Let’s look back at spring, a season so full of good stuff that there wasn’t space to recommend everything we liked!
How did we choose our recs?
Participating staff members can nominate up to three titles and can also co-sign other nominated shows. We’ve elected to ditch the old “feminist-friendly,” “problematic,” and “surprise” categories going forward because their purpose was not always clear to readers and we ran the risk of folks seeing them 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 Spring, like To Your Eternity, are not eligible. Because this season was so packed, we also elected to leave out split-cour series, like 86 EIGHTY SIX, until they completely finish their run.
Here’s what the team thought—let us know your picks in the comments!
Recommended by: Dee, Mercedez
What’s it about? Futaba Shotaro has been fascinated by gymnastics ever since seeing it in middle school. As a brand new first-year student at Soshukan High, he decides to join the rhythmic gymnastics team, where he makes a new friend who just so happens to be a famous student gym star.
Content Warning: Sports injuries; competing while injured (not romanticized).
I’ve been looking for a show that captures the absolutely frenetic energy of sports anime ever since Yuri!! On ICE aired way back in 2016 (which is shockingly almost five years ago). I’ve yet to find it, but Spring 2021’s Backflip!! might be the closest I’ve come to feeling passionate about a group of boys again, even if it doesn’t have that positively feral fandom energy I crave.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what makes Backflip so darn enjoyable, but I’ll start by saying it’s the friendships. There’s something so nice about seeing a group of teenage boys be soft around one another; something even nicer about seeing that same group of young men be friends without the mediator of girls to help them emote. Instead, what we get in Backflip are boys that feel: boys that are determined, boys that get upset, boys that cry. It helps that every single character is likeable, a feat that I haven’t seen since, well… Yuri!! on ICE, a show that deeply cares for each and every male character in it.
In the mid-season check-in, Caitlin remarked that while good, Backflip wouldn’t be super memorable. I cosigned onto that because in a slightly tragic way, it’s true: even with the upcoming movie, I don’t think Backflip will be remembered, by and large, outside of those fans who really loved it. And that really is a shame, because the show is a bright ray of sunshine with a group of teens who earnestly care for one another and make you want to soar with them as they flip, tumble, and rhythmically move through the cour. And at times, Backflip is so breathtakingly beautiful that I was moved to tears—not necessarily sobbing, but earnest tears, which is how I grade all good anime.
After spending a week rewatching this show, I’m determined to convince you to give it a try and fall in love with it. Come for the heartfelt message, for the joy of watching some kids have fun with a sport, for the emotionality and bird imagery and even the animation, which is a real treat. Stay for all that, and I promise you: you’ll find a hidden gem of Spring 2021 that’ll give you a healthy dollop of optimism in the middle of everything happening in the world.
Recommended By: Vrai
What’s it about? Five powerful warriors representing each fairy clan have been sent to earth in order to gather “attachment” for their queen. They’re happy to solve their clients’ problems—in exchange for their heart.
Content Warnings: Heavy fanservice; sexual tentacles; colorism; sympathetic but messy depictions of cyber-bullying, stalking, grooming, abusive partners, capitalist fuckery, labor abuse/power harassment, misogyny, sexual coercion, survival sex work by a child (implied), suicide (shown but obscured).
This is my favorite kind of anime: bizarre, achingly sincere, and really gay. Ensemble Stars director Hishida Masakazu has at last been freed to fully execute on all the weird, fascinating things that show wanted to do before it got hamstrung by its gacha-sized cast, and I couldn’t be more delighted.
For all the flourishes, like the Buddhist motifs and image songs that accompany very horny transformation sequences, at heart this is a very straightforward entry in the magical girl (magical person?) genre. Its monster-of-the-week stories enthusiastically tackle a variety of social problems in a way that can be hit-or-miss (from an excellent skewering of moe and toxic masculinity to a story that I think was supposed to be about a male idol treating his partner poorly because he’s closeted, maybe?).
The resolution of each plot leans on the wish fulfillment of a hot stranger fixing your problems—but aside from the fact that it means the show doesn’t really showcase many positive relationships between women, I can’t say I’m mad about it. It’s cathartic in a way that fits with the show’s relentless silliness. It’s also worth noting that, while the antagonist is written in the classic sympathetic mold of the dark magical girl, there’s some arguable colorism in the fact that while he’s dark-skinned in both his fairy form and human disguise, dark-skinned hero Takara presents as light-skinned while disguised as a human.
It’s messy and bites off more than it can chew in certain places, but unlike certain other titles, it also nails the hell out of its ending, with not one but two canonized queer romances and a hopeful tone that embraces what so many love about the genre. If you’re comfortable with the fanservice and the sensitive content—which, at least for me, was often so melodramatically framed that it never became too harrowing—then I’d highly recommend this as the cult classic of the season.
….And maybe I’m also biased because a member of the team said a nice thing about an article I wrote.
Fruits Basket the Final
Recommended By: Dee
What’s it about? After Tohru’s mother’s death left her orphaned and her grandfather moved in with her aunt for renovations, she’s stuck living in a tent in the woods but determined to make the best of it. Turns out, she’s been living on property that belongs to her classmate Sohma Yuki and his cousin Shigure. The two invite her to stay with them, but she soon finds out that there’s more to the Sohma clan than meets the eye.
Content Warnings: Emotional and physical abuse (often with kids/teens, sometimes graphic, but generally handled sensitively); age-gap relationships; cisheteronormative premise and narrative.
There’s not much I can say about Fruits Basket that hasn’t already been said by our contributors. A story of grief, trauma, abuse, and ultimately healing, Froobs runs its audience through the wringer but brings them out the other side with grace and hope. Through Tohru, the story argues for the value of femme-coded strengths like compassion and nurturing while also encouraging its protagonist to acknowledge her own needs and value her own happiness.
As a faithful adaptation of a millennial manga, Fruits Basket is not without its flaws. Cisheteronormativity is baked into the premise and, despite a couple characters who are arguably bisexual or gender non-conforming, this is never examined or challenged in a meaningful way. There’s a similar issue with secondary romances between teens and adults. The show’s focus on forgiveness also leads to a lot of redemption arcs that may happen too quickly or simply to sit well with every viewer (as always, your mileage may vary).
Still, there’s a reason this achingly sincere series has endured over two decades and holds such an important place in so many people’s hearts. My feelings on it trend more towards “like” than “love” and I confess to finding the adaptation a bit flat at times (especially during season 2), but it’s still a valuable, warm-hearted series that’s well worth trying. Just, uh… make sure you have plenty of tissues handy when you do.
Recommended By: Chiaki, Dee, Lizzie, Peter, Vrai
What’s it about? Odokawa is a sarcastic taxi driver who doesn’t get along with anyone. Despite being a loner, everyone seems to know who he is and are actively doing suspicious activities around him. While dealing with his quirky clients, conversations about a missing high school girl always come up, and it seems the indifferent Odokawa might know something about her disappearance.
Content Warning: Police violence and corruption; torture (offscreen); murder; emotional abuse; sexual coercion (implied); teenager (18) dating a middle-aged man; depression; paranoia; gun violence; predatory gambling; online harassment; stalking.
This smart ensemble mystery is tightly written, weaving in hints between its long, naturalistic conversations in a way that seems almost effortless. While it won’t be for everyone—it’s very structure-focused, meaning it takes a bit to warm up to the cast—this sleeper hit is going to be spoken of fondly for years to come. I’ve compared it to Kon Satoshi’s work elsewhere, and I don’t do so lightly.
It’s nice to see an entry in the noir genre that treats its female characters so well, with no fanservice to speak of and layered characterization. The writing touches on some dark topics—including debilitating mental illness and a girl being pressured into badger games—without feeling exploitative or lurid, and its depiction of the harmful fallout of predatory gacha game economies remains a notable standout. The strictly human-level view of the writing means it never quite gets to a grand thesis on systemic evil, but there’s a motivated dissatisfaction with the injustices of the world that never feels like nihilism.
Which makes it somewhat disappointing that the show pulls its punches in its criticisms of the police, ultimately falling back on a “bad actors” situation by the end. It’s a disappointment, but because it’s only one plot thread among many it’s not enough to derail the overall masterful execution. It’s a great show backed up by an incredible localization (seriously, give this translator an award for rapping porcupine Yano alone) and a great soundtrack. I might not revisit it soon, but it’ll stick with me nonetheless.
Recommended By: Alex, Caitlin, Dee, Lizzie, Vrai
What’s it about? A nameless doll awakens with no knowledge but her purpose: to serve the noble house of Shadows as the companion and “face” for her Mistress, Kate, a being whose entire body is obscured by soot.
Content considerations: Child endangerment; non-human body horror.
Shadows House is some delicious gothic fun with two endearing and interesting female protagonists. While this is clearly just one segment of a bigger story, this thirteen-episode series wraps up gracefully: it leaves you wanting more, but has the heart not to end on too unbearable a cliffhanger.
What we get in this (first?) season is a peek into some of the deeper mysteries of Shadows House and a rewarding arc where the characters all come to care for each other and work together. They’re good kids, even if some of them start out stuffy, obnoxious, and brainwashed fully into the rigid class system that pits the “faces” against one another. The cast is a fun mix of personality types that ends up meshing together in a really fun way.
And they need to work together, because good heavens there are some power imbalances and nasty machinations at play here—plenty to unpack if that’s a narrative device you’re interested in exploring. The first-cour antagonist is a greedy adult more than willing to put vulnerable children in danger to secure his own social climbing, and the fantasy trappings of the series supply a working metaphor for the ways in which rich people dehumanize and devour the working class.
Shadows House is gorgeously creepy and claustrophobic, with the walls of this cruel system closing in constantly. The main characters are trying to figure a way to break the system down and free those that it hurts the most, and while we don’t get complete closure in this adaptation, I’m very intrigued to see where this narrative goes.
Recommended by: Alex, Mercedez
What is it about? Koguma is a high school girl living in Hokuto City, located in Yamanashi Prefecture. Unlike most girls her age, she has no parents, no friends, no hobbies, and nothing to enjoy in her life. That is, until she gets a used–and somewhat unusual–Honda Super Cub motorcycle that opens up her world and helps her start living again.
Content Considerations: Depression; non-violent depiction of a vehicle accident.
Just because a show wants to sell you a bike doesn’t mean it can’t also tell a sincere story. Super Cub does an excellent job interweaving its hobby show narrative with character development, and gives its protagonist a quiet yet compelling journey.
As Koguma comes out of her shell and her personality peeks through, she can be brusque, pragmatic, and standoffish in ways that don’t always make her traditionally “likeable.” Not to say she isn’t a sympathetic character, but she doesn’t seem overtly hand-tailored to be cute, sweet, and appealing. It’s refreshing, and it also makes her fun to watch: it’s rewarding seeing her anxiety melt away into gentle snarkiness. Stick it to the man, Koguma.
I had assumed, early on that this would address the reason Koguma was living on her own and deal more poignantly with her grief (if, indeed, she was an orphan). As it is, the how and why of her loneliness is never really as important as her growing out of it. Fellow rider Reiko similarly mentions that she decided to live alone, so I guess it’s just a thing these kids are doing to further a narrative about youthful independence.
In some respects I found this frustrating, but I have to admit that making the backstory vague does make the tone overall more lighthearted, and allows for viewers to project their own experiences with isolation and depression onto Koguma—and thus vicariously enjoy her journey of recovery and her newfound sense of freedom and agency. It’s a slow and sweet show that’s earnest and very pretty to look at, and in the end I don’t need it to be any more or less.
The World Ends With You the Animation
Recommended by: Mercedez
What’s it about? Neku wakes up in a parallel “Underground” version of Shibuya, Tokyo, remembering nothing about himself except his name. To survive in this strange “game,” he must partner with fellow player Shiki to use psychic attacks, defeat monsters called Noise, and complete one mission a day for seven days straight. But between the monsters, the mysterious player-killers called “Reapers,” and Neku’s own cynicism, can he and Shiki survive the full week together?
Content Warning: Fantastical Violence
Initially, I wasn’t going to recommend this series, despite being a nearly lifetime fan of the franchise. That was, in large part, because I was still debating my feelings over the show. Did I like it because I was a fan or because it was actually, truly good? Well, weeks later, I’m finding myself thinking fondly of TWEWY the Anime and have decided that, yes: it actually, truly is good, and it’s darn good… once it clears the first arc and gets past dumping way too much plot on you, at least.
If you stuck around until episode four, you (hopefully) found what I did: a heartfelt story about tossing misanthropy in the trash in lieu of connecting with others and using the power of your own mind to get a second chance for everyone. Even if you’re an anime-only viewer, you probably found a fair amount to like about TWEWY the Anime, and hopefully have picked up the Switch version of the game, bad controls and all. All of us found a solid story filled with likeable characters, a really satisfying BGM, a mishmash of ’00s and late ‘10s Shibuya, and a whole heck of a lot of math puns on behalf of Messy Hot Boy character Sho Minamimoto, of whom I continue to high-key love as a character.
And honestly, that’s what I wanted from this adaptation: one more time with Neku and the other characters; one more time seeing it in glorious, animated action. It’s messy, it starts slow, but it all builds to a fantastic ending that had me laying on the ground like I’d just listened to Hilary Duff’s Come Clean on full blast.
TWEWY the Anime will most likely stick with me through the rest of the year, in part because of its upcoming sequel, and, honestly, because nostalgia is a wonderful balm in a time of upheaval, uncertainty, and on-going strife. It’s not perfect, but I’m not asking anime to be perfect: sometimes, an anime just is, flaws and all, and that’s more than enough to channel the same good vibes from over a decade ago.
ZOMBIE LAND SAGA REVENGE
Recommended By: Chiaki, Dee, Peter, Vrai
What’s it about? Zombie idol group Franchouchou finds themselves in trouble when their attempt to fill a mega-sized stadium fails disastrously, leaving their confidence shaken and their bank account deep in the red. There’s only one thing for it: to stage a comeback the likes of which Saga’s never seen!
Content Warning: Comedic body horror; teen crushing on an adult (not reciprocated); death and grieving; alcoholism; natural disasters.
It would seem that Zombie Land Saga heard our complaints about Kotaro being the actual worst, because it starts season two by turning him into a defeated alcoholic mess after Franchouchou’s offscreen disaster. This leaves our zombie heroines to fend for themselves as they pay off the debt from the concert fees, resulting in a paradigm shift where Kotaro (once he’s back on his feet) is considerably more humble about his shortcomings and the girls increasingly stand up for themselves and take charge of their growth as artists. It’s the one change the show seriously needed (alongside what I can report is a total lack of creepiness as far as the end-of-season-one reveal is concerned), and it let me enjoy season two with an ear-to-ear smile every week.
The musical numbers are dazzling; its willingness to play with genres allows it to range deftly from comedy to heartfelt sincerity; and it shines with creative visual direction (though like all products made at MAPPA, it comes with an asterisk for notable worker exploitation in an industry rife with it). There’s some unaddressed weirdness where the season’s antagonist is trying to expose Kotaro as exploiting these girls only to be assured that they’re fine and happy, actually, but I was surprised how little I minded it in execution—something to do with the show’s willingness to acknowledge each girl grappling with personal goals and sacrifices along the way, I suspect.
ZLS is a fantastic watch, a great primer on what draws people to idol anime but with horror-comedy that sets it apart, and has only improved on itself since 2019. While I’m not wild about the end-of-season stinger, it’s earned enough trust from me that I’m curious to see what they’re planning next.
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