Our yearly animation awards have once again gathered animators, directors, producers, writers, translators, fans, and everything in between to pick the greatest contributions to anime and the world of animation in general for the year 2021—enjoy!
— Ken 🍁 Yamamoto
— Franziska van Wulfen
Translator, International Production Coordinator, Savior Of Doomed Projects [Twitter]
- Best Episode: Ranking of Kings / Ousama Ranking #07
By all means one of the best directional showcases of the year, made even more remarkable by the fact that it was a simple transition episode on paper. Ousama Ranking #07 comes by the fresh hand of Shouta Goshozono, who after a really intense episode of Jujutsu Kaisen threw himself headlong into this adventure; one with a much more slice of life flavor to it, but still with his distinct, truly cinematic view of animation. There’s no denying that, especially due to the use of non-diegetic expedients and the careful attention to the interiors and the positioning of the camera, it’s easy to notice parallels to the work of renowned directors like Kunihiko Ikuhara and Mamoru Hosoda. However, the episode still boasts of a bold innovative personality of its own through Goshozono’s unique presentation. Chief among it all is his fascinating usage of camera tracking to provide greater depth and realism to the environments, and a fair number of compositing masks that are always really careful and unintrusive, thus succeeding to provide each room with its own particular flavor. Also masterful is the rhythm of the narration through specific color palettes that make Bojji and Kage’s entrance into the armory an unforgettable moment.
Perhaps not the best mise-en-scène of the year, but certainly the episode that affected me on the deepest level; the one whose technicalities fascinated me the most, instilling in me the desire to emulate its magic. In a way, Mr. Gosso.blend managed to convey to me his respect, his passion, and humility to serve such a mundane moment of the development of Ousama Ranking with the utmost care and love, and that I will treasure forever.
- Best Opening: One Piece Special Opening for Episode 1000 (link)
When I first saw Takeshi Maenami‘s long and throbbing hot cut where the Straw Hats pirates show off their fighting techniques the world stopped for a few seconds. The second time I saw it I cried, as did the third, fourth and fifth. Maybe that’s what kids feel when they see their favorite Yutaka Nakamura cuts? I felt very small and remembered why I am still a Sakuga (作画): Technically drawing pictures but more specifically animation. Western fans have long since appropriated the word to refer to instances of particularly good animation, in the same way that a subset of Japanese fans do. Pretty integral to our sites' brand. fan.
- Best Ending: SSSS.DYNAZENON ED (link)
A simple piece that skillfully captures how bittersweet and precarious the more charged feelings of teenhood are, all while maintaining a light tone. Mayumi Nakamura was able to convey those ideas with a pleasant and positive mood, while still being able to avoid downplaying the communication issues and the bashfulness of each character. Every time an episode ended, it was like taking a little blast from the past.
- Best Aesthetic: Wonder Egg Priority
If there is one thing that remains of Wonder Egg Priority after the storm in which even its narrative foundations were eradicated, it is without a doubt its unyielding commitment to its aesthetic. One that extends through every single department of the animation process, and perhaps for this reason it deserves the crown of best aesthetic more than any other title this year.
At the end of the day, it’s not just about the vague, general idea of compositing, but rather the very in-depth chromatic research for each main character. It’s about the constant corrections to the palette of each member in the cast. It’s about a truly multi-faced art direction, capable of just as masterfully capturing a difficult daily reality from a First World full of dreads and suffering as well as the magical, poetic aspect that is closer to the works of Satoshi Kon than to the KyoAni that director Wakabayashi adores so much. Maybe Ohto Ai did not really manage to be reborn as her creators wished by the end of production, but Ohto Ai as an icon never died.
- Best Animation Designs: Ranking of Kings / Ousama Ranking (Atsuko Nozaki), Wonder Egg Priority (Saki Takahashi)
On the one hand, I would like to award Atsuko Nozaki for her Ousama Ranking designs—graceful and simple, yet so expressive. In a way, not so different from Yoshimichi Kameda’s wonderful designs on Mob Psycho 100, they enhance the original appeal of the cast, while in this case also smartly playing off the archetypes of relevant chess pieces and the proportions of medieval figurines. Attractive, thematically fitting, simple to animate and draw, and undoubtedly full of elegance and wholesomeness.
On the other hand, we’ve got the much-studied designs by Saki Takahashi for Wonder Egg Priority, rich in details but always based on overall simple shapes. Wearing their clear-cut inspirations on their sleeves and sporting a thousand different fashion styles, chockful of hidden meanings and almost scientifically supported by color theory—there is so much to appreciate in them from different angles. Takahashi’s work is heir to the moekko culture, but still willing to deform that cuteness on occasion in search of a unisex appeal almost like the SD characters of shounen and shoujo works of decades ago.
Two opposite approaches to design but both valid and worthy of representing the best part of today’s television animation.
- Best Creator Discovery: Harumi Yamazaki
Even before her official debut in the world of commercial animation, Harumi Yamazaki‘s sketches and animation exercises had already strongly impressed me. Her keen eye for natural poses and expressions brought to mind the work of China, one of my favorite artists ever.
Therefore, you can imagine my immense surprise when I first saw her on My Hero Academia and then on Wonder Egg Priority, mostly in charge in intense action scenes, some even strongly inspired by Yutapon; on display was a huge range of different timing techniques, from the most snappy and discontinuous to the most complete and balanced. She immediately proved to be an expert in running sequences, emphasizing the impact of gravity on the characters in a way that made her feel quite different from most other figures from the current wave of Twitter animators. Overall, her much more precise control of bodies and individual shapes brings her perhaps closer to the great masters of realistic action animation from the 90s. All these aspects provide her animations with a great sense of maturity and solidity, suitable for the most dramatic moments of any type of staging.
I’m curious to find out if we’re witnessing the rise of an all-rounder who has yet to show her personal touch in other fields, or if we are facing the birth of a unique action specialist. Either way, I’ll continue to cheer for her.
- Best Show: The Heike Story / Heike Monogatari
There’s no denying that Heike Monogatari was a gargantuan production effort that suffered greatly from the abysmal, chaotic climate in which Japanese TV animation finds itself. Nevertheless, it succeeded in that difficult job of synthesizing and affirming Naoko Yamada‘s sensitivity in a context far removed from her stylistic chops up till that point. That’s already a big achievement in and of itself, but it’s when I observe the way that the script, art direction, and character designs managed to drag an iconic director in absolutely unthinkable directions that I can only reach one conclusion: Heike Monogatari will be remembered as that point of no return in which Yamada goes from being arguably the most unique and fascinating directors of this decade to one of the most important all-around figures currently active in the world of Japanese animation.
The brutality, the sense of suffering and fragility that Heike Monogatari emanates through these rough and sketchy visual elements, unthinkable in both the KyoAni of then and today, combine with her preexisting skillset and manage to give a whole new texture to the Japanese epic tale. That’s what well-accomplished modern transposition of an ancient work it’s all about: it should be able to show famous events so distant from us with our eyes as inhabitants of the contemporary world—and Yamada’s empathic telephoto lens succeeds in this perfectly. Victims and executioners shed their roles and bare their flaws, personalities, and honest feelings, in a way not unlike Nozomi and Mizore in Liz and the Blue Bird. Superb achievement.
- Best Movie: Inu-Oh
Although it sorta feels like cheating to nominate a film that only a select few film festivals worldwide have been able to screen, the fascination I feel for Masaaki Yuasa‘s farewell letter to studio Science Saru far exceeds the simple sympathy I can feel for films like the new Fate/Grand Order and the delightful Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop, works that to my heart earned little more than special mentions in comparison.
As far as I’m concerned, Inu-Oh represents a beastly, exaggerated, and fabulous return to the theatrical origins of a legendary director who in the last few years was perhaps getting softer; so raw, and yet a tender cry of love for Art capable of inspiring others, reaching out to creators from all over the world to reassure them about their path and the sacrifices they’ve had to make. The magnificent staging, reminiscent of works such as Kemonozume, Ping Pong, and Mind Game, is masterfully harnessed by the likes of Norio Matsumoto and Yoshimichi Kameda, who exploit this raw power to whiz free towards unexplored and incredibly exciting territories. Music and animation come together, blending into a synergistic burst of raw energy worthy of the most experimental of musicals.
Animator, Storyboarder, Director [Twitter]
- Best Episode: PokeToon: “I’ve Turned Into a Gengar?!” (link)
Everything in this episode of PokeToon feels nice and cohesive. The careful and minimal animation never feels excessive, and fits with the ambience of the backgrounds. You see a trend now of nostalgia-heavy works targeted at a now grown-up audience, so it was beautiful seeing Team Yamahitsuji‘s sensibilities on full display in a series for kids.
Also, Shoko is cute.
- Best Opening Or Music Video: “Batto feat. KAF” MV (link)
It’s worth noting that Yamano is real cute.
- Best Aesthetic: The Heike Story / Heike Monogatari
In one word: beautiful. I’m astounded that you can make a TV series that looks like Heike Monogatari.
The very analog-feeling setting that is the Heian period is skillfully and charmingly portrayed here, making full use of the idiosyncrasies of digital tools. Its plentiful but subdued use of color, painterly backgrounds, and the compositing that makes use of it all to bring everything together are all wonderful. Fumiko Takano‘s designs and Kensuke Ushio‘s music are provocative as well, and it was an honor to be a part of what I’m sure is a once-in-a-lifetime moment. I was episode director for episode 3, so please give it a look.
As a side note, Iko is cute.
When it comes to Wonder Egg Priority, it feels like they spun off the current lineage of A-1 design work, interpreted them to feel more three-dimensional, and added on the detail of a 90s OVA. Incredible designs, down to the key animators who sustained them to the very end.
As for Mushoku Tensei, I must congratulate them for the fact that Roxy is super cute.
- Best Creator Discovery: Moko-chan (The Heike Story #05 storyboards/episode direction), Akira Uchida (“Batto feat. KAF” MV), Mizuki Ito (Takano Intersection)
I had already been aware of their work, be it from their online activity or Key Animation (原画, genga): These artists draw the pivotal moments within the animation, basically defining the motion without actually completing the cut. The anime industry is known for allowing these individual artists lots of room to express their own style. work for TV, but I was happy to see things this year with a greater focus on them as individual creators—after all, they’re artists to (still) keep an eye on! I look forward to their future works.
- Best Show: Sonny Boy
I enjoyed Sonny Boy for its impenetrability. It’s a fun exercise to go through director Shingo Natsume‘s interviews and filmography and imagine how this anime came to be. The design of each episode was fascinating, with the staff’s personality shining through in places like the provocative editing or sound direction.
Incidentally, Yamabiko is cute.
- Best Movie: Takano Intersection (link)
The wealth of facial expressions, mannerisms, and acting in the short film Takano Intersection all have the most charm I’ve seen this year. The ideas for Layouts (レイアウト): The drawings where animation is actually born; they expand the usually simple visual ideas from the storyboard into the actual skeleton of animation, detailing both the work of the key animator and the background artists. and backgrounds are interesting too, from the hand-drawn blur effect on the backgrounds to denote motion, to the way it depicts tunnel vision. It also strikes a fantastic balance with the story of capturing a single moment of one’s emotions. It made me remember riding my bicycle as a child and scraping my forehead.
And, last but not least, the Kansai accent for “What’s up with her?” is cute.
- Best Episode: BORUTO #189
I typically go out of my way to avoid making homer picks in these awards, but in this case, BORUTO #189 genuinely was the best TV episode produced this year. Hiroyuki Yamashita is a rare individual by this industry’s standards in that he not only possesses a brilliant action mind, but also the artistic means and personal circumstances to bring his vision about without compromise. By this, I mean that his recent output on BORUTO is effectively outside of the resource and creative limitations that nearly all other freelance animators are faced with. The first step to that end is taking the script into his own hands to design exposition-free, original action set pieces which exist worlds apart from the surrounding show. He would also enlist the services of Ichiro Uno, a sub-character designer and the backbone of the series’ animation director rotation, to revamp the character designs exclusively for this episode to better match their sophisticated manga counterparts. With the addition of a color palette swap, the perfect storm for a standalone experience presents itself, worthy of being laureled alongside the historically best TV episodes the NARUTO franchise has had to offer.
- Best Opening, Ending, Or Music Video: Vlad Love OP (link)
In a year featuring openings from two masters of the craft in Shingo Yamashita and Masashi Ishihama, my award surprisingly goes to neither, but not for a lack of dazzling performance on their part. Simply put, Vlad Love’s opening sequence directed by Kenichi Kutsuna just happened to stick with me to a much stronger extent. Melancholy is an inherently powerful mood when it comes to artistic expression, and this opening expertly channels that in the character drawings throughout. Similarly, the plant motif integrates itself nicely, in large part due to the decision to draw most of the foliage-focused background elements on the cell layer, instead of entrusting them to the background department like most other situations would. As animation fans we have a tendency to fixate too much on the foreground since that’s the part that is usually moving, so equalizing the two sides by bringing everything together (and in such a clean way), makes it an easy winner.
- Best Aesthetic: The Heike Story / Heike Monogatari
Before getting to the anime I felt had the best aesthetic, I would regret not to at least mention Cedric Herole’s Poketoon short, which he did art design, and all of the animation for. Studio Colorido is of course known for their aesthetic prowess, but seeing it on such a mainstream platform like Pokemon is always a treat. With that said, the actual best-looking anime this year (and perhaps even beyond that) is Heike Monogatari. Deho Gallery are world leaders in background artistry and I have sung Art Director (美術監督, bijutsu kantoku): The person in charge of the background art for the series. They draw many artboards that once approved by the series director serve as reference for the backgrounds throughout the series. Coordination within the art department is a must – setting and color designers must work together to craft a coherent world. Tomotaka Kubo’s praises many times before, so I will keep this entry short. Heike Monogatari is a feat of visual storytelling, and its entire team deserves the highest praise for their work.
- Best Animation Designs: Ranking of Kings / Ousama Ranking (Atsuko Nozaki)
As far as I’m concerned, this award marks back-to-back years with representation from animation producer Maiko Okada’s team at Studio WIT. Seemingly on a hot streak, Great Pretender wowed us with its pop-filter aesthetic before Ousama Ranking and its charismatic lead, Prince Bojji, took the anime community by storm. Had the series finished airing as of writing this, there’s a good chance it would find itself mentioned across more categories. Regardless, a large part of Ousama Ranking’s initial success can be attributed to Atsuko Nozaki’s refinement of the manga’s somewhat primitive designs. Her work is reminiscent of Medarot and Popolocrois—anime from an era gone by with character designs composed from rudimentary shapes, yet without sacrificing the three-dimensional volume they’re drawn from. Naturally, Art Director (美術監督, bijutsu kantoku): The person in charge of the background art for the series. They draw many artboards that once approved by the series director serve as reference for the backgrounds throughout the series. Coordination within the art department is a must – setting and color designers must work together to craft a coherent world. Yuji Kaneko and the animation staff led by Yousuke Hatta and Arifumi Imai have a massive part to play in realizing the world of Ousama Ranking, but the root of its success and the charismatic heart of the series starts with the designs.
- Best Creator Discovery: Ryouhei Takeshita
Every year I find this category increasingly difficult to award a winner to, not because there is a lack of deserving candidates but rather, there are too many, and singling out one individual at a time feels awkward! With that said, Ryohei Takeshita seemed to take a huge step forward this year. After directing some of the strongest episodes of Jujutsu Kaisen, he handled its second ending, as well as the cheerful My Senpai is Annoying OP, and then capped the year with an exclamation point on the brilliant ninth episode of Heike Monogatari. Of course, Takeshita is far from a new name in the world of Sakuga (作画): Technically drawing pictures but more specifically animation. Western fans have long since appropriated the word to refer to instances of particularly good animation, in the same way that a subset of Japanese fans do. Pretty integral to our sites' brand.. However, at least personally speaking, my perception of him changed from the-guy-who-directed-Eromanga Sensei, to a director with a formidable presence, capable of surrounding himself with talented artists, and blessing whichever stop around the industry he happens to land at.
- Best Show: Sonny Boy
If there can be a silver lining to the surge in the overall number of anime productions greenlit each year, it is that the number of original anime has risen with it. I tend to weigh original anime more heavily compared to adaptations, as aside from acting as an ideal platform for creative minds, they are also great from a viewer perspective, since without any source material, everybody is able to watch from the same playing field. No anime better embodied that last point than Odd Taxi. Through its gripping mystery plot, it spawned an almost cult-like gathering of fans, in part thanks to the effort their marketing team made to create a meta-narrative of sorts by tying social media posts into the weekly episode happenings. On the topic of skillful writing, Keiichi Hasegawa and Akira Amemiya once again came together to follow up on the character drama masterpiece that was SSSS.Gridman. As a sequel, SSSS.Dynazenon faced challenges related to how the audience would perceive it after Gridman let the proverbial cat out of the bag. However, it would seem the staff was also aware of this and it shows in how well they employed subversive tactics to avoid stepping on the toes of its predecessor, while maintaining the nuanced and deeply human character writing that makes this franchise special.
While Heike Monogatari isn’t quite considered an original anime, Naoko Yamada’s spin on the classic tale may as well be. I began with close to no expectations, and upon its conclusion, sat in bewildered silence for several minutes over the overwhelming catharsis experienced by the main character Biwa; who over the course of the anime helplessly watches a tragedy unfold, powerless to aid the people she cares about. In a non-coincidental way, Biwa’s character being analogous to Yamada’s own personal situation makes Heike Monogatari a fascinating work of art, and easily one of the most special of the year.
Lastly, we have Sonny Boy. I would be lying if I said the show was flawless. In fact, it’s pretty far from it. Shingo Natsume opted to pen the scripts for every episode himself, rather than channel his ideas through an experienced writer. On the one hand, this leads to an unfiltered, personal experience, but on the other, it’s also one lacking many of the refinements customary to anime. This happened to be especially evident in the middle part of the series, even prompting me to put the show on hold for stretches as it was airing. And yet, it’s my anime of the year. So what gives? Let me explain, though beware that I need to dip my toes into spoiler territory a bit.
Of course, there are the more obvious aspects like the unforgettable soundtrack, inspired direction, and bursts of charismatic animation throughout, but in my opinion, the series doesn’t cement itself as a cult classic for years to come until the last episode. More specifically, when Mizuho pretends to forget Nagara upon returning to the real world, reinforcing the utter banality of Nagara’s ordinary life. When juxtaposed with all the bizarre antics we experienced in the drifting worlds prior, my interpretation of Sonny Boy’s message can only be one that is profoundly pessimistic. The ending is anti-climactic, frustrating, and even a little difficult to accept, with the cherry on top being said frustration spilling over into the ED via a chilling acoustic version of Shounen Shoujo.
It goes without saying at this point, but nothing quite like Sonny Boy exists in the animated medium. It takes a special individual and a lot of good will to even get the means to produce something so unmarketable in the first place. Ultimately, Shingo Natsume used this gift to share a part of himself, and with the help of the entire staff, the world of animation is a more interesting place because of it.
- Best Movie: Inu-Oh
While it technically aired last year, the home release of Umibe no Etranger only reached the west six months later, so for that reason it finds its way as a runner-up in these awards. As a fan of Kii Kanna’s original work, I was conflicted upon its announcement since most adaptations of manga which are carried by delicate linework and author-specific shorthand drawings tend to be inherently compromised. In this case, even more so when you factor in the historically dismal neglect the boys love genre receives from a production perspective. Fortunately, Kii Kanna is a former animator-turned-manga-artist and was involved enough in the film’s production to more than justify its existence. Pacing issues aside, the staff managed to punch far above their weight here—especially in the background department—to create something the genre sorely needed.
At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Hideaki Anno employed his unlimited resources and penchant for nailing endings to deliver an absolutely stunning finale to the Evangelion franchise. While my attachment to the world he created doesn’t run especially deep (relative to most hardcore fans), on a technical level I thoroughly enjoyed marveling at the work the best in the business were able to produce.
The actual best movie of 2021 though is Masaaki Yuasa’s latest directorial effort: Inu Oh, which I was fortunate enough to see at the Toronto International Film Festival. As someone who had soured on the overly clean FLASH process deployed by Science SARU, as well as the broad marketability Yuasa’s output had aimed for in recent times, I was thrilled to see Inu Oh mostly discard the former and utterly obliterate the latter. Since as of writing this I understand few people have actually seen the film, I will only say that some of the musical numbersare still stuck in my head, with the accompanying visuals going a long way to encode the overall “concert” experience Yuasa aimed to depict.
Animator, Storyboarder, Director, A Leaf [Twitter]
- Best Episode: Uma Musume Pretty Derby S2 #08, Mother of the Goddess’ Dormitory #03 / Megami-ryou no Ryoubo-kun
The former is best appreciated alongside the seventh episode of Uma Musume Pretty Derby S2 as well. In short, it happens to be the episode that managed to make me pick up a mobage for the first time. Animation-wise, Rice Shower’s hair fluttering in the episode 8-only OP, as well as the climax of the race scene, are gorgeous in a way that even casual anime fans can appreciate.
When it comes to Mother of the Goddess’ Dormitory #03, the episode is actually split between two tales: “Koushi, At A Loss“, and “Koushi Goes Back to School.” The latter in particular left a strong impression in me, simply because the warmth of cold hands is just that great of an idea. Touching each other’s bodies is a standard situation in fanservice anime, but there’s a real elegance and beauty in giving dramatic depth and meaning to the sensation of touch itself.
- Best Opening, Ending, Or Music Video: Da Wang Rao Ming OP (link), The Vampire Dies in No Time OP
Da Wang Rao Ming‘s opening is eye-catching in its extravagance, and it feels like their first priority was to exert their fullest efforts on every level. Due to budget and schedule restrictions, Japanese anime openings are kept to around 50 cuts and 1000 drawings at most, so I enjoyed getting to see a production like this which you wouldn’t see here. Animation-wise, I especially like the fourth cut, where the girl parts her fingers and you see the muscles in her arm expand, which isn’t something you see portrayed very often in regular anime.
When it comes to The Vampire Dies in No Time, its thoughtful animation does a good job of supporting the simple visuals—and the show itself is fun too!
- Best Aesthetic: Sonny Boy, The Aquatope on White Sand / Shiroi Suna no Aquatope OP2 (specifically the cut where it slowly zooms in on Kukuru widening her eyes)
Sonny Boy‘s backgrounds and compositing are exquisite. They’re made to considerably draw out the charm of the animation, and the shots you see are only possible with utter confidence in your ability to attract talented staff for your departments, animation and otherwise.
When it comes to Aquatope, I wanted to specifically shout out that shot in the second opening. The color blue is emphasized a lot throughout the series as a whole. Even so, this beautiful cut stands out with its color design and composite work. I appreciate that either the in-betweener or the in-between checker has been thorough in minimizing the jittering in the face, where the eyes are drawn to. I think that the in-betweening and painting departments put in the most care for cuts like these.
- Best Animation Designs: Mother of the Goddess’ Dormitory #03 / Megami-ryou no Ryoubo-kun (Maiko Okada)
Maiko Okada‘s work on Mother of the Goddess’ Dormitory is very cute, with a style reminiscent of Yuka Takashina on The Ambition of Oda Nobuna or Noriko Shimazawa on Otome wa Boku ni Koishiteru, but with a more modern feel. It’s not too heavy on line count, and seems friendly to animate.
- Best Creator Discovery: Kazuki Kawagoe (Komi Can’t Communicate), also OLM as a whole
Apparently, Kawagoe has been well-known for a while, but I wasn’t aware of him in my ignorance…
It struck me how talented all of OLM’s in-house animators and directors are, so I’ll probably go back and take another look at their older works.
- Best Show: 86: Eighty Six
Saying that 86: Eighty Six was directed by Toshimasa Ishii should suffice as an explanation here, but nonetheless: I would sum it up by saying that it’s a series where, from the Layouts (レイアウト): The drawings where animation is actually born; they expand the usually simple visual ideas from the storyboard into the actual skeleton of animation, detailing both the work of the key animator and the background artists., timings in every sense, sound direction, editing, etc., you can very easily tell what it means for the Episode Direction (演出, enshutsu): A creative but also coordinative task, as it entails supervising the many departments and artists involved in the production of an episode – approving animation layouts alongside the Animation Director, overseeing the work of the photography team, the art department, CG staff... The role also exists in movies, refering to the individuals similarly in charge of segments of the film. to do its job to the fullest.
In terms of visuals, there are parts that seem like they ran up against the schedule, but even then, the Episode Direction (演出, enshutsu): A creative but also coordinative task, as it entails supervising the many departments and artists involved in the production of an episode – approving animation layouts alongside the Animation Director, overseeing the work of the photography team, the art department, CG staff... The role also exists in movies, refering to the individuals similarly in charge of segments of the film. has the power to carry it through for viewers. I wish the people who want to create visuals purely through strong animation could realize that.
- Best Movie: Revue Starlight: The Movie, Sumikko Gurashi: Aoi Tsukiyo to Mahou no Ko
Revue Starlight is simply a fun time where they sing a lot, yell a lot, and the characters actually have changes of heart (thus are my shallow impressions). When it comes to Sumikko Gurashi, that’s one movie that personally struck a chord with me. In its brief runtime of 60 minutes, it manages to flesh out a serious drama, and I came away very satisfied (although the themes of losing and then rediscovering one’s identity might not be for everyone). Also, I envy how the movie has reached so many children…
Professional Yama No Susume Liker [Twitter]
- Best Episode: Tropical Rouge Precure #29
I jumped into watching Precure weekly a bit too late to regularly enjoy masterful episodes that the series often produced back in the day. Now, because I only know the current reality of waiting about a year for every real standout episode of the show, it feels this much better and enjoyable when they do happen.
Keisuke Mori, known to most as soty, is a generational talent whose animation director debut had been the talk of the industry for many days ahead of the episode’s premiere. It almost felt like every animator and every Sakuga (作画): Technically drawing pictures but more specifically animation. Western fans have long since appropriated the word to refer to instances of particularly good animation, in the same way that a subset of Japanese fans do. Pretty integral to our sites' brand. fan had been awaiting that day, to see this diamond in the rough get polished into its final form. Between the knowledge that the episode would be helmed by the great Yuta Tanaka, renowned as one of Toei’s most inspired directors, and the fact that many of the industry’s foremost animators were sharing (not really) cryptic messages such as “soty is a god”, the hype was off the charts beforehand. As it turns out, it was worth it.
The role of an animation director is probably my favorite: the way they can change even the most mundane shots and still frames of people talking into something interesting and well laid out is an invaluable skill. And it’s precisely Mori’s input in such shots that made this episode into kind of a masterpiece to my eyes. Sure, the action was amazing, as the participation of soty’s pals made for a spectacle of huge set pieces reminiscent of Mob Psycho, but it’s the supposed downtime that stuck so strongly with me. Characters would constantly move as if Mori drew them; acting with his characteristic bounciness, and all faces corrected to have noses and mouths much lower with more space left for expressive eyes, which immediately remind me of his teachers Yuki Hayashi and Koudai Watanabe’s work. Every movement, every frame leaves you something to observe. Personality is not only established by what the characters say but also by how they move and act, and it’s exactly what soty excels at—no matter if as a key animator or as someone that corrects other people’s work, he elevates everything on screen, making it an unforgettable. Hopefully, the next step will be seeing what he can achieve as a director.
- Best Opening, Ending, Or Music Video: The Heike Story / Heike Monogatari OP (link)
Prior to leaving KyoAni, I never considered openings and endings to be Naoko Yamada’s forte work. Not to say that she was bad at it: a couple of them are among my all-time favorites, but others simply didn’t even register in my mind. It was only after leaving and (presumably) directing 3 excellent openings in quick succession that my whole perception changed.
Heike Monogatari is a fast-paced story of a whole generation, and for this reason it needs to showcase the key moments of their lives. There is not much time for the peaceful moments that remind us that they indeed are just a family. Yamada decided to use the opening sequence pretty much just for that purpose: humanizing the cast by letting us experience a bit of leisure time with them, something invaluable in the times of war that they struggle with almost daily. We can see them happy and enjoying the normal life they probably wish for. Amazing in terms of the theme, and obviously just as strong technically as Yamada is one of the best directors to come out of Japan. Lens management, low-angle shots, and the perfect amount of spice in the form of chromatic aberration to give depth. We take this masterful usage of these techniques from her as granted, but it’s worth remembering that there are not many creators that get anime so close to looking like they were shot with a real camera.
- Best Aesthetic: The Case Study of Vanitas / Vanitas no Carte
There is something magical about studio SHAFT directors leaving the studio and having their own projects in better environments. Sure, maybe not all of them (looking at you Naoyuki Tatsuwa!), but the directorial skills they hone under Akiyuki Shinbo rarely go to waste.
That said, I did not have strong expectations for The Case Study of Vanitas even with the backing of a powerhouse like BONES, including great character designer Yoshiyuki Itou handling the show. The reason was simple: it took a lot of time for director Tomoyuki Itamura to show his own style while heading the Monogatari franchise at SHAFT. Frankly, I’d say that it never really recovered after Tatsuya Oishi left the series in his hands.
However, Vanitas showed me—as did Fire Force had done with Yuuki Yase before—that SHAFT’s brand is more creatively restrictive for its directors than it seems, and that with a better working environment and the freedom that every director deserves, Itamura is not just a replacement for Oishi. The project allowed for more movement and more traditionally ambitious animation Layouts (レイアウト): The drawings where animation is actually born; they expand the usually simple visual ideas from the storyboard into the actual skeleton of animation, detailing both the work of the key animator and the background artists. than Itamura’s previous works, which turned out to be the missing ingredient to elevate the attractive fundamentals he’d inherited from Shinbo and company. Of course, it had plenty of two-dimensional, stage-like shots straight out of Kunihiko Ikuhara and by extension Nobuyuki Takeuchi’s book, an amazing color palette with very saturated reds and purples dominating whole scenes, and ominous usage of darkness and shadows—all perfect for the show’s theme. Great compositing staff and a director that knows how to lead them to achieve his vision are key, and not every project can say that it had both.
- Best Animation Designs: Selection Project (Kanna Hirayama)
I would like to look at this category as more than just one-time job. Of course, it all starts with turning in attractive designs, but in my eyes it’s just as important to deliver enough helpful design sheets, and ideally being able to stick around to keep the character art on a consistent level of quality, in line with the vision for the show. And for a role like that, you won’t find a better person than Kanna Hirayama, known to most animation fans by her pen name Kappe. She quickly gained a following not only by drawing attractive and deceptively easy to animate characters, but also by giving her everything and then some during the production process; correcting frames as both animation director and chief animation director, being involved in every single episode, drawing additional illustrations, handling props such as posters and cd jackets in the anime itself—you name a job, and she’s probably doing it. I can’t even fathom how much skill it takes to sustain this level of output and quality.
Initially, Selection Project was a worrying show because it was announced right after Kanojo Okarishimasu ended; which is to say, another show Kappe provided the character design work for, with its second season awaiting in the future. Given how much she was involved in the first season, I assumed that maybe Selection Project was a bit doomed, at least when it came to her output. Of course, I turned out to underestimate her yet again. The credits may look like she wasn’t as involved as one would hope with her name missing from the supervisors list for a couple of episodes, but that’s not actually true; staff participating in the show mentioned on Twitter many times that even episodes where she isn’t credited are full of her corrections, which explains the consistent excellence of the art. Heck, she even corrected 3D dance scenes by drawing expressions over CG models.
I’ve not talked much about what these designs actually look like, but I really think that’s not what’s most important here. In the end, do Kanna Hirayama’s designs subjectively appeal to me? Yes. I love the shapes, the poses she trends towards, frankly everything. But there is something even more tangible that everyone should be able to appreciate, even if these cute designs aren’t their fancy. And that is Kappe‘s dedication to the characters she creates, one that can rarely be matched in this industry.
- Best Creator Discovery: Kazuki Kawagoe
Despite the fact that kids anime have always raised tons of talented staff, some exceptional animators and directors just slip through the cracks of obscurity because they’re very dedicated to lesser-known titles in that field. Fortunately for us, though less so for all the management staff that will have to deal with the inherent messiness of latenight titles, studio OLM has been shifting priorities somewhat and allowing some previously restricted directors to grow more ambitious.
Komi Can’t Communicate is one such project, with Kazuki Kawagoe as a debuting director under the watchful eye of veteran Ayumu Watanabe. Kawagoe wastes no time to prove his real worth by directing a spectacular opening, one of the season’s best and very memorable because of it’s use of cels.
What made me bite, though, was the inspired usage of typography and the feeling that he has a clear vision of how the show is supposed to look at all time; and it better have been, because the show got away with having 8 out of 12 episodes fully outsourced without major visual irregularities. Diegetic onomatopoeias, floating text, projections on walls—you can expect that sort of quirky direction from every episode, as those precepts remain just as strong when the episode gets shipped elsewhere as when the core team is in charge. I’ve since had some chances to take a look at Kawagoe’s lesser-known past output, including Koisuru Asteroid’s amazing 5th episode and his Beyblade’s and Youkai Watch openings sequences, which left me confident in saying that the man has a brilliant future as a director ahead.
- Best Show: Ranking of Kings / Ousama Ranking
Is it cheating to nominate a still ongoing series? Perhaps, and given WIT Studio’s track record when it comes to production implosions, it might even be foolish to preemptively crown the small king. And yet, I can’t bring myself to choose something else. Sure, the likes of Heike Monogatari, Sonny Boy, and Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid S were all amazing on their own right, but I find some shortcomings in all of them; a couple of weaker episodes in the first two, and the fact that Maidragon is a sequel and thus didn’t hit quite as strongly for me, it all made it clear who stood in my heart’s throne.
Ousama Ranking already won me over in pre-production. The dazzling art direction, those cute blobs… I mean animation-friendly designs by Atsuko Nozaki, it all immediately came together into a picturesque world you can’t help but love. And once the show starts, it only gets better; the sense of scale that is both a main theme in the show and a tool for the animation to look grand and spectacular, as well as the bouncy, loose movement that makes every scene so joyful, all delivered by great guests improving WIT’s usual staff—and of course brilliant, thematically tight story. Next year better pack some amazing shows, because if you give me the opportunity to nominate Ousama Ranking again, I will do it with no hesitation.
- Best Movie: Pompo the Cinephile / Eiga Daisuki Pompo-san
It’s been thousands of years since Takayuki Hirao’s last movie, a format that in my opinion fits his visual style the most. Okay, maybe it hasn’t been that long, but that’s how it feels to be deprived from one of the most brilliant directors in anime. Fortunately, our prayers have been heard by investors and producers, and thus we’ve received a new passion project of his. Whoever followed Hirao’s career and read any interviews probably knows that the real cinephile was him all along, so it’s easy to see why he was so on board for this project. Fittingly so, Pompo the Cinephile is a movie that does not hold back on Hirao’s directorial quirks.
Time being stopped or rewinded, people switching locations during a scene, or sometimes even omitting portions of time as if characters had Jojo stand that allowed them to exist multiple times in the same shot. There is more to these quirks than just being playful and visually pleasing, they also make us realize that more time passes than the movie actually shows—as it’s only 90 minutes in runtime, which is also a strong theme in the movie’s film-making story itself. Frankly speaking, the plot is not Pompo’s strongest aspect, as it leaves all the tension for the rushed finale and leaves us with a sense of everything being gifted too easily to the protagonist Gene. Rather inevitable with the scope of the title, but if you need a movie light in tone that does not shy away from playful yet deliberate direction, I’d still urge you to give Pompo a chance.
Animator, Vtuber [Twitter]
- Best Episode: SSSS.DYNAZENON #10
Episode 10 of Dynazenon is simply incredible. Kai Ikarashi had already amazed me before with his efforts on Gridman #09, so I like many others had highly anticipated his next output on this franchise. While Gridman had a very strong antagonist in Akane Shinjo, most of its other character arcs fell pretty flat. Dynazenon has no such issue, as it smartly interweaves several interesting character tales. Many of those converge into episode #10, hitting their emotional high points as it explores the characters struggles, each with their own regret-filled, but ultimately cathartic dreamscapes.
Ikarashi’s sharp, angular drawings and animation contrast with Dynazenon’s often muted, more naturalistic tone in storytelling. A stunning means to break open the solemn dreamscapes visually in its animations and shot compositions, with the characters’ realizations that they can‘t be stuck in the past any longer.
- Best Opening, Ending, Or Music Video: Horimiya OP (link)
Even ignoring the fact that Horimiya‘s opening is completely on my aesthetic wavelength, Masahi Ishihama‘s sequence sticks out for me in how effectively it delivers a narrative through its progression of visuals alone. The early parts of the opening are fragmented, the characters kept apart in separate panels and colour palettes, moving through seasons and spaces on their own. Despite being a show about relationships, there is a distinct sense of loneliness and isolation here, underlining how it is really only over the course of the show that these characters start opening up to each other. I think it’s fitting then that the OP only shows the very first step of this progression, still occupying their own spaces, but having made the decision to break out of their own from these literal boxes. Perhaps a bit on the nose, but that is easily made up for me with its stylish palette and visuals.
- Best Aesthetic: Mushoku Tensei’s Setting Design
I’m cheating a little bit here, as it’s only one of the many aspects that compose a show’s aesthetic, but I really would like to mention Mushoku Tensei for its Setting Design in particular. Having actually seen the overwhelming amount of settei and reference sheets that was produced and gathered for this show, I can guarantee that it is a stand out in this department. Its muted, more grimy colour palettes it doesn‘t stick out like some of my other favourites of this year, but it works exactly for the kind of world this story decided to portray. The settings it explores are not necessarily always beautiful, but always rich in detail, telling stories of civilizations, how they live in these spaces they frequent.
In fact, as if showing the locations throughout the story wasn‘t enough, most of the episodes even have, instead of a traditional opening, a sequence just showing off the settings our protagonists have just entered; what food do the people here eat, what is remarkable about their architecture, important landmarks, what industries thrive here and so on. This show is very much in love with its world-building in every way possible. With a lot isekai titles seemingly satisfied just portraying the same carbon copy fantasy cities, Mushoku Tensei is remarkable in its eye for detail.
- Best Animation Designs: Ranking of Kings / Ousama Ranking (Atsuko Nozaki)
The aspect that might have made many viewers initially disinterested in this show happens to be one of its strongest suits as far as I’m concerned. Ousama Ranking‘s character designs, despite initially appearing very simple, become amazing once you see them in motion. There is a real sense of three-dimensionality captured in their simplicity, and the lack of overbearing detail enables a wider quality and quantity of movement that wouldn’t be possible if the characters were buried in three stacks of bows and frills, as it often is the case with anime designs. And yet, despite that simplicity, every single design is unique and instantly recognizable. They cover a broad range of body types and facial features, down to sometimes not even being human-shaped at all, as is the case with Kage. It plays with shape language in ways you often may see in American cartoons, but rarely in anime. Through and through, a breath of fresh air.
- Best Show: The Heike Story / Heike Monogatari
It was a surprise to me when it was announced that Naoko Yamada would be leaving Kyoto Animation, a studio she clearly thrived in. However, that shock only made it sweeter to find out that even without the strong backing of the KyoAni, Yamada is still one beast of a director. Heike Monogatari is the kind of show where every element perfectly clicks together. This is particularly important since it covers a lot of ground, telling the story of dozens of characters and their downfall over the course of a decade. There is a lot happening, and yet a sense of helplessness is expertly communicated—contrasted with a protagonist that, despite holding the most knowledge about the tragedy that is going to ensue, is mostly a passive observer.
A large tale told with delicacy, more interested in its characters’ inner worlds as the large political plots play out in the background. The thin, delicate lineart carries both subtle gestures and bold, heavy movements. The peaceful pastels that breathe life to most of the show are sharply disrupted by sudden short bursts of violence and grief. This show is a master of tone, a lot of its story being told through visual nuance alone. A feat that becomes especially impressive when you consider the wealth of developments this tale goes through its short 11 episode run.
- Best Movie: Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop / Cider no You ni Kotoba ga Wakiagaru
Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop really doesn’t stand out for its main storyline, a cute but otherwise unremarkable tale of love between two totes adorable, but very awkward teens connecting over their insecurities. Instead, I’d argue that it’s the group they belong to that brings them together and the portrayal of such feeling of community that makes this film shine. Despite having two very clear protagonists, there is a huge cast of side characters who are less defined as individuals, but rather how as a community they affect their surroundings and relationships. This is particularly noticeable when it comes to generational gaps, as all age groups play a role here.
It is no coincidence that this story is set in a shopping mall located in the countryside, beautifully brought to life through its distinct ligne claire aesthetic—definitely a visual stand out this year—and throughout complex Layouts (レイアウト): The drawings where animation is actually born; they expand the usually simple visual ideas from the storyboard into the actual skeleton of animation, detailing both the work of the key animator and the background artists.. A bursting, lively location in a setting that would otherwise be seen as quiet and rural; not that the viewer would notice, as the film does it darndest to always appear quirky. Be it its bubbly character animation, complex shot compositions, fun color palettes (that always seem to work together beautifully, no matter what) or just cramming as many characters as possible into a shot as possible—there is always something happening, which quickly makes the setting become a larger character than any of its individual people on their own.
The Dragon Ball Guy [Twitter]
- Best Episode: Star Wars: Visions #08 – Lop & Ocho
When I was younger, I used to have The Animatrix on repeat, enamoured by the ambitious creativity on display from industry legends I wouldn’t know the names of until a decade later. As a result, the announcement of Star Wars: Visions tickled a nostalgic part of my brain, and the results more than delivered. The eighth short in the anthology in particular, Lop & Ocho, captured me in a way that no other episode this year came remotely close to. It is a powerhouse of individuality, with the direction, Animation Direction (作画監督, sakuga kantoku): The artists supervising the quality and consistency of the animation itself. They might correct cuts that deviate from the designs too much if they see it fit, but their job is mostly to ensure the motion is up to par while not looking too rough. Plenty of specialized Animation Direction roles exist – mecha, effects, creatures, all focused in one particular recurring element., Storyboard (絵コンテ, ekonte): The blueprints of animation. A series of usually simple drawings serving as anime's visual script, drawn on special sheets with fields for the animation cut number, notes for the staff and the matching lines of dialogue. More, and character designs all stemming from a single individual: Yuuki Igarashi.
Having skipped out on Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! due to sheer laziness, Igarashi was not someone I was hugely familiar with; as a director and central creative force that is, since I was already aware of his ability as a key animator. Whether it be the expressiveness of Lop, the wonderfully layered boards, or the most basic of emotions his direction elicited from me, it became clear to me that he is someone special, and I eagerly await his next project.
Although its narrative is ultimately what sealed the deal for me in picking it here, its visual identity gripped me from the get-go, and is perhaps the most striking aspect of this wonderful short. Many contemporary titles have tried to authentically recreate the tangible feel of cel-era animation, and almost none of them succeed. I would argue that Lop & Ocho does pull it off, thanks to a powerful combination of stellar art direction and a director of Photography (撮影, Satsuei): The marriage of elements produced by different departments into a finished picture, involving filtering to make it more harmonious. A name inherited from the past, when cameras were actually used during this process. who understands the nuances that make up traditional animation—or rather, those that you must accentuate when trying to emulate that look using a completely different set of tools. Textured linework, chromatic aberration, subtle layer shadows, and a thick layer of authentic-looking grain kick things off, and when placed against the stellar backgrounds from Art Director (美術監督, bijutsu kantoku): The person in charge of the background art for the series. They draw many artboards that once approved by the series director serve as reference for the backgrounds throughout the series. Coordination within the art department is a must – setting and color designers must work together to craft a coherent world. Yuuji Kaneko, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a late 90s production. With a fantastic scene from Kai Ikarashi to wrap things up, I cannot think of a more deserving episode to take this spot. It’s the perfect example of why tight-knit productions will always reign supreme, and that sure is welcome in an industry that so often resembles a factory farm.
- Best Opening, Ending, Or Music Video: Zombie Land Saga Revenge OP (link)
Believe me, I do not revel in picking a sequence from a studio with such a masturbatory presence, but something about this stuck in my mind more than any other this year. I know embarrassingly little about its creator, Shinpei Kamata, but their use of silhouettes to allow for such bold and seamless transitions is genius. It is deceptively hard to put together pop-art motion graphics in conjunction with dynamic typography, yet it’s executed super well here; Q Kawa’s sequence in particular rules! The piece so perfectly encapsulates the pure joy the show both brings me and is filled with, and while I won’t be surprised if I’m the only person who chooses it this year, I do genuinely think it deserves a mention.
- Best Aesthetic: Arcane (fuck Riot)
Riot suck, but unfortunately, I do have to mention them for their collaboration with Studio Fortiche in creating this stunning show. Although this is largely a CG production with 2D elements, its art direction, colour design, and overall composite is one of the most groundbreaking and startling things to happen in the industry this year, so I simply can’t not give it a nod.
The show is packed full of the most incredible 2D painted backgrounds, with stunning detail that the artists so perfectly matched with the textural elements of their 3D models. Harmonizing that with more uniquely digital elements like dynamic lighting with such seamless precision is no easy feat, but when it all comes together, the results are undeniably breathtaking. 3D emulating 2D is often looked down upon in the anime world, and it’s understandable given the lack of successful approaches over the years, but Arcane proves it’s possible. It involves embracing 3D for its strengths, and not hiding behind decreased frame rates and mediocre shader pipelines for shallow mimicry. It’s about taking the best elements of each toolset, and working them together into a product that elevates into a greater sum of its parts. This is what Arcane excels at, and I hope it continues to push productions in this direction in the same way equally successful attempts like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did a few years prior.
- Best Animation Designs: Wonder Egg Priority (Saki Takahashi)
Many of my picks this year come with large asterisks about some depressing aspect of the production, and I don’t think that could be any more apparent than with Wonder Egg Priority; a show with a somewhat controversial writer, an uncontroversially awful non-ending, and a nightmare production that quite literally put someone in the hospital. It’s not really possible to just cast aspects like that aside, but I do want to take a moment to highlight one undeniable positive: its character designs.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, Saki Takahashi’s designs are a joy to look at. Delicate linework, stunning hair detail—evocative of the work that makes Kyoto Animation productions so memorable—but it’s the subtext to these designs that makes them so successful.
So, what does that specifically mean? When the main character Ai Ohto—whose very name is a pun riffing on her odd-eyed cat theme—has her hood up, she resembles an egg. This isn’t just a sly nod to the title of the show, but emblematic of the way she closes herself off from people. It’s a recurring visual motif in the show that works remarkably well while also looking mega cute. Likewise, even simpler, more on-the-nose aspects such as Kaoru Kurita featuring the colours of the trans pride flag to match his story are sweet touches. For all its flaws both behind the scenes and in its final act, Wonder Egg Priority really did stick with me, and many such details are partly to blame. Its over-ambition got the better of it, but when it worked, WEP was unrivalled.
- Best Creator Discovery: Teruyuki Omine
Attack on Titan’s transition to MAPPA was anything but smooth. In fact, you might even call it a disaster. The studio was not the least bit equipped to handle a project as demanding as Attack on Titan, and yet they took it on anyway. The results were rough to say the least, but one particular director managed to consistently deliver episodes that would have you believe nothing was wrong.
Teruyuki Omine was someone I first (unconsciously) took note of on Dororo, where he likewise delivered some of the most ambitious episodes of the series despite being a relative newcomer to the role. With Attack on Titan, his standing was dramatically raised, to the point of being entrusted with some of the most important episodes—ones that required pristine direction to elevate extended scenes of dramatic dialogue, which he executed perfectly. Enduring such a workload on a brutal schedule is more than challenging enough on its own, so imagine facing the wrath of Attack on Titan fans on top of that. And yet, in spite of so many negative factors, Omine helped save the series from crumbling alongside Series Director: (監督, kantoku): The person in charge of the entire production, both as a creative decision-maker and final supervisor. They outrank the rest of the staff and ultimately have the last word. Series with different levels of directors do exist however – Chief Director, Assistant Director, Series Episode Director, all sorts of non-standard roles. The hierarchy in those instances is a case by case scenario. Yuichiro Hayashi. I look forward to seeing what he can deliver on an improved schedule, and how his idiosyncrasies will develop once his experience in the role continues to pile up.
- Best Show: Castlevania Season 4
I’ve always enjoyed Powerhouse’s Castlevania; the bursts of terrific animation throughout its initial three seasons were memorable, but I’d never find myself considering it for awards like these due to its lack of finesse in other areas, particularly its shoddy inbetweening work that would put a real damper on quieter scenes away from the action.
Fortunately, Castlevania’s final season is also its best. It polishes off the aforementioned issues from its prior outings, resulting in perhaps the most well-rounded show this year. The ambition on display is astonishing, with delicate character acting and ludicrous action peppering each episode, as if the team was finally operating with all restraints off. This is very much Samuel Deats’ Avengers Assemble moment, with the likes of Tam Lu, Gareth Wong, Josh Aguiler, and a host of many others leading the charge on the animation front, topped off by Adam Deats’ larger-than-life compositing work. How that man manages to turn the most unwieldy 3D backgrounds into seamless parts of a scene is beyond me.
Everyone on the team should be so proud of their work, and if any of them read this, you now owe me a Berserk adaptation for giving you this accolade. No, that is not negotiable. Thanks~
- Best Movie: Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time
Perfection. Total and utter perfection. Evangelion’s final Rebuild movie is such a flawless send-off to this iconic franchise that I struggle to even find the words to express what makes it just so successful. It is simultaneously bombastic and delicate, and captures so much of the humanity that made the original Evangelion series such a landmark in anime. Watching it feels like staring into the most private parts of Hideaki Anno‘s soul. Art at its purest, most personal and unadulterated form, despite also succeeding as the sendoff for one of the biggest commercial franchises of all time.
The meticulous framing, the ambitious animation effort throughout, and the stunning art direction all come together with the perfectly penned script to form a movie that recaptures the genius first experienced with The End of Evangelion over two decades prior.
While I have many reservations about the absolute agony that Anno put his staff through in the making of this movie, I do somewhat selfishly feel glad that it paid off in such an unforgettable way. I will miss this series, but as someone who initially felt put off by the Rebuilds as a concept, I’m glad they managed to loop back around to feeling like a worthwhile, legitimate continuation of one of my most beloved franchises.
Animator, Character Designer [Twitter]
- Best Episode: I’ve Been Killing Slimes for 300 Years and Maxed Out My Level / Slime Taoshite 300-nen, Shiranai Uchi ni Level Max ni Nattemashita #06
I had been watching Slime 300 on a whim, but this episode gave off the feeling that it was really something special. A large part was the fact that the drawings were solid; however, it was also a very fun-to-watch episode that highlighted the anime-esque cuteness and humor on display. Keiichiro Saito drew more than a third of the key animation in the episode; I’d already recognized him for his Episode Direction (演出, enshutsu): A creative but also coordinative task, as it entails supervising the many departments and artists involved in the production of an episode – approving animation layouts alongside the Animation Director, overseeing the work of the photography team, the art department, CG staff... The role also exists in movies, refering to the individuals similarly in charge of segments of the film., but watching this episode further confirmed in my mind how fantastic he is as an animator, too.
Having multiple characters on screen is difficult even with just stills, but every cut here casually shows non-main characters in motion, which helps make the series come to life.
I think Slime 300 is an excellent show in terms of character design as well, and it does a good job adapting for anime things like clothing that were very complex in the original designs. A prime example is the protagonist, whose animation design feels fairly fresh, and I see it as a sign of what anime may offer in the future.
- Best Opening, Ending, Or Music Video: 86: Eighty Six OP2 (link)
I watched the entirety of 86: Eighty Six after seeing this opening, and when this sequence began to play for real after all of the episodes, I was genuinely moved, and realized once more just how amazing Ken Yamamoto is.
The structure is simple, but it packs a proper punch from the chorus to the end. Coupled with the song, it’s a fantastic opening. 86 is a brutal show with lots of grisly scenes, but there’s a dramatic backbone to it all, and it’s the kind of anime that makes you want to see the characters through to the end. For those who haven’t seen it yet, please watch the opening and let it be your gateway to watching the entire series.
- Best Show: Love Live! Superstar!!
The anime I most looked forward to watching every week was actually Love Live! Superstar!!. First and foremost, Kanon Shibuya is charismatic as a person, and the girls who are drawn to her are charming as well, so the results are as entertaining as you’d expect. The performance direction, songs, and outfits feel like a pretty big step up from previous iterations; the 3D work in particular is magnificent, and they do a good job integrating hand-drawn cuts while capitalizing on the strengths of the 3D. It’s a show that feels like it marks a point of achievement for idol anime.
I really like Atsushi Saito‘s animation designs as well, which add modern, illustration-esque elements. Love Live! feels like it was firmly established by Yuuhei Murota, so it’s amazing to be able to come up with a new visual identity that builds off of that.
- Best Movie: Revue Starlight: The Movie
I had originally watched the Revue Starlight TV series back then, but I wouldn’t have called myself a diehard fan. However, after watching the movie, it’s come to mean so much to me that I’d probably call it one of my favorite works of animation of all time.
Above all, watching it is a fun and interesting experience, and the exhilarating feeling it leaves me with makes me want to watch again and again. Using Karen Aijo’s upbringing, which wasn’t touched on very much in the TV series, as the central focus, it lays out the futures of the stage girls using fanciful direction and an enchanting soundtrack.
All of the stages are rendered magnificently, and reflect the emotional intensity by changing shape accordingly. Claudine and Maya’s revue scene especially is a visual delight, and incorporates a lot of ideas that never made it into the TV series. The last act as well is nothing short of truly wonderful. I have nothing but gratitude for all the staff who brought this work to life.
Producer, International Production Coordinator, WEP Propaganda Machine [Twitter]
- Best Episode: Wonder Egg Priority #01
The first episode of Wonder Egg Priority is a unique experience. From the get-go, it plunges the viewers into a mystifying dreamscape; so bewitching you could get lost into each detail, and yet so thrilling to delve into thanks to Shin Wakbayashi’s propulsive sense of rhythm. The fast-paced jump cuts make Ai’s exploration digestible and easy to follow, while the slow-paced scenes ease us into her most intimate feelings. The episode mixes reality and dream, present and past, truth and lies in a way that doesn’t make them opposite but rather an extension of the other. There’s no interest to focus on one single idea—instead, the episode embraces its complexity and lets us explore it through the eyes of Ai.
Ai herself is a complex character, quickly coming across as a highly relatable person; she feels so alive and goes through so many wildly different emotions, all depicted with the utmost care and respect. Wakabayashi’s direction invites you to immerse and feel rather than understand, and that’s precisely why as unsettling this episode is, many viewers felt enamored by it and its core ideas. Despite the fact the staff was gathered after Shinji Nojima had already written 3 episodes, you can feel a lot of their touch in it. It goes without saying that this applies to Wakabayashi, who specifically inserted a lot of his own personal experiences into the show and whose direction shaped it as a whole, but also Saki Takahashi with her character designs, music composer DÉ DÉ MOUSE whose soundtrack is inseparable from the show’s identity, and then all the sub-designers and core animators brought by animation producer Shouta Umehara who made the project possible in the first place. Rewatching this episode is a good reminder that Wonder Egg Priority has a sincere desire to understand its characters and their circumstances and just for that, I will never be able to forget, let alone despise, the show.
- Best Opening: Horimiya OP (link)
Masashi Ishihama made a name for himself thanks to the deluge of iconic openings and endings he directed throughout his career. Again, the man doesn’t miss, crafting a sequence as visually charming as usual, but also picking an angle that makes these tools even more effective. Horimiya‘s opening focuses on the darkest undertones of the story such as isolation and the difficulty to connect to others even when they are so close. The constant reminder of the time passing, especially with the seasonal timelapse is yet another point, as high school is an ethereal moment one only gets to live once. While his sequences are always connected to the series’ themes in some way or another, Ishihama being the Series Director: (監督, kantoku): The person in charge of the entire production, both as a creative decision-maker and final supervisor. They outrank the rest of the staff and ultimately have the last word. Series with different levels of directors do exist however – Chief Director, Assistant Director, Series Episode Director, all sorts of non-standard roles. The hierarchy in those instances is a case by case scenario. in the first place feels like it granted him an even deeper understanding of the material he was working with. The opening alone is already an amazing piece, one that never fails to get me somewhat emotional; the second version of the sequence, one that’s evolved to mirror the internal growth of the cast, is what incontestably makes it the opening of the year to me. If you’re going to make an opening that underlines the themes at the core of your work, arguably becoming integral to their delivery, you really can’t fin a better director than Ishihama.
- Best Ending: Jujutsu Kaisen ED2 (link)
The second ending of Jujutsu Kaisen, on top of being an excellent piece, feels like the culmination of director Ryouhei Takeshita’s obvious passion for real cameras. All his openings have cuts mimicking handheld cameras, while his Wotakoi OP had cuts that I will retroactively call—and I apologize for it—TikTok dances. With this ending, however, that silly quirk becomes an elegant framing device of its own. The camera’s purpose is to capture mundane moments and have these memories last forever. In the process, Yuji doesn’t get to actually participate in them, which is why the emotional high arrives when he joins his friends to make these memories. Previously empty places are filled with smiles and happiness, making this ending a heartwarming and comforting sequence.
- Best Aesthetic: The Heike Story / Heike Monogatari
I’ll come clean with my sins. I haven’t watched Heike Monogatari yet, a mistake I shall fix as soon as possible. However, from the glimpses I’ve already caught, I can already say that it easily wins this category. The art direction is especially striking.
- Best Animation Designs: Wonder Egg Priority (Saki Takahashi)
One of this industry’s trends that I’m not fond of is the idea of having famous illustrators and mangaka handling the designs for an original show; understandable, yet so cynical and sometimes weirdly limiting. This is why I want to praise shows like Sk8, Megalo Box Nomad, Selection Project, and of course Wonder Egg Priority for having excellent designs made by animators who have been honing their skills and style for many years—and that’s precisely the reason Wonder Egg Priority takes the cake in my eyes. Despite having been active as a key animator for a decade by now, Saki Takahashi was actually hardly known until her work on Darling in the Franxx. Likely under the influence of those she worked with at CloverWorks, Takahashi’s style is reminiscent of Masayoshi Tanaka and Yukiko Horiguchi, with her own twists such as the highly detailed hair and omnipresence of highlights. She’s now doing illustrations for renowned magazines, and personally I can only wonder if her career would have been the same if WEP animation producer Shouta Umehara hadn’t taken an interest in her. So Wonder Egg Priority, on top of having lovely and carefully thought designs (as it can’t be any other way with Wakabayashi), also allowed a talented artist to flourish; it’s this kind of story that makes being a Sakuga (作画): Technically drawing pictures but more specifically animation. Western fans have long since appropriated the word to refer to instances of particularly good animation, in the same way that a subset of Japanese fans do. Pretty integral to our sites' brand. fan worth it as well.
- Best Creator Discovery: Harumi Yamazaki
At this point, I’ve already said my piece about Wonder Egg Priority‘s strengths, so I will simply link Harumi Yamazaki’s genga because it speaks strongly enough for itself. Yamazaki is on her way to becoming a superstar animator for sure.
- Best Show: SSSS.DYNAZENON
There’s something that felt just right about SSSS.DYNAZENON. As the second entry of this franchise within a franchise, a follow-up to a beloved series like SSSS.GRIDMAN, it was only natural to have high expectations. And not only were they met, but rather even surpassed its predecessor in some respects as far as I’m concerned. The show felt immediately familiar thanks to Akira Amemiya’s direction staying similar—not a problem when it’s so idiosyncratic and effective—while also tweaking some aspects to best fit the new themes. This time around, we have a stronger focus on the ensemble cast, all of whom turning out to be very likable and fun. They also make for relatable characters, be it our past, present, or even future selves, as the age gap among the protagonists makes their struggles and worries encompass different steps of life. And of course, the show never forgets how to have a silly fun time with its colorful robots and kaiju. The question that Shizumu brings to the series is quite interesting, and links the emotional human aspects with the more fantastic parts, which is something I hope continues to be explored in future iterations of the series. But for now, and just like Gridman, the series can pride itself on having an excellent ending by itself—something rare in the anime landscape.
Ah, Satan [Twitter]
- Best Episode: SSSS.DYNAZENON #02
2021 anime has gifted us with a stunning variety of creative talent; we’ve seen evocative indie works, animated vtuber debuts, one-off music videos, and of course incredible original anime. That said, I still think one of the strongest things I’ve seen from this year comes from a TV anime that was widely celebrated, though it’s not quite what you might expect—not SSSS.Dynazenon’s tenth episode, but rather, its second episode: a quiet, but incredibly strong example of the traditional “show don’t tell” golden rule for storytellers.
After coming off a very cookie-cutter kind of first episode, the second episode lays tracks for what is arguably the beating heart of Dynazenon: the dynamics around its main cast of rebels. Akira Amemiya’s inscrutable attention to detail is still here: he carefully throws out parallels as morsels for old-time fans to grab on to, but also executes the pacing of this episode in a natural way where by the end of it, this cast feels familiar. What really makes this come together however, is the way these character relationships are shown through the concept of space and angles. Furukawa’s execution of Amemiya’s vision really sparks when a group of individuals—all trying to reckon with what they’ve seen, and who they have to be to each other—must come together knowingly, to create the Dynazenon robot to defeat evil. Very few episodes have shone through with such strong character work involved, but Dynazenon does it with such ease that you have to really step back and admire how talented this crew was.
- Best Opening: Komi Can’t Communicate / Komi-san wa, Komyushou Desu OP (link)
It feels almost unfair for me to go with one of my all-time favorite people in the industry and what I consider to be a work where he non stop flexes his talent: Komi-san wa, Komyushou desu’s opening is a brilliant recognition of Ayumu Watanabe’s grasp of one material and being able to fully translate—if not elevate—it to another. Watanabe’s board of artists here is a stunning one: Tetsuo Yajima’s storyboards really allow us to be a part of these classmates’ bright, colorful, and optimistic world, and folks like Kazuki Kawagoe bring those cherished moments to life with snappy, but nuanced character animation. It clearly takes inspiration from Watanabe’s previous work After the Rain and its opening, but I can’t help but be charmed by such a dazzling celebration of youth.
Runner up: Link Click’s OP is enthralling both in its use of rotoscope and dizzying metaphorical color and transition usage. Lots of good stuff there.
- Best Ending: Beastars ED2
The tender colors and hand drawn detail of Beastars’ second season’s ending are both heartbreaking and beautiful. It’s a testament I think, not only to Louis and Ibuki’s nuanced and tragic relationship, but to some of the core character moments of Beastars overall from this year’s season.
- Best Aesthetic: Wonder Egg Priority
Wonder Egg Priority, for all of its flaws and warning flags, is still one of the most stunning things I’ve seen this year. There was an incredible mastery over color work and art direction that I don’t think any other show—even Heike Monogatari—was able to light a candle to. The ability to weave in absolute mastery over color theory, while playing with space, abstract art, and character three-dimensionality are all incredible and yet seen at different levels for nearly every episode in this show. Shin Wakabayashi‘s grasp of these fundamentals, paired with the nuance and detail of Saki Takahashi’s designs, is what made WEP shine for me, especially with an outstanding first episode.
- Best Animation Designs: Sonny Boy (Norifumi Kugai), Ranking of Kings / Ousama Ranking (Atsuko Nozaki)
I’m heavily biased when it comes to animation/character designs that favor simplicity but style at the same time: a weird balance that’s considerably hard to achieve, especially when you take into account the fact that you have to make them feel alive and somehow exude expression!
Sonny Boy really hits this mark when it comes to the department of 90’s-reminiscent nostalgia. All of the cast are both remarkably ordinary and yet unique in their design; they welcome that nostalgic purpose, but also fit very much in line with Sonny Boy’s continued play on animation and warping with image. As a result, while I don’t think the designs lend themselves to the most expressive character interactions, they seamlessly work with the myriad of worlds that Shingo Natsume tries to distort.
On the other hand, Ranking of Kings’ designs do nothing but expression and with such effortless charm. Riffing off classic storybook aesthetic to create familiar, but distinctive characters, and yet adding enough emphasis on shape to be able to capture weight and volume. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an anime really be able to play with its character designs and push, pull, elongate, and squish them to new proportions, but Ranking of Kings does it all with considerable nuance and fun at the same time.
- Best Creator Discovery: Hiromatsu Shuu
Hiromatsu Shuu (Zhou Haosong) has somewhat been on top of my mind for me ever since I saw their work on DECA-DENCE from last year. That said, it’s one thing to keep an eye out for an animator, and another to watch their growth via social media as they take on more and more ambitious works and succeed at every step. From their detailed explosion work, and ability to play with frame rate to capture the volume or fluidity of body motion, to the gradual mastery of composite work: Shuu’s work on Da Wang Rao Ming’s opening has been phenomenal, if not a bit emotional, to watch. It’s also a reminder that between mesmerizing stuff like this and the exciting LinkClick, the world of Chinese animation is becoming an exciting space to follow in the coming years.
- Best Show: The Heike Story / Heike Monogatari
There is no show I think that encapsulates, so vividly, the grief, rage, and trauma that we’ve all endured in one way or the other the past two years, as much as Heike Monogatari does. In that way, it is deeply unfortunate as time and time again seems to prove with my favorite series over the years—that it is also mired in an animation dilemma of its own, given the circumstances of its production and the recent responses by the studio to the health of its members.
It is also this kind of thought that makes me wonder: what kind of responsibility do we bear when we come back to anime, as these production collapses continue, and artists’ lives and health are drawn into the question of consumption? This is a question that has been plaguing me all year, and I can’t think of ironically, any other show that bears that personal realization, than Heike Monogatari. It is fundamentally a show about death, and the lack of closure we are often offered in the grand passage of time, and what we have to make do with the result. Sometimes, there are no answers. And sometimes, living is simply a means to find them. We can only hope that there’s a semblance of peace at the end of it all. Much in the same way, the only thing we can come back to with anime, and all the circumstances it’s deeply embroiled in, now more so than ever, is that knowledge, and the fortitude and prayer that things will change, no, must change, if we want to treasure what we currently have.
I don’t think I can ever fully recommend Heike for those same reasons. It is indisputably a work tied both to its creator and the trauma she had to endure—that we are still enduring —while also being a reevaluation of what is arguably one of Japan’s most beloved epics, that culturally paves the way for how we—especially as Asian women—endure grief and weave it into our daily ritual of being. It is, as a result, a product of its time and I don’t think it will hit as hard as it did for me down the line, but at the same time, I can undoubtedly say that if Naoko Yamada was a phenomenal force of the anime industry pre 2019, Heike marks her as a continued force—and one I hope to see prosper and live long—into 2022, albeit with a changed tone.
- Best Movie: Violet Evergarden: The Movie
I unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to venture out and see many anime movies this year, but between Evangelion 4.0 and Violet Evergarden the Movie, I would have to say that while the former offered a more satisfying overall experience, the latter offered some incredibly satisfying animation work in terms of mesmerizing detail, stunning settings, and easily some of the best composite work I’ve seen this year.
Ishidate is a director who’s often been hit or miss for me, but I don’t think anything encapsulates this so vividly as the Violet Evergarden movie. Discarding an ending I feel that undoes a lot of the narrative work of the TV show, there is a solid half of that movie that just hits, whether it’s a moving scene about the anxiety, tension, and fear of meeting an old friend after years of thinking they were dead, or coming to terms with the trauma you thought you had shut yourself off from for years, but having to confront it face to face. Ishidate’s understanding of the body language that betrays us in these kinds of moments: a slight tremor of the hand, the stiffness of opening a door, or the forced smile to make at greeting a loved one – there’s empathy and kindness here, and when Violet Evergarden hovers on these moments, it’s easily some of the best in the movie landscape for 2021.
- Best Episode: Tropical Rouge Precure #29, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid S #10,
I’ve argued before that Keisuke Mori is so good that people don’t even bother to examine how and why he’s that good—and if they did, they’d realize that they were still underestimating him. If you want to understand why he’s the animator of the generation, look no further than his Animation Direction (作画監督, sakuga kantoku): The artists supervising the quality and consistency of the animation itself. They might correct cuts that deviate from the designs too much if they see it fit, but their job is mostly to ensure the motion is up to par while not looking too rough. Plenty of specialized Animation Direction roles exist – mecha, effects, creatures, all focused in one particular recurring element. debut—Tropical Rouge Precure #29. I’ve already said my piece: Mori simply is that good, and so is director Yuta Tanaka, who admitted that he felt the need to step up to the level of the young prodigy and all the bombastic friends that he invited.
As a side note, I’d like to shout out the Kanna-centric tenth episode of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid S. Director and storyboarder Taichi Ogawa was arguably the roughest prospect at the studio when he started dabbling into directorial tasks nearly a decade ago, but by training under Taichi Ishidate first and following Naoko Yamada’s precepts later, he’s slowly become someone worthy of being considered their ace episode director. His approach to capturing moments is more pragmatic than Yamada’s, as one of his best tools is regulating the temperature of the animation. The studio is full of directors with an excellent hand for the compositing process, as well as others who can reinforce the mood through specific depictions of the climate, but Ogawa is so precise it almost feels like he’s got the order backward—physically nail the temperature first, build the right atmosphere upon it later. The episode where I believe he reached directorial maturity, the OVA for the first season of Euphonium, was defined by the running through hazy summer heat in the same way that Maidragon S #10 is inseparable from the cozy afternoon lights. Adorable, and with the terrific sense of place and time you can expect from a director like Ogawa.
The glorious excess in Da Wang Rao Min‘s opening sequence is as self-explanatory as animation gets, so all I can bring myself to do is urge people to go watch it. If I have to type something, I’d rather issue a reminder that Koudai “Hanabushi” Watanabe put out a new music video last January; emotionally, it feels like entire decades have passed, but if we’re to believe calendars, that was one of the greatest pieces of animation of 2021. Shapes let looser than ever by foregoing visible lineart, and yet a strict control of the form that enables even the most tender of animation. A gorgeous stylized aesthetic that hints at the truth of the world, while also keeping everything easily readable even with that lack of visible linework. Every creative choice this music video makes is the right one—including Hanabushi‘s decision to reinvent the wheel, when he could have simply iterated on the aesthetic of his previous work alongside Zutomayo.
- Best Ending: Ousama Ranking ED1 (link)
Ousama Ranking‘s ending sequence is adorable, taking the vague picture book energy of the art direction in the show proper and approaching that idea much more literally—a great fit for what’s essentially an anime fable. It’s the direct result of studio WIT’s Ibaraki branch, a fascinating substudio where the independent animation creators meet commercial frameworks, in an attempt to produce unique family-friendly works and hopefully train some artists in the process too. Artists who’ve graduated from prestigious art programs like Geidai have been gathering there; especially on projects like Totsukuni no Shoujo, but when need be, they will assist on titles like Ousama Ranking if the main branch comes knocking at the right time. That’s the case of Akino Fukuji, one such Geidai alumni who directed and animated this sequence. One detail that stood out to me is that the ending is actually part of a larger music video that Fukuji illustrated under the supervision of Ousama Ranking‘s Series Director: (監督, kantoku): The person in charge of the entire production, both as a creative decision-maker and final supervisor. They outrank the rest of the staff and ultimately have the last word. Series with different levels of directors do exist however – Chief Director, Assistant Director, Series Episode Director, all sorts of non-standard roles. The hierarchy in those instances is a case by case scenario. Yosuke Hatta. Given how complete the sequence in the anime feels, you’d never be able to guess that they cut it from a larger whole—further proof of the staff’s finesse, I would say!
- Best Aesthetic: The Heike Story / Heike Monogatari
Naoko Yamada doesn’t carry a camera back to the 12th century to tenderly film a medieval epic, so much as she transports the viewer to an idealized version of it—and yet, away from her old comrades capable of the utmost delicacy, her touch is decidedly less ethereal, grounded by reality and by the new genre she’s tackling. Knowing the awful production circumstances, I don’t want to overly fetishize Heike Monogatari‘s roughness, but it’s undeniable that Yamada showed adaptability she never needed before, making the best of the new hand she was dealt. Watching her quickly put together the most beautiful show of the year regardless would be surprising if she wasn’t a well-known generational talent, and to be fair, everything is a bit easier when you surround yourself with trustworthy ex-coworkers and the likes of Deho Gallery’s background artists.
- Best Animation Designs: PokeToon: “Yume no Tsubomi” and “I’ve Turned Into a Gengar?!” (Akiko Watanabe)
Akiko Watanabe‘s run on PokeToon as the character designer and animation director for its best short films feels as if she challenged herself. Taking Yume no Tsubomi‘s expressivity as the baseline, she further stylized her work to the point of no longer feeling reminiscent of Pokemon‘s visual brand, gaining a delightful feeling of effortlessness to the animation in the process. Conceptually, I’ve Turned Into a Gengar‘s designs are even better, especially with their focus on the silhouettes. Studio Colorido productions continue to be the best thing that has happened to Pokemon anime.
- Best Creator Discovery: Tamami Tokuyama
I’ve been asked on repeated occasions who the new bright stars at Kyoto Animation are supposed to be. After all that has happened to them, it’s natural that viewers fond of their works are looking for encouraging new faces just as much as the studio itself is. As it turns out, though, discerning budding potential isn’t all that fast on a studio that is so thorough in their training process—by all means a positive in contrast to the industry as a whole—and from an external point of view, that’s especially true when you factor in their production schedules. To put things simply: for the entirety of 2021, viewers didn’t really get to see the KyoAni of 2021. The second season of Maidragon was produced pretty much in its entirety in years prior, with a lineup of creators that no longer represents the reality of the studio. We do know for a fact that they’ve doubled down on their already core objective of raising new generations of artists, but even if a tremendously promising figure had emerged recently, we simply wouldn’t have been exposed to their work in a remotely significant way.
Rather than a complete newcomer, then, that exciting new face would have to be someone whose training process was already advanced, quietly on their way to earn higher responsibility roles—and of course, someone prepared to ace those opportunities. That turned out to be the case of Tamami Tokuyama, who had formally joined the studio around 2017. She was quickly promoted to clean-up roles and then full-blown Key Animation (原画, genga): These artists draw the pivotal moments within the animation, basically defining the motion without actually completing the cut. The anime industry is known for allowing these individual artists lots of room to express their own style., but given how the studio came to a halt with the arson and then the pandemic, she remained completely unknown as she didn’t really have the platform to stand out. Move forward to 2021, though, and you’ll find her name all over the most attractive work that the studio has published recently. She was the one to animate the dynamic climax to Tohru and Elma’s arc, masterfully following up none other than the studio’s ace animator Tatsuya Sato; her comments showed her coming to terms with the holistic experience of animation, and her stunning drawings articulated every single shifting emotion with ease.
Even more impressively, Tokuyama was also the character designer and sole animation director on this delightful commercial. In a way, her ability to provide adorable designs feels like a lesser feat, especially when compared to her work as a first-time animation director; thoroughly consistent quality that more than lives up to the studio’s high standards, not just pretty on the surface but mindful of details like the simulation of tactility. Given that she was commanding a young group of animators, the same one we’d seen put together a much rougher commercial released at the same time, Tokuyama simply seems to have adapted to the role uncannily fast. Akiko Takase of Violet Evergarden fame, the latest prodigy of an animation director raised at the studio, departed from the industry for an indefinite period after the arson attack shook her to the core. As someone with clearly different sensibilities, Tokuyama will never replace her, but she’s already positioned herself as a potential new young pillar to build upon. By making good on a couple of opportunities, she went from an unknown entity to a name to keep in mind not just for the future but also the immediate present—if that’s not a creator discovery, I don’t know what is.
- Best Show: Odd Taxi
I have no doubt that the greatest serialized work of 2021, and especially the one that will go down in history as the most significant one, is Heike Monogatari. And it’s with the same level of conviction that I can’t bring myself to award it such, at least not until the pain has dulled and all that remains is an exceptional work of animation. The inherent tragedy to Yamada’s own circumstances was already heavy enough to digest, and seeing her have to jump headfirst into a production disaster left an immediate bad aftertaste that gets in the way of appreciating a demonstrably amazing series. And frankly, I feel no rush to award it this year, since it was meant to be a 2022 series and that’s when its actual TV broadcast will happen. Maybe if they had stuck with that, they wouldn’t have had staff members for this series on the verge of a breakdown. Seeing how the studio’s response to being called out by one of those exploited workers was a threat to sue them, though, expecting any better might be foolish.
Coming to terms with my entirely external reservations about Heike left me thinking about which serialized work of animation impacted me the most this year. If you know me, you won’t be surprised to hear that the first one that came to mind was Nijisanji Koshien 2021. Pawapuro continues to be the perfect engine of emergent storytelling, and by involving not only Japanese content creators and audiences but also those overseas, its reach this year was larger than ever. The result felt as perfectly scripted as long time followers are used to; Shiishii’s incomprehensible luck net her the strongest player in tourney history without the need to reroll, but it also led to her putting all her eggs in one basket, crafting the perfect spokon narrative by training the ultimate pitcher Kanae—the one who would never leave the mound, powered by the most sports anime mechanic possible in the form of guts. One year after clinching the title as the undefeated dark horse school, NijiKou had become the enemy to beat, with its inhuman pitcher as the clear final boss. After his defeat, the one standing on the mound was no longer a monster but a human. As I said, if you do know me, you’ll be aware that this paragraph is somewhere between completely serious and only partially serious.
But what about, you know, titles that reasonable human beings might actually consider a TV anime? SSSS.DYNAZENON and Maidragon S were as good as you could possible expect a sequel to a title that might have very well been a flash in the pan; which is to say, they were confirmations that they were not that by any means, and that their teams were completely aware of what they were doing. Both of them have extensive coverage on this site, though, so I’d rather shout out the other series I was most invested into—one that I don’t expect to get much of a spotlight over here. Sometimes it feels that, as if overcompensating for general audiences who rarely even consider the unique strengths of animated storytelling, animation fans have narrowed their vision of the medium as well. It goes without saying that strong visual storytelling is very rewarding, that there is much room to convey information through character acting that isn’t present in the script, but I believe that there’s more room for more approaches that still feel like brilliant usages of animation. After all, animation could allow someone to draw their own furry OCs, and years down the line and with some skill and luck, they could get an entire show greenlit based on those cartoon animals. Animation allows things like Odd Taxi to exist, and despite its animation being mostly just functional, Odd Taxi is fantastic.
Since I’d rather people who haven’t seen it yet go in as blindly as possible, for the purely egotistical reason that I enjoy seeing people’s reaction to the show, I’ll just reiterate what others have already said. Odd Taxiis a brilliantly threaded narrative, genuinely one of the greatest efforts in anime Series Composition (シリーズ構成, Series Kousei): A key role given to the main writer of the series. They meet with the director (who technically still outranks them) and sometimes producers during preproduction to draft the concept of the series, come up with major events and decide to how pace it all. Not to be confused with individual scriptwriters (脚本, Kyakuhon) who generally have very little room for expression and only develop existing drafts – though of course, series composers do write scripts themselves. I’ve ever seen. Its fangs are sharp, but you might not even notice that it’s biting multiple societal woes because the musicality of the dialogue is almost irritatingly distracting; is there such a thing as dialogue too good, because I feel like there might be. That awareness extends to understanding how people consume media nowadays, hence why it got away with hiding clues to the mystery in social media accounts without feeling like a desperate gimmick to generate engagements. While Sonny Boy is the TV anime project I feel the most respect for this year, nothing satisfied me quite like Odd Taxi.
- Best Movie: Revue Starlight: The Movie (But Maybe It’s Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time)
Between all-new theater releases, early film festival screenings, and of course physical&digital releases, people have had access to so many great anime movies that I wouldn’t blame anyone suffering from decision paralysis, incapable of deciding which one to even start with. The last 12 months have been so good that one can simply shrug off the fact that some historically important figures in theatrical animation have dropped the ball recently—not much of a problem when other icons did deliver, and plenty of lesser-known directors put together their best works yet. This was the year I first got to see Looking for Magical Doremi, a film completely unlike your usual nostalgia cash-grab despite being thematically and narratively built upon that feeling. It was also the year that marked the return of one of the most magnetic directors to the big screen, with Takayuki Hirao‘s fascinating Pompo the Cinephile, a movie where joy and jadedness are so deeply intertwined you simply can’t look away—especially not with Hirao’s delivery, as he thrived in a production where the artifice of cinema was at the core of everything. It even was the year where I found out that a commercial monolith like Fate/Grand Order can defy industry conventions… as long as the situation is very chaotic and the young team behind it is insane enough. I’ve caught up with so many interesting movies that this blog’s drafts are now full of essays about cool films, so I suppose you can look forward to that in the near future.
Among all those great movies, the one to win me over the most was a last-second arrival: Revue Starlight. Director Tomohiro Furukawa exudes visual charisma, which he has only been further honing since the initial TV series, but I would say that the greatest improvement was the more compelling narrative he was working with this time around. To be frank, his delivery has such tremendous gravitas that he doesn’t much more than a fundamentally sound conflict to create something amazing, which is why his career is at such an encouraging spot. After a tremendously entertaining film, he’s already teasing out a future project that builds on the iconography he developed here, but this time around aided by a renowned writer. As long as the industry doesn’t do him dirty—please keep Koide and the other bombastic animators his style requires glued to his hip—Furukawa should be one of the big names to look out for. This movie convinced me that he’s the real deal.
Was it the best movie of the year, then? Ask me again in a few months, when I’ve managed to fully process Hideaki Anno bidding farewell to Evangelion. If he toook that long to make the film, then I’m allowed a long digestion as well.
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