Brynhildr in the Darkness
- 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 and its follow up film Disappearance
- 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.
Shinsekai Yori (From the New World):
- 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.