With this no-good terrible year coming to a close, it is time to look back at the anime that offered some small bastion of escapism amidst the dire circumstances. Although production was understandably affected by COVID, there was still an overwhelming number of shows across every genre. Sure, a large portion of this output was fairly derivative and fan-service oriented, but there were more than a few diamonds in the rough. Even in this dismal year, which further complicated an already complicated industry, some shows demonstrated the limitless possibilities of animation.

8. Kaguya-Sama: Love is War (Season 2)

Kaguya-sama: Love is War received another generous adaptation with its second season, showcasing a litany of animation highlights and cheeky visual humor. It’s impressive that this many episodes in, its central conceit hasn’t worn out, as two warring teens attempt to outsmart one another into revealing their true feelings. And beyond remaining hilarious, the dramatic beats of this story have come into their own. Through shifting to the perspective of down-trodden side characters, we were plunged into the depths of social anxiety and isolation. While this sort of turn could have been a tonally disorienting disaster, A-1 Pictures and series director Mamoru Hatakeyama managed to stick the landing through desaturated color-palates, unnerving compositions, and the same sense of visual verve that defines its stomach-splitting gags.

7. My Next Life As A Villainess

My Next Life As A Villainess is a rare shining light in the all-consuming stygian abyss of the Isekai genre. Instead of lazily parroting the appeal of videogames, here the “transported to another world” conceit is utilized to tell a surprisingly heartwarming story about the power of kindness. We follow Katarina, a girl reborn into a fantastical medieval court that mimics the world of a popular Otome video game. But while she has been cast as this story’s “doomed villain”, in reality, she couldn’t be further from this role. One by one, Katarina reaches out to the members of the nobility she was supposed to destroy, mending these broken people’s feelings of inadequacy. And while this all sounds quite schmaltzy, Katarina’s comedic obliviousness regarding her good deeds and her constant unwarranted panic about accidentally steering things towards the game’s “bad ending” keep the proceedings from veering into Hallmark territory.

6. Dorohedoro

When we talk about animation and comics, we often allude to the fact that many of these stories simply wouldn’t work if translated to live-action. Dorohedoro is an excellent example of this phenomenon, a hodgepodge of disparate genres so wacky that it could likely only exist successfully in the realm of anime and manga. The plot setup is familiar enough; an amnesiac man searches for his identity in a shadowy city full of deceit and misdirection. But what I’ve neglected to mention is that this man, Kaiman, has a lizard head and lives in a world besieged by malicious wizards who practice their magic by experimenting on humans. Part gory noir, part slice of life, part comedy, part fantasy, part sci-fi, part body-horror, Dorohedoro bounces from beat to beat with the efficiency of a Looney Tunes production. It’s one of the only stories I can think of where characters can seamlessly transition from a scene of gratuitous murder to one of blushing courtship, but it all works. While eclectic, it hits each note with precision, blending these influences into a singular pastiche. In short, it’s weird as hell, and you should check it out.

5. The Great Pretender

Heist stories tend to grab us with their slick sense of style and methodical buildup towards the big job. While The Great Pretender is effortlessly cool, and its cons are built on clever misdirection, it truly excels by revealing the tortured pasts of this globe-trotting band of swindlers. More than just a vehicle for sleek moments of subversion (although it has plenty of those), these capers are intercut with glimpses of the past that underscore rich motivations. Each new job recontextualizes its characters, forcing us to reconcile with their rocky histories. And frankly, in a year of stark economic plundering, it was more than a little vindicating to see this gang of mostly pure-hearted thieves rob the rich blind.

4. Deca-Dence

Deca-Dence is one of those shows that reaffirms the power of animation; big ideas brought to life through imaginative world-building, propulsive action set-pieces, and overflowing heart. An anime original from studio NUT and Mob Psycho 100 director Yuzuru Tachikawa, we follow a girl named Natsume as she strives to find her place in a world destroyed by ecological disaster. It doesn’t take long until the full scope of this warped society comes into view, a vision of dystopia influenced by Orwell, Mad Max, and Adorno’s culture industry. By telling a story of two worlds, one a barren wasteland and the other a candy-colored authoritarian state, a complete picture of rampant corporatism comes into view. And aside from its well-established high-level themes, Deca-Dence also works as an energetic sci-fi show, immersing us in this struggle for change through its leading duo.

3. Chihayafuru (Season 3)

As I mentioned during last year’s wrap-upChihayafuru’s third season has continued to present a masterful blend of rich melodrama and gripping competitive Karuta matches. This show so readily and so frequently showcases a complete understanding of how to wring personal drama out of conflict, setting up competitions where nearly every character has their own elegantly articulated reasons for wanting to win. The result is an unrelenting flurry of devastating battles, each heightened through a sense of graceful visual abstraction. Its well-articulated showdowns also excel at providing strategic context, allowing us to savor each pivotal turn in a match. The result is a sports story that wields its empathy with a deft hand, delivering a non-stop torrent of heartfelt sentiment. 

2. My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU (Season 3)

My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU’s third and final season capitalized on its intricate layers of buildup, as years of romantic feelings and methodical character development reached a swell of emotional catharsis. Navigating the absurdly complicated psychologies of these confused teens with grace, studio Feel captured its protagonists’ messy interiority with gorgeous character-animation and moments of heartwrenching self-discovery. This thoughtful reflection on understanding one’s self and the bonds we create achieved its full potential by tying up its loose ends. It was a fitting conclusion to one of the most introspective rom-coms around.

1. Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken

Few works capture the magic of artistic creation quite like Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken, the latest from auteur Masaaki Yuasa and his team at Science Saru. Following a trio of high schoolers who start an anime club, we are taken inside the daydreaming minds of these young creators as they slip into extended brainstorming sessions, vivid bouts of experimental animation showcasing the creative process from the inside. And while these reveries are dazzling, we also see the long hours, artistic concessions, and setbacks that come from creating even the tiniest reel of animation. Making anime is very hard, and while Eizouken doesn’t let us forget this, it also succeeds at articulating why people dedicate their lives to it. A top to bottom delight. (My full thoughts can be found here)