With the mainstream popularity of Squid Game taking over the pop culture discourse, this year has undoubtedly cast a global spotlight on South Korean television. Beyond the enduring prominence of addictive soap operas, 2021’s standout K-drama offerings are each underlined by sharp socio-political themes.
And as always, Japanese anime continues to be an endless fount for quality storytelling, delivering several incredible shows that balance visual artistry alongside emotional profundity. Finally, a slew of exciting Southeast Asian shows, ranging from fantasy horror to crime drama, make their marks. These were the 10 best Asian TV series of 2021.
10. Folklore (Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia)
HBO Asia’s first horror anthology series returned this year for an outstanding second season. For its six haunting episodes, showrunner Eric Khoo recruited some of the region’s best genre auteurs: Shih-Han Liao (Taiwan), Seiko Matsuda (Japan), Sittisiri Mongkolsiri (Thailand), Erik Matti (Philippines, also see #6), Billy Christian (Indonesia), and Nicole Midori Woodford (Singapore).
Rooted deeply in Asia’s most prevalent supernatural myths, these new entries aren’t just frightening – they’re emotionally complex cautionary tales that are alternately relatable and bittersweet.
Biggest fan: Horror junkies looking to fill the void left by Channel Zero and Lore.
9. Trese (Philippines)
Adapted from the long-running comic by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo, this animated Netflix series follows Alexandra Trese, a detective and demon hunter who investigates crimes of mystical origin. Much in the vein of Buffy or Hellblazert, this is a supernatural procedural dealing with mythical creatures who have found a home in Metro Manila’s underworld.
Besides its refreshing twists on Filipino mythology, Trese is a propulsive and enthralling fantasy narrative that’s elevated by great world-building, dynamic animation, intriguing mystery and glorious amounts of violence.
Biggest fan: The rabid fandom still crying after the end of Supernatural’s 15-season run.
8. Girl From Nowhere (Thailand)
Nowhere will you find karmic justice as brutal or as satisfying as this Thai anthology series. After finding widespread acclaim outside its home country thanks to Netflix, Girl From Nowhere returned for a second season by popular demand this year.
- READ MORE: How ‘Girl From Nowhere’ season 2 resonates in a Thailand changed by the Bad Students movement
The series follows a frightening supernatural avenger named Nanno, a seemingly immortal girl who transfers to different schools to punish evildoers ranging from sadistic bullies to sexual predators to corrupt teachers. Enacting gruesome vengeance with ghoulish glee, Kitty Chicha Amatayakul remains as creepy as ever.
Biggest fan: Those who consider revenge a dish best served hot and bloody.
7. Vincenzo (South Korea)
Song Joong-ki stars as Vincenzo, a handsome and charismatic attorney from the Italian mafia who’s forced to flee after a mob war. Upon returning home, the morally compromised lawyer becomes entwined with a scrappy law firm run by Hong Yoo-chan (Yoo Jae-myung) and a quirky group of small business owners fighting the evil corporation Babel.
This time, Vincenzo is determined to use his unscrupulous nature and unethical tactics to do some good by taking down corrupt villains within South Korean real estate. Jumping from gangster action to legal drama to revenge thriller, Vincenzo is a constantly enthralling soap opera that’s able to deftly juggle a variety of interesting characters and contrasting tones.
Biggest fan: Better Call Saul and Boston Legal fans who once thought they were too cool for K-dramas.
6. On The Job (Philippines)
Imagine if The Suicide Squad wasn’t silly superhero fun, but instead given the gritty, grounded tone of Narcos. The result would be this gripping tale of corruption and criminality coming out of the Philippines.
- READ MORE: ‘On The Job’ HBO series review: a thrilling descent into the Philippine criminal underworld
Combining and re-editing Erik Matti’s two neo-noir movies (On The Job and its sequel The Missing 8) into six episodes for HBO Asia, this series revolves around prison inmates who are temporarily released and contracted by politicians to assassinate their rivals. Upon completion, they’re taken back into custody to await their next mission. As far-fetched as this premise sounds, many of the episodes are actually based on real stories ripped from the headlines. This slick, tense and violent crime thriller is a must-see.
Biggest fan: Narcos or Training Day obsessives.
5. Wonder Egg Priority (Japan)
This strange, spellbinding anime offers a nuanced exploration of girlhood, survivor’s remorse and trauma. In Wonder Egg Priority, 14-year-old Ai Ohto grieves after the suicide of her only friend Koito, and enters a dream world where she must fight to protect the spirits of dead girls, housed within “Wonder Eggs”.
To help them find peace, Ai must face demons and monsters. In return, the mysterious powers promise to bring Koito back to life. The series’ gorgeous otherworldly battles manifest suicidal ideation as grotesque monsters, offering a playful yet intensely painful deconstruction of ‘magical girl’ anime tropes.
Biggest fan: Weebs craving for the rare isekai that subverts the genre’s annoying tropes.
4. Squid Game (South Korea)
456 desperate people, each drowning in debt, are invited to play a mysterious survival competition called Squid Game in this enthralling, world-conquering South Korean drama. Competing in a series of traditional children’s games but with deadly twists, they put their lives at risk for the chance to win ₩45.6 billion (US$40million).
- READ MORE: ‘Squid Game’ review: child’s play turns deadly in a cutting critique of late-stage capitalism
Directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, Squid Game depicts the desperation of the underclass in late-stage capitalist society, using the stark contrast between childhood innocence and cutthroat greed to explore how – much like in real life – ordinary people can become trapped in a competition rigged and controlled by faceless elites.
Biggest fan: Reality TV and survival competition stans eager for a smarter, non-guilty pleasure.
3. To Your Eternity (Japan)
To Your Eternity is a masterpiece from the first episode. This millenia-spanning story begins when a magical orb is cast onto Earth. It can do two things: change into the forms of beings that it comes across, and never die. Although initially lacking personality and purpose, the orb slowly starts to learn, grow and evolve – eventually taking on different human and animal forms, and adopting the name Fushi.
Through encounters with human kindness, indifference and cruelties, and experiences with pain, hardship, joy and grief – Fushi is irrevocably shaped by the mortals around him. As the narrative carries through eras and centuries, To Your Eternity proves to be an elegant, emotional and epic study of human nature.
Biggest fan: Otakus looking for something fresh in the shonen-dominated anime field.
2. Hellbound (South Korea)
Helmed by Train To Busan director Yeon Sang-ho, this excellent new South Korean fantasy-crime series explores religious zealotry and the media in the midst of a frightening supernatural crisis. The series follows detective Jin Kyung-hoon, who investigates the deaths of ‘sinners’ who have been killed by demonic monsters. Meanwhile, lawyer Min Hey-jin looks into the burgeoning religious cult called New Truth who use the mass hysteria surrounding these otherworldly events to gain power.
- READ MORE: ‘Hellbound’ review: demons rise as religious hysteria descends in this chilling South Korean series
Balancing an engaging ensemble, thoughtful themes, hilarious satire and grisly horror, Hellbound is a complex exploration of good and evil for the (dis)information age. While many other K-dramas have tackled socio-political allegory this year, none has proven to be as harshly reflective of the real world as Hellbound.
Biggest fan: Cynics who (correctly) claim that hell is other people.
1. Odd Taxi (Japan)
Odd Taxi feels like what if the Coen Brothers decided to make an anime about anthropomorphic animals. The series follows Odokawa, a 40-something misanthropic cabbie who spends most of his time having conversations with his passengers about their problems. He’s also a walrus.
Things get more complicated for Odokawa when he becomes a suspect in the disappearance of a teenage girl and inadvertently gets tied to a mob rivalry, a shady idol group, and a cute alpaca nurse selling illegal drugs.
Walking a fine line between the mundane and the absurd, this anime’s exceptionally witty, dialogue-driven storytelling offers sharp explorations of deep-seated emotional and psychological issues. It may seem bizarre that an anime about talking animals could offer the most realistic look into the anxieties of modern life, but that’s exactly the case here. Built upon wry observational humour, seedy character studies and surprisingly intertwining plots – all culminating towards one of the greatest TV twists in recent memory – Odd Taxi is the best Asian series of 2021.
Biggest fan: Those who enjoy debating their cab driver about everything from politics to their personal lives.