mystery

Serial Experiments Lain

Serial Experiments Lain

Slain

  • Trailer: English dubbed trailer
  • What it’s about: Lain is an isolated, troubled girl. At home, her parents and sister barely acknowledge her existence, and at school her only link to her classmates is her friend Alice. Hers isn’t a unique situation, of course – all across the world, people are becoming disconnected from their real lives, in favour of the digital experiences of the Internet. But increasingly strange events seem to point to a deeper connection between Lain and the world of the Wired.
  • Why you should watch it: Lain is a unique experience. It’s a moody, existential work that trusts the audience enough to let them draw their own conclusions about what is going on, about what is real and why things are playing out as they are. The sound design is fantastic, getting a lot of work out of extended silences, and the soundtrack suits the show. The director’s background in Japanese horror shines through in almost every aspect of the show – there are no (or few) “jump scares”, but Lain manages to evoke an intense feeling of isolation and unease. If you’re up for a slow-burning psychological show that presents you with puzzles and questions you’re going to have to spend some time (or a second viewing) unwrapping, give it a go.
  • Caveats: I think the above section should be enough to decide whether to watch the show or not. It is slow-burning, it is existential and philosophical, and there isn’t a lot of traditional anime “action” going on. Decide for yourself if that’s what you’re looking for, because the show makes no apologies.
  • Themes: The division of fantasy and reality is the heart of the show, with a lot of musing going on about the nature of the self – if everyone agrees on the nature of reality, or that you are a certain type of person, can you really dispute those perceptions? Can a person have more than one identity at a time, and deliberately craft those identities to display different aspects of themselves while still remaining whole?
  • Similar works: The works of Satoshi Kon, particularly Paranoia Agent. Texhnolyze, Ergo Proxy.

Sunday Without God

Sunday Without God

sunday without god

  • Trailer: PV Trailer
  • What it’s about: God has abandoned humanity. That’s the assumption, at least, after it becomes apparent that no new children are being born, and nobody currently living is able to move on after they die. Instead, they continue to animate their corpses, existing more or less as they did while alive. The only way out is to be buried by one of the mysterious “Gravekeepers”. In a rural out of the way village, a young girl named Ai takes up the shovel to act as Gravekeeper for her community, without really knowing much about what the job entails.
  • Why you should watch it: The worldbuilding in Sunday Without God is first-rate. The premise alone was enough to get me to start watching, and the first two arcs flesh out the strange new world shared by the living and the dead with an interesting set of characters. When the soundtrack’s good, it’s *really* good – I particularly like the opening sequence, but the score manages to hit the key emotional moments with aplomb. The arc-based storytelling format means that if you don’t like a particular storyline, you can skip ahead a few episodes and pick it up when the cast move on.
  • Caveats: It’s rushed. The first arc alone could have – and probably should have – been given twice the space, and the second is no different. With worldbuilding put first and with so little time to tell each story, character development is largely limited to Ai herself. Each of the arcs leaves you wanting more – which is excellent in one sense but slightly irritating in another.
  • Themes: Growing up and assuming responsibility. Death, and moving on.
  • Similar works: Shinigami no Ballad, Hitsuki no Chaika.

Paranoia Agent

Paranoia Agent

paranoia

  • Trailer: Fan-made English dubbed trailer
  • What it’s about: Tsukiko Sagi, creator of the beloved cartoon character Maromi, is on her way home from work when she’s attacked from behind. The description she gives of her assailant – a young boy with a bent golden baseball bat and inline skates – leads the media to dub him “Shonen Bat” (‘Lil Slugger in the English dub). But while Tsukiko was the first victim, she’s far from the last. The police are put under increasing pressure as more and more people are attacked, with seemingly no connection between the incidents or the people involved.
  • Why you should watch it: Paranoia Agent is the sole foray by the acclaimed director Satoshi Kon into TV anime. It’s a psychological mystery show aimed at an exclusively adult audience, and it isn’t afraid to swim in deeper waters in its content and themes. While loosely episodic, every character’s story ties into the central plot in some fashion, providing different insights into the mystery of Shonen Bat, little snippets of this giant world that you are trying to piece together. In the end, the multiple pieces come together to form something pretty amazing, that may or may not leave a good mark depending on how you enjoyed the rest of the show. The animation and character designs really stand out from the crowd, and Kon’s use of dreamlike sequences, magical realism and blurring the lines between fantasy and reality makes this a surprising and fun watch, especially as the plot comes to a head in the final few episodes. It also has one of the weirdest and most subtly disturbing intros of all time.
  • Caveats: This is a weird show. It doesn’t so much play with your expectations as throw them out and invite you to keep up. Disregarding convention can work really well for some people, but for a general crowd it’s just off-putting, and opinions are split on how well the show treads the line. It can also at times seem like it’s not really going anywhere, particularly with the trio of almost standalone stories in episodes 8-10.
  • Themes: The lies people tell themselves, and the false fronts they put up for others. The way that people tend to seize upon easy solutions and escapes rather than actually solve problems, and the way this comes back to hurt themselves and others. The power that fear, stress, paranoia, gossip and imagination hold over human society, and the way that mass media only heightens the effects. People more familiar than I with Japanese society read it as a condemnation of post-war Japan itself, particularly “kawaii culture” and otaku-ism. There’s a lot of different ways to read the show.
  • Similar works: The works of Haruki Murakami. Wind-up Bird Chronicle and maybe 1Q84 in particular. David Lynch too, now that I think about it. Within anime, look to Kon’s film work, such as Paprika and Perfect Blue, or to psychological shows like Serial Experiments Lain.

Murasakiiro no Qualia

Murasakiiro no Qualia

qualia

  • What it’s about: Have you ever wondered if the “red” that I see is the same as the “red” that you do? These subjective experiences have a name – qualia – and they can define your identity and your limitations. Marii Yukari suffers from an odd condition: she’s utterly unable to distinguish living creatures and people from inanimate objects. To her, her classmates appear to be intricately designed robots. This strangeness has cost her one friend and gained her another. But things take a turn for the weird when it becomes apparent that the “Observer Effect” of quantum physics has broader implications than one might suspect.
  • Why you should read it: The story is actually quite hard to discuss without spoilers, because it’s utterly defined by its second act. That’s not to say that the opening arcs don’t do a good job of setting up the characters and the conflict, it’s just that once you’re past the introduction, Murasakiiro no Qualia ratchets up the stakes so far and so fast that you’ll plough through the last volume or two without stopping at all. If you truly want to see what “making a real effort to solve an intractable problem” looks like, this is the work to try.
  • Caveats: The final few chapters have not yet been translated. The story so far is good enough that you should read it anyway. The technobabble pretends to be scientifically accurate, but don’t take it too seriously.
  • Themes: If you have no limitations, how do you know when to stop? When does a hope become an obsession? The corrupting influence of power, and how our perceptions define our realities. Predestination vs free will. There’s a whole bunch of stuff in here.
  • Similar works: Far and away the closest work to this is Steins;Gate. I’d go so far as to say that they’re really twins separated at birth. Madoka Magica is another anime series worth trying out if you enjoyed this.

Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne

Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne

mnemosyne

  • Trailer: English dubbed trailer
  • What it’s about: The fruits of Yggdrasil float unseen on the winds across Tokyo. Most have no effect, but on rare occasions a person can unknowingly absorb one, becoming immortal. Rin was one such person, and in the years since, she has set up a private detective agency looking to help people with unusual problems. But many seek the immortality that she has gained by accident, and are willing to use any means – technological, biological or otherwise – to achieve their goal.
  • Why you should watch it: Mnemosyne is a thoroughly mature thriller series. Comprising six 45-minute episodes, it’s packed with levels of violence, sex, and gore that would make even HBO proud. The show has a rich and vibrant mythology and its storytelling style is ambitious, refreshingly different. I also quite enjoyed the way that the story spanned over sixty years. It was a nice touch to have the characters age, move on, and die, giving room for the next generation. All except for Rin herself, of course. The English dubbing for the show isn’t half-bad either.
  • Caveats: The soundtrack and fight choreography don’t really do the show much justice. They honestly seem kind of phoned in. The show is unabashedly erotic at parts – don’t watch it with anyone you’d be uncomfortable watching, say, Game of Thrones’ more raunchy scenes by your side. Finally, the violence is used well for shock value to begin with, but it starts edging uncomfortably into “torture porn” at some points.
  • Themes: The search for immortality, contrasted against people wasting their lives or dying early.
  • Similar works: Speed Grapher, Canaan, Kara no Kyoukai

Bakemonogatari

Bakemonogatari

bakemonogatari

  • Trailer: DVD Trailer
  • What it’s about: Koyomi Araragi is not your average student. After surviving a vampire attack, he retains an unusual regenerative ability and a close association with the occult side of everyday life. And so when one of his classmates, an aloof prodigy named Senjougahara, falls into his arms and only seems to weigh less than 5kg, he’s quick to seek out the reasons behind it and to offer his help.
  • Why you should watch it: Bakemonogatari has one of the most unique directorial and cinematographic approaches to animation that I can think of. The already-stylised SHAFT artwork on both characters and backgrounds, the almost exclusive use of jump cuts as transitions (no panning, zooming, etc), the flashes of text and live-action scenes interspersed throughout the episodes, it all comes together to make the show one of the most memorable experiences in recent anime. The dialogue is snappy and naturalistic, the characters are interesting and nuanced, and the humour is perfectly integrated. It’s an incredibly solid show.
  • Caveats: It’s not a straightforward show. The artsiness can be seen as a bit pretentious (though since it reaches and surpasses its artistic pretentions, this isn’t a criticism I’d personally level at it). Make sure to watch the show in the correct order: Bake-, Neko-, Nise-, Monogatari S2, Hane-
  • Themes: Being willing to ask for help – most of the characters end up making their situations worse along the way by refusing to bend their pride and ask for assistance with the problems they’re facing. At the same time, Araragi’s martyr complex is put under the microscope.
  • Similar works: Mekakucity Actors for more a similar visual style. Katanagatari for more of the writer’s dialogue-driven narratives. Noragami also has a lot of similarities, though it replaces the wit with wackiness.

Darker Than Black

Darker Than Black

darkerthanblack

  • Trailer: Fan-made trailer
  • What it’s about: Just over a decade ago, downtown Tokyo was destroyed when a tear in reality opened, warping the space around it and imbuing individuals with impossible abilities. These new talents come with a price, though – an obsessive compulsion unique to each individual that they must carry out after every use. The show is a detective story with a loosely defined continuity, following an agency made up of several such “Contractors” trying to solve the many mysteries that the Gate brought with it.
  • Why you should watch it: It’s a slick, stylish action show with a distinctly noirish vibe to it. The character designs, worldbuilding, and overall “atmosphere” of the show are fantastic, and you want to keep watching to find out where exactly the whole thing is headed. The soundtrack is a melange, drawing excerpts from multiple styles wherever it seems appropriate, just as the story itself is a drawing-together of what, on the surface, appear to be entirely-separate story arcs.
  • Caveats: The characters start off a little bland, and it takes a while to warm up to them and to begin seeing how they deviate from their relevant archetypes. The second season makes some controversial choices and was met with a somewhat mixed reception. Don’t forget to watch the OVAs that bridge the two, it’s not filler.
  • Themes: Power doesn’t so much get rid of your problems, as give you new ones to worry about.
  • Similar works: Outside of anime, I’d say that Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart is pretty similar in style, theme, and plot. Within the medium, Speed Grapher and Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom.

Higurashi

Higurashi

higurashi

  • Trailer: No good ones, sadly. It’s a difficult show to make one for, I suppose
  • What it’s about: On the surface, Hinamizawa is a peaceful idyllic town. Keiichi Maebara certainly agrees, after settling into a new life at school surrounded by young girls. But nothing is as it seems; dark secrets and a string of murders are just the beginning, and it isn’t long before Keiichi is at the centre of a widening gyre of horror, gore, torture and murderous insanity.
  • Why you should watch it: Horror is a difficult genre for animated shows to pull off. The abstraction makes it difficult for the audience to empathise and get into the right state of tension. Higurashi is one of the rare successes, capitalising on a sense of foreboding in the early sections, and then upon its odd format later. The show is broken into a series of arcs, each covering the same time period but from a different perspective. With each “reset”, you know exactly how bad things are going to get, but you don’t know how it’ll get there.
  • Caveats: Do not let yourself be fooled by the first episode. While even the opening episode does drop some hints about what’s to come, it’s still a pretty cutesy-poo way to start for someone expecting a horror. It’s setting the stage, be patient.
  • Themes: Sin and atonement.
  • Similar works: Shiki

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo

gankutsuou

  • Trailer: DVD trailer (poor quality)
  • What it’s about: An anime re-telling of the Andre Dumas “blockbuster” The Count of Monte Cristo, with a few twists. Most prominently, the setting has been changed from Enlightenment-era Europe to a space-faring sci-fi civilisation. Secondly, the point of view character is no longer the Count himself but Albert Morcerf, the young man embroiled in the Count’s schemes for revenge. The shift in perspective and “in media res” setup makes the Count appear far more sinister and otherworldly than the original tale.
  •  Why you should watch it: The Count of Monte Cristo is a classic, classic tale of revenge. Gankutsuou reworks it slightly, but the core of the story remains – a brilliant, scheming mastermind who is all too happy to manipulate pawns and characters to achieve his ends. It weaves mystery and action into its plot from start to finish, and it’s never boring to watch.
  • Caveats: The artstyle. It’s weird, there’s no other word for it. But it was a deliberate choice by the creators, and it does grow on you after a few episodes. Here are some screencaps as a demonstration of what to expect: [1] [2].
  • Themes: Revenge, ennui.
  • Similar works: Code Geass, Monster. Outside of anime, the original Count of Monte Cristo is an obvious choice, along with other modern derivatives such as V for Vendetta or The Stars’ Tennis Balls.

Monster

Monster

monster

  • Trailer: Fan-made trailer
  • What it’s about: A talented young brain surgeon named Tenma with a bright future ahead of him is forced to make a decision on who to save: the mayor of the town, with political connections to the hospital director, or a young child caught up in a grisly murder. His decision has wide-ranging implications, as people around Tenma begin dying off and he’s forced to come to terms with the consequences of his choice.
  • Why you should watch it: Monster is, perhaps, the most suspenseful anime produced in the last decade. It’s a thoroughly mature psychological thriller, a cat-and-mouse game between one man seeking redemption and another well past hope of it. It’s an incredibly ambitious project, to the point where I’m surprised that it received a full adaptation. Every one of the major actors that are closest to Tenma’s quest are given their own character arcs, their own goals and motivations, and an intricate web of connections to the spider-like antagonist is steadily built up. Much attention lavished on psychology and atmosphere.
  • Caveats: The show is long, at 70-something episodes, and isn’t afraid to spend its time exploring tangents and branches away from the main trunk of the plot before returning to it down the road. Even as the tensions build, it remains quite a slow burner of a show – it’s never going to be described as a “roller-coaster”.
  • Themes: The nature of evil (nurture/nature) and the possibility (or impossibility) of redemption. The show is essentially an anime version of Frankenstein (the Mary Shelley novel, not the Hammer Horror movie or its derivatives), so it also follows a lot of the same themes found there.
  • Similar works: As mentioned above, Frankenstein. Sticking with the Western canon, there’s a lot of similarities to the classic TV series The Fugitive, too.