The Best (and Worst) of Summer 2020
This season, Appare-Ranman! joined the ranks of brilliantly creative, tragically underwatched original anime along with such fantastic titles as Stars Align, Granbelm, and Planet With. I get that it can be a bit of a tough sell, with a slow first episode and character designs that throw so many stereotypes at you that it can be overwhelming. It's a car racing anime that's not especially interested in cars, historical fiction that steadfastly refuses to affix itself into one era. But damn if it isn't some of the most fun I've had watching anime.
Under those truly wince-worthy character designs lies surprisingly nuanced character writing and an ensemble cast that bounces off each other in ways that never ceased to delight me, to the extent that the best episode was just them taking a break and hanging out. That's not the only great thing about the show, though - the action choreography and animation is consistently excellent, and the old West setting, even if it's extremely historically inaccurate, is rare in anime. The story beats aren't particularly original, but they're pulled off with such panache that it's impossible to hold that against it.
One question remains: is Xialian life goals or wife goals?
Runner Up: Deca-Dence
If someone says Deca-Dence came out of nowhere, they weren't paying attention. Okay, I know most people don't follow anime staffers, but considering that director Yuzuru Tachikawa adapted Mob Psycho 100 and created Death Parade, I was all in from the very beginning, and that investment was ultimately richly rewarded. More and more, I see how Tachikawa uses science fiction and fantasy as a venue to explore how to break down unjust, dehumanizing systems and reimagine them into something more equitable. It's a theme that speaks to me, and it doesn't help that he's a master of collaborative work, bringing together excellent teams to make art that is as visually exciting and fun to watch as it is thematically rich.
A couple of things kept it from reaching best of season. While I loved the second-episode twist, I was disappointed with how it pulled the focus away from the scrappy Natsume in favor of her cranky father figure Kaburagi. Kaburagi's story, and the way he challenged the heartless capitalist system was excellent, and showed a much greater awareness of how systems of oppression function than most purportedly revolutionary stories, but I still wanted more Natsume. The other was a single, sentimental moment at the show's end that didn't quite vibe with the overall message. Still, even if Deca-Dence wasn't quite what I wanted it to be, it was still excellent. I can't wait to see what Tachikawa creates next.
I admit, I only gave this one as much of a chance as I did because of how sparse this season was, and I wouldn't have given it a backward glance if I even had a couple more shows I was more into. Still, that doesn't change the fact that I genuinely wanted it to be good, with its slick production and great music. It had potential to really dig in and dismantle many men's expectations of the women around them, through Kazuya's difficulty understanding the business nature of his relationship with Chizuru.
But nah. It didn't go down that route, and I was optimistic to imagine that it ever would. Instead, my more pessimistic side was proven correct: that the series would be all about Kazuya's growing harem acting as his therapist, advancing his development at the cost of their own. I'm a big fan of firmly-set and maintained personal and professional boundaries, and Chizuru allows Kazuya to walk all over hers. How can I root for the couple in a romantic comedy where one party completely disrespects her perfectly reasonable expectations of how he treats her? Girl is just trying to get paid; it's not in her job description to teach him to be a decent human being, and I'm tired of it falling to women to play that exact role for men.
Director Yuzuru Tachikawa and writer Hiroshi Seko have basically earned a lifetime of goodwill from me for their work on Mob Psycho 100 II, but Deca-Dence has proven that they can handle ambitious anime original stories, too. In his weekly reviews for the series, Christopher Farris compared Deca-Dence to another classic of recent years, the criminally underestimated Planet With, and I wholeheartedly agree with that take. Deca-Dence is another anime that is able to cram a shocking amount of plot and spectacle into a scant dozen episodes, not to mention a healthy dose of social commentary concerning the perils of modern capitalist exploitation. There is so much pure fun to be had in story of the human Natsume and cyborg Kaburagi's rebellion against the artificially engineered Gadoll menace. There's also plenty of all-too-relevant bite in the idea that a class of mechanical elite have transformed the ruined Earth into a live-action interactive battle MMO, and the exploited humans aren't even allowed to know that they're glorified NPCs and cannon fodder. Late stage capitalism may literally be burning the planet into cinders in our plane of existence, but Deca-Dence is here to tell us that, even if the end of the world feels like a done deal, human dignity isn't something to be bartered and exploited. That's a message I feel like we can all get on board with.
Runner-Up: Fire Force Season 2
I don't know if it's because Atsushi Okubo really stepped up his game at this point in the manga, or if new writer/director Tatsuma Minamikawa just has a better handle on the material, but either way, Fire Force Season 2 kicks ass. The story is tighter, the stakes are higher, the world-building is much more interesting, the fan service is noticeably less intrusive and gross, and the jokes…okay, the show's sense of humor is still proudly and aggressively stupid, but you know what? I like the fact that every single character in this series is terminally goofy. I like that, in between amazing fight sequences and intriguing mystery solving, there can be whole episodes devoted to the gang getting stoned out of their gourds on volcanic fumes. Also, did I mention that David Production is still killing it with the awesome action sequences? Yeah, Fire Force is dumb as hell, but so what? As long as we can keep toning down the sexual degradation and exploitation of every female in the cast, and keep ramping up the earnest and insane fun of it all, then I'll be right there with Company 8, screaming “Hell Yeah!” at the top of my lungs.
Worst of the Season: The God of High School
Now, if you want an example of an anime that has planted its feet squarely in the territory of “The Bad Kind of Stupid”, then look no further than Crunchyroll's latest attempt at original programming, The God of High School. Serving as a thirteen-episode long testament to the fact that anime needs more than good animation to be good, this gorgeously produced and incredibly well-directed effort from director Sunghoo Park and Studio MAPPA features some of the best spectacle you're bound to see in an anime all year. When the fists are flying, The God of High School can be a lot of fun. It's a shame that every other aspect of the show has made it borderline unwatchable. Imagine a mishmash of every single battle tournament/supernatural shonen manga trope you could possibly think of, all executed as poorly as possible, and rearranged completely at random so as to be utterly nonsensical. That's the experience of watching The God of High School. It sucks, and it certainly doesn't make me want to go out of my way to read hundreds of additional chapters of the comic just to decode a plot that, if we're being honest, doesn't matter at all. Do yourself a favor: Look up clips of the fight scenes if you absolutely must, and then use the rest of the time that GoH otherwise would have stolen from you forever to do something, anything else. Life's too short, you know?
This is my third time giving this franchise this honor and the second time it leaves a Summer season being my current top contender for Series of the Year. Though I felt this season got too relentlessly dark at points (a complaint I also occasionally had about the first series), the series continues to impress with all of the twists, turns, and layers in its plot and character development. Thanks to a combination of great writing and great direction, nearly every scene that is not pure comedy relief (and even some that are) adds something to the world and/or character-building, which is all remarkably well-thought-out; the introduction of the Witches this season shows that the first season was just the tip of the iceberg about what's really going on here. The introduction of Echidna, the Witch of Greed, compensates for fan-favorite character Rem mostly being sidelined, and the content does not fail to be suitably gruesome and chilling; you'll certainly never look at rabbits as being completely harmless again after seeing this season. Is it too early to be depressed that this season is already halfway done?
Runner-Up: The Misfit of Demon King Academy
For as light as the Summer 2020 season was on titles, it did not lack for quality fare; Fruits Basket, My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU Climax, and maybe Deca-Dence could all potentially be in this slot. However, I'm going with the title that was the biggest qualitative surprise this season. Yes, Anos is maybe the most blatantly OP protagonist that the magic school genre has ever seen, but nearly every week the series proved that it was more than just Anos being cool in his OP-ness. One key is the handling of Anos himself. Despite being supremely cocky, nearly always having a smug smile on his face, and ruthlessly (to the extreme!) punishing opposition, he is still quite the genuine charmer. He respects those who respect him and demonstrates the value he places on others, whether they are his over-exuberant parents, the fangirls who nearly die protecting his mother, the girl who befriends him when he first arrives at the academy, or even the Hero who was once his arch-nemesis. The series also offers a succession of intriguing mysteries and magical puzzles which must be dealt with, including how Anos' name has been replaced by another in the official accounts about the Demon King. In short, this series sets a new standard for how to properly do stories about OP protagonists.
Rent-A-Girlfriend gave me the season's most viscerally negative reaction this season, but I only ever saw the first episode of that. Of the titles that I did watch at least most of, the decision comes down to the season's two mainline fan service titles: SUPER HXEROES and Peter Grill and the Philosopher's Time. The latter, despite being incredibly crass, has hotter fan service, so SUPER HXEROES it is. I will go into more detail about this one in an upcoming review, but the short version is that the series is hindered by two factors: a premise that tries to be campy but winds up being dumb instead and a very juvenile take on the concept. Yes, I know the series is not meant to be the next Interspecies Reviews, but that's the crux of the problem: making a series where the mechanic is depending on sexuality but does not actually involve sex just looks inadequate by comparison.
Best: Great Pretender
In something of an extremely pleasant surprise, the two shows I was anticipating the most at the beginning of this season turned out to be the ones I liked the most! The other pleasantly surprising part was that I actually got to watch Great Pretender within this season. The turnaround on Netflix jail has thankfully shortened a lot, it seems. Great Pretender would have been worth the wait anyway, though. It's a brilliantly energetic, lovable show whose chunky arc-based structure makes it perfect for the platform's binge-watch model, with a delightful dub to boot. Stories about con artists necessarily trade on the people in them being able to win you over as characters in spite of their less-than-scrupulous actions, and Great Pretender gets that.
I'm never entirely certain how much I can trust the likes of Cynthia and Laurent with the gauntlet of hilarious manipulations they run poor Edamura through, but it's just too darn fun watching them do it. On the other end you've got my favorite character, Abbie, who provides a fascinating look at how someone far away from the freewheeling con-artist archetype might thrive in the trade otherwise: A much blunter person using the work as an escape, ultimately through the most final means possible. It speaks to the humanizing elements of these stories that make watching their heists against much, much worse people so cathartic to watch. There's still one extra-long arc left for Great Pretender, and hopefully we won't wait too long for that release either.
It's funny to talk now about Deca-Dence as if no one saw it coming, given that it was a highly-anticipated original project from a well-loved writer/director combo and an accomplished studio. But really, once that second episode hit, we all realized we had no idea what we were getting into with this show. That should have been the complete key to Deca-Dence's success, a refusal to play it safe and keep dialing up the engagement with its surprising elements, be they the shock of the cyborg character designs, Pixar plot riffs, or increasingly direct screeds on the crushing effects of capitalism. That honestly just makes it more of a shame it couldn't keep that energy up all the way to the end. That less-than impressive finish is the reason Great Pretender got my top pick and Deca-Dence is down here in the number two spot. I don't know that wrapping with a frustrating lack of a definitive statement completely undercuts Deca-Dence's presumed modern classic status, it's still a fantastic series on its terms and technical merits and deserves to be checked out. If anything I think it still marks it as something special, the kind of show we'll hopefully still be discussing and debating for years after the fact.
Worst: The God of High School
The weird thing about The God of High School is that for a moment there it was both the best and the worst anime I was watching this season. When the show was on, it was ON, most obviously in the insane spectacles of its fight scenes in its first half. It worked because the show seemed to understand that we only needed the barest basics of a plot to get to see these characters punch and kick each other real good, and presented that beautifully while even managing to wring some basic pathos out of a couple of the backstories it did take time to present to us. So it's baffling to see the story's decision to ramp up the convoluted machinations powering everything in real time. As the episodes wore on it just became exhausting to have to listen to exposition droning on about conspiratory fight cults as I waited for the series to make it to the proverbial fireworks factory. But then even that got undercut as those same infuriating informational elements wormed their way into the martial-arts mechanics themselves, devolving them from brutally-simple hard-hitting brawls into overt knockoff Stand battles. Once the part of The God of High School I considered the best anime I was watching was gone, all that was left was the worst anime I was watching this season.
Best: The Misfit of Demon King Academy
From an objective standpoint, this may not be the actual best show of the somewhat bizarre Summer 2020 season, but it absolutely was the one I wanted to see each week. I suspect the reason is akin to what led to the superhero comics boom during comics' Golden Age – when the world seems almost ridiculously scary or difficult, you just want to follow the adventures of someone who can set everything right. It's kind of funny to find an actual demon king filling that role, but that's another part of what made this show enjoyable. “Demon” in this show is just another humanoid race, and most of the enmity appears to be on the human side, with the actions of one (human) man two thousand years before Anos' reincarnation being largely to blame for the problems that Anos died trying to fix. That Jerga fits the standard definition of a demon far better than Anos ever does, even to the point where Jerga managed to bring down the supposed hero, makes an interesting point about those who go around proclaiming their righteousness for all to hear – something that many of Anos' foes in the story's present day also do. Anos is a misfit not just because his powers are beyond anyone's comprehension, but also due to the fact that he really just wants to see a world where everyone gets along, a thought that has never even crossed most of the antagonists' minds. He's certainly not above using force to make them see his point – this is definitely a guy who believes in what The Princess Bride called “The Pain” – but his punishments tend to fit the crimes in a way that doesn't glorify himself, but instead forces the lesson he wants to teach upon his detractors. And he's almost uniformly kind to those people who aren't overtly mean, even embracing his cringey fan club and finding a way for them to feel helpful, which may make this the only show I've ever seen that uses the fan club trope in a positive way. I also enjoyed that the only romantic subplot was for two of the supporting characters; we can make guesses about his relationships with Sasha and Misha (especially Misha), but it's not a distraction to the rest of the story about history being warped as years go by and who the real monsters are. Not only is it more than I expected from a power fantasy magic school anime, it also was just a lot of fun to watch, and more than anything, that's what kept me coming back week after week, no matter what.
Runner-up: Mr Love: Queen’s Choice
It sometimes comes up in class that romance as a genre can be framed as social expectations passed off as fantasy. That can lead to a lot of the genre's persistent issues, but for me that's also what makes it so fascinating, especially when the fantasies being presented are so far from my own. That's definitely part of why I enjoyed Mr. Love (which I still can't say with a straight face because I'm apparently twelve), but I also found it to be a cut above most other reverse harem shows in one very specific way: Nameless Heroine isn't a wilting damsel in distress. Yes, she finds herself in distress over the course of the show (which still has one episode to go as of this writing), but that doesn't stop her from still trying her damnedest to keep her livelihood going, whether that means standing up to Victor the asshole love interest or investigating the dangerous organization that's behind, well, virtually everything that happens in the show. While her choices aren't always the smartest, she's also got enough brains to avoid being a Too Stupid To Live (TSTL) heroine, a definite genre pitfall. And for the most part, the four love interests don't try to talk down to her in order to make her sit at home like a good girl – they ask her along or offer their help instead. The guys definitely fit into some of the basic genre types (asshole, childhood friend, perky guy, and mysterious guy), but she's different enough that it evens out. It's kind of off-putting that the subtitles stick with the localizations from the game – English first names, the city is called Loveland– which makes for a disconnect between what you hear and what you see, but I'll put up with a lot for a heroine who isn't a TSTL blank slate and who actually owns more than one outfit, even if her wardrobe doesn't appear to involve pants or flat shoes. It's just been a good time, and while I have my preferences for who she ends up with, I'll actually be perfectly happy if the series just ends with the bad guys taken care of, giving this show multiple ways to not tank in the final episode.
You know I really didn't like something when I'm willing to just flat-out call it “worst” instead of “most disappointing.” In a completely not shocking turn of events, this show fell from grace hard, completing the descent it began in the rushed previous season. It merrily raced through cooking competitions with nary a care for the tense cooking that made the first three seasons so good, threw highly cartoony bad guys who did things like cook with chainsaws at us, trampled all over Erina's and Soma's character development (especially Soma in the final episode), and then teased us with near-miss incest while committing the cardinal sin of having Erina forgive her father. Even worse, as a manga reader, I knew this was coming but still hoped that the anime would take it upon itself to fix the source material. That last is completely on me. The rest is the thud of this show landing at the bottom of a pit it dug for itself.
Best: The Great Pretender
With so many anime released weekly—not that I'm complaining about that—it's not often I have the opportunity to binge-watch an engrossing series, but I got to do that this season with the first fourteen episodes of The Great Pretender. Despite the starkly sleek modern animation and visuals, there's something nostalgic about this series that made me think of it as more in line with 90s and 2000s animation that stuck with me, like Cowboy Bebop and Trigun. There's a pressing sense of “I have to know what happens!” that carried me from one episode of The Great Pretender to the next, even between arcs. It's a very story-heavy series, with the hustlers who make up the crew protagonist and amateur conman Makoto Edamura finds himself strong-armed into joining often taking backseat to the scheme of the moment. Nonetheless, enough character details leak out throughout the course of one adventure to the next that you feel that most of them are fully rounded characters by season's end. Since they only target rich people who deserve to be parted from their money and/or desires, the audience's desire for their success rings true. Full of twists and high stakes, The Great Pretender was easily my favorite of the season and I can't wait for more.
The colorful show about a mismatched band of racers in late-1800s America trying to beat one another to the finish line in a cross-country course winds up being equally focused on character and plot as it is the mechanics of such a race. Nearly every character makes the most of their screentime to come across as unique individuals who have to come together for a common goal, despite their sometimes friendly rivalry. Characters who seem villainous have more to them beneath the surface and actual dastardly characters walk undetected among the lot. It's not quite as zany as the wild, wild race concept and eye-catching designs promise, but it has a lot of heart.
Worst: The God of High School
The God of High School demonstrates lush production values and pops on the screen with dynamic, over-the-top brawls that don't take any shortcuts when it comes to animation. It also has the story depth of a thin sheet of paper. What few characters are memorable beyond just the eye-catching character designs are cookie cutter and demonstrate so little complexity, it's difficult to root for them—even more so when one of the main trio ruthlessly beats another member of the trio in his quest to win the Martial Arts tournament and potentially save a friend's life. Usually, heroic action characters find a way not to beat their innocent friends half to death, even if someone's life is sort of depending on that. At least he's not the protagonist, but even so. I couldn't follow what little story there was at all beyond a tournament to determine the best fighter (an actual high school never makes an appearance, though the main trio is high school age). Something about other dimensions, saving the main character's grandpa… I don't know. For something so frenetic, I found it rather sleep-inducing.
Yes this one technically started in Spring, but when 80% of the series runs in summer I think it should count. Besides, Appare-Ranman! was just such a delight every week that it would be criminal not to include it. Though lighter on the racing aspect than you'd expect, this show managed to be an instantly charming, effortlessly likable good time week after week, with a lovable cast and charisma to spare. Its humor is fairly broad and familiar, but the execution nails every punchline while endearing you to each wacky character through a surprisingly empathetic presentation, and I inevitably ended up with a goofy grin on my face during every episode. Strong production, sharp direction, and some troubling but memorable character designs also made it stand out in a season of delays and struggling animation. There were a few more ambitious series I could have picked, but for sheer entertainment nothing ever topped the laughs and cheers of this one. Appare-Ranman! proves you don't have to reinvent the wheel to have a good road trip, and I'm very much looking forward to what this creative team will deliver next.
I put Deca-Dence as one of my most anticipated going in the season, based largely on the creative team behind it. Namely, director Yuzuru Tachikawa who'd already delivered two absolutely brilliant series already, and can now add a third stellar entry to his growing resume. Deca-Dence proved to be one of the most surprising, unique shows of this entire year, and just getting to watch it unfold week to week was a joy in itself. Marrying strong, powerfully sentimental ideals with razor sharp cultural commentary would be a strong enough showing on its own, but what sets the show apart is just how many risks it takes with tone, humor, and even visual design as it goes along. If you haven't watched it yet and have somehow managed to avoid its biggest spoilers, trust me when I tell you to just go in blind to the first two episodes. I promise it'll grab you.
Worst: Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma: The Fifth Plate
I knew from reading the manga this final Food Wars dish would be a stinker, but even a year of bracing myself couldn't dull the disappointment of seeing the series' terrible final arc play out every week. The adaptation tries its best to salvage a few things – they give Megumi a pity win in an anime-original tournament, and cut some of the most obvious fat from the BLUE proceedings – but there's only so much you can do to mitigate what is fundamentally a lousy story with worse villains and some of the series least inspired cooking ideas. It's always a bit sad to see a big title like this go out with its worst foot forward, but it's especially heartbreaking to see Food Wars in particular become the worst version of itself, fitting into conventions it previously bucked and losing all of the energy that once made it appointment viewing. There were perhaps materially worse shows I followed this season just to have something to watch (Hey there, Peter Grill) but nothing stings nearly as bad as this one.