This article contains discussions of suicide and violence.
For many years, anime has captured audiences with its unique visuals and imaginative storytelling and the creative possibilities of the medium are endless.
Often dreamy and fun, anime can transport audiences to a new world. It can also explore dark topics, real-world problems, and human emotions. The entries in this list, based on Owen Shapiro‘s Letterboxd list, do all of the above. But, they stand out. As Shapiro explains. “This list explores the works of Japanese animation which push the medium to their limits and beyond.”
11 Noiseman Sound Insect: 3.3/5
Set in the futuristic city of Cahmpon, the science experiment, Noiseman, steals music and turns it into crystals and a group of kids fights against it.
In 15 minutes, Noiseman Sound Insect packs a powerful punch. Directed by Koji Morimoto, the short moves at lightning speed, fitting in hypnotizing visuals and an important statement. The colorful, junkyard metropolis, Cahmpon is stunning and the high-energy techno music that accompanies is mesmerizing. As Letterboxd user Ryan McSwain writes, the series has “Dreamy pastel colors, fluid animation, and breakneck musical action.” This innovative short might not be easy to unpack, but it’s unique and exciting enough to engage any audience.
10 A Piece Of Phantasmagoria: 3.6/5
Shigeru Tamura’s film is a collection of 15 short episodes that depict the realm of Phantasmagoria. A Piece Of Phantasmagoria has a simple animation style, yet it stands out because of its unique storytelling and dreamy settings that include diamond cities and shooting star minefields.
The characters of the shorts live ordinary lives, frequent tea kettle cafés, and have a drink served by a star-faced bartender. As C_Mill24 writes, “[It has] such a calm and soothing atmosphere with some of the most creative visuals I’ve seen in a long while.”
9 The Death Lullaby: 3.6/5
A boy with a protruding underbite is bullied by a group of three boys. His mom also is ill and he is constantly alone and isolated. Harada’s The Death Lullaby is a feel-bad, in-your-face film that explores topics like child violence, industrialization, and pollution.
The film’s art style is rough and cluttered, which adds to the overwhelming anger that the main character feels. It also includes real, live-action footage that adds to its feeling of urgency. As Laurie writes, “This a very raw, furious slice of animation that really is a world away from the globular-eyed, cutie-filled material that has come to define Japanese animation.”
8 Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer: 3.9/5
Ataru and his friends are preparing for Tomobiki High School’s annual festival, but they soon realize that they are living the same day over and over. Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, directed by Mamoru Oshii, is the second installation in a film franchise based on the original TV series.
Like the films and series, Beautiful Dreamer is a comedy with whimsical, colorful animation, but Oshii adds an element of existentialism that makes it stand out. The characters are familiar, but their surroundings are desolate and decaying. As reviewer TheNinthHeart sums it up, “[Oshii uses] the Urusei Yatsura series and all of its playful, exciting, fancy-free quirks to create something truly astounding and deadly serious.”
7 Mind Game: 4.1/5
Nishi has a crush on his childhood girlfriend, but after he is killed by the Japanese mafia, he is sent to heaven and goes on a bizarre journey of self-discovery. Masaaki Yuasa’s Mind Game is an experimental, mind-bending film that combines many animation styles. Yuasa disregards the conventional use of a linear plot, which is apparent from the opening sequence.
With imaginative storytelling and bright colors, this film feels more like an experience. The audience is experiencing the same existential dread and disorientation as Nishi, following his death. As Thomas describes it, “Mind Game is an imaginative, absurd, and experimental psychedelic trip and a sensory overload.”
6 Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Adolescence Of Utena: 4.1/5
An adaptation of the 1997 TV series, Ikuhara’s film follows the strong female protagonist, Utena Tenjou, a transfer student at Ohtori Academy. Utena is enthralled by the Rose Bride, Anthy, and duels those who carry the “mark of the rose” for her heart.
The Adolescence Of Utena is a visually stunning film that pushes the capabilities of animation. Utena, although connected to the series, works well as a stand-alone piece. As Revue of Kino writes, “[The film is] a sensory explosion of style AND substance.” Ohtori Academy, for instance, is beautifully illustrated with floating staircases, columns that don’t seem to connect, and grand arches. The characters and storyline are well-developed, and it also explores important themes of gender norms and identity.
5 Angel’s Egg: 4.1/5
A little girl, Angel, wanders through a desolate world carrying an egg. She encounters a mysterious man and they confide in each other. Directed by Mamoru Oshii, Angel’s Egg features intricately designed animation and Oshii paints a dark, eery world full of greyscale line work and vast empty spaces.
The characters discuss philosophical topics and the end is open to interpretation. The lack of plot might not be for everyone, but the atmosphere that this film creates is unlike any other. Angel’s Egg is summarized well by reviewer Olivia, who says, “it is a surrealist, garbled, wisps of air and light, angst-filled barren wasteland masterpiece that can’t be fully explained, only felt.”
4 Paranoia Agent: 4.2/5
Seemingly random assaults by a boy with a golden bat occur throughout Tokyo, but it turns out that the lives of the victims start to improve after the assault. Two detectives try to solve the cases.
Paranoia Agent is a miniseries created by Satoshi Kon, best known for his films Perfect Blue and Paprika. The series blends reality and fantasy, deep diving into human insecurities, societal pressures, and the stress that everyday life can bring. It is a dark, surrealistic experience. Kon knows how to blend reality and fantasy to make the audience reflect on themselves and the world they live in. As Thomas writes, “Paranoia Agent is a mature, complex, imaginative, and atmospheric mind-bender.”
3 Haibane Renmei: 4.2/5
Rakka dreams of falling from the sky. She wakes up in a large cocoon that hatches. She meets Reki and the other Haibanes who have wings and halos. Created by Yoshitoshi Abe, Haibane Renmei is a delicate, slice-of-life anime series.
Rakka finds herself in a new world filled with lush green fields and cobblestone roads. The Haibanes are kind and happy with the role that they play in their world, but there is always a hint of darkness beneath the surface. The series presents questions about life and death in a subtle way, which makes it feel special. As YI T writes, “a beautifully animated series with a gentle atmosphere, yet drenched in existential dread with an air of mysteries looming over it.”
2 Serial Experiments Lain: 4.4/5
Lain is introverted and an outsider from her peers. When one of her classmates dies by suicide, she is prompted to log in into The Wire, a virtual reality website. Written by Chiaki J Konaka, Serial Experiments Lain is a single-season anime series that points out the dangers of the internet and the human need for connection.
Lain’s reality is blurred by disorienting hallucinations that manifest themselves on-screen in psychedelic shades and oversaturated visuals and the series challenges anime norms with its storytelling and mind-bending visuals. As reviewer Haru writes, “[The film is] an avant-garde expressionist tale that deals with technology, religion, and existentialism.”
1 Revolutionary Girl Utena: 4.5/5
When Utena was a child, she encountered a prince and decided that she would become one herself. Now, she attends Ohtori Academy where she meets Anthy. Utena duels with members of the student council to protect Anthy. Revolutionary Girl Utena is a classic television series known for its beautiful animation style and well-written characters.
Everything is on a grand scale. There are floating castles, endless spiral staircases, and intense battles. The character design is also done very well. But, what sets this anime series apart is its LGBTQ+ representation. As Aurora writes, “[This series is] a highly symbolic and layered examination of gender norms … and the ensuing cycles of trauma that not only scar the current generation but also serve to haunt the following generations.”
Next: 10 Best New Anime On Crunchyroll In 2022