The Best and Worst Anime of Winter 2021

5 months ago 61

Best Anime: Sk8 the Infinity

This was a tumultuous season filled to the brim with ambitious new originals, returning favorites, and a few highly controversial messes, so there were a lot of options to pick from for both best and worst. But I knew, in my hearts of hearts, that there was no way anything was going to outscore SK8 in my affections. From its first episode, this show gazelle flipped its way into my life with a loud, gorgeous production brimming with the exact kind of energy I love to see in anime. Oozing with style and bleedingly sincere, I fell in love immediately, and every subsequent character and episode just made me love it more.

That isn't to say SK8 is all flash though – while the aesthetic hooked me, it was the lovable cast that kept me around. For all its crazy, physics-defying races and high-octane drama, this series obviously loves its characters and wants you to adore them too. Be it Reki's earnest but overcompensating dedication, Langa's hilarious deadpan, or just the image of SHADOW the put-upon skate clown, I love just about everyone here, and watching them all hang out and have fun would be enough on its own. They're not the deepest cast of the season, but a single montage of the whole gang pulling tricks over a gloriously silly pop-punk song was enough to put a smile on my face for days on end, and that's not even getting into the truly insane hijinks that happen during the “serious” races and dramatic moments. Whatever it might lack in serious substance, it more than makes up for with sheer confidence and passion.

Runner-Up: Re:Zero Season 2 Part 2

I initially wasn't sure what I wanted to be my runner-up. There were several candidates, but none of them had left quite the same impact on me that SK8 has, and trying to award a silver medal felt strangely excruciating. Then I watched the final episode of this season of Re:Zero and the idea I'd been struggling to decide at all seemed silly.

This is certainly an atypical season for the series, first and foremost because hero Subaru takes a total backseat to become a supporting character in his own show, and the series is all the better for it. That sounds like a diss, but for as strong a character as Subaru has been for the last 3 cours, one of the best aspects of Re:Zero is how likable, layered, and interesting its entire cast is. Every person from heroine Emilia to random hangers-on like Otto feel like they have stories of their own that could be just as entertaining as the show we already have, and this season puts Subaru in the passenger seat so we can finally hear those stories in full.

The result is a season that, while scattered and not totally cohesive, gives invaluable depth to the larger cast, allowing them to feel like a genuine family while also making its fantasy world feel all the richer for the history we learn. And it's all capped off with the wonderfully sentimental finale where at last, after 50 episodes of struggling, backtracking, and mistakes, Subaru and Emilia can stand together as equals and face the larger world in earnest. It's a touching, wonderful capstone to a series that has proven itself far stronger than its initial promise, and I severely hope we get another season down the line.

Worst: EX-ARM

Best Anime: Kemono Jihen

If I'm being perfectly honest, it's very hard to differentiate between my best and runner-up, because I enjoy them about equally, albeit for different reasons. I decided to put Kemono Jihen as my number one, however, because while my second choice is very good at one thing, this show is excellent at many. Not only does it skillfully blend folklore with fantasy, using yokai myths and legends to form the basis of the series' own specific mythology, but it also manages to consistently treat its character with respect, regardless of who they are and where they come from. This is perhaps best seen in the Akira/Yui storyline (which hasn't quite ended as of this writing): not only are both twins' issues treated as legitimate, but Yui's trauma isn't downplayed or made to look like anything other than what it is – the sexual abuse of a male child. Given some of the discourse that often goes on around male sexual abuse, this is doubly important, but even if you don't care for serious topics in your monster anime, the seriousness with which everyone's lives and experiences are treated is remarkable. That ranges from no one making fun of Akira for being feminine-presenting, to Shiki's repressed memories about his mother's torture, to poor Kon just being abandoned by a woman she continues to believe in up through her most recent appearance in the show. Even Mihai's state as a shut-in gamer vampire has its believable and thoughtful backstory, and he's largely used as something of a mild gag character. Kemono Jihen, like GeGeGe no Kitarō's 2018-20 run before it, really cares about its characters, no matter who they are.

Also similar to that other show are the lengths Kemono Jihen is willing to go to in order to make its point. Mostly this amounts to a willingness to really delve into topics many series wouldn't touch, much less take seriously. Akira and Yui's story, as I mentioned, deals with sexual abuse of a child, while Shiki's mother is a survivor of sexual slavery, passed off as “okay” by his uncle because she's a kemono. Other difficult topics include abandonment, repressed trauma, loneliness, and being the only person to stand up and say that what someone else is doing is wrong. That last may be more in line with shows starring a primary cast comprised of children, but it's really all in the framing. The series does an excellent job of showing us just enough to allow our minds to fill in the horrible blanks, and that makes it effective horror in the more traditional literary sense as well. I'm still not over the mosquito ladies.

Creepy mosquito women aside, this is, at its heart, a story that wants you to remember that no matter what they look like or can do, people are people, and everyone deserves to be safe and happy. I'll grant you that they aren't yet (poor Kon), but as far as long-ranging goals go, it's a good one. I hope that the manga is licensed someday so that we can see it happen.

Runner-Up: Bungo Stray Dogs Wan!

Gag shows and shorts are definitely two of the hardest formats to do well, and somehow Bungo Stray Dogs Wan! manages to pull them both off. Certainly part of it is that the cast of the regular series has some very recognizable quirks for this to play with, but even that's not quite enough to make this good without some expert skewering of the characters and situations. From Dazai being the preschool teacher for the rest of the cast (reading them No Longer Human at story time is amazing) to Chuuya's fluffy puppy form to Akutagawa's jealousy of Atsushi being milked for all its worth, this just keeps hitting the right notes in every episode. It's also a plus that characters who are often sidelined in the main series, like Kenji, get much more screen time here, and that some of the bittersweetness from the original also seeps through without ruining the overall mood – episode eleven, about Dazai, Odasaku, and Ango, is a wonderful example of this. If you like Bungo Stray Dogs, you need to watch Wan!. Then maybe you can tell me how Chuuya somehow became my favorite character.

Dropped the Ball: Horimiya

Oh, Horimiya. You started out with such promise. Then two very specific things dragged you down: inexplicably speeding through the source manga like a bat out of hell and spending too much time harping on Hori's specific kink.

It actually isn't all that often that I'm able to pinpoint what went wrong with a promising series so easily, so I suppose Horimiya has that going for it. What's more remarkable is how easy it would have been to avoid these two particular pitfalls. Given that the manga isn't quite finished (although it may be by the time of this writing), there really isn't a whole lot of sense in whipping through the story the way the show chooses to. This goes doubly when the manga starts to pale in its later volumes – really, a very good anime could have been made by just taking the first five or six volumes and adapting them more closely, especially since even with bits and pieces cut out, Horimiya is a slice-of-life romance no matter how you look at it. That's a genre that, by definition, pays attention to the minutiae of the characters' everyday lives, so cutting, for example, pieces of the story that explain what Miyamura was doing in Hokkaido really is more hindrance than help. It also makes Hori come off as far more domineering and toxic than she truly is, and I can only think someone in the staff thought it was funny to see her forcing her predilection for being fake-bullied onto her boyfriend with how much emphasis the show places on it without the quieter scenes of them being happy together.

Horimiya's missteps cost the series a lot. Instead of a charming story about two people who aren't quite who they seem to be, we get a rushed tale that gets progressively less sweet as questionable choices are made. Hori comes out looking cruel, Miyamura's progress towards being comfortable and happy with himself isn't as clear, and none of the side characters get their due. It's a sad example of a series that started out with everything going for it only to fizzle as it went on, leaving a regrettable bad taste for me to remember it by.


Best Anime: Attack on Titan The Final Season

I know that Attack on Titan's often messy and questionable attempts at historical and political allegory have made it controversial, to say the very least, but The Final Season has proven that Attack on Titan remains nearly unrivaled in the world of modern anime. Hajime Isayama's powerhouse story has lost none of its raw emotional power in the transition from Wit Studio to MAPPA, and The Final Season has featured some of the franchise's most complex and compelling tales, all of which ask its viewers to meaningfully engage with the horrors borne from endless cycles of warfare, exploitation, hatred, and bigotry.

The show also still has its characters turn into giant flesh-mecha abominations that punch each other really goddamn good, and that's pretty awesome, too. Will the show ever be able to fully reconcile its desire to explore the many perspectives of its traumatized, war-torn ensemble with its knack for making action scenes that kick a dozen different kinds of ass six ways to Sunday? Probably not. Will it manage to retain its anti-war perspective without falling victim to its own muddy imagery and themes? Dear God do I hope so, but there's still room for the show to stumble before the end. Will I ever be vindicated in arguing that Gabi is secretly the best new character of the whole season? That's anybody's guess (though I'm 100% correct, don't @ me). The only thing that is certain is that Attack on Titan The Final Season has been an experience like no other, and it has all but cemented the franchise's legacy as one of anime's All-Time Greats.

Runner-Up: Jujutsu Kaisen

This was another incredibly easy pick, despite there being a couple of front-runners for the runner-up spot this season. For as much as I've been loving shows like Wonder Egg Priority and Heaven's Design Team, I would feel like a real bastard if I didn't give Yuji, Nobara, and Megumi their proper due. Jujutsu Kaisen is in many ways as typical as a supernatural battle shonen manga adaption can get: You've got your dumb-but-loveable hero, his dumb-but-loveable-friends, not to mention some dumb-but-loveable allies and enemies, and all of the Spooky Sorcerer Fights over evil cursed fingers and stuff. There's lots of internal monologuing, plenty of overlong explanations of how powers work, and enough eye-searingly gorgeous action animation from MAPPA and director Sung Hoo Park that I've already fully forgiven them all for The God of High School. That alone is enough of a feat to justify a place on this list.

But Jujutsu Kaisen one-ups its many competitors in a few key areas: First of all, I don't know if I stressed this enough already, but literally every speaking character in JJK is dumb as hell, and its amazing to watch them rub their brain-cells together and out-shenanigans each other every week. Also, even though JJK goes out of its way to avoid gross fanservice and cheap titillation, almost every character in this show is also hot as all get out. Gojo With the Sparkling Eyes is Daddy™. Nanami the Millennial Poster Child™ is Daddy. Mahito the Sexy Evil Frankenstein Ghost is…well, I'm sure someone; out there thinks he is Daddy™. Come for the blistering spectacle, stay for the constantly hilarious comedy, and then keep a tab open so you can take all of the sexy screenshots you need to, you know, for research purposes. That's what Jujutsu Kaisen is all about.

Worst: The Promised Neverland Season 2 & Yashahime: Princess Half-Demon (Tie)

Is it cheating to pick two series for this spot? Maybe, but I don't care! Yashahime and The Promised Neverland's second season both managed to turn from being infuriating dumpster fires into a recurring weekly race to the bottom, and I legitimately cannot pick between the two of them for Worst Anime of Winter 2021. Yashahime squandered the years that Inuyasha spent earning the faith and goodwill of its fans on an incoherent, half-finished, and often gobsmackingly stupid sequel. Conversely, The Promised Neverland Season 2 squandered all of the unrealized potential of its wonderful first season on an incoherent, half-finished, and often gobsmackingly stupid sequel. Yashahime spreads its terribleness across an agonizingly long twenty-four episodes (with more to come, because God is dead), while The Promised Neverland takes the opposite route by mangling the manga's already rushed story and whittling around 150 chapters worth of material into a measly eleven episodes.

Now, I can already hear you asking, “But James, which one is the worst, between the two? Is it Yashahime, or The Promised Neverland?” In either case, the only answer I can give is, “Yes.” Flip a coin. Draw straws. Toss both shows into a lake with stones tied to their ankles, and see which one floats up to the surface. However you have to decide, and whatever decision you finally come to, find comfort in knowing that you will be right. Just please, whatever you do, don't feel like you need to actually watch either show. You'll come to the same conclusion either way, and you'll have been swindled out of many precious minutes of life that you won't ever be able to get back.

Best Anime: Wonder Egg Priority

As of this writing, the finale for Wonder Egg Priority has yet to premiere and, considering the content of episode 11, it may seem like a risky move to put it as my top pick of the season in ink with no take-backsies. However, I am an Aries and there has never been a cliff I haven't been willing to jump off of. "Lynzee, look before you leap!" they say. Fools. Cowards. Figuring out how to make a parachute as you propel towards the earth cursing your own hubris is half of the fun of media criticism.

And it's that exact attitude that lets me appreciate Wonder Egg Priority. It's a series that took major risks in the name of saying something poignant about the trauma and tribulations of growing up as a girl. Much in the same way that O Maidens in Your Savage Season dealt with the uncomfortable sexual awakenings of teen girls and the specific baggage that comes with it, Wonder Egg Priority refused to shy away from the full scope of female adolescence. Its story beats intertwine with metaphorical imagery as Ai, Rika, Neiru, and Momoko tried to reconcile their both the trauma inflicted on them and pain that they inflicted on others all while the misogynistic structure of society bore down on them. Wonder Egg Priority wasn't satisfied with merely casting the girls as victims. It also showed how each girl could also internalize patriarchal pressures and perpetuate them towards their peers. This means that sometimes our heroes acted less than heroic, or even in a way that is downright reprehensible.

Take, for instance, Rika. Early in the series, it's very easy to hate her both for her catty mannerisms and for literally bodyshaming a fan to death. Honestly, this action on her part, regardless of her grief or regret afterwards, could easily be a deal breaker for viewers. However, as a now adult woman, this was an example of realistic characterization that I had not seen before. Emotionally-nuanced bullies are hardly rare, but this specific type of bully with this specific type of personality resonated with me. While I've certainly had my body evaluated by boys and men throughout my life, it was girls during my adolescence that were the most forward with the commentary and shaming. It was the nuance in Wonder Egg Priority's characters and its sensitivity to their individual issues that drew me in and led me to care about the cast as a whole. Have there been times where I was wholly frustrated with its pacing? Yes. I could also take or leave its sci-fi mumbo jumbo window dressing. It's the girls that'll stick with me.

Runner-Up: Attack on Titan The Final Season

I had a stupidly difficult time picking a runner-up for this as the Winter 2021 season is something I'd call a "good harvest" in terms of the sheer amount of excellent anime. I debated both Horimiya and Jujutsu Kaisen for this spot, but in the end I had to go with Attack on Titan's (not) final season for two primary reasons. The first is that every single episode was a tightly choreographed emotional rollercoaster that kept me deeply invested for its entire run. The second is that the series allowed me to launch the ANN Aftershow with James Beckett and Jacki Jing which has truly been a highlight for the last two months. The last year of COVID has been incredibly isolating and consuming media in a vacuum really takes a lot of joy out of it. Attack on Titan paired with the Aftershow has really reinvigorated my desire to watch things knowing I can talk with pals about it each week, theorize what might happen next, and geek out.

AoT The Final Season has left me with a lot of questions as a non-manga reader and I am at times terrified it's going to milkshake duck itself. I am holding out hope that it sticks its antiwar messaging, questionable historical references not withstanding, and somehow these wartorn kids I've followed for almost a decade manage to find some real, true justice and peace.

Worst: Cells at Work! Season 2

I have the luxury of not having to watch bad things (usually), so while there are two shows this season that I found repugnant, I didn't watch them. Why let garbage live rent-free in your brain? Instead, I blithely signed up to review both iterations of the Cells at Work! family of shows, having previously enjoyed the first season. One of them, Cells at Work! Code Black, was an entertaining watch with serviceable characterization and earned emotional stakes. The other was the second season of the original. Cells at Work! Season 2 clocked in at eight episodes with animation that looked like a modern update of digipaint. A certain type of cell-shading was used that I'd argue nullified a lot of the artistic charm of the original. I might have been able to stomach that if the show's content was up to snuff, but with the exception of the final episode's confrontation, the series was a slog as we followed an Ordinary Cell in his journey through the digestive system to deliver lactic proteins. In the Daily Streaming reviews I jokingly referred to it as the "yogurt arc." In essence it felt like a prolonged commercial for Activia. Yawn.

Best Anime: Pui Pui Molcar

This season brought us big-named sequels like Attack on Titan, Dr. Stone, Re:Zero, and The Promised Neverland. It gave us new hits like Mushoku Tensei, Wonder Egg Priority, and Horimiya. However, all of these pale in comparison to the three minutes of pure bliss I received each week in the form of Pui Pui Molcar.

This stop motion anime is set in a world where, instead of cars, humans drive around in giant, sentient guinea pigs. Each episode, the guinea pig cars face some kind of wacky situation. Sometimes, it's something mundane like a morning traffic jam or a cat left in a guinea pig car on a hot day. Other times, it's a full-on parody of Back to the Future or zombie apocalypse films. It's consistently cute, silly, and utterly engrossing—you'd be surprised just how much emotion you can get out of a ball of felt. Honestly, it has some of the best comedic writing around—which is more than a little amazing coming from a show with literally zero dialogue. Simply put, it's pure, condensed joy to watch.

TL;DR: This is an anime where a guinea pig, who is also a car (and a secret agent), does an Akira sliding stop while fighting against a giant, flying shark robot that's shooting lasers—all while on a rescue mission to save a kidnapped guinea pig car with long, flowing, blond locks.

Runner Up: So I'm a Spider, So What?

So I'm a Spider, So What? is an isekai anime with a twist: what if you were reincarnated in another world but as a spider-monster instead of a human? While there are other characters, the vast majority of the anime is a one-woman-show put on by the ever-impressive Aoi Yūki. She gives a near-constant running monologue about the challenges she faces while trapped in a dangerous dungeon, at one point even putting on a real tour-de-force by playing four versions of herself at once and running through the gamut of emotions (she even sings the anime's ending song). If she doesn't receive an award or two for this performance, I'll be shocked.

The other great aspect of this anime is its direction. While many shows create twists by withholding key information from both the characters and viewers, So I'm a Spider, So What? hides its twists in plain sight. It uses your assumptions about what you see on the screen to mislead you about key aspects of the story. Something as simple as cutting from one location to another can be used to imply connections where there are none—or hide connections that should be obvious. All this makes the series worth not only a watch but a rewatch. You'll be shocked at how much was just sitting out there in the open.

Worst: EX-ARM

Let's be clear here. I haven't seen EX-ARM. Not a single second of it. I saw some screenshots of the trailer back when it came out and decided in that moment that something that looked like a freshman animation project wasn't going to be worth my time or aggravation.

However, what I have done is read every single one of Nicholas Dupree's reviews of it. What started as a sarcastic attempt to review the show has become documentation of Nick's journey into insanity. In recent weeks, the “review” has become a football game play-by-play, an introduction to every Macross series, a stream-of-consciousness mental argument, a fourth-wall-breaking detective story, a wrestling promo, and a series of MS paint animated gifs.

Have you seen an anime break a man's soul? I have. And it's called EX-ARM.

Best Anime: Laid-Back Camp Season 2

I spent a lot of time racking my brain about what the actually-factually best anime I watched this season was. Was it Sk8 the Infinity, which I recognized as a delight by all metrics but just didn't get as personally into as a lot of the others did? Or should it be Otherside Picnic, a show with a workmanlike production that almost lost me in the middle, but pulled itself together and deeply impressed me by the end? But ultimately I ended up lighting on a phrase I'd said to myself while watching a certain show on Thursdays: “Laid-Back Camp might actually be a perfect anime.”

Now, stay with me on this. Obviously there are anime with more grand storytelling ambitions and meaningful idea communication than C-Station's calculatedly comfy cute-girl camping compilation. But in a season, as with any other, that included projects walking a razor's edge of their own success or outright collapsing under their own efforts, Laid-Back Camp sticks out for the wonderfully consistent entertainment value it spins out of its humble content week after week. Actually, maybe ‘consistent’ isn't quite the right word; reliable – that's what Laid-Back Camp is. It's the kind of show I'd purposefully let myself get to later in the day, an atmospheric exercise in unwinding. It's a show I could count on to never really stumble in terms of presentation, production, or just those all-important vibes. Even in cases like the unexpected swerve into more serious storytelling from Episode 6, where I could charitably rechristen the series ‘Stressed-Out Camp’, they followed the natural course of its always-present edutainment elements to a literally heartwarming conclusion, using the situation to also demonstrate the bonds that followed these friends around even on their individual camping excursions.

It's something Laid-Back Camp has always excelled at, embracing the communicative culture of our modern world by letting the girls share their special times via sending texts and photos to each other. It's appreciably distinct from the anti-technology bent you might expect from a series otherwise all about the great outdoors. And isn't that perfect mash-up exactly the kind of comfort food we need right now? A beautiful anime acting as a virtual travelogue for all the scenic spots we'll be able to make it to ourselves in the not-too-distant future, and a reassurance that friendships necessarily maintained over digitized distances for the time being are still the valid connections we need them to be. Laid-Back Camp is a cuddly iyashikei series that seems totally humble in its ambitions at first pass, but it humbly handles those ambitions perfectly. Like Rin sending Sensei to look after her friends in the freezing mountains, this show brought us some warming comfort at the exact time we needed it.

Runner Up: Wonder Egg Priority

Consider this second-place position attached with a big ol' asterisk. There's no question that Wonder Egg Priority was one of the most attention-getting, talked-about show of the season. Its premiere alone had me dismissing all descriptors to instead simply yell at anyone who would listen to just go watch it (while being mindful of the frankly massive list of content warnings the show entails). It's a gorgeous series being brought to us by a comparatively new and untested team that's gripping in the way it immediately goes for broke. I love the ultra-modern edge it has in approaching the mountain of social issues it's trying to pick apart here, unflinchingly diving headfirst into intersections of suicide, bullying, abuse, the patriarchal systems that hold up and reinforce all of that, and the connections the girls make that serve as their only outlets for escape and personal salvation in the long run.

But having all that ambition in all those directions means there is an exponentially large number of ways for things to go wrong. As I write this, Wonder Egg Priority still has not finished its run, and the cracks in its shell are strainingly visible for all to see. The story's dedication to long-term revelations and concept resolution means the final say it has on these systems of societal suicide could be underdeveloped or even outright ignorant by the end. Its handlings of the sensitive subject matter of some characters like Momoe has since worked out in follow-up focus episodes, but where will the last-minute final-villain reveals leave our heroines in terms of overall treatment? Is Wonder Egg Priority set to be about the triumph of solidarity in the face of oppression, or simply devolve into mere faux-deep trauma porn? That's before we even mention the production troubles, where the management of this team striving for greatness has seemingly been rushed, crunched, and mishandled beyond their ability, resulting in that impromptu recap episode and having to recruit emergency help from freelance animators worldwide. As we speak, the show is still holding together, but just barely, and seeing if it's going to shake itself to death results in feeling as much suspense for the series as stressing over how its overall story and message is going to turn out.

That's perhaps a few too many stressful caveats for a show I'm supposedly praising here, so let it be said: Wonder Egg Priority is still absolutely worth your attention. It's one of those wild, once-in-a-lifetime projects that, everything else aside, I'm immensely grateful to be allowed to watch unfold in real-time. And regardless of whether this team succeeds at making this omelette or has to give up and turn it into a scramble in the end, I'm sure it'll be a meal that sticks with me for a long time after.

Worst: The Promised Neverland Season 2

Sure, the infamous EX-ARM is almost certainly the technically-worst show of this season (if not a new contender for Worst Anime Of All Time), but anyone who paid attention to EX-ARM went in knowing that one was going to suck. In contrast, I was genuinely looking forward to the second season of The Promised Neverland! Though I'd read the first volume of the manga, the freshman season of the anime so endeared itself to me through its particular adaptation and directorial choices that I was engrossed enough to stay dedicated to following the rest of the story in that animated version. But only after a couple of solid opening episodes, this continuation ended up as torched and hollowed-out as Grace Field House was at the end of Season One! What the hell happened?

The obvious answer is the one I'd already been worried about, that the touch of director Mamoru Kanbe that had so effectively carried the first season simply wasn't suited to the necessary shift in genre and storytelling style we got in the second. Expositive discussions between characters become significantly less engrossing outside the specific claustrophobic confines of the House itself, and are much more ill-advised a narrative choice when used to communicate denser, more specific world-building. And it's clear that the presentational style of the anime is simply too flat to handle the increase in more conventional action apart from the clever conspiracies of that first season. But it's not just a case of style choices that led to TPN running away from itself at full-speed. I can't imagine it was all the director's choice to blaze through the entire rest of the source's story in only eleven episodes; instead, it came across like the production company behind this franchise wanted to just be done with the whole thing while the franchise's recognition was still hot, damn the consequences. There's an argument that cutting, altering, or otherwise condensing content in an adaptation only alienates those viewers too loyal to the source material, who demand things be exacting, and there's a case to be made for successfully making new changes in that regard (Fullmetal Alchemist 2003 still totally works and that's a hill I'm going to die on). But that's not a universal defense, and as an anime-only Promised Neverland watcher, I can still tell you this thing sucked.

Best Anime: Pui Pui Molcar

Okay, I know what some of you are thinking. Is this is a joke? How could this short, soft, stop-motion show for children be anime of the season? But I'm not trying to pull anyone's leg (or wheels) here when I say that the anime that most comforted me these past few months featured a more carefree world where guinea pigs had evolved and wholly replaced motor vehicles. While it might be only a few minutes long at a time and contain no words other than cute squeals, these aren't necessarily dings against its (superb) quality. In fact, it makes Molcar one of the most widely accessible anime in years. Since airing, Molcar's popularity has been steadily booming across all of Japan. Molcar has made tracks all over social media and parked themselves into the hearts of the people. Even the famed designer, Masami Obari, can't resist the lure of making fanart of the titular guinea pig cars. But beyond its viral-propensity, each segment with our fuzzy four-wheeled friends features many genuine surprises. An episode of Pui Pui Molcar can be as mundane as helping a cat cool down from the heat or as high concept as fighting off a hoard of hungry zombies with a giant hamburger, sometimes flopping between the two within mere seconds. It's pretty rare that anime excites me to the same extent that these lil' fuzzballs do.

It pulls off great slapstick, movie references, and the adorable expressions on the Molcars' faces. Its twists and turns are propelled by the passion of creator and director Tomoki Misato and his team of skilled independent artists. Molcar, like many products of stop-motion, is simply a labor of love. Not only are the felt models finely crafted to be as friendly as possible, but each little guinea pig car is distinct with their own little bit of personality. Also, the center one is named Potato! POTATO!!

Cute naming schemes aside, the attention to detail also applies to the rest of the visuals. The unique, lively style of Pui Pui Molcar is so packed with energy that it made every week popping into YouTube dot com a pure joy before the episode disappeared from Bandai's channel. Thankfully, it's now all easily available on Netflix and is one of the fastest acquisitions I've ever seen. With such a low-barrier of entry for one of the brightest little refuges of happiness I've felt all year, there's really no downside to trying to watch this gem. It's pure like the depths of a Molcar's two big round eyes. Its simplicities only exist to accentuate its purer qualities, unclouded by a grander scheme but even more beautiful in its sheer creativity and ambition. Pui Pui Molcar simply exists to make the world a better place. Also, just…look at that cute widdle guinea pig face. What's not to love?

Runner Up: Sk8 the Infinity

While few things can be as perfect as Pui Pui Molcar, that doesn't mean there weren't other anime that weren't just as heart-pounding. As a fan of light-hearted fun, ridiculous animated stunts, and boys fawning over each other, Sk8 rolls its way right up my alley before crushing me with a devastating “Love-Hug”.

What starts as a simple story of friendship between Reki and the new kid on the block, Langa, becomes a tale of overcoming feelings of fear, inferiority, and isolation in favor of fostering the mutual love between the two bros and their boards. There are a few things that make Sk8 truly a great show, and all of them rely on having a steady balance. First of all is the portrayal of the actual sport itself, although I use the term “sport” here in the most lenient way possible. While real-life skateboarding might have a reputation for extremity, it is not quite to the level of tapdancing craziness depicted by the well-respected Studio Bones. However, this over-the-top aspect is the big reason why I watch anime. The battles and the boarders in Sk8 can become larger-than-life in key exciting moments. Having a sports anime that is “more anime than sports”, and really nail it, is a surprisingly difficult to accomplish task.

The skating in Sk8 flies high above its real-life counterpart but it no less captures the spirit and shows a deep love for all things board-related in the nitty-gritty of things. Though these stunts wouldn't be quite as wicked if it weren't for Sk8's wonderful cast of skaters. Each member of the “S” race has their own charm, but Sk8 is also willing to let the players slide down from the mountaintop and show the more down-to-earth side of things. The other face of Sk8's exciting double-life is one of chill beach tunes and quick gags, whether it be a bail or some banter. These light moments really flesh out the dynamics between the crew and it makes it all the more painful when we see them struggle or hurt, be it physically or emotionally. It's not every anime where I feel like I adore every member of the main cast. While some episodes have a tendency for severe melodrama that keeps this from sticking the perfect landing, Sk8's core theme of building bonds with our passions ollies this show into a special place in my heart.

Worst: Yashahime: Princess Half-Demon

God, well I didn't want to have it come to this but Yashahime really forced my hand. I don't want to say I had super high expectations of this show, but I at least expected bare competence and slightly comfortable mediocrity (just like its parent series), and it just continues to be even direr than that. Even after catching up with the baffling second season of The Promised Neverland, I still somehow found this one more offensive because of the sheer lack of any sort of giving-a-damn. I stated before that I enjoyed the show's rather lackadaisical first half on the caveat that it was probably just playing its cards close to its chest in favor of building up the girls' characters, but 24 episodes in the girls actually feel like they've regressed throughout their adventure!

It introduced plot elements that no one cares about – not even the show, apparently, because even with two goddamn cours it resolves NONE OF THEM! None!! Even the MacGuffin stones (actually 'pearls') we spent all season worrying about just get scattered to the wind like the Dragon Balls, y'know, just to add insult to injury. If you asked me to describe what happened in any given episode without looking up a summary, I'd be at a loss, because attempting to follow whatever narrative through-line running through some of these episodes just make me feel insane. Like, there were times where I felt like I had accidentally skipped an episode or missed something only to check and have to assure myself no, the show really is just Like That™. The show doesn't always look bad, and there are occasionally a few decent fights, and that Inuyasha OST is definitely distinct. But none of that matters if you can't tell a basic, coherent story without introducing at least 10 different Proper Nouns and still decide that the most logical conclusion for the girl's babymama should be a girl who can't be older than like fourteen. Every other pre-established character is done a severe disservice in dumb and contrived ways to keep them from interfering with the plot. But what they do to Sesshomaru's already non-character really just takes the cake. In the words of the Great Dog Demon, "Woof."

P.S. Moroha deserves better.

Best Anime: Wonder Egg Priority

Look, I know I'm writing this before the finale drops and after the airing of an episode I consider a pretty big misstep, but there's still no doubt in my mind that Wonder Egg Priority is my anime of the season. Warts and all, this is the kind of fresh, loud, colorful, ambitious, messy, heart-wrenching, and unforgettable series we only get once in a very long while. Its premiere alone is a huge, genre-quaking statement that mixes its influences in a novel way and grabs the audience by the collar with its surrealism and violence. Every episode is so dense with ideas, themes, and character-building subtleties that I've had to write reviews twice as long as my usual limit. And I've had a blast doing so!

In its best moments, Wonder Egg Priority takes enormous and enormously sensitive issues like abuse, self-harm, and suicide, and it integrates them into personal and heartfelt narratives surrounding its main cast of four determined heroines. The way it pairs these delicate issues with the bombast of its fight scenes and monsters is hazardous ground to tread upon, but more often than not, WEP manages to make this precarious balancing act work. While it definitely possesses too much bravado for its own good—and that may be the thing that holds it back from being a masterpiece—my accumulated fondness for its aesthetic, ambition, and characters has already carved a permanent soft spot for it in my heart.

Beyond the spectacle and poignancy of the show itself, Wonder Egg Priority should (I hope) also prove to be a springboard for a lot of fresh and talented voices in the medium. Director Shin Wakabayashi is the obvious name to look out for. This is the first anime he's helmed, and I can't wait to see how he grows after such an audacious opening act. Beyond him, however, there are a bunch of first-time episode directors and/or storyboarders who have also knocked their debuts out of the park. Both Momoe episodes, for example, were not only beautiful and delicate, but storyboarded by first-timer Yūichirō Komuro. That's nuts! Maiko Kobayashi and Yūki Yonemori are two other names I'll be looking out for in the future, alongside the other countless animators and creators who either worked on or were inspired by Wonder Egg Priority. Wherever their next journey takes them, I just hope it takes place in a future where TV anime production isn't so exploitative and stretched unsustainably thin.

Runner-Up: Sk8 the Infinity

I liked a lot of shows this season, but how can my favorite duo be anything but the two highly ambitious original series that inevitably found themselves mired in production woes endemic of the labor issues that poison the entire medium? In spite of all that, Sk8 the Infinity succeeds at setting the new high watermark for high-octane and over-the-top sports narratives. While Wonder Egg Priority's specific brand of pretentiousness edges it out slightly in my estimation, Sk8 is one of the most fun times I've had in front of my screen in a good while. It's my favorite thing Hiroko Utsumi has directed so far (and there's some stiff competition there), because every episode is just so in-your-face with its style and energy. It's like popping a handful of warheads in your mouth, but in anime form.

It's difficult to describe everything I like about this show without resorting to a laundry list of the incredible moments that left my jaw on the floor, so I'll do a very abbreviated version of that. There's the beach episode, which utilizes a pop-punk insert song so perfect that I could close my eyes and visualize the early-aughts teen comedy it should have belonged to. Oh, and that episode ends with everyone being haunted by stinky mud creatures. Then there's Adam's first race against Reki, which is a category-5 hurricane of homoerotically-infused skateboard stunts that would render any real person into a bloody stain on the asphalt. It feels like the anime should have gotten someone's permission to be this extra, but it does so with complete disregard for anything but its own brilliant vision. It also has the best eyecatches I've seen in any cartoon, period.

Sk8 the Infinity is a beautifully bonkers story about sk8er bois and skater boyfriends. If there's still joy left in your heart, please give it a shot.

Worst: Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation Episode 1

While I didn't watch any series to completion this season that I consider terrible enough to place here, the revulsion that Jobless Reincarnation's premiere inspired in me still stains my memory. It's not my intent to be unfairly incendiary here, so I'm only judging the first episode, not the rest of the cour that I didn't watch. But man is this first episode depressing—not in the deliberate way a story about trauma might inspire, but in a big picture “this is where we are, huh?” kind of way. There is so much painstaking, exquisite, and admirable craft at the forefront of this adaptation, and for what? A horny baby.

First impressions aren't everything, but they still have to count for something. If I want to compare Jobless Reincarnation to another show starring a sex criminal that I actually enjoy, the Monogatari series' opening statement is a lavishly-framed scene of Hanekawa's exposed underwear. Not ideal! But it's still a couple of magnitudes better than a baby lusting after his mom and caretaker, to the latter's onscreen horror. I understand that both of these introductions are intentionally provocative, designed to dig their claws into the audience by way of their absurd lack of decency. However, Monogatari possesses a self-effacing veneer of pretentiousness that, for me anyway, helps a lot, whereas Jobless Reincarnation's mawkishly straightforward presentation makes me feel trapped in the brain of a repulsive dude with zero self-awareness.

The increasing frequency of assurances that the series “gets better” also hasn't inspired me to continue. I don't doubt that this is true, and I'm sure once Rudy feels less like a caricature and more like a three-dimensional character, the story can probably do a lot more interesting things with him and his relationships. I'm sure there are plenty of redeeming qualities about Jonathan Franzen too, but that doesn't mean I don't think he's a hack. Jobless Reincarnation just ain't for me, and I can live with that. If I gave it another shot, I'm pretty sure it would just end with me getting mad about the kinds of stories that are (and aren't) allowed to be messy and provocative, so really I'm doing us all a favor by limiting my complaints to the horny baby.

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