Best in Season – Spring 2021

Too Much Anime!

Alright, the Spring 2021 season was stacked, and after taking a closer look, I realized I watched a pretty big chunk of the shows. Rather than do a bunch of individual reviews, I thought it’d be fun to do a best and worst of list featuring five shows for their respective categories. Today I’m looking at the cream of the crop, along with why I thought they were great. Keep in mind some stuff I didn’t watch on purpose (looking at you Fruits Basket finale) or it just may not have interested me, so if your favorite show is missing that’s likely why. Let me know at the end of the article what would have made your list.

Ground Rules

Before we jump into the list, just wanted to explain what criteria was used to determine what got to appear on the list. The big rule was that the show had to air in part, or in full, during the Spring 2021 season. Other than that, I had to actually watch the show to completion, so you won’t see anything I only watched an episode for or shows I simply didn’t watch at all. I watched a majority of the shows sans some sequels to things I didn’t watch originally, so I would consider this fairly comprehensive. Order is my personal tastes which factor enjoyment, production/animation/sound, and a few other more minor variables roughly in that order. Again, if you disagree, feel free to make your own list in response or tell me your list in the comments below.

Honorable Mention – Zombieland Saga Revenge

This just barely didn’t make the cut, but I felt like I should make mention to Zombieland Saga’s second season. After the first installment of the series back in 2018, the show was positioned perfectly for a follow up season, that if it delivered, would mark the show of one of the go-to idol anime for fans of the genre or otherwise. Thankfully, I can say that this mostly delivered, but where it faltered is what kept it off the list proper. What I didn’t like was the show’s retreading of story beats and ideas from the first season, exasperated by a poorly thought-out recap episode towards the end of the series. However, the rest was an explosive return that offered a lot of insights and explanations that were left dangling in season one. I’d say this was a perfect wrap for the franchise but then there’s the matter of the final few seconds, so I guess we’ll have to return to this one in season 3!

5. Those Snow White Notes

If you follow the YouTube anime discourse you probably heard a few of the bigger people briefly mention this series as one to watch out for at the top of the Spring 2021 season. Come the end though, pretty much radio silence. Thanks to some other high-profile shows, I think this one simply got overshadowed as I was left fairly impressed with the anime even if it had some clear imperfections. Following a shamisen player named Setsu after the death of his grandfather, he must leave his small town for Tokyo in order to bring the sound back into his life. I’m not doing it justice, but that’s the premise.

Instead of the typical trailer, here’s a moment from the episode 1 that I think does a better job selling it. Strikes the balance of progressing plot/character development while still letting the performance stay front and center, which is something other shows struggle with.

At a glance, Those Snow White Notes is a mixture of Your Lie in April and March Comes in Like a LionIt’s fairly obvious that the musical angle is from the former, having similarities in its main characters and antagonist. The musical performances in Your Lie in April were some of the best parts of the show, and it is no exception here in Those Snow White Notes.

Where March fits into this is in the attempts to capture the general artistry in animation variety during said performances, albeit toned down in a way that is maybe more comparable to Rakugo. In any case, it doesn’t quite capture that magic but the effort is clear and appreciated. Additionally, this anime shares themes as well, which makes for a natural fit in terms of what personally resonates with my tastes.

Personally, seeing more shows about more “niche” Japanese culture is something I’d happily welcome. I haven’t been let down by these sorts of titles. However, it’s a shame that these sorts of topics seem to fly under the radar for a more general audience as I think they have some added innate appeal by virtue of being different. The worry is a cultural divide, and while I think there is some of that present in Those Snow White Notes, it’s not enough to seriously hurt the title in any meaningful way.

I’m glad I decided not to watch this one weekly as it likely would have fallen a bit flat in that format, but as a binge watch I can happily recommend it. If there’s anything I can point to that I didn’t particularly like, it’s that it kind of just ends. Not that the ending lacks any resolution, but the show really gets the momentum going and will undoubtedly leave you wanting more as a result. Still, if you are looking for something that scratches a similar itch to the titles mentioned above, it’s a safe bet.

4. Mars Red

While there aren’t any vampire babies like we saw in Spider Isekai, I can appreciate a good vampire show when I see one. What’s more, is this is an adaptation of a stage play, so already starting out with some cool factor even before I watched it. Having now completed Mars Red, I can easily say I enjoyed it, but I’m disappointed that it lands so low on this list. In fact, it was a real debate for me to put it over the previous entry, which I’ll get to in a second.

I wanted to highlight the show better, but the official materials make that hard. In particular, the Salome performance, but this is as good as I can do

Basically, vampires are real, but they are a secret. What’s more, people have been experimenting with them as tools of war. Pretty standard setup. In that regard it really doesn’t offer anything special, however, between the dub performances and the actual characters, this anime manages to carry itself strongly forward with an engaging tale tackling small and larger themes alike.

Up until episode 12, it was an experience that I was ready to label a surprise underdog of the season. I knew it was going to place well in the overall standings, however, episode 12 did come and that’s where I think the show was met by a fatal flaw. It jumps from one thing to the next without fully connecting things, which spills into the finale. This leaves the viewer at a bit of a loss, tarnishing the otherwise near-perfect experience, feeling like an entire episode was somehow cut along the way.

In spite of that though, it still managed to land itself on my best of season list. Why? The rest of the show truly is that good. Even with the shaky ending, I was still able to follow it, but the difference here is the show receiving an 8/10 from me as opposed to the 9 I was ready to give it far earlier on. The stage play source was felt in this production, and I mean that in the best way possible, offering a breadth of uniqueness that is rarely captured in animated works. I’d love to see more shows in this vein as a result.

If there’s anything you take away from this placement, it’s that the show delivered an experience that was unexpected. The visuals, presentation, music, and surprise simul-dub all acted as the perfect storm that elevated this title higher than it maybe otherwise would have. Still, credit due where credit’s due, and I would be a fool to leave it off my best in season list given just how hype I was to watch it week-to-week.

3. Link Click

I’m not one to discriminate, Chinese animation is fair game! Still, this one was a bit of a shocker as Funimation picked it up, something I’ve not seen any larger anime-specific company do for any Chinese works. Netflix has in the past, sure, but usually Bilibili just drops these on their YouTube channel, eventually, maybe, and you might somehow stubble on them. Think of Mo Dao Zu Shi for example. So naturally, I decided I needed to check this one out, and oh boy, am I glad that I did!

The premise of the show concerns two guys who have the ability to enter photographs, basically travel through time, in order to help their clients. One of these guys, Gaung Lu, acts as a guide for the other, Xiaoshi Cheng as they complete the requests for each client. It’s stylish, a cool concept, and a fairly well-executed time travel story even if that’s not really the main focus.

At it’s heart, the show is less about changing the past (though this does happen) and is more about the ways these experiences impact the characters. Xiaoshi takes on the persona of the person photographed in many of the episodes, taking on their thoughts and feelings as his own. He’s also the type that wants to make everyone happy, and though well-meaning, usually ends up making things worse for everyone as a result. You really feel for the guy, especially when tragedy strikes hard in some of these episodes.

I kind of buried the lead here, however, the show is actually about a serial murderer and how this pair ends up getting involved. It’s my kind of show through-and-through! I expected the series to be more of a crime drama though, and that’s why I didn’t lead with this, it’s not. Instead, it’s a very human story that does a great job balancing these two elements, eventually bringing it altogether for a punchy conclusion.

Like before though, I do have to point out some things that hold the show back, and as a result, ultimately leaves the title in the 3rd positon instead of seeing itself higher on the list. The first isn’t entirely the show’s fault, but the subtitles were pretty bad. I don’t think Funimation handled these because they would change episode-to-episode even for the exact same lines of dialog, with the worst offender being episode 2, seeing the world’s smallest subtitles in the worst of positions. Otherwise, it wasn’t a big deal, the show has a unique aspect ratio where the subtitles can fit neatly within, leaving the “action” undisturbed, which I actually rather like.

For other minor complaints, the episode order was a bit weird. It was clearly intentional, but I am not sure why the police show up in one episode only to follow the next with something unrelated before ping-ponging back to the cop plot. It made the production feel somewhat disjointed, which it never should have given the otherwise quality work here. Finally, this is less of a complaint and more of a heads up, but the show doesn’t end! It announces a second season and stops on a big reveal, which I’m all for, but man the wait is going to be killer.

I mean, just listen to it!

If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is. Oh, yeah, I almost forgot the best part, the way the ED so perfectly slides in every episode is just money! Seriously, the music is great. I’m looking forward to more of this one, and if you gave this one a skip, or just didn’t know it released, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

2. Shadows House

Look, it’s my list and I don’t think anybody should be surprised that I liked Shadows House. Is it technically better than some of these shows that came before? Eh, maybe not, but it is curated so perfectly to my tastes that I really don’t care! Everything about Shadows House is my jam and I’m very happy with this season, even if it weren’t to get more (but I really wish it would).

SHADOWS HOUSE - Episode 1 - Anime Feminist

No trailer or anything because I guess Funimation decided this didn’t need any official materials…

If you didn’t know much about the show, it’d be easy to get these gothic horror vibes, but in reality, while there is certainly an undertone of horror present, the show is more akin to a slice-of-life series with light mystery elements. In Shadows House there are individuals called “Shadows”, which are people basically made of soot, and “Living Dolls”, which TOTALLY are not regular humans, nope, absolutely not. Our main character, Emilico approaches her new life as a doll for her mistress, Kate with unrivaled optimism. At every turn she’s a “failure” for what the show tells the audience continually a pair should be, but in doing so, turns out to be the strongest among them. It sounds cliche, and in some ways it is, but again, it’s my list.

What really makes the show shine is that every character, sans maybe one or two background villains, are shockingly redeemable and not as awful as they might first appear. It leans well into the sunny optimism Emilico brings to Shadows House that I couldn’t help but enjoy. Additionally, and this point is rather controversial, I found myself impressed with the great care in adaptation that the author of the manga took for this TV anime. Let me explain.

In case you are unaware, the anime actually features an anime original ending, and has some plot elements cut early on for the sake of the anime’s adaptation. This was done since the author knew this wasn’t likely to get a second season, but at the same time, left it open to continue in a way that things could be reconnected without too much effort. For manga readers, I’m sure you’ll likely disagree with me, but as an anime-only viewer, the experience was mostly well-paced and never dull. Despite the high stakes, it always had that comfy air to it, but still delivered on genuine tension for the cast.

For my conclusion, watch Shadows House. Oozing atmosphere, all around cool concepts, and just a nice time. Seriously though, it was something I was excited for every week without fail, which wasn’t true of any other series barring one BIG exception in our number one…

1. Odd Taxi

Oh, hey look, a shocking twist, it’s Odd Taxi. Jokes aside, it really is that good. I know you’ve heard it from a bunch of other creators if you are dialed into the anime space, but you know I’d never just echo the sentiment for no reason. With out exaggeration, this show stood head and shoulders above the rest. It’s the only anime I gave a 10 to this season, and I think that’s all you really need to know.

Alright, alright, maybe a little background just in case you somehow never heard of this one. You follow a taxi driver and all the people he meets along the way, oh and a murder happened, he might have done it, or maybe not. Wait, I didn’t mention he’s a walrus, well actually, everyone is an animal. No, it’s not like Zootopia. Gah, see why I didn’t want to try and describe it? In all seriousness, this is a story about connections presented with a “fun” veneer, while being a very adult story.

That’s the trailer I saw, and that’s all it took to get me interested. No regrets

For this one, the less you know going in the better I think the experience will be, so I hope you’ll take my word for it and give Odd Taxi a try. I knew it was going to be interesting ever since I saw the PV, but having seen it deliver in spades, I think this will be one of those anime that’ll stick with me for some time. Now it just needs a physical release!

That’ll do it for the Best of Spring 2021! Join me next week as we look at the worst of the season’s offerings, at least, according to me. If you enjoyed this sort of article and the few bits of experimentation I tried above with clip selection, be sure to let me know in the comments and by giving me a like. Additionally, consider supporting me via Patreon or Ko-fi through the provided buttons below. Thanks for stopping by, and see you in the next one!

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