I always look forward to our year end posts because quite frankly, I don’t have a ton of time to do a lot of editorial writing anymore. It hasn’t all been sunshine and roses but 2021 was a year of changes. I’ve moved, gotten a new job, and done a lot of artwork, even if I can’t show it all nowadays.
As for anime, 2021 was an unbelievably strong year with some legitimate generational contenders. I look back on the year and for as much shit as I love to give anime (and rightfully so sometimes), this year also saw a ton of creativity and artistic vision at work. Join me as I go through the highs (and lows) of the anime I watched in 2021.
Winter 2021 was a lot of familiar faces. Some of that was good, like seeing the conclusion (for now) of both Beastars and Jujutsu Kaisen. Some of it, like the long awaited return of Log Horizon, was much less good. Didn’t help the new faces in Winter 2021 left a lot to be desired.
Beastars Season 2
Studio Orange is back with their adaptation of Paru Itagaki’s furry fever dream and it’s more ambitious and wild than ever. It’s here with season 2 that one might say “the real Beastars starts here.” Luis is drawn ever further into the lion mafia, Legosi embraces his role as protector and vigilante, and the seams of the world begin to fray as the premise of their multiracial society begins to dissolve. It’s richly developed, heartfelt, and as always, unafraid to throw you a curve ball that has you going “wait what just happened?”
I don’t know why it gripped me so specifically, but I must spend some time here calling attention to the anime’s excellent second ED sequence and in part, its marvelous music video. Its choice of focus on Luis and Ibuki must have felt strange to some. It’s a beautiful tribute to one of the smaller, yet undeniably significant relationships in the story. Luis and Ibuki’s relation as surrogate family, boss and subordinate, and herbivore and carnivore are so deeply multifaceted that it’s a shame the anime itself didn’t have as much time to explore it as I would have liked. In some regards, it makes the ED sequence, which is entirely devoted to exploring that relationship through its haunting visuals, a make good by the animators to the manga fans.
Some time also has to be spent highlighting just what a fantastic villain Riz ends up being. Serving as a dark mirror to Legosi’s herbivore fixation, the deceptively simple minded Riz is a fantastic antagonist from both a thematic standpoint while also being a fantastic antagonist because he’s literally a 7 foot tall bear. His rivalry with Legosi encapsulates Beastars at its best, deeply clever and full of insight but also sometimes willing to just throw down with a big dumb spectacle.
Sk8 The Infinity
Sk8 should have been a layup as far as anime goes. A skateboarding anime handled by Bones should have been an easy recipe for a light bit of enjoyment. Instead, the story’s obsession with the worst kind of teen melodrama soured what could have otherwise been a cool take on a sport that doesn’t get much attention in Japan. The strangely extreme focus on Shindo to the exclusion of the rest of the cast hurt the whole anime in the long run.
Cells at Work! Code Black
For a spinoff that billed itself as the gorier and sexier version of the original anime, I found a surprising amount to like about Black. While I didn’t love how lecherous things got occasionally, the shift of focus to more relatable bodily ills was a fun diversion. The end of the anime even had some genuinely compelling moments as the denizens of the body come to terms with what appears to be their host’s inevitable demise. What’s the value of a life, struggle, and hardship, even in the face of Armageddon? It’s certainly not what I expected from the spinoff that introduces itself by gender bending the white blood cells of the original into buxom ladies.
Another show that feels like it should have been a slam dunk considering the people involved, Back Arrow just never seemed like it could decide what kind of dumb extravaganza it wanted to be. It doesn’t help that the titular Back Arrow himself was never a particularly compelling character. As someone who tends to love Nakashima’s hotheaded idiot heroes, he lacked the charisma to sell his brand of dumbassery. Throw in some uninspired mecha designs and a Kohei Tanaka soundtrack that felt phoned in and all I could really feel from watching Back Arrow is how much more interesting a Romance of the Three Kingdoms themed mecha anime might be.
Jujutsu Kaisen Season 2
The second half of the WSJ adaptation aired this year, as crazy as it is to remember that far back. What’s even crazier is that it’s that second half that largely endeared me to the series. The first half felt like a story struggling to find its voice, and it’s in the second half when it introduces a tournament arc of all things, where I felt the show’s best traits began to shine. The cast slip comfortably into a delightfully acerbic dynamic, constantly sniping at each other in fun ways. Shout outs to Nobara, who helped in turning the anime’s finale from pretty good to an absolute all timer. And of course, attention must be paid toward Seongho Park’s excellent action directing. Overall, while I wasn’t sold on Jujutsu Kaisen initially, its strong second half has won me over.
Spring 2021 is going to go down in history as a legendary one for televised anime. We saw great original newcomers do some novel things. We also saw the return of household names who met or even surpassed expectations in the best ways possible. There truly was something to love for everyone this season.
NOMAD: MEGALOBOX 2
This is the one folks. Sequels are a tough thing, they’re often given the unenviable task of surpassing their predecessor while maintaining all the things people liked about it and also having to find new ground to explore. Let me be unapologetically clear, Nomad is one of the greatest sequels I’ve ever watched. It’s a triumph in taking the original themes and talking points of the first and molding them in bold ways, all while maintaining its uniquely human spirit.
It’s an anime about cybernetic boxing in a dystopian future, but it’s also so much more. Nomad is a wholly uncompromised work, unified in all aspects, from its stunning presentation to its diverse character arcs, in the realization of a deeply compelling story about redemption, love, and self actualization. It’s a story about broken men who might never be fixed, but can find support and guidance by surrounding themselves with people who will be there to pick them up when they fall. Constantly recognizing the fallibility of the human soul while giving it its most sympathetic eye. It never shies away from the depths we can sink to, but also never forgets our capacity to change, to love, to forgive. Nomad is a striking glimpse at what anime can accomplish when it grasps for smarter more mature subject matter; it’s beautiful.
To Your Eternity
As a big fan of the manga, all I can really say is that if you found the general story and characters to be compelling, you should check out the manga instead. Adapting To Your Eternity was always going to be an uphill battle and the sad truth is barring a few standout moments, Brains Base just wasn’t equipped to handle the task.
86 Eighty Six
This will be an interesting one to get into because quite frankly, I did not enjoy the first run of episodes very much, but my opinions have shifted since catching up on the second half airing in Fall. I feel 86 was a prime example of a work that has all the right ideas and hits all the right notes to appeal to me, but often falls flat due to the inescapable clichés of anime writing. How could I dislike a mecha anime that pays lip service to the power of artillery support and the important of maintaining supply trains? Well, it takes a lot of bad writing. The racial divide of 86 is never explored with the nuance that such a major plot point would require, and even if its overall message is admirable, the delivery is so clumsy it’s hard to not laugh at it. So despite its real robot trappings and emphasis on small unit tactics, things that should ostensibly be catnip to a mecha fan like myself, I mostly came away from 86’s first 11 episodes pretty cold. We’ll check back on 86 in a couple seasons though…
There simply isn’t anything quite like Odd Taxi. An anime original from an unproven director about a taxi driving walrus trying to get by in Tokyo, I don’t think any of us were sure what to expect. That lack of familiarity proved to be Odd Taxi’s greatest strength, as it deftly weaved its intricate storytelling and amicable characters in a web of intrigue, murder, and the interiority of Tokyo’s myriad inhabitants. It’s a story about the trials and tribulations of modern life, both the relatable and crazy things we all do to get by. Some of us get addicted to mobile games. Others rap every sentence while committing extortion. You’ll never quite know how one innocuous fact about a character will be the smoking gun that shines a light on the motivation of another because the story does a tremendous job of throwing just enough mundane snippets at you to maintain its facade of normalcy. It’s Coen Brothers by way of Animal Crossing. This is the anime to watch when you’re convinced you’ve seen it all.
Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song
Vivy is the sort of self contained science fiction story we get blessed with every now and then. Chronicling the gripping tale of two AIs’ century long journey to save mankind from a seemingly inevitable AI apocalypse, Vivy is the rare AI focused story that goes beyond the trite questions of AI personhood. It knows for most of its audience, nobody is interested in asking if robots are people. Instead, it understands that we already recognize the intrinsic personhood of an artificially created being and uses that as a springboard to ask deeper, more interesting questions.
Vivy isn’t afraid to depict AI as their own distinct class of sapient being, with its own unique values and viewpoints. When the body is purely a vessel for the mind, does the body have any value? When the mind can be rewritten and repurposed, what is the value of the individual? Vivy dresses this all up with Wit Studio’s consistently excellent production values and a number of thematically relevant vocal tracks that serve as big flashy capstones of various story arcs. It’s the sort of anime where two androids start singing a melancholy J-pop number as they bravely face their inevitable deaths aboard a crashing space station, finding comfort in dying in each other’s arms. And sometimes those sad robots will also do sick kung fu moves and get into crazy ass knife fights, so you know, something for the whole family. When Wit Studio announced they were no longer going to adapt the wildly popular Attack on Titan to pursue original projects, Vivy has me confident they made the right choice. Vivy might not necessarily break any boundaries but it’s anime as you know it at its finest. A tremendous spectacle with a surprising amount of heart.
The sequel to the much beloved SSSS.Gridman, Akira Amemiya and the Trigger crew return to prove the first wasn’t a fluke. Dynazenon makes the bold and smart choice to focus on an entirely new cast of characters and tackling an entirely different set of themes from the first. Focusing on an ensemble cast anchored by Yomogi and Yume, Dyanzenon takes a broader approach to its storytelling that I think largely succeeds at creating a more memorable cast than its predecessor’s.
Dynazenon is about how trauma drives us. It’s about how we come to grips with the ways our past scars have defined us and learn to move forward, often in the arms of our friends and loved ones. It’s also about a giant dinosaur robot that combines with a bunch of other robots to make an even bigger dinosaur robot with a cape and a sword and a bazooka. And how that robot represents self actualization and the healing power of a support network. Hey, it’s still Studio Trigger after all, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Summer 2021, like last year, continues the trend of being the dumping grounds of seasonal anime. It got so bad that it convinced Iro and myself to catch up on some old shows on our backlog, including what would eventually become far and away one of our favorite things to watch this year.
Godzilla Singular Point
Okay this is probably technically closer to being a Spring 2021 anime but also it aired on Netflix outside the usual seasonal rotation so clearly seasonal delineations don’t mean anything anymore.
If you put a gun to my head and asked me to actually explain the plot, I don’t think I could do it. Nonetheless, there’s something I found strangely compelling about Godzilla SP’s approach to science mystery. The framing of Godzilla and the kaiju incursion as a fundamentally environment distorting enigma was a fantastic modern take on what Godzilla has always been about; capturing the unknowable dangers of unchecked science by way of tangible giant monster. Throw in a surprisingly compelling arc built around the artifice of the Jet Jaguar AI as it achieves a type of kaiju apotheosis and well, you got a winning formula on your hands. While I think the absolutely relentless sci-fi technical jargon that gets thrown around can be potentially overwhelming, SP generally understood that it was using the jargon to establish a tone, a sort of narrative texture, rather than something to be deeply scrutinized. For that reason, I believe it works and makes Godzilla SP one of the more unique things that aired this year.
While I can respect the intent of its creative direction, I just could not convince myself to care about Shingo Natsume’s original anime debut. All of the lessons it purported to convey were fairly basic coming of age tropes and the strangely detached writing made it difficult to be invested in any member of its ensemble cast. There’s some legitimately great artistry at work here but it all felt so abstract and distant from anything tangible. I think some people will love what Sonny Boy was selling but I’m not one of them.
Aquatope on White Sands
While it’s not going to supplant Shirobako, Aquatope settled into another comfortable spot with the rest of PA Works’ slice of life anime about young professionals trying to make it in their given industry of focus. The aquarium angle added a much needed twist to the usual formula and personally I’m glad the idol stuff was quickly disregarded. There’s a lot to like about Aquatope’s tale of modern working life. Learning to cope with failure, trying to make the best of a field you thought you loved but the reality turned out quite different, and balancing this all with the hundreds of other moving parts that is being one of many at a company. While Aquatope never really pushed against its status quo beyond its mid-season climax, there’s something real to take from its lesson of trying to make your life choices into your best choices, even when that might not seem apparent at first. It’s a relatively grounded message that resonated with me. It might not be come their foremost work, but Aquatope is another solid addition to the PA Works stable.
Fena: Pirate Princess
Fena: Pirate Princess was another in the disconcerting trend of 2021 anime originals where the ambition far exceeded their practical grasp. Had Pirate Princess stayed within the comfortable confines of its early swashbuckling adventures, it might have been fondly remembered as a solid piece of anime comfort food. Instead, it embraced insipid anime melodrama, bad villain tropes, and a story that for all its purported themes of female empowerment, left most of its female characters either dead or in wholly subservient roles to the men around them. There are other 2021 anime that disappointed me more, but I’ll always remember Pirate Princess as another case of squandered potential.
D_Cide Traumerei The Animation
D_Cide is by far the messiest thing I’ve watched all year. In some regards, I almost have to respect the audacity with which it pursues some of the hottest button topics through its trashy Persona reminiscent urban fantasy adventure. I’ve often criticized the Persona games for employing a rather toothless approach to social commentary that often feels performative without any real substance. That said, D_Cide goes way too far in the other direction, almost ravenous in its intent to tackle half a dozen thorny social issues within its 12 episode run. In the end, most of its attempts suffer from a lack of focus or screentime, leaving its viewers more baffled than enlightened. That said, Jessica Clayborn is still one of the funniest takes on Americans I’ve seen from anime in a while though. Not only does she have the usual anime American stereotypes like a love of firearms and cars, when was the last time a piece of fiction called out the stereotypical American fixation on torture based interrogation? D_Cide arguably took way too many swings for its own good but man was it funny when those swings occasionally hit.
Getter Robo Arc
The latest adaptation of the legendary Ken Ishikawa series is a bittersweet one. Adapting Ishikawa’s final Getter story before his untimely passing, Arc in many ways represented the thematic endpoint of the Getter franchise as a whole. Unfortunately, Arc’s anime adaptation suffered so grievously from its complete lack of budget that it didn’t matter if Getter veteran Jun Kawagoe was back in the director’s chair. You could feel the animation team’s genuine passion run directly into their material limitations in the most painful ways. While I’ve grown weary of the, “is mecha dead?” discourse that seems to flare up in anime fandom every now and then, I do grieve for the undeniable waning influence of Getter Robo. For a series that’s just as foundational to mecha as the likes of Gundam and Mazinger, it is unfortunate to think that Arc might be its final stop. We’ll always have Armageddon.
While Thunderbolt Fantasy’s third season did technically air this year, as of this writing, I’ve only watched the first two seasons and their accompanying films. This was brought on by how barren Summer 2021 felt. With nothing interesting to watch, I decided to catch up on the Wuxia puppetry saga with fellow Glorio contributor Iro. This was without a doubt, one of the best decisions I made this entire year. I never knew until now how much my soul yearned for gratuitous puppet murder. Thunderbolt Fantasy is a tremendous amount of fun, a testament to the power of punchy writing and unique technical expertise. The adventures of the wandering sword collecting vagrant Sho Fu Kan and his varied collection of allies, rivals, and nemeses never fails to entertain. Whether it’s dealing with the lowest kind of petty corrupt official or embarking on an epic quest to reclaim a cursed sword possessed by a malevolent demon, Thunderbolt Fantasy always knows how to put its best foot forward. It’s action spectacle at its finest.
Fall 2021 had a lot of chaff but amongst it all, there’s some real gems in the bunch. I’m just glad Ranking of Kings is going into 2022 or else my top 5 of 2021 would be even more difficult.
The Heike Story
A stylized adaptation of the historical fiction depicting a dramatized retelling of the historical Genpei War? Sure, I’ll tune in for that. Animated by Masaaki Yuasa’s Science Saru and directed by KyoAni veteran Naoko Yamada? Now I definitely have to see what’s going on here. The Heike Story is the rare kind of project, featuring a melding of forces so distinct that it’s almost worth the price of admission just to see the result. The Heike Story is a gripping tragedy from start to finish, as we watch the titular Heike brought to ruin by factors both self inflicted and beyond their control. With the caliber of staff associated with this production, it’s no surprise that these moments are greatly enhanced by the stunning artistry being utilized, intentionally reminiscent of historical Japanese artwork. And despite the anime’s tragic subject matter, it’s also a story that was deeply interested in the celebration of life. The Heike Story begs you to not remember its characters merely as they died, but also as they lived, full of emotion, dignity, and agency.
I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that such an emotionally resonant work would be directed by Naoko Yamada considering the deeply unfortunate circumstances that occurred during her tenure at KyoAni. It’s through this lens that The Heike Story also becomes a story about grief, survivor’s guilt, and the will to endure in spite of it all. It’s a story that asks us all what can we do in the face of unimaginable tragedy, especially as the ones tasked with carrying that grief in the place of those no longer with us. The Heike Story doesn’t purport to have an easy answer to that question, but on its journey to find those answers, creates something beautiful and powerful.
Another in the long line of lavishly animated tie-ins to a mobile game, Takt earns the honor of being one of the few good ones. While Takt would struggle to match the energy and impact of its marvelous debut episode, I can’t help but have a soft spot for it thanks to its carefully managed expectations and pacing. Rather than indulge in some last minute “ambitious” storytelling, Takt largely stayed the course from start to end, happy to be an action heavy adventure as we followed the comically likeable trio of Destiny, Anna, and Takt on their journey across anime America. It’s an anime that knew what its viewers wanted and was all too happy to give it to them. By its very nature, it’s an anime that won’t win any awards, it’s a naked commercial for a mobile game its paymasters are hoping you’ll spend a lot of money on. And yet, it’s also the anime in which a girl with neon orange hair goes out in a blaze of glory, dual wielding magic shotguns and shooting lasers as classical music plays. It’s flashy anime performance at its most shallow, yet undeniably most loveable.
Kyoukai Senki might be the most toothless, impotent, and outright boring mecha anime I’ve watched in a while. While it doesn’t sink low enough to earn genuine ire from me, it’s such an exercise in mediocrity that there’s very little for me to really say. While I like the mecha designs, the story and characters are so lifeless that there’s nothing of substance for me to hold onto here. Throw in a disconcerting emphasis on nationalist posturing and I’m left with few reasons to give this anime the benefit of the doubt. When you end up looking back on Code Geass of all things with some fondness because of how much worse Kyoukai Senki has executed on some of the same tropes, you know you’re on shaky ground. I guess I’m grateful that something this bad can be safely shunted off and ignored, if this had been the next Gundam TV series, I’d be even harsher.
86 Eighty Six
I’ve split up my writeup on 86 both to reflect its staggered release this year but also because of the changed context in which I watched 86’s second season. With Kyoukai Senki airing the same season to serve as a comparison point, 86 began to smell a lot better simply standing next to the former. It helps that 86’s second half explores some more interesting geopolitical stakes through the viewpoint of the Federacy, which operates like a semi-believable political entity compared to the cartoonishly prejudiced Republic from season one. Throw in some absolutely jaw dropping real robot spectacle in the form of the large scale warfare being portrayed in its second half and while I still have many issues with its execution of the heady topics it’s clumsily trying to approach, I can still appreciate what it’s doing to appeal to the anime fan in me that just enjoys seeing cool robots.
Sakugan, like Pirate Princess, is a tremendous disappointment because we’re briefly given a glimpse of what this anime could have been. Starting strong with the fantastic introduction of Gagumber and Memempu as our acerbic odd couple was really well done. It was goofy, likeable, and possessed a high octane energy that was reminiscent of a really solid Bones or Trigger original anime. Unfortunately, as Sakugan progressed, it rapidly shifted toward the worst kind of weak writing and melodrama associated with the medium. The new additions to the cast didn’t add much to the ensemble and even Gagumber and Memempu’s dynamic got old as they’d rehash the same arguments every episode without any meaningful development. Sakugan could have been an anime of the year contender had it stuck to its strong points, but in its pursuit of a grander story, ended up losing it all in the process. It really is a shame because even toward the end, Sakugan never fully forgot its better qualities. For that reason, Sakugan is probably my biggest disappointment of 2021. Only the anime’s eclectically enjoyable soundtrack and Big Tony, Gagumber and Memempu’s delightfully charming robot, escape the show still in my good graces.
Ranking of Kings
It’s hard to describe the appeal of Ranking of Kings with a snappy pull quote because many of its best qualities are the kind you can only feel in the moment. To make the attempt, Ranking of Kings expertly merges its compelling tale of self-improvement and compassion with some of the highest octane visuals you’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of anime that isn’t afraid to hit you with some of the wildest plot twists I’ve seen in ages while also never losing its sense of empathy. It’s a unique quality I’ve come to really appreciate. It’s the kind of show where you cheer because a character has been imbued with multifaceted storytelling that’s both compelling and relatable. It’s also the kind of show where you cheer because then that same character proceeds to suplex a demon lion dog to death to uphold his knightly vows.
Gee’s Top 5 of 2021
In hindsight, I watched an absurd amount of anime in 2021. It’s a testament to how interesting I think anime has gotten recently. 2021 gave us the triumphant return of some familiar faces like Nomad: Megalobox 2 and SSSS.Dynazenon, while also introducing us to some great originals like Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song and Odd Taxi. It’s been an unbelievably strong year and any one of my top 5 could have been a #1 contender in a weaker year. I also got to catch up on some older shows that would immediately become my new favorites, like Thunderbolt Fantasy. It hasn’t been an easy year for a lot of reasons, but I’ll look back fondly on 2021’s anime at least. These are the 5(6) that really stuck with me.
Thunderbolt Fantasy is without a doubt one of the most entertaining shows I’ve watched this year. Embracing its Wuxia inspiration, Thunderbolt Fantasy confidently dances on its stage of choice. Exciting, clever, and kinetic, it’s Dynasty Warriors by way of Jim Henson. An expression of a unique style of action at its absolute finest.
Odd Taxi wields its quirkiness and mundanity in equally deft measure. There’s nothing quite like it in anime and it’s without a doubt one of the most interesting things that aired this year.
Beastars season 2 comes back hitting harder than ever. It’s just as funny, multifaceted, and unapologetically horny as you remember it.
Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song is anime sci-fi at its best. It’s an exercise in confident storytelling. Rather than asking the same old questions about AI personhood, it uses that as its springboard to make far more interesting queries with an unmatched technical polish and some fantastic musical numbers.
Passionate, introspective, heartfelt, and sometimes a little goofy, Dynazenon is a deeply compelling story about overcoming trauma with the help of our loved ones and a giant robot.
Nomad: Megalobox 2 is a masterful character piece and everything you could hope for in a sequel. Joe’s story of redemption, empathy, and familial love left me awestruck multiple times throughout its economically paced 13 episode run. A bold but thematically perfect ending cements it as an all time great. It’s an anime that in every sense of the word, puts in the work to justify every plot point, every character development, every climax. If you had told me that a spiritual successor to Ashita no Joe would explore the ephemeral nature of pride and the search for the meaning beyond it, I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s an outstanding achievement in animated storytelling.