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10 Dark and Thought Provoking Japanese Animated Films Worth Your Time

24 December 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Vulcan Princess

Ghost in the Shell

Are you an introvert? Do you ever contemplate life? Do you like anime? Well, even if you’re new to anime, if you like thought provoking and dark things, you’ll undoubtedly find something to enjoy here. If you aren’t new to anime and still like it, hopefully you’ll be new to at least some of these intelligent and powerful animations, and hopefully you’ll find something to enjoy.

Anime comes from Japan, as many of you know, but perhaps surprisingly for an animated art form it is often laden with some of the heaviest themes in cinema, probably due to the fact that Japanese culture is repressive. In other words, repressed feelings and opinions are channeled into the outlet of artistic creation. And because anime is fairly well respected in Japan, it is often the artistic medium where thought provoking experiences are found.

This list was compiled to showcase dark and thought provoking anime films, which urge you to ponder the inner workings of the mind, the outer workings of the world around you, and really just life in general. That said, a warning to those who are used to lighter themes in film and anime – if taken seriously, these works might destroy ignorance, and forever change you. 

A word to the wise: be warned. Also, if you want a genuine experience, watch these with the original translation, using subtitles if need be. Often the dubbed versions alter the experience in detracting ways. Now, on to the list!


1. Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell

One of the most philosophical animes in existence (originally a seinen manga aimed at mature boys and men), “Ghost in the Shell” may make you feel emotions that you don’t want to feel, even feelings you’ve never felt.

However, the animation is a bit dated, and the action can get slow at times. But if you’re prepared for and maybe even welcoming of deep questions centered on what it means to be human, you’ll see that it has much more to it than meets the eye. People surely saw exactly that when it first came out, for there have since been series and films.

Set far in the future, many humans in this era have merged with machines, becoming enhanced cyborgs. However, this merge is not without its drawbacks. In a way, they become servants of the machine itself. This holds especially true for the cyborgs that work for Section 9, an intelligence agency that deals with matters outside the scope of the police force. When an intelligent and malevolent lifelike creation emerges from machines, Section 9 has to try to prevent it from wreaking havoc.

Throughout the film, questions of consciousness are explored, such as asking what it means to have a mind. Similarly, it asks, is there a soul? That is where the title gets its name. This is a powerful and enjoyable film for those who like deep and analytic dialogue, accompanied by sweet action sequences.


2. Evangelion

The End of Evangelion

Another deeply philosophical and psychological anime, this doesn’t seem so at first. It is an anime that feels easier to digest without getting yanked into the existential questions and statements that “Ghost in the Shell” has a tendency of launching into unforgivingly from time to time. Even though its not as direct or obvious, the thought-provoking content is here if you want it.

At its core, “Evangelion” is a deconstruction of the mecha genre (displaying the genre in all its glories and flaws, and remixing it), powered with an incorporation of Christian symbolism (themes from other religious philosophies are present as well), and it deals more explicitly with the trials and tribulations of being an insecure kid in an adult world. This film is very often and very wisely considered a rite of passage in anime culture.

“Evangelion” is set in a world where children must do battle in giant mechas against aliens dead set on destroying the remainder of humanity. No one except the children can pilot the mechas, and thus they are thrown into the gauntlet to save their entire species. They also have to deal with the everyday intricacies of relationships, even in the midst of war.

The series is heavy, yet also light and addictive, and has since spawned a remake and feature length films. The fact that it has a dark side is what makes it such a good show. It makes it more real than many others out there. In a way it’s like Goldilocks, not too fantastical, but not too gruesome either. Well, as real as it can be for kids piloting giant robots in order to save humanity from destruction.

If you like anime, watch this anime. Watch this if you want to start watching good anime. Watch this anime if you want to think deeply. Watch this anime if you just want quality entertainment.


3. Psycho-Pass


This series is set in a futuristic Japan, where all residents’ psychological states are monitored and further judged for their optimal job positions and also judged for potential criminal activity, before they even commit a crime. Some who are judged to be potential criminals are chosen to be enforcers, essentially glorified hunting dogs for the cops. Who better to catch criminals than criminals themselves?

The story follows a newbie cop on the job, who is thrown into the crime-fighting environment with intense conflict, challenging decisions and harsh realities. As she begins to learn the inner workings of the system, she also learns the ramifications of living in this type of society. Things are not always quite what they seem.

It is, in a way, similar to the popular film “Minority Report”, but very different in style and plot and overall content. Specifically, it is less futuristic, and more gritty and realistic. It really questions society, and has great references to historical pieces of literature and other art. Is this a dystopia, or a utopia? That is a question very much up for debate.

If you enjoy psychological thrillers, this is for you. If you enjoy getting your notions on what it takes to sustain a functional society thrown into question, this is for you. If you enjoy dark and action packed anime, this is for you. If you enjoy great characters and great character development, and can at least put up with a dark setting and difficult questions, this is probably for you.


4. Serial Experiments: Lain

Serial Experiments Lain

This is an avant-garde series – it won’t be your everyday anime viewing experience. It’s a rough transition from mainstream anime (not that there’s anything wrong with being mainstream, unless you’re an ironic mainstream hipster), but it’s worth it to stick around for a few episodes to let it show you how to view it.

Following the life of a young girl, this anime explores reality. What is real? And likewise, what in the anime itself is real? Can we follow the plot from what the characters are saying and doing? Or are those just manifestations of their minds?

Confusing and even frustrating, this show is not one to watch for normal entertainment value. This show challenges you, makes you an active participant in deciphering its presentation. What does it mean? What is happening? It urges you to think, instead of simply watch. Nonetheless, it is enjoyable, if you enjoy this sort of thing.


5. Steins;Gate


This work of art was created as both an anime and a visual novel, but originally as a visual novel. If you haven’t heard of or read a visual novel, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it – it can be a real treat. The experience is as captivating as watching a movie, if not moreso. You get to choose your path as you read or listen along… although there is one true ending that is worth trying to find your way to.

Set in modern times, this is about a group of young folks who more or less accidentally discover time travel. The story gets impressively complex with the possibilities of time travel, and the visual novel format is the perfect medium for it, allowing multiple scenarios to occur just as multiple time lines potentially could. 

And if the time travel is the vehicle that drives the story, then the passengers are the characters themselves, giving life a thrilling emotional ride. It is, of course, not without its dark, somber, disturbing turns. It can get bloody, but that’s all I’m going to say.  This is a story worth the experience if you want to try something new. Or watch the anime if you just want a good and unique anime.



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  • lance sparx

    I also recommend Perfect Blue Directed by Satoshi Kon.

    • Alexandro Sifuentes Díaz

      everything by Satoshi Kon is welcome

  • Minims

    “However, the animation is a bit dated, and the action can get slow at times.” what a stupid and untrue commentary. The animation and pacing has aged just as well as the original Matrix. On the contrary, I’d say Ghost in the Shell makes most modern anime look like cheap, stylistically lacking, soulless computer generated crap.

    • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

      I have to agree on this. A good animated flick is going to age ten thousand times if not a million times better than any CGI Live-Action flick.

    • Nord Modr

      What are you talking about lol, both of the statements are true; animation is dated and sometimes action can get slow, i remember myself staring at a landscape of the city for 2 minutes with nothing changing.Those can conflict with modern viewer’s preferences so it’s best to just state them
      However that does not mean it’s a bad anime, in the contrary; that’s why it’s at first place, that’s why most people that have seen it loved it, that’s why it’s considered one of the best sci fi anime of all time; but those are not reasons to be subjective.

    • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

      One more thing, the animation does not look dated at all, and the action is just with an excellent pacing. I remember having just 14 years and found it breathtaking and fantastic. But, yeah, to each its own.

  • Veronika Georgieva

    I would like to recommend Tekkonkinkreet.

  • Tobias Palma

    Considering most of these films are based in series, I would strongly recommend watching the series!!

    And to originally film features, you’re really missing Perfect Blue and/or any of Satoshi Kon’s work. He’s probably the darkest animation filmmaker in the last decades.

  • Alexandro Sifuentes Díaz

    Lain is not a movie…. ¿?

    • Alexandro Sifuentes Díaz

      Baccano, Shinsekai yori, Evangelion, Stein Gate, all of those aren’t movies either. Some of those have films yeah, but you won’t understand them without seeing the series… And yeah, the missing of Satoshi Kon in this list is dissapointing ):

  • this bear is tops blooby

    This list just should’ve committed to being for both films and tv shows.

  • Damien

    thx for the list!

  • FAS

    The title of the articles says “movies”, but 6 of the titles you have mentioned are actually those of anime television series, not movies.

  • Andre Troesch

    Most of these are tv shows
    and as other have noted the absence of Satoshi Kon and also Katsuhiro
    Otomi’s work a huge surprise and disappointment to this list. Also if
    you want to include tv shows a great one to add to the list would be
    Kino no Tabi.

  • Andrea Moreno

    Psycho pass was an amazing anime. The first season is unbeatable.

    • Izabela Szeremeta

      Yes. It’s the first time when I see Psychopass in that kind of list. It was great anime with awesome plot & characters

  • liapique

    Wait, wait. So tv series is now cinema?

  • sCARfiNGer

    Psycho Pass and Steins Gate are overrated. Try with Texhnolyze, or Gilgamesh instead.

  • Christo Kj

    Another 10 animies (film/tv): Wolf’s Rain, Ergo Proxy, Texhnolyze, Angel’s Egg, Akira, Boogiepop Phantom, Blood: The last vampire, puella magi madoka magica, Here and there then and now, Higurashi when they cry.

  • Gigashame

    If you all liked Ghost in the Shell, I would certainly recommend the Mardock Scramble film trilogy based on the sci-fi novel by Tow Ubukata. It’s a super dark cyberpunk story about a teenage prostitute that has been resurrected by nanotechnology to help prosecute the pimp that killed her, all the while struggling with her new powers and the abuse in her past. It’s supremely grotesque and disturbing but rather upllifting in its messages about surviving abuse and coming to terms with it.

  • noborders

    Twilight of the Cockroaches should be number 1.

  • Memorian

    for #7, Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuioku-hen the image used is not from that film but from the 2011 OVA, Rurouni Kenshin: New Kyoto Arc.