The middle parts of a list are always the weirdest ones to figure out. Not hardest, that’s the very top, but the weirdest, definitely. Because you end up asking yourself to compare shows that are incredibly dissimilar and that you like about equally. By the way; if you’re new here, you’ll want to check out the Introduction first, and read Part 1 before hitting this up.
Frankly, every entry on this part of the list could probably be freely swapped with each other and I’d have very few complaints. Still, all of these anime are ones that I think did more right than wrong and in some cases I think they did a few specific things very well. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we?
#14: Wave, Listen To Me!
Whatever else you may say about it, never accuse Wave, Listen To Me! of following trends. Very briefly, Wave is about a loud-mouthed restaurant worker who ends up getting her own graveyard-shift radio show hosting gig at the local station. Without a doubt, it’s one of the more singular premises of the year.
Does it live up to the potential in that premise? Well, yes and no. Like its seasonal contemporary Gleipnir, Wave has a tendency to get in its own way. When the series allows Minare, our heroine, to do her job and let loose with the full force of her personality in the radio booth, it’s amazing. Lead voice actress Riho Sugiyama is as important to Wave‘s general composition as anyone else, and with an actress less capable of fully embodying Minare’s spirit the show would fall apart.
So it’s rather frustrating that it sometimes does anyway. Much of Wave is about Minare’s off-air life. Sometimes these stories work and sometimes they don’t, generally following the pattern that whenever Minare feels like the butt of a joke, they’re not very good. Making things worse is an abundance of off-color-in-a-bad-way humor, most notably about a half-dozen gay jokes that feel woefully forced. Wave is perhaps the anime from 2020 that I’m the most internally divided on. Its highs are high, its lows are low. It ends on a pretty good note, and I’m hoping against hope for a followup. I’d like to see Minare given the opportunity to do more.
#13: BRAND NEW ANIMAL
This was the first of several anime on this list where I had the visceral reaction of “wait, that aired this year?” But yes, this Yoh Yoshinari-directed, Kazuki Nakashima-written synthwave-colored furry urban fantasy series was a product of 2020. BRAND NEW ANIMAL occupies a weird place on this list, in the wider cultural zeitgeist, and for me personally. I actually really quite liked this show, so why isn’t it higher on the list?
Well, to a point, most of Nakashima’s anime scripts are….well, “similar” would be the generous way of putting it. Most of his scripts center around ideological conflicts between the individualistic and the communal and tend to end with both sides coming together to fight a common foe. That last bit has often (and not incorrectly) been flagged as a weakness, with his scripts’ formulaic story beats, and a corresponding lack of nuance, as the other main problem. These are fair criticisms, but I’d argue that what Nakashima’s writing lacks in its ability to propose solutions the world’s problems more specific than “come together”, it makes up for in its faith that we, in fact, can come together.
But of course Nakashima is a scriptwriter and an anime’s script is nothing without, well, the anime. Yoshinari and his team turn in an aesthetic feast with BRAND NEW ANIMAL. I mentioned synthwave earlier, but the blue and pink shadows often do bring that specific subgenre to mind. The fluid, popping animation that defines the best parts of the TRIGGER back-catalog and, because of the distinctly fuzzy cast, a wonderful array of animal-person designs are present too, they really tie the whole thing together.
Ultimately I suppose my main issue with BRAND NEW ANIMAL is simply that it isn’t either a bit longer or a bit more focused. For how clumsy it occasionally is, BNA does sometimes step into surprisingly sharp social commentary (“Dolphin Daydream”‘s jabs at fairweather allies and the harm they cause sticks out most clearly to me), but just as often its swings go wide. It’s an uneven experience, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it the whole way through and would instantly hop on any further material in the show’s universe.
In lieu of that….maybe greenlight two cours next time? Please?
You know what I’ve always thought was an underrated quality? Knowing exactly what you want to do and just doing it. That’s about how I’d describe Dorohedoro, an adaption of Q. Hayashida‘s long-running bizarro seinen. It’s one of the better things Netflix has thrown money at in 2020 (other highlights include listfellow BRAND NEW ANIMAL and The Great Pretender, which is only not here because I haven’t watched the final arc), but much more importantly it’s a really good piece of genre fiction in a genre that doesn’t get a lot of rep in mainstream TV anime.
And that genre is….weird splatterpunk grungy fantasy I guess? If Dorohedoro feels hard to put in a box it’s only because seinen anime are fairly rare. But there’s still definitely something unique about a series whose main selling point is that it’s the adventures of a big lizard-headed guy on a quest to find out who turned him into a big lizard-headed guy, and his companion, an equally-buff woman who’s also a master gyoza chef.
Dorohedoro cruises by on its stylish ultraviolence, colorful cast, and its truly weird setting. The only real reason it’s not higher up on the list is that the manga is even stranger and the anime adapts only a pretty small part of it. Dorohedoro is an anime with basically no problems, but its strengths only go so far. It’s definitely worth checking out, but make sure you hit up the source material at some point, too.
#11: Princess Connect! Re:Dive
Breaking news: local action-comedy-fantasy isekai Princess Connect! Re:Dive makes the rest of those obsolete; KonoSuba found weeping in a trashed hotel room. OK, that’s a wild exaggeration, but you have to give it up for something as unassuming as PriConne managing to do so much with so little. This is a series in which the main character is effectively mute, and he still has more personality than your average Protagonist-kun.
I don’t think anyone would deign to call PriConne laser-focused, exactly, but the unifying element, weirdly enough, is cooking. Female lead and secret actual protagonist Princess Pecorine’s food obsession provides a tie-line through the series. It’s more than just comedic (though it’s certainly that, too), as the comfort of a shared meal comes to represent the family ties that Pecorine has lost. The other two primary protagonists have their own things going on, with Karyl’s secret double-agent status being the runner up as far as which is most interesting.
Did I mention this thing looks great, too? That’s not always a given for seasonals, although mobage adaptions seem to have slightly better luck than most. Princess Connect! Re:Dive features some of the most purely flashy animation of the entire year. Something that is downright impressive for a series that really did kinda seem to come from nowhere.
Honestly the only reason it isn’t even higher on the list is because of its fairly limited ambitions, which is really only a flaw in the most abstract sense. And with a second season on the way that seems poised to put focus on the dimension-spanning plot that lurks in PriConne’s background, it may not remain a criticism that’s true for very long. Don’t be surprised if this thing’s second season ends up a good five or ten places higher next year.
#10: Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Gaiden
Yeah, this is another one that feels like it aired a lifetime ago.
Magia Record is a curious thing that seems like it was made for nobody. But I actually think, in this odd little anime’s case, that that’s not just a positive, but most of the reason it’s good. Magia Record is a spinoff / possibly-a-sequel-it’s-kind-of-hard-to-say of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, one of the most important, widely acclaimed, and successful anime of the 2010s. To say it has big shoes to fill would be a massive understatement. Indeed, MagiReco entered to no small amount of skepticism. Being a spinoff of a spinoff (it’s based on a mobile game), a lot of folks were of the opinion that the series was little more than a soulless, hollow cash-grab. But if Magia Record is a cash grab, it’s a fucking weird one.
In fairly sharp contrast to its illustrious predecessor, Magia Record explores some four or five largely unrelated miniature arcs over the course of its run. (Almost all of which concern various supernatural rumors. Something the series seems to have inherited from a different SHAFT property; Bakemonogatari.) This structure is deeply interesting to me, because it seems to me that Magia Record is of the opinion that Madoka Magica’s intangibles; its themes, aesthetics, the way it explores its parent genre, and so on have been so thoroughly strip-mined by other anime that engaging with them is no longer a goal it wants to pursue. Instead, Magia Record seems to treat itself first and foremost as a vehicle for expanding the pure text of the Madoka series. It’s a book of “Madoka stories” before it’s anything else.
When familiar elements do show up, the context is altered, strange, and unfamiliar. Not unlike what the original Madoka did with many trappings of the magical warrior subgenre in the first place. The original Puella Magi are the most obvious example; Mami reappears, but as a villain. Kyoko dips in and out of the show’s narrative, and is markedly absent for the finale. Sayaka is only present for the finale. Madoka herself appears only in a brief flashback. Homura is not even mentioned; a ghost among ghosts.
So those “Madoka stories”, where Magia Record seems most like a “normal” magical girl series, become the show’s lifeblood. They definitely have their ups and downs, and the best of the lot are front-loaded. (Rena’s arc, an examination of a truly deep-seated self-loathing, might be the overall peak of the series.) But that it is so disconnected from what the fanbase in general “wants” from a Madoka series is absolutely fascinating to me, and I like it for that reason. This interpretation of MagiReco is controversial (I have seen many who simply read its structure as inept), but I stand by it. A second season is in the wings that promises a return to a broader, overarching narrative. More than any other anime on this list, I have absolutely no idea what to expect from MagiReco, and I love it for that.
And that’s humble Part 2. Tomorrow we get into the top
ten, uh, nine, so I’ll see you then for Part 3.
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