The Best (And Worst) Anime of Winter 2020
The Best (and worst) of Winter 2020
Best: GeGeGe no Kitarō
If you're tired of reading about my love for this show, rejoice – it ends next week. But just because this was its final set of episodes doesn't mean that GeGeGe no Kitarō dialed anything back, and it has continued to be a stunning example of how to handle dark or serious subject matter for a family audience without becoming an afterschool special. It also wasn't afraid to tackle the subject of a global pandemic in episode ninety-three, which is particularly impressive. Of course, in the case of this show, it's a supernatural disease – vampirism, and its swift spread and the fact that no one is immune makes the parallels to what's going on in the real world even more stark. But the most haunting takeaway is one that GeGeGe no Kitarō has touched on many times over the course of its run – the idea that one person doing the right thing, no matter how hard it is, can make a real difference. In this case, it's Cat Girl giving up on her confession to Kitaro (and his positive reply) so that she can save the world. It would have been easy to just go down with it and insist that this was the one thing she wouldn't sacrifice for the good of the world, but Cat Girl knows that there's more than just what she wants. This is paralleled in the penultimate episode when she offers herself as the sacrifice for Mana to go to another plane of existence to save Kitaro – her friends are ultimately more important than a world without them to her. That this is all happening in a show where the conflict between human and yokai (which can be read, and is in fact framed as, an “us versus them” situation) fuels at least half of the episodes, Cat Girl stands out even more. She's the character we see in numerous war stories, the antithesis of the awful prime minister who simply states that she can't help who and what she hates as an excuse for murder. Kitaro and Mana may get most of the physical action and saving, but this final cour of the show has made it clear that Cat Girl is its heart. As of this writing, that heart is imperiled, and there's a lot at stake for everyone. Even if she doesn't pull through, though, Cat Girl will have helped make this a consistently impressive show with a lot to say about how we can all navigate the world, and I feel like that won't ever be unimportant.
Runner-up: Somali and the Forest Spirit
It's definitely worth noting that Somali and the Forest Spirit shares a major theme with GeGeGe no Kitarō. Both series have a focus on the bitter, often hereditary nature of prejudice, and if Kitaro explores it in a wider context, than Somali's story looks at it in a very personal way. The base story, that a golem, a creature created to protect the land and its inhabitants, adopts a small human girl he finds as the sole survivor of a horrible carriage accident and becomes her personal protector – her father in her eyes, and later in his. Golem at first doesn't believe that he has emotions, but that's proven a lie almost from episode one, and in a medium where we often see family relationships skewed for specific fetishes, it's really beautiful to have a father/daughter story that truly revolves around a strong parent-child bond. Somali's unquestioning belief in Golem as her father figure and her clear adoration for him serves to highlight Golem's own realization that Somali really is his daughter and that his end goal may no longer be just finding humans and leaving her with them – he wants to remain a part of her life for as long as he can. Golem at some point stops seeing Somali as “a human” and begins to view her as simply “Somali,” and even though he understands that she needs to be protected as a human, he first and foremost thinks of her as his daughter, and the process by which he grows to that point is beautiful to see.
That the art is also beautiful certainly helps things as well, but what strikes me the most about this show is the way that children don't immediately buy in to the prejudices of their elders – Kikila, Somali's beastperson friend, doesn't care that she smells different (he may not know that she smells “like a human”); he just likes her. Somali immediately accepts Golem as her dad even though he's a giant eyeless clay man, and even in a flashback children have to be taught to hate the Other. Even though at the point we're at in the story with only one episode to go things look pretty dark, that message feels like a beacon of hope. It may not all work out right now, but it gives us the idea that it might in the future, and, like with GeGeGe no Kitarō, that sense of a hopeful heart may be enough.
Most Disappointing: ID: INVADED
I was all set to name ARP Backstage as my worst because its first episode both annoyed me and made me vaguely uncomfortable (not a fan of characters talking directly to the camera), but then I finished ID: INVADED. Now I am disappointed.
That's not to imply that the show was particularly great. It had moments that really worked, like Sakaido's time in an alternate past or the episode in The Gravedigger's ID well, but for the most part it seemed like it wasn't sure what it wanted to do with its story – is it a deconstruction of literary brilliant detectives? A pastiche of crime show tropes? A game of “find the reference to this specific thing?” An exercise in psychobabble? As it turns out, the answer to all of those questions may very well be “yes,” and that's a problem, because it means that as a series it was trying to be too many things to too many viewers and ended up letting most (all?) of them down. That it left a veritable raft of unanswered plot threads and other oddities behind when it ended is what really did it in for me – why, for example, was Narihisago still apparently in jail? Why wasn't Momoki the new chief? Could Kiki Asukai's life suck anymore? And, most damning, why did I spent twelve weeks hoping this show would have some real resolution? I guess that one's on me. But it certainly doesn't make me feel any better about this show – even if I probably still would watch a sequel.
Best: Somali and the Forest Spirit
While half the anime I watched this season were just okay, I really loved a handful of shows, so it was difficult to narrow my choices down to just two. Still, there was something about Somali and the Forest Spirit that made me the most eager to watch it each week. The visuals are stunning, as this fantasy world populated by monsters is symbiotic with nature. Every environment, from the forest to the desert to an underground cavern, jumps out on the screen with vivid colors and gorgeous, detailed scenery. The art aside, though, the story is a fascinating yet simplistic tale of a golem who ought to have no humanity risking everything to bring a rare little human girl, Somali, to her people. His time to save her is limited, and despite his robotic-like nature, he manages to invoke real feelings in Somali, who affectionally calls him “Dad.” Even if he does hope to succeed in his quest, the story is bound to end sadly since Golem is falling apart along the way. Nonetheless, the small moments where Somali smiles despite the harsh world around her make this bittersweet journey worth tagging along for.
Tossed headfirst into the harrowing world of BEASTARS, it struck me as a frightening place. On the surface, carnivores and herbivores have managed to strike a balance where they can all get along, but animal instincts are hard to leave behind. Wolf Legoshi wrestling with his inner nature is conveyed through haunting visuals and sound effects, the true nature of the beast under this shy, awkward boy coloring every seemingly innocent interaction he has with his classmates. He's a good person (animal?) at heart, but even he can't fight his feelings. This is made all the more perilous when he falls in love with dwarf rabbit Haru, who, on the surface, is as delicate as a little herbivore can be. Haru is also a complex character, frustrated with her fragile nature and actively seeking to rebel against it. The friendship and possible romance that blooms between them seems doomed and wrong at every turn, but the show manages to make it seem like something to root for nonetheless. Impressive art and animation combined with an emotionally resonant story has made BEASTARS great for binge viewing this season.
Least Favorite: Hatena Illusion
Having enjoyed kaito anime like Kamikaze Kaitō Jeanne a couple of decades back, I was hoping for something in the same vein from Hatena Illusion. However, the show seems mired in the most tired tropes of 90s anime without adding anything new and interesting to the kaito formula. Hatena herself is the consummate tsundere to poor, innocent Makoto, whose only crime is being a boy while Hatena mistook him for a girl when they were childhood friends. It makes it hard to empathize with the titular character, especially when lackluster Makoto just takes the abuse without a word of protest, and it makes for a shoddy start to what's probably going to wind up a romantic relationship. That aside, there's so much going on in this series—which deals with real magic as well as stage magic—that I can only somewhat follow along, and there's actually only a few instances of Hatena doing her phantom thief routine. On top of all of that, some of the episodes are also noticeably poorly animated, so though I did stick with it, I looked forward to watching this series the least each week.
Is this just a thing that's going to happen regularly now, Masaaki Yuasa dropping potentially the best anime of the year in our laps first-thing January and then standing back to revel in our surprise and excitement? Of course, two years later I'm still recovering from the nihilistic shock to my system that was DEVILMAN crybaby, so I'm decidedly relieved that in Eizouken, Yuasa delivered something much more...easy-breezy. But that's the trick then, isn't it, that a series supposedly set on simply celebrating this medium we love called anime could reveal itself as applauding everything about the creative process itself. It's easy to get swept up in Asakusa's mechanically-built flights of fancy, relatable to anybody with the simple sensibilities of things that would look cool in motion, showcasing creation apart from mere plodding-plot minutiae. For me personally, the most engaging surprise was in the Audio Club's Doumeki, and her pursuit of perfection in archival sounds. Sound effects are something so easy for us to take for granted in our other enjoyed animated productions, so showcasing the amount of effort poured into them was a revelation for someone like me, making me immediately attentive to their quality and usage as I watched through other shows in the same season. That's the true magic of Eizouken: That it can sell itself to nerds like us on mutual appreciation of a medium, and then build things up such that, by the end, we find we're appreciating anime on a whole nother level than we did before. It's amazing that Yuasa and all his buddies at Science SARU could pull that off, producing a series that raises not just my opinion of them, but of anime overall. That's a profound success that only comes along, apparently, every other January.
For as regularly as I was digging Eizouken's arthouse excellence, my runner-up series of the season could be considered a far more ‘anime’ anime: BOFURI is the story of a cute girl who plays a fantasy virtual-reality online game with her friends and finds herself stumbling into being amazingly good at it. The secret to this show's charm is simply that it had so much charm to coast on at all. So many other anime have tried to hook me in on the VRMMO angle by selling me on the supposed super-fun immersion their settings provide, but BOFURI was the first one that's really clicked for me. Mostly, it's Maple, the pint-size protective powerhouse propelling the show, trying as she does to simply have fun in the game of NewWorld Online, only to end up breaking it wide-open in the process over and over again. That's bolstered by higher-than-expected production values, showcasing the abilities of Maple as well as her less-overpowered friends in regularly-excellent battles, as well as a commitment to ultimately immaterial game-setting storytelling. It stands apart from other isekai-adjacent world-affecting seriousness other VRMMO anime have dabbled in, and that makes BOFURI just generally fun to follow, as cozy and consistent as whiling away time in a game with your friends.
Worst: Hatena Illusion
I have a lot of questions about this show. Questions like: Why did this story that feels like a reject from 2004 even get an anime? Who the hell is this Children's Playground Entertainment studio, and is the quality of their effort on this thing the reason I've never heard of them before? How is this not even the best anime this season featuring a plot point where a character mistook their childhood friend's gender? We live in strange times, and Hatena Illusion feels like a stranger from an even stranger time. I checked this show out because some of the base designs seemed neat and magicians acting as thieves makes for a decent hook, but that appeal didn't last past episode one. The story crams in way more ideas and genre influences than its abilities can make use of, evoking elements better-deployed in everything from Hayate the Combat Butler to Symphogear, put to screen with all the digipaint-era quality you could hope for from such a storied effort. Why did I even watch as much of this show as I did? That's another question I'm still asking.
It can occasionally be difficult to pick my favorite show from a season, but Winter 2020 was not one of those seasons. Looking back over the season's offerings, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! stands miles above everything else I watched, and seems quite likely to end up as my favorite show of the year, as well.
I knew Eizouken would be a show to watch out for from the moment I learned Masaaki Yuasa was attached as director. Yuasa is one of the brightest talents in the medium, balancing his passion for visual experimentation with an understanding of storytelling that sees him consistently adapting the strongest available source material. What I didn't expect was for Eizouken to be seemingly built for me specifically, as a show entirely about celebrating the joy of artistic creation, which simultaneously captures the emotional experience of high school with a frankness and vitality like little else in the medium.
Every single episode of Eizouken dazzles with new visual wonders, as the fantasies of its young anime creators come to life, illustrating the complexity and thrill of creating art all along the way. Eizouken's characters feel like genuine people, not archetypes; their passions and weaknesses are reflective of their full life experiences, and their collaborations demonstrate the almost indescribable thrill of working together to make something beautiful, something that expresses your emotional truth. And every new episode offers new gifts as well, be it through a poignant flashback to how Mizusaki's love for her grandmother informed her fascination with movement, a deep dive into the nitty-gritty details of how to capture the audience's attention, or a sequence of student animation literally coming to life, thrilling and terrifying the audience in equal measure. Eizouken is one of those rare shows that reminds me just how powerful this medium can truly be. I feel lucky to have watched it.
It's hard to be the runner-up in a season with a Yuasa production, but Chihayafuru has done a stellar job of maintaining its strong character and sports appeal, while also expanding its drama in compelling new directions. As Chihaya and her friends look towards the end of high school, Chihayafuru's own dramatic scope has expanded as well, with the recent challenger tournaments celebrating the still-burning passion of karuta players in their forties and fifties. You rarely see a sports show grappling with the compromises of aging alongside a sport you love; when you combine that new breadth of perspective with Chihayafuru's consistently thrilling tournament sequences, you end up with a stellar season of one of anime's finest sports institutions.
Finally, as usual, my strategy of only sticking with shows I'm actively enjoying has left me without a real “worst show” that I've actively been contending with. Fortunately, my time served on the preview guide means I can at least point to the worst premiere of the season, which was undoubtedly Plunderer. From its near-monomaniacal focus on groping women to its incredibly dull script and bland production values, Plunderer wins my Worst Prize of Winter 2020. Congrats for nothing, Plunderer!
Best: Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!
Around this time two years ago, Masaaki Yuasa blew up the whole anime fandom with DEVILMAN crybaby, one of the decade's certifiable masterpieces. He's at it again in 2020 with Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, a mind-bogglingly imaginative adaptation of Sumito Ōwara's manga about a trio of teenage girls with a passion for making anime that also happens to be an essentially perfect anime. Similar to fan-favorite series Shirobako, Eizouken does an amazing job of capturing the minute ins-and-outs of anime production, which is especially impressive since instead of focusing on a whole studio of professional industry veterans, Eizouken has three teenage heroines who have no experience outside of their personal projects, not to mention virtually zero by way of initial resources. Given the series' somewhat science-fictional setting, there's an element of suspending disbelief to be had here, but it doesn't take more than ten minutes of surfing YouTube to realize that passionate and ridiculously talented amateur animators already exist all over the world, which gives Eizouken a razor-sharp relevance that pairs unexpectedly well with its abstract setting.
What sets Eizouken apart from other shows about making anime is its freewheeling commitment to whimsy and wonder. I couldn't help but be reminded of Calvin and Hobbes, of all things, every time Asakusa, Mizusaki, and Kanamori got sucked in to the wonderful and stylized worlds they were dreaming up for their anime projects. This show has so much heart that I start welling up with tears just thinking about these three perfect friends, and the ways in which they support and push each other to achieve their dreams. Eizouken manages the balancing act of acknowledging all of the sacrifice and compromise that goes into creating even a single frame of animation in such a cutthroat industry, but it never forgets that, in the right hands, there is nothing so magical in all the world as seeing the impossible brought to life with little more than ink, paper, and pure force of will. No other series released so far this year even comes close to what Eizouken has accomplished, and it is absolutely required viewing for anyone that has ever cared even the tiniest bit about animation as an art form.
For a season that initially felt to be a little low-key compared to previous months, Winter 2020 ended up with quite a few great shows that could have easily made this list: Magia Record is an often gorgeous follow-up to Puella Magi Madoka Magica; Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun is a lush an delightful haunted fairy tale; Somali and the Forest Spirit Somali has been charming and heart-breaking in equal measure. For my money though, there are two series this season that stood so far ahead of the pack that not only was their inclusion as my favorite anime of Winter 2020 completely obvious, but I legitimately could not tell you which of them I like more. Eizouken is an undeniable masterwork, and I couldn't quite convince myself that it deserved anything other than that top spot for the season, but there exists an equally valid alternate universe where The reason I put BEASTARS at the top instead, if only for purely sentimental reasons.
Paru Itagaki's genre-bending tale of anthropomorphic teens looking for love is one of my favorite manga ever, and getting to see Studio Orange apply their technical and artistic wizardry to Netflix's adaptation is one of my chief viewing pleasure of the whole year. Legoshi the wolf and Haru the rabbit were already wildly empathetic and deeply compelling protagonists, and the incredible CG animation Orange has brought to the table only makes their story that much more intriguing and heartwarming. Not only is Orange producing animation that will pave the way for the entire industry's future for years to come, but the world of BEASTARS is so well-built and exceedingly fascinating that it can support all manner of different stories. Legoshi and Haru's misadventures can range from farce, to romantic melodrama, and then to searing action-adventure, all without missing a beat. Combine that with characters who go through psychologically intense and painfully relatable journeys of growth and self-actualization, and you have an anime that, despite featuring a cast of talking animals, is one of the most human shows to debut in 2020 so far, anime or otherwise.
Here's my usual caveat: Unless it's I'm getting paid for it, I don't go out of my way to watch shows that I would consider bad, and I haven't completed any series this season that I would even genuinely say I found disappointing – even 22/7, which never lived up to the potential of its early episodes, has provided too many solid outings to earn a place as my “Worst” of the season.
As such, I feel like I have to default to Plunderer, which I hear has actually improved quite a bit from its disastrous first episode, but boy, it's first episode sure was a total bomb. Plunderer's premiere was such a terrible failure on every imaginable front, in fact, that it has easily stuck in my mind as the single worst anything I've been subjected to all year. The comedy was unfunny in its best moments and downright offensive at worse, the world-building felt fundamentally broken in ways that simply could not be reconciled in a single episode, and I personally found the visuals to be just plain ugly. If I'm being honest, I do not doubt that Plunderer might very well be a secretly successful story wrapped up in some unfortunate packaging; that's been the case for many a series over the years. When show's first episode is so terrible that it singlehandedly kills any and all interest one might have in giving the whole thing another chance, though, that's a big problem. Maybe that alternate-universe version of me that switched the order of the top shows of the season also gave Plunderer a second chance, but in this timeline, I am more than happy to give it a hard pass.
Best: Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!
Since Ping Pong the Animation, I've been in love with Masaaki Yuasa's fluid sakuga. In Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, he takes this easy, breezy style to the next level. This perfectly-paced school club story is a love letter not only to anime itself but to the creative process that brings it to the screen. Each of our three heroines is instantly loveable (not to mention refreshingly unsexualized). Their big dreams and bigger personalities complement one another perfectly to build a team I was ready to root for from the first episode onward. Asakusa's flights of fancy into her rich imagination are made even more delightful by her clubmates' ready encouragement. Mizusaki's dedication to her craft makes for an amazing breakout episode, in which we learn that life as an animator is the only way she knows how to live. And if shrewd, capable Kanamori doesn't win Best Girl in the Crunchyroll Anime Awards next year, I will have words to say. From its inventive setting to its banging OP, this anime is better than epic: it's just plain fun.
Chihayafuru was worth the wait! This show was at the top of my wish list of “anime that deserve a new season” for ages. Six years after the end of season two, this Drama About Card Games returns to somehow make an esoteric sport based around centuries-old waka poetry relevant and relatable to a worldwide audience. Chihaya's world has expanded to include the viewpoints of characters far beyond herself or even her team, offering a slew of perspectives we don't usually see in anime: including Harada-sensei, a character in his 50s, and Inokuma, a mother of two. This season raised the stakes by depicting Chihaya's visit to the Meijin and Queen matches, where previously Chihaya and her team watched it on TV. The ramp-up to the most important event of the year for karuta players brings a tension that pervades into every other aspect of the story. This show nails its character beats so well that even though I can never see myself playing karuta, I've never been more invested in the outcome of each game.
Worst: Smile Down the Runway
Based on the first few episodes of Smile Down the Runway, I was hoping to follow along with our protagonists over the course of a Project Runway-style rise to the top. But instead, I got a melodramatic soap opera of increasingly unrealistic twists and turns. By mid-season, this might as well have been called the Punish Ikuto Half-Hour because of the way its male protagonist was dealing with so much drama, there was no time for him to sew clothes. The turning point for me was when Ikuto, raw from dealing with a family emergency, was exploited by multiple characters in a row hoping to turn Ikuto's disaster into an opportunity for bribery. By the time Ikuto reaches a semblance of an emotional resolution, it's already time for the fashion show that is supposed to be the climax of the season—making his and Chiyuki's purported dreams something of an afterthought. Paired with a simplistic art style that doesn't do the clothing designs much justice, it altogether feels like this show missed the mark.
Best: Interspecies Reviewers
If we're judging series purely on qualitative merits then Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! probably belongs here. However, by the end of episode 2 I found myself starting to lose interest and placing it in the same category I put Kunihiko Ikuhara works, which may be a plus for many but isn't for me. So instead I opted for the series which I feel was the most important of the season. Interspecies Reviewers was certainly the most talked-about series, in no small part due to it being pulled off many streaming and broadcast services due to how far it went with its content, but it deserves attention for another big reason: it is one of the very rare truly adult-oriented dedicated fan service series we've ever seen. And I don't mean that just in the extremity of its content, but in the whole attitude it takes. These are adult characters providing adult thoughts and actions about sexual matters, rather than just playing out juvenile fantasies about sexuality, and that's something that most prurient-oriented anime series can't offer. In fact, I have gone back and watched at least snippets of other notorious fan service titles since this one started and have been struck by how base, uninspired, and yes, juvenile that content typically is by comparison. The creativity with which the series approaches the matter of different kinds of brothels in a fantasy setting also shouldn't be underestimated, nor should how surprisingly sex-positive a presentation it normally provides. As fan service series go, it's a breath of sweetly perfumed air.
Runners-Up: Black Clover and BOFURI
This was a much, much more difficult pick, so much so that I didn't even had my mind made up when I started writing this paragraph. I'd love to put BEASTARS here, as what that series does is something special, but it's not technically from the Winter 2020 season even though that's when it finally showed up on Netflix in the states. Isekai Quartet 2 was a season-topper last time around, but this season, though still good, wasn't quite as sharp. Ultimately, after changing my mind several times, I came down to two shows that I enjoyed equally but for entirely different reasons. BOFURI offered the best clean fun of the season in showing Maple's rising to OP status. Watching Maple's antics was unexpectedly delightful– more so than it probably had any right to be – and it worked, I think, because it never took itself too seriously; watching Maple dance around after turning into (literal!) beast mode or turn herself into a giant cotton ball were among the biggest spit-take moments all season, and let's not forget the occasional bursts of high-end animation. On the other side, Black Clover is here, despite a pair of recap episodes, because this block of episodes kicks butt in bring a 100+ episode long plot arc to a satisfying climax and final resolution. In throwing out a horde of game-changing twists and even redefining the foundational history of the setting, it delivers arguably the strongest run of episodes in the whole series.
To be fair, this series doesn't always function at a garbage level. When it actually takes itself seriously and eschews its pathetic attempts at humor, it can be a strikingly better and more entertaining series. However, it killed itself by wallowing too much in the protagonist's perversities, which too often crossed the line into creepy territory. Other series have proved that very powerful heroes who act like buffoons to conceal their true natures can be done successfully, but this is not the right way to do it.
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