This list has quite specific parameters, green font. In Japan, “anime” is short for animation, so everything from Cinderella to Minions is considered anime. In the United States, however, “anime” is a form of animation that consists largely of a Japanese crew—mainly animators. In recent years, Japanese production houses have outsourced work to China, Korea, The Philippines, and Indonesia. Similarly, American creators wanting to homage the medium have hired a largely Japanese crew for specific projects. I believe both of these practices still produce works that qualify as anime.
Separately, anime movies weren’t considered for this list because their production schedules and workload are paced differently from television. Many anime films have the production quality and development process of an American animated film, so I lump those projects in with feature movies.
Much like my Five Obligatory Films of 2021, I haven’t seen EVERY anime show that was released this year. Thank goodness, too, because there was chatter about a few series this year that made my stomach churn. Conversely, I could finally get around to watching a great show five years from now only to discover it was released in 2021. For now, below are five anime shows released in 2021 that I consider essential viewing:
Langa is a near-Olympic level snowboarder in Canada but gave up the sport after his dad died. Langa’s mother, seeing her son slide into depression, moves the two of them to Okinawa. There, Langa meets Reki, who convinces Langa to take up skateboarding and join “S,” a secret society devoted to no-holds-barred races. Langa’s talent shines, and he’s soon faced with a choice: skate to make friends or skate to win.
Something magical about anime is its ability to make enthusiasm for any topic contagious. Sk8 is a perfect example. Having endured the historical skid mark that was the skating craze of the ‘90s/early ‘00s, skateboarding gives me unpleasant thoughts of Avril Lavigne, poseurs, and middle-schoolers doing faux-surfer accents. This show, however, while not existing in a physics-based reality, got me hyped up on the “cool” of skateboarding.
The characters propel the show to success by following one of the oldest traditions in television: they’re fun to hang out with, at least for a little bit each week. Reki is crafted with such youthful brightness and puppy-dog eagerness that his on-screen presence is the equivalent of the coziest blanket. Langa has the nonchalant attitude one might expect from a skater, but his steadfast loyalty and drive add a “still waters run deep” style to his interactions. Even the small-time villain Shadow becomes immensely entertaining once his day-job persona is revealed.
While the plot goes off one too many ramps for my taste, the show skates by on its world, characters, and impression it leaves. …I imagine many of you readers bailed on that last pun.
In the future, boxing adds mechanical exoskeletons to make the sport more exciting—and dangerous. Megalobox becomes the most popular sport in the world, pinnacled by Megalonia, a tournament to determine the best. Joe, our protagonist, participated in that tournament, earning respect as an athlete. Years later, however, he’s addicted to painkillers and fighting in basement matches, estranged from the family he’d made in season one. When a local community is threatened with eviction, Joe seizes an opportunity for redemption.
If this season ended after the first four episodes, I’d be ranking this at the top spot, no question. Joe’s experience with the Afro-Latino immigrant community is frighteningly American in its incisive depiction. Anime hasn’t always been the best medium to explore racial and class divide issues, but Megalobox goes ten extra miles in its diligence to give nuanced portrayals and problems to its characters. It also has a haunting soundtrack sung by native Spanish speakers, shocking for an industry that’s notorious for butchering foreign-language story elements.
The remaining episodes of the season are well-made. Joe’s return to megaloboxing and his quest to regain what he lost between seasons are compelling arcs, but the shape and conclusion of those elements are much less surprising and engrossing than the opening story. Throughout both stories is a timely message about wealthy people using those poorer as disposable fodder for development, and the animation is grimy yet consistently appealing. Nomad is worth the watch and then some, but its progression is like eating filet mignon followed by a really good hamburger: the first part just hits harder.
Yatora is an ace student with a popular group of friends. They party till dawn and sleep from after school to midnight. Despite all of this, Yatora feels unfulfilled until he paints downtown Tokyo at sunrise. He decides that art is his passion. Unfortunately, he’s already 16 and his parents can’t afford art school. To pursue his dreams, Yatora has two years to get into Tokyo University of the Arts, the only public art school in the country and the one with the strictest admissions process. Will he crumble under the pressure or discover what it takes to become a true visionary?
Something magical about anime is its ability to make enthusiasm for any topic contagious. Blue Period is a perfect exa—wait, didn’t I already write this? Unlike Sk8, this show makes efforts to ground its journey in accuracy to the actual process. What struck me watching this show was how much I could relate to it as a writer while learning how to appreciate a different medium.
Unlike the comfort of Sk8’s Reki or the familiarity of Nomad’s Joe, Blue Period’s Yatora is full of fascinating contradictions. Popular yet lonely, academic yet artsy, dismissive yet progressive—Yatora grows in satisfying yet surprising ways. Standout supporting characters are drawn from various sectors among the young-artist scene, including a young prodigy who can’t take criticism, a legacy student who’s beholden to her family’s reputation, and a bisexual crossdresser whose toxic home life stunts their inner expression. While the overall feel of the show is closer to a survey of art appreciation and the types of people who might inhabit that world, I applaud the show’s consideration for its audience. Most viewers aren’t artists or are just beginning their journey. Blue Period successfully conveys why, to artists, that journey is one worth taking.
Odokawa is a taxi driver in a shady district of Tokyo. He doesn’t mind his job, but is mildly concerned about his mental state. Unbeknownst to him, a world of petty crime swirls around his neighborhood and boils over when an up-and-coming idol singer goes missing. Schemes and agendas criss-cross in reaction to the event, and a dozen characters vie for their favored outcome. The only thing everyone has in common? They’re all passengers in Odokawa’s vehicle.
In 2007, a flawed but fabulous show premiered named Baccano! Many American anime fans embraced the show because it perfectly nailed a Quinten Tarantino tone. I was moved to see such an elegantly simple hybrid of style and medium. While I’ve since seen anime that homage Japanese directors, none have attempted to recreate an American auteur’s signature.
…Until now. ODDTAXI is a perfect blend of anime sensibilities and Martin Scorsese filmmaking. Odokawa fits nicely into Scorsese’s early heroes: men who find themselves put upon by grimy local criminals and then offered no way out. These heroes must either create their own exits or succumb to the easy allure of organized crime. ODDTAXI also shows how easily ANYONE can fall into that lifestyle, though most citizens think themselves above such base decisions. A nurse desperate to pay off med-school debt, an idol unaware of her costars secret lives, a police officer who followed a childhood dream oblivious to the cost—these characters and more float around our protagonist, ignorant of how close they are to true danger.
Odokawa, who simply wants a life without trouble, sees the big picture of his neighborhood, then promptly wants to do everything he can to unsee it. Can the hero still do the right thing? Can he positively affect the world around him though woefully ill-equipped? Such questions harken back to Harvey Keitel’s character in Mean Streets, Robert DeNiro’s character in Taxi Driver, and, in a fun reversal, Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas.
The fleshed out, localized setting in Tokyo (along with the personified animals) is something only anime can do, so to see such a successful marriage is like listening to the perfect mash-up: you didn’t even know you wanted this, but now you can’t get enough.
San Magnolia has been assaulted by its neighboring country Giad for nine years. Giad’s troops are A.I. powered spiderbots capable of precise gun strikes. To combat this threat, San Magnolia created its own crawling cannons, keeping Giad’s forces at bay—without any human casualties! The only problem is that San Magnolia only considers people with genetically silver hair to be human. The rest are second-class “pigs,” disposable for the sake of victory. Eighty-Six follows the elite killing squad that pilots San Magnolia’s crawlers and their silver-haired handler who genuinely feels compassion for her team. How can she possibly empathize with such scarred colleagues, much less improve their lives or offer them dignity?
Never before in my life have I used the phrase, “What were they thinking?” in such a positive manner. 86 is based off of a light-novel series—the Japanese equivalent of Goosebumps, Animorphs, or The Babysitter’s Club—and was commissioned specifically to sell model-kit merchandise. While these qualities are met (the protagonists are in their teens, and each country has their own robot design), the execution, sensitivity, and nuance with which the show is executed is staggering. Imagine reading a Boxcar Children book where the family meets a PTSD veteran of color, then proceed to have a life-affirming yet educating conversation with that person about the consequences of war and racism, forcing the main characters and the reader to confront their own biases and pre-conceived notions. It’d be a tall order for a Pulitzer-Prize nominee, much less a serialized book series.
Yet 86 accomplishes that and more, crafting distinct characters, then unafraid to show those characters as flawed, broken human beings still deserving of dignity. I haven’t even mentioned the pulse-pounding, soul-rending action that viewers are treated to nearly every episode. The fight animation is solid and the computerized robots blend quite nicely with the 2D-animated characters. The only question that lingers in my mind is, “Why would anyone want to buy a model of a robot that housed or systematically killed child soldiers?” It’d be like combining Transformers with Platoon or Saving Private Ryan, then wondering why Optimus Prime isn’t selling to kids. In this case, I’m not going to complain about the means when the ends are this good. Plus, unlike the armies in the show, the means here aren’t even bad! Just deeply, deeply strange.