The end is near, oh, thank God, the end is fuckin’ NEAR. Every year I whine “waaah this year sucked, yadda yadda, on to next year,” but uh, holy shit, 2021…please, I’m begging you, no new viruses, alright? Maybe some slightly more competent political leadership while we’re at it? My expectations are still low, but for as long as the current situation remains a thing, I’ll be using the free time I get to stare at a screen and watch cartoons. That’s just what we do around here at For Great Justice, and if anything made 2020 bearable, it was the one-two pick-me-up of watching anime—some fantastic, others horrendous—and then chatting about them with my pals online.
With a new year (and an absurdly stacked winter season) on our doorstep, it’s time to reflect with one final article on what 2020 meant for anime. Some might define it by pandemic delays, others by a smattering of sequels that brought magnificent closure to huge franchises. For me, breakout original productions mostly stole the show, but we’ll get to those in due time—first, I’ve gotta explain what exactly I’m doing here.
In all four seasons combined, I sampled the pilots of roughly 70 anime, dropping about half of them early, if not on the spot, and completing the rest. To overview everything, I’ll be running down my thoughts on each of them in loosely ascending order, starting with shows I didn’t finish and ending with my Anime of the Year. Aside from the top ten, they’re all ranked in tiers with an extremely Yatacore naming convention, as per usual. If I trash a show you loved, don’t take it personally, and understand I’m forgoing a lot of nuance for the sake of brevity.
At some point I’ll include a special category for movies, and once I hit my top 10, I’ll go more in-depth with the commentary, doing my best to sell you, free of major spoilers, on any you haven’t yet seen. That will be a challenge, especially this year, but the whole damn year’s been a challenge, so what’s one last uphill climb? Sound good? Let’s do this shit.
There are good shows, and then there are bad shows, and then there are shows so bad they fold back in on themselves and wind up good again. There are also shows so cursed or actively painful to watch that even I, a figure in this community with a reputation for enjoying schlocky garbage, physically recoil when they’re brought up. Most shows of this breed are obvious enough that I don’t approach them with a ten-foot browser tab, but every year, some slip through the cracks. In 2020, the bottom of that barrel contained the following:
Hypnosis Mic: Division Rap Battle: Rhyme Anima is the anime component of a mixed media franchise about dystopian rappers. Its incel-ass worldbuilding, obnoxious songs, and atrocious character designs make it theoretically possible to enjoy ironically, but even I couldn’t subject myself to more than an episode without wanting to erase it from my memory completely. I’d like to think it knew it was hot doo-doo, but that didn’t save it from being the worst pilot I watched this year, and that’s all the more impressive considering Pet and Ikebukuro West Gate Park did take themselves seriously and were none the better for it. Both were poorly-animated, lacked foresight, and were so confounding in their moral compass it’s probably healthier to assume they straight-up didn’t have one.
Fortunately, most people forgot those shows existed within two weeks of their premieres. Unfortunately, the same could not be said about Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out! It’s one thing for your show to star a bratty kouhai with massive boing-boings who teases a main character that just wants to be left alone. It’s another for said show to have like, no redeeming qualities whatsoever, save for the fact that it wasn’t ambitious enough to flop as hard as the three mentioned before it (or Uzaki’s breasts). I did not enjoy my time with any of these anime. The less said about them, the better.
STORIES FOR BOYS
Moving on from The Worst of The Worst to Generic Shounen, The God of High School sure had some nice sakuga, but it meant next to nothing thanks to its derivative, underwhelming character writing. Darwin’s Game was a Mirai Nikki ripoff—enough said, I hope—and Peter Grill and the Philosopher’s Time was an ecchi short I only checked out due to morbid curiosity. It neither titillated me nor gave me a story to invest in, which was sadly also the case for Food Wars: The Fifth Plate, marking my well-overdue departure from that franchise outright.
Tower of God‘s slightly artsier shounen-isms apparently made it a cultural event for everyone aged 16 and younger, while I’m Standing on a Million Lives made almost no splash at all, holding aloft only the most boring and self-fellating parts of an isekai premise. Should none of those strike your fancy, Science Fell In Love, So I Tried To Prove It also existed, because even nerdy young boys are allowed to indulge in rom-coms with little rom and even less com. Am I in the target audience for like, any of these shows anymore? No, I’ll admit that. But even middle school entertainment can be fun if it’s inspired enough. These were not.
STARING AT THE SUN
But hey, active disinterest is arguably a more respectable fate than whatever afflicted this next category. These shows are liminal spaces: not horrendous enough to clearly recall, nor original enough to be worth mentioning as a prospective recommendation, just doomed to dissolve into the ether of obscure anime past. For instance, I can’t tell you a damn thing about Our Last Crusade or The Rise of a New World, whose premiere would’ve landed in the previous tier had it not literally lulled me to sleep. I’d consult Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle on what to do about that, but it’d probably just give me the same joke it did like 6 times during its pilot: the heroine is sleepy. She terrorizes her captors. Rinse and repeat. How did this get greenlit for a full-length cour? That question applies to Tamayomi: The Baseball Girls as well, a vapid, poorly-produced show about…yeah, baseball girls, right there in the name. Iwa-Kakeru! Sport Climbing Girls at least had the resolve to spotlight a niche sport (rock-climbing), but its character writing and production were likewise mid as hell.
Assault Lily: Bouquet seemed like it was trying to be Madoka, but it wasn’t even as good as the actual Madoka spin-off from this year: Magia Record. I’ll chalk up my indifference here to not being into the magical girl genre as a whole (for every way Madoka isn’t an exception to the rule, it also kinda, you know, is) and MagiReco didn’t conjure up the same mystique as its parent show. “If only they made magical girl shows where the magical girls did weird shit,” I’d say, but Warlords of Sigrdrifa exists, and its magical girls piloting fighter jets were somehow drier than the fuckin’ Sahara. But Natsunagu truly epitomized “forgettable” this year; did you even know this short about trying to reconnect with a distant friend aired? Guess the season. Guess the studio. The crew. Characters. Nothing? Yeah, no one remembers this existed. I told myself I’d marathon it 11 months ago on account of its unassuming premiere being hypothetically watchable. That never happened. I doubt I missed out on much.
SOME DAYS ARE BETTER THAN OTHERS
At least the shows above made it clear they weren’t for me. I wasn’t as lucky with In/Spectre, which kicked off with a great character premiere and then quickly devolved into the most tedious “detective” show I’ve seen in a hot minute. Not for lack of a sufficient sample size, I also tried The Millionaire Detective—Balance: Unlimited and Woodpecker Detective’s Office, neither of which were even half as entertaining as the low bar of a hiccupping vtuber playing L. A. Noire. For good measure, I also got about halfway through Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun before admitting its eye-appealing aesthetic couldn’t counteract its sluggish writing.
Appare-Ranman’s presence here might irritate some folks, as will Smile Down The Runway’s, but neither the Cannonball Run nor the Fashion TV anime piqued my interest for more than a couple episodes. What does pique my interest? Doga Kobo’s cute girl filler shows, sometimes. Asteroid in Love was not among its more promising ones, though. Meanwhile, its seasonal counterpart ID: Invaded promised…well, something, but that “something” seemed more likely to be edgy cop psychobabble instead of an interesting commentary on criminality, so I got outta there the second I finished meming it.
DO YOU FEEL LOVED?
Oh, but these? I may not have gotten far into these, but I at least saw potential in them, and I might’ve picked them back up in a last-ditch re-try spree if I weren’t already running out of time to complete this list before January. Gal & Dino was by far the most visually and structurally adventurous show I passed on (Adult Swim crowd and actual animators, take note), while Bofuri: I Don’t Want To Get Hurt, So I’ll Max Out My Defense attempted an original take on a formula that’s just worn too thin for me to entertain without a spectacular premiere. In a less over-saturated era, I might’ve stuck with it and Arte, whose historical setting didn’t do enough to overcome its transparent moral arc and forgettable production, but alas, if you’re looking for a “strong woman breaks the patriarchy” narrative, this one’s about Renaissance painting or some shit. Seemed serviceable enough.
If My Favorite Pop Idol Made It to the Budokan, I Would Die and Talentless Nana, on the other hand, had more opaque premieres, the former featuring a toxic fangirl’s crush and the latter setting up a kill-em-all thriller about a vigilante and children with superpowers. Both shows perplexed me out of the gates, and while I’ve heard mostly good feedback about Budokan (Talentless Nana is still too new and too un-watched for Discourse, I think), I don’t regret putting them off; aspects of each rubbed me the wrong way, and though they may have eventually addressed those concerns, there’s only so much free time in a day. That was my rationale for shelving Moriarty The Patriot as well, and with a second half greenlit for 2021, if I feel like catching up on its Robin Hood take on the Sherlock antagonist, I can do so at my leisure in the weeks ahead. If I don’t, its adequate old-timey mysteryisms didn’t blow me away anyway.
TRYIN’ TO THROW YOUR ARMS AROUND THE WORLD
Some series need a plot like a fish needs a bicycle, and I fear that was the case for this first batch of completed shows, all of which aimed a bit too far and fared poorly in the end because of it. On paper, my biggest disappointment was Listeners, a collaboration between composer Jin and Eureka Seven’s Dai Sato that dragged itself into the mud through an incoherent headcanon of rock ‘n’ roll doppelgangers. BNA: Brand New Animal was another romp that started fun and gradually turned sour, scrapping the loudmouthed comedy of its first half for a “serious” arc that had no legs when it tried to clumsily interrogate racial injustice. It didn’t help that actual racial injustice peaked in the headlines right when it went off the rails most. In contrast, Gleipnir started off the rails and it honestly floundered more when it tried to build a serious story, ramping up for a second season we’ll probably never get and only occasionally highlighting the sketchy relationship central to its appeal.
Speaking of “at its best when it’s at its worst,” I thought that would be the case for Jun Maeda’s Wild Ride, The Day I Became a God, but no, it teetered on “impossible to enjoy” in the homestretch. Maeda has never been a competent writer of anything besides comedy, but now I fear he’s got no editor to rein in his worst ideas either. That has to be it. No sane person vetted a climax like “abuse a traumatized, institutionalized mental care patient until she proclaims her love for you,” and expected it to land, right? On a substantially less problematic note, no one likely vetted Burn The Witch either, an ONA from Bleach’s Tite Kubo that coasted entirely on Studio Colorido’s lovely setting work and the author’s kick-ass character designs. Don’t ask me to make sense of its plot. I couldn’t.
No anime from 2020 sums up this tier’s phrase more painfully than Sing “Yesterday” For Me, though. At its peaks—peaks it hovered around for 90% of its run, honestly—it was a post-collegiate slow burn of a quarter-life crisis that I both intimately connected with and appreciated for its understated depth. It then completely chickened out of that depth by skipping over several volumes of essential character development to rush into an unsatisfactory conclusion that retroactively demeans its cast’s progress. At the time it concluded, I was still in my Bargaining phase, rationalizing the outcome by saying “well, the manga readers know, and if you were smart enough to pay attention until now, you’d know there was just something missing here,” but the further away we get from Yesterday‘s airing, the less positively I’ve reflected on how unfortunately it turned out. I would do terrible things if it meant Yesterday fans could get a second cour of material precisely where this adaptation needed it most, but that will not happen. The next best option is to just leave it in the past and walk on.
I STILL HAVEN’T FOUND WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR
So walk on we shall. Jujutsu Kaisen will too, as its first season is only half over as I type this. I’m probably putting it on hold due to the sequel-studded winter ahead of us, but it’s been a fun enough supernatural shounen so far and stars some incredible sakuga. I admire its ability to get a little weird if nothing else, and that also applies to 22/7, an idol anime that could’ve done so much more with its “you must obey The Wall” gag than it did. If you prefer your idol shows to be more traditional, Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club continued its franchise in swell fashion; due to its smoother production and more diverse collection of songs, at points I thought it’d be my favorite Love Live series to date, though its character beats were too spotty to outdo the OG run and Sunshine.
They weren’t anywhere near as shoddy as ToniKawa: Over The Moon For You’s though, which might’ve been the most vanilla newlywed anime I’ve ever seen, and this despite the fact that the wife was inferred to be an immortal eldritch horror. Princess Connect! Re:Dive had its fair share of such horrors, though its adventurer world didn’t really enthrall me outside of a few standout episodes and silly running gags. Drifting Dragons was more my speed as far as adventure stories go, though its blocky CG didn’t do it many favors and its particular “airship crew” vibe is one I’ve seen executed with more personality many times before.
INTO THE HEART
Now that we’ve reached the “these are fine” zone, I’d like to briefly digress and mention some movies. Due to licensing, some 2019 flicks weren’t available to us in the States until this year, while others that came out in Japan this calendar year won’t reach us until 2021. If your favorite isn’t here, there’s a chance I either already saw it last year or won’t get to see it until next year.
Children of the Sea could’ve taken even longer if it meant working in a story that made any lick of sense. Sure, the film looked gorgeous, but no amount of riveting technical detail could fix its increasingly unlikable cast and new age pseudo-spiritualism. It’s the only film of this bunch I expressly disliked, though Weathering With You also left me with mixed thoughts. Considering it’s a Makoto Shinkai project, its visual beauty needs no defending, but its themes of climate disaster and human independence were kinda wonky and left me with little to chew on past its immediate emotional thrust. It seems I say it every time, but a little script refinement would go a long way with this guy. He’s already so, so close.
Her Blue Sky won’t be many people’s favorite Mari Okada original, but “pop punk angst x ghost love story” is a niche I didn’t realize I wanted until it landed in my watchlist, and while its third act might’ve veered a little lengthy, I still had a tremendously fun time with the film. Swap out the rockers for surfers and you’ll get Ride Your Wave, which, as far as Masaaki Yuasa works go, wasn’t a personal favorite, though its tender reflection on departed young love is sure to strike a chord with people who’ve reeled from it intimately. Even a less stunning effort from Yuasa can turn heads, and this was still a comfortable step above his least interesting material.
Three movie sequels—KonoSuba: Legend of Crimson, Sound Euphonium: The Movie – Our Promise: A Brand New Day, and Made In Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul—were respectable installments of their parent franchises, though none of them blew me away or contained arcs of material that’d rank among my favorites from those titles. That left the unlikely A Whisker Away as my favorite 2020 ani-film; it follows a gremlin of a child who gets gifted a magical mask that turns her into a cat, and she (ab)uses that power to get closer to her crush before shenanigans ensue and she has to figure out how to remain human. It’s a little long-winded, but the character writing is consistently witty and its Colorido-produced scenes look stunning. If you missed it, it’s not the sort of film I’d hurl praise from the rooftops about, but it wouldn’t hurt you to check it out sometime.
Before we move on, a quick shout out here to a few sequels that didn’t land in my top ten: the ACCA OVA Regards was a politically limp but artistically captivating breeze just like its parent show, the Oresuki OVA gave the hammy, feisty rom-com the sendoff it properly deserved (had it come out last year, Oresuki would’ve easily made my Top 10 of 2019), and the Room Camp short let Laid-Back Camp fans bide their time for this winter’s proper Season 2.
As for full-length sequels, My Hero Academia Season 4 was alright; I kind of tired of its second half, though that could’ve just been early pandemic stress taking over. Ascendance of a Bookworm Season 2 delivered a smarter but less emotive cour than its first, cementing the franchise’s reputation as a breath of isekai fresh air, and Golden Kamuy Season 3 took a while to get rolling, but by its finale, it was perhaps my second favorite show of the fall season. Fingers crossed sales are high enough that Geno remains incentivized to keep adapting it.
ONE STEP CLOSER
I wanted to thin out this year’s honorable mention category so that it only promoted the absolute best of the rest, so here are some, uh, honorable mention honorable mentions. For instance, was Diary of Our Days at the Breakwater really outstanding? No, but its slice-of-life fishing club antics never truly disappointed either. On the flip side of that coin, Wandering Witch: The Journey of Elaina was a mess, but its tonal inconsistency somehow became a selling point, and its comedy episodes frequently landed among my favorites of the year.
Adachi and Shimamura’s hesitant yuri showed slivers of AOTS potential, but it kept weighing itself down with side character asides that added next to nothing to its main couple’s development, and My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom brazenly eschewed couples entirely with a too-dumb-to-die harem heroine and a novel take on the “whisked into a game world” premise. It had just enough mileage to go the distance, and all of these shows starring entertaining protagonists did a number for their longevity.
Now for the real honorable mentions: I initially passed on Dorohedoro, but its freakish world and lackadaisical tone made for the one-of-a-kind adventure everyone insisted it’d take me on—I was just a little late to the party. The Gymnastics Samurai wasn’t as eccentric in its delivery—think the intersection of March Comes In Like A Lion and Yuri!!! On Ice—but its cast was a mostly delightful crew of oddballs and its balance between a sports redemption narrative and a family drama rarely faltered. Somali and the Forest Spirit could’ve concluded seedier than it did, but as far as kid-friendly adventure series go, it was one of the most visually stunning ones I’ve ever seen, let down only by a cop-out ending and an arc or two that dragged a little too long.
And rest your uneasy hearts, yes, Rent-A-Girlfriend oh so narrowly missed the top ten. Rest assured, I am well aware it’s smarmy, indulgent, kind of awkwardly-written, and full of groan-worthy decision-making. That’s exactly why I love it. Just about every episode stretched its capacity for cringe to the limit. It was liking watching a row of dominoes plunk each other down while teetering on the edge of a shelf above the nuclear fucking launch button. I could not look away. I still don’t want to, and it isn’t even airing anymore. Season two fucking when? It takes effort to make a show this terrible this watchable. I live for this.
Well, this and the ten shows ahead.
ALL I WANT IS YOU
#10 – KAKUSHIGOTO
Studio: Ajia-do Animation Works | Director: Yuta Murano | Writer: Takashi Aoshima
Episodes: 12 | Based on: manga by Kouji Kumeta
Alternate name: N/A | Legal streaming site: Funimation
Licensing status: Licensed by Funimation | Dub status: Dubbed
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Kakushi Goto’s work isn’t the sort of thing you’d jump at the chance to share with your own child: the eccentric manga artist and his associates illustrate obscene, R-rated titles with names like Balls of Fury and Tights in the Wind, and though he’s reasonably proud of his artistic career (it’s a living, if nothing else), Kakushi would be mortified if his young daughter Hime discovered the real nature of his work. To that end, the single dad leaps through lie after lie with the hope of preserving a stable, supportive life for Hime, who gradually wises up to her father’s secrets. Comedy, tragedy, and excessive wordplay ensues.
WHY I LIKED IT
Parenting narratives tend to soar or nosedive depending on the extent of their character writing, and Kakushigoto is the former, though not in the straightforward sense you’d assume by just looking at its synopsis. Kakushi’s a little too scatterbrained to ever calm down, and Hime is a polite young child with a bit of an aloof streak herself; the two share a comfortable home and a handful of touching exchanges, but the community they foster around them is what really makes Kakushigoto such a joy to behold. Kakushi aside, the adults in this show are, well, adults; his colleagues may contribute to his raunchy comics, but they’re friendly, professional, and generally (glaring at you, Tomaruin) good role models for Hime, even if they’re pressed to keep hush-hush about her dad’s dough-making method.
If I were to nitpick the series, its loudmouthed humor sometimes works at odds with its serious underpinnings for a multitude of reasons—most notably, Hiroshi Kamiya’s performance as Kakushi is impossible for my ears to not absorb as “Adult Araragi,” and the finale transparently tried and failed to reduce me to tears—but those are also manifestations of something admirable: Kakushigoto refuses to compromise its tonal flexibility to fit a pigeonholed story. You’ve seen its component parts before, but you haven’t seen them assembled in this formation, and it loses little from embracing those hobbles and explaining itself to nobody. Add in one of the best visual aesthetics of the year, and it’s an underdog well worth plugging at the tail end of this top ten.
#9 – CHIHAYAFURU 3
Studio: Madhouse | Director: Morio Asaka | Writers: Yuuko Kakihara & Misuzu Chiba
Episodes: 24 | Based on: manga by Yuki Suetsugu
Alternate name: N/A | Legal streaming sites: Crunchyroll & HIDIVE
Licensing status: Licensed by Sentai Filmworks | Dub status: Not currently dubbed
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Chihayafuru follows a core trio of high-schoolers and their teammates, rivals, teachers, and friends as they navigate the world of competitive karuta, an obscure card game based on poetry that prioritizes dexterity and memorization. In this long-awaited third season of the franchise, graduation is fast approaching, and Chihaya, Taichi, and Arata reckon with the circumstances of trying to make a professional career out of karuta. As their dedication meets new challenges, several of their mentors and peers, a few steps ahead of them, duke it out among themselves for prestigious titles of their own.
WHY I LIKED IT
I may have hopped on the Chihayafuru bandwagon late compared to most of my ani-circle friends, but despite an ill-fated throwaway joke preceding me, I instantly fell in love with it and that spark never left as I gradually worked my way through both prior runs just in time for Season 3’s premiere last fall. Yes, last fall—this was a two-cour carry-over from 2019 and the only such show in this top ten to air in that time frame. It almost doesn’t feel right to call it a 2020 show; my memories of it were too fond, too unprepared, too taken for granted, too…pre-current world.
But that’s not exactly a flaw for a Chihayafuru-marathoner like myself—the franchise is so fucking consistent that from one “season” to the next, there’s no real division in plot or theme. Season 3 perhaps aimed to introduce one, a “go big or go home” deadline for its cast’s professional dreams, but even that was exploitable and open-ended, Taichi seeking to make independent decisions and Chihaya admitting she hasn’t studied enough to specialize in any other field of interest. For as much waffling as the teens did (relatably, I should note), the fuckin’ boomers stole the show; Harada-sensei fully came into his own this year despite a seiyuu switcheroo, relative newcomers like Inokuma and Suo diversified the series’ tone by foiling the kids’ present dilemma with two very different results, and the kouhais were…less bratty? Likable, even? A miracle, I say. With accumulated emotional gravity in its favor, Season 3 was my favorite chunk of Chihayafuru to date. I wish it didn’t feel like it aired a lifetime ago.
#8 – WAVE, LISTEN TO ME!
Studio: Sunrise | Director: Tatsuma Minamikawa | Writer: Shouji Yonemura
Episodes: 12 | Based on: manga by Hiroaki Samura
Alternate name: Nami yo Kiitekure | Legal streaming site: Funimation
Licensing status: Licensed by Funimation | Dub status: Not currently dubbed
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Reeling from a recent breakup and general lack of direction in life, boisterous waitress Minare Koda drunkenly spills the beans about her quarter-life crisis to a radio executive, who records the rant and plays it on air the following day. Tracking down the station to complain, Minare then gets duped a second time; their staff convinces her she has the voice and charisma to carry a program on her own, and they offer her a gig…for an expendable 3:30 AM timeslot.
WHY I LIKED IT
Wave, Listen to Me is so much. Like, so much it almost doesn’t know what to do with itself, and clearly, neither does its protagonist: Minare is far from friendly and frankly too stubborn to learn from most of her mistakes, but goddamn can her bullshit captivate an audience. Her monologues frequently venture into bizarre cut scenes where reality ceases to exert any influence. Half the time, it took me several minutes to determine whether her rambling was a joke on the show’s behalf or actually transpiring. Aliens, serial killers, vengeful colleagues, turtles who go “mind if I take a shit?”—Wave gave us (or teased us with, I won’t tell you which) all of that and more and clapped its hands like it was just another day’s work. A few missed shots don’t cancel out how often the series was able to invoke uproarious laughter, and to that end, it’s arguably the most out there dedicated comedy of the year.
Don’t misinterpret that statement, though—other series made me laugh, and Wave tried (I repeat, tried) to branch out into romance, young adult transience, and the odd infotainment segment about Japan’s radio industry. With some misses and many hits, its life force was just toying with its audience, and its most common vessel was Minare speaking before thinking. Without giving away too much, its finale even confirmed its commitment to the bit by forcing her to do the exact opposite for once. Ending the series with just as little stability and only a bit more name recognition than its heroine started it with, Wave, Listen to Me was truly a show “about nothing,” its commentary too facetious to take at face value and its diversions too unpredictable to see coming. If you’re looking for sitcom-y escapism from your rocky twenties, this show revels in it from a perspective few anime attempt to.
#7 – DECA-DENCE
Studio: NUT | Director: Yuzuru Tachikawa | Writer: Hiroshi Seko
Episodes: 12 | Based on: N/A, anime original by “the Deca-Dence Project”
Alternate name: N/A | Legal streaming sites: Funimation & Hulu
Licensing status: Licensed by Funimation | Dub status: Dub currently simulcasting
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
In the far future, humanity’s numbers have been decimated while trying to fend off a mysterious species called the Gadoll. Their remnants, nicknamed Tankers, joined together with a warrior class called the Gears, and the two inhabit a massive mobile fortress titled Deca-Dence, from which they periodically launch attacks against the Gadoll. Natsume, an orphaned Tanker desperate to see the world beyond Deca-Dence, falls under the command of Kaburagi, a demoted, disguised Gear who repairs the fortress’ armor, and his new apprentice lights a fire under him. However, his target isn’t necessarily the Gadoll, but Deca-Dence’s elite class, with whom he has a checkered history.
WHY I LIKED IT
It had been some time since Yuzuru Tachikawa blew me away with his original Death Parade in 2015, but Deca-Dence cements his reputation as a fascinating worldbuilder with an ambitious, interrogative streak. Death Parade questioned institutional morality from the lens of immortal actors in the afterlife, and despite its “us vs. them” race war visage, Deca-Dence is similarly preoccupied with insurrection against arbitrary world orders. Airing during a summer of accelerated real life unrest, its anti-capitalist themes concocted a mighty potent power fantasy for nerds like me as enraptured by its “power” as its “fantasy;” the series zoomed outward on itself at least twice, redefining its stakes as soon as you got used to the status quo, and in both instances it only clarified its deft understanding of economic conflict.
Some have criticized its character writing, but in the wake of those revelations, the show’s central hero actually shifted outright from Natsume and her easy-to-root-for naivete to Kaburagi, grizzled and disdainful of injustice. His old guard rounded out Deca-Dence’s supporting cast with loads of personality, and I’m not just talking about their appearance, which constitutes a curveball so grand you’ll just have to take it in for yourself. For all the creativity and curiosity flexed in one dense cour, Deca-Dence valiantly reached for a conclusion as heartwarming as it was unsustainable. It’s hard to acknowledge an authoritarian monopoly for what it is, and it’s even harder to topple it, however temporarily; that this show navigated the journey as well as any 12-episode anime could, with passion, precision, and unbound individuality is a feat in and of itself. I can’t wait to see what else Director Tachikawa brings our way in the years ahead.
Studio: feel. | Director: Kei Oikawa | Writer: Keiichiro Ochi
Episodes: 12 | Based on: light novels by Wataru Watari
Alternate names: Oregairu Season 3, Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Come wa Machigatteiru. Kan
Legal streaming sites: Crunchyroll, VRV, and HIDIVE
Licensing status: Licensed by Sentai Filmworks | Dub status: Dubbed
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
The third and presumably final season of My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU, Climax is what that subtitle says on the tin: its characters met each other years ago while prescribing to some combination of vain misanthropy and persistent selflessness, and as they’ve come to understand each other over the series’ first two seasons, they’ve let their guard down and begun to approach their friendship and daily lives with less distance. Challenged that the dynamic between them is a co-dependent charade, the trio of Hachiman, Yukino, and Yui muster the resolve to say what’s been left unspoken all that time, even if it threatens to alter their bond while they continue to grow.
WHY I LIKED IT
Pieces of SNAFU (or Oregairu, as people more frequently refer to it), have taken their time before, but Climax isn’t full of momentous occasions so much as it is this franchise’s long-awaited declining action. To call it a slow burn would be an understatement, but having settled into a groove, its three leads needn’t shout their love for the world to hear—the full weight of the franchise was left in the air for a five-year hiatus, and Climax is its elongated exhalation. The people who’ve been with me on this ride know what I mean.
More than virtually any show of its ilk, Oregairu treats its teenagers like, you know, teenagers. They exemplify the endless list of contradictions—rebelliousness and obedience, confidence and insecurity, etc.—that any teenager does. Part of being that age means thinking you have it all figured out and then realizing you don’t. The next step is admitting that “figuring it out” is a constant work of progress that may have rungs but leads to no eventual platform. Growing up means climbing, because the people whom you rely on and who rely on you are climbing as well on their own journeys for their own nebulous causes. As a period of mandated impermanence—from child to adult, from grade to grade and then on to college or elsewhere—adolescence is defined by change. This cast put off disrupting their rhythm for so long that seeing the pieces fall, respectfully, with love instead of bitterness, made for one of the richest and most fulfilling character studies in the medium. Oregairu couldn’t have ended better.
Studio: Science SARU | Director: Masaaki Yuasa | Writers: Masaaki Yuasa & Yuichiro Kido
Episodes: 12 | Based on: manga by Sumito Owara
Alternate name: Eizouken ni wa Te o Dasu na!
Legal streaming sites: Crunchyroll, VRV, & HBO Max
Licensing status: Licensed by Crunchyroll | Dub status: Not currently dubbed
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Midori Asakusa has a non-stop imagination. Tsubame Mizusaki loves the minutiae of animation. Sayaka Kanamori never passes up the opportunity for a worthwhile investment. When the three ambitious high schoolers get to know each other, they collectively found the Eizouken, a club that promises to create a short anime of their own, despite setbacks including but not limited to cramped deadlines, self-imposed detours, and the school doing everything it can to invalidate their progress. Even with the creative direction concentrated in these few students’ hands, art doesn’t get made in a vacuum; can the Eizouken fulfill their goals and still have fun along the way?
WHY I LIKED IT
I either snooze or cruise on art about being inspired by art, which in any creative field is more or less a given—the ability to articulate that passion comes down to whose hands are working on it and how expressive they get in recounting their own journey through the media they produce. In both cases, Eizouken gave me no reason to worry: Masaaki Yuasa isn’t just my personal favorite director in the business today, his flexibility in design and tendency to bring out the best in what he adapts makes his helming of this particular title a match made in heaven. Overflowing with inventive dream sequences and “us against the world” vitality, Eizouken bounces out the screen with giddy adoration for its own medium. It’s a little less insider-informative than say, Shirobako, but that only lets its smaller cast dazzle in their own right.
On that note, Sumito Owara’s original manga boasts a crew as fun as they are complex—Tsubame is universally-appreciated but not for the craft she wants to dedicate her life to, Kanamoney’s deadpan course-righting seems crude but stems from a place of genuine support, and Midori is a compassionate depiction of ADHD incarnate, her restless mind both a blessing and boon to actually getting any work done. In their way, Eizouken’s supporting cast isn’t mean so much as doubtful—most people have had at least one vision of artistic grandeur that fails to materialize, and half the struggle is the trio convincing third parties they can realize their dreams. If you haven’t seen the series yet (then frankly, what the hell are you doing? It’s been out since January), I won’t reveal the extent to which they’re successful, but their effort captures the grace and grind of speaking worlds into existence. It’s one of anime’s most witty and inventive takes on this premise—give it the chance, and it’ll probably make a believer out of you too.
#4 – JAPAN SINKS 2020
Studio: Science SARU | Directors: Masaaki Yuasa & Pyeon-Gang Ho | Writer: Toshio Yoshitaka
Episodes: 10 | (Sort of) based on: a novel by Sakyo Komatsu
Alternate name: Nihon Chinbotsu: 2020 | Legal streaming site: Netflix
Licensing status: Licensed by Netflix | Dub status: Dubbed
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
So, good news, your family survived a catastrophic earthquake that left Tokyo in ruins. Bad news: the national infrastructure has collapsed, law and order are about to mean nothing, and reports state your leaders have deserted you as the country doesn’t just flood, but drown, slipping into the Pacific second by second. Where do you go? How do you process what’s just happened, and worse, what may happen next? Beyond your own blood, who do you trust, and why? One household and their chosen company attempt to figure that all out in real time thanks to Japan Sinks 2020.
WHY I LIKED IT
I said I wouldn’t spoil anything specific about this top ten, so all I can do is emphasize that Japan Sinks is a rollercoaster. A mean, dangerous one—the kind that starts by granting you the adrenaline rush you expected, fakes you into thinking it ain’t shit, then gives you that trapdoor feeling in the pit of your stomach as your soul leaves your body, but for what feels like an eternity instead of an instant. When it comes to a stop and you get out, you swear to never ride it again, that it was too chaotic, probably patched together over the years with parts that’d fail inspection. But you also feel fundamentally changed, that you’re wiser for having survived it, yet dumber for trying to rationalize getting on in the first place. That analogy might not check out in its entirety, but really, doesn’t that just make it the perfect summary of Japan Sinks 2020?
This disaster narrative at times plays its “heartbreak behind every turn” card straight, but it re-routes into morbid comedy at an increasingly surreal rate, not out of disregard for tonal cohesion, but in the active celebration of whiplash. Japan Sinks has a serious case of the Mondays—or maybe its staff just got so high that nihilism and humor blurred into one. If nothing else, it does its best not to stall; grasping for big picture themes—globalism, xenophobia, religious devotion—if it doesn’t stick the landing, it at least gives you something to talk about. Talk people did: Japan Sinks is easily the most divisive show in the upper echelon of this list, somehow capable of inspiring polar opposite interpretations of its callous indifference to human life. It will titillate, shock, stupefy, the whole nine yards, and for me, its juxtapositions of violence and hope, when ethics seem for naught and our fragility lays forefront, made it one of the most cathartic experiences I had from the medium all hell-year. Your mileage may tremendously vary, but no 2020 anime recap is complete without it.
#3 – AKUDAMA DRIVE
Studio: Pierrot | Director: Tomohisa Taguchi | Writers: Norimitsu Kaihou & Tomohisa Taguchi
Episodes: 12 | Based on: N/A, anime original by Pierrot & Too Kyo Games
Alternate name: N/A | Legal streaming sites: Funimation & Hulu
Licensing status: Licensed by Funimation | Dub status: Dub currently simulcasting
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
In Akudama Drive’s alter-world Japan, the country has splintered apart, and its cyberpunk Kansai ended up a vassal state to Kanto, which outsiders aren’t allowed to enter. The one way in is a high-security, cargo-only Shinkansen, and some of that cargo wants out. Hiring a specialized team of criminals, or “Akudama,” a mysterious entity taking the form of a cat promises a huge payload for seizing the train’s on-board goods, but it wasn’t expecting an ordinary citizen to stumble into the fiasco and get taken along as an accomplice. When even petty crime could get you unceremoniously brutalized by Kansai’s cops, temporarily befriending the Akudama for your own survival is a definite death sentence…that is, if you get caught.
WHY I LIKED IT
First things first, yes, Akudama Drive was initially conceived by Kazutaka Kodaka, otherwise known as “the Danganronpa guy.” That franchise and its high school battle royale were never really my cup of tea, but I don’t inherently hate a bloodbath, especially one that walks a mischievous line between camp and chaos. To say Akudama Drive follows suit with its creator’s prior work is only half-true, though. Sure, gratuitous evil is abundant (one of its main characters is an unhinged serial killer, after all), as is comedy both lowbrow and absurd, but unlike Danganronpa (or at least what I’ve witnessed from Danganronpa), the killing spree has a point.
It’s a point that might not have reached this list’s podium in previous years, but “FUCK THA POLICE” is among 2020’s most inescapable proverbs, and Akudama Drive has a bone of its own to pick that transcends nationality. While some of its criminal cast is way beyond saving, its police force—literally referred to as Executioners—are just as far gone, taking bribes from Akudama who they (falsely) deem controllable, turning on the populace the second public sentiment falls out of their favor, and abusing the arm of the state to justify any offense. It’s not subtle in the slightest, but with an all-star crew of voice actors, an immersive dystopian landscape, and the most visual polish Studio Pierrot have frankly ever summoned across a whole cour, subtlety doesn’t matter. Akudama Drive is an outright exhilarating action-comedy, and its last words for the firing squad resound with nothing short of catharsis this year: “fuck you too.”
Studio: A-1 Pictures | Director: Shinichi Omata
Writers: Yasuhiro Nakanishi & Yukie Sugawara
Episodes: 12 | Based on: manga by Aka Akasaka
Alternate name: Kaguya-sama wa Kokurasetai?: Tensai-tachi no Renai Zunousen
Legal streaming sites: Funimation
Licensing status: Licensed by Aniplex of America | Dub status: Dubbed
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Is love war? It sure seemed that way for Kaguya Shinomiya and Miyuki Shirogane in Kaguya-sama’s first season, as the two rich kids tried to con each other into admitting their extremely obvious mutual love. Aside from a slow start and some repetition, the first season of Love Is War (only distinguished from its sequel by an absent question mark) landed in my top ten last year as one of 2019’s most promising rom-com titles. This year, its follow-up proves its potential has legs.
WHY I LIKED IT
As is often the case with a “will they or won’t they” romance, Kaguya-sama seems in no rush to force a confession out of either of its leads. They end this second season with just as little affirmation, and we end it with the guarantee of a third. Kaguya-sama is really popular, and it’s easy to understand why: these kids express their admiration through one-upmanship, putting their crush on a pedestal and trying to tower above them anyway. The only way that can pay off is mutually-acknowledged embarrassment, and while they were far too cocky to acknowledge any of their deflated attempts at flirting before, time makes the heart grow fonder, exposure decreasing their need to always stay on guard.
That’s right, Kaguya-Sama S2’s whole thing is honest to goodness friendship. Kaguya and Miyuki still pine for each other using the least efficient methods possible, but the series is done relegating its supporting actors to background roles—Chika, Yuu, Ai, and newcomer Miko have been indispensable to this cast from their introductions on, and this season lets them come into their own. As a result, the series’ tone diversifies, keeping things fresher from skit to skit and evolving with some semblance of linear causality. Seeing the Student Council band together to accomplish Actual Student Council-y things (and keep their dynamic intact) was some of the most fun I had with this medium all year, and heightened direction was just a cherry on top. Kaguya-sama’s formula appealed to me from day one—it just needed a bit of time to work out its kinks. Now that it has, it’s an incontestable genre heavyweight, and it kept me cracking up through early onset pandemic hell as a way healthier drug of choice than hydroxychloroquine.
#1 – GREAT PRETENDER
Studio: Wit | Director: Hiro Kaburagi | Writer: Ryota Kosawa
Episodes: 23 | Based on: N/A, anime original
Alternate name: N/A | Legal streaming site: Netflix
Licensing status: Licensed by Netflix | Dub status: Dubbed
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
With a dead mother and a convict father, Makoto Edamura gets by however he can; if he’s gotta swindle, pickpocket, and pyramid scheme, so be it, and he’s getting pretty good at it…or so he thinks. When trying to corner a foreigner, Makoto’s pursuit turns the tables on him and introduces himself as Laurent Thierry, a con man who may or may not have had Makoto up his sleeve all along. Going along with the rest of Laurent’s schemes—willingly or otherwise—Makoto travels the world with his new sneaky cohorts, the shadows of their pasts always in their tracks.
WHY I LIKED IT
What makes con men so fascinating? Do we derive delusions of power from watching them work their manipulative magic? Do we enjoy seeing bumbling bigots get what’s coming to them from someone they’ve underestimated? Or do we recognize the riches garnered from that line of work only serve to poorly fill a void of honest, vulnerable human interaction? Great Pretender is a masterpiece con narrative, and not just for recognizing that all of the above can be true—it also understands that a magician shouldn’t give away their secrets. Makoto is ostensibly a double agent in all of the series’ four arcs, but whether on-duty or deserting his post, his actions have been predicted from the start, just a cog in a larger puzzle. Sometimes he knows this, sometimes he doesn’t, and we don’t know how in on the bit he is until the show decides it’s time to let us see the big picture. When the trickster becomes not just the tricked but the trick itself, Great Pretender demonstrates writing so galaxy-brained it’d make dedicated buffs of the genre grin in disbelief.
That it makes myths of its puppeteers while proving they’re just as heartbroken and human as the rest of us is incredible. Makoto, Laurent, and their associates are forced to navigate trauma and loss often in their line of work, and while they do a laudable job rarely if ever letting their masks slip, Great Pretender ensures it’s not all fun and games when they attempt to settle down between grifts. Some of these trials are more articulated than others, but every major character reckons with hang-ups that may or may not bear significant weight on their future endeavors. The series loves taking viewers for a ride, but off the top of my head, only once do any of its dozens of twists feel insufficiently justified in retrospect. The one that doesn’t? Oh, it comes at the very end, when you’re too impressed from the rest of them to really care.
My praise hardly ends at the writing, though; both its sub and dub voice casts are phenomenal, its international setpieces feel grounded even when the gang’s schemes go haywire, and the color design, oh, Hallelujah, the color design is just to die for. Glitzy soundtrack courtesy of Yutaka Yamada? Check. Consistently refined animation from start to finish? It’s good enough. Crossover appeal to a wider Western audience? Look, if this thing doesn’t make the rounds on Toonami the second Netflix’s license expires, some executives have been sleeping on it, and if you haven’t seen Great Pretender yet and you consider yourself an anime junkie, you’ve been under a rock since this summer, too. I know it’s anti-climactic that Great Pretender is my favorite anime of 2020, but that’s only a testament to its artistry, especially in a year chock full of amazing sequels and underdog hits. As my good friend would say, take a bow, Studio Wit. Y’all earned it.
And 2020’s finally a wrap! What were your favorite anime of the year? Did any of your faves completely slip past my radar? Let me know in the comments below or over on Twitter, and until next time, thanks as always for reading! Stay healthy and have a Great Justice New Year! We’ll see you again shortly.