Before we get started, a brief reminder to check out the Introduction post and the previous 3 parts of the list before you read this one. Don’t wanna spoil yourself, y’know?
In any case; there were plenty of anime I liked in 2020, some of which I liked quite a lot. There were not nearly as many that I truly loved. But of those I did, they fall into one of two categories. Either they are sharp, questioning, and political. Or they are joyous reaffirmations of how art can affect us, and how it can carry us forward even through the darkest times of our lives. The two are dissimilar, but complimentary. The former is grounded in realism and the latter in escapism. They tend toward the pessimistic and optimistic, respectively. I think that reflects the character of the year–and I suppose, of myself–quite well. Hopefully you agree. On to the final five!
Not since Kill la Kill has a studio produced an original anime debut so immediately sharp and arresting. I have to admit, I turned that statement over in my head for literal days before committing to it, but it’s true. Nut Co. Ltd. have done TV anime before, but aside from an assist on the polarizing FLCL sequels, their most well-known work before Deca-Dence was The Saga of Tanya The Evil, which, whatever one may think about it, was a manga adaption that stuck fairly close to its origins.
Any flaws aside; Deca-Dence feels very much like a wholly-realized singular artistic vision, from start to finish. The sort that is fairly rare in commercial arts fields (which TV anime certainly is). What’s more, it is nakedly political, with a witheringly on-point cross-examination of the evils of capitalism and its dire endpoints as exemplified by its very setting; a post-apocalyptic world which is exploited as a “real life video game” by the ruling class. Which would maybe make it a slog if the show weren’t so damn fun. Visually, Deca-Dence pops with bright colors, steampunk-inspired machines, and a design sensibility for its robot characters that feels inherited from Kaiba, one of the all-time great anime of this sort. Narratively, there’s enough action and compelling character drama to keep things from getting stale or feeling preachy. Deca-Dence exists in solidarity, not on a pedestal.
The unified artistic vision that is largely a positive does, on the flipside, unfortunately mean that it has a few notable flaws. Its chief sin is a bait-and-switchy treatment of its two leads, which would be less of an issue if one were not a young girl and the other an older gruff man narratively empowered by her pain. It’s a mistake this kind of thing should be able to avoid, and that is primarily why it rounds out the bottom of the Top 5. So it goes.
Still, if Deca-Dence is any indication of what future Nut Co. productions, or those of director Yuzuru Tachikawa or writer Hiroshi Seko will be like, there’s a lot to look forward to.
#4: Kaguya-sama: Love is War?
For two years in a row; Kaguya-sama: Love is War! has been raising the bar for anime romcoms. What it may lack in innovation it more than makes up for in technique and heart, Love is War?, the confusingly-titled second season of the series, is top-to-bottom hilarious. Except of course, when it’s busy being surprisingly heavy instead.
It’s not entirely fair to put Love is War on a pedestal, but I really struggle to think of anything else in recent memory that works in this space so well. Original mangaka Aka Akasaka‘s technique of starting with a familiar archetype and then “filling them in” over the course of the story has kept Love is War‘s character writing consistently interesting. This holds true both when exploring the school-day trauma that Ishigami still suffers the aftershocks from and when breaking down the surprisingly complex character of the moralistic, blustery Miko.
But those are strengths equally attributable to the original manga. What puts Love is War the anime near the top of its bracket is the way the visuals elevate and enhance this storytelling. From a comedic perspective, the visuals breathe new life into jokes manga readers have heard before and really make them pop for newcomers. At times, new gags are even made up wholesale, often leaning on the visual element alone. Scenes like Kaguya randomly breaking into vogue, Hayasaka annoyedly bursting into Kaguya’s classroom, and even random visual asides referencing Dark Souls and Peanuts give the entire thing a wonderful, absurd edge.
On the more serious side, these techniques are instead turned toward invoking empathy. Faces have their visual features erased to signify disassociation, crowds coalesce into shadowy masses to project anxiety. Visual effect enthusiasts are given quite a bit to pour over in Love is War.
You might rightly ask why you should care about any of this, since at its core Love is War still is very much a “will they or won’t they” sort of love story. The sort that anime has seen many times before and will see many times again. To a point, that very question has kept it from an even higher spot on this list. But conversely, I would argue that resonant artistic depictions of the anxieties and absurdities of youth will never lose their place in the artistic canon. Not for anime, and not for anything.
#3: Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club
If this list were ranked solely by how much the anime on it made my heart sing, Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club would hold a comfortable #1 spot. Earlier this year I began an earnest dive into the girl group idol anime genre after only idly (haha) poking at it for most of my life. My opinion that 2011’s The Idolm@ster is the genre’s gold standard remains unchanged. But I did not expect it to receive an even close to worthy contender to the title this year. But here we are, and I do genuinely think that Nijigasaki High School Idol Club, the latest entry in the rival Love Live franchise, makes a damn good showing of it. Why? Because of the sheer effort the series go through to convey to you one simple fact; these girls are born entertainers, and they love it, through and through.
The ways in which they love it vary wildly, and if I had to pin a single weakness on Nijigasaki it would probably be that its gargantuan cast size (eleven main characters!) means that some of the girls do only get cursory development. The flipside though is that almost every single one who does get some focus is so magnetic that the passion they have for singing transfers almost directly to you. In its best moments, Nijigasaki feels like holding a live wire of artistic inspiration. Without a doubt; the anime is best experienced by checking any cynicism at the door and just throwing yourself in, arms wide open.
And part of the reason it succeeds is how easy it makes it to do that. Nijigasaki‘s great writing triumph is how quickly and snappily it establishes each character within each arc. Part of this is down to sharp visual design; things like Setsuna’s pyrotechnic stage setup, Rina’s iconic digital “faceboard”, Shizuku’s black and white dress, and so on. But the show’s laser focus when it comes to establishing why each girl wants to become an idol and how she goes about doing so is an incredibly convincing argument for this genre in this format, proving you don’t need two cours here. (Not to say an extra 13 episodes of this would’ve been in any way unwelcome.) The final arc, where group manager Yu and idol Ayumu have a near-falling out over the former’s desire to become a composer proves that the series can also work in more delicate emotional shades, which (as with many things this high on the list) makes me hope for a second season.
In a broader sense; from Setsuna’s matchstick strike of a guerrilla concert in episode three to the blazing monster of a festival that closes out the series, Nijigasaki High School Idol Club is a celebration of communal art and performance in a year where, to paraphrase music critic Todd Nathanson, the very idea may as well be science fiction. Being so fantastically escapist emphatically does not hurt Nijigasaki, it is the very core of its strength. What makes it wonderful is how it is borderline utopian; a vision of a place where everyone’s dreams come true.
#2: Tower of God
I try not to think about these kinds of things too much when I write, but I suspect if there’s a “controversial” pick this high up on the list, it’ll be this one. Tower of God stands as one of 2020’s most polarizing and, in my opinion, most misunderstood mainstream action anime. Tower of God is two primary things: for one, it is a kickass battle shonen set in a truly unique fantasy world inherited from its source material, a sprawling webcomic that effectively wrought the Webtoon movement from the ground with its bare hands. For another; it is an absolutely dialed critique of systems of arbitrary merit. If you’ve been waiting for me to bring up capitalism again, wait no longer. Frankly I don’t need to, Tower of God does it for me. It’s not like characters having to pay off their own medical expenses within the Tower is exactly a subtle analogy to real life.
Tower of God‘s attitude towards its source material–adapt the interesting or the relevant bits, skip everything else–can definitely leave it feeling a touch hard to follow at times. But Tower of God makes its intentions clear in its final few episodes, where deuteragonist Rachel does exactly as the Tower incentivizes her to, and betrays protagonist Twenty-fifth Bam. And why wouldn’t she? Every detail of the Tower’s worldbuilding portrays it as a ruthless meritocracy where only looking out for #1 at the expense of everyone else is rewarded. Bam never understands this because he never has to. His natural talents; his vast reservoirs of shinsu (mana, effectively) and propensity for making allies, are rewarded in a place he has been deposited into by what is more or less random chance. Essentially, he’s privileged. Rachel, who has no such talents, understands it intuitively, hence her betrayal.
But Tower of God‘s critique of these systems goes both wider and deeper. It’s foreshadowed much earlier by minor character Hoh betraying his team during the “Tag arc” that takes up the show’s middle third. Elsewhere, the series touches on misogyny (there is something truly–and intentionally!–offputting about how it’s spelled out to us that the King of Jahad ties the powers of his “princesses” to their virginity) and frame-ups (whatever happened with Khun and his sister). Through it all, its central point remains sharp; the Tower’s world is fantastical, but the principles it operates on are very much like our own.
It is true that the show’s setup basically begs for a second season, one that’s yet to be confirmed. But even if it were to end here, with Bam washed down to the bottom of the Tower, the show has made its point. All of us are climbing, and the Tower still waits.
So with how high my opinion of Tower of God clearly is, what could possibly be better than it? Well, if you know my tastes, or indeed if you’ve simply studied the banner closely, you can probably guess. Scroll down to find out, and raise a hand if you saw this one coming.
#1: Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!
Fundamentally, my taste in anime hasn’t changed much since I first discovered the medium over ten years ago. I have a hazy, sun-blurred memory of watching the dub of foundational school life comedy Azumanga Daioh chopped up into pieces and uploaded on Youtube. Azumanga Daioh and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! are, very loosely, in the same genre, despite otherwise not being particularly similar. I bring the former up because I marvel at the many strange and wonderful shapes the school life comedy has taken over the past decade and a half. And Eizouken! certainly has the hallmarks of the genre. It is set primarily in a high school, centers around the activities of a small group of students, and uses the pitfalls of coming of age to set up relatable comedic skits. But it’s also more than that.
I place Eizouken! firmly in an emerging movement of anime that increasingly combine this genre with more serious and reflective elements, a logical step from its origins. (It’s not like AzuDaioh couldn’t be reflective when it wanted to be, after all.) I would happily shuttle it right up next to the post-apocalyptic melancholia of Girls’ Last Tour, or the contemporary but more adventure-oriented A Place Further Than The Universe, my own favorite anime of the 2010s, or the funny, wrenching dramedy of O’ Maidens In Your Savage Season! But its place within that movement is interesting, because while many of its genrefellows seek to perhaps evolve past the school life descriptor entirely, Eizouken! reestablishes why it matters in the first place. How it does this is pretty simple; it has perhaps the most well-considered thematic core of any TV anime to air this year.
History will probably peg Eizouken! as an “anime about anime”, but that’s looking at it narrowly. Eizouken! is an anime about the creative process in general, about what it means to be passionate about something, about turning that passion into reality, how that can be very hard, but how it is almost always worth it.
Our three leads correspond to an aspect of the inner world of art. Midori Asakusa, short, behatted, and kappa-like, is the pure ambition and the font of ideas. She spends the series half-adrift in a sea of drawings and daydreams, in love with flying machines and walking logos. Tsubame Mizusaki, of average height and with a sharp haircut, is the strive toward the perfection of technique, the desire to capture One Perfect Movement as cleanly as possible. (This is why it is she who expresses that she cares about animation, not anime. Contrast Midori who cares very much about anime-the-medium.) Finally, there is the tall, tombstone-toothed Sayaka Kanamori. The brains of the operation, someone for whom practical knowledge and the pursuit of money is a means to her and her friends’ collective happiness, a sort of person vanishingly rare in the real world. Alone, they’re incomplete. Together, they’re unstoppable. I’ve seen many anime whose casts compliment each other well, but Eizouken! might have one of the most well-oiled character dynamic machines in recent memory.
Eizouken!‘s beauty is in how it does not need to really explain itself at length. The series is an argument for itself. The skeptical may be inclined to ask the question back at Eizouken!; “what can sticking to your passions really accomplish?” And, well, the answer is Eizouken! Admittedly, as someone who writes for a living, I am predisposed to like themes in this general realm. But by the same token, pretending that Eizouken!‘s deep understanding of how the creative process functions, the diversity of motivation as to why people want to make art, and its celebration of the two didn’t move me would be disingenuous. I would simply not be doing my job as a commentator on the medium.
The show celebrates many kinds of people in general, really. Sometimes this is even surprisingly literal; Eizouken! stands as a still-rare anime that has a fairly racially diverse cast even though its leads are still Japanese. The series’ near-future setting seems to imply both a Japan and a larger world that is more heterogeneous (in every sense) than today, but this optimism shouldn’t be taken to be naivety. There is conflict in Eizouken!, the optimism comes from the resolution of that conflict. Short films are premiered, audiences are blown away. “We are all different, but truly great art can bring us together” seems to be the final message of the series. It’s a thesis that is so optimistic, almost utopian, that it can, to some, scan as corny. Whether Eizouken! “earns it” or not is where people are split on the series, but I think I’ve made damn well my case that it does.
Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! premiered at the top of the year, in the Winter 2020 anime season that now feels a lifetime ago. Yet, throughout this long, dark, bizarre year, I found myself continually turning it over in my head. I think it’s likely that I will be for years to come. If I may make take back one thing from my original review that predates this blog, it’s this; Eizouken!, with the benefit of distance, feels like it’s not really from this, or any, specific year. It feels like it’s always been there. And from now on, it always will be.
And with that sign-off by way of what is in my estimation the first truly great anime of the ’20s, that concludes our little journey over these past few days. To both old friends and new readers, I wish you the best possible in the new year. Hold each other close, and in all things help one another. Magic Planet Anime will see you in 2021.
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