The Best and Worst Anime of Spring 2021by The ANN Editorial Team,
Best: Megalobox 2: Nomad
I had mixed feelings about the original Megalobox because it felt (intentionally, of course) like a morbid death march masquerading as a sports show. It was hard to unreservedly cheer for Joe's rags-to-riches story, and the final bout was somewhat anticlimactic. The sequel brings a lot of the subtext of the original anime to the fore and mines it all for some excellent character drama. It's one of those rare sequels that not only tells a compelling story in its own right, but genuinely makes the original story even better in hindsight. Regardless of whether you were a fan of the original Megalobox, watch this if you like human dramas and arthouse live-action films.
Runner Up: 86
Fuckin' glory to the Spearhead Squadron. I can always appreciate an anime that goes all-in on the Big Battles and Big Emotions, and 86 manages to pull it off with its consistently strong animation and visual direction. It's also one of the rare unusual light novel anime adaptations that adds a ton of original scenes to ensure that each and every dramatic beat has an impact. The original light novels are solid, but the anime goes above and beyond to deliver a cinematic experience every single episode. My only criticism is that the dialogue and the direction can be too heavy-handed at times, but for some, that could also be part of the charm.
Worst: Godzilla Singular Point
Let me preface this by saying that I only watched good anime this season, so Godzilla SP is only here because it's the least good among the greats. Mostly, I think I'm just too dumb to appreciate it, since I found myself zoning out whenever the show talked physics. But also, I found it hard to get involved in the stakes, because the early episodes do little to establish urgency. It's a very different flavor from what I'm used to from a kaiju story, but alas I prefer narratives with more flash and bite. The art and 3D animation are excellent, though, and they look a lot better in motion than they do in stills. So despite sticking this anime into an unfortunate category, I actually do recommend it if you are a smarter person than I am.
Dynazenon is a show that all common sense says shouldn't work. It's at once a soberly directed character drama that submerges itself in a malaise of inert emotion, and a raucous love letter to the boundless spectacle of tokusatsu and super robot media alike. It's a bit like trying to combine Gurren Lagann with The Flowers of Evil, a mixture that should, by all known laws of fiction, be a disparate mess of half-baked ideas and flaccid execution. Yet not only has this team now pulled it off twice, this second entry has also proven to be even greater than its predecessor on basically every level. The atmosphere is somehow heavier and more palpable than ever in its uneasy mundanity. The kaiju fights are even more impressive on a purely technical level and manage to feel as exciting to an adult audience as the original Gridman fights must have felt to children at the time.
Most impressively, damn near every character in the show feels as fleshed-out and human as SSSS.Gridman's Akane, all while splitting screentime across a dozen named and prominent characters. Dynazenon is a work that exemplifies the kind of creativity, passion, and emotional resonance that anime can express, and in a season with no lack of competition it managed to stand head and shoulders above its peers. It's an easy pick for an eventual end-of-year list, and quite possibly my favorite thing Studio Trigger has ever produced.
Runner Up: Those Snow White Notes
God but I love me some stories about music. While we live in a glut of idol shows – including a few series/franchises I like – nothing of late has quite managed to scratch that itch like Those Snow White Notes has this season. There are some minor issues I can bring up – the plot moves exceedingly fast at points, some side characters feel extraneous or undercooked, and the season finale is a hell of a downer – but I'm an emotional viewer at heart and this show never failed to pluck at my heartstrings with every note of its songs. The sheer number of animated musical performances on display would be impressive enough, but this series manages to use every single one to leave a powerful impression upon the audience. I laughed, cried, and cheered across this season, sometimes during the same song, and much of that comes down to the fantastic execution of its sound editing and the shamisen players brought onboard. Even for a music-focused anime, the level of variety and detail paid to every last note in this show left my jaw on the floor at times. That it's all done with a single type of instrument, let alone one I'm not familiar with, is nigh unbelievable. If you're at all a lover of art, or just somebody looking for a new hit since Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū ended, you owe it to yourself to try this one.
Worst: So I'm a Spider, So What?
So I'm a Spider was always a show desperately trying to outrun its own thin premise, but it managed to pull it off for most of its first cour. Sure, Kumoko's dungeon crawling could get a little repetitive, and outside of a few neat ideas the human storyline was your bog-standard fantasy kitchen sink, but it had just enough energy – plus the charisma of its lead voice actress – to make it all work through sheer momentum. But sadly the thin spider thread that kept this show from plummeting into the hell of boring isekai pablum snapped somewhere in its second half. The human storyline became so bogged down in its own uninteresting lore that it forgot to give any of the characters actual personalities. Kumoko swiftly stopped feeling charming when her airheaded misadventures started leading to countless innocent deaths and destruction, and her circuitous cat & mouse game against the Demon Lord only served to draw out an obvious plot twist you could have called months ago.
But most of all, Spider's biggest failing was that its already questionable production fell flat on its face, then proceeded to grind its nose down as it crawled across the ground for several weeks. Between this and his modern Berserk adaptations I feel safe in saying that Shin Itagaki isn't cut out to direct any kind of action series, as his bizarre and confused idea of spatial consistency makes damn near every fight in this show's back half impossible to follow. Combined with the show's thin production deadlines catching up with it, and you have a fantasy story full of awkward CG, ugly panning shots, and incomprehensible action sequences. Once all of that coalesced with the weakened writing, this series became a slog to get through, and I only bothered because I was so deep into it. It's a shame, because in a sea of derivative isekai fodder, this series actually sports a lot of interesting narrative and worldbuilding ideas, but sadly couldn't deliver on any of that potential in the end.
I have a habit of making things more difficult for myself, so this season I decided that I wouldn't let myself choose Welcome to Demon School, Iruma-kun as my best of, simply because it started so late that it's basically two episodes behind everything else and isn't ending with the spring, either.
Best: Shadows House
So where does that leave me? On the doorstep of the grand manor known as Shadows House. Although I understand that it's parted ways with the manga, and taken some liberties, as an anime-only viewer, this has been a fascinating show for me. Certainly, its relationship with folklore and children's literature is a major draw; the story seems to draw inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen's literary fairy tale “The Shadow,” a tale wherein a man summons his shadow to act as his double only to become the shadow while his shadow solidifies and becomes the human in their relationship. Add to this a touch of Peter Pan with the notion that shadows and their bodies can be separated and the late revelation that the Shadows family are in fact a type of Unseelie fey preying on humans and the story becomes a fascinating blend of folkloric tropes.
The mysteries wrapped up in that only add to the appeal. While we're able to figure out fairly quickly that the “living dolls” probably aren't “dolls” at all, the steps taken to ensure that they believe they are mask the true intentions of the Shadows, from the probably brainwashing that had to happen to the fact that they sleep in what look like giant cases for fancy dolls. (Or coffins, meant to symbolize the death of their previous selves.) Then the names factor in, with most shadow/doll pairs almost sharing one, but others being notably different as a means of showing us the various relationships at play – from Kate and Emilico to John and Shaun (different languages, same name) or the more typical cases like Patrick and Ricky or Louise and Lou, each pairs' names reveals something about their dynamic. The gaslamp fantasy aesthetic further works to enhance the mysteries as it indicates the sort of adjacent world that most fairy tales are assumed to take place in, one that on the surface is very similar to our own but has some very significant differences – like shadows who operate without bodies, for example. All in all this has been the sort of show that's kept my mind active while watching, sorting through references, definitions, and devices. It's like a puzzle, and even if it doesn't all snap together in the finale, it will still have been worth the journey.
Runner Up: Moriarty the Patriot
Clearly I had a Victorian Problem, or at least more of one than usual, this season. Despite my horror and discomfort with the use of the anti-Semitic slur “shylock” in one episode (do better, Funimation), I've very much enjoyed the second half of this series. Even when it was patently ridiculous, like turning Irene Adler into James Bonde (yes, with an “e”), it's been fun, and it never forgets its roots in classic mystery fiction. The reconfiguring of elements from the Sherlockian canon has been fascinating to see, from Milverton going from one-story villain to a major player to the way that the show has incorporated all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's own screwups into the story's world, like the original James Moriarty's shifting number of brothers and what they do for work. There are some manga chapters that were skipped that I wish had been left in, and the Jack the Ripper section could perhaps have been done better, but as we get closer to the final episode (which hasn't aired yet as of this writing), I'm eagerly anticipating how it will both adhere to and change the story. (And if it will go back to the opening scene in New York. I have my hopes and suspicions.) I do love a good mystery, and the ongoing one of how this version will play with Doyle's work has been a fun one to try to solve.
I noped out of Koikimo after three episodes. I went past the premier for a very specific reason: I've read enough romance novels to know that an age gap does not always make for a problematic story, and quite frankly ten years isn't so significant that, were Ichika older, I'd barely even blink. But she isn't older – she's sixteen and Ryo is a working adult at twenty-six, and there's nothing done to mitigate that. Series like Living-Room Matsunaga-san, which deals with a similar age gap between romantic partners, succeeds because it shows us that Matsunaga is neither a total creep nor the world's most mature specimen, plus he has serious doubts at first. (The heroine, meanwhile, is more mature for her age, so it balances out.) Koi Kaze works because it makes us believe in the attraction between its romantic couple, and that's got the additional hurdle of an incestuous relationship to overcome. So where does Koikimo fail? First of all, in the fact that Ryo absolutely comes off as a creeper, with Ichika markedly uncomfortable with his attention. Ryo pays no attention to that, even when she tells him to knock it off; in fact, even when she snaps at him and feels badly about it, he bounces right back and shows up at her house when she's sick. Then there's the fact that he tries to drive away the boy her age, not even considering that she might prefer her classmate to the adult brother of her friend. Wrap this all up in its unattractive art and stiff animation and you have a show that feels wholly off-putting. It's like watching a bad idea play out on-screen, and it's all the worse because I know that it didn't have to be this way. Its story can be told well. Just…not here.
This is the hardest decision I've had to make on a seasonal retrospective in quite some time. Usually there's one show that'll leap out of my mental rolodex, but we've had an uncommonly strong and diverse lineup this spring (and I doubt I'm the only reviewer to make this “complaint” on this page lol). With that said, after much soul searching, I've concluded that scarred souls do shine like stars, and my favorite of the season is SSSS.Dynazenon.
Like any sequel to a critically-acclaimed work, SSSS.Dynazenon had the unenviable job of delivering an experience that would not only stand up to the emotional and metaphysical highs of SSSS.Gridman (my favorite anime of 2018, by the way), but also justify its own existence, as well as the existence of the “extended Gridman universe.” I think it succeeds in spite of those odds, and it does so by expertly toeing the line between riding its predecessor's coattails and blazing its own path. SSSS.Gridman was an exercise in nostalgia that transmuted its influences into a compelling character drama, made all the more dramatic by its heart-on-sleeve adoration of guys in rubber suits kicking the crap out of each other. SSSS.Dynazenon follows suit, but it also adds SSSS.Gridman to its nostalgic memory banks. It pulls locations, plot beats, characters, and shot compositions straight out of its prequel, constantly teasing a grand metatextual parting of the curtain that never quite happens. And that's for the best.
Instead, SSSS.Dynazenon's ambitions prove to be additive, not retrospective. The first season was all Akane's story, laser-focused on her personal journey of pain and healing. This season, though, divides its attention between its five main characters, weaving together their individual character arcs and catalyzing them through emotionally-charged kaiju battles. By nature, it's a much more complex undertaking, and consequently, none of these characters pull at my heartstrings in quite the same way Akane did. However, I think that's the wrong way to look at it. Dynazenon is about people coming together, both in the intangible interpersonal sense, and in the sense that they pilot big robots that can combine into even bigger robots. It makes up for its divided attention with refined storytelling and direction. It relies on mood instead of words. It's comfortable with silence. It's comfortable with looking silly. At every turn, it prioritizes its characters' flawed humanity and their mutual struggle to understand themselves and each other, through conflict, confusion, and comfort. Because a scar isn't just a wound; it's a wound that has healed.
ODDTAXI is arguably the most “perfect” anime of the season, so I can blame my contrarian instinct for not placing it at the top of my list. But I still love it a lot! It's the most deliberately (and successfully) idiosyncratic anime we've had in quite some time, exploring an unconventional noir mystery with an unconventional cast of characters rendered in an unconventional art style. That isn't surprising when the word “odd” is right there in the title, but I have found myself consistently surprised week-to-week at how sprawling a single-cours series can be. I feel like I'm peering into one of those big dioramas where every single detail has been recreated faithfully and meticulously through an artisan's steady hands. ODDTAXI also raises the bar when it comes to anime writing, combining its sidewinding thriller narrative with its wholly unique voice. On the most literal level, Natsuki Hanae's performance as Odokawa results in one of the strangest and most against-type anime leads in recent memory. But I do also mean “voice” in the broader sense. Conversations are relaxed, rambling, and prone to tangents, yet paradoxically, very little space in the series appears wasted. Seemingly random details will resurface adorned in newfound importance, and even the most pointless conversations build character rapport that persists into the rest of the series. It has a lot to say without sounding preachy. ODDTAXI will use an entire episode to explain the precise evil of gacha mechanics in video games, and in the next breath, it'll introduce a porcupine who only speaks by rapping. I love its jaded and understated sense of humor, and I love how much it hates Twitter. I firmly believe it's an anime written specifically for people over 30, and we don't get anywhere near enough of those.
Best Anime I Was Totally Prepared to Scoff at: 86
Sorry, I don't have a Worst Anime candidate this season! I haven't even had time to keep up with all of the good anime, so I've had even less time to keep up with a disappointing one. The only truly terrible show I watched to completion in the past 3 months was that Way of the Househusband adaptation on Netflix, and nobody wants to hear me complain about that again.
Instead, I want to use this extra space to highlight a show that managed to win me over after its premiere rolled my eyes all the way back into my skull. It's not even that 86 had a bad first episode, but it contained nothing that inspired confidence its story would be able to handle its weighty thematic subject matter with the care and thoughtfulness it deserved. Maybe that's more a function of my own cynicism than an intrinsic fault of the series. I can admit that. But I also don't think you can blame me for being skeptical of a light novel with wincingly overt allusion to Nazi Germany, alongside mawkish lip service against the evils of racism and genocide, as delivered by our starry-eyed and lily-white protagonist. I could already envision how Lena's story would progress, fighting the odds, tearing down the propaganda, and liberating the 86 from their conscripted deaths thanks to her beautifully empathetic heart. Blech.
86 had me eating my words a few episodes later. It's still prone to splashing about in the shallows of political commentary, but 86 has a much better head on its shoulders than I gave it credit for, explicitly calling out Lena's white saviorism, and developing her relationship with Shin's crew in complicated and nuanced ways. While the stronger-than-expected writing is nice in itself, the anime's heavy-handed directorial eye (courtesy of the brilliant Toshimasa Ishii) elevates it into legit best-of-the-season status. Its bleak war story looks alternately gorgeous and unsettling when it makes sense to be one or the other, and it employs clever editing and visual motifs to tie its two parallel narratives together. Instead of playing with our perspective of morality (because it's always clear where 86's moral compass swings), it plays with our sense of time, jumping ahead to cruel conclusions, or revisiting the same scene from a different angle, letting the light and darkness cascade appropriately. There are scene transitions that gave me chills. There are musical stings that made me cry. This isn't some slapdash adaptation cobbled together to push the light novel volumes into bestseller lists; 86 shows us what adaptations can and should be.
Oh and this is also a series that really knows how to use its Hiroyuki Sawano pieces to the most maximum effect possible. You love to see (and hear) it.
SSSS.Dynazenon being my favorite thing I watched all season shouldn't be all that surprising. But when you consider the absolute avalanche of quality anime we got this spring, it makes it pretty impressive that Trigger's tremendous tokusatsu trip still came out on top. Granted, Dynazenon feels like less of an unknown quantity than SSSS.Gridman did in its time, follow-up to that all-time fav masterwork as it is, so perhaps my own nascent anticipation and love for the overall franchise just mingled with the sheer craftsmanship the show put out week after week to result in the most fun I had every Friday. It definitely helped that Dynazenon was so focused on inverting and complimenting the structures it was succeeding in Gridman, fleshing out the depths of its lovable cast of characters from the start, in comparison to a slow-burn realization that all the storytelling energy was being concentrated inward on one person's arc.
I think what I appreciated most about SSSS.Dynazenon, however, was the way it respected its audience's attention to stick to its key storytelling priorities. It doesn't get bogged down in the mechanical details of the origins of the mecha and kaiju doing battle here, or even worry about where exactly ‘here’ was, instead focusing on the massive feelings driving those monster-sized brawls. And to that end you get languid stretches of down-time where we watch the characters come to terms with their past traumas and learn from each other how to move beyond them. I like the respects with which the series sticks to those guns: Your past shouldn't totally define you, and so Dynazenon doesn't wallow in the explicit, tragedy-porn details of its characters' previous lives, instead demonstrating how the connections we forge to help us through those trying times should be the important parts we focus on. That's a valuable reassurance I think a lot of people could use, and demonstrates why SSSS.Dynazenon isn't just an anime I enjoyed, but one I'm grateful for.
Plus it did all that while also animating some amazing sequences of monsters and robots smashing each other up real good. Damn, I love this show!
This was a good season for anime, but an especially great one for slow-burn ensemble character dramas. That's right, I'm comparing the tenor of toku-toy smash-up SSSS.Dynazenon with the furry noir crime thriller ODDTAXI, and you can't stop me! Both shows speak to things I love in fiction, presenting seemingly-grounded character portrayals with fantastical flourishes illustrating compelling concepts. Amongst all of ODDTAXI's twisting tales and tails, it utilizes its spread of cast members to analyze how their actions can be applied to our own, slightly less animalistic world. Are the issues in our lives the result of overall societal misfortunes, or our own choices in reacting to those situations? The answer, as it so often does, lies somewhere in the middle. ODDTAXI shows us some like Kakihana, who make terrible choices out of desperation to better themselves, or Tanaka, who end up rolling terribly on the exploitative gacha that is society, before taking matters into their own hands in the worst way. But others like Dobu or Odokawa himself find ways to settle into the hands they're dealt, hardly perfecting their lives, but making the most of them with careful consideration, even if things still don't work out in the end. And for as pitch-black as ODDTAXI gets a lot of the time, I don't mean to paint it as a downer that way. Rather, it does feel, oddly, like an uplifting message: That just like a still-unfinished mystery story, there's always opportunity for us to figure things out.
Worst: Full Dive
This has been a frankly amazing season of anime. The sheer amount of good shows, including some that came out of nowhere, at first made me concerned my critical scales might be so far tipped that I wouldn't be able to pick something ‘worse’ for this all-important end-of-season ranking. Fortunately, you fine readers had my back with your streaming reviews votes, and saw fit to bless me with...Full Dive. An exhaustingly mediocre take on the VRMMO genre built specifically around the premise of “What if none of this was actually fun?”, Full Dive provided the bold contrast I needed to remind myself how good all the other shows I was keeping up with this spring actually were. I guess it's still exceptional in some ways, finding myself impressed as I was at times with how committed the anime was to being as thoroughly joyless as possible. It embodies a lot of my fundamental issues with this type of light-novel formula-concept grist: Something that would make a half-interesting thought experiment to discuss with people familiar with the genres it's rooted in, but which becomes an absolute slog the instant it tries to be an actual story. There was an embarrassment of riches of great anime this season, and I still had to alot one day a week to this thing. So having done so, let me assure you that if you passed it over in favor of watching any of those good shows that came out, you need not worry about going back and giving Full Dive a look.
Best: Megalobox 2: Nomad
Of all the great anime this season—and there are more than a few—none even come close to Nomad. While its outward trappings make it look like nothing more than a sports anime with a sci-fi twist, it is far more than that. Nomad is a uniquely human story about how people deal with both the fear of loss and loss itself—as well as the mistakes people make when confronted with these emotions.
Joe is a man who let loss destroy not only himself but his place in the world. From there, he has spent years running from his pain in a miasma of boxing matches and painkillers. However, he is not the only one to have his life upended. All those he was supposed to care for find themselves abandoned in a cruel world and left to fend for themselves. Surrounded by loss, hope becomes not a savior but a tormenter, for as much as they hope for things to be good again, the past is something that can't ever truly be regained. However, as they discover, that doesn't mean that a new future can't be built from the ruins of the past if one is willing to fight for it—even if the true battle is trying to overcome one's own unforgivable mistakes.
Weaved into this personal tale is a social commentary on the trials facing immigrants on the lowest rung of society. Hated by rich and poor alike, and wanting nothing more than a place to put down roots, all they have is each other. And together they can survive what no one can alone.
Yet, the message in this anime is clear: survival is not enough. What the suffering need is a hero, someone to show them that things can be better. Should one appear, it will inspire others. And if enough people are able to stand up and fight for a better future, perhaps the world can be transformed into a better place, for as much as hope can lead to despair, it can also lead to greatness.
Oh... and the anime also has a lot of beautifully animated scenes of people punching each other in the face. You know... If that's your thing.
Runner-Up: Vivy -Fluorite Eye's Song-
Vivy has a fantastic premise: Matsumoto, an AI from the future, travels back in time to seek out the first autonomous AI and enlist her help to stop the coming robot apocalypse. Over the next 100 years, they will need to change the outcomes of several major events while keeping as close to the original timeline as possible so they can use their knowledge of the future to aid them. There's only one problem: the first autonomous AI is not a combat android but a singer in a theme park named Diva.
As much as this series is about Diva and Matsumoto's century-spanning mission to stop the genocide of mankind, it's also about Diva's growth as an artificial being. In the world of Vivy, it's not Isaac Asimov's Three Laws that dictate an AI's behavior, but rather a single mission that forms the core of their existence. For Diva, it is to make everyone happy with her singing. What gets Diva to agree to help Matsumoto is that, for everyone “to be made happy with her singing,” they must naturally be alive. Thus, Diva finds herself carrying out objective after objective that she was not designed for.
Diva's hundred-year journey is split into two-to-three episode arcs, each centered around a major event she and Matsumoto must alter for the sake of the future. Diva is greatly affected by each of these experiences, slowly becoming unlike any other AI in existence. Over the course of the series we see her mature as a person, facing mental and emotional conflicts that blur the line between robot and human.
Vivy also sports some of the most amazing animation you're likely to ever see in a TV anime. Wit Studio (Attack on Titan, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress) has definitely brought their A-game for this one, with each of Vivy's fights being more stunning than the last. The music likewise lives up to the quality of the visuals—something more than a little important when your main character is a professional singer.
All in all, it's a beautiful series from top to bottom, and if you love high-concept sci-fi stories, you shouldn't miss out on this one.
Biggest Letdown: My Hero Academia (Season 5)
Now, let's be clear before people get out the pitchforks: I love My Hero Academia. I love its take on superhuman society, the greater conflict facing our young heroes, and the exploration of why a world filled with superpowered people needs a “superman” to show them the way. In fact, I feel that Season 5, despite my complaints below, is still a decent watch. However, when a show has maintained such a high watermark in the past, it's more than a little noticeable when things start to dip.
Simply put, I have two main issues with this season. One is that, for the first time, the show managed to break my suspension of disbelief. Up until this point, danger to our teenage heroes has largely come from an external threat—some villain or other attacking the UA students. Things have generally been under control inside the school, be that the sports festival or the various combat tests. Big-name heroes were always on duty to intervene if things got too dangerous.
Yet, in this season, several of the students launch potentially lethal attacks to each other and the teachers do not step in. Even when Deku is obviously going berserk, they decide to let things play out as some kind of teachable lesson instead of erring on the side of caution. This makes me question the competency of the pro-heroes and wonder how none of the students have ended up dead in an accident.
My second issue with the season is the decision to give Deku six additional superpowers. Part of what I've loved about My Hero Academia from the start is how creative it is when it comes to exploring our heroes' powers. Each of them is constantly thinking of new ways to use them—be it Tsukuyomi figuring out how to fly or Invisible Girl refracting sunlight to make a flashbang. In a world where a single power has stupid amounts of versatility if you're creative enough, just giving our main character six new powers to unlock feels both unnecessary and unearned.
None of the above is enough to make me quit watching or anything, but it is enough to leave me feeling a bit disappointed with the season so far.
This spring, I probably watched more anime concurrently than I had ever in my entire life. I somehow managed to keep up with over twenty goddamn shows every week without exploding and I still have no idea how I did it. I'm pretty proud of myself, actually (I might have a problem). Though, it helps that most of them ended up being entertaining overall. With so many potentially great shows, I shuddered at the thought of trying to pick a favorite. There was no shortage of strong contenders. But what could have been an all-out brawl was swiftly avoided because of one unexpected hero. Like a complete dark horse, ODDTAXI swerves and effortlessly parks itself in my top spot like a real champion.
The first thing everyone talks about is how this anime looks like someone took Animal Crossing characters and mashed them up with a David Lynch film. The toyetic character designs contrast against the backdrop of a gruesome crime story. A modern-day noir that's ironically brimming with color. These two opposing aesthetic choices feel like they should not work, but ODDTAXI uses them well to create an interesting and wonderful picture that perfectly complements both the lightness and the darkness of the story it's trying to tell. And that's simply because ODDTAXI still has some of the best visual direction of any show I've ever seen. While not as flashy as other anime, it's fully capable of taking the film hallmarks of a bygone era and utilizing it to create something that feels both new and classic.
Though, aesthetics aren't all that make a good show. Beyond the bright pastels and neon decorating the streets lies an engaging story about a group of people and their collisions. ODDTAXI could have succeeded purely as a neat tone piece, but the general moodiness is just an engine to rev us up and the narrative is the one steering the way. Together they work together to move forward at a steady pace, occasionally leisurely, but no less purposeful. This is reflected in the dialogue and the attitudes of the characters as well. What appears to be mundane chit-chat about everyday life become windows into the lives of the characters. Most of them aren't hesitant to let you know their opinions or their personalities. Many of the more novel conversations factor into the plot and it's made rewatching and being my own detective even more fun and engaging as the first time. Not to mention, the banter itself is always funny and charming, and in a way, intimate.
Comfortable in it's confidence, this finely-crafted murder mystery contains a lot of heart. It takes the interactions we take for granted and morphs them into a thrilling plot. ODDTAXI is a strange but ultimately fond, enjoyable, and memorable experience. Don't let it pass you by!
Runner-up: Shadows House
While ODDTAXI is basically perfect in my mind, there's still one other show that comes up pretty close. Shadows House is yet another anime that has more style coming out of it than the dark soot that permeates every inch of the titular gothic mansion. The world of Shadows House, ruled by the members of the prestigious Shadows Family, is as fantastic as it is horrifying. The words I would use to describe Shadows House most is “high-concept”. Through the eyes of the chipper and determined “Living Doll” Emillico, we're thrust into a world where she is told not to question anything, meaning we, the audience, must question everything.
We start by questioning the relationship between Emilico and her Master Kate and watch as they form a genuine partnership in which they must learn from one another. Then we question the system of which living dolls must serve absolutely as the face of Shadows. We question the hierarchy of the Shadow Masters. We question even the very nature of the Shadows themselves. Even the absolute banger ED is constantly shouting questions about “Who am I? What am I?”, implying that even the very nature of identity is not out of the question. Everything about Shadows House just brings up questions and questions and more questions and every answer it provides is sure to surprise you.
Aside from the rich setting, the visuals of Shadows House is also treated with an incredible amount of effort and care. The Shadows may not have faces, but there is an extreme amount of detail put into the rest of their appearance, especially their clothes. Every scene is beautifully lit in a way that enhances the creepy, beautiful, and most of all, haunting atmosphere that the show so carefully cultivates. The characters are also well-acted and Emilico's cheery expression make her a little pocket of sunshine in the creeping bit of darkness.
But as much as I've enjoyed my stay at Shadows House, I'd like nothing more than to see the characters I've grown to love to find their way out of it. Since the original manga is still ongoing, though, I'm going to have to come around again for another visit if/when we get a potential second season. Otherwise, I hope the original manga gets licensed in English so I can see Emillico, Kate, and the others find a way to overcome the system that binds them.
Worst: Farewell, My Dear Cramer
The term “Worst” is a tricky word for me. I'm the kind of anime watcher who cherrypicks. While occasionally I may tune into a bad show for whatever reason, I generally tend to avoid the things I know won't offer me much. However, there's one show I kept watching despite immediately sensing the aura of severe disappointment surrounding it, and that's the Girl's Soccer anime Farewell, My Dear Cramer. While I cannot say that I totally dislike watching this particular show, that doesn't necessarily lessen any of my frustrations with it either. I quite enjoyed reading what I did of the original manga a while back, so I still enjoyed revisiting the story and the characters every week in animation. In fact, a lot of my frustration stems not just from how the show presented itself, but also from its inability to seize its own potential. The original source material wasn't perfect, but when I heard it was getting its own anime I knew it deserved nothing less than an adaption full of as much passion for the sport as the girls that constitute the main cast. After all, soccer is a fast-paced sport that requires a lot of detail in order to properly convey its intensity. It's not something that can be fully brought to life with just static images. Without a high budget or a proper production timeframe, I knew that whatever adaptation this niche series could get would probably be a little less ambitious than a gold-standard sports series like Haikyuu!! However, while I remained skeptical, part of me also wanted to be hopeful. That was all before the pandemic!!
Cramer is not the most unenjoyable show, but it's objectively the worst-looking and worst-adapted of the shows I've seen almost to the end this season. Ravaged by both the metaphorical plague of studios biting off more than they can chew and the LITERAL plague that is Covid-19, this year has not been kind to anime studios. Anime watchers are obviously not going to stop seeing the effects these diseases have on various productions anytime soon, but honestly, I would rather have waited another year to see the show than to watch characters devolve into two frames of animation and awkward run cycles. While we occasionally get one or two nicely detailed shot of some fine footwork that make me wish the rest of the show looked as nice, there are also frames where the only thing animated on-screen are the speed lines.
The anime adaption also definitely skipped at least one whole game, and some of the games we do get aren't great. I wouldn't say that the people making the show don't care because I personally still found the direction and the comedic timing between characters to still be alright. It's more that everything about Cramer's anime adaptation just serves as a colossal reminder to me about the problems that still exist within the anime industry. The prequel movie that was supposed to come before the series got delayed and then released, and while that movie looked significantly nicer, it could still be better. Cramer's cast of adorable ball-kicking gremlins deserve better, and so do the people who work hard to make anime. Pumping out a sloppy production doesn't make anyone happy, so I hope more studio execs will start taking that lesson to heart and spare the poor animators some trouble.
Best: Megalobox 2: Nomad
As of this writing, Megalobox 2: Nomad still has one episode to go, so it could technically crap the bed and ruin all of the goodwill it has generated over the season. But even if the finale only ended up being merely “okay”, I still reckon we'd have a bonafide classic on our hands. The original Megalobox was good – it was very good, even, but that's mostly because of its incredible aesthetic accomplishments, and its willingness to take classic sports drama tropes and apply them faithfully to its grungy cyberpunk setting. It was incredibly, unspeakably cool, in other words, but I don't know if anyone would call it a game-changer in the grand scheme of things.
Nomad, though, is an entirely different animal. If we're keeping with the comparisons to popular sports movies, the original series was basically Rocky with robot arms, while Nomad has more in common with hard-hitting character studies like Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. In a way, the Megalo-boxing of the title is almost secondary to the story that Nomad has been telling: This is an anime that deals with the ongoing cultural crises of capitalist predation and xenophobic discrimination, not to mention Joe's personal quest to free himself from a crippling drug addiction so he can make amends with his broken family. It is a mature, thoughtful, and remarkably prescient fable for all of us who spent the better part of the last year-and-a-half wondering whether the world would ever un-break itself. Megalobox 2 doesn't offer any easy answers, but it is twice as bold and ten times as human as the first season ever was, and it's easily my favorite thing that I've experienced this spring.
Runner Up: To Your Eternity
I agonized over what to include in this 2nd Place spot, but I'm sure my colleagues will have plenty of great things to say about shows like ODDTAXI and SSSS.DYNAZENON, which are absolutely incredible and should be seen by anyone that likes anime for any reason whatsoever. So, instead, I'd like to shout out what I would consider the season's unexpected sleeper success: To Your Eternity. I say “unexpected" because I think many folks were in the same boat as me after that premiere episode, and we expected TYE to be a huge hit. This is a quieter and more patient story than all that, though, and the show has admittedly struggled to match its first episode in terms of visual quality. Still, the story of Fushi the Immortal Orb-Thing is just too damned powerful to not be enthralling, and the show is so confidently directed and paced that every episode feels like it is only a few minutes long. We're only halfway through the show's twenty-episode run, so time will tell if To Your Eternity will truly live up to its promise in the end, but I haven't regretted a single second that I've spent with Fushi and clan of misfits. Even if I've spent many of those seconds sobbing like Tobey Maguire in that one meme from Spider-Man 3.
Most Disappointing: Higehiro
As is often the case, I didn't go out of my way to actively watch shows I hated, so my pick for "Most Disappointing Series" this season is a show that I honestly wouldn't even say is that bad…though it's one hell of a mixed bag, that's for sure. I started off being pleasantly surprised with how Higehiro handled its subject matter; instead of being a gross romantic wish-fulfillment harem type of series, Higehiro instead takes its central premise very seriously. Sayu is an emotionally traumatized teenaged runaway who has been conditioned to let older men use her for sex in exchange for comfort and shelter, and Yoshida is the first guy to actually stop for a second and treat Sayu like the scared and vulnerable child that she is. Their relationship occasionally teases some undercurrent of a romantic connection, but thankfully the show has mostly stuck to its guns by making Yoshida more of a father figure. It's a genuinely sweet and fun bond that the pair develops, and the side characters are largely well done too. The problems have mostly arisen in the show's back half. Whenever Higehiro is just letting its likeable duo be a quirky found family, it's pretty solid. Every time the show has tried to seriously explore the root causes of Sayu's trauma, though, Higehiro kind of falls flat. A little bit of emo edge is fine in most anime like this one, but Higehiro keeps veering off into unintentionally campy and/or painfully contrived melodrama. There's still the finale left to wrap everything up, but I don't know if just one last episode could possibly make up for all of the wasted potential.
ODDTAXI is a rare example of tightly-written crime noir that will hopefully serve as the catalyst for more opportunities for its director and writer team. Director Baku Kinoshita's previous credits include advertisement work and the children's 3DCG series A Journey Home while scriptwriter Kadzuya Konomoto's credits include several manga series and the live-action film Black School Rules. Together with production company P.I.C.S., they've captured lightning in a bottle.
ODDTAXI never wastes a moment of its viewers' time. Every scene is table-setting for payoff a few episodes down the line or intrinsically necessary to understanding a character's motivations. Natsuki Hanae's turn as Odokawa, a 41-year-old walrus cabbie is a brilliant breakaway from his blockbuster role as Tanjiro. Odokawa is man (walrus) trying to live simply. He's open to the idea of romance, but otherwise just wants to drive his fares to their destination and get paid what he's owed. When he gets wrapped up in a missing person's case (and a heist), he shows a quiet kind of bravery. Odokawa is clever, but he's not too clever to the point that he's above the audience. There are several times his gambits put him at risk and failure always feels like an option.
ODDTAXI doesn't shy away from turning up the tension but it can bring levity in the interplay between its characters, like Dobu or Yano. There's a sense that the team understands the humor found in embracing ennui and the absurdity of social media. I tuned into ODDTAXI every week looking for answers to its mysteries and the occasional moments of abject ridiculousness. I hope we can see more of Kinoshita and Konomoto's work in the future.
Runner-up: Zombie Land Saga Revenge
Okay, so questions about the stinger and its potential tie-in to an April Fool's joke aside, Zombie Land Saga Revenge was a near-perfect successor to the original series. The season's conflict and subsequent resolution felt a little slap-dash compared to the remaining world-building questions left hanging, but some of the stand-alone arcs were so satisfying that I'm willing to overlook it.
Junko's guitar-smashing performance with a lead-in by Tae on drums remains one of my favorite musical numbers in the last year and has skyrocketed her up on my chart of best characters. We have a great piece up on how Zombie Land Saga intentionally subverts idol culture, and I found Franchouchou's finale performance continued that idea. The final song focuses on promoting individuality and assuring listeners that they should “take pride in what makes them strange.” Positivity might be the idol industry's bread and butter but I appreciate the message behind of a group of undead misfits assuring the rest of us that there's room for us all to be happy as we are. Thanks Franchouchou!
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