Yata’s 2021 Anime Year In Review / Top 10

And just like that, another year’s over. 2021 was one hell of a mixed bag for me personally, but as far as anime’s concerned, it seems like one of the most productive years for the medium in recent memory. You have to look at the big picture, though; half the reason this year was so unforgiving in its deluge of output was due to pandemic-delayed series finally seeing the light of day. Factor in the industry trend of increasing quantity (I tried over 100 anime this year—that’s a first), and if you were bored by anime in 2021, you must not have been looking hard enough for stuff to enjoy. There was plenty of it.

…And a lot of forgettable filler, as the laws of proportionality would have you suspect. The following rundown aims to cover all of them, starting with the premieres I curiously tried for an episode or two but nonetheless dropped. After those I’ll do the same for shows (and movies) I finished, with my top ten picks each receiving their own dedicated entry. Everything before the top 10 isn’t individually “ranked” per se, just grouped how I see most fit to illustrate the impressions they left. Those groups need names, and keeping these tiers aligned to a theme helps get the point across better, so this year, let’s go with uhhhhhh quotes from that one A/C Repair skit. Why? Why not? It had to be something.

Without further ado, let’s send out the year with the little diligence I have left and a boatload of sass.



This first cluster is also the list’s worst: absolutely broken premieres, the sort of debuts that fill you with doubt not only in regards to the series’ writing, but their production management as a whole. Sometimes they’re so inept, they’re momentarily funny, like the universally-maligned CG and sci-fi nonsense of EX-ARM or Tesla Note. Other times, their ineptitude results in something that can barely be described as “an anime,” which is the fate the ASMR titillation short Can I Make Your Ears Happy in 180 Seconds? suffered. (It couldn’t).

But the real travesties of this industry aren’t mangled Frankensteins we can all collectively laugh at—they’re the feasibly stable productions choked and gagged by creatively bankrupt plots and gross perspectives. Shit like the revenge porn misanthropy of Redo of Healer, the barrel bottom ecchi of The Hidden Dungeon Only I Can Enter, and the (I’m sorry, video game fans) medium-flustered, momentum-sapped The World Ends With You all drained my will to keep watching equally hard. These six shows’ premieres were in a league of their own as the worst anime I watched this year.


And that’s impressive, seeing as the climb to this next tier isn’t that steep. Mother of the Goddess’ Dormitory is also lite porn, but at least it’s occasionally capable of moving like an animation and has a clear audience in mind. The Detective is Already Dead bafflingly looked high-end for a few minutes, only to devolve into the sort of thriller that thinks it can present itself as cool by not making a lick of sense. A step above those, Dragon Goes House-Hunting made sense on paper, but it wasn’t as concise as its title, making for a mind-numbingly tedious experience hindered further by its whiny protagonist.

Then things just get mean-spirited: The Dungeon of Black Company explores the injustices of capitalism through a self-serving dickwad protagonist’s trials at exploitation. Life Lessons with Uramichi Oniisan does the same, but instead of blowing his load to narcissism, the show orgasms at his shallow, anti-joke, mid-career depression. And The Night Beyond the Tricornered Window might as well orgasm whenever it sees fit, as its run-of-the-mill spirit-hunting setup gave way to borderline rape apologia at the hands of a master who doesn’t much care for his apprentice’s consent. I had an excruciating time with all of these. If only there were some way to forget the things I witnessed…


Oh, right, I could just…zone out. Half-pay attention. Recognize early the show wasn’t holding up its end of the deal to engage me and only finish the episode out of semi-cognizant obligation. Is that fair to these six series? Not particularly. Do I regret it? Not particularly. With that disclaimer out of the way, take anything I say in these next two paragraphs with a million grains of amnesiac’s salt.

I couldn’t tell you anything about the likes of Back Arrow with confidence. A fantasy mech thing, I think? Ditto for Hortensia Saga (minus the mechs), a war fantasy so bland it would send Gordon Ramsay into hysterics or the hospital. Peach Boy Riverside had the distinction of thrusting anachronistic pacing upon its already confused audience, so best of luck to anyone who tried making heads or tails of that milquetoast adventure premiere as it was.

Heaven’s Design Team had a neat concept, at least; how do you and your firm go about making all life on Earth? Contentiously, one would assume, but no, the notion got old and undersold its potential quick. Apparently Battle Athletess Victory ReSTART existed. Might as well be news to me, but my notes document doesn’t lie: I watched its first episode. Oh, and video game fans, prepare to get mad at me again (this might be a running theme); Scarlet Nexus’ anime adaptation was desperate cyberpunk filler that couldn’t compel in the slightest. From what I’ve gathered, its game is fine. Good for it. Just play the game then.


If you’ve been concerned by the notion I haven’t listed many dedicated isekai in these “biggest nonstarters” tiers yet, don’t you worry, I’ve got not one but two groups devoted to this over-saturated, “way past sell-by date” flood of a genre. In the utterly forgettable camp: Tsukimichi: Moonlit Fantasy and Seirei Gensouki: Spirit Chronicles. In the edgy camp: The World’s Finest Assassin Gets Reincarnated in Another World as an Aristocrat. And in the cavity-inducing to the point of dental intervention camp: Drug Store in Another World: The Slow Life of a Cheat Pharmacist. Every title doubling as a synopsis makes my job a bit easier.

And I’d like to think most of us could agree those were all filler at best, but the final two additions to this group will raise some eyebrows. I’m fine with Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation fans hating this snub; I can respect the series’ direction, animation, and legacy as a popular work, but its sleazy protagonist was thoroughly unbearable in the little I saw of it. At least it took risks. The Faraway Paladin did not; it’s just as clinically exposition-heavy, but it replaces the tasteless raunchiness with…nothing. An improvement? You’d think! But completely derivative work is arguably the worst thing you could offer in a genre already inundated with lowest common denominator variations of itself.


Now, is isekai a complete lost cause? Of course not, or else my narrow-mindedness wouldn’t have led me to try any of the above series. But quality differs from work to work within any genre, and these next isekai were clearly more my speed than what came before, even if I ultimately didn’t stick with any of them. The Saint’s Magic Power Is Omnipotent was still a bit of a snooze, but starring an adult woman protagonist with a bit of sense is a welcome alteration. How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom is textbook dry, but not inherently off-putting in any way. Suppose a Kid from the Last Dungeon Boonies Moved to a Starter Town is exactly what it suggests, but burdened with underwhelming execution.

Full Dive: This Ultimate Next-Gen Full Dive RPG is Even Shittier Than Real Life is my rude pick of the bunch; I could tolerate plenty of its facetiousness since it obviously cared as little for its characters as my oblivious ass did going into it. Mutual disinterest can only go so far, though, as could The Slime Diaries, the slice-of-life offshoot of the Tensura franchise. I’d already wanted a break from it in between its two proper cours (still to come), so I skipped its even less consequential cousin, and lo and behold, Tensura airing alongside So I’m A Spider, So What? was the main reason I skipped the latter: too much investment for entry, too little guarantee of reward. It did feature Aoi Yuuki as a sassy spider though, so props for that, I guess.


Alright, enough isekai, how about some fumbling, incoherent romances and teen dramas? Girlfriend, Girlfriend may have spawned typo-related memes amongst my friend group, but its graceless gags at polyamory and skin-deep personalities left much to be desired. Osamake: Romcom Where The Childhood Friend Won’t Lose tried making an already tired trope its raison d’être with a cast of completely exhausting cynics. Remake Our Life was even less generous to its characters, and to make matters worse, its “relive our younger years and become better people” shtick is itself an old plot device I’ve seen pulled off with more finesse and passion in nearly every series to utilize it.

The historically-inclined among you may take to the setting of Taisho Otome Fairy Tale, but I found its sweetheart of a bride and curmudgeon of a groom could form only a half-enjoyable union for obvious reasons. Its simplicity has nothing on Tokyo Revengers, which involved a mix of time travel and chuuni gang-busting that had me going “oh, this is AnoHana for JoJo fans” and rolling my eyes so hard they got sore. I don’t know if its reputation let on that it felt like several shows smashed into one, but Those Snow White Notes’ did, and its early episodes bouncing back and forth between family drama, devotion to arts, self-actualization, and romantic pining made for an unmitigated mess, like they threw everything at the canvas to see what would stick but instead simply broke the easel it was resting on.


No anime seems to make or break a case for itself quicker than a sports one, and these four shows may have drawn in crowds interested in their token activities, but compelling character dramas they did not reveal, at least not as early as their premieres. Skate-Leading Stars had the unfortunate draw of airing in the same season as Sk8 The Infinity, which doomed it before I could even pretend to care. Backflips male rhythmic gymnastics squad also mentally squared off in my head against fall 2020’s The Gymnastics Samurai, a well-written family-oriented recovery narrative that this generic high-school team didn’t seem eager to push itself beyond. 2.43: Seiin High School Boys Volleyball Team hinted it would broach some dark subject matter quick, but it couldn’t promise the care to do so constructively, so I veered clear of it, and Re-Main re-routed its water polo concept with a premiere about a player suffering from amnesia, the most anime of character ailments. Nothing inherently deal-breakery in any of these shows, but if I don’t love the sport in question from the get-go, you’ve gotta sell me twice as hard on the cast involved, and none of these were able to early on.


Ah, wait, I forgot one: is PuraOre: Pride of Orange an idol anime with ice hockey players or an ice hockey anime with a team of idols? The first episode couldn’t seem to make up its mind, and while it might’ve made for an entertaining gimmick to follow, I started feeling anime burnout by the time fall rolled around. Much earlier in the year, a trifecta of winter idol anime fell even shorter of the mark; Idoly Pride had a surprisingly decent pilot, but one clearly unrepresentative of what was to come, so I set it aside. Idolls’ goofy appearance and abridged runtime were tolerable, but far from exciting, and Gekidol’s ominous self-seriousness felt tonally incongruous with its subject matter, and not in the intriguing way.


Before we get to the shows I didn’t have major gripes with, here come some uncategorizables: The Idaten Deities Only Know Peace had a neat “humanity’s struggle through the eyes of Gods” concept let down by schlocky writing, ineffective humor, and a visual aesthetic so psychedelic it bordered on ill-coordinated. The Vampire Dies In No Time had one joke, and it was in its title, and it quickly became aggressively unfunny. Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood was a supernatural period piece whose outset simply brooded with an assurance that didn’t translate into engaging television, and Banished From The Hero’s Party, I Decided to Live a Quiet Life in the Countryside technically isn’t an isekai, as its cast is from the world they currently inhabit, but it sure had me snoring like one. I usually like the more chilled-out end of the fantasy spectrum, but goddamn pseudo-isekai writers, give your protagonists some personality. I’m begging you.


Anyway, these next four shows took me between a month and a cour to let go. It was an easy, relatively quick decision for Takt OP.Destiny, which rapidly lost its potential in a tornado of catchphrasey jargon, weightless writing, and aloof characterizations. The Duke of Death and His Maid went down a similar route, but instead of devolving into gibberish, its relationship dynamics simply spun their wheels while emphasizing their creepiest, least wholesome characteristics under the guise of humor. It didn’t land. Out of the frying pan, into the trash.

It was a harder, drawn-out decision for The Great Jahy Will Not Be Defeated!, a decent enough filler comedy for a season but hardly substantial enough to cling onto for a second in quick succession. Meanwhile, To Your Eternity was a decent adaptation-turned-flop, plummeting from a torrent of hype and fine early arcs into a death spiral of over-dramatic, ineffective writing. If I ever hear that stupid shrouded narrator’s voice again, it will be too soon.


If you thought those mid-series judgment calls were premature, then you’ll love these. Given the choice between watching even more anime I was kinda iffy on or, ya know, doing anything else with my free time, it turns out the titles I did pick up were more than enough, and I never returned to these before the year ended. If I had to pad out my completed section with stuff I missed, these would’ve been the first ones I’d extend that second chance to.

Mieruko-chan had an admittedly silly ghost-spying concept, but its visuals were kinda gazey and that turned most people in my circle off to it, and I didn’t love it enough to bear it solo. Despite all my isekai-bashing thus far, let me hand it to I’ve Been Killing Slimes For 300 Years and Maxed Out My Level; it came close to my kind of isekai, a feel-gooder with some wise sarcasm and a comfortable aesthetic, albeit not outstandingly bold in regards to any of those elements. Mars Red likewise came close to my kind of period piece, but its narrative wasn’t as gripping as its aesthetic was, and speaking of optics, Pretty Boy Detective Club was pretty much all aestheticism. Even NisioIsin fans will tell you it’s not his finest writing to date. That much I could tell from the minute its smug, obnoxious characters opened their mouths, but Blue Period had the opposite problem: its cast started out too forgiving, its visuals awfully bland, and its commentary on art didn’t seem to have any novel or sustainable bite to it. I might be wrong there—lots of folks seemed to warm to it as it went on—but I missed my chance to backtrack to it before the year wrapped up.

Let’s Make a Mug Too fell into a similar boat there, though as a half-length short series about regional pottery, were the expectations ever that high? Maybe I’ll marathon it someday, just as I might breeze through Lupin III: Part 6 eventually, but I saw no need to rush into it as I wasn’t really in the mood for more Lupin when it dropped. And finally, I want to and will get around to Ranking of Kings sooner rather than later—I just knew its consecutive second cour wouldn’t end until 2022, making it ineligible for a numbered spot on this 2021 list, and I wanted to free up more time by temporarily holding on it. I wholeheartedly enjoyed its premiere and I expect the rest of the series will live up to its universally positive reputation.



Now for some things that didn’t live up to their good reputation! It happens every year, if not every season—something has a graceful, headline-grabbing premiere then ambles a while before catastrophic implosion. Sometimes that’s the fault of its overall vision. Sometimes internal production gaffes snowball and cripple the product. Winter spoiled us with the highest of highs sinking to both of those lows simultaneously: Wonder Egg Priority seemed on track to be an all-time great about processing trauma, but it brazenly shot itself in the foot with sick-hearted writing in the homestretch. A delayed finale that doubled down on its cruelest tendencies with no real resolution proved that sometimes in this industry you can neither have nor eat your cake.

Thankfully nothing else got quite that drastically disappointing, but there were plenty of other clunkers: as much as I admired Mamoru Oshii’s “I answer to nobody” philosophy in VladLove, the series was astoundingly dull, more a collection of hyper-niche ramblings than a story.

The trend slowed down after winter. Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song looked spotless from start to finish and still boasts some of the wildest animation and fight choreography I witnessed all year, but its narrative was an inconsistent hodgepodge of sci-fi showboating that couldn’t coalesce its thematic goals with what it actually depicted. Higehiro: After Being Rejected, I Shaved and Took In a High School Runaway prided itself on somehow avoiding the obvious red flag of its title scenario, but instead it found a few others to throw at the protagonists, including a dime a dozen love triangle, a repulsive, abusive mom arc, and a rape apologia moment, all with a straight face.

After seeing those to completion, I got more selective for the second half of the year, but Fena: Pirate Princess still slipped in the mix after tanking its adventure with gender essentialist muse-y gobbledygook in its closing episodes. Its set pieces were its pride and joy, though, not its characters, so the sting didn’t feel quite as intense as the let downs before it, and I marathoned Super Crooks, a Marvel offshoot with a mostly despicable cast, on a whim that left no room for hype to gather in the first place.


Those Worst of the Worst were pretty apparent, but a series’ reception isn’t always linear—sometimes it can get patchy, defined by frequent dips. These six shows did enough right to get me to keep coming back, but in hindsight, their ceilings were lower than I gave them credit for. Kemono Jihen had a neat “demi-human intervention agency” plot going on, but its meaner tone constantly conflicted with its kids show-inclined priorities. Selection Project likewise couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be a shrewd mockery of tournament reality TV or an inspirational idol show grounded by a miraculous medical recovery. Instead it was both, and also neither.

Super Cub didn’t have a firm handle on what it was trying to be either, but in its case, the two target demographics were “people who like cute girls anime” and “people looking to purchase a Honda Super Cub,” an admittedly very small sliver of that particular Venn diagram. Otherside Picnic, meanwhile, was let down by janky depictions of “enemies” that undercut any mystery it tried to conjure. Its romantic writing was also as surface-level as possible, an issue I’ve been told isn’t as prevalent in the novels, but hey, I ain’t no novel reviewer. Sucks to suck.

Godzilla Singular Point was probably a fulfilling infusion of inside references and new faces to anyone already familiar with the Godzilla franchise, but I was not, so its callbacks made just as little sense to me as its increasingly esoteric dialogue. Too much ambition there, and not enough ambition for this tier’s last entrant: Ganbare Douki-chan, a short about a horny, timid office lady crushing on her co-worker. Spawned from a fun little web comic, the adaptation gives you almost nothing the source material doesn’t accomplish as well, if not better.


Oh, right, sequels exist. Well, we’ve got some good ones, some great ones, and some mid ones. The great ones poked into the top 10. The good ones are still to come. These mid ones were…mid. The middest of them all might just be My Hero Academia Season 5, because duh, once you’ve reached five seasons, you’re kinda just shoehorning tangential plot threads in for the sake of it. I’m not completely uninterested in continuing to see where HeroAca goes, but its weekly updates were such an afterthought that I put off its two cours this year for when I was so bored even more HeroAca could be considered preferable. That’s just how it is sometimes on this bitch of an Earth.

Actually, it can be worse than that: The Promised Neverland Season 2’s unceremonious abandonment of suspense, tact, and causality made for one of the biggest flops of the year, compounded by just how good its prior season was. Beastars Season 2 wasn’t as devastating to witness, but it too took a series overflowing with potential and molded it into a lump of awkward writing decisions, backwards priorities, and silly, neutralized tension. That Time I Reincarnated as a Slime Season 2 had it both ways: its first cour was some of the franchise’s finest stuff to date, but its second dragged out an exceptionally dry, lifeless arc that soured me on the series outright by the time it ended.

With even fewer expectations on its shoulders, the return of Log Horizon, with its third season subtitled Destruction of the Round Table, also initially caught my attention only to lull me to sleep when its less interesting characters took the limelight. Its inverse, My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! X, was a snorefest out of the gates but eventually gained traction in the sketchiest of ways, culminating in, uh…the Keith route. People who know know. I needn’t say more. All these sequels exemplify why “longer” isn’t always synonymous with “better.”


It just so happened that this middle crop of shows—not quite bad enough to poke fun at, not quite great enough to land in the honorable mentions—were romantic comedies or dramas of roughly equal quality. Some weren’t really full shows, such as the pretty, 2-minute magic short Deji Meets Girl or the stiffly-storyboarded yakuza memeshow The Way of the Househusband (and its second cour). Others committed to a bland visual aesthetic, like the age gap milk of Koikimo, or were just plain underwritten, like the masochist awakening at the heart of Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro. On the opposite side of the pro-con coin, the likes of fall’s My Senpai Is Annoying and Komi Can’t Communicate fell a little victim to their source material’s shortcomings, but their polished adaptations bolstered the hype they arrived with so that they remained entertaining throughout.

The Case Study of Vanitas wasn’t even principally a romance anime, but its romantic scenes were by far the series’ best material, and I hope it can capitalize more on those in its sequel to come. Last but not least, Horimiya was the epitome of an endearing, snarky, youthful rom-com, a decade overdue for a full adaptation, even if it kinda trailed off mid-way through without forward momentum. I dug its cast so much I can’t really knock the series for giving me more time with them.


But let’s say you want to see more with less time; if movies fit your attention span or commitment level better, next year should be very fruitful; COVID spelled uncertainty for film as a market over the past two years, and those effects could be felt as one 2021 premiere after another got postponed to 2022. Still, some made their way to the big screen in the last two calendar years, and due to regional licensing lag, I’ll count anything that came out in 2020 or 2021 in this category.

Some of those were effectively originals; Josee, The Tiger, and The Fish tried a valiant hand at the “Nice Guy MC falls for girl in poor health” formula and tripped its way out of as many scenes as it strode through, making for a tonally disjointed, if visually gorgeous watch. The Stranger by the Shore’s abridged length obstructed it from gaining much steam, but if a rushed, charming BL romance sounds like it’d be up your alley, you might as well give it a peek. By far, I thought the best original ani-film in this time window was Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop, a bright, kind-hearted tale of some dorky teens who frequent their local mall. Really. If you like understated, sappy, optimistic “the kids are alright” sort of movies, this is gonna be the winner for you. No Grinches allowed.

As for sequels to TV franchises, Given: The Movie existed. I honestly can’t recall much about it since I watched it nine months ago, but my notes read “yeah that was a Given movie,” so interpret that however you will. A significant step up from there is Shirobako: The Movie, which wasn’t as industry-informative as its TV series, but presented its iconic cast with a new set of emotional beats to unpack. While less hard-hitting as a result, it did about as much as I feel 2 hours worth of post-timeskip Shirobako content reasonably could, and for that I applaud it. The biggest surprise here? Violet Evergarden: The Movie took two of the series’ least engaging characters—Gilbert and Dietfried—and brought them back to force closure onto Violet’s desperate pining for the Major. Interspersed with another tear-jerker letter client and framed through a research hunt generations after that timeline, the writing was even more ambitious than anything in the TV series, and that dependable KyoAni craftsmanship filled every scene with artistic splendor. It’s more or less the best finale the franchise could’ve asked for.


Speaking of rewarding continuations, here are those “good” sequels, as promised. Granted maybe “good” is a stretch for 86 Part 2, whose production got so fragmented it won’t actually finish airing until this March, but I believe hindsight will be kinder to its pursuit of meaning on the battlefield than weekly watching was able to grant it. Hell, even “sequel” is a stretch for Jujutsu Kaisen, as its chunk that aired in 2021 was just the second consecutive cour of its first season, but I treated it as such, and I can confirm the series is a breath of fresh air, re-packaging shounen action tropes into an especially lackadaisical framework more than capable of comedy, suspense, and sheer wow factor.

Some of these sequels just carried on the “eh, it’s fine” legacy of their prior seasons; the simple-minded, rural slice-of-life Non Non Biyori Nonstop and galaxy-brained tutor harem The Quintessential Quintuplets ∬ saw no drop-off of quality, but arguably no dramatic gain of it either. Megalo Box 2: Nomad threw different, woker punches than its pre-timeskip counterpart, but the blows landed with the same, half-pulled impact, a franchise I seem to respect more than I actively love. A clear step beyond all of those—only relegated to this spot because the rest of my Honorable Mentions ended up being new stuff—is UmaMusume: Season 2, the more focused, ambitious iteration of the hit gacha-turned-unfathomably immersive sports comeback story.


We’re almost there now; it’s Honorable Mentions time, and while I found all these shows fantastic, some of them concluded with a whole extra cour’s worth of potential shelved. For example, take Sakugan, which almost entirely ignored its own world-building in order to ensure its character arcs made sense for the final hour. Its father-daughter mischief-making adventure was too fun for that absent exposition to really drag it down, but I couldn’t escape the sensation that it only got to tell half a story. Same for Kageki Shoujo, which brought some of its thematic subplots to a fulfilling close even if its young actresses’ journeys have barely begun.

I hope we see second seasons of those sooner or later, and I’m pleased to announce we will see more Shadows House, as it was an immersive, mystifying thriller with as much tonal control as you could ask from a cutesy world governed by enigmatic overlords. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if genre trends eventually greenlight Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki for a continuation as well; its slow, manipulative start gradually blossomed into an unexpectedly rich coming of age story that I’d love to see expand further, and I think it’s popular enough overseas to economically warrant that. Sk8 The Infinity, meanwhile, wrapped up with a neat bow and was all the better for it, cementing its campy antics, prodigy resentment arc, and all-time great antagonist Adam as serious underdogs.

If ever there were an “overdog”—the sort of title so critically renowned I’m almost sad I didn’t love it quite as much as I feel it deserves to be cherished—that show would be The Heike Story, whose historical cast probably meant more for domestic audiences than foreign ones and demanded close attention to completely process. Despite some waning interest during its midsection, an especially hellish production schedule, and a huge cast of similar names I had issues differentiating between, even I can admit its thematic writing was airtight and its final stretch of episodes packed one of the mightiest emotional wallops in anime this year.

And with that, I’ve exhaustively namedropped all but my favorite ten anime of 2021. Where do each of the remaining contenders rank? Who picks up the gold—and my first bona fide 10/10 in years in the process? Keep on readin’ on.




Studio: Sunrise  |  Director: Takahiko Kyogoku  |  Writer: Jukki Hanada
Episodes: 12  |  Based on: multimedia project by Kadokawa, Lantis & Sunrise
Alternate name: N/A  |  Legal streaming site: Funimation
Licensing status: Licensed by Funimation  |  Dub status: Not dubbed

In a twist for the Love Live-verse, the future of Yuigaoka Private Girls’ High School isn’t publicly in jeopardy. First-year Kanon Shibuya had an anxious audition and missed the cut for the academy’s prestigious music course, but fellow classmate Keke Tang overheard her singing and insists she’s not only good, but talented enough to become a school idol anyway. Overcoming stage-fright, inferiority complexes, and dismissive confrontations from the student council, Kanon, Keke, and three other freshmen unite to represent the school as Liella! Your typical Love Live-y antics ensue.

Whoa whoa whoa, pump the brakes. “Typical” would be selling Superstar short. I understand the following isn’t the prevailing opinion, but my previous attempts to vibe with Love Live have mostly left me wanting more. It has its highlights—usually peppered in by comic relief characters during exceptionally goofy episodes—but the rest of the series’ music, plays at sincere drama, and stiff, copy-paste character designs fail to land on me. I wanted to believe Love Live might one day mold itself into something I fancied, but its odds wouldn’t improve until it removed the more forgettable halves of its routinely bloated casts and permitted those who remained to just ham out with minimal intervention.

And out of absolutely nowhere—right off the heels of 2020’s especially dry Nijigasaki series, even—that’s exactly what Superstar did. A timid talent, a manager/fangirl hybrid, The Friend character, a snooty former child “star,” and a begrudging student council president are apparently all you need to generate an endless supply of punchlines and petty arguments. Superstar doesn’t waste a moment on extras. It’s a rapid-fire distillation of the franchise’s good comedy, and its forward momentum on those grounds kept me not only attentive to but completely invested in Liella’s growth. The paring down of characters was a necessary step, of course, but Superstar’s fun nature is really elevated by the return of School Idol Project’s Takahiko Kyogoku as director, filling the margins with a hearty assortment of visual gags and technologically refined performance numbers. Ironically, devoting less time to pursuing the girls’ passion allows the heart of its creative staff to shine through brighter than ever before, and that’s a result I’ll gladly take, even if it means eating my words. Love Live Superstar is very good. They finally got me.


Studio: Trigger  |  Director: Akira Amemiya  |  Writer: Keiichi Hasegawa
Episodes: 12  |  Based on: Gridman Universe by Tsuburaya Productions
Alternate name: N/A  |  Legal streaming site: Funimation
Licensing status: Licensed by Funimation  |  Dub status: Dubbed

A far-flung sequel of sorts to 2018’s SSSS.Gridman, this year’s SSSS.Dynazenon follows four aimless people united by a young man named Gauma who introduces himself as a “kaiju user.” That doesn’t immediately mean much to the group, but once dangerous kaiju start appearing around their city, spawned by a quartet of so-called “Kaiju Eugenicists” who hold a grudge against Gauma for leaving their ranks, Gauma and his new comrades hesitantly begin to fight back in their collective giant robot, Dynazenon.

You arguably don’t have to see Gridman to absorb Dynazenon, but I’ve found it helpful to consider each series a side of the same coin. Gridman cleverly misdirected audiences into assuming its blank slate heroes were its focus characters, only to humanize antagonist Akane Shinjou with an evascerating reckoning at the last minute. That worked—stunningly so, I’d contend—but Dynazenon had the inverse in mind: this time the antagonists are the dull ones, and the protagonists bear the weight of estrangement. In a nutshell, Yume acts cold and irresponsible to nearly everyone ever since the death of a relative. Her classmate Yomogi copes with his parents’ divorce by staying away from home as much possible. Koyomi, twice the age of his cohorts, has no job or prospects. And his teen cousin Chise foolishly venerates that lifestyle, skipping school with him to run from her own anxieties.

Gauma brings them all together with tunnel vision to defeat the kaiju, but the other four leads have larger mental menaces looming over their involvement in his plans. Per the premiere, the four S’s prefixing Dynzanenon stand for “Scarred Souls Shine Like Stars,” and wow, do they ever; directly foiling the Eugenicists’ inability to let betrayal, loss, and failure fall to the wayside, Gauma’s new comrades gradually bear their wounds so they can begin to process their baggage and eventually carry on with life. I’m a sucker for these sorts of coming of age narratives, and Dynazenon’s meta-gaming of those themes with an empathetic wit, exciting action sequences, and a polished, nostalgia-drenched visual aesthetic made for a fantastic time.


Studio: Arvo Animation  |  Director: Akitoshi Yokoyama  |  Writer: Keisuke Makino
Episodes: 12  |  Based on: light novel series by Keisuke Makino
Alternate name: Tsuki to Laika to Nosferatu  |  Legal streaming site: Funimation
Licensing status: Licensed by Funimation  |  Dub status: Dub in progress

In a Totally Fictional, Definitely Not Our Reality-ified Cold War, the Republic of Zirnitra (that’s the Soviets) and the United Kingdom (that’s…the U.S.? Just run with it) enter into a space race. Lev Leps, a Zirnitran Air Force Lieutenant, is among those in consideration to be the first human sent into space, but as a test run, Zirnitra decides to launch a vampire (anime, folks) named Irina Luminesk up there first, and she’s willing to undergo inhumane treatment if it means being the first soul on Earth to reach the cosmos. While everyone else considers Irina a subhuman test subject, Lev quickly understands that vampires aren’t a people to be feared—and if the duo can escape their motherland’s inclination towards silencing dissent, the stratosphere might not be the only barrier the two break.

First, a disclaimer: Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut is by far the least visually engaging series in this top ten. Its aesthetic is pale and muted, its animation is generally stiff, and its direction is simply workmanlike. Thankfully, the barren near-Arctic setting and historical framing support the de-saturated color palette, and what the storyboard lacks in audacious cuts it more than makes up for with narrative absurdity. The show leans hard into its patently ludicrous premise precisely whenever it’s called for.

And that would’ve been entertaining enough, but Irina also knows when it’s not called for, and it’s bewilderingly able to tread the suspension of disbelief straight through to its improbable feel-good ending. The series may make clear from the get-go it’s dealing with a watered down rendition of the mid-20th century, but it doesn’t turn a blind eye to the victims of its warmongering nations’ oppressive policies. Political dissidents disappear. Families worry their children will get gulag’d. Vampires—as it turns out, not just native to Rus- sorry, Zirnitran territories—are marginalized the world over in a flimsy but well-intentioned race commentary. The balls thrown take some mighty surreal paths just to end up back in the catcher’s mitt, but Irina functions three ways over as a celebration of personal glory, unlikely interracial love, and a critical depiction of stymied potential under totalitarian rule. A dark horse that can deliver almost anything you ask of it (as long as it’s not too animated), Irina: Vampire Cosmonaut injects endless charm into a bleak, preposterous scenario.

#7 – 86 PART 1

Studio: A-1 Pictures  |  Director: Toshimasa Ishii  |  Writer: Toshiya Ohno
Episodes: 11  |  Based on: light novel series by Asato Asato
Alternate name: N/A  |  Legal streaming sites: Crunchyroll, VRV
Licensing status: Licensed by Crunchyroll  |  Dub status: Dubbed

The Republic of San Magnolia has been in combat with the Empire of Giad for nine years, but the government proudly insists to its people that no San Magnolian blood has been shed since the introduction of remote-controlled war machines. It’s a bold-faced lie, but few care; those machines are actually piloted by “86,” an assortment of ethnicities discriminated against and forcefully relocated to the fringes of the Republic’s Alba-supremacist nation-state. Aware of the cover-up, Vladilena “Lena” Milizé, daughter of a noble family and herself a major in the Republic Army, tries whistleblowing the affair, but to no avail. Instead, she gets assigned as “Handler” for an infamous unit of 86 named the Spearhead Squadron, a position all her predecessors quickly bailed on. Armed with good intentions but separated by distance and effectively alone in her dissidence, 86’s first season interrogates Lena’s assumptions about the broader state of the conflict, her place in the quagmire, and the Spearhead Squadron’s future.

I’m normally not super fond of military anime, but 86’s reputation precedes it for good reason; this “Part 1” is more of a psychological dissection than it is a political theory drama or a battlefield barn-burner. Lena begins the series sure of her moral high ground but unable to manifest that goodwill into meaningful change. Her communications with the Squadron pull no punches: as much as she considers herself a force of mitigating good bound by the desires of a sinister state, her supposed underlings respond with a mixture of apathy, anger, and exasperation. Their lives aren’t just at risk—they never really got the opportunity to envision themselves as their own actors in the first place. The Squadron and Lena contact each other often, but their interpretations of loyalty, freedom, and safety all operate on different definitions. In this sense and many more, 86 bears all the complexities of any rightfully renowned war drama.

Aside from the minor supernatural anime-ism here or there, most of which verge too close to spoiler territory to reveal here, it’s all navigated with an unexpectedly refreshing sense of tact. Toshimasa Ishii’s direction is utterly spectacular too, elevating the lofty concepts at play with constant visual symbolism, a discrete halving of set pieces each episode, and several of the most stake-through-heart memorable match cuts in the medium this year. Better yet, though its source LN numbers almost a dozen volumes and a second anime season is technically still in session, this first season bows out at a point of feasible finality so thematically satisfying that more content doesn’t register as a necessity. Equally imaginative and grounded to the human condition, 86 Part 1 was one of the year’s best surprises.


Studio: P.A. Works  |  Director: Toshiya Shinohara  |  Writer: Yuuko Kakihara
Episodes: 24  |  Based on: N/A, anime-original
Alternate name: Shiroi Suna no Aquatope  |  Legal streaming sites: Crunchyroll, VRV
Licensing status: Licensed by Crunchyroll  |  Dub status: Not dubbed

Immediately after exiting the idol industry, a young woman named Fuuka Miyazawa decides to head for the tropics of Okinawa instead of returning home. Running from her newfound dilemma without anywhere to stay or work, she eventually visits a small aquarium called Gama Gama and requests a job there. The family who owns the establishment grant her employment and allow her to stay with them, but the arrangement won’t last long; despite a desperate effort led by the owner’s headstrong granddaughter, Kukuru Misakino, Gama Gama is in financial and infrastructural decline. Set to close in the months ahead, what will Fuuka and Kukuru do next?


It had been a suspiciously long time since P.A. Works offered us anything worth adoring, and The Aquatope on White Sand marks a return to their on-and-off “working girls” concept. Somewhere between the juicy family drama of Hanasaku Iroha and the frenzied, soul-crushing reality checks of Shirobako and Sakura Quest, Aquatope doesn’t twist the quarter-life crisis knife into your torso, nor does it exaggerate youthful rebelliousness. It occupies a cleanly-constructed, professional middle ground, less about extensive interactions between people and more about gaining confidence in your field of work.

It’s two stories in one, really; the first cour focuses on Fuuka’s acclimation to island life, the kindly community her hosts foster, and overcoming her inexperience gap compared to Gama Gama’s other staff. The second cour is where things start getting really good, though; pushed to take an opportunity to grow, Kukuru begins to question whether or not she loves working at “any aquarium,” or just the one her family ran all her life. Thrust into a colder environment to more wholly understand the business side of operating a profitable aquarium, she butts heads against other institutions and her own prior ideals. Along the way, viewers don’t just get into the mind space of its two “fish out of water” heroines, but they get to learn about sea life as well, making good on Aquatope’s auxiliary aim to entice younger generations into caring for ecosystems that’ll remain under indefinite threat. Its supporting cast is fun, if not particularly deep, and the series admittedly under-delivers on a handful of romantic subplots, but its thematic vision is as vast and awe-inspiring as the wide-open waters it holds so dear. Factor in consistently gorgeous backgrounds and it’s handily one of the prettiest anime dramas in recent memory.


Studio: Kyoto Animation  |  Director: Tatsuya Ishihara  |  Writer: Yuka Yamada
Episodes: 12  |  Based on: manga series by Coolkyousinnjya
Alternate name: Kobayashi-san Chi no Maidragon S  |  Legal streaming sites: Crunchyroll, VRV
Licensing status: Licensed by Crunchyroll  |  Dub status: Dubbed

Now more or less fully settled in amongst humans, the dragons from season 1 of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid continue to reckon with their outstanding grudges, wander into cultural misunderstandings with their human counterparts, and adopt a new foe.

To clear the air first, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid can be a thorny experience to praise; its source’s writing is aggressively heteronormative, cartoonishly boob-happy, and subjects some of its minor (as in young and not very important) characters to sexually-coded situations. Those elements all permeated Dragon Maid’s otherwise remarkable first anime adaptation, and while significantly downplayed and diluted this time around, they do nonetheless sometimes appear in this sequel, especially in its opening pair of episodes.

That’s another way of saying “it’s all uphill from there,” and I don’t just mean because the bar was initially low; Dragon Maid S resolves with one of the most dazzling, tonally diverse runs of episodes you’ll get out of the medium all year, the perfect payoff for months of gradual growth and an equally explorative season before it. Anyone who in good faith treasured Dragon Maid at its best before—its spicy animation, its sincere yearning for belonging, and its thoughts on humanity voiced from a race beyond ourselves—will surely eat up what this sequel has to offer. It’s all the series’ strengths with fewer instances of leaning on sketchier material as a crutch.

But it’s a symbolic victory to witness as well; Dragon Maid S had been announced as Kyoto Animation’s next TV project a few short months before the 2019 arson attack claimed the lives of dozens of the studio’s staff, including season one director Yasuhiro Takemoto. That the studio bounced back at all, let alone in top form with a replacement director, and fulfilled the promise to deliver Dragon Maid S is itself an event worthy of celebration, and that context was never far from the back of my mind while watching it.


Studio: C-Station  |  Director: Yoshiaki Kyougoku  |  Writer: Jin Tanaka
Episodes: 13  |  Based on: manga series by Afro
Alternate name: Yuru Camp Season 2  |  Legal streaming sites: Crunchyroll, VRV
Licensing status: Licensed by Crunchyroll  |  Dub status: Not dubbed

Now completely comfortable with each other, independent spirit Rin, her more indoorsy friend Ena, and the Outdoors Club trio of Nadeshiko, Aoi, and Chiaki, continue to sightsee scenic locations. Laid-Back Camp’s second season is just as brisk, cozy, and charming as its first, this time encouraging its cast to expand their horizons a little further than the immediate mountains of Yamanashi Prefecture.

Beyond the obvious—more time spent watching these campers is always a little slice of heaven—Laid-Back Camp’s second season isn’t burdened with the legwork of introducing major characters or developing a shy lead with convincing patience. Rin is accepted amongst the larger cast, but she’s vitally still awarded the freedom to explore locations on her own, even eventually piquing Nadeshiko’s interest in doing the same. Looking out for each other from afar, sharing survival tips, trivia, and site recommendations, Camp continues to indulge in introverts’ solace in ways that just don’t feel as unconditionally supportive in other anime. Even when the less informed of the cast trip into potentially dangerous situations, nothing can shake the calm and comfort this series radiantly emits.

After a couple months of those solo escapades, the gang gets back together along with Aoi’s little sister and Tobe-sensei for a four-episode trip visiting geo-parks and campsites along the Izu Peninsula. With new physical territory and an even larger squad to bounce silly one-liners off of, Camp milks this season’s final arc for all its worth. There’s virtually no misstep in the entire run. While the sequel inherently lacks the novelty of its predecessor, Camp S2 is otherwise no worse off for its re-tread of ideas and slow pace. It’s the sort of franchise you can easily get yourself lost in, and there was no incentive to fix components unbroken.


Studio: MAPPA  |  Director: Munehisa Sakai  |  Writer: Shigeru Murakoshi
Episodes: 12  |  Based on: N/A, anime-original by MAPPA, Avex Pictures, and Cygames
Alternate name: N/A  |  Legal streaming sites: Crunchyroll, VRV, Funimation
Licensing status: Licensed by Crunchyroll & Funimation  |  Dub status: Dubbed

At the tail end of Zombie Land Saga’s first season, the zombie idol unit Franchouchou put on an ambitious concert that seemed to suggest they’d gain traction. About a month later, manager Kotaro Tatsumi’s ambition gets the worst of their ascent and they bomb into extreme debt. Still needing to support themselves while staying secretive about their undeadness, the girls work odd jobs to keep the lights on with the hope they can restore Franchouchou from its current pipe dream status. Along the way, more revelations of the girls’ pasts come to light and a sneaky journalist threatens to expose the truth of the whole operation.

Like most of the sequels here, Zombie Land Saga Revenge is a prime example of taking what’s already great about a work and branching off the established success with even fewer meddlesome obligations. World-building? It’s our world, except for the 8 or 9 zombified characters. Interpersonal development? You got the bulk of Franchouchou’s conflicts in season one, so turning the tables and making Kotaro the wishy-washy pessimist in need of resolve was a brilliant reversal. And like in its predecessor, the cast still find themselves interacting around people they knew, or at least descendants of them. Even Yugiri and Tae, the oldest and most mysterious members of the septet respectively, get some overdue backstory.

So on one hand, it’s more of the same. On the other, Revenge is even sillier, making a proactive effort to one-up its comparatively tame first season at every turn. Its sense of humor continues to align precisely with my own, and it’s all bolstered by improved animation, wackier one-off adventures, and a general heightened aversion to predictability. While the two shows ahead still find room for levity and Zombie Land Saga makes plenty of drama land too, Revenge is effectively the best dedicated comedy anime of 2021. Rock on, keep charging forward, and I can’t wait to see what the recently confirmed film sequel has hiding up its sleeve.


Studio: OLM & P.I.C.S.  |  Director: Baku Kinoshita  |  Writer: Kazuya Konomoto
Episodes: 13  |  Based on:  N/A, anime-original
Alternate name: N/A  |  Legal streaming sites: Crunchyroll, VRV
Licensing status: Licensed by Crunchyroll  |  Dub status: Dub coming soon

Odokawa, a cold, melancholic taxi driver, overhears a lot in his line of work, and that knowledge is about to unwittingly make him a target. Thanks to transporting a plethora of shady figures with cryptic pasts and ominous aims, the lonely walrus-man finds himself the unlikely linchpin in a galaxy-brained web of schemes, vendettas, and criminal cases. Gang rivals, unhinged loners, corrupt professionals, acquaintances at their wits’ end and more soon rely on Odokawa to cooperate with their demands, but as the directives increasingly clash, something has to give.

Where do I even start? Odd Taxi—unassuming as it initially appears, thanks to its disarming anthropomorphic cast—is an absolute masterclass of scriptwriting. Every scene bears consequences for the events which unfold after it, every line organically informs or hints towards more disorder to come. While ostensibly centered on Odokawa, the series weaves upwards of a dozen individual storylines that spectacularly collide the nearer you inch towards its finale. Along the way, countless surreal conversations, inside jokes, social commentaries, and psychological breakdowns mash the division between its cute look and noir-inspired tone. Despite no prior material, no big PR campaign, and virtually no “popular” hype beyond critics’ speculative interest, it quietly accrued a cult following, myself included, who tuned in weekly anticipating one certainty and fearing another: that shit would hit the fan soon, and that the narrative might eventually collapse under its own ambition.

In a way, neither happened: Odd Taxi’s deliberately slow escalation strung people along into assuming its cast’s point of no return lurked around every corner, only to tantalizingly prolong the rising tension all the way until the series’ final act. When that pivotal moment came, it left normally talkative jaws agape and speechless. Obviously, I won’t spoil the fine details or the last-minute, series re-defining twist here—you’ll just have to catch them for yourself—but suffice to say Odd Taxi floored me from start to finish and looks prepared to offer just as much substance on re-watch as it did for first-time viewers. A compliment shared with…


Studio: Madhouse  |  Director: Shingo Natsume  |  Writer: Shingo Natsume
Episodes: 12  |  Based on:  N/A, anime-original
Alternate name: N/A  |  Legal streaming site: Funimation
Licensing status: Licensed by Funimation  |  Dub status: Dub in progress

A class of third-year middle-schoolers suddenly find themselves whisked away to an alternate dimension. With no clue how to get home, a version of their school floating in empty space, and some of the group exhibiting newly-discovered (and inappropriately-used) superpowers, infighting and the class’ established hierarchy threaten to tear apart the haves and the have-nots.

Right. So, here’s the thing: that’s not what Sonny Boy is about. That’s the basis of its first one or two episodes, just long enough to tease that Lord of the Flies-style social dynamic as a hook, but upon another dimension leap, this time to a remote island, the entire series changes gears from “class engaging in petty bickering” to “intimate character study focused on a few specific kids.” Comprising this smaller unit is Nozomi, a free-spirited recent transfer student, Rajdhani, an inquisitive tinkerer-philosopher sort, Mizuho, a moody loner more comfortable around her cats than other people, and Nagara, an aimless, quiet guy resistant to coming out of his shell.

As the rest of the class falls for misdirection, group-think, and peer pressure, eventually alienating these outcasts who are less concerned about getting home than they are getting along, Sonny Boy unravels into a commentary on coalescing societal expectation with personal drive. Or is it a coming of age journey about learning to embrace the future instead of wishing for the present to pause forever? Or is it just an excuse to throw the term “Steroid Monkey” around? (there’s an entire episode about this. No, I’m not joking).

Ding ding ding—all of the above! I’m kind of amazed it was even allowed to exist. Sonny Boy is a contemplative, plot-transcendent, amorphous show that channels adolescent pensiveness, confusion, disdain, and hope in equal measure. It’s the sort of thing you can perform mechanical autopsies for, but works just as well and hits just as hard if absorbed as a series of emotional sketches first and foremost. With stunning backgrounds, a lovely soundtrack of ambient, tropical, and indie guitar music, and ample zinger lines to chew on after the fact, every single episode of Sonny Boy stuck with me long after its runtime had wrapped up. Like an invaded daydream, Nagara and Mizuho in particular remain on the island so long they start to earnestly wish to return to “reality;” and from there it’s an artistic masterstroke straight through to the closing minutes. I struggled then—to the point of straight-up not releasing anything—and still struggle now to put into words how Sonny Boy plays all the right chords to reverberate through my heartstrings. It’s just a mesmerizing moment in time, unafraid to think big and feel bigger. Without a doubt, it’s my favorite anime of 2021, and I have a hunch I’ll drink it up for rewatch after rewatch in years to come.

Yeah, like that! And so the 2021 end-of-year cycle comes to a close. As mentioned in previous recent articles, I can’t promise For Great Justice will return to providing seasonal coverage of airing shows, but an odd article or two wouldn’t be unprecedented, and this annual tradition should still come your way in 2022 as long as I hit enough anime. The goal is for that number to be less than this year’s mega-haul, but still more than enough to separate quality from crud.

In the meantime, what were your favorite anime of 2021? Which of the early drops or total snubs do I really owe it to myself to (re)try sometime? And what did you think of these top 10 picks? Let me know in a comment below or over on Twitter, where I’m always happy to engage. Until…whenever exactly “next time” is, thanks so much for reading, and stay healthy as we enter a new year. 2022, bring it on.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s