Top Anime of 2020

It’s been a year, huh, folks? Trapped inside by a pandemic, tormented by the xenophobia and callousness of our own governments, and hurtling towards a climate change precipice, 2020 has been a year where thriving is utterly out of the question, and just surviving is worthy of applause. In light of the extreme conditions of the world at large, it’s no surprise that anime studios suffered a strain as well, and thus it’s been a relatively light year in anime. But that’s only half the story – personally, this has been a year of change for my relationship with the medium, too.

To put it bluntly, I feel like I’ve gotten everything I’m going to get out of your average seasonal anime. I’ve always been pretty selfish as far as critics go; I watch stuff for my own enjoyment or edification, and if I happen to be inspired by something, I’m eager to share that shiny new experience with everyone. On the other hand, if I don’t find something compelling, I only feel a brief temptation to tear it apart – I generally find things bad in ways I’ve already seen before, and that’s just not terribly interesting to me. And as someone whose strongest attachment to a work is always going to come through its writing, I’ve lately been finding around one show a season that escapes that “not terribly interesting” to me. That’s not to say that other shows don’t have many merits, or that it’s bad to enjoy them; they’re just no longer providing me the joy of discovery or poignancy of execution that I seek in art.

This is also not to say I’ve become disenchanted with anime; rather, I’m just no longer interested in watching the medium’s median output. Instead, I’ve been spending my time diving into anime history, and film history more generally, as I seek out more art that inspires me as deeply as my first watch of Evangelion did. I’ve explored most of the Ghibli catalog, checked out exceptional new films like Maquia and In This Corner of the World, and let my readers guide me through fascinating works like The Big O and Dorohedoro. In the wake of burnout with seasonal anime, I’ve been treating anime more like a passion than a job again, and it’s been a wonderful feeling. I want to love art honestly, and that demands accepting when you don’t love art, and actively moving back towards the sun. And as it turns out, even my journeys into film history have been enriching my relationship with anime; it already feels hard to imagine watching Ikuhara without some experience in Argento, at least.

Professional reflection and personal growth aside, what I’m mostly getting at here is that I didn’t actually watch a great deal of airing anime this year, and even those that I started, I mostly haven’t finished. I’ve been ruthless from the start; if something started to feel like a chore, I dropped it, and I rarely looked back. Even with those restrictions, I think I’ve gathered a reasonably complete collection of this year’s Me-Core shows, which I’ll be accompanying with my top five anime films I first saw this year, regardless of their release date. Fandom might only care about the last year of releases, but I certainly don’t, and I’m not going to let this medium’s true gems go uncelebrated. Without further ado, here are my top something anime of 2020!

Adachi and Shimamura

With the caveat that I haven’t actually seen most of AdaShima yet, what I can tell you already is that it absolutely has The Stuff. The show possesses perhaps the single most important quality to make a show appeal to me: dialogue that comes from a genuine human place, rather than convention or archetype. Its conversations reflect layers of desire and insecurity and etiquette, making it easy to believe in its cast, and rewarding simply to watch them navigate their misaligned comfort zones. “Messy people dealing with the unbearable difficulty of coexistence” has been my anime jam ever since Evangelion, and AdaShima presents a charming variation on the refrain, all tied up with some pleasingly inspired layouts and cinematography.

Chihayafuru

Frankly, my only complaint about Chihayafuru’s third season is that it didn’t come out later in the year, when I was more in need of an endearing, familiar, and consistently excellent comfort show (thanks for stepping in, Sun and Moon). If you haven’t already picked up Chihayafuru, let me be the latest to recommend this powerfully entertaining sports drama, whose card-matching conceit has only grown in tactical complexity and dramatic appeal with each new season. Season three in particular wove in some vivid reflections on aging with a beloved sport, proving once again how generous this show is to its vast supporting cast. With a lovable, ever-evolving cast and an endless procession of nail-biting tournament matches, Chihayafuru’s third season was a feast from start to finish.

Great Pretender

With character designs by the legendary Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (Eva, FLCL, etc), art direction by The Eccentric Family’s brilliant Yusuke Takeda, and direction by 91 Days’ Hiro Kaburagi, Great Pretender is pretty much exactly the sum of its parts. The visual resources are certainly here for something truly special: Sadamoto’s character designs are charming and expressive, and Takeda’s color-filtered vistas are dazzling. Unfortunately, all those talents are here applied to a fairly conventional, often underwhelming series of crime capers, which tend to resolve in abrupt anticlimaxes. The Great Pretender’s writing is resolutely “fine” – generally professional-grade, and unladen with embarrassing anime-isms. But it’s never inspired, meaning that while Great Pretender is perfectly reasonable entertainment, it seems like a hard show to love.

Oregairu

Moving to another show I desperately need to finish, Oregairu’s third season has already demonstrated it possesses the same acuity of insight, mastery of character voice, and underlying empathy for its muddled-up cast as ever. Oregairu’s first season was one of those shows that tricked me back in 2013, when I was first getting into anime, and thought every year would have a Kyousogiga, an Eccentric Family, and an Oregairu. Well, that turned out to be a grave misconception, but Oregairu is still a gem – brimming with messy, insecure, fully realized characters, it explores the subtle tensions of social identity, and the eternal process of self-actualization. Seven years on, it remains one of the best character studies I’ve found in the medium.

Pokemon Twilight Wings

In an age where the TV anime is looking like an increasingly compromised art form, many of the best artists have been transitioning to other arenas, like Rie Matsumoto and her dazzling “Gotcha!” music video, or the Twilight Wings miniseries. Directed by webgen royalty Shingo Yamashita, Twilight Wings is a feast of beautiful animation and cutting-edge composite and lighting, bringing a new sense of majesty and place to the world of Pokemon. And given they’re only a few minutes each, you don’t have much excuse not to watch this series of gorgeous vignettes.

Dorohedoro

Dancing capriciously between horror, comedy, slice of life, fantasy, and drama, Dorohedoro is a chameleon fever dream, united only by the marvelous creativity of Q Hayashida’s inventions, as well as the undeniable charm of her cast. Every episode delights with distinctive flourishes of worldbuilding and story-weaving, all designed not to explain Dorohedoro’s world, but rather expand its scale, and gesture towards the ultimate ineffability of dark magic. And with art direction by the incomparable Shinji Kimura (Blood Blockade Battlefront, Tekkon Kinkreet, friggin’ Akira), Dorohedoro is blessed with the best background art of any show this year, effortlessly bringing Hayashida’s world to life. In terms of pure fantasy invention, I’m not sure anything beats Dorohedoro.

Deca-Dence

Yuzuru Tachikawa is one of the brightest rising stars in anime, with his ambition and directorial talent matched by an equally apparent desire to convey true meaning. His first directorial project, Death Parade, used the concept of purgatory to explore the complexity of a human life, and the inherent cruelty of any system that seeks to divide humans into categories of value. In Deca-Dence, Tachikawa once more envisions a cruel system of human servitude, this time tinted in the candy-colored hues of digital capitalism. Deca-Dence is inventive and furious, and though I don’t feel it quite stuck the landing, it’s still brimming with exciting moments and poignant metaphors, consistently demonstrating the unique thrill of a creator with a clear, unerring vision.

Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!

I didn’t number my list this time, but I can still confirm that Eizouken was absolutely my favorite anime of the year. The show’s delights are so numerous that it’s hard to quantify them. First off, Eizouken is far and away the most indulgent “artist’s anime” of the year, by virtue of its reverent, thoughtful exploration of the creative process. Its three heroines each bring a crucial perspective to their productions, as the show navigates topics like artistic inspiration and securing funding with equal seriousness and charm. And then of course, there’s Eizouken’s own visual design, with expressive character art and impressionistic backgrounds frequently giving way to astonishing feats of imagination in action. And then, there’s the fact that it’s also the best slice of life show of the year, featuring characters who feel real enough to truly care about, and demonstrating the genre can possess as much ambition and insight as any other in anime.

In a year that saw me reevaluating my relationship with anime and art in general, Eizouken felt like a reminder that there is still a place for me here, and still people who are passionate about this art just like I am. Eizouken embodies its own narrative values, the passion of its creators coming through as clearly as that of Asakusa and Mizusaki themselves. I am happy to call it my favorite anime of 2020.

Alright, now let’s hype up some movies! Once again in only the vaguest of orders, here are my favorite anime films I first experienced this year!

Kiki’s Delivery Service/Porco Rosso

I know, one entry in and cheating already. These two films are obviously each terrific in their own ways, but they also share Miyazaki’s beautiful early vision: his reverent vision of mid-century Europe and the Mediterranean, his childlike fascination with technology and flight, and a freewheeling narrative sensibility that holds more in common with TV anime than film.

Both Kiki and Porco Rosso offer worlds as magical as any I’ve seen in anime, an effect achieved not just through their magnificent animation and background art, but also their preponderance of moments that don’t progress the narrative, but simply luxuriate in the warmth of a hard-earned afternoon nap, or bubble with the excitement of stepping into a much wider world. Before the late-night anime paradigm even allowed for the emergence of the slice of life genre, Miyazaki had mastered its pleasures, and created films that embodied its highest aspirations. I was delighted to discover both of them.

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms

Mari Okada has been one of anime’s top writers for over a decade now; a sturdy craftsman with a clear sense of authorial voice, an abiding set of thematic preoccupations, a particular talent for nuanced characterization, and an unabashed love of melodrama. In Maquia, her directorial debut, all of those qualities are at their best. Maquia explores the challenges of motherhood, and the grief we all must bear as we come to love others, knowing we will eventually part from them. It’s a film that felt particularly sharp in a year so defined by grief, but I think anyone who’s lived long enough will find something that tugs at their heart here. At the same time, the film never feels manipulative or dishonest – it just lingers on the uncomfortable truths of living, the cruel bargains of love and loss we strike, in order to ultimately reaffirm that those bargains are well worth making.

Memories

As someone whose first experience of anime centered on the early ‘00s boom properties, my excursions into earlier anime eras have been fairly limited. This year I set out to broaden that perspective, and have learned in the process that the masters of the ‘80s and ‘90s were goddamn incredible. Watching a film like Memories, I can see why older fans mourn the end of this era, when creators like Otomo, Oshii, and Kon were reliable fixtures of the landscape, and major films could be constructed out of three somber meditations on technology and martial ideology. Magnetic Rose is a perfect horror film that also serves as an encapsulation of Kon’s whole philosophy, Stink Bomb is an absurd buffet of mechanical animation with the spirit of Dr. Strangelove, and Cannon Fodder is a marvel of animated cinematography, and also our closest adaptation of 1984. It’s nice to be reminded that anime can create things this uncompromising, and this good.

Weathering With You

“Dear God, this is enough. We can make do with just this. Don’t give us anything more, and please don’t take anything else away.” Those lines have been echoing in my head ever since I watched Weathering With You, back in the first weeks of January. In the wake of all else 2020 has taken from us, they seem bleakly prescient; but even now, if that prayer could be answered, I’d accept it still. Weathering With You is a desperate cry of rage and compassion, a plea to this world to let the young hold onto their hope, and not be buried under the weight of prior generations’ sins. It is as beautiful and intimate and melodramatic as you’d expect from Shinkai, but focused on our present moment in a way that feels more urgent and painful than ever before. Shinkai loves private stories of missed connections, but Weathering With You felt like a story for all of us – a roar from the back of the throat, a voice run ragged, all in support of our desperate, floundering generation.

In this Corner of the World

Just as Eizouken reminded me of all the pleasures of television anime, so did In this Corner of the World embody the sonorous heights of anime film. Not only is it a gorgeous, expansive, thoughtful drama, it also feels like a film which could not exist in any format except anime. All the things that are so special about anime – the way art design can imbue reality with character and significance, the focus on incidental human moments over bombastic narrative turns, the soft cruelty of tragedy as portrayed through drawings, the ambition of storytelling, the weight of artistic legacy, the joy, the sorrow, etc etc etc. All of these things instill In this Corner of the World with aesthetic and emotional power, and all of them are dedicated to a life both mundane and majestic, as all lives can be framed. 

Nothing about In this Corner of the World feels like a compromise or a concession; it is human and unflinching, simultaneously ambitious in its goals and tightly constrained in its scope. Watching the classics of anime has been a profoundly rewarding experience, but perhaps even more rewarding has been to then come back to a film like In this Corner of the World, and see that new masters are sculpting new classics every year. As long as there is room for films like this, I can’t imagine ever falling out of love with anime.

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