And a few that didn’t make the list….
This collaboration between comic book heavy-weight Mark Millar and Japanese animation studio Bones felt inexplicably off. The premise is great with its focus on super-powered villains, but the characters, while colorful, are surprisingly flat. The series is action-driven and often over-the-top ultra-violent yet some episodes are talky and unbearably tedious. The finale offers one final heist with a couple of nifty twists – several of which really don’t hold up under closer scrutiny. Akemi’s review as we headed into the finale: “I’m glad it’s over.”
This high school romantic comedy made plenty of Top 10 lists, including Akemi’s. But, to be fair, Akemi enjoyed it for the same reason I didn’t. To quote Akemi: “Nothing happens.” Conflict is engendered by the most innocuous of misunderstandings and everyone is, ultimately, so damn nice.
This alt. history horror drama about a vampire outbreak in 1923 Tokyo is one of the most beautiful-looking anime of the year, and while all of the pieces are there for a memorable, heart-breaking thriller, they never really quite come together in wholly satisfying fashion.
THE WAY OF THE HOUSE HUSBAND
I absolutely love the central premise of a former yakuza gangster becoming a stay-at-home dad and suddenly having to deal with mundanities of life. And, while the show offers up plenty of funny moments, it all feels a little sparse. Part of it could have to do with the fact that it was originally a web-only series and the animation is sparing, but I feel that, overall, there were some major opportunities missed here.
And now, on to my Top 10….
#10. AKUDAMA DRIVE
This one was a late 2020 release in Japan, but since it didn’t make its way to the U.S./Canada until 2021, I’m including it in my rankings. It’s a cyberpunk heist series set in a dystopian future that, to be honest, didn’t grab me at first. The characters were a mixed big, the visuals were uneven, and I really didn’t like the opening theme – but out of respect for my friend Tauri Jay who recommended it to me, I forged ahead – and, in the end, really ended up engaged by the tale of these disparate mercs and their bleak prospects of survival. About halfway through its run, it really clicks into place and gets going, offering a slew of surprises in its ramp up to a memorable, heartfelt finale. In many ways, it reminded me of Akame Ga Kill (a favorite) and its no-one-is-safe narrative. I also can’t help but think that this is what Super Crooks should have been.
#9. TO YOUR ETERNITY
This is the epic tale of a shape-shifting alien entity, cast down to Earth where its centuries’-long evolution is observed by some higher power. It transforms from its original orb state to take on the form of a rock and then, in time, moss before assuming the guise of a dead wolf – where its adventure truly begins. Over the course of the series, and hundreds of years, the alien takes the form of many humans, occasionally shifting between them, as it discovers humanity and its potential for greatness as well as destruction. This show is at its best when it focuses on our protagonist dealing with the fish–out-of-water scenarios, and specifically those related to the humans he discovers and befriends along the way. This show is, however, far less successful when it shifts to our protagonist’s endless battle against an inexplicable, all-powerful Big Bad that feels like it was shoe-horned into an otherwise really thoughtful anime.
The Republic of San Magnolia wages war against the Gladian Empire through the use of autonomous mechs. But when Major Vladilena Milizé is assigned to oversee the Spearhead squadron, she makes a horrifying discovery – that there are actual human beings inside those mechs, individuals who sacrifice their lives for a nation that shuns them. The series tackles a number of heady themes, chiefest among them being racism as the fair-skinned, silver-haired citizens of San Mangolia’s 85 sectors are kept in the dark about the diverse soldiers that make up the nation’s secret eighty-sixth faction. A solid entry in the genre.
#7. SONNY BOY
A classroom is transported to a dark, impenetrable void whereupon students begin to manifest supernatural powers. And then things get REALLY weird. Sonny Boy is trippy, an anime that mixes interdimensional travel and hallucinatory visuals with philosophy and high school relationships. It’s intellectually provocative yet also obtuse, leading to some bewildering, occasionally frustrating narrative developments and resolutions. There’s a point midway through the season that sees our heroes finally return to their reality only to discover original versions of themselves that continued to live their lives, unaware of the fate of their duplicate counterparts. OR…at least that’s the way I interpreted it. I found it a touching, bitter-sweet end to the series…until I discovered it really wasn’t the finale.
My favorite anime of 2020 is back for a second season with a terrific new opening theme, but overall a step down in the quality of its story-telling. Legoshi’s relationship with Haru, the heart of the series, is pushed aside in favor of an exploration into Louis’ rise to power within the yakuza-lion Shishigumi and an unfurling of the mystery surrounding the murder of Tem, the alpaca. While both are compelling storylines, the whole feels somewhat less than with the absence of my favorite slutty bunny. The season finale is also a bit of a let-down, hinging on a ludicrous character decision that ultimately undermines some of the themes the show has done such a beautiful job of building over the course of its run. Still, the character designs and animation are first rate and the characters are rich and realized.
#5. WONDER EGG PRIORITY
A beautiful-looking anime that, beneath its colorfully whimsical surface, tackles some surprisingly deep issues like depression, suicide, and trauma through the adventures of four girls navigating the perils of a fantastical world that has more than few similarities to their own. Ai Ooto braves the dangers of this alternate reality in order to save her one and only friend who took her own life earlier in the school year. The burgeoning friendship between the four girls are what really makes this series special and, even though it doesn’t quite stick the landing in its finale, it does impart a lasting emotional resonance.
#4. LIFE LESSONS WITH URAMICHI ONIISAN
My favorite comedy of the year follows the trials and tribulations of our titular character, the host of a morning kids’ show, as he struggles through challenges both in front of and behind the camera. His fellow cast-members range from embittered and weary to pathologically upbeat, while the precocious young children who frequent the show can always be relied upon to offer commentary on the indignities of aging and our hero’s mortality. As someone who has worked in television, and children’s television early in my career, I could really connect with these characters and their struggles. Like the episode where Uramachii, nursing a bad back, is forced to pick up the heavy-set son of the station manager. Or the episode where they have to shoot a party beach scene in the blistery dead of winter. Brilliant.
#3. VIVY: FLUORITE EYE’S SONG
A terrible title and a not-so-great opening theme belies one of the best science fiction anime in recent memory. Vivy, an entertainment A.I., is recruited to prevent an uprising by her fellow A.I.’s that will lead to the eradication of the human species. There’s a fair amount of jumping backwards and forwards in time, but it’s all very clever and Vivy’s personal journey a truly well-plotted and satisfying arc.
#2. TOKYO REVENGERS
A 26 year old in a dead-end job is propelled back in time, 12 years, to the pivotal event that changed the trajectory of his life. Back in his 14 year old body, he must find a way to circumvent the mistakes he made to rise up the ranks of the Tokyo Manji Gang in order to save the life of the woman he never got the chance to love. Okay, let me start off by saying the time travel conceit is absolute nonsense BUT that doesn’t stop this show from being compulsively watchable. The characters are absolutely fantastic and the story never ceases to surprise. Also, the end theme is pretty kick ass.
#1. ODD TAXI
Weird and wonderful, this anime is #1 for both Akemi and I (and, from the looks of things, a lot of critics as well). The life of a seemingly unremarkable taxi drive is turned upside-down when he becomes the suspect in the disappearance of a young girl. But there is more here than meets the eye. So much more. As the show peels back the various narrative layers on its central mystery, we are treated to the side stories of the wild and whimsical supporting characters who impact our hero’s daily life. There’s a lot of clever subtext in the scenes, clues in the visuals, awesome set-ups and delightful payoffs that make this a one-of-a-kind series. And 2021’s best. Highly recommended.
So, what did I miss? What anime series made your list?