A Big Ol’ Pile of Anime Recommendations (2020)

What a year, huh? At least there was some good cartoons!

In all sincerity, 2020 saw the release of some very fun and intriguing series—and working for AniFem has enabled me to keep a closer eye on what’s coming out than ever before, and, with premiere reviews, check out and enjoy series I may otherwise have totally missed. So read on for my favourite anime that I watched in 2020, which include everything from soft sapphic romances, to murder and mind games, to a “reincarnated in a video game” story I actually liked, to anime about anime.

Adachi and Shimamura

Note: this is a slightly edited repeat of what I’ve already written about the series for the season digest over on AniFem. Be sure to check that post out for a wrap-up of the best of the season!

Premise: One day when they were both skipping class, Adachi and Shimamura ran into each another on the second level of the school gym. The two girls developed a routine, and an easy-going friendship: they meet there to play ping-pong, eat snacks, goof around, and try not to get caught by staff or students when a P.E. class is on. But is it possible that this laid-back relationship between two delinquents could turn into something more?

The Good Stuff: Adachi and Shimamura is ultimately an “it’s complicated” recommendation: there is a lot to like here, but there’s also a lot that many viewers may find frustrating. But for our purposes here, let’s begin with the good.

It is a genuinely tender and nuanced depiction of anxious, disaffected adolescents with self-esteem issues and a fear of getting close to one another. Despite the soft glow and the whimsy that permeates the first few episodes, this is a surprisingly down-to-earth story that really zeroes in on its characters and makes them feel fleshed-out and realistic.

Adachi in particular feels very heartfelt and authentic. The way she retreats into her shell and overthinks her interactions with Shimamura (and, hilariously, her horoscope) ring true to the teen experience, and particularly the experience of having a crush you’re terrified of acknowledging. It’s very sweet and rewarding watching the two closed-off main characters get more emotionally free with one another, and you end up really cheering for Adachi as she inches closer and closer to telling Shimamura how she really feels. However…

Caveats and content warnings: …the slowburn nature of the show comes with the price that it doesn’t really reach a conclusive conclusion in terms of relationship development. Like some adaptations before it, it’s perhaps a little too faithful to its source material—particularly the pacing—and given that the anime does not cover the later volumes of the series where the gals do get together, it somewhat leaves you hanging. Which would not be a bad thing if we knew season two was on the way, or, indeed, if I hadn’t also watched the yuri title I recommend a few paragraphs down, making AdaShima look a little flaky in comparison.

There’s also the issue that the camera loves to linger on the main characters’ shiny lips, knees, and thighs. At some points we can infer that this is Adachi’s gaze (as she’s clearly attracted to Shimamura), but most of the time it’s clear that this is just the fan service lens at work. On a more character-based level, I had a hard time getting attached to the side characters and in the end found some of them a bit superfluous, especially the whimsical astronaut girl. What was her narrative purpose, anyway? Again, maybe if we get a second season we’ll find out, but for now we’re sort of just left there.

Given how much I enjoyed the series premiere, there was a lot about the show overall that was disappointing. Still, I don’t want it to totally vanish from the radar, especially given how few yuri titles are getting adaptations. And, at the risk of turning this into a book recs post when it’s ostensibly about anime, the novels have just started coming out in English and I really enjoyed the first volume, so if you’re interested in the premise but don’t want to deal with the series’ cinematography issues, it’s definitely worth checking out.

Beastars

Beastars opening

Premise: in a world of anthropomorphic animals, the tenuous peace between carnivores and herbivores has society balancing on a knife’s edge. One place were order and civility is prized above all else, and impressed upon the youth of the nation, is the prestigious Cherryton School… until an alpaca from the drama club is mysteriously devoured. With a murderer on the loose and tensions running high, shy wolf Legosi wants nothing more than to keep his head down and avoid attention. Matters are complicated, however, when he finds himself drawn into the politics of it all by charismatic deer Louis, and when he finds himself drawn to a rabbit named Haru… who he kind of has a crush on, but also kind of wants to eat.

The Good Stuff: this noir crime story/high school dramady starring anime animal-people has absolutely no business being as compelling as it is. The world it sets up is bizarre but well-crafted, and creates an effective stage for some fascinating explorations into the theme of power and the many ways it can manifest and be manipulated throughout politics, relationships, and everyday life.

Legosi makes for an intriguing and sympathetic main character as he ambles through the world trying his best to be a good and genuine person while everyone around him is playing psychosexual four-dimensional mind games. Haru, our rabbit love interest (or perhaps dinner craving…) gets her voice in the narrative too, and is a wonderfully ambiguous and self-motivated character rather than simply being The Innocent-Lookin’ Dame Who Weren’t Really So Innocent who walks into the noir detective’s office. Louis completes the triangle and hammers home the themes of power, corruption, and the importance of public image, all while being gloriously dramatic and very fun to watch.

The music, animation, and general atmosphere all builds together to create a tense and engaging story, which sometimes swings out of nowhere and surprises you by being very heartfelt and funny. The series wraps itself up in with satisfying arc while leaving the door open for continuation. A second season has been promised for 2021, so until then I (and many other folks) will be gnashing our teeth for more, and for answers to the mystery at the heart of this weird and compelling world.

Also the opening theme slaps.

Caveats and content considerations: while this is far more that “that horny furry anime”, there is some sexual content that warrants mentioning. A big part of Haru’s character is that she’s sexually active, something that makes her the target of bullying and gossip around the school, and something that ends up being explored in a way that contributes to those Power themes in a really interesting way.

She retains her agency and her voice in the narrative for the most part, and is a genuinely well-written character rather than a fan service insert. The one exception is when she gets kidnapped towards the climax of the series, and has a bunch of big, older carnivores making to devour her in some scenes that come with overtones of sexual assault. She ends up okay, but they’re uncomfortable enough to mention. You will also witness a couple of scenes of consensual rabbit-clothes-removal in the earlier parts of the series. Again, I promise the writing is good and she is good, but it can still throw you for a loop.

Legosi’s feelings for Haru—that combination/confusion of adoration and appetite—made me cautious, but weirdly enough the show handles this quite well. Their romance isn’t plain sailing by any means, but it’s definitely free of a lot of the yuck it had the potential to contain, and they come off with a surprisingly balanced dynamic.

It’s a dark show, and no character is 100% morally black or white. As to be expected from a murder mystery where the victim was eaten alive, there are parts that are bloody and disturbing, but the show overall refrains from being indulgently gory.

And now, for something completely different…

Kase-san and Morning Glories

Kase san (7)

Premise: shy gardener Yamada and track team superstar Kase have started dating! But what does it really mean to have and to be a girlfriend? How do we push through miscommunications and insecurities? And what is the future of this young love, with gnarly grown-up things like university applications looming on the horizon?

The Good Stuff: this hour-long OVA is based on the beloved manga, and, in my viewing, seems to take The Best Bits and streamline them into an adorable and poignant story about the growth of a relationship. Having skipped over the leadup to Kase and Yamada getting together, the narrative here is about what happens next: exploring the weird new world of this shifted dynamic, working out your issues with one another, approaching the topic of The Future together, and being struck hard and fast by the realisation that oh my god I love this person so much, for realises, oh my god oh my god oh my god.

You know I love slow-burn romantic development, but it’s also hugely rewarding to watch a (queer!) couple navigating the early stages of a relationship, ironing out the creases and becoming more comfortable with each other. In a media climate where viewers (still) often have to justify the romance between characters of the same gender using a conspiracy-style pinboard, it’s hugely gratifying to see two young women kiss, throw around “I love her”s, and even have conversations about sex (however initially awkward they may be—the scene in Yamada’s bedroom where they fumble their way through the expectations inherent in being alone together, then get the giggles and break all that tension, was one of the funniest and sweetest parts).

It doesn’t go into the business of navigating the world as a queer couple specifically, or go into the characters’ journeys with their identity so much, but that’s okay—it’s very centred on the two of them and how they feel about each other, and it’s a delightful, affirming little love story that had me grinning much of the way through.

Caveats and content considerations: well, if you don’t like sugary-sweet slow-paced romances where the biggest conflicts are school applications and very realistic teen communication issues, this may not be the movie for you. The aforementioned lack of LGBTQIA+ culture—in terms of coming out, finding community, using terms like “lesbian”, etc—may also irritate some people, but as I said above, the lack of all that also lets the romance breathe in a sort of escapist space. As part of that, the characters don’t face any homophobia. There’s a little glimpse of tasteful nudity, but no leery fan service to speak of.

Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!

Eizouken (3)

Premise: Midori has always wanted to make anime, ever since she was little and had her baby artist’s heart stolen by an animated movie. With some help from her new friend Tsubame—and some business-savvy swindling from her old pal Sayaka—that dream might just come true! They just have to make sure the student council doesn’t shut down their makeshift studio…

The Good Stuff: I’ve gushed plenty about this show over the year: how gloriously creative and joyful it is; how well it captures all aspects of the creative process, from the bliss of inspiration to the gnarly business of discipline and deadlines; and how great its zany, unabashedly passionate female leads are. It’s just consistently fun to watch, both in the sense of observing the story unfolding and in the very literal, visual sense.

The show is practically a love letter to the animated medium, mingling art styles to show the characters running through their daydreams and ideas, playing with possibility, and never missing a chance to be as beautiful as possible. It’s just a delight. If you have a friend who kind of wants to get more into anime but has only really seen the big Ghibli movies and things like that, I’d say point them in this direction—even the first episode on its own is an experience I think everyone who’s even a little bit of an animation fan will enjoy.

Caveats and content considerations: aside from some slapstick violence (these characters are very cartoony and stretch-and-squishable) and perhaps the crippling “too real”-ness of some of the portrayals of artist life, there’s not too much I can think of here that warrants a warning. It’s visual delightfulness and lack of fan service and adult themes would even make it quite a good one to show younger viewers (again, perhaps a nice bridge for that little Ghibli fan in your life).

My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom!

Villainess 1

Premise: Catarina Claes, the daughter of a noble family in a magical world, bumps her head one day and is flooded with the memories of her past life. Catarina is rocked by the realisation that she was once an ordinary Japanese high schooler, and has died and been reborn into the world of the last game she was playing: a dating sim called Fortune Lover. Rather than being reincarnated as the heroine, however, she has been reborn into the role of the game’s snooty villainess. And what becomes of the villainess when the heroine gets her happy ending? Nothing good.

Catarina hatches a plan to subvert her destined role as antagonist and the inevitable doom that comes with it. It works so well that all the game’s characters ignore their supposed coding and fall for her… including the heroine herself.

The Good Stuff: Villainess is perhaps the most chaotically bisexual anime I’ve ever watched. It’s an entry in the isekai genre that I can truly get behind, putting a fun spin on the “trapped/reborn in a video game” idea and on the tropes of dating sims. Catarina hatches many schemes to avoid her fate, but the greatest changes she enacts on the world around her come just from being kind.

She rewrites someone’s tragic backstory by being nice to him in his childhood, ensuring he grows up to be a totally different type of character. She befriends the heroine rather than fulfilling her role as her rival. And she stumbles headfirst into a love-octagon simply by being a charming, supportive, sweet person. She’s oblivious to all this, of course, but by golly she’s doing her best. She’s big of heart and dumb of ass and she’s the heroine we deserve.

Caveats and content considerations: Catarina’s complete lack of awareness that seven of her closest friends have fallen in love with her is a running gag. You could almost say it was the entire premise underpinning the series. Most of the time, it’s frustrating in a good, “argh, how does she keep doing this?! I need to keep watching to see what happens next!” sort of way, but for some viewers I imagine the joke might run thin more quickly. The romantic trifle isn’t resolved by the end of season one, so it remains to be seen who, if anyone, Catarina will resolve her romantic tension with.

Again, it’s part of the fun, but if you go in expecting and hoping for a concrete resolution—or some more concrete queer content beyond everyone’s crushes on Catarina—you might come away unfulfilled. But season two is on its way, so we’ll simply have to find out if that takes us towards a conclusion or retains the harem status quo.

In terms of ick, this show is fairly harmless. There is a bit of unsavoury, possessive behaviour from one of Catarina’s love interests, and a running gag about a dark and sultry prince trying to seduce Catarina while she’s completely unaware of his intentions. None of these are deal-breakers for me, especially since they’re woven into an overall charming show, but they’re there.

Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle

Premise: Princess Syalis has been kidnapped by the evil Demon King, and is being held prisoner in his wicked lair! The kingdom’s greatest heroes set out on a valiant quest to rescue the girl… unaware that it’s Syalis who is making life Hell for her monstrous captors.

The Good Stuff: Syalis—the titular sleepy princess—is caught up in an epic battle of good and evil, and just wants to get a good night’s sleep. She is perhaps the most relatable character of 2020, with the added bonus that she has what you might call a “total gremlin” streak to balance it out. It’s very fun watching her use her wits to manoeuvre the castle full of cartoonishly dark and dastardly monsters, bamboozling them all as she crafts the comfiest blankets, pyjamas, and pillows that man- or demonkind has ever witnessed.

Yes, it’s one of those series that is sort of the same joke over and over again: Syalis wants to sleep, she thinks of something that will help her with this, she wreaks imaginative havoc putting the pieces together as the demon guards scurry helplessly in her wake. But it’s a funny enough joke, and Syalis a funny enough character, that it doesn’t feel too repetitive. It helps that the skits often play on fairy tale or high fantasy tropes, undermining the things that are usually Of Great Significance in those stories in favour of placing wee little Syalis and her very personal motivations at the forefront. My favourite example is her questing out to steal an ancient legendary sword that glows with holy light, distressing the demon court until it’s revealed she’s not escaping or overthrowing them, she just wanted to use it as a solar lamp. Given that my partner had just bought me a sunlight lamp to help me wake up on overcast days, the whole zany otherworldly skit was weirdly realistic and thus twice as funny.

Caveats and content warnings: as abovementioned, this is skit comedy that follows a relatively similar format each time, so if that’s not your thing you may find it tiring rather than entertaining. As I noted in my episode check-in, there are occasionally a couple of uncomfortable jokes, for example when a misunderstanding makes the Demon King think Syalis is trying to seduce him, which is slightly awkward since it’s not clear exactly how old she’s meant to be. Overall, though, the comedy is lighthearted and friendly even when it gets a bit dark.

Talentless Nana

Premise: on a remote island is a school for young people with superpowers, isolated from society and trained to fight the mysterious Enemies of Humanity. The newest student is a bubbly, naïve, cheerful girl named Nana… who reveals she’s not quite what she seems when she pushes the supposed main character off a cliff, then sets out on a government-assigned mission to assassinate as many superpowered kids as possible.

The Good Stuff: reader, do you love the thrills and mind games you get when you play The Impostor in Among Us? This may be the anime for you. Watching Nana carefully navigate her relationship with the student body, plot the best ways to murder each of her classmates without getting caught, and talk her way out of incriminating situations, is genuinely gripping. It’s brightly-coloured and schlocky and surprisingly more-ish, and I found myself murmuring “okay just one more episode, I need to see how she gets out of this one” late at night as I burned through the series.

Nana is a delightfully compelling murderess, and watching her carefully build and play off her own stereotype as a cute, pixie-ish pink-haired anime girl who surely can do no wrong, is delicious fun. The Sherlock-and-Moriarty mind games she gets into with the one student who does initially suspect her are goofy but delightful, certainly in a way that they may not have been if this was two young men outwitting each other. We’ve seen self-assured Light Yagami type teen boy killers plenty of times before, and Nana switching carefully between her adorable persona and her red-tinged internal monologues where she plots everyone’s demise is glorious. It should be silly and it should be reprehensible, but I was honestly just rooting for her the whole time.

Nana is not going to win everyone over, and that’s fine—but if you are keen on some detached, zany murder mind games with a savvy female protagonist, I would suggest you give it a go.

Caveats and content warnings: though nothing is too gory nor graphic, this is still a show about murder—and the murder of teenagers—so while it’s maybe not on the level of your average slasher movie, it’s definitely not going to be for everyone. There are a couple of uncomfortable scenes where the power play does not tip in Nana’s favour, including a sleazy male student blackmailing her into “being his girlfriend”. While it never comes to fruition, the threat of sexual violence is hanging over that arc, and while it’s satisfying to see Nana outwit him it’s still an icky experience.

And of course, it must be said that the very concept of “rounding children up for slaughter” is horrific, and even with its cartoony framing and its eventual questioning, if you were put off by that very setup I wouldn’t blame you.

And those are my favourite series that I watched in 2020! As always, it was an eclectic mix, so I hope there’s something here for everyone. Let’s power onwards and see what 2021 brings.

1 Comment

Filed under Alex Watches

One response to “A Big Ol’ Pile of Anime Recommendations (2020)

  1. Pingback: February ’21 Roundup | The Afictionado

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