The Otaku Exhibition’s Anime of the Year 2021

It doesn’t feel like very long ago I was writing my Anime of the Year post for 2020, and I can still vividly recall the tremendous difficulty I had in picking mine. In a year with Kaguya, Jujutsu Kaisen, and Attack on Titan, I was still trying to catch my breath before Winter 2021 famously dumped the great season of anime in recent history.

The problem is that the Otaku Exhibition started up late in 2020, so while I’d been keeping up with seasonal anime, I wasn’t nearly as rigorous. I simply hadn’t watched as much anime as I do now. The competition wasn’t just bigger for 2021, though, it was also stiffer, so breaking down what I consider to be the best is no easy task.

So I’m going to take a moment to bid farewell to one of anime’s most stacked years ever, and a few series that have stuck with me long after the ending song concluded. Welcome to the Otaku Exhibition’s Anime of 2021.

So while this is all personal, obviously, I look forward to being told I’m wrong in the comments. If you think I snubbed your favorite anime this year, there’s a good chance I did. There was just way too much to watch this year. So leave your favorites in the comment and I will add it to my Plan to Watch, which is actually bigger than my Completed section. Ready? Let’s get into it.

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First, the disqualifications, or series I’m not considering but deserve an honorable mention. While Jujutsu Kaisen started in Fall 2020, it continued into the winter, so it goes here. I did label it as my standalone AOTY, but I’m not worried that Shonen Jump’s hottest title right now is not getting enough attention. Sorry, JJK, talk to me after the Shibuya Incident gets animated.

That goes for Re: Zero, too. My favorite anime had a banger of a second season, and the second cour arrived this winter. Re: Zero is a fearsome competitor, but considering 2020 was painfully dry on big releases in the middle of the year, I won’t take one of its biggest away. If they go ahead and announce season three already, though, I can be persuaded to change my mind.

Takt Op. Destiny was one of my favorites from the fall season, but it didn’t quite live up to my lofty expectations. The pairing of Madhouse and MAPPA has produced one of the best-looking anime this year, but the story’s a little all over the place. If it had been given two cours or a longer season to flesh out the journey, it could have easily taken the crown. As it is, Takt Op. feels a little rushed, so while it’s good, it’s not quite enough.

And finally, I’d like to get Attack on Titan out of the way…again. Did the first part of the final season blow me away? Indubitably. Is Attack on Titan a masterpiece? Duh. That being said, the story is incomplete. I know MAPPA couldn’t have pulled the whole last chunk of story out on time, but I would still consider both parts of the final season to be the same story.

As an apology, the Anime of the Year 2022 will go to Attack on Titan by default. Alright, happy?

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Beastars has no right being as good as it is. The first season is enthralling, the kind of psychological thriller that manages to crawl in your brain and ask all sorts of questions that we would prefer to leave unanswered. Its characters are amongst the best in anime or manga, while the story and conflicts are organically integrated into their development.

And Beastars has no right to release a second season that was every bit as engrossing as the first, while elaborating on all of the brilliant writing that made it so good in the first place. It’s not that the second season is better or worse than the first, but that it’s such a natural extension of the story that I have a hard time separating the two like that.

And knowing that Beastars’ third season will be its last makes this a difficult decision, but I have faith that it will be the best thus far. I haven’t gotten that far in the manga; maybe the ending sucks, but Paru Itagaki’s writing and studio Orange’s lavish CG production have not failed me yet. I’ll wait to see how the final season capitalizes on this fantastically realized world before giving it AOTY.

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Our next nominee, SK8 The Infinity is a pretty personal choice because if I’m being honest, it isn’t the deepest or best-written anime this year. Most of the reason why it’s here is because it isn’t just the first proper skateboarding anime, but it’s the fantastic animators at Bones working at the top of their game. Even so, that’s not all of it.

While on paper, SK8’s story isn’t anything special, it struck a surprising chord with me. It’s a sports anime where the main character has to realize and then come to terms with the fact that he’s never going to be the best at the thing he loves, and that’s okay. There are people out there who will always be better than him, and trying to be at the absolute top isn’t just impractical, it’s a corrosive mindset that taints his love of skateboarding.

SK8’s simple lesson is that it’s more important that what you do brings you joy, and that it doesn’t have to be all that serious. It’s actually pretty novel for a sports anime. Furthermore, the way it crafts the arc of both its hero and villain about forgetting that hobbies are supposed to make people happy is enough to earn my consideration.

SK8 The Infinity isn’t groundbreaking or subversive, but it’s a simple reminder that whatever you do, remember why you love it in the first place.

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This one came pretty close, but hey, it’s my list and my winner, so whatever. Komi Can’t Communicate is rather similar to our winner, both in its fight for the crown and in its subject matter. It’s a gut busting slice-of-life with sharp comedic chops and a genuine heart. Komi’s journey to make 100 friends is as sincere as it is funny.

While Komi can cut deep when it wants to be emotional, there are a few more series here that hit harder. Its peculiar sense of humor is hard to dismiss, but I have to go with my heart and set the series aside.

Counting against Komi, is my own favoritism. I like the manga, and the anime adaptation has sharpened the visuals, while adding stellar music and voice acting. I love it, but this race was never going to have a clear and easy winner.

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Of every series I’ve talked about or will talk about, 86 is probably the closest to taking the title while still falling short. It’s one of the best new series this year, and if I was speaking without personal biases, it would have won.

86 takes a slow, methodical approach to character writing, world building, and political intrigue. That approach has made it one of the most rewarding watches of the year; I’ve lovingly referred to it as Code Geass with a bit more heart. It helps that the production committee is determined to preserve the deliberate slow pace of the light novels, and has taken the time to flesh out its story with two seasons this year. I mean, back in my day we called two installments airing in the same year on alternating seasons ‘cours’, but that’s just nitpicking.

It’s difficult to adapt the depth of information in a light novel while managing a reasonable pace, but 86 takes the time to ease on the accelerator and appreciate the rich psychology of its characters. Not only that, but A1 Pictures has knocked it out of the park so far, and it’s a treat for the eyes and ears.

It might not be my Anime of the Year, but 86 is phenomenal and still deserves your attention.

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This is a personal pick, but on the opposite end of 86. While 86 deserves better but got snubbed because of my tastes, The Case Study of Vanitas is not nearly as poignant or well-written, but gosh darn it, I love this show. It doesn’t hurt that the summer was barren of most other serious contenders.

Remake Our Life was good, but not exceedingly so. Girlfriend, Girlfriend is high-tier trash, and everyone should watch it so they can understand how delicious garbage can be, but it’s still rubbish nonetheless. Sonny Boy is wildly creative and stands apart from the crowd, but it hasn’t ever really grabbed me.

So what does Vanitas have that others don’t? Pure, unadulterated steaminess. The world building is neat, and it approaches vampires in an alchemical sense that differentiates it from other anime, while it blends those spooky elements with more of Bones’ top-notch work. Even so, Vanitas’ standout feature is how it manages to be more provocative than most ecchi anime, while not being half as lewd.

Maybe it’s because I appreciate the artistry it takes to be both tame and spicy at the same time, or that its cast is full of gorgeous melodramatic vampires that are also goofy gremlins with one IQ point between them, but the Case Study of Vanitas is exquisite.

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And we’ve arrived at our conclusion, our Anime of the Year. Perhaps it’s unsurprising if you know me or my Twitter, but it’s one of my favorite manga, and the Otaku Exhibition’s Anime of the Year is Hori-san to Miyamura-kun, or just simply Horimiya.

I love a slice-of-life that gets to the point. It’s no fun waiting for years on end for a couple that’s been eyeing each other since Episode One to get together, only for the series to end. I love that Wotakoi doesn’t beat around the bush, or how Tsuki ga Kirei Doesn’t waste my time. The best material for a romantic comedy is how a writer can develop a relationship after the confession, but most romcoms aren’t interested in that.

Horimiya breaks off at a sprint, allowing its leads to get together and round some bases in record time. There’s a comfortable sort of rhythm to an established relationship that more anime should take advantage of, but there’s also fascinating conflicts that come with the territory. And if you’re still looking for that classic “will they, won’t they?”, then you still get that with many of their friends.

I love Horimiya for its hilarious gags, endearing characters, and heart wrenching moments. It’s sensitive, funny, and straightforward in its approach to an old genre. Personally, I prefer the manga for its longer runtime, giving you more time to enjoy these characters, but the anime is an ideal short and sweet adaptation.

Cloverworks doesn’t always hit the mark, but when they’re good, they’re exceptional. This is a manga adaptation that doesn’t just communicate the style, it brings it to life vividly. The longer I thought and deliberated, I knew there was nothing that could take me to such highs and lows in a single episode. As difficult a process as this was, Horimiya is my one and only Anime of the Year.

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So 2021 has ended, and I think it’s fair to say that this was a phenomenal year. That comes from cribbing some of 2020’s best anime for its own, thanks to delays, as well as having some of the best originals and most high-profile adaptations. I could say this for just about any recent year, but 2021 was one for the anime history books.

So stick around to check out reviews of everything that’s coming out this winter season and beyond that. Besides, we’ve got Attack on Titan, JoJo, My Hero Academia, and a lot more coming. Come back this time next year where I’ll be saying that 2022 was even more of a revolutionary year for anime.

Anime’s never been as prolific as it is now, and while that means we can sink to devastating lows with titles like Ex-Arm, it also means we are getting more great anime than ever before. While poor anime reviewers like me grimace at the thought of all the fantastic anime we’ll have to watch, it’s an exciting time to be an otaku. Make sure you check the reviews out here and over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku. I hope you’ve had a good year, and have a better one coming. Until next time, thanks for reading.

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