This blog already said that, out of all the mediums available, we found anime to be the most accessible last year. While we didn’t see an anime for ages in the lineup, there were some very pleasant surprises. A few of them actually. In fact, 2020 might have been more quality than 2019 simply because of how tricky it was to pick a favorite.
Despite my more dedicated viewing habits, you won’t see everything on this list. Things I didn’t get around to include globe-trotting crime thriller “The Great Pretender,” historical mystery “Moriarty the Patriot,” disaster saga “Japan Sinks,” cyberpunker “Akudama Drive” fantastic noirs “No Guns Life” and “Dorohedoro,” or supernatural dramas “Wandering Witch: The Journey of Elaina” and “The Day I Became a God.” Phew. Sorry about that. Feel free to get mad at me in the comments if I screwed up and missed out.
Don’t take the top spot below as the clear winner. As usual, the best will be one of the first few, with quality decreasing in an impressionistic sort of way until you reach the bottom, which is probably the worst of the year. So what was the best?
Gleipnir: Probably this was the best anime of 2020. It captured that old school vibe I always appreciate: sexy, cheerfully violent and gross, with some decent visual flourish. On the surface its plot of “people with superpowers try to find the magic coins before everyone else does” is pretty familiar, but dig underneath and you’ll find good pacing, solid fight animation and multifaceted characters making decisions with real consequences. As a whole the show is intriguing, occasionally thoughtful and unafraid to embrace darkness. “Gleipnir” is easy to pick up, but it’s the depth it offers that will keep you coming back. That combination of accessibiliy and intelligence should please a variety of fans.
Magia Record: Or maybe this was the best anime of the year, although I’m admittedly a sucker for all things “Madoka Magica.” It helps that this show – a kind of sideways sequel – features just enough of the original cast and crew to intrigue without overshadowing the new story. That new story was penned by the old design team, who also handle the direction, and the result is as visually interesting and intricate as before. Also, Claris is back to do the ending theme. I’m satisfied. Like its predecessor, it’s a magical girl show. The writing is a little less sharp, but it’s still offbeat, and a sense of impending tragedy surrounds the proceedings. It ends on a cliffhanger that certainly feels as messed up as the original show, but it’s a different kind of messed up, and isn’t that what we want from our sequels?
Talentless Nana: Actually, maybe this was the best anime of the year. Pulpy and high concept for sure, and the show’s plot starts to fall apart the minute you begin analyzing it, but we’re not here for that. We’re here for intrigue, mind games and character interactions, and those are first order in this teenage sci fi murder drama. One always knows what’s coming, but how we get there is surprising while never feeling illogical. Plus, Nana as an antihero is pretty neat. She’s cold-blooded for sure, but she makes mistakes and feels the weight of her actions. The animation is fine and the music is fine too. The melancholy pop song that closes the show is perhaps my favorite ending theme of the year.
Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun: I promise this will be the last anime that was maybe the best of the year. It was definitely the most surprising of all the potential bests. The others were hyped up in one way or another, while this was a horror-comedy about the ghost of a boy haunting a girls bathroom and the thirsty female high school student who becomes indebted to him. And yet, the first few episodes were decently atmospheric. Not just in the animation, which is gorgeous in an art nouveau kinda way, but in the story as well. It’s cute rather than creepy, gleefully immature and pervy, but paced so there’s always the sense of something dark lurking underneath. Then in the eighth episode, the show starts grasping for depth and consequence. I wouldn’t tell anyone to watch seven episodes of something for a payoff, but if you aren’t already scared off by the concept, you should give it a shot. The voice acting is good, and eccentric pop culture references are scattered around (I swear there was a music cue meant to recall “Twin Peaks” somewhere), so you can always focus on those in the meantime. The last episode falls a little flat, but by then, whatever. I’d watch another season.
In/Spectre: This is probably too high on the list, but I have a soft spot for weird and supernatural mystery stories. If you don’t, you’ll no doubt find the plot and pacing get draggy as the season drives on, since it goes deep into the armchair logic of its metaphysically-inclined detective. But if you like that sort of thing, you will be entertained. It doesn’t hurt that the two leads are a classically awkward couple. The cute animation and design, and the playful soundtrack help too.
My Next Life as a Villainess: Some of my betters have described this as a novel and welcome take on the isekai genre. I’ll take their word for it. From my point of view, it’s a harmless fantasy-comedy about reincarnating into your favorite dating game as the femme fatale. Our heroine is clueless, and the show is at its best when she’s whacky or cringey. There’s nothing special about the animation or soundtrack, although the theme song, a power pop song that veers into opera, might be the most fun opening of the year. The show never quite takes advantage of its “Groundhog Day”-esque if-one-could-do-it-all-again theme, but that’s not what it’s trying to do. I mean, I didn’t watch the last two episodes, so maybe everything changes in the climax, but I doubt it (update: I might be utterly wrong on that. If I am, tonstant weader, I owe you a critical review). This show isn’t trying to titillate either. There’s an episode called “Things Got Crazy at a Slumber Party.” I watched it. Things didn’t get that crazy.
Woodpecker Detective’s Office: An intriguing mystery series set at the turn of the last century, where real poets are the detectives, “Woodpecker” never quite lives up to its concept. Part of what hurts is the show can’t decide what it wants to be. Is it a dark detective show? A serious melodrama? Cute poets doing cute things? It’s all those things, but because they never have the time to gel, it’s really none of them. The series frustrated me because, despite never hitting the mark, the writing would show occasional flashes of brilliance. Maybe it’s a case of style conquering substance. No complaints about the expressive and appropriate animation.
The House Spirit Tatami-chan: The misadventures of an unemployed household goddess from the country who moves to a cheap apartment in Tokyo so she can … I don’t remember if she has a goal, actually. Sporting bargain animation and lasting two minutes a pop, this is the most widget series out of everything on the list. In that category, it’s hard to complain about it since it does everything it sets out to do: lampoon contemporary Japanese culture, force out some immature humor and have a kickin’ funky theme song. If that sounds somewhat shallow, it would only take a dedicated viewer one hour to get through the entire season, so don’t complain too much.
Higurashi: When They Cry – GOU: If you told me at the top of 2020 that a pervy comedy about a ghost in a high school bathroom would be a better horror anime than the sideways sequel to “Higurashi,” I don’t know what I would have said. But that’s what last year was like. I still haven’t finished this (the season is ongoing as of this writing), but it plays like a safe riff on the 2006 series. You know the drill: school kids frolic in rural Japan until someone they know goes nuts and murders them all. Rinse. Repeat. “Higurashi GOU” lacks both the highs and lows of the original, which includes that series’s edge and psychological depth. It gets a little more intriguing and intense and it goes along, so while the 2021 continuation might end up resulting in a competent scare series, it’s probably too late for it to be a masterpiece.
ID:Invaded: A sci fi detective drama about future cops who dive into the reconstructed minds of killers. It’s cool to see those minds being rebuilt and picked apart by the detectives, but outside of their dreamlike environments, the show is a fairly routine police procedural. In case the brevity of this review wasn’t clear enough, this show is competently produced and fun enough in the viewing, but pretty predictable and quickly forgotten after the credits roll.
Hatena Illusion: I’ve already admitted I didn’t finish every show on the list so far, but I did finish “Hatena Illusion.” Why? Out of all of them, why? This bills itself as a kind of mystery-comedy with elements of professional magic and supernatural hand waving, and I guess the target audience is girls? It still has a ton of fan service, right down to the episode that ends with female characters of various breast sizes hot tubbing together. Between that and the endless winks at anime fans, it almost comes across as pleading. Was that the point? Why is this anime producing so many questions? If anime is nothing more than cute escape, I guess that this is the best anime of the year. It has stiff animation, a laughable script and a presentation that is almost artful in its stupidity, and yet I kept watching. It must have been doing something right.
Darwin’s Game: Imagine the high concept of “Gleipnir,” except drained of all the intelligence and interesting visuals. That’s “Darwin’s Game.” The first episode is the most engaging, with a lot of goofy curveballs flung at the viewer, and then it simply cannot live up to it for the rest of the series. The characters are mostly dull and shallow, with the few interesting ones getting shoved to the side or killed. The pacing is pretty bad, illustrated in part by a few too many endings, so the intrigue never sticks. At least the animation in some of the fights is pretty good, and about as well choreographed as your average kung fu flick.
Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045: Do you remember when “Ghost in the Shell” inspired things like “The Matrix”? Well, this edition in the franchise features a black suited and sunglasses wearing secret agent named “Smith” who definitely does not look at all like Hugo Weaving. I guess we’ve come full circle. If you’re an anime fan with an internet connection, this blog doesn’t have to tell you about this show’s janky CGI animation. We can add that the direction is generic, there are plot holes one could drive a truck through, and, while this might be petty, I don’t like the Major’s design. She looks like a child. All the classic “Ghost” voice actors are back for the dub and they’re as good as ever, so you can always stick to that if you’re a fanatic. There are some intelligent exchanges scattered around the script, and the intrigue does pick up in the season’s second half, but it takes forever to get anywhere interesting. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, so good luck with this one. The most engaging part of the show is appropriately the ending credits, which feature a perfectly chilly song by Mili.
Sing “Yesterday” for Me: Beautiful, fluid animation cannot save this absolutely boring melodrama, which goes nowhere and goes there for episode after episode. I tried to get through this one more than once, and I gave up every time. Maybe it gets better, but I don’t think so. Some choice lines cannot save the plodding script, which squeezes the bite out of everything. And that gorgeous animation is wasted on dishwater dull characters that don’t seem to care about their circumstances, leaving me to feel the same way.