The Best Anime of 2021 (So Far)
There's plenty of great new anime to watch.
Coming off the back of a year riddled with delays and calendar reshuffling in literally every aspect of entertainment (and live-action movies and TV shows, in particular), the Winter 2021 anime season came storming out the gates, and spring and summer swiftly passed along the baton to make up for lost time. We were already excited about the continuation of series from last year, like the Crunchyroll Awards favoriteJujutsu Kaisen and the tail end of Attack on Titan's final season, but the new additions to the lineup of currently airing shows have been welcome, unexpected surprises. Luckily, watching these titles are more accessible than ever, with free tiers on Crunchyroll and Funimation, Hulu's simulcasting deal, and Netflix producing its own originals (and licensing some recent hits). From the weird to the heartwarming, these are our favorite anime of the year so far.
Release date: January 9
Director: Masashi Ishihama
Animation production: Cloverworks
An isolated and intense young man, Izumi Miyamura doesn’t grab much positive attention from his high school classmates, nor does he try to. This all changes in a chance encounter with his popular classmate Kyoko Hori outside of school, where both discover that their first impressions of each other couldn’t have been more wrong. Though the manga on which the anime is based has been running for years, Horimiya wastes no time in building the romantic overtures between the two, focusing on the emotional consequences of their relationship rather than merely the step-by-step buildup. It's a double-edged sword, as its breakneck pacing (the director has only a single season to work with) can feel disorientating. But it’s salvaged by its elliptical approach to storytelling, viewing Miyamura and Hori's burgeoning relationship as a collection of different moments rather than a will they/won't they courtship. As a result, it feels like a more naturalistic, but no less touching approach to romance. It’s a shame that the last few episodes become somewhat lost after rushing through the romantic arc of Hori and Miyamura, and lean too far into quirks that become worrisome rather than cute. Still, Horimiya is more than worth watching simply for its visuals and character art, perfectly emphasizing moments of quiet intimacy, loneliness, and self-doubt.
Available on: Hulu, Funimation
14. My Hero Academia, Season 5
Release date: March 27
Director: Kenji Nagasaki
Animation production: Bones
The continuing adventures of Izuku Midoriya, a boy born without powers in a world where everyone has them, have become reliably entertaining in its mixture of memorable characters with expansive world-building with attention to every mundane detail. The show’s fourth season was split down the middle between an incredibly high-stakes battle with the villain Overhaul and his creepy yakuza henchmen, and the whimsy and respite of a school festival. The new season picks up once again on the school stuff as a battle between classes—1A, full of our protagonists and favorite characters (except Mineta, never him), and 1B, determined to prove that they’re not just "the other class." As ever, it’s told with exciting animation that brings to life the dynamic and chaotic paneling of Horikoshi’s manga. Though confined to the school grounds, it’s fun to see the clash of its student body's diverse, imaginative, and even hilarious array of powers. (This season brings a character whose power is to conjure the onomatopoeia sound effects of comic books, their head appearing as a thought bubble we can constantly read.) At its heart is a sincerity that honestly feels absent from a lot of contemporary superhero fare. My Hero Academia has been running for some time now, but it still has plenty of energy to spare, even for its episodes where the highest stakes are a final grade.
Available on: Crunchyroll, Funimation, Hulu
13. Vlad Love
Release date: February 14
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Animation production: Drive
After decades of heady philosophical science-fiction and fantasy, Vlad Love represents something of a palette cleanser for the veteran director Mamoru Oshii. After contemplations on everything from our bodily relationship to technology to man’s impulse to destroy, the show plays like a low stakes and often extremely stupid return to his roots, recalling his years of work on Urusei Yatsura in the '80s. The show is quirky and off-the-wall in a way that Oshii’s work hasn’t been since that time, with hyperactive scenes full of strange meta-gags and nonsequiturs (look out for a scene interrupted for nearly a half-minute with Wikipedia descriptions of a bomber jet). That wall-to-wall silliness won’t work for everyone, but its bizarre digressions are constantly amusing, and Vlad Love makes for a kinetic return to the kind of playfully raunchy rom-com Oshii cut his teeth making. That nostalgia is extremely deliberate—those with a keen eye will spot visual references to his past works and series. It’s artful in its goofiness as well, with strange and subjective use of split-screen interpolated amongst soft, painterly backgrounds, courtesy of art director Kazuhiro Obata and background artist Yasutada Katou. Though the series’ sudden release threatened to bury it, its high energy helped it stand out amidst a packed winter season.
12. Jujutsu Kaisen
Release date: October 3, 2020
Director: Sunghoo Park
Animation production: MAPPA
If you’ve watched any shonen anime, Jujutsu Kaisen often feels comfortably familiar. Its teenage outcast protagonist Yuuji Itadori housing an all-feared demon inside him (and his immature silver-haired, blindfolded mentor Satoru Gojo) recalls Naruto; the thin veil between humanity and demons and the invisible war between them recalls Yu Yu Hakusho. Its goofy supporting cast, spectacular fights, and can-do spirit feel part and parcel with its designation as battle anime. Where Jujutsu Kaisen’s magic lies is in its knowing embrace of genre tropes, and then smartly subverting them, letting the audience think they’re in on what the show’s planning before veering sharply off-course. It plays with the familiar elements of battle shonen, and sometimes feels like it’s in dialogue with the history of that broad genre, from the way its supporting cast of characters articulate themselves and their feelings to how it gives common tropes fun little twists—even explaining your ability to your opponent has meaning. It’s also the rare shonen where women are portrayed with as much complexity and forcefulness as men, something that came to a head in this season's standout episode that explores the characters’ psychology through perfectly choreographed brawls. Jujutsu Kaisen isn’t reinventing the wheel, and more often than not living up to the straightforwardness of its title, literally translating to "Sorcerer Fight." It’s still squarely focused on big fights and supernatural horror, but it’s a canny modernization of a tried-and-true formula, one that continues to satisfy week after week.
Available on: Crunchyroll, HBO Max
11. Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song
Release date: April 3
Director: Shinpei Ezaki
Animation production: WIT Studio
Recruited by an AI from the future inhabiting the body of a teddy bear, AI idol singer Vivy is tasked with preventing the AI apocalypse by intervening at key moments in history. The show’s wild premise is managed with tantalizing, elliptical storytelling that capitaliszes on each time skip—including variable opening sequences constructed around its theme “Sing My Pleasure” as Vivy’s live shows and singing career develop off-screen with each lurch forward in time. It’s a structure that turns the “case of the week” format of the procedural and expands into an entire century; each new Singularity Point, as her AI companion from the future calls them, brings with it a bunch of dramatic personal and societal changes for Vivy, and awaiting each drastic new change is arguably more exciting than its fluid action. It feels epic to witness the centuries-long story of this world unfold, without turning into an overwhelming info-dump. There’s a clash of different genre conceits at play in its narrative setup—a bit of Alias, a bit of Spielberg’s AI, a bit of Terminator—in each of its frequently melancholic sci-fi vignettes concerned with determinism, ambition, love, and loneliness. The action sequences can sometimes feel like the characters float across the landscape, but they’re slick nonetheless, brutal and fluid and sometimes so quick that it’s hard for the eye to track. Vivy may not be the most original nor the most gracefully told narrative of this year, but its specific combination of ideas is absolutely novel.
Available on: Funimation
10. Godzilla: Singular Point
Release date: June 24
Director: Atsushi Takahashi
Animation production: Bones, Orange
You might expect an anime series to be more maximalist with its take on a Godzilla story, but Singular Point has a lot of patience, slowly teasing the nuclear lizard's appearance with exciting deployments of Akira Ifukube’s incredible original theme at the end of each episode, and having the series' updated takes on his classic enemies appear first. Big G himself shows up late in the show, in a mysterious plume of red smoke, his strange and grotesque designs reminiscent of Hideaki Anno's Shin Godzilla as the creature slowly evolves into a more complete and traditional form. Until then, however, the show allows more room for its world building, playing near-future setting as a climate disaster parable, all while building out its colorful and quirky cast of characters. Charmingly designed and constantly expressive, the beautiful drawings are complimented, rather than undermined, by strong CG design from Studio Orange, whose work on Beastars is among the industry’s best. But Singular Point is particularly fascinated by process and dedicated to the resultant pseudo-scientific jargon, and feels like a classic Godzilla story in that sense. It presents the kaiju both as manifestations of nature’s rage and giant equations to solve, with their unique ability to break the natural laws of time and space. It might surprise anyone who has sat through the recent American takes on Godzilla and its irrelevant human characters that the process and the people driving it are the real draw of Singular Point.
9. Wonder Egg Priority
Release date: January 13
Director: Shin Wakabayashi
Animation production: Cloverworks
Following 14-year-old Ai Ooto as she fights to protect the souls of dead teenage girls housed within the eponymous "wonder eggs," the high quality of Wonder Egg Priority’s animation proves immediately striking, full of spectacular, high-flying, and allegorical action. While it covers ground that other stories have before it, in detailing how girls are preyed upon under specific social structures that leave them vulnerable, for a time at least, it felt unique in the combination of imagery and visual language (there’s a touch of "magical girl" aesthetics at play here) used to portray the girls’ reclamation of their own agency, and their retribution against their abusers, with various dreamscapes and nuanced character acting mixing with thorny meta-commentary on the narrow line between publicizing and discussing such traumas and exploiting them.
Even with all its visual flash, the explicit depiction of a tough subject matter will understandably prove an insurmountable hurdle for many—even though for the most part, director Shin Wakabayashi (Owarimonogatari) and writer Shinji Nojima (Suki!, Ie naki ko) tackle the most uncomfortable topics through quieter, incidental reveals. That said, the show became a victim of its own ambition, both on screen and off. A mismanaged production led to numerous delays and a finale pushed back by several months, its staff obviously pushed far beyond working limits (a sadly frequent symptom of the industry). On screen, Nojima’s writing in the back half of the show becomes a little too busy, losing its grip on the sensitivity and thoughtfulness that made the series work in the first place. Still, from its incredible animation to its off-kilter electronic score, Wonder Egg Priority strikes a perfect balance of sensational action with painful subject matter, and remains one of the year’s best.
8. Laid Back Camp, Season 2
Release date: January 7
Director: Yoshiaki Kyōgoku
Animation production: C-Studio
Laid Back Camp is perhaps the purest form of comfort show: amusing and cute and soothingly low stakes, a warm blanket for the winter season in which it aired. Set in and around Yamanashi Prefecture, the series’ setup—focused on the adventures of the quiet and introverted Rin Shima, and the more extroverted Nadeshiko Kagamihara as they travel to various campsites across the country—never really wavers. The series is essentially a tour of the Japanese outdoors with some camping tips on the side, all realized with visuals that capture each location’s natural beauty with gorgeous and detailed background art that borders on the photoreal. The attention to detail carries from those loving depictions of fauna over to both the character art and the procedures of camping, whether that’s in the setup and using tools or in the comfort foods being cooked. Each little adventure is leisurely paced, prioritizing decompressing and observing the girls’ exploration with a gentle sense of humor and a strong sense of camaraderie, content to relish in the details of the process and the ambiance of the setting. More than that, Laid Back Camp is also moving in its nuanced portrayal of the girls’ friendships that have deepened as a result of their shared hobby, their companionship and acceptance of each other’s quirks communicated in small changes in tone, in person or via their group messages. (As a side note, the show’s engagement with texting is fascinating, shown as a compliment to its exploration of the outdoors rather than a contradiction.) That patience makes Laid Back Camp a perfect break from the chaos of more hyperactive viewing (or just the year in general).
Available on: Crunchyroll
7. Pui Pui MolCar
Release date: January 5
Director: Tomoki Misato
Animation production: Shin-Ei Animation, Japan Green Hearts
There’s not a whole lot to say about Pui Pui Molcar, but that’s the beauty of it. The adorable, quite literally bite-sized children’s anime maximizes on a premise that’s just delightfully absurd and straightforward: What if there were cars that were also guinea pigs? Animated in stop-motion, the show depicts a world where people drive these sentient, guinea pig hybrid vehicles known as the Molcars (a portmanteau of "molmot" and car), each episode a display of their various hijinks and subsequent problem-solving. There’s a tactility to the show and its furry vehicular protagonists (one of who is called Potato) that makes it eminently watchable (as well as the interpolation of real people, shrunken down to fit in amongst the show’s miniature environments)—and that’s before the artists begin throwing in visual references to famous movies, ie. the Akira bike slide. It cranks up the absurdity in sketches that flirt with amusing bleakness as the adorable MolCars are forced at gunpoint to take part in a bank robbery. Each new episode is light, fun and creative, as it capitalizes on a concept that is as simple as it is ridiculous, each charming story told within an incredibly breezy and economical 2-3 minutes. Truly a blessing.
Release date: April 11
Director: Toshimasa Ishii
Animation production: A1 Pictures
Taking place more than 100 years in the future during wartime between two groups of supposedly autonomous machines, 86 is immediately striking in its disturbing engagement with fascism. Based on the light novel series of the same name, it begins in the wealthy republic of San Magnolia, showing its capital city from the perspective of Lena, a young major in the military responsible for commanding an army of machines against an opposing Legion of drones. But the spider-like "drones" are not autonomous; they're piloted by an oppressed underclass of humans referred to only as "86s," a fact known by the military but hidden from civilians, who are stripped of all human rights and forced to fight and die on the behalf of the Alba, a mono-ethnic ruling class all with silver hair and blue eyes, a fact first revealed in an incredibly eerie early sequence. It’s here where it first becomes clear how smart 86 is in the way it emphasizes the banality of evil, where despotism is dressed up as law and accepted as the way of the world. There’s palpable tragedy in how its wider cast of characters in Spearhead are fully aware of their assigned fates, and all they can do is try and delay it as long as possible. Though she’s well-meaning, Lena’s idealism is still borne of privilege, a fact often highlighted by the show playing the same moments in time from its different, but equally intimate perspectives. The first season of 86 is as exciting as it is tragic, uncompromising in its depictions of state-sponsored oppression and privilege.
Available on: Crunchyroll
5. To Your Eternity
Release date: April 12
Director: Masahiko Murata
Animation production: Brain Base
An otherworldly power sends an Orb to Earth, and becomes a rock. After a while, it becomes a wolf. Then it becomes a young boy, taking on the name Fushi, and sets off on a journey. The anime adaptation of Yoshitoki Ōima’s To Your Eternity begins with what might be one of the year’s finest opening episodes, a tragic short story unto itself, but what follows is just as enchanting, and also emotionally ruinous. Ōima’s A Silent Voice (famously adapted by Naoko Yamada) was about a metamorphosis of sorts, with its protagonist striving to change himself and alleviate his self-hatred. To Your Eternity is more literal about such a transformation, but no less potent. Like A Silent Voice, there’s an emotional cost for maturation, as all of Fushi's changes are directly stimulated by physical and emotional pain, making every other episode a heartbreaker. Not to say it’s dour—there’s a character called Booze Man after all. But Fushi’s incremental formation into human is itself moving and fascinating, transitioning from reactive to finding a sense of self, though the cost is incredibly, painfully steep. Despite all the death surrounding Fushi, the show maintains that the worst thing you can be is forgotten—and in a sense, To Your Eternity, as the title suggests, lets its characters live forever.
4. Sk8 the Infinity
Release date: January 10
Director: Hiroko Utsumi
Animation production: Bones
An original sports anime directed by former Kyoto Animation staffer Hiroko Utsumi (Banana Fish), on its face, Sk8 the Infinity is equal parts radical and ridiculous, and full of the emotional acuity and gentle, good-natured humor that you’d expect from someone whose visual and directorial sensibilities stemmed from work on K-On! and Nichijou. It’s full of vivid, contrasting color and high energy, and simply just great fun from the jump as it depicts a group of hardcore skaters participating in a secret, no-holds-barred downhill skateboarding competition in an abandoned mine, known as S. But it finds surprising emotional grounding through the relationship between Reki Kyan, a high school sophomore, who introduces new transfer student Langa Hasegawa to skateboarding. Like the best sports anime, Sk8 the Infinity builds interesting rapport between competitors and allies alike, with implicit tension between Reki and Langa as the former begins to feel insecure about how quickly his close friend picks up new skills. For once, the protagonist isn’t preternaturally gifted, and the show finds compelling characterization through the insecurities of hard-won talent cultivated through a lot of practice. Robot skateboards, skaters who dress like matadors and ninjas, some incredibly good voice casting, the insecurities of seeing someone that you love surpass you in ability—it’s simply a phenomenal feel-good show that has everything.
3. Nomad: Megalobox 2
Release date: April 6
Director: Yō Moriyama
Animation production: TMS Entertainment
After the triumph of the original 2018 Megalobox, the solemnity of Nomad: Megalobox 2 is a wild revitalization of a show that seemingly needed no sequel. A futuristic twist on the legendary anime Ashita no Joe, the first Megalobox was mostly focused on victory or defeat in the boxing ring, but Nomad complicates matters much, much further. Five years have passed since the events of the earlier series, and in that time, there's been a lot of change. Joe, now going by Nomad, is once again a stray drifting from place to place, a death in the family leaving a rift between him and his ragtag group of friends. Though the cast has been slightly altered, Megalobox 2 also takes great interest in thematic stasis, its societal ills remaining in place. Returning director Yō Moriyama makes some bold choices, as boxing itself is decentralized to a surprising degree. As it expands on the consequences of the wealth gap of its futuristic Japan, there’s newfound political urgency with how it deals with anti-immigration rhetoric and racism. The consequences of a heartbreaking arc in the early episodes colors the rest of the season, a poignant and timely story that changes Joe’s perspective, and the stakes of Megalobox. This shift is also facilitated in no small part by returning composer mabanua, who brought an exciting mix of jazz and hip hop to the first season, and now adds in a gentler, Latin American-inspired sound, matching the show’s interest in quieter moments of personal change over soaring triumphs. Of course, Megalobox still brings the drama through Joe’s gradual return from the edge, and his emotional salvation is as exhilarating as any fight. By putting its hero at his lowest point, Megalobox returned even stronger.
Available on: Funimation
Release date: April 2
Director: Akira Amemiya
Animation production: Trigger
Unlike SSSS.Gridman’s “Special Signature to Save a Soul,” SSSS.Dynazenon leads with the true meaning of its acronym—“Scarred Souls Shine like Stars"—immediately announcing itself as an ensemble piece of five teenagers uniting to form the eponymous giant robot, battling monsters summoned by another group of adolescents called the Kaiju Eugenicists. (It’s also born out of extreme specificity, Episode 18 of the original Gridman: The Hyper Agent.) Dynazenon takes place in the same universe as Gridman, and addresses this through eerily replicating the framing of scenes, even bringing back some of its characters. It’s not just fan service, as Dynazenon slyly gives added meaning to reinterpreting the same imagery and framing, and even pokes fun at its own conventions. Just look at the score, where Evangelion composer Shiro Sagisu helps build the show’s maximalist spectacle out of just a handful of genre remixes of the same song. (It's worth noting that Trigger was formed by ex-Gainax staffers who worked on NGE.)
Dynazenon is just as gorgeously animated as its predecessor, frequently stunning in the quiet and loud moments alike, showing a great interest in exploring just why Dynazenon is such a lifeline for its lonely teens, and doesn't squash those narratives with its action. Studio Trigger's recognizable designs shine throughout, the sleek character drawings contrasting with the blocky, toy-like transforming robot (which is, appropriately, summoned with action figures). It’s all in service of an enlivening love letter to toku shows—so much so that they straight up made tokusatsu live-action shorts for the Blu-ray release. The director’s giddy enthusiasm for the shows of his youth is completely infectious, the emotional intelligence of its triumphant narrative and the quality of its visuals handily puts Dynazenon among the most exciting anime of recent years. Bring on Gridman X Dynazenon.
Available on: Funimation
1. Odd Taxi
Release date: April 6
Director: Baku Kinoshita
Animation production: OLM, P.I.C.S.
The taxi driver Odakawa, a walrus abandoned by his family as a child, prefers to keep to himself even as he ferries a number of oddball passengers around every night. But lately, each car conversation somehow leads toward a missing girl. Mixing wry comedy and twisting mystery, Odd Taxi (based on the manga by Kazuya Konomoto, who also wrote the show) is deeply concerned with the messy business of opening up to relationships with others, with modern compulsions and futile endeavors. That includes fandom, the want for fame or viral infamy, and addiction to gacha games in one standout episode. Through Odakawa’s journeys, the modern interests of his passengers are deconstructed with amusing but thoughtful detachment, from the various dangers of the online space to the exploitations of the idol industry. At the same time, it slowly unfurls its central mystery with surprising and hilarious consequences (a payoff featuring capoeira is especially satisfying).
It’s all smartly written, with naturalistic and dryly funny conversations, and the excellent translation work is vital in maintaining the cadence of its little jokes and plays on words, even translating one character’s constant rapping so it still rhymes in English. The animation itself is subtle and the scenery has a lovely, textured look that grants each scene a down-to-earth grit to go with the corruptive allure of the city at night, and Odd Taxi’s hard-boiled, frequently sinister noir narrative. The cute appearances of its animal cast aren’t really in service of allegory; these looks simply embody their respective characters or serve as contrasts to their inner selves, and these design choices and many others dovetail perfectly with its writing. Odd Taxi weaves all of these elements and its intricate plot threads into an astounding conclusion that recontextualizes how you perceive the show as a whole. It’s hard to overstate Odd Taxi’s sharpness—it really is the finest series of the year to date.
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