What it’s about: Ryouta Sakamoto, veteran player of the online first-person-shooter game Btooom!, wanted to make his hobby into a career by applying to work with the game’s developers. But he didn’t expect his life to change like *this*. He awakes one day on a tropical island equipped with a bag of bombs, a crystal embedded in his hand, and no idea how he got there. But whether he wanted it or not, Ryouta has been entered into a real-life game of Btooom!, with no rematches or respawns. The only way to get back home is to kill seven other hapless participants, all equipped with their own bombs and just as strong a desire to survive.
Why you should watch it: It’s a classic battle-royale anime, with a strong focus on tactical action scenes and big explosions. The ways that Ryouta and others adapt their particular skillsets and the equipment that they’ve been given into combat on the island is a lot of fun to watch, as are the plots and betrayals within the various groups. It’s easy to knock it as a derivative of an increasingly popular trend, but it does add some interesting twists on the common story. If you’re a fan of “survival” shows or action anime in general, Btooom! is worth checking out.
Caveats: One of the key features of a battle royale is having a wide cast of characters, and the success or failure of these types of shows is in how well it manages to balance the character development of each party. Btooom! kind of puts all of its eggs in one basket with the protagonist pair, leaving most of the side-characters as a bit one-note. Whatever your initial impression of them in the first five seconds is, that’s pretty much as far as they go. The show was also produced mostly as an advertisement for the manga, so while the current arc is wrapped up by the final episode, it’s not a complete story.
Themes: Man’s darker desires, and how so many people are largely just looking for an excuse to give into them. At the same time, the necessity of trusting others in spite of knowing that, and continuing to extend your hand even after being burned in the past.
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?
What it’s about: Shinji Ikari did not set out to be a hero. In truth, he’s not qualified for the role, and he knows it. But when the alien “Angels” responsible for devastating Earth 15 years ago reappear and begin to lay waste to Japan once again, he’s told that only he is capable of piloting the Evangelion weapon system developed to defend humanity. Reluctantly, Shinji steps up. But there are good reasons not to place the weight of the world on the shoulders of a fourteen-year-old boy.
Why you should watch it: It’s not hyperbole to say that Neon Genesis Evangelion has a claim to being the greatest anime series ever produced. Others might have a more general appeal, or spin out a more epic tale, or have slicker production, but the impact that NGE has had on the medium since its first broadcast cannot be overstated. It would be worth a watch just to be able to pick out all of the references and allusions to it in your other favourite series, but on top of that it’s actually a good story. Binging through the whole show is far too easy. The characters are believable in their actions and motivations in a way that’s quite rare, there’s enough action going on to satisfy any mecha fan, and there’s enough depth to keep the attention of a more cerebrally-minded audience. The direction is supremely self-confident, and the writing doesn’t beat you over the head with its intent. It’s a show that has a lot to offer, and thoroughly deserves its reputation.
Caveats: To get it out of the way, this is quite an old series and it shows in the artstyle and animation. It actually holds up a lot better than its contemporaries, but for a viewer accustomed to modern anime aesthetics, it’s going to take a little getting used to. Secondly, the watch order: watch the original series all the way through, then watch the movie End of Evangelion. Give it a while to percolate before trying out the Rebuild movies.
Themes: Um, well. There have been entire theses written on this show and the different meanings and interpretations that can be pulled out of it, so I’m not even going to attempt a full summary. It’s safe to say that there’s a lot of Freudian subtext going on throughout, and the idea of the “hedgehog’s dilemma”, the yearning for close relationships coupled with an inability to commit or engage on that level without hurting one another, is a pretty central theme. Facing up to one’s responsibilities and the personal struggle with both depression and self-loathing is another.
Similar works:Madoka Magica is often brought up in the same breath as NGE for being another show that reflects and reinterprets the assumptions of its own genre. To see where Anno started off, try his directorial debut Gunbuster. It’s a little rough around the edges, and is a much more traditional mecha action show than Evangelion, but the connections between the works are there to see if you want them.
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.
What it’s about: 100,000 people across Japan receive a mysterious package containing ¥100M ($1,000,000) and a note. The note informs them that they’re now entered into the “Liar Game Tournament” and provides the identity of one other person who received the same package. The only rule of the first round of this tournament is that, in 30 days, each person has to return their starting sum. If you can steal any cash from the other person, you can keep it. Of course, the other person will still owe ¥100M…
Why you should read it: Liar Game is a dramatised exploration of psychology and game theory. Throughout the tournament, the anonymous organisers introduce increasingly complex scenarios for the “contestants” to act out. The solutions are all discoverable if you want to think them through for yourself (though the optimal strategy is, after the first one or two, often incredibly non-obvious or counter-intuitive at first glance). Or you can just sit back and enjoy the protagonists solving it themselves. There’s days’ worth of content already published, even if you binge through the volumes non-stop.
Caveats: The art is a little bit shaky in the first volume. It takes a good long while for the protagonist to see any actual character development, since she’s more or less an audience stand-in.
Themes: Greed. Application of game theory and psychology.
Similar works: One Outs, Kaiji and Akagi are easily the closest in feel to the manga.
What it’s about: Since he was little, Makoto has been able to perceive something that others cannot. Whenever a person is about to die, dark figures begin to gather until they can claim the departing soul. Knowing that convincing anyone of the truth of what he sees is futile, Makoto strikes an uneasy peace with the figures – he’ll ignore them so long as they ignore him in return. But one day, one of the figures turns up at his school, demanding to speak with him.
Why you should watch it: Chronus is one of the two stand-out entries in the Anime Mirai 2014 competition, the other being Harmonie. It’s a brooding drama and an understated romance. The muted colour palette and shadowy backdrops fit in perfectly with the general flow of the story, and the show makes full use of the small amount of time it’s allotted without overstaying its welcome or cutting short the story. In short, it’s a well-crafted tale and well worth spending half an hour on.
Caveats: Few, really. It achieves what it set out to do. The plot isn’t that original, but it’s a solid execution.
Themes: Finding something worth fighting for, despite the odds.
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.
What it’s about: A series of self-contained arcs, translations of six famous pieces of classic Japanese literature into anime form. The common theme across all of them is mental anguish, whether in the form of depression (No Longer Human), obsession and phobias (In the Forest…), or outright insanity.
Why you should watch it: Every story in this series, regardless of the director, leaves you slightly on edge. Psychological anime tend to use mental illness as a plot device to serve a larger story; Aoi Bungaku puts it front and centre – the protagonists’ sicknesses *are* the story. The most successful of the batch, No Longer Human, (which follows a life slowly falling apart under the inability to cope with depression) was later adapted into a stand-alone film.
Caveats: The first story is about depression and so is naturally going to be a little slow and, you guessed it, depressing. If you don’t like a particular story, skip ahead to the next one – each is by a different director and they all have different approaches to the subject matter.
Themes: Mental instability, in all its flavours.
Similar works: For similarly introspective anime, try the works of Shinkai Makoto such as Garden of Words or 5cm per second.
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.
What it’s about: Ruko Kominato hasn’t made many friends at school. To encourage her to socialise, her brother buys a pack of cards from the hit new collectible game WIXOSS. But underneath the regular game lies a second level, where girls chosen as “Selectors” fight one another in the hopes of having their greatest wish fulfilled.
Why you should watch it: While not always a solid predictor, WIXOSS has proven a successful enough advertisement for the tie-in game to cause it to sell out of all stock across Japan. That said, the card game itself is largely tangential to the actual plot of the series, as the characters struggle with their desires and the costs associated with pursuing them. The character development is first-rate from the first episode onwards – they’re all flawed in their own way and trying to patch up their own holes.
Caveats: The show has a shaky start, so give it a few episodes before making up your mind. It’s also going to get compared to Madoka Magica a lot, which is a little bit of an unfair standard to be expected to reach. The card battles, not being central to the story, aren’t really meant to be predictable – they’re there to move the plot along, not to get you strategising. The animation gets a little lazy at times, with background characters frozen in place.
Themes: Faustian bargains, how you reach your goals being more important than what they are