Welcome to 2022! Let’s get the years started off right by cleaning up the last remaining anime-related business from 2021.
Prior to Anime News Network starting its current “Best of Year” format in 2016, I spent several years teaming up with one of two fellow reviewers to make a “Best of Year” format that was part serious and part flippant, with some categories that were occasionally unconventional. I am returning to that format here, albeit with only my view on the awards. (For now; if I’m still doing this at the end of 2022, then I hope to have a guest reviewer for it.) Thus the Top 10 list will be followed by a collection of individual awards.
So without further ado:
Top 10 Series for 2021
Series of the Year: 86
This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed my reviews for the series, as this has been the series to beat for me ever since the first half finished. While the still-unfinished second half was a bit weaker, it didn’t drop off enough to change my mind. It just does too many things too well to ignore: fantastic action sequences, deep and rich use of symbolism, and a compelling story which delves into hard, complex themes like institutionalized racism and the impact of warfare on child soldiers. It’s also a fantastic adaptation which elevates its source material.
And now the best of the rest. . .
2. The aquatope on white sand – I had to think a lot more about this one, but I ultimately went with it here because it was the most complete series that I saw in 2021. It featured subtler but still potent themes about finding direction and dealing with change in one’s life, all set against the surprisingly-involving backdrop of a pair of aquariums. High production values and a strong finish also helped.
3. Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation – Despite crass content that some found objectionable to a deal-killing degree, this isekai series still delivered some of the year’s best animation and visuals and provided a compelling look at a loser who is trying to remake himself in a new world, even while not fully able to shake off previous bad habits and self-doubts. A strong run of episodes to close out the second half secured its place this high.
4. Re:Zero season 2 part 2 – This year’s installment was not the franchise’s strongest part, but I still felt it accomplished its focus and themes plenty well enough to deserve its place here. The resolution of Beatrice’s situation in particular was highly satisfying.
5. Taisho Otome Fairy Tale – This one had by far the weakest technical merits of any of my Top 10 titles, but I am still ranking it this high because of how consistently and well it sold its emotional aspect. Tamahiko’s development from the beginning of the series to the end is a wonder to behold, and the relationship which develops between him and Yuzuki makes them one of the year’s best couples. This was a regular surprise and constant delight.
From this point on, the titles are interchangeable in ranking.
6. Vivy -Flourite Eye’s Song – While I always found this to be a strong title, it impressed me more on a rewatch; seeing where everything it’s doing early is ultimately going makes a significant difference. Generally strong technical merits and some spectacular action sequences accompany strong musical numbers and one the most thoughtful approaches to AIs since 2018’s highly-underappreciated Beatless.
7. Idoly Pride – While Vivy topped it in performance number quality, this one still did fine on its songs and delivered consistent high quality on the technical front. More importantly, it uses its gimmickry effectively to show the powerful impact that a single life can have on those around them, even after they’re gone, and much more adeptly uses its supporting cast than its idol show competitors. It is definitely one of the year’s most sentimental titles and features a highly emotional finale.
8. The Heike Story – This one offers an excellent, stylish rendition of a key early period in Japanese history. It shines particularly brightly in its emphasis on individual character motivations within its big picture and its smooth incorporation of both some of the more fantastical stories from its source material and its biwa instrumentation.
9. Laid-Back Camp season 2 – This one is here for being a perfectly pleasant and surprisingly engaging story about girls just being girls as they enjoy a mutual hobby of camping. Actual plot developments may have been rare, but it captured the mellow and relaxing feel it was aiming for better than any other series in recent memory.
10. Fruits Basket the Final – I always liked this series but never considered it a favorite, but I include it here as acknowledgement of how well and powerfully it finished out its story. A couple of hiccups prevent me from ranking it much higher.
Of titles which did not make the cut, 2021’s Attack on Titan episodes came closest; the #10 spot was a toss-up between Furuba and this one. Despite numerous powerful moments, I found it a bit too dreary to fully appreciate. Others I considered included Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid S (terrific action scenes but not quite enough story impact) and So I’m a Spider, So What? (a good adaptation overall, but it stumbled at times due to erratic design in certain episodes). I did not see to completion other titles which got wide praise, such as ODDTAXI, Ranking of Kings, and Megalobox 2: Nomad.
Movie/One-Shot of the Year: Evangelion 3.0+1.0
If I was going with my favorite here, it would absolutely be Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night, with Saga of Tanya the Evil: Operation Desert Pasta and the first Princess Principal: Crown Handler movie as runners-up. However, Evangelion 3.0+1.0 was a spectacle of spectacles, every bit the jaw-dropper that End of Evangelion was in its use of imagery and symbolism, and that must be acknowledged.
Character of the Year: Kumoko (aka the spider), So I’m a Spider, So What?
Although technically only the co-protagonist of the story, no other character in any 2021 title more completely defined and dominated their series than The Little Spider That Could did. As a novel reader for this franchise, I was more than a bit concerned about the adaptation’s ability to pull it off, but they hit a home run on all fronts – visual, writing, and voice acting. (Aoi Yuki also wins Best Japanese Vocal Performance for her delightful rendition of the character.)
Anime Song of the Year: “Flourite Eye’s Song” by Kairi Yagi, Vivy – Flourite Eye’s Song
This was a strong year for musically-oriented series. Those Snow White Notes, Zombie Land Saga Revenge, and Vivy – Flourite Eye’s Song all offered up an assortment of fantastic performance numbers, and series like Idoly Pride and Selection Project offered other good options. For performance numbers, “Saga Jihen” from Zombie Land Saga Revenge was a stand-out, while “Blizzard” from Those Snow White Notes, “The Sea and Pearl” from Fena: Pirate Princess, and “Glorious Days” from Selection Project (the anisong most stuck in my head this year) all made great openers. However, I’m going with the title song from Vivy – Flourite Eye’s Song because no anisong in 2021 had a deeper emotional impact. Its instrumental version made for a great, melancholy regular closer, and its full performance at the series’ climax carried a power rarely achieved in anime series. The song was a major plot device and the delivery (set against the series’ climactic action sequences) was outstanding, sure, but it also beautifully encompassed and brought to a completion Vivy’s century-long journey through the story.
Duo or Couple of the Year: Red and Rit, Banished from the Hero’s Party
These two have some strong competition, as Lev and Irina from Irina the Vampire Cosmonaut also make a delightfully cute couple, Tamahiko and Yuzuki from Taisho Otome Fairy Tale impress with how they are growing to genuinely love each other, and a case could be argued for Yoshida and Sayu from Higehiro as well, no matter how awkward that pairing can seem. However, Red and Rit just seem so perfectly sweet together, and the numerous moments showing the two getting comfortable with each other are completely adorable.
Scene of the Year: Gabi shoots Sasha, Attack on Titan episode 67
For sheer visual presentation, the “declaration of war” scene from episode 64 (which, yes, aired in 2021) might have been a stronger choice, but this was the moment when the series put all of its cards on the table, when it showed that even one of the franchise’s longest-standing and easily most-beloved characters was still considered expendable. Sasha’s death actually came later in the episode, but I went with the shooting instead because that immediately looked like a fatal injury. The broader and deeper implications of the scene also factor in, but the scene deserves to be here if for no other reason than that no tragic moment in a 2021 title more widely or deeply shook fandom.
Guilty Pleasure: High-Rise Invasion
I classify a handful of titles each year as “stupid fun,” and of that lot, High-Rise Invasion was easily and most consistently the biggest blast to watch. (Other titles which fell into that category included Fruit of Evolution, Tsukimichi -Moonlit Fantasy-, and to a lesser extent The Detective is Already Dead.) I wasn’t completely sold until the episode with the masked pitcher, but the storytelling style, characterizations, and opener have a cheesy infectiousness to them that will grow on you given enough time, as will the main characters. Some random (if relatively mild) fan service also doesn’t hurt.
Better Than It Looked: I’m Standing on 1,000,000 Lives p2
This award goes to the title which most suffered from lackluster (or just outright bad) technical merits but still managed to tell a quality story. The second season of this 2020 debut suffered mightily on the animation front, but unlike Battle Game at 5 Seconds (which was at a similar technical level), it still delivered effectively on its characterizations and storytelling.
Copycat Award – Series: Selection Project (copying Idoly Pride)
I have detailed the similarities between these two in another post, so I won’t go into detail again here.
Copycat Award – Character: Rio, Seirei Genouski: Spirit Chronicles (copying Kirito)
Really, were they even trying here with the character design?
That’s it for now! Watch for the start of the Winter 2022 Preview Guide sometime over the weekend.