The year of our lord 2021 blessed us with a stacked year of mondo cool anime, especially during the winter and fall seasons. Like a goudere Moses descending the Hokage Rock to deliver the good word to the people, it’s my turn as the otaku of Kotaku to present my favourite anime of the year. Here’s a list of 11 anime (and a movie) that came out this year that stood as the cream of the crop.
Ever wonder about how many odd folks a city taxi driver must deal with daily? Do you then reflexively ponder whether you yourself are the aforementioned odd customer? Odd Taxi pushes the pedal to the floor with that premise, with the taxi driver and his patrons being eccentric anthropomorphic animals.
First announced during the 2021 Crunchyroll awards, Odd Taxi follows an introverted 41-year-old taxi driving walrus named Hiroshi Odokawa. It begins with Odokawa, forced into mild-mannered conversations with his customers who range from being aspiring pop idols, wannabe influencers, and down-on-their-luck comedians. But the seemingly disparate lives of Odokawa’s patrons start to weave together as news breaks of a missing high schooler who just so happened to be one of his customers. Odokawa finds himself in the middle of a police investigation while under the eye of the yakuza, who have a personal stake in the missing high schooler’s safety. But the less I reveal about the anime’s plot the better.
While its premise seems grimdark on the surface, Odd Taxi has an infectious dry humour, mostly thanks to how nonplussed Odokawa is when he stiffly reacts to his bizarre patrons. Odd Taxi came in as a dark horse in the spring 2021 lineup as a show anime fans would be wise not to sleep on.
SK8 the Infinity
I’m not usually one for sports anime, but SK8 the Infinity turned me around on the genre and reignited my desire to play Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. It also doesn’t hurt that the anime’s opening theme is a certified banger.
SK8 the Infinity follows Canadian snowboarder Langa Hasegawa, who transferred to a school in Okinawa and quickly became entrenched in the city’s hardcore skateboarding scene. With the help of his best (boy)friend, Reki Kyan, Langa learns to transfer his skills of shredding the slopes to shredding the gnar.
Studio Bone knocked it out of the park this winter with the debut of its original anime. The show serves not only as an explainer for skateboarding terms and tricks but also as an exhibit of smoothly animated skateboarding and a wholesome coming of age story.
Anime is more than the shonen action genre it’s most associated with. Sometimes anime can be sweet. And the cloying love stories in Horimiya are enough to put a dentist in cardiac arrest.
Horimiya primarily follows the budding love romance of two high schoolers: Kyouko Hori, the most popular girl in school, and Izumi Miyamura, the class recluse (see what they did there?). What makes Miyamura so interesting is that he is hiding a secret from his class that Hori stumbles upon by mistake: he’s a goth kid. And a stylish one at that.
These acquaintances, who’ve mutually agreed to hide his secret, blossom into a full-blown romance so potent and infectiously wholesome that it has their classmates itching for their own high school romance.
Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song
Here’s the elevator pitch for Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song (probably): Hatsune Miku halts her dream of making the world hers after she’s called to action to put down her microphone and pick up a gun à la Major Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost In The Shell to prevent an AI uprising that wipes out humanity 100 years in the future. If you’re sold on that premise, you should check out Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song.
I was surprised to see that Vivy branched a typical sci-fi action series into a thoughtful exploration of what makes us human. The show has many hearty episodes that focus on the complex natures of jealousy, greed, and loneliness. Some of the standout episodes even rival that of an introspective Cowboy Bebop episode (the anime not the live-action show) in how they let ideas and heartbreaking scenes breathe. Plus, when the action hits, it hits. Vivy’s sick-arse fight scenes feature some of the smoothest movie-quality sakuga animation I’ve seen in an anime series, which shouldn’t come as any surprise since Wit Studio is the same production company behind the first three seasons of Attack on Titan.
To Your Eternity
Not many anime pass the three-episode test run from the jump, but To Your Eternity had me choking back tears from the first episode. To Your Eternity is the anime adaptation of Yoshitoki Ōima’s The Immortal. The series follows an immortal creature called Fushi that starts its long existence as a rock before taking the forms of a wolf and human as it observes humanity. Ōima-san also happens to be the mangaka behind A Silent Voice, and its opening theme “Pink Blood” is sung by none other than Hikaru Utada, so my being moved to tears doesn’t come as a surprise.
The show pulls no emotional punches. Alongside the show’s endearing depiction of humanity striving to do what it believes is best, To Your Eternity isn’t afraid to get heavy when moments of dread, betrayal, and death arise. But oddly enough, the show finds beauty in how Fushi comes to understand our flawed but endearing tendencies and sees through its cast’s shortcomings to help them reach the potential they have dormant within them.
I can’t mention anthropomorphic anime without mentioning the king of the genre’s return in the second season of Beastars. Now that the oddity of Beastars’ premise is a reflection of our world’s racism, classism, sexism, and other “isms”, season two picks up with best boy Legoshi putting on his detective hat as he tries to figure out who murdered his friend Tem the alpaca. As Legoshi’s sleuthing gets him closer to finding the killer, his wayward friend Louis, a deer, finds himself on the opposite end of justice as the new head of a yakuza family of lions called the Shishigumi.
Beastar’s second season builds on what made its first season so appealing. Fire opening theme? Check. Continually amazing vocal performances? Check. Horny undertones via animal kingdom predator/prey metaphors? Perfect attendance record.
Fena: Pirate Princess
We already know pirates are cool, but pirate samurai are even cooler. Enter Fena: Pirate Princess. The anime follows Fena, a 16-year-old orphan who dreams of a better life than what awaits her in the brothel she’s begrudgingly called home in England. Luckily for her, pirates from her long-forgotten swashbuckling past have come to liberate her. The rest of the series involves Fena learning the ropes of being at sea as a fledgling member of the Seven Samurai as they set sail in search of the answer to her mysterious pirate heritage.
Fena recaptured that late Saturday night magic from my childhood, which was helped in part by the show being a part of Toonami’s lineup thanks to Adult Swim’s partnership with anime streaming service Crunchyroll. Though the show had plenty of comedic and wholesome moments as Fena explored the seas with her crew, the action was surprisingly bloody and brutal. When I looked into why, I discovered that Kazuto Nakazawa, the director and key animator for Fena, also worked on Hunter x Hunter, Samurai Champloo, and the anime sequence in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
Watching Fena weekly felt like catching up with a member of your found family thanks to the palpable chemistry from the anime’s English voice cast. Sidebar: I think it’s neat that when the cast members met in person they discovered a many of them are nonbinary. You love to see it.
I initially soured a bit with Netflix’s original Baki series and dropped it after the first season ended. I found the pacing dragged a little, but I picked up its sequel series Baki Hanma on a whim to see if the show got any better. And holy shit does it.
Baki Hanma finds the titular character behind bars in an Arizona state prison after he kidnaps the president of the U.S., George Bosch, not to be confused with George Bush. But it turns out the 18-year-old wanted to be sent to prison because he’s gunning to take down the strongest man there, Biscuit Oliver. What follows is a smackdown in a prison tournament where Baki rises the ranks to get closer to matching the strength of his father Yujiro Hanma, the strongest fighter in the world.
Baki Hanma’s singular location helped the show maintain the focus I found lacking in its earlier seasons. Plus, Baki’s universe running alongside our own historic events, albeit with more fanfare for martial arts, tickled me to no end. The show’s depiction of Mike Tyson, Che Guevara, and George Bush added to the already absurd series’ comedy and interpretation of historical events.
Komi Can’t Communicate
Communicating is hard, especially if you’re too drop-dead gorgeous to stop your classmates from fawning over you to get a word in. Komi Can’t Communicate is about high schooler Komi Shouko, whose goal is to make 100 friends. Her only problem is her crippling social anxiety, and she struggles to even say hi to anyone.
Luckily, Tadano Hitohito, her first friend, is there to help coach her in reading the room and overcoming her anxiety to make connections with her classmates. I’ve been a day one Komi fan back from when the manga first came out in 2016, so I was champing at the bit to see its anime adaptation reach a mainstream audience.
The anime adaptation is better than I could’ve imagined it being. The show depicts an even-handed balance of comedy and dread that can naturally arise from miscommunication and social anxiety. The manga’s comedy, which often leans on JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure references, is translated seamlessly through onscreen onomatopoeias and clever editing and scene transitions whenever Komi or other characters get flustered. It’s great that there is an anime tackling issues like social anxiety, and I wish Komi all the luck in her friendship endeavours.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean
Usually, anime that have the “Netflix Original Series” credit slapped onto it have the unfortunate privilege of being kept behind the company’s localisation jail, where an anime that aired in Japan takes forever to release in the States. Thankfully, this wasn’t a problem for JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure follows the descendants of the Joestar family. Each part, or story arc, is set in a different time and follows a different member of the family as they battle bizarre enemies, usually with the help of their song reference ghost powers called stands. Stone Ocean follows the series’ first female protagonist, the oh-so-cool Jolyne.
The show exceeded my expectations, especially with the return of David Productions’ beautifully animated CGI opening. Plus, the claustrophobic camera work in Stone Ocean’s prison-centric season feels more dynamic than in previous seasons with its utilization of fish-eye effects, dolly zoom, and pallet-swapping of its characters whenever menacingly shocking moments arise.
Sonny Boy Is a sci-fi anime about a class of high schoolers who suddenly find themselves adrift in a multitude of other worlds where time doesn’t seem to exist, all with their own reality-breaking rules. To make matters more dire, a random assortment of these high school kids are imbued with powers, some more useful than others. Naturally, Lord of the Flies-esque tribalism ensues as some of the students with newfound powers reject returning to the norms of their halcyon classroom days.
When the kids aren’t infighting, they are discovering the extent of their powers and trying to discover the rules that dictate each world they drift into. This extended metaphor translates neatly into how these high schoolers understand their place in the real world.
Sonny Boy evokes the feeling of an arthouse-style feature-length film along the lines of director Shingo Natsume’s previous work The Tatami Galaxy. Each episode, particularly after episode three, focuses on a different high schooler and the strife they faced in the real world and how it manifests elsewhere. Sonny Boy tells a complete and satisfying story, which makes it tragic that I almost didn’t get to watch it this year because it is my favourite anime to come out of 2021.
Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon A Time
It feels weird looking back on 2021 and realising this year was the same year that Neon Genesis Evangelion finally came to a definitive conclusion. Hideaki Anno’s deconstruction of the mecha anime genre started to feel like its ambition outgrew its capacity to deliver a satisfying ending. But somehow, Anno and Studio Khara pulled off a satisfying ending with the series final rebuild film Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon A Time.
The most cathartic aspect of watching Thrice Upon A Time was the film’s ability to serve as a character study of its main cast, who have been frozen in time just like its viewers who’ve anticipated the film for years. The quiet reflexive moments in Thrice Upon A Time shine just as brightly as its bombastic CGI Eva fights, which get crazy–like using the Eiffel Tower as a weapon kind of crazy. Shots of sweeping countryside vistas overrun by the chemical aftermath of Fourth Impact, the cataclysmic event that brings forward Seele’s instrumentality project, are both haunting and soul-stirring, especially when accompanied by the movie’s soundtrack. Anno and Studio Khara’s hard work led to a perfect ending to one of anime’s most important works.