It’s New Year’s season, and besides anticipation for what’s to come it’s also a time to celebrate all the excellent art the past year has given us. AIPT has already shared its top picks for movies, comics, television, and more, and now we turn our attention to the best manga and anime of 2021. From the gory to the absurd to the gory and absurd, these were the series that stuck with us the most.
The best manga of 2021
Best new series: Dandadan by Yukinobu Tatsu
Dandadan was a series I first heard about being talked up in a manga group I was part of. It was this weird, wacky, wild series from a guy who worked under Tatsuki Fujimoto, the creator of Chainsaw Man. And it does live up to that reputation: a series about two teenagers constantly running afoul of both the supernatural and extraterrestrial and having to fight them the best they can. It’s one of the most out there series I’ve read, but it has such a strange, compelling charm and sincerity to it that allows it to be goofy as hell and freaky as sin, but also dramatic and moving in ways that tug at my very soul. There’s not a series out there quite like it, and it is most certainly worth checking out.
Best slice of life: Blue Period by Tsubasa Yamaguchi
I cannot explain what initially drew me to this series other than curiosity, but it was well worth a look. Blue Period is about finding passion and a path for yourself. The path may not be easy or even obvious. Heck, it may require you to constantly reexamine everything you know about it and your ownself, but it’s about finding who you are. A story of a teen just coasting through life and discovering a true love for art, even if he fully doesn’t get it, Blue Period spoke to me in a way that I haven’t felt before about a slice of life story since Silver Spoon. Easily one of the most real manga I have read in a long time, if you have a passion for art, this is a must read.
Best series: Chainsaw Man by Tatsuki Fujimoto
When it came to turnarounds, Chainsaw Man has been the biggest one. The first volume was fine for me but as more and more came out, the series only grew better. While it’s main character leaves something to be desired, just about everything else with this series is utterly incredible. Its storytelling, themes, pacing, characterization, mood, action… just about everything in a story that originally started with a teen just wanting to feel some boobs. It’s one of the most moving, powerful, exciting manga I have ever read. There’s almost nothing else like it right now. This is not only the best manga of the year, but perhaps even the best comic in any form right now.
Best sci-fi/fantasy: Dai Dark by Q Hayashida
This year, Hayashida delivered something virtually impossible: a series I enjoy as much if not more than her previous hit, Dorohedoro. Dai Dark is equal parts sci-fi adventure, absurdist romp, and gross-out gore fest, and I already adore its core cast of characters. They basically amount to an absentminded child, his talking skeleton friend/backpack, and a chaotic god of death, so what’s not to love? This is one of those series where I read each new installment the same day I get my hands on it because it’s such a guaranteed great time.
Best comedy: High School Family: Kokosei Kazoku by Ryo Nakama
It took this series a while to warm up when it debuted last year since the first several chapters didn’t stray far from the premise’s most basic aspects. Now, though, Nakama has reached his stride and is delivering the most consistently funny manga in Weekly Shonen Jump. The series’ success owes much to Nakama’s creativity. Each member of the family has now had time to settle into their own high school life, and so we get to follow the father’s struggles on the volleyball team, the mom’s gossiping about her son with classmates, the daughter’s unexpected genius talent for shogi, and more. These are earnest, lovable characters whose antics are as heartwarming as they are age-inappropriate.
Best horror: Deserter by Junji Ito
When I first saw the solicitations for this book, I was curious to see what a collection of Ito’s earliest works would be like. I didn’t expect it to be one of my favorite Ito books to date, but that’s exactly what I got. The stories in Deserter feature a starkly different art style that lacks much of his later extremity, but frankly the subtlety helps the horror remain scary instead of becoming too over-the-top. Most of the stories here are rooted less in the supernatural than in humans’ capacity for cruelty and evil when placed within extreme conditions, and they rank among Ito’s most unsettling works as a result.
Best shojo romance: My Love Mix-Up! by Aruko and Wataru Hinekure
Alongside Dai Dark, this was a major candidate for my favorite series debut of the year. The premise is fairly simple: a misunderstanding leads one boy to believe his classmate, another boy, has a crush on him. When Ida is so kind in his response, however, Aoki begins to develop actual romantic feelings. Aruko and Hinekure do a great job depicting awkward teenagers fumbling over their feelings and social interactions, and all the characters are charmingly earnest. The art captures a great range of emotion via nuanced body language and facial expressions, and the soft aesthetic is as tonally fitting as it is pleasing to look at. All in all, this is a great feel-good read.
Best boys love: Birds of Shangri-La by Ranmaru Zariya
Birds of Shangri-La returned with its second volume last month, just in time to snatch the win here. The world Zariya has constructed is beautiful: the lush foliage, the architecture, and, of course, the men are all stunning. The developing romance between the two leads is gripping, but it’s also worth noting that they each get individual backstories and independent character arcs that unfold as time goes on. The drama and sense of both physical and emotional danger amped up considerably in this latest volume, making the wait until the (as yet unsolicited) next installment all the more painful.
Best girls love: Cocoon Entwined by Yuriko Hara
Few manga are as magical as this. Sure, Cocoon Entwined includes a ton of tropes of the genre: young women who attend the same all-girls academy begin to develop feelings that are never explicitly referred to as gay, etc. With that said, it’s all just so good. The world of Cocoon Entwined is ethereal to the point of feeling outright supernatural, even though the characters’ loves and anxieties aren’t actually paranormal in nature. Hara’s renderings of hair in particular invoke strong feelings of heartache and allow a glimpse into that exact feeling of young love: hereto unexperienced and all the more potent, devastating, and awe-inducing as a result.
The best anime of 2021
When it comes to televised anime, Attack on Titan: The Final Season – Part 1 was very close to being my anime of the year, but considering Part 2 will be airing early next year, I’m hoping for a home run (no manga SPOILERS, please!). So my anime of 2021 is Odd Taxi, perhaps the least surprising show to get the vote given my particular tastes in anime. Set in a world of anthropomorphic animals, we follow Odokawa, a 41-year-old asocial walrus taxi driver who finds himself involved in the case of a missing high school girl. Through his occupation, Odokawa meets other animal inhabitants who have their own narratives that unravel into a series of mysteries and acts of violence. Despite its simple and even cutesy animation, the show is an exploration of human psychology that is dark, funny and surprisingly deep.
On the film spectrum, we had to wait nine years for the final installment of the Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy. Thanks to all the Evas and Angels that Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time was worth the wait. The whole franchise of Neon Genesis Evangelion has always been divisive despite the strong fandom and no doubt this finale will split audiences. Personally, as an Eva fan I was thrilled by the insane spectacle and was moved by the sense of resolution for a number of characters that fans grew up with. We may have had 1997’s The End of Evangelion, but for creator Hideaki Anno, this film felt like he was ready to move on a hopeful note, as should we.
Back in July I wrote all about Backflip!! and how it was my top pick of the spring anime season. Now all these months later, it’s clear that it wasn’t just my favorite show of the season but of the entire year. Backflip!! wasn’t just a great sports anime, it was one that came out the gate swinging. The length and quality of the gymnastics performance sequence in episode one was stellar, and made a statement: when the sport is on screen, it’s actually gonna look good, damn it.
Beyond that, Backflip!! impressed with its characters. None of them were particularly innovative; they largely fell into tropes and roles we’ve seen many a time within the genre. Nonetheless, the execution was superb. Each member of the gymnastics team had a unique personality and outlook so they always brought something to the table whether in their own spotlight episode or just as part of a gag in the background. The sense of stakes throughout was never lost, and by the end the results of a high school gymnastics tournament feel like a matter of life-and-death. Seriousness aside, this anime’s earnestness and sense of fun were infectious. I could always count on it to be a feel-good watch, and the hide-and-seek episode was my favorite anime episode of the year.
As for honorable mentions, I need to mention Digimon Ghost Game. The horror lens used throughout has been a lot of fun, when the animation quality is high it’s some of the best in franchise history, and Gammamon is easily the cutest mascot character Digimon has ever had. The Obey Me! anime has also been consistently charming and funny; it’s one of the best shorts I’ve ever seen. Lastly, Heaven’s Design Team deserves a shout-out. With one of the most unique premises I’ve ever seen (God gets tired of having to create new animals and outsources the job), it manages to be absurd, upbeat, and even educational as the designers discuss the technicalities behind…well, intelligent design. It’s fun, I swear!
When I learned The Way of the Househusband was adapted as an anime on Netflix I stopped everything I was doing to watch it. I reviewed the first two volumes for AIPT, the first coming out in 2019, and adored the comedic setup and the clever idea of an expert killer applying those skills to household chores. The anime was as good if not better largely because it took the animation style of the manga and used tricks to make the imagery move. It practically looks identical to the manga, in fact, which made the experience very similar. That way you can enjoy every obsessive trait of new househusband, The Immortal Dragon.
If you’re unfamiliar, The Way of the Househusband follows an ex-Yakuza gangster who is legendary in the field. He’s retired now and his only desire is to keep a clean house and keep his wife happy, well fed, and satisfied. Problem is, you can’t unlearn perfectionism even if it was crafted with a blade murdering people as The Immortal Dragon takes everything he does in the home as life or death ratcheting up the drama around simple things like using a Roomba to hilarious degrees of overly dramatic seriousness.
Another reason the anime works so well is because each episode is a tight 16-18 minutes long focusing on one vignette at a time. This also mimics the manga, making the show feel true to the source material in its episodic nature. The show might lack a larger story that develops, but its true purpose is to poke fun at yakuza thugs and the overly serious way a person can lose themselves in a chore. There’s a kind of beauty at work in this series that shows household chores are just as important and absorbing as a day job, especially when conducted by a perfectionist like The Immortal Dragon. Here’s to hoping the second season comes out sooner than later in 2022.
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