The 10 Best New Anime Series of 2021TV Lists Best of the Year
It’s been one hell of a year, but the world keeps pressing on. Naturally, the anime industry keeps chugging as well. Though there hasn’t been a sea change in the ever-popular medium’s environment, the increase in interest in anime continues to rise thanks in part to more and more accessible ways to watch these shows as well as, I don’t know, Megan Thee Stallion’s cosplays. It seems that more and more diverse types of anime are finding wide audiences in a variety of places—Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle received a 14 minute standing ovation at Cannes, and news of Berserk mangaka Kentaro Miura’s death was reported by both NPR and The New York Times. It would be difficult to call anime a truly niche market these days, especially given the major purchases of distributors and producers like Crunchyroll for over a billion dollars by media titans like Sony.
Maybe it’s a bit early to declare it so, but it appears like we’re living in the decade of anime. It left off last year more ubiquitous than ever, and 2021 only built on last year’s massive hype and excitement. Anime has been a comfort for everyone working from home or doing remote learning, and revealing itself as an essential form of media and a facet of streaming. There were a lot of great options for our end year list, including some that didn’t quite make it because of their mostly incomplete run at the time of this list’s writing (sorry, Stone Ocean, you’ll surely be here in 2022!). After some careful consideration, here’s our favorite anime of the year:
Viewing Note: Crunchyroll and Funimation are streaming hubs for anime fans, and most of the titles listed below are available on one or both. However, if a title is available elsewhere we have noted that for those looking to get into anime via a subscription you may already have.
10. Sk8 the Infinity
Between the glistening fan service of Free! Iwatoubi Swim Club and the proto-Boys Love drama of Banana Fish, Hiroko Utsumi has solidly established herself as the discerning fujoshi’s director of choice. With another cast of attractive athletic young men in varying degrees of homoerotic situations, Sk8 the Infinity was right in Utsumi’s wheelhouse, but this skateboarding adventure is also her most approachable anime yet for those outside of the fujoshi audience.
Like the best sports anime, Sk8 the Infinity features beautiful friendships (or are they something more?), entertaining rivalries, and style to spare. The secretive “S” competition is filled with intense drama, and for better or worse, the divisively over-the-top villain Adam dominates the story as it progresses. But even at its most melodramatic, the show never forgets that skateboarding is first and foremost about having fun. —Reuben Baron
9. Komi Can’t Communicate
Komi Can’t Communicate’s first season is still releasing new episodes on Netflix, and with 23 volumes and counting of Tomohito Oda’s source manga being published in Japan, it’s fair to assume this high school comedy will be getting many more seasons.
The basic premise of the show is that Komi, the most intimidatingly beautiful girl in her class, secretly has severe social anxiety to the point she can barely even talk to anyone. When the utterly “average” Tadano discovers her secret, he works to help her make friends. Tadano aside, all of Komi’s classmates are entertainingly eccentric in their own ways (I’m still waiting on the ninja’s backstory), and the cast features many likable queer and/or neurodivergent characters. If you enjoy comedies like Azumanga Daioh and Nichijou, Komi Can’t Communicate should be up your alley. —Reuben Baron
8. Star Wars: Visions
The best anime shorts anthology based on a Hollywood blockbuster since The Animatrix kickstarted the trend, Star Wars: Visions contains some of the most entertaining material LucasFilm’s galaxy far, far away has produced in a while. With nine non-canonical episodes made by seven different animation studios, the variety of stories and styles presented in Visions is so broad that seemingly no two fans can agree on how to rank them (though “The Village Bride” is the one Disney has submitted for the Best Animated Short Oscar, and everyone seems to like “The Ninth Jedi.”)
Personally, the Astro Boy-inspired “T0-B1” put the biggest grin on my face, but aside from the relatively boring “The Elder,” I could understand arguments for any episode being someone’s favorite. If even half of Disney+’s dozen or so upcoming Star Wars shows are even a quarter as creative as Visions, we’re in for a good time. —Reuben Baron
7. Tokyo Revengers
Watch on HBO Max
Watch on Crunchyroll
Tokyo Revengers has echoes of popular shows of the past—a little of Erased here, a peppering of Gokusen there—but its eclectic blend of recent time-traveling tropes and retro delinquent gang politics keeps the show feeling fresh and fascinating, both emotionally raw and grippingly violent. Cleverly jumping between present day and the mid 2000s, there’s a permeating nostalgia for the aughts that acts as a powerful glue for what could be a tonally inconsistent narrative; Tokyo Revengers’ emphasis on memory, even our most painful and repressed, is what makes it so appealing, and its central mystery unfolds with a healthy dose of twists and subversions. It can be hard to discern exactly who Tokyo Revengers is for at times, which actually speaks to its strength; it’s as much a character study on meatheads as it is an action-packed tragedy in motion. It’s one of the year’s finest slowburns. —Austin Jones
6. Pui Pui Molcar
Pui Pui Molcar is the year’s easiest anime to binge; its 12 short episodes can be marathoned in around half an hour. It’s also one of the easiest to recommend to those who might not be interested in anime. This felted stop-motion series doesn’t look like ordinary anime at all, and you don’t need to get into “subs vs. dubs” debates when there’s no spoken dialogue. And how could anyone not be won over by the sheer cuteness of guinea pigs that are also cars?
A perfectly-executed burst of silliness for all ages, Pui Pui Molcar makes the most of its absurd premise without overstaying its welcome. Every hand-crafted frame is delightful, packed with slapstick humor, pop culture references, and honestly more convincing worldbuilding than Pixar’s Cars movies. Watch it now and your kids (or yourself) will be demanding merchandise for the holidays. —Reuben Baron
5. Jujutsu Kaisen
Watch on HBO Max
Watch on Crunchyroll
On first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Jujutsu Kaisen as an on par action anime—that’s exactly what we did last year when we didn’t include the series’ first half on our year end list. Though MAPPA’s stalwart successor to Attack on Titan (and Demon Slayer’s strongest competitor at the moment, we might add) is a master of none, it proves to be quite excellent across the board, having an ironclad combo of rich characters, beautiful animation, smooth fight scenes, intriguing but not overblown lore, and a killer soundtrack. Kaisen has already made a name for itself by pushing the boundaries of what a shounen anime can be, making bold choices in its plot beats and doing justice towards its female cast, something nearly every big action anime struggles to make up for.
Jujutsu Kaisen is a strong entry point to anyone new to anime as well as just different enough from the pack to merit a watch from seasoned, even cynical watchers of similar shows. It’s a marvel to do anything new in such a saturated genre. —Austin Jones
4. Wonder Egg Priority
If Wonder Egg Priority had a satisfying ending, it would be one of the greatest anime of all time. Unfortunately, the combination of a pandemic, a gifted but inexperienced crew, and an animation studio at its breaking point (see also: CloverWorks’ disastrous The Promised Neverland Season 2) led to a delayed finale that was inconclusive at best, actively problematic at worst. This hellish production makes a second season extremely unlikely, leaving this dark magical girl series an incomplete oddity.
But what a beautiful oddity it is! The animation quality is reason enough to watch, and the story of four girls fighting for a chance to save loved ones lost to suicide was incredibly emotionally powerful. The mythology never fully made sense, but you didn’t need to understand everything to be moved by Ai learning to make friends and love herself, Rika confronting her past as a bully, and Momoe standing up to affirm her gender identity. —Reuben Baron
3. The Heike Story
Science SARU has has a great couple years, starting with 2018’s Devilman Crybaby all the way through this year’s shorts in the anthology series Star Wars: Visions. The studio’s crowning achievement for 2021, though, is the studio’s humblest series to date. The Heike Story is based on The Tale of the Heike, a written account of the Genpei War. It follows a young orphaned oracle named Biwa, who is taken in by the heir of the clan who killed her father. Not exactly eager to help the war effort of her father’s murderers, she agrees to document the events to come, positing her as the author of what would come to be the titular epic.
Series writer Reiko Yoshida’s take on history is effective and moving, which, coupled with the compelling woodblock inspired style of the animation, gives the series a folkloric sense but also an emotional intimacy. It’s a worthy and considered retelling of a pivotal moment in Japan’s history, but also a peek into the emotional landscapes that can be found in the past, present, and future. —Austin Jones
2. Ranking of Kings
I have a deep-seated, irrational hate of the adjective “wholesome,” but it’s hard to find a more apt description for Ranking of Kings. And yet it’s also so much more than that. Born deaf, Prince Bojji is bullied by his half-brother and ridiculed by his subjects. After meeting Kage, a shadow who understands his feelings, Bojji resolves to become a worthy king so he can take his rightful crown. Ranking of Kings takes place in a fairly classic fantasy world (it resembles Dragon Quest in both style and vibe), but is rendered in beautiful watercolor. Its gorgeous fights and fluid, freeform take on fantasy channels the whimsical worlds of Jacques Demy, and its heartwarming story gives way to a classic epic adventure.
More than any of that, though, it’s a truly sensitive depiction of disability, empowering yet challenging in its dedicated portrayal of Bojji. The show features sign language advised by the Tokyo Federation for the Deaf, which is a huge step forward for media—we should be making these essential languages more appealing, and Ranking of Kings does a lot to make signing cool. —Austin Jones
1. Odd Taxi
The simple veneer of Odd Taxi belies a complex inner core; each of the show’s 13 episodes follows the beat of taxi driver Hiroshi Odokawa, an eccentric and terminally single walrus numb to his monotonous daily routine. Unbeknownst to him, a missing girl slowly invades his life as his taxi becomes the epicenter of the case. Part Taxi Cab Confessions and part Durarara!!, Odd Taxi eschews bombast for a slower story about relationships, societal expectations, and modern life. Yes, it’s a scintillating examination of life in the newly minted Reiwa era, but it’s also an exercise in the practiced building of tension, with each episode feeling like it’s about to reach a boiling point before it returns to a calm simmer.
The show precariously oscillates between mundane, often humorous conversations from Odokawa’s passengers and the dangerous conspiracies brewing just outside the safety of his cab. Where the show truly shines is in the former, though—the quippy banter between the cast’s characters reveal a deeply human view of modern life, tackling pervasive but often undersold conversations about online gambling, dating apps, and the urge to make it big in a world full of thousands of microcelebrities. Unlike many of its peers, though, Odd Taxi isn’t just some flash in the pan viral star—it’s one of the best anime of recent years, and unlike anything else out there right now. —Austin Jones
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