mystery

Speed Grapher

Speed Grapher

speedgrapher

  • Trailer: English dubbed version
  • What it’s about: Tatsumi Saiga was once a prominent war photographer, but now the wars have ended. The capitalist faction has won, and instituted a harshly stratified society where money is everything. Disillusioned and discontent, Tatsumi stumbles into a debauched ritual in a seedy club only to be granted an unusual power: anything he points his camera at is instantly destroyed. Now it’s up to him to find a cause worth fighting for.
  • Why you should watch it: The show is a solidly Japanese take on the classic noir story – a cynical and down on his luck protagonist falls for a beautiful girl desperately in need of his help against the forces of iniquity. The “superpowers” are pretty unique and used intelligently, and there’s a certain rhythm to the show that keeps you watching episode after episode.
  • Caveats: The show doesn’t have a very deep message or complex plot – it’s pretty much exactly what it appears to be on the first glance. So it’s pretty easy to judge from the first episode whether you’ll like it or not. The soundtrack is a little bit lacklustre – I get that it’s trying to evoke an 80s feel, but it’s not all that ambitious.
  • Themes: The corrupting effect of money and power. The desire for freedom.
  • Similar works: Darker than BlackPhantom: Requiem for the Phantom, Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne, Tokyo ESP
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Mushishi

Mushi-shi

mushishi

  • Trailer: FUNimation trailer
  • What it’s about: The world is filled with physical manifestations of life-force, spirit-creatures called “Mushi”. They’re mostly small and usually pass unnoticed by humans, but when something goes amiss, they can inhabit a person’s body and cause illness or madness. Mushi-shi follows a “doctor” of sorts as he travels the country, treating the symptoms caused by rogue mushi and trying to discover more about them.
  • Why you should watch it: If I had to sum up Mushi-shi in one word, it would be “Meditative”. It has a quiet, relaxing air about it. While its tone is serious and its protagonist stoic, every episode is compelling and oddly credible for a show about spirit-bacteria. If mushi were real, it would make for a fascinating documentary series. As it is, it’s a slow-burning “medical mystery” type of show that manages to cram in a significant amount of character development into every episode without the soap-opera drama that so often accompanies the genre.
  • Caveats: The show is almost entirely episodic in nature. There’s no real overarching story (which is unusual in anime, really). It’s not really a series to binge on – just take an episode or two before bed.
  • Themes: Uncaring nature, in all its beauty and terrible power. Doing what can be done and letting go of what cannot be saved. Each episode also comes with additional motifs centred around that particular story, from community to hubris to heritage to any number of others.
  • Similar works: I’ve not seen much in anime that matches it. Kino’s Journey, perhaps.

Brynhildr in the Darkness

Brynhildr in the Darkness

brynhildr

  • Trailer/Intro
  • What it’s about: After his childhood friend was killed in a tragic accident, Murakami takes up her dream in her stead, seeking out alien life through the telescope of the astronomy club. Years later, a girl appears at his school, identical to the friend he’d lost, but who claims to have no memory of him. She warns him that unless he listens to her advice, he will die in a matter of hours. From there, Murakami is dragged into a world of blood, horror, and mysterious powers as it becomes increasingly clear that the girl is at the centre of something beyond his understanding.
  • Why you should watch it: It’s a fairly clever show and the stakes are always high. The writer does an excellent job of maintaining tension, and even the lighthearted scenes have an element of desperation to them. It’s also nice to see a male protagonist who isn’t simply hopeless when surrounded by a largely female cast, even in an action-heavy series like this.
  • Caveats: This is written by the same guy behind Elfen Lied, and there are more than surface-level similarities between them. Tonal shifts are common and quite abrupt, and not always pulled off as adroitly as might be hoped for. The general tone of hopelessness and futility can be draining at times. Finally, the ending is quite rushed – it tries to shove over forty chapters of the manga into three(!) episodes.
  • Themes: Prejudice, abuse, desire for normality.
  • Similar works: Brynhildr is something of a blend between Elfen Lied and Another. Either would be good places to go if you like this.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and its follow up film Disappearance

haruhi

  • Trailer: English dubbed version
  • What it’s about: Haruhi Suzimiya is bored. This isn’t an unusual trait for a high-schooler, but her solution is unique: set up a club dedicated to investigating the paranormal and supernatural. Dragged along for the ride is the cynical Kyon, who takes the general weirdness and domineering personality of Haruhi in his stride.
  • Why you should watch it: Haruhi is a cult sensation within anime, and she’s far and away the most popular character for female anime cosplayers. She’s an incredibly strong and well-developed character and anchors the entire show. Kyon, likewise, is one of the best realisations of the “cynical, sarcastic narrating teen male lead” that’s almost omnipresent in the world of Visual Novels. The series itself is easy to pick up and drop whenever, leaning towards episodic content and with a non-linear storyline. It’s funny, it’s addicting, and it’s weird. Finally, even if you don’t enjoy what you see in the series itself, the movie conclusion Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is quite rightly lauded as one of the best anime movies out there today.
  • Caveats: Viewing order for the show is a little contested. See this image for a breakdown of the argument. Pacing-wise, the original broadcast order is fantastic, but it makes some bizarre choices in what to show and when. Particularly with the first episode, which is a home-movie created by the characters and has an entirely different style, storyline and aesthetic than the rest of the show. To anyone who’s already seen the whole show, I should only have to mention the words “Endless Eight”.
  • Themes: The power of imagination is the surface theme but, if you dig even slightly below the surface, there’s a strong urging by the creator to the audience to try to find joy in the “merely real”. You don’t need espers and time travelers for the world to be interesting, and if they did exist, they’d quickly become mundane anyway.
  • Similar works: Robotics;Notes and Angel Beats! both have a somewhat familiar set of characters and share the same premise: weird stuff going on in a high-school environment.

Kara no Kyoukai

Kara no Kyoukai

knk

  • Trailer: DVD trailer
  • What it’s about: An urban fantasy set in the TYPE-MOON universe, Kara no Kyoukai is a series of “films” (more like extended episodes). The story focuses on a…specialist detective agency of sorts, made up of a cynical magus named Toko Aozaki and two younger characters. The first, Mikiya Kokuto, is an everyman – a harmless, friendly guy who contributes much of the brains and heart of the show. The second and arguably primary protagonist is Shiki Ryogi, a beautiful but unsociable girl with an incredibly powerful gift. The first film is set some years after their introduction, though the storyline bounces around from episode to episode.
  • Why you should watch it: Kara no Kyoukai is something of a cross between a mystery series, an action series, and a romance series. The animation is first-rate (as expected of ufotable), and the directorial choices are generally spot on. Add onto that a phenomenal soundtrack and you’ve got a strong contender right out of the gate. The story itself is something like a puzzle, made up of self-contained episodes shown out of chronological order (if you’re familiar with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, it’s a lot like that). There’s enough going on in each episode to keep you interested but the series requires you to take a holistic view, seeing each episode as part of a greater whole.
  • Caveats: This was one of Nasu’s earlier writing projects, and it shows. The first episode or two are quite slow, with much of the necessary context left unexplained until “flashback” episodes later on. Episodes 5 and 7 are by far the strongest and to some degree carry the entire series.
  • Themes: Dualism, identity.
  • Similar works: Canaan, Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne

Death Note

Death Note

deathnote

  • Trailer: English dubbed version
  •  What it’s about: One day, a hyperintelligent but bored teenager finds a notebook with a set of instructions attached: write someone’s name in the book while thinking of their face, and they will die. He immediately sets about trying to use this new power to “purify” the world of all criminals and set up a new social order with himself at the head. In the process, he ends up pitting his wits against an equally brilliant detective trying to put a stop to the ongoing murders.
  • Why you should watch it: Death Note is a cornerstone of modern anime; it’s one of the few shows almost universally regarded as a decent entry-point into the medium. The story is gripping, fast-paced, and full of twists and turns. Light Yagami is one of the most expert renderings of a descent into sociopathy that I’ve seen in modern fiction, and his conflict with L is endlessly fascinating. The show is the closest anime has come to “Breaking Bad”.
  •  Caveats: The first thing people talk about when it comes to Death Note is the endless “PLOT TWIST”s – a certain level of suspension of disbelief is required with regards to some of what goes on. The second thing everybody will talk about is that the latter half is noticeably weaker than the early material. It’s true that there’s a sudden lurch in the pacing after a particularly critical event, and plot holes begin to build up in the race to the finish-line. But if you’re willing to roll with it, Death Note remains solidly entertaining from start to end.
  • Themes: Corruption of power. Ennui and hubris.
  • Similar works: Plotwise, Code GeassZankyou no Terror has a similar dynamic to it.

Ergo Proxy

Ergo Proxy

ergoproxy

  • Trailer: English dubbed version
  • What it’s about: The show is set in a futuristic utopian (read: dystopian) city, Romdeau.  Humans and robots coexist, with the issues of basic subsistence and social order maintained through a system of central management. In the middle of this is Lil Meyer, a young and ambitious investigator from the Citizen Information Board, and a new immigrant worker named Vincent Law. But *something* is on the loose, a mystery that the authorities seem willing to do anything to contain and that will embroil both protagonists into a crisis that threatens to destroy the stagnant safety of Romdeau City.
  • Why you should watch it: The series is serious, sober, and philosophical, with a richness of symbolism and thematic development that’s rare to find in any work, let alone an anime. It’s a mystery show that doesn’t spoon-feed its audience, trusting you to be intelligent and observant enough to keep up. The sound design and animation are fantastic: the muted palette and brooding soundtrack combine to create a suitably oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere to match the storyline. The two protagonists are pretty well-developed, maturing steadily over the course of the show.
  • Caveats: Whenever a series has an explicit philosophical bent, there are always those who are going to see pretentiousness. Ergo Proxy doesn’t help itself in this regard by being fairly meandering, all too happy to spend multiple episodes on things that don’t really move the plot forward. The show can get pretty depressing with a palette primarily composed of browns and greys and its general dystopian feel, but it’s definitely worth a watch.
  • Themes: Living in a dying world. Gnosticism – flawed creators and flawed creations. What it means to be human.
  • Similar works: In terms of general “feel”, Shinsekai Yori, Serial Experiments Lain, and Texhnolyze. Outside of anime, Sandman

Denpa Teki na Kanojo

Denpa Teki na Kanojo

denpa teki na kanojo

  • What it’s about: Juuzawa Juu is a delinquent high school boy who just wants to be left alone. One day, he is approached by Ochibana Ame, who claims that she knew him in a previous life and now wants to serve him as his “knight.” At first, Juu wants nothing to do with Ame, but after a classmate is murdered, he accepts her help as he looks for the killer.
  • Why you should watch it: It’s a well-executed mystery/thriller show, which is rare to find in anime, particularly using a school setting. The story moves along steadily, fleshed out by a cast of characters of…variable levels of sanity. The protagonists themselves show a lot of development considering the series’ length (only two OVAs). As with most episodic mysteries, it’s not really that difficult to figure out who the “bad guy” is, just by thinking through the rather limited cast, but the process is still fun to watch. It’s a shame they didn’t pick it up for a full series.
  • Caveats: The second OVA is stronger than the first, though both are watchable. The animation is on the cusp of starting to look a little dated.
  • Themes: Obsession.
  • Similar works: Mirai Nikki has a similar (if exaggerated) dynamic between the protagonists.

Shinsekai Yori

Shinsekai Yori (From the New World):

shinsekai yori

  • Trailer: Extended fan-made trailer
  • What it’s about: In a far-flung post-apocalyptic future survives an isolated society of small Japanese villages. The community is rigidly controlled and stratified, with a great focus placed upon developing and restraining the natural psychic powers that all humans begin to demonstrate upon hitting puberty. The story follows a group of children as they begin to question the indoctrination imposed upon them and are steadily presented with the reasons and justifications behind it.
  • Why you should watch it: Shinsekai Yori has, hands down, the best world-building I’ve ever seen in an anime. It takes its central premise – ubiquitous psychic powers – and follows through on the societal consequences that the existence of such a thing would have. As the show goes on, it’s made clear that there really are no “heroes” or “villains”, that everyone has their own entirely self-consistent justifications for their actions, which nonetheless conflict with everyone else’s. It’s a wonderfully morally grey narrative. As an added bonus, Shinsekai Yori is a rare work in that it treats its audience as intelligent: it doesn’t directly narrate connections as the characters make them, it shows you flashes and assumes you’ll keep up.
  • Caveats: The start of the show is slow, with much more effort being put into setting up a solid foundation for the latter half and in establishing the unique setting than in showing things actually happening. This pays off, but the “mystery” of the early episodes is not enough to sustain interest by itself at times. “Plot holes”, particularly with regards to character actions or motivations, only make sense with information gained later on. The sudden time-skip into adolescence around the half-way point makes for a *very* jarring transition episode with every character (including background ones) apparently having paired off romantically. Again, justified later, but still a bit of a sudden change-up from what had been happening up to that point.
  • Themes: Liberty vs Security – the benefits and drawbacks of censorship. Identity, conformity and indoctrination. Legitimacy of violence. Discrimination.
  • Similar works: Psycho-Pass shows a dystopia struggling with the same problem of security versus liberty, but takes a more action-intensive approach. Outside of anime, the most obvious parallel is with Shyalaman’s The Village, though Shinsekai Yori is a much deeper, much more thoughtful work. Also, The Giver.