Fall featured a lot of hotly anticipated titles from well-loved creators, but which ones managed to stick the landing?
We talked about three kinds of recommendations:
- Feminist-friendly favorite: You’d recommend it to a feminist friend with no caveats.
- Problematic favorite: You’d only recommend it to a feminist friend with caveats.
- Surprise favorite: You didn’t expect it to be something you’d recommend, but it was (either with or without caveats).
The titles below are organized alphabetically. As a reminder, ongoing shows are NOT eligible for these lists. We’d rather wait until the series (or season) has finished up before recommending it to others, that way we can give you a more complete picture. That means series that are technically complete even if they end on massive cliffhangers, like Talentless Nana, are eligible; while series confirmed to have a second cour, like Yashahime, are not.
Here’s what the team thought—let us know your picks in the comments!
Problematic Favorite: Alex
What’s it about? One day when they were both skipping class, Adachi and Shimamura ran into each other on the second level of the school gym. The two girls developed a routine, and an easy-going friendship: they meet there to play ping-pong, eat snacks, goof around, and try not to get caught by staff or students when a P.E. class is on. But is it possible that this laid-back relationship between two delinquents could turn into something more?
Content warnings: Fanservice and sexualized imagery of teenaged characters; some non-consensual contact (a couple boob-grabs played for comedy; one character leans over the other and touches her face while she’s asleep); 30-second scene of a guy ogling children at the pool and the main character is grossed out, but nothing comes of it and it’s never mentioned again
Adachi and Shimamura is ultimately an “it’s complicated” recommendation: there is a lot to like here, but there’s also a lot that many viewers (myself and other members of staff included) may find frustrating.
It is a genuinely tender and nuanced depiction of anxious, disaffected adolescents with self-esteem issues and a fear of getting close to one another. Adachi in particular feels very heartfelt and authentic. The way she retreats into her shell and overthinks her interactions with Shimamura (and, hilariously, her horoscope) ring true to the teen experience, and particularly the experience of having a crush you’re terrified of acknowledging. At times it’s very sweet and rewarding to watch these two closed-off characters get more emotionally free with one another.
At other times, however, the series stalls and sputters. The whimsical astronaut from the premiere eventually takes her helmet off and becomes an overly cutesy, somewhat annoying side character whose narrative purpose is unclear. The camera loves to linger on the main characters’ shiny lips, knees, and thighs. At some points we can infer that this is Adachi’s gaze (as she’s very obviously attracted to Shimamura), but most of the time this is just the fanservice lens at work.
And, while I will be the first to swoon in support of the slow-burn romance trope, the relationship progression between Shimamura and Adachi is painfully stilted and doesn’t come to a conclusion. Maybe if there’s a second season on the horizon this will be less of an issue, but as a twelve-episode story it felt like it drifted off and left me hanging.
Given how much I enjoyed the series premiere, there was a lot about the show overall that was disappointing. Still, it has a lot of charm and I don’t want it to totally vanish off the radar, especially given how few yuri titles get anime adaptations. And, for what it’s worth, the novels have started coming out in English and I really enjoyed the first volume, so if you’re interested in the premise but don’t want to deal with the series’ cinematography issues, it’s definitely worth checking out.
Surprise Favorite: Caitlin, Dee
Problematic Favorite: Mercedez, Vrai
What’s it about? In the not-too-distant future, Kansai Japan is filled with holograms, airships, and public executions. On the eve of the infamous Cutthroat’s execution, four wanted criminals (or “Akudama”) receive an anonymous message promising them a big payout in exchange for rescuing Cutthroat. As the quartet storm police headquarters, a well-meaning young woman stumbles upon them and, to stay alive, pretends she’s a Swindler; an Akudama just like them. Swindler keeps her life but gets caught up in the job—and it may be more dangerous than even the real Akudama first thought.
Content warnings: So much violence, often graphic; attempted sexual assault; fanservice; children in peril; police brutality; racial stereotyping; death of marginalized characters.
Maybe I should have had more faith in Akudama Drive, considering the original concept was by Danganronpa creator and writer Kodaka Kazutaka and co-produced by his new studio Too Kyo Games. Or maybe I was justified in my skepticism, since I’ve been unimpressed by directing/writing team Taguchi Tomohisa and Kaihou Norimitsu’s work so far. Regardless, Akudama Drive constantly not only exceeded my expectations, but crashed through them so hard that they were smashed to little tiny pieces, leaving me too open-mouthed in shock to try to pick them up.
The phrase “high-octane” gets thrown around a lot in reviews of action-driven media, but it is truly appropriate here, with its fast pace and how prevalent Courier’s motorcycle tends to be. By the end, it became clear the series wasn’t just here to provide edgy thrills. As it turns out, underneath all the flash and style, Akudama Drive is transgressive and subversive, as all good cyberpunk should be.
Unlike many series with a main cast of criminals, it doesn’t try to explain away its character’s transgressions. There’s no sob stories here, unless you count Swindler getting roped into this whole mess against her will. These people, regardless of how likable they come to be, are hardened criminals who are unafraid to kill. They are not exceptions to the rule, collateral in a justice system that refuses to understand. That’s part of what makes the story’s final message—Akudama Drive really does say ACAB—so surprising and powerful.
There are a few caveats. As noted in the premiere review, Doctor is pretty much a walking fanservice machine and that doesn’t change. Swindler remains unsexualized (luckily, Akudama Drive doesn’t go for the “more wicked = more sexy” approach) but she is threatened with sexual violence in a pretty upsetting, graphic scene. Finally, Brawler, whose character design is arguably Black-coded, (highlight to reveal spoiler) isn’t the only character to die by a long shot, but he is the first. He’s also repeatedly called a “gorilla” by Doctor, a racialized insult that pops up frequently in anime with Black characters. They’re legitimate concerns, but they don’t come close to cancelling out the subversiveness of the story for me, and I’m excited to see what else Too Kyo Games comes out wit.
Surprise Favorite: Dee (but only the animated section), Vrai
What’s it about? The titular gal, Kaede, wakes up in her apartment after a night of drinking to discover that she agreed to let a dinosaur crash at her place! On the bright side, it turns out a dino makes for a pretty chill roomie.
Poor Gal & Dino. This follow-up from the Pop Team Epic crew was always going to be a bit of a niche title. It’s an experimental comedy that dabbles in 2D animation, 3D animation, and stop-motion felt work alongside live-action sections… which resulted in its production being delayed the longest of any of the Spring 2020 series. By the time it came back, it was all but forgotten.
And that’s a shame! Because the animated sections in particular are bursting with love and creativity, and I was endlessly touched by the show’s insistence on prominently putting artist credits at the beginning of every short sketch. Its humor is gentle and relatively quiet, with a likable cast and just enough touches of absurdity to keep it from dragging. It’s also just nice to see a gyaru (gal) character that isn’t the target of misogyny or a grating caricature and who has really great friendships with other women in addition to her excellent dino roommate.
The live-action segments can be much more hit-or-miss, with the early episodes in particular often building their gag around getting a popular Japanese comedian or TV personality to guest star or waiting ten minutes to reveal a punchline. They’re not for everyone—although I did get a kick out of, for example, watching the live-action Dino inexplicably recreate Rin’s opening camping scene in Laid-Back Camp—but I appreciated the experimental spirit of it.
Fortunately, because the show is divided neatly in half with the animated segments first, it’s entirely possible to skip the live-action bits if they’re not working for you (for the record, this is Dee’s recommended strategy). It’s an odd little show, but I couldn’t let 2020 slip by without shouting out its weirdest iyashikei offering. I look forward to seeing what Aoki Jun and his co-conspirators do next.
Problematic Favorite: Caitlin, Chiaki, Dee, Vrai
What’s it about? Aragaki Jotaro is a father, a widower, and a professional gymnast, but his career has been struggling since a bad injury. He reluctantly agrees to retire—at least, until a bizarre encounter with a ninja actor at an amusement park sets off a chain of events that changes his mind, leading him right back to the world of gymnastics.
Content considerations: A queer stereotype character (friendly with the main cast but often played for laughs); discussions of death and bereavement.
Despite having a premiere that flirted with absurdity, GymSam wound up being a surprisingly grounded, heartfelt dramedy about family and healing. As the series bounces between Jotaro, his daughter Rei, and their houseguest Leo, it can feel a bit disjointed in the early going, but slowly comes together under a central theme: “making a comeback.”
What do you do when you’ve hit a wall, and how do you climb over it? GymSam asks this of characters working through grief, injury, and burnout. While the answer is different for everyone, the series maintains a strong, upbeat throughline about the importance of emotional honesty and support networks. Rei’s story in particular stands out to me, as she learns that it’s okay—healthy, even—to express negative emotions and put her own needs first sometimes. It’s a lesson a lot of preteen girls don’t get, and it’s handled exceptionally well here.
GymSam is still a bit of a mess, with a few too many bells and whistles that distract from its core narrative. The sports elements feel tacked-on at times, as does some of the supporting cast. There are also potential issues with age-gap relationships (it’s left unclear), as well as the periodic winces brought on by Britney, a minor character and queer stereotype who Vrai discussed at length in the three-episode check-in.
Still, when GymSam is good, it’s very good, and its central message of love and support left me with warm fuzzies and even a few tears. I won’t pretend it’s perfect, but if found family stories are your thing, I’d definitely recommend giving this one a try.
Feminist-Friendly Favorite: Alex, Caitlin, Chiaki, Dee, Mercedez, Vrai
What’s it about? In a world rife with tensions between humans and demons, a new conflict begins when the Demon King suddenly kidnaps Princess Syalis of Goodereste and locks her in his castle! While the Hero of Goodereste embarks on a quest to rescue her, the princess embarks on a quest of her own: to get the best night’s sleep ever.
Content considerations: Slapstick violence; comedic kidnapping; a wordplay sex joke in the third episode concerning a character who’s almost certainly underage (see our three-episode check-in for more details).
Easily the Staff Pick of the Season, this goofball comedy about a gremlin princess had a strong sense of identity from the word “go” and maintained that same level of energy and silliness through to the end. Better still, the back half expanded the cast and developed their relationships with one another, revealing a beating heart beneath all the shenanigans.
Sleepy Princess mines a lot of its humor from reversing fairy tale and fantasy expectations, as the kidnapped princess wreaks havoc on the soft-hearted residents of the demon castle while an ineffective hero she can’t stand tries to rescue her. But along the way, it also uses these same expectations to humanize its cast and challenge tropes.
As the characters get to know (and develop affection for) each other, they push back against their prescribed roles and the world they’ve been born into and begin to wonder if conflict really is their only option. The commentary is a light touch (this is a comedy, after all), but it does wonders for developing an endearing cast who are more than just vehicles for a punchline.
Overall, Sleepy Princess was a fun, charming romp each week, and a welcome addition to the list of Nice Comedies I can recommend with almost zero caveats. Between this and Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, Yamazaki Mitsue has proven herself one of the best comedy directors in the business. I wouldn’t say no to a second season of Sleepy Princess, but I will straight-up demand more Yamazaki projects in the future.
Surprise Favorite: Alex, Chiaki, Mercedez
What’s it about? Nakajima Nanao studies at an elite school for young people with superpowers—people known as the Talented who are training to fight mysterious monsters known only as the Enemies of Humanity. There’s just one problem: Nanao doesn’t seem to have much in the way of superpowers. This earns him the ridicule of his classmates, but when a telepathic transfer student named Hiiragi Nana arrives, she takes a special interest in him.
Content Warnings: Blood, mild gore, stalking, implied necrophilia, threatened rape/sexual blackmail (episode 5), discussed genocide.
It was solely thanks to the efforts of my partner—and me guesting on the BlxxkAnimePodcast—that I got into Talentless Nana. At first, I took Talentless Nana at face value, mostly because the series seems to vibe off of superhero high school tropes. Every character is color-coded to match their ability, and everyone looks like they could be the Main Character. Yet then I realized that I was in for a show that was eager to play with tropes, and eventually, shatter them.
In her premiere review of the show, Alex quite smartly withheld a lot of information about the show’s twist. I’m going to do the same so that you can go into Talentless Nana as uninformed as possible so that you can make your own mind up about this series. I did, of course, choose to disclose some critical content warnings and considerations that I think are important to know ahead of your potential view.
Other than those warnings, I’ll just say this: Talentless Nana is very much worth your time. It’s a smart, genuine look at what might happen if teenagers had superpowers and were a genuine threat. It’s also a thoughtful, reflective show about what it means to do the right thing, and further, how “doing the right thing” can radically differ from person to person. Alex said it best: Talentless Nana is here to explore the concepts of Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, what drives a genre centered around superpowered teens, and how to peek behind the curtain and see what gears are turning to make it all work. It’s good stuff, and definitely can be quite satisfying if you give the show a try.
In the end, Talentless Nana may very well be the dark horse of a season packed with really excellently executed shows. While not the most beautifully animated, it’s really quite pensive regarding its twisty topics. I know Talentless Nana is something I’ll be thinking about for a while yet, especially since as of this rec’s writing, there’s no news of a second season. Thank goodness Crunchyroll has the simulpub of the manga!
Surprise Favorite: Mercedez
What’s it about? Nasa Yuzaki gets hit by a truck on the day of his high school entrance exams and meets Tsukuyomi Tsukasa, a complete stranger who tried to save him from the crash. Nasa instantly falls in love and in his pain-addled state, declares his affection. But there’s a catch to Tsukasa returning his feelings: she’ll only become his girlfriend if they get married first.
Content considerations: Blood/car accident (episode 1); mild sexual humor, including sexual harassment played for laughs.
In my premiere review of this series, I posited the question, “What if you married your wife before you even asked her out on a date?” Eleven episodes and the entirety of the Fall 2020 anime season later, it hasn’t deviated much from that rather simple throughline. But honestly, that’s okay; in fact, that’s TONIKAWA’s bread and butter. The show fully leans into that simple premise and runs with it, making this very simple romantic comedy all the better.
Let’s put it out there right away: TONIKAWA isn’t upending the M/F rom-com genre. It’s not doing anything dramatically new, nor is it a game changer. You go in knowing that this is going to be a very light show where the stakes are blessedly low and everyone ends up happy in the end.
The one “twist” that exists is the ongoing mystery of who Tsukasa is. There’s a lot of moon imagery—and flat-out comparisons to Princess Kaguya—that hint at TONIKAWA leaning into the supernatural as the story unfolds. Unfortunately, it’s a twist that gets little to no explanation, though I expect that’s because TONIKAWA’s manga is still ongoing and probably hasn’t even broached anything surrounding Tsukasa’s possibly mythical origins.
All this praise isn’t to say that TONIKAWA is a perfect series. There’s actually a lot of minor hiccups that detract from what could be a really pleasant show. There’s a good dollop of unnecessary lewdness on the part of one teenager character, and it just ultimately… isn’t funny in the least. In fact, I don’t think I laughed even once.
Still, this is a simple story about a young couple figuring out what it means to be husband and wife, and what it means to be in love. I don’t think that has to be revolutionary—in fact, I found the series much more rewarding specifically because it wasn’t trying to break boundaries. Instead, it was romance done really, really well, enough that I’ve already ordered copies of the manga. It’s charming, it’s sweet, and honestly, it’s some of the best M/F slice-of-life rom-com I’ve enjoyed in ages.