After the rock-solid year in anime that was 2019, 2020 felt like a fairly big disappointment. I didn’t even have five anime that I liked strongly enough to put together for a year-end list. Luckily, anime came back swinging in 2021. This past year had so many solid series and films that it was actually pretty tough to narrow down my favorites to just five (and an honorable mention). From flashy sword fights to an emotional breakthrough decades in the making to a compelling mystery with a walrus in the lead role, here are my favorite anime of 2021.
*Honorable Mention: Fate/stay night: Heaven’s Feel III. Spring Song
Studio Ufotable’s finale to the last Fate/stay night arc is a mind-meltingly impressive piece of animation. The last couple of scenes don’t feel completely earned, and there are one or two other story beats that are a tad rushed or aren’t fleshed out enough, but I had a hard time being bothered by any of that because I was so utterly enraptured by how incredible it all looked. Ufotable’s movies and shows have always looked stunning, particularly their work with the Fate franchise, and that trend doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. I was constantly wowed by Spring Song’s extraordinary imagery, and Saber’s big battle is one of the most jaw-droppingly intense action sequences in the history of anime itself. Honestly, that duel alone almost earned it a spot here. All in all though, Spring Song – and the Heaven’s Feel entire trilogy – is worth the time of any Fate fan, or those looking for the best visuals that the anime medium has to offer.
* Spring Song was released in the United States in late 2020, but was only briefly in theaters. For pandemic-related reasons, I waited until it was available to watch online, in 2021.
Number 5: Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train
If you read my 2019 anime write-up, you shouldn’t be surprised at all that Mugen Train is on this list. The film is set between the outstanding first season and second seasons of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, and while it doesn’t hit the same heights as the previous 26 episode run, I’d still say it’s a must-see for any and all fans of the show. The lovable, quirky main cast still pulls on your heartstrings, hits your funny bone, and the overwhelming majority of its action is as awesome as you’d expect from Demon Slayer. However, my pick for Mugen Train’s most notable aspect is the fiery Rengoku. He’s a powerhouse combatant that helps further establish the potential of Tanjiro’s crew, and is one of the best supporting characters in the series (at least in the anime) so far. Don’t just take my word on Mugen Train‘s worth though; it was received so well in Japan that it’s now the country’s highest-grossing movie of all time, anime or otherwise.
Number 4: Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time
“Life is a continuous cycle of tough times and good times.”
That simple, straightforward line strongly resonated with me because it can easily be attributed to Evangelion as a whole, series creator Hideaki Anno’s psychological state when making each part of his landmark anime, and the ways his emotions influenced it. Neon Genesis Evangelion and End of Evangelion, which were created when Anno was struggling with depression, tell a shockingly bleak, confusing, seemingly hopeless, fucked up tale, and Thrice Upon a Time feels fundamentally different as Anno has grown and changed for the better since then. 3.0+1.0 still has plenty of darkness and abstractness to it, sure, it is Evangelion after all, but there’s also a lot of optimism, hope, and beauty in the experience as well. Thanks to that more positive tone, its downright bonkers visuals, unique action setpieces, moving score, and more concrete ending, I think I actually prefer the “rebuild” series over Neon Genesis. If this really, truly is the end of all things Evangelion, then the franchise went out on one Hell of a high note.
Number 3: Star Wars: Visions
Surprising absolutely nobody, anime and Star Wars are a match made in heaven. I was immediately invested in this anthology from a galaxy far, far away once it was announced, and it certainly lived up to the hype. Almost every vignette is helmed by a different animation studio, giving them all a unique style, freshness, feel, and they’re all also totally in line with what fans of anime and the space opera franchise were expecting. Even if these stories aren’t canon, they’re worth watching because they’re as memorable as the majority of any Disney’s Star Wars productions. Only a few of Visions episodes are longer than twenty minutes, but the brief runtimes don’t stop them from creating interesting worlds, building up new characters that I’d love to see again, featuring top-tier lightsaber battles, or all of the above. My “least favorite” segment, Tatooine Rhapsody is a still plenty of fun, the best short, The Duel lives up to its namesake with an action sequence that’s just as good as anything seen in the live-action films, and everything in between is an easy recommendation in my book as well.
Number 2: ODDTAXI
Despite the unanimous praise it was getting from the beginning, I didn’t give ODDTAXI a go until it had finished airing. The anthropomorphic animal character designs felt like too bizarre of a choice for a straight-faced crime-thriller focused on a mystery surrounding a missing young woman and other equally dark storylines. However, once I accepted said character designs – which happened faster than I had anticipated – I was able to experience a twisting, turning narrative that made every interaction and character part of an intricate puzzle, and I was blown away when the pieces started falling into place. Virtually every scene and sequence in ODDTAXI is vitally important to the overall story, and some of the biggest, most shocking reveals are set up by the smallest, most quietly laid out details. In a world where most 13-episode anime shows just feel like the beginning of an adventure that we’ll never get to see in its entirety, ODDTAXI should be applauded for weaving a yarn that not only feels complete, but outshines countless series that have double the runtime.
Number 1: To Your Eternity (Season 1)
Initially, I couldn’t quite pin down what about To Your Eternity that was moving me so deeply, but as the credits for a particular episode started rolling (along with a huge amount of tears down my cheeks) it hit me: it was everything. The score is equally epic and emotional, and the vast world the series introduces you to contains a large, colorful cast of diverse and interesting characters who endeared themselves to you within minutes of meeting them. To Your Eternity also has great visuals, but is even more beautiful thematically; it takes an instantly engaging premise – an immortal entity travels the world and learns what it really means to be alive while also discovering its purpose – and crafts a powerful, poignant story that never lets you completely lose hope, even when it takes soul-shatteringly bleak turns. Yes, life can be sad, sometimes so sad that you feel like you can’t even breathe, but that doesn’t mean the journey shouldn’t be taken. Life is worth living, worth fighting for, the world is worth exploring, there will always be people in it who are worth knowing, and even some who you’ll carry within you for as long as you live. That’s what I got out of To Your Eternity, and that’s why it’s my favorite piece of entertainment – no, piece of art that I’ve seen this year.
And those were my favorite anime of 2021. If you liked what you read, feel free to follow me on Twitter, Letterboxd, and bookmark my author page. Until next time, remember: the best seats are in the Middle of the Row!