The team shares their picks from a season characterized by ambitious originals and solid sequels.
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 Back Arrow, are not eligible. Likewise, nobody will know quite how to sort through the rubble of their feelings regarding Wonder Egg Priority until its finale airs in June, so it’s off the table for now as well.
Here’s what the team thought—let us know your picks in the comments!
Recommended by: Chiaki
What’s it about? Tomozaki Fumiya is one of Japan’s best gamers, but he can’t seem to beat the game of “real life.” Life, for Tomozaki, is a game with no clear-cut rules, horrible balance, and very little returns. He expects the rest of his life to be all that and more… until he meets a gamer girl who’s just as good as he is, and who offers to teach him the Konami Code to game life and find a way to “win” at it.
Content Considerations: Forays into pickup culture.
At the outset, Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki seemed like a show destined for, well, the bottom tier, but the show instead comes through in the end as a polished and easy to watch series built on strong characters and their development.
Tomozaki comes in at an apparent disadvantage at the start of the series. His only real defining characteristic is “Gamer,” and that’s not really a personality most people would appreciate today. Even moreso, the show’s focus to “fix” or “help Tomozaki” not be such a loser is in itself a premise prone to stereotypical beats and cliches about “escaping the otaku life.” Yet, what the show instead does is deftly avoids any pitfalls and instead gives Tomozaki growth.
Throughout the show, we see that Tomozaki is actually pretty self-aware about how he is a socially awkward dork. What’s more, he doesn’t just realize he can’t “win” against Hinami, but grows to recognize his own strengths or comfort zones to interact with his classmates. Hinami wishes to mold Tomozaki into the stereotypical vision of success, and what Tomozaki does smartly is instead steer the titular character to growing for himself and to have him realize some of what Hinami is asking him to do is total BS.
His courage to think for himself and improve himself on his own terms really made him feel human as a character. The show truly earned my recommendation as Hinami gradually shifted from mentor and potential love interest to a healthy rivalry for Tomozaki both in-game and out.
Recommended By: Vrai
What’s it about? One Red Blood Cell’s first day on the job becomes a nightmare when the body he inhabits takes up smoking for the first time in ten years. But this is only the first in a line of new horrors, as this body lives under the strain of working at an exploitative “black company.”
Content Warnings: Fanservicey character designs; body horror; violence/gore; sexualized violence (episode 4); PTSD; background fatphobia; whatever the hell is going on in episode 3.
CODE BLACK is an odd amalgam of a creature, which I suppose will happen when you set out to make a painfully sincere series out of a manga written by an ecchi comedy writer. Those roots are especially visible in the earliest episodes, where story beats that doubtlessly read as overblown satire in the source material (especially The Sperm One) instead become so bizarre they might well have been written by an alien who only knows the human body via old scare-tactic PSAs.
It isn’t the only place where the series chafes against its source material, either. After the unpleasant and frankly skippable episode 4 (which was still toned down from the manga) they go out of their way not to visually emphasize the extremely tits-out White Blood Cell design they’ve inherited.
And I’m happy to put up with the rough spots, because the tradeoff is that the other 80% of the show feels like a painfully raw cry for help from its animators. This show is one long, unrelenting scream about how overwork literally kills, with side flourishes along the way to show how things like ageism and sexism play into the slow, merciless grind of capitalism.
The show on its own is well-made and competently scripted, if a bit over-serious (with the occasional hackneyed addition, like some paper-thin bullies). In another context I might find it laughably melodramatic, but it’s impossible not to carry in the extra baggage of the industry that made it: one where veterans die at their desks and you can do everything “right” only for your production to be irrecoverably derailed by uncontrollable circumstances.
I had the profound sense that I was watching someone else’s catharsis from beginning to end. The metaphor doesn’t quite hold up one-to-one, but it’s the kind of no-fucks-given social commentary that’s sometimes needed around entrenched or taboo subjects. It even ends in a believable and hopeful place, barring a bullshit 30-second stinger clearly originally made to prolong the manga. I have the sad feeling it’ll be relevant for a long while to come.
Recommended by: Chiaki, Dee
What’s it about? After Rinku hears her favorite song being played over the school PA system, she rushes upstairs and meets up-and-coming DJ Maho. The upbeat Rinku crashes into Maho’s life and gets sucked into the after-school DJ scene at their school. The two girls decide to begin their own DJ group, and with a little talent and a lot of hard work, they just may become the school’s newest sensation.
Content Considerations: Mild nudity (bathing; not sexualized).
Sometimes you want a story that explores complex topics and characters in a thoughtful, nuanced way… and sometimes you just want something that makes you smile. That was D4DJ in a nutshell: an upbeat lady-led music series with likable characters, catchy songs, and expressive CG animation that never failed to leave me in a better mood after I watched it.
As it develops its four main characters as friends and performers, D4DJ also functions as edutainment, illuminating the real-life process of creating and remixing music (a stated focus of seasoned director Mizushima Seiji, himself a former DJ). The series explores artistic anxiety, finding your own voice, and stepping out of your creative comfort zone. It does all of this with a delightfully weird sense of humor, utilizing long pauses and non-sequiturs to great effect.
There’s also basically nothing to warn folks about. It leans slightly into cute-girl infantilization at times, but it’s usually in the service of goofs or grounded in realistic teen anxieties. Likewise, the closest thing to fanservice is a girl who uploads photos of her “six-pack-in-progress” abs to Instagram. Add in a final act that can easily be read as a yuri love story, and you’ve got a great formula for a feel-good series. Cute-girl music shows tend to be a tough sell for me, but this one left me thoroughly charmed. Maybe it’ll do the same for you.
Recommended By: Alex, Dee, Lizzie, Vrai, Caitlin
What’s it about? In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… and then he got tired and outsourced animal creation to a design firm. Join Shimoda, the new liaison between God and the design team, as he gets to know his coworkers and the many weird and wonderful critters they create.
Content Considerations: Fake/prototype animal death; trans woman character voiced by a cis man.
Team AniFem has been singing the praises of the HDT manga for a while now, and it’s gratifying to see that the anime excelled in translating its charms—no doubt helped by having comedic juggernaut Yokote Michiko (Princess Tutu, SHIROBAKO) as series composer.
This chill edutainment series has a simple but brilliant structure: it subtly encourages the audience to guess what real animal will ultimately result from the latest vague request, making the viewing experience not unlike watching along with a detective series. Meanwhile, the designers’ despair is potently relatable to anyone who’s ever worked a client-based job. The show then builds on top of those bones with great visual gags, gross nature facts, and a wonderfully lovable cast.
Dee’s already talked about how good the series is at playing with gender norms, but I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful it is to see a trans character treated with such love. Venus’ passion for fashion and beauty might lean slightly into the realm of established stereotypes (and there’s a quickly discarded joke in episode two about her wanting to faint in the arms of a Big Strong Man), but after growing pains in the first two episodes she’s treated in a normalized way that’s downright ideal, complete with warm friendships and rivalries just like the rest of the cast.
I don’t know that we’ll see a second season anytime soon (here’s hoping), but this was a fantastic weekly watch that never failed to leave a big smile on my face.
Recommended by: Mercedez
What’s it about? Nagase Mana has dreams of becoming an idol and, once she’s recruited by Hoshimi Production, her dreams are closer than ever before. On the other hand, Makino Kyouhei—Mana’s deskmate and a typical high school student—is pretty average. Yet when Mana asks Kyohei to become her manager and he agrees, their lives change radically as Mana becomes an instant hit and starts to rise in the Venus Program.
Content Warning: Character death.
Hey, hello, how are you? It’s me, AniFem’s Resident Idol Lover, here to convince you–in 350 or so words–that IDOLY PRIDE is the darkhorse of Winter 2021, and maybe… the entire year, though that’s definitely getting ahead of myself. But like, maybe. I’m open to the possibilities, despite it only being April. And yes, I’m saying that even though I said, and I quote, “[IDOLY PRIDE is] one of the most outrageous premieres of the Winter 2021 season.” Turns out I was very, very wrong.
When I went into IDOLY PRIDE, it was with a lot of hesitation. Episode 1’s “whammy” sat wrong with me, especially since its whammy was killing off a character. However, the show stuck with me, and by the three-episode watch, had hooked me. Why? Because it started to have an honest, earnest discussion about fame, legacy, and grief, and AniFam… I was here for it.
And eventually, I was weeping week by week for it.
I’m not sure if IDOLY PRIDE was good on its own or good because we’re all grieving on a daily basis as we move through the pandemic. However, I like to think it was good on its own merit because of how it handled the trauma of the main cast, as well as their own struggles with fame and grief. I like to think in any other season, in any other time, this very heartfelt cast and emotionally moving story would have affected me as much as it did now.
And honestly, after rewatching the back half of the cour, I truly think that’s the case. It’s this season’s cathartic dark horse, which is why I’m urging you to watch it, even if you’re not an idol fan. Especially if you’re not an idol fan, because even though this is an idol anime, it’s so much more than the sum of its musical parts. It’s not a perfect show by any means, because very few series are truly perfect. But it is as close as you can come to perfection, and I’m going to stand by that for a very long time.
Recommended By: Dee, Lizzie, Peter
What’s it about? A high-schooler named Itadori Yuuji is a happy go-lucky kid who just wanted to take care of his sick grandpa and explore horror related mysteries with his friends. Unfortunately that all changed when his friends were almost killed for messing around with curses and he unknowingly unleashed the King of Curses named Sukuna. While living in a world full of curses is bad enough, Yuuji now has to join the sorcerer society and prevent Sukuna from being fully resurrected in the modern world.
Content Warnings: Body horror, blood, murder, bullying and brief mentions of suicide and sexual violence.
Jujutsu Kaisen wasn’t on my radar when it first came out and typically my interest in Shounen JUMP titles wanes once the main characters stops developing in favor of just becoming the strongest and nothing else. Despite my low expectations, I was surprised that this show had a good balance of humor and horror with a lovable cast of characters that range from goofy to serious. While the main trio’s dynamic isn’t anything new, the chemistry between Yuuji, Megumi, and Nobara is so much fun to watch and provides a huge comfort when the story gets dark.
All the characters have their own sense of morality and, while they try their best to help everyone, they also realize they can’t save everybody. That can be hard for kids like Yuuji who hasn’t grown up with other sorcerers, but he takes things in stride and learns from his mistakes so he can hopefully do better next time.
I also wasn’t expecting to see this show question the treatment of female sorcerers and how they actively have to challenge systemic patriarchal attitudes against them. At the same time, Jujutsu Kaisen doesn’t coddle them, either. Whenever life-or-death battles occur, the girls and women aren’t given any special treatment and are actively treated as genuine threats that need to be taken seriously. Granted, this could change later in the series, but for now I like that we get to witness a range of different female characters in the forefront rather than being teased with their potential.
In short, I had a good time and I think you will, too. I’m so glad MAPPA continues to deliver great animation and fight sequences, because I know not every show is lucky enough to get a good adaptation (yeah, I’m talking about The Promised Neverland). Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope MAPPA continues to deliver quality content.
Laid-Back Camp – Season 2
Recommended by: Alex, Dee, Peter, Vrai
What’s it about? Rin, Nadeshiko, and their group of teenage camping enthusiasts return to the lush scenery around Mount Fuji for a second season of cozy outdoor adventures.
Content Considerations: One scene of fatphobic teasing; an adult guardian’s alcoholism played for laughs.
Laid-Back Camp is a mug of hot chocolate in anime form, and frankly if there was a new episode every week for the rest of my time on this planet I would not complain. If you enjoyed the first season, good news: the second picks up right where it left off and continues with everything that made it such a classic. If you’re curious about why the first season is so beloved, here is your cue to hit “play.” This is one of the most well-constructed, visually lovely, and comforting hobby shows in existence, and it’s never too late to set up camp.
Far from returning to a stagnant status quo for season two, the characters and the relationships between them continue to subtly grow (one of the things that makes this show especially rewarding). Rin becomes a little more sociable, Nadeshiko embarks on her first solo camping adventure inspired by Rin’s love of the hobby, and the more minor characters even get some time in the spotlight… though their own camping trip hits a few hurdles along the way.
The way Laid-Back Camp captures the adolescent glee of travelling—saving up pocket money, feeling oh-so-grownup and independent by ordering your own food, making mistakes but ending up with a tale to tell—is so perfect it filled me with an unexpected nostalgia. The teen protagonists feel like teenagers rather than simply cute blobs in high school uniforms, from the way they communicate to the things they prioritize. The series also continues its track record of not sexualizing them, even with multiple bath scenes.
The whole thing is a delightful celebration of friendship, nature, and the power of a hot meal on a cold night. There is one scene where Nadeshiko gets teased about how she used to be chubby, and some viewers may find the running joke about the “drunkard” camp advisor in poor taste, but overall the humor leans light and sweet and relies on a fun, bubbling chemistry between the camping girls and the environments they’re exploring. If you’re prone to Travel Envy from your time stuck in quarantine, proceed with caution: the art direction and the characters themselves do a wonderful job of making you want to visit the featured locations and have your own adventures.
Recommended by: Alex, Lizzie
What’s it about? Isolated college student Sorawo is on the verge of death in an unknown world until she’s rescued by the strange and somewhat trigger-happy Toriko, who suggests they start hunting down the monsters of the “otherside” for a profit.
Content warnings: Mild body horror; depictions of gun use; brief discussion of cults and murder.
I’ll be honest: Otherside Picnic is not stunning as an adaptation. Events from the novels are shuffled around or glossed over, and a lot of the changes impact tone and pacing. The result is a show that’s more funhouse spooks than psychological terror, to the point where sometimes it’s downright campy. However, while I’m still waving my “read the books!” flag, I’m also wholeheartedly recommending the anime.
Otherside Picnic is a fun, scary, somewhat silly monster-of-the-week romp with an all-female cast (all adult women, despite Kozakura’s design making her look like a grumpy eighth grader), starring two women that are slowly falling in love. The dynamic between Sorawo and Toriko holds the series together, but the side characters are also flawed and likeable in their own unique ways, and as the cast grows they form a weird little Scooby Gang that’s genuinely fun to watch. There’s no fanservice or sexualisation to speak of, and, even surrounded by horrors beyond mortal comprehension, they’re never brutalised for shock value.
Although Toriko and Sorawo get scared (sometimes comically so), they’re always heroes in the end. In fact, far from being damsels in distress, they end up rescuing supposedly strong, badass male characters more than once, including a whole squad of American soldiers—a satisfying reversal to the way that the US army is depicted in a lot of blockbuster media.
The anime is a different beastie to its source material in a few key ways, but it stands on its own and it’s still worth your time if you like sci-fi, urban myths, horror, yuri, or (ideally) a combo of all those things. And how often does a combo of those things come round?
Recommended by: Caitlin, Dee
What’s it about? In an abandoned mine on Okinawa, skateboarders gather for the “S” races, where anything goes and the cost of losing can be steep. When 17-year-old transfer student Langa meets the young skater Reki, he gets pulled into the world of underground skating, bringing his own unique style from his days of snowboarding in Canada.
Content Warnings: Queer-coded villain; adult preying on children; child abuse.
A lot of sports series get their strength for depicting a sport with care and realism, allowing the audience to experience the game and the camaraderie of the team by proxy. Many of the greatest sports series are like this. While it may be too early to say if Sk8 the Infinity will go down in history as one of the greats, it is absolutely not that kind of series. It is balls to the wall, packed with wildly unrealistic physics, strange over-the-top characters, and seething homoeroticism and I love it.
I feel like I’ve mentioned this a thousand times, but once more with feeling: Hiroko Utsumi caught my attention with Free! and it has been so gratifying to see her work unfettered by house styles or demanding producers. Sk8 is a visual smorgasbord, with dramatic lighting, well-animated skateboarding, and beautiful men. The story touches on many of her favorite themes: the pangs of adolescence, the depression of losing sight of one’s passion, and the joy of rediscovering it with your friends.
I adore every single character and want them to kiss… Well, except Adam/Ainosuke. Koyasu Takehito clearly has so much fun voicing him and he’s so over-the-top that I laughed in delight at his bizarre antics every episode, but he’s also the only character that explicitly states his same-sex attraction… for seventeen-year-old Langa. Yep, he’s a scary queer predator. It’s one of those things that in isolation would be fine because he’s a great villain in many ways, but as part of a pattern, it’s pretty yikes. Also, there’s a female detective who seems pretty cool but amounts to little more than a plot device.
Sk8 the Infinity has flaws, and they’re pretty significant ones, but I adore it nonetheless. It’s a story about joy and love, how these two powerful forces can be lost or corrupted, and ultimately, how they can be regained. I can’t wait to see what Utsumi does next.
Umamusume: Pretty Derby – Season 2
Recommended by: Dee, Peter
What’s it about? In a world where some girls carry the spirits of horses and compete on the track for glory, Tokai Teio dreams of becoming an undefeated triple-crown winner. But when her plans are derailed by a leg injury, will she be able to recover and find a new goal to keep her going?
Content Considerations: Mild slapstick; depictions of grief and injury.
Here at AniFem, we’ve often bemoaned the relative lack of lady-led sports series that treat the sport seriously and don’t relentlessly sexualize their female protagonists—so it’s pretty wild that the show about horse girls not only clears that bar with ease, but also explores genuinely moving and grounded narrative arcs about athletic hardships. (Just… try not to think too much about the reality that the show is pulling from.)
Season 2’s decision to focus on different characters than Season 1 allows it to grow in new ways and serve as an entry point for newcomers. Happily, it drops all of the first season’s weakest elements (namely, the “joke” about the handsy coach) and focuses on its strongest points: the thrill of the race, the trials of individual runners, and the bonds between athletes. And that’s to say nothing of its excellent running gags, including the inspired Saga of the Hairdresser.
Despite its fluffy veneer, Umamusume doesn’t shy away from putting its characters through major setbacks and disappointments, whether it’s the ongoing arc focusing on career-altering injuries or the middle act’s story about the emotional toll of being seen as a heel. Yet through it all the season finds hope even in its characters’ darkest moments, leading to a triumphant, based-on-a-true-story finale that feels a bit contrived but plucks at the heartstrings even so. I laughed. I cried. I may have even squeed. Who knew the horse girls had it in ’em?
Bonus: With a Dog AND a Cat, Every Day is Fun
Recommended by: Chiaki, Dee, Vrai
We just couldn’t end our recs list without giving a shoutout to this short autobiographical anime about a woman’s day-to-day interactions with her chipper dog and grumpy cat. Despite its two-minute runtime, Dog and Cat fits in an impressive amount of endearingly relatable gags about pet ownership alongside genuinely touching tales of the bond between human and animal.
Minor content warning for pet death (the narrator reminisces about her childhood dog at one point), but otherwise this is a charming, funny, breezy little watch that became one of the highlights of my week.