Hi, everyone! Yata here, and welcome to the second of my three late-year posts as we wrap up what anime had to offer us in 2021. If you missed my Top 10 EDs of 2021 list, make sure to give that a glance, and of course stay tuned in late December or early January for the grand finale: my Top 10 Anime of the Year and general 2021 Recap.
But before that, I said we’d keep the theme song trend going, and I intend to. You either love it or hate it—this annual list of my favorite OPs has been a feature of the For Great Justice-sphere since even before the site’s inception, and in recent years I’ve dragged myself through anisong hell by attentively marathoning every single OP from that calendar year just so I can say nothing slipped by me.
By my count that left me with just over 200 openings to slog through for 2021, and slog through them I did; the OPs that were amazing this year were amazing, but they weren’t particularly abundant, meaning I kinda had to pad out the bottom half of the 25 with some personal pleasures as opposed to only rewarding crowning artistic achievements. The number’s part of the brand, though—I refuse to change it at this point.
Nor will I change my criteria for eligibility, which dictates…
- The OP must have debuted in 2021. It can be from a show that premiered before 2021 and/or will continue airing after, but the OP in question had to debut this past year.
- All people have bias, and I’m inherently biased favorably towards series I have seen and liked since I’m able to parse additional context from their OPs. The same applies for genres of shows and songs that happen to be more up my alley.
- OPs from movies are excluded. These are just OPs from TV anime and ONAs.
- My rankings are mostly arbitrary and based on music composition, audio production, lyrics and delivery, visual production, audiovisual sync, originality, and pretty much any other metric relevant to absorbing this stuff. Some of these aspects are weighed more than others based on what I feel the OP in question was trying to emphasize, but I don’t give these individual metrics ratings of their own during the ranking process. The pros and cons of each still ultimately come second to my personal enjoyment.
- On that note, never forget that the following is all just some guy’s personal opinion. You’re entitled to disagree with any of these assessments and I expect that you will. If you decide to reach out asking where a certain show or OP is, just remain civil and don’t act in bad faith. I certainly welcome you commenting and plugging your own favorites from 2021 as well.
This is normally the point where I’d list a bunch of OPs that had either a lopsided standout feature (good music with meh visuals or vice versa) and OPs well-rounded enough to be in close consideration for a proper spot, but this year the recipients of those categories were far too numerous to bother listing individually. If you’re wondering what I thought of an OP that’s not on this list, feel free to ask, but the answer will likely be “it was fine. Fine doesn’t always cut it.”
That said, for at least one OP each year, “less-than-fine” not only cuts it—that’s the whole point it’s mentioned in the first place. It feels counterintuitive to reward subpar material, but sometimes a dearth of quality control can make for a really fun time. With that in mind, this year’s uppercase Honorable Mention goes to…
HONORABLE MENTION – “Shufu no Michi” by Uchikubi Gokumon Doukoukai
Studio: J.C. Staff
OP for The Way of the Househusband (Gokushufudou)
I’d have a hard time calling any aspect of The Way of the Househusband’s OP conventionally appealing; its visual aesthetic is all over the place and deliberately lowbrow, full of lens blur, pixelated graphics, and distracting, off-putting color combinations. Rest assured, the overbearing grittiness is part of the joke, as if to tell audiences disappointed by Househusband’s “voice comic” storyboard style, “now look, we could’ve made this so much worse!”
That’s a risky gambit, but “Shufu no Michi” not only bolsters the cheesiness already present, it turns the OP into something I genuinely wanted to let play, even if Netflix tried to urge me to skip it every episode. The lyrics—which honor the selfless duty of being a diligent stay-at-home spouse, because of course they do—are so tailor-made for this show I assumed the artists responsible must’ve made this as a one-off venture, but no, Uchikubi Gokumon Doukoukai are an actual band, and their shtick is every bit as silly as you’d be led to believe by this song. Atsushi Osawa’s raspy delivery, the raw audio mix, and the aforementioned video clip definitely won’t be for everyone, but could you envision a more fitting opening for a series like this? I sure can’t.
#25 – “Different” by Band-Maid
OP for Log Horizon: Destruction of the Round Table
Log Horizon’s return from tax evasion hell this year precipitated a host of questions, namely “does anyone care about this franchise anymore?” and “will they keep ‘Database’ as the OP again?” Really, I know that was basically a lifetime ago, but try to remember when MAN WITH A MISSION let “Database” loose upon Log Horizon’s first two-cour season in 2013 and everyone jammed it so much they brought it back for another two-cour sequel. A year’s worth of show all opened by the same song is basically unheard of in the industry these days.
And it was fun then, but times have changed; the wolf-headed rockstars have lost their ferocity—look no further than their embarrassingly underwritten HeroAca OP from this summer for proof—and there are no shortage of novelty rock bands to choose from out there that actually, you know, still rock. Someone somewhere decided to go with Band-Maid, a quintet who throw down in maid café attire, and they throw down hard on “Different,” a blisteringly fast monstrosity of riffage and fills held together by a commanding, hooky vocal performance. The visual clip includes callbacks to Log Horizon’s prior OPs and does as good a job as it can attempting to show everyone in the franchise’s bloated cast. While the series itself didn’t quite re-launch with as big a bang as the song does (its opening seconds literally accompany an explosion), that’s not its fault in the slightest. The track fuckin’ slaps and brought a breath of fresh air to a series in dire need of rejuvenation. It has to be here.
#24 – “Start!! True Dreams” by Liella!
OP for Love Live! Superstar
My general indifference of played-straight idol music has been well-documented, and that rings twice as true for ultra-corporate titles like Love Live, which seem to have more popular appeal than they know what to creatively do with. Or rather I perceived that to be the case until this year’s Superstar, which I’ll continue to contend is by far the best series in the franchise to date. I’d say the same for its OP, but I honestly can’t even recall those from previous seasons off the top of my head, which might just prove my point.
Admittedly, in both show and opening, a lot of my praise comes down to the visuals: since last year’s Nijigasaki series, Love Live‘s character designs have begun to look a little less robotic, and while the occasional CG group cut remains here, the choreography feels much looser than before and it in turn makes the girls’ expressiveness land, especially on the numerous close-ups or cutaways from the performance. The busy, colorful stadium full of floating music notes might be background overkill, but aside from that, the priorities were truly put in the right places, and the song’s even memorable enough that I reckon I’ll be able to differentiate it during an idol round of AMQ! Good on you, Love Live. It’s about damn time.
#23 – “Sing My Pleasure” by Vivy (VA: Kairi Yagi)
OP for Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song
There are a lot of things I could and may eventually say about Vivy’s disastrous fall from grace, but two crucial reasons I saw it through to completion are present here: first of all, well done, Studio Wit, this shit looks gorgeous. Phenomenal lighting, solid character designs, and microscopic detail all allow its robotic roles to look uncannily real. Second, even at its most confused, I could theoretically get behind a series about the desire to pursue artistic expression. I know the muddied vision Vivy left us with betrays that, but the intent was there, and technical prowess + intent is a winning formula for just about any anime opening, including this.
“Sing My Pleasure” is comparatively on the nose and its chord progression in the chorus is dime a dozen ani-song, but its polish and emotional thrust are so potent I can’t really knock it. Same goes for its occasional reused footage from the show, though when that footage looks as clean as this, can any of us really blame them for engaging in some recycling? Even if it’s a little safe and derivative beyond its surface-level appearance, the show itself proved it’s sometimes wiser to take small victories and not overshoot your abilities. There’s enough to enjoy here, and I’ll leave it at that.
#22 – “Alpha” by Towa Tei with Taprikk Sweezee
OP for Super Crooks
Talk about a last-minute surprise! Super Crooks hadn’t even aired yet when I mocked up my first checklist of OPs from this year, but I’m glad it snuck in just in time. If I posted the final list too early, I would’ve wanted to amend it just to plug this clip, which is so contagiously smug it almost makes me forget Super Crooks wasn’t that gratifying.
Granted I also have a few minor complaints with “Alpha,” as it takes a bit too long to get going and accentuates its English lyrics on awkward syllables that interrupt the sex appeal—but the video clip compensates for it and is nothing short of booty-shakin’ heaven. Seriously, this electro-soul beat just needs a little more oomph factor and it’d be a top-tier highlight. As is, the fluid choreography, stylish color palettes, and “look at us, we’re badass dorks” energy radiating from this thing are nearly unmatched. I admit there’s a lack of competition in its particular class this year, but don’t let that or its late arrival distract from the goods it brings. (Ass. The goods it brings are ass).
#21 – “Seize The Day” by Asaka
OP for Laid-Back Camp Season 2
As much as I can appreciate a series sticking with the same artist for a new OP in a later season, that practice can sometimes feel like lightning trying to strike the same spot twice. I initially felt that way about Asaka’s “Seize The Day,” which for better and worse, won’t get compared to Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” like my 2018 OP of the Year “Shiny Days” did. In hindsight though, aiming for that would’ve really been trying to recapture lightning in a bottle. “Seize The Day” settles for giving viewers something texturally similar instead of trying to supersede such an organically fun momen-
Hold on, do I hear a fucking theremin in there?
Okay, this song’s fun too, just a bit subtler about it. There’s no slouching from C-Station either, with a storyboard more diverse in its own right than that of Laid-Back Camp’s first OP. The homey, autumnal comforts remain, but like the contents of this arc, there’s more focus on travel—stylized maps, road trip scenes, and photos of shopping sprees litter the daily downtime between members of the OutClub, grounding S2’s OP as something specific to this arc of its material instead of a mere copycat of past success. Good vibes and modesty are about all we could ask of it, and it delivered.
#20 – “Mutsugo no Tamashi Nayuta Made” by AOP
OP2 for Mr. Osomatsu Season 3
At the risk of sounding ungrateful to a long-running franchise I have zero investment in, allow me to preface this by saying what I’ve seen of Mr. Osomatsu is just patently not my speed. For three seasons now it’s apparently found some sort of audience though, and it’s rewarded that audience with some pretty solid OPs I’ve long been able to exclude mentioning by the narrowest of margins.
But 2021, while no drought for quality OPs, still left me little choice; this thing has cool integrated credits, focally uses well-synced outbursts of energy, and looks animated with plenty of care. “Mutsugo no Tamashi Nayuta Made,” (which at present I can’t find any translations for) is completely listenable even if its sugary vocal track isn’t my usual cup of tea. It’s a fine OP. In fact, it’s better than fine. It’s good. It’s a good OP, and its perks should be obvious enough to anyone who watches it.
And with that out of the way, allow me to resume discussing openings from shows I’ve actually watched and can lend some perspective on.
#19 – “Hoshi no Orchestra” by Saji
Studio: Pine Jam
OP for Kageki Shoujo!!
Kageki Shoujo had a penchant for offering its aspiring actress cast destructive feedback, so it was a welcome surprise that its episodes opened with a reassuring, optimistic voice instead of one determined to instill doubt in their insecure psyches. I’d appreciate that tonal change-up regardless, but it’s an even bigger treat that “Hoshi no Orchestra” is a legitimately compelling pop rock tune in its own right. Backed by a regal string arrangement and balanced in composition so that every member of Saji has a little moment to shine, you could consider it an underdog pick, but it’s not an under-the-radar gem so much as it is the baseline of what a capable OP should be able to get away with.
Visually, the opening is a little less balanced; it’s carefree in its use of color, and its otherwise informative character expressiveness sometimes comes at the expense of jilted in-between cuts, but it’s still all the better for committing to the song’s encouraging tone and riding that charisma out.
#18 – “Minikui Ikimono” by CHiCO with HoneyWorks
Studios: Liden Films & Felix Film
OP for Otherside Picnic
Among this year’s more disappointing narrative messes was Otherside Picnic, which promised a budding yuri romance, Scooby-Doo-tier mystery hijinks, and a supernatural thriller in one. I’ve heard conflicting reports as to whether the original material or the anime adaptation should be considered responsible for dropping that ball, but I see little point in pointing fingers when I can imagine a world where a little less waffling leaves its selling points intact. In that ideal world, this would remain the show’s OP.
Because really, what is there to change? “Minikui Ikimono” lays out in clear terms co-protagonist Sorawo’s trepidation towards others and desire to make a connection, even if it’ll be bound by whatever batshit circumstances the Otherside decides to throw her way. In a catalogue already chock full of choice cuts, “Minikui Ikimono” also stands out as perhaps my favorite CHiCO with HoneyWorks track to date, its steadfast mix of pop punk and older rock ‘n’ roll tropes pairing well with a series about being in over your head on a new frontier. Even when its visual elements haphazardly clash, the spunky tone shines through. More old school rock organ in my anime OPs anytime, please.
#17– “Dark Seeks Light” by Yui Ninomiya
Studios: Silver Link & Palette
OP for The World’s Finest Assassin Gets Reincarnated in Another World as an Aristocrat
(Sekai Saikou no Ansatsusha, Isekai Kizoku ni Tensei suru)
If I may be allowed to make a massive over-generalization, action light novel adaptations aren’t often my story of choice these days, especially those series which seek to evoke a sense of “coolness” from the viewer as opposed to something deeper I can wrap my heart or brain around. Under very few circumstances do I find myself wanting to hand it to ‘em…so when I look y’all in the eyes and say “this LN OP is like, cool” do me a solid and accept that acknowledgement for what it is.
This mostly black and white storyboard is cool. Its use of shadow and reflection are cool. “Dark Sees Light” is cool. Its rapped/sung verse transitions are cool. Its arrangement seamlessly stitching floppy drum machines, suspenseful strings, and slapped bass while still managing to locate space in the mix is cool.
Don’t get me wrong, I give maybe a spare half-fuck about The World’s Finest Assassin on a good day, but I won’t hesitate to defend this OP as an unlikely pleasure for the eyes and ears any day, an act muffled only slightly by the knowledge that none of its coolness lasts beyond the 90 seconds it’s allotted before the show begins. Sorry, LN junkies. Take the W where you can.
#16 – “Identity” by Kiro Akiyama
OP for The Promised Neverland Season 2
Now here’s one of those songs that’s just love at first measure; give me them noodly indie guitar leads en route to an anthemic chorus and my brain will reflexively shoot off serotonin. “Identity” bowls an effortless strike for fans of emotive alt rock, and what a relief it comes with so much palpable momentum, because by the time The Promised Neverland’s second season began wrapping up, it dearly needed to borrow some.
Without harping on its dramatic downturn too much, Neverland S2 defenestrated the tension its predecessor had delicately constructed with tact and awe, but enough of that trickled over when it first got the ball rolling for this track and its accompanying “reach towards the light, kids” visual clip to use cliché to their benefit. When the stakes are stark and dangerous, you don’t need to justify the desire to survive, and the calls for reunion in “Identity” were all the more powerful when it seemed all hope was actually lost for its remaining protagonists to press on without the full group still there. Even though that got watered down for cheap happy-ending “twists” (ones reflected in the OP with added characters in later episodes), we here at For Great Justice prefer to remember the contexts in which OPs were at maximum strength. How badly could a narrative really ruin that experi-
#15 – “Sudachi no Uta” by Anemoneria
OP for Wonder Egg Priority
…Oh, right. Very badly, as it turns out. But credit where it’s due, Wonder Egg Priority’s OP allowed us to believe it was keeping its cards close to its chest when in reality it wasn’t actually aware what game it had agreed to play. That’s astutely reflected in how little this OP tells us about the show’s themes, goals, or cast. The most information anyone could gather is that it stars four young girls who appear to frequent the same neighborhood. One of them might be a shut-in, at least three of them seem lonely, and the scenery is abundantly pretty. Should that be a good enough sell?
It probably shouldn’t have been, and yet hoards of us fell for it anyway, so what worked? The film-like realism in the setting shots—and actual photographs thrown in—certainly do a number for viewers’ immersion, and that’s supported tremendously by how hushed the song’s opening bars are. For my first few weeks with the show, the start of “Sudachi no Uta” was alarmingly quiet—it’s unusual for ani-song to cover as wide a range in dynamics as this one does in just 90 seconds, eventually soaring in a chorus of harmonies and strings before its outro climaxes with one last unexpected illuminating sendoff. It wouldn’t be as powerful if everyone followed suit, but builds this delicate and effective could stand to be a little more commonplace. If only Egg itself understood the concept of restraint, too…
#14 – “Umi to Shinju” by JUNNA
Studio: Production I.G.
OP for Fena: Pirate Princess (Kaizoku Oujo)
While we’re on a roll of gorgeous settings, character designs, and storyboards let down by ill-conceived narrative decisions…
Yeah, once again, great OPs can act as a relic for reliving a show’s highs, representing a boundless sea of opportunity and an adventure to get psyched about long before said adventure turns out to be a bust. Unlike the two immediately before it, Fena‘s song is its least compelling feature, as its lyrics are more boilerplate than most of its ilk and the chorus melody feels a little tame. “Umi to Shinju” doesn’t lack for highlights, though; JUNNA’s vocal performance has some incredible moments and most of the arrangement is spectacular, bestowing the array of oceanic, technological, and fantastical imagery waving by with a sense of genuine wonder.
From start to finish, I.G. really went all out to make Fena as moodily-lit as possible, and the compositing here in both its sunny and nocturnal scenes is superb. Half the pitch in any adventure anime is making its locations feel like the sort of place you’d risk death to go witness, and in this montage, basically every site the cast of Fena visits—from dense forest to ancient city to open ocean—is awarded that beauty.
#13 – “Pink Blood” by Hikaru Utada
Studio: Brain’s Base
OP for To Your Eternity (Fumetsu no Anata e)
While it initially drew some ire for being a glorified overlaid highlight reel, I’ll insist the OP of To Your Eternity works, symbolically representing flickers of memory in Fushi’s mind as he recalls the things he’s seen on his journey of understanding humanity. That recycling complaint aside, the footage is still evocative, displaying moments close to death, at peace, and the full spectrum of human emotion as “Pink Blood” comforts the listener that their path to identity has meaning, even if it’s not fully understood by others.
At which point I’m disappointed to conclude To Your Eternity‘s adaptation did not understand its identity, but promise me with a good time and I’ll find a reason to keep it good. Hikaru Utada even made it easy for me; don’t expect a shit song from the best-selling Japanese artist of all-time and especially don’t expect to be let down by one that essentially marked their coming out this past summer as non-binary. The awkwardness of releasing such a personal track as a TV show theme song aside, “Pink Blood” simply rules, its stuttering arrangement and syncopated rhythms bouncing off each other to hypnotic effect in the verses before culminating in a silk-smooth climax. As far as OP music you’d be inclined to listen to on its own, this song is hands down one of the best to drop all year.
#12 – “In Case…” by BiSH
Studios: Bones & Orange
OP for Godzilla: Singular Point
Though I’ve bemoaned excavating some so-so OPs for filler in the back end of this list, what actually pains me is having to cut out worthy candidates from the top 10. In the case of “In Case…,” the thin guitar production, vaguely trite lyrics, and awkward mix job are just enough to make the decision a little clearer.
…Or so it seems before I watch the clip again and start second-guessing myself. Do any of those nitpicks really matter? The song is still an earworm, and the most impressive part of the package (the visuals, duh) overflows with cool apocalyptic imagery and jargony science diagrams. The layering and compositing almost teeter on sensory overload, but they never feel incongruous. Mostly saturated in dark reds, oranges, and golds, the other splashes of color that permeate the rapid-fire backgrounds give just enough pop to each frame without clashing with or usurping the overall tone. It’s a cool sight to behold and almost negates its song’s minor shortcomings…..almost.
#11 – “Cinderella” by Cider Girl
OP for Komi Can’t Communicate
Though the show itself has had a less consistent effect to this end, Komi’s OP exudes nothing but youthful jubilation. Its namesake protagonist is hyperbolically shy and spends about half this clip holed up in a classroom while her peers take dumb group photos and mess around on the school roof, but eventually she resolves to join them, and though it’s a simple enough storyboard to get to the heart of the series’ concept, its style kicks it up a few notches.
Like the storyboard here would be fine anyway, but its quick cuts and neat shading inject so much personality into it. The narrower aspect ratio also does wonders in setting it apart and “Cinderella?” Well that’s a timeless, exuberant bop if I’ve ever heard one from this medium. Komi might not necessarily age as well as its opening, but for the millionth time, I am here to dissect OPs, and this OP’s kind heart doesn’t really misfire even once.
#10 – “ODDTAXI” by PUNPEE & Skirt
Studios: OLM & P.I.C.S.
OP for Odd Taxi
Considering the countless detours Odd Taxi took on its descent into a city’s underbelly, it would’ve been easy enough to slap together a gritty sequence emphasizing the lurking evil around every corner, but that would’ve been a misread of its breed of urban fantasy. Its violence was more cerebral, its accelerations towards chaos pointedly gradual. What came to the surface as it bode its time was a sense of uneasy mundanity, and that’s the Lo-Fi Hip-Hop Beats to Scheme/Transport To energy propagated by the show’s titular theme song. Delving into themes of aimlessness and exploitation, “ODDTAXI” asks if there’s more to the present moment than being a cog in someone else’s headline.
Works for me! Interconnectedness is part and parcel to the series’ impressive scope, and the OP’s animation—storyboarded, directed, and drawn by one Ryoji Yamada—reaffirms that theme with clever transitions between scenes and spoilers hiding in plain sight. Abridged to no detriment for episodes with an exceptional amount of shit hitting the fan, this OP was an excellent aesthetic segue into the oft-contemplative, deceivingly quiet world of Odd Taxi.
#9 – “Jinsei Easy?” by DIALOGUE+
Studio: Project No. 9
OP for Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki (Jaku-Chara Tomozaki-kun)
How do you do, fellow…gamers? Need encouragement to keep on playing the game of life? DIALOGUE+ has you covered, and by extension so does basically the whole named female cast of Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki, who have sacrificed their conscience to deliver us a song full of dorky gaming metaphors. Did I mention the backing track contains chiptune licks? How about the characters singing to several of “Jinsei Easy’s” more conversational lyrics?
Hey, don’t laugh! It’s not overkill when it’s this thoroughly committed to the bit, and this OP is nothing if not committed, even rounding the visuals out with platformer footage and pixelated credits integrated on cue cards and slanted backgrounds. Its white space and depth of color are maybe a little underutilized, but that’s the only element even slightly up for debate in an opening so otherwise confident and creatively complete. What’s that? I gotta submit my response in Y/N format? It has to get a YES from me!
#8 – “Ai no Supreme” by fhána
Studio: Kyoto Animation
OP for Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid S
There are a few under-appreciated “second” OPs for franchises with revered first OPs in this top 10, but Dragon Maid’s contribution at least received some spotlight from the sakuga diehards for good reason! Featuring the cast dancing along and singing to “Ai no Supreme” in their own true-to-character ways with that utterly untouchable KyoAni attention to detail, the first leg of this opening is all but sure to plaster a smile on your face.
That is, unless you’re one of those people super skeeved out by Dragon Maid, in which case…fair, I guess? For all the love and passion put into this animation, it isn’t without its problematic elements, and prominent cuts involving Lucoa and Ilulu’s cartoonishly huge badonkadonks do temper my enjoyment of that sequence, if only temporarily. From chorus onward it’s nothing but grace though, and I’d argue fhána even one-upped themselves, besting their prior hit with the franchise, “Aozora no Rhapsody.” That’s a lively tune in its own right, but “Ai no Supreme” utilizes a charming back-and-forth of vocalists in the verses and feels much more like a whimsical playtime soundtrack than its predecessor—exactly the vibe this universe demands.
#7 – “VIVID VICE” by Who-ya Extended
OP2 for Jujutsu Kaisen
Praise Jujutsu Kaisen’s first OP as I did, I couldn’t help but feel like the streamlined, even-tempered nature of “Kaikai Kitan” left a bit on the cutting room floor—and as the first of a greenlit two consecutive cours, I was fine with, if not appreciative of that. There was still time to make the rising action pay off and showcase the series’ phenomenal animation, compositing, and shot direction with something more aggressive. For a season I kept my fingers crossed it would deliver on that potential.
And deliver it fucking did. “VIVID VICE” is everything I could ask for, instrumentally rougher around the edges and more energetic while still centered by a clean, tender vocal performance from Who-ya. Do I get to say it? Did someone drop (modern, but I’ll take it) post-hardcore in my anime theme soup? Blast me off to the fuckin’ stratosphere, Houston. I am ready for launch.
And that’s just me giggling about my field of expertise! The artists among us could probably gawk for days at how fluid, moody, and tense the visuals here are. I’ve seen a hell of a lot of action shounen OPs in my years spent commenting on these, and few of them have ever looked this filmic for one go, let alone two. The second one being even more impressive is just…it just doesn’t happen. This is something special. Its numerical spot may be lower than where Jujutsu Kaisen’s first OP ranked for me last year, but that only reflects its place relative to its contemporaneous competition; in my eyes, this one edges out its elder as the better of JJK‘s OPs and sets a high bar for the new ones coming our way in the series’ all but assured continuation.
#6 – “Koukotsu Labyrinth” by Masaaki Endoh
OP for Sakugan
Almost no anime this year rekindled those tried and true Saturday morning cartoon vibes better than Sakugan, an adventure through the Earth that—so far, at least—hasn’t felt pressed to over-explain its world, simply letting audiences bumble through it with a group of protagonists as endearing as they are in their own special ways dimwitted. If you’d expect the OP for such a show to play it safe, you have another thing comin’.
If anything, it almost has more cuts than it knows what to do with, overlapping scenes, changing aesthetic more than once, having a field day with text, and saving its truly grandiose sights for a majestic climax that leads from the chorus back into the initial hook. Too many JAM Project members in the recording booth dilutes the fun, but apparently just one at a time is bearable enough; Masaaki Endoh’s vocal performance is off-the-walls goofy without sacrificing any of his actual ability, and the arrangement courtesy of…four different writers (lol state of the industry, I guess) feels like it was indeed plucked from four different songs, making its stitching together into one piece of music in just 90 seconds its own brand of accomplishment. Boisterous, cohesively versatile, and a ton of fun, Sakugan and its OP share all the right traits. NO MATTER WHAT YOU SAY~ it deserves to be this close to the gold.
#5 – “Taiga yo Tomo ni Naitekure” by Franchouchou
OP for Zombie Land Saga Revenge
“Taiga yo Tomo ni Naitekure” isn’t a favorite of mine from the thankfully still-expanding Franchouchou catalogue, but it’s still really good—season 1’s “Adabana Necromancy” is just such an instant icon that this follow-up needed a little help to find its footing. Eventually it does; the trade-offs between members in the septet are more transparently indicative of their chemistry than most real-world idol troupes I’ve heard, and the track’s punctuated synth hits and timely fermatas retain tension throughout until the girls’ last gasp of an outro.
But more importantly, what a fuckin’ visual masterpiece this is; abundantly colorful without resorting to total abandon, neat credits integration, and a thematic throughline of road signs and miscellaneous modes of transportation all keep the viewer wondering where it will go next. The transitions are smooth as hell, stylistically diverse, and play with perspective constantly without ever needing to mask poor coordination with pure speed or instability. They simply knocked it out of the park. Again. Keep this franchise coming, please.
#4 – “Seija no Koushin” by Tatsuya Kitani
OP for The Idaten Deities Know Only Peace (Heion Sedai no Idaten-tachi)
Somewhere between Idaten’s ill-timed (prepare your air quotes) “comedic” inclinations and otherwise lackadaisical demeanor lies a story I’m not convinced it realizes it can tell. Bear in mind I bounced off it quickly after a less than rewarding pilot episode, but a cast of protagonists with immortality facing off against their own disregard for the vulnerable populace that needs their protection could make for a super compelling watch, if only it had the tonal grace to navigate such an idea, come cynicism or whatever else may.
Some of that could-be cynicism crops up in its OP by way of snazzy electro-rock banger “Seija no Koushin” and a psychedelic montage of the gods’ mangled, distorted, and sliced-open bodies spraying pulp, blocks, and static into a technicolor void. The squeamish among you might take issue with the mild body horror or nudity, but if nothing else, Idaten’s OP is just begging for a reaction, which is far more than I can say in its favor than the series itself. If it could showcase even half a sliver as much effortless swagger as this jamboree, it might’ve been graced with a title other than “the highest show on this list that I haven’t completed.” Alas, the backhanded compliment will have to do, and any time an OP makes me more disappointed in the show it’s attached to, well…that’s an indicator of a great OP indeed.
#3 – “Annoying! Sansan Week!” by the cast
(Tomori Kusunoki, Saori Hayami, Reina Aoyama, and Aoi Koga)
Studio: Doga Kobo
OP for My Senpai Is Annoying (Senpai ga Uzai Kouhai no Hanashi)
I know contracting seiyuu who can sing is just an opportune move in the industry at this point, but over the years I’ve mostly preferred my anime theme songs fronted and performed by dedicated musicians instead of voice actors. That’s not a hard rule, though, and My Senpai Is Annoying’s OP didn’t leave me with much to complain about. I do think it’s something of a shame the men in the cast didn’t get a role in the song, but say it with me, gang: what sells? Cute shit sells, and Doga Kobo are kind of The Place To Go Right Now™ if you’re looking for the cutest of the cute. Clearly they’re doing enough right without Shunsuke Takeuchi or Reio Tsuchida joining in.
But even then, this OP exceeds expectations. Fess up, when’s the last time y’all saw an opening consist of the cast filming their opening? If your answer isn’t “never,” you’ve got an OP to send my way, bucko. Framed in-universe as a silly dance video begrudgingly shot at the office, this thing is bursting with vibrant character animation (most often of the tsundere sort), and exquisitely overlaid backing vocal shouts. “Annoying! Sansan Week!” is admittedly one of the least extricable songs on this list from its visual context, but OPs are at least half a visual medium, and the full experience here is as charming as can be. Perky, lighthearted, and able to make a day wasted at work feel like a nostalgic blessing, this opening is an all but assured classic within its genre.
#2 – “Winds of Transylvania” by LOVEBITES
Studios: Production I.G., Drive, and Ichigo
OP (Mai version) for Vlad Love
To address the elephant in the room, yes, I know Vlad Love’s pilot was released along with this OP in late December 2020. The rest of the series was just around the corner, so I ignored it in last year’s list, meaning it’s still eligible for this one, and with a showing like this, I refuse to eliminate its presence here over a stupid technicality.
Like, just watch it. Even if director Mamoru Oshii’s “just do whatever the hell I want” philosophy didn’t pan out as accessibly as most of us wished, this was one gamble that paid off. Renowned all-girl heavy metal outfit LOVEBITES (with a name like that, how could you not enlist them for a vampire yuri anime?) not only provide an absolute slapper with “Winds of Transylvania,” they lent the animators their own music video as background footage and a base to rotoscope from. Taking advantage of both, the live action clip plays on screens in the OP’s first half before the students take the stage and finish performing the song themselves. The animation is super polished, save for the one back-up dancer whose movements are so stilted they actually add to how surreal an experience this is.
Vlad Love even double-dipped, alternating between this and a distinct “Mitsugu version” OP every episode, but while that one was fine in its own right and wouldn’t have been out of place on the list if it were the only one available, the Mai version is simply so superlative in its ambition, surprise value, and hamminess that I mentally disregarded its calmer counterpart outright.
Not that I inherently write off anything calm—tone is all in how you use it. Let the final OP here, my OP of the Year, show you what I mean:
#1 – “Hikaru Toki” by Hitsujibungaku
Studio: Science SARU
OP for The Heike Story
At the end of the day, I’m far more likely to remain wowed by a simple anime theme capable of deep resonance than a headline-grabbing gimmick. To an extent, all these theme songs entrust that the viewer will already care about them, and beyond their ability to sell a show, what really determines an OP’s value—in my mind, at least—is its longevity. Once its cour is up or its show finishes airing and we procure a new calendar to wipe the slate clean, what are the OPs most likely to still stir up some feels when you remember them? At its near-best, 2021 had no shortage of artistically proficient openings that did their parent series justice.
But The Heike Story’s is handily the one that moved me most.
Sure, it doesn’t have elaborate lip-sung dance numbers, it doesn’t do anything particularly profound with its animation (well, okay, the twirling clip at around 44 seconds is [chef’s kiss] spectacular), and “Hikaru Toki” is no exercise in novel songwriting; Hitsujibungaku’s ballad is just a slice of uplifting, shimmery, indie rock bliss, a genre and sound I’m very much in tune with and predisposed to love.
And lest you suggest that familiarity do only a number on me, admit it; The Heike Story doesn’t warrant an OP any more provocative than this. Its story was by no means “simple,” but it never attempted to hide its prioritization of the human heart and empathy for those bound by complicated legacies, systems, and ideals. Without getting too academic, The Heike Story made evident its care for its characters, and this opening grants us a rare, brief reprieve from (most of) the turbulence around them, a truly beautiful sequence wherein everyone is smiling, whole, and most importantly alive. It hints at the full summation of a life well-traveled with connections intimately treasured, and you don’t need me to remind you about the uprooting events Heike’s director went through for you to understand those feelings extend much further than just some historical fiction characters briefly appearing on a screen.
I won’t lie and say I cried while watching this OP for brownie points—but I came much closer to that with The Heike Story‘s than any other opening this year, and as such there’s not a doubt in my mind that it should publicly go down as my favorite OP of 2021.
And with that I bring my annual theme song rundowns to a close! What were your favorite OPs of 2021? As always, feel free to reach out and start a conversation in the comments below or over on Twitter. I’ll be back again in a month’s time for the end of the year special. Until then, thanks for reading and have a great holiday season. Catch y’all on the flip.