Winter 2021 Final Thoughts

Yeah, I know, would you believe it? For Great Justice lives! Everything looked on the upswing heading into 2021, and a truly stacked season—arguably the most stacked season in this industry to date—gave us plenty to anticipate, only for illness (not COVID at least) to sideline our writing for the full extent of January and into February.

Thankfully the writing was the only thing we fell behind on: we continued to watch the new titles and hyped sequels, we just didn’t have the time to gush about them at length…until now. Or rather, one of us will; like me or hate me, this is a Yata-only rundown, but I somehow completed a personal record of fifteen series this winter. The quality wasn’t quite as crazy as the quantity, but there were still several standout shows. Which ones faltered along the way? Which ones ended with their hype intact? And what was my Anime of the Season from this diverse cour? The answers to all that and more below. It’s overdue. Let’s catch up.


BEASTARS SEASON 2


Some sequels I watched this season expanded on their previously-established universes to their benefit. Others imploded into a sort of collective oblivion, belittled by all and hopefully remembered by no one within a few weeks. Then there’s Beastars, a production as ambitious as its story is finicky, region-blocked by Netflix for the second time and further limiting what little influence it could muster over its competition in a stacked airing season.

And that might have been for the better, honestly. Even at its best, Beastars is for a niche audience and doesn’t easily conform to applicable metaphor; its cannibalistic hierarchies toy with race, gender, nature vs. nurture psychology, and other social constructs, just not in a way cleanly equivalent to how our world actually operates. Its pecking order is eccentric and confined to a world all its own, meaning the series’ more human elements—love, anxiety, self-doubt, etc.—have to carry a larger-than-usual emotional load to compensate. Its first season was up to that task, especially with regards to romance; Haru and Legosi’s rapport (or lack thereof) kept the series’ wheels in motion, but as Legosi swears to get stronger mentally throughout season two, he also separates himself from his crush with characteristic wishy-washy-ness. As a result, this cour is about internal growth as opposed to internal strife, and that’s a fine course to take for round two.

Except the strife didn’t disappear, it just turned loudly external. Louis takes command of the Leo Group and struggles biologically and mentally to present himself as a worthy leader. Meanwhile at the academy, Tem’s killer announces his presence with casual confidence, threatening to take out Legosi when his determination is high but his physical strength is weak. Our hero, without a perky heroine to regularly shake up the tone, spends most of the series with Gouhin the Black Market Panda (what a title) as his personal trainer to overcome his carnal urges.

That’s the overview, but it barely scratches the surface of this season’s detours and oddball scenes, which include herbivore strippers, crossdressing, a conveniently short-lived campus cop, eating hallucinogenic spirit bugs for strength, and an extra’s arm getting ripped clean off from a handshake. I’d say the narrative flew off the rails, but in retrospect, did Beastars ever have rails? Its world is a double-edged sword; you can read many an awkward insinuation with ease, but its uncanny melting pot of ideas and events is impossible to make coalesce into a truly resonant statement on, well, anything.

Was Beastars’ second season “good?” If we define “good” as “entertaining,” then certainly, but I also think it’s the nail in the coffin for any conventional understanding of “smart” or “clean” writing it had aspired to before now. My expectations with it were tempered, but the less strenuously I tried to look for thematic richness, the more enjoyable I found it. There’s no going back to the vibe it had before, that’s for sure,but know what you’re accepting when you tag along, and the adventure is just as much of a thrill for its supposed flaws as it is for its intended content. I had fun. That’s more than I can say for some of this winter’s sequels.
Final score: 7/10
Completed after 12 episodes.

BOTTOM-TIER CHARACTER TOMOZAKI


From one of the most maligned shows of the season to an underdog that proved it had its finger on the pulse the whole time, Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki was an outlier this winter in that it wholeheartedly grew on me instead of increasingly testing my patience. It’d be easy to take a poor faith read of its premise—and many critics did just that—but some friends swore by the source material and the adaptation looked stable, if a little muted. No reason I couldn’t stick out the heavy-handed “life is a game” talk and “esteemed female lead befriends loner male MC” trope for the notion it would lead somewhere richer than that.

In all fairness to those who jumped ship, the show looked in as much of a rush to get to its destination as the fucking Ever Given, though the hesitant start makes sense; having found something she couldn’t be #1 at, high school superstar Aoi Hinami aims to make Fumiya Tomozaki, her unknown classmate/game rival, a little less embarrassingly unpopular. For what end? I assume we’ll need more material to get a definitive answer, but “to get him to stop playing that game so much in order to beat him” seems like a worthy guess.

Another one would be “the smugness of knowing you’re held in higher regard than others,” because whew, it isn’t just Tomozaki who acts like a caricature of a person at first. If his issue is complete insecurity at anything other than Totally Not Smash Bros, Aoi’s hang-up is the opposite. Having mastered how to perform a public face, she accomplishes just about anything she puts her mind to while maintaining total confidence. A manipulator at heart and seemingly convinced in her own strategic self-righteousness, she spends most of the series mentoring Tomozaki in the ways of fitting in, not just making him join her friend group from the periphery, but demanding through “quests” that he cultivate a place within it that isn’t at the bottom of the totem pole.

In these task-oriented briefings, we see Aoi’s guard slightly lessened, her stern and commanding nature on display, and the tug-of-war between her expectations and Tomozaki’s comfort forms the series’ backbone. Through other chats with her friends, rivals, friend-rivals (these are pretty common), and an unrelated bookworm, Fuuka, who Aoi tries to set our lad up with, Tomozaki begins to simultaneously appreciate the progress he’s made while also questioning whether the new life he’s forging is all it’s cracked up to be. In a simply superb pair of final episodes, the tables turn enough in his head to realize social standing is fluid and exists on a spectrum. Perception clouds everything, and there’s rarely a definitive “top-” or “bottom-tier” person. Sticking up for his convictions, his unwillingness to perform a faker self around Fuuka, and a bit of resentment for Aoi ghosting him after he challenged her for once, the show even bookends itself with a roast, but this time it’s Tomozaki flustering Aoi.

As a commentary on that performativity (which, let’s be real, everyone on Earth does to some extent), Tomozaki sets up its pieces in rigid layers but concludes with the playing field less stratified. For every way in which social hierarchies, especially teenage ones, are real phenomena, they’re also arbitrary and subject to evolution. It’s easiest to destroy that mental barrier when abandoning the role of “self-deprecating critic” and not unlike Oregairu, which it’s been compared to a fair bit, Tomozaki’s cast makes judgment calls somewhere between grounded drama and galaxy-brained social chess. It’s less lovey-dovey and chronically more awkward than that franchise, but some themes overlap and the ones Tomozaki zooms in on get executed with nary a hitch. It doesn’t have to be a mind-blowing masterpiece when it’s sufficiently-written with a handful of funny gags and some intentional cringe (it builds character) for good measure. Considering the bottom-of-the-barrel dud it appeared to be on the surface, that’s no praise to scoff at.
Final score: 8/10
Completed after 12 episodes.

HORIMIYA


As a fan of the Horimiya OVA and an uncommitted but satisfied skimmer of its parent manga, I had high hopes for this full-length TV adaptation of the series, and it mostly met them. Contrary to some people’s grumbling that its narrative fizzles out once lead couple Kyouko Hori and Izumi Miyamura become an item for good, its extensive supporting cast is a fun bunch, and I for one appreciate that many of their romantic pairings fizzle out anticlimactically instead of forcing relationships into boxes they can’t fit in. These kids are charming enough on their own, and though none of them command the same gravitas that the series’ titular duo do, their intersecting desires area pleasant enough justification to spend time hearing from them. If nothing else, Horimiya’s evolving scope mimics Miyamura’s narrow-to-wide lens on his identity at school, from a timid loner to just another accepted piece of a larger social cluster. For transparency’s sake, that in turn mimics my high school experience very well, minus the having a girlfriend (by choice, I should add) part.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m more than a little biasedI may not have had chuuni-ass conversations to my alternate-timeline self like Miyamura does a few times towards series’ end (those felt like one of those adaptation quirks more fit to text on a page than to real-time dialogue), but the vibe was too similar to my experiences to not resonate. Horimiya excels first and foremost as an intimate adolescent romance between a strong couple, but it’s a testament to the full cast’s camaraderie that I found its cooldown almost equally rewarding.

Its detractors aren’t without support for their claims, thoughCloverWorks had their hands full all season, and while Horimiya fared better than their other two projects, not missing a week and getting its full slate of thirteen episodes aired on time, some of its later episodes were notably less ambitious or polished than its early ones. Much fanfare had been raised about director Masashi Ishihama getting his hands on this material, but while he never truly fumbled with it, most of the writing prevailed on account of the source’s strength, not necessarily because he elevated it. That was compounded by series composer Takao Yoshioka, whose résumé boasts nary a show renowned for its pacing, and this is no exception, jumping around through late chapters like a ricocheting pinball and skipping right to the manga’s conclusion for a final hoorah in its last episode. I understand the rationale in labeling the back half of the series as aimless, and it kind of was, to be fair.

But so were my high school days, which in a weird way, only adds to the immersion. Horimiya wasn’t bulletproof enough a rom-com to be hailed as the next coming of Christ, but still, as I believe the saying goes, a fun thing is a good thing, and I had a lot of fun with this group of laid-back teens. To think of what could’ve been had a truly esteemed team gotten their hands on it. As is, it did enough to earn my positivity, and remaining one of my most anticipated shows of the week all season long is a trait few of this season’s up-and-down titles could match.
Final score: 8/10
Completed after 13 episodes.

JUJUTSU KAISEN


It’s not that I have an aversion to “coolness,” but I’m normally skeptical about investing too much time and care into a series disinterested with relatable characters or obvious themes I find compelling. I’ve engaged with enough media by now to know what truly piques my interest, and Jujutsu Kaisen’s supernatural shounen shtick isn’t exactly up that alley.

See, JJK oozes “cool,” showcasing incredible action animation combined with simple slapstick goofs. Its antagonists are otherworldly, often psychotic menaces. Its protagonists are brutes, dorks, or dorky brutes. Their structural hierarchy is flimsy at best, bent for suspense at the writers’ whim and impossible to visualize in its entirety from the outside. Explanations about the cast’s magic abound, but not to interrogate deeper understanding, just to supply enough information to keep a viewer roughly in the loop as the action goes down. Without a big picture, there’s little wiggle room in this formula for anything other than the show’s calling cards. To that end, the series’ arcs begin blurring without clearly defined change.

All of which sounds negative, but if those are the parameters Jujutsu Kaisen is working with, it maximized its likeability. Its ratio of grouches to nitwits stays upbeat, the aforementioned sakuga is mind-blowing at its numerous peaks, and the trivial tone of its dialogue conveys a comforting familiarity with the genre’s tropes, making the showoffs feel like a breath of fresh air even if it’s only been recirculated through a filter. Excessive doom and gloom sometimes jumps in on behalf of the villains, but I can’t recall the last time a hit shounen felt this at ease with its shortcomings and rightfully smug about its positive traits. And just to hammer that point in like one of Nobara’s effigy nails, holy shit, this show moves well. Like, so well that even I, seasoned seasonal vet that I am, regularly dropped my jaw at the animation quality. It’d be great no matter its source, but coming from MAPPA in an era of peak crunch? Incredible stuff.

I’ve got concerns about the sustainability of that practice (please pay your staff better and schedule projects less frantically, thanks) and they sort of mirror my trepidation with more Jujutsu Kaisen; the series’ popularity begs for a sequel, and I’d be shocked if the adaptation can consistently replicate the high standard it just set for itself. Either way, I’m on the fence about continuing it if/when the time comes; every title has a shelf life, and for all its unlikely successes, this first season of Jujutsu Kaisen felt like more of a treat than a meal, something to junk out on instead of make my new diet. There’s a science and craft to baking high class desserts, but at the end of the day, nutrition isn’t the point of them, and that’s what I need to invest in a show for the long haul. Still, Jujutsu Kaisen’s opening acts were a sweet, prolonged surprise from start to finish. Diehards of the genre would be remiss to pass it up.
Final score: 7/10
Completed after 24 episodes.

KEMONO JIHEN


If not exactly a “hit” shounen manga adaptation, the numbers still say Kemono Jihen found its fanbase and received a decent amount of positive feedback over its first cour. That’s all that’s actually been announced thus far, but the anime was sure paced like the start of a larger story, and its finale only doubled down on the notion that there’s more to come.

If you were really spellbound by Kemono Jihen, that might be a frustrating note to have to hold out on, but if those people exist, they’re about as elusive to my knowledge as the kemono are to the humans of its world. Few of my mutuals bothered to watch this show, and the ones who did all seem to have a similar conclusion to myself: it was fine, and I guess I’d accept some more of it, but I’m not dying for it either.

That’s not how it started the season, but maybe that was just lightning in a bottle—a frankly fantastic pilot episode had me optimistic Kemono Jihen could pull some more found family magic out of its hat, but the following weeks instead focused on a web of puppeteer pseudo-antagonists and tracking down estranged family members. As a prolonged introduction to who its lead characters are, the places they’ve come from, and their dynamic together, it’s all sensible stuff, but even within the framework of setting up future conflicts, these explorations failed to display much tonal range. It met the shounen standard, with a little bit of naivete that reads as mean-spirited in some scenes and simplifies the story for younger audiences in others, but it never really excels beyond that. From its second week onward, monster-of-the-episode excursions and small arcs alike were sufficiently executed, but that little spark of something extra remained absent. Titles of Kemono Jihen’s ilk don’t prioritize the same stuff my favorite media does, so I shouldn’t be too surprised, but while I found it thoroughly watchable, my interest in it had also thoroughly cooled by season’s end (just in time for the ice-people arc to finish freezing it!)
Final score: 6.66/10
Completed after 12 episodes.

LAID-BACK CAMP SEASON 2


While some sequels flung themselves off mountaintops this winter, Laid-Back Camp remained content with simply observing them. Surprising nobody, the splendid, scenic, “no trouble, just good vibes” show to rule them all returned with the same consistency, cuteness, and craftsmanship we’d all come to expect from it. No major changes, no pivotal, life-altering events, just several more moments of love and awe inspired by the outdoors.

Neither a step down nor a markedly more fulfilling experience than the franchise’s first season, Camp S2 is proof that a potent formula doesn’t need to be altered; new characters appear, but only briefly; a childhood friend of Nadeshiko’s pays a visit to her old house and meets Rin early in the series only to not re-appear at length again, and an elderly couple who sell alcohol catch the attention and good will of Tobe-sensei. Beyond them and some more scenes with Aoi’s younger sister, who’s just as much of a mischievous troll as her elder sibling, this season two isn’t about cast expansion. If any lens zooms out, it’s the setting; prior material really centered on the girls’ home of Yamanashi Prefecture. This time, the gang splinter off on trips to Shizuoka and spend the last arc of the season as a collective road tripping around the Izu Peninsula, but the gist is the same, just with a little more seaside activity.

For as long as there are different campgrounds and nature-themed tourist hotspots, Camp’s shtick probably won’t get old, but it bears repeating just how charming its cast is too; going on a trek as a group has its advantages and disadvantages, and not everyone gets the same mileage out of constant exposure to other people. With full commitment, both seasons have offered inclusion for its least outspoken camper, Rin, and least, well, camper camper, Ena. Without forcing them into the frame, their place in these trips forms naturally, the plans and anticipation just as important as the payoff of actually seeing the group enjoy their destination. This season even allowed the Outclub to rush into a trip, not properly preparing for the weather and getting by thanks to the generosity of some strangers and concern from the folks who know the conditions best. It’s not a huge tonal leap, but any step outside its comfort zone that still feels comfortable is pretty impressive.

Really, there’s only so much I can say about Laid-Back Camp before I start sounding like a broken, compliment-heavy record. The appeal of this series speaks for itself and knows how to utilize silence. For two seasons now, it’s brought forward a lovely collection of characters enjoying each other’s company and the beauty of their immediate surroundings, and I can only hope more is on the way, because it’s never once slipped up at its mission. Other shows this winter may have swung for the fences and even hit a couple of homers, but Camp quietly batted in run after run and won the game. Its first season back in 2018 was ever so slightly overshadowed by A Place Further Than The Universe, but this time, Laid-Back Camp S2 wins my AOTS. Expect it to rank high come the end of this year.
Final score: 9/10
Completed after 13 episodes.

LOG HORIZON: DESTRUCTION OF THE ROUND TABLE


Six years and one scandal of tax fraud later, Log Horizon finally got the go-ahead to return, and it wasted virtually no time picking up where its prior two seasons left us. I had worried about the wait for two reasons: first of all, Log Horizon is perhaps the most information-dense and emotionally subdued of the 2010s’ hit “whisked into the game world” anime, and with about 50 episodes already under its belt, spoking off into disparate subplots and inquiries about game mechanics, a skim of some Wiki summaries was all I really had time to manage in order to get myself back up to speed.

The good news was that—for the most part—I really liked Log Horizon when its first season began back in 2013, and my interest only began tapering off towards the end of its second season, at which point its wide scope become more of a detriment than a blessing. Though it attempted to give its full cast equal attention, not all their conflicts or personalities were equally compelling; the kids’ group had run their course, and the Minori-Shiroe pairing was not only uncomfortable but uninteresting. The mastermind Shiroe himself and his immediate crew of old comrades continued to have the best rapport of the series, but their politicking grew increasingly stale after their game world’s protocols failed to present many meaningful conflicts. Though Log Horizon presented a complete universe and resembled the sort of game world a viewer would want to live in, it had also begun to reach a point of oversaturation. There was little else the franchise could do in its current state.

That’s precisely why, despite my fears, I was eager and even appreciative of Destruction of the Round Table’s opening arc, which covered a nearly-redefining moment for the day-to-day life of Akiba’s citizens. The Adventurers’ governing body grew about as fed up with the dry talk as I had, and Eins, representative of the guild Honesty, saw the opportunity to disband as a positive thing, with a few personally-motivated behind-the-scenes developments guiding his decision to leave. The timing coincided with the announcement of Princess Raynesia’s (or however we’re transliterating her name these days) arranged marriage, which she wanted out of, primarily to remain with Krusty should he ever return, but also to stay in Akiba. Seeing a get-out-of-the-pickle free card from reading the room right and pulling some strings, Shiroe coordinated an election to determine the Round Table’s fate, pitting Eins’ dissolution campaign against a pro-Round Table Raynesia ticket. The outcome wasn’t ever really in question, but the ramifications were. By focusing on its adult cast and renewing its political momentum, it was Log Horizon’s best arc in recent memory.

Sadly, that just made the second half of the series all the more of a snore; a graceless two-episode “puppet show” infodump on Krusty’s recent past felt like the filler it was, and its final arc, which used a game mechanic to essentially lock out of the frame most of the series’ better characters, put the spotlight on the aforementioned younger Log Horizon troupe and the long-dead in the water Minori-Shiroe ship. Even if the stakes were supposed to be high, the pace felt sloth-like, every second just kinda biding time because it had to while the kids spewed platitudes for their leader.

This third season was a tale of two stories: one that made me remember why Log Horizon was a once-beloved title, and one that made me remember why my (and from the looks of it, many people’s) love for it had faded. Ending on the worse of the two, my thoughts are bound to be skew negative, but this just reaffirms what I should’ve expected and will now expect if we get any more Log Horizon; it’s capable of greatness, but it finds itself beholden to too many patchy elements to amount to anything greater than the average of its individual arcs. With that in mind, “eh, s’okay” is about all I can say.
Final score: 6/10
Completed after 12 episodes.

NON NON BIYORI NONSTOP


As a relative newcomer to Non Non Biyori, having watched both prior seasons long after they aired, I was optimistic Nonstop would give me a chance to relax with this cast at a weekly rate, taking in their summery, middle-of-nowhere shenanigans as a bundle of gags in small doses instead of lumped together all at once. Then it dropped in winter, the least Non Non Biyori season possible, and alongside Laid-Back Camp, its most prominent (and more timely) iyashikei competition. Instead of constantly comparing the two—an exercise I knew wouldn’t be conducive to praising this, through no fault of its own—I formed a Plan B: leave Nonstop till the end of the season and marathon it over a couple of days.

So it went, just like the last two rounds in more ways than that: though a select few characters are added to the small cast (namely Konomi’s flute-playing kouhai Akane and a new family with a young girl named Shiori who’s around Renge’s age), the core cast and their dynamics remain the same. That’s for the better, I guess; this formula definitely wasn’t broken, so there’s no need to fix it, but there is a need to keep the calendar moving. The only tension in a setting this peaceful is the ticking clock, and though as the kids age, they don’t have to leave, they can’t remain actual children forever. The bittersweet passing of time isn’t presented as a sharp timeskip, just a gentle turn through the seasons and a finale that sees our mute chad king Suguru graduate from the branch school. Konomi also graduates from high school off-screen, and a new baby is born Asahigaoka, hammering in the nonstop nature of community; people depart and people arrive, the cycle never ending.

That was an especially poignant note to close the series with, and for once it truly feels like a period instead of a comma! Nonstop’s final episode concludes with a palpable sense of finality, about as much as one can while promoting the theme that the aforementioned cycle never truly ends. Getting there was kind of just business as usual; by this third season, you’ve likely figured out who your favorite characters are by now, and while Nonstop weeds out of the limelight some of its weaker ones like Komari (and if I’m being honest, Hotaru, sue me), few of its skits with the others tread through ideas or punchlines we haven’t already seen. Kazuho fumbling through Parents’ Day with a braindead Natsumi, the girls role-playing through nonsense in a blizzard, and Kaede getting drunk out of her mind were easily some of the series’ best material to date. The rest? Non Non Biyori on perfectly acceptable but rarely exceptional autopilot.

The universe of Non Non Biyori is virtually faultless in how it conjures a lovely, idyllic wave of nostalgia for anyone with a free, playful childhood. That alone was never enough to place it among my all-time favorites, but that’s more my problem than the show’s. Longtime fans surely got what they wanted from this presumably final season, and if not a dramatic uptick in the series’ batting average, I at least got what I expected: more fun with a dash of wonder and some incredible comedic highlights. Even if I won’t miss it as much as some of y’all, I’ll miss it nonetheless. Good show.
Final score: 7.5/10
Completed after 12 episodes.

OTHERSIDE PICNIC


In a turn of events uncharacteristic for this winter season, Otherside Picnic’s adaptation defined its threshold of potential quite clearly from the start and rarely deviated from it; its opening few episodes featured monster of the week plot lines, a charismatic but woefully shallow lead couple, and a lot of otherworldly developments more or less happening just for the sake of having something to talk about. Saving a stranded American military unit? Protecting a spunky kouhai from ninja cats? Accidentally winding up with a tobacco harvesting machine? If Otherside couldn’t be a genuine thriller—and I’ve heard good enough things about the source material that I think that wasn’t out of the realm of possibility on paper—a goofy popcorn show is about the next best thing.

Clearly it wasn’t ubiquitous enough to get bona fide Scooby-Doo treatment, but the appeal is basically the same; in Picnic, the obliviously lovestruck duo of Sorawo and Toriko unexpectedly get warped into the “otherside” by a series of gates and while there pursue the mysterious Satsuki Uruma, a mentor of Toriko’s who had gone missing. There’s no real resolution to that plotline in the anime, only further under-serving the impetus for their missions, and the writers seldom give the girls a chance to discuss that in plain terms. Maintaining the status quo is the name of the game for so long that the same trick—the Otherside making one of them hallucinate a false reality until their comrade shakes them back—is the conceit of multiple consecutive episodes. In the absence of any ability to unnerve, Otherside reverts to that solution with swiftly-diminishing returns. Even the Otherside itself fails to intrigue, often rendered in dreary grey, faded landscapes, and offset against 3D character models in incongruous wide shots. That dimension is defined not by any truly creepy attributes, but by its lack of them, a liminal space, a vacuum almost as bare as the show’s romantic chemistry.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s abundantly clear this has origins as a more dedicated yuri, but the adaptation isn’t brave enough to reveal much intimacy. It’s no surprise then that between its underwritten leads and empty worldbuilding, simple gags and panicked side-characters became its biggest perk. As fun as Kozakura, Akane, and the troops’ hilariously bad Engrish were, they alone don’t float a series to greatness. A gem in the rough this was not, but in being “potentially okay” from the get-go, I had no time to get my hopes up, and likewise no time to be let down as Otherside Picnic bumbled along its underachieving, inoffensive way. It’s seasonal filler I didn’t have the guts to hate. My understanding now is you should just hop on the novels instead—the anime probably won’t leave you eager to.
Final score: 5/10
Completed after 12 episodes.

THE PROMISED NEVERLAND SEASON 2


Off the heels of The Promised Neverland’s highly-acclaimed first season, expectations ran high at the promise of sequels—sales seemed steady enough to warrant them, and there was plenty of source material left to adapt, a winding and inconsistent but still exciting ride (or so I’ve been told, as I haven’t read it yet) that weaved through multiple arcs tasked with fleshing out the world outside season one’s prison premises. For better or worse, season two opened as strongly as it could, the gang overcoming whatever challenges stood in their way as recent refugees, and the introduction of Sonju and Mujika, two demons without an insatiable appetite for human flesh, opened new possibilities as unlikely allies in the kids’ war of survival.

This early optimism was soon chipped away when [gasp] the anime’s continuity diverged from that of the manga. I for one am not inherently opposed to differing plotlines, and Kaiu Shirai, Neverland’s original writer, remained on board as an advisor. While there will always be “original material” purists, this hardly sounded the death rattle of the series on its own. I anticipated structural changes, meticulous editing, some sort of alternate story which would bestow this season of the Neverland anime with a cleaner conclusion and pave the way for an even more thematically-focused continuation.

I’ve joked before that you do not, under any circumstances, got to hand it to manga readers, but it sadly turns out their fears weren’t irrational; instead of streamlining this story, the new timeline sent it spiraling out of control, prone to hamfisted “twists,” counterproductive revisions, and a complete sapping of the suspense which made its first season such a standout. Hope, manifested through tenacious scheming and a constant struggle for safety, defined Neverland at its best, an aspiration made heavier for how impossible peace at one point seemed.

But this season? This season hope is no cornerstone of perseverance, just a floppy deus ex machina to wave in front of whatever dilemma stumbles into the escapees’ path. William Minerva is dead? We can build a refuge without him! Oh, we can’t, ‘cause the demons are in cahoots with a human army who knows his previous bases? Good thing Norman is back! What’s that? He’s traumatized from being a lab rat? Oh, he and his new comrades will get over it when they realize killing for revenge at a base level is wrong! And the human masterminds benefiting from this farm system? Maybe they’ll be like Isabella and turn tail at the earliest notion of a new future, one they magically arrive at after gunning down the unrepentant Ratri clan head and giving the demon populace new blood that dulls their taste for human meat. Add a slideshow epilogue with a reunion in the human realm, and Neverland S2 simply shied away from difficult decisions by always taking the least enriching turn, an adaptation marked by even less grace than a giraffe trying to do the limbo.

It was awful. So awful, in fact, that director Mamoru Kanbe and series composer Toshiya Oono relinquished their credited presence before the halfway point of the season. Shirai wasn’t credited on the final two episodes as well. No one taking up their roles was. Studio CloverWorks found some embarrassing ways to put the “overWorks” in their name this season, but Horimiya wasn’t pulled down by over-ambition and Egg (as you’ll soon see) may have left a sour taste in the mouth, but not without many incredible highs. Neverland S2, however, was nothing but an exponentially disappointing descent into schlocky writing, worth some laughs borne from the sheer audacity of its decisions, but not much more. The adaptation’s fall from grace cannot be overstated, and while its first season remains a self-contained classic I can and will recommend at many given opportunities, the buck stops there. You do not need to watch The Promised Neverland’s second season. You will be happier if you don’t. Its promise…never lands.
Final score: 4/10
Completed after 11 episodes.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL QUINTUPLETS SEASON 2


As far as romance anime go, I prefer the quick and chaotic gems of the genre to Quints’ formula as of the end of season one; getting its quintet to realize they all have feelings for Fuutarou was hardly a hurdle large enough to drag out over the course of a full cour, and to make matters worse, his straight-laced, stoic “study or you fail” approach to tutelage sapped most of his personality as an individual. The status quo was decent, carried by the sisters’ chemistry with each other more so than Fuutarou’s back-and-forth with any of them, and the cast didn’t need to expand much beyond that. If predictable, Quints had a comfort zone, tonal consistency, and a clear endgame to drag out for as long as possible: which sister eventually marries the MC?

And that continued to be the case for a good chunk of season two, but Quints increasingly felt…different. Chalk it up to Nino’s emergence as one of the most (if not the most) righteous of the girls, Ichika finally committing the Love and War Crimes I’d been warned about, or Cake Boss being Cake Boss, but this season upped the ante considerably once it tossed aside the plot device of Fuutarou being the girls’ tutor  first and foremost (and with it, the dynamic they’d abided by up to that point). Quints simply became the weirder show I knew it had in it, and though it could still expand in scope to its benefit, at this point, I’m done nitpicking the adaptation’s priorities; it seems faithful, and its fans have proudly stood by it every step of the way for good reason. It doesn’t have to be my favorite harem rom-com out there to still be a fun time, and at this point, I’m more on board than ever before. See y’all for the already-confirmed season three when it comes.
Final score: 7.5/10
Completed after 12 episodes.

SK∞ THE INFINITY


For someone from the certain generation that celebrated their single-digit and tween years when “trying to be cool” meant jamming pop punk and trying to be the next Tony Hawk, Sk∞ The Infinity’s premise seemed tailor-made to appeal to my brain’s nostalgia sensors. Sure, some of the less sexually secure men in the room might mock its cast of photogenic pretty boys, but if there’s one thing you can trust series director Hiroko Utsumi with, it’s making those pretty boys well-developed characters with intriguing backstories and plenty of personality. Her work directing the first two seasons of Manservice classic Free! and long-awaited BL adaptation Banana Fish proved as much.

But sike! Compared to those shows, the bros of Sk8 (I’m not copy-pasting that infinity character every time) actually aren’t that deep. Its opening run of episodes suggests otherwise, presenting a pair of leads with an immediately effective dynamic: Reki Kyan, a gung-ho, infectiously positive skateboarder, and ex-snowboarder Langa Hasegawa, who feels out of place and aimless after the loss of his dad and a move back to his mom’s home country. The two hit it off quickly and Reki introduces Langa to “S,” a top-secret underground skate culture which holds races in the nonsensically-oversized wilderness of Okinawa (don’t think about it too hard). There they meet a bunch of side characters who mostly commentate over the races and whose own beefs really don’t amount to much of anything, and Adam, a maniacal Diet politician from an abusive home who dons matador garb at S and fixates on Langa as his only real competition. With Adam’s bonkers JoJo energy, the rest of the cast failing to meet the same level of silliness couldn’t really be helped.

But double sike! In spite of that, Sk8 turned out to be my personal favorite of Utsumi’s directed projects to date! Its backdrop lends itself extremely well to overblown stunts and slapstick, both of which are right up my alley, and when the series does take a darker turn, it boasts a 100% hit rate, featuring an arc where Reki has to come to terms with his new apprentice eventually outshining his raw ability. That in turn foils the development of Adam and one of his servants, the person who taught him how to skate as an outlet to escape his hellish home life, however briefly. Rather than wallow in the competitive misery that is “sports anime where some people have to fail,” Sk8 knows its characters are not created equally compelling and prioritizes its best ones, pitting the obvious heroes against the obvious supervillain.

You could call that a weakness, but I view it as a strength; leaning into the sheer absurdity of its premise, this series channels the spectacle of skateboarding and creates its own internal subculture instead of trying to settle into a more grounded setting that ultimately wouldn’t work in its favor. More than anything, Sk8 is a comedy, and it’s a damn riveting one precisely because it pumps hot air into its bag of tricks. Its episode-to-episode consistency was laudable and it truly went out with a bang. I hesitate to call it this year’s anime-original to beat (if only because Egg isn’t done yet, and compose yourself, I promise I’ll get to that), but it’s in the running, and that’s what counts.
Final score: 8/10
Completed after 12 episodes.

THAT TIME I GOT REINCARNATED AS A SLIME SEASON 2


I’ve been notoriously isekai-dismissive over the years, not out of distaste for the concept as a whole, but for the pathetically low bar most works in the genre struggle to leap over. The Discourse™ came to a head once again earlier this season when Jobless Reincarnation, one of the progenitors of the movement, at long last got a spectacularly-animated adaptation, only to disappoint many, including myself, with how repulsively its grown man-turned-lecherous child hero behaved. A well-rounded production and a cast worth cheering for shouldn’t be that difficult to combine, and many people’s disdain for Jobless Reincarnation was only exacerbated by the return of a title that began not long after its reincarnation cousin: That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime.

Henceforth called Tensura for short, this isekai first kicked off its anime adaptation in 2018, and while it got off to a methodical if sluggish start, it only ramped up in excitement by adding scores of allies, enemies, and ulterior-motivated third parties to its optimistic, diplomatic, and magical approach to nation-building. The story’s figurehead-mastermind Rimuru starts life anew in this fantasy world as a bit of a bare slate, though his experiences quickly mold him into a multi-faceted leader with an inclination towards altruism but power enough to protect his people and earn the favor of others in search of a place to belong. Points have been raised that even within this mentality, elements of human-like cultural imperialism remain, but they’re mostly navigated without falling into the trap of oppression. Capable of loftier politicking but rarely deviating from its whimsical, fun atmosphere, Tensura closed off its first season as one of the most, if not the most, well-rounded isekai around.

This second season does nothing to disrupt that, featuring several highs that concisely redefine its predecessor’s strengths and venturing into developments that—if not perfectly-executed—beg unwieldy decisions from a commander not accustomed to loss. Some peaceful economic expansion efforts ease viewers into this season, but it’s an abrupt and complicated network of war declarations that send Rimuru’s territory of Tempest up in smoke; his “no racism” policy got taken too literally when a smarmy batch of humans and their temporary allies waltz in while the place is poorly defended and magic-negated, exploiting the citizens’ pacifism and massacring not only dozens of innocents, but some important names in the story. Right-hand woman Shion and Everybody’s Favorite Dope Gobzo are among the deceased by the time Rimuru returns to survey the situation, and then he’s presented with a choice: to improve the odds of resuscitating them, he has to become a Demon Lord. For obvious reasons, that presents its own baggage.

Or does it? While the threat lingered, Rimuru doesn’t actually exhibit altered behavior upon his transformation, just loads more power and a new servant named Diablo clinging to him. It wasn’t a evolution without cost, though: he directly murders thousands of enemy soldiers, presumably all of them human, and few of them personally responsible for the sacking of Tempest (though they were en route to seize it a second time). Rimuru steels his conscience before the counter-massacre about as convincingly as anyone in his shoes could, and at the end of the vengeance, every last one of Tempest’s recently deceased are spirited back to life, happy and healthy. It’s the sort of feel-good stopping point Tensura seemed destined to reach, but the ease of it all understandably left some viewers doubtful of the series’ balls and brains: if it could present a tougher future by making his revenge go awry, why not try? The sacking of Tempest seemingly only happened to rush Rimuru into his decision to become a Demon Lord, and the the mechanics of his revenge seemed too convenient to facilitate any actual unease.

But I didn’t particularly mind. At this point, Tensura has gotten over the commitment hump; I’m too invested in the ongoing story for its own sake to fret too much about any given event, and with plenty of worthwhile buildup (such as the kids Rimuru taught, Myulan’s fantastic arc, and the introduction of Hinata, Shizu’s former student), this second season has been a lovely blast week in and week out. As a cherry on top, it’s “over,” but it’s not over: this is the year of slime, with an offshoot slice-of-life airing next season and the resumption of the “second season” with a non-consecutive cour even later in 2021. I’m happy to have it and I can only hope I don’t get sick of it in the months ahead. As is, I feel like I could keep watching it weekly for some time.
Final score: 8/10
Completed after 12 episodes.

VLAD LOVE


Vlad Love
knocked on 2021’s door in unconventional fashion, airing its pilot via YouTube late last year then waiting to drop the rest of its episodes in two halves, the first batch on Valentine’s Day and the second on White Day. Though that’s far from standard procedure, it felt fitting—releasing an over the top rom-com on a pair of “love” holidays is a fun nod to its theming and a month between content is just enough time to leave fans eager for more without letting them forget about it.

In theory, anyway. Eschewing the norm wasn’t solely a feature of Vlad Love’s distribution, but an ethos inseparable from the story itself, which features a blood donation fetishist’s chance encounter with a gorgeous vampire who shipped herself to the wrong hemisphere on accident after a familial dispute. The vampire, Mai, and her new extremely horny host, Mitsugu, recruit their school nurse to organize a “Blood Donation Club” in order to keep Mai fed. Later they add and attend a “night class” so she can get the full campus experience with her new “friends.”

I add “friends” in quotes because this synopsis, promising as it may be, was not where most of Vlad Love’s priorities actually resided—founding the Club served to introduce an auxiliary cast who simultaneously demanded a larger share of the attention and a shallower share of the depth than the series’ lead couple. A film buff who rattles off cinematic references 24/7, a cosplay queen who alludes to characters through costume more than she wears the school uniform, a student council president who kinda just…barks orders around. These were the faces of many of Vlad Love’s more tedious segments, some of which had the displeasure of being episode-long skits without any real payoff.

It’s all the more frustrating because the Mitsugu-Mai relationship is worth sinking teeth into, and in sparing moments, Vlad Love does, from their parents’ diametrically opposed demographics to the insinuation that Mitsugu is denying Mai agency out of selfishness and failing to grasp the big picture (a picture that often ends with her destroying the magically-reset city). But consequence means little in a world like that, and so the show tries its best to ride on sheer volume and climax value. At some point the references for their own sake and half-developed witticisms irreversibly weigh the show down, and while it picks up steam again in select pockets, its once-zany luster is often reduced to a predictable slog.

Style points where they’re due: it was refreshing to see longtime industry vets like Mamoru Oshii, Junji Nishimura, and Kei Yamamura receive free reign to take this creation anywhere they so chose, and that freedom is very much reflected in how profoundly unmarketable the final result ended up being. Taken in smaller doses—and in retrospect, a weekly release schedule may have translated its charms with less intensity—there’s a lot to appreciate in the absolute abandon that is Vlad Love. I just can’t really say the same about the specific minutiae it juggles.
Final score: 5.5/10
Completed after 12 episodes.

WONDER EGG PRIORITY


If you’re reading this, you’re probably a regular, in which case you don’t need me to summarize why Wonder Egg Priority was one of my most beloved shows this winter for the bulk of its run. I’ll still get to that, but first let’s address the AI in the basement elephant in the room: it isn’t finished yet.

And on one hand, thank whatever deity you subscribe to that Egg still has a chance to pull through. I’m obviously not privy to the exact details, but suffice to say this project (and to a slightly lesser extent, CloverWorks’ other two shows that aired this winter) suffered from severe crunch. Even if it’s sadly becoming more commonplace in the industry, with some series needing to bide time with a mid-run recap episode, the result is rarely mismanaged as bad as Egg’s delay was. Its recap was given a normal episode number as if to mask the charade of anything being wrong, a charade anyone with experience saw through, but apparently not associated press personnel, who accidentally a spoiled a major development as a result. Even worse, by the final three weeks of its run, episodes were finished mere hours before broadcast. Animation work had to be outsourced impromptu. Subs got delayed. In a since-deleted post, at least one production assistant was hospitalized from overwork on multiple occasions.

Egg’s case is an extreme example, but it’s emblematic of the new reality for more anime than we’d like to admit. As standalone episodes, you’d barely even know the back half of Egg suffered; save from a few choice cuts and off-model shots in its cour “finale,” it still looked remarkable, directed by well-respected staff at the top of their game and successful in transmitting a visceral, emotional response from its audience about controversial topics such as suicide, self-harm, abuse, and gender dysphoria. In the production’s darkest hour, fantastic vignettes delivered with punch and passion could convince a future viewer unaware of its developmental hell that nothing was amiss.

…or at least that’s what I want to say, considering the circumstances. Sure, as is, Egg is an unfinished story, its real conclusion slated for release in late June, though whether it takes the form of a normal episode, an elongated episode, or a director’s cut, nobody knows. The sheer bewildering perseverance of this project almost makes me want to just praise the staff, tell them to get some rest, and let me pick up with a final verdict when it’s all actually over.

The big picture is clumsier than that, though: sacrificing its overall goals in favor of short-term momentum, the writing itself in Egg’s second half grew aimless at best and tasteless at worst. By the halfway point, its conflict seemed clear as day: the four girls, each feeling pained by or responsible for the suicide of someone close to them, entered their dream worlds to fend off other monsters responsible for the deaths of the vulnerable. In the process, the girls would come to terms with their own loss and figure out a way to move forward in life, even if that meant overcoming the pyramid scheme of emotional labor which fighting as the “warriors of Eros” trapped them in. Each character’s quest for self-actualization seemed straightforward, and two of them, Momoe and Rika, more or less reached that point before their victories were abruptly interrupted by, well…

Actually, let’s back up a little further: the institute which Neiru girlbosses, Japan Plati, has connections with Acca and Ura-Acca, both of whom were at one point human techbros committed to building the perfect AI daughter (“perfect” in this context meaning “perfectly reflective of their biases against women,” I should note). They were technically successful, and the being known as Frill grew up in her little playhouse with the two of them until jealousy took hold and she murdered Acca’s wife. Shunned and confined to the basement as revenge, she then presumably orchestrated the death of the Acca’s teenage flesh-and-blood daughter, Himari.

All this new information came in the second-to-last (or charitably, third-to-last?) episode of the show, but it doesn’t really double as context. Plati is clearly intent on researching a way to defeat death, achieving immortality for its techbro idiots as mannequins and experimenting on brain activity with Neiru’s once-friend Kotobuki, but this sci-fi murder mystery subplot raises more questions than it could ever hope to answer. In providing us a loose causality for Plati rearing the chosen girls as warriors of life in a permanent struggle against the forces of death, they strip away not only their agency, but those of their saved souls up to that point. Teens struggle with bullying, parental neglect, domestic affairs, and trauma as a result of real societal forces, not allegorical conspiracies. To even suggest all these horrors are caused by the meddling of a psychotic AI hell-bent on revenge against the Doctor Frankensteins who birthed her is a bit of a stretch to put it mildly.

I’d shove that qualm aside if I felt I could (and believe me, I’ve been trying), but the more I think about Egg from week to week, the less assured I feel it even knows where it’s going. That could be justified to an extent when it was mired in the depths of production agony and just finishing a self-contained episode was its own reward—but it temporarily leaves us short of a conclusion, and in fact only doubles down on its sci-fi-isms when Ai cracks the worl- I mean, egg’s shell by battling against a Splatoon Sawaki on behalf of her parallel world self. Short of solving her own character conflict (a rebuke of Sawaki that will have to come in the real world, not there), Wonder Egg Priority only set up more work for itself at the finish line, introducing mechanics I frankly hope aren’t explained, because there’s only so much time, and those aren’t the pulse of anything it gets right. Ai, Rika, and Momoe’s central conflicts (Neiru less so, given her ties to Plati) are where Egg talked the talk and walked the walk. Now that it’s come time to resolve those stories, or like, resolve anything, the twists feel like detours leading backwards from the obvious destination.

After weeks of this—and with weeks of waiting ahead—I’ve made my peace with Egg probably not ending up the standout it once had the potential to be. Still, I’ve had a wonderful time with it, and its artful journey left me speechless and awestruck often, even when it made counterproductive turns. I think we might be too far gone to “save” the story, but I’m holding out hope its eventual “official” conclusion can wrap up some of the sketchy loose ends with the tact it was once capable of. If nothing else, I owe it some kindness and consideration; ambitious anime-original concoctions get saddled with the brunt of piss poor management these days, and that’s something that dearly needs to change. Best of luck to its staff and I’ll see y’all when the smoke clears for a true final verdict on it.
Current score: a few eggs short/the advertised dozen
Still watching after 12 episodes.


At this point I don’t want to falsely promise a return, but if all goes well, Spring First Impressions will be coming your way in a few weeks as routinely scheduled. Some of the premieres have already dropped, but before we charge headfirst into those, reminisce with us one last time about the last three months. What was your favorite anime of the winter 2021 season? What takes do you reckon we got right or wrong? And did anything completely slip through the cracks that we should check out retroactively? Let us know in the comments below or over on Twitter, and until next time, this has been your buddy Yata. See you then.

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