The Best Anime of 2021
Nicholas Dupree, Richard Eisenbeis, Rebecca Silverman & Best Characters
by ANN Editorial Team,
I love horror, but it's sadly one of the genres anime has the hardest time getting right. It's already pretty rare for full-on horror shows to get produced, and many go the way of poorly-written gore and schlock rather than anything approaching real chills. Yet somehow, against all odds, some of the most spine-tingling moments of this year were delivered by a comedy about a girl who refuses to react to the ghastly spirits around her. A lot of that comes down to the absolutely rock-solid horror fundamentals at play in Mieruko-chan's adaptation, utilizing the entire history of terror-based cinematic technique to make even the silliest of its spectral creations feel threatening. That this is all contrasting against a deadpan comedy only enhances it all, making for multiple scenes or episodes in the series that only get more creepy and unsettling as you think about them.
But what put this show over the top of other series for me was that it's not “just” great at horror. Alongside the chills, Mieruko-chan is able to deliver sincere, heartwarming moments that emphasize the sentimental side of the afterlife, as well as the increasingly charming development of Yulia making her first friends with Miko and Hana. I love that chuuni little fungus. All of that combined gives you a show that can scare you, punch you in the gut, and then make you laugh like an idiot in a single episode.
I've been a Love Live! fan for years. I consider the second season of the original series one of the all-time best anime comedies ever produced. So I don't speak lightly when I say this first season of Superstar!! may just be the best series the franchise has released so far. After years apart, director Takahiko Kyōgoku and writer Jukki Hanada teamed back up to provide all the bright-eyed, heart-on-sleeve earnestness and laugh-out-loud comedy that made this property a mainstay over the past decade, but had clearly leveled up their powers in their time away. Everything that I loved about the original series and Sunshine was more honed, polished, and delivered with the kind of confidence that makes it all feel effortless.
The cherry on top is that, along with everything else, the series manages to create easily its most engaging and relatable lead character in Kanon, whose personal arc works as the perfect throughline for this series. And by narrowing down its focus to a smaller number of central idols, the series is able to give all of them similarly well-rounded personalities, without ever sacrificing the goofy energy that makes Love Live! what it is. Even if previous entries have failed to grab you, if you've ever been curious about what this whole mess is, Superstar might just be the best place to start.
Music is something that's been important to me for most of my life, and I've always loved seeing (and hearing) stories about it. One of the magical elements of music is its ability to communicate emotions across nearly any sort of cultural barrier, be it language or history. Nowhere is that more obvious than with Those Snow White Notes, a show about a traditional instrument I know next to nothing about, that nonetheless made me cry, got me to cheer, and left me speechless with its multitude of musical numbers. While there are plenty of anime that heavily feature music, especially idol series, it's been a very long time since a story like this has come around and shown such a passion and reverence for the act of making audible art in and of itself.
The only real issue with the series is the anime feels woefully incomplete, ending on our main character's most dire moment with only the barest hints of a possible way out. But for all that it doesn't have a conclusive ending, the heart-wrenching and deeply human journey to that point more than balances things out. And I'd be remiss not to praise the excellently animated instrumentation that brings it all to life, harmonizing with the fantastic musicianship behind the scenes to make this series arresting to both see and hear. It desperately needs an encore, but only because a really good concert leaves you wanting more.
Not gonna lie, it was practically a coin toss between this series and my eventual top pick. I eventually gave the next one the edge, if only because EVA is such an inescapable property that I felt a smaller series deserved top billing. But it's that sheer omnipresence that makes this conclusion so significant – as it's not simply the end of the long-protracted Rebuild movies, but a blatant and decisive capstone for one of anime's most influential and unforgettable franchises. Even if you've never purposefully tried to watch Evangelion, you have most certainly seen a show, movie, game, comic, or meme that was inspired by it in some fashion. EVA discourse has been the background radiation of online anime fandom for nearly as long as I've been alive, so to see it come to a definitive ending would be significant all on its own.
But somehow, against all odds, with all that baggage and pressure behind it, Thrice Upon a Time managed to find genuine, hard-earned closure for its cast, its creator, and a significant portion of its fans. It takes some shocking chances, throws purposeful curveballs to the audience seemingly just because it knows it will evoke a response, and ends with perhaps the biggest trolling of Shipper discourse in media history, and yet it all feels necessary. This was what Evangelion, as a media franchise, as a personal passion project, and as a global cultural phenomenon needed to find peace, and it does it all with a shocking amount of kindness in the end. It perhaps has a learning curve – if you haven't been inundated with this franchise's reputation for years it likely won't hit the same – but practically nothing managed to hit me quite the way its final needle drop did.
All that said, it's one thing to capitalize on decades of emotional investment to get me to cry. It's another entirely to drop me blind into a new world and cast, and still get me so powerfully invested that I'm bawling at the end of any given episode. It's even more of a task when trying to marry two seemingly disparate styles of storytelling that the SSSS series has done with both its anime productions. But with Dynazenon, Akira Amemiya and Keiichi Hasegawa proved that not only was that alchemical reaction with their Gridman revival not a fluke, it was just the starting point for them. Instead of just a single complex, multifaceted, deeply human character, we get four, each building on one another's story in tandem while always making room for some of the most glorious mecha animation in the business.
And the amazing thing is it all just works. Every episode transitions so smoothly from somber, deeply atmospheric character drama to bombastic action set pieces that you never think to question it until it's all over. I've said at times that Dynazenon is a show that shouldn't work, but in truth it just proves that it was always possible to tell mature, emotionally resonant storytelling without sacrificing the toyetic exuberance of its tokusatsu and super robot forebears. It's always been an option to tell deeply effecting stories of grief, anxiety, arrested development, and empathy while embracing all that high energy and camp, and now that they've firmly planted that flag, I cannot wait to see what this team and world has in store next.
If you'd told me going into this year that a short-form anime would break my top 5, I'd have been skeptical. If you added that it would be a show without any dialogue (besides random squeaking sounds), I flat-out wouldn't have believed you. And if you topped it off by saying it would be a stop-motion animation, I'd have called you crazy. But here we are.
Pui Pui Molcar reimagines our world as one where cars do not exist and instead, we drive around in living, sentient guinea pigs. Of course, this means that the “molcars” (as they are called) have their own thoughts, feelings, and free will. Each episode is a short little adventure showcasing the shenanigans of our fluffy car heroes. Some of the episodes are homages to things like spy films, Back to the Future, and zombie movies (only with much more innocent cuteness). Others show the molcars dealing with everyday issues like traffic jams or a cat locked in a car on a hot day. The result is silly, heart-warming, and surprisingly engrossing. And as it takes under an hour to watch the whole series, you really have no excuse to not check it out for yourself.
As an anthology series, Star Wars: Visions has its ups and downs—and honestly, that's part of what makes it so great. Seven different anime studios were basically given carte blanche to create their own, original stories set in the Star Wars universe. The result is tales unrestrained in their imagination and creative expression—everything from over-the-top action and space samurais to homages of idol anime and Astro Boy. Yet, despite the vastly different tones between the episodes, every one of these stories undeniably feels like Star Wars.
Now as for which are “hits” and which are “misses” is all up to personal opinion. None are incompetently made. They all look great visually in their vastly different art styles and tell self-contained stories that are easy to follow. That said, two really stand out as phenomenal Star Wars tales.
The first, The Ninth Jedi, set things so far in the future that the Jedi as a structured order are long gone—even the process of making lightsabers is all but forgotten. It then builds an engrossing mystery about a masked figure looking to rebuild the Jedi order and the mysterious forces trying to stop him from doing so. The second, The Village Bride, is a personal tale that shows why the Empire was able to exterminate all the Jedi—even when they were successfully in hiding, they couldn't turn a blind eye to injustice. It's a wonderful piece filled with visual storytelling and supported by the best score in all of Visions.
3. 86 (Seasons 1 and 2)
On the most surface level, 86 fits the mecha anime framework built and refined over the past 40 years. We have young pilots forced by fate into a war, lots of mecha battle scenes, and a strong heroine who develops a will-they-won't-they with the main male lead. And if all you're looking for is some drama-filled action as giant robots beat the crap out of each other, you won't be disappointed—especially with A-1 Pictures bringing their A-game on the animation front and a Hiroyuki Sawano soundtrack to match.
But where 86 truly shines is in how it uses its well-established framework to explore other issues. 86 is a story about prejudice and state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing. It's about how even the most well-intentioned allies of the downtrodden may be ignorant of the ingrained nature of their own racism—and how their very position in the oppressor class is what gives them power to stand up without fear of major retaliation. At the same time, this anime also offers a deep look into the minds of child soldiers and those facing an almost certain demise, how they find meaning and even joy in their all-too-short existence. Or, to put it another way, it's a damned fine anime on practically every level.
Vivy has an excellent sci-fi concept at its core: an AI from the future (Matsumoto) travels back in time to team up with the first autonomous AI (Diva) and prevent the robot apocalypse. There's just one problem: Diva isn't built for fighting. In the world of Vivy, AIs aren't governed by Asimov's laws of robots but rather by their individual, singular "mission". In Diva's case, she is designed to make people happy through her singing—something that's in direct contrast with the clandestine missions Matsumoto wants her to help with.
What unfolds from this premise is a six-hour thought experiment that delves into the nature of both AI and humanity. As Diva and Matsumoto spend the next century trying to avert the robot apocalypse, Diva grows and changes in ways unlike any other AI before or since. And while she may never truly come to understand what it means to be human, she does come to understand what it means to be a person. Add onto that some of the most beautiful animation of the year and a soundtrack that lives up to Diva's identity as an AI singer, and you have one of the best high-concept anime in recent memory.
Here's the thing about Nomad: while it certainly has more than a few scenes of people beating the crap out of each other in awesomely animated cyberpunk boxing matches, that's not what the series is really about. Instead, Nomad is a story of loss and how it can break even the greatest among us. More than that, it shows how in moments of emotional pain, people who are otherwise sensible can make stupid decisions—resulting in a domino effect of suffering amongst both friends and family.
Despite the rather downer setup, Nomad's message is much more uplifting: No matter how far you fall, as long as you're alive, you can stand up and try again. While you may not be able to regain what has been lost—and may not even be able to gain forgiveness—there is always the possibility to heal some of the damage done and build something new going forward. The attempt is what's important. If you never try to make things better, then things never will be.
And all this is without getting into the entire social commentary on the prejudice immigrants deal with, the power of community in the face of adversity, and the need for hope—and heroes to personify it. All in all, this show is pretty much the gold standard for sports anime going forward.
I had a harder time than usual picking my top five of 2021, mostly because there were two titles I really, seriously debated over. In the end I ended up not including either Waccha PriMagi! or The Night Beyond the Tricornered Window, but I do want to give them a mention. The former I didn't think had quite enough episodes of its projected run out yet, but I've been consistently impressed with how well it handles its characters and their issues. Lemon in particular is treated with a thoughtfulness that we don't often see in shy, nerdy characters – she's not a joke, she's someone who dissociates when she's anxious and has found a way to function, and even to overcome some of her fears; that's especially nice to see in a kids' show. The Night Beyond the Tricornered Window nearly earned a spot before I realized that what I love about it is the storytelling, and the credit for that goes to the source manga by Tomoko Yamashita. The anime's done a good job adapting it (even if it leaves out the humor), but that's not quite enough to make up for its other, mostly visual, shortcomings. Still, both Waccha PriMagi! and The Night Beyond the Tricornered Window are worth your time, and I'd have to call them six and seven on my list.
I didn't have high hopes when this franchise initially started. Idols, male or female, aren't really my thing, and the sheer number of named characters in this one made me very, very leery. But over its three (well, two and a half) seasons, IDOLiSH7 has absolutely won me over, and each new season is more impressive than the last. The amount of care taken to make each character a person in their own right helps to elevate them above being “the blue one” or “the one with the annoying accent,” and Third Beat digs deeper into the darker elements of some of the characters' lives and backstories. Second Beat started that with the family-destroying Kujo who is hell-bent on creating the ultimate performer, but even that is just a prelude to some of what we see in Third Beat, as we see that separating siblings was really just the tip of his terrible iceberg. We know that the idol industry isn't all sunshine and roses, but I feel like as a franchise IDOLiSH7 takes that idea a little bit farther than most. Yes, it's still cheesy and melodramatic at times, but the character work and plot points largely make up for that. It's creating a world where we can't be certain that any of the good guys will win because they simply may be too good to do what the bad guys are willing to do. It has the sort of deceptive brightness that allows you to ignore the shadows – until, of course, you realize that you no longer can.
Speaking of shadows, welcome to Shadows House, one of the most engaging mysteries I had the pleasure of watching this year. In large part this is because it does a good job of doling out its information: we know almost immediately that there's something very off about the relationships between the Shadows family members and their “living dolls,” but just what that is is kept carefully behind the curtains until almost the end of the season. That the dolls' behavior is almost creepier than the Shadows' is another point in its favor – we basically know that they can't actually be dolls, but their actions are straight out of a terrible Victorian children's book as they happily sing about doing their work for the Shadows family as if it's the only thing that matters. The plot blends elements of horror with the literary fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen (which, okay, are basically horror stories anyway) to create an unsettling atmosphere where you just know that the other shoe is waiting to drop, and the anticipation of that is half of the fun. That almost none of the characters feel particularly trustworthy is another well-done piece of the overall puzzle – even someone like Kate, who seems like she's on Emilico's side, has her own issues that could erode that seemingly stable story prop. The plot does take on elements of “don't trust the adults” that take away from the overall mystery and there are bits of the finale that scream “anime original,” but on the whole Shadows House is the sort of unfolding tale that keeps you interested and guessing, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing what happens when the second season lands (and the English edition of the manga!), and not just because even if a Shadow is reduced, it looks as if they may still have a very important part to play. Right, Shirley?
Comedy may be the most subjective of genres, but there are a few things that contribute to almost any comedic show's success. Welcome to Demon School, Iruma-kun, even in its second season, manages to hit most of those sweet spots. Certainly chief among them is the need for the story to have a genuinely funny premise, and hapless Iruma as the sole human in the netherworld is a good one – especially since thanks to his insane luck, doting adoptive grandpa, and natural charm Iruma has become one of the most popular students at Babylis…or at least one of the most infamous! But where this series truly succeeds is in the way that it doesn't simply rely on its initial premise; while it could easily have rested on that alone, instead it takes the time to develop its characters, build its world, and remind us why Iruma is a character worth following in the first place. He's not just some hard-luck kid stuck in a weird situation, he's a genuinely nice guy who wants to do his best and who cares about his friends, all of whom are developed characters in their own right, too. In any other series, Clara would just be annoying, Asmodeus would be a stereotype, and Ameri would just be the hot girl who liked Iruma for Reasons. In this one, each of them has their own struggles and issues, and if Ameri's seem to be mostly on the “why do I like this guy so much?” front, those are still given more weight than you might expect. The underlying question of Iruma's humanity also morphs into something bigger; it's not “humanity” in the sense that he's human, but rather in terms of a worldview that's actually shared by more demons than he at first anticipates – and that, in turn, leads to ideas of doing what's right versus what's expected. Since this isn't limited to Iruma and his friend group (witness Kalego-sensei actually showing that he's a good teacher who does his best in his own grumpy way), it grows into a thematic element that is on par with the comedy the show initially promised. Welcome to Demon School, Iruma-kun is a comedy, but it's not a joke, and that makes it both incredibly fun and much more than a disposable gag series.
2. Kemono Jihen
If you've been reading this site since around 2018, you know of my undying love for the most recent GeGeGe no Kitarō anime. Kemono Jihen doesn't quite fill the void left behind by that show's end, but it still does a damn fine job of being a supernatural horror show for a younger audience that doesn't treat either its characters or its viewers as fools. Unlike Kitaro, the show is only loosely rooted in actual Japanese folklore; while there are some familiar creatures like tanuki and kitsune, there are also more basic fantasy-based monsters, like protagonist Kabane, who is a half-ghoul-like creature, or its use of snow-men rather than snow-women. This allows the story to combine traditional horror elements with its folkloric base, tackling a variety of topics that run the gamut from child abuse and abandonment to simpler (though no less horrific) issues like prejudice and forced sex work. Despite these heavy story beats, Kemono Jihen still manages to be incredibly watchable, with plucky young protagonists you really want to see succeed and a few truly reprehensible bad guys – along with some other adults who fall somewhere in between. There are definitely moments where you wonder why you're still following the story, and I wouldn't recommend it for anyone who finds, most specifically, child abuse triggering, because Kemono Jihen isn't one of those feel-good stories that pull their punches. But there's something to be said for the way it tries to work with its characters to help them find, if not peace precisely, then a place where that may someday be possible. There are no easy fixes in the story's world, but that doesn't stop it from trying, and I can only hope we'll get the manga or a second season so that poor Kon can start getting more of the resolution that the other kids are moving towards by the series' end.
A good work of literature is timeless. Any English professor can tell you that until they're blue in the face, but few things prove the truth of it like The Heike Story, which adapts a Medieval Japanese novel for modern audiences with stunning success. The fact that the story, the failed attempt of the Heike clan to retain power, is a good one is only part of the reason why this series stands out – the adaptation team had to carefully curate chapters of the extremely long original work to make it fit into eleven half-hour episodes, make the appeal of the characters and their roles clear to an audience that might see war in a very different light than original readers/listeners, and convey the rich symbolism of bygone times. While I obviously believe that The Heike Story did all that, the single greatest contribution to its success was the creation of Biwa, the point of view character. Biwa, an orphaned player of the instrument for which she is named, serves as our entry into the tale, a child taken in by Taira no Shigemori after her father is murdered. Through Biwa's eyes we see everything play out: deaths, battles, fights over succession, and as the story unfolds, we realize that Biwa's role in the plot is to be the eyes and voice of the Heikes' story. Her name and instrument are references to ways in which the original epic was performed, and the balance of the tale is recounted in sung passages by an old, blind Biwa, who loses her sight once the first part of her role as witness to history is fulfilled. Unable to see anything more, she lives in the past, recounting the story of Shigemori, his sister Tokuko, his sons, and his avaricious father so that the events she watched play out are not forgotten. Biwa, and people like her, are the reason, the anime implies, that we know what happened to this day. From a storytelling perspective (and, yes, as an English professor), this is a beautiful acknowledgement of the way Story functions, and more than that, it humanizes a piece that could easily have come across as too old-fashioned or simply old to matter. When we add in the exquisite use of floral symbology, images of the natural world, and carefully crafted quiet moments of emotional impact that take into account the ending long before the anime reaches it – such as Tokuko's braided hair, a detail that says that the animators and writers had her end in mind while creating the beginning – this is simply a standout piece of animated storytelling. It would have been one even without the tale's storied history. That it carries that weight on top of everything else makes it like no other anime I've watched in recent years.
The Best Characters of 2021
I love romcoms. Can't get enough of 'em. I have sat through more series about blushy crushy teenagers experiencing romantic misunderstandings and having their hearts go Doki Doki than is medically advisable. And I've kind of necessarily built up a tolerance for all the staples of the genre, first and foremost that the characters are never, ever, in a million years going to confess their feelings until the story is almost over. It just isn't done! And while there's a lot of understandable reasons for that, and you can still make great stories within that stricture, it does mean you miss out on a lot of alternative avenues for exploring romance.
Cue Nino who, halfway through the second season of Quints, decides to take that particular trope and crack it in two over her knee. Pretty much the moment she realizes her feelings for harem lead Futaro, she turns around and confesses to him, putting everything on the table and letting the rest of the cast hem and/or haw about it while she goes about her business. Oh, half of her sisters are also in love with the guy, but won't come out and say it? They can have fun twiddling their thumbs while she actually spends time with him. One of them is so hung up on the whole thing she's avoiding everyone? Throw down the gauntlet and tell her to get it together or get out of the way. The rest of these chicks might be content drifting in limbo for episodes on end, but Nino Nakano is here to Get Shit Done.
But more than just being a refreshing presence in a genre all but built on maintaining the status quo, what I appreciated about Nino this season was why she was so direct. She lays it out simply in one of the best lines in anime this year: “This is my love. What's the point if it doesn't make me happy?” and damn if that isn't a callout of 90% of romance in fiction. So many stories about love get caught up in the juicy drama, the broiling feelings of anxiety or jealousy that make for easy conflict, that they often forget being in love is supposed to be joyful. Having a character not just acknowledge that, but embody it through the rest of the show, was a welcome breath of fresh air, and the easy highlight in an otherwise shaky second season. So before, now, and always: Nino is Best Girl.
Despite being the hero destined to save the world, Ruti is the most tragic character in Banished From The Heroes' Party. She is the extreme case that proves just how messed up the magic system in this particular series actually is. You see, in this world, everyone receives a divine Blessing as a child—i.e., Sage, Warrior, Carpenter, Torturer, etc. From that moment on, your Blessing affects your personality. You feel fulfilled if you follow your assigned role and become more stressed and irritable if you don't. It only gets worse the rarer your Blessing is.
Ruti has the rarest blessing of all and has thus become a slave to it. She must act as the archetypical hero in all ways. Her free will has been completely supplanted. It's only during moments of extreme emotion that she can act as she wishes—and only for a scant few seconds. But if that weren't enough, her Blessing-derived skills make her life even more of a living hell. Heat resistance and cold resistance mean she no longer feels temperature. Increased stamina means she never wants to eat or drink. But worst of all is that she no longer needs to sleep. She spends six hours a night doing nothing—truly alone even as her companions rest peacefully around her.
In the back half of the series, we see her free from her Blessing's compulsion for the first time since she was a young child. She becomes completely amoral—not exactly evil, but focused only on obtaining her goals: permanent freedom from her Blessing and finding her brother. Laws and previous loyalties mean nothing to her. And even when she finds her brother and the two reunite, we find that she is still incapable of enjoying her new time with him as her emotions are still hampered by her skills. Rather, the joy she gets is purely from nostalgia—remembering how it felt to be with her brother when she was young and her Blessing weaker. All in all, she is a deeply developed character who you can't help but root for—even if her giving up being the Hero may very well spell doom for mankind.
You really have to hand it to Sakaki, Erika Hiura's bodyguard in the paranormal BL The Night Beyond the Tricornered Window: he is thrown head-first into some of the weirdest, scariest situations possible and just keeps on trucking. Originally hired to protect the teenage girl as she went about her forced cursing, Sakaki presents as the thug he once was, but over the course of the series we see him morph into the one adult Erika can consistently rely on. He definitely realized that he needed to be that person after Mukae noted that Erika is, in fact, a child who shouldn't have to handle so much on her own, but once he gets it, he goes from being solely there for her physical protection to doing whatever it takes to keep her emotionally balanced as well. His frustration that he can't always help, such as in the scene where he turns on the windshield wipers in a futile effort to wipe away her tears, is consistently realized in the latter half of the series, and even being brought back from the dead (a painful and probably scary experience) can't dim his devotion. He may not be a main character, but he's one of the ones who shows the quietest growth, and since this is a series in desperate need of a grown-up, his evolution to fully fit that role is very satisfying.
I also have to give a shout-out to Murr, the fluffy cat from The Case Study of Vanitas. I have no real reason for this. I just love Murr, and I couldn't make myself pick a “real” best character for the year if I couldn't at least acknowledge how much I adore that weird furball.
It's easy enough to appreciate Odokawa for just how dang unconventional he is as an anime protagonist. A misanthropic middle-aged walrus-man played by a damn-near unrecognizable Natsuki Hanae, his introduction as our lead is part and parcel to the bizarre tone of jumping into the show itself. One of the most immediately interesting points of Odokawa is the lack of trust the audience is able to have in him. With his odd aside remarks on characters and soliloquy in his home that sure makes it seem like he's hiding someone in there, we question the cabbie's reliability as a narrator through nearly the whole show. The trick then is the revelation (among many others) that Odokawa himself was concerned about the question of his good guy/bad guy status, turning out to be as much a victim of his limiting delusions as we were. It's just one more success story within the layers of arcs that ODDTAXI pulls off before it's over: At the beginning I was as suspicious of Odokawa as I was sure they wanted me to be, but as we came to the end of his story, I just wanted to give the poor guy a hug.
Rice Shower is the epitome of everything that makes the second season of Uma Musume so enjoyable. On the surface, her character design is lovable and ridiculous, with a racing outfit that sports both a tiny bonnet and a tiny dagger—smol yet fierce. Beneath the surface, she has one of the best character arcs in the show. Based on the real Rice Shower's reputation as a streak-killer, she finds herself cast as a villain against her will. Although she's distraught at first, she pushes through her reputation as a heel and leans into running the best races she can, no matter what the crowd hopes for. It's a brief but unbelievably satisfying exploration of “villainy” in professional sports. Uma Musume's penchant for referencing real horse trivia also means she gets her own variant of the OP based on an ad about the original Rice Shower, with a chuuni glowing blue eye and everything. There's a lot to love about Uma Musume, from the gags to the melodrama, but Rice Shower's arc was the second season's tipping point into legitimate greatness. Plus, unlike many of my other favorite characters from this year, Rice Shower gets a ton of cute fanart. That's very important.
Super Cub's lead Koguma has had the strongest staying power for me as one of the slice of life genre's best female leads. Her backstory is simple: she's a girl characterized by a life absent of friends, family, and very little in the way of joy. It's the perfect set-up for dynamic growth, which is what happens to Koguma over the course of the series. She quietly moves through intense isolation to find friends in her often mundane life: it leads her to broaden her horizons and smile much more frequently, a sign that Koguma's moving through her very real depression to the other side in a way that feels true to being a teenager. Eventually, all of that growth leads her to find joy in things like sharing a meal with someone, buying a mess tin from a discount store, and in the end, taking a trip to help a friend move through trauma after a biking accident. All of this is helped by Yuki Yomichi, a newbie VA who brings her best to the role, colouring Koguma's loneliness as intimate and understandable, rather than leaving her feeling standoffish and cold. It leaves you feeling like you can relate to Koguma, and that even if we never see where her cub takes her, you know she's changed for the better.
There are at least five different candidates from this year that could have earned this award, but I wanted to make sure that I didn't use every slot to scream fanatically about Ranking of Kings, and it's never a bad time to throw a little love Jujutsu Kaisen's way. The whole cast of this show is chock full of awesome, loveable heroes and wonderfully despicable villains, and its stacked ensemble is one of the things that helps separate Jujutsu Kaisen from the Shonen Jump also-rans. Still, Nobara manages to stand out amongst all of that stiff competition by being an extremely well-written and endearing badass who is proud to flaunt her femininity while never letting the constraints of gender norms trap or define her. She's a proud fashionista who is also happy to wreck shit with her claw hammer and spirit nails, she can be just as terrifying as her male counterparts when she lets loose against a horde of Curses, and she's allowed to be just as weird and funny as the guys around her, too. In short, Nobara is the exact kind of grumpy anime heroine that middle school James would have been completely obsessed with, and I'm going to respect that lovestruck little nerd's legacy by recognizing her as (one of) my favorite characters of 2021.
This year has brought us so very, very many good boys and girls. It was a highly competitive field, and after much deliberation, the winner of “Best Character” is… Dobu from ODDTAXI?
Dobu is very, very much not a good boy. He is a mean, mean man who makes designated good boy Odokawa's life very difficult. He's also one of the most compelling characters in a show where nearly every single individual is memorable in some way. He's unmistakably an antagonist, forcing Odokawa to do his bidding by blackmailing and threatening the safety of the woman he likes. He's a petty gangster, a career criminal who will murder without hesitation if he thinks it'll make him a dime.
He's also strangely personable, and as the series wears on, it's easy to forget he's a villain. Heck, it seems like sometimes even he forgets he's a villain. That's what makes him such a great character! He falls into a comfortable pattern with Odokawa, coming across more as a buddy working with his partner than a legitimate threat. But then, in an instant, he'll snap back into menace. This unpredictability, pulled together by a truly incredible performance by Kenji Hamada, is what pushes him to the front of the pack. Congrats, Dobu, you are the best character of the year.
This is the easiest choice I've ever had to make. It's not that there aren't other characters who I thought were great this year; Kageki Shoujo!!'s Sarasa and the idols of Zombie Land Saga were stellar and I likewise found myself really connecting with some of Joe's struggles in Megalobox 2, but none of them stole my heart the way Bojji did. I talked about what endeared me to the character in my first episode review for the series, but Bojji resonates with me as a parent of a child with his own personal hurdles, including a speech delay. Bojji's sunny disposition is very much like my own son's attitude towards life right now, so every time a character underestimates him it hits a personal spot for me. Similarly, every time he overcomes the derision and pity of those around him, it gives me hope. He's such an easy character to love and root for as he continues to come into his own abilities. I can't wait to see him thrive.
If you want to make sure your voice is heard, be sure to vote in our MEGA POLL! The poll closes on New Year's Eve, so don't miss your chance!
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