The Best Anime of 2020
Caitlin, Lynzee, & The Best Songs
by ANN Editorial Team,
While I wouldn't exactly call this a good year for anime, what stood out really stood out. As I put together this list, I found myself with well over five shows that I loved pretty much equally: comedies that made me laugh out loud with every episode, high-paced action series, and speculative fiction that use other worlds to explore revolutionary ideas and themes. As I pored over my list, crossing out shows, then adding them back to the list, then crossing them out again, I decided to approach my choices with a particular aim: to highlight the shows that made me happy. Maybe they weren't thought-provoking or narratively-driven or complex, but week after week, they made me smile and laugh and feel a bit less alone in one of the loneliest times of our era.
Maybe this is recency bias because I just finished it the night before writing this, but I don't think any one show made me laugh as consistently as Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle did. Mitsue Yamazaki and Yoshiko Nakamura have worked the same magic over me as they did with Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun, proving once again that they're one of the strongest writer-director teams in anime today by taking already funny source material, tweaking the jokes, and incorporating split-second comic timing to make it outright hilarious.
Sleepy Princess is probably the least heartfelt and least vulnerable of all my picks, but you know what? That's fine. Not all comedy needs to have an emotional core, especially when the main character is a perfect little gremlin like Princess Syalis. Her willingness to stop at nothing for a good night's sleep is extremely relatable, although hopefully her complete disregard for the well-being of everyone else around her as well as her own is less so. You'd think the one joke would eventually get old, but it turns out the demon castle has myriad ways for chaotic-neutral Syalis to get in trouble and terrorize the Demon King and his subjects. She's truly the best villain of 2020.
Okay, this is an exception to my “shows that make me happy” theme. Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun is not a happy show, not by any stretch. At best, I'd describe it as “tragicomic.” It is, however, one of the most poignant and visually unique shows of the year, one that will stick with me for a long time, and for that I must include it. Nobody seemed to think much of it before its premiere (I was expecting a lot of peeping-based comedy, while others seemed to think it would include more gross-out toilet humor), so when it came out, everyone was bowled over, myself included.
Part of it is due to director Masaomi Andō's distinctive directorial style, who applied his stylistic quirk of using frames-within-frames to form something of a hybrid between anime and manga and create something beautiful to look at despite its limited animation. Part of it is in the voice cast, especially the legendary Megumi Ogata's performance as the trollish yet tragic Hanako. Much of it is in the adorable Nene and Hanako, and their story of love, loss, grief, and connection among the spooky and supernatural figures of their school. Whatever it is, it makes Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun deeply melancholic and memorable.
I've never really subscribed to the idea that the book is always better; while yes, sometimes it is, most of the time they're just different media with different demands. Every so often, though, there's something that really elevates its source material. Kaguya-sama: Love is War became one such example in 2019, with brilliantly creative directing by a team of talented episode directors led by Mamoru Hatakeyama, one of my industry favorites. Underneath all the layers of visual gags, puns, situational humor, slapstick, and pretty much every other kind of joke under the sun lies its core of two awkward, shy, and prideful teenagers who can't get it together long enough to let one another know how much they like each other.
While I adore Kaguya, Shirogane, and Chika, this season's standout character was Yuu Ishigami. Last season, he was always the least likable of the core cast, the kind of misanthropic, misogynistic geek that covers up his self-hatred with a thick armor of smug superiority and always ends up in my Twitter replies. This season, though, he joined the school's pep squad despite his previous scorn for “normies”. This move shows real growth, the kind that comes from self-reflection and a proactive effort to improve oneself, rather than just kind of slowly getting better from being exposed to better people. I'm proud of him, and hope that maybe some people who see themselves in him will be inspired to make similar changes. If you do, I'm proud of you too.
How lovely that this year's most obvious prestige choice, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, is also one of the shows that made me smile most consistently! I'm not sure how much I can add to the conversation at this point, since it caught the attention of even mainstream critics outside our little niche, so once again, I'm going to put my attention on just why Asakusa, Kanamori, and Mizusaki's exploits made me happy. Part of it is in the balance; the three girls complement one another perfectly, both as friends and as creative collaborators. While there's no one-to-one comparison to be made, I can't help but think of my colleagues at the other blog I work to maintain, and how we work together to bolster one another's strengths and make up for one another's weaknesses.
But it's more than seeing myself and my friends in the characters and enjoying how they work together. Asakusa's unique sensibilities, easily read as ADHD or autism, imbue their exploration and the act of creation with a sense of wonder. Their world, with its diversity and channels and rivers running through it, is so similar to our own, yet just different enough to be thrilling. The humming, strumming strings that mark when one of her flights of fancy is about to begin have wormed their way into my head, so that whenever I hear them I feel like I'm about to see something wonderful. I'm so glad I got my hands on Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!.
I can't make a plea that if you're going to go back and watch one series from 2020 that you missed, it should be Appare-Ranman!; that honor should probably go to Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!. But if you want to watch a show that will simply make you happy with every episode, this might be a great choice. When Appare and Kosame end up in America due to shenanigans, it looks like it'll be an odd-couple, action-based buddy show, but as the cast grows, it blossoms into an ensemble piece with unbeatable chemistry. Even though Hototo and TJ's character designs involve some, ah, poorly-considered elements, the characters themselves are likable and memorable. It doesn't quite live up to its wacky racers promise, but once they get out of their cars, there's plenty of well-choreographed, smoothly-animated action to go around.
While I wouldn't call Appare-Ranman! the best of any one particular genre – it doesn't have the funniest jokes or the most heart-pounding action or the deepest character writing – it functions as a great sampler platter of everything I enjoy in a story, with all of its chaotic elements coming together into one cohesive, joyous whole. I love it with my whole heart, and I desperately want more people to watch it.
This is probably a controversial choice to include in a "best of" list. Japan Sinks: 2020 was thematically messy, at times bombastic, and arguably a visually unattractive production. It was going to be a difficult task for Science SARU to follow up critically lauded works like DEVILMAN crybaby and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, not to mention the uniquely unfortunate position of debuting a national disaster show in the midst of a pandemic. Audiences probably weren't looking for something like Japan Sinks right now, but underneath all those caveats is something uniquely heartfelt. Japan Sinks was comfortable having very uncomfortable conversations about Japanese nationalism, how mixed-race people are "othered", and that the identity of a country is the culmination of its successes and its ills.
Laugh all you want about the marijuana cult arc – there's surely plenty of parts to point at – but it was one of the few storytelling moments that defied my expectations. What I initially thought would be an anti-drug message told through a creepy pseudo-religion was instead revealed to be one mother's paradise carved out for her neurodivergent son and other misfits of the world. The staff wove this thread about acceptance into the traditionally Japanese concept of kintsukuroi: repairing broken pottery with gold lacquer to show the previous damage and acknowledge that the piece is more beautiful for it.
Set in Victorian England, the struggles in Moriarty the Patriot feel all the more pertinent against the backdrop of 2020. Moriarty himself is undoubtedly an antihero who subscribes to the philosophy of "the ends justify the means" whereas "the ends" is the downfall of class-ruled society. He encounters people of privilege that range from the exploitative to outright murderers, and obviously takes joy in orchestrating their downfalls either for his own pleasure or as a hired service to the downtrodden. Moriarty's methods will be hard to swallow for some, but the more controversial aspects of the show are tuned down once it refocuses on a game of cat and mouse between Moriarty and Sherlock. Nevertheless, the show's characters have given me plenty to think about for the last three months, especially when taken in conjunction with the anime's title. Moriarty is framed as a patriot to Victorian England, after all. Given his methods, is it a fair title? I know what I think, but the show asks viewers to come to their own conclusions.
Dorohedoro is hands down the most entertaining show I watched this year that I absolutely cannot explain to anyone. The series is deeply ingrained in its own world of blood-soaked mayhem where magic users test out mutilating spells on people living in the slum-like world called Hole. The main guy has a lizard head with another entity residing inside that might also be him. One time they play baseball with a giant cockroach. Dorohedoro somehow perfected the balance of mystery, absurd violence, and humor into a single hellishly beautiful package. The background artistry is a major highlight, especially the scenes around En's mansion and the Sorcerer's world where the highly detailed minutiae come together to create something both beautiful and frightening.
I can't downplay how thrilling it was to have a series pull the rug out from under me. I somehow missed the giveaway at the end of episode one, so when episode two started I absolutely lost my shit. I paused the show and started laughing while repeating "oh what the fuck" in-between guffaws in an increasingly louder voice. I went into the office and hollered at my husband until he got off the computer. "You have to see this, oh my god." I tried to contextualize to him the absurdity of the situation in a way that would make him understand why no, I cannot sit down right now.
But Deca-Dence isn't a one-trick pony. Beyond the reveal that the entire world is just a form of entertainment that robots both indulge in and contribute to, Deca-Dence gave us a colorful, complicated world where control is maintained through diversions and capitalism is fueled by literally shoveling shit. Mob Psycho 100 director Yuzuru Tachikawa and the team at Studio NuT went big and I'm hopeful we'll get to revisit the world of Deca-Dence again some day.
There is media you encounter that isn't just something you enjoy, but representative of a time in your life as a whole. You attach feelings and memories to them, whether its that Disney film you watched over and over again as a child or the cartoon you raced home to catch after school. There are the superheroes that never failed to win the day while your heart pulsed with excitement and climatic moments that first shook you with the weight of loss. Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! has cemented itself as a touchstone series for me because it is absolutely inseparable from my memories of my friend, Zac.
Everytime Midori becomes flushed with excitement while discussing her worldbuilding concepts, I see Zac enthusiastically discussing his plans for ANNCast. At the time he was attempting to purchase sheet music off Ebay so he could hire a brass section to perform "Hey a Movie!" from The Great Muppet Caper. It was ludicrous and never panned out, but boy did he try. He insisted that I was Kanamori given life, which if I'm absolutely honest is probably more true than I'd like to admit.
I probably can't judge Eizouken objectively, which is fine. I'm beyond grateful that it exists, that my friend loved it so much, and now I can revisit it whenever I want to revisit him.
Best Songs of 2020
I'm calling it – ALI is going to dominate this category, not just here on ANN but on anime sites across the internet. Between BEASTARS' “Wild Side” and Jujutsu Kaisen's “Lost in Paradise,” he deserves it. His rap/swing/funk fusion stands out from typical anime theme songs, and both are accompanied by excellent, creative visuals and are attached to series that really grabbed people's attention. I'm going with “Wild Side” here for two reasons. For one, the swing elements match my musical sensibilities a bit more, and I think the song matches the mood of the show perfectly. For another, the accompanying stop-motion animation is, well, show-stopping, from Legoshi's salivating pursuit of Haru through a dark forest to their adorable sunlit dance. It's a work of art, and one that won't soon be forgotten.
One of the perks of being the editor of this is I can see what everyone else chose and then fill in any gaping holes, like this absolutely slappin' opener from the second season of Kaguya-sama. Masayuki Suzuki has created two extremely catchy openings for the romantic comedy series. It was always going to be hard to top "Love Dramatic", but Suzuki absolutely nailed it with another jazzy bop. Leave it to Japan's "King Of Love Songs" to make hits look easy. I'm a sucker for distinctive vocalizations and anything that'll make me tap my foot at my desk. No matter how often I hear "Daddy Daddy Do," I never get sick of it (or skip it!)
I usually judge the worthiness of anime themes based on how often I want to rewatch them. Between never skipping its use as an opener (for 17 episodes to date) and independently rewatching it numerous times, I have easily seen/heard this anisong more than any other in 2020. The song by South Korean boy band TXT is a great one on its own merits, with the kind of uplifting sound and lyrics about determination to overcome obstacles which fit the series well, but what elevates this to greatness as an anime opener is the way it perfectly syncs with its visuals. These showcase a mix of current events in the series, the organizational structure of the series (the shots of the Magic Knights captains underlaid with their vice-captains are a cool effect), and the overall sentiments and defining emotions of the series, whether it be the way Nero hugs the first Wizard King's journal or the way Asta and Yuno race as they progress from children to Magic Knights. Runner-up here would probably be “Ikoze Paradise,” the Village People homage used as the brazen opener for the even more brazen Interspecies Reviewers.
I'm just as shocked that I didn't go with BEASTARS' OP, either, but what can I say? This song is a goddamn banger, combining hip-hop flair with jazz ambitions. With my rampant ADHD and the ridiculous amount of anime I have to watch on a daily basis, I get into the habit of skipping opening and ending credits after my first watch; there just isn't enough time in the day, you know? I haven't skipped Jujutsu Kaisen's ending credits one time over the last twelve weeks, though; I've even found myself rewinding just so I could watch them again. It's a perfect marriage of music and montage: The candy-colored-outside-of-the-lines visuals capture Jujutsu Kaisen's cast at their most vibrant and exuberant best, and I am on the record for demanding that every anime turn its end-credits into a full-on dance party. I haven't been this addicted to an anime soundtrack since Megalobox melted my eardrums back in 2018, and that is why it was a shoo-in for Best Song of 2020.
As solid a year as it was for anime, it was truly a standout one for anime theme songs. Shows like The Gymnastics Samurai, BNA: Brand New Animal, and Great Pretender all brought their A-game for memorable songs and brilliant sequences. So here I am, instead feeling compelled to highlight something very apart from all that. "WOW WAR TONIGHT" already has a lot of anisong elements that I find endearing, being a cover of an older Japanese pop song in an electronic style sung by Raychell and Nana Mizuki, but the sheer contrast that it provides is what wins me over. D4DJ is all about blasting songs with dazzling visual-jockey excess, choreographed dance moves from vocalists and honed 3D camerawork, yet the ending theme opts for shocking simplicity: A single, slow zoom-in shot of Maho dancing and messing around alone at her DJ station while the music plays. It's honestly one of the most adorably earnest things I've seen in a while, selling the simple joy of this musical hobby this show is all about trying to convey, and has become a little bit that I happily look forward to at the end of every episode.
Honestly, there weren't a whole lot of anime songs this year I felt compelled to listen to outside of their respective series. Eizouken's OP was an exception. The offbeat twang of the hip hop instrumental and the laconic lyrical delivery from chelmico couldn't be a better match for the anime and its unique payload of charm. I'm sure it also helps that, intentionally or not, the folks at Science SARU made one of the year's most memeable opening animations. It's certainly made it hard to forget as the seasons have progressed, but the song itself is still a slapper. You don't get a much catchier hook than saying “easy breezy” over and over, and that *clap-clap* before the refrain is impeccably placed. This even inspired me to check out chelmico's back catalogue, and it turns out they've been doing their thing and being fantastic at it for several years now. All in all, I guess you could say that, when it came time to pick my favorite anime song of the year, the choice was easy breezy.
It was between this song and the IDOLiSH7 Second Beat! opening, but when I thought about it, the IDOLiSH7 song just gets stuck in my head whereas I actively like the opening theme to Woodpecker Detective's Office. In part that's because I really like the style – early-to-mid 20th-century jazz is probably the first music my dad introduced me to, possibly out of self-defense because he hated our Care Bears sing-a-long cassette so much. (I can't blame him – “One Plus One is Friends” is not a great musical masterpiece.) "Honjitsu mo Makoto ni Hare Tenya" may be brighter than the sensibility of the show it belongs to, but it's also a fun way to start each episode and a catchy toe-tapper. I wish I had more to say, but at the end of the day my reasoning is largely, “I like it” – and the way the images and shadows merge at the very end of the accompanying video just makes it better.
One of the rules you have to follow if you're going to make an anime about music is that your OP better be darn good at telling the audience what to expect. If you're making an Idol show, those prettily dressed teenagers better sing and dance their hearts out. And if you're making a series built around references to the entire history of classic rock, you better have an OP that smacks with the same verve and energy of the greats. Thankfully ACCAMER's “Into the Blue's” does just that, ushering in every episode of Listeners with an infectious and undeniable energy, roaring guitar and chaotic percussion propelling you headfirst into whatever sci-fi re-imagining of an iconic rock star the series had in store that week. Plus the full version features an honest-to-god rockabilly breakdown in the second verse. What's not to love?
But what really pulls the whole thing together is the opening's visuals. Typically series will go for the feel of a music video, but Listeners instead invokes the feel of EVERY music video, with a chaotic and directionless flurry of action edited and storyboard solely on the concept of motion. There are a billion different cuts that last less than a second apiece, featuring the show's enormous ensemble cast in times and places largely disconnected from their actual role in the narrative. Yet despite what should feel like a random mess, the nonstop motion and sheer energy of every shot keep it all together and make Listeners seem like the most epic, insane thrill ride ever imagined. It's not, sadly, but for those 90 seconds I could absolutely believe it is, and if that's not the sign of an all-time OP I don't know what is.
discuss this in the forum (132 posts) |