Dark Aether’s Top 10 Anime Of 2020

Dark Aether
Jan 8 · 21 min read
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The Best Anime of 2020

Folks, I have a confession to make.

I had a previous script for this, but I’m starting over.

Last month, I wrote a rather lengthy post-summary of my future endeavors here along with how I planned to roll out my annual Best of the Year nominees. I knew this year would be different for many reasons, and that’s before we get into an ongoing pandemic. As I thought of the direction I wanted these awards to take, I settled on promoting a theme. For the Game of the Year section which went up last week, I focused on accountability. But for the anime portion, I went with where credit is due.

2020 was a weird year for anime, and this list is reflective of that. However, this one stands out for several reasons. Whereas most took comfort in easier, breezier tunes or embraced their wild sides, I drifted into apocalyptic worlds and welcomed the chaos. Some searched for the next fiery hit or took part in heroic hijinks, while I found pleasure in the simple and mundane of everyday life along with the natural beauty of an enchanted forest. And while I too ascended a spire of a false deity or two, I discovered a brighter calling as I put the finishing touches on this piece.

I’ve been called a lot of things: a villain(ness?), a pretender, a Toilet-bound apparition, but if there is one thing I don’t regret, it’s that I got to experience and cover it all with you. Today is not just about celebrating the best anime of the year — it’s about acknowledging those who made 2020 a little more bearable through their efforts. Rather than bore you with an uninspired list, I’ll settle for giving credit to the individuals, studios, and other creative minds who inspired us.

So yeah, I threw away my script. Instead, I’ll tell you a story…

As a reminder, only titles that completed their runs in the qualifying year are considered for this list, as I don’t believe in handing a final verdict without seeing the finished product — so don’t get your Jujutsu Kaisens and Re:Zeroes in here until next year! Moving forward, I’m considering lifting my ban on Movies/OVAs/Specials as nominees on a case-by-case basis, though none made it in this time.

10. Talentless Nana

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This year had many entries, but some of them quietly disappeared…

Although I could have easily slotted in the second seasons of Fruits Basket or Kaguya-sama: Love is War, I have an unspoken rule of not including sequels that are too similar to their predecessor or not enough of an improvement to warrant a full entry, at the risk of repeating what’s been said before. I give these lists a lot of thought, and the time it takes me to come up with something remotely readable is dictated by several factors. That said, I struggled with the lower half of this list because there was simply too much to sort through for an honorable mention this time. Funimation came to the table with some very strong exclusives last year including Wave, Listen to Me! and Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun, so I’m kicking things off with a surprise that caught me off guard.

Animated by studio Bridge, Talentless Nana is a twisted take on the superhero and Shonen genres, mixing a tale of suspense, thrills, and the occasional high school hijinks and murder. Since most are familiar with the first episode’s twist, I’ll spare the word theatrics here. Minor spoilers: As the heroine Nana infiltrates the remote academy, she’s assigned to assassinate her superpowered classmates from a shadowy government. With no special powers of her own, she manipulates and controls the narrative through her innocent guise to gain the upper hand and stay incognito from her most cunning adversaries.

Not unlike shows like Death Note or even The Boys, Talentless Nana plays with its audience’s expectations with its “catch me if you can” confrontations while forming a deeper narrative. By asking what happens when absolute power is left unchecked, it takes aim at the superhero subgenre, exploring the fallout when one abuses their gifts for their own purposes and asking continuously who the real monsters are. Like the show’s pink haired double agent, Talentless Nana is a deceptive anime that is happy to indulge you while brandishing a knife when you least expect it.

9. BNA: Brand New Animal

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Here’s a fun fact: did you know Trigger delisted Darling in the Franxx from their official webpage? As I thought of how to segue into my next choice, I was reminded of that for good reason. If Franxx is the studio at its most restrictive, then BNA: Brand New Animal is a return to form by doing what they do best, delivering an incredibly well animated array of flashy visuals and over the top antics revolving a singular concept.

In other words, BNA is Trigger’s most Trigger anime yet.

Having worked on some of the most critically acclaimed anime including Kill la Kill, SSSS.Gridman, and Promare — a few personal favorites from yours truly! — Trigger’s history is well known to the point that most of their work can be recognized without saying the name of the studio. To say that BNA had a lot to live up to would be an understatement, but the show manages to convey a lot without actually changing all that much to their formula.

Following the spunky high schooler turned Tanooki beastman Michiru Kagemori, she arrives at Anima City for a way to turn back. Her world is changed forever after a strange encounter with a wolf beastman, along with the residents of the brightly neon city. BNA is less of a reinvention of previous Trigger shows and more of a refinement of their handiwork. Much in the same way Promare tackled climate change and immigration through its singular concept of fire, BNA uses its animal aesthetics to tell a larger story about the denizens of this supposed safe haven.

In keeping with the animal theme, Trigger showcases their art and storytelling by creating something lively, powerful, and fun. While its ambition doesn’t quite measure up to Promare’s larger than life stylings and messaging, BNA is another fine bowl of that Trigger-based popcorn that should please even the most casual of anime viewers.

8. Somali & the Forest Spirit

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The first of two anime on this list that is pure “Big Dad Energy” (BDE), Somali & The Forest Spirit (studios Satelight and HORNETS) is a tale about a forest guardian who encounters a small child while patrolling. For reasons unknown, the ancient “Golem” takes it upon himself to watch over the girl it names Somali by becoming her paternal figure. What follows is a story about a machine discovering its own sentience and a girl who forms an unbreakable bond with her newfound guardian.

Beneath the magical inhabitants and colorful landscapes of Somali lies a heavier story about the role of a parent and cultivating a child’s growth through trust and emotion, while navigating the thornier side of parenthood. For a story about golems, fairies, and other creatures, the growing bond between Golem and Somali is surprisingly human with the way it portrays their relationship.

Ask any parent what it was like raising their offspring for the first time and chances are good they’ll tell you they had no clue what they were doing. For all of Golem’s strength and technology, his autonomy as a machine is balanced with his ability to learn to comprehend a child’s emotions and being able to provide warmth as well as survival. Relationships are a two-way street, and the way Golem struggles to interpret Somali’s emotions contextualizes how most parents learn as much from their children just as they look to them for guidance.

In a year dominated by big budget action titles and at least a handful of isekais, Somali is a one-of-a-kind anime that goes beyond the realms of most fantasy tales, telling a much more intimate story in the process. With its expansive portrayal of parent and child along with the impending knowledge that the child will eventually outgrow their guardian, Somali & The Forest Spirit is one of the year’s best fantasy shows.

7. Kakushigoto

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As I once quoted from this very show, there are no swords or magic here. Nothing eventful happens. It’s just a story about a mom, dad and child living an ordinary life. At least, that’s the story Hime Goto would like to be able tell you in one of the year’s best slice of life shows.

Not content to sit idly by, Kakushigoto (Ajia-do Animation Works) is the second anime on this list with a heavy focus on parental themes. But whereas Somali & The Forest Spirit used its fantasy setting as a starting point to drive its titular pair, Kakushigoto is all about the simple and mundane parts of everyday life — and that’s exactly what I love about it.

It’s also funny as hell.

Part of Kakushigoto’s charm lies in its simplicity. It revolves around single parent Kakushi Goto who works as a manga artist while keeping his occupation a secret from his oblivious daughter Hime. But beneath the comedy stylings and escalating tactics that the titular character goes through in hiding his secret lies a hidden meaning that’s best left for viewers to discover for themselves. It’s a simple plot device that manages to convey the day-to-day battles of raising a child alone while telling a dual narrative as the child themselves grows up and discovers what that simple life took to achieve.

Both Somali & The Forest Spirit and Kakushigoto tell similar yet distinct stories, but what I think puts it over the edge here is the latter’s final moments as the story wraps up. Whether you’re an aspiring parent or someone’s kid (aren’t we all?), Kakushigoto truly is 2020’s best kept secret.

6. No Guns Life

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The award has been loaded.

Note: Even though this is officially listed as Season 2, I’m counting both seasons together as its more of a second cour than a full-fledged sequel, hence the first season’s exclusion from last year’s list.

At the risk of being hyperbolic, if Akudama Drive is 2020’s Cyperpunk 2077, then No Guns Life (Madhouse) is closer to Ghostrunner — or it might as well be from my perspective, writing and narrative differences aside. That’s because for all the hype and high budget visuals of the former group, it’s the latter that proves that the medium is more than just a series of animated graphics and expensive tech.

In a subgenre as overpopulated as cyberpunk, visual prowess is a proven concept given the high ratio of stories frequently told, which is why it’s one of the more heavily reliant on strong world building and writing than most to stand apart with media like Blade Runner, Neuromancer and Deus Ex paving the way. Outside Ghost and the Shell and Akira, anime is an untapped market for cyberpunk compared to most mediums. No Guns Life, however, is uniquely suited as the kind of cyberpunk story that could only come from the bizarre world of manga and anime when you look at its basic premise.

Those of you who follow this blog know what’s coming next. Come along now, say it with me:

HE HAS A GUN FOR A HEAD.

Set in futuristic dystopian society, the use of cybernetic augmentation has heavily grown following the aftermath of a great war. With much of these cyborg population called Extended unable to make ends meet or outliving their original purpose following the war, many of them turn to crime to survive. Our muzzle headed protagonist Juzo Inui is one such former soldier, now working as a private investigator for Extended related cases. From body modification to the dehumanization of the Extended, NGL borrows heavily from the established subgenre while making its own mark by embracing its absurdity and playing everything completely straight.

Many cyberpunk stories revolve around human augmentation and role of technology in speeding up our inevitable future where it becomes difficult to divide man from machine. Juzo may be a straightforward and wisecracking merc, but it’s his ability to get to the point and deny his critics (and by extension, society) the satisfaction of being labeled a tool is what ultimately sets NGL apart. In the second half that aired in 2020, this theme is explored further as Juzo comes to terms his past and learns to live in the present when he finally makes a critical choice of his own accord. It’s an awe-inspiring moment that triggers one final showdown as studio Madhouse busts out the big guns (literally!) before tying up loose ends.

Hard-boiled, unfazed, and unwilling to let anyone “wipe his ass,” No Guns Life is cyberpunk anime at its finest. It doesn’t get any more punk than this.

5. Deca-Dence

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One of the surprise hits at AniTAY during the summer season, Deca-Dence quickly became the show to watch after a bombshell debut, with a follow up episode that completely flipped its initial premise into something much more endearing.

An original anime coming from studio NUT, Deca-Dence tells a futuristic story about the last remnants of humanity who fight for survival against an alien force onboard the massive fortress of the same name. Minor spoilers: Showing its hand early on, the world of Deca-Dence is carefully monitored by androids created to ensure humanity could stave off extinction. But as the human race dwindled and the androids became the dominant species, they created their own governing AI that could automate decisions and manage the population.

Fear of the unknown, the digitization of governing bodies, and the relationship between corporations, entertainment, and their consumers, Deca-Dence throws a lot within the first two episodes. A lesser show would easily crack under the weight of managing all this, yet Deca-Dence uses it as a starting point to explore those familiar sci-fi themes through the eyes of its characters.

At its heart, Deca-Dence is a story about two characters with their own ideas of what it means to be alive. Taking the fight to the aliens known as the Gadoll, tanker girl Natsume dreams of becoming a warrior while her boss Kaburagi lives out a dual existence under direct orders from outside forces. It’s this relationship that gives way to bigger ideas about freedom and compliance, and the back and forth between its main leads cements its dual narrative while giving greater depth into the powers that govern this world.

Of course, you’re welcome to completely ignore all that and absorb the great action scenes and familial bonds between its main cast, many of which I’ve neglected to mention for the sake of brevity. For fans of sci-fi, anime, or those just looking for something a bit more grounded with a touch of whimsical, Deca-Dence proves there is always something worth fighting for.

4. Golden Kamuy (Season 3)

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This isn’t even the craziest part!

With few exceptions, 2020 was not a great year for new Shonen as sequels were left to carry the bulk of the weight in light of some underwhelming performances. In spite of that, there were a few notable entries, with the usual suspects of My Hero Academia and Fire Force providing a brief moment of brevity — if not, some decent weekly entertainment when I wasn’t glued to national news! While Jujutsu Kaisen and the final season of Attack on Titan continue into 2021, there was another show last season that may have passed you by.

A continuation of the 2018 anime by Geno Studio, Golden Kamuy’s third season picks up after the cliffhanger ending that sees Saichi “Immortal” Sugimoto and Asirpa embark on different journeys as they continue their pursuit of the Ainu gold and contend with deadlier elements. Following two groups, each travel along their respective path, learning more than they bargained for in the process.

Now, I’ve often said you can tell a lot about a Shonen just by watching how main leads interact with each other and those around them. Contrary to popular belief, even the most action-oriented shows have dialogue. The most telling sign of a show’s execution is how well a party’s chemistry is when its main narrative is not the focus during those moments of downtime. Regardless of the original source or intended demographic, no amount of animation or fan pandering can elevate a poorly written script or will character relationships into existence.

To that end, Golden Kamuy is not only a veteran outdoorsman, it routinely excels by making its characters the driving force, with its third season further highlighting the care put into Satoru Noda’s original work. As the two parties make their way to the Russian border, allegiances and uncomfortable truths continuously shift, all while placing them among stranger folks with their own stories to tell. It’s rare for an anime to be both serious and tonally outlandish — the man meat returns! — and the way the show is able to balance this while still humanizing its band of soldiers, criminals, and other misfits is Golden Kamuy’s real treasure.

Sugimoto and Asirpa may not spend as much time together on screen this time, but by separating them briefly to spin even wilder tales — and I do mean wild! — Golden Kamuy makes a triumphant return as the gold standard of the year.

3. Dorohedoro

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A famous musician once said most of his peers like to play their guitars like they are singing. He told the reporter he prefers to play his like its vomiting. Now, I don’t know where exactly this quote came from (I have a theory), or what kind of music author Q Hayashida listens to, but I like to believe she’s a metalhead at heart. That’s because Dorohedoro (MAPPA) is unlike any other show from 2020.

Set in the nightmarish world inhabited by humans and sorcerers, Dorohedoro forgoes all formalities and cuts straight to the point — by chopping a man into meat sliced chunks. Make no mistake, Dorohedoro is a violent fueled dystopic wonderland about an amnesiac man who had his head transformed into a reptile. Seeking the truth along with a way to change back, he hunts down sorcerers along with his companion Nikaido with lethal prejudice. But in his quest to take back his past, he attracts the attention of a powerful syndicate of sorcerers known as The En Family.

By sharing the story through multiple eyes, Dorohedoro crafts an unorthodox tale about killers, demons, and other magical entities while creating a worn down but lively city with a history spanning several years or longer. It’s a strange setup backed by a memorable cast that manages to instill their unique blend of personalities throughout the 12-episode run. As violence and mayhem are custom in the twisted city known as The Hole, each character gets the spotlight on more than one occasion by showing what they do off the clock and getting an inside look into their thoughts and private lives.

Caiman, Nikaido, Noi, Shin, En, Ebisu, Jonson — these are a few characters in around a dozen or so sharing screen time. The entire cast is frequently characterized and given depth both when they’re trying to kill each other or just simply kicking back with some Gyoza and a beer and, cracking jokes, making small talk, or having more intimate conversations in between. The episodes themselves play off familiar works, everywhere from Night of the Living Dead to Alice in Wonderland — and even a baseball episode! — while giving Dorohedoro’s world a unique identity the closer the show hints at its demonic origins.

This is complimented by some incredible performances from the English and Japanese cast, not to mention the amazing soundtrack by (K)NoW_NAME. As most know I gravitate towards English dubs, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the dubbing direction by Bob and Megan Buchholz, both of which also worked on BNA and Beastars. There’s a certain “rawness” in this production that toes the line between manic and perfectly normal, and the way both the dub direction and music work in tandem calls to mind classic horror film/shows with a hint of the bizarre and surreal.

Delightfully gruesome and devilishly apathetic to convention, Dorohedoro is the anime version of liquid vomit in all the right ways, and is easily one of 2020’s best shows. In a different time, this would have been my AOTY hands down. Yet, the show must go on…

2. Great Pretender

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*Insert The Great Pretender *

No this isn’t about Freddie Mercury’s cover of a catchy song, even if it is relevant here! My final Netflix entry to grace this list is all about the magical performance of a group of con artists caught between their lies and fraudulent acts. Weaving high-stakes crime drama and comedy, Great Pretender (Wit Studio) became one of my favorite premieres during the summer before ending last fall in one of the greatest shows to hit the streaming service.

Following the exploits of Makoto “Edamame” Edamura, his life of crime takes an unexpected turn after being played by another master criminal. Making the acquaintanceship of fellow confidence man Laurent Thierry, he heads to Los Angeles to take part in a grand operation and settle the score to who the better swindler is. But as the game enters its thrilling conclusion and its players place their final bets, an unexpected outcome is reached.

What I’ve described above is just the first case out of four, and the heists only become more elaborate and personal as our group of “noble” thieves find themselves entering the end game. Great Pretender is a show about deception, yet the deceiver and the one being deceived is not often one in the same. As the show details each con’s past and what led them down their current career, each heist is used to great effect to create a singular arc to build anticipation. The amount of detail given to each scheme, character, and locales further demonstrates GP’s mastery of storytelling by building on each of their shared histories and continuously misdirecting our lead actors before pulling the curtain on its final act.

As grand as the heists and our performer’s web of lies can get, the world of Great Pretender expands globally into realms seldom featured in most anime. Los Angeles, Singapore, France, London, Tokyo, Shanghai — each location is given its own sense of identity and purpose to play host to GP’s theatrics while maintaining its authenticity as a global affair rather than just another detour along the way.

It should come as no surprise that language plays a key role in GP’s portrayal of globalization, and its English dub pulls a few strings of its own to match its international ambitions. Directed by Kyle McCarley, Michael Schneider, and Michael Sinterniklaas, along with some notable names who worked on localization and casting, this is just a glance at some of the cast and crew who brought GP’s multicultural stylings to life in what was likely one of the more challenging shows to adapt.

Making its final getaway, Great Pretender enters the pantheon of classic modern anime — or that list of anime you recommend to people who say they don’t watch anime. Though I’ve never laid claim to the title of “Wizard of the Far East,” I suppose I can add “sorcerer” to my growing list of names given my top three anime of the year feature at least one.

With that in mind, allow me to pull one final magic trick…

1. Radiant (Season 2)

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Radiant is a series of firsts.

It’s the first French manga (manfra) to be published in Japan and receive an anime adaption. It’s the first Shonen in quite some time to motivate me to check out the source material for myself. And yes, it’s the series that more or less kicked off my postmortem here at AniTAY after our admin Protonstorm looked at my previous work and I pretended I knew how to write — please don’t tell!

It is also my 2020 anime of the year.

Set in a world of sorcerers (Infected), demons (Nemesis), and the regular citizens who regularly fear and discriminate against both, 2018’s Radiant (Lerche) presented a challenge to the world of Shonen, taking a progressive approach in its homage to the genre. Within its European aesthetics and battle inspired origins lies an incredibly human tale about the sorcerers who struggle against their own powers (curses) and the people around them, earning a place as one of the late 2010’s most prominent new Shonen at the conclusion of its first season. And while it narrowly missed the top 5 in last year’s list, season 2 came back with a new goal beyond finding the fabled Radiant.

If Radiant’s first season is best described as “Shonen tropes done right,” then its sequel surpasses it as the seed it planted earlier becomes a forest. As Seth’s corruptive new powers pushes him away from the world, season two plays with more nuanced and difficult themes, diving further into the nature of curses and the individuals who suffer from them, self-sacrifice, and the destructive nature of humans through their insatiable greed.

In contrast to similar titles, Radiant’s world is a diverse and expansive one, and its relationships become the central driving force as bonds are tested and new allegiances threaten to overtake the continent of Cyfandir. Becoming human is the central heart of the series, and this season’s opening moments is indicative of its commitment as a character focused Shonen, while highlighting the importance of representation in general media.

To briefly divert into a broader topic, if there is one takeaway I’ve learned from 2020 that’s applicable across mediums, it’s that diversity and inclusion is easy to champion, but inclusion and representation are not mutually exclusive. With a higher interest last year in the ethics of how entertainment gets made, it’s impossible for me to stress how crucial visibility is at a time when people wielding authority have repeatedly worked to undermine and erase those most vulnerable. Even acknowledgment that we exist can work miracles for people to understand different viewpoints and for the marginalized to accept their own identity.

Of course, representation isn’t a substitute for quality as the first link above noted, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation! Throughout the season, characters challenge, question, hurt, motivate, and inspire those around them as emotions flare and the situation turns dire. They make mistakes, even with the best intentions. And in a world where power comes at a price, they sometimes lose sight of what matters.

It’s in those reflective moments that Radiant questions the concept of heroism, friendship, and duty through the voices of Seth, Mélie, and newcomer Ocoho. ADR director Caitlin Glass’s pedigree is well documented, having worked on last year’s Fruits Basket and Appare-Ranman! Her work in Tony Valente’s universe further cements her status as one of Funimation’s most notable creative forces, backed by the incredible performances of her co-stars and herself, in addition to the original Japanese cast.

In the world of Radiant, one destructive act begets another, but an act of kindness can create new beginnings. It may not be the most recognizable Shonen of the year, yet it’s by far the most significant, with the imagination, writing, and heart to match its ambitious namesake. Like the comic that inspired it, Radiant lives up to its original title as one of 2020’s best anime, celebrating the genre while forging its own legacy.

For that my dear reader, is a story worth retelling… At least, a thousand times.

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Once more, congrats to Lerche and all the winners! This was a difficult set of awards to put together, but I’m glad I got to continue the tradition after the loss of the Kinja platform. Before wrapping up, I’d like to give one final shout out to my fellow authors, my friends who encouraged me to continue this odd pursuit of ours, and most of all, our readership for indulging and igniting our passions.

Normally, I end these articles with a credits theme, but in keeping with the spirit of the awards, I’d like to share a piece that doesn’t get nearly as much credit as it should. I’ve featured this theme many times before, but today, I’m highlighting the full version of Emi Nakumura’s closing theme for Radiant. Once again, thank you! Hope to see you all in 2021!

Song: Chitto mo Shiranakatta | Artist: Emi Nakamura | Anime: Radiant

(Please don’t vote for another meme song this year. You know what I’m talking about…)

Dark Aether is a writer/contributor for TAY and AniTAY. You can check his previous writings on TAY2, Medium, or follow him on Twitter @TheGrimAether. Not Dead Yet.

The Best Of 2020 (Dark Aether’s Greatest Hits):

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