Toon Talk- The Best of Anime in 2020

To say it’s been a hard year would be an understatement, and I’m sure we’re all pretty eager to put in the rearview mirror and look to the future. Between everything going on the real world, and feeling more isolated than usual, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna have the energy to do one of these year end posts, but I do like writing about anime, even if it’s just for the small stuff like this, so I’m gonna try and get back in the habit of doing it a little more often. As far as this whole piece is concerned though, I’ll admit that while it certainly hasn’t been a bad year for anime, the way stuff ended getting shuffled around thanks to the plague, has meant fewer things left an impression on me as far as specific genre stuff goes. With that in mind, this is probably one is probably gonna be shorter than what I’ve done with these the last couple of years, but I’ll try to fill in as much as I can.

This category is basically everything that isn’t show-specific, but that I still wanted to give something of a shout out to. That includes theme songs, characters and stuff related to voice acting and dubs.

Best Opening- Chaos Drifters by Hiroyuki Sawano X Jean-Ken Johnny (No Guns Life s2 OP

Gotta be pretty blunt and say anime openings were really weak this year for me. Granted I feel like I’ve probably said this the last couple of years, but even then there were usually at least a couple I’d jam to regularly enough to make it a no-brainer. This time around I had to struggle a bit not to just automatically default to something from the Fall season, and while Kaikai Kitan was a good song, and one I’ve had on repeat the last couple of months, Chaos Drifters edges it out just slightly. In hindsight, a collaboration between anime composer Hiroyuki Sawano and the lead singer of MAN WITH A MISSION seems like a match made in heaven. but it’s also one of those things that seems like it couldn’t actually be real until you hear it, and boy is this one a bop.

As would be expected from the two names involved it’s a blood pumping opener that does a lot to build up excitement for what’s to come. and even has a few Sawano drops in the mix for some extra kick. Combine that with Jean-Ken’s vocals and it makes for one ear-worm of an OP, and it’s playing in my head now even as I’m typing this. Good as the song is though, it helps that the visuals also sprinkle in a good amount of symbolism for what to expect out of the season, and puts a very loud amount of emphasis on Juzo’s character arc as he both connects with his “client” Tetsuro, and fully breaks from being someone’s tool to his own person. It’s a cool OP that does double duty, and while I wouldn’t list it among my all time favorites, it’s definently one of the best this year had to offer.

Honorable Mentions: Kaikai Kitan by Eve (Jujutsu Kaisen OP 1), G.P. by Yutaka Yamada (Great Pretender OP), Easy Breezy by Chelmco (Keep Your Hands of Eizouken OP)

Best Character- Sayaka Kanamori (Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken)

Sayaka Kanamori-Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! in 2020 | Anime, Anime art  beautiful, Character design

As is always the case with anime, there were a lot of fun, charming and occasionally disturbing characters to appreciate this year, but out of the whole lot, none of them quite stole my heart quite like Kanamori. While all three of Eizouken’s heroines are great in their own way, and represent different aspects of the anime industry with Midori being an ambitious director and Tsubame being a passionate animator, Kanamori represents the cynical anime producer, and while that sounds like it’d make her a pretty easy hate sink on paper, in execution it’s the opposite. While Kanamori is a schemer at heart, and is generally looking to make a few quick bucks, she also has a great deal of respect for Midori and Tsubame’s talents and does her best to help make their work profitable, while also knowing when to put her foot down and occasionally rein the two of them in so they can make a complete project. She represents the very best of what a good producer can be to an anime production, and when push comes to shove, she’s even willing to butt heads with their school’s administration (and totally not a production committee) to make sure the girls get what they deserve. That’s some serious dedication, and she’s also just a really fun cynic that you can’t help but root for no matter how prickly she is. This girl knows how to work a hustle, and I want her to have all the nice things, even if she’d definently try to charge me for them.

Honorable Mentions: Natsume (Deca-dence), Swindler (Akudama Drive), Abigail Jones (Great Pretender)

Best English Dub- After the Rain

Aimer – Ref:rain Lyrics | Genius Lyrics

2020 has been as unkind to dub production as it has to anime production in general, but several studios managed to rise to the occasion, and have pumped out high quality dubs that you’d never guess were recorded from the actors’ closets or makeshift recording booths, and it seems like that could very well be the way of the future for anime dubs. All that said, my personal favorite of the year is a dub that was likely finished a little before everything descended into madness. On paper, After the Rain’s premise about a teen girl who falls for her middle aged manager sounds like it’d be a pretty major yikes. but it quickly proves to be significantly less skeevy and far more wholesome than that would imply. The leads Akira and Kondo are two people stuck at a point of stagnation in their lives, and their actors, Luci Christian and Jason Douglass do a fantastic job of getting across their weariness, and Jason in particular delivers one of the best performances of his career as he portrays Kondo’s woes about his failed writing career, and the two of them bounce off each other really well as their characters attempt to recapture their lost dreams and reconnect with old friends they’ve lost along the way.

The supporting cast is great too, with some rock solid performances from the likes of Elizabeth Maxwell and Jason Libretch, and combined with a pretty solid adaptive script from Marta Becthol, the dub exceeded my expectations and ended up being one of my favorites that the folks at Sentai Filmworks have ever put out. I’ll admit there are other dubs from this year that edge it out a little on the technical front, but I was already a pretty big fan of the show before the dub was announced, and I can’t help but be a little biased when a dub I was heavily anticipating manages to knock it out of the park since that frankly doesn’t always happen. Regardless, After the Rain’s dub is great, and if you’re willing to shell out 40 bucks or so for the Blu-Ray since that’s sadly still the only way to see it, both the dub and the show itself are well worth the investment.

Honorable Mentions: Great Pretender, Fruits’ Basket s2, Beastars

This category is centered around genre stuff. Unlike the best series which we’ll get to afterwards, this for things that stood out really well as a genre piece moreso than as an overall series. That said there’s still plenty of good stuff to be found here, so let’s take a look:

Best Comedy- Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle

Animation's | Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle(Series 1) Episode 8 —  Online FULL! | by Muhammad Septian Nugraha | Nov, 2020 | Medium

We’ve had some solid anime comedies to help ease the pain through the year, and while series like Kaguya-sama have come back with strong sophmore seasons, and stuff like Kakushigoto and Bofurihave brought some new laughs, nothing was as consistently hilarious to me as Sleepy Princess. At first glance the whole thing with the kidnapped princess frequently breaking free from her “imprisonment” to ransack the demons for items to help her sleep seems like it’d get repetitive fast but the show manages to get a lot of mileage out of that joke. As the princess wreaks all kinds of havoc in her attempts to get a good night’s rest it quickly becomes clear she’s the bigger and more competent threat than any of her captors and I always got a good laugh out of her finding new ways to murderize any unfortunate souls unluckly enough to cross her path. It helps that for as ruthless as the princess can be, she’s also about as dumb as the rest of the bunch, and her single-minded attempts to achieve her goals get her killed (and always brought back to life because the demons can’t afford losing their hostage) about as often as she succeeds. The show also has a surprising amount of heart to it, as between the princess’s violent tendencies, her and the demons become a weird family of sorts, and it’s clear the princess really enjoys their company even if she’s a little too focused on her beauty rest to think about that for more than two minutes at a time. It was a delightful little show, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, I have a hard time imagining you won’t walk away with at least a few good chuckles out of the experience.

Honorable Mentions: Kakushigoto, Kaguya-sama: Love is War s2, Mr. Osomatsu s3

Best Drama- Fruits’ Basket Season 2

Fruits-Basket-2nd-Season-anime-image-1

Had Beastars actually come out in 2020 it might have been a serious contender here, but no matter what Netflix’s streaming calendar wants you to believe, it doesn’t change the reality Beastars came out last year, so I gotta give this round to the other show about sad animals. Of course, none of this is to mock Fruba’s second season because boy did it come back a vengeance. I enjoyed a lot of the first season and the way it processed how to love oneself and how families can both help and hurt each other through its cast, but while the first season talked about those topics pretty gently, this season dives deep into the darker parts of them as we see just how much control the family head Akito has over the rest of the Soma family, and the more we see of the rest of the family, the clearer it is to see how much her twisted sense of “love” has eaten away at them, and how trapped they feel by her abuse. Yuki and Kyo in particular go through a lot this season, and while the former seems like he’s on the road to recovery, the process of getting there can be pretty tough to watch, and the show can be surprisingly raw in how all of it is handled. It’s kinda terrifying to think that we apparently haven’t even reached some of the darkest parts of this series since there’s still another season left, and I’m told this train has no breaks, but the second season has been one heck of a ride, and it’s helped to bump of my opinion of the series from a good one, to a must-watch.

Honorable Mentions: Deca-dence, Great Pretender, Japan Sinks

Best Action Series- Dragon Quest: The Adventure of Dai

dqdai-promo-v1-1440x2560 | Cat with Monocle

While the big shonen heavy hitters like My Hero Academia and Demon Slayer have been on break this year, and the new shonen hits have debuted a little too late into the year to consume the entire hype cycle, we certainly haven’t been short on cool action shows to choose from. Admittedly if I were basing this purely on cool action cuts alone, I’d probably have to give this either of the shows Sung-Hoo Park directed at MAPPA this year, but since The God of High School is way more functional as an AMV than an actual show, this really came down between Dai and Jujutsu Kaisen. Between the two Jujutsu Kaisen is the flashier shonen spectacle for sure, and it’s got enough musings about millenial dread and our connection to death to give audiences a little more to chew on whenever the punches aren’t being thrown, but you don’t need me to tell you to watch Jujutsu Kaisen. You probably ARE watching Jujutsu Kaisen, and even if you aren’t the odds are pretty high it’ll at least enter your sphere of vision at some point or another, so I’d to talk more about the battle shonen show that’s a lot more of an underdog for this season.

That’s not to say that Dai is a notable step down from JJK in terms of production quality, because it’s a tour-de-force in it’s own right and the folks at Toei have pulled out all the stops to fill it with plenty of cool action cuts, and a nice mix of 2D and 3DCG for the heavier fight sequences to keep things flashy while still being able to maintain what’s likely to be a much longer production schedule than JJK’s first season. It’s also just an extremely charming little show, and while basically everything in it is all stuff you’ve heard before from a diabolical dark lord trying to take over the world, to our hero being an orphan from some kind of race of superbeings, it knows how to execute those cliches just well enough to keep the material from being dull, and because it knows exactly it is, it also avoids ever getting too ambitious for it’s own good, and combined with some surprisingly swift pacing, it makes the show a breeze to get through every week, and I’ve rarely left an episode of it without smiling, Much like the Dragon Quest games I’ve actually played, it carries the energy of a really Saturday morning cartoon, and if you’re okay with checking out an action show that skews towards a bit of a younger audiences than the bigger shonen franchises right now (though don’t worry it’s got plenty of violence to go around) I’d really recommend giving it a shot. Now here’s just hoping Toei does the right thing and gives it a dub later down the line.

Honorable Mentions: Jujutsu Kaisen. Fire Force s2, Deca-dence

And now we’ve finally arrived at the best series for the year. You may notice that I have two series listed here instead of one, but that’s because I’ve picked the best based on two sub-categories: best adaption and best original work. While both adaptions and original projects both carry the intent to pick up an audience, they’re generally trying to accomplish different things as an adaption has to be a good piece of entertainment while maintaining the strengths of it’s source material where as an original work needs to stand completely on it’s own two feet and draw in a crowd on it’s own merits. As such I feel it’s only appropriate to bring up which two series did the best at tackling those things so without any further ado, here they are:

Anime of the Year (Adaption)- Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken

Anime Trending on Twitter: "“Eizouken ni wa Te wo Dasu na!” (Hands off the  Motion Pictures Club!) - New Key Visual!! The anime is slated to premiere  on January 2020… https://t.co/Qk62xUuJEp"

Despite the unfortunate circumstances that plagued the anime industry this year, we managed to get a lot of really strong anime adaptions, and fans of shonen blockbusters in particular got fed pretty well so long as you ignore the existence of those awkward Webtoon adaptions. Still, for as many cool adaptions as we got this year my favorite one, and my favorite anime of the year in general, ended up being one of the very first anime I watched in 2020. Eizouken is an anime about making anime which grabbed my attention right off the bat since it’s always interesting to learn about how art gets made, but unlike Shirobako which zeroed in mostly on anime production cycles, and the amount of stress involved in keeping a show together, Eizouken is much more about the creative process and the passion that goes into making art. That feeling of passion really bleeds throughout the show, and especially through the minds of its three heroines Midori, Tsubame and Kanamori who represent a director, animator and producer respectively. While each has their own goals and motivations for getting involved in anime (Midori is a big bundle of ideas, Tsubame really enjoys capturing realistic motion, and Kanamori just wants to oodles of money) they all clearly have a lot of love and respect for their craft, and even Kanamori’s role as a money hungry producer is show to have its positive aspects as she’s often the one who has to help keep her co-horts schedules realistic so they can make a finish product, and come up with as good a compromise as they can under those circumstances.

As great as all of that is though, part of what really helps to make this show shine is the deft hand of its director Maasaki Yuasa of Devilman Crybaby and Ping-Pong: The Animation fame, as he and the staff at Science Saru help to literally bring Midori’s wild imagination to life through some incredible animation sequences that give the art a very pencil-sketchy kind of feel. and compared to the more typical moe performances of most anime heroines, the main trio have a much more unconventional sound to them, and while it seems like it’d be off-putting in a sense, it actually ends up making them feel more endearing and more like actual teenagers, which adds a little more to their whole rebellious teen struggle to make what they want on their own terms despite pressure from their school administration/production committee to stay in line. It’s a fun and wonderful show about what it means to make art, even when you have to deal with the inevitable compromises reality brings, and Yuasa’s team helped to bring that story to animation in a way I don’t think any other studio or director could have managed. If you like art about making art, or are just curious about the creative process for anime production, I can’t recommend this show enough and it’s truly something special

Honorable Mentions: Fruits’ Basket s2, Jujutsu Kaisen, Dragon Quest: The Adventure of Dai

Anime of the Year (Original)- DECA-DENCE

Deca-Dence | Deca Dence Wiki | Fandom

Looking back, this has actually been a surprisingly good year for anime-original projects and we gotten some really fun shows out of them. From the shifty capers of Great Pretender, to the wild-west meets Wacky Races aesthetic of Appare-Ranman, any one of them could have been a solid pick for this slot, but as great as those shows were, none stole my heart quite like Deca-dence did. At first glance, Deca-dence seems like your standard grimdark steampunk action show where the last ravages of humanity are fighting against giant monsters called the Gadoll ala Attack on Titan, and I’d have honestly been pretty happy with the show had it stayed in that direction since between it’s cool looking world, and the chemistry between it’s leads Kaburagi and Natsume, with Kaburagi being a tired cynic, and Natsume a determined optimist, there was a lot to like there, and it could have been a perfectly fine show on those merits alone. However what helped to really make it stand apart lied in its big second episode twist: That the world of Deca-dence is a virtual-reality game created by a giant corporation, and while it’s human inhabitants, the Tankers are very much real, the Gears who fight the Gadoll threat are really a bunch of cartoony looking robots that look like they dropped right out of a Pixar game, and see everything in Deca-dence’s world purely as entertainment, Kaburagi included at first.

While such a giant shift in tone seems like it’d be a recipe for disaster, and a great way to lose an audience (and sure enough people were pretty divided on it when that shoe first dropped) it ended up making the show far more interesting than I could have imagined. We find out pretty quickly that much of the show’s world is a thinly-veiled allegory for late-stage capitalism (and by thinly veiled, I mean the director, Yuzuru Tachikawa outright stated as such in interviews) as both the Tankers and the Gears are exploited by the system at large, and while much like real-world capitalist based systems, the Gears seem to have more agency and freedom than their Tanker “NPC” counterparts, both are considered equally expendable. While Kaburagi starts off the show as a Gear who’s fullly recognized he’s a slave to the system, and has no hope for the future, his interactions with Natsume, and her willingness to fight to free her world of the Gadoll despite how impossible it seems inspires him to fight back against the system and start on a path to tear the whole thing down. If you’re about as tired of exploitive capitalism as most millennials are, this show is one heck of a thrill ride, and it’s got a fun and literally colorful cast of characters to root both for and against, with some pretty stellar action sequences to boot. I’ll admit I’m pretty biased towards these kinds of stories, so that certainly played a part in edging it out over some of this year’s other anime originals, and a couple of them ended stronger, but Deca-dence is still a wonderful little show, and I can honestly say there really hasn’t been anything else this year quite like it. Whether you want to see a bunch of robots and humans stick it to capitalists or just wanna see something different there’s a lot to like about this show, and for better or worse, there aren’t many other works that captured the mood of 2020 quite like this did.

Honorable Mentions: Akudama Drive, Great Pretender, Appare-Ranman


And that’s basically it from me this time. Again, I’m sorry this one was shorter than usual compared to the last couple of years, but I’m gonna try to do more writing here whenever I can so this blog isn’t entirely based around seasonal stuff with anime. I guess you guys can look forward to that, but in the meantime, I wish you all a happy and hopefully better new year, so until next time: stay animated.

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