I don’t think it’s much of a shocker to say that 2020 has been a wild year on pretty much every level. Even trying to restrict this post to being solely about anime is nearly impossible, so much has the coronavirus pandemic infiltrated nearly every aspect of our lives, media included. It definitely shook the anime industry badly, and that’s resulted in a year that might already have been a tad uneven developing into a real rollercoaster ride.
Nothing exemplified the wild swings in quality 2020 saw like Kamen Rider, which spent most of the year overcoming COVID-related production troubles to ultimately deliver one of the best shows in years for its debut Reiwa-era effort. Zero-One was an ambitious show which occasionally bit off more than it could chew, but was buoyed by an immensely likable cast, great performances and clever, nuanced writing. Its rearranged finale, what with our hero willingly turning evil, was one of the more ambitious and subversive tokusatsu storylines of recent years, and a fine cap on a very enjoyable season. In contrast, Saber has been nothing but a disaster on every level. Actually, disaster is probably being far too kind, such is the level of incompetence and disinterest that’s on display. One of the most fascinating things about Kamen Rider is how it reinvents itself every year, but this has been less a reinvention and more the total collapse of a franchise under the weight of problems that, to be fair, have been accumulating for quite some time now. Whether they can steady the ship is one of the more intriguing questions for the year ahead.
Speaking of long-running franchises which haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory in 2020, it’s been a rough year for Digimon fans too. Things looked promising, with the Last Evolution Kizuna movie offering a satisfying, if hardly revolutionary, tale filled with fun fanservice nods and tugs at the heartstrings. The rebooted Digimon Adventure, though, has been awful, a shallow cut-out imitation of the show whose name it bears. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a story which seems to go so far out of its way to avoid giving it’s characters any opportunity to grow or develop, but bafflingly that does seem to be the objective. Combine that with the sidelining of most of the cast and the hilariously bad animation and you’ve got a recipe for one of the worst shows of the year, much as it pains me to say it.
If there’s an upside to these long-standing franchises stumbling though, it’s the chance for more original work to shine, and 2020 was blessed with a number of high-quality anime originals. Netflix’s Great Pretender was one of the most high profile of these, aided as it was by its gorgeous artwork and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto character designs. Granted, the story couldn’t keep pace with the production and fizzled out badly by the end, but it was a handsome, enjoyable piece of fluff while it lasted. More narratively ambitious was NUT’s delightful Deca-Dence, which inverted tired isekai tropes in a fantastically clever second episode twist, and proceeded on to offer smart, nuanced characters and a surprisingly scathing indictment of droning corporate culture and capitalism-driven politics. Some of the sting was taken away by an ending which felt disappointingly safe at best and a cop-out at worst, but the show still sparkled on multiple levels, from its terrific art and monster designs (and one of the more memorable uses of a deliberately clashing aesthetic) to its exciting, gravity-defying battles.
Probably the standout original production of the year was also one of the most unexpected – Akudama Drive outwardly appeared to be a generic cyberpunk potboiler, but quickly transcended those limited expectations, firstly by dazzling us with over-the-top style and visual flair, and then even more surprisingly by evolving into a treatise on crime & corruption, police brutality, and the propaganda state. Our First Look post declared it ‘wacky anime trash’ and indeed the show never lost its ludicrous grindhouse appeal, but that phrase sells it severely short. It managed to couple high-octane action and lashings of violence with an unexpected level of character investment and legitimate emotional beats to earn its place as one of the best shows released this year. I think the important thing that Akudama reminded me of at least is that ‘high’ and ‘low’ storytelling don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and that it’s totally possible to blend outlandish antics with more honest, small scale storytelling, as long as you get the balance right.
Elsewhere original stories fluctuated between highs and lows. A new show from Studio Trigger is always worthy of note, and while Brand New Animal didn’t disappoint fans of their well-renowned visual prowess, as a story it was frustratingly sloppy and limited, with a muddled message that mixed its allegories and never went anywhere that wasn’t easily predictable. Listeners was a clear aim by Dai Sato to recapture the magic of the original Eureka Seven, but without that show’s knack for worldbuilding and character development it mostly devolved into an unfocused, if occasionally interesting, mess. Appare Raman squandered a fascinating premise by constantly pivoting away from it into flat, boring characters.
It was also an interesting year for adaptations, with a huge variety of material on the slate to be turned into animated faire. Of all of these though, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! was one of the first out of the gate and set an impossibly high bar for everything which followed. As I said in the First Look, I’m not generally a fan of media about the making of media, tending to find them overly self-referential or obsessed with irrelevant minutae. The trick here is that Eizouken knows that this is a problem and instead makes sure this is as much a chronicle of a shared adventure between friends as it is a technical breakdown of how to make anime. Explaining the process of layering cells is much more appealing to me when it’s delivered through the wild flights of fancy of Asakusa, and backed with the bitingly dry wit of Kanamori. Speaking of those flights of fancy, has there ever been a better match of a director and source material than Masaki Yuasa and this show? He and his animation team (headed as always by the massively talented Eunyoung Choi) do an incredible job of breathing life into the dream sequences, filling them with all the magic and possibility that the characters muster. It’s impossible to imagine this working as well in any other medium, and I’m incredibly glad that the show got a crew capable of delivering on such a vision. It’s important to note as well that even outside of these amazing sequences Eizouken remains funny, engaging, and sharp, the real world and the animation world meshing in just the right measure for great jokes and timely beats. A triumph on all levels, it’s my pick for the best show of 2020.
Naturally every other adaptation had some trouble living up to that, but there were still plenty of interesting and engaging shows to pick over. Of these I was personally surprised by how much I enjoyed (if that’s the right word) the dark power fantasy of Gleipnir. Grossly violent and disturbingly horny, it channeled that energy into a genuinely disturbing murder mystery shot through with body horror, black comedy and emotional manipulation. Almost Lynchian at times in the clingy, vile atmosphere it generated, it nevertheless made me attached to the two deeply broken people at the core of its story, and I’m very interested to see where they go next in a potential sequel series. On the complete opposite end of the scale, the cheerful silliness of Gal & Dino took the Pop Team Epic style and smoothed off the rough edges for a more gentle, agreeably surreal comedy experience. Not every segment was a hit (the episode which was entirely middle-aged Japanese comedians was a memorable misfire) but when the jokes did land this was a very funny and delightfully weird little show.
On other fronts, Dogakobo’s production of Sing Yesterday for Me was a valiant attempt at adapting a work that seems entirely unsuited for the small screen. Occasionally inspired and with some strong character sequences, it nevertheless ended up being a little bitty and disjointed, with a finale that felt largely undeserved. Kakushigoto on the other hand flourished in its translation to televised form, its unique art style serving as a fine palette upon which to serve its surprisingly heartwarming tale of families and dirty manga. Talentless Nana was a surprise breakout hit among the GLORIO crew, with clever storytelling that ensures it’ll be remembered for more than just its masterful first episode twist. Magatsu Wahrheit -Zuerst- threatened to do the same, but ultimately couldn’t keep up the momentum or hide its mobile game origins enough to avoid being bogged down in sludgy world-building and poor animation. The God of High School faced a similar issue, with all of its terrific, Sunghoo Park directed action unable to make up for a flat, boring narrative, and Hypnosis Mic forgot that the most important thing you can do in a show about music is making the music good. Wandering Witch showed great promise before spectacularly self-destructing with one of the most indefensible episodes of anything that I’ve seen in a while, and Dorohedoro was apparently great but was very much not my speed. A Certain Scientific Railgun continued to do what it does, highly questionable fanservice included, but it’s hard to begrudge it too much when what it does is tell continuously entertaining, very silly sci-fi stories with considerable panache.
A the end of it, it’s clear that this wasn’t a year where one show dominated the discourse in a way that has happened in the past. Indeed, it’s been a year that’s been surprisingly light on ‘big name’ projects in general, and I’m kind of into that because it’s led to more surprises and encouraged me to dig deeper into shows I might have ignored otherwise. There’s no doubt that factors at play in the outside world majorly contributed to this slightly lower key year, but what with worldwide lockdowns there’s arguably been more eyes on anime than ever before and I think the industry has done a pretty good job at showing the diversity of the material it puts out. 2021 already seems like it’ll be a return to marquee productions, what with the Demon Slayer movie currently breaking all-time box office records and major Evangelion and Gundam releases on the docket.
Finally, I always end these posts with a thank you for everyone who’s read, listened and commented to our stuff this year, but I wanted to emphasise that especially this year. This is the first time I’ve been able to contribute to this year end celebration in a few years as I’ve been battling a long-term health issue, and it’s very gratifying to me that even so many years into the blog’s life we still have people interested in what we have to say. Here’s to all the good anime that came out in 2020, and to a fervent hope that 2021 will be better in every way.