A year of defiant human stories and blasts of expression
As another year passes, here I am making another attempt to push past the holiday/seasonal/pandemic brain fog to reflect on the past twelve months and the anime that made me go, “Yeah, OK, I’m still into this.” So what can I say for 2021? On the personal side, it was another year of treading water in these uncertain times and trying to make it through without going completely feral. Some pals were kind enough to let me ramble on podcasts about opposite ends of the quality spectrum favorites Giant Robo and The Wings of Rean. Otakon was a calculated risk and a sorely needed recharge. I wrote a few things that I feel pretty alright about, though not as many as I wanted. More broadly, the industry at large seems hell-bent on widening the gulf between taking care of its workers and an unsupportable content churn even as anime continues to gain a larger and larger footprint in world pop culture. And the collateral damage is only becoming more visible with productions melting down in real-time and weekly reminders that the very real human beings behind these cartoons are suffering. It can be tough to watch just about anything and not feel for those behind the scenes.
But it’s also been a year full of unexpected treasures and triumphant returns. As an old robot fan, I was delighted with the Goro Taniguchi/Kazuki Nakashima bolt of lighting Back Arrow, which never oversold itself or took on airs but never once failed me. If I had waited just a few weeks, I wouldn’t have hesitated to add Godzilla Singular Point to this piece from the spring to give it a bit more oomph because the embarrassment of robot riches only grew as the year went on. It delivered one of the best Godzilla stories period, a winding sci-fi thriller penned by former physicist Toh EnJoe, and gifted us a reimagined Jet Jaguar, a lovable robot buddy for the ages. And then Netflix surprise dropped the first Hathaway installment on us, part of their larger Gundam brand initiative tied to the upcoming live-action film. It’s a strange film, frequently gorgeous and engaging in ways Gundam has rarely been presented before but haunted by the spirit of original author Yoshiyuki Tomino’s obtuse flow of information and bizarro gender politics. I’m dying to find out how weird these get.
Netflix also delivered two seasons adapting story arcs from long-running manga series full to the brim with outlandish presentations of the human body set in prisons with Baki Hanma and the first third of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean. The latter I considered for the list, but I know it’ll be on there next year because the places it will go are out there even for JoJo, so all it gets is a shoutout. Baki continues to ignore its main character, spending much of its runtime on not-Che Guevara (who personally led the ninja revolution of not-Cuba), returning champ Biscuit Oliva and his love life, and his father Yujiro, the worst dad in history, demolishing a dinosaur-sized elephant with his bare hands. But this is Baki‘s way, and like a force of nature, you can only watch it unfold in all its fury and majesty. It remains undefeated. And there was Megalobox: Nomad, a sequel that upped the first season’s game in every way. They even found a little time to box while exploring racial tensions, exploitation, and masculinity! I cannot stress enough how much Joe went from a serviceable if not super memorable protagonist to a presence that dominated the screen, who commanded entire scenes with his eyes alone.
Because I’m known to sit out entire seasons, I’ll undoubtedly be spending the next couple of years catching up on what slipped past. Zombie Land Saga Revenge, Lupin the Third: Part 6, The Heike Story, and Fruits Basket all spring to mind immediately, but really with dozens of new productions every season, I’m sure the list will only grow. So with minor spoilers, here in no particular order—save for the last one, because come on—are my top five anime of a difficult but ultimately survived 2021.
It was a sight to see Mamoru Oshii make his return to the TV scene after decades away with not only Vlad Love but finally getting to write for a (finished) Lupin project. Opening as a yuri high school comedy about a blood donation addict finding her soulmate in a runaway vampire, Vlad Love quickly throws back the curtain with a laugh, revealing that it’s all an excuse for Oshii to indulge in his love of film, literature, and genre trappings. “References should always be made clear.” the school nurse and secret heart of the show Chihiro Chimasturi announces to no one in particular early on, which holds true throughout. Aside from nods to Oshii’s own body of work, everything is noted, commented on, and underlined. Not as cheap knee-jerk “clap because you know what that is” comedy but as a way to invite viewers into his personal affections and fascinations. It invites a serious-sounding allegory about influences and passions being the lifeblood an artist needs to suck down and how it is ideally a communal activity. But Vlad Love is really here to let an elder statesman of anime dive into the ins and outs of cheap live-action filmmaking, go off about the French New Wave, take a couple of shots at his contemporaries and the industry today, and let us know he’s been enjoying Fallout 4. If you have ever wanted an anime to give recommendations for your Criterion Channel queue, Vlad Love is for you.
The question of “should this just be a podcast?” was heavy on my mind for the first couple of episodes. The plot is thin even by sitcom standards. So many of the catchphrases and gags are so far past their expiration dates that the Mr. Osumatsu gang would correctly refer to much of Vlad Love as “outdated Showa-era material.” Even several of the central girls, representing different clubs, go ignored for Oshii’s pet interests—namely the trivia happy film club president— and it left me wondering why they bothered designing, animating, and casting additional characters on a limited budget. But Oshii is first and foremost a visual guy, and why miss an opportunity to bring back Urusei Yatsura shenanigans and potato faces or do a Patlabor 2 parody with an actual wyvern? Why waste words saying, “Hey this is cool and you might like it!” when you can really gush with a whole episode homaging surrealist manga artist Yoshiharu Tsuge? It’s basically for no one, old man anime through and through, and I wish there were another 100 episodes.
This modern-day mystery, populated by tired, burned-out anthropomorphic animals trying to make their way through their lives in Tokyo with money in their pockets and the will to meet the next day (or desperately trying to turn away), was without a doubt the biggest surprise hit of 2021. When it first began airing, there was no hype machine of an established franchise or known creative team behind it. In my little corner of the internet, almost no one was talking about it, as ODDTAXI is slow to reveal what is happening beneath the dry banter, relaxed pace, and large ensemble cast, but by the end, no one could stop. Crunchyroll opted to give it an English dub once it became clear that word of mouth had set it on fire, and we’ve got a movie on the way that promises some remix and an additional peek at the shocking ending. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. What at first looks like a softball sitcom that distances itself from the harsh reality of the human condition with soft colors and a cute animal cast blossoms into something both far darker and life-affirming than what anyone could have reasonably expected.
From director Baku Kinoshita and writer Kadzuya Konomoto, who is also handling the still-running manga tie-in, both first-timers, ODDTAXI is often rightfully compared to the works of Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers, and David Lynch. The mystery yawns, steadily drawing in those who peek over the rim of its void, revealing and spiraling. Violence of all kinds underpins nearly everyone’s lives. And then, on the flipside, ODDTAXI is never afraid to sit back and follow a silly conversation as unlikely hero walrus Odokawa drives another fair through the night. But those comparisons never felt like they completely nailed ODDTAXI‘s elusive truths. It’s something truly special, and getting on board as it developed into a weekly event was a highlight of my year.
Gridman took some time to grow on me. It wasn’t until the second time through with the Blu-ray that the total weight of director Akira Amemiya and writer Keiichi Hasegawa’s bag of ideas connected with me. Not so with this follow-up based around one of the original 1993 Gridman’s support units and a guest-starring mummy. From the first episode, Dynazenon’s contrasting moments of smoldering emotion and quiet doubt paired with giant, joyous robot smashing spectacle landed hard and hasn’t left my mind since wrapping in June. How rewarding it was to see a show ask and respect its audience to understand quoted language and parallels from Gridman without wasting time and energy flattening them out with “but of course, you know…” explanations. Because Trigger trusted viewers, the comparisons, big and small, came to mind without needing to stop and flat-out announce that, for example, Chise was walking a familiar path that could lead to another Akane Shinjo. Paired with the experience of Gridman, Dynazenon unlocks up as a fascinatingly complimentary piece that affirms, inverts, and builds upon its predecessor.
Six months later, I’m still in awe of the naturalistic approach Trigger took to the sound design, where voices and music primed viewers to listen to the cast breathe and take in all the weight that could carry. To be acutely aware of the power of both thundering electric guitars during a colossal throwdown or a soft, unsure whisper. Moreso than anything else this year, Dynazenon’s cast of (mostly) teenagers felt vulnerable and authentic in a cutting flesh and blood human way. Not smooth calculated containers of themes and metaphors about adolescence but awkward, distracted, reluctant, messy people who could authentically shoot the shit and underline the big ideas in the same sentence. As the codename says, revealed here at the very beginning, these scarred souls shined like stars. A movie follow-up, Gridman x Dynazenon, the studio’s second feature and Amemiya’s first, is slated for 2022, and I could not be more excited to see what they do with it.
On-Gaku: Our Sound
More than anything, On-Gaku is about the vibes. It’s a movie you hang out in and let carry you away. Anyone approaching this with the idea that movies are merely vehicles for plot delivery and every aspect must serve this function cleanly and without fail will be left angry and utterly defeated by Kenji Iwaisawa’s charming, minimalist visuals and flow. Telling the story of a group of teenaged delinquents who spend their days brawling with rival schools and lounging away their afternoons suddenly forming a rock band, On-Gaku completely owns its deliberate, deadpan mood with aplomb. Unfolding in no rush, Kenji, Asakura, and Ota begin to gingerly come out of their disaffected shells as they unleash their creative expression on the world, and it ripples outwards, connecting them with others they might never have interacted with before, and the inspiration it creates reverberates back. And the thing is, they never get “better,” even the big music festival finale is a smear of noises and simple looping rhythms.
But On-Gaku argues magnificently that this is so far besides the point that it’s not even worth directly addressing. Making that noise together, grasping onto something abstract within the soul, and bringing it into the world with your body is what it’s all about. That finale is a hilarious and cathartic explosion of movement, color, and sound that speaks for itself. That Iwaisawa was able to near single-handedly will the film, adapting Hiroyuki Ohashi’s self-published manga, into existence with the help of a small team of mostly amateurs in a year when anime couldn’t have felt more crushed under the weight of corporate interest is no small victory.
Evangelion 3.0+1.01: Thrice Upon a Time
There was no reality in which the long in development finale to the Rebuild effort wouldn’t completely take over my mind. It would have been an event like no other for me regardless of how Hideaki Anno finally found his third and one hopes final ending. I got into Evangelion just as the first Rebuild film launched way back in 2007, and seeing this cycle to its end over the last 14 years has been a journey I am forever thankful to have been a part of. That Thrice Upon a Time managed to be such a beautiful, fulfilling, and deeply moving experience on top of simply getting out the door is still unreal to me. I’m not big on ranking art, I can never get lists to sit right, but nothing else this year even stood a chance of earning the top spot. I suspect very few things will hit me this hard in my life.
Months later, I’m still at a loss on how to approach unpacking this absolute feast, not surprisingly one of the longest anime features ever made. Self-indulgent to knowing parody of Anno’s love of ’70s sci-fi, tokusatsu, the craft of animation, and a thousand other things. My brain lights up with a dozen trains of thought at once just trying to put a couple of words down. Moyoco Anno’s Insufficient Direction comes in as potentially the defining relevant text, with this being perhaps the biggest “I love my wife” movie I have ever seen. Certainly the most audacious. I thought about Anno’s relationship with Hayao Miyazaki and how Thrice pairs with The Wind Rises and the forthcoming How Do You Live? as closing statements to a stage of an artist’s life. Unlike anything else in Evangelion, the first hour’s palette cleanse is a lengthy homage to Studio Ghibli and the naturalism and sense of communal bond running through the work of Isao Takahata dating back to at least Horus, Prince of the Sun. Shinji and Gendoh crash through layers of artifice and abstraction as they duel where visual styles explode and melt into each other. Thrice pulled at least half a dozen Cap-catching-Thor’s-hammer-opening-night-audience-reaction level yells from me. For Evangelion and Hideaki Anno to find peace, especially after that last one, accept that everything that came before, all the pain and all the joy, were necessary steps in that journey was nothing short of transcendent. You did good, final Evangelion.