Estimated reading time: 20 minute(s)
I had intended to publish my list of the best anime series of 2021 at the end of 2021. Events, however, overtook me – including the need to move the entire New Leaf Journal. Fortunately, it is never too late to do what must be done, below, I will list the best anime series (in my distinguished estimation) of 2021.
At the end of 2020, I published a list of recommended anime of the decade (2011-2020) for all audiences. I prefaced that list with a note on my credentials (for lack of a better term):
I have been watching anime since the latter half of the 2000s. The vast majority of shows that I have watched aired after 2005, but I have seen a decent number of shows from the early 2000s and a few from the 1980s and 1990s. I tend to prefer down-to-earth dramas to action shows (that will be reflected in my choices), but I have no hard-fast rule and watch a variety of genres.Nicholas A. Ferrell
I have since watched somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 series that aired in 2021. For the most part, I watched all the shows that I had an interest in watching – with the exception of Komi Can’t Communicate, which was stolen by Netflix. While it is possible that there are some outstanding shows that I would enjoy, I am reasonably confident that no shows that I may have missed would change my 2021 top five. With that being said, I may add updates to the ranking if I see any 2021 series in the future that change my ranking.
The Rules for the Rankings
Unlike my 2011-2020 list, I will present my best anime of 2021 list as an actual ranking. I will rank the top five shows based on my subjective assessment of the shows. In completing the ranking, I will consider the quality of the script and story, character development, technical merits (i.e., animation and sound aesthetics), and my own enjoyment of the show. While the ranking, like any ranking of the sort, has a distinctly subjective element, I do try to focus on examining the series objectively.
I will include a number of honorable mention series, but I will not give the series outside the top five the same in-depth treatment as the top five series.
Which “series” qualify? To qualify for my ranking, the series must have had at least 10 full-length episodes (usually 21-23 minutes) and the pertinent season of the series must have ended in 2021. A season that began in 2020 and ended in 2021 would qualify. A season that began in 2021 and continued into 2022 would not.
(Note: The second season of Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World could have presented a conundrum since the first half aired in summer 2020 and the second half that winter 2021. That is, most seasons that continue from a previous year air in the fall season of the previous year and continue into the winter season of the new year. The issue is, however, ameliorated by the fact that Re:Zero’s second season is not in my top-five regardless – but it is an honorable mention in one category – so I will note here that I am counting both halves of its second season as being a 2021 series.)
Because my list ranks seasons, I will include shows that had their first season in a different year. You will find that three series in my top five had previous seasons in earlier years – although one of the three is perfectly watchable without having seen its first season.
Finally, I will note that I watched all of the following series subtitled on Crunchyroll, Funimation, and HiDive.
Note on Encyclopedia Entries
I will link to the Anime News Network anime encyclopedia entry for each series that I list. I am using this resource because it includes information about the full staff of the anime, air dates, episode lists, and other resources (such as news about where it is airing). Anime News Network also publishes many reviews – although I do not follow them.
Before beginning my best anime of 2021 list, I thought that it would be proper to add context with brief recaps of the previous six years. All six of the following series appeared in my recommended anime series of 2011-2020 list, so I will refer you to their pages there after offering some brief notes.
|Year||Best Series||Aired||Episodes||Season||NLJ Link|
|2020||My Teen Romanic Comedy SNAFU Climax||7/9 – 9/24||12||3/3||Link|
|2019||Fruits Basket||3/6 – 11/27||25||1/3||Link|
|2018||March Comes In like a Lion||10/14/17 – 3/31/18||22||2/2||Link|
|2017||Tsuki ga Kirei||3/6 – 6/29||12||1/1||Link|
|2016||Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju||1/9-3/6||13||1/2||Link|
|2015||My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU Too!||3/3 – 6/26||13||2/3||Link|
2015 Notes: The first season of My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU aired in 2013. It was solid, but not series of the year quality. The second season, which brought a more mature animation style and much more compelling drama, caught my attention from the first arc and never let go. It very narrowly prevailed for anime of the year over Shirobako, which I included as a feature recommendation in my best anime of 2011-2020 list, for my pick for best series of 2015. Another notable entry in 2015 was Non Non Biyori Repeat – the second season of three. The third season will be relevant for my 2021 ranking.
2016 Notes: 2016 was a relatively weak year behind the excellent first season of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, which stands as one of the more unique and adult series of the 2011-2020. Sound! Euphonium, which I included as an additional recommendation on my 2011-2020 recommendations list, was a solid, albeit distant, runner-up. 2016 did not feature another best of year caliber show save for the first half of the first season of March Comes In like a Lion, but that season ended in 2017. Speaking of which…
2017 Notes: 2017 was the most top-heavy year of the 2011-2020 decade and the most top-heavy year since 2006. The top three series, which included the second season of the 2016 anime of the year (Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinju) and the first season of the anime of 2018 (March Comes In like a Lion) would have been worthy picks for anime of the year. But by the narrowest of margins over the latter series – my pick for 2017 is the understated Tsuki ga Kirei, which excelled in its humane portrait of a romance between two shy and awkward middle school students and its remarkable attention to detail in animation.
2018 Notes: The first season of March Comes In like a Lion would have been the best series of the year more years than not. As good as it was, it was overshadowed by its near-perfect second season, which was the best anime of the 2011-2020 decade and one of the finest seasons of a series ever produced. 2018 was a solid year behind March as well. The second and third best series of the year (the order is debatable) – SSSS.Gridman and Revue Starlight – will each be referenced in this year’s ranking.
2019 Notes: 2019 was thin at the top, but nevertheless produced five very solid series. The best in the class was the first season of the new Fruits Basket adaptation, which narrowly edged the second season of one of 2018’s better shows, Teasing Master Takagi-san (expect to see Takagi-san’s third and final season feature in our 2022 review).
2020 Notes: It took many years for the final season of My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU to arrive, but it did not disappoint in bringing every major plot-line of the series to a satisfactory conclusion after season 2 ended in medias res. The second season of the 2019 anime of the year, Fruits Basket, and the second season of Kaguya-sama: Love is War?, rounded out a strong top-three (Kaguya-sama’s third season is currently airing). Does my chart say that there is a third season of Fruits Basket? That may be worth remembering…
Below, I will list the best anime series of 2021, starting with the fifth best and descending to number one. After I discuss my anime of the year, I will list honorable mentions and some category-specific “best of” winners.
|Series||Pretty Boy Detective Club|
|Aired||April 11, 2021 – June 27, 2021|
|Director||Akiyuki Shinbo & Hajime Ootani|
|Source Material||Manga by Nisioisin|
|U.S. License||Aniplex of America|
Mayumi Dojima, a middle school girl, becomes involved with her school’s Pretty Boy Detective Club while trying to find the source of a star that she had seen ten years before. She turns out to have a special power of sight, and she is accepted into the club – which focuses on aesthetics, teamwork, and being a kid – despite not being a boy. She spends the rest of the series begrudgingly participating in the club’s strange detective-work and schemes.
The final spot on my top five goes to one of the odder series of 2021. Pretty Boy Detective Club is about as self-indulgent and grandiose as anyone who is familiar with the writer and director would expect.
Although the show’s promotional materials feature the five boys of the Pretty Boy Detective Club, the show is carried by the protagonist, Mayumi Dojima. Despite requesting to be in the club, she spends much of her club time unsuccessfully trying to avoid expending any effort in pursuit of its activities. She almost cheerfully describes herself as scum, but notwithstanding her winning personality, she grows as a character throughout the season – with her growth culminating in the conclusion to the final arc.
Pretty Boy Detective Club started a bit slow with what I thought was an uninspiring first arc, but from there it grew and became stronger throughout its run – saving its best material for the end. Underlying the art-house-style presentation and bombastic dialogue is a confident show that knows its theme and covers it in a compelling way. Pretty Boy Detective Club was one of three series that I considered for the final spot in my top five – and I gave it the nod because,s all things considered, I am partial to the series that ended with its best foot forward.
|Series||Non Non Biyori Nonstop|
|Aired||January 11, 2021 – March 29, 2021|
|Season||3/3 (S1 aired in 2013, S2 aired in 2015)|
|Source Material||4-panel manga by Atto|
|U.S. License||Sentai Filmworks|
Four girls (8th grade, 7th grade, 6th grade, 1st grade at the start of the season) who live in the Japanese countryside and attend a one-room schoolhouse go about their lives. The third season gave several additional characters time in the spotlight.
There is a genre of anime that features characters doing nothing of particular importance. Non Non Biyori had been one of the best examples of the genre for all three of its seasons.
Its first two seasons in 2013 and 2015 were two of the better series of those years. Non Non Biyori episodes are usually broken into 3-4 parts, with each part representing a small story that sets up a joke and delivers its punchline (befitting the 4-panel manga source material).
The star of Non Non Biyori, and the source of its best comedy, is the youngest member of its class – the (by the third season) first-grade Renge Miyauchi. She is smart for a first-grader, but still very much a first grader. She delivers her lines in a monotone and even her expressions of shock lack expression.
Although I slightly preferred the second season of Non Non Biyori to the third, the third retained all of the series good qualities. It suffered a bit from having less of a Renge-focus for much of the first two-thirds of the season, but it did a good job adding story-lines for several secondary characters and introducing some fresh story-lines. The third season also had the best skit of the three-season series – wherein it occurred to Renge to wonder for hours whether there is such thing as a perfectly round object. (I was moved as a philosophy degree-holder.)
Nothing of great significance happens in Non Non Biyori, but I cannot think of a more charming or pleasant series in 2021 – and I very much like the countryside setting and aesthetics.
|Aired||July 4, 2021 – September 26, 2021|
|Source Material||Manga by Kumiko Saiki|
After her career as an idol ended when she told a fan to die, Ai Narata starts over at the most prestigious girl’s acting school, Kouka Academy. There she meets a fellow first-year student in Sarasa Watanabe, who is quite tall, friendly (perhaps too friendly) and in possession of a big personality to match her talent.
They and the rest of their class navigate the beginning of their lives at Kouka.
One of my favorite series of 2018 was Starlight Revue – a show set in a girl’s acting school that featured a dream world, bloodless combat, and a class ranking. Kageki Shojo!! has a similar structure – but it plays the acting school straight and there is no combat or grand theme.
The show is carried primarily by its two strong lead characters. Ai is very well-written, and the show handled heavy themes in her past in a humane and sensible way. Sarasa’s big personality makes her the star of many of the episodes despite the fact that Ai is usually the viewpoint character. After the first four episodes dealt with Ai’s backstory and her coming to accept Sarasa’s friendship, the series began giving the other girls in the class their due. Save for episode 9 (the twins), some of the secondary characters had compelling stories in their own right – see in particular episode 5’s treatment of a character suffering from homesickness and an eating disorder.
One pleasant surprise was that Kageki Shojo!! did not try to bite off more than it could chew in 12 episodes. It took things slowly and only covered a small slice of the main cast’s first year at Kouka. It ended very much in the middle of those events – but in a good place to bring the first season to a close. Kageki Shojo!! was never great, but it was almost always very good.
|Series||Fruits Basket: The Final|
|Aired||April 6, 2021 – June 29, 2021|
|Season||3/3 (S1 aired in 2019, S2 aired in 2020)|
|Source Material||Manga by Natsuki Takaya|
Tohru Honda, an ordinary girl who had just lost her mother, ends up living with the Sohma family (first season). Many members of the family – including the ones she lived with – are afflicted by the zodiac curse, which causes them to turn into their corresponding zodiac animal when hugged by the opposite sex. This curse also makes them subservient to the head of the family. After 50 episodes, season three finally brings the proceedings to their conclusion.
The second adaptation of the classic Fruits Basket manga concluded in 2021. Unlike the first adaptation (2000-2001) which finished while the manga was in progress, this adaptation followed the manga all the way to its end. There is not too much I can say about the third season without spoiling events from the first two seasons – which I covered in brief in my best anime of 2011-2020 piece.
Fruits Basket was at times inconsistent. Some characters and story-lines were more interesting than others, and the show’s particular variety of drama (sometimes veering into melodrama) hit for some stories and missed for others. The final season began by tying up some loose ends before focusing on the main events to bring the story to a close.
The heroine of Fruits Basket, Tohru Honda, is a particularly compelling character. Applying the lessons she learned from her late mother, she has an almost infinite capacity for kindness. She is very sensitive, but focuses her attention on others – and in so doing helps the members of the Soma family heal. But for the most part, Tohru speaks little of what she wants or what worries her – meaning her role for much of the series is helping others.
As the Sohma situation winds down, Tohru is left with little else but to confront the things that she feared and what she wanted – and to decide whether she deserved to be happy in her own right. Without spoiling – I will note that a scene in episode eight wherein Tohru found her voice provided the most striking example of voice acting that I recall since episode 6 of 2008’s Ef: A Tale of Melodies.
Fruits Basket was a bit uneven throughout its run, but it ranked as my best series of 2019 and among the top three in 2020 and 2021. The final season resolved every question raised and brought catharsis to Tohru and the Sohma family.
|Aired||April 2, 2021 – June 18, 2021|
|Season||Only, but related to SSSS.Gridman (2018)|
Yomogi and Yume, two ordinary high school students, find themselves piloting a giant robot with a mysterious man named Gauma to fight giant kaiju appearing from nowhere. They are joined by an out-of-work 33-year- old man and his middle school-aged cousin. All the characters have real world problems to confront as they engage in robot-vs-kaiju battles.
SSSS.Dynazenon is not the best anime series I have seen (albeit it is not far off). But for a full-season-length series, Dynazenon may be the closest to perfect from beginning to end. From character development to pacing to building to a dramatic and decisive conclusion, Dynazenon never wasted a frame or set anything out of order. I would genuinely struggle to identify a single thing that Dynazenon could have done differently to be better than it was. The only single season of a show from the previous decade that I would confidently say was better than Dynazenon was the second season of March Comes In like a Lion (I might take My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU for the full three season ride).
Through working with the mysterious Gunma to pilot a robot to fight giant kaiju, the four main characters – Yomogi, Yume, Koyomi, and Chise all confront their ordinary life problems. Yomogi struggled with his parents’ divorce. Yume struggled with having lost her older sister under uncertain circumstances. Koyomi, 33 years old and out of work, lived a meaningless existence full of regrets. Chise, Koyomi’s middle school cousin, was an outcast who stopped attending school. Their problems were all realistic – and they were developed with care and handled comprehensively.
Dynazenon features many giant robot-vs-kaiju battles wherein Studio Trigger shows its genuine love of anime and kaiju, but the series is ultimately about human beings with human problems. The things the show leaves unexplained posed no issue in the end. Dynazenon resolved exactly what it needed to in order to tie the stories of the main characters together in 12 episodes.
SSSS.Dynazenon is technically the second part of a series. Its predecessor, SSSS.Gridman, was released in 2018 (Gridman was very good – but Dynazenon is in a different class). The second half of Dynazenon features two characters who appeared in Gridman and Gridman sheds light on the nature of kaiju. While I recommend watching Gridman first, Dynazenon stands on its own without reference to the previous series. There will be another entry in the series that will bring the worlds of Gridman and Dynazenon together.
There were many very good anime series in 2021, but only one great series. SSSS.Dynazenon was, without a doubt, my 2021 anime series of the year. (Notably, this was my first giant robot anime of the year since Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann in 2007.)
2021 was a solid year for anime, and there were a number of shows outside my top five that warrant honorable mention. In the interest of brevity, I will restrict my honorable mentions to six and restrict my discussion of each to a few sentences. I will favor first (or only) season series for this section over sequels.
Super Cub, a 12-episode series that aired from April 7 to June 23, featured Koguma, a lonely high school girl who lived alone and robotically went about her days. Her world opened up when she purchased a used super cub and was befriended by her classmate Reiko, a super cub aficionado. The slowest paced show of 2021 (it made Non Non Biyori look like an action show) was terrific in its first half, but lost steam and the fifth place spot in the last few episodes.
The Aquatope on White Sand
The Aquatope on White Sand was a two-part 24-episode series that aired from July 9 to December 17. The first half of the series dealt with a cast of characters in an Okinawan aquarium that was slated to close – focusing primarily on the granddaughter of the owner and temporary manager, Kukuru Misakino, and a fellow high school-aged girl who gave up on working as an idol in Tokyo Fūka Miyazawa. The second half picked up events a few months after the first half. I had high hopes for Aquatope, which came from the same studio that recently produced two excellent workplace series in Shirobako and Sakura Life. It was at times very good, but Kukuru’s immaturity grated on me and Fūka was not a particularly strong co-lead character. Despite its flaws, it was, along with Super Cub and Pretty Boy Detective Club, one of the three shows I considered for the final spot in my top five.
Bottom-tier Character Tomozaki aired from January 8 to March 26 and received two bonus episodes later in the year. The main character, Fumiya Tomozaki, was a social outcast at school and the best player in the world at a game that was totally not Super Smash Brothers. He learned that the most popular girl in the school, Aoi Hinami, was the second best player at not-Super Smash Brothers. She was offended that she was losing to someone who did not care about life, so she took it upon himself to whip him into shape. Tomozaki ended up being better than I expected. It was let down a bit by its “girl of the week” structure, but Tomozaki himself proved to be a strong character who not only grew during the show, but also began to think about what living well meant to him and how that was different from the views of Hinami. I hope that it gets a second season.
Irina the Vampire Cosmonaut
Irina the Vampire Cosmonaut aired for 12 episodes from October 4 to December 20. Set in a fictional version of the Soviet Union during the space race, an Air Force officer named Lev Leps is tasked with training a vampire named Irina Luminesk, who is slated to be a guinea pig for the first manned spaceflight test. A strange premise to be sure, but the series is well-written, well-paced, and the characters are ultimately interesting.
Horimiya aired for 12 episodes from January 10 to April 4. It featured the friendship and eventual romance of Kyouko Hori, a popular and intelligent young lady, and Izumi Miyamura, a quiet young man who hid his tattoos and piercings in school. Horimiya turned out to be the biggest disappointment of 2021. It had the best debut episode of the year, reminding me a tiny bit of the classic 1998-99 anime, His and Her Circumstances, and was generally excellent in its first half. It lost focus in the second half – and it was obvious that the anime team tried to cram about 40 episodes of material into 13. Had the anime either narrowed its scope and focus or included more episodes, it could have been a classic. As it stands – half of it was good while the other half was unfortunate.
My Senpai is Annoying
My Senpai is Annoying aired from October 10 to December 26. Rather than introduce it anew, I will refer you to the brief introduction that I wrote in an article about the green hair of the diminutive protagonist, Futaba Igarashi. My Senpai is Annoying was a solid entry in the relatively uncommon anime workplace comedy genre. The main duo was charming. It felt like the series began to run out of material in its last third – an unfortunate trend in 2021.
I will conclude with category-specific awards for anime in 2021. For each category, I will list the 2021 winner, offer a short explanation why, list honorable mentions, and note my winner from the previous year (2020).
|Yomogi Asanaka||SSSS.Dynazenon||Junya Enoki|
Most of the best series of 2021 featured majority female casts. That left the competition for best male character a bit bare. I will give the honor to the co-main character of SSSS.Dynazenon, Yomogi Asanaka, who was well-written throughout and showed the results of his growth in the series’ conclusion.
Honorable mentions: Gauma (SSSS.Dynazenon); Kyo Sohma (Fruits Basket); and Yuki Sohma (Fruits Basket).
2020 winner: Hachiman Hikigaya (My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU Climax).
|Tohru Honda||Fruits Basket: The Final||Manaka Iwami|
There were many terrific female characters in 2021 anime series, but Tohru was clearly the best female character and the best character overall with the conclusion of her character arc.
It is worth noting, however, that Tohru benefited from 50 episodes of development in the first two seasons of Fruits Basket. The three characters on my honorable mention list received no such benefit and were all excellent. Absent Tohru, I would have narrowly given the nod to Yume Minami from SSSS.Dynazenon.
Honorable mentions: Yume Minami (SSSS.Dynazenon); Mayumi Dojima (Pretty Boy Detective Club); and Ai Narata (Kageki Shojo!!).
2020 winner: Yukino Yukinoshita (My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU Climax).
|What Wish Can’t Come True?||11/12||SSSS.Dynazenon|
The best series of 2021 unsurprisingly featured the two best episodes of the year. The penultimate episode 11, wherein the main cast came face to face with their particular issues, is my choice for the best episode of the year over the final episode of the series. 2021 marked the second straight year where I chose a penultimate episode 11 as the best episode of the year.
Honorable Mentions: “What Was I Entrusted With?” (SSSS.Dynazenon, 12/12); “I’m Disappointed in You” (Fruits Basket, 8/13); and “It Was a Thrilling Autumn” (Non Non Biyori Nonstop, 7/12).
2020 winner: “Only a Heated Touch Truly Conveys the Sentiment” (My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU Climax, 11/12).
My aesthetics ranking is a bit subjective. In assessing a show’s aesthetics, I consider its animation, soundtrack, and how that comes together to create an appealing package. I do not think it is worthwhile in assessing a show to focus merely on how technically impressive its animation is . A show that garnered attention for its special effects 15 years ago may not age as gracefully as a show with pretty hand-drawn backdrops that were less appreciated at the time. I am looking for something timeless.
SSSS.Dynazenon is not a great show because of aesthetics, but it is well-animated, has a dynamic soundtrack, and presents memorable character designs. The robot battles showed the genuine love that the team at Studio Trigger has for the medium (and specifically for giant robots, kaiju, and robots fighting with kaiju). The only other series from 2015-2020 that was my pick for both best series and best aesthetics was Tsuki ga Kirei in 2017.
Honorable Mentions: Fruits Basket; Pretty Boy Detective Club; and Those Snow White Notes.
2020 winner: Kaguya-sama: Love is War?
|Haru no Tonari (EN: “Next to Spring”)||Ending||Eri Sasaki||Laid-Back Camp 2|
Unlike our resident musician Victor V. Gurbo, I am neither a musician nor a music critic. I evaluate this category by considering my subjective enjoyment of the song, how the song fit the mood of the series, and the animation that accompanied it. Because I consider the songs/animations in the context of the series they are attached to – I only consider openings and endings for series that I watched.
Laid-Back Camp 2 was the second season of a show about girls going camping. The show lives up to its name, but the second season suffered a bit (in my view, at least) by focusing too much on secondary campers instead of the two main characters. But the series’ merits aside, Next to Spring – Haru no Tonari in Japanese – is a pitch-perfect ending song for the relaxing series, and is accompanied by unusually good visuals for an ending song (openings tend to have more elaborate visuals).
Honorable Mentions: “Strobe Memory” (SSSS.Dynazenon, Ending); “Believe in you” (Re:Zero – Starting Life in Another World S2, Ending); and “Until I Wake From Dreaming” (Those Snow White Notes, Ending).
You can easily find all four of the ending songs listed above (as well as my 2020 winner below) on YouTube.
2020 winner: “Tsuki no Hoshizora” (Fly Me to the Moon, Ending).
I will remember 2021 in anime most for its single great series, SSSS.Dynazenon, which will stand out as one of this decade’s finest. The selection of series behind Dynazenon was solid, albeit unremarkable. Fruits Basket’s third season provided a very good end to a series that ranked among the best of 2019 and 2020 with its first two seasons, but the third season cannot be easily separated from those first two seasons. Non Non Biyori’s third season was a pleasant surprise, but it fell slightly short of the quality of its second season from all the way back in 2015. Kageki Shojo!! was a pleasant surprise that was well-executed, but it will need an additional season to be particularly memorable. A number of solid shows further down on my list suffered from slow starts or waning finishes.
With all of that being said, 2021 has a case for being the best year in anime since 2018. 2019 was arguably deeper, but it lacked a great series. 2020 had the third season of My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU! as a great series, but the year was shallower than 2021 in the aggregate.
This concludes my 2021 list of the best anime series. I will remember 2021 most for its single great series – SSSS.Dynazenon – which I will stand up as one of the best series of the young decade. While 2021 did not feature a second great series, it included a number of solid entries to round out the top five and some good, albeit flawed, series beyond that.