Best Anime Characters of 2020

BEST MALE CHARACTER

Sorano Appare (Appare-Ranman!)

Having the protagonist of a racing anime be a serendipitous inventor makes for an interesting dynamic. Appare chafes against the cultural norms and restrictions expected of him in his home life in Japan, and an impromptu trip to the US (along with an entry into a transnational motorcar race) allows his eccentric genius to flourish. Above all, there are two main things that make Appare great. The first is that his interactions with others both big and small make for a very convincing portrayal of a protagonist whose way of thinking, priorities, and philosophy run along a different path from everyone around him. The second is that he grows tremendously on his journey—in part due to his initially reluctant racing partner Kosame—and ultimately ends up with both a passion for technology and compassion for his fellow human beings in equal strength.

BEST FEMALE CHARACTER

Kanamori Sayaka (Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!)

In one of the greatest celebrations of the creative process ever made, the most impressive character is Kanamori Sayaka, the practical-minded “producer” of the main trio. The very fact that she embodies that producer mindset (as opposed to director, artist, or animator) is a rare treat, and while she’s basically the fun police in terms of the narrative, the story portrays her as integral. There’s something downright refreshing about how grounded and logical Kanamori is in contrast to the rampant imaginations of her friends Asakusa and Mizusaki, and it makes a character who would otherwise recede into the background stand out all the more. In certain ways, she reminds me of Kasukabe Saki from Genshiken—always a fine character to be compared to.

Final Thoughts

When I look at my choices for best characters of 2020, the thing I see in common is that both are unorthodox characters who provide windows into the act of creation, be it artistic or mechanical. Funnily enough, Appare and Kanamori play opposite roles in their respective stories, with Kanamori being the straight man to her friends’ disregard for pragmatism and Appare being the unimpeded tinkerer who Kosame has to manage. It would probably make more sense if I had picked two similar characters on each side, but in both cases, the way they upend expectations makes me believe in them.

I’d also like to make an honoroable mention for Kaburagi from Deca-Dence, who was extremely close to being my pick for male character of the year. Kaburagi is an aged combat veteran, but as we learn more about his life and perspective, we can see the inner struggle in him extends beyond merely his loss of zest for life and into what it means for a society to survive versus what it means to prosper.

A turbulent year full of worries and delays has nevertheless seen many wonderful anime come out that both challenge norms and provide hope and inspiration.

Great Minds Think Differently: Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!

Whenever there’s a work of fiction about creative types, I think back to an old art professor of mine. He would lament that the artistic process was rarely, if ever represented accurately in media. But if he had the chance to watch the anime Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, I think he would be pleasantly surprised. 

Adapted from a manga by Oowara Sumito, directed by Yuasa Masaaki and animated by his current studio, Science Saru, Eizouken! is very clearly made by people who believe just as strongly in the art of animation as the characters themselves do.

Eizouken! follows three characters–director Asakusa Midori (the main protagonist), animator Mizusaki Tsubame, and producer Kanamori Sayaka–as they form their own school club in order to make anime. Asakusa has a life-long passion for external exploring as a way to fuel her imagination, and her sketchbooks are filled to the brim with ideas and flashes of inspiration–from small doodles to elaborate world-building designs. Mizusaki is a model, but her true passion is in animation, and nothing gets her more excited as a sakuga fan than the hard work that goes into the art of portraying movement. Kanamori isn’t really artistic, but she has a knack for looking at the pragmatic side of things: costs, advertising and exposure, and deadlines. The difference between Asakusa and Mizusaki as similar yet distinct creative types, as well as the contrast between their energy and Kanamori’s, fuel the conflict and the camaraderie at the heart of Eizouken!

The series looks fantastic, has memorable characters, and is such a genuine love letter to anime and animation–even putting in nods to beloved classics like Future Boy Conan and Akira. However, what impresses me most is that Eizouken! makes a lot of difficult and daring decisions. It would have been all too easy to make Mizusaki the heroine because of how people tend to focus on characters in anime in the first place, and her specialty aligns closest to that. But not only is Mizusaki someone whose love of animation goes beyond simply making characters look impressive, but it’s the more conceptually oriented Asakusa who’s the main character. There’s something a little more intangible about Asakusa’s mindset, and the willingness to have her be the primary focus is something I appreciate.

But if having someone like Asakusa as main is uncommon, then featuring a character like Kanamori at all is like finding a four-leaf clover. While a similar series like Shirobako might have characters on the production side, it’s exceedingly rare to have a character who so clearly shows the “producer” mindset. It reminds me of something I heard once when it came to Studio Ghibli: while directors Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao were considered the geniuses for their successful animated feature films, some consider producer Suzuki Toshio the real secret to Ghibli’s success because of his skills in promotion and turning a profit. Kanamori embodies this spirit, and I think that it also provides a window into how those who aren’t on the artistic side can still be big contributors to creative endeavors in a world where schedules matter.

Something that encapsulates the joy and detail put into Eizouken! is the opening video, shown above. There’s a part in the OP where it shows multiple quadrilaterals spiraling towards the center of the screen, one set for each character. Asakusa’s are chaotic, Mizusaki’s stylishly overlap, and Kanamori’s are rectangular and precise. They’re perfect summations of the girls’ respective mindsets.

Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! is a series for anyone who’s interested in seeing an involved yet mildly fantastical portrayal of the creative process in action, as well as for anyone who enjoys seeing girls being passionate about what they do. There’s a lot of love that’s gone into Eizouken!, and I can’t help but expect a generation of creators to come out of watching this series eager to take the anime industry by storm.