So I recently caught up with the anime I wanted to watch from the Winter season, and I thought I would share my opinions on the shows I really liked. Winter 2021 felt like a packed season with a lot of big names returning with sequels and most of the anime featured here are sequels. There were some major letdowns like Wonder Egg Priority and Promised Neverland, there were shows I mildly enjoyed like the Quintuplets, Dr. Stone S2 and SK. Overall I think this was a solid season of anime, so here are the shows that stood out to me as being really good.

Attack on Titan S4

There’s no question that this is the best season of the anime so far. Almost every episode’s storyboard felt watertight, the command the writers had in portraying the energy of the plot and the emotional turns of the characters felt well-controlled. The voice acting was great, the atmosphere conjured from the sound design gave this season a cinematic vibe that felt refreshing. There’s even ambition in the animation of the character animations in the first leg of the season. On the production and writing side, this season is peak “anime”. Admittedly, the production quality dips a bit in a couple of episodes at the back end, but it didn’t ruin the crescendo the ending reaches after a great run of 16 episodes.

I love how Eren’s transformation is portrayed and paced throughout the season, and Reiner’s distorted character arc is bringing into context so much from his behavior in previous seasons – it’s those moments when those deep-buried, monstrous, sinister parts of being human get unearthed that make the writing of this story so goddamned engaging. Hell, even the “discussion” scenes – where characters are just talking – have character animations that kept me engaged, this is what the previous seasons were missing. I enjoyed the unsubtly symbolic opening depicting total carnage, and complementing that, Shinsei Kamattechan pulled off a bombastic, theatrical stunner like it’s nothing. The ending is gorgeous – I gushed about it enough on my year-end best OP/EDs post. But yeah… this is undoubtedly one of my favorite anime of the year so far – I can’t wait to see how the adaptation of the last leg of the manga pans out. Because it gets insane.

Beastars S2

Now, Beastars S1 caught me off-guard with how seamlessly the fleshed-out character writing intersected with the whole social, philosophical debate of power, instinct and civilization. It was an intense coming-of-age story of an anthropomorphic gray wolf in a fictional universe with emotions that strangely came off so relatable. Season 2 is an extension of its predecessor in terms of exploring different dynamics between carnivores and herbivores, but at the same time, it’s also a departure from Legoshi and Haru’s relationship. I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing, it’s not as if Haru is completely ignored, other matters pop up. And they lead to more engaging, intense revelations of their psyches – particularly that of Tem’s killer.

It’s amazing how every character feels so flesh and bone, and so human – the character writing is on par with some of my favorites of character-centric dramas like Sangatsu no Lion and Rakugo Shinjuu. The direction, with the camera angles and the comic-book effect of splitting shots into panels, is as sharp as the previous season. The opening sequence is cool. And as much as I like to say YOASOBI’s music is synthetic and sterile, I love the ending song and its animation sequence – it’s so moving, it encapsulated the fragility and beauty of Ibuki and Louis’ dynamic. I can’t say enough nice things about this anime, shows like this come few and far between, in my opinion. If you are avoiding this because you can’t stand CG animation, it’s your loss. As I see it, CGI animation is the future of anime.

Uma Musume: Pretty Derby S2

Season 1 was a fun, cute show about personified horse girls (modeled after real derby horses), where our main character, Spe, underwent an underdog story while bonding with other racehorses. I came off the show admiring the premise and the eclectic character designs more than the story. I went into season 2 expecting pretty much of the same. And I got a one-two punch of a compelling main character arc coupled with very real explorations on how fragile athletic form is and motivation in general. Now, bear in mind that this show is adapted from a gacha mobile game, so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to assume that this is an original script. That’s really impressive, given how well structured the entire season is. Each episode has their own central idea or a race it leads up to and resolves to some degree and then transition to a different issue or idea – the episodic elements are connected seamlessly.

And it’s not just a tight story structure, the comedic elements have their own not-too-rigid structure – jokes that are introduced in the early episodes are developed throughout the series and played off each other (i.e. the barber and Gold Ship’s obsession with being the leader). Even the supporting characters have their own neat arcs – like Twin Turbo and Rice Shower’s character narratives which add to the main character trajectories of Teio and Mcqueen. I loved Teio’s journey of learning to morph her dreams, accepting her limits yet not give up – the ending felt too sweet and pretty predictable but the compelling and challenging buildup toward that sold me on Teio’s character. It’s not just the writing, the production is consistently great – the CG rendering, the new character designs are vibrant and ornate, and the character animations are expressive. I’m really impressed with this – definitely a contender for being my favorite sports anime of this year.

Cells at Work! CODE BLACK!

Code Black is a whole another beast of its own with the tour-guide-y, light-hearted vibe of the narrative flipped inside out to reveal one of the worst states a human body can be in and how the cells fare in this dreadful environment. While the majority of the show feels like the cells warning against indulgences like smoking, drinking and consuming junk food, there’s a not-so-subtle allegory on the vices of late-stage capitalism: the cycle of exploitation and the disposability of workers that is very much present in the real world as well. The body is the corporate overlord that constantly chases after short-term benefits at the expense of labor exploitation (making the blood cells do the work to relieve of the side effects until it becomes unbearable). I think the way this is incorporated is smart, and it didn’t feel obnoxiously preachy or anything like that. One problem I had with the show is that I didn’t feel sold on the light-hearted or “wholesome” moments because there’s always a sense of indelible existential dread that permeated throughout the entire runtime, and I didn’t come off finishing the show in hopeful spirits.

Still, I think most of the show felt compelling, the art style is gritty with a toned down color palette (compared to its parent anime). The visual translation of the biological elements remains as creative as they were in the parent anime. The character designs bear resemblance to the original with gender reversals between the blood cells, the white blood cells are all hot big-boobed killers which I appreciated because there wasn’t as much of distracting fanservice as the designs let on. But it’s not the boobs that made me appreciate the design, it’s the collarbones. I think this is the first time I found clavicles particularly hot in a non-hentai anime. Okay, I think I’ll stop here before I get hornier on main, which I also did in my previous post on Cells at Work years ago. This can’t be a coincidence.

Yuru Camp S2

The production in the visual department seems significantly amped up, with CG rendered background art that looks (often garishly) photorealistic and character animations more expressive than before. I have mixed feeling over the new visuals, but I like how more of a focus is given to the regional cuisine and sights in this season. Sure, the entertaining, funny character interactions are there but the sights and sounds of the Yamanashi prefecture (semi-fictional or not) feel more real. Other than that, everything else is pretty much the same as season 1. The relaxed episodic pacing, Nadeshiko and Chiaki’s goofiness, Aoi and Sakura’s hidden-in-plain-sight fanservice moments, and most importantly, Rin’s spooky CGI scarf animation during those scooter rides – all the hallmarks of the good ol’ Yuru Camp are there.

My favorite episode was the one where Rin, like a real homie, checks up on Nadeshiko’s first camp-out alone. She runs into Nadeshiko’s sister, Sakura, and they have a bonding moment. It was a sweet episode, with Nadeshiko unintentionally exploiting her charisma to make new friends. The ending song sounds kind of underwhelming when compared to the pure, healing bliss of a track that Eri Sasaki delivered in the first season’s ending. I mean, the vibe is similar but it’s diluted. The opening on the other hand, is a bop and a half – it sounds city pop-influenced with the jazzy instrumental and that refrain on the strings during the bridge. Good stuff.

Horimiya

I read a fair bit of the manga around 2016, and I remember it being a sweet, romantic comedy. But on watching the anime, the character writing and the script felt a lot more authentic than I (vaguely so) remembered them being in the manga. The seiyuu casting is great, I’m no seiyuu-expert but I think their performances are amazing – they seemed to dictate the emotional mood of their scenes clearly. The art is great – the linework is consistent and the color coordination is poppy and eye-catching. The character designs match their personalities; I have to say, though – Horimiya boasts some of the prettiest boys I have seen in anime in recent years.

On the writing end of things, it holds up pretty well in balancing perspectives and different dynamics between the couples. It didn’t feel like the story was just about Hori and Miyamura, the other couples had character moments that were presented on a more or less equal emotional scale. The way these decentralized character dynamics worked reminded me a bit of Tsurezure Children. The last couple of episodes felt pretty rushed, and loose-ends were taped together instead of tying them up neatly. Still, I can discount production issues because I didn’t feel like the anime ended too abruptly. The opening is infectious, the chime-y synth line has this nostalgic charm to it and the hook is great. The very fast cut, collage-like animation gives off an effect of recounting memories, similar to how we tend to think back to events in brief, unorganized moments. So yeah, I enjoyed this show way more than I expected – definitely one of the better romantic comedies in recent years.

Jaku-Chara Tomozaki-kun

Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki initially rubbed me the wrong way with the super annoying and unbearable titular character. Tomozaki is a great gamer but his very-woe-is-me, defeatist and self-pitying attitude, while relatable to my teenage years, felt like such cheap character writing to pander to the demographic of the show’s audience. But I was proven wrong over the rest of the series, so wrong. Tomozaki’s character arc takes a refreshing trajectory and intertwines with smart observations on self-discovery and knowing what is worth improving for oneself. Hinami’s character is equally interesting, with how she gamifies her real life and measures her success through popularity and peer approval. I liked how the show puts that through an analytical and kind-of-neutral lens, instead of delegitimizing her view because I have met people who gamify their life like that. I don’t agree with their view and approach to life, but it’s real.

I think the anime is worth watching just to see the dynamic between Tomozaki and Hinami and see how Tomozaki’s view on the “bottom-tier character in life” changes into something more mature. I enjoyed the comedy for the most part. I enjoyed Mimimi’s arc a fair bit, but her constantly harassing Tama put me off. The fanservice moments are pointless and I think some of those moments took away from developing the side characters. I mean, come on, the fanservice on the show isn’t even erotic or funny. The ending was abrupt, like one of those “go read the light novel” ones – I wish we got more out of Hinami by the end. Still, the show left me with a strong enough impression to put it on this list.

That’s all I have for this post. Which shows stood out to you from the Winter season?