Top Anime of 2021 (and Year in Review)

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I was going to open this article with “it’s been a year, huh,” but then looked back and saw that’s exactly how I opened my last Year in Review, which pretty much tells you how things are going. You’d think we might have a handle on this whole global pandemic thing by now, but with my country currently enjoying its greatest surge so far, it looks like we’ll be living with the plague for some time to come. With the external world having compressed itself into a perpetual “now” of shelter-in-place routine, it becomes all the more important for us to handle our own marking of time, through celebrations like the summing up of the year in retrospect. So in that regard, I suppose you should all be thanking me for adding some unique dynamics to your weekly routine. You’re welcome, don’t mention it.

 

Anyway, yes, another year has come and gone, and with it we have a fresh pile of anime to consider. When I was working for Anime News Network, I checked out at least the first episode of almost every single seasonal production. As a result, I could genuinely claim to be choosing my favorites from among the entirety of the year’s output, adding that vague halo of comprehensive assessment to the weight of my words. These days, I have no desire to engage in such thorough self-punishment, nor any misconceptions regarding the authority or significance of my preferences. These are the anime I loved this year, nothing more and nothing less.

Sk8 the Infinity

Hiroko Utsumi has rapidly proven herself to be one of our era’s premiere directors, springboarding from the excellent Free! Endless Summer to Banana Fish and beyond. Sk8 the Infinity feels a bit like a return to her roots, embracing the irreverence and gleeful homoeroticism of Free!, but marrying it to a premise that best exploits her ambitious directorial instincts. Sk8 the Infinity could easily be described as “JoJo on wheels,” featuring an array of bombastic competitors, and compacting an entire tournament arc into its lean structure. But Sk8’s aesthetic goofiness belies its narrative solidity; the show actually constructs sturdy emotional arcs for both its leads, allowing its theatricality to build off a sturdy foundation of character drama. Exuberant, endearing, and occasionally affecting, Sk8 the Infinity is popcorn done right.

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean

Watching Stone Ocean is a persistently bittersweet experience. On the one hand, Araki’s storytelling has never been better: a high-security prison is a brilliant venue for a JoJo arc, Jolyne is a wonderful protagonist, and the Stands so far have demonstrated as much lunacy and creativity as anything in his arsenal. On the other hand, it’s clear David Productions lacked the time or resources to really do this arc justice, resulting in the worst-looking, least-animated arc they’ve ever produced. Even compromised JoJo is still a wildly inventive experience, but it’s disappointing to see this venerable property hamstrung by the industry’s overall production crunch.

Sonny Boy

It would seem I’m already breaking my own list’s only rule, because the truth is, I didn’t actually love Sonny Boy. Shingo Natsume’s wildly original production is impersonal in the extreme, treating its characters more like conceptual grounding points than people, and obsessing endlessly over the mechanical particulars of its invented multiverse. My approach to fiction is “through the minutia of the human and particular, we can see a microcosm of the universal” – Natsume’s seems to be “through a macro assessment of human behavior and potential, we can reverse-engineer faith and love.”

But as distant from my interests as it is, Sonny Boy undoubtedly embodies art’s highest callings. Its contrast of pop art characters and modernist backgrounds is as evocative as it is thematically purposeful, its philosophical musings range from gleeful irreverence to bitter tragedy, and in its greatest moments, it evokes a mixture of curiosity and despair that’s unlike anything else in anime. That, ultimately, is its most unassailable defense: in a sea of indulgent adaptations and genre pastiche originals, Sonny Boy is undeniably something new, something bold and uncompromising. I’m not sure anyone asked for “anime’s answer to Stalker,” and that is precisely why it is so important that shows like this exist. It is only through the creation of the new that a medium’s horizons can expand, and I applaud Sonny Boy for being its unrepentant self every step of the way.

ODDTAXI

Once in a while, a show pops up with virtually no fanfare, and reminds us through its quiet excellence just how much this medium is capable of. ODDTAXI is just such a show, beginning from the unusual premise of following a taxi driver through his daily routine, and rising to offer a grand, compassionate statement on the trials of the modern world. Through the various passengers Odokawa transports, we receive poignant snapshots of professional disappointment and social alienation, as all of ODDTAXI’s lonely souls seek to find the happiness in social media that their real lives have denied them. And through the course of this ambitious social drama, ODDTAXI threads a mystery that draws on both noir classics and Lynchian surrealism, impressing as much through its structural elegance as its poignant character studies. With a minimalist aesthetic and disarmingly thoughtful storyboarding, ODDTAXI proves that great stories can arise from the humblest of origins.

Ranking of Kings

Nobody sets out to make a bad show, but with Ranking of Kings, you get the palpable sense that Wit Studio is determined to make a classic, no matter the cost. The show positively glimmers with prestige, demonstrating the finest innovations of digital production, but marrying those advancements to an aesthetic so well-worn and nostalgic that it might well be a lost masterpiece of the ‘70s. From its distinctive art design to its gorgeous backgrounds to its incredible character animation, Ranking of Kings is a visual wonder in all respects. And all that beauty is married to a story that’s genuinely worthy of it, a coming-of-age drama that soars far beyond anime convention, combining a unique approach to fantasy with a thoughtful meditation on the complexity of human nature. Whether you’re enjoying it for its majestic beauty, its inventive and twist-laden narrative, or its profoundly empathetic approach to character writing, Ranking of Kings excels in every aspect.

Heike Monogatari

It’s probably not much of a surprise that my favorite anime of the year was directed by my favorite artist in the medium, the incomparable Naoko Yamada. After the Kyoto Animation fire, there was a great deal of uncertainty regarding whether she’d be returning to the medium at all; and to be honest, her answer was likely going to dictate my own future involvement with the medium, too. Yamada’s works were brilliant acts of human observation, stories that demonstrated animation’s unique ability to capture life as it is experienced. Her works were a great inspiration for me, and beyond that, they gave me hope for the future of anime, as a medium that might one day be full of similarly powerful art.

The future of anime isn’t looking too rosy at the moment, but luckily for all of us, Yamada has returned with one of the greatest works the medium has ever produced. Heike Monogatari feels like a work that could only have been created in the wake of such unimaginable grief; the reverence for life’s tiny joys that characterized her earlier works is still here, but it is tempered by a keen understanding of grief’s inevitability, as well as how experience becomes memory becomes myth over the course of a lifetime.

Both the luxurious color design and nostalgic haze of her earlier work is gone; what remains is sparse, purposeful, and achingly beautiful. Through the scattered memories of the Heike clan, we see all the dancing fragments of human experience, the shimmer of thanks and regret that remain when all else has passed. We see human frailty and shortsightedness as well, but in Yamada’s hands, these shortcomings are understood as essential elements of the human experience. Why waste time with blame and regret, when we already have so little to share with those we love? As Heike Monogatari’s episodes continue, the opening song’s fragments of joy shine all the more brightly, suspended in the past, but never truly lost. Through Heike Monogatari, Yamada demonstrates the intertwining of beauty and tragedy that is human experience with more acuity and perspective than ever before. She is not simply a great director, she is one of the great artists of the twenty-first century, and her work remains a source of both renewal and hope for me personally. As long as there are still works this beautiful and true, there will still be a place for me in anime and the world.

So, What Else is New?

Along with watching a fair amount of anime, this year also saw me embracing the history of film, tearing through cinematic classics as quickly as my work schedule would allow. This journey has been one of the most rewarding parts of my year, and reflects a general shift in my relationship with art, so I suppose it also warrants some reflection.

As I’ve said before, fundamentally, my relationship with art has always been a selfish one. I do not engage with art chiefly to turn it into labor, performance, or education; while I enjoy writing for audiences, the foremost person I’m always writing for is myself. I write to challenge my own thoughts, to force myself to articulate ideas that I’ve only considered loosely, to commit myself to actively thinking about the purpose and efficacy of each aesthetic choice. I write so I’ll be able to engage even more meaningfully with the next story I consider, and the thousands after that. I write to better understand myself, to better understand storytelling, and to reap the incredible fruits of that understanding, be it through engaging with the stories of others or creating my own.

As a result of this, my attachment to any one strain of art and storytelling generally hinges on its capacity to still excite and surprise me. I certainly have my own comfort media (I’ll likely always be down for another pulpy horror movie), but most of the time, I’m looking to be challenged by what I watch, or to witness something I’ve never seen before. Through the works of Herzog and Friedkin and Ozu and so many others, this year has provided me with a dazzling array of things I’ve never seen before. I’ve watched dozens of films that embody the things I consider art’s highest callings, films that articulate the sprawling complexity of human nature, or challenge us to consider our relationship with the world around us.

As it turns out, I don’t so much “love anime” more than any other artform, but rather have loved several of the stories told through anime more than I’ve loved most other stories. Ultimately, my main fascination is not animation, but narrative – and at this point, I can’t really satisfy my restless cravings with anime’s output alone. I have friends who can find infinite fascination in the staggering artistry of animation in the abstract, or who have committed themselves to connecting the dots of anime production past and present. I have nothing but respect for these friends and their passions, but they are not me; my chief interest is storytelling, and the market forces dictating anime production naturally ensure that the medium will not provide me the full diet I desire. To be both serious about art and dedicated to anime as your discipline requires your love to hinge on the magic of images in motion; I adore many works of animation, but I will always be a tourist in this world, more interested in how those images elevate the story behind them.

So, as someone who’s built a brand on critiquing works of animation, what does all this self-reflection actually mean? Well, it certainly means I’ve got some thinking to do. My current weekly schedule is bound by the demands of my reader projects – outside of my evening film viewings, I’m generally dedicating all my “business hours” to episodic reflections. I’d like to expand beyond that routine, and to be honest, it seems like a lot of readers would like me to as well. I only accepted that Bleach article pitch as a whim, and wrote it in a pretty off-the-cuff manner, but folks seemed a lot more excited about that than my usual output. I’d like to transition to a place where I can write fewer articles, but instill each one with more purpose and personality like that. I’d like to be choosing my own topics again. And finally, I’d like to do what I’ve been regretfully putting off for half a decade now: return to writing my own fiction.

How these goals will interact with my regular output, I do not yet know. I’ve got a great number of Current Projects left to write, but will likely at some point stop accepting new requests, and transitioning my Patreon to a different reward model. Given “you can commission me to write about whatever you want” has been my principal revenue stream for half a decade, this idea is absolutely terrifying to me, but also essential for any of my long-term goals. I will happily welcome any and all ideas regarding genuinely scalable Patreon rewards to replace them; I am absolutely abysmal at any of the business-oriented elements of my work, so would greatly appreciate ideas from subscribers and general readers alike. What do you want from me that I could conceivably offer you?

All that said, I doubt too much will be changing around here anytime soon. As mentioned, I’ve still got dozens of Current Projects to work through, and would like to hear from my actual subscribers regarding what they’d like out of future projects. As for now, I wish you all the best of luck in these difficult times, and I hope you find the courage to take that big leap you’ve been eyeing as well. Life is too short not to embrace the things you love; I’ve treasured every moment of embracing my bliss this year, and can only hope to live more honestly than ever in the year to come.

Oh, by the way, someone mentioned they were looking forward to the “film section” of this post, which prompted me to remember last year’s article had a film section in the first place. I wasn’t planning on it, but I’m very bad at saying no, so please enjoy my top anime films of last year’s screenings!

Pom Poko

There seems to be a real trend of anime fans shifting from Miyazaki to Takahata evangelism as they get deeper into the medium, and I guess this makes me the latest victim. Pom Poko possesses all the gorgeous pastoralism of Miyazaki’s best features (art director Kazuo Oga might be the greatest there ever was), but marries that beauty to a story both more winding and more urgent than anything in Miyazaki’s oeuvre. Pom Poko is part ensemble comedy, part documentary, and part tragedy, documenting the slow death of Tokyo’s natural places through the doomed conservation efforts of the local tanuki. By embracing a broader perspective and abstracting human drama into racoon dogs, Takahata is ultimately able to strike with greater emotional ferocity; through Pom Poko, we see the full cycle of life and death, and must abandon our flattering preconceptions of lone heroes challenging the flow of history. Irreverent and beautiful and melancholy in all the best ways, Pom Poko is a love letter to a lost world, which through its very existence ensures that world can never fully die.

Royal Space Force

Way back in the ‘80s, many of anime’s greatest creators were certain that a glorious future lay just around the corner, a new era where both anime and its audience could embrace mature, adult-oriented productions. That era never came to pass, but Royal Space Force still stands as one of that age’s great hopes, a film that was from its opening proposal designed to “make anime fans reaffirm reality.” In spite of that stated goal, Royal Space Force possesses perhaps the most generous sampling of otherworldly art and mechanical design in any feature film, portraying a world infinitely rich in invented detail. Gainax’s barely-grown team threw their heart and soul into creating a work that is as beautiful in its formal complexity as it is ugly in its fatalistic details, creating a world so richly inventive that even the cold splash of reality’s disappointments can’t lessen its allure. At its deepest thematic core, Royal Space Force holds the same beleaguered position that would eventually drive Evangelion: an understanding that life will disappoint and true connection is beyond our grasp, tempered by the flickering hope that we might one day rise above our own nature.

Tekkonkinkreet

Taiyo Matsumoto is without question one of the greatest mangaka of all time, and an adaptation of any of his works is a cause for celebration. In Tekkonkinkreet, the finest creators from anime’s most unreservedly arthouse studio bring one of his impossibly detailed creations to life, utilizing still-astonishing pastiches of 3D and traditional artwork to realize an entire living city. Tekkonkinkreet is a glorious celebration of city life set in the ultimate metropolis, where generations of denizens have all scratched or spray-painted their marks into the city walls. Of course, this is a Matsumoto story, so that urban celebration is littered with poignant individual dramas, as the bravado of proud hoodlums is stretched ever-more thinly over a vulnerable core. No one conveys small sorrows with the tossed-off acuity of Matsumoto, and no other team could bring this garish, glorious world to life.

One Piece: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island

The untold story of this year, the elephant that all of these assessments have been tiptoeing around, is the fact that I watched all the way through One Piece over the spring and summer. In spite of normally having difficulty even marathoning a single one-season show, I found it easy to munch through One Piece in ten episode blocks, gleefully storming through twenty years of content. As it turns out, One Piece is pretty goddamn good. Like, actually good – not “I like action shows and this one doesn’t insult my intelligence too bad,” but the kind of good where you can admire the solidity, complexity, and thematic coherence of the narrative before you. I had thought Hunter x Hunter was literally the only shonen like that, so imagine my delight at learning such a titanic, long-running property embodied the same virtues.

But beyond my appreciation for One Piece proper, tackling this mammoth property also meant I could finally watch Hosoda’s most obscure masterpiece, the impossible, irreplaceable Baron Omatsuri. Embracing a flat color aesthetic and uniquely fluid character designs, Baron Omatsuri is an animator’s paradise, featuring beautiful highlights from many of Gainax’s most acclaimed artists. Hosoda’s direction is likewise much bolder than his established work, as he embraces ostentatious compositional choices and experimental camera movement, while telling a story far bleaker than his usual fare. And considering how far he twists the Straw Hats’ personalities to fulfill his cynical narrative intent, you don’t even really need much familiarity with One Piece to appreciate this astonishing film. If you love the art of animation, you’ll find something to love in Baron Omatsuri.

Belle

This year saw me watching most of the outstanding features on my anime film checklist, which I’m sure you can imagine was a mixed emotional experience. On the one hand, I love exploring great art, and feel like I’ve gotten a stronger grasp on anime’s historical masters than ever before. On the other hand, I also like having more stuff to watch, and thus the idea that I’m actually running out of anime isn’t exactly a thrilling one. So thank you, Hosoda, for tossing off another of your best in Belle. Fusing his fascination with digital societies with his intimate family dramas, Belle demonstrates both Hosoda’s strong ear for emotional drama and his restless aesthetic innovation, proving that even the most comfortably situated creators can still be eager to prove themselves. With a nuanced perspective on online identity and a gorgeous aesthetic approach to our own mundane world, Belle stands proudly with one foot in the past and one in the future. Maybe that’s not such a bad place to be.

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