2020 Year In Review

OTAQUEST Staff Year In Review: The Things That Made 2020 Bearable

At the beginning of each new year, the staff here at OTAQUEST looks back and picks three things that stood out to them from Japan’s pop-culture landscape. Every year the list is as diverse as you can get, with items from all different mediums and of all styles. This year, however, absolutely takes the cake.

Even though 2020 is behind us now (and honestly, good riddance) there was a ton of great content from across all mediums and styles, and frankly, I was surprised at the minimal amount of overlap in everyone’s picks, all things considered. With so much stuff released in one of the longest years in modern history, we’re sure you’ll find something on this list that you missed and we hope that it’s something you end up enjoying as we move into 2021!

Here’s to a better year,

Eddie Lehecka (Editor-in-Chief)

Our Staff and Writers (click to jump):

Chris Cimi James Fujita Carley Garcia
Thanasis Karavasilis Jeremy Tauber Jacob Parker Dalton
Patrick St Michel Alicia Haddick Corey Prasek
Eddie Lehecka Callum May  

Our 2020 Picks

Chris Cimi

  • Gezan – Klue (Music)

When a certain former OTAQUEST word stringer showed me the cover to Gezan’s Klue’, I couldn’t quite take them at their word about it being ‘a banger.’ It sure does look like somebody used MS Paint to overlay some fonts they pilfered from a spyware infested freeware font sight to do the lettering on it! However, one realizes that lettering on an album cover doesn’t really matter when they’ve listened to said album about 20 times in a single month. Hard to attribute to any one genre, Gezan mixes rhythmic chanting, droning guitars, and a piercing croon into an absurd hypnotic swirl. Equal parts primal and entirely new, in an era where ‘rock’ music becomes less prominent every year, it’s a special treat when someone (in this case Gezan) can craft a sound that has yet to be played or heard by anybody using traditional instrumentation. The Osaka musician has been at it for quite a while, but with Klue he’s ascended to powerful new heights.

  • Attack on Titan The Final Season (Anime)

I wish I could choose Japan Sinks 2020, an underrated piece in the Yuasa cannon, or the conceptually ambitious Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution film as my 2020 anime of the year pick. However, just like last year’s Season Three Part 2, the first few episodes alone of The Final Season have already put the show at the top of my list. Especially with that Shinsei Kamattechan opening. It’s less about this being the end to one of anime’s greatest sagas than it being this very interesting mutation: Flipping the script, the final season centers around a mostly new cast of characters in an unfamiliar setting, which is gutsy. More than that, The Final Season twists Attack on Titan into an eerie full-on Horrors of War show a la the original Mobile Suit Gundam, whose place in the Titan canon gives it a double weight. While it’s context dependent, like each season before it, The Final Season works thematically as its own show, and it’s one that no other show could dare to come close to.

Attack on Titan Season 4 anime screenshot
  • The Final Fantasy VII Remake’s Rendition of Aerith (Games)

Final Fantasy VII Remake, a genuine games miracle, pops up more than once on this list. Everyone’s already told you it’s good and worth playing, whether you’ve enjoyed the original or not. For the sake of avoiding repetition, I’d like to highlight Tetsuya Nomura’s translation of the characterically spunky but physically blocky Playstation 1 character ‘Aeris’ to the Playstation 4 character ‘Aerith’, who just might be the most charming video game character. Beyond correcting her name, Nomura’s realized an Aerith who simultaneously embodies the ideal while coming off as completely believable; she’s graceful, but not dainty. She’s delightful, but she’s not spouting off Final Fantasy X-2 dialogue. If I were to be bold, I’d say that this Aerith is who everybody says Tifa is: Endearingly stubborn, quite strong, and capable of making you believe in magic every second she’s on screen. This is my favorite game of two thousand and twenty.

James Fujita

  • Eagle Talon: Golden Spell (Anime)

I’ll admit I wasn’t familiar with the original Eagle Talon when I first heard about this series. My first reaction to the low-budget art was: ‘What on Earth is this?’. But this short series on Crunchyroll has been a blast to watch. It has almost ridiculously up-to-date references to social distancing and social media. It’s clever without being cliché.

  • Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle (Anime)

This Funimation series is a wonderful mixture of cute, clever, and silly. The seiyu for Chino from Is The Order A Rabbit? voices the protagonist. In this series, she’s sadistically dedicated to the goal of curing her insomnia. The cute princess quickly establishes herself as the scariest thing in the castle, which is funny enough in itself. On top of that, the creators invent endless ways for her to freak out her captors.

  • Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken (Anime)

This imaginative and funny series on Crunchyroll is a love letter to artistic creation. The plot really captures the creative process of making something from seemingly nothing. The animation especially shines when the girls get lost in their own random brainstorming. I also love the catchy opening theme, which is as wild and fun as the series itself.

Eizouken anime screenshot
©2020 「映像研」実写ドラマ化作戦会議 ©2016 大童澄瞳/小学館

Carley Garcia

  • STRAY SHEEP / Kenshi Yonezu (Music)

STRAY SHEEP is hardly a diamond in the rough. The top-selling album of the year in Japan, it also managed to take the top spot in over 54 countries after the soft-spoken singer held a virtual concert in the popular game Fortnite. Following the album’s release in August, an international collaboration with UNIQLO followed; the album’s peculiar cover would be the perfect fit for T-shirts and merchandise.

As with all three of my selections for the year’s best of Japanese pop culture, STRAY SHEEP has the uncanny ability to sum up the melancholy feeling of 2020, while also teasing us with a tentative hope for the new year. Take ‘Paprika’, a song given to Yonezu as an ode to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and a song which instantly causes children throughout the country (and the world) to croon and cheer. Now, the same song holds a strange nostalgia of a simpler time, a sorrow when we ponder what could have been had COVID not torn the year asunder.

Whether a person can understand the lyrics or not, Yonezu’s voice has such a bewitching quality, able to convey the complex spectrum of human emotion with an almost frightening ease. From one track to the next, his music can ask you to relive your first love while you wind to the beat (‘Flamingo’), before pulling you back into the painful present with the track ‘Canary’. Directed by famed director Hirokazu Koreeda, Yonezu announced upon its release that a portion of STRAY SHEEP’s proceeds would go to those affected by COVID-19.

The album is waiting for you on Spotify

Kenshi Yonezu
Kenshi Yonezu
  • Japanese Events Gone Digital (Culture)

OTAQUEST was born from the humble anime convention, but 2020 turned the landscape on its head. It also quickly proved that nothing, even a global pandemic, could keep the countless J-culture communities from banding together and creating some groundbreaking virtual events. Everyone and their brother held a virtual con this year (OTAQUEST included) which led to some new experiences and plenty of unique hurdles and challenges to overcome. 

There were plenty of good times to be had virtually at cons based here in the states (Anime NYC immediately comes to mind), but the major positive to come out of 2020 was the rare opportunity for worldwide fans to take part in events based in Japan. This was the first time we’d seen things like Jump Festa, MegaHobby Expo, and Comiket so accessible to international audiences, which gives us some hope that the trend might continue into the future, even after life goes back to normal. Next year’s Anime Japan has announced that, while being an in-person event, it will also feature online content, hopefully accessible to overseas fans. 

Online events might not always be able to compete with the real deal, but for 2020, we definitely got a taste of what the future may hold for international fans hoping to connect more directly with Japanese creators. Here’s hoping that OTAQUEST can continue to help close that gap. 

  • Playstation 5 (Games)

Despite an absolutely abysmal and rage-inducing launch day in both the US and Japan alike, the release of the Playstation 5 did one very important thing: gave us lots to look forward to. The console was first described in an interview way back in April 2019, and the wait was a tough one.

While the specs are impressive and the controller alone is worth gushing over, we haven’t seen the complete spectrum of what the console is capable of just yet; most major titles we’re all waiting for are slated for 2021. (Yes, Demon’s Souls was certainly gorgeous.) Though the phrase is painfully overused, this marks the beginning of a new era of gaming, one which may last quite a long time. Any year with a new console launch is an exciting one, and the Playstation 5 gave plenty of people a light at the end of the tunnel for 2020. That is, if you could manage to get your hands on one.

Now, the real question: will Final Fantasy XVI be released in 2021? If so, expect to see it in my top three approximately 365 days from now. 

Thanasis Karavasilis

Because I am too old to use ‘based’ and too hip to be ‘basic’… Here are the Japanese Movie, Game, and Album I enjoyed the most in 2020.

  • Final Fantasy VII Remake (Games)

Before you rub ‘nostalgia’ all over my face, know this: you are right. This was a nostalgia-driven purchase, one fueled by distorted memories from the 90s: memories of playing with friends, of standing agape over the fate of virtual characters, and of guiding my fingers over the right piano keys to produce my very own covers of my favorite character themes (when I should had been practicing Bach for my upcoming exams). Now, 23 years later, Cloud, Tifa, and Aerith (and not Aeris) are back, made with less cubes but more gusto, to retell a story that has been told a thousand times, but needs to be told a thousand more. After all, it’s not the story but how you tell it that makes a difference.

Tifa from Final Fantasy VII Remake
© SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD. All Rights Reserved.
  • tricot – Black (Music)

If you like clean guitars and you are not listening to Japanese rock, you are missing out on one of the most exciting rock-metal scenes on the planet. In less than ten years, tricot went from a YouTube fan favorite to one of the most intriguing math rock bands coming from Japan. Start from black and go back, one album at a time. There is an unpredictability to their songs, a certain tone, and an unexpected delivery that will make you go searching for more.

  • Miyamoto – Tetsuya Mariko (Film)

To be human is to be violent. Accepting one of the fundamental aspects of our human condition is the first step to clarity, one that Tetsuya Mariko seems to have found in telling the story of Miyamoto. Mariko is no stranger to violent themes. This time, though, he is marrying violence to the concept of obsessive love and the unavoidable feelings of anger and revenge that come with it. 2020 was a difficult year, and now more than ever we need to watch stories that provide that kind of realism and brutality that can help us be more resilient. Get a bit more uncomfortable by watching Miyamoto. It won’t be easy, and even if you don’t realize it at first, you will come out of it a different person.

Jeremy Tauber

  • Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle (Anime)

Obviously, this is nowhere close to being the best anime of the year, and leagues away from a masterpiece. But for a slice of life junkie like yours truly, it’s the perfect fit. Cute girls doing cute things, but this time in a spooky old castle? Sold. The way our main character turns the tables on her would-be captors is classically cartoonish, like something out of an old Looney Tunes short. And I love it for that. Plus, the premise is oddly relatable when you think about it. COVID has kept us indoors and unable to leave our houses. With all the existential dread and panic quarantine has given us, I think it’s fair to say that we all could use a relaxing good night’s rest.

  • Marty Friedman – Tokyo Jukebox III (Music)

The best member of Megadeth (Dave Mustwho?) cemented his guitar god status when he did Rust in Peace back in 1990 and became even better once he moved to Japan. If you want proof, look no further than this neat album. The way Friedman transforms a bunch of bubblegum J-pop songs into his brand of heavy metal chaos might not be the most brutal thing ever, but who cares? Dude shreds so hard that it doesn’t matter. He’s really picking up all the subtle musical details nobody would detect and cranking them all the way up to 10. This is the third volume of his Tokyo Jukebox, so do yourself a favor and listen to the other two. He also did a recent video talking about one of my favorite Black Sabbath songs that’s pretty cool too.

  • Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul (Anime)

It’s so cliche to say a movie or show moved you in all the right places, but that really is what Made in Abyss did to me. Everything in Dawn of the Deep Soul is so layered and detailed that builds up in intensity non-stop until the show’s over. It’s as if the movie is constantly scheming to one-up its own audience. Kinema Citrus is on top of its game here, especially with an intense nailbiter of an ending that’s got it all: epic fights, haunting music, pulsating horror and drama, some of the best animation you will see in modern anime, and even a few Akira references thrown into the mix for good measure. In a year that seemed bereft of cinematic experiences, Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul delivered true movie magic.

Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul anime movie screenshot

Jacob Parker Dalton

  • VTubers (Culture)

Like most people, I’ve spent the majority of this past year in my apartment, alone. That’s not something that usually particularly bothers me, but I will admit that some parts of self-isolation have been particularly hard; humans are social animals, after all. During such times, I’ve needed a friendly face or a shoulder to cry on: when my family and friends aren’t available, virtual YouTubers have been my port of call. Call it a parasocial relationship, call it being a simp, call it what you will, but such Hololive streamers as Usada Pekora and Houshou Marine have been my absolute rock in 2020, and I don’t think that’ll change any time soon.

  • Studio MAPPA (Industry)

No studio has dominated 2020 quite like Studio MAPPA. Part of that is because many of them shut down over the summer due to the Coronavirus, either delaying or postponing projects, but not MAPPA: they kept on going, putting out high-quality animation like it was nobody’s business. From original series The Gymnastics Samurai to highly anticipated adaptations such as The God of High School and Jujutsu Kaisen, the team’s tireless efforts made a truly terrible year into one filled with exciting moments and wonderful escapism, week after week. Cheers.

Anime titles of Studio MAPPA

  • Dr. STONE (Manga)

The great thing about serialized media such as manga is that things can change gradually over a long period. Of course, that means that series can go downhill, but they can also improve drastically over the course of a year: Dr. STONE is one such series. I’ve always been a fan of Riichiro Inagaki and Boichi’s scientific Weekly Shonen Jump series, but the introduction of Xeno has given it a new lease of life and revived some of its best philosophical elements. Chainsaw Man would’ve been the obvious choice for my manga pick of 2020, but I’d prefer to direct people’s attention to this old favorite, if you’ve by any chance fallen behind in the past couple of months.

Patrick St Michel

  • YOASOBI – ‘Yoru Ni Kakeru’ (Music)

One of 2020’s breakout J-pop singles says a lot about where the Japanese music industry (and country itself) is at right now. Part of the charm of this duo’s debut single comes from how its jaunty melody conceals darker lyrics, culminating in (spoiler) the protagonist throwing themselves off the top of a building. That’s heavy, but it’s also a more realistic mood of how people here have felt over the last few years, and pop music has started reflecting that shift. Some of the biggest acts of the year (Yorushika, Zutomay, Yama) dwell on more downer topics in their work, connecting with listeners facing similar anxiety regarding tomorrow in their own lives. There remains plenty of room to give into happiness (see the other huge hit of 2020, NiziU’s ‘Make you happy’) but now there’s room for something a little less upbeat.

Just as importantly, YOASOBI managed to make a hit that existed entirely online. ‘Yoru Ni Kakeru’ never came out as a physical single, which is how most big Japanese songs have arrived over the prior decades, even as CDs went out of style in favor of digital. The market has been slowly shifting towards a more web-first approach for the last few years, but YOASOBI managing to go massive primarily through YouTube, subscription streaming, and a little TikTok manage with zero plastic in sight marks the moment J-pop finally embraced the realities of the 21st century.

  • Hololive English (Culture)

Watching an anime shark-girl cover a city pop staple alongside thousands upon thousands of other people wasn’t where I expected my year to go, but am I happy it did. In September, virtual YouTuber agency Hololive introduced Hololive English, a set of folks playing video games and generally being charming over YouTube livestream via digital avatar in English. That followed several years of Japanese VTubers rising up to online prominence and expanding to Indonesia and China. And here I was, in the fall, tuning into the first stream from nautical-themed VTuber Gawr Gura and seeing her plunge into Tatsuro Yamashita’s ‘Ride On Time.’ Hooked me in!

It might seem oddball at first glance, but the rise of VTubers (a concept pioneered in Japan by personalities such as Kizuna AI) signals a major shift for Japanese pop culture abroad. These online personalities are huge, with YouTube reporting steady growth in how many views they get month to month, and some pulling in millions of dollars via the video site’s superchat function. Just as important, something like Hololive English represents a change in how Japanese entertainment engages with the world. Rather than be shut off and hard to access, it invites people all over the globe to participate and even influence what happens. There’s a collaborative spirit running through this lane of entertainment long missing from other corners of Japanese media, and seeing it gain momentum points towards a bright future for the country’s pop exports, whether a shark singing city pop is part of it or not.

  • Miki Matsubura Goes Viral On TikTok (Culture)

Late Japanese pop artist Miki Matsubura’s 1979 debut single ‘Mayonaka No Door / Stay With Me’ has been a celebrated city pop song for years and has enjoyed newfound appreciation online as that whole genre of Japanese has been discovered by listeners around the world. Yet it morphed into something totally different near the end of 2020, thanks to multiple TikTok memes using the song (including a particularly wholesome one spotlighted above). Matsubura had herself a viral hit, going as far as to top Spotify’s Global Viral Top 50 chart for weeks.

It’s a delightful little story, a short-form update on how ‘Plastic Love’ became inescapable on YouTube a few years ago. Yet it’s also one final bright note to end 2020 on as Japanese pop culture turns to face the world. The reason it became a viral hit was because Matsubura’s entire discography went up on subscription streaming last year, helping spread it to new ears around the globe. Then, those who found it transformed it into something new. This is how culture works now, and here’s an example of a Japanese song benefitting from it… though it won’t be the last, I think.

Alicia Haddick

  • Online Concerts Providing Joy and Accessibility (Music)

As the world retreated indoors and our methods of in-person communication rapidly decreased, online events became a source of joy amidst the bleakness of 2020. From conventions to musical concerts to brand-new online-only events like Comic VKet, one of the few bright spots of 2020 was how the veil of darkness that was this past twelve months could be somewhat lifted by alternative forms of online events and gatherings.

I want to bring up online music concerts as a particular highlight here. The thing I appreciated most about online live events is that, particularly for Japanese artists, it was an opportunity for many to ‘attend’ these events they otherwise wouldn’t be able to either because of cost or geography. Living outside of Japan has always been an insurmountable barrier to investing in Japanese music when concerts, much of the merchandizing, and other events are Japan-only. It can also feel somewhat isolationist when placed alongside K-pop’s unstoppable rise to dominance, fueled by openness and accessibility.

Online concerts rebalanced the books by allowing for more people to attend concerts, making the industry more accessible and taking advantage of the online-only nature for unique spectacles. My favorite? Well, I’d be remiss not to mention Momoiro Clover Z somewhere in my best-of-year awards! Their Natsu no Bakasawagi concert, which turned a summer resort into a musical journey that even took them out to sea, was the best not just for the event itself but for the friends I got to watch the concert with online. I also enjoyed their recent technology-infused PLAY event, alongside CY8ER’s 1-hour YouTube live and Team Shachi’s crowdfunded streaming spectacle show.

  • Deca-Dence: A Joyous Anime of the Year (Anime)

I don’t want to spend too much time here discussing Deca-Dence after writing about the show weekly as it aired last year, but it is without a doubt one of my 2020 highlights.

Deca-Dence was my favorite anime of the year, without a shadow of a doubt. Starting strong and never letting up as time went on, over the course of twelve episodes this anime succeeded in weaving together a clever, thoughtful sci-fi anime experience that betrayed your expectations for the better at every turn. Not only that, every voice-acting performance was well-delivered and helped us to more easily invest in these characters, while animation for the show was, at times, superb.

Whether I could call this the definitive anime of 2020 is hard to say when I know there are a few major releases I’ve yet to watch. Still, I would be surprised if any of these shows could beat out Deca-Dence in terms of quality, or feel more fitting and representative in terms of content to a year like 2020.

  • A Final Farewell of a Master Director (Film)

April brought with it the death of master Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi, following a long battle with cancer. Long outliving his terminal diagnosis, the director’s final film served as a fitting culmination of the man’s decades-long career while celebrating a medium he helped define and is now under-threat.

Labyrinth of Cinema, the final film of Nobuhiko Obayashi, is a journey through time, told through the medium of the cinema screen. The resulting 3-hour spectacle redefines many of Obayashi’s defining creative techniques, such as his heavy use of artificial set design and green screen, to create a pseudo-lecture on the nature of war and the power of the big screen to define our understanding of self and history, and the power he has wielded that the next generation will now burden themselves with. It’s also a celebration of movies in a year movie theaters around the world are under threat. Much-needed to remind us of the magic these theaters can provide.

From the gluttony of online film festivals I had the chance to attend this year, this movie was a personal highlight, and I’m glad I had the chance to experience it, even if I missed out on the big-screen experience this film clearly deserves. Following a Japanese release this year, I hope more people have the chance to experience this film in 2021.

Corey Prasek

What can I say… 2020 has been a whirlwind of a year, and now that it’s over and I’m looking back on it, it wasn’t all bad. Here are three of the things that I really enjoyed about 2020.

  • NiziU’s Debut (Music)

For starters, NiziU has consumed me. The nine-member girl group, which is a joint project by JYP Entertainment and Sony Music Japan, has become a force to be reckoned with and they still haven’t released a proper album. They had a fantastic performance at this year’s Kohaku Uta Gassen and I look forward to seeing what they’ll be doing in 2021. If 2020 is anything to go off of for these nine girls, there are bright things in the future for everyone.

NiziU Japanese Girl Band
  • Densha De Go!’s Comeback (Games)

Next up we have a PlayStation 4 release that honestly took me by surprise when I saw the announcement back in August, and that is the release of Taito and Square Enix’s Densha de Go!! Hashirou Yamanotesen. The game is essentially an arcade perfect port of the Yamanote Line portion of the game. The graphics for the title are photo-realistic and there are a number of trains that you can enjoy. My only gripe about the game is that it really is about the Yamanote line in Tokyo. It will be interesting to see if Taito and Square Enix release DLC for the title in 2021.

  • beatmania IIDX 28 BISTROVER hits arcades (Games)

Last but not least, we have the annual release of my favorite title of all time, Beatmania IIDX. This year’s theme is bistro cafes and traveling the world, so Konami decided to aptly name the title Beatmania IIDX 28 BISTROVER. The new version sees a lot of behind-the-scene changes that are primarily for the Lightning Model cabinets, thanks to their built-in touch panel display. As with each version of IIDX that gets released, there is a plethora of new songs that get added to the title and I would be remiss to say that BISTROVER has one of the best soundtracks that has been in a IIDX game in quite some time.

Eddie Lehecka


Over the years, not much has been released in the way of truly obtainable merch for the MOTHER/EarthBound franchise, much to the dismay of fans. This year that changed thanks to Shigesato Itoi’s Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun, most commonly known as HOBONICHI, and their year-long celebration of the franchise. Starting out with just a vague announcement for a series of books containing the scripts from each of the games, this quickly spiraled into new premium merch, a comic anthology featuring submissions from a global selection of artists, a pair of exhibitions at Shibuya’s PARCO complex, and re-releases of classic (and rare) fan-favorite items. As a massive fan of the MOTHER/EarthBound franchise, seeing the series get any kind of love is always an absolute joy to me. Thankfully, the project hasn’t officially ended yet, so there may still be more on the horizon in 2021, and I’ll definitely be the first in line if and when more gets announced.

  • Yakuza: Like A Dragon (Games)

I had to think really long and hard about this one, especially since I didn’t actually start playing the game until about a month ago. Originally, Animal Crossing held this spot for my 2020, but the more I play through YAKUZA 7 the more I find myself truly preferring it over everything else I played this year. Ichiban Kasuga and his motley crew of reluctant heroes have charmed me with a delightful script, taking the Yakuza franchise away from its home, a competent and enjoyable RPG system, and all the familiar humorous trappings of Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s flagship franchise. I still have a bit to go before I finish my first full playthrough of the game, but I find it harder and harder to put down each time I progress.

Ichiban Kasuga from Yakuza Like a Dragon
©SEGA. All rights reserved.
  • Netflix’s Original Anime Lineup (Anime)

Despite all the anime we cover here on OTAQUEST, I admittedly don’t keep up with a lot of stuff that’s currently airing. Because of my schedule and overwhelming amount of other hobbies, I really have to pick & choose the first run anime I watch throughout the year. This year I didn’t find myself picking up any of the seasonal anime that debuted, but I was absolutely hooked on Netflix’s output. Maybe it was the amount of time I saved not going out during the pandemic, but I managed to complete more anime series this year on Netflix than I have on any other platform in the past decade. Standouts in my eyes included BEASTARS, Dorohedoro, BNA Brand New Animal, Great Pretender, and Aggretsuko Season 3, and that’s just a sampling of the things I kept up with. They’ve already promised some great-looking stuff in 2021 (with BEASTARS Season 2 starting in Japan this week) so I’m looking forward to what’s coming next.

Callum May

  • Final Fantasy VII Remake (Games)

In a year of big ambitious games failing to meet expectations, it was refreshing to have Final Fantasy VII Remake release as polished as it did. In 1997, Tetsuya Nomura worked as a character designer, storyboard artist, and writer on the original Final Fantasy VII, and so it only seemed fitting that he’d be the one to return to direct the remake. While we often talk about him as a wild storyteller, he has the sensibilities of an artist and thus was able to update the cast and world of Midgar in a way that still feels uniquely stylish. Every part of re-exploring Midgar is a thrill, and both returning veterans and new faces worked to enhance and reimagine the original PS1 title. I’m particularly impressed by how a new team of musicians worked to take Nobuo Uematsu’s vision to new heights. It’s still recognizable but now has the ability to drive the story, rather than just accompany it. Final Fantasy VII Remake felt impossible, but now we know the artists, designers and musicians who could change that.

  • My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead To Doom (Anime)

It feels somewhat strange to go from Final Fantasy VII Remake to My Next Life as a Villainess because Villainess is in no way the lavish artistic achievement that Square Enix accomplished. In fact, if it was any other year, I’d be talking about Great Pretender or Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!. But 2020 was a depressing year, and this was exactly the sort of show it needed. An otome fan has been isekai’d into the body of the villainess from her favourite game, knowing that her future is doomed. In trying to avoid her fate, she works through a series of elaborate schemes. However, what she doesn’t realize is that her selfless kindness and optimism had already saved her long ago. It’s a charming comedy about the benefits of kindness, and that’s exactly what we needed this year.

Katarina Claes from anime My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead To Doom
© 山口悟・一迅社/はめふら製作委員会
  • 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim (Games)

It’s hard to say whether George Kamitami is a better artist or storyteller. While a lot of 2D artists have gone on to create 3D models, Kamitami created his company Vanillaware that let him continue to focus on 2.5D animation and 2D fantasy background art. At the same time, Kamitami came to be recognized as a writer as well, particularly on Odin Sphere. His capabilities have evolved even further in the past decade, leading to Vanillaware’s most ambitious project yet, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. This adventure game tells a complex science fiction story from the perspectives of thirteen different characters who each explore a different sub-genre. Despite its complexity, the result is one of the best-written games of the year, packaged alongside cool ATB-like tactical mecha battles.

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