It may have been a disastrous period in the world outside (get your shots people!) but inside the ever-evolving nightmare circus that is anime, it’s been a quite a year. In fact, I think you could make a decent argument it’s been one of the best years in the history of this blog, as a whole bundle of shows overcame the inherent difficulties of producing animation in a global pandemic to deliver terrific stories. That’s not to say that there wasn’t also plenty of trash – Sturgeon’s Law is very much still in force of course – but even that’s been interesting to observe. It seems to me that anime is mirroring media as a whole in its increasing stratification into ‘commercial’ and ‘artistic’ branches. That’s a gross oversimplification of course, but to my eyes at least there’s never been a bigger gap between the flood of isekai trash which makes up most of any given season, and the more thoughtful, creator-driven projects which we saw break through in 2021.
We can’t start any discussion about creator driven projects without talking about Naoko Yamada’s incredible comeback work The Heike Story. After the tragic and no doubt incredibly traumatic events at Kyoto Animation, I don’t think anyone could have blamed her if she’d decided to stay the course and work on a familiar property for a few years. Instead though, she took the bold choice to break away from the only studio she’d ever known and push in a new artistic direction, and the resulting work is a powerful vindication of that choice. As a viewer I’ve always been impressed by how intimate and personal her direction can be, while being occasionally frustrated at how lightweight the material she chose to apply those talents to was. But in Heike, Yamada’s ability to bring out the humanity and emotion in the characters leavens the dryness and predictability of the source material, while accentuating the mythic sweep and bitter tragedy of the story. It’s a remarkable work that manages to both convey the epic themes of hubris, arrogance, and rebirth which have always characterised the Taira story, but also make us invested in the smaller, personal victories and losses that give meaning to the larger ones, Credit is also due to the ever-fabulous Enyoung Choi and the crew at Science Saru, who successfully marry their house style to Yamada’s with expectedly terrific results. The Heike Story proved that no matter how old the story, a skilled team can breathe new life into it.
Mining new material out of old cliches was also one of the core themes behind one of the year’s other standout pieces of character storytelling, SSSS.Dynazenon. Studio Trigger’s second foray into Tsuburaya’s Ultra series continued the work that the studio began in SSSS.Gridman of offering a more personal, revisionist take on classic tokusatsu and super robot tropes. Dynazenon went one step beyond even Gridman though, largely discarding traditional plot structure in favour of a more lengthy, nuanced exploration of the traumas which drove its cast. What resulted was effectively a dense teen drama that occasionally lapsed into a 70s robot show. It was a more harmonious marriage than that makes it sound though, even if the seams occasionally showed, and it reinforced the fact that this new, more sensitive Trigger seems to be here to stay. I enjoyed Dynazenon so much that I wrote about it on a weekly basis – check those posts out here if you’d like to hear more of my thoughts on it.
One of the most encouraging signs about this new wave of anime was how often they were able to straddle genre boundaries and tell stories that worked outside of the strict templates which anime often feels stuck in. Take for example Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song, which mashed together Philip K. Dick-esque android soul-searching, a complex time-travel mystery, and the kind of fembot kung-fu kickassery I thought had been left behind in the 90s. The marriage wasn’t always perfectly smooth, but when it worked it worked excellently, and it achieved the difficult feat of mining real character and pathos from Diva’s hundred year journey across multiple scenarios and even multiple personalities. Plus, in the snarky, Jun Fukuyama-voiced Matsumoto it undoubtedly had one of the characters of the year. Given Wit Studio has mostly existed to crank out Attack On Titan works so far, the existence of both Vivy and last year’s flawed but interesting Great Pretender bodes well for the future.
Even when this year’s original works failed to hit the highs, they did so in interesting and provocative ways. Shingo Natsume and Madhouse’s collaboration on Sonny Boy was a fascinating thing, probably the closest we’ve come in quite a few years to a pure avant-garde arthouse anime released for wide consumption. While I applaud Natsume and his team for their commitment to such a singularly focused vision, in the end the result was just too sluggish and obtuse for many of us here at Glorio, myself included. Earlier in the year Wonder Egg Priority told a moving, resonant, and frequently spectacular story full of poignancy and heart, even as its production spectacularly imploded around it. In the end, CloverWorks couldn’t beat the clock and the delayed finale one was one of the biggest disasters I can remember in over a decade of watching anime. Despite that, I’m glad that both of these shows exist – you have to push at boundaries whenever you’re trying something new, and if they didn’t stick the landing this time, well, it’s a lesson learned for the next go around.
It wasn’t quite as strong a year for shows based on existing works, though even in this category there were some notable standouts. Beastars pulled off a second season with aplomb, shrugging off most of the trappings of a high-school story to get weirder, darker, and hornier than ever to great effect. I was constantly stunned by how crazy and audacious the storytelling became, culminating in a wonderfully bonkers finale that I couldn’t have predicted in my wildest dreams. On the other side of the coin, To Your Eternity showed that even when you’re working with universally praised source material the transition to another medium can be difficult. When the show was good, such as in its outstanding first and last episodes, it hit as hard as anything else this year, but it often struggled to convey the force of its written counterpart, particularly in the back third. There was also the usual slew of abominable light novel adaptations, although Jobless Reincarnation stood out for its status as a founding father of the genre, the lusciousness of its production, and the absolute hatefulness of everything else about it.
Speaking of shows based on existing works, it’s kind of mad to think that the long awaited final Rebuild of Evangelion film came out in 2021 and only a few months after most non-Japanese fans got to see it, the hubbub has largely died down. That’s a fairly apt reaction to Evangelion 3.0+1.0 to me at least, in that the film was functional but fundamentally unmemorable, with the reboot story finally collapsing under the weight of its own overly-convoluted mythos. There were certainly powerful moments and wonderful visual flourishes, but they were fleeting rather than foundational, and the film didn’t really function satisfactorily as either the culmination of a plot arc nor as the kind of animalistic primal scream that End of Evangelion did. I’m happy though that Hideaki Anno seems to have made his peace with his creation, and hopeful that this will free him up to work on new and interesting ideas, such as his forthcoming Shin Kamen Rider.
As you can tell from the length of this post it’s been a year abundant in riches for anime fans, but I’d certainly be remiss if I didn’t shout out a few more shows before closing out. Megalobox 2: Nomad was a terrific continuation of the original, both homaging and brutally deconstructing the classic sports anime formula, and providing a piercing look at Joe and the fallout of his actions. It was harsh, bitter and often painful, but crucially never sank into that darkness fully, allowing our hero a more realistic, nuanced redemption arc than ran as true as any sports story that anime has ever told. It’s the rare sequel that feels like not just a fine continuation of the original story, but actually an essential second volume without which the first is incomplete.
I think it’s appropriate to end on probably the darkest horse (excuse the pun) of the whole year in ODD TAXI, which managed to do the archetypical ‘story with cute animal people BUT ACTUALLY DARK’ thing and pull it off with so much verve and skill that it instantly became an essential watch. Starting with an incredibly tightly wound, meticulously plotted story, director Baku Kinoshita and his crew infused the show with a masterful presentation that swung hard between crime drama, black comedy, and noir-ish murder mystery. In grizzled walrus taxi driver Odakawa they created an instant icon and then skilfully placed him in the centre of a gallery of grotesques, both obvious and not-so-obvious. The show is a masterclass in subtle, understated character writing and building tension through unspoken words and actions – episode 4 in particular is one long, gradually building nightmare, culminating in a truly chilling cliffhanger. Absolutely must-watch television from beginning to end, it was perhaps the biggest surprise in a year full of them.
I think that’s probably what surprised me most about anime this year – the consistently high quality, despite the incredibly difficult times we happen to be living in. Now, more than ever, the stories we tell each other are so important, and the industry rose to meet the challenge in an admirable way. I started by talking about the growing gap between commercial and artistic projects, and I think what this year has shown us is that there’s still people in anime who want to tell stories that are driven by more than marketing concerns, and that there are still people out here who are willing to put in the time and effort to validate those stories. As always, thank you to everyone who’s read our work or listened to the podcast this year – I hope we’ve made it worth your time. Here’s to a 2022 where both the real world and the anime one can only get better.