujutsu Kaisen

The next high profile project from Mappa’s ace, Seongho Park, Jujutsu Kaisen is definitely a much easier anime to like than his prior adaptation, The God of Highschool. At its best, Jujutsu Kaisen is solid Weekly Shonen Jump popcorn. It’s not necessarily the most interesting or most daring, but it comfortably excels in its lane of familiar battle Shonen. When it’s running on all cylinders, the strong action helps elevate its competent storytelling. It’s yet to truly blow my mind, but it’s endeared itself enough to me to want to stick with it and see where it goes.

Magatsu Warheit: ZUERST

As of this writing, I haven’t actually finished Magatsu due to its airing schedule, but honestly, I probably don’t need to. Magatsu, like a lot of anime that exists in this tier, started out with some surprisingly interesting concepts. Innumael was a refreshing choice of protagonist, and watching his genuine character growth was satisfying. Alas, Magatsu’s narrative and technical presentation just didn’t have the chops to keep it up, and as the anime progressed, everything about it started to degrade in some very notable ways.

Akudama Drive

Akudama Drive is without a doubt the biggest surprise of 2020. It starts with one of the more entertaining premises; in the aftermath of a cataclysmic war between the regions of Kanto and Kansai, six legendary criminals and one hapless girl are tasked with pulling off an impossible heist. Credit where it’s due, Kazutaka Kodaka and Studio Pierrot managed to weave a high octane adventure that ended up having some compelling character moments and some surprisingly important things to say. It helps that it was easily one of 2020’s most stylish productions, and that’s saying a lot in a year that gave us both Dorohedoro and Eizouken.

I mean this in the best way possible, Akudama Drive is a dumb show written by smart people. It knows how to wield its ridiculous characters to the best result. It understands that when you’re dealing with such outlandish archetypes, the most interesting thing you can do is find out new ways to mash them together. The story’s constantly evolving status quo and confidence to kill off members of its main cast keep you constantly on your toes as you frantically try to speculate how the plot could possibly continue to escalate.

If I’m being honest, I’m still not sure how I feel about the story’s gradual tonal shift as its main cast gets whittled down. While I think the story that Akudama Drive ultimately becomes is a good one, I do wonder how I’ll look back on it as a whole when remembering how strongly it started. For better or worse, the pared down cast we’re left with by its finale excludes much of the anime’s more likeable elements, but it does allow for a greater level of focus on the characters who remain.

In the wake of its stunning finale, there’s also something else that has to be mentioned concerning Akudama Drive’s narrative; its willingness to destroy a system rather than reform it. Japanese media tends to take a reconciliatory view towards power structures, usually arguing that it’s not broken systems that hurt people, but corrupt individuals who exploit it to their own end. It’s an understandable, but I believe naive position to hold in 2020 when so many recent events have shown us that the power structures we live with are intentionally designed to hurt us.

Akudama Drive’s finale recognizes that in the face of a truly irredeemable government that will happily use its authoritarian power to rewrite the rules as it sees fit, that there can be no other option but the absolute dismantling of that societal framework. This thesis all happens in the same 22 minute span in which a man takes on literally the entire government with his railgun equipped motorcycle, and if that doesn’t sound fucking cool as hell, I don’t know what to tell you. That’s just the kind of anime Akudama Drive is, and it’s for that reason it earns a high spot in my personal list of 2020’s best anime.

And that was my 2020 as far as anime goes. Despite being let down by a couple of really promising candidates, I feel like 2020 still managed to provide a solid lineup. Dorohedoro and Eizouken proved that anime can still adapt great source material and bring it to a wider audience, while the likes of Akudama Drive, Deca-Dence, and Id: Invaded brought the hustle and spontaneity that only a great original anime can provide. The best thing I can say about this year’s anime is that I don’t think there’s an obvious frontrunner. Deca-Dence and Eizouken can be recommended without requiring a deep familiarity with the genre, whereas works like Dorohedoro and Akudama Drive feel like they were made for the most diehard enthusiasts. I think I could recommend any of the aforementioned anime and guarantee you’ll at least have a good time, and I think that’s the least we could ask of a year like 2020.

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