The fall anime season is in full swing with exciting new shows like Naoko Yamada’s The Heike Story and Platinum End premiering alongside returning favorites like Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, Lupin III: Part IV, and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean! With the absolute deluge of awesome and exciting new anime pouring out this year, it’s reasonable that some of the year’s best might have slipped off your radar. To that end, we here at Polygon HQ put our heads together to create a list of some of the best anime to come out this year so far.
From major titles like My Hero Academia and Megalobox 2 Nomad to more niche titles like Odd Taxi, Uma Musume: Pretty Derby, and Pui Pui MolCar, here are 21 of the best anime series to air so far in 2021. Time to play catch up.
Beastars (Season 2)
Beastars tells the story of a wolf who wants to have sex with a rabbit, but worries he will devour said rabbit. I think it’s a metaphor for puberty. Though it could be a cringey, misguided exploration of race. Maybe it’s holding a magnifying glass to sexual violence on campus. Or perhaps it’s a coming of age story about a generation of young people disconnected from their parents by rapidly changing norms. Frankly, I’ve stopped caring about what it’s about.
I know this is gauche amongst critics, but for me, Beastars works when I quit trying to make a one-to-one connection between our world and its city of horny teenage carnivores and herbivores. I enjoy the show best when I take its internal logic on its own terms. In that way, Beastars is like Romeo and Juliet. A sexy, violent, and often frustrating tale of star-crossed lovers kept apart by society. And like the works of Shakespeare, Beastars can be contorted into whatever else you want it to be. —Chris Plante
Beastars season 1 and 2 are available to stream on Netflix.
Yatora Yaguchi is a delinquent to most, but in actuality, he’s an earnest guy. He gets good grades and has a thriving group of friends, but he’s bored by his stagnant life. After being inspired by an upperclassman’s large beautiful painting, he begins to study art. However, as somebody who was always successful without too much effort, he’s shocked by the amount of work he has to put forward to become a master of the arts. He struggles while comparing his work to his classmate’s, but doesn’t give up, as he found a hobby that he really has passion for.
While the animation in Blue Period isn’t anything particularly phenomenal, the story it tells is relatable to anyone who has creative hobbies. —Julia Lee
Blue Period is available to stream on Netflix.
Fruits Basket: The Final
Fruits Basket lures viewers in with the promise of a cute story about a family that turns into animals when they’re hugged, then absolutely disarms with boatloads of generational trauma. In the last season, all of this starts to culminate, as plucky orphan Tohru Honda tries to break the curse binding the Sohma family to domineering family head Akito. But because this is Fruits Basket, everyone has their own share of trauma, Akito included. The emotional final season of Fruits Basket reveals that all is not what it seems when it comes to Akito. When the big moment happens, it’s a sweeping emotional catharsis for everyone. Have tissues on hand. —Petrana Radulovic
The Heike Story
Produced by Science SARU (Keep Your Hands off Eizouken!) and adapted from Hideo Furukawa’s 2016 translation of the Japanese folk legend Tale of the Heike, director Naoko Yamada’s (A Silent Voice) The Heike Story follows the story of Biwa, a young orphan gifted with the power of prescience who is taken in by Taira no Shigemori, the eldest son of the powerful Taira clan, and is haunted by his own visions of death. Predicting the downfall of the Taira clan, Biwa bears witness to the myriad misfortunes and tragedies that befall the clan but nonetheless refuses to assist them out of retribution for her father’s death. With beautiful Ukiyo-e-esque backgrounds, an evocative score by composer Kensuke Ushio, and an emotionally riveting script penned by by Reiko Yoshida (Violet Evergarden), The Heike Story is one of the most beautiful anime to premiere this year. —TE
The Heike Story is available to stream on Funimation.
Horimiya, a show whose namesake comes from combining the names of its two central love interests, Kyouko Hori and Izumi Miyamura, is about as darling as you’d expect a show named after its two lovers to be.
The show follows Hori, a responsible big sister and confident student with friends, and her budding romance with Miyamura, a shy and quiet loner with a secret edgy look outside of highschool. (We learn he has tattoos and piercings!) In other shojo, it’s not uncommon for a story to take entire seasons for the love interests to hold hands, and might not even show a kiss. In Horimiya, we see them fall for each other in a matter of episodes. This pace allows the debut season of the show to quickly move away from showing just Hori and Miyamura’s relationship, and gives us space to learn about all the other people in their life. Overtime, we see the once lonely Miyamura develop a loving and supportive community around him.
Horimiya doesn’t do anything remarkable or groundbreaking; It’s just really pleasant to watch. The characters shy away from intense conflict, and embrace idyllic friendships that overcome conflict without a whole lot of development. Sure, there isn’t some sort of big, satisfying resolution like there is in a show like Fruits Basket, but you are also spared the tears. What’s more is that you really don’t have to sink all that much time into, with a complete story starting and coming to a close after just one season. Fun and light, Horimiya was just a rephrasing summer snack of a watch for me. —Ana Diaz
Jujutsu Kaisen was the breakout anime success of 2020 and continued strong in 2021. The story follows the young Yuji Itadori, a good-hearted school boy who one day eats an actual finger, which served as a vessel for a powerful demon called Sukuna. After consuming the finger, Itadori gets taken in by the questionable, but powerful mentor Gojo Satoru, who assembles a Naruto-like cast of three central characters who work together to defeat the monsters known as curses in their world.
Jujutsu Kaisen is a show that plays with the tropes of shonen anime. Whereas other shows like it tend to focus on super-human protagonists who magically power up just when the going gets rough, Jujutsu Kaisen starts with Itadori’s own weakness and him begging for the demon inside to save him.
The show starts off a bit slow, but pays off to those who spend just a little more time with it. The characters — and its women especially — are presented with care, and the three main characters develop an endearing dynamic reminiscent of siblings who like to pick on each other. Sticking around will show some of Studio Mappa’s finest work, as later fight sequences are some of the best animation to come from the studio yet. Basically, Jujutsu Kaisen is the perfect show for long-time shonen fans who are looking for something that isn’t afraid to venture off the well-trodden paths of its predecessors and conjure up something a little bit darker, a bit stranger. —AD
Laid-back Camp (Season 2)
Possibly dubbed the most comfy anime in the last decade, Laid-back Camp’s second season delivers as a perfect follow up to its first. Rin still loves camping by herself, but she slowly continues to open up to her new gang of friends at her school’s camping club.
It’s still a very good, comfy slice-of-life anime about girls going camping. It sticks to its roots as a semi-educational show, and this season gives fun looks into some cool areas of Japan. —JL
Laid-back Camp season 2 is available to stream on Crunchyroll.
Megalobox 2: Nomad
The second season of Megalobox is a far darker, somber, and more melancholic underdog story than the devil may care attitude of the first season. Set several years after his victory at Megalonia, the champion fighter known as “Gearless”Joe is a far cry from when we last saw him; addicted to painkillers, fighting anonymous cage bouts for chump change and,most distressingly, alone. Nomad is a worthy successor to the tremendous action and character-driven drama of the first season; a rousing story of a champion’s precipitous fall from grace and subsequent revival into a fighter far stronger and more determined than ever before. —Toussaint Egan
Megalobox 2: Nomad is available to stream on Funimation.
My Hero Academia (Season 5)
Studio Bones’ breakout superhero action drama returned for its fifth season as the students of UA High school were thrust into ever more precarious danger with greater stakes. My Hero Academia season 5 deals heavily in Endeavor’s recovery following his confrontation with the super-powered Nomu at the end of last season, the hero Hawks working undercover to take down the League of Villains from the inside, and Deku manifesting a new aspect of his quirk One for All as he delves deeper into the history of his predecessors and their connection to the villainous All for One. —TE
Odd Taxi is, well, odd. A slice-of-life mystery drama centered on Odokawa, a 40-something year old taxi driver who also happens to be a walrus in a world populated by anthropomorphic animals, who may or may not be implicated in the disappearance of a missing girl. Despite how dire that initial premise may sound, the anime as a whole is an expert blend of black comedy and irreverent banter; a series whose focus rotates through a cast of eccentric, offbeat, and above all achingly human characters whose lives intersect Odokawa’s own in search of their heart’s desire, whether it be the semblance of true love or just trying to go viral on social media. Odd Taxi is a series you must absolutely make the time to watch and a strong contender for 2021’s most unique and underrated anime. —TE
Odd Taxi is available to stream on Crunchyroll.
Pui Pui MolCar
Pui Pui Molcar is one of the weirdest and funniest comedy anime to come out in 2021. A stop-motion anime short series set in a metropolis populated by gigantic, fuzzy guinea pigs with wheels for feet, the show consists of a series of skits following the Molcars on various misadventures. From traffic jams to impromptu bank heists, rescuing cats or escaping a zombie apocalypse, Pui Pui Molcar is bursting with as much creativity as it is genuine laughs. With each episode running at just under or around eight minutes, it’s a perfectly snack-sized, low commitment anime that might make for a decent change of pace if you’re looking for something fun to watch or if you’re tired of your kid constantly watching Cocomelon. —TE
Pui Pui Molcar is available to stream on Netflix.
Ranking of Kings
Based on Sōsuke Tōka’s manga of the same name, Ranking of Kings is set in a fantastical world of swords and sorcery and follows the story of Bojji, the firstborn son and heir to the throne of his father, the powerful giant King Bosse. Despite his kind-hearted nature, Bojji is looked down upon by his father’s court and the kingdom’s subjects for being born deaf and mute. Only one person seems to understand him: a shadowy creature known as Kage who swears to support Bojji’s quest to become king through thick and thin. After his throne is usurped by his conniving half-brother Daida, Bojji embarks on a journey in search of a way to become stronger and reclaim his throne.
Ranking of Kings is an exquisite coming-of-age fantasy comedy with loveable characters, a beautiful storybook color palette, a thoroughly engrossing story filled with peril and intrigue, and surprisingly impressive battles. Bojji is hands-down the cutest anime protagonist in 2021, communicating depths of compassion and perseverance with only a handful of utterances and expressions. If you’re looking for an anime that will surprise, thrill, and endear itself to you to no end, Ranking of Kings easily ranks among the very best anime the year has to offer. —TE
Ranking of Kings is available to stream on Funimation.
Set in a subterranean world populated by monsters called the “Labyrinth,” Sakugan follows the story of Memempu, a precious nine year old who yearns to explore the world outside the safety of the human colonies and her father Gagumber, a former “Marker” (see: explorer) and mech pilot working as a lowly miner. After their home colony is viciously assaulted by kaiju, Memempu pleads with Gagumber to allow her to become a Marker and search for the mythical place glimpsed only in her dreams. With no hope of deterring her ambitions, Gagumber agrees and joins his daughter on their quest for adventure and answers to the mysteries of their world.
The beating heart of Sakugan’s appeal, beyond the elaborate mecha fights and breathtaking vistas, is the odd couple father-daughter relationship between Memempu and Gagumber who incessantly bicker with one another at every turn. It’s the story of a young girl venturing beyond the safety of her home to make her own mark on the world, as well as the story of a father who wants to protect his daughter all the while knowing he has to give her space to learn and grow. It’s that bond and dynamic that secures Sakugan’s place as one of the year’s best anime; an adventure shared between a father and daughter who have as much to learn from each other as they have to teach one another. —TE
Sakugan is available to stream on Crunchyroll.
Sk8 The Infinity
The hard-working skateboarder Reki loves the S races — secret skateboarding races that take place at night. These races are filled with danger, and some of the most iconic underground skateboarders settle their beef (yes, that’s the term the anime uses) in S. Canadian transfer student Langa is more into snowboarding, but with the help of Reki, he starts skating and participating in S. Conflict arises as the creator of S is more devilish than he seems, and Langa begins to outperform Reki.
Sk8 is special because its characters make it special. With its large cast of great characters (Cherry stans, unite!) and interesting backstories, it’s the perfect short sports anime to satisfy any itch you may have in 12 episodes. —JL
SK8 the Infinity is available to stream on Funimation.
Coming off the commercial and creative success of such shows as the first season of One-Punch Man and Boogiepop and Others, Shingo Natsume returns with an all new original sci-fi survival drama in Sonny Boy. The show follows a class of high school students who, on the cusp of summer vacation, are mysteriously transported to another dimension seemingly divorced from space and time along with their school building. With no adult supervision or clue as to how they got there, the students must attempt to create some sense of order out of the chaos if they have any chance of escaping this strange world, let alone finding answers. Add to the fact that some of the boys and girls among the group have suddenly acquired strange and powerful new supernatural abilities, and you’ve got a powder keg of a situation just waiting to burst. What really sets Sonny Boy apart though is its beautiful settings and emphasis on the adolescent drama between its characters. Mari Fujino’s art direction emphasizes bold color contrasts to depict exotic backgrounds, often relying on pure black to simulate empty voids, and Hisashi Eguchi’s (Perfect Blue) character designs are reminiscent of the anime of the ’70s and ’80s.
Beyond the surface comparisons to The Lord of the Flies or Kazuo Umezu’s The Drifting Classroom, Sonny Boy is an intriguing sci-fi mystery anchored by relatable coming-of-age stories centered on a cast of memorable and eccentric characters told with abundant style, humor, and subtlety. —TE
SSSS.Gridman was one of 2018’s most exciting premieres, reviving one of Tsuburaya Productions’ neglected franchises into a brilliant animated love letter to all things tokusatsu. SSSS.Dynazenon is a brilliant continuation of the original series, shifting focus to another intrepid team of young heroes led by a mysterious man named Gauma who must band together to fight an onslaught of devastating kaiju through the combined might of the transforming mecha known as Dynazenon. The series’ explicit connections to the Gridman universe are loose but tantalizing, opening up a slew of exciting possibilities for shared adventures in future while establishing its own tone and stakes apart from its predecessor.
SSSS.Dynazenon ranks as one of the best anime that Trigger has produced to date; a rolicking action mecha series with explosive battles, beautiful animation, and richly developed characters. —TE
SSSS.Dynazenon is available to stream on Funimation.
Star Wars: Visions
Star Wars: Visions brings together seven studios and nine acclaimed directors including Hiroyuki Imaishi (Promare) and Kenji Kamiyama (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex) to tell their own stories in the Star Wars universe through the medium of Japanese Animation. The result is an anthology of shorts that pushes at the boundaries of what audiences and fans have come to expect from the venerable sci-fi adventure epic while tapping into the core animating principles that make it one of the most beloved series in cinematic history. Far removed from the otherwise stifling homogeneity endemic throughout a lot of Star Wars media post-Disney acquisition, the anthology boasts the kind of stories you otherwise wouldn’t expect from everyone’s favorite space opera. There’s a bunny girl wielding lightsaber katanas, Tezuka-esque boy robots channeling the force, Sith clone children cleaving Star Destroyers in half with super-powered sabers, and other surprising twists on familiar Star Wars tropes and themes. More than that, it’s a self-evident product of a generation of animators paying homage to one of the most influential movie series of all time. From any way you look at it, the Force is strong with this one. —TE
Star Wars: Visions is available to stream on Disney Plus.
To Your Eternity
Many anime have similar premises, but To Your Eternity may be the only one whose protagonist is an immortal, sentient orb — although Fushi doesn’t stay an orb for long. After a mysterious creator sends the orb to Earth, it slowly begins to learn from its environment, gaining consciousness and the ability to transform into whatever stimulates it. Evolving from a rock to a wolf and eventually a boy, Fushi begins a heart-wrenching journey of self-discovery as he learns what it truly means to be human, from the simple pleasures of eating fresh-picked fruit to the ways grief and loss are woven into the fabric of existence. But throughout it all, the series never loses its sense of hope, finding beauty in life’s impermanence and reminding viewers that nothing is ever truly gone as long as it lives on in your memories. —Sadie Gennis
When part-timer Takemichi is hit by a train, he is magically transported 12 years into the past, when he was just a 14-year-old cry baby delinquent. Given this second chance, Takemichi is determined to not only carve out a better path for himself but use this opportunity to prevent the future death of his middle school girlfriend, Hina, at the hands of the Tokyo Manji Gang. Throughout the gritty and twist-filled series, Takemichi travels between the past and present only to discover that each new crisis he diverts in the past leads to another tragedy in the future. But while the time travel mystery gives the show a strong hook, what makes Tokyo Revengers a must-see is its compelling character development. In order to change the future, Takemichi becomes deeply involved with Tokyo Manji in the past, developing complex relationships with its members, such as the child-like, but ferocious leader Mikey and the mature-beyond-his-years Draken. A perfect blend of high-octane action and heartfelt character drama, Tokyo Revengers is quickly establishing itself as one of the best modern shonen series. —SG
Uma Musume: Pretty Derby (Season 2)
Uma Musume: Pretty Derby’s second season puts a heart-racing anime twist on the real story of the Japanese racehorse, Tokai Teio. She’s a hard working horse girl who wants to be as fast as her mentor, Symboli Rudolf. Teio is a shoe-in for winning the triple crown, but an unexpected injury trips her up, making things hard for her.
With added drama and a smattering of very well-known voice actresses, Uma Musume’s creators manage to pull off an interesting feat: they really make you really care about the horses. I learned so much about real life Japanese racehorses watching this, and some of the episodes had me bawling while I cheered on Teio. They got me good. —JL
Uma Musume: Pretty Derby season 2 is available to stream on Crunchyroll.
Zombie Land Saga Revenge
Zombie Land Saga Revenge picks up where the first season left off, continuing to tell the stories of the unique zombie girls who became idols. We finally get to see the backstories for characters like Yugiri, the courtesan from the 19th century, as well as find out more about the area of Saga. Saga, the prefecture of Japan that the idol group is looking to bring life back to, seems to be under a curse causing unfortunate accidents to happen to it, preventing it from ever flourishing. The girls don’t give up, though. Filled with snappy songs and slapstick comedy, Zombie Land Saga Revenge remains a must-watch. —JL
Zombie Land Saga Revenge is available to stream on Crunchyroll.