Summer 2020’s anime season is a rare beast in that the average person could conceivably sample every new show. Such a feat usually requires superhuman levels of free time — 2019’s summer season featured, by one count, 33 new TV shows, while 2020, by comparison, boasts a “mere” 17.
It’d be nice to say this consolidation was due to some industry-wide “quality over quantity” epiphany, but the real cause of this year’s compact summer season is — you guessed it — COVID-19.
You’d think that animation production would be unaffected by the pandemic — unlike live-action shows, there are no sets populated with cast and crew members in close quarters. But Japan’s animation industry has faced its own challenges during the pandemic. Pure pencil-to-paper animation remains the same as it ever was, but other pieces of the puzzle are moving more slowly than usual: Shipments from subcontractors in China and South Korea, for example, nearly ground to a halt in April; voice-recording sessions are now done one actor at a time rather than in groups. And because the industry is so interconnected, with studios regularly contracting parts of their shows out to each other, a single problem can create an industry-wide bottleneck.
In a business already known for its in-under-the-wire deadlines, the pandemic has inevitably caused production delays as well. Many of the shows airing this summer were originally meant for spring, and many summer shows have been bumped to fall or later.
Despite the aforementioned headaches, this season does boast a decent crop of interesting new shows. One of my favorites so far is “Deca-Dence,” an original series from the new animation studio Nut. Directed by Yuzuru Tachikawa and written by Hiroshi Seko, the duo behind “Mob Psycho 100,” the show takes place in a dystopian future in which Earth’s few remaining humans roam the planet in a huge armored tank called the Deca-Dence, fighting off the monsters that threaten their continued survival. It feels like “Attack on Titan” on wheels, until it doesn’t: A huge curveball in the second episode flips the premise on its head and gives us something far richer and more satisfying. Revealing anything more would bring us into serious spoiler territory, so let’s just say if you’re into heady, conceptual sci-fi (plus sympathetic characters and well-animated action scenes), it’s worth a look.
If the idea of humans on the brink of extinction unable to leave their cramped living quarters hits a bit too close to home, check out the jet-setting “Great Pretender,” a new original from Wit Studio (of “Attack on Titan” fame). In that series, “Ocean’s 11”-style confidence men travel from country to country (remember when you could do that?) tricking bad guys out of their ill-gotten gains and profiting along the way. From the title sequence — which looks as if it could’ve been created by graphic designer Saul Bass — to the swinging jazz score, “Great Pretender” definitely prioritizes style over substance. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary in its double, triple and quadruple crosses, but it is cool to see “The Sting”-like heists in anime form. Bonus points for using a Freddie Mercury song as the ending theme.
Like “Great Pretender,” studio P.A.Works’ series “Appare-Ranman!” also features adventurous Japanese travelers making their way abroad, albeit about 150 years earlier. Originally premiering back in April, “Appare-Ranman!” was hit by COVID-19 delays, and has now been rebooted as a summer series. The show revolves around two men, an inventor and a samurai from the Meiji Era (1868-1912), who find themselves stranded in California and decide to enter a cross-country automobile race in order to earn enough money to get home. Y’know, as you do. Much of the show’s charm comes from the odd couple pairing of eccentric inventor Appare, who has zero time for social niceties, and samurai Kosame, who’s steadfast and loyal but a bit overwhelmed by, well, everything. Viewers who want to get right to racing might find “Appare-Ranman!” slow going (the main race doesn’t kick off until halfway through the show), but I’m all for the slow burn — giving the characters room to grow raises the emotional stakes once things get rolling.
“The God of High School,” on the other hand, bursts from the gate at high speed and only accelerates from there. Its protagonists, teenage competitors in a no-holds-barred, free-for-all martial arts competition (seriously, whose parents would let them participate in such a thing?) can’t even avoid getting into a rip-roaring brawl on their way to the venue. The series had an unusual route to the screen: Based on a South Korean manhwa (comic), it’s produced by U.S.-based anime streaming service Crunchyroll as part of its new slate of original shows. “The God of High School” feels like it has been pieced together from every fighting anime cliche in the book, and features some seriously strange character designs (why are everyone’s ears and noses glowing red as if they’re drunk?), but the series does have some of the most fluid fight sequences I’ve seen in a while, and it’s so packed with energy that it’s pretty much impossible to hate.
There are familiar faces this season, too: continuations of popular shows such as “Re:Zero — Starting Life in Another World,” “Sword Art Online” and “Fire Force.” If you’re interested in the state of modern romance in Japan, you might want to try “Rent-A-Girlfriend,” a show about a college student who, well, rents a girlfriend. And for a dive off the deep end, how about “Super Hxeros,” a show about aliens trying to rob humans of their sexual energy?
As a writer about all things anime, this coronavirus-compacted season is giving me mixed feelings. I feel terrible for all those in the industry who might’ve lost work or have had to adapt to new working situations to bring us fans our cartoons. On the other hand, with the reduced number of shows, I finally feel like I’m not drowning in stuff to keep up with. And I’ve discovered three or four worth watching — not too different a ratio from any “normal” season of anime. Maybe there’s something to this “quality over quantity” idea after all.