In an exceptionally hellish year, good anime managed to provide some brief moments of reprieve. Here are the staff’s 2020 favorites!
How did we choose our recs?
Participating staff members picked five titles and ranked them. 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 only rule was that the series or season had to be complete as of December 2020 or been on the air without a break for over a year. This meant that split-cours and shows that began in 2020 and are still airing (like Jujutsu Kaisen) were NOT eligible. They’ll be rolled onto any 2021 lists.
How are they ranked?
They’re not, really. We’ve highlighted some “top picks” that received votes from multiple staff members, but otherwise they’re just organized alphabetically. The team has varying tastes, as do our readers, and we didn’t want to try to put those tastes in a hierarchy.
Hey, you didn’t list my favorite show!
That’s okay! Like we said, we limited ourselves to a Top Five, and everyone has different tastes. If there’s something that slipped under our radar and you think it’s a series other feminist-minded viewers would enjoy, please let us and your fellow readers know in the comments!
Best in Show
Chosen By: Alex (#1), Caitlin (#2), Peter (#1), Vrai (#1)
Also Previously Recommended By: Chiaki, Dee
What’s it about? Asakusa Midori has wanted to make anime since she was small, but her talents lay mostly in drawing backgrounds and concept art. Add in Mizusaki Tsubame, a rich girl whose parents want her to go into anything but anime, and savvy money-grubbing Kanamori Sayaka, and their dreams might just be able to get off the ground.
Content Considerations: For photo-sensitive viewers, there are flashing lights in the opening theme.
If you’re part of AniTwitter in any way, you’ve more than likely seen a tweet or two (or twelve) emphatically urging you to watch this series. Eizouken deserves every bit of praise that’s been heaped on it, but for those who missed getting on the hype train, the actual details of what makes the show so special can get a little lost.
It’s not just that the show is a vivid love letter to the process of making anime, with fantasy sequences that bring abstract concepts to life and infuse them with the giddy imagination of teenage friends bouncing ideas off one another. Nor the story’s extremely sly usage of school clubs as a metaphor for the politics of getting an anime made, with a blunt honesty that arguably puts it ahead of even beloved anime-about-anime SHIROBAKO.
It’s not even (just) the show’s dedication to gender-neutral animation of its characters or the creation of a world that casually embraces both racial diversity and accessibility, though the thorough normalization of those elements is a benchmark to which other shows should aspire. It’s the fact that the series weaves all of these elements together into a warm, funny, tightly woven twelve-episode experience that reaches out to anyone who’s ever made or loved art in any form.
It’s a truly special, singular experience with an open but thoroughly satisfying conclusion. I will miss my three precious gremlin children very much.
Both of these shows received four votes separated by the tiny margin of one additional number one placement. Thus, it only felt right to give them both a piece of the spotlight.
Chosen By: Caitlin (#1), Dee (#1), Lizzie, Vrai
Also Previously Recommended By: Chiaki
What’s it about? In early-1900s Los Angeles, a cross-country automobile race filled with fantastical vehicles and colorful characters is about to kick off. When upright young swordsmen Kosame and flighty genius engineer Appare wind up far from Japan, they decide to enter the race—Appare so he can put his inventions to the test, and Kosame so they can use the prize money to get home.
Content Warnings: Racially stereotyped character designs; depictions of sexism; violence, including brief depictions of the deaths of indigenous people.
Vrai referred to Appare-Ranman as “the platonic ideal of a problematic fave” during our mid-season check-in, and that held true right through to the end. As we’ve discussed before, the character designs were an undeniably insensitive mistake: someone thinking “if they’re all dressed like stereotypes, then it’s fine” without considering the histories of oppression, appropriation, and uneven power dynamics that impact Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities.
And it’s completely fair if that’s an automatic deal-breaker for you! But if it isn’t, the great news is that Appare‘s writing is in almost direct opposition to its character designs. A modern take on turn-of-the-19th-century Western adventure stories, Appare takes the genre’s story beats and twists them in refreshing ways, largely by centering its tale on the marginalized characters (women and BIPOCs) that those older narratives either ignored or outright vilified.
It plays with expectations in delightful ways, as characters you think will be villains turn out to be cinnamon rolls, apparent enemies quickly become friends, and the “cold genius” character becomes the emotional core of the series. It all culminates in a thrilling and surprisingly touching finale—and, while I don’t want to mislead readers by saying the ending is explicitly romantic, the lighting, tone, and dialog all make it very easy to view the series as a queer love story (and an adorable one, to boot).
I don’t mean to suggest that Appare is a complex progressive manifesto, because it isn’t. It is first-and-foremost popcorn entertainment that wants its audience to have fun, which means its take on feminist topics is more in the vein of “hoo-rah, go underdogs!” than a nuanced exploration of early-1900s America. There are also some issues with flat villains and kidnapped ladies in the back half, though it helps a lot that there’s also a prominent female character playing a major role in the damsel’s rescue.
Still, the endearing way Appare both subverts genre expectations and builds its characters and their relationships makes it an immensely enjoyable romp with surprisingly few caveats. Despite its cringe-inducing character designs and some early narrative concerns, Appare-Ranman‘s lovable cast and feel-good adventure story helped it become my favorite show of the summer (and possibly of the year). The finale teased a potential season 2 airplane race that I’d love to see play out, but even if it doesn’t, this is a charming self-contained series that I very much look forward to rewatching down the road.
Chosen By: Dee, Mercedez (#1), Peter, Vrai
Also Previously Recommended By: Caitlin
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.
The Best of the Rest
These other titles got at least one vote from a staffer, earning them a spot on our 2020 recs list—and buckle in, ’cause as our list of staffers grows, so too do our number of recommendations…
Chosen By: Vrai
Also Previously Recommended By: Dee
What’s it about? Main’s journey to create books and her struggles with the magical illness known as “the Devouring” lead her to join the church as an apprentice priestess. In order to progress toward her goals (and sometimes simply survive) in this new world and protect those close to her, Main grudgingly begins to learn the ways of noble society in order to outwit it.
Content Considerations: Implied sexual assault, grooming, child abuse; minors in peril, capitalist hellscape.
While I had a generally good time with Bookworm’s first season, its second well and truly grabbed my heart by digging deeper into what makes its world tick. Everything that was good about the last season is still good, and it continues to build on its themes and cast intelligently at every turn. Main has an element of newfound privilege in her role as priestess—if she refuses to take a retainer, for example, it means the retainer who would’ve been assigned to her is now seen as undesirable and has no one to provide their food. Main must learn to balance pushing for change without drawing retribution that would hurt the vulnerable people who now depend on her.
It’s an interesting subversion of the usual approach of rebellious modern protagonists, who simply waltz into generations of entrenched systemic oppression with the bold idea of “what if we didn’t.” While more straightforward narratives have their place, Bookworm’s more subtle approach is both refreshing and rewarding. Main is still focused on getting her books, but the show is becoming stronger in its critique of capitalism.
Some of the finer nuances of this are lost in the translation from light novel to show (like Main’s guilt over turning an orphanage into child labor for her business because it’s the only way she can ensure they’ll have food), but it’s a smart, thoughtful series that continues to surprise me with its heart and ingenuity.
The steady build of political conspiracy and the skillful handling of an increasingly sizable ensemble cast has me over-the-moon excited for the recently announced season three. They’re gonna have a hard time topping this season’s Escaflowne-esque opening theme, though.
Chosen By: Chiaki (#1), Lizzie (#1)
Also Previously Recommended By: Dee
What’s it about? Anima City was established ten years ago as a safe haven for beastpeople, though its tenuous existence requires its leadership to bend to shady politicians. For tanuki girl Michiru, the city looks like paradise, but the night she arrives she witnesses a terrorist attack and crosses paths with imposing wolf investigator Ogami Shirou. And Michiru has one more secret: she says she’s a human!
Content Considerations: Racism allegories (including Holocaust imagery); brief instance of an older man feeling up a younger woman; moments of gratuitous gore; flashing lights during fight scenes.
Some might argue BNA could have used a second cour to let the story have a little more breathing room, but I think the single cour helps keep things tight. Its plot builds and builds and keeps building until a climatic final moment (as Trigger is oft to do) that leaves the viewer going, “boy, that escalated quickly.”
I’d be inclined to give this series a “feminist friendly” endorsement if not for how it oversimplifies real-world issues of race, religion, sexuality, and other aspects of identity. BNA consistently draws from real-world issues such as how “borders are fake” or the trouble with well-meaning but ignorant allies, but it also does so in a vacuum. In this version of Japan, the only real prejudice humans appear to have is against beastmen.
There is no indication that humans still harbor the same political and social strifes amongst themselves and are instead directing all of their prejudice to beastmen and only beastmen. Sure, there may be a more complicated world just off camera, but consistently coopting real-world issues, including the Holocaust, and making it about how humans have persecuted beastmen ultimately reduces persecution to merely a concept and absolves humanity in BNA (and the viewer) from deeper introspection about how humans apply these prejudices in real life.
Aside from that, nothing really stands out as too bad. There is one scene where a masked cult leader decides to get handsy with a younger member of the cast, but the show largely stays away from uncomfortable sexual situations or fanservice otherwise. If anything, the show really encourages viewers to embrace and celebrate themselves for who they are.
As Vrai referenced in their premiere review, if you’re looking for a story about the empowerment of girls: great! That’s exactly what you get in BNA. Michiru has a lot to adjust to, but she ultimately finds her place in the world and you can’t help but feel happy for her when she does.
Anyway, time to get back to my redesigned fursona. She’s got wings now.
Chihayafuru (Season 3)
Chosen By: Dee (#2)
What’s it about? In elementary school, Chihaya, Arata, and Taichi became fast friends united through playing competitive karuta together. Now in high school, the trio have drifted apart, but Chihaya has never given up on her dream of becoming the Karuta Queen. Her determination is infectious, bringing both old and new friends into the game she loves.
Content Considerations: Past seasons featured depictions of occasional gender essentialism, sexism, and body shaming, though this latest season was pretty much void of it.
I’d say I’m preaching to the choir at this point, but given that none of the other reviewers on staff are watching the best lady-led sports anime in recent memory, I clearly need to preach louder. Maybe add some drums or trumpets or something.
I picked Chihayafuru Seasons 1-2 as one of my top anime of the last decade, and surprise! Season 3 is great, too. If anything, the show improves upon itself, building to major emotional climaxes and fleshing out supporting cast members in unexpected ways.
Particularly impressive was this season’s focus on adult karuta players. Season 3 spends a lot of time discussing how people can still pursue their passions as they age, swapping physical prowess for experienced strategies or learning how to juggle responsibility with ambition. Lauren wrote a great article about Inokuma’s dual role as a new mom and karuta competitor that goes into detail about these themes, so I’ll direct you there instead of gushing about it myself.
Simply put, Chihayafuru is an excellent adaptation of a fantastic character-driven, lady-led sports manga and I was overjoyed to have it back on my watchlist. There’s no Season 4 announcement yet, but it seems likely—making this the perfect time for y’all to dive in and fall in love with these karuta dorks as well.
Chosen By: Mercedez
What’s it about? High above the skies flies the Queen Zaza, one of the last cowling vessels of its kind. What do they hunt? Dragons, a lucrative prey that rules the clouds. Catching one means a hefty payday for everyone on the Queen Zaza. However, a single missed catch -or a mishap- could mean dry, tasteless rations, financial ruin, or worse, disaster among the clouds.
Content Warnings: Mild fictional animal gore; depictions of animal death.
Much like my Summer 2020 pick, Diary of Our Days at the Breakwater, the joy of Drifting Dragons isn’t the action or a dynamic plot. That’s all well and good and often, quite excellently handled in terms of animation. Rather, the draw to Drifting Dragons is the characters. It was watching a group of people share intimate friendships while they occasionally feasted on succulent dragon flesh. It was watching Takita, the main character, grow into her own. Really, it was watching every member of the Queen Zaza get their spot in the limelight.
There’s also the simple pleasure of watching everyone chow down on a meal. While the dragons—and their by-products—were typically sold or used to bring in pay for the crew, quite frequently the members of the Queen Zaza got to enjoy a tender bit of dragon meat. All of these scenes were so much fun to watch, simply to relish in the crew’s enjoyment of something that wasn’t rations. Then again, I’m a big fan of food anime.
Drifting Dragons is, by no means, a perfect production. At times, the animation style (rendered in 3D CGI) looks off-model. On occasion, characters look a bit stiff. I think that’s the risk with an all-CGI show. There’s some dud jokes and some dud episodes that feel a bit aimless. More realistically, and perhaps more grimly, the dragons can easily be equated to whaling, which is still an on-going practice in Japan. That itself is never addressed in the show because the world of Drifting Dragons isn’t ours—there’s never a conversation about how “whaling” dragons might be bad.
Still, there’s something so magical about this series, messy bits and all. In a year where we couldn’t break bread with others in person, Drifting Dragons felt like a balm, offering up a show about food, indulgence, friendship, and found family on the Queen Zaza, all wondrously backset by a beautiful world above the clouds where all sorts of winged beasts dwell. Even in a world where dragons exist, there’s something intensely familiar tucked between draking missions and shore leaves. I think that’s what ultimately makes Drifting Dragons worthy of a watch, and definitely worthy of a place on my personal list.
Chosen By: Chiaki
Also Previously Recommended By: Caitlin, 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.
Haikyu!! To The Top (Season 4)
Chosen By: Peter
What’s it about? Karasuno’s high school volleyball team returns from a multi-year slump to participate in the spring tournament against the prodigy players of Japan’s best youth teams.
Content Warnings: Casual sexism and occasional fanservice that mostly drops off in later seasons; depictions of bullying; brief nudity.
Haikyu!! has an amazing grasp of the drama, logistics, and humanity of sports that drive the series to consistent dramatic peaks despite remaining rooted not only in reality but an atmosphere of mild chaos caused by young athletes still refining their technique and mentality. It also has a cast of loveable boys that continues to expand with the speed and dazzling variety not unlike our own cosmos following the Big Bang.
To The Top had a rocky ride beginning with a somewhat controversial shift in art style and a longer than anticipated break due to COVID-19, but ultimately delivered a tremendous 24 episodes culminating in one of the stealth best matches in the entire manga, with Karasuno facing off against the Miya twins of team Inarizaki. Production IG was on point both with their intricate animations and musical accompaniment (save for one notorious episode) to elevate every dramatic moment to something truly special.
Notably, this arc was the first to include a Black character among the predominantly Japanese cast in Inarizaki’s team captain (sort of) Aran Ojiro and contains several subplots that have perhaps the greatest involvement of the series’ fantastic but unfortunately under-utilized female cast. I have complex feelings about these moments. I treasure our first glimpse into Shimizu’s past and the introduction of the young ace player Kanoka, but feel shorted that their threads get lost once they’ve fulfilled their contribution toward the narrative of one of Karasuno’s male players. Similarly, Ojiro’s prominent position as team leader felt undermined with the introduction of the off-the-court captain in Shinsuke.
Qualifiers aside, it was another stellar season. Haikyu’s strengths are many, but often difficult to quantify. Perhaps one of my favorites is its effortless humor and sense of open camaraderie among its players. All of the players seem to enjoy the same easy freedom to be themselves with their sole concern over how they might be perceived residing in whether or not people believe they’re good at volleyball. That easy, upbeat energy was just what the doctor ordered for 2020.
Kaguya-Sama: Love is War? (Season 2)
Chosen By: Caitlin, Dee
Also Previously Recommended By: Vrai
What’s it about? Both convinced that love is a power struggle, Nishinomiya Kaguya and Shirogane Miyuki have spent the past year scheming up increasingly absurd ways to get the other to confess their feelings first. They’ve managed to grow closer in spite of themselves, and the trials of election season bring new faces and new growth to the student council.
Content Considerations: Occasional heteronormativity and gender essentialism; depictions of anxiety, depression, and dissociation.
I was left with somewhat mixed feelings about the first season of Kaguya-sama: it was beautifully directed by Hatakeyama Mamoru, of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju fame and its best moments were wickedly funny and unexpectedly sweet; but it also occasionally fell into plain portraying the gender essentialist ideas about romance it was attempting to skewer, with one character who brought the whole show down.
I’m happy to report that season 2 addresses just about every issue I had with season one, blossoming into a fantastic ensemble comedy with an earnest heart. The jokes about how Men™ and Women™ behave in love, while not completely gone, recede in the name of more character-specific gags that have more room for variation, and the writing finds a surprising number of ways for Shirogane and Kaguya to become closer and grow as people while still holding to the basic “can’t confess” conceit—though admittedly, said conceit remains a little frustrating given how much could also be mined out of letting them fumble through the obstacles of dating.
It even manages to include a casual crossdressing subplot without being skeevy, which isn’t something I would’ve predicted twelve episodes ago. It’s a crying shame that it seems to have flown under a lot of radars, since the rights changed hands from Crunchyroll to Funimation between seasons.
Most shocking of all is the turnaround on Ishigami. While the more incel-leaning undercurrents of his character are dropped outright from the get-go this season, the writing goes a step further by dedicating a full-season arc to his character. His sympathetic backstory—involving beating up a classmate’s boyfriend—does impressive tap-dancing to avoid devolving into a Nice Guy narrative (the girl in question isn’t demonized, nor was he romantically interested in her) while exploring Ishigami’s general apathy; more importantly, it doesn’t leave it at that. Ishigami’s arc is about learning that you’re not deeper or a better person than the “normies” who put themselves out there—a struggle I think a lot of us can relate to from our high school days.
While nominally a rom-com, with a couple that’s a lot of fun to root for, this show has really come into its own as a friendship story. And if they decided to make another season, I’ll be excited to see how it continues to grow.
Chosen By: Alex (#2), Chiaki
Also Previously Recommended By: Dee, Vrai
What’s it about? After spoiled noble Catarina Claes hits her head, the memories of her previous life as a teenage geek girl come flooding back to her. To complicate things even further, she realizes she’s been reborn into a world exactly like an otome game she played in her past life—and as the antagonist, no less! Can Catarina change the story, or is she doomed to a Bad End?
Content Considerations: Pseudo-incest (step-brother suitor); obsessively attached lesbian character.
It was downright magical to watch Villainess take the internet by storm this season. The show is a loving homage to and deceptively sly parody of otome games, with jokes that reward longtime fans of the genre without excluding new viewers. Catarina herself is an overpowered isekai fantasy: she’s basically indestructible, born into luxury, and able to win the heart of almost any other character in a single conversation. What makes her different is that the fantasy Catarina embodies is one of kindness. She is the RPG player who has time to rescue every kitten and solve every quest tree to its most peaceful, successful outcome, and it is unspeakably soothing to watch this anxious, oblivious dumbass help her loved ones week after week.
And, of course, there’s the fact that Catarina’s suitors consist of three girls and four boys. While Catarina herself is totally oblivious to the idea that her female friends could be into her, none of the other characters treat it as abnormal, and Catarina is likewise pretty oblivious to most of her male friends crushing on her as well. It is worth noting that Catarina’s friend Mary bears a few hallmarks of the “lesbian stalker” trope (scheming above and beyond the other characters to ward off romantic competition) and Catarina’s adopted brother Keith is also one of her suitors (though he gives off heavy vibes of it being misplaced platonic affection), but your mileage may vary on how much the gentle overall tone softens those elements.
While it is somewhat frustrating that the show, like most harem anime, ultimately refuses to end with a concrete romantic resolution, the degree of casual, normalized queerness on display is one that every other anime can and should aspire to as a benchmark. While another season has been announced, the series doesn’t really need it. This is a complete, and completely satisfying, tale that I would happily recommend to any fan of gentle ensemble comedy.
Chosen By: Chiaki (#2), Peter
Also Previously Recommended By: Caitlin, Dee
What’s it about? In a far off fantasy world, a young man named Yuuki awakens with memory of little other than his name. He awakens to a beautiful maiden who calls herself Kokkoro and tells him that she has been tasked with protecting him on his journey to see Princess Ameth. However, this will be a difficult journey, since Yuuki lacks understanding of even the most basic things.
Content Considerations: Bug eating; mild but consistent fanservice.
Turns out this show isn’t actually about Yuuki, so much as the adventures of the Gourmet Edifice guild he and his friends start up. While Yuuki remains integral to the crew throughout the whole season as “the hero,” he is definitively a support character in the narrative. Instead the story focuses on Kokkoro, Pecorine, and Karyl as they meet with other adventurers and eventually become entangled in a bigger evil plot endangering everyone in the kingdom.
Most of the show is light-hearted and just fun. Taking the best Kanasaki Takaomi had from KonoSuba, PriConne distills its comedy sans the biting “meanness” KonoSuba had and replaces it with an overabundance of earnestness among supportive companions. PriConne ultimately tells a story of a group of isolated kids coming together to find their own happiness among friends away from abuse or neglect.
As noted, PriConne features some consistent fanservice, primarily focused on ample chests. That fanservice, however, is not overly emphasized nor is it particularly leery. Though, at times distracting, it’s nothing too out of place and most of the story remains just cute.
Cygames Pictures also has a penchant for being pretty gay, if a little guilty of overbearing shipteasing. Pecorine is only a few months away from presenting Karyl a Ring Pop on one knee, but honestly, gals just being pals isn’t all that bad either, especially when the cast are such good kids.
The show’s ending feels a little lacking, blatantly telegraphing for a second season that promises to tie up the story. Wrapping up its final arc, PriConne introduces so many more aspects of the story that begs to be addressed in a second season. And I do hope that happens sooner rather than later.
Please, I love Karyl so much. I need more screenshots of Karyl.
Chosen By: Alex, Caitlin, Chiaki, Mercedez
Also Previously Recommended By: Dee, 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.
Chosen By: Caitlin, Dee, Vrai (#2)
What’s it about? They say that this school has Seven Wonders. They say that if you go to the third-floor girls’ bathroom and knock three times, a ghost named Hanako-san will appear. They say that if you make a wish, she’ll grant it for you, but you must give up something in return. After a harsh rejection, Nene decides to appeal to Hanako for her new crush to return her affections. But something seems amiss… this Hanako is a boy?
Content Warnings: Depictions of death, suicide, homophobia, and bullying.
Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun was one of the most consistent delights of the season, each episode offering up fresh and interesting twists on the school supernatural mystery genre.
It’s hard to sum up everything that made the show wonderful in just a few hundred words. It was a hit on all levels, with limited but gorgeously executed animation, a compelling story, and complex characters given greater depth by standout performances, especially Ogata Megumi, one of the OGs of female seiyuu playing primarily male roles.
Each episode is a character study, from Hanako himself, to the spider-like librarian Tsuchigumo, to the more recently-deceased Mitsuba. Their stories are varied but universally tinged with sadness because, as apparitions, their experience is defined by their deaths instead of their lives. Even as the antagonists appear, including Hanako’s malicious twin, the story never loses sight of what matters: the human emotions that drive the mysteries.
That humanity is what makes Hanako-kun such a standout among supernatural mysteries. It’s in the relationship and growing intimacy between Nene and Hanako. It’s in the way Nene is always a little frivolous and easily flattered, but still kind and sympathetic. It’s in the poignancy of the one-way boundary between life and death, and how the liminal space in between the two is made literal through the show’s concept of “boundaries.”
Hanako-kun’s greatest flaw is that the story is incomplete; it finds a stopping point, but there’s still plenty left to tell. The manga is out there and available in English, I suppose, but it seems a bit more hollow without the beautiful colors and voice-acting.
Chosen By: Mercedez (#2)
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.
Chosen By: Lizzie (#2), Peter (#2)
Also Previously Recommended By: Chiaki
What’s it about? Challengers flock to the Tower of God, risking their lives to climb it and obtain their greatest desire. After Rachel enters the tower’s gates, hoping to achieve her dream, her devoted companion Bam chases after her and gets swept up in his own dangerous adventure.
Content Considerations: Violence; control of women’s sexuality.
I was surprised to find myself enjoying Tower of God, but I think much of it is owed to how the show didn’t let itself get too focused on Bam’s obsession with reuniting with Rachel. This show really shines in having an ensemble cast and its focus on everyone surrounding Bam really helped flesh out the world within the Tower.
It’s a shounen battle series akin to Hunter x Hunter, and there’s nothing wrong about that. Life is cheap at the start of the series, but once the central cast comes together about halfway in, I felt like the story really slows down to spend more time with everyone instead of focusing just on Bam, who is rather gifted and stands apart from the rest of the cast anyway. Above all, I appreciated that the story focused on developing its cast, particularly its women. Shounen battle series often sideline characters, and although Tower of God is still in its first season, I’m at least glad to see an investment in characters beyond just Bam and Rachel.
If anything, the show hits its biggest controversy only because it went back to focusing on Bam’s obsession to climb the tower with Rachel. The final episodes divided fans of the show over whether Bam deserved what happened and the series leaves off begging to be continued in a second cour as the first season feels more like an introduction than anything.
Only by seeing how both Bam and Rachel move forward after the first season, can I really feel like I can definitively express my opinion of these characters, unlike the many other members of the cast who have, at least partially, revealed their motives and character throughout the first season. But, I did find myself enjoying the first season more than I ever thought I would.