The Best of Anime 2020: Chris, James, Theron, & The Best Momentsby ANN Editorial Team,
The arc of a piece of art's release and reception can often be just as interesting as the story it presents. From Deca-Dence's first promotions up until the airing of its first episode, most of us were in to see the productive power couple of Yuzuru Tachikawa and Hiroshi Seko work their magic again, bolstered by some lovely-looking animation in previews and...not much else. As such, that first episode gave us a solid, if expected kind of anime world to watch an adventure unfold in, with most coming away with hopes solidified. Then that second episode dropped a week later and Deca-Dence became the most talked-about show of the season for approximately a week, before continuing to receive praise week after week but curiously attracting less attention post-twist. Popularity, fame, marketing be damned, that was antithetical to the statements Deca- Dence seemed intent on making, every step instead cementing it as a modern classic in the annals of anime creation.
The sheer ambitious weirdness of Deca-Dence's contrasting human and cyborg worlds honestly end up a testament to the creative vision marrying them, as I grew accustomed to understanding their connection rather quickly. And in terms of message, Deca-Dence only felt like it grew more on-point with every step, starting out as a biting satire of the ultimate gamification of capitalism and going on to become ever more vicious and deconstructive towards that oppressive system. Seeing these creators use these ironically cute characters to air their grievances and do it with such raw, clear anger felt refreshing, and if the series didn't seem to be making as much of a dent in the popular viewership as it seemed primed to do way back in Episode 2, well wasn't that all the more appropriate to something so acutely counter- culture? Sadly, it didn't all shake out well in the end, and as much as I loved the rest of the series, I still view Deca-Dence's series finale as a misstep: a confused, limited backstep that ultimately didn't actually realize what it tried to deliver on, or couldn't for any litany of reasons related to production, company demands, or things we'll never truly understand. But even if the destination proved underwhelming, Deca-Dence still took us on one hell of a journey along the way.
I appreciate anime as a medium where sequels and follow-ups can regularly be success stories as strong as their originals. That especially goes for something like Kaguya-sama: Love is War, whose second season delivered in a year when several other shows I found promising didn't necessarily stick the landing or prove as strong in their latter halves (sorry Great Pretender, you just missed this list!). Such as it is that a madcap comedy like Kaguya-sama can be seen as downright cozy. That could be down to familiarity, in that I'm all too happy to return to the more jocular chaos of the student council room in my need to escape the madness of Hell Year 2020. Or maybe, in addition to being as reliably funny as the show thankfully still is, it's the extra time and space it has for its characters that lets them be humanized to an even more appreciable degree.
That kind of approach is why Hayasaka, already one of my favorites, gets to go from being a one-note presentation of hypercompetence to someone we see with glimpses of her own life and feelings regarding the people in it (who can finally be embarrassed by the sheer absurdity of how her mistress Kaguya drags out her lack of emotional intelligence). It's why new characters like Miko can add novel, hilarious avenues for character dynamics despite starting from a fairly typical archetype like ‘small and bossy’. And it's why someone like Ishigami, codified as one of the most dunkable doofuses in anime in the first season, can turn out to have one the most genuinely moving arcs I've seen in a long time. Kaguya-sama is funny as hell, but it only gets better because it lets us in to truly get to know what makes this outlandish band of weirdos tick. And this year, I was all too happy to see all of them again.
Technically this show hasn't finished airing at the time I'm writing this, and I admit it might be recency bias affecting me ranking it here, but (sing it with me) I DON'T GIVE A DAAAAAAAAAAMN! Akudama Drive wasn't really on my radar going into this last season of 2020, but the manic, cocaine-fueled energy of its premier grabbed me and hasn't let go since. The presentation on this thing alone cuts loose in that very particular ‘anime’ way I feel we don't get often enough anymore these days, drawing me in with the uncompromising contrasts of its future Kansai's neon lights just in time to be blown away when one of the protagonists deploys cables from his motorcycle and starts Spider-Manning around the city on it. This show is a ridiculous good time, the sort you didn't know you needed until you start watching it.
Akudama Drive really works though, because it has substance backing up all that style. It's a ‘cyberpunk’ story in the truest sense of the word, casting its ensemble of protagonists as defined, labeled opposition to the strictly-regulated structure of its world. It's a system of authority that would group someone who swindled 500 yen worth of takoyaki in with a vicious serial killer, and how can we not root for the criminals in that case? There are points where you might think the level of societal commentary could be edging too much into your fast-moving future funtimes show, particularly with scenes like the Executioners coldly slaughtering a mass of protestors falling into the ‘depressingly relevant’ category. But Akudama Drive wields that intensity for effect just as much – would that battle in the rain between Brawler and Master have been half as incredible without the pent-up meaning in their symbolically similar strivings? Obviously not, and deftly-executed elements like that marked this series as the undisputed winner of this season, and one of the best of the year. I really need to play Danganronpa now.
It's astounding to me to think about how long the gap between the previous season of Haikyu!! and this one was. This has become one of my favorite series of all time, yet in the years I've been doing this anime writing thing I haven't yet gotten the chance to honor it with this best-of- the-year recognition! Thankfully that's now rectified, in a particularly pleasing way as Haikyu!!'s fourth season was split with the first half welcoming us into 2020 and the second bravely shielding us as we survive the last days of this year. I may have been put off of watching live sports lately, but at least I still got to enjoy some incredible games of volleyball.
The level of enjoyment I get out of Haikyu!!, and how long that's been going on, can almost make it easy to forget about in these kinds of regular rankings. That is, to see it not as an anime competing with the other seasonal offerings, but as simply being ‘Haikyu!!-tier’, that outstanding cartoon I'm thrilled to watch whenever it's on. There's a consistency to what its narrative does that I think threatens to homogenize it in hindsight. You'd think there are only so many ways to break down dueling sports scores over the course of 80+ episodes, yet every single time, in the moment, this show gets me jumping and pumping my fists and yelling at my screen in the ways doctors warn excitable heart patients specifically to stay away from sports for. This season was no different, as even absent some of the previous visual polish thanks to some shake-ups in the animation team, and even with more time devoted to mid-game backstory flashbacks than the preceding ten-episode titan of tension, I was still on the edge of my seat most of the time. It's now once again wrapped with little indication of when we'll see the next entry in Karasuno's quest for the top, but I'm still infinitely grateful to the show for showing me, once again, how high it can reach in what ultimately feels like only an instant.
Two years ago, I ranked Masaaki Yuasa's DEVILMAN crybaby as the second-best anime I'd seen that year. That show is a stone-cold masterpiece, but my reasoning was simply that the heavy, nihilistic themes of the show, and the absolute downer it reveled in being in, held me back from touting it as my ‘favorite’ thing I'd watched all year. But I know creators, especially great ones, are manifold, and upon seeing the first episode of Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! at the beginning of 2020, much in the same way DEVILMAN crybaby had opened 2018, I knew I was once again seeing the start of something special. And unlike that show's vicious, but deserved, holding of accountability for all of mankind's worst impulses, this new show was an uncompromised celebration of joy: of the enjoyment of creation and of enjoying the creations of others.
What I'm trying to say is that Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! was the show we needed in 2020, even at the beginning when we didn't fully realize how taxing this year would be. It presents an arc of grueling effort and idealized ambition that itself has to be compromised in requisite ways simply to make the ideas of its aspiring team of animators even come to fruition. And like the work we need to do today, it makes clear that we all have our part to play: Whether it's the unchecked imagination of Asakusa's designs, Mizusaki's exacting attention to portraying the detail in that world, or the pragmatic management of Kanamori and her understanding of where her team's efforts need to be deployed. It actually marks Eizouken as itself continuing the moral of DEVILMAN crybaby – if only in a kinder, gentler, happier espousal: We as people are all in this together, and it takes everyone to move forward and create joy that all of us may relish in. It's a relatively simple cartoon about girls making cartoons, but as the year it welcomed us into wore on, I could only grow more and more appreciative of what it was, and still is, trying to instill in us.
I was surprised at how difficult it was to put this year's Top 5 list together, not only because of all the great shows that I've seen, but all of the ones I have yet to see, too. Not to mention, I always find it funny how one's ranking and reception of shows changes within the course of even one year. If you'd asked me a month or two ago, I would have been near certain that Deca-Dence would have at least earned my #5 spot, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I hadn't thought much about Deca-Dence since it finished. It's a very good show, but the anime that tend to leave the most lasting impressions on me are the ones that dare to be a little weirder, and a little wilder, which is probably why Wave, Listen to Me! was able to squeak its way onto my list. Is this adaptation of Hiroaki Samura's difficult-to-categorize seinen manga perfect? Absolutely not. It can be a bit dramatically inert at times, and its penchant for cheap gay panic jokes will never cease to bug me.Still, I haven't been able to forget about the often hilarious and even occasionally poignant misadventures of Minare Koda, who managed to drunkenly bumble her way into a job hosting a ridiculously bizarre late-night radio talk show. Minare's a one-of-a-kind train wreck of a heroine, equal parts crass, irresponsible, stupid, and loveable. The whole behind-the-scenes angle of working in local Japanese radio is just the kind of niche subject matter I tend to dig, and the show mines a shocking amount of comedy simply from animating Minare's absurd and partially improvised stream-of-consciousness story rants, which somehow manage to fit responses to day-to-day call-ins in between gruesome murder stories, ghostly fables of existential dread, and the occasional wrestling match with a bear. More than anything, though, Wave, Listen to Me! gives us a genuine and empathetic glimpse into the trials and tribulations of a barely functional thirtysomething woman who is just trying to figure her life out. We need more stories like that in anime, I think. Also, Minare's voice actress, Riho Sugiyama, is so good that she should be offered literally any role that she wants, for perpetuity.
Here's a show that probably also should earn an award for “Weirdest Title Attached to a Surprisingly Good Anime”. Now, I know that the name is based on a classic Japanese urban legend about a ghostly girl that haunts bathroom stalls, but you can't blame anyone for balking a bit at this series' English-language title, considering how eager some recent anime have been to brazenly cater to their audience's more specific “tastes” (don't think we forgot what you did, Nekopara). This isn't one of those shows, though, and the titular Hanako-kun isn't even the creepy specter girl that has been whispered about for so many years. Hanako a mysterious and charming ghost boy who is said to be able to grant wishes, has merely borrowed the name. This is just as surprising to Nene, a girl whose attempt to wish herself into a relationship with a cute boyfriend gets her stuck right in the middle of the school's increasingly complex web of occult mysteries and supernatural threats. The jury's still out on whether Nene will nab that cute boyfriend, though. He just might end up being a little more…dead than Nene was expecting, is all!
I can neither confirm nor deny having watched 1995's live-action Casper movie dozens upon dozens of times as an impressionable tyke, but I will say that “ghost boy meets socially awkward (and alive) girl, and someday they might even ghost-smooch” is a sub-genre I'm a sucker for. The level of depth that Hanako-kun affords its well-realized world and cast of living and not-so-living characters makes for a compulsively watchable anime all on its own, but here's the clincher: Studio Lerche's artwork, which brings Iro Aida's black-and-white art into vivid color, is stunning. Even though its animation can be somewhat limited at times, every episode of Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun would be a pleasure to watch even if you somehow managed to discount its great story. I absolutely urge anyone who turned their nose up at an anime about a toilet ghost to give Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun a chance, though, because this show is utterly delightful.
3. Akudama Drive
Is it cheating to include Akudama Drive on this Top 5 list when it isn't even finished at the time of this writing? Probably, but who the hell cares! It'd would be all-too appropriate to get a little swindling done with this list after all. Akudama Drive comes to us from the mind of Kazutaka Kodaka, the creator of the masterful Danganronpa franchise, except instead of forcing a bunch of talented teenaged weirdos into a killing game of Ultimate Despair, this show drops us into a cyber-punk dystopia filled with criminal Akudama and the legion of Executioners that hunt them down. Our nameless heroine, known only as the Ordinary Person, manages to accidentally brand herself as an Akudama, alias Swindler, and she finds herself roped into an elaborate heist mission, along with a cadre of real criminals, known as Courier, Doctor, Hacker, Brawler, Hoodlum, and Cutthroat. So, instead of trying to solve crimes and prevent murders, our heroine Swindler ends up aiding-and-abetting many crimes and murders, all at the behest of their enigmatic benefactor: Brother.
Since it shares many of the same creative personnel that staffed the Danganronpa games and anime, and it wears its numerous cinematic influences proudly on its sleeve, one might be tempted to label Akudama Drive as “Danganronpa Meets Blade Runner Meets [Spoiler Redacted], with a Dash of [Spoiler Redacted].” This is one-hundred percent true. You know what else? It freaking rules. This is a series that is about reveling in excess, all of the time. The animation and direction is frequently jaw-dropping, the characters are all peak Weird Anime Criminal archetypes, and the plot almost never stops moving relentlessly forward. Many of its narrative twists and plot elements have felt borrowed from the Hollywood source material that Kodaka and Co. are unabashedly enamored with, but that's just fine with me. Blade Runner kicks ass, and Danganronpa kicks ass; they're two great tastes that taste great together. So, even if the finale ends up missing the mark, I know I will be happily munching on this Reese's Peanut-Butter Cup of an anime for a long time to come.
2. Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!
I thought choosing between DEVILMAN crybaby and Planet With back in 2018 was a conundrum, but this here was a real nail-biter; there's just something about Masaaki Yuasa projects that makes putting these end-of-year lists together especially difficult. Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! initially was my #1 pick, until I realized at the very last minute that a certain other show technically counted for the 2020 race, and that is where the agonizing began. If you talk to me on any given day of the week, I could very well decide to switch up Eizouken with the #1 anime, as I utterly adore both of them, and for quite different reasons.
Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! is, first and foremost, a love letter to the very art of animation itself, both in regard to its premise and its execution. From the show's opening frames, it is clear that Science Suru is pulling out all of the stops to bring Sumito Ōwara's quirky characters and world to life. Midori, Sayaka, and Tsubame live in a fantastical world that feels both remarkably close to our own, but wholly fantastical, all at the same time. The refreshing mix of cultures and architectural styles immediately gives Eizouken a unique visual identity, and that is before the girls discover their mutual passion for creating animation: Midori is obsessed with creating complex mechanical wonders, Tsubame wants to breathe life into the world and characters of her drawings, and Sayaka…well, she loves the idea of making a profitable product. One of Eizouken's many strokes of genius is how it recognizes that the real, captivating drama of making animation isn't about cliched genius narratives, or the lionizing one auteur's journey above all else. Instead, it comes from the push and pull of watching these delightful dorks marry the dream of producing animation with the grueling and often thankless reality of the job.
Before he passed away this year, Zac Bertschy explained in great detail all of the things that make Keep Your Hands of Eizouken such a masterpiece, and I'm simply going to echo his sentiments by praising just how visionary, how honest, and how lovely Eizouken is to experience, both as a fan of animation, and a fan of good stories in general. If you have even the tiniest amount of that shared passion — and I'd have to assume you do, considering that you're reading this list — Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! is required viewing. No exceptions, and no excuses.
If Keep Your Hands Off! Eizouken! is all about exploring and celebrating the medium of mostly-traditional 2D animation, BEASTARS is another animal entirely. I won't even apologize for that unforgivable pun, because I am not understating when I say that, when I watched BEASTARS for the first time, I was struck by one thought before anything else: “This is the future of anime.” If you take anything away from this list, it is that Studio Orange deserves every award imaginable for creating an anime that doesn't just look good for a computer-generated production, it transforms your idea of what CG anime can do, especially on a TV budget. By blending two-dimensional pickup shots with hand-crafted and lovingly animated 3D rigs, Studio Orange has raised the bar it set itself with its previous 3D series, Land of the Lustrous, by giving us a series that looks unlike anything you've ever seen before, while still retaining its fundamental “anime identity”.
Granted, I was already primed to love BEASTARS the anime, because Paru Itagaki's manga is one of my favorites ever, and Studio Orange simply took a great story and made it even better. What I especially love is how BEASTARS' use of anthropomorphic animal characters manages to avoid the allegorical pitfalls that neither Zootopia nor BNA could fully escape. The nods towards real world prejudices are still there, for sure, but BEASTARS is primarily the story about the most painfully awkward virgin wolfboy who has ever lived, and the emotionally fraught relationship he enters into with the equally awkward rabbit, Haru. At first, Legoshi wants to eat Haru, but then he discovers that his carnivorous instincts are inextricably tied to his other primal urges. So, instead of worrying about being a perfect metaphor for societal issues it has no hope of properly addressing, it focuses primarily on telling a tender and nuanced coming-of-age story (it's also recklessly horny, so definitely keep the show away from any small children, or otherwise judgmental friends and relatives, that might be fooled by the presence of the talking animals).
To be clear, BEASTARS' definition of “nuanced” also means that it crams basically every conceivable genre into a single season's worth of story, and with as much campy abandon as possible. The show will simultaneously be a romantic fable, a blood-soaked backstage theater drama, a murder mystery, and vigilante revenge thriller, all at once. Yet, somehow, it just works so damned well. It's a complete wonder to behold, and my favorite anime of the year, bar none. I cannot wait to see what Studio Orange has in store for BEASTARS in 2021.
This list comes with some qualifications. Both the series BEASTARS and the movie Rascal Does Not Dream of a Dreaming Girl should be on this list, since I got to see both for the first time in 2020 and found both to be quality productions, but those are both technically 2019 titles so including them does not feel appropriate. Black Clover might have also made the cut if judged only on its best parts this year, but it was weighed down by long stretches of more lackluster content. Other titles I seriously considered – and which would probably fill out my top 10 for the year – include Fruits Basket 2, My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU Climax, Isekai Quartet 2, Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle (the year's best comedy and my #6 pick, and The Misfit of Demon King Academy.
5. Is It Wrong to Try and Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? III
I was not seriously considering this title for season-end honors through its first half, but an especially strong second half elevated it to this spot. The content of the season's singular story arc is inherently compelling: the revelation that not all monsters produced by the Dungeon are necessarily deadly enemies. While this could be looked at as an allegory on racism, the message here is more involved than that: positive aberrations even in the most intractable foes must be recognized and appreciated, even if that means standing in opposition to the prevailing truths of the world and risking your reputation in the process. Only by doing so can one truly be called a hero. Excellent action scenes, potent drama, and powerful emotional moments all contribute to a memorable new installment to the anime side of the franchise.
Are there higher-quality series which could be placed here? Probably. However, this series must be recognized both for the creativity of its approach and the way it upends norms for prurient content in anime. Rather than wallow in juvenile notions about sexuality – as nearly every other fanservice series out there does – it went for the gusto by making the series all about sex and the way that different fantasy races approach it. This made for a fascinating, fun, and remarkably sex-positive romp; I heard many comments from people who normally do not care for fanservice titles claiming to enjoy this one because of that. The adventures of the central trio through various fantasy brothels were also raunchy as hell (sometimes literally!), but even that was handled cleverly; who could ever forget the mayo jar incident, for instance? Funimation found the title too hot to handle, so one of the pressing anime questions of 2021 is what month will Right Stuf release it on Blu-ray.
The first half of this series was my pick for the #2 title of 2019, and the second half slides down a notch only because the competition was more potent in 2020, not because it dropped off any. The shift in gears to focusing primarily on Myne's integration into life at the cathedral did not hamper the series' appeal in the slightest; instead, it allowed the introduction of new regular characters and the exploration of the intricately laid-out way that magic and religion integrate into the setting's bigger picture. Anime series (and especially isekai series) which can be so thoroughly absorbing with their minor details are rare indeed, and having a character with Myne's level of appeal certainly does not hurt.
I forgot until the last minute that Sentai had this movie available in a PPV format, but I'm glad that I finally did remember, as it made such an immediate impression that it instantly rocketed up to being competitive with my #1 pick. As a direct sequel to the 2017 TV series, it continues the story of Riko, Reg, and Nanachi as they descend through the fifth layer on their way to the sixth. In the process they encounter the White Whistle Bondrewd and his “daughter” Prushka. The result is a beautifully-animated production which is equal parts charming, thrilling, and horrifying and fully effective at all three. It also fully retains the sense of wonder in its world-building which was a key feature of the TV series and solidifies Bondrewd further as one of the all-time Truly Horrible People in anime. Difficult at times to watch, but well worth the effort.
1. Re:Zero Season 2
After four years of downtime, Re:Zero picks up right where it left off, immediately throwing a new wrench into the scheme by effectively taking Rem out of the picture and propelling Subaru into a whole new mystery where he gets to use Return by Death uncomfortably often. The former point could have been a disaster, given how much of a fan-favorite the oni maid is, but the series deftly compensates for that by introducing the setting's storied witches, in particular the delightful (and suspiciously similar-looking to Emilia) Witch of Greed, Echidna. From there, the series does what it has always done best: answer questions by raising new ones, imply more about distorted understandings of history and who characters are, inflict bloody mayhem, and traumatize Subaru even more. At times I found the season to be a little too oppressively mean to Subaru, but week after week it continued to deliver on the kind of content that made the first series great. Its continuation in the Winter 2021 season is one of my most-anticipated titles of 2021.
The Best Moments of 2020
The second season of Kaguya-sama: Love is War saw more focus shifted to dramatic elements of the series, specifically centered around the perennial misanthrope of the Student Council, Yu Ishigami. These were dubious storytelling choices that ended up paying dividends for that level of risk/reward on audience investment, and was part of what made this second season so especially great. And how it got there was by leveraging what we already knew about Ishigami and the show's artistic tendencies. Yu's initial entry into the Cheer Club seemed at first like an odd side-plot to mine a few more gags from, with the whole team depicted as a faceless crowd neither he nor the audience were personally invested in. Only at the culmination of the emotionally intense, virtually joke-free eleventh episode, wherein we learn the true source of Ishigami's self-imposed social rejection, do these seeming nobodies defy his preconceived opinions of them, compelling him to finally let them into his life. Ishigami's eyes open for the first time, and he sees the Cheer Club for who they are: Real, genuinely good people. It's that kind of perfect, sappy moment – a real clever trick for a previously-goofy show like Kaguya-sama to play. And it works so well because of how it integrates Ishigami's character, not letting him fully off the hook for how his own outlook was imposing his issues. It's a clear illustration of the realization he has in that moment: “Was really looking all it took for the view to change like this?”, and a beautiful finish to a story arc we didn't even know was one when it first started.
There is no shortage of incredible fantasy daydreams to be found in Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, but the first remains my favorite for how perfectly it captures everything the show is trying to do. As Midori, Sayaka, and Tsubame lose themselves to the fun and challenge of drawing new worlds to life, the show shifts to show them living in that watercolor dream world as they build it. Surrounded by incredible contraptions and vistas, Midori and Tsubame's delight is contagious as they put together their dragonfly-inspired flying machine. The soundtrack and gorgeous animation work hand-in-hand to bring the girls' shared vision to life, with the best touch being how the sound effects are made by the voice-actresses themselves, who whimsically drill and whirr along with their characters' creative process. I challenge anyone to watch this sequence and walk away without wanting to put pen to paper themselves. Like so many other great works, Eizouken doesn't just show what makes creating art such a fascinating process; it inspires its viewers to want to create their own masterpieces. Or, at least, the best they can muster with a skeleton crew, limited resources, and a microscopic budget. If that isn't the essence of anime, I don't know what is!
The entirety of episode 11 of DanMachi III is one of my top contenders for Episode of the Year, and in particular Bell's final confrontation with his idol Ais (to protect Wiene) stands out in both dramatic and action senses. Out of that scene, the most powerful moment by far happens when Wiene steps in to protect Bell. Ais insists that she cannot allow Wiene's existence because “your claws hurt people. Your wings terrify people.” Wiene responds by tearing her claws and wing off, thus divesting her own body of the very things that Ais is objecting to. There is not a more visceral moment in any anime that I have seen in 2020, but Ais's stunned reaction is nearly as important. This is the moment when her entire belief system is shattered by an irrefutable contradiction to her core belief: that monsters are always the enemy. Runner-up here would have to be the infamous “mayo jar” scene in Interspecies Reviewers.
Deca-Dence's first episode is a tightly-written coming-of-age sci-fi adventure story with a plucky heroine, prickly mentor, and plenty of big monsters to facilitate our protagonist's development into a proper warrior. Deca-Dence's second episode is about a bunch of colorful cute robots who like to play MMOs. From there, the anime never stops upending itself, dismantling its initial (still quite good) premise into a better and more thematically-dense interrogation of capitalism's oppressive gears. It's a fantastic show, and it only missed my top 5 cutoff by a quark-sized margin. However, nothing else this year topped the absolutely buckwild experience of watching the second episode twist everything about itself up into this much weirder and much riskier gambit. I'm sure it didn't work for everyone, but I loved it. And, of course, the icing on the cake is how much the robots look like extras from my favorite notoriously cursed children's program Heybot!. I'm still awaiting confirmation from director Yuzuru Tachikawa that Deca-Dence is contiguous with the Heybot! canon. You can't hide from me forever. The truth will out.
ON-GAKU is a quirky little indie movie, only 70 minutes long and unlike pretty much anything else that has come out in recent years, about three high school delinquents who start a band on impulse, despite a complete lack of musical training. At the film's climax, the band is playing at a festival and although he declared earlier that he was quitting, their leader Kenji leaps up onto the stage holding not his bass but a recorder. He goes on a wild, improvised, gorgeously animated musical journey backed up by his band, and when he's finished, leaps high into the air, smashes his recorder to the ground and half-cries, half-sings into the microphone. Up until that moment, he had expressed little emotional range beyond boredom; now, the sobs tear out of him from somewhere deep and raw and vulnerable as his friends and the audiences stare at him in open-mouthed shock. It's a level of catharsis that is rare in narrative storytelling of any genre to achieve, perfectly bringing together the characters' arcs and the story's theme of music as self-expression that anyone can access, not just those with access to training.
While almost all of the episodes of Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?'s third season were strong, episode eleven absolutely stole the series, and a lot of that is because of the confrontation between Bell, Ais, and Wiene. Ais is bluntly and stubbornly refusing to listen when Bell tells her that Wiene isn't a monster just because she has claws and a wing, even though Ais knows full well that not all humans are the saints she frames them as simply because they don't look like monsters. When Wiene steps between the two humans to prevent Ais from hurting Bell to get to her, she doesn't attack Ais in turn. Instead, she maims herself in order to demonstrate to Ais that there is no way that she's a threat – she'd rather pull out her nails and tear off her wing than to fight and see someone get hurt. It's the moment that changes everything, because while Ais may be emotionally stunted, a child is deliberately maiming herself before her eyes in order to prove her point. And she bleeds and cries like any human child would in that situation, forcing Ais to see the truth of what Bell's been saying. It's powerful and it's gut-wrenching, and in the future it may be the thing that not only salvages Ais and Bell's friendship, but also help the Xenos overall when Ais recalls it. It's hard to keep being self-righteously stubborn when a kid is hurting herself in front of you to prove a point, and this really is the moment when the tables begin to turn.
I am an absolute sucker for shows incorporating their theme music into their stories. There's just some part of my brain that pumps out endorphins any time a character starts singing or humming along to the ever-present opening or ending song, and I can't turn it off. But BNA's choice to tie its ending theme, “Night Running” into its central character's most tumultuous relationship and conflict stood head and furry shoulders above anything else this year.
It's a dirt-simple scene on paper. After a major revelation in the mystery behind their nascent animorph powers leads to a nasty and hurtful falling out, heroine Michiru and her ex Nazuna find themselves in the world's most awkward car ride back to their respective homes. Trapped in the back seat, spread as far apart as the confines of a vehicle can allow, they just sit in silence as the tension builds and aches in the space between them. Neither can bear to look at each other, but both find themselves transfixed by the other's reflection in the window, obscured and warped by the passing neon lights of Anima City outside. Quietly at first, then growing louder until it consumes the soundtrack, “Night Running” plays, bringing on an avalanche of memories of the two when they were inseparable and innocent, before the accidents of fate and the choices it forced on them left them so near yet so utterly far apart.
There are perhaps more substantial scenes or speeches I could have chosen for the best moment of this year – after all nothing really comes of this moment in its aftermath. Neither character speaks or moves, and they part ways with nothing resolved. But it's that exact sense of unfulfilled tension – and the excellent use of story and music that set it up – that has kept me coming back to it again and again. Sometimes what makes a moment important isn't its plot utility, but in how powerfully it can capture a singular feeling, and nothing hit me nearly as hard as this musical sting. It also permanently added “Night Running” to my driving playlist, and for that I'm eternally grateful.
In episode eight, the club's hard work finally comes together in time for the Shibahama High School culture festival. The trio has put in long hours and made compromises but the big day has finally arrived. It came as no surprise that the result was an exciting short, but what really made the scene so satisfying was seeing how all the moments from earlier episodes were reflected in the end result. None of the research went to waste and both Tsubame and Midori were able to incorporate their own personalities into the finished piece. We see the results of Midori's fall in the club space, Tsubame's meticulous detail for body movement reflected in a splash of green tea. The episode manages to illustrate how art is personal and intimately tied to the creators' own experiences and lives and is all the richer for it.
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