The Spring 2021 anime season is almost over, and I can say with confidence that this has been the strongest season in a long time. It will be hard for me to rank so many great shows in order of preference, so this time I’ll write about the shows that have already concluded, and I’ll follow up next weekend with the shows that are due to conclude over the next 7 days.
Zombie Land Saga Revenge — 12 episodes (Crunchyroll)
Still the only idol series I have ever watched, Zombie Land Saga Revenge somehow managed to exceed the quality of its already entertainingly bizarre first season. Effortlessly mixing heartfelt moments of loss and melancholy with an earnest rags-to-riches-type plot, while throwing it all screaming into a blender with body horror, surrealism and slapstick comedy, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a weird, yet compelling, entertainment product. And product is what this most certainly is — as a satire of the artifice-stuffed modern idol industry that manufactures shiny, inhuman idol singers from psychologically vulnerable teenagers with dreams of stardom — it still conforms to the underlying rules and structure of the medium.
Each main character is driven to succeed in their own individual way, their personalities communicated via their colour-coded hair and accentuated idiosyncrasies, while conforming to uniform codes and choreographed dance moves. (Except Tae, who, hilariously, more or less does her own thing, much to the delight of her own fans.)
Every episode brings yet more absurd situations and obstacles for our plucky zombies to overcome, all the while desperately trying to keep their true nature secret. A two-episode flashback to Meiji Era Japan to illuminate mysterious courtesan Yugiri’s backstory was more miss than hit for me, but the final couple of episodes with their apocalyptic disaster drama was a fantastic way to end the season by ratcheting up the stakes. And that final scene… was that merely a magnificent troll, or is there some kind of utterly bonkers follow-up planned?
How NOT to Summon A Demon Lord Omega — 10 episodes (Crunchyroll)
A significantly shorter second season than the first, I wonder if this was due to lack of money or because this was the best place to leave the story? I believe there are further light novel volumes left to adapt, but that the anime brought some plot elements forward to make an adequate finale. If this ends here, I don’t mind. This show is light, frothy, ecchi trash — and knows it. Despite its limitations, I did find the finale surprisingly emotional in its evocation of the positive power of religious faith — not something I expected from a horny power fantasy filled with buxom elves and other fetish characters. I doubt I will ever watch it again, but it did make me laugh on multiple occasions.
I’ve Been Killing Slimes For 300 Years And Maxed Out My Level — 12 episodes (Crunchyroll)
Another trashy fantasy/isekai show, but not nearly as horny as Demon Lord, I was surprised that I was able to stick with Killing Slimes until the end. Vacant of any ambition other than depicting the wacky escapades of a gradually growing female cast, this is dumb, relaxing, stick-your-brain-in-neutral stuff. And that’s ok. Not everything has to be intellectually-stimulating existential horror or dense plot-driven political intrigue.
I still can’t remember any of the characters names, and identify them mostly by hair colour and character tropes. Very little of import ever happens, there’s rarely any kind of dramatic stakes, and this seems to exist in a world almost entirely devoid of males. Which means it’s aimed squarely at males who want to feel like they have access to a non-threatening harem of cute fantasy girls. I suppose there’s nothing particularly wrong with that.
Apart from some slightly uncomfortable yuri/imouto fetish stuff with a young demon girl and her attraction/attachment to the main character, it’s all pretty inoffensive, forgettable fluff that nonetheless tastes sweet while it lasts, only to dissipate into the aether upon its conclusion, leaving no lasting impression or aftertaste.
Don’t Toy With Me Miss Nagatoro — 12 episodes (Crunchyroll)
Surprising everyone, though probably mostly myself, Nagatoro-san is probably one of my top 3 shows of the season. As a textbook example of not judging a book by its cover, I heartily recommend you completely ignore the multitudinous online memes and negative reviews of the first couple of episodes — this becomes one of the most wholesome and heartwarming romantic comedy anime I have ever watched. I loved this show.
What starts as frankly disturbing bullying from the titular demonic schoolgirl Nagatoro towards her meek, cowardly (so far, un-named) upperclassman “Senpai” evolves into a more equal give-and take relationship between two emotionally immature people who gradually help each other to improve.
Nagatoro is clearly attracted to the nerdy Senpai, yet is unable to communicate this to him in any way other than teasing, overt physicality and insincere insults. Senpai himself clearly enjoys the attention he gets from Nagatoro, and later even starts to seek her out and invite her to things. It’s honestly so sweet to see these two morons gradually grow closer to one another. Nagatoro, despite her apparent bullying nature is extremely protective of her Senpai, and encourages him in his artwork — even modelling for him. Honestly, if she wasn’t so poor at recognising and acting on her own feelings, she could be this season’s Best Girl.
Apparently the source manga gets even better from this point onwards, with more developed plot arcs and deeper character work. Of all the shows this season, this is probably the one I most want a sequel from.
86 EIGHTY-SIX — 11 episodes (Crunchyroll)
It took a while, but I am now very much engaged emotionally in this dark, dystopian war story. With episode 11’s incredibly cruel cliffhanger, I am delighted that the second half of this adaptation is due in October. Sometimes it’s difficult to follow the chronology, as scenes weeks, months, or even years apart are slammed together with only a brief date-stamp at the beginning to differentiate them. I feel this is a failure in direction that needs urgent improvement, because it almost turned me completely off the show.
Chronological confusion excepted, the rest of 86 is impeccable. The characters are well-drawn, complex and flawed, yet easy to relate to. In the character of Lena it explores institutional racism — although she desperately wants to help the oppressed “86” people, she is completely blind to her own assumptions and biases until challenged directly. She’s at times well-meaning yet ineffectual, at others uncommonly empathetic and self-sacrificing.
The underlying concepts behind 86’s war are timely and disturbing, focusing on inhuman, autonomous machines and primal fears of death, what may lie beyond, and of losing control of one’s humanity. I hope that the upcoming second half delves deeper into these themes.
Tokyo Revengers — 12 of 24 episodes (Crunchyroll)
I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for the emotional pain at the end of episode 12, the finale of this time-travel/teenage delinquent story’s first cour. Thank God that it’s continuing next week, straight into the second half.
We know from shows like Steins;Gate, Re:Zero and Erased that anime+time travel=pain, but poor protagonist Takemichi can’t seem to catch a break. As a 26-year-old loser in a dead-end job, he discovers an unexplained ability to travel 12 years back in time to his (bleached-blonde, idiotic, would-be thug) middle-school-aged self. He uses this to try and save the life of his former girlfriend, the beautiful, strong, loving, and resourceful Hinata Tachibana, who is fated to die in the present.
The only problem is that Takemichi is physically weak, lacks confidence and is dumb as a box of rocks. However, he develops grit and determination, learns to embrace humiliation and physical pain as means to an end, and gradually insinuates himself into the biker gang destined to become the evil crime organisation that ruins the lives of his friends. Nothing quite goes to plan for him, and it looks like he’ll be leaping back to the past for a long time to come, considering the length of the source manga.
It’s a great adaptation, but with one glowering fault — censorship. Takemichi’s “Tokyo Manji Biker Gang” use the “manji” symbol as a prominent part of their uniform, it’s sprayed onto their bikes, it’s almost inescapable. The manji was famously perverted by the Nazis as the mirror-imaged swastika, corrupting the meaning of an important — and benign — religious symbol. Paranoid about western upset, the licensors have taken it upon themselves to provide Crunchyroll with pre-censored masters. This means close-ups where there should be long shots, panning and cropping of shots, egregious use of “god rays” to cover uniform logos, excision of entire shots, these offences combining to make certain scenes completely impossible to follow, or removing important context. Why they can’t just black out the logos, I don’t know. But they need to get better at this, it’s embarrassing.
The Saint’s Magic Power is Omnipotent — 12 episodes (Funimation)
The third isekai show on this list, but by orders of magnitude the best, this remains a mostly chill, gentle show with a significant romantic subplot. It’s just as well it’s fairly staid, as the “action” scenes towards the end are hopeless — mere static shots with panning, or a shaken camera. Ugh. I get that this show probably doesn’t have a huge budget, or timescale, or experienced staff, but they make little effort to hide their lack of animation ability.
When things don’t need to explode, or move in any way, I enjoy the gentle plot progression as the (unusual for anime) adult protagonist Sei learns about the world she’d been summoned to, and gradually develops and refines her powers. Her relationship with Commander Hawke is sweet, though I do wonder if Sei is just a little too dumb when it comes to matters romantic. She is in her twenties at least, she’s not a blushing teenager…
There’s still a lot left to learn about this world and Sei’s (and other saint Aira’s) place in it, so perhaps one day we’ll get a sequel. It’s a lot like Ascendance of a Bookworm, but with an adult protagonist that isn’t obnoxiously self-obsessed.
SSSS. Dynazenon — 12 episodes (Funimation)
I enjoyed the preceding show SSSS. Gridman on a fairly superficial level — it was a fun, brightly-coloured Tokusatsu-referencing anime homage to an ancient show I’d never seen (nor cared even slightly about, to be honest). I wasn’t super-hyped for this companion show/sequel, but was happy to watch. To begin with, it seemed par for the course — the animated equivalent of kids mashing plastic robots together in the playground. And it most definitely remains that, all the way to the end, with ridiculously plasticky-looking mecha and enemies, though I feel this is deliberate.
Dynazenon is so much more than this, though. Even more so than Gridman, this is a deep, nuanced examination of the emotional states of several broken people, and how they begin to progress with their lives. The whole underlying plot is almost completely irrelevant, subsumed beneath themes of personal growth, moving on from trauma, and learning to accept yourself. That it so successfully explores these themes while still finding time for insane, bravura fight scenes and surprisingly emotional transformation sequences is nothing short of astounding. Dynazenon went from one of the shows I watched last each week to one of the first. I’m not quite sure where it first “clicked” for me, probably towards the second half.
I heartily recommend this, even to people who have no idea what the term “Tokusatsu” means. It doesn’t matter. Yes, I’ll have missed lots of little references to ancient shows here and there, but who cares when the rest of the package is as incredibly-well constructed as this? It doesn’t even explain what most of the background plot is, why the antagonists act the way they do, nor why they have the powers they have. It’s all backdrop to a deeply affecting human drama, perhaps one of the most skillfully-written TV shows I have ever watched, not just anime.
Vivy — Fluorite Eye’s Song — 13 episodes (Funimation)
So for a while it looked like Vivy might be my favourite show of the season. It has all of the things I like — bonkers sci-fi spectacle, cute robots, musings on AI/the technological singularity and a big story on a wide canvas… Unfortunately I don’t think it really hangs together all that well in the end. Vivy’s achingly shiny moving parts greatly outrank their clunky, poorly-assembled whole.
Never less than entertaining, every episode looks great, and some of the action sequences feature god-tier movie-quality animation and direction. I wish I could say the same thing for the story. The initial premise is interesting — a far future AI recruits idol singer android Diva help prevent an upcoming AI apocalypse — but it doesn’t really hold together under scrutiny. Each mini story arc is set decades apart from the other, at presumed inflection points in history, where Diva must do… something… to prevent… stuff… from happening, that will apparently stop the apocalypse.
The problem is that nothing she does really makes much difference, and the worldbuilding is just not good enough to communicate if this is because she failed, or because the story is making the point that she made it worse…? What I’m getting at is although the ultimate stakes are clear, the logical coherency of the individual stories (and the thematic and narrative links between them) is sadly lacking. They are fine while you watch them, its only afterwards when your mind tries to assemble everything into a coherent narrative… it just doesn’t work.
That’s not to say that this isn’t an otherwise fantastic anime, because it is. Diva is a wonderful character, although the differences between her and her “Vivy” persona are difficult to parse and feel extremely contrived to me. I like the underlying limitations that all AIs could have only one overriding mission, and that to have conflicting mission goals would break them. That seems like a sensible extrapolation of where our current limited AI might lead to in our real-world future.
I also appreciated the (presumably deliberately?) on-the-nose references to Yoko Taro’s videogame masterpiece NieR: Automata, though Vivy approaches nowhere close to that game’s level of intellectual exploration nor nihilistic tragedy. Vivy’s conclusion, and her titular song, although well-telegraphed, still seemed narratively clumsy to me. If anything, this show seemed undercooked, and could either have done with more time, or some more episodes in which to properly explore its interesting themes. As it was, Vivy’s song was not as affecting nor as emotional as I had hoped it might be.
Thanks for reading my musings on this half of the shows I watched this season. Join me again in a week or so to discuss the other 9 shows that are still to conclude!
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