Making Me Choose the Best Anime of 2021 Is Cruel Since There Were So Many Good Series, but I’m Going to Try!
Where do we even begin?
The end of the year always brings about a myriad of lists that delve into what someone felt was the best of a particular medium. That being said, trying to narrow down all the anime from 2021 is quite a daunting task. While that’s partially due to the fact that there’s SO MUCH anime that gets released in the year, the main reason why picking “the best” is so hard is that, well, there were a LOT of good shows this year.
Generally, I’m not someone who maneuvers her way between multiple series, but anime wasted no time when it came to offering absolute bangers. From January 2021 until right frickin’ now, there’s always been good anime to watch. That’s my not-so-subtle way of saying that 1) this list is going to be long, and 2) I’m going to forget something, or several somethings while putting this list together.
These are the series I think of when someone asks, “What anime did you enjoy this year?”
SK8 the Infinity
Summary: High school students Reki and Langa are hooked on one thing — a dangerous, top-secret, no-holds-barred downhill skateboarding race called “S.” When Reki takes Langa, a transfer student, to the mountain where “S” is held, Langa finds himself sucked in. These colorful skaters will take you through a thrilling story of skateboard battles and unlimited possibilities!
Where to watch: Funimation
Why watch this series: Out of all the anime that has come out this year, SK8 The Infinity is the series I keep going back to. It’s also the series I recommend first and foremost when someone asks what they should watch. SK8 follows a lot of the sports anime tropes you’re used to seeing, giving you aesthetically pleasing characters who form bonds throughout the series runtime, and yes, they are extremely shippable.
But honestly, even if I’m a fan of the RENGA and the MATCHABLOSSOM, I’m kinda surprised with HOW much I love SK8. Besides, maybe, Yuri!!! on Ice, I can’t think of a sports anime I’ve devoured so much. I think that love centers on the fact that this is a series where, at the end of the day, the main goal is to have fun with the thing you like to do.
In an anime genre that focuses on sports and playing games, there is, quite often, an end goal of winning something at the end. That’s not the case with SK8. Even in its own tournament arc, the main takeaway is “you skate because it’s fun.” This message is shown in a variety of ways, from Langa relearning how to have fun after the grief he’s experiencing from a major loss, to Reki discovering that he doesn’t have to be “the best” in order to take part in the thing he likes – something I REALLY needed to see as someone who used to monetize EVERY hobby she had. Hell, the series even has ADULT characters who take part in skateboarding without it being for their career or to support the younger skateboarders, they just… like doing it.
It’s okay to do something because you like it, and that’s something I sorely needed to see in 2021.
Jujutsu Kaisen (Part 2)
Summary: Yuji Itadori is a boy with tremendous physical strength, though he lives a completely ordinary high school life. One day, to save a classmate who has been attacked by curses, he eats the finger of Ryomen Sukuna, taking the curse into his own soul. From then on, he shares one body with Ryomen Sukuna. Guided by the most powerful of sorcerers, Satoru Gojo, Itadori is admitted to Tokyo Jujutsu High School, an organization that fights the curses… and thus begins the heroic tale of a boy who became a curse to exorcise a curse, a life from which he could never turn back.
Why watch this series: Much like Tokyo Revengers (which I’ll get to in a moment), this is one of those series where, after about three episodes, I went and looked for the manga so I could get as much content as possible. Jujutsu Kaisen blends shonen with horror in a way that can be only described as disturbingly cool. The series also has some interesting themes, like Yuji’s desire for people to have a worthy death, and the way he has to, unfortunately, come to terms with the fact that he’s probably going to have to kill some people himself.
Since I was already hooked with the first half of the series last year I came in extremely excited for part two. The second half of Jujutsu Kaisen did NOT disappoint, introducing us to new characters and giving us a better look at the ones we’d already met. We get some amazing matchups and spectacular moments from series regulars like Megumi and Nobara (who has one of the most badass responses about being one of the few women in the Jujutsu world). We also start to get a feel for what our main antagonist is plotting, something that will surely be explored in the upcoming movie.
Honestly? Jujutsu Kaisen is just a delight across the board and is quickly becoming one of my favorite shonen anime series. Ever.
Summary: Takemichi Hanagaki is a freelancer that’s reached the absolute pits of despair in his life. He finds out that the only girlfriend he ever had, in middle school, Hinata Tachibana, had been killed by the ruthless Tokyo Manji Gang. The day after hearing about her death, he’s standing on the station platform and ends up being pushed over onto the tracks by a herd of people. He closes his eyes thinking he’s about to die, but when he opens his eyes back up, he somehow had gone back in time 12 years. Now that he’s back living the best days of his life, Takemichi decides to get revenge on his life.
Why watch this series: This is definitely the anime that’s surprised me the most this season. I started watching because I saw people talking about it on Twitter, and soon, I was searching for the manga to read every bit of Tokyo Revengers I could find. What starts as your normal “complete loser stumbles back in time” narrative turns into a really intense story about trying to change your life (and the lives of the people around you) for the better even if you aren’t really equipped to do so.
Takemichi truly runs on pure determination, not able to physically fight worth a damn, but since he knows how heavy the stakes are he keeps trying anyway. The relationships between the characters are pure “found family” nourishment, which is why it’s so easy to get protective of everyone you come across. There are some very real, very sad moments where someone honestly just wants what’s best for the people they care for, so much so that they don’t mind being a punching bag if that’ll get to that happily ever after.
But that only works for so long.
Summary: This town should look familiar, but suddenly, it’s not. The taxi driver Odokawa lives a very mundane life. He has no family, doesn’t really hang out with others, and he’s an oddball who is narrow-minded and doesn’t talk much. The only people he can call his friends are his doctor, Gouriki and his classmate from high school, Kakibana. All of his patrons seem to be slightly odd themselves. The college student who wants the world to notice him online, Kabasawa. A nurse with secrets named Shirakawa. A comedy duo that just can’t catch a break named the Homosapiens. A local hoodlum named Dobu. An idol group that’s just starting out named Mystery Kiss… All these mundane conversations somehow eventually lead to a girl who’s gone missing.
Where to watch: Crunchyroll
Why watch this series: ODD TAXI is an example of a series where good character writing can really carry a show. The series has its share of mysteries and something deeper happening outside the taxi cab, but what really drives it are the interactions between its characters. I still can’t really explain WHY it works so well, as a lot of my favorite moments are just ordinary conversations someone will have about what they did that day.
I have no idea why I got so invested in someone wanting to be Internet famous, music conversations between friends, struggling comedians, and pop idols trying to remain relevant, but I did. Even when the anime hits its big plot threads (missing drugs, a missing person, someone wanting to KILL Odokawa over losing a rare Dodo in a mobile game – yes, I’m serious) I always found myself equally invested in a scene where Odokawa and his friends ate dinner together.
There’s just something about that taxi cab, I guess.
Odakawa himself is a great main character, too, who works as the guy that everyone unconsciously talks to, but maybe that’s because he’s got his own secrets that he’s keeping from everyone around him.
You can read my review of the first three episodes here.
Summary: There’s freedom in loneliness, and Koguma finds hers on a motorcycle. A Honda Super Cub motorcycle, to be exact. With no parents, friends, or plans for the future, Koguma’s daily detours on her way to school become her sole source of excitement. Until one day, she learns a classmate, Reiko, shares her passion. Together, they’ll discover friendship, fun, and the adventure of the open road.
Where to watch: Funimation
Why watch this series: I highly recommend this series if you need a reminder that the smallest achievements are still achievements. With life being completely overwhelming for nearly two years, having a series where a character gains a sense of accomplishment from changing her route home, visiting a new grocery store, and figuring out how to fill her new bike with gas by herself is the warm hug we’re all overdue for.
Super Cub is a nice, steady build-up of Koguma doing things for herself. Those things aren’t always some dramatic, over-the-top change in her life, but it can certainly feel like that when you’ve developed a routine for yourself. One little change can make all the difference, and adjusting to that change can be as small as buying something for dinner that you normally wouldn’t buy. Every time she smiles over these little things reminded me to do the same.
I made myself a breakfast sandwich today. I would normally just have coffee, maybe a bowl of cereal, but I made an entire sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich.
And I smiled about it, just like Koguma would.
You can check out my review of the first five episodes here.
Ranking of Kings
Summary: Unable to hear, speak, or wield a sword, Prince Bojji doesn’t seem like a typical heir to the throne—and his kingdom agrees. But his fateful encounter with Kage, a shadow on the ground, gives him his first true friend. The two set off on a grand adventure and, together, form a bond that can overcome any obstacle…even being king.
Where to watch: Funimation
Why watch this series: Not since Reki Kyan and Sano Manjiro (both from this year, lol) have I met a main character that made my heart instantly fall in love with them. Prince Bojji made such an impression on me. He’s just SUCH a good boy, and there is such a sense of satisfaction when he has a moment of proving himself to everyone who belittles him.
It’s hurtful to watch the kingdom insult him, especially since they assume he can’t understand them, but he very much knows that everyone has written him off. That’s why it feels so damn good when he makes progress in his journey, and it feels so damn good to see folks who are trying to screw him over realize that 1) he’s a good person who should be treated with respect, and 2) he shouldn’t be underestimated.
Prince Bojji really is too pure for this world. I’ll never stop rooting for him.
Also? The art and the vibe of the story scream fantasy picture book, and I’m a sucker for that kind of aesthetic.
To Your Eternity
Summary: In the beginning, an “orb” is cast unto Earth. “It” can do two things: change into the form of the thing that stimulates “it”; and come back to life after death. “It” morphs from orb to rock, then to wolf, and finally to boy, but roams about like a newborn who knows nothing. As a boy, “it” becomes Fushi. Through encounters with human kindness, Fushi not only gains survival skills but grows as a “person”. But his journey is darkened by the inexplicable and destructive enemy Nokker, as well as cruel partings with the people he loves.
Why watch this series: This series is the epitome of “only watch if you’re in the mood to be sad” because you WILL be sad while watching this. Even so, the story is wonderful, it’s just executed in a way that is meant to break your heart. Watching the orb morph into different things and, therefore, learn from humanity, leads to some really impactful scenes where the orb can’t grasp why something is upsetting but you, the viewer, definitely can.
Watching Fushi’s progress both feels like a victory, since he’s literally learning how to people, and a tragedy, since this is exactly what he wanted from the start, but he doesn’t realize that because he’s started life over as the orb. The characters around Fushi also have their own stories that intertwine with his, creating a fantastic piece of storytelling.
This is a really unique look at what it means to be human and, in a way, relive your life. You can check out my review of the first three episodes here.
Dragon Goes House-Hunting
Summary: Letty is having a monster of a bad day. He can’t fly, breathe fire, and was just kicked out of his family’s lair. Hapless and homeless, this beast needs new digs, but where to start? Enter Dearia, the Demon Lord of Real Estate, making buyers’ dreams come true. Alas, that unique fixer-upper listing shown was infested with a horde of undead squatters—and no fireplace. House-hunting can be a beast!
Where to watch: Funimation
Why watch this series: As someone who frequently has HGTV on in the background, I think this series was made for me. The gags about the housing industry put into a fantasy setting works perfectly, in my opinion. What would the housing market look like for elves, trolls, and that low-level slime creature heroes ruthlessly massacre so they can level up? The assumption that Letty is some fire-breathing titan when he just wants a quiet home he can knit a dragon-sized sweater in makes for a comical backdrop on an already comical premise. Of course, the haunted mansion is available on the cheap, because it’s haunted, and Letty’s reaction is the same reaction I’d have in real life (well, actually, in real life I would NEVER consider a haunted house for prime real estate).
Dearia has the realtor patience of a saint, or at the very least, an OP RPG character who can incinerate heroes by blinking fantastic eyelashes at them before he turns his attention to his new dragon friend. The relationship between Dearia and Letty is adorable and makes for a nice, fun, twenty-some minutes per episode. Like a lot of the silly premises this season, it was exactly what I needed to watch in 2021.
You can check out my review of the first three episodes here.
Summary: A secret life is the one thing they have in common. At school, Hori is a prim and perfect social butterfly, but the truth is she’s a brash homebody. Meanwhile, under a gloomy facade, Miyamura hides a gentle heart, along with piercings and tattoos. In a chance meeting, they both reveal a side they’ve never shown. Could this blossom into something new?
Where to watch: Funimation
Why watch this series: Filed under “slice of life anime series that consumed my life without me realizing it,” Horimiya is the high school romance I watched on a weekly basis. Hori and Miya act one way at school but are, in reality, completely different when the school day ends. As someone who acted one way in college (so much so that I went by my online name) then tucked that away when I visited home, I related to seeing young adults having this sort of dual life going on.
But eventually, you kinda figure out how to merge everything together and become comfortable with your whole self.
There are a lot, and I mean, a LOT of moments Miya has where I found myself tearing up. Him talking to his younger self, developing into a person that his younger self doesn’t recognize, him realizing that he’s surrounded by people who like him for who he is, it all felt like something I’d gone through growing up. He’s not the only one dealing with heavy amounts of self-doubt, but he is the one where it’s animated in a way that I feel like I’ve experienced in my own head.
The layers of romance and blossoming friendships also carry the series in a way that makes for a heartfelt watch, just be prepared to have a moment where you’re reminded of conversations you’ve had with yourself.
Life Lessons With Uramichi Oniisan
Summary: Being an adult is hard. For 31-year-old Uramichi Omota, that depressing truth weighs on him. While on TV, he’s an upbeat exercise instructor for a children’s show, but sometimes he can’t keep his sardonic comments to himself. Even his coworkers, a pair of mascots and a singing duo, keep revealing the plight of adulthood on air. Regardless, they’re working through it one a day at a time.
Where to watch: Funimation
Why watch this series: It’s this, but with children’s programming:
Part 3 of all of them pic.twitter.com/bM9kdOphPb
— Scott Seiss (@ScottSeiss) June 30, 2021
Honestly, I thought after one or two episodes the running gag of “man teaching kids about the depressing weight of adulthood” would get old, but it actually gets better with each episode. Not only do you get to see that perspective through different characters, but you get a behind-the-scenes look at unreasonable working conditions, trying to make sense of where your life is, the frustration of using your skills in a way that undervalues you, and a lot of extremely relatable lines of dialogue – especially with all of the conversations about the work industry right now.
Office Space used to be my go-to “I hate my job what do I do about it” movie, but wow, Uramichi Oniisan’s getting added to the list.
It also helps that Uramichi does have moments of trying to have a good day, he also has moments of trying to take a shit situation and turn it into something better. It truly is how folks deal with exhausting work circumstances they can’t get away from – with a bear and bunny mascot to help teach kids their ABCs.
Summary: High atop a cliff sits the mansion known as Shadows House, home to a faceless clan that pretends to live like nobles. They express their emotions through living dolls that also endlessly clean the home of soot. One such servant, Emilico, aids her master Kate as they learn more about themselves and the mysteries of the house.
Where to watch: Funimation
Why watch this series: This is a series where you look at the art and go, “Something is going on. I don’t know what it is, but SOMETHING is going on and it’s something that’s going to take a while to figure out.”
The premise of SHADOWS HOUSE is a unique one, with dolls expressing the emotions of shadows who leave soot behind like they’re made of ash. Since they’re dolls, they have to learn how to act human, and since their masters don’t have, you know, faces, they have to register their feelings in other ways.
That alone was enough to get me interested. The shadow art quietly speaking to my Revolutionary Girl Utena vibe also piqued my interest. It took exactly ONE episode of watching a human-like doll trying to properly mimic a human-like shadow to go, “This is my strange, but beautiful, and I can’t look away series for the season.”
What is this house?
Who are these shadow people?
Why are dolls being used to express their emotions?
Are they really shadows if they’re leaving soot behind?
Those questions came from watching the first episode and there were still twelve more to go, and I feel like every episode ended in a way that made me go, “… well what does THAT mean, are you going to tell me, when do I get to find out?!”
Heaven’s Design Team
Summary: God created the Earth and filled the world with natural resources. Though God originally was going to create the animals that would inhabit the world, the task was outsourced to a team of creative minds. God generally sends tasks to the team to fulfill ideas for an animal with unique and quirky features based on vague descriptions or design goals. Designs that he approves become animals while rejected ones go back to the designer to revise until he is satisfied. Other times, the team can freely create a new design on their own whims and preferences in aesthetic and physical designs. One of God’s angels, Shimoda, is tasked with overseeing the crew and sending potential new animals for God’s approval.
Where to watch: Crunchyroll
Why watch this series: Heaven’s Design Team is a cute, silly, educational (yes really) show where you get to learn about different animals as a team of designers deals with the most difficult client in existence: God. The commentary on doing commissions for someone who gives you vague directions (or no directions at all) is hilariously on point, and the way the designers go from “is this creature from some drug-induced coma” to “oh it’s a koala” is a lot of fun, mostly because you find yourself trying to figure out what the heck the animal is before going, “Ooooo THAT’S what it is!”
And yes, they give a legitimate reason as to why unicorns couldn’t exist.
Also? Stan Venus. Who has one of my favorite comedic moments in anime where she straight up drags a couch into the work room just so she can faint dramatically on it. Venus is an entire mood.
Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song
Summary: NiaLand is an A.I. theme park that brings dreams to life with science. Vivy, the first autonomous android to work there, has hopes of making people happy with her singing. One day, an A.I. teddy bear named Matsumoto appears, claiming to have come from 100 years in the future — where a war between A.I. and humans rages. Their century-long journey starts now!
Where to watch: Funimation
Why watch this series: If you’re in the need of some A.I. anime action where the future is set to turn chaotic unless if a heroine with a cool character design goes back in time, then… you have very specific tastes that Vivy satisfies.
I have to say, this anime has one of the most “holy shit I’m in” opening episodes in that “I’ve always wondered what Disney would look like if the robots took over” sort of way. While the fight scenes and the visuals are outstanding, it’s the relationship between Vivy and Matsumoto that got me invested.
Also? He’s a teddy bear.
Matsumoto’s set on things having to go a certain way to save the future, even if that path leads to a lot of bad things for Vivy and those she cares about. Vivy, on the other hand, would really prefer to follow her programming and NOT save the world, but apparently, she’s meant to be a cybernetic heroine.
Vivy was one of my “flashy” anime of 2021, a series where I could sit back and watch the story unfold, scream “oh damn” at one of its many intense moments and sympathize with an A.I. unit who just wants to sing.
Moriarty the Patriot (Part 2)
Summary: In the late 19th century, the British Empire nobility reigns while its working-class suffers at their hands. Sympathetic to their plight, William James Moriarty wants to topple it all. Frustrated by the systemic inequity, Moriarty strategizes to fix the entire nation. Not even consulting detective Sherlock Holmes can stand in his way. It’s time for crime to revolutionize the world!
Where to watch: Funimation
Why watch this series: Much like Jujutsu Kaisen I was already invested in this series as this was the second half of the first season. Moriarty the Patriot was such a fun, dark mystery last year, with us getting Sherlock Holmes from the perspective of Moriarty.
It’s really easy to see Moriarty’s perspective on things when the nobles in question are so rotten. Also, it’s not like he’s the one doing the killing, he’s just giving victims the chance to get the justice they were denied.
Let me tell you, it’s REAL hard to side with rich assholes who find pleasure in murdering children.
The second half is a lot like the first, only with even more characters and fun nods to other franchises (I don’t want to spoil if you haven’t watched, but you’ll know what I mean when you get there). The mysteries are still present and accounted for and will make you think you figured it out, only to realize that there’s still a “part two” to the arc and plenty of time for another twist or two (or three).
And, as you can see from the above screenshot, there is a lot of, shall we say, tension between Sherlock Holmes and William James Moriarty. Of course, I wrote about the shipping, but if you haven’t seen any of the series, you can check out my review of part one here. Also? I recommend the manga, which has more plot threads that aren’t present in the anime.
Those Snow White Notes
Summary: Sawamura Matsugorou is a shamisen player of legendary talent. Upon his death, his grandson, Sawamura Setsu, lost his ability to play. Having lost his beloved sound, Setsu finds himself in Tokyo in search of a new sound to love. Tachiki Yuna, who works at a club, hooks him up with a gig to play there as a warm-up act. Setsu imbues the sound of his shamisen with the many thoughts and feelings he has of others, still searching for his own sound and his own feelings.
Where to watch: Crunchyroll
Why watch this series: I feel like this series flew under the radar, but if you’re in the mood for some very good music, beautiful visuals, and a look into processing grief while trying to find your own voice (or sound in this case) then this is the series for you. The series is full of characters who are trying to find their way. What’s interesting is that, at first glance, they seem to be doing okay, but it turns out they aren’t nearly as put together as you think they are, nor are they satisfied with the way things are going in their lives.
This is especially true for Setsu, who’s coping with his grandfather’s death and the hard truth he gave him before he died. See, Setsu wasn’t really developing his “own” sound and was, instead, playing just like his grandfather. So really, it becomes a story of Setsu learning how to not imitate his grandfather, the person who inspired him most.
When you lose someone you love, do you try and play like them in order to honor them? Or do you try and figure out your own sound, which is what they told you to do in the first place?
PHEW! This concludes my list of 2021 anime series … after these honorable mentions that also held my attention throughout the year:
Honorable mentions: The Case Study of Vanitas, Kageki Shojo, Backflip, Visual Prison, My Hero Academia (season 5), The Way of the Househusband, Blue Period, takt op.Destiny, My Senpai Is Annoying, Meiruko-chan, Star Wars: Visions, and SAKUGAN.
Those picks, of course, do NOT include series I haven’t watched yet (looking at you Komi Can’t Communicate).
What anime series did you enjoy this year? More importantly, did you actually manage to finish all of them?
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