2021 has been a year of anime where we got sequels to many highly anticipated shows. It’s also been a year where we got a lot of kickass new shows and it’s such newcomers that largely dominate our “Best of” list for the year. That’s a statement of just how creative and diverse anime truly is.
10. The Way of the Househusband
Like One Punch Man, the appeal of Way of the Househusband largely hangs on your knowledge of anime and Japanese culture. Skewering classic gangster tropes like the Yakuza, blood feuds, and vicious murder attempts, Netflix’s adaptation takes the world of Japanese organized crime and turns it on its head.
While much of the humor is derived from the intensely committed voiceover performances, the writing is also wildly clever, finding every excuse to turn double entendres regarding murder and maiming into hilarious gags about cooking and cleaning efficiently.
With episodes running as little as 15 minutes apiece, you can cruise through the whole season in an afternoon. In a market as oversaturated with quality shows as anime is, that in itself is a gift. (Mike Worby)
9. Vivy -Flourite Eye’s Song-
Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song is a series about a pop-singer android trying to save the world from an AI apocalypse. That may sound like an idol version of Terminator but it is so much more.
Like the best of science fiction, Vivy uses its futuristic setting to probe the human condition. At the center of the story is a question: What does it mean to sing from the heart? For a synthetic being whose entire purpose is to sing, this question essentially translates into: What is the soul? Over the course of the series, the eponymous Vivy encounters numerous beings, both human and machine, that have their own answers to this question, including seeing it as irrelevant. By the end of the show, Vivy comes to her own conclusion, but, like the best works of fiction, the series actively undercuts her. That isn’t to say her revelations do not have meaning, they do, but they are not wholly adequate either: the questions of our being are too great for any answers we can come up with, and Vivy understands this.
Despite the heady themes, Vivy isn’t all philosophizing. For the most part, Vivy is just sublime entertainment. The music, both sung and ambient, sets a terrific mood and is so catchy it has you dancing, even if it’s just involuntary tapping of feet. The action enthralls with some of the best drawn hand-to-hand combat ever in anime. And the characters, they feel alive. Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song is just superb. (Nicholas Straub)
8. Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation
It’s rare that an isekai captures the pitfalls and baggage of being transported to another world as much as it captures the power fantasy of being reborn with special powers. Mushoku Tensei manages to juggle both extraordinarily well from the very beginning. Even more importantly, those callbacks remain a vital part of Rudeus’ character development throughout the season. Though the first cour does an admirable job setting the scene — establishing Rudeus’ relationship with his family, and setting up the brilliant party dynamic between him, Ruijerd, and Eris — it’s the second cour that truly takes Mushoku Tensei from being a fun, action-packed isekai to being one of the best-executed shows in the genre.
The degree to which every significant character develops throughout season one is astonishing, and it all feels completely natural. Be it Eris gradually growing from an immature child into a discerning young adult or Paul having to step up to the plate and put his childish antics aside to support his family, everyone flourishes as a result of the circumstances they’re thrust into. While it still manages to deliver a world-spanning journey full of misadventures —like any great fantasy adventure should — Mushoku Tensei doesn’t shy away from homing in on how others are affected by those travels, in both good and bad ways. It’s this self-awareness that ultimately puts Mushoku Tensei in a league of its own and makes the cliffhanger at the end of the season all the more excruciating. (Brent Middleton)
When 86 began earlier this year, it seemed good but generic, checking off many anime clichés. However, as time passed the show deepened, not just undercutting some of those clichés but obliterating them.
The reason for 86‘s success is consequence. Many of the individual elements of the show are stereotypes but they each feel real because of the dynamic ways in which they engage with one another. For instance, the core cast of characters is child-soldiers that do battle against a Legion, a malevolent army of AI that subsumes the minds of those they kill. These two elements are nothing new to the mech genre but the way they interact is devastating. The captain of the squad, Shin, carries the burden of executing wounded soldiers to save them from assimilation, a task that breaks him and pushes him to states of near-psychosis when in combat. The other children carry similar pain and cannot exist in normal society. They dream of a world without violence but when they actually get to live in it, they long for the familiarity of war.
The best of the mech genre is associated with gray morality and amoral politics, and in both these areas, 86 exceeds. Various states are caught in the thrall of Legion’s violence and must contend with their decisions. Some seek absolution at the potential cost of annihilation while others resign themselves to genocide. No one is free from sin, all are burdened by guilt. Somber and human, 86 is one of the year’s best. (Nicholas Straub)
6. Kageki Shojo!!
Kageki Shojo is a rare look for anime into stage play performance. Not only that, but it’s also an even rarer glimpse into female stage performance. The expectations placed on female actors by an audience are different than those placed on male actors, often unjustly so, and Kageki Shojo does well in pointing those facets out to an uninitiated viewer. If that’s all it did, though, this show wouldn’t be so special.
It’s Kageki Shojo’s fearlessness at tackling otherwise sensitive subjects — and tackling them well — that sets it apart from the rest. Heavy topics like sexual assault and eating disorders are not watered down so to provide an easy way out, nor are they overdone to the point of being misery porn. Kageki Shojo understands that looking away from trauma doesn’t make it go away. It also understands, though, that there can still be good amongst the bad, going so far as to depict one of the most earnest burgeoning lesbian relationships anime has seen in recent years. This is a rare instance of a show that you can actively feel your mind expanding while watching, and that makes it one of the most important shows of 2021 to watch. (Matt Ponthier)
5. ODD TAXI
Don’t let the cute animal aesthetic fool you, Odd Taxi is as gripping as it is deceptively dark. It immediately grounds you in a mystery that, unlike our walrus cab driver, never lets off the gas for a moment and relentlessly barrels forward. Film noir fans will find much to love in this mafia story that embroils characters in an intense conflict that continuously escalates in shocking ways. Unhealthy co-dependence, desperation, and the invisible pressures of society are just a handful of themes this hectic joyride will take you through as it charges through to one of the most satisfying conclusions anime has seen in recent times. Just take a seat, buckle up, and enjoy the ride. (Matt Ponthier)
4. To Your Eternity
From the mind of Yoshitoki Ōima, creator of A Silent Voice, To Your Eternity is a mystical series about the power of love. Beginning existence as a rock and eventually becoming human, Fushi’s journey that unfolds over the course of To Your Eternity is something close to a religious experience as the audience watches consciousness being born.
One of the best parts of To Your Eternity is the gradual development of Fushi’s identity. He doesn’t just become conscious because he meets a person. Rather, we watch as he goes through various stages, wrestling with the nature of corporeal existence. What makes it all so moving is how love is depicted as the impetus for each transformation; from the birth of sentience to the ordainment of morality. The moment when Fushi becomes self-aware is tremendously subtle but powerfully stirring as its catalyst is the first willful action Fushi takes, an action motivated by the love for another.
Over the course of To Your Eternity, Fushi encounters numerous people, all of whom leave an indelible mark both on him and the audience. The young girl March who serves as maternal figure and Gugu, a boy that adopts Fushi as a brother, are two of the year’s most enduring characters in any medium, embodying love’s transformative power.
During a time of pandemic and unease, To Your Eternity is a soothing embrace. It’s a series filled with such wide-eyed wonder, it makes you awe at just being alive. It’s a series overflowing with such gratefulness, it makes you remember what a gift love is. (Nicholas Straub)
3. The Heike Story
The Heike Story is one of those anime that should’ve been an absolute train wreck, especially for a Western audience. It takes an 800 page medieval Japanese epic about the Genpei War and condenses it into an 11 episode series while also throwing in an original protagonist with supernatural abilities for good measure.
Yet not only does The Heike Story succeed in condensing such a daunting literary piece, it does so in a way that fully conveys its core principles to even those unfamiliar with the original work. Despite how many plot threads might be getting tugged at any point, the medieval Japanese names that might be hard for Westerners to keep track of, and a simplistic art style that makes many characters look similar, The Heike Story does a masterful job of funneling your attention where it’s needed most. The result is an absolutely gripping tale about the tragedies of war, the strength of familial bonds, and the impermanence among all things. (Matt Ponthier)
2. Nomad: Megalo Box 2
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, Megalo Box 2 is the sequel to a show I didn’t know I wanted or needed. The original 2018 Megalobox was a by-the-numbers underdog boxing story that amounted to fun popcorn entertainment but not much else. Its sequel, on the other hand, turns the previously one-track-minded Joe into a full-blown three-dimensional character in a way consistent with everything we saw of him in the first season.
Joe makes mistakes and is punished heavily for them; the masculine recklessness displayed in the first season is not readily forgiven by those around him nor by himself. Watching Joe come to grips with the situation he brought upon himself is captivating, heart-wrenching, and — at points — even inspirational. All this is on top of the stellar boxing matches that were already a given after the first season. Truly, Megalox Box 2’s greatest flaw is simply the fact you have to watch the lukewarm first season before getting to this masterpiece. (Matt Ponthier)
1. Attack on Titan
Attack on Titan has never been a show afraid of reaching for the stars in terms of its approach to storytelling. Still, the first part of the final season managed to dazzle fans, even as the hit anime adaptation switched studios along the way.
Showing us the struggle from the other side offered more precise character motivations, a darker than ever version of Eren, and two messy sides of the war that are not just at odds with each other but with their own fringe groups and factions as well.
It made for a rich, morally gray bit of world-building while rising to a thrilling conclusion that will wrap things up once and for all. Get ready for the grudge match of the century when Attack on Titan returns soon. (Mike Worby)