They made us laugh; they made us cry. They wowed us with their artistry, inspired us with their soundtracks, and moved us with their depth of emotion. But most of all, they prompted us to reflect on life, faith, and what it means to be alive in this world of ours at such a time as this.
They are the Best Anime of 2021—at least according to Twwk and Claire—in alphabetical order. Because ranking things doesn’t bode well (as we learned from one of our Top Tens!).
Blue Period • Fruits Basket the Final Season • The Heike Story • Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood • Kageki Shojo!! • ODDTAXI • Ranking of Kings • Sonny Boy • Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song • Wonder Egg Priority
Claire: As I write, I’m still awaiting the release of the final episode, but I’ve seen enough to know that this is one of my favorites of the year. This is largely down to the panoply of friendships that are on display in this series about a high schooler who decides to break with type and pursue his newfound desire to become an artist, which means sitting the notoriously brutal Tokyo University of the Arts entrance exams. Yatora is the central knot in a rich and diverse tapestry of friendships (there’s no romance in this series), flanked by two distinct groups and several standalone friendships. And what is beautiful about Blue Period is that each relationship is unique, and each plays a key role, at least for a moment, in Yatora’s journey to find himself and develop his art. There are his delinquent friends who surprise him with their supportive response to his rather unexpected turn to fine art; the idiosyncratic crew at the art cram school who both challenge and cheer him along; the bitter rival who inspires him; the two art teachers who surprise him and cut him to the bone with their insightful readings of his work; and the at times hostile, at times tender and raw relationship with childhood friend Yuka-chan/Ryuji-kun. Gradually, through a series of profound heart-to-hearts, Yatora learns to stop fronting. But then as the season comes to a close, he is faced with the fact that although he may be learning to express himself authentically to others, he has yet to learn what to do with the vulnerable offerings made to him by others. In short, Yatora is learning how to be a human being. I love that all this is taking place in the context of friendship rather than simply romance, which is usually the default crucible for this kind of maturation and character growth.
The second reason this one tops my list is the theme itself: art. I don’t mean the animation, though it’s suitably well done, with distinct character designs underlining the individuality of each member of the cast. No, I mean Yatora’s journey with art. The intricacy of emotion, the nuanced highs and lows, the self-criticism alongside the euphoria—all this rings so true. There is something about art that demands that you drop your pretenses, ditch the protective armor, and face yourself stripped, at least metaphorically, of any covering before an unforgiving mirror—albeit one that, as Yatora and Yuka discover in episode 10, is nevertheless kind in its intent and ultimate effect. There is nothing so humbling as taking up pencil or charcoal or paint and facing that blank page, that blank canvas; and there is nothing quite so freeing and simultaneously grounding either. This paradoxical truth is captured beautifully in Blue Period.
Twwk: It’s notable that you mention the lack of romance in your first point because that, too, stood out to me. Blue Period reminds me very much of a series that does go full blast in that direction, Ao Haru Ride, the anime based on a shoujo manga that defined the genre for a number of years last decade. Both that series and Blue Period feature painfully imperfect characters who struggle awkwardly as they mature (sometimes very slowly) and seek to reach some sort of mountaintop moment. I love that Blue Period sets this type of story against the backdrop of friends and colleagues, though—there’s more authenticity here in allowing Yatora to figure out how to become more than just an image to project but instead, to grow into one who is truly human, with foibles and flaws, desires and selfish pursuits, instead of falling back on the expectation of romance being the ultimate answer and fulfillment to whatever ails you.
Blue Period can be streamed on Netflix.
Fruits Basket the Final Season
Twwk: If the entirety of the first season was introduction and set-up, and season two was progress and development, then the final season of Furuba would naturally progress into one emotional, sobbing mess of a climax, with often painful resolution for members of the large cast week after week. I mean, it was that, but what stood out for this reviewer—who unlike most others who loved the series, it seems, hadn’t read the manga in his youth—was the unexpected introduction of new characters, including the all-important Ren, and the focus on Akito’s story. But it’s exactly what was necessary to end the anime on a note worthy of its epic approach. The story of Fruits Basket, while dressed up in beautifully animated and lovingly developed characters, and placed within a Zodiac-focused fantastical tale set in a modern high school, is really just about how love can break the curse. Right from the beginning, it’s apparent that Tohru, with her earnestness and, most of all, ability to love sacrificially and graciously, would be able to break the Sohma family free from a curse that had built and destroyed them generation after generation. The real question was how it would happen and if she would die in doing so.
The truth is, as much as I love Tohru, I wanted the story to have the courage to allow her to die. It seemed genuine, and would also fit nicely into the Jesus analogy I would have liked to have made. But I guess that’s why I’m not a writer, much less a noted and beloved mangaka. Instead, Tohru shows herself to be very human in these last episodes ash she finds herself dealing with some things imagined, but some things real in perceiving the awful connection between her most loved one and her new love, and having to make choices in a world where no choice is perfect, and all are heartbreaking. And in that way, it conveys the idea of sin so personally, whereas the story of the Sohmas so powerfully gives the 10,000-foot view of the curse of sin. But then, another surprise! Another personal look at sin is provided through Akito’s forgiveness as we learn again how even the most vile creatures are not creatures at all, but rather those meant to be loved. And much weeping ensued. Fruits Basket is not only a great series, but it is one of the best illustrations of the human story I’ve ever watched, an emotional journey because it is not just the story of Tohru and the Sohmas—it’s our story, the story of us all.
Claire: Wow! I’ve been planning to watch Fruits Basket at some point, since it is quite popular around BtT (and now I know why–I’ve been avoiding reading posts up until now so as not to spoil myself). I’m not really one for romances though, let alone harems, as “soft” as this one may be. So my question would be, does the series do as good a job at conveying love from a multiplicity of perspectives as it does for sin, or is this all about romantic love?
Sounds like the series does a great job of structuring the story to keep it moving forward and give each season its own distinct feel, while yet being adventurous enough to introduce new elements right up to the end. That to me is a mark of great writing, and reminds me of another series that enjoyed a stellar third and final season this year–and which *almost* made my top five–Yuki Yuna is a Hero. It’s rare that a series actually improves with each passing season, yet it sounds like Furuba and Yuyuyu were real winners in this regard in 2021.
Twwk: That’s an interesting comparison—Yuki Yuna—and as you know, a series I want to try out in turn! But to answer your question, the emphasis on romantic love becomes more and more secondary as Fruits Basket move along. A generation of girls were gripped by all the beautiful boys in the show, and then found themselves entranced by what this story really is—about love that transforms despite nuances between every single relationship Tohru is in, from those that see her as a love rival or even a dangerous enemy, to those that want to pursue her romantically or see her more as an older sister. There’s plenty of room for these different types of relationships to develop within such a large cast, which in turn helps give a full picture of how a gracious, fierce love can change different types of people in all sorts of situations and relationships. Powerful, moving, and true.
Fruits Basket the Final Season can be streamed on Funimation.
The Heike Story
Twwk: A question I asked myself after almost every episode of The Heike Story, Science SARU’s adaptation of the epic Heike Monogatari, is who was it created for, western audiences or Japanese? I can only predict how the latter will receive the series, which won’t air for them until a couple weeks following this article’s posting. It’s obviously not meant to be a completely faithful retelling of the legend and narrative that chronicles the tragedy of the Taira Clan, who fell from power during the Genpei War (1180-85), but rather a stylized one with a very purposeful focus and full of the Japanese spirit. By showing it through the literal eyes of an outsider, Biwa, whose special eyes allow her to see into the future (including the tragedy soon to befall the family), audiences gain a perhaps more captivating perspective than a straight-out historical retelling. Biwa becomes an adoptive “daughter” to Shigemori, “niece” to Tokuko, and “sister” to the others, personalizing the tale, while her future profession as a biwa hoshi (or minstrel) returns the mythological element to the story.
The theme of impermanence, deeply rooted in Japanese culture, is another feature that strongly suggests that Science SARU, and particularly the great director, Naoko Yamada, is aiming to create a new great vision to represent one of the most significant parts of Japanese history, if not even the history of military battle, war, and conquest throughout the entire world. But other elements suggest that this is for western audiences—the early release here being one. Another is that there is so much foreshadowing in the series, even though the characters—at least all those who are not anime-original—meet the same ends they do in recorded history. Thus, the Japanese know what will happen without the need for these elements, but western audiences, unless they spoil themselves or are Japanese history otaku, will not. We in the west are taken along for a ride where we do not know the finale, not quite. We do not know what the Battle of Dan-no-ura holds, while the Japanese know exactly what will happen, but are given the gift of this beautifully crafted adaptation—in story, cinematography, music, animation. Ultimately, it seems The Heike Story was for us both, and it’s something to note that it’s a masterpiece for those without knowledge of the work, but perhaps just as much for those for whom it is part of their history, and their heart and soul.
Claire: If you hadn’t chosen this one, Twwk, I would have. This is a poem of a show! And like poetry, it can be rather obscure and impressionistic at times, partly because of Yamada’s subtle approach to storytelling, and partly due to the massive cast of characters (and the proclivity for the old men to shave their heads, making them a little challenging to tell apart at first!), which makes a straightforward linear narrative pretty much impossible. There’s just too much to tell. I regularly rewatched episodes as we went along to keep the story straight (and read a fair few Wikipedia pages as well to better understand the context), but it was a genuine pleasure to do so.
Adapting The Heike Story alongside director Naoko Yamada is long-time collaborator and writer Reiko Yoshida, and together I think they’ve done an excellent job of giving voice to the female characters in this historical epic, drawing out the figures who often get lost in the shuffle of war horses, flaming arrows and tales of wounded pride. The addition of Biwa as a minstrel-witness works really well, and helps to spotlight the story of Tokuko, which ends up being the core of the series and the wisdom it seeks to convey. Also, what an absolutely stellar voice acting cast! (Did anyone else recognize Rem seiyuu Inori Minase in that bit part as one of the shirabyoshi girls, Shizuka Gozen?) I expected great things of this series, and it delivered.
Twwk: I have to give my thanks to you, Claire, for even though I’ve enjoyed Naoko Yamada’s works and have become a great supporter of the series and movies that Science SARU produces, The Heike Story was almost completely off my radar until your stellar first impression piece of episode one. I fear that I may not have been the only one to miss the show, which started airing at a peculiar point of the season, and which became for others a series to watch after finding time to read the Heike Monogatari (and if those readers are anything like me, they may never have made their way around to actually reading). This short period we’re in now, until new anime airs in about a week, may be just the right time to start and complete this stunning show.
Claire: You heard the man, everyone! Go watch it! 😀 You won’t regret it.
The Heike Story can be streamed on Funimation.
Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood
Claire: Out of all of our Top Ten of 2021, Joran is probably the one that no one has seen. Yet, it’s the series that made me look forward to Tuesdays for three months of my life. I’ve never looked forward to Tuesdays before, so clearly this series is a winner! The premise: in a slightly-AU 1920s Japan, a beautiful young woman with masterful sword skills and mysterious powers is out for revenge against the man who slaughtered her family when she was but a wee thing. Only, instead of taking the whole season to play out, let alone ending on a cliffhanger and begging a sequel, the revenge arc is completed by episode 4. Huh?!?! I was not expecting that! What ensues is a wild ride–we’re talking Takabisha roller coaster wild here–through a couple more arcs exploring what comes next for the anti-heroine, Sawa: what do you become once your life’s mission has been accomplished? Who can you become when your entire existence has been devoted to honing yourself into a razor sharp blade of vengeance and suddenly you find yourself without either the justification or desire to kill? Can Sawa turn her life around? Is she even fit to continue living?
To focus two-thirds of a season on the “after story” is pretty risky, but the writing in this original series is lively, throwing in enough twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat for the part of the story that usually gets a brief after credits scene at best. The art is bold and striking, like Spider-Man-era Todd McFarlane meets Art Nouveau’s Alphonse Mucha, sporting thick outlines and bucking the trend of the past couple of years toward fine line work and minimalist shadowing (as in Signal.MD’s Mars Red, Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop and Science SARU’s The Heike Story). Fans of old-school manga and B-films will also recognise the homage to Lady Snowblood that underpins the series—the same franchise that inspired Tarantino’s Kill Bill (which hosted my first introduction to anime, incidentally). Overall, I highly recommend Joran for its artistry, over-the-top plotting, and most of all the heroine herself. Also, Asahi is Best Girl of the Year, hands down.
Twwk: I’ll admit, I’m one of those helping the argument you made that no one has seen this series. Well, that’s not entirely true—I watched the first episode. I found it to be dark—not the violent kind, but actually dark visually, as in it was hard for me to make out what was happening in the series. But to hear what the director was actually trying to accomplish with this series, that decision seems to be purposeful, a whole-hearted attempt at setting such an atmosphere.
I wonder, though…what makes Asahi best girl? I imagine she’ll be the only one getting your vote (everyone else is likely to be a romcom girl, obviously).
Claire: That’s true! The palette is very much “winter colors”: heavy browns, blacks, and of course blood red and the fiery blue of Sawa’s powers. I really liked the sepia tone it gives to this historical fantasy though, placing it firmly in the coal dust era of industrial revolution. The contrast makes the few, spare moments of sunlight and nature pop all the more, dispelling the heavy atmosphere briefly but decisively and hinting at another world, another life that might be available just below the surface.
As for Asahi, well, she fully lives up to her name, which means “morning sun” or “dawn of a new day.” If Sawa had her way, Asahi would be proof of the ouroboros nature of revenge—violence begetting violence until all is consumed. But instead, the little girl embodies the greater truth that mercy is new every morning, and she comes to represent the persistent possibility of new life for Sawa. In other words, Asahi is the lone symbol of hope in this dark story. She’s also very sweet.
Twwk: Sounds like it’s time I give Joran another try!
Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood can be streamed on Crunchyroll.
Claire: I expected a bit of light-hearted comedy from this series set in the specialist training school for the all-female musical theatre troupe known in-world as the Kouka, and in real life as Takarazuka; just a bit of a peek behind the curtain of a rather unique performing tradition, peopled by some comfortably trope-based characters. What I got was far, far richer: a thoughtfully executed ensemble cast dramedy that proved to be, for me at least, a spiritual heir to Wonder Egg Priority. Contrary to the teaser trailers, which highlight the two leads almost exclusively, the series itself gifts the spotlight to each of the six or so supporting characters as well, sometimes for two episodes. As such, it is able to tackle as wide a range of social issues as WEP–everything from childhood sexual abuse, to eating disorders, bullying, broken hearts, sibling rivalry, imposter syndrome, and social anxiety. Unlike WEP, Kageki Shojo raises these themes in a real-world context, and as such, picks up the baton from the groundbreaking CloverWorks series and runs with it for an extra lap or two, not simply raising awareness of these issues, but also modelling the positive impact that friendship and supportive adults can have for a young woman facing mountains that are too forbidding to brave alone. It is not a flashy, attention-grabbing story but, just like the deceptively crisp, clean artwork, it is underpinned with such attention to detail and such humanity that I found myself watching each episode at least twice every week. The voice acting really makes this series, particularly for reclusive, self-protective Ai, played almost unrecognizably by Yumiri Hanamori–Nadeshiko of Yuru Camp fame.
Twwk: Even by the end of the show’s run, it felt like Kageki Shojo was still that under-the-radar gem, a series that didn’t receive the respect it deserves. I didn’t survey reviewers or fans to see if this was true, though; instead, I think it felt that way to me because the story is small and self-contained, the animation “crisp” and “clean” but not ambitious, and the girls normal (though with the usual anime quirks). And despite this, and maybe in part because of it, Kageki Shojo was one of the most engaging series for me in recent years. I couldn’t wait to see what the girls would be up to each week, which I knew would bring the laughter I desired and the heartache I wanted even more. As with The Heike Story, I was so glad you championed this series and put it on my radar, and that you even were able to interview an animator from the series, too!
Claire: You’re so right to underline the comedy aspect here, Twwk, because it truly is an incredibly funny series! Sarasa is a natural slapstick comedian and Ai, the master of deadpan. I’m so grateful to this show also for introducing me to the stunning work of animator Atelier Gokujou, who generously shared with us about working in the anime industry and on Kageki Shojo in particular. So fascinating!
Kageki Shojo!! can be streamed on Funimation.
Twwk: There’s something to be said for creating an original 12-13 episode series that has a definitive end, as opposed to one based on a work that goes on for volumes and volumes, and for which the mangaka is hoping to extend for even more volumes. If the creative team is up to the task, they can carefully plan and develop a series that can be fully engaging episode by episode, but which also comes together in a masterful way right at the climax of the series. ODDTAXI is witty and warm and silly, with each episode being highly entertaining on its own, reminiscent of American animation aimed at adult audiences from the late 90s to mid-2000s, but it also takes a large cast and slowly, slowly brings them together into one story that’s difficult to predict but, as I’ll mention later with Sonny Boy, ends exactly as it should (well, except for the last 30 seconds) in its tale of an unusual hero, middle-aged taxi driver Odokawa, and the mystery of a missing young girl who apparently rode in his cab shortly before her disappearance. It’s a story that draws in the yakuza, a deranged gatcha game player, an idol group and the girls’ manager, Odokawa’s doctor, his best friend, a manzai duo, and various others.
Part of the magic of ODDTAXI is how appealing the characters are to us as viewers. Odokawa is an easy hero to root for—grumpy but kind-hearted, alternately brave and cowardly, suffering from an illness but refusing to gripe about life—though the others also all grew on me in various ways (sometimes by pity, sometimes through understanding) or otherwise resounded strongly as crazed characters or those symbolizing something about Japanese society, like the idol groups that aren’t as clean cut as they appear to their audiences or the hippo that lives and dies by social media impressions (I didn’t feel akin to him in any way…nope. NOT AT ALL). And in addition to the aforementioned mystery components and expert plotting, the humor is just weird and memorable. Case in point: capoeira alpaca nurse. And as you’ve surmised, it’s all done with anthropomorphic animals, which makes the series all the more quixotic. ODDTAXI is a bold answer to the question of whether anything anime is original anymore. And more than that, it’s simply a fine, fine series—creative, smart, and just about perfect.
Claire: I’ll admit that I dropped this one early on, simply because we were so very spoiled for choice in the Spring 2021 season and, well, the anthropomorphism kinda creeped me out for some reason. The “twist” was pretty obvious from the outset, and its obviousness disappointed me. But I gather from social media that there were further twists ahead! Particularly the final few seconds. What’s your take on it, Twwk: do those final frames make or break the series? Is it the kind of twist that compels you to reconsider and rewatch the entire series (Sixth Sense style), or just roll your eyes and move on?
Also, there is something special about an anime-original series. In fact, six of our Top Ten series for 2021 are originals (though of course The Heike Story is inspired by a rich literary tradition), which is highly disproportionate in light of the predominance of adaptation in anime. This is quite interesting, given that I for one am not a manga reader, so it’s not like adaptation from the manga is spoiling any anime for me. Is anime simply better when it is written for the screen rather than adapted?
Twwk: Taking your last question first, I noticed the same in our list and I wondered if we were just spoiled this fall season with animators who were both great at their craft and visionaries as well. Some I had never heard of before. But it does also seem that there are directors out there who have tired of the same elements popping up again and again, maybe especially isekai ones in this day and age (though, too, there are some noted directors who have gone the opposite way and taken on the isekai genre recently!), and some studios are willing to let them experiment. Hollywood, please take note.
As for the twist—the one you’re referring to ended up being less a twist and more a way to wrap up the story. It’s the twists in between, dozens of them, though, that kept us guessing, though I should say in a fun sort of way as much as a whodunnit / killer kind of way (though there was some of that as well). But those final 30 seconds…they were the talk of the community after the final episode aired, as fans were left unsettled and searching for answers (including through the accompanying radio drama that only added more drama and sadness to the tale). The final response, however, may be nigh: about a week ago, the ODDTAXI movie was announced. It will premiere in Japan in April, be streamed by Crunchyroll, and will take the story beyond the TV series ending.
ODDTAXI (the series) can be streamed on Crunchyroll.
Ranking of Kings
Twwk: I hesitate to put Ranking of Kings in our top ten—not because it isn’t fantastic (it is)—but because as of this review, the current cour hasn’t concluded, and as Claire just informed me, we’re only halfway done with this 23-episode journey. But it’s so worthy of inclusion that if Ranking of Kings also somehow finds its way on our top ten list of 2022, then so be it! These initial episodes swept into the landscape with something totally unexpected, a fairy tail that looks as if it’s right out of a children’s storybook, set against a medieval fantasy backdrop and providing lessons in kindness and how to treat others who are different than us. That itself would make for a lovely viewing experience, but this manga adaptation about Bojji, a deaf and mute prince, who after the death of the king finds his would-be throne usurped by his half-brother and a villain in the shadows, has far more depth than a Hans Christian Andersen story, with complex characters and motivations, a less European and more Japanese expression of demons and possession, and plot twists galore.
While no one should be surprised that Bojji and his earnestness will win over even the stiffest characters on the series, we get to witness an emotional transformation in his sidekick, Kage, whose tragic backstory informs his feelings for the young prince. A further unexpected feature is the choice to reveal Hiling as not at all the caricature of the evil stepmother she at first seems, leading to the development of what might be one of anime’s best mothers, not only by deed but by the depth of character she’s given. Others also receive such treatment—actual writing that leads to actual character development—like Domas, who in addition to his own complicated journey, partakes in an action that will strongly remind Game of Thrones fans of the turning point for Jaime, another great fantasy swordsman. It should be noted, too, that the voice acting lives up the other high achieving aspects of the show, and particularly the dub, which chooses to go with a faux-British accent for the characters that’s quite fitting and avoids being distracting, and features perfect performances from a number of cast members, including Emily Fajardo (Bojji) and SungWon Cho (Kage).
But most of all, the series is simply about heart. Each of the first four or five episodes unfolds in a way that ends on an emotional moment for the characters, the kind that breaks or warms the heart, and that anime hope to have maybe once a season. While the series continues to dazzle me in how the story progresses in interesting ways with memorable characters, the love that the series impresses upon viewers for the characters, particularly but not limited to Bojji, Kage, and Hiling, is what lingers after each episode ends. I care deeply about what will happen to Bojji, Kage, and Hiling, as well as others (sometimes begrudgingly). For that to be the most significant part of a fairy tail? That’s simply magic.
Claire: I absolutely agree that even though it’s only halfway through delivering its visual, emotional, and audio delights, Ranking of Kings has earned a firm spot among the Top Ten! In fact, I agree with everything you’ve said here, and would just like to underline the unexpected, but oh-so-welcome nature of the revelations concerning Queen Hiling’s character. Such sophisticated writing! And I love that her name is pronounced “healing” in Japanese—how very appropriate to who she proves to be. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Ranking of Kings showcases the best ensemble cast writing that I’ve seen in anime: there are no villains, only flawed, misguided, very human characters. Except maybe for King Bosse, Bojji’s father. Plundering from future generations, from his own son even, for his own advantage and pride—tsk tsk. What a timely allegory for this day and age. Very much looking forward to the continuing adventures of Bojji, Kage, Hiling, and everyone else, even the evil mirror, Miranjo.
Twwk: I detect a most Furuba / Akito kind of redemption story coming for Miranjo, and am totally here for it. It’s lovely to have a show like this which reminds me of Game of Thrones (and again, certainly seems to take a teensy bit of inspiration from it) but to travel down a route toward redemption, mercy, and victory.
Ranking of Kings can be streamed on Funimation.
Twwk: Every few years, a series comes along that makes me feel really stupid, where after an episode I reflect and think, “I didn’t get that at all. What just happened?” Every episode of Sonny Boy was like that. But these shows—Mawaru Penguindrum is another that comes to mind—share another commonality: Once I do figure out what happened (meaning after I read a blog post by someone far wiser than me or, these days, go to the Reddit post on the episode), I’m amazed, and get excited about watching the next episode…which will inevitably bring more confusion.
But with Sonny Boy, the Madhouse series about a Japanese school class that is transferred to another dimension where the teens discover they now exhibit unusual powers, everything came together at the end in what was just the right conclusion, and even in a way that this reviewer could understand. I not only appreciated that, but the daring of the writers and director in creating an anime that took leaps both from dimension to dimension (which themselves were unique, as were the powers the teens gained) and in time, for part of the confusion that frequently occurs is that weeks sometimes pass between episodes, and later in the series, even decades. Yet the audience is left to try to assemble the clues to what’s happening, what time it is, and who the bad guys are—all with not a whole lot to go on (unless you’ve been taking notes).
But in that way, and also through characterization that sometimes feels very typical (particularly with Nagara and Mizuho) and at other times, completely out of left-field—and also occasionally culminating in not much of anything at all—there’s not only experimentation happening here, but also what I saw as authenticity. It’s okay that this show is confusing and jumbled and fantastic and weird and a mix of the audacious and boring, because life is quite like that too, though with the distinction that we have to obey the laws of time and space. And I wonder, too, if this centuries-long story also speaks something more timely and just as significant to us: our relationships and our times together are critical, and no matter how long we’re together—for one semester in school or for decades as a family—in any case, time is too short for us to do anything less than give our all for one another and develop ourselves, since in the end, relationships are what we’re here for. Make them count, no matter how little time (or how long) they last.
Claire: Authenticity and experimentation are the keywords here for sure, and encapsulate what both frustrated and inspired me about Sonny Boy. The series was a labor of love for director Shingo Natsume, whose singular vision suffuses each and every frame, and as such is it deeply authentic. But that authenticity is rooted in a philosophy and worldview that are highly personalized and possibly still in flux, which at times can be quite alienating for the viewer, if not downright confusing. The first half of the series was fascinating as characters seemed to fall into idealized types representing various political philosophies: Marxist materialism, neo-liberal capitalism, authoritarianism, stoicism, and even mysticism/the charismatic, to name a few. (And yes, Twwk, I took notes!) But the metaphors disintegrated rapidly as the number of dimensions visited by the cast increased, leaving me with the feeling of having been suckerpunched. Then again, as you highlight, maybe that was the point. Maybe that is in fact the height of authenticity: to lift up your arms in a giant shrug and admit that, well, none of it really makes that much sense. The thing is though, I like my philosophical anime to make sense.
What saves this show for me then is the artistry itself. The wild experimentation in form that nevertheless remains consistent aesthetically in a way that the show fails to do intellectually or philosophically. To borrow from Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message here, or more to the point, the meaning of this series lies in the fact that, as convoluted as the story becomes, and as wild as its artistic experimentation, the show’s aesthetic remains clear and cohesive. Sonny Boy reminds us that in a world as complicated, contradictory, and confusing as our own, there is a kind of grounding solidity and truth to art.
Sonny Boy can be streamed on Funimation.
Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song
Claire: For fans of Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Summer Glau’s Terminator, Vivy Fluorite Eye’s Song is the perfect mix of believable female action hero, sci-fi futurism, and philosophical pondering. The series follows AI Vivy (aka Diva) as she seeks to prevent an AI apocalypse. Each two-episode arc confronts the heroine with not just a new practical challenge, but also a philosophical quandary on the meaning of life, humanity and wholeheartedness.
Like all AI, Vivy was tasked by her creator with a singular mandate, to make people happy with her singing. But this command is rendered more complex by her maker’s further exhortation to do so with her whole heart, an instruction that preoccupies Vivy and prompts her to seek out deeper purpose in her life and work. It reminds me of the greatest commandment in scripture, which is both a “directive”, if you will, and a tender invitation hinting at the existence of greater depths of purpose beyond sheer obedience: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
Vivy’s existence is further complicated by her second mandate, to prevent the AI war. Can she reconcile her two missions? Being double-minded would destroy her (according to the Rules of this series, and James 1:8 as well!), and isn’t one of these missions clearly more important than the other anyhow? The inner conflict Vivy experiences over this echoes the dichotomy I think we can often face in our own lives, that supposed split between “sacred” and “secular”, or between work that seems to have greater significance and that which we enjoy simply for its own sake. But is it not possible to bring the two together, to make people smile while saving them too, as Vivy seeks to do? In the end, Vivy Fluorite Eye’s Song doesn’t really offer up a straightforward answer to these questions. But in leaving things somewhat unresolved, it ensures that you can enjoy a second viewing and still find new layers of meaning tucked away in its corners. And trust me, you’ll want to watch it twice: this is some of the best action animation I’ve seen, the character designs by loundraw are spectacular, and the music is so on point that I preordered both albums (insert songs and musical score). All in all, this series is beautiful, thought-provoking, and unpredictable in the best possible way. It also begs the question: if Vivy was a mere side project for Wit Studio, then what does the future hold for this incredible team of creatives?
Twwk: Your review encourages me to watch it at least once. I mean, I’m a mega fan of Ripley, robot girl anime, and loundraw, too! But as is often the case, I dismissed this one after an episode, as it didn’t “hit the right notes” for me then. And I did not expect it to become such a thoughtful series, though I did see many folks on Twitter frequently express their admiration for the show as the series progressed.
Claire: It really is worth giving at least the first two arcs, so four episodes. By that point, some of the underlying mystery that ties the whole series together begins to peek out, as well as the melancholy and sensitivity in Vivy’s character that makes you (or at least me!) want to follow her journey to the end. Also the fight scene in episode 4… *chef’s kiss*!
Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song can be streamed on Funimation.
Wonder Egg Priority
Claire: The first episode took me nearly an hour to watch, and the second, over a month—for very different reasons, both of which get to the heart of why this is such a worthwhile series. In the case of the first episode, I kept going back to rewatch scenes because they were just so darned beautiful. I mean, really, truly gorgeous animation with the kind of attention to detail, subtle movement, and cinematography that I associate with the visionary Naoko Yamada (A Silent Voice, Liz and the Blue Bird, The Heike Story). And with good cause, as it turns out. I was blown away.
But I was also worried about where it was going. It was pretty clear from the premiere that WEP was going to dwell in some dark places and engage uncomfortable subjects, and I’ll admit that I dropped it for a month. I just didn’t feel up to it at that time. But then I happened across a BTT post on WEP a few episodes later that challenged me that this discomfort was exactly why I should be watching it, why I should be willing to listen and speak about the things that happen in the shadows. From the abuse that assaults from the outside to the turmoil that can well up and rage from within—WEP engages the full spectrum of social issues pertinent to the modern world. And I am so glad it did and that I watched it. It wasn’t a perfect series by any means: the production problems and poor working conditions that plagued CloverWorks on this project are by now infamous, and the ending left much to be desired. But none of this undermines the value of WEP in breaking the silence and doing so in a rich and compelling way, without seeking to provide answers or moral pronouncements, simply offering up stories. I only wish that it was as easy as fighting a monster in my dreams though, the act of saving a friend.
Twwk: I echo everything you said, except that I couldn’t peel my eyes away for a week, much less a month! I couldn’t wait each week to turn the volume up on full for “Sudachi no Uta” and then to see where the story would go. And boy, was it a journey—one that I was unsure of myself on multiple occasions. I immediately could see how engaging the series would be visually and audibly, but I wondered if it could meet the expectations it was setting through the story and if it would take the idea of suicide seriously enough to tackle the subject so head-on. And while I thought the idea of Temptation of Death was a shaky and too-animeish way of approaching suicide in general, the series still treated everything with such sensitivity and forthrightness that I could forgive that. I don’t know what the legacy of the series is, but I feel it blew open the doors for anime telling stories about such painful subjects.
Claire: I definitely hear you about episode 11 and the “Temptation of Death” theme, though on reflection, I actually found it quite compelling and perhaps rather deeper than it seems at first. But I don’t think it was followed up in a convincing way, which makes that whole episode a bit of an aberration, as if Shin Wakabayashi, the powerhouse behind the series (and surprisingly, a total newcomer to anime, though with decades in television and film), changed his mind and went back to the original plan in episode 12. And then, of course, seemingly changed his mind again and went off on yet another tangent (or one might even say, off the rails) with that disappointing finale that in my world at least, has been relegated to the same distant reaches of the universe as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Terminator 3…
Twwk: Did you just bring up Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? We don’t talk about Indy 4 here (shudders). Except…that it does feel like an apt comparison, the disappointing final installment after a long (three months is long, right?) wait. But much like Indiana Jones and the impending fifth installment, I wonder if we’ll eventually get a true finale for Wonder Egg Priority. It desperately needs it, as the mess that was the special episode (13) was an all-time disappointing conclusion. I’m reminded of Claymore, whose final run was ruined by a travesty of an anime-only ending, and Rurouni Kenshin, which stopped production after a bad last arc. But unlike those series, there’s no manga original for viewers to read and console themselves with. There’s only the hope that as the anime industry works to right its wrongs, this show, caught up in the frenzy of poor working conditions for the animators, might get the ending it deserves and which the preceding 11-12 episodes promised would be something meaningful and well done, unlike what we received. To be sure, I think it’s that hope which keeps this show clearly as one of the top ten of the year, if not number one or two, despite the Crystal Skull ending of it all.
Wonder Egg Priority can be streamed on Funimation.
Thank you, dear reader, for indulging us as we looked back over a spectacular year of anime and relived some of our favorite viewing experiences of 2021.
And now, over to you! What were your Top Ten of this past year? What do you think about the artistic experimentation on display in 2021? Of the virtues of anime-original series over adaptations? Of where the medium is heading and what we have to look forward to in the future?
Let us know in the comments below!