Another trip around the sun, another pile of anime recommendations! Read on to hear about my favourite series I watched in 2021, and see if there’s any you missed that you might want to check out.
My work at AniFem has been instrumental in letting me (or, making me) keep up with current releases. Many of these mini-reviews are edited versions of check-ins or recommendations I’ve written for the site—check out each season’s staff picks for even more good stuff that went beyond my personal radar!
The Aquatope on White Sand
Premise: recently retired (read: low-key fired) teen idol Fuuka impulsively runs away to Okinawa to seek a fresh start, and finds herself in a strange, otherworldly aquarium called Gama Gama. She soon learns that financially Gama Gama is on its last legs, and leaps to help the director’s granddaughter, Kukuru, on her quest to keep it open. But dreams don’t always go the way you plan, and the two young women find themselves swept up in the tide of progress, adulthood, and each other’s lives.
The Good Stuff: Aquatope enchanted me from its first colourful, whimsical episode, but I was surprised how effectively it kept my attention and my heartstrings as it diverted from its initial premise. Without spoiling too much, this series somewhat grows up with its characters: beginning as a dreamy summer adventure about the power of love and a magic aquarium, and transitioning into a workplace dramady about the perils and pressures you’re thrust into when you enter the ruthless reality of the adult world. With penguins!
I wasn’t sure that the shift would work, but the characters and the overall charm of the show were enough to keep me hooked, and I was shocked and moved to discover that I actually liked the second half even more than the first in many ways. Aquatope is an unexpectedly hard-hitting coming-of-age story while still remaining kind and sweet, paced out nicely over 24 very pretty episodes.
Caveats and content warnings: parental death; grief. An annoying side character with a running gag that he’s “scared of girls”. Also worthy of note, there are scenes throughout the show between Fuuka and Kukuru that radiate what seems to be romantic tension, but the show leans, instead, on the language of “the sister she never had”. The found family narrative is still plenty rewarding, mind you. Just a forewarning to anyone going into this looking for a seaside wlw romance: the vibes are there for sure, but if you want it confirmed confirmed you may come away disappointed. You can always go read A Tropical Fish Yearns for Snow!
Heaven’s Design Team
Premise: God created the land and the sea… and when it came to creating the animals that would populate the world, it became tedious and He outsourced it to a design firm. This is their story.
The Good Stuff: this comedy series is the ultimate blend of Arts and Sciences, with its humour drawing on a wealth of zoological knowledge as well as the inevitable office shenanigans that occur in creative industry. Watching them reverse engineer animals already familiar to us on Earth is always compelling, and I genuinely learned a lot! It’s light, fast-paced humour that works in bite-sized chunks and in binge sessions, and while there’s no plotline to keep track of per se, there’s still a sense of subtle growth as the new team member settles in and the friendships (and rivalries) between cast members get fleshed out.
And the cast is just delightful: a diverse mix of charming and quirky folks that don’t fall back on stereotypes and who bounce off each other in fun ways. Venus is a glamorous and capable trans woman whose identity is never questioned and also the best character, and as the kids say I have no choice but to stan.
Caveats and content warnings: some gross-out humour stemming from the fact that, well, oftentimes nature is gross.
The Heike Story
Premise: Biwa, a travelling bard’s child who can see the future with one eye, foresees the downfall of the powerful Taira clan after one of their soldiers kills her father. She travels to the clan’s estate to bring the foreboding news, only to be taken in by the family’s eldest (and most compassionate and sensible) son. Biwa reluctantly integrates into the household, and finds herself at the centre of an unfolding war story for which there can be no happy ending.
The Good Stuff: The Heike Story brings a new, expressive, and immersive take on the thirteenth-century epic Heike Monogatari, inserting Biwa into the story as an all-seeing—but far from impersonal—point of view character. She’s a surreal and fascinating character that almost embodies the platonic ideal of The Narrator: she’s close to the central characters and can get the emotional nuances right, but she can also pull back and sing epic and melancholy recounts of the battles and political backstabbings that push the story forward.
She can see the future, but she cannot prevent her visions from coming true, meaning she can only observe, unageing and unchanging, and honour her foster family’s memory by telling the tale. It’s a super interesting way to tell a tragedy, with the grief of inevitability woven into the format. Did it make me cry? Maybe. That’s my business.
Caveats and content warnings: character deaths; the horrors of war. It goes without saying that this will be a lot more accessible if you’re familiar with the Heike Monogatari. It throws a lot of characters at you and is steeped in its historical context, as well as being a somewhat meta take on the nature of epic storytelling itself with the addition of Biwa the bard. But a quick Googling helped clear up my confusions, and I was happy to be immersed in this vibrant, haunting version of an old, old story.
Love Live! Superstar!!
Premise: Kanon loves to sing but her staggering stage fright gets in the way, causing her to mess up her audition for a prestigious music program. When her classmate, Keke, hears Kanon singing to herself, she presents an alternative: stuff the fancy music curriculum, form a new club and become a School Idol. While reluctant at first, Kanon soon bonds with Keke over their shared passion for music and becomes determined to give it a shot. If only the student council would stop trying to shut their goals down!
The Good Stuff: a sense of goofy humour and sincerity runs through the whole show that makes it just fun to watch. The rag-tag pile of students that form the idol group make for both an endearing main cast and a satisfying underdog story. They’re good kids, and the small cast lets each of them shine.
Instead of throwing the team together right away, most of the series is a “getting the band together” arc where the characters, their motivations, and their relationships with each other have space to develop. The goofs, the melodrama, and the musical numbers weave together neatly into a really enjoyable story about passion and friendship (and one that’s perfectly accessible even if you’ve never watched or played another Love Live property before, too!).
Caveats and content warnings: Extremely mild fan service of the “camera sometimes focuses on a flippy skirt hem during a dance routine” variety. The “school” part of the School Idol contest does allow for Superstar to sidestep dealing with the idol industry, as this is more about kids in a club taking a shot at a regional competition. But hey, that’s okay: if you want a story that explores and critiques the harrowing realities of the performing arts world, you have Kageki Shojo! (Which I… didn’t finish this year, because it got too real and too stressful! But it was still very good!)
Premise: a missing girl. Corrupt cops. Ruthless music industry execs. Internet nobodies trying to go viral. Small-time crooks looking to one-up each other. A guy who gets sent into a murderous rage by a gacha game. It’s a tangled and twisted web of mystery, greed, and violence out there, with one keen-eyed taxi driver the connecting tissue between it all.
The Good Stuff: if you’re looking for a drama that’s both quirky and suspenseful, ODDTAXI has you covered. It lulls you in with its quick dialogue and observational humour, then the night-to-night shenanigans of one man and his taxi quickly pivot into an intricate web of high-stakes plotlines that all interconnect—sometimes in surprising ways. I said “oh shit” aloud multiple times as the series unfolded and I realised how different characters’ storylines were going to converge.
I have no doubts that a rewatch will reveal whole new layers of meaning and hidden connections, not to mention foreshadowing for various twists and turns. Everything slots together; even the fact that all the characters are anthropomorphic animals Means Something and impacts the plot itself. Our taxi driver, Odokawa, is a fun protagonist too: he’s deadpan and standoffish but has a tightly-wound moral compass that makes his entanglements in this tense crime drama really interesting.
Caveats and content warnings: without giving too much away, one particular reveal leans on some perhaps stale tropes about mental illness and trauma response. While the show itself is never outright gory, there is violence and murder baked into some of these plotlines, and several touch on issues of domestic violence and addiction.
Premise: uni student Sorawo stumbles into a strange, liminal landscape populated by monsters and cryptids from urban legends and net lore, and quickly finds herself pulled into a partnership with a mysterious young woman named Toriko. Toriko is looking for her missing mentor, Sorawo is looking for a break from the “real world”, and they’re both looking for cash. As their explorations take them deeper into the Otherside, however, will they be able to deal with the horrors they find there?
The Good Stuff: Otherside Picnic is a fun, scary, somewhat silly monster-of-the-week romp with an all-female cast, starring two women that are slowly falling in love. The dynamic between Sorawo and Toriko holds the series together, but the side characters are also flawed and likeable in their own unique ways, and as the cast grows they form a weird little Scooby Gang that’s genuinely fun to watch. There’s no fanservice or sexualisation to speak of, and, even surrounded by horrors beyond mortal comprehension, they’re never brutalised for shock value.
The anime is a different beastie to its source material in a few key ways, but it stands on its own and it’s still worth your time if you like sci-fi, urban myths, horror, yuri, or (ideally) a combo of all those things. And how often does a combo of those things come round?
Caveats and content warnings: body horror; depictions of gun use; brief discussion of cults and murder. If you take my recommendation and read the books, they also come with an extra dose of psychological terror.
Premise: high in the hills all shrouded in fog is Shadows House, a gothic mansion populated by elegant figures made from soot. Black silhouettes that they are, each Shadow needs a “face” for public interactions. Emilico, a young “living doll”, is training to become the face of her mistress Kate.
The Good Stuff: Shadows House is some delicious gothic fun with two endearing and interesting female protagonists among an ensemble cast of (mostly) good good kids, figuring out the intricacies of the cruel and corrupt system they’re entangled in. While this is clearly just one segment of a bigger story, this thirteen-episode series wraps up gracefully; it leaves you wanting more, but has the heart not to end on too unbearable a cliffhanger.
The mansion unveils plenty of mysteries, with living darkness seething in unattended corners and haughty nobles overseeing the younger Shadows from upstairs. The fantasy trappings of the series present a creepy and claustrophobic setting, as well as supplying a working metaphor for the ways in which rich people dehumanize and devour the working class.
Caveats and content warnings: children in peril; some non-human body horror; and a deeper, lingering sense of existential dread when certain details about the House are revealed. Differently abled characters are treated roughly and discriminated against for their lack of “usefulness”, but it factors into the overall thematic thread of the show rather than the writing itself buying into these stereotypes.
Premise: Koguma is a painfully lonely girl with no friends and no family, whose world opens up when she buys a discounted Honda Super Cub. Initially looking for a way to get to school more efficiently, she soon discovers a newfound sense of agency and freedom. Slowly, slowly, Koguma begins to disrupt her tight-knit, almost claustrophobic routine and step into the sunshine, making friends with other “motorheads” along the way.
The Good Stuff: just because a show wants to sell you a Honda motorcycle, doesn’t mean it can’t also tell a sincere story. Super Cub is quiet and sweet, making excellent use of visual language to build an atmosphere that mirrors Koguma’s state of mind: beginning in a world of artfully composed grey quiet, then slowly warming up and blooming into something louder and more colourful.
It’s a rewarding slow-burn watch, especially once Koguma starts bonding with new friends over their shared love of bikes that go vroom. She grows from deeply introverted to playful and somewhat snarky, and even ends up the cool mentor figure to a new friend. While not quiiiite as cosy as Laid-Back Camp, this is still a top tier comfy, wintry hobby series.
Caveats and content warnings: brief and non-violent depiction of a vehicle accident. I had assumed, early on, that this would address the reason Koguma was living on her own and deal more poignantly with her grief (if, indeed, she was an orphan). As it is, the how and why of her loneliness is never really as important as her growing out of it. In some respects I found this frustrating, but I have to admit that making the backstory vague does make the tone overall more lighthearted, and allows for viewers to project their own experiences with isolation and depression onto Koguma—and thus vicariously enjoy her journey of recovery and her newfound sense of freedom and agency.
It’s Still Good! (series continuations)
I maintain my review that Beastars has no business being as compelling as it is. As season two unfurls the murder mystery into something much more complex, personal, and delightfully weird, you just can’t look away.
Kaguya-sama: Love is War is still beautifully bonkers, with some of the sharpest and most wonderfully ridiculous comedic timing in the rom-com biz. Season two doesn’t rest on its laurels and return to a stagnant status quo, but shows relationship progress between the two main characters. Their romantic mindgames are still front and centre, but the dynamic has shifted (and continues to shift!) in a delightful way. I’m cheering for these highly intelligent yet deeply dumb kids so hard.
Laid-Back Camp season two is just as cosy and delightful as the first, continuing to grow the relationships and gentle character development of its cast of loveable camping enthusiasts, all with absolutely gorgeous backdrops and an unwavering dedication to Chill Vibes. I would gladly take a new episode of this every week for the rest of my days upon this planet. For its charm, its vibrant characters, and its capacity to relax me, for the year I’ve been having frankly it’s my Anime of the Year.
(Dis)honourable mention: Wonder Egg Priority
Like the nursery rhyme goes, when Egg is good it is very very good, and when it is bad it is horrid. Wonder Egg Priority has a spectacular, visually stunning, emotionally moving premiere and a final arc that betrays and undermines 98% of its themes and characters. Its handling of delicate and relevant issues like suicide and abuse topple into schlocky tropes and victim-blaming rhetoric, all bundled in sci-fi technobabble introduced far too late and explained with insufficient depth to be actually interesting. The show begins as a story about teenaged girls fighting for agency in a world that loathes them and ends up saying “you know who sucks, actually? Teenaged girls.” It’s maybe one of the most impressive pivots from beloved to beloathed I’ve seen in my time watching anime.
2021 was, in many ways, Year of the Egg. The early parts of this series captured my heart and my imagination and genuinely moved me, and I’ve spent so much time talking about, writing about, watching and rewatching this series it would be odd to not mention it at all. If nothing else, this show sure as shit has always given us plenty to talk about: it’s spurred some of my favourite articles from this year, some deeply valuable discussions, and a cautionary tale that brought the crunch culture and cruelty of the industry into public focus.
Wonder Egg Priority is a disaster, and I really don’t think I can recommend it in good conscience knowing the sexist, shallow, disdainful place its story ends up. But it’s an important show nonetheless. Maybe watch the first episode, content warnings for suicide taken into account. Then read all my posts about it. Cheers.