My Favourite Cartoons of 2021

2021’s been a very strange year for me. Like last year, I’ve been out of the loop so much I don’t feel even vaguely qualified to talk about the overall year in a way that really understands how people generally feel it’s gone. I can only speak for myself, and it’s been very strange. A mix of college work and personal circumstances I’d rather not discuss left me in a place where I ended up watching fewer cartoons, and exhausted enough that I wasn’t able to write articles unless they were very short pieces, deliberately weird or extremely self-indulgent pieces where I talk about myself as much as the cartoon itself.

I’ve had a dozen or so ideas for things I wanted to write before the end of the year, but I just don’t have the energy or the self-confidence to get them done. So I’m going to make what’s basically a collage of these ideas, all tied together by the same conceit: they’re my favourite cartoons that I’ve seen in the year of Arlord 2021.

Seen, not come out. I’m a pop cultural hermit who tends to learn about or experience incredibly ubiquitous works decades after the fact, and that applies particularly to cartoons. Only one of these actually came out this year, and the rest are at least a good few years old if not much, much older. But to me, they’re all new so I think they still count. Whenever they came out, they’re the cartoons that I ended up loving to bits, the cartoons I’ve come to admire, or just the cartoons that I keep thinking back to.

For the most part, these won’t be detailed overviews of the cartoons themselves, and more my thoughts and experiences with them. Like with 2020, it’s always worth remembering and celebrating the good you find in your life, even if it’s just some cartoons you like. It can give you hope for the future.

Giant Robo: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1992-1998; OVA; dir – Yasuhiro Imagawa)

Giant Robo is considered one of the anime classics of the 1990s, but I didn’t know all that much beyond it being the first big work by legendary anime composer and arranger Masamichi Amano. Earlier this year, I stumbled across an upload of the entire series and decided to watch it every now and again, treating it like a series of feature length films rather than a TV series to blast through within a week. (The 40-50 minute runtime of each episode helped a lot with this.)

I’ve watched beloved anime of the era like Cowboy Bebop, Macross Plus and Ghost in the Shell, but while I can appreciate the craft that goes into them and what they’re trying to do, I only ever end up viewing them from a detached distance. I can understand them, but I can’t feel them. With that in mind, I’m so happy to say that I felt Giant Robo.

I love how unashamedly this series crashes so many elements together like traditional mecha fights, characters utilizing techniques straight out of fantasy martial arts, and supernatural beings from Chinese literature without the blink of an eye. I got swept up in the emotions of Daisaku’s struggles and the struggles of his friends, and the many twists and turns taken throughout the series.

I was constantly won over by the confidence presented in the production; from all kinds of nicely storyboarded shots and animated sequences, to the excellent direction overall, and especially to the wonderful score composed by Masamichi Amano and performed by the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra. There are many works that are defined so much by their music, winning the viewer over and pulling them in, that they become legendary. For me, Giant Robo is now one of those.

I cannot remember the last time I was so excited and boisterous over any major moment that happened, pumping my fists at the perfectly timed musical cue, gasping with shock at a twist that left me reeling for a while, and yelling with delight as things suddenly changed for the better. It’s a show that I really needed when I watched it – something that brightened my day like nothing else and gave me the confidence to keep going. It’s a wonderful example of what can be done when everything just comes together in the world of animation.

The Hunting of the Snark (2015; movie; dir – Saranne Bensusan)

(Disclosure: parts of this section are adapted or pasted wholesale from a review I wrote for the film on Letterboxd:

This is an odd film I stumbled across some months ago on Amazon Prime, which I watched only because it was just over an hour long and I wanted to find shorter feature films to check out. I wouldn’t say this is a particularly great movie; I’m not even sure how much I like it. But it’s something I admire for a very specific reason – its unpolished production.

The models have this raggedy, slapdash look about them and their faces keep completely still when talking (aside from the captain’s moustache twitching about). The lighting sometimes changes between shots, occasionally resulting in an overexposed shot that’s garish to look at. There’s even a couple of times where the seams come undone and you can see the metallic joint in a character’s neck, or an animator’s hand inside the trenchcoat.

All of these sound like criticisms, mistakes that the crew should be ashamed of, but I don’t mean it like that. In fact, I really like that they’re there. I’ve always enjoyed being able to see the seams in a work, being reminded of its nature as a work of fiction and being made to think about how the work was made. It helps me to understand what they were trying to do, and to admire the craft that goes into it. In that sense, an unpolished production that can’t hide its artiface is far more interesting to me than an extremely polished production where you can’t see the flaws, the things that make it (for lack of a better word) human.

So I like how The Hunting of the Snark lets me see past the camera and consider how the movie was put together (something that is leaned into for the credits, which show off various recording sessions of the voice actors doing their lines around an actual table). Also, I think that for a film based on a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, it’s rather appropriate that it looks and sounds as strange as the story it’s adapting.

It works alongside the absurd story and anachronistic style (it’s presumably set in the late 1800s but the helmsman uses a busted GPS to find their way to the domain of the Snark) in ways that might’ve been lost with a more polished production. Even the fact that the characters’ mouths don’t move while talking means that their faces are sculpted to create very specific, memorable expressions. This is complemented by the confident voice acting to create a memorable group of people on a weird quest.

The pacing is quite relaxed and episodic, with much of the movie consisting almost of vignettes of varying length. This ended up making places like the ship or the campsite feeling rather cozy and even homely at times, like I was watching an early Wallce & Gromit short or an Ivor Wood cartoon. I just felt at peace when watching this, when I wasn’t laughing at the absurd conversations or recurring bits (the aforementioned GPS being one of them).

I haven’t seen such a compellingly mundane film, one that I could easily pop on during a dull day with a nice cup of tea and relax to. It’s not a noteworthy film in any “objective” sense, but it’s cool, odd and interesting. For me, that’s more than enough.

Windy Tales (2004-2005; TV series; dir – Junji Nishimura)

(Disclosure: this section is pasted wholesale from a review I wrote for the film on Letterboxd:

Windy Tales is a cartoon I never would have seen if not for the World Animation Discord, which started a “Cartoon Club” thread back in June where we vote on a cartoon to watch and check out two episodes every week. This was the first cartoon we watched: a short show about a trio of middle school kids and their relationship to “the wind”, developing into an anthology of stories often dealing with growing up, the passage of time and the weird ideas you have about the world as a kid.

It’s also, to be very blunt, just a wonderful cartoon. As someone who frequently suffers from sensory overload, I adore how calm and mundane this show is. The pacing of the episodes is very casual and relaxed, with some even taking place in a single location. The backgrounds are very pleasing to look at, thanks to their beautiful colours and abstracted takes on clouds, trees and other parts of the world. The soundtrack by Kenji Kawai carries an almost-synesthetic quality in terms of its arrangement and composition, where I can perceive certain colours in the music that complement the scenes they’re used in perfectly. The end result is a cartoon that I can watch at any time and immediately feel relaxed.

Although the series begins with something of a two-parter, its episodic structure gives it the freedom to explore plenty of ideas, which it does through inventive cinematography, memorable character designs that are animated superbly, and spot-on direction. Every episode offers something new, and there are many moments that have stuck with me since. In a way, it almost reminds me of the SNES adventure game Ihatovo Monogatari, as they’re both anthologies that tell simple but often profound stories tied together by a common theme or idea.

I wish I had more to say, but something that I keep thinking about is how amazing it is that this show exists at all. It can be easy to fall into the trap that all cartoons, no matter how unique or interesting they may be, inevitably end up being a certain way. Whether in their presentation, storytelling, or some other aspect, everything has to conform to some kind of standard based on audience expectations, genre preconceptions, lame capitalistic marketing tripe, or whatever.

However, I don’t think there’s any cartoon like Windy Tales. I’ve never seen anything that looks like this show, sounds like this show, feels like this show. And I think that’s really beautiful. The fact Windy Tales exists at all, in the way that it does, and is allowed to do so amazes me every time I watch or think about it.

Man, what a wonderful cartoon.

The Point (1971; movie; dir – Fred Wolf)

I first heard about The Point through an article on Cartoon Research delving into its history, both as the concept album penned by Harry Nilsson and the animated adaptation directed by Fred Wolf. It sounded quite interesting, and I ended up watching the version narrated by Alan Thicke one late evening.

I was taken in by its rough, expressive art style and the memorable songs that punctuate major moments in the film, many of which have excellent directed or inspired sequences such as “Life Line” and “Are You Sleeping?”. It’s absolutely a film from the 1970s, and that’s something I utterly adore about it – it couldn’t have happened at any other time, and I wouldn’t want it looking or sounding any other way. But what made me stay was the candid storytelling, where I understood what was happening on the surface and what was going on underneath.

It’s all in the name, where The Point is both a literal point and something more metaphorical. I feel silly describing that since it’s made so clear within the film, with the conversations Oblio has with all the people he meets in the Pointless Forest, and the lessons he learns during his time there. It’s that type of storytelling where it was made for everyone; not in that limp-wristed, “appeal to a broad audience” nonsense, but in the sense that anyone could watch it and understand it differently depending on where they are in life. Maybe taking it literally, or seeing the metaphor, and still getting it.

It even reminded me a good deal of the Hungarian-American movie Hugo the Hippo, which is also a very 1970s film about a young boy cast out into a weird, sometimes scary world but still going on adventures and learning things. The way both stories offer a straightforward tale that anyone can understand, while carrying plenty of thematic and metaphorical stuff underneath that can be applied to the world outside, particularly struck me.

The Point is perhaps not a unique film in how candidly it tells its story, since I’ve often heard the same thing said for plenty of classics in decades past (animated or otherwise), but it really resonated with me. Silly as it is to say, I found it an enchanting movie and I’m so pleased that it exists exactly as it is.

Angel’s Egg (1985; movie; dir – Mamoru Oshii)

(Disclosure: this section is pasted wholesale from a review I wrote for the film on Letterboxd:

I don’t get Angel’s Egg.

Not in the sense that I don’t understand what’s happening. Despite what people often say about it, I felt it was quite easy to understand what was going on just by the onscreen imagery and what the characters were doing. Sure, it gets a bit abstract at points and the underlying details can become ambiguous, but I think it still works very well as long as you’re not trying to interpret everything as literally as possible.

No, what I mean is that I don’t emotionally get this movie. Or perhaps more honestly, I couldn’t resonate with the emotions and ideas being played around with as much as I wanted to. It’s an excellent mood piece, with many gorgeously storyboarded and painted shots, a sense of slow and deliberate direction for the editing and animation, a great score by Yoshihiro Kanno, and an overall feeling that is unlike any film I’ve seen.

However, I couldn’t quite get in touch with the film’s emotions, though I can see them quite clearly. I can intellectually understand them, but I can’t feel them emotionally. It’s not really a problem with Angel’s Egg; heck, it’s not even a “problem” to begin with. It’s just a disagreement between the film’s expression and a single viewer’s inability to resonate with that expression – a bridge with a gap that I can’t yet overcome.

Maybe I’ll rewatch this one day and better come to understand it. I hope that will happen. But if I don’t or if nothing changes, then I can at least say I’ve watched it. Absolutely worth checking out if you haven’t yet seen it, and it’s only just over an hour if you’re not keen on watching particularly long movies.

Picture taken from The Postcard Memories blog, by Zainou86:

Space Adventure Cobra (1982-1983; TV series; dir – Osamu Dezaki & Yoshio Takeuchi)

(Disclosure: the paragraph where I discussed the music is largely based on a write-up I did of the show’s soundtrack on the SquidBoard forums, which a private forum that you can’t access without an account:

It’s odd what’ll get you to check something out. I’d never heard much of Space Adventure Cobra beyond mentions of the 1982 film, until I read an article on the TV series by famed Korean animator Peter Chung (Aeon Flux, Riddick: Dark Fury, Matriculated). Chung has a way of describing what makes animation compelling, and what he said about Cobra made me watch the series over the next month or so.

It’s an excellent show and I agree with pretty much everything he said, so I’d recommend you read the article if you want more thoughts on the series. Personally speaking, what I really dug was the confidence of the main character. Cobra is a cool, self-assured man who always approaches every situation with an unshakeable confidence and a cigar in his mouth, no matter how bad things may get. This is backed up by a deeply charismatic performance by Nachi Nozawa, who effortlessly pulls off that balance between cocksure, playful, goofy and sincerity.

There’s something I find so inspiring about that attitude, because I’m not very confident in myself or what I do. I’d like to be that headstrong, to have that belief that I’ll be able to tackle any situation. Watching Cobra made me realize that I have an attraction of sorts towards confident characters, and why I’m so fond of folks like Bayonetta, Lara Croft and especially Dante from Devil May Cry (the latter of whom was based on Cobra for his cool, cheeky nature).

For the show itself, I’m also a huge fan of its presentation. The incredibly classy soundtrack by Kentaro Haneda scores each moment appropriately and with style (backed up by Yuji Ohno’s superbly jazzy themes). Pieces like “Rush Hour” and “Cosmic Dust” are equally funky and suspenseful, while more peaceful moments are punctuated by refined, sometimes upbeat tracks such as “Kyuuyuu to no Saikai” and “Window Shopping”. The dramatic scenes are excellently scored by the likes of “Yorisoiau Tamashii” and “Memoire”, and then there’s the fantastic “Shi no Koushin” used to builds up to cliffhangers that made me pumped to see the next episode.

On the subject of cliffhangers, the direction is overall excellent. Each episode is inventively directed on its visuals, often using many of Dezaki’s techniques like dutch angles, split-screen shots and his renowned “Postcard Memories” freeze-frames to sell whatever’s happening despite otherwise unremarkable animation. But it’s in the storytelling where the show truly shines.

Despite only lasting just over 30 episodes, Space Adventure Cobra is eager to frequently and confidently change its own identity, genre and style to suit whatever idea it’s interested in. It effortlessly shifts from space opera chases, to a sports anime, to old-fashioned Western gunfights, and many others without losing any of its quality and charm – often doing so within the span of a single episode. Even the pacing of the series, where the arcs vary in length and are broken up by plenty of self-contained outings, is kept up with such ease that it’s made me reconsider how you can balance interesting one-offs with more serialized stories.

It’s a superbly crafted series of adventures that are deeply entertaining and also gave me the chance to reconsider how I felt about my expectations of media and about myself. My only regret is that it didn’t continue for longer with the specific crew of Dezaki, Takeuchi, Nozawa, Haneda, et al. But it’s still here in the first place, and I’m grateful for that.

Shin Evangelion / Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon A Time (2021; movie; dir – Hideaki Anno (chief), Mahiro Maeda, Katsuichi Nakayama, and Kazuya Tsurumaki)

A few months ago, I wrote this very long article about the wait for the final Evangelion film of the new “Rebuild” series, and my personal history with it. Despite saying at the end that I wanted to rewatch the first three movies first, just to keep that comfort of not having yet seen Shin Evangelion for just a bit longer, I bit the bullet one afternoon and watched it over a couple of days.

What do I think of it? To tell you the truth, I’m not entirely sure. I know it’s been quite the divisive movie from what I’ve looked into, with people either loving it dearly or hating it utterly. But I sit somewhere in the middle. I feel like I should keep things vague, because it’s only been a few months since its release and I don’t feel right going into great detail. What I will say is that there’s a lot I really like; the village section, a good chunk of the soundtrack by Shiro Sagisu and co., the final parts of the film; and there’s just as many things that I’m either ambivalent towards or find I’m reacting in ways that I know weren’t at all intended.

However, I can say that I admire the whole thing, simply for how unrestrained it is. It does everything that it wants to do, going for it as much as it can regardless of how well it might turn out. Any idea that best serves what the creators want to do is going in and will be explored along with every other idea that they want to explore, even if it leads to a two-and-a-half-hour film that’s equally inspiring as it is head scratching and accidentally hilarious. I admire that lack of restraint, but I can recognize that lack of restraint as why I don’t feel so strongly towards it as I do for the original Evangelion‘s endings, or even Evangelion 3.0.

Thing is, I’m okay with that. Because at the end of the day, it still got me passionate and thinking about Evangelion for the first time in years. I’m reading through the EvaGeeks fan forums to see what people think, checking out the odd Tumblr blog that analyses random scenes and discusses their significance, listening to plenty of pieces from the soundtrack frequently. It’s like I’ve become a fan of the series all over again, and to be feeling that for the “Rebuild” films (which I always respected but never felt much towards them) is nice.

Maybe I’ll properly attempt to discuss the films in-depth down the road, but my impression on Shin Evangelion right now is that it’s not for me. I don’t mean that it’s a film I don’t enjoy, but more that I’m not the person this movie was made for. It’s for Hideaki Anno, and all of the crew who worked on this series (whether it’s the original Neon Genesis, the new Rebuilds, or both), to put their last mark on Evangelion and bid it farewell. It’s an extremely self-indulgent work that doesn’t compromise on the things it values, for whatever that’s worth to you.

I think that sometimes, in trying to understand and articulate how any work of art – anything in the world, really – makes us feel, we get caught up in preconceptions of what makes for “good” and “bad” art that end up determining what that work is worth. I think that a work of art can have worth just for existing, for any reason at all. And if that reason is for the sake of its creators, as a way to say goodbye and move on to a future full of possibilities, then that’s fine too.

It’s self-indulgent, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s fine to exist.

It can be so easy to forget that, in a world so wide and full of things both good and bad. But it’s okay to just be.

Shin Evangelion reminded me of that, and that’s the worth it holds to me.

Special thanks to:

Brittle Bullet from the World Animation Discord, who posted the pictures of Giant Robo, Windy Tales and Angel’s Egg featured in this article.

Nobaddy, who read over the article and gave me feedback.

The community of the Big Orchestral Action Music Thread on SquidBoard, who encouraged me to watch Giant Robo: The Day The Earth Stood Still. They’re one of my favourite online communities and there’s so much music or animation I wouldn’t have discovered if not for them.

Greg Ehrbar, who wrote about The Point on Cartoon Research, and Stephen Gray & Rick Reed, who restored and uploaded the Alan Thicke narrated version of The Point.

The community of the World Animation Discord, who are such an excellent, insightful and lovely group of people I always enjoy talking to. I wouldn’t have watched Windy Tales if not for the Cartoon Club.

Peter Chung, who wrote the article discussing Space Adventure Cobra, and Cartoon Brew for hosting the article.

FrDougal9000 writes for as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.

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