What an epic season that was. Never before have I felt compelled to watch so many currently streaming anime episodes. At a final count I watched 24 different shows, so no wonder I feel somewhat overwhelmed and burnt out now. I think I’ll take a break before leaping headfirst into Spring 2021’s upcoming delights.
Anyway, last time I screamed my way through the anime shows that weren’t so good, whereas this time, I feel everything was worth my time. Even then, I still never managed to find space for shows my fellow writers adored, like Non Non Biyori Nonstop, Back Arrow, SK8 the infinity, Kemono Jihen and Uma Musume Season 2. Maybe I’ll get to them at some point.
What follows is a very roughly ordered list. Everything here maintains a general quality level of “good”, while the top 5 are already candidates for Anime of the Year.
14: Jujutsu Kaisen (24 episodes, Crunchyroll)
Surely this should win some kind of award for most obscenely spectacular action scenes? I can’t believe they pulled this off on a TV budget. An action-heavy shonen show that isn’t boring? I was astounded. The characters are fun and distinctive — I especially liked the butt-kicking females. I was never deeply emotionally invested, and sometimes my mind wandered during the non-action scenes, but I am eagerly awaiting the recently-announced second season of this dumb-but-fun occult rollercoaster ride.
13: Dr Stone (11 episodes, Crunchyroll)
Many people seem to dislike Dr Stone’s smug main character Senku, he of the green leek-like hair, but I find him a refreshing breath of fresh air, in that he’s a shonen protagonist who uses science and intelligence rather than brawn and stupidity to solve his problems. The first season greatly improved during its second half, and this latest season maintains that quality with fun side characters and plot progression driven by real science development. If you didn’t like season 1, this probably won’t convert you, but this short (though perfectly-constructed) sequel remains charming, whimsical and (vaguely) educational. Season 3 has thankfully already been greenlit.
12: Heaven’s Design Team (13 episodes, Crunchyroll)
I took a while to warm to this one, but was glad I stuck with it. An initially bright and breezy edutainment show about the group of angels God tasks with creating animals, it delves into some seriously disturbing subject matter. You think those little furry animals are cute? Yeah — they eat poop, or devour their young, or have horrifying skeleton structures, or ooze poison, or dissolve their prey slowly in digestive juices, or… You get the idea.
Heaven’s Design Team glories in the joy of creation, and isn’t afraid to get extremely weird. After all, isn’t truth stranger than fiction? The cast are mostly one-or-two trait stereotypes, with androgynous Venus in charge of elegant birds, and wizened Saturn obsessed with horses. Their interactions and collaborations are never less than entertainingly clever, and I doubt I’ll ever look at a penguin in quite the same way again. (Rocks back and forth, traumatised.)
11: So I’m a Spider, So What? (12 of 24 episodes, Crunchyroll)
I’ve mixed feelings about this atypical isekai show. While it indulges in one of my most hated fantasy anime tropes — that of the badly gamified “disembodied voice that announces stat upgrades” replacing organic character development with sub-JRPG number-crunching — Spider pursues this concept to such an absurd degree that it almost transcends my hatred, sparking a kind of reluctant admiration.
Kumoko the spider was (presumably) a teenage girl who, along with the rest of her class, has been reincarnated into a generic fantasy world. Whereas most of her classmates retained their human forms and identities, for some reason she’s stuck in the depths of a dungeon as a horrifying arachnid while they live it up in the human world. Their different stories are juxtaposed anachronically — Kumoko’s is clearly set 15 years before the human section occurs, and this does make the show’s pacing and structure somewhat disjointed.
It seems like some interesting narrative sleight of hand underlies the assumptions the show leads us to make in regards to our central character’s identity, and this uncertainty feeds into a sense of existential dread that is somewhat refreshing. This show isn’t interested in giving its characters an easy time — after all, who wouldn’t be freaked out by a disembodied voice narrating your actions?
Although some of the endless stat-porn became exhausting towards the end of Spider’s first cour, I’m intrigued enough to continue watching the second half of the show as it continues into Spring 2021.
10: Cells at Work (and Cells at Work: Code Black) (8 and 13 episodes respectively, Funimation)
I’m counting these shows as one entry, because despite the fact they are based on two different sources and were animated by two different studios, their concepts and execution are so similar. Cells at Work received a tragically truncated second season at only 8 episodes. With this, it adapts up to the end of manga volume 5, though with the recent publication of the 6th and final volume (presumably too late to allow for animated adaptation), perhaps they might produce some OVAs to round it off? One can live in hope.
This short season was fun, introducing some cute mascot-like lactobacilli, though at the expense of reduced time with nominal main characters Red Blood Cell and White Blood Cell. It didn’t quite hit the heights of the first season for me, though the final 2-episode rematch against the terrifying Cancer Cell was a highlight of the entire franchise.
Cells at Work: Code Black, the progenitor series’ evil, edgy twin was more successful with its slightly scratchier art aesthetic and grungy, run-down backdrop. Full of traumatised cells enduring their exhausting jobs in the face of repeated world-threatening crises, the tone of grim desperation was certainly a contrast to its more optimistic companion show.
If you are under any illusions about the effect of alcohol, caffeine or nicotine on the human body, this show is delighted to disabuse you of these misconceptions with blood-splattered, PTSD-fuelled glee. Few others shows fill the viewer with such a pervasive fear of illness and death.
For a black-humoured medic like me, this show was one hell of a good time. Also I got to seriously disturb a medical student with an impromptu Cells At Work: Code Black tutorial. Thank God my local NHS trust does not block Funimation streaming on work computers.
9: Higurashi: When They Cry: Gou (24 episodes, Crunchyroll)
This remake/sequel/successor/WTF actually is it? was very divisive in the AniTAY discord chat. At the start of this 24-episode season, we wrote a collaborative review of the original 2006 Studio DEEN show in anticipation of the new version.
I initially felt this show to be a bit slow, mainly concerned with rehashing plots from the original and giving them different endings. Then in the second cour, the plot veered way off the rails into something new that recontextualised the entire season. I did not feel this completely redeemed the earlier dull parts, but I certainly eagerly anticipated each new episode and would watch it almost the minute it aired.
I don’t want to spoil the big plot twist here, but I am fascinated to know where the show is going to go next in the recently announced Higurashi: When They Cry: Sotsu, due to air in Summer 2021. Will this be Gou’s equivalent to Kai? Gou’s conclusion sent Higurashi fandom into convulsions regarding potential links to the author’s other series Umineko and Ciconia, something I’m unfamiliar with. Hopefully Sotsu won’t alienate viewers who aren’t completely au fait with the extended canon.
8: Laid Back Camp Season 2 (13 episodes, Crunchyroll)
More comfy camping with our delightful group of schoolgirl friends. I cannot emphasise enough how relaxing this show is to watch, nor how much it tempts me to go randomly camping in the mountains somewhere. A highlight of my week was lying on the sofa, watching the latest episode with my son after he returned home from a busy, exhausting day day at his part-time postal worker job. Witnessing the heavy burden slip from his shoulders as he sunk deeper into the cushions was almost as satisfying as watching the show itself.
The central characters — reserved, introverted Rin and scatty, loud Nadeshiko — complement each other so well. I particularly liked that Nadeshiko tried out Rin’s preferred solo camping modality, while Rin opened up a little and attended an extended camping trip with a larger friend group. I love that this show finds time to validate both introversion and extraversion, without pathologising either personality type, and demonstrates how apparent opposites can complement and enhance one another.
7: Otherside Picnic (12 episodes, Funimation)
So I really enjoyed this lightly yuri-tinged spooky adventure (that homages famous Russian-language novel Roadside Picnic, basis for the 1979 movie Stalker and 2007 PC game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.), though apparently fans of the original light novels were unhappy with liberties taken in regards to the tone. College-age women Sorawo and Toriko set out to explore the “Otherside”, a dimension skewed slightly from our own, empty of people, but filled with existential horror and inexplicably malformed monstrosities. As the story progresses, they find themselves drawn into this strange realm unexpectedly, at various opportune moments.
Drawing from a rich seam of online Japanese creepypasta, to Western eyes like mine, this seemed fresh and interesting. It is kind of cute and humorous at times, and that can admittedly impair the dread-filled dark atmosphere that I think the show probably wants to evoke. I’d really like to see more of this, and I am seriously considering reading the light novels (of which J-Novel Club have translated the first 4 of 6 into English.)
6: Horimiya (13 episodes, Funimation)
So this was almost my top show of the season… well, at least the first half of it was. Based on a long-running manga that recently ended, this 13-episode series adapted the entire thing. That means that for an anime romantic comedy, it has an extremely brisk pace. To start with, this is fine. I like it when a strong story with great characters refuses to beat around the bush. This is the antithesis of the average high school romance where, if you’re lucky, the main couple might admit to perhaps liking one another by the final episode.
Unfortunately this rapid pace misses out many apparently important character and nuance-building moments that leaves the main female looking… manipulative and selfish. I won’t explore it in detail here, but her somewhat creepy kink and bullying of her boyfriend to acquiesce to her desires made me feel extremely uncomfortable.
The other problem later on is the huge cast of ancillary characters who are barely introduced and we are then expected to be able to follow their complex interpersonal relationships, understand their quirks, and care about their problems. At least their hair is colour-coded, so that kind of helps.
It may sound like I’m being overly negative, but this had such potential to be an absolutely amazing anime, that I feel it did itself a disservice by trying to cram too much into its limited time. Another 5 or 6 episodes to fill out characters and backstories, and this would have been an anime of the year contender for me. (Interestingly, last year’s Sing Yesterday had a similar issue.) Horimiya scores as highly as it does for me because of those almost perfect first 6 or 7 episodes.
5: Bottom-tier Character Tomozaki-kun (12 episodes, Funimation)
For a long while, this high school comedy/drama ranked below Horimiya for me. Really, they are nothing alike aside from the setting — but it took time for me to separate the two casts in my head. This is probably because I always watched them together.
Rather than a romance, Tomozaki-kun is more a story of character development, or character self-help anyway. More complex than the average high school anime, it explores low self-esteem, impostor syndrome and the masks we make to hide our true selves from others. Some reviewers compare Tomozaki-kun to My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU but I find it far more accessible and significantly less inscrutable.
Tomozaki himself is an extremely relatable teenage boy who has withdrawn from the world because he fails to understand how to progress socially and succeed at “real life”. He instead excels at the barely-disguised Smash Bros. knockoff console game Atafami. His main foil is the apparently “perfect” Aoi Hinami who coaches him in the ways of the “normies” (my word, not the show’s).
Aoi excels at everything she touches, yet is frustrated that she can’t beat Tomozaki at his chosen game. Aoi makes it her mission to “level up” Tomozaki’s social skills, and at the beginning at least, her methods seem benign. The fascinating conflict arises when Tomozaki realises that Aoi never shows anyone her true face, doesn’t seem to be happy despite her surface-level perfect life and he pushes back against her attempts to make him as fake as she is. I probably won’t read the progenitor light novels, but I would like to see a second season. I hope it proves popular enough to spawn one.
4: Attack on Titan: The “Final” Season (16 episodes, Crunchyroll)
An extremely pleasant surprise, Attack on Titan was on fire this season. After a slow buildup to establish the new post time-skip status quo, the story explodes into spectacular violence and tension. In a few scant years (in story time), everything has changed for our heroes — if indeed we can even call them heroes any more.
Attack on Titan already traded in moral ambiguity, but now the lines between aggressor and defender, oppressed and oppressor have become dangerously blurred and I have absolutely no idea where this story intends to go next. Despite being billed as “the final season”, there are still almost six volumes of manga left to adapt, and MAPPA have announced the “final final (this time for sure) season” will air in Winter 2022.
It’s incredibly tempting to go read the manga, up to the recently published final chapter. I think I’ll hold on though, as MAPPA has expertly succeeded original studio Wit’s exceptional production. Attack on Titan’s presumably epic conclusion is in excellent hands and I cannot wait to finally watch it.
3: Re: Zero Season 2 part 2 (12 episodes, Crunchyroll)
What an exhausting, yet rewarding show. Re: Zero season 1 already held pride of place within my top 10 anime of all time, and season 2 has only consolidated and enhanced my respect for this deeply layered and intricately constructed story. Despite all 25 episodes (the sum of both parts 1 and 2 of the second season) occurring mostly within the same tight, constrained setting, Re: Zero prevents boredom by deepening character relationships and excavating individual traumas and motivations.
With so much material to cram into these episodes, it’s hardly a wonder that opening and ending songs are mostly excised, and episode lengths are set at a steady 29 minutes (as opposed to the standard 22–24 minute anime episode). What we have is really closer to 30-episodes of material, and it is so densely packed that it will take at least two viewings to parse everything.
I’m not ashamed to admit that sometimes I found the show very difficult to follow — some of the speeches are incredibly verbose and lengthy, and the characters are privy to information that the audience is not. A re-watch would help immeasurably with context. It’s not only about impenetrable conversations, though — the action scenes, especially towards the climax are truly spectacular, and the emotional resolutions are equally as powerful.
Poor Rem (who?) is sidelined completely by the plot, but this facilitates nominal main girl Emilia’s character development, as we dive deep into her backstory and come to understand why she acts the way she does. One criticism of season 1 was that she didn’t do much. Season 2 completely rectifies this complaint.
Natsuki Subaru remains a divisive character — if you didn’t like him in the first season, you’ll probably still find him irritating, but at least here he is starting to grow up and to rely on his friends rather than only on his unhealthy death-and-resurrection superpower. At last he’s earning his place as Emilia’s hero and becoming worthy of her love. Re: Zero’s character arcs are fascinating and thematically complex, woven expertly into the metanarrative with breathtaking skill. Please please please announce the third season already.
2: Mushoku Tensei (11 episodes, Funimation)
A controversial show, mainly because of divisive main character Rudy. Much like with Re: Zero, whether you enjoy this is going to be determined by your tolerance for an unlikable protagonist. Whereas Natsuki Subaru started off immature, prideful and impulsive, Rudy is — without mincing words — a pervert. In the eyes of today’s society where everything is permissible, yet almost nothing is forgivable, he is surely irredeemable.
Mushoku Tensei is not interested in writing off even this previously paedophilic sexual deviant who wasted his previous life as a shut-in, fapping to creepy porn. With this reincarnation into a fascinatingly detailed fantasy world, he is given a second chance to begin again, to become a better person.
Of course that rehabilitation will take time — we are shown him as a newborn baby (yet with an adult mind) lusting over his mother’s breasts as he is about to breastfeed for the first time. This is truly icky and gross — but it also illustrates how broken he is as a human being in that he can only appreciate women as sexual objects. The show quickly punishes him for his thoughts and behaviour — though his adult lusts always remain in the background, he rarely gets to indulge them without swift, painful, and humiliating retribution.
Rudy is surrounded by complex, flawed characters with their own lives and agendas that do not revolve around him. This is refreshing, even when it is revealed that his father is a scumbag and a sexual predator, he is not reduced to only this. The characters are nuanced and coloured in various shades of morality. As Rudy himself grows and develops, he takes on new shades himself — more selfless, more heroic, and sometimes more devious. He makes terrible mistakes that sometimes cost lives, but learns and adapts. Everything he does has consequences, many of which I’m sure are yet to be felt.
Drawn organically and depicted in earthy ochres, Mushoku Tensei’s world looks almost unlike any other currently airing anime. It has a classic, analogue vibe that hearkens back to the glory days of hand-drawn, hand-painted cel animation. The score is haunting and evocative; the world-building complex and interesting yet unobtrusive. I await the second half of this season (to air in summer) with great interest.
1: Wonder Egg Priority (12 episodes, Funimation)
It is with some trepidation I place this fascinating show at the top of my list, as the final episode has been delayed due to horrendous production problems. Without this thematic capstone, it is difficult to understand what this show is actually about, what it intends to say, and whether it is successful or not.
Episode 8 was an unplanned recap to allow extra time for subsequent episodes’ completion, however with only 12 episode slots booked for broadcast, the “true” episode 12 (now episode 13) will not be shown until the end of June. From all reports, this production sounded tortured from the outset, with staff being hospitalised for overwork-related dehydration and exhaustion, only to return to work within a few hours after receiving iv rehydration. This production system is deeply unethical and directly harms animators, the people who produce the anime we love.
Unfortunately, this culture is entrenched within anime production houses, and without massive change to the committee system and the renumeration systems for studios, it’s not about to change any time soon. Even the massive worldwide success enjoyed by the anime industry and the subsequent flood of money supplied by companies like Netflix has not reached the people who spend their lives in cubicles, drawing pictures for mere pennies, sleeping under their desks and subsisting on cup ramen. If employees being hospitalised by overwork or burning out and dying early due to exhaustion won’t change this culture, what will? I have severe misgivings so highly recommending a show that is a product of this sclerotic, abusive system.
Wonder Egg Priority is a poster child for animators who have poured their heart and soul into their work for little financial gain. This is true art, a labour of love that shows itself in every frame, in every little piece of “extra” character animation. Most lesser anime will animate only lip flaps or the most minimal of movements during conversations. In Wonder Egg, the characters’ expressions change, they flick their hair, they move awkwardly, they seem alive. Every character has their own way of moving, their body language that demonstrates their personality. It really is exceptional.
Everything from the settings to the enemy designs to the use of sound complement each other — this is a truly cohesive and engaging production. It covers deep and dark themes such as teenage suicide, broken families, self-harm, gender identity, sexism (both overt and internalised), grief and guilt. That it manages to do all these with sensitivity (if not necessarily subtlety) is a cause for celebration itself, though the latter episodes’ brush with weird sci-fi concepts does threaten to derail some of the earlier thematic work.
It could be that the final episode will fail to explain anything, may ruin everything that preceded it, but I doubt it. I expect that concrete answers are out with the scope and experiences of the focal characters — and that’s ok — but what I’m really hoping for is some thematic consistency and good old emotional catharsis. If the ending can make me cry like a whipped child, then this could well be anime of the year for me already.
Thanks for reading to the end of my lengthy thoughts on this season. Apologies that it is so late — we’re already almost three weeks into the Spring season, and it’s looking almost as packed as Winter. I watched too many shows this time, and I need to be careful to avoid burnout, so next time I expect to watch significantly less. See you again next time!
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