Staff Picks: Our Favorite Anime of 2020
The cartoons that got us through this hell year
If you’re stuck at home, it's easy to become frustrated when, say, a plague makes your regularly scheduled programming go on hiatus. But we must remember that COVID-19 affected the world, not just ourselves as individuals. Several series faced delays early in 2020 while studios figured out, much like every other industry, how to make things work. So it is with the utmost appreciation for the efforts of all involved that we here at Ani-Gamers have anything to rank as far as new anime produced in 2020 goes.
Unlike previous years, and perhaps because everyone was a little more isolated, there didn’t seem to be much consensus on titles among our collective top three anime choices. But even this is a blessing of sorts. In the reviews that follow, including those from Ink and Evan as well as first-time Staff Picks contributors Inaki and Patrick, maybe you’ll get a better sense of what appeals to each of our staff on a more personal level and get to know us and these titles a little better. Enjoy, and let us know your own picks in the comments!
#3: Yashahime: Princess Half-Demon
Rumiko Takahashi is undisputedly the greatest who ever lived. InuYasha 2: Who F***ed Sesshomaru? knows that it can’t ever measure up to the InuYasha sequel you’ve been writing in your head for 20 years and frankly doesn’t even try. We have the familiar sense of adventure in the same world, but the new main characters are forced to navigate the poorly explained mistakes and trials of their parents. Everything feels just a little off from what we remember, and the former main characters are too mired in their own issues to lend much of a hand.
I really appreciate the whole vibe of Yashahime, and I can imagine there was a lot of pressure to make an empty fanservice series for fans of the original.
#2: Princess Connect! Re:Dive
Princess Connect! Re:Dive, the anime adaptation of Princess Connect! Re:Dive the mobile game, has very little right to exist and even less right to be as joyful and fun as it is. It managed to be one of the very, very few things this year that penetrated my ever-worsening chronic anhedonia.
The core of Priconne is the three main characters who are brought to life in their pastel-coloured VRMMO world by an animation team that really seemed to care deeply about making a work-for-hire gacha game adaptation. I genuinely feel like I have spent years in the company of bishokuden, Kyaru, Pecorine, and Kokkoro — all of whom feel more sympathetic and familiar to me than my own family.
If you follow the Ani-Gamers’ book club (a mere $5USD a month on Patreon) you’ll know we talk a lot about the long shadow of pseudo-medieval Europe-inspired fantasy and how it’s really hard to do something genuinely interesting with it. Priconne rises above all that and proves you can still do all of those things and make them extremely entertaining in the process.
Kouji Kumeta’s Kakushigoto is a surprising meditation on his life and career: partly the same rapid-fire gags you know and love, partly social commentary, but also with a newfound sense of purpose. This doesn’t mean it’s much less dark; Kumeta’s anxieties and fixations take on a decidedly more immediate character in Hime, the daughter of protagonist Goto Kakushi, who hides his life as a manga-ka that he considers shameful from his daughter.
I don’t like parents writing stories about how much they love their kids, and I’m not a big fan of insider jokes about the entertainment industry. Kakushigoto is both of these things in spades. Kakushigoto has that inky-black Kumeta charm and that nihilistic sense of profound unhappiness, tempered (this time) with a little hope and love. Kumeta finally found something to live for, it seems.
Even if you aren’t nostalgic for 2000s-era Kumeta and the works based on it, Kakushigoto is a solid comedy with a surprising amount of sweetness. It also serves as a fascinating look into one artist’s thoughts on their legacy. Rarely have I enjoyed a work this personal that isn’t saccharine or masturbatory.
#3: Extra Olympia Kyklos
Every single episode could just be this OP and the 24 distinct ending songs, and this mixed-media anime short would still be one of my picks for anime of the year. Demetrios is a failed pottery painter in the ancient Grecian village of Tortonia. He pines for the romantic attention of Apollonia, but her father, who is also the mayor, cannot give his consent to the couple until Demetrios proves his worth by earning money and prestige for the city. To do so, Detrios must come up with varying games for Tortonia’s very own Olympics. After being struck by lightning, Demetrios finds himself intermittently unstuck in time and space — randomly (once per episode) finding himself in the strange new metropolis of Tokyo, Japan. There he sees the strange things that gives him inspiration for ludicrously stupid takes on athletic competitions. It’s not that this series uses any type of animation particularly well or that mixed media is anything new, but the show, simply for its absurdity, was a glorious (and much needed) weekly WTF laugh in 2020. And that was worth its weight in gold.
While I watched the first one and a half episodes and then dropped it initially after being too physically tired at the time, I was lucky enough to be forced to watch this as a request for an Oldtaku no Radio episode. And, man, does this series deliver! It’s set in a city where humans are lab subjects for wizards who pop in and out at whim through dimensional doors from another city. There’s a mystery of a man with a caiman head who’s trying to figure out who killed/transformed him. He has a little man inside him who interrogates everyone the lizard head chomps down on. There are demons and cleaners. There are wild mushrooms and forbidden magic. And there’s just so. Much. Weird. Shit. Not knowing when something crazy will drop is a feat when something crazy drops just about every scene, but just experiencing this world and all its inhabitants is a phenomenal ride.
#1: Wave, Listen to Me!
The kids may not know this, but before Spotify, before podcast aggregators, before YouTube, there was broadcast radio. Wave, Listen to Me! is the story of a restaurant employee (waiter, blog writer) who gets taken for a ride by a radio show producer while drunk, goes on to beat the living shit out of him, then ends up on air as a late night personality due to the flawless diction and fluid delivery of her rebuke. With the aid of a script writer and producer, she ad-libs fantastic scenarios fitting for the consciousness of her target demo (late late late late night). The series has a lot of fun bending what is perceived as reality and what is actually happening regarding the broadcast, while the main character, Minare, is the kind of intelligent, loud, brash, tomboyish drunkard that I love so, so, so much. It’s a show about a voice — otherwise lost to a void (ignored as a drunk) or relegated to a yuppy-centric blog for a restaurant’s bread menu — that is ultimately discovered and creates an opportunity for itself. The rapid-fire dialog from Minare and the over-the-top drama of a dinky local radio station are my jam, and the characters were a lot of fun to spend time with every week.
#3: Baki Season 2
This was the year I finally watched Baki. The 2018 season serves as a pretty explosive introduction to the franchise, and season 2 hones that chaotic martial arts action into a fine point. Baki and his allies have entered a Chinese martial arts tournament, but rather than use the tournament structure as an easy way to inject back-room filler content, Baki goes all-in on the fights. It’s one bone-breaking battle after another as characters reveal secret fighting techniques or use their brute strength to ruthlessly maim their opponents. Even two seasons in, Baki never runs out of unbelievable twists and comebacks, each one breathlessly narrated by the show’s omniscient narrator or a character’s internal monologue. Long live Baki.
#2: Lupin the Third: The First
Lupin III has been with us since the dawn of the modern anime industry, reinventing itself every step of the way. This year TMS graced us with a new evolution of the franchise with Lupin III: The First. The title is a reference both to our hero’s grandfather, Maurice Leblanc’s literary thief Arsène Lupin, and the fact that this is Lupin’s first heist to be animated in 3-D! As my experience with the franchise is a little spotty, I can’t judge how it stacks up against recent Lupin films, but it’s an absolute blast as a stand-alone romp. The lovable main cast members all get a chance to shine. Our lovable thief has a few heartfelt moments with the latest Lupin girl (this time a bright, young, aspiring archaeologist). And oh yeah — everything looks fabulous. Studio Marza (Stand By Me Doraemon) captures the classic goofs of the Lupin crew in 3-D and renders the whole thing with semi-realistic materials and beautifully lit environments that hew closer to Hollywood feature animation than typical anime 3-D work. We’re looking at a whole new world of Japanese digital animation with productions like Land of the Lustrous, Promare, Stand By Me Doraemon, and Lupin III: The First leading the way. I couldn’t be happier.
#1: Akudama Drive
Akudama Drive was my biggest surprise of 2020. Based on its key art I expected the usual grab bag of anime and video game tropes that we get in otaku-bait action shows. Instead, I got an unhinged cyberpunk blockbuster with a heart of gold, created by Danganronpa’s Kazutaka Kodaka. In a dystopian Japan split between the warring states of Kansai and Kanto, a chance meeting lands a regular girl in the crossfire of a bunch of dangerous criminals called Akudama. To make matters worse, they all think she’s an Akudama too! In episodes named after and transparently inspired by Hollywood action movies, these anti-heroes duke it out with everybody and everything — robots, cops, a train, each other — in breathtakingly elaborate set pieces. It all leads to an emotional conclusion that grapples with some very timely issues of policing, civil disobedience, and the difference between legality and justice. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun. Be Nice, Do Crimes. Watch Akudama Drive.
#3: Ride Your Wave
Ride Your Wave was the last movie I saw in theaters before the pandemic hit, so I have a pretty personal connection to it now. It hit me really hard at the time, and I vividly remember walking around NYC with a friend for an hour or two afterward decompressing.
Ride Your Wave is a movie about grief and moving on after losing someone you love. You feel Hinako struggling to move forward after losing her boyfriend and watch as she tries to come to terms with that pain with the help of a little magic. Ride Your Wave comes up to the edge of being too ridiculous at times but never crosses the line. The emotions feel raw and the ending completely destroyed me.
#2: Baki Season 2
Baki rules, and Season 2 was more Baki, so therefore it rules. Baki goes to China because fighting in a once-every-100-years martial arts tournament is the obvious solution to the terminal poisoning he was afflicted with in Season 1. Seriously, that’s the plan. We end up with a really fun mix of new martial artists taking on some of our favorite characters, such as Baki’s Dad, Biscuit Oliva, and Muhammad Alai Jr. The change from the frenetic nature of the Death Row Inmates arc in Season 1 was welcome as well. While The Great Raitai Tournament is very fun, the second half of this season is the real highlight. After returning to Japan, the show shifts focus onto Muhammad Alai Jr. training for a fight with Baki while also trying to court Baki’s girlfriend, Kozue. I won’t spoil the ending here, but it’s brilliant as both exactly what you expect and a complete shock at the same time. Baki is a treat and is easily my favorite anime experience of the year. And now we wait for the next arc: Son of Ogre.
#1: On-Gaku: Our Sound
On-Gaku: Our Sound was an absolute treat. This movie wasn’t even on my radar at the beginning of the year, but thanks to the Japan Cuts film festival going online this year I ended up seeing it and adored it. Three bored high school delinquents decide to start a band on a whim even though they don’t have any real clue about music. It goes just about how you would expect — until it doesn’t. The deadpan humor is on point in a way I haven’t felt in quite some time, with our awkward leads trying to navigate a world they aren’t used to. The lo-fi aesthetic of the animation makes it feel unique and out of time. I felt like I was crammed in the room with the characters as they attempted to figure out how to play instruments for the first time. The sound is fantastic and the music fits each scene perfectly. On-Gaku was a clear labor of love. Even as our idiot leads attempt to become musicians there’s a respect for the craft and skill required that you almost wouldn’t expect from a delinquent comedy like this. By the end you’ll be rooting for these fools to get up on stage and perform.
That’s it for our anime picks. Check out our 2020 Manga Staff Picks and Video Game Staff Picks and look out for our list of “everything else,” coming soon to the Ani-Gamers Patreon!