The Best Anime You’ve Missed Since 2020

Something different for the discerning anime fan who maybe lost track of stuff during the pandemic.

The anime industry has been going through hard times since COVID, just like everyone else. We’ll likely be seeing the effects of 2020’s lockdown for years to come, as shows that would’ve just entered production that year begin to find their way to air and studios struggle with the additional stress on top of already untenable working environments. Despite or maybe because of that, it feels all the more worth noting some of the incredible works of art that have come out in the last two years — especially works that flew under the radar when they aired. If you’re tired of the big shonen fighting anime du jour or just want a little bit something different, these titles won’t steer you wrong.

Honorable Mentions

These titles were among my favorites over the past few years, and it felt wrong not to shout them out here. And since they have their own write-ups here on Fanbyte, you can read about them in depth!

ODDTAXI

Taxi driver Odokawa’s quiet life is interrupted when his car — and his dash cam — become the last known location of a missing high school girl. Odokawa quickly finds himself at the center of a web of mysteries involving opposing yakuza factions, a shady idol manager, and the cops; not to mention his own demons.

It’s pitch-perfect neo-noir, dryly witty, and balances its ensemble cast perfectly. It’s arguably 2021’s best anime.

Fairy Ranmaru

Five representatives of the fairy realms are sent to Earth in order to gather “attachment” for their queen, a process that involves transforming into buff magical boys and fighting the demons lurking in the human heart.

If more anime were as daring, deeply weird, and extremely queer as Fairy Ranmaru, the world would be a better place. Give me a Blu-Ray, Crunchyroll.

Sasaki and Miyano

Miyano is a closet fan of BL, which he considers deeply embarrassing; so it’s all the more surprising when cool upperclassman Sasaki asks him for recommendations of his favorite titles. The two begin to grow closer, but navigating real feelings is nothing like reading romance manga.

Softer and more grounded than the other titles on this list but no less worthwhile for it, SasaMiya is an cozy rom-com with a smart backbone about the relationship between escapism and real life, toxic masculinity, and growing up. A very pleasant surprise to start off 2022.

Akudama Drive

Akudama Drive

Set in a far-future dystopian version of Japan, an ordinary young woman falsely accused of a minor crime gets caught up with a group of elite lawbreakers known as “Akudama.” They’re approached by a mysterious benefactor and given a seemingly impossible job: break into the high-speed train that travels through the unlivable wasteland outside Kansai.

It is actually criminal how many people slept on this show. The production team alone is enough to draw attention: character designs by Danganronpa’s Rui Komatsuzaki, a director behind several Persona adaptations, and scripts by the writer of fellow cult classic School-Live! But nobody was prepared for a series that starts out as gorgeous but brainless spectacle to turn into one of the smartest cyberpunk stories to come out in years.

It hits the ground running and never stops, lacing its kick-ass action scenes with commentary about classism, criminalization of the marginalized, and police brutality. Its genre-staple musings on what makes someone human have as much to do with dehumanization by the powerful as it does more traditional themes of the posthuman body. With any luck, this will find its place in history as one of the greats.

Princess Connect

Princess Connect! Re: Dive

Yuuki wakes up in a fantasy world with no memory of who or where he is… or how to do just about anything. Fortunately, he has the fellow members of the Gourmet Guild: his shy bodyguard Kokkoro, ever-hungry swordfighter Pecorine, and catgirl mage Karyl. They travel the land united by their love of new foods, each carrying mysteries from their pasts.

This is the single best anime adaptation of a mobile game. The medium is replete with them, but most fall into the traps of being glorified ads, stiff and unimaginative, or unable to translate the huge cast rosters into a more streamlined narrative. Princess Connect is an especially story-dense gacha game, but the anime makes the smart decision to create an alternate universe based on the central premise and characters, streamlining the narrative and choosing a small core cast that limits gacha pool guest spots to characters of the week.

A huge part of its success comes from removing the usual stumbling block of having to center the story around a blank slate player insert, who usually ends up boring at best and insufferable at worst. Princess Connect pokes gentle fun at the trend by making Yuuki a sweet but empty-headed boy who tries to eat coins right after waking up thanks to his amnesia and who regularly gets dragged off and chewed on by packs of wolves; meanwhile, boisterous Pecorine shines as the actual heroine of the piece. Its plot might border on nonsense word salad at times, but its characters shine, and glitzy production values tie everything up in a lovely bow.

Appare Ranman

Appare Ranman!

Straightlaced samurai Kosame is tasked with babysitting eccentric inventor Appare, only to end up caught in an experiment that launches them both out to sea. Dragged ashore in a steampunk-ified 19th century Los Angeles and utterly stranded, their only option for getting back to Japan is to enter a cross-country race and win the top prize.

It’s Trigun meets Wacky Racers. That’s the best way I can sell you on one of 2020’s most unappreciated gems. It’s an action series that isn’t afraid to be big, broad, and comedically stupid in its stunts. Its characters are broad archetypes, but they’re also written with an eye toward giving the spotlight to characters who are often written off as flat, ancillary stereotypes in old adventure stories (though the character designs get themselves into trouble by courting the initial façade of those stereotypes, including giving a lead indigenous character red-tinted skin). It has boundless affection for its characters and takes big-hearted swings at the evils of oppression, even if the “silly comedy roadtrip” framing means that it localizes a lot of those ills in one very Bad Dude. This one was a light-hearted balm during lockdown, and it deserves more love than it’s gotten.

The Case Study of Vanitas

The Case Study of Vanitas

In an alternate 19th century, naïve vampire Noé comes to Paris in search of a legendary grimoire called the “Book of Vanitas.” He finds it in the grip of a brash human who’s taken the book’s name, and who claims he’s the only one who can save vampirekind from the malevolent force that’s begun stalking them.

Vanitas is a star-studded event, bringing together a legion of well-respected names on its production teams to create a stunning gothic fairytale. Vanitas juggles action, horror, and comedic asides with seemingly effortless skill. It’s also just satisfying to see an anime about a concept as horny as vampires that a) has a cast of adults and b) knows how to stage eroticism rather than just throwing in panty shots and constantly-jiggling boobs. Character writing is king in this series, the soundtrack is to die for, and it’s skilled at building suspense and conceptual horror alongside its more bombastic moments of gore. It’s a series that does so much right, with its meditations on storytelling, trauma, and selfhood, that it’s tough to boil down into a single paragraph — except to say that watching it means being emotionally wrung out in the most satisfying way.

Sonny Boy

Sonny Boy

36 students find themselves stranded in another world, some with strange new powers and some apparently still mundane. The walls between dimensions is thin in this other world, and attempting to find a way home leads them to ever-stranger places.

Tired of isekai stories about overpowered wish fulfillment in vaguely European fantasy settings? Boy, do I have a title for you. Sonny Boy begins as claustrophobic Lord of the Flies-style horror only to blossom into ever more surreal storytelling. Its pocket dimension setting means that it can touch on various social issues in modern Japan while also, say, dedicating an entire episode to a monkey baseball team. Its flat, thin-lined style makes the visual experimentation with perspective and color all the more striking, a feast for the eyes that stands apart from its contemporaries. The story arrives gently at a place of positive nihilism, one where everything matters because nothing does. It’s a bittersweet and beautiful coming-of-age story, worth getting lost in.

The Heike Story

The Heike Story

It’s the eve of the Genpei War in the late 1100s. A young orphan named Biwa is taken in by a branch of the powerful Taira Clan, who hope they can use her gift of prophecy to prevent a vision of the clan’s downfall. But the more Biwa comes to think of them as family, the more she feels powerless to stop the slow march of tragedy around her.

Heike is a masterpiece that’s a little bit intimidating on first sight. It’s historical fiction adapting a famous work of Japanese classical literature… but only kind of. Rather, it’s talking back to that well-known work by examining the women’s stories in a very dude-centric war epic. Think of it as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to the original work’s Hamlet. But despite the plethora of names that rush by and the many years the story covers, you needn’t be versed in the original to “get” the anime. Director Naoko Yamada (beloved for her work on K-On! and Sound! Euphonium) grounds the story in the original character of Biwa and her relationships, making it easy to follow the emotional throughlines even while names hurtle overhead and titles cheaply change hands. Backed by the visual wizardry of Science SARU (Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!), it’s as stunning to look at as it is bold and elegant in its execution.