So it’s the New Year, and amid all the resolutions, to-do lists, and “that was the year that was” folderol that usually accompanies this time of year, I decided to make a list of my 5 favourite anime that I watched in 2021. Neither original nor exciting, I know, but what the hell – I’m allowed to indulge in some minor cultural compliance now and then, am I not?
So what constitutes a “favourite”? Pretty good question, and I’d be lying if I said I had that all pinned down and mapped out to the nth degree. Because I don’t. But as a rough guide, I’d have to say that the anime which made it on to this list (and the “honourable mentions” list that follows) all had some kind of emotional impact, all had some spark of originality (even if the subject matter involved well-worn narrative tropes) that subverted my expectations or assumptions in some way, and all presented a multi-faceted, believable world inhabited by three-dimensional characters in whom it was worthwhile investing.
Whether or not the anime presented in this list did that for you (assuming you’ve also seen them at some point) is, of course, a matter for you. This list is not presented in any sort of order or ranking, just as they occurred to me in my reflecting about the past year of anime viewing. This list also only reflects anime series I have watched in 2021, not feature-length films.
1. Higehiro: After Being Rejected, I Shaved and Took in a High-School Runaway
To say this series tackles a controversial subject – the relationship between an adult male and a vulnerable underage female – is an understatement of colossal proportions, as evidenced by the heated debate which its airing in Japan provoked. Likewise, stating that it also makes for at times hugely confronting and uncomfortable viewing minimises the impact of this series upon its audience. Throughout its 13 episode run, “Higehiro” addresses many live issues in contemporary Japanese society – from teenage suicide and the sexualisation of adolescents to the rampant incidence of bullying in the Japanese school system and the hidden trauma of domestic abuse – without either collapsing into syrupy melodramatics or preachy self-righteousness. The sexual tension and potential for abuse that charges the relationship between the main protagonists is leavened by a judicial and disarming use of humour throughout that never detracts from the seriousness of the series’ subject matter. At times amusing, horrifying, moving and always confronting, “Higehiro” makes it onto this list for the deeply human and unflinching manner in which it goes about telling its story.
2. GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka
At first glance, this series appears distinctly unappealing, presenting us as it does with the figure of Onizuka, a former juvenile delinquent whose only motivation to become a high-school teacher is to facilitate his sexual fantasies centred on teenaged girls. That the series then upends this scenario by unveiling Onizuka as a person with both a profound moral centre and a deep empathy for “troubled” students – while in no way diminishing his lecherous sexual proclivities – establishes the platform for what turns out to be an engaging mix of serious social commentary, madcap and violent slapstick, and at times puerile sexual humour. Onizuka thus becomes neither a hero nor an anti-hero but a fully rounded human being with both deeply impressive and equally deeply repulsive characteristics. This in turn enables the social critique evident in the series – which lands a series of hard-hitting blows against both the Japanese school system and wider society – to come over as neither self-important nor hypocritical. Moreover, Onizuka’s own empathy for his students and ability to make a meaningful connection with them is founded on his own insecurities and immaturities as a human being – which makes the connection all the more believable and affecting. By turns laugh-out-loud funny, genuinely moving, and cringingly fetishistic, “GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka” earns its place on this list for its grittily realistic and compassionately humane depiction of a person and a system in all their messy brokenness.
I must admit that I am not a huge fan of yaoi as a genre, essentially regarding it as the gay-fiction equivalent of a Mills and Boon romance (yes, yes, I know – I’m a stereotyping cultural elitist!). On the other hand, there can be a fine line between “romance” or “erotic” narratives and the merely prurient or grubbily exploitative, and anime about same-sex relationships or the emergence of same-sex identity (in common with other media) have to be very careful about how they negotiate this tricky balancing act. “Given” does so with skill and care, telling the story of a ennui-struck teenager whose emerging relationship with a similarly “outsider” peer reveals the source of his disaffection: the fact that he is gay and that the hetero-normative tropes of the surrounding dominant culture don’t meet his needs as a human being. Which isn’t to say that “Given” doesn’t suffer from some of the weaknesses of yaoi, especially in its diminishment or under-development of female characters. Nonetheless, “Given” is a powerful and effective story about identity and vulnerability, and appears on this list because of its rich exploration of the themes of loss, grief, the power of memory and the hope of new beginnings.
The whole field of anime is jam-packed with teenage/high-school based melodramas, most of which conform to well-worn character tropes and narrative arcs. “Clannad” could easily have been one of these, centring as it does on the burgeoning relationship between two socially awkward and isolated adolescents in their senior year at high school. That it doesn’t become yet another syrupy faux-coming-of-age tale is due in large part to the skilful story-telling and character development, delivered through the mechanism of an interlocking series of narratives that enables the ensemble cast to be thoroughly explored and richly realised. Likewise, the addition of comedic, sci-fi, and magical realist elements creates a framing mechanism that helps to draw the various narrative threads together and ensure each of “Clannad’s” two series reach a satisfying denouement. Complimented by Kyoto Animation’s typically gorgeous visuals, “Clannad” is on this list as an effective exploration of the nature of family, the dynamics of loss, loneliness, and alienation, and the surprising connections that can sometimes arise between the unlikeliest of people.
5. Casshern Sins
In many respects, “Casshern Sins” makes for difficult viewing. At 24 episodes, the series runs far longer than is required for the story it tells, many of the episodes in the middle third essentially repeating the same scenario. Likewise, the relentless air of melancholy that surrounds this series may ultimately prove too cloying for some. Nonetheless, “Casshern Sins” manages to succeed despite these limitations. Possibly it’s because of the curious mix of animation styles that juxtapose a grimly realistic post-apocalyptic aesthetic with character designs reminiscent of childhood favourites like “Gigantor” and “Battle of the Planets”. Possibly it’s because of the nature of many of the central protagonists, who present a range of tragic, naïve, and manipulative personalities. Or perhaps it’s because those protagonists are mostly robots and thus act as effective mirrors for humanity, reflecting back to us our greatest and worst characteristics. Despite the flaws in this series – and there are a few – “Casshern Sins” is nonetheless thematically engaging and striking to look at, a deep and affecting dive into the issues of ennui, the meaning of death, the source of hope, the nature of happiness, and the point of continuing to persist in the face of seemingly implacable circumstances. For all those reasons, it earns a place on this list.
6. Honourable Mentions
So there you have my list of favourite five anime that I have watched in 2021. Of course, no list would be complete without a appendix of “honourable mentions” – and so, without further ado, here is the selection of anime that I watched in 2021 that, under other circumstances, might have made it onto the “favourites” list:
Adachi and Shimamura
Tsuki ga kirei
Heaven Official’s Blessing
Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju
Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions
Sing “Yesterday” For Me
Text © Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2022. All rights reserved.