This year had a range of anime for just about every taste, and the result is one of our biggest year-end lists ever!
How did we choose our recs?
Participating staff members picked five titles and ranked them. The only rule was that the series or season had to be complete as of December 2021 or been on the air without a break for over a year. This meant that split-cours and shows that began in 2021 and are still airing (like Ranking of Kings) were NOT eligible. They’ll be rolled onto any 2022 lists.
We always want to emphasize that our recommendations are not meant as a rubber-stamp of “Feminist Approval.” Rather, we aim to highlight shows we found valuable and think might appeal to our readers as well, with any content warnings or caveats that might apply.
How are they ranked?
They’re not, really. We’ve highlighted our “top picks” that received the most staff member votes, 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, Caitlin (#1), Chiaki (#2), Lizzie (#1), Peter (#1), Vrai (#2)
Also Previously Recommended By: Dee
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.
Chosen By: Alex, Chiaki (#1), Dee (#1), Lizzie, Peter, Vrai (#1)
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.”
The Best of the Rest
These other titles got at least one vote from a staffer, earning them a spot on our 2021 recs list. This year was easily our most varied yet, so buckle in!
Chosen By: Alex (#2), Dee (#2)
Also Previously Recommended by: 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.
Chosen By: Caitlin, Mercedez
Also Previously Recommended by: Dee
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 Considerations: 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.
Chosen By: Dee
Also Previously Recommended by: Chiaki
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.
Chosen By: Chiaki (#3)
What’s it about? When he was five, a young man known only as “the Duke of Death” was cursed to kill any living thing he touched. His family exiled him to a mansion in the woods, where his only company is his loyal maid Alice. While she loves to make him flustered, he wants only to be able to break his curse and put a ring on her finger.
Content Warning: Mild fanservice
The Duke and Alice’s game of chicken gave me pause initially because the show is couched on unwanted sexual advances. Thankfully, the show clarifies that both the Duke and Alice are mutually and explicitly in love. The underlying story brews as the Duke tries to break his deathly curse, but the anime keeps things light for the most part. Overall, similar to the game of merciless teasing in 2021’s other anime about unending sexual tension, Duke of Death settles into a comfy slice of life story about a wholesome boy and a very horny maid. Add to that, the extended cast of witches, mysterious butlers and a boisterous little sister, and you have a fun little series you can just sit back and enjoy.
What is perhaps the biggest barrier for entry for anyone watching this series is the 3D animation-based characters, similar to those used in High Score Girl, which shares a considerable amount of pedigree including the director and character designer for both series. It’s a look that grows on you if you give it a chance, and it’s one that looks fun when executed well. Yamakawa Yoshiki and his staff knew the limitations of 3D characters and worked sensibly within those boundaries to deliver something that looks heartwarming and sweet, unlike some of the other 2021 anime that made a concerted effort to incorporate 3D as a driving aesthetic focal point. I want to see more 3D anime that thrives in its aesthetic rather than one that tries to emulate established aesthetics of anime and doing it poorly.
Last year was a stressful time, and having a disarmingly kind show about a boy who must sequester himself away from society just hit a spot for me.
Chosen By: Vrai (#3)
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.
Chosen By: Dee (#3)
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.
Chosen By: Dee
Also Previously Recommended By: Alex, 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.
Chosen By: Mercedez (#2)
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 Considerations: 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 dark horse of Winter 2021, and maybe… the entire year, though that’s definitely getting ahead of myself. But like, maybe. 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.
Chosen By: Caitlin (#3), Lizzie (#3), Mercedez
Also Previously Recommended by: Alex, Dee, Vrai
What’s it about? The Kouka Revue, a fictionalized version of the Takarazuka, is an all-women acting troupe known for their lavish musicals. The prestigious school that trains these actresses admits only 40 students per year and is about to admit its centennial class—including disgraced ex-idol Ai, who just wants to get away from men, and country girl Sarasa, who longs to play the coveted role of Lady Oscar.
Content Warnings: Depictions of CSA, eating disorders, fatphobia, stalking.
After a sequence of opening arcs dealing messily but sympathetically with child abuse and eating disorders (covered in our 3-episode check-in), Kageki Shojo settles into a lighter ensemble story of actors improving their craft and pursuing their goals. The series does continue to touch on topics like toxic theatre culture, gender roles, and queerness through its characters’ conflicts, but it’s woven fairly quietly into individual arcs, acting more as backdrop than foreground.
While Kageki Shojo always treats its characters’ feelings as valid, ultimately it’s more interested in how people navigate unfair systems (both on and off the stage) than it is about changing the systems themselves. This may leave some viewers frustrated, though I’d argue it’s still effective as a character-driven dramedy that opens the door for audience interpretation and discussion.
With its complex female cast, diversity of relationships, and thoughtful depiction of topics that often go unexplored in popular media, Kageki Shojo isn’t always an easy watch (especially in its first 3-4 episodes), but it’s by and large a satisfying one. The finale is more comma than period, so with luck the series will be successful enough that we can spend more time with the stage girls in season 2 someday.
Laid-Back Camp – Season 2
Chosen By: Alex (#1)
Also Previously Recommended by: 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.
Restaurant to Another World – Season 2
Chosen by: Chiaki, Mercedez (#3)
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.
Chosen By: Lizzie
Also Previously Recommended By: Alex, Caitlin, Dee, 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.
Chosen By: Caitlin
Also Previously Recommended by: 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.
Chosen By: Caitlin (#2), Vrai
Also Previously Recommended By: Dee
What’s it about? After a strange storm, 36 students on the verge of graduation find that they and their school have been transported to a strange other world, and that some of them have developed powers. As they explore a nearby island, they discover the walls between dimensions are thin, and begin to search for a way that might lead them back home.
Content Warning: Corporal punishment; corpse imagery; animal death; body horror (plague); flashing lights; existential dread.
Sonny Boy, at its best, reminds me a lot of the 2003 Kino’s Journey anime, which is about the highest compliment I can think to pay it. While nominally a mystery isekai, in practice each episode is a different short story. As characters step into new dimensions, they’re left to puzzle out what rules it follows, which generally leads to meditations on the grand terror of growing up.
The show touches on topics ranging from the specific (hikikomori and authoritarianism in schools) to the more abstract (the difficulty of carving an independent path as an adult), and it’s not so much a ready-made allegory as a series of thematic thought experiments. Tonally it won’t be for everyone, as it’s the kind of story where characters are named after train stations and dialogue is often discarded in favor of quiet travel across eerie physics-defying landscapes. The emotional episodes that hit do so hard, but it’s much more satisfying in small chunks than as a binge watch.
Visually, it’s stunning, which is no surprise from the director of Space Dandy and ACCA-13. The cast is roughly at gender parity with no fanservice to speak of, aside from several remarks about one character’s big boobs; and one of the central sympathetic characters is the Japanese-Indian Rajdhani. I confess to rolling my eyes at the very last-generation feel of having the free-spirited moral center of the group not use a cellphone, but it’s a pretty minor story quirk that never becomes a full-on lecture.
And while the show’s twelfth episode feels like a largely unnecessary addendum that spells out things we could’ve guessed from the more stunning finale of episode 11, it doesn’t take away from the show’s overall impact as a beautiful, thoughtfully made work of optimistic nihilism and a breath of fresh air for anyone seeking something different in the modern isekai genre.
Chosen By: Mercedez (#1)
Also Previously Recommended by: Alex
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.
Chosen by: Lizzie (#1)
What’s it about? When Sawamura Setsu was a child, he always dreamed of becoming a great shamisen player like his grandfather and worked hard to imitate his grandfather’s sound. Unfortunately, after his grandfather died, Setsu felt he lost “his sound” and decided to leave for Tokyo in the hopes of finding joy in playing the shamisen again.
Content Warnings: Depictions of emotional abuse, ableism
Those Snow White Notes is a really good show dedicated to all the shamisen lovers out there. Even if you aren’t a fan of the shamisen, you can’t deny the series did a fantastic job animating the performances and integrating each character’s personal struggles into their music. It also helps that the famous Yoshida Brothers were involved in supervising the performances, which honestly enhanced the viewing experience for me. The stories that accompanied the performances were always melancholic, but by the end of it, I always felt like the characters were able to convey their emotions really well. This is especially true for Setsu, since being open about his feelings doesn’t come naturally to him unless he plays his shamisen.
I wasn’t expecting a history lesson on how tsugaru shamisen style became popularized and it was honestly interesting to learn that it was originally performed by blind musicians during the Edo period. I appreciate that the anime pays homage to this history and doesn’t shy away from talking about the discrimination those blind musicians faced. This plays into Setsu’s relationship with his blind grandfather, and it was nice to see Setsu acknowledge that being able-bodied will most likely make it difficult for him to understand how his grandfather viewed the world.
Overall, the show does a good job handling Setsu’s character development and growing friendships, but the anime doesn’t end on a happy note because his parents still want him to copy his grandfather’s sound. For all of Setsu’s progress, he’s still a teen struggling to deal with all the high expectations placed on him and his problems aren’t over just because he found his own individuality as a musician.
It’s a bold move to end on a depressing note since there isn’t a second season confirmation, but rather than focusing on the sad ending, I want to celebrate the fact that Setsu found people rooting for him and that by just being himself, he is fulfilling his grandfather’s legacy. I had a good time folks and I hope this gets another season because I can’t imagine reading the manga tournament arcs without the music.
Umamusume: Pretty Derby – Season 2
Chosen By: Peter
Also Previously Recommended by: Dee
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?
ZOMBIE LAND SAGA REVENGE
Chosen By: Vrai
Also Previously Recommended By: Chiaki, Dee, Peter
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 Warnings: 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.