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10 Dark and Thought Provoking Japanese Animated Films Worth Your Time

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

6. Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Some may not consider this to be as dark as the others on the list, but it has a very somber tone throughout, and is foreboding through and through. While not as directly dark, it alludes to death and destruction throughout the film, and asks the viewer to ponder it. At the very least, if you’re looking for something dark, you’ll be sure to find it in “Princess Mononoke”.

Set in a fantastical version of Japan around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a boy on his way to manhood is forced to set out on a journey to save his village from evil spirits. Death looms over the entire movie, most occurring due to the conflict between humans and nature. As mankind develops, ties with nature and the spiritual realm become strained, even severed.

This film is directed by the venerable Miyazaki, sonorously scored by Studio Ghilbi’s Joe Hisaishi. The art and music are equally as beautiful as the story, and accompany it exquisitely.

 If you are a lover of nature, fantasy, and/or outstanding stories involving spirits and their interaction with humans, check out “Princess Mononoke” if you haven’t already. Many know of Studio Ghilbi, and this is one of their greats among greats. It is not as dark as many of the others on this list, but it does not hesitate to traverse darker paths, although it does so perhaps more subtly.

 

7. Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuioku-hen

Rurouni Kenshin Tsuioku-hen

Also known as “Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal”, this anime begins with bloodshed, and is rarely unrelenting. But the dialogue is as deep as the bloodshed is gory, and there is an equal amount of it, in a similar vein to “Ghost in the Shell”. Throughout the series are statements and soliloquies, where the main characters speak about their beliefs and philosophies on life – and the words they say are incredibly sobering.

Set in ancient Japan, this is a story of samurai and of life. It is quite realistic, as far as anime goes, especially in its animation. There is some impossible swordplay that occurs, but it is still much more toned down than many other, newer anime. And to add, this is an older style of animation, created in 1999. The tale predominantly follows a boy on his samurai path. It often revolves around the inescapable act of murder that occurs from the path of a swordsman. Being a swordsman endangers his life, and further, being a swordsman threatens the loss of his humanity. The sinister side of mankind looms over this film, and is woven into the fabric of character interaction.

This story is powerful and well written, but the English dub – although very accurate – lacks a powerful emotional presence. The viewer has to interpret the interactions because the voice acting does very little. Unfortunately, it is often practically monotone. Aside from that flaw, it remains a great viewing experience. It is quite good for those who want a more realistic anime, while still maintaining action, drama, romance and suspense.

 

8. Shinsekai Yori

Shinsekai Yori

If you search Google for images of this series, the results are very misleading. At first glance it seems to be simply a story about grade school kids, and a somewhat erotic one at that.  And while both schoolchildren and love are present in “Shinsekai Yori” (English: From the New World), it has more, oh, so much more. 

Yet to speak of any of it is to give away many of its wonderful surprises – even revealing the setting feels like a spoiler. In the most succinct synopsis possible, “Shinsekai Yori” is about people with psychokinetic and psychic powers. It is difficult to start watching an anime without knowing much about it, but this is one worth venturing into the unknown for, especially if you’re still reading this list.

To say the least, while still saying at least something, this is a tale of childhood told in a mature way. It is a story that speaks to the soul, on all levels, from emotional to ethical.  It has a bit of everything, although the overall tone is gloomy. It is a drama, but also a thriller; it has horror aspects, but also action and romance.

 It is an emotional rollercoaster, but a well-oiled one. It is everything an anime aspires to be and more.  Well, it doesn’t have mechas, but they’re not necessary here, as it performs wonderfully without them. And if you think this is an exaggeration, you should give it a view.

If you like anime, like getting your emotions sent on a helluva ride, and like to have the history and current and future of humanity put into question (or rather put on trial) then you will simply adore this series. It is a entirely worthwhile series if you want to brave it, but it should be considered dangerous to expose yourself to such intense ideas. In other words, ignorance lost is never regained.

 

9. Baccano!

Baccano!

Adapted from a series of illustrated light novels, this anime is set during the Great Depression in America, the 1930s Prohibition era, but not your everyday 1930s setting. It contains monsters, elixirs, and your good ol’ glorified gangster fight scenes. It follows the stories of seemingly unconnected characters and events, and if you like action, it’ll have you on the edge of your seat.

Mixing trigger-happy bloodfests and introspection in a way that few others can, this anime questions the medium of anime itself, in a way similar to how “Evangelion” deconstructed its genre, whilst whisking you away on a mysterious and wonderfully entertaining story. It questions morals throughout its story and shows that the world is very gray, and there’s not always an easy right or wrong. 

Another anime with a strong concoction of light and dark, yet it is not blended as well, the dark aspects like the violence is readily apparent, as is the light humor and wit. Even though it is not a smooth gray mix of light and dark, it needn’t be. The chunky blend suits it well, where obviously immoral things occur next to vague, harder to judge instances.

Fans of gangster films will find a similar feeling when watching “Baccano!”, as well as fans of violent anime. It is not identical to gangster films, and its additional features do not detract from it.

 

10. The Running Man

The Running Man

If you’re looking for a shorter taste of avant-garde than “Serial Experiments Lain”, then the place to go ought to be “The Running Man”. It’s part of a 1987 short story adaption anthology by the name of neo-Tokyo. Flashing by at a quarter of an hour, this picture is a quick retelling by a Phillip Marlowe type of reporter, of one man on a racing circuit similar to the likes of F-Zero, albeit much darker in all regards.

But is it simply that? This incredibly visceral work, told through old school animation and gut wrenching sound effects, lends one storyline to many through metaphors. This one man on a circuit, is he so different from any man on his life circuit? Or is it even more sinister? The interplay between the narrator, the crowd, and the running man all tell a story, or many stories. And it is short enough to be easily reviewed to see more from it.

How dark it is to you may depend on how dark you view that side of humans. While not a very long film, it tells a sinister tale. The lack of background information, character development and time allows for more interpretation to exist, and for thoughts to run abound. The intent is deep, and with some relaxation to allow for the mind to see perhaps normally subconscious associations, or perhaps break down the normal associations to find new ones, the experience becomes powerful and provoking.

Author Bio: Vulcan is a senior at Uni studying Philosophy and Cinema & Media Culture. She loves all forms of art, there is always something worthwhile to be found, if you know how to look for it. Anime is probably her favorite form of cinema.

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