We’ve yet again gathered a team of fans from all over the world, as well as animators, directors, and indie creators to share their favorite works and creators in the world of animation according to various categories—2020 might have been a year to forget in many ways, but the least we can do is try to preserve some sweet memories. Enjoy the sakugabooru / Sakuga Blog Animation Awards 2020!
— Ken 🍁 Yamamoto
— Franziska van Wulfen
- Best Episode: Pokemon: Twilight Wings #07
In terms of the best episodes befitting the Sakuga Blog, 2020 was a strong year for Shingo “yama” Yamashita, to little surprise. This is obviously a very personal interpretation, but this episode came off to me as a call to arms for all of the people like me, who once were full of passion for sakuga. Leon’s line before the battle starts, “Is your dream fulfilled just by watching?” felt as though it were aimed at aspiring creators, motivating them to enter the world of animation.
Truth to be told, I’ve got nothing more to say about the episode from an actual sakuga standpoint, since there are too many uncredited animators to go into much detail. I can say, however, that the Charizard vs. Duraludon battle at the end is a piece of animation that will stay with me for long after 2020 ends.
- Best Opening: Jujutsu Kaisen OP1 (link)
I immediately have to go back to Yama for another strong showing of his with Jujutsu Kaisen‘s opening. It was really interesting that they included all sorts of visual metaphors and made incremental changes while gauging the reaction on social media; though of course, this only operates under the special condition where it’s feasible to add cuts and swap things out for an opening during a show’s broadcast.
To go into a bit of a more technical aspect, the sequence makes heavy use of a technique known as camera projection, where flat objects like background art or layers of character art are mapped to a 3D space to give a sense of depth. The camera only moves slightly, but I think it lends the cuts a certain fullness that you don’t get from a simple pan. In a way, it’s reminiscent of how Makoto Shinkai learned to restrain camera movements for Your Name.
- Best Ending: Jujutsu Kaisen ED1 (link)
In a complete reversal from the opening I just talked about, Jujutsu Kaisen’s ending is positively oozing with that pop art aesthetic. Yuki Igarashi’s taste truly shines through here. With characters painted in with messy brush strokes and compositing that doesn’t make use of any filtering whatsoever, it’s a wonderful approach that reframes its simplicity as stylishness. As an extra detail, I also appreciate the fact that this sequence would be a difficult one to achieve without digital animation.
- Best Aesthetic: Dorohedoro
Dorohedoro makes me appreciate the strength of large studios like MAPPA, as the boundaries between the animation, the 3DCG, the backgrounds, and the compositing departments all blur together to create the forefront of anime today.
I like to think that I have a fair understanding of the animation production process, but the traditional animation and 3DCG here blend together so seamlessly here that I can barely tell them apart sometimes. It’s also interesting that they choose to use more discreet camerawork more in line with regular 2D animation, seeing as how the tendency is to spin the camera all around when you make use of 3DCG.
- Best Animation Designs: Kung-Fu-Piggy One (Koudai Watanabe)
Koudai “Hanabushi” Watanabe’s designs take the essence of 90s anime like Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball, but don’t stop at targeting classic anime fans. They’ve only recently gained widespread recognition thanks to their cameo appearance in his music video for Zutomayo’s Study Me, which means I must give them a nod as the best designs in 2020.
You also have to consider the cultural backdrop in which these designs exist, where old anime have become established as disposable icons in the lofi hip hop and vaporwave subcultures, but if I were to write about this it would run way too long, so I’ll leave it at that.
Koudai Watanabe, you are number one.
Shingo Tamagawa’s PUPARIA features superlative animation all throughout, with every frame being a superlative painting in and of itself. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to independently create such a work. Tamagawa, who succeeded in doing just that, may be this year’s best creator. Actually, who can say that we’ll even see someone to surpass him in the years to come?
On a very different note: I know there must be plenty of creators out there who have been influenced by Naoko Yamada. I had already taken notice of two such people, Shin Wakabayashi and China / ちな. And yet! I could never have guessed in a million years that an episode directed by Eri Irei would show up here! The truly incredible part is the fact that Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club episode #11 is basically his first time as an episode director. I bet most people who watched this episode would have a hard time believing that.
You can see Yamada followers slowly starting to branch off, and what stands out to me with Irei’s directing is the closeness to the characters themselves as a result of the wide-angle lenses used. Yamada makes heavy use of the longest telephoto lenses, and the two followers listed above are somewhere in the middle. The different focal lengths of the lenses lead to a clear divergence of the subjectivity and objectivity of the respective shots. If you compare Liz and the Blue Bird with Nijigaku episode 11, it’s fun seeing how different the feeling of distance between the characters are in the two. It’s things like this that make me realize how the art of direction continues to evolve, even today.
- Best Work: Just Call It Love (link)
The aforementioned China / ちな’s music video for mafumafu’s Just Call it Love was the piece I kept coming back to watch all over again in 2020. I would say it’s the work where his direction’s appeal to the viewers’ emotions is unleashed to its fullest.
To give an example, there’s a sequence where the screen is split in half, with one half showing a photograph and the other half video footage. The photos are records of the events and the videos are their memories. As each cut plays out with both in conjunction, it lets the viewer easily use their imagination to fill in the blanks themselves. This to me is representative of his fine directorial skills but also the adaptability of his ideas. In the end, I think that anyone who watches this music video will feel a familiar nostalgia, no matter their age. Regardless of the fact that it runs under 4 minutes, it’s packed with elements like the turning of the seasons, the emotional subtleties, and a sense of loss, all to great success.
Additionally, the character designs by Moaang appear simple, yet are easily distinguishable at a glance. Everything about the designs (with that energy reminiscent of not just Tadashi Hiramatsu but others who inspired him like Moyoco Anno), the layouts mindful of the 4:3 aspect ratio, the color schemes, and the compositing seems to me to be an homage to FLCL, and I really appreciate that they actually manage to convey that.
Finally, I’d like to add that this music video actually has a live-action version which served as the basis. When you compare it to the anime version, I think we can all agree that the latter is the superior take here when it comes to expressing the emotional depths of the characters.
- Best Episode: Japan Sinks 2020 #01
Although Japan Sinks as a whole ended up being perhaps the biggest disappointment of the year, the first episode remains one of the most visceral and touching representations of a very uniquely Japanese feeling of collective fear when all the man-made safety nets fail us and a natural disaster proves to be capable of crushing the soul of more than 100 million people. By no means the flashiest episode of the year, yet it stands as another powerful demonstration of how the visual component of anime can enrich any theme, however serious or dramatic it may be.
The mastermind behind this engaging staging is undoubtedly the multitalented Naoya Wada who, through elaborate kagenashi aesthetics and expressive but still realistic reworkings of the human anatomy, manages to give immense space to both the wounds and suffering of the individual protagonists, accentuating the sense of perdition of the whole community. Not to mention his cinematic storyboarding choices, which exploit the contrast between the symmetrical compositions leading up to the tragedy that evoke intangible unease and the painful, broken compositions later on. As agonizing as it is, this is the kind of episode you can always return to and find new readings to its craft.
- Best Opening: Jujutsu Kaisen OP1 (link)
While exciting in and of itself, Jujutsu Kaisen’s opening made me feel even more explosive excitement within the larger context of Shingo Yamashita’s work—the swift evolution you can appreciate from the superflat aesthetics of his action-heavy Blade Smash intro just a couple years ago is truly something else. The carefully selected backgrounds and extraordinarily clean yet always perceptible compositing layers make for an elaborate, believable sense of three-dimensionality nonetheless very different from attempts by much more experienced compositing directors. Mind you, this opening does not attempt to exploit that to evoke complex environmental storytelling, but it still manages to shorten the distance between the cold metropolis and the determined protagonists in a strongly youthful fashion, an undertaking that very few urban fantasy anime directors can say to have accomplished.
Animation director and color script artist Mooang’s contributions, as well as those by the team of animators he commanded, give this collection of wonderful sequences a much more dignified and mature feel than the joyfully noisy animation extravaganzas of the first webgen wave that Yamashita belonged to. And yet at the same time, it has that focus on the sense of scale and lighting that vaguely reminded me of those good old days of Yozakura Quartet. An impressive reminder of how things have changed and what the new generation of internet-based animators are capable of.
- Best Ending: Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club
Although not particularly elaborate from a purely technical perspective, I decided to reward the sparkling parade of illustrations created by idol-loving illustrator nazoani mama Mebachi because it managed to encapsulate the qualities of Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club into a simple sequence. It captures the progressive, energetic but at the same time delightfully moekko spirit of the new iteration of the series, which I feel differs a lot from the quite artificial canons of the previous seasons.
Her watercolors sketch graceful figures that march in unison with the colors of the surroundings as one cheerful collective entity. One that only reaches the apex of its beauty after we have a good look at everyone’s individuality, in cuts that represent the inner colors of every single main character. A simple but very sweet and honest visual metaphor.
- Best Aesthetic: PUPARIA (link)
Easily the most impressive effort in years to unite the different layers of the animated image through obsessive chromatic care. Shingo Tamagawa’s one-man army project PUPARIA doesn’t come across so much a story told through colorful images, but rather an ancestral poem that induces powerful suggestions through its visuals. It is not really an aesthetic with a narrative objective. It is more than anything else an aesthetic that wants us to remember ourselves through its rich tangle of optical stimuli used as a profound maieutic tool.
- Best Animation Designs: Pokemon: Twilight Wings (Shin Ogasawara)
To summarize it, the most laudable feat of Shin Ogasawara’s designs for Pokemon: Twilight Wings might be their enriching streamlining. They significantly reduced the characters’ linecount relative to your average modern production without affecting their peculiar characteristics, both in behavior and purely aesthetic terms, leading to art that felt genuine and spontaneous in the setting sheets and the actual episodes.
Some main characters, such as the fragile Nessa/Rurina or the not-totally-dazed Leon/Dande, get sweet elements of visual characterization that go well with the weaknesses, fears, and frailties shown in their respective episodes. Refinements that provide more three-dimensionality to these characters without making life harder for the rest of the production team.
- Best Creator Discovery: Komugiko2000
Komugiko2000’s work embodies the sense of chaos and uncertainty about the future that characterized many people’s high school years. A lucid portrayal of that perennial nostalgic period, perhaps with a bit of crudeness masked by magical realism that nonetheless feels perfectly fitting. He does not reject mainstream visual trends, but rather infuses them in his deliberately rustic if not downright naïve linework—and in this balancing of self-indulgence with embracing widespread modern quirks he somewhat reminds me of giants of recent Japanese auteurism such as Tsukumizu and Rapparu.
A couple years ago, I already started to get attached to his almost rancid greens that testify to the discomfort of most of his protagonists, but this year that I noticed a qualitative leap, especially in the Hunch Gray music video. Komugiko is no longer just that young artist with great atmospheric predispositions; he has become a real master of timing and the creative use of transitions that can amaze even his most accustomed fans to visual experimentation. Although he is still in the initial phase of his stylistic formative years, a butterfly still coming out of the cocoon sort of speak, he already has all the credentials to become one of the most influential and characterizing figures of the independent scene of the next decade.
- Best Work: Just Call It Love (link)
I won’t hide the fact that I have a really troubled relationship with Just Call it Love, the music video directed by still young fan favorite China / ちな, with striking animation supervision by Moaang. I love it madly but I can’t watch it without experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions that often leads me to cry and feel small in this larger than life world of sharp emotions, so I find myself struggling to come to terms with that more than a couple of times a week. Some say that true art has to change you from within. Well, Just Call it Love has stolen a piece of my soul with surgical precision and seems to never want to give it back.
If I had to put at least part of that love in more precise terms, I’d say that it was really empowering to see this team unbounded by the technical stylistic dictates of television animation that usually constrain them. Monochromatisms with an ancient flavor, aspect ratio changes with immediate narrative functions, designs that show their complexity and three-dimensionality only in moments of great disclosure of emotional intensity, and the cathartic lighting give it unique flavor; never renouncing the KyoAni influence we’d seen in the director’s contributions to Yama no Susume and Long Riders, yet so physically distant, confident in its stylistic autonomy. I definitely got the feeling that the young director from Osaka is finally getting up on his resilient legs with the courage to open the door to an inner world that only he has the key to, one that Just Call it Love invited us to.
- Best Episode: The Irregular at Magic High School: Visitor Arc #02
The second episode of The Irregular at Magic High School: Visitor Arc is a one of a kind tour de force. If I recall correctly, we’re talking about a solo storyboard, direction, and key animation effort by Junichi Takaoka at that—truly inspirational.
I’d also like to shout out [Nakaya] Onsen’s work in Fate/Grand Order Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia #18 as an episode that stands out among action-centric showings. I can’t help but feel like FGO exists for the sole purpose of this episode. Thinking about it, Appare-Ranman! #9 also comes to mind, specifically for its great attention to detail during a fun bath scene.
- Best Opening: Shadowverse OP1 (link)
I’ll have to go with Shadowverse’s first opening—just look at all those cuts and characters jumbled together in the chorus! That and the way it’s synced to the music gives it a very anime-like feel that’s fun to look at and simply feels right, so it ended up leaving a very strong impression on me. Other openings from this year that had good, interesting ideas were Kakushigoto, Tonikawa: Over the Moon for You, and Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle. I also never get tired of watching the intro sequences for Wandering Witch: The Journey of Elaina, Major 2nd, and Adachi and Shimamura.
As far as endings go, the second one for Gundam Build Divers Re:RISE Season 2 happened to be the first time in a while I’ve seen the so-called Xebec run, and combined with the story I can’t help but cry. Finally, Kana Ito’s ending for Boruto [ED14] was just so well done.
- Best Aesthetic: Kakushigoto, Strike Witches: Road to Berlin, Great Pretender, Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train
From Kakushigoto, Great Pretender, and even the new iteration of Strike Witches, we have plenty of titles that stood out in their goal to appear clean and beautiful. Demon Slayer in particular uses what I’m sure is a bunch of complex post-processing effects, but it’s all in the service of depicting everything on screen with crystal clarity.
As for a work that takes the opposite approach of layering on more and more extravagant effects, we have Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld. It’s incredible to think that we got episode after episode of stunning action scenes, bringing together [Kentaro] Waki’s composite work with the stylish action animation of [Yoshihiro] Kanno and others.
- Best Animation Designs: Magatsu Wahrheit (Akiko Sugizono)
The shapes and lines in Akiko Sugizono’s designs for Magatsu Wahrheit are soft, and yet taken as a whole they give off a sharp impression. They’re beautiful designs that are both functional and charming. I believe it’s her first time in charge of animation designs, and I only hope to see more and more in the future.
I also took quite a liking for the designs for Arte by Chieko Miyakawa. The main character Arte is just adorable.
- Best Creator Discovery: Hiroto Nagata
I learned of Hiroto Nagata from the seemingly [Hironori] Tanaka-influenced sequences in Lapis Re:LiGHTs #05, and before I knew it he was doing all sorts of cool action scenes in Assault Lily: Bouquet.
Another great surprise came in the form of [Kouki] Fujimoto and his amazing work in episode #01 of Jujutsu Kaisen. There’s also Ken Imaizumi and Katsuhiro Takagi, who show up frequently on Boruto. I worked with Takagi-san in my time at Production I.G, and did some in-betweens for his key animation, so now I’m left thinking about how amazing he still is.
That said, I’ll add that when you actually work alongside everyone, you get an idea of how much every animator puts into every title, so it doesn’t feel right to single out just a few people. So in the end, these are just the individuals that immediately came to mind as their particular work resonated with me—I suppose action tends to leave an impression!
- Best Work: PUPARIA (link)
- Best Opening: Akudama Drive OP (link)
I’ve always appreciated Tomohisa Taguchi‘s opening sequences, but Akudama Drive’s was on another level as far as I’m concerned. It’s unusual to see such a flawless distillation of a show—themes and visual direction, concentrated into a small 1 minute and 30 seconds segment in such a perfect way. Sure, that’s nothing new on paper. That’s in fact what most directors try to do, what is widely understood to be the goal of an opening, but Taguchi’s bold approach for the show was no easy style to summarize. Adventurous yet avoiding technical shortcomings born from that ambition is how I’d describe its spirit. And since I happen to be a sucker for slight changes in the opening corresponding to events in the show itself, it even has that extra plus for me.
- Best Aesthetic: Dorohedoro
I don’t have much love for Dorohedoro‘s 3DCG work, especially the way it moves, but if there are two people in the world I would trust to nail the unique aesthetic of its world it’d be series director Yuichiro Hayashi and art director Shinji Kimura. Good thing both happened to be involved!
Frankly, I don’t find Hayashi to be a consistent director. I love him to pieces at his highs and really couldn’t care less at his lows, but one thing he will always be able to boast about is his attention to visualizing the world and its style. Even shows with a grounded setting like Kakegurui feel like Hayashi spent years polishing every aspect—from the everpresent typography to heavy color constrast. Dorohedoro‘s source material had a very pronounced style to begin with, acting as a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it didn’t require the staff to be visionary in their conceptualization, but on the other hand, the concepts being as anime-unfriendly as it gets required the tricky challenge of knowing how to simplify the intricacies of the setting. And so we get to the actual standout of Dorohedoro’s visuals, the background art led by the aforementioned Shinji Kimura.
Kimura is one of those special creators whom, rather than trying to make his style fit the show, you try your best to make everything dance to his work instead; and if you’re lucky, you’ll have a natural fit like Dorohedoro’s decayed setting to make things even better. His almost legendary oil-like paintings are what made this project click as an adaptation, and I honestly believe it wouldn’t be possible with anyone else. A one of a kind artist who happened to be a perfect fit for the show.
Honorable mention: Once again I have to shout out Akudama Drive, a compositing masterpiece that went to great lengths to sell its cyberpunk setting as both believable and damn cool.
- Best Animation Designs: KanoKari (Kanna Hirayama)
It would be an understatement to say I’m a fan of Kanna Hirayama‘s drawings and art. This vtuber-loving animator embodies what I love the most in character art: loose, bouncy and cartoonish drawings. You could already call her a veteran in that regard—although she hasn’t been around for that long, the sheer amount of work she has undertaken is already astonishing. If you knew something about her prior to her work in KanoKari is that, for better or for worse, she’s so incredibly committed to her main projects that it’s become common to see her credited 3-4 per episode for an entire show, undertaking all sorts of roles. Personally, I’d rather she took it easier on herself and didn’t ruin her health, but such commitment is a huge advantage for any project that’s got her as character designer and chief animation director.
And so Hirayama finally landed her first, maybe a bit overdue, major design role. And as could be expected, she nailed it. Her designs are charming and conductive to loose animation, and whenever the show needed serious and memorable looking layouts, her characters also stood there in beautifully detailed forms. As I mentioned, her work rate can’t be understated. In KanoKari she corrected hundreds of cuts, making most of the show feel like her own drawings. She touched up every episode as chief animation director, and still found the energy to join as a key animator and cleanup artist. A herculean effort that paid off—now if only it had been in a better show.
- Best Creator Discovery: Hiroto Nagata
Just when you thought that every notable creator bar perhaps Genichirou Abe and Midori Yoshizawa had left studio SHAFT, here we have a very sudden appearance of brilliant new animation talent and perhaps some hope for the future in Hiroto Nagata, arguably the studio’s trump card already. His contributions to Madoka Gaiden were already astounding, but after Assault Lily: Bouquet I’ve been unable to pick up my jaw from the floor. His effects work is so amazing that it almost leaks into his characters and movement. A sense of fluidity that causes everything to start feeling as if it were liquid—hair, clothes, debris, animated ground, it all picks up his aqueous feel, especially with his very heavy shading.
We’re talking about an amazing animator, one who already has a very distinct style. I’m definitely more excited for SHAFT projects that I’ve been in ages and it simply comes down to being able to observe this up-and-coming effects prodigy develop even further. If his growth between now and his next appearance is anything like the one between his previous two titles, then we are in for a treat.
- Best Work: ID:Invaded
Although I’d rate Kaguya-sama: Love is War’s second season slightly higher, I found myself enjoying ID:Invaded more—and I get the feeling that its aftertaste will only become sweeter with the passage of time. When the show was first announced I felt that director Ei Aoki had finally been freed from Aniplex’ hugely marketed shows with heavy post-processing work, and could finally focus on something more unassuming, with a cleaner approach to its visuals. Such a restrained approach turned out to be very much required, as the chaotic nature of ID:Invaded‘s story would have been a hard to decipher mess if the presentation that Aoki and his assistant Yudai Kubota hadn’t aimed for clarity.
A great deal of my praise has to go to character designer Atsushi Ikariya. While Aoki and him had already worked together before, this this is the greatest collaboration as far as I’m concerned, both in the overall cohesion and the aesthetics themselves; there is something really appealing to me in the way characters’ eyes are drawn, for one. And thanks to Ikariya’s connections to studios White Fox and Ufotable, he got to attract a fair amount of high profile creators to help with this project, leading to this production being carried by them as far as I could tell.
In the end, the show wasn’t perfect by any means. I’d go as far as to say that writer Outarou Maijou sorta dropped the ball when it came to delivering a satisfying conclusion, in a way that I can’t really blame the directors for not being able to fix. But even with its shortcomings, this is a project that makes me hopeful. The anime industry lacks wildly creative original titles like this and I really hope we get to see more small scale yet adventurous titles like this, as some of the bigger studios start to monopolize all high profile adaptations.
- Best Episode: One Piece #950
There are a number of episodes that released this year that were arguably better animated, more aptly directed, and delivered an even bigger impact on its audience, but I struggle to think of one that represents something quite so significant. Like any long-running series, One Piece’s anime adaptation has had a rocky road over its time on the air, but none quite so devastating as its run from 2011 through to 2017. Plagued by production issues and a total lack of creative vision, its reputation amongst all but the most devoted fans was less than positive, to say the least. It’s worth noting that its transition into the Whole Cake Island arc saw the series promote talented supervisor Keiichi Ichikawa into the chief animation director role, bringing about a much-needed level of polish on an episode-to-episode basis. However, it was the jump to the series’ current arc, Wano, that brought about a staggering visual overhaul across the board, and single-handedly revived the series’ dwindling reputation.
Following the resounding success of Dragon Ball Super: Broly, its director Tatsuya Nagamine jumped ship to the One Piece anime, becoming the show’s primary series director, dowsing the screen in a barrage of colour. With him came a dramatic overhaul to the series’ composite, with the sterile work of Sankou Production replaced by Asashi Production, who gave the show new distinctive linework, and impressive camera effects thanks to the addition of Naoyuki Wada in the Chief Director of Photography role. Previous character designer Kazuya Hisada stepped down, allowing the young 20-something Midori Matsuda to take over, updating the series’ designs, and joining Ichikawa in correcting the visuals each week.
This dramatic overhaul has revitalised the series, and resulted in the show’s creatives producing some of the most spectacular work the long-runner has ever seen. My 2017 Sakuga Bowl Animator Discovery, Tu Yong-ce, has become a beacon of quality, and has since been promoted to animation supervisor. Even the legendary Shigeyasu Yamauchi returned for an episode, and the show has even seen wonderful guests such as Takashi Kojima and Bahi JD.
And so we arrive at the show’s 950th episode by the hand of director Yasunori Koyama, perhaps the most powerful representation of this overhaul. In the grand scheme of things, its narrative content is rather unremarkable, yet Koyama’s direction elevates its memorability to that of a series finale. Scenes flow one to the next through the most astonishing transitions, often utilising silhouette and emblematics, while drenching the world in tone-appropriate colours. In any other era, an episode like this would have been of low importance, but the fact it is not only so successful, but an absolute tour-de-force of creativity could not possibly represent Wano’s philosophy any clearer.
- Best Opening: Jujutsu Kaisen OP1 (link)
When my favourite animator of all time, Shingo Yamashita, transitioned from animation to direction, I was initially sad, convinced I’d never get the same satisfaction from his work again. While I most certainly miss his animation, my initial feelings were misguided, as his output ever since has been nothing short of spectacular. Whether it be Boruto’s fourth opening or the recent Pokemon: Twilight Wings series, Yamashita’s remarkable boarding and eye for distinctive digital photography has firmly placed him as one of the best in the business.
Now taking on Jujutsu Kaisen’s opening, it’s clear that reputation is thoroughly earned. The 3D camera work, the ludicrously detailed lighting, the shot composition, the delicate animation; it is such a cut above the already great-looking episode content that it’s almost not fair. No other director could make me look at the wonderful episodes coming from this show week after week and have me thinking it could be just that little bit better were it to have the aesthetics of its opening. Now that’s talent.
- Best Aesthetic: Study Me (link)
Toei-superstar Koudai Watanabe leaving the studio was a bit of a blow as someone with a passion for many of their series, but thus far it’s been nothing short of a resounding positive for this young animator. Free of the confines of a corporate overlord, Watanabe has taken to focusing on his own creations, spending much of his time showcasing his terrific character designs across social media. This culminated in the startling music video for Zutomayo’s Study Me, which saw Watanabe’s creative potential unleashed in the form of a VHS retrowave neon dreamscape.
Jumping between a classic monochromatic 4:3 aspect ratio for its game-inspired scenes to the 16:9 pastelly real world, and finally the luminous digital world; the variety of striking aesthetics on show here is awesome in the truest sense of the word.
- Best Animation Designs: Great Pretender (Yoshiyuki Sadamoto)
Ever since I first laid eyes upon Neon Genesis Evangelion, my love for Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s work has only grown stronger with each and every design that flows from his magical hands. His work is often characterised by its long, slender forms, and loose fabrics, with impressive shape design that conveys so much with so little. They’re an animator’s dream, and that certainly hasn’t changed here with his work on Great Pretender.
What I find most distinctive, and therefore most interesting here, is the return of intensely sharp and dynamic linework—something that feels exceptionally modern, and a thing I don’t think we’ve really seen from him since FLCL. Topped off with minimal but volumetric shading, and this feels like a true evolution of a master’s style. In many ways, this 2020 take from Sadamoto reminds me of Shirow Miwa’s work on Kiznaiver, and that is only a good thing.
- Best Creator Discovery: Kana Ito
Last year I fawned over Naruto Shippuuden’s Masuyuki Kouda, having just watched the series in full for the first time. This year I’ve caught up on Boruto, and have encountered yet another shining star from the ninja world. Over the past two years, Kana Ito has become a real household name, and an animator that fans crowd around when she delivers her next astonishing scene.
Stemming from Production IG, Ito made her way to Studio WIT before transitioning into a freelancer, ultimately falling into her prominent position on the Boruto franchise. It’s here that her work, largely inspired by the likes of Hiroyuki Yamashita, began to turn heads. Her ability to pull off delicate character acting and marvelous action clearly caught the eyes of her peers around her, as most recently she was given the opportunity to direct and animate an ending on her own, and the results speak for themselves. Her ability to convey such humanistic movement is unrivaled on the show, and I’m sure I speak for every Boruto fan when I say I can’t wait to see what she does next.
- Best Work: 2020 has been a lot, in many ways
Perhaps it’s appropriate that a shaky year like 2020 has made picking a “Best Work” painfully difficult, and unfortunately not due to stiff competition. The three titles that stood out to me this year were Great Pretender, Akudama Drive, and Made in Abyss’ continuation movie, Dawn of the Deep Soul. All three offer up something remarkable, and yet have flaws significant enough that my usual year-end enthusiasm for a single title never awakened in me.
Great Pretender is one of the snazziest shows around, with an unwavering and distinct visual style, a kickass soundtrack, topped off with memorable characters, and an endless number of smart twists and turns. It’s the same type of wonderful work Hiro Kaburagi first caught my eye with in gangster-thriller 91 Days. Yusuke Takeda’s geometrically-driven backgrounds work in perfect harmony with Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s sharp designs; it’s a colourific assault on the senses. Unfortunately, its final arc finds itself bogged down by contrivance and absurdity, diminishing the astonishingly tight quality of its first cour by a rather large margin.
Akudama Drive’s aesthetic scratches that cyberpunk itch nicely alongside the release of a certain videogame, and its action scenes are some of the best this year next to Jujutsu Kaisen’s. While its primary staff weren’t particularly known to me, the presence of animators such as Satoshi Sakai and Yoshihiro Kanno rightfully turned heads, and for good reason. This top-tier action, its astonishing composite, and the frequent use of striking colours make it one of the most visually powerful anime of the year. The cast are superb, its premise intriguing, but alas, much like Great Pretender, it loses itself as it can’t help but ramp up the narrative’s stakes to absurd proportions.
Lastly, Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul continues the adventures left off in my Anime of the Year pick of 2017. It is impossible to fault the visuals of this film; much like in the TV series, Osamu Masuyama’s art direction is faultless, bringing to life the new tiers of the abyss with just as much finesse and delicacy as before. With the likes of Shuu Sugita and (again!) Satoshi Sakai taking on the role of the primary action animators, the film is blessed with phenomenal action set pieces that far surpass anything found in the show’s original run. With the return of Kevin Penkin’s music and the gripping tone established by director Masayuki Kojima, the gang’s all here, but it’s frustrating that one difference is what makes this otherwise seamless continuation a far cry from perfection. In its transition to the big screen, the limitations of its 105-minute runtime rear their head, and what should have been a rather simple arc to tell is truncated to the point that the original series’ beloved melancholy and refined simplicity are replaced by convolutions and the absence of time to feel the effects of its most harrowing moments.
It’s unfortunate that I feel the need to end all of my picks this year with strong caveats. Perhaps it’s the curse of 2020, perhaps these products were truly all flawed in one way or another, or perhaps the trials and tribulations of this neverending pandemic have left me unable to find unconditional joy. Dear diary, I was supposed to write about anime, but it got a little too real.
- Best Episode: Kaguya-sama: Love is War S2 #05
While the entire fifth episode of the latest season of Kaguya-sama has some of my favorite bits in the series, it’s the “Miyuki Shirogane wants to sing” skit that had me laughing in tears. Leaving aside the as per usual on-point comedic timing, I think this is in particular thanks to Hidekazu Ebina’s major animation contribution in the episode.
While the premise is overblown for comedic purposes, it is still grounded enough so as not to be completely absurd, and that’s very much reflected in the animation. There is a noticeable weight in the characters’ motions, giving them a certain dramatic flair; you can clearly feel they are taking this all very seriously. At the same time, however, this grounded motion is contrasted by their exaggerated comedic reactions. Chika’s beautiful tearful outbreak at the climax of the episode, directly followed by her bawling blobby tears. That’s the kind of comedic contrast that turned out to be one of my favorite things in 2020 for sure.
- Best Opening: Princess Connect! Re:Dive OP (link)
At first, my mind went to Jujutsu Kaisen‘s and Kaguya-sama‘s openings, but upon thinking about which sequence brought me the most joy, I realized it definitely had to be Princess Connect‘s. And giving it even further thought, it might very well be specifically because it felt so much like a Tales of opening to me—and as my soul remains emotionally bound to that series forever, there wasn’t really any way for me not to happily bounce with the parades of cute characters whenever the opening played. And then there’s of course the beautifully animated climax, with the squad taking down the giant sand lizard. Pretty much a concentrated version of everything that makes this show so lovely: adorably funny expressions, bouncy animation, and lots of colors and glitter.
- Best Ending: The Millionaire Detective: Balance Unlimited ED (link)
While The Millionaire Detective unfortunately didn‘t live up to the expectations I had for it, the ending still very much was one of the highlights of the year. It just has that much flair; every image oozes cool, while also being immediately interesting to the eye, effortlessly flowing together. I particularly enjoyed the contrast between the two protagonists—Haru at any point looks more emotionally involved than the ever suave Daisuke. While Haru rushes after an escaping burglar, Daisuke just smoothly strides past him, not agitated in any way. There’s a lot to be found in little details, striking poses, making it an ending that I pretty much can watch on repeat.
- Best Aesthetic: Great Pretender
Great Pretender is this rare case of a show where every perceivable element in its visual direction seems to perfectly be in tune with the whole, constructing the title’s own unique aesthetic language and world. I feel as if too many anime renounce to have much of a personality to their background art in particular. In contrast to that, Great Pretender basically oozes in it; taking real locations then imbuing them with its own style, crafting its own alternate universe to our own, in which everything is just a lot more vibrant and stylized. In addition to that, the characters very much look like they belong to the world they inhabit, not just because they incorporate the same sort of angular feel to their designs, but also because they move in an appropriately snappy way, their faces and gestures wonderfully expressive. Every aspect of this show, from its shapes to its colour design and even lighting, just effortlessly links together.
Honorable mention: Toilet-bound Hanako-kun. While Aida Iro’s manga is a favorite of mine for its aesthetic alone, it also happens to be one that isn’t easily translated into animation. Nevertheless, its adaption found a way to craft its own visual identity, a bit cleaner that Aida Iro’s deliberately rough and weighted linework, but taking the advantage of color to bring the world to life.
- Best Animation Designs: BNA: Brand New Animal (Yusuke Yoshigaki)
As a longtime Yoh Yoshinari fan, BNA was essentially a no-brainer for me. While Great Pretender is a close contender in this regard, I really appreciated Yusuke Yoshigaki’s comparatively simpler character designs that prioritise motion and shape design. Consequently, you will see them move snappily with a lot of strong poses, as it custom with most TRIGGER titles, but especially Yoh Yoshinari’s work. What I found particularly interesting, however, was the shape shifting aspect of show; almost all characters actually have at least two different designs, corresponding to their human and animal forms. The protagonists even shift through a multitude of variations! Watching how much they could push these designs was certainly one of the aspects I enjoyed the most about the show.
- Best Work: Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul
The Ido Front Arc is simultaneously one of the best, but also most uncomfortable parts of Made in Abyss to date. To my delight, this adaption did not just do the source material justice, but even elevated it at many points. While there are many great action scenes in this movie, it was other aspects that caught my eye the most. While I never built up too much of an attachment to Prushka when reading the source material, watching her tragedy unfold in the movie became particularly heartbreaking—her bubbly, energetic movements directly clashing with the rigid, cold environment she finds herself in.
However, what I found benefitted the most from the animated canvas was something quite visceral: the depiction of fluids and other bodily innards that definitely should not be outside the body, but… well, they tend to be throughout this movie. For better or worse, Made in Abyss always had a fascination with bodily fluids, and the textural grossness of these elements was definitely upped by the animation here. I’ve always felt that through the abstraction of being drawn, body horror can easily become a mere aesthetical element in animation. But this wasn‘t the case here. For all of its runtime, I kept being tempted to look away from the screen to escape from this madness—and for a story where the horror lies in bodies being ripped apart and literally made into objects, I think that was an important part to get right.
- Best Episode: Haikyuu!! S4 #22 and #24
I spent more time than I care to admit weighing the impact each of these episodes carried before deciding to choose them both since, for all intents and purposes, the praise I have to give applies equally. If you have ever experienced Haikyuu!! at its best before, you likely don’t need me to tell you the series excels at providing a very specific thrilling experience. Whether it’s the Oikawa cross court-set in season 2, season 3’s finale against Shiratorizawa, or any number of countless other moments, when the table is set, this production finds a way to deliver like no other.
There is something inherently special about seeing an animator go the extra mile in a pivotal moment in a similar way to the characters they’ve brought to life. Through blurry eyes and blood-pounding ears, we watch as those individual animation efforts meet meticulous sound direction, flawless OST placement, enthusiastic voice acting, and every other minute detail the anime making process features, for moments that truly stand as something special. Haikyuu!! Unsurprisingly finds itself once again at the forefront of TV animation, with that gap is only getting larger as this staff continues to elevate the powerful source material to new heights.
- Best Ending: The Millionaire Detective: Balance Unlimited ED (link)
For those who may be uninitiated, if you have at any point been intrigued by the visual direction of anything Naruto-related, the safest bet for the individual responsible would be none other than Toshiyuki Tsuru. Overseeing 15 opening sequences, 17 endings, and 13 of the strongest episodes on any long running series, to call him the pillar of the franchise would be a massive understatement. In the three years since the Naruto anime ended, however, his career has been unfortunately quiet; merely serving as a sub-character designer for Boruto, but never actually working on it outside of the first ending sequence. This same series’ seventh opening would also air earlier this year, featuring Masayuki Kouda’s more-sweet-than-subtle tribute to the man himself.
Now, depending on your level of cynicism, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think Kouda’s tribute was more of a send-off, and that his directorial career had come to its quiet end. Almost as if to dispel those thoughts himself, a mere four days later, Fugou Keiji’s ending would don an urban noir aesthetic, complete with suave digital techniques and a whole host of charismatic drawings. As for how and why he ended up at A1 Pictures for this, no-one can say (at least not yet), though considering Aniplex houses a number of his former peers, including Magi director Kouji Masunari and Horimiya’s Masashi Ishihama, the prospect that such a multi talented creator might return to action, as slim as it may be, is enough to hold your breath for.
- Best Aesthetic: Great Pretender
There’s no better testament to Great Pretender’s excellence that it earned this spot by beating not one but two excellent offerings by none other than Studio Colorido. While the pop-filter style of the show is not the most revolutionary idea in and of itself, the efficacy with which art director Yusuke Takeda managed to realize the multitude of real-world locations the series features on a consistent basis is really something you need to see to believe.
More than just being easy on the eyes however, Great Pretender is also very aware of the storytelling potential these backgrounds hold, in so far that warm scenes feel literal warmth an order of magnitude greater than what a more traditional approach could accomplish. Likewise, for those times our characters are found in chilling isolation, or even more particularly, the royal hues strewn about the scenes in Laurent’s life where felt he was king. The aesthetic of Great Pretender is the very foundation of the series and I would go so far as to say, absolutely essential for the binge-watch model that it tells its story under to work as well as it does.
- Best Animation Designs: Breakers (Albacrow Lab, Yuuki Watanabe)
As a small-scale promotional piece for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, chances are Breakers would have been relegated to little more than television background noise regardless of whether those games had happened or not. That may sound harsh, but seeing as how the series failed to even get picked up by any streaming service, most western fans are likely unaware of this modest but sincere effort by a sakuga fan favorite: Yuuki Watanabe. Tasked with the final four episodes of the series and aided by the half-episode run-time, the former Dogakobo heavyweight was able to supervise with a level of intimacy much greater than what you might normally find in an otherwise more demanding format.
For this reason, I felt it was fair to credit Watanabe for the designs, along with the series’ actual character designer who hid themselves behind the studio Albacrow name. While the base designs themselves have some attractive features—most notably the line-weight—it’s only under Watanabe’s skillful supervision that they reach their full potential, gaining much needed sophistication, while retaining the charming simplicity that made them appealing in the first place.
- Best Creator Discovery: All the individual overseas freelance animators
Where it was once a rarity to find even a single romanized name in the ending credits of your favorite anime, the industry growing beyond its capacity and changes in online animation culture have led to overseas freelancers becoming a common factor in anime. It’s no exaggeration to say that some of the grandest animation highlights of this past year were majorly supported by them.
As a microcosm of the degrading industry at large, this trend has not been without growing pains, however; with obstacles including but not limited to: language barriers, time zones, pipeline differences, credit mishaps, compensation issues, dismal schedules, and many more. This stems from an industry that is already prone to exploiting its most passionate artists, which when exposed to easier prey that lives half-way across the world , did not hesitate about exploiting them.
These complications make celebrating their collective achievements over the past year frustratingly bitter-sweet. Moreso when considering the fact that much of the appeal of working in anime, and the reason that despite everything it’s difficult to fault artists for repeatedly coming back, is rooted in that elusive freedom key animators under this system often have. As this too slowly slips away at the hands of unforgiving compromise, the true catastrophe may be about to reveal itself.
So as to not end an already taxing year on such a negative note, let me add that there are also plenty reasons to be excited! An increasing number of productions have realized the potential that scouting from twitter can bring, preemptively hiring translators and assigning overseas staff to an episode before it becomes an emergency situation. Likewise, their talent has not gone unnoticed by Japanese animators either, with some even expressing a friendly desire to not be outdone by them!
Ultimately, this may be too complex of a topic to get into here. An issue this multifaceted requires an extensive approach, paying closer attention to the case-by-case basis instead of generalizing too much. However, upon seeing the climax to one of the most well-produced anime of the past year entrusted to a foreign animator who then delivered on its promise and then some, the temptation to feature the progress they’ve made as a whole, and the hurdles they continue to endure as this industry evolves with them, became impossible to resist.
- Best Work: Akudama Drive
In a year which saw my front-runner for this award change more times than I can remember, settling on a definitive winner wasn’t the easiest task. In the end, when it came to weighing Akudama Drive against other contenders—like Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! for example—I was never able to feel a comparable level of harmony overflowing from every aspect of its production. While this is far from the only valid metric to judge from (especially since some series may even excel under kantoku-nashi contexts), it’s something I find myself gravitating towards due to this industry’s increasingly atomized levels of production making it a rare feat.
The cyberpunk streets of Kansai fit so seamlessly into director Tomohisa Taguchi’s oeuvre that it’s only natural the staff assembled beneath him would find little difficulty following his lead. Yoshifumi Sasahara in particular deserves a special mention, macroscopically as assistant director for the series, but on the micro level as well for his work with episode 6—the chilling showdown between Brawler and Executioner. It was here where I felt the individual strengths summed to the largest whole, from the aggressive compositing approach underscoring an equally aggressive clash, to Yoshio Tanioka’s art direction, imbued with vibrant energy, solemn silence, and everything in-between.
As polarizing as the series’ narrative beats and tone might be for some people for reasons I can’t address here due to spoilers, I think most would be able to agree as a visual craft, this team was clearly all pulling in the same direction to realize the unforgettable world of Akudama Drive.
- Best Episode: Pokemon: Twilight Wings #04
No other series this year, I think, encapsulated the beauty, creativity, and fun of animation like Twilight Wings. Not only did it build on top of a fun and explorative game, but it had the emotional sincerity to flesh out characters with morals and themes that we all can relate to at one point in life or another, all combined within 5 minutes or less. Studio Colorido has always excelled at this, whether it’s been through the odd but endearing Penguin Highway or the emotional A Whisker Away, and sure, they even succeeded in bringing life to Kubo’s Burn the Witch this year. That said, Twilight Wings might very well be their strongest case of how sentimentality can ooze out of every aspect of a work, whether it’s strong color design, eye for lighting and focus, and gorgeous 2D animation. Shingo Yamashita has done it again and I continue to be impressed with how easily he grows into these kinds of projects.
Nessa’s episode is easily my favorite in highlighting how simple but colorful palettes and fantastic lighting convey the energy, charm, and freedom of pursuing your life’s joys. What particularly strikes out is Bahi JD’s work here—he’s a natural fit for Yamashita’s works, but his work on Nessa’s dive in and out of the water is just so clean and elegant. Sunao Chikaoka, who was the director of this episode, manages to interweave Nessa’s insecurities and determination with touches of expressive character animation, and Yamashita’s storyboarding allows us to really get inside Nessa’s head, with first-person perspectives and layouts that highlight her desire to be free and express herself in her own way. All in all, it’s a delightful episode, and I find myself rewatching it from time to time just in awe of how it all comes together so naturally.
- Best Opening: Dorohedoro OP (link)
Dorohedoro’s banger of an opening combined with some of the trippiest visuals I’ve seen in a long time makes it my favorite opening of the year. I really wish I had whatever Yuichiro Hayashi was taking at the time. Jokes aside, there’s a lot going on here; Hayashi has an impeccable talent to blend CG with colorful animation—see the latest Attack on Titan’s opening if you’re like to see more of that—and Dorohedoro uses it in spades. Entrancing patterns, a busy setting, and repeated actions all serve to mesmerize the audience, allowing them to really get a feel for what Dorohedoro is about. Murder, possibly psychopathic murder? Yes. Buff woman making gyoza with her best friend? Also yes.
- Best Aesthetic: Akudama Drive
I’m a sucker for cyberpunk (as long as it’s done well, and maybe doesn’t have such awful standards of work ethic and lies to its customers about what’s considered as a finished product) and it just so happens to be that Akudama Drive was entirely up my alley; story-wise, as well as aesthetics-wise. Not everyone can pair up with Danganronpa’s Kazutaka Kodaka—he’s a man who 100% commits to the stories he tells, and if you’re even one step out of sync, he’ll leave you behind in the dust. But not only does Akudama Drive manage to keep up with Kodaka’s craziness, it effectively highlights the coolness and grittiness of his work. Neon lighting that reflects in the eyes and highlights of the character’s skin tones, settings that literally light up the contrast of gritty, ugly fights; intensely red blood that stains the greasy alleys of cyberpunk Osaka, quirky character designs that match their equally intense personalities. Akudama Drive is an intense visual feast on…..whatever it chooses to be in the moment, and my eyes can’t thank it enough.
- Best Animation Designs: Great Pretender (Yoshiyuki Sadamoto)
Great Pretender’s character designs are simply a joy to look at. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto not only makes these characters feel distinct enough that they’re visually striking, but they also feel very in place with the world they inhabit; a huge effort made in the color design and background departments, of course. From almost generic looking nerd protagonist Makoto to the suave and cheeky Laurent, to the scheming and badass Abigail—Great Pretender really makes sure that we see and feel these characters express themselves in the highlight of whatever heist they’re performing. I’m usually a little hesitant about extremely geometric animation designs, but Great Pretender easily takes advantage of this by imbuing it with pop art style and glamour.
- Best Creator Discovery: Ken Yamamoto
I only became a fan of Eve earlier this year; no it wasn’t due to Jujutsu Kaisen, but this is the hipster I choose to be. Naturally, it came to my attention that a certain stunning music video happened to be very, very gay, but also extremely beautiful in its storyboarding, direction, character design, and animation. Cue my surprise when that turned out to be all done by one person: Ken Yamamoto. Their attention to detail, body movement, and symmetry are all things I love about animation. You can appreciate those sensibilities in this tale about love, loss, and grief molded with strong composition, haunting lighting, and moments of pure, colorful energy.
- Best Work: DECA-DENCE
2020 has been quite the year overall, and as a result time (and thus anime seasons) have never felt more relative and non-tangible. It feels strange to look back and remember that Dorohedoro aired this year, or that the USA was given a theatrical release of Weathering With You. But here we are, 365 days later, with an incredible wardrobe of animation to reflect on. Time for us may have stopped—or rapidly sped up—for many of us, but animation and creativity never ceased.
That got me thinking about how strange it feels to say that one of my personal favorite works of the decade aired nearly…a decade ago. Shinsekai Yori was ambitious in everything it chose to do; in challenging the viewer’s thoughts, in respecting their ability to conclude based on show don’t tell, and most of all, in its commitment to never looking away from the ugliness of humanity, but also choosing to remember how we can always do better—how we must do better, for those we have lost, and for those we can still save.
DECA-DENCE is nowhere close to Shinsekai in its seriousness at first glance, but it is the first original work that hits these marks on a different level. It’s far more fun: Natsume is an endearing protagonist who refuses to let society’s condemnation of her existence get to her, and there are cute Kaiba-like robots that all engage in rather hilarious anime affairs. In many ways, it resembles a shonen-like structure, and so there aren’t as many crazy twists or moments of pure horror. It treads a rather predictable path towards the end. Despite this though, DECA-DENCE reminds me of why I come back to anime time and time again, just when it feels like maybe, maybe these kinds of shows are dinosaurs of the ages. Whether it’s the grueling look at how capitalism confines us, isolates us, and turns us against each other, or how prison labor is just fancied slave labor excuses, or how people are not defined by the sum of their physical or mental capabilities—Tachikawa is enamored with the human condition, and I pray that he’s able to shine again like he did those years ago with Death Billiards. But for now, I take great peace in knowing that DECA-DENCE exists, and that the year may be a little brighter for having it air this summer.
- Best Episode: Pokemon: Twilight Wings #07
Shingo Yamashita’s directorial effort for the last episode of Pokemon: Twilight Wings was quite the special one. In a series where every episode already stood out strongly in its own way, it’s the final one that struck me the most. The efficient characterisation achieved beforehand is really what helped it land well in its climactic parts; Yama cleverly repurposing animation for an overarching goal, and the recurring motif of reaching out for unreachable made for an incredibly cathartic moment once John was able to attain his dream. And let’s not forget the other fantastic sequences, displaying the strengths of the show’s compositing.
The climactic battle brought to life by strong teams of animators—some credited, some not—executed Yama’s ideas perfectly, especially when it comes to his smart usage of the camera; the constant emphasizing of the grand scale of the through dynamic camerawork felt very much in line with the theme of the Galar Region.
These setpieces also brought into the spotlight none other than Weilin Zhang, one of the most fascinating rising animators. His contribution to the Gigantamax scene cemented it as one of the most spectacular action sequences in franchise history. Flat and simplified effect shapes that hold a lot of visual appeal on their own layers, yet also look coalesce with the whole in a way that heightens the expression of the flames. Charizard’s final hefty charge was also a sight to behold—the weight was conveyed extraordinarily well, so much that even Yamashita himself said he couldn’t help but cry. An all-time highlight for the franchise, and one I will continue to revisit in the future.
Honorable mention: 22/7 #07. The handling of Jun’s heartwarming tale of resilience as depicted by Hirotaka Mori and his team stood out so strongly from any other episode in the show. His effective use of contrasting visual motifs of the clear yet intense blue sky through evocative wide compositions, but especially his eloquent usage of floriography to reflect the sequential changes of mental states, were so skilfully handled that I couldn’t help but be reminded of Naoko Yamada—and that’s some of the highest praise I can give! His name is definitely one to keep an eye out for, as some industry folks rightfully noted.
- Best Aesthetic: Pokemon: Twilight Wings
Once again, I have to go with Twilight Wings. From Mizutamari Higashi’s colour scripts that helped define the general lighting and tone in each key scene, to series director Shingo Yamashita’s excellent compositing sense, Twilight Wings is a success story of aesthetic cohesion with no equal in the franchise. When you consider the limited amount of time as well, it feels like the compositing in every shot really went an extra length to make every scene click. While Yamashita technically didn’t occupy the photography director seat—that belonging to Katsuto Ogawa—it’s clear the series wouldn’t be what it is without his supervision. Quirks he’s showcased many times in the past are prevalent here, so it wouldn’t be quite right to not bring him up when praising the way the visuals came together; once again, credits don’t tell the full story!
Given you’re dealing with the inherent fantastical essence Pokemon bring, you genuinely need natural lighting to sell their inhabitance in reality. And yet at the same time, you need to be conscious of not shattering the illusion of fantasy either. It’s in the balance between the two that Twilight Wings found its harmony, even integrating 3D environments with equal grace. It’s easy to be drawn in by Yama’s understanding of light: be it the natural warmth of his approach, or perhaps beautifully reproducing the way light behaves underwater whilst still capturing the grandeur of the sea in stunning sequences. Or even accentuating speed through a swift change between front and backlighting due to a Pokemon’s trajectory quickly changing. Beyond a doubt, he’s a genius at his craft.
- Best Animation Designs: KanoKari (Kanna Hirayama)
As a slave to all things cute, this was an easy choice for me. While KanoKari was divisive to put it lightly, one thing right about everyone could agree about was Kanna Hirayama’s designs. Wonderfully attractive, cute art that captured the appeal of the cast, yet also making the designs her own with how strikingly they look like her personal style. Her range as an artist also naturally extended into the design work, and of course her supervision too; very clearly encouraging animators not to stick to the sheets religiously, whether it was loosening them up or dialing up the detail for some gorgeous drawings. Thanks to that approach and her thorough supervision, they achieved a consistent expressiveness that I find incredibly valuable, especially in the current state of TV animation.
It’s also worth mentioning the herculean task of overlooking literally every single cut in every episode, on top of supervising a bunch of promo material, solo key animating the ending, and taking part in many animation jobs throughout. While the healthy production buffer the team had undoubtedly helped, it’d be wrong not to highlight how much of a hard-worker she is; always keeping a very hands-on approach, even on less fortunate productions like Just Because. She did her best and deserves all the praise she can get for a successful debut! Now excuse me as I eagerly await kappe idols next year too.
Honorable mention: Just Call It Love (Moaang). Another character design debut I must highlight, as Moaang’s designs were incredibly captivating for me–his ability of carefully selected line placement to effectively portray the feeling of worn fabric without many lines, but also how he depicts such attractive slender proportioned characters that still feel natural is just wonderful.
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling positively surprised by the sudden burst of young animation talent at studio SHAFT, isolated as it is. It was only just on Magia Record that Hiroto Nagata started drawing my eyes to his way, but by Assault Lily: Bouquet I was already in love with the meticulous care of shading he applies to hair, the characteristic swaying motion, and of course his extraordinary effects work. On top of that, he’s also shown his ability to integrate intricate background animation into his sequences to heighten the sense of depth on the screen; something he’ll even make cardboard models for reference.
He’s a real talent and has clearly become the studio’s new ace, however, I feel it would be a bit strange if I also don’t mention a contemporary in-house animator along with him. Kazuki Kawada displays similar sensibilities, most notably in their mutual love for obscenely dense effects animation and impact frames. I was also pleasantly made aware of the skill at character animation Kawada shares too, even with a focus on subtle body motion that left me impressed. His love for effects work even extends as far back as 3 years ago on a student project where he also demonstrated a great understanding of spatial awareness in the layouts.
Considering both had debuted on the same projects, I suspect they’re from the same generation and might have had a mutual influence on each other, which would explain the great overlap between their skill sets. Regardless, SHAFT have managed to retain two talented animators more than capable at both character acting and action scenes, so I’m pretty excited for more to come from these two!
- Best Work: Baja’s Studio: Baja and the Sea
The choice of Baja’s Studio: Baja and the Sea is a very personal one to me. After the tragic arson last year, I was worried whether this would even be able to see the light of day. However, since a lot of progress had already been made, they decided not waste anyone’s efforts and wrap up the remaining work safely. On this very blog there already is an excellent article about how Baja’s Studio represents Kyoto Animation’s philosophy, and much like the first OVA, its newly released sequel still retains that irresistible charm.
Those familiar with the first OVA will already know that Baja’s Studio embodies a style that’s long-lost in the current anime industry, one built around cute, cartoonish and animalistic acting. And the person to bring it back yet again was no less than my favourite animator, the late Yoshiji Kigami. To see its appeal, look no further than the playful animal acting overflowing with joy, accompanied with a delightful bounciness to it all. This embodiment of the interent fun of animation was accompanied by nuanced acting, instructed in Kigami storyboards that already held the exactness of keyframes and with a focus on body language that he spent decades spreading through the studio. And with the sea as a theme now, it was a good excuse to draw a lot of lovely water effects animation, with stylised Kanagawa-ish wave effects that complemented the aesthetic of the work pretty well.
Baja and The Sea is still a simple cartoon at its core, but that’s part of what makes it so endearing. In the end, Kigami was frank in his desire to create something adorable. I’ll save the rambling on it but it’s something I’m convinced he always wanted to create: a work that fuels children’s dreams was an old dream of his, even as far as drawing a children’s picture book in secret on the side. With that in mind, Baja’s Studio’s mere existence is comforting completed, as proof that his dreams were eventually fulfilled. While it’s understandably difficult to return to KyoAni anime, it genuinely filled my heart with its sweetness and won me over easily. I urge people to give the master’s last work a try. It’s one where you could truly feel this was his passion project.
- Best Episode: Akudama Drive #09
Akudama Drive‘s protagonist stumbled upon the title of Swindler as she pathetically tried to save her own life in the first episode, but her growth throughout the series led to her actually earning the moniker, being able to wear that supposedly derogatory medal with pride. Similarly, the show itself got better at punching above its weight throughout the broadcast, getting to the point where it successfully fooled most people into thinking it was all supported by a rock-solid production team, rather than a very smart one that knew exactly which corners to cut. Thanks to that smart economy of resources, and an efficiency that wouldn’t have been possible without the natural synergy between series director Tomohisa Taguchi and popular writer Kazutaka Kodaka, the show was able to deliver some truly astonishing episodes in its later half.
Although the finale was beyond memorable, I’ll have to go with episode #09 as the most intense experience of the year for me. Taguchi’s stunning direction managed to recontextualize an entire color, the chilling screen presence of the villains could easily make you forget how wacky of a show this can be (until the next amusing reminder), and even the solid character art got to emote more than ever. While I’ve always enjoyed robust productions that can gather an all-star crew and cruise to victory, there’s something uniquely exciting about watching a team like Akudama‘s rely on so much trickery to convince their viewers that they’re in fact watching the most high profile title of the year—and even better, watch them succeed completely.
Honorable mention: I’ll have to add a very late addition as a special shout-out. Hironori Tanaka’s episode of Jujutsu Kaisen, you say? Yeah that was a nearly perfect usage of his specific skillset, but I actually meant the Nijisanji Unit Music Festival, which started rather unassuming with cute creatures clowning around but ended up featuring a slew of wild, unpredictable performances and showcasing some truly impressive technological advances when it comes to tracking a massive number of people.
- Best Opening: Jujutsu Kaisen OP1 (link)
Right about everyone acknowledges that Shingo Yamashita is the best at what he does. That does include Jujutsu Kaisen‘s original author, who specifically requested Yama to direct the opening sequence for the adaptation of his series; if that sounds unusual, it’s because it absolutely is, but nothing surrounding Yama is normal. And yet, it’s that abnormal director you should seek if you’re trying to portray anything as natural and commonplace. His approach to compositing isn’t necessarily true to life, but it does root fantasy in reality through his careful lighting in a convincing, cohesive way. It’s not realism where he succeeds then, but rather authenticity; he crafts worlds with a unique visual lexicon, without letting the beauty of his digital effects get in the way of presenting everything as one believable whole.
Coupled with the unmatched clarity in his presentation, the understanding of animation he gained in the early stages of his career as the most beloved digital ace of his era, and the troupe of exceptional animators who always follow him—as they feel he boosts the quality of anyone’s work—you get something that easily deserves this spot as the opening of the year. If there’s one drawback, is that it underlines the aesthetic discrepancies within the show itself, teasing the audience with an impossible what-if. I’ve told him before and I’ll tell him again: Yama might actually be too good at his job.
Honorable mention: All of Ryushen’s pointless series have very neat intros, but if I had to choose just one I’d go with the opening for their sporadic Solo Gameplay series. Tragically bad gameplay preceded by a short but very stylish mixed media sequence that literally calls the protagonist A Noob With Few Friends. What else could you possibly ask for?
- Best Ending: Assault Lily: Bouquet ED1 (link)
Although it’s common knowledge that creators trained at Kyoto Animation over the last couple of decades have an exceptionally high draftsmanship level, you might have noticed that not all the people who leave attracted by the freelance life go on to have smooth careers. That isn’t particularly surprising, as much of the studio’s strength comes from the environment—a tightly knit workplace where everyone works together in every single aspect of production, knowing all of their peers’ strengths and weaknesses, and not really subjected to the planning nightmares that plague the industry as a whole. So, while it’s not as if they forget their own skills if they ever leave the studio, they tend to struggle to live up to them without the supportive environment where they learned the craft.
I prefaced my praise of Assault Lily: Bouquet‘s ending and Naoya Nakayama‘s recent output in general with that so that everyone can be appreciative of how incredibly lucky he’s been in that regard. Mind you, I don’t mean to say that he doesn’t deserve it or that his skill played no factor in this, but it’s clear that the near-complete freedom and high prioritization are helping him bypass the issues many of his peers had. The viral success of his Chikatto Chika Chika dancing sequence in the first season of Kaguya-sama granted him the status of special weapon, so throughout 2020 we’ve seen him get deployed in special moments with full control over his work; fantasizing that was as much Miko’s as it was his own, music videos that just so happen to include everything he’s passionate about, as well as solo ending sequences like Assault Lily‘s. He’s been given free rein so often that isolating his preferences—empty space, clear skies, feminity—is trivial at this point, but they remain as striking as ever, and he can always surprise you with a much more stylized take on those ideas that feels right at home in its context. So you know what, keep letting him to as he pleases!
Honorable mention: If there’s such a thing as a timeless classic in the art of wrapping up, it would be Suzuhara Lulu‘s tendency to fart around with OBS at the end of every stream of hers, burying the whole world in massive Subscribe buttons as she peeks around either cutely, very menacingly, or both. She even does it in members-only streams, something that’s objectively pointless as you can’t watch it without already being subscribed *and* paying, but that demonstrates her commitment to the bit.
- Best Aesthetic: PUPARIA
For all of the industry’s struggles, 2020 has offered us a handful of commercial projects with very strong identities. Perhaps most notably we have Great Pretender, a visually vibrant adventure with pop-art visuals, sharp designs, and energetic writing that fit together so well you’d think that all the team had to do was assemble an already existing puzzle. In the end, though, I have to go with an independent project that’s as much as the highlight of 2020 as it is from 2018, since the truth is that Shingo Tamagawa has spent the last few years creating PUPARIA all on his own. As if solo efforts weren’t taxing enough, Tamagawa challenged the norms of anime production by completely blurring the lines between animation and the world it inhabits, which is in and of itself also blurring the lines between creative methods and piece’s themes. To achieve a truly oneiric experience, he spent an obscene amount of effort in applying the same dream-like textures to every nook and cranny, making it so that every shot of articulate character animation still looks like a painting, and so that every painting suggests it could be a shot of articulate character animation.
The tremendous undertaking makes me feel deep respect for this work, but at the end of the day, it’s dread that PUPARIA fills me with. Fear about the power that a unique piece of animation like this holds, but also fear that we might not see something similar in a long time. Tamagawa invited us to see the dreams inside the puparium, and I’m not sure if I want to stay inside or get the hell away.
Honorable mention: Though they’d all been around since 2019, this year marked the formation of the Meschers group—I swear all romanizations of that name cause me physical pain—featuring Saegusa Akina, Fuwa Minato, and Mayuzumi Kai. Besides their excellent chemistry, they’ve got a great color balance and a unifying element in the hair streaks they’re named after, which easily make them the most aesthetically pleasing unit. You might argue that with Mayuyu as the sole beacon of brain-having, the otherwise perfectly balanced group is actually tilted towards the dumbassery end of things, but let me hit you back with this irrefutable argument: That’s good, actually.
- Best Animation Designs: KanoKari (Kanna Hirayama), Study Me (Koudai Watanabe)
In a year with iconic designers like Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and Tadashi Hiramatsu putting out new titles, it’s a technical newbie that I must give my first nod to. I said that Kanna “kappe” Hirayama was the modern ideal of TV anime designers before she even had a chance to lead a project, and if KanoKari existed to prove those words right, I suppose the project was worth it after all. Mind you, I’m no prophet: kappe had simply showcased a very charming style and tremendous dedication to her work for all her relatively short but packed career, so this was an easy call to make. As someone who matured surrounded by excellent character animators with a penchant for illustration work, kappe‘s style defaults to intricate detail and feminine grace, but she’s more than willing to drop that for some good old cartoony animation. And if having someone that skilled around is good, imagine having them around… all the time. She ended up supervising every single shot in the series while also contributing plenty of animation of her own, which sounds insane until you consider that this is her modus operandi in all her main projects; whether that makes it crazier or not is up to you. We all know what her best work of the year was, though.
And if Kappe is the person you want to have around in the current climate, then Koudai “Hanabushi” Watanabe is the perfect rebel to have in the outskirts, as a reminder of nostalgic aesthetics that are still perfectly valid nowadays. His designs are an embodiment of the 90s, but he’s been able to build a curiously trendy aesthetic around them that’s best showcased in his Study Me music video for Zutomayo. Having sort of quit commercial projects, an already self-indulgent animator like him now has no reason to conform to current stylistic trends, so he gets to further exaggerate the bubbliness of his designs in a way I find both eye-catching and very fitting for his extroverted animation. If you enjoy colorful, lively animation, you’d better be keeping an eye on him.
Honorable mention: Plenty of people have managed to adapt complex existing designs into animation this year, but I’ll have to go with Kerorira for his uncompromising approach when creating an SMC short film. The very slight stylization and homogenization of designs originally by different artists are enough to make them work together in that adorable clip, without sacrificing any of their original charms. For an excellent example of the opposite approach, migi has continued to do an excellent job turning Shiishii into the world’s most mean-spirited Kirby.
- Best Creator Discovery: Eri Irei
Despite being one of the biggest proponents of this category in the awards, when it comes to it I tend to find myself asking exactly what a creator discovery is. If we’re limiting ourselves to artists I genuinely didn’t know about until now, I believe I’m in the same camp as a lot of people in saying that Hiroto Nagata‘s eruption from within SHAFT’s ashes has been the surprise of the year. It’s simply not normal to see someone who’s this good, this fast, and this important to the studio already—although that last point is very much related to the fact that there simply aren’t many outstanding creators left at the studio anymore, so even youngsters can quickly earn an important position. His ability to rival the likes of Nozomu Abe when it comes to the density of effects animation, but also apply that same philosophy and volume of information to character shots makes him someone worth keeping an eye out for, not just in the future but right now already.
In the end, though, the sweetest surprises of the year for me have been a different type of discovery. There’s a special feeling you can only get when you find an entirely new side to someone you’d known for a long time, and in 2020 I’ve been lucky to experience that a few times. Despite having followed Moaang‘s work for quite a while, I never knew he had a nostalgic bomb like Just Call It Love in him; designs and color script that directly appeal to the memories of adolescence, out there to murder people around my generation as they directly channel the energy of the youthful anime I grew up with, That said, it’s a companion of his that completely blew my mind with Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club episode #11. Eri Irei‘s debut as episode director was equal parts a triumph and a tragedy, but even that bitter aftertaste is going to make my memories of it more memorable.
As another Makaria-adjacent animator, Irei’s been involved with pretty much every production that gathered exciting young creators. I thought I was perfectly acquainted with his approach to character acting, but I failed to consider something: despite the traditional Japanese animation pipeline allowing lots of individuality to key animators, there are tasks simply beyond the scope of the job. And it wasn’t until Irei got to handle an episode that he proved to be an outstanding Naoko Yamada follower capable of putting together the best episode in the whole franchise. While paying close respect to Yamada’s work, Irei showed a personality of his own too, finding his own comfortable distance with the characters and boarding it all with an elegance well beyond his experience. Unfortunately, what should have been an exceptional debut ended up being a frustrating experience for Irei himself, who had to wrestle against a disastrous schedule and a lack of support that resulted from it, just because higher-ups had the brilliant idea to rush out a franchise as lucrative as Love Live. I can only hope he uses those bitter memories as fuel for his next showing as director in a much more stable environment. He absolutely deserves it.
Honorable mention: Emotionally it feels like February happened several decades ago, but since it technically was part of 2020 I’m going to have to go with Meifu for another excellent creator discovery; good on their own, arguably even better together. Melissa has a one of a kind vocal talent and represents some of the more fascinating aspects of vtubers as a genderfluid person who’s found the perfect outlet to be themselves, Furen is violently funny—with an emphasis on the violence, because I hit my desk two days ago when she revealed she had no idea the moon doesn’t physically change shapes all the time—and even an acquired taste like Himura is great to have around in any collaboration. Looking forward to their 3D forms soon!
- Best Work: Pokemon: Twilight Wings
As much as I loved DECA-DENCE for the sharp edges that the core staff had honed over a long period of time, or the perfect synergy that Akudama Drive‘s multimedia creators developed over an even longer period of time, there was no other possible answer. Shingo Yamashita made Twilight Wings into the most cohesive depiction of Pokemon, a unique entry in the franchise that could have only been created by members of the so-called Pokemon generation. A direct appeal to sensorial experiences I’ve never really gone through, but remember as if I did. My highlight of 2020 is an immediate piece of nostalgia.
Honorable mention: Speaking of nostalgia: not only was the Nijisanji Shout in the Rainbow tour a complete blast with a very diverse set of performers, it also has happened to immediately age in a curious way—remember concerts with crowds? Real audiences? Mixed feelings about audiences aside, there are plenty of other candidates I’d consider. From the consistent traditional TV-but-not-really excellence of Lever Gacha Daipan to the complete nonsense their new B-kyu show promises to offer, it’d be hard to choose my favorite regular program when they all appeal so well to different parts of my rotten brain. But when you factor in events, choosing the highlight of 2020 becomes much easier: it’s got to be Nijisanji Koshien 2020. An already amusing sports sim like Pawapuro gets intertwined with a set of narratives that write themselves, making for a tremendous event to watch live with friends but also one that’s easy to return to later. All of it, ran by an old guy who once struggled because way too many people see vtubers as nothing but cookie cutter anime girls who make funny noises. The same one who this year had 190k+ concurrent viewers tuning in during the climax of Koshien. How could I choose anything else?
Anyway can you believe someone thought I wouldn’t use every single honorable mention to shout out vtubers? You absolute fools. Happy 2021.