It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
2021’s one of the strongest recent years for anime I can think of. We saw some fascinating original projects, great adaptations and reportedly a number of good movies (that I still need to see!) 2021 was also disastrous: not only did we see the utter failure of some high-profile projects, but many shows that did well initially either struggled to make it to the finish line or ran aground in their second half. As the anime industry continues to expand, with distribution companies like AMC and Disney getting into the action, the future of the medium has to me never been more in doubt. There are plenty of great animators out there, but does the industry as it is now deserve them?
While I think fans need to be skeptical of anime’s workings as a whole, it’s also worth recognizing the good work done this year. Despite the past two years of covid and their many challenges, anime continues to surprise me. With that in mind, here are the moments I’m taking with me into 2022 and beyond.
Tanaka’s revolution, Odd Taxi
What is Odd Taxi about? When I pitch the show to friends, I say that “it’s about a funny walrus man who drives a taxi in Tokyo.” To really know what the show’s about, though, you need to watch the fourth episode, “Tanaka’s Revolution”. Suddenly the walrus man disappears, and we’re given the life story of a random passerby from the previous episode whose phone fell into the gutter. Why should we care about Tanaka, a self-professed loser addicted to a game on his phone? By the end of the episode, we don’t just care about Tanaka. We know the first of Odd Taxi‘s many secrets: that the funny walrus man is just the tip of the iceberg.
Shin and company go to battle, 86
Nothing in 86 is really that new, but then again it’s all about execution, right? Our heroes are chilling out in the barracks, when suddenly the clouds come and enemy swarms arrive. For the members of the 86 it’s just another day in the field, but for us it’s a disorienting swing from anime slice of life to wailing Sawano power chords. Plenty of anime adaptations are content to transcribe the source material to the screen, but 86‘s genius through its first season was always finding the most interesting or unexpected way to dramatize its melodramatic material.
The Love Hug, Sk8 the Infinity
There is a tall, handsome and problematic man named Adam. You are racing him in a life or death skateboard race. Suddenly, he rushes ahead of you on his longboard. He swings around, and skates! uphill! towards you! with his arms held out wide. The Love Hug is a ridiculous contraption, a final boss special attack that abandons realism for the sake of Drama with a capital D. No other maneuver better sums up Sk8 the Infinity, a series whose messiness is easily redeemed by its eagerness for the audience to have a good time, and the craft by which it enables those outrageous moments.
Kai Ikarashi Returns, SSSS.Dynazenon
My favorite episode of SSSS.Gridman was the ninth, a surreal nightmare and turning point directed by Trigger wunderkind Kai Ikarashi. When the ninth episode of Gridman‘s successor SSSS.Dynazenon aired, I was frustrated to find that Ikarashi was nowhere to be found. Where was he??? It turned out they were saving him for the tenth episode, which replicates the kineticism and explosive sentiment of Gridman‘s ninth on an even grander scale. Everyone and everything in the world disappears, the protagonist drags himself through the broken glass of space-time to rescue his friends, but the single most powerful moment is nothing more and nothing less than the lost echo of Minami’s sister frozen in mid-song, unknowable, irretrievable. What an episode.
Red skies over Tokyo, Godzilla: Singular Point
Apocalypses are a dime a dozen in anime, from Akira to End of Evangelion and beyond. It takes a lot to stand out in this crowded market, but the penultimate episode of Godzilla: Singular Point does it. Moths flock through the skies. The heroes truck towards a vast hurricane of dust. The mysterious song that began the show is transmuted into apocalyptic choirs. It’s a beautiful, truly alien moment, worthy of comparison with any great kaiju film you could name.
Nagara and Mizuho run towards the light, Sonny Boy
When I was speaking to Natasha a week or two about Sonny Boy, I came to a realization: I think the show is better the more pared down it is. Early episodes buckle under the weight of the dialogue and the sheer number of moving parts. But once the cast starts to thin out, and the series narrows its focus, it becomes something truly magical. I think the best moment in the series overall is the funeral in the penultimate episode, which you can read about in Steve’s post here. But my heart keeps coming back to the big setpiece in the finale: Nagara and Mizuho, bound together with rope, running through infinity towards the light to the sound of toe’s “Sonny Boy Rhapsody.” Like a song where you can’t parse the lyrics but the base rings through your whole body: that’s Sonny Boy in a nutshell.
Boji lifts the sword, Ranking of Kings
Since its airing, the internet has been ringing with folks yelling things like “I will die for Boji” or “If anything happens to Boji, I will kill everyone in the room and then myself.” I’d bet you can trace much of that sentiment to this scene in the second episode (animated by the fan-favorite Yoshimichi Kameda), where our injured young prince fights with all of his strength to lift a sword. His efforts win the allegiance of the shadow creature Kage, and the hearts of viewers everywhere. Folks watch anime for all kinds of reasons, but scenes like this are a reminder of how (as the hardcore animation fans keep saying) good animation and direction can make a scene that was affecting in the source truly transcendent.
Time goes back, The Heike Story
The temple bell echoes the impermanence of all things. So what’s the point in living if you know everything will end? Well, says Naoko Yamada and company’s retelling of the classic Tale of the Heike: all things are impermanent, but they can still be remembered. At the end of the series, surviving Heike daughter Tokuko–who escaped her family’s mass suicide to become a nun–clutches four colored strings in prayer, as elsewhere the musician Biwa sets her fingers to those four strings. Time rewinds, fallen flowers levitate towards the branches they once sprung from. Art can’t bring the dead back to life, but it can still work miracles. (For comparison, see Tatsuki Fujimoto’s one-shot Look Back: there, manga can’t turn back time, but it can cross space.)
Rika chooses to live, Wonder Egg Priority
Rika Kawai’s not a very nice person. She bullies people who can’t fight back, invades the space of peers who can’t say no to her, and says whatever is on her mind even when it’s rude. But Rika still deserves to live, because everyone does–yet Rika can’t believe it. In the belly of the beast, while her friends shout their support, Rika cannot hear them. She’s certain that the only thing she deserves on her birthday is death or pain. What snaps her out of this is not courage, but the reminder that an animal relies on her. There’s nothing noble or final about Rika’s choice to live for another day. It’s a decision made in a life where every day presents a new decision: do you choose to hurt yourself, or not? I can’t recommend Wonder Egg Priority to anybody. But at its best, the show understood that these small choices could be the most important thing in the world.