Winter Overview 2021 Part 1: The Return of the Familiar

With so many series returning for new seasons/cours this winter, the writers at Anime UK News have decided to devote a separate article to them! Join us as we ask if the new episodes lived up to the promise of the originals – or have let the side down badly. All bets are off!

Let us know what you thought too: agree or disagree?

Demelza

When we first started the Winter season I was overjoyed by the amount of anime making a return for a second or third season, but sadly they didn’t all live up to my expectations. Most notably, The Promised Neverland Season 2. Now in fairness to it, there were rumours about the introduction of anime-original content before it began airing, but I don’t think that prepared for me for the substantial changes we saw happen.

Having escaped from Grace Field, Emma and her friends now have to find a safe place to stay before they go back to rescue the younger kids they left behind. Their journey leads them to meeting new friends and foes alike, but if you’re familiar with the manga you’ll quickly realise that we’re not meeting all the same characters as we did in the source material. It wasn’t long before it became clear that The Promised Neverland Season 2 was skipping and changing arcs to suit its needs.

Unfortunately this led to the series completely removing a beloved character and one of the better storylines to come after Season 1.  While things tied together more or less okay in the end, I was saddened to see the very final moments of the series reduced to being a slide show (one which even included an image referencing an earlier plot point the anime removed!). For me how they chose to conclude the anime didn’t have as much oomph as the manga did either, which is a huge shame.

Having said all that, it’s not like the manga was perfect either. If the anime had fully committed to going original rather than chopping and changing content to fit, I think it would have been far better. I certainly wouldn’t have minded something drastically altered as long as it was good, but it’s clear there was hesitance in completely detaching itself from the manga’s storyline.

Overall I think anime-only viewers will be happier with this season than those who have read the manga. I think if you have existing knowledge of the story, the anime does nothing but disappoint, sadly.

Honestly, when it comes to the sequel shows, my favourite ended up being Re:Zero Season 2 Part 2. After taking a break from our screens for a season, the show came back with a bang and immediately started unravelling Emilia’s history as she and Subaru fought for a way out of the sanctuary they were trapped in.

It’s fair to say that we’ve been in this arc of the series for a very long time now. This is the same arc that Season 2 started with and in places it has been slow to move toward its goals. However, all of that paid off in Season 2 where we got to learn so much more about Emilia, Roswaal and even Otto. (Who ever expected Otto to have a moving backstory?!). Re:Zero is always at its best when it’s tugging at your heartstrings or ending each episode with an evil cliffhanger and that’s what this part of the series capitalised on.

Another benefit this time around is the fact the season concludes in a much better place than Season 1. This arc is wrapped up and there isn’t anything in particular that we desperately need to see more of, so if there aren’t any further seasons anytime soon it won’t be as frustrating as the gap after Season 1 was (although at least the books are available in English now if you do want to see more). I’m just happy that this one didn’t disappoint!

The Promised Neverland is streaming on Funimation and Crunchyroll and Re:Zero Season 2 Part 2 is streaming on Crunchyroll.

Josh A. Stevens

If an anime has a eyebrow-raising concept, there’s a good chance that not only will I take a chance on it that few others will, but I’ll come to love it. That’s why in the past, I’ve been known for my fondness for monster girl titles like Monster Musume, and the absolutely bonkers singing-lesbians-punching-God that is Symphogear. Back in 2018, I came across a little series by the name of Umamusume: Pretty Derby, a sports series that anthropomorphises famous Japanese racehorses as high school girls. I know the face you’re probably making right now, but bear with me. Back then I thought it was a quirky series with a lot of heart, but ultimately, it was just good – neither terrible, nor amazing. Jump forward almost three years later, however, and Umamusume: Pretty Derby has returned in such unexpectedly spectacular form that all of my expectations were completely blown away.

Tokai Teio, one of Team Spica’s youngest members and a secondary character last season, takes centre stage this time as we follow her racing high school career. She’s an up-and-coming prodigy with excitement buzzing around her as she approaches the ultimate goal of any horse girl: becoming a legendary Triple Crown winner like her hero (and student council president) Symboli Rudolf. When injury strikes and threatens her racing career, however, Tokai Teio’s sparkly enthusiasm falters as she must re-evaluate her dreams, and what’s worth racing for.

Tokai Teio from the anime Uma Musume: Pretty Derby. A young high school girl, with a big smile as she holds her hands behind her head. She has long, red hair with a white fringe at the front.

Umamusume: Pretty Derby‘s second season is fundamentally about loss, and how we pick ourselves up after even our most cherished dreams are denied. That sounds like a theme too heavy to be handled sensitively by a series that turned Japan’s most celebrated racehorses into anime girls, yet here we are. Umamusume: Pretty Derby is a sports anime that knows the exhilarating highs of winning, the crushing lows of losing, and the expectations placed on competitors, told through its cast of charming characters and their surprisingly detailed character arcs.

Tokai Teio is not only the personification of a racehorse, but of bubbly enthusiasm and joy itself (with an adorable and brilliant vocal performance by Japanese singer Machico). Basically, she’s like someone asked “What if a shonen protagonist was unbearably cute?”, which is why it hurts so much to hear her struggle and cry when she falls, but also makes us want to rally behind her and cheer twice as loud when she gets back up again. She’s not the only horse girl in this race though, and her story is made all the better thanks to her rivalry with Mejiro McQueen, the other Team Spica rookie, who was largely the victim of senior Gold Ship’s bizarre pranks in the first season. There are countless rivalries in anime, but what sets apart Teio and McQueen, is how the ways they encourage, inspire and support each other are baked into every facet of the series, through their respective highs and lows. They’re more than friends but something different to lovers, and it honestly made me long for someone like that in my life.

Umamusume: Pretty Derby stands out not only for its examination of loss, but of winning as well. No discussion of the series would be complete without Rice Shower, a timid girl who’s afraid to race not because she fears losing, but because of how others react when she wins at the expense of the favourite. On the surface that may sound like Rice Shower’s full of herself, yet she’s anything but. In most sports anime the audience are mere decoration and their applause is merely a blur of sound-bites that adds to the atmosphere. However, fans are a major part of any sport. They come to watch their side win and aren’t happy when that doesn’t happen (something the British are embarrassingly well aware of!). Big upsets where the underdog defies all odds are a staple in sports stories, but Umamusume: Pretty Derby shines a surprising perspective on a girl who feels unable to celebrate her own hard-earned triumphs. The episodes focusing on Rice Shower are powerful, and the highlights of the wider anime season for me (it also helps that Rice Shower is a precious cinnamon bun!).

Rice Shower, a young girl from the anime Umamusume. She's short with long black hair, and wears a black hat with a blue flower on it. She's emotional, saying no-one's happy when she races, because even if she wins, it's seen as a disappointment.

I saw some initial concern when it was revealed that the series’ primary production was shifting from the celebrated P.A. Works to relative unknown Studio Kai (7SEEDS), but not only are the former studio still very much involved (with director Kei Oikawa of OreGairu fame returning to the helm), but Umamusume: Pretty Derby Season 2 was clearly made with love. Between the emotional highs and lows of the story, I was regularly caught off-guard by brilliant recurring visual gags, and I really appreciated the extra thought that went into the series’ ending themes. Updating a theme song’s visuals to reflect changes in the story isn’t uncommon and Umamusume: Pretty Derby knew when to do that to maximise emotional impact, but I never expect a series to go through the effort of changing the verses of a duet so a certain character’s visuals and lyrics appeared first! My only real criticism of the series’ production would be the CG animation used for the wider racing shots, as they’re noticeably jarring when close-ups (and the rest of the series) are in 2D. Still, a surprising level of effort clearly went into the small, meaningful details that other series just wouldn’t have bothered with.

With this season absolutely packed to the brim with highly anticipated, exciting anime like Attack On Titan Final Season and Re:Zero -Starting Life in Another World, it’s no surprise that this one has fallen under the radar, with many not even knowing it exists. Those aforementioned series have been fantastic and wowed me in their own ways, but Umamusume: Pretty Derby is the biggest surprise of the season in my book. Its earnest and emotional story grabbed me like no other anime this season, regularly leaving me asking how a show about anime horse girls can make me cry, and I’ve rewatched the finale multiple times in awe at its ability to sweep me up in the atmosphere, making me cheer and cry for Tokai Teio. Umamusume: Pretty Derby has no right to be this good, but I’m so glad it is. It’s a tragedy that this series has been so overlooked, because Umamusume: Pretty Derby is my clear anime of the season, and it honestly deserves to be an early Anime of the Year contender. Yes, the show about the anime horse girls.

If you’re interested in the unusual surprise that is Umamusume: Pretty Derby, as curious as you may be, I’d advise against reading up about the real-life racehorses before watching – not only is the series faithful to their real-life race records, but… this world is a lot more ideal than the realities of horse-racing.

Umamusume: Pretty Derby is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

HWR

When it comes to continuations in anime, I couldn’t have asked for anything more than what Non Non Biyori Nonstop delivered.

This third season does well to reinforce what makes the series as pleasant and fun as it is, all whilst giving the small town setting some new and familiar faces to interact with. The introduction of a new character in Akane ended up working well, whilst a returning Honoka, who previously appeared way back in Season 1, allowed for a satisfying reunion and proper farewell with Renge.

This season also wasn’t afraid to reinforce some of the more peculiar humour Non Non Biyori can provide, perhaps the most notable being an episode involving an animatronic plushie of Komari riding a dog which ends up roaming the countryside and uttering its catchphrase “I am Koma Plushie!”.

Overall, Nonstop provides a strong third season and continuation for the overall series – hopefully a fourth isn’t too far off!

On the topic of working on the strengths of a series, Dr. STONE: Stone Wars also impressed me with how solid (no pun intended) its second season was.

The first season of Dr. Stone for me started out a bit weak but by the conclusion was an enjoyable enough story that I was curious to see develop further. Stone Wars does just that, as we bear witness to Senku and his allies preparing for war against Tsukasa and his underlings.

The process of actually doing so involved plenty of fascinating inventions familiar to us but new to those within the series, and their reactions made for some great moments – especially with Kaseki and his infatuation with the heavy vehicle dubbed the “Steam Gorilla”.

As the climax came into play we got some new revelations and a look to the future of the story, for which we’ll be seeing a third season soon. All in all, Stone Wars impressed me and highlighted the strengths of the stories’ fun concepts whilst also managing some emotionally satisfying moments as well.

True Cooking Master Boy has had its moments, delivering a serviceable but unremarkable second season and Yatogame-Chan, Kansatsu Nikki, a short-form anime provided another set of stories in its third series which were about what I expected overall – fun little moments and some new additions to the cast.

Non Non Biyori Nonstop is available to watch on Crunchyroll & HIDIVE, whilst Dr. STONE: Stone Wars is streaming on both Crunchyroll and Funimation.

Paul

At the moment, I’m approaching new anime seasons with “wait and see” as my mantra; wait and see what my fellow anime fans think first, and let them be my poison tasters for once! So, of course, I’ve seen hundreds of fans scratching at their throats and screaming out in pain over The Promised Neverland’s second season, but what the heck about Dr. STONE: STONE WARS, guys?

In a season dominated by sequels to popular series, Dr. STONE seems, to me at least, like it’s flown under the radar of many, and I just wanted to join HWR in both praising its return and by adding my own, rather bold, take:

Dr. STONE is the best (anime series) of Shonen Jump’s latest generation (and I’m lumping Demon Slayer and My Hero Academia into that too), with STONE WARS being the emotional culmination of the story’s 35 episodes so far!

It is Senku’s Kingdom of Science versus Tsukasa’s Empire (of strength). Senku is the main character of course, so it’s really no surprise how this ends up, but it’s nevertheless a really interesting journey: one with a tank made out of paper no less, but beyond the ever delightful fun with science, there’s a fascinating debate being played out too.

In the Stone World, there is no law or government, and each person can choose where they draw the line, what’s acceptable from what’s despicable, and quite frankly, what’s worth dying for! So, if you could build the world anew, what would you do? The season ends with what feels like a nod to great grandad One Piece: Senku is staring into the unknown and setting sail into a new world, all with a smile. Him and me both.

Onosume

There’s maybe no other perfect way of seeing through the cold winter nights than snuggling up on the sofa, all nice and comfy with some hot chocolate or a good cup of tea, and my favourites from this year’s Winter season delivered exactly that sort of feeling.

I must admit I was rather late to the party with Laid Back Camp, only catching up on the first season before this latest one aired, yet I quickly fell in love with Nadeshiko, Rin and the rest of the gang and their comfy camping adventures. While I’m hardly an outdoorsy person and the thought of being out in a tent all night grips me with fear, the overall relaxing tone of the anime and its sense of discovery and adventure still managed to swaddle me in a comforting blanket of goodness.

This second season is pretty much more of the same, but with plenty of growth for the characters as we begin to see them step out of their comfort zones. Nadeshiko ventures out on her own on her first solo camping trip (although she’s not quite as alone as she thinks she is!); Chiaki, Aoi and Ena embark on a potentially perilous trip to Lake Yamanaka; while Rin, who is still very much a lone wolf, joins the gang on their trip through the Izu peninsula and really starts to open up to her friends. Rin’s family also get some additional backstory which was nice to see, as I love Rin’s grandfather in particular, who continues to be a delightful old chap whom you can tell cares a lot for his granddaughter.

You also get a sense of the show broadening its horizons, as it indulges not only in the delightful interactions between the characters, but in Japan’s amazing scenery as well. It’s always been a pretty show in that regard, but the Izu trip in last few episodes in particular really rekindled my wanderlust by showcasing one of my favourite parts of the country, having visited Uchiura a couple of years ago now. And even if you haven’t visited, it really drives home the feeling that driving round the Izu coast would indeed be a fantastic experience with lots to see and do.

So even if the idea of camping fills you with dread, Laid Back Camp offers a delightfully comfy experience where you can snuggle up and experience the wilds of Japan from your own sofa with the cutest bunch of high school girls around. And just remember – drink responsibly!

I also found solace this season with Non Non Biyori: Nonstop, which continues to be a hilarious ride through the Japanese countryside with Renge and the gang.

While I still very much love this show, I felt that this season wasn’t quite as good as its predecessors due to its rather exclusive focus on Renge, or at least seeing events from her perspective. It genuinely understands that she is the most beloved character and is rather the backbone of the whole thing, but I personally find it works best when all of the characters come together and drive interactions that make it a more satisfying whole. As much as I enjoy belting out a “nyanpasu”, becoming “The Renge Show” was not really the way I wanted this to finish. Nevertheless, I did end up shedding some tears as she is reunited with Honoka, the girl she meets in the first season (and became a viral hit with, with Dr. Nyanpasu).

Despite that complaint, there’s still a lot of good content, from the long through-line with Konomi and her friend Akane’s flute practice, to the entire gang going on a camping trip (hmm, there’s a bit of a theme here…), and Hotaru accidentally sending one of her Komari plushies riding around the village on a robot dog.

With the manga now finished, the anime also comes to a nice ending with Suguru’s graduation ceremony, set against the backdrop of the birth of new girl Shiori’s baby sister. It all comes round in a nice little cycle that says that even if something ends, something else begins anew, and it’s a nice little message to send us off with. So, even if that ends up being our lot with this series, I think everyone will be left feeling rather satisfied with how it turned out.

Laid Back Camp Season 2 and Non Non Biyori: Nonstop are both available for streaming on Crunchyroll.

Cold Cobra

In the Autumn Round-up I talked about Jujutsu Kaisen and expressed worry that the second half was going to be a Tournament Arc, but I’m happy to say that this fear wasn’t needed as once again the series managed to side-step the biggest clichés and still deliver some great action and humour.

The story arc kicks off with an opening round that is pretty much a “capture the flag” style team competition between “our” school of Tokyo Jujutsu Tech and their rival equivalent in Kyoto, except with an enemy to defeat instead of a flag to capture. That being said, both sides are encouraged to fight team members on the opposing side in order to hamper their efforts, made even worse when Kyoto’s head pretty much straight up tells his students to kill series protagonist Yuji Itadori due to the whole “having a powerful demon sealed inside him” thing he has going on. So while it isn’t a traditional bracketed tournament, we do soon see pairs of people from each school square off and fight one-on-one, complete with some flashbacks to establish some of them more firmly. A basic premise, but one that still breaks free from tradition, and frankly the animation was top-notch, so I was fine with it! Yuji fights and then bonds with the extra-powerful (and extra-eccentric) Kyoto student Aoi Todo, whom I’ll admit to strongly disliking in the previous half of the series, but he quickly grew on me as he repeatedly said phrases like “My brother!” and “My Best Friend!” in English all the time…

The tournament comes to a crashing halt when an extremely strong Curse (the series’ catch-all name for the demons) ruins the proceedings, but that just leads to some even greater fighting. The last few episodes form a mini-arc as well that helps give our lead trio a bit more personality. Overall the series managed to continue the hype and goodwill it built up during its first thirteen episodes and deserves every bit of momentum it now possesses, with not only a second season in the works but a movie (based on the original manga mini-series) no less.

The other series I’ll talk about is Attack on Titan’s Final Season… Part 1. Ignoring this slight misdirection (which to be fair they also did for Season 3, airing two halves a year apart but calling it one season rather than just admitting it’s clearly two…) the series certainly went in an odd direction to begin with…

At the end of Season 3 we finally found out the truth about the wider world that the characters of Attack of Titan are a part of, and, my oh my, what a different show it became almost immediately. The first few episodes feature pretty much an entirely new cast in a foreign country to what we saw in the three seasons prior, and we discover that the Eldians (people who share the same blood as those we’ve been seeing on what is now known as “Paradis Island”) are treated in a rather shocking manner by the people of Marley, the country that is responsible for Titans attacking the Paradis Walls, among a lot more backstory than I have time to write here. They’re wearing Jews-in-Nazi-Germany-style armbands to show what blood they carry and are routinely spat on by Marleyans, despite the fact that their ability to transform into the Titans has been the country’s main method of defending themselves for many years. We focus in on a trio of children who are training to take control of one of the Titans due to the age-limit placed on anyone who gains their power, and when the people of Paradis attack Marley, it’s seen through the eyes of these children and it’s shot very much as if the people we’ve been following are the villains of the piece.

Eventually we pop back in time and across the sea to discover just how our island nation went from never having seen the ocean to crossing it in large airships in just three years, and an interesting tale it is too. Without wanting to spoil too much, I’ll say that our lead cast are moving in unpredictable directions and it will be interesting to see if certain plot points get followed through to their natural end or not as the final half of the final season airs in the next Winter line-up… If I don’t give in and read the manga in the intervening year, anyway…

Jujutsu Kaisen is streaming on Crunchyroll and Attack on Titan is streaming on both Crunchyroll and Funimation.

And in case you’re wondering what we thought at Anime UK News about the new shows of the Winter season, look out for Part 2!

Sarah

Sarah's been writing about her love of manga and anime since Whenever - and first started watching via Le Club Dorothée in France...

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Demelza

When she's not watching anime, reading manga or reviewing, Demelza can generally be found exploring some kind of fantasy world and chasing her dreams of being a hero.

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HWR

HWR enjoys anime and manga alongside a love for film, gaming, Classic Doctor Who and electronic music from the likes of Depeche Mode and more.

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Onosume

With a chant of "Ai-katsu!", Matthew Tinn spends their days filled with idol music and J-Pop. A somewhat frequent-ish visitor to Japan, they love writing and talking about anime, Japanese music and video games.

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Ian Wolf

Ian works as an anime and manga critic for Anime UK News, and is also the manga critic for MyM Magazine. Outside of anime, he also is the editor of On The Box, data specialist for the British Comedy Guide, is QI's most pedantic viewer, has written questions for both The Wall and Richard Osman's House of Games, and has been a contestant on Mastermind.

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Josh A. Stevens

Reviewing anime by moonlight, working in film by daylight, never running out of things to write, he is the one named Josh A. Stevens.

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Cold Cobra

Having watched anime since it was airing late night on the Sci-Fi channel in the late 90s, I consider myself... someone who's watched a lot of anime, and then got hired to write reviews about them. Hooray!

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Paul

Washed up on the good shores of Anime UK News after many a year at sea, Paul has been writing about anime for a long time here at AUKN and at his anime blog.

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