Mario: Here we are, having made it through the new normal in 2021, and things don’t look much better than they did this time last year. But at least we had anime to distract us, and I’m happy to report it was a pretty solid year on that front. There were a handful of original shows (Sonny Boy, Wonder Egg Priority, Odd Taxi) that caused a stir, some of which divided the audience but nevertheless delivered their fresh perspectives to the medium. Adaptations of world famous franchises had their highs (Fruits Basket, Attack on Titan) and their very lows (Promised Neverland, To Your Eternity). Even not-so-famous manga got a bit of shine, one of which is likely to appear on next year’s version of this post, as well (Ousama Ranking, Heaven’s Design Team). Once again, the staff at Star Crossed Anime share with you our favorites – and least favorites – that the past year in anime had to offer. Read on to see whether you agree with our picks!
Worst of the Worst
Worst Show: 2.43 Seiin Koukou Danshi Volley-bu
Wooper: Given that 2021 played host to such turds as Tesla Note and Shinka no Mi, it’s not entirely accurate to call Seiin Koukou Danshi Volley-bu the worst show of the year. But it was the worst show that at least two of us watched from start to finish, and the rapid descent from the relative promise of its premiere to the ambivalent fart of its finale was enough to earn it this honor. Incredibly, Volley-bu managed to throw a monkey wrench into nearly every one of its character arcs. Got a player who freezes up during official matches? Give him some extra motivation by ignoring him during practice – problem solved! Two teammates had a fight so massive that one of them decides to take a train out of town? Just have the other guy accompany him on his impulsive journey – friendship restored! Your star athlete was such a demanding team captain in middle school that one of his teammates attempted suicide? Just kidding – the “suicide attempt” was an elaborate plot to get back at him for being such a hardass! And that was just the first half of the show. After that it was lukewarm injury-related drama and inconsistently paced games week after week, leading to an ending that satisfied virtually no one. Which set of six episodes was worse, the first or the last? That impossible question will be Volley-bu’s only legacy.
Runner-up: VLAD LOVE, a mess of an anime with no clear direction, no overarching plot and cringe-worthy humor.
To Your Eternity
Lenlo: There was a lot of hype around To Your Eternity when it first started airing, and rightfully so. Brain’s Base is a good studio with a decent pedigree and Yoshitoki Ooima’s first work, A Silent Voice, took the world by storm. Everything was in place for at least a decent show. And it started good! The early episodes promised us an exploration of what it means to be human. Showing us, through Fushi’s inexperienced third party perception, what our lives and societies are really like. Slowly learning and forming his own thoughts along the way. But as the episodes went on and the story progressed To Your Eternity shifted away from that. We left the very human conflicts and focused more on the supernatural. It introduced shape shifting monsters that only our special MC could fight, a grand conflict between cosmic forces that God himself put Fushi here to help solve. It abandoned everything that made it interesting and became a sub-par version of what we see in every single mediocre battle shounen ever. And it is for that, for raising our hopes and expectations for something different and then dashing them against the rocks, that To Your Eternity earns our award for Biggest Disappointment.
Runner-up: SONNY BOY, for promising an exciting, never-seen-before take on our human condition, youth, society, individuality – but instead producing a production more pretentious than potent.
Worst First Episode: Ex-Arm
Armitage: While this year was not short of stinkers in terms of anime that started by putting their wrong foot forward, Ex-Arm turned out to quite handsomely be the series that one-upped everything else by proceeding to super glue said foot so that it wouldn’t move forward by an inch even if someone were to stubbornly push it along. It looked absolutely bleed-your-eyes-out atrocious, like something made entirely of rough drafts for a GoHands anime that was canceled before it even aired. It had as much coherence in its plot as an Isekai about Mozart learning to drive a jet engine and its characters were as wooden as my study chair sounds after being left in the summer sun for a week. Now, don’t even get me started on its negatives, else we will be here all day.
Runner-up: WAY OF THE HOUSEHUSBAND, for a slideshow presentation of a well respected manga that kills all the humor and pathos of the source material.
Frill (Wonder Egg Priority)
Mario: Yes, I’m part of the club that finds Wonder Egg Priority’s 11th episode to be brilliant and its star player Frill to be a fascinating, twisted character. But the big issue with Frill is that she becomes a convenient antagonist for a show that doesn’t need that kind of antagonism. It feels kind of backward the way WEP as a whole focuses on sexual and mental abuse and then turns on a dime and creates Frill, an abuse victim herself, to fill the role of “bad guy.” Her introduction negatively overwhelms the entire cast in the last couple episodes as well, setting the stage for the show’s implosive conclusion.
Runner-up: RUDEUS GREYRAT (MUSHOKU TENSEI), for being a child molester…then being a wannabe child molester once reincarnated.
Best First Episode:
Wonder Egg Priority
Wooper: My initial exposure to Wonder Egg Priority was dominated by perplexed interest, but once I reached the final seconds of the premiere and heard Kanata Aikawa’s “Tsuzuku!” send-off, everything clicked. Despite dealing largely in metaphor, with escalators descending into dream worlds and humans hatching from eggs, Wonder Egg’s dialogue was still direct enough to earn the attention of more casual fans – a tricky balancing act that the first episode pulled off with aplomb. Elegant character designs gave Ai, Koito and Kurumi an instant sort of magnetism, and Ai’s memories spliced throughout the story promised commentary on depression and suicide, which only increased my curiosity about both her and the series. The sensations of loneliness created by the sterile school building, dread stemming from the deranged Seeno Evils, and mystery surrounding the garden at the tail end of the premiere were all made palpable by strong art direction, as well – I still remember my eagerness to watch the second episode just seconds after finishing the first. Though the show’s conclusion will go down in infamy, Wonder Egg Priority was blessed with one of the most assured beginnings of any series in 2021.
Runner-up: HEIKE MONOGATARI, for attempting to adapt a monumental epic, presenting it in all its sweeping scale and being nothing short of a painting in motion while doing so.
Best Single Episode:
Wonder Egg Priority #7
Lenlo: Let’s not mince words here, Wonder Egg Priority had a rough second half. One which me and Wooper talked about at length in our joint wrap up post. However that finale only hurts as much as it did because of how good Wonder Egg’s first half was. And it is episode 7, “After School at 14”, that exemplifies this more than any other. In a single episode Wonder Egg Priority took the shallow Rika, someone who we knew was hiding something but not what, and turned her into my favorite character of the entire show. Arguably one of my favorite characters for the year. This episode is a tale of neglect and self-hatred. Of the power our words have over the people who care for us. How they can destroy or lift us up. Look at me, waxing poetic over here. The long and short of it is this: For all its faults, Wonder Egg Priority gave me the episode that made me the most emotional I’ve felt all year. It made me connect with a character that, previously, I wasn’t that big a fan of. And I think that’s worthy of recognition.
Runner-up: OUSAMA RANKING #5, for continually subverting expectations regarding its royal family and looking stylish while doing it.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Odd Taxi
Armitage: I remember watching a teaser for Odd Taxi at last year’s Crunchyroll Anime Awards. And it looked, well, odd. An eccentric little anime probably being made on a shoestring budget that would justify it relying on its novelty to find any real traction with the anime audience of today, composed of brats like me with the attention span of a squirrel who are spoilt for choice when it comes to time-wasting options. Fast forward a whole year and Odd Taxi was easily the critical darling of the year that resonated with way more people than even its creators could have even anticipated. How did that happen? Well, Odd Taxi actually had the genius and totally original idea of having a writers room full of talented individuals who were for once not interested in pandering to previously mentioned brats. It demanded the viewer to pay attention. The price of admission was that you brought your cognitive skills along. And well, it paid off that investment with a finale for the ages. Turns out that there really is no substitute for good characters and a meticulously constructed narrative. Who knew?
Runner-up: HEAVEN’S DESIGN TEAM, for adapting a lesser-known manga to deliver both laughs and zoological knowledge every week.
Best Studio: OLM
Amun: Despite having eight seasonal anime completed in 2021, OLM was crowned Best Studio for two shows: Odd Taxi and Komi-san Can’t Communicate (although, I would like to add, OLM did admirably on Restaurant to Another World 2). For a studio best known for Pokemon (yes, yes, Berserk, I know, I know), producing a phenomenal original series like Odd Taxi is shocking – I certainly didn’t expect a studio I considered a one-trick pony to come out with such an artistic piece. The follow-up, Komi-san Can’t Communicate, proved a great hit in a different way. Internationally syndicated through Netflix, Komi-san may have been standard in terms of plot, but the production was incredible. To show such range, art-house to blockbuster, OLM has silenced its detractors (well, mostly me) and proven to be a very capable studio going forward.
Runner-up: WIT STUDIO, for pursuing both realism and idealism with Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song and Ousama Ranking, respectively.
Best OP: “Dies in No Time” (Kyuuketsuki Sugu Shinu)
Amun: Wait Amun, what are you doing, this isn’t EDM?! Someone stop him! Despite being a musical genre that’s not typically my favorite (and an anime that was an utter disappointment for Hiroshi Kōjina’s first seasonal anime since HunterxHunter) Kyuuketsuki Sugu Shinu has a spectacular opening sequence. The casino themed dance-off introduces the cast with quick cuts and quirky side plots, while maintaining the “battle” between our hunter and vampire. The color scheme of red and black is mirrored through the show and lends itself to the roulette theme perfectly. The song – specifically for this anime – fits like a glove. In fact, this opening makes the show seem far more interesting than it turned out to be – that’s probably the highest compliment I can pay an OP.
Runner-up: “ODDTAXI” (ODD TAXI), for the many creative transitions between its silhouetted characters and the simple yet addictive groove of its hip-hop/R&B tune.
Best ED: “El Canto del Colibri” (Nomad: Megalo Box)
Wooper: The lyrics of the Megalo Box series’ second ED speak of a traveler on the brink of death who encounters a hummingbird in the desert. Hearing the fragile creature’s song, the traveler is filled with joy and purpose – but the hummingbird flies away, never to return. These lyrics so closely parallel the story of Nomad’s first four episodes that they hardly qualify as a metaphor, but given the enormous impact that boxer and community leader Chief had on Joe this season, that directness is entirely appropriate. Chief was El Canto del Colibri’s hummingbird incarnate, fulfilling the animal’s spiritual role by helping Joe come to terms with his coach’s death and inspiring him to return to the ring. And just as Megalo Box honored Mexican culture through the use of hummingbird imagery and the recognition of El Día de los Muertos, so too did its ED. In contrast to season one’s loud neon border, Nomad’s credits are flanked by patterns inspired by Mexican and Central American embroidery. Those flourishes and flowers are tenderly paired with whisper-quiet vocals, softly strummed acoustic guitars, and snowflakes that begin to fall just as the chorus kicks in. The overall effect is subtle yet undeniably stirring, making Nomad’s humble credits scroll an essential closer for each of its powerful episodes.
Runner-up: “YASASHII SUISEI” (BEASTARS S2), for its unique visuals and incredible presentation of one of Beastars’ most compelling relationships.
Production & Characters
Best Animation: Ousama Ranking
Armitage: I have spoken ad nauseum about this show for our blog. My praise for it is usually showered on its characters and narrative. But the one aspect of it all that can get overshadowed in the shuffle is actually how well-produced it is. You’d expect Studio Wit, with their well-documented financial struggles to cut corners in places but they actually do the opposite. There is wayyy too much effort put in into even the most minute of details in the production of Ousama Ranking. Be it in the way tears trickle down Bojji’s face when he’s just not strong enough to hold them in any longer or the way every single fight scene in this series looks like it was performed by professionals who meticulously choreographed each move. It really is Study Wit putting on a show for the world to just sit back and admire. If this is the last piece of anime that they produce before being engulfed in corporate bureaucracy, they can damn well give themselves a pat on the back for what they’ve achieved here.
Runner-up: JUJUTSU KAISEN, for making every frame a masterpiece with continuously creative camera angles, impeccable lighting, and dynamic fights.
Best Background Art:
Mario: Heike Monogatari dominated our ballots in this category and it’s easy to see why. Many of its establishing shots and backdrops illustrated the natural world in a way that could only be described as painterly. Whether the characters reclined on a sandy beach for a moonlit flute performance, traversed a bamboo forest on their way to a Buddhist monastery, or observed a snowy garden as time quietly ushered in another year of war, the show’s rendering of Heian period Japan was painstakingly crafted and seriously pretty. That kind of beauty served as an essential contrast to the bitterness of Heike Monogatari’s story, so I appreciate the care that Naoko Yamada and her friends at Deho Gallery put into making every frame pop.
Runner-up: YURU CAMP S2, for making traveling and camping look like two of the world’s most appealing hobbies (Google Mapsgate notwithstanding).
Best Soundtrack: Sonny Boy
Wooper: Sonny Boy is a series that forgoes musical accompaniment 90 percent of the time, but when its insert songs kick in, they elevate their scenes to centerpiece status without fail. Seriously, not since Honey and Clover has there been an anime packed with so many alt-rock moment makers. Director Shingo Natsume and musical advisor (you guessed it) Shinichiro Watanabe drew from their shared love of indie and electronic bands to provide the show’s soundtrack, resulting in a who’s who of underground Japanese groups. From the tension and release of Sunset Rollercoaster’s synths in the show’s second week to Toe’s driving drumwork during the finale’s interdimensional climax, every episode contained at least one fantastic tune by which to remember it. Perhaps the most memorable of all were Yamabiko and Kodama’s Themes, a pair of sprawling electronic tracks by Korean band Mid-Air Thief meant to disorient the listener during an extended flashback. But if I’m being biased, my favorite Sonny Boy song is Lightship by The Natsuyasumi Band, whose shiver-inducing harmonies and solemn third-act horns bring me to tears each time I dare to replay it. It’s a highlight among highlights – my pick for the crown jewel of the year’s best soundtrack.
Runner-up: NOMAD: MEGALO BOX, for its blend of Hip Hop and authentic Latin American music, two often ignored styles in anime. Well done Mabanua.
Best Voice Actor: Aoi Yuuki
Amun: I’m very excited about this award, because all the other authors voted for Aoi Yuuki in roles other than my favorite. But since I’m the one presenting the award, too bad! Sure, Aoi Yuuki’s great in Sonny Boy as Mizuho; she makes Tsuyu in MHA a clear fan favorite; and she got like five lines as Gracefeel in Faraway Paladin, but none of those roles are why I voted her #1. No, her star role of 2021 is as the titular spider of So I’m a Spider, So What? Other aspects of that show may have disappointed, but Kumoko’s narrative was never one of them. From frantic, to smug, to teasing, in every situation (imagined or real), for every disaster and recovery – our darling spider voiced by Aoi Yuuki carried a mediocre show that was plagued by production issues to a palatable conclusion. MVP’s on traditional sports teams aren’t always given to the eventual winner; they’re given to the person without whom the team would be nothing. Without Aoi Yuuki, Spider Isekai was nothing – her Best Voice Actor Award, the illustrious Star Crossed MVP, is well deserved!
Runner-up: METEOR (YANO, ODD TAXI), for rapping his way to our heart and soul.
Best Character: Odokawa (Odd Taxi)
Wooper: This may sound a bit presumptuous, but Odokawa had this category on lock from the moment that first sardonic remark slipped past his tusks in Odd Taxi’s premiere. At once an everyman and a singular screen presence, he had both the dry wit and the intriguing aura necessary to gain the appreciation of a wide audience. Snarking at passengers for their social media obsession or pop culture fandom is one thing, but as the primary link between multiple sets of scarcely-related characters, Odokawa had a lot more responsibility on his shoulders than the average protagonist. Yet he navigated each of the show’s worlds stoically and in accordance with his conscience, and when things took a turn in the finale, he was able to rely on the people whose lives he had impacted throughout the story. Far from being a simple good guy, the trauma of Odokawa’s past began bubbling to the surface as the series progressed, but the beauty of his character was that he could be appreciated with or without that knowledge. Whether you were invested in his secret past or just connected to his world-weary sarcasm on a spiritual level, Odokawa was the perfect guide on our journey through the crazy world of Odd Taxi.
Runner-up: RIKA KAWAI (WONDER EGG PRIORITY), for her heart wrenching tale of self harm, abandonment and the power our words have over the people we care for.
Best Cast: Odd Taxi
Amun: Odd Taxi – I knew I would eventually write something further about my favorite show of 2021. Everyone’s favorite walrus drove us on a merry chase of murder, robbery, and redemption, but he was hardly alone. In a show where every character’s primary trait became their animal identity, Odd Taxi didn’t settle in a sequestered Noah’s Ark of a story – we saw evolution into humans right before our eyes! These animals, good and bad, were striving to live out their story – each of them in their own, flawed ways. The individuality of each character, from the cringe monkey Kakihana to the swaggering thug Dobu, rang true. These were real people (well, animals). The struggle of brotherly loyalty versus sworn duty. The hopeless reality of peaking too soon. The ruthlessness of doing anything for your dream, your only path to living. These characters may have been fictional, but I certainly know who they represent in my own life. And that’s what makes great art: where the viewer sees a reflection of reality they can connect with, shown in a different way. In Odd Taxi’s case, every facet of their cast and story came together to form a brilliant masterpiece. From top to bottom, this cast’s portrayal is an ensemble of excellence.
Runner-up: OUSAMA RANKING, for featuring characters with simplistic story-book designs and motivations that are anything but.
Genre & Format
Best Comedy: Heaven’s Design Team
Amun: Here’s a show I didn’t expect to see heavily featured in the year-end awards, but here we are. Heaven’s Design Team went from “well I’ll keep watching until it falls off” to “Heaven’s Design Team drops today!” Never straying from the animal of the week, Design Team brought us both an informative deconstruction of commonly known animals and a humorous professional environment. Unlike the service heavy, high school based Seton Academy, Heaven’s Design Team completely avoided being furry bait – or any overdone service, honestly, and kept it good, clean fun. When was the last time a comedy (anime or not) managed to do that? From a humorously whimsical boss (deity) to the various other eccentric departments in the heavenly workplace, the show kept the laughs fresh and the story interesting all the way to the final project! While unlikely to crack any all-time lists, Heaven’s Design Team should be applauded for making us laugh during a year when not much else did.
Runner-up: KOMI-SAN WA KOMYUSHOU DESU, not for its creativity, but for executing predictable tropes excellently with endearing characters and beautiful production.
Best Action: Jujutsu Kaisen
Mario: Yes, Jujutsu Kaisen has claimed this award two years in a row, but that’s for good reason. The second cour might not have been as novel as the first, but with the introduction of the Kyoto Sister-School Goodwill Event (read: tournament arc), there was still plenty of room for exhilarating battles and cool techniques. And boy, did Seong-Hu Park and his team at MAPPA deliver these with flying colors. There were a handful of awesome sakuga sequences in the show’s back half, especially during the exchange event, but there was lots more action to be found in the subsequent Death Painting arc, too. Even someone like me who isn’t keen on action shows had a blast watching Jujutsu Kaisen once again this year.
Runner-up: SK8 THE INFINITY, for its passionate and energetic portrayal of skateboarding and skateboarding culture.
Best Drama: Heike Monogatari
Mario: Bringing a 13th century historical epic to the small screen is no easy task, especially when detailing the rise and fall of a single clan across two decades as in Heike Monogatari. In fact, as someone who isn’t fluent in Japanese history, some of the events depicted in the series temporarily lost me – but the impact of the characters’ departures in the later episodes came through loud and clear. The whole tale is a tragedy, which we knew right from the beginning thanks to motifs like sal flower buds being “beheaded” as they fell from their branches. When characters died, they typically did so in the midst of violent circumstances, or else alone in despair. But at the end the show still provided a ray of hope as Biwa witnessed the rescue of Tokuko, a woman whose death by drowning she had foreseen, but was averted. There’s nothing quite like Heike Monogatari in this medium and it will remain a story worth telling for many generations to come.
Runner-up: NOMAD: MEGALO BOX 2, for being an empathetic look at the migrant struggle and an ode to the perseverance of the human spirit, wrapped up in a crowd-pleasing sports narrative.
Best Original Show: Odd Taxi
Lenlo: The best way I can justify Odd Taxi winning Best Original is simply by giving you an elevator pitch. Imagine a series where every single character is an animal. Not some cutesy fluff piece like Aggretsuko or that one about Oda Nobunaga as a doll, real people who just look like animals. And now imagine that the lead of this series isn’t a starry eyed youth or grizzled veteran, it’s not even a big boob-ed anime girl: It’s an anti-social taxi driver in his 40s who wants nothing more than to be left alone. Now I don’t know about you, but to me this sounds terribly boring. There’s no impetus to act here, no clear end goal, it’s just a week in a taxi driver’s life. And yet in spite of this, Odd Taxi is amazing. Through its clever and engaging dialogue, it’s unique art styles, the complex plot that somehow doesn’t get tangled up in nonsense. It is because of all of these and more that Odd Taxi, without question, earns its place as the Best Original of this year.
Runner-up: SONNY BOY, for its relentlessly inventive world design and no-rules storytelling style.
Best Short Series: Pui Pui Molcar
Wooper: When I look back on 2021, Molcar will be one of my most treasured pop culture discoveries thanks to its meticulous production choices, fun film references, and warmhearted writing. The show’s premise – that there are guinea pigs which are also cars – is impossibly cute on its own, but a ton of extra work went into the making of this stop motion short, and it shows. Explosions were created by attaching tufts of wool to objects as stand-ins for smoke, leading to scenes like the helicopter crash in this PV. The Molcars’ driving styles are appropriately varied across each episode, from Akira power slides to realistic slippage on snowy roads. And the sound design! The squeaks of the cars are provided by real guinea pigs, the automotive effects are delightfully over the top, and the music morphs seamlessly from scene to scene. One moment it’s all suspenseful strings, and the next you’re jamming out to a melodica track as the characters celebrate a hard-won victory. There are a lot of these victories in the show, too – many of its conflicts are resolved when the Molcars help a friend in need or share a prized possession, making it the perfect pick-me-up for anyone caught in a cynical funk.
Runner-up: AGGRETSUKO S4, for maintaining the show’s sharp workplace satire with a colorful set of characters.
Best Foreign Animation: Arcane
Lenlo: In light of what some (and by “some” I mean some of the writers here) might call a weak year for anime, we wanted to recognize some of the work done outside of Japan. And we had a lot of options! Disney did something unexpected with Owl House, Rooster Teeth continues with RWBY and Gen;Lock and Netflix? Netflix releases the best animated show I watched all year in Arcane. It cannot be understated how good of a job Studio Fortiche did here. Every frame of Arcane could be printed on your wall. Their blend of traditional 2D animation and 3D CGI is exactly what anime has been trying to create ever since Studio Orange released Houseki no Kuni. And its narrative? So much more than anything I could have expected from a League of Legends product. I promise, for those of you on the fence, you don’t need to have played a second of the game to understand and enjoy Arcane. I would almost argue it’s better if you haven’t because you won’t go in with any preconceptions or knowledge about the characters. Suffice it to say I am eagerly awaiting the next season, and anything else Fortiche does in the future. Can you believe this is their first full length show?! Insanity…
Runner-up: SUMMIT OF THE GODS, for being a visual feast and a shining example of the heights the medium of animation can scale when production execs allow capable people to work on something they’re truly passionate about.
Best OVA: Star Wars: Visions
Lenlo: Ever since Disney acquired Lucasfilm we’ve been given a very sanitized version of Star Wars. The extended universe was cut, a bunch of cash-in games got released, and the new trilogy… well the less said there, the better. But in past year or so, ever since the trilogy bombed, there seems to have been a shift. The Mandalorian was great, The Clone Wars had a fantastic finale to a 12 year run and now we are given the chance to see Star Wars in brand new medium, anime. And you know what? It’s not half bad. Visions provides us not one, not two, not five, but NINE new ways to look at Star Wars, each one the vision of a different director. Some of these aren’t great, such as Studio Colorido’s Tatooine Rhapsody or Science Saru’s T0-B1. But others are the most fun I’ve had from Star Wars in a decade such as The Elder, or make for a better start to a trilogy than anything Disney has made in Production I.G’s The Ninth Jedi. What I’m saying is: If you like Star Wars you will find at least one episode amongst these nine to love. And if you don’t? They will still be like nothing you’ve ever seen before in the universe. And that’s pretty great in my book.
Runner-up: ARIA THE CREPUSCOLO, for once again proving why ARIA is one of the best healing franchises of all-time.
Best Movie: Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop
Mario: In the year where some of the bigger films ended up disappointing me (Evangelion 3.0+1.0, the Violet Evergarden movie and Josee just to name a few), Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop managed to sneak its way into my heart. The romance between teenagers Cherry and Smile is low-key but progresses naturally, with each member of the cast feeling relatable and believable. The shopping mall setting, while looking out of place at first due to the 3DCG, becomes more and more lived-in due to the detail poured into its design. The bustling shops, the rooftop hangout spots, the graffitied haiku poems… the mall adds another dimension to the story all on its own. In addition, the color design pops out at you with a vibrant and saturated palette, complimenting Smile’s buoyant persona and forming a contrast with Cherry’s quiet shyness. It’s a light hearted work, but it captures both the lows and highs of growing up, the process of developing self-esteem, and the feeling of falling in love for the first time.
Runner-up: POMPO THE CINEPHILE, for its stunning cinematography and exploration of what it means to create.
Top 10 Anime of 2021
Here’s a link to our individual ballots, so you can see how we settled on these ten shows in (roughly) this order. Let’s go!
10. Heion Sedai no Idaten-tachi
Mario: Heion Sedai no Idaten-tachi in our top 10 might seem odd to some, but for those of us who watched it, its placement is no mystery. Idaten consistently breaks the mold both on the production front and in its thematic reach, creating an anime that is refreshing to watch and wholly original. While I admit that some of the show’s elements don’t work for me (or worse, gross me out), they exist to support the show’s core concepts. The series exists in an amoral space given its war between non-human deities and demons, and since their moral principles aren’t equivalent to ours, violence and nihilism are the name of the game. In addition, Idaten-tachi goes wild with experimental coloring – it shakes itself up completely based on the mood of each scene – and expressive action and character animation. Throughout its short 11-episode run, the show maintains a high level of intrigue as it features two-sided cat-and-mouse chases between foul-mouthed immortal combatants. While the ending keeps things unresolved and thus leaves a lot to be desired, this series is certainly one of the most darkly funny and entertaining popcorn spectacles in recent years.
9. Sonny Boy
Wooper: How can an anime that was nearly voted Star Crossed’s “biggest disappointment” appear on its year-end top 10 list? The answer is simple: polarization. Sonny Boy may have struck out with mass audiences, but I (and one other contributor here) found much to love across its twelve diverse offerings. Tropical islands, bottomless towers, blood red canyons, kaleidoscopic wormholes – it would be easier to list the places this show didn’t visit than the ones it did. With every new episode came further explorations of the cast’s internal conflicts and fresh reveals about the nature of the series’ various worlds, many of which contradicted each other. Sonny Boy was just that kind of anime, obfuscating the truth of both its setting and story until its characters were all that remained in focus. Nagara’s detachment, Nozomi’s fear of death, and Mizuho’s all-encompassing resentment were the foundation of this series, not any secret journal or explain-it-all character who would unlock the mysteries of the island they briefly called home. The pain they carried with them to Hateno Island, and their resolve to leave behind even a fraction of that pain as they searched for a way home – these were the things that made each episode of Sonny Boy feel so personal to me. (Except the one about monkey baseball. Even I have my limits!)
8. Fruits Basket: The Final
Amun: There may have been better anime in 2021, but Fruits Basket: The Final is the anime I probably feel the strongest about. This is a series I accidentally stumbled upon (I didn’t watch the 2001 version), it’s not my normal genre, and the premise sounds ridiculous. But we do not choose what touches our hearts. I have never yelled at my screen as much as I have during this show – there may have been some tears, who knows. But at the end of it all, our animals and animal lovers emerged (mostly) unscathed, just a few stab wounds and some broken hearts. But it was all worth it, to see all the proper “ships” (even some unexpected ones) leaving the harbor – definitely a worthwhile emotional payoff. Sure, the story’s sappy, sure there are problems, sure Tohru is dumb as bricks. Doesn’t matter – this show had the best moments. Face punch for being dumb. Smoothly breaking chalk. Getting shanked. Growing old together. As this long journey draws to a close, Fruits Basket: The Final was worth every painful step.
7. Jujutsu Kaisen
Lenlo: I’ve already talked at length on my feelings about Jujutsu Kaisen. But for some reason the other writers here wanted me to give it another go, so here I am! Jujutsu Kaisen is the premier Shounen battle series of the year, that cannot be denied. The work done by animators like Keiichiro Watanabe, Vercreek, Hironori Tanaka and many more is some of the most visceral combat you’ll see all year. Yeah it has some compositing issues at times, and yeah I have my own gripes about the story such as the tournament arc and many other things I wrote about in my review. But when comes time for a moment to moment hype fest, Jujutsu Kaisen is who you call. And in a year like this, that’s a very welcome thing indeed.
6. Wonder Egg Priority
Mario: Just like Sonny Boy, Wonder Egg Priority is an anime that sharply divided our staff. While I agree with the majority that the ending was the most glorious production disaster we have seen in recent years, what came before the downfall still resonated with me more than any other show in 2021. Wonder Egg tackles many serious themes from which others would shy away: bullying, mental and sexual abuse, suicide… but it does so without sacrificing the characters’ inner emotions because the show respects and values their trauma. The visuals are stunning too, as it delivers a lot of strong symbolism and uses purposeful framing devices to highlight its female cast’s issues and growth. Many character-driven episodes (especially the ones involving Rika) speak volumes as a result. For all of its flaws, Wonder Egg Priority is heavy without being manipulative, emotional without being sentimental and raw and uncomfortable not just for the sake of it all – the kind of show that I greatly champion.
5. Nomad: Megalo Box
Armitage: All sports stories are sad stories. Somebody always wins, sure. And is rightfully championed for their achievement. But a lot of others end up losing and don’t get a mention at all. It’s a fair trade. So long as you do not lose. Megalo Box’s Season 2 is all about losers. Its first half, which was in my opinion, the best stretch of half-a-dozen episodes released in all of 2021 is brave enough to sideline its lead, Gearless Joe – a winner in the eyes of the world, a loser in his own – to focus on a completely new character with a story of his own to tell. A story that everyone including the viewer knows will inevitably end in heartbreak. But of course, as people who love this genre of storytelling or any sport in general, we condition ourselves a certain way. We learn to drink up our tears and we learn to hold on to the victories, however rare. We learn how to pick ourselves back up. When Chief meets his eventual end, it’s a crushing blow. For us and for Joe. It’d have been easy to call it curtains on this story right then and there. But that’s not what Megalo Box is about. It’s about getting knocked down to the floor but getting back up every single time. Bloodied, beaten… but not dead yet.
Amun: Let’s get this out of the way: SSSS.Dynazenon has large CGI robots that combine and battle like children’s toys. It’s decently entertaining. That’s not what makes SSSS.Dynazenon a great show. The real meat of the story focuses on the circumstances of our robot pilots – a motley crew of time travelers, high school students, and shut-ins. This is a story of loss, finding your way, and overcoming your past mistakes – set against the backdrop of giant robots and Kaiju destroying a city. I think the contrast between the silliness of the battles and seriousness of the personal circumstances are what makes the SSSS franchise so fascinating. Every character (good or bad) is fighting their own demons and trying to live their ideals. While a bit over the top with robot battles, SSSS.Dynazenon is very understated when developing the characters and their relationships. The awkward pool scene from episode 5 is one of my favorites – that is exactly how that interaction would happen in reality. SSSS.Dynazenon earns its place on the best of 2021 for building a strange world with complex characters who we loved to spend time with and to get to know…even if they were flying giant robots.
3. Heike Monogatari
Lenlo: If you were to ask me, and you are since this is my blurb, Heike Monogatari is the most beautiful show of 2021. The work done over at Science Saru by Naoko Yamada and her team was nothing short of stellar. From the expressiveness of the character designs and the almost translucent quality of their outlines, often allowing things like water or cloth to blend together, to the detailed backgrounds that are matched up to and compared with the living, breathing characters perfectly. Heike Monogatari is the most consistently stunning production of the year, perhaps of the last few. Combine that with engaging storyboards and a story of war and family spanning generations, and you have a serious contender for Anime of the Year. What held it back from placing higher on this list was simply its own ambition. In its journey to tell this historical tale to its fullest Heike Monogatari, in my eyes, over complicated and over abstracted its own conclusion. Leading to a bittersweet finale that, while beautiful, left me wishing it had done something differently.
2. Ousama Ranking
Armitage: I love this show. I wholeheartedly, unconditionally do. I love it like a child loves Santa. For me, Ousama Ranking is not just a story about a wondrous but hostile world filled with larger than life characters whose true motivations lie under five layers of misdirection. It’s also an ephemeral comet cutting through a sky of mediocrity. Now, full disclosure: I’m getting old (I know, shocker). And the older I get, the more disinterested I become in what modern anime is turning into. I still love this medium, don’t get me wrong. But I have realized that my love for it is now more of a nostalgic kind. Of days gone by. Days when I used to sit up in the morning in front of my old desktop PC, tell my mom to bring my breakfast to my room as I was a lazy bum and just… watch anime. My room didn’t have air-conditioning so I would be sweating bullets in the summer and my cousins would always make fun of me for still watching cartoons all day even in my teens but you know what? It was the absolute best. So, when I say that this one anime about a boy who finds it hard to communicate what he truly feels to a world that’s nothing but uncaring towards him is something that hits too close to home, I am not exaggerating. When he strikes up a bond with a shadow on the floor, something that a child would come up with in his loneliness, I see myself mirrored. When he cries out of a sadness he cannot explain, my heart aches too. And these are only a few of the many many times Ousama Ranking made me feel like I am sitting in a room with a plate of half-eaten banana and jelly sandwiches that I have had in my lap for a whole hour. With that said, as another resident old person, here’s my advice to you – I don’t know you and also don’t how old you are but very few things from here on out are going to mean as much to you as this show does to me. When you find something like it – if you do – don’t let go. No matter how much everyone else tells you to do otherwise, don’t you dare let go.
1. Odd Taxi
Wooper: You read all the way through this exceedingly long post just to hear from us what you’ve likely heard in half a dozen other places: Odd Taxi is the best anime of 2021. But can you really blame us for wanting to recognize its achievements in plotting, dialogue and social commentary? After all, it’s been a long time since an anime series has combined standalone stories and a complex overarching plot with such laser-like precision. Odd Taxi’s darkly comic tales of mobile game addicts and desperate idol singers can be pointed to as clear highlights, but they’re also indispensable parts of its story, which ties together cabbies, crooks and comedians to create a nearly flawless web. It has so much fun doing it, too, with a martial artist alpaca, a rapping porcupine, and a gangster polar bear constituting just a fraction of its cast. The characters may take on animal form, but make no mistake, they’re all recognizably human, as many of their issues stem from childhood experiences or choices from their pasts come back to haunt them. And what’s more, Odd Taxi incorporates those issues into its plot without getting bogged down by them, so that when a crowd of onlookers witnesses a climactic event in the show’s final episode, they’re each at the perfect point in their lives to glean something personal from the experience. It’s an enthralling conclusion that takes an already great show and makes it Anime of the Year material, so here it is at the top of our list.