In which a late-game contender for anime of the year makes its appearance!
How did we choose our recs?
Participating staff members can nominate up to three titles and can also co-sign other nominated shows. Rather than categorizing titles as “feminist-friendly” or “problematic,” they are simply listed in alphabetical order with relevant content warnings; doing otherwise ran the risk of folks seeing these staff recommendations as rubber stamps of unilateral “Feminist Approval,” which is something we try our hardest to avoid here.
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 continuing into 2022, like Ranking of Kings, are not eligible. We also leave out split-cour series, like Komi Can’t Communicate, until they finish their run.
Here’s what the team thought—let us know your picks in the comments!
Recommended by: Alex, Dee, Mercedez, Vrai
What’s it about? Teen idol Fuuka has quit the music industry and is all set to travel back to her hometown, but at the last minute changes her ticket and flees to Okinawa instead. There, she finds unexpected solace in the Gama Gama Aquarium: an almost otherworldly underwater place that charms her so thoroughly she asks the young director, Kukuru, if she can stay and help the struggling business.
Content considerations: grief; parental death; a running joke that a side character is “scared of girls” and thus constantly low-key misogynistic
Aquatope enchanted me from its first colorful, whimsical episode, but I was surprised how effectively it kept my attention and my heartstrings as it diverted from its initial premise. The show can effectively be split in two: the first half being a magic-tinged summer adventure that builds up to its teen characters reckoning with grief and loss, the second half shifting to a more grounded workplace dramady about young adults trying to navigate “the real world”. They might sound like they shouldn’t slot together into a cohesive whole, but Aquatope pulls it off.
It’s a show about young women that has little to no fan service or sexualized imagery, and while it leans into melodrama at times, their emotional narratives are down-to-earth and resonant. Even when hurling Fuuka—and especially Kukuru, who is more of a focus in part two—into the harsh reality of adult life, the storytelling remains empathetic and optimistic, never narratively beating them up for drama or shock value. The show’s two-cour run allows it to play with a long, drawn-out coming-of-age story that ends up extremely satisfying.
Early episodes lean heavily on what seems to be romantic tension between the two leads: tender face-touching, grand declarations of commitment to one another, cute moments under the stars that would be right at home in a rom-com. Rather than solidifying this as an explicit romantic arc, however, Aquatope diverts to the language of sisterhood, especially emphasizing that Fuuka is like the older sibling Kukuru never had. If you were hoping the series would be more textually queer or yuri-adjacent, you might come away disappointed. The found family/friendship arc between the two is still very sweet and satisfying, mind you; and the series overall does an excellent job showing the growing care between characters and delivering plenty of cathartic tears and warm fuzzy feelings along the way.
Recommended by: Alex, Chiaki, Dee, Lizzie, Vrai
What’s it about? Set at the cusp of the Genpei War (late 1100s), this historical fantasy follows a young biwa player simply called “Biwa” who can see snippets of the future. After her father is killed by supporters of the Taira clan, she sees a vision of the clan’s downfall. But when she shares this prophecy with Shigemori, the eldest son of the Taira clan who has a strange power of his own, instead of killing her, he takes her into his home and looks after her as one of his own, hoping she’ll use her power to help his clan avoid their fate.
Content Warning: Violence against adults (restrained in its depiction) and children (not shown); depictions of sexism and gender essentialism.
The Heike Story is to Japanese literature as The Canterbury Tales is to English literature: it’s famous for establishing so much for their respective cultures, but largely inaccessible to readers due to how it is written in a format nearly alien to modern-day readers. So even for me, who studied Japanese literature in college and have a native-level of fluency in Japanese, the story was more an academic subject than a story to be enjoyed.
Science SARU’s gorgeous adaptation helps convert an esoteric text into something accessible. The animation grabs the viewer’s attention, and I’m sure many people will praise the series on that quality alone, but what the anime really did for me was develop a whole new sense of emotional investment to its tragic cast of characters.
Hideo Furukawa’s 2016 adaptation of the classic epic into modern Japanese and director Naoko Yamada’s anime adaptation of it allowed me to find a whole new appreciation for it beyond just a series of vignettes I remember having to cram into my brain for finals one semester. Yes, the story hits its beats by opening with the passage reminding the impermanence of all things, and it brings to life the gallant battles sung in the original epic, but what the anime truly does is make its principal cast accessible to a lay audience.
In addition, Furukawa and Yamada recognize that, while the story focuses on the battles and political connivings of men that brought the Taira clan to its end, it is also about the women who fought to navigate and survive such an environment. It shifts the story from being about the Taira clan leaders, and instead saddles a young bard named Biwa to serve as witness to history and makes the story as much about her as the downfall of the clan itself. The story is thus that much more gripping and full. Having finished the series, Furukawa was right: “Biwa will pluck your heartstrings.”
Restaurant to Another World – Season 2
Recommended by: Chiaki, Mercedez
What’s it about? In Japan, there’s a restaurant known as Nekoya, a.k.a. The Restaurant to Another World. On the Day of Satur in another place, doors open, allowing otherworldly “special customers” access to a bevy of western-style cuisine and a whole new world of dishes.
Content Warning: Mild fanservice
Restaurant to Another World feels like an easy choice, though I’ll be candid and admit that it was heavily influenced by the pandemic. Still, even in a perfectly “normal” year, I can’t imagine choosing any other series, and I certainly can’t imagine choosing any other sequel series. I’m the odd duck in that my connection to RTAW2 comes from the novels: I’ve still not seen the first season. Yet the joy of a series like this is that anyone can jump in, learn the rules, and spend thirty minutes a week—or, in this case, roughly six hours if you binge—visiting the sweetly-scented, savory halls of Nekoya, the titular restaurant in another world.
A lot of why I liked it is because RTAW2 is a continued celebration of food, a thing that often is denied to most of us. If you were raised with femininity, food was most likely denied to you for a trimmer waist, for a more “healthy” body, or for less acne or better skin. If you were raised masculine, perhaps certain forms of cooking—baking comes to mind—may have been denied out of a dogged sense of femininity, though don’t get me wrong: folks who are masculinized faced cruelty via food just as much as anyone marginalized. Food deserts plague cities big and small: shortages of basics terrify us. In our reality, food is restricted, even where there’s plenty.
But not in Nekoya: no, here, in RTAW2, food is plentiful and is celebrated. There’s no fat-shaming, and no bad bodies. Instead, characters get to eat their fill, whatever that is, and then go back to their lives satisfied. It’s a joyful message, a food positive message, and a reminder that food is the common link between us all. No matter what, food is celebrated here, including in the finale, which uplifts food at one of the most beautiful ways to indulge in happiness. There is joy in every action, too: eating is ritual, inhaling the scent of things is sacrament, and the texture of every element of a dish is sanctified. Heck, even preparing for food to come feels special, as it should be. It really is a delight of a series.
Restaurant to Another World season 2 is the digital equivalent of a warm meal: perhaps, it’s a stew, full of bits and bobs and chunks and flavors that all meld together into one of 2021’s most delightful sequels. Satisfying from beginning to end, the series brings it a-game, spinning vignettes that remind us all that what matters most are connections, and the simple joy that a good meal—something so universal—brings, no matter where we are.