2021 showed us that the pandemic is far from gone, still yet it gave us vaccines (oh, and go get yours by the way). Except a new strain has come and is currently ruining our fun. Ehh, I think the less I talk about that the better, I should go back to anime. Well this year’s anime seasons got into a better rhythm than the previous year, which was a relief. It is of course a good thing that the anime industry isn’t being toned down so much. We had less delays and even more isekai shows. As I’m sure you all know, isekai shows are just something I don’t pick here on Otaku Theater.
While in 2020 I had to take the Summer season off, this year I had to take the Spring season off. It was a decision I didn’t take lightly, as one would think that watching anime and getting onto my regular routine would be something that would take my mind off all the yucky things that had happened over the Spring. Thankfully I was able to catch up on some Spring shows at the end of the year, and really came across some real gems.
Something else I noticed this year is how Netflix is beginning to take anime much more seriously than they normally do, by acquiring the rights to some more shows and working with studios. Despite what some followers think, I believe that they have just as much a right to dive into the scene as the likes of Crunchyroll and Funimation do. Well anyway, enough of that; it’s time to get into what were my top 5 favorites of the year.
5. Godzilla Singular Point
(Bones/Orange – available on Netflix)
I find myself drawn to shows that put new takes on preexisting franchises. Not all of them turn out so good, but I really ended up enjoying Godzilla Singular Point. It came out in the Spring season, but arrived on Netflix in June and while a lot of recent takes on Godzilla have mostly been something like what we see in the big-budget Hollywood movies, this show took a lot more influences from the kaiju movies of old.
The two main characters, do-it-all engineer Yun Arikawa and science graduate Mei Kamino, start their own investigations into strange radio signals coming from an abandoned house. This in turn kicks off activity from the Pacific Ocean, bringing all sorts of kaiju monsters from the deep. Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and many more all feature here, along with the long awaited return of Jet Jaguar. Yes, that’s right; in all the most recent Godzilla anime adaptations, Jet Jaguar has just not appeared until now, and his return is something Godzilla fans welcomed.
As I brought up earlier, Godzilla Singular Point was unique in that it used elements of the kaiju stories of old, and melded them with plot points that, while they were very unusual and unexpected, suited the show very well. These were characters we could really get to know, and it gave us some truly epic kaiju action, even if Jet Jaguar (which began as a poorly put together mechanical tin can effectively) wasn’t always a part of it.
However I think if there was one thing that threw a lot of fans off, it was the show’s script. We get sucked into science and conspiracy theories right from the very first episode, and I know some followers just want to get straight into the fights, which do come eventually but later. It was also interesting that Yun and Mei did not really meet face-to-face, and instead communicated to each other only by phone, text or email. This was because of their own different investigations into the kaiju phenomena, which itself had a pretty aesthetic which was very out-there. The color red featured a lot in the show; the seas were turning red, and a red mist appears out of nowhere, and so it’s left to both Yun and Mei to get to the bottom of this. I think the emphasis on this one color was something intentional, to give off connotations of energy, war and danger. I personally don’t think the show would have worked as well if a more natural color palette was used.
I was able to praise Netflix’s English dub as well, which isn’t a direct translation of the original script at all; in fact, it goes on a whole level of its own. Mei Kamino’s voice, Erica Harlacher, is especially good and suits the character very well. And while the Japanese script gave us a lot of detailed scientific script, the dub tones it down and makes it easier to understand for the viewer. But it was this detailed script that was a major draw for me in Godzilla Singular Point, along with the very unique aesthetic. These were things that I know threw viewers off, but it really got me hooked in. So if this is all things you dig, then this show is definitely worth checking out.
4. Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid Season 2
(Kyoto Animation – available on Crunchyroll)
With season two of Dragon Maid, Kyoto Animation return to the scene. This was their first TV show since the tragic arson attack of 2019. Season 1’s director, Yasuhiro Takemoto, lost his life in the attack, and so Tatsuya Ishihara stepped in to direct season 2, with Takemoto being credited posthumously. One very touching moment is where one episode’s ED theme was replaced by a montage of clips from season one, made as a homage and tribute to Takemoto.
The show picks up from where season 1 left off, where Kobayashi defended Tohru in the dragon realm when her father discovered his dragon daughter was in a relationship with a mortal. Tohru is just as desperate to get her attention as she has in past episodes, but the focus in this second season is more on the introduction of a new main character: Ilulu.
Another dragon from the Chaos faction, Ilulu’s beliefs are far more extreme, and is initially very eager to cause trouble in the human world. Eventually she begins to understand more about humanity, and why Kobayashi has accepted both Tohru and Kanna into her home. Soon enough, Ilulu goes and joins them. Unlike the first season though, where slapstick comedy dominated the entire show, we got a little more insight and background into the dragons themselves.
One big example of this is Ilulu’s own background story. As a younger dragon, she had a lot of human friends, but because of the other dragons in her Chaos faction, she was kind of forced into resenting them, resulting in her extreme beliefs. Every now and then in the show, we get little moments of how Ilulu was ‘converted’ from a happy child into someone far more angry and resentful and alone.
As well as introducing Ilulu, some more emphasis was also put on a character that didn’t really get that much airtime in season 1: Elma. As Kobayashi’s junior at work, she gives herself a lot more tasks to not only try and surpass her, but to get more of her attention. Elma was very much a secondary character in season 1, arriving only halfway through. And so here in season 2, she features a lot more in episode sketches, interacting with pretty much everyone, and becoming a very important part of the show. We get treated to some flashback sketches too, when both Tohru and Elma were more active in the dragon realm. It’s only until later on when we find out that these two weren’t always at each others’ throats despite being on opposite dragon factions; they were in fact travelling partners who looked out for each other.
Season 2 of Dragon Maid gave us the slapstick comedy sketches we fell in love with in season 1, and a lot more. A bit of a risk to make some story elements more serious, but it really worked out in the end, and gave all the character designs a lot more depth, thereby making us relate to them and love them more. Kyoto Animation definitely needed something like this, as I’m sure the staff there all want to get back to doing what they love, but also not forget the memories and legacies of those staff members that were lost two years ago. Pretty sure they won’t be churning out shows on a regular basis like they used to anymore; their next project, a Free! movie, won’t be until April. But it’s still wonderful to have them back, as we’ve missed them so much.
3. Super Cub
(Studio Kai – available on Funimation)
Iyashikei shows especially got to me hard this year, and this little gem hidden away in the Spring season was one of them. I had to catch up on this one in the fall though. In fact there were quite a few I ended up catching up on in later seasons, but we’ll get to that later.
In a very sleepy and nondescript town, gloomy girl Koguma lives alone in a dimly-lit apartment. Her father passed away, and her mother vanished when she started school, and so she is making due with the stipend she gets. She is ‘the girl with nothing’; her words, not mine. It’s only when she sees some fellow school children ride motorbikes to school when some kind of spark ignites in her, and so with a second-hand green Cub costing 10,000 yen, her humdrum life changes almost overnight. With this, she actually has something to do when not at school, and something to take care of. Meeting Cub enthusiast Reiko and timid Shii along the way, Koguma’s days at high school finally brighten up.
What was really wonderful about Super Cub is how it amplified the tiniest of things in life and put them center stage to be entertaining themselves. Perhaps another anime would give Koguma’s journey a little more energy, but because she has been such an enclosed person, every task becomes an accomplishment for her, no matter how miniscule. Whether it be to buy additional parts for the Cub, or to change the engine oil, or even to ride to the store and buy a raincoat for the rainy season. It wasn’t just this either. The use of pre-existing classical music in the show made it stand out, with pieces by the likes of Chopin, Beethoven and Satie to create a downbeat yet enchanting mood. Not to mention the changes in color and animation when Koguma had her moments of riding her Cub and taking care of it. A somewhat depressing color tone was replaced by something much more vibrant.
It’s a shame Super Cub didn’t get that much attention in the Spring season, and was instead relegated to the back while Tokyo Revengers, Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro, and the latest season of My Hero Academia dominated. I totally understand why the show wasn’t for everyone, as I know some followers prefer to watch action in their shows; by that I don’t mean shounen-level fights, but a constant level of life and energy from the characters. In fact I know that the iyashikei sub-genre is something others find very dull and frustrating, as focus is more on life just going by than an action-packed story taking place. This is something that won’t be going away anytime soon, as people like me absolutely love these kind of minimal shows. And we also got one thing we needed to protect the most this year: Koguma’s little smile.
2. Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop
(Signal.MD/Sublimation – available on Netflix)
Movies don’t often appear in my top 5 lists; the last one was 2019 when I saw Ride Your Wave at the Scotland Loves Anime event in Edinburgh. But Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop was more of a sleeper hit than anything else, I think. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people didn’t even notice this summer release; it was hidden away on Netflix after all.
Here, two youngsters, Cherry and Smile, both have trouble communicating and sharing their true feelings with the family and friends around them. Cherry enjoys writing traditional haiku about the things he sees around him every day, and wears headphones to shut out the noise. Smile is a live-streamer who hides behind a mask as she is extremely self-conscious about her buck teeth and braces. The two meet by sheer coincidence and hear about the plight of one of the visitors of a daycare center, Fujiyama, who has long been searching for a lost record. And so together, they look through the man’s vinyl record store and go on to develop a close relationship.
This movie stands out a lot not just because of the simple and vibrant animation and cute character design, but the movie’s score. A prominent Japanese record label, FlyingDog, worked in collaboration with both Signal.MD and Sublimation to put together the score, which focuses heavily on ambient noise and electronic beats. Shows and movies that operate on the concept of “less is more” are ones that I’m drawn to a lot, as big budgets and glossy animation and big-name voice actors are not always needed to make a quality piece. What also stands out is how much emphasis is on haiku poems themselves, and not just the ones that Cherry puts together. I believe that this movie is something that has to be watched in the original Japanese, as I think haiku poems lose some meaning when they are translated into English.
I really really enjoyed this when it came out in the Summer, and really was a pick-me-up at a time in my life when real life issues (that made me take the spring off) got my mood down. And it’s most definitely worth searching through Netflix’s much more extensive anime section for. Whether it’ll be more successful and be more popular with people in the West, I don’t know; I think it really does deserve a lot more attention than what Netflix gave it.
Those 3 shows and the movie were great watches this year, and it was great to see the return of Kyoto Animation. But even with all that, the top spot goes to…
1. Yuru Camp Season 2
(C-Station – available on Crunchyroll)
We’ve been waiting for this sequel season to come for some long, and when it finally arrives, it’s like these dorks had never left. We get shows that are meant for the summer season, to lift spirits up, but this new season of Yuru Camp was something that could only have ever worked in the Winter season, as we get to cozy up with these crazy kids.
While Rin doesn’t really deviate that much from her routine of solo camping, we get to see the Outdoor Activities Club plan more trips and try new things. Some new characters are introduced to give more depth to our main ones; Nadeshiko’s childhood friend Ayano, Aoi’s little sister Akari, and Rin’s grandfather Hajime. I’m sure one day they’ll convince Rin to join the club.
One little story in this season I enjoyed especially is where Nadeshiko makes plans to emulate Rin and go solo camping herself. It not only shows how much Nadeshiko has grown from the sleepy airhead we saw all the way in the beginning of the show, to someone who is happy to take on part-time jobs and be a responsible person. It wasn’t just her camping that was a great part to the story. We know that both Rin and Nadeshiko’s older sister Sakura are usually very composed when it comes to dealing with her, but the fact that they were both willing to follow her and check up on her shows how much the two of them really care about her. I’m also told that the source manga gives out a story of how Rin and Sakura get to be good friends as well, so maybe we’ll see that if a third season is greenlit (which I think should be).
I’ve usually been rather cynical when it comes to sequel seasons of great shows, as I often worry that a lot of what we loved about the original show ends up getting lost or sometimes ruined in new seasons. More on that later though, as I will definitely be bringing that sequel of a well-loved show. But yeah, while I moan about the likes of My Hero Academia churning out season after season, I go on and beg for new seasons for show like Yuru Camp. Does that make me sound like a hypocrite?
While we get to watch them get into new things and go into new territory, every little perfect thing that we saw in season 1 comes back like it never left. I think it’s interesting how a show like this would have been dismissed maybe 10 years ago for being too dull and uninteresting. With character design and general aesthetic being placed front and center, shows like Yuru Camp (along with Super Cub) generate a sort-of cult audience…if you can even call it that. The summer also saw the announcement of a Yuru Camp movie in the works, with returning staff from C-Station being a part of it. If and when we’ll get a glimpse of this movie is something that remains to be seen though, but even still…
Well there were a lot of shows on my list to pick from, despite my constant complaining of how some seasons bring not-so-great shows…like season 2 of The Promised Neverland. Ohhh, I can write a whole post about what went wrong with that, and I probably will someday on my own blog. The fact that even the creator, Kaiu Shirai, took themselves off the show’s credits halfway through, speaks volumes on how much of a disaster it was. The main story itself is very detailed, and so it seemed like the studio actually thought that squeezing as much as they could into 11 episodes was a good idea. Well, we only needed to see that final montage/Powerpoint presentation at the end of episode 11 to realize that a third season of The Promised Neverland will never ever happen.
Well, back to shows I actually liked. On that list of mine are what I can call honorable mentions, and there are a lot of them that didn’t make the top 5 cut. Shadows House was dark, deep and very mysterious, and I’m really glad it’s getting a second season. Odd Taxi was very minimal with lots of dry black humor. Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut had some great world-building and character design, and was something of a sleeper hit I think. And while it had some internal production problems towards the end, Wonder Egg Priority is definitely a show that followers will be talking about long from now.
And yes, I consider EX-ARM to be an honorable mention too, and you’re not going to change my mind. The animation did indeed suck in every episode, with a sloppy mixture of 3D and 2D everywhere. And the show’s script was all over the place, despite the original source manga being an okay read. I’m a believer of the “so-bad-it’s-good” concept, and I think my level of enjoyment of the show came from how terrible it looked and everybody trash-talking it. Maybe it can be seen as a kind of pariah for what newbie anime studios shouldn’t do. I even wrote a post on my own blog talking about my defense of the show too, saying how great the show really is…if you just ignore all the tropes that we anime followers take for granted.
It was good to see that anime studios got back to some level of normality, and not letting the pandemic get the better of them. And of course, we can all praise the return of Kyoto Animation; here’s to them bringing some more quality shows. But what did you enjoy in 2021? Did the sequel seasons and isekai shows dominate your watch list? Or did you find something else to take up time staying at home safe from this pandemic that is still with us? 2022 calls, so I’ll be trash-talking plenty more shows then.