After a year plagued with production delays, 2021 came and went with a vengeance, delivering season after season filled with enough bangers to fill five top 10 lists, with anticipated sequels living up to the hype, new shonen shows continuing the tradition of thrilling action and relatable characters, shows with prestige staffs delivering beautifully crafted shows, and hidden gems challenging what anime can be all about, making this one of the best years for anime ever.
Picking just ten shows was excruciatingly hard, but these shows were so great there was no way they would not end on a list of best anime of the year. Before we get to them, however, some honorable mentions for phenomenal anime that could have topped a top 10 list any other year (and you should definitely still check out), like Sonny Boy, Horimiya, Cells at Work: Code Black, and To Your Eternity. Without further ado, here are the best anime shows of 2021.
Megalobox 2: Nomad had a lot to live up to. The first season was a bonafide hit, a successful love letter to one of the most influential sports anime of all time that revamped it for modern audiences with a bit of sci-fi flair, and had a good ending that didn’t leave many things open for more stories. And yet, Nomad managed to pull the rug from under the audience with more excellent boxing fights and character moments, but also a poignant story about immigration and marginalized communities that we normally don’t see in anime.
This year may have seen Godzilla fight King Kong, but the best Godzilla story was undoubtedly Godzilla: Singular Point, the Netflix anime that reimagined the kaiju mythos through a scientific lens reminiscent of the very first film, for a show that has more in common with Hideaki Anno‘s criminally underrated film Shin Godzilla than the recent Hollywood movies. The show follows a graduate student and an engineer who discover an enigmatic song that may be the key to solving the mystery of a wave of kaiju appearing around the world, including the return of an apocalyptic monster that may spell doom for mankind.
The show features a complex mystery filled with classic nonsensical science jargon of Godzilla movies of old, and fantastical concepts like time travel and the multiverse in a commendable attempt to explain the arrival of the giant monsters. More than just an action-fest, this is an intriguing mystery, with a combination of theoretical math and philosophy making this decades-long franchise feel novel. Still, this is a Godzilla show after all, and Singular Point more than delivers on kaiju action, with an exquisite blend of 3D and 2D animation, an expanded roster of monsters, and the most terrifying Godzilla has ever been.
The first season of Netflix’s adaptation of Beastars was a huge hit, with an intriguing mystery, compelling characters, a fleshed-out world, and absolutely stunning animation. Surprisingly, the second season surpasses its predecessor in basically every way. Set in a world of anthropomorphic animals divided between carnivores and herbivores, we follow a gentle wolf named Legoshi who starts investigating the murder of an alpaca at his school, while navigating a tumultuous romance with a dwarf rabbit.
Season 2 of Beastars ups the melodrama, spending more time fleshing out the day-to-day life of the students, while further exploring the detailed ramifications of this anthropomorphic world, introducing new fascinating characters, deepening the relationship between Legoshi and his fellow student Louis, and giving us one of the best fistfights in recent anime memory.
In an incredibly inevitable move, the galaxy far, far away has become the anime show it was always meant to be, with Star Wars: Visions giving us nine vastly different shorts that showcase the best of what the franchise can be, reimagined by some of the best animators working today.
Even if not every short was a masterpiece, they all had something unique and cool to offer, from compelling characters, thrilling action, exquisite animation or music that could rival that of the movies. What other medium could give us an Astroboy-like Jedi robot? Or a Samurai-like Sith with a revolving lightsaber umbrella? The best thing to be said about this show is that it made Star Wars fresh and exciting again, while providing visuals you could not replicate in live-action.
One of the biggest surprises of the year, and one of the best war anime not named Gundam, 86 Eighty-Six is based on a very popular series of light novels that tell the story of a far away future where two nations engage in a war using autonomous machines, except one of the nations is actually using its oppressed underclass of ethnical minorities they refer to only as “86s” as pilots to the machines, to be sent and killed off on behalf of a government that writes off the war as having zero casualties.
The anime could have easily been a simple action story with a white savior narrative, as we follow a young major in the military who is responsible for a squadron fo 86s and actually cares for them despite not being silver-haired, blue-eyed pure Albas like her. In reality, the show is a fascinating interrogation of white savior tropes, and a smart narrative that emphasizes not in-your-face fascism with clear parallels to the real world, but the banality of fascism and casual existence in state-sponsored systems of oppression. Oh, and there is also some kick-ass mecha action aided by a phenomenal score by Hiyoruki Sawano, and a heartbreaking story of loss and camaraderie that makes this one of the best shows of the year.
There’s an anime show for every single sport imaginable, so it was just a matter of time before we got a rad skating anime. Sk8 is not only a fantastic sports show that both teaches you about the sport and makes you want to practice it, but also an exhilarating and compelling story of two buds who realize their skill level is not as equal as they initially thought, and how they learn to live with it and just enjoy skating as bros.
Sk8 is as radical as it is plain ridiculous. It will make you smile from ear to ear, and also scoff at the ludicrous death- and gravity-defying feats accomplished by the skaters. The anime is full of vibrant colors and high energy you can only get when you’re skating down an incredibly dangerous slope while running from a maniac who may want to either kill you or kiss you, or both! Most of the season is devoted to a high-stakes, no-holds-barred tournament with some colorful and memorable competitors, but even ourside the skating ring, Sk8 delivers one of the best hangout stories of the year, and a subversive sports anime where the protagonist is not just a gifted prodigy, but a compelling kid who may not be as good as fis friends and has to be ok with it. Add the single best line delivery of the year (that it was unscripted just makes it better), and a great argument for the validity of dubs in anime, as well as a genuinely outstanding opening and ending theme song, and you’ve got a pitch perfect comfort show.
What happens when you take the childish glee of Saturday morning cartoons, the electrifying action of tokusatsu shows like Power Rangers, and a profound and beautifully subdued human story about trauma, coping mechanisms and how trauma can bring people together? You get SSSS. Dynazenon, a show that defies what sequels can do, commenting on and improving the themes, visuals, and themes of its predecessor, SSSS. Gridman. The show follows a group of teens who want to use the power of kaijus to destroy humanity, and the teenagers with attitude (and two adults) who can stand up to them using literal toys that transform into a giant robot (that sometimes becomes a T-Rex and even a dragon).
Dynazenon feels very much like tokusatsu shows like Super Sentai or Ultraman, with the kaiju looking like rubber suits, but with spectacular special effects. The characters are endearing and complex, and even the villains are treated as three-dimensional characters with agendas, ambitions and personal struggles. Where Dynazenon shines, however, is in the way it perfectly walks a balance between being fist-bumping fun, and a meaningful exploration of trauma and healing. In some ways, the show is a perfect companion to Neon Genesis Evangelion in the way it encourages the viewer to simply go outside and find people you can care about and who care about you beyond the confines of a TV set. Sure, escapism (and giant robots that transform into dragons) are fun, but they are not worth obsessing over.
Ranking of Kings is one of the biggest surprises of the year. What may look like a cutesy kids’ cartoon on the surface, a fairy tale about a child king learning to accept himself and be a better person, turned out to be a complex, beautifully animated story about how no one is as they first seem, and an intriguing political fantasy story to replace the Game of Thrones-hole in your heart.
The show, based a web manga of the same name by Sōsuke Tōka and animated by Wit Studio, follows Bojji, a young prince born deaf and tiny in size despite being the son of a giant and the number one king in all the land. The show boasts some stunning visuals, with an aesthetic that can best be described as if Game of Thrones was a children’s picture book. The art style looks like something out of Calvin and Hobbes, with simplistic character designs and round, colorful backgrounds that hide strikingly fluid animation when things go down and the swords are drawn.
Believe me, despite the kiddie looks, this show is not afraid to go dark with a capital “D,” as this has more in common with the dark fairy tales of old than Disney’s sanitized versions. There are evil mirrors, demonic posessions, horrible betrayals, and enough surprisingly violent action to satisfy fans of Wit’s previous anime like Vinland Saga. It also features the most precious protagonist ever drawn in an anime, the titular prince Bojji, whose smile inspires more loyalty than any presidential speech in an apocalyptic movie. You’ll want to cry with him as the citizens of his kingdom mock and ridicule him, you’ll want to slap and punch every bastard who dares underestimate him, and you’ll go pick up your sword and pledge fealty to the One True King and his trusty companion, the sentient shadow Kage.
I’ll put this as simple as I possible can, if you don’t love this show, you’re a heartless son of a bitch who hates puppies and good things.
The final season (part one) of Attack on Titan was arguably the biggest anime event of 2021 (and 2020, partly), with every single episode trending on Twitter like it was Game of Thrones or The Mandalorian. This is what the show has been building to since 2013, as we finally leave behind the humans vs. titans conflict of the earlier seasons and discover that the true enemy was us all along.
From the first episode of the season, Attack on Titan subverted our expectations for where the show would go, opening not with our heroes, but with would-be villains, and dared ask us to symphatize with them. Then, when we finally reunited with our favorite characters, it was not a moment of triumph, but of absolute terror, as the show blurred the lines between good and evil and asked the audience to consider how long they’re willing to go before they start considering the other side. Though the animation and art style was significantly different than previous seasons, it served as a nice separation between the simpler story of the first three seasons and the more complex, violent, angry season 4. Still, the fights were incredible, the action roaring, the surprises jaw-dropping and devastating, setting the table for an explosive and deadly new set of episodes in the new year.
Really, these three shows are so goddamn good that you can simply change their rankings around, or have them share a three-way first prize, but I suspect Eren Yeager does not like sharing, so the ranking stays.
Much like the number 3 show on this list, Odd Taxi just came out of nowhere and blew the anime year away. This is an entirely original and perfect anime that’s kind of hard to explain. It’s part Coen brothers neo-noir about a simple crime escalating out of control with an everyday Walrus taxi driver caught in the middle of it, part Scorsese crime epic, part furry show about a world of anthropomorphic animals and capoeira-dancing alpacas, and also the only anime this year that dared point out how fun it is to say the words Bruce Springsteen.
Odd Taxi starts out simple enough, but it quickly escalates into something that encompasses multiple stories and tones, commenting on how messy and complicated it is to open yourself up to others, as well as fandom, going viral, professional jealousy, addiction to gacha games and more. The show has one of the best ensemble casts of the year, with colorful and memorable characters like a porcupine gangster who only talks via raps. The script strikes the right balance between naturalistic and fantastical, with dry but funny conversations, great one-liners and play on words (kudos to the translation team for not skipping a beat with the jokes), and a spider web of conversations and encounters that make for a phenomenal noir-like mystery revolving around a walrus taxi driver. Where most anime out there are made for young audiences and teenagers, this is one show specifically written for adults and about adult problems, resulting in the most unique and the best anime of the year