From Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996) to Monster (2004-2005), we pick the greatest dark anime of all time.
Those who haven’t delved deep into anime misinterpret it as a limited genre. Truth is anime is a separate artistic medium which can offer stories of every kind. The Japanese animated tales withhold something for everyone. From sci-fi, horror to dark fantasy, and slice-of-life dramas, anime continue to expand the spectrum of its stories. While Hollywood has reduced animation to a genre for kids, anime and its counterpart manga don’t shy away from tackling the darkest aspects of human condition. Anime can effortlessly deal with deeply philosophical and mature themes that live-action cinema doesn’t even come close to.
Interestingly, some of the darkest and profoundly pessimistic anime series also possess some of the mind-blowing character arcs and endlessly fascinating storylines. Few series take up cheerful and optimistic premise, and gradually unravel the horrors lying beneath the surface. Happy Sugar Life and Puella Magi Madoka Magica are good examples. Other animes start with a bleak premise or twisted characters, and persistently shock their audience. Attack on Titan and Neon Genesis Evangelion for instance. Furthermore, dark anime doesn’t have to always feature gory violence and terrifying monsters. Tense mind-games and psychological threats can be enough to scare viewers. In short, dark anime comes in different formats.
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Quickly then, here are some of the bleakest and most spine-chilling dark anime:
15. Another (2012)
It’s a bit hard to set the right tone for a horror/mystery in anime. The 12-episode anime series Another, however, perfectly ratchets up tension with the craziest killings and increasingly spooky mystery. The series is based on the 2009 novel by Yukito Ayatsuji, which was serialised as a manga between 2010 and 2012. It revolves around the sickly Kouichi Sakakibara, a teenager who has moved from Tokyo to his late mother’s hometown, Yomiyama. Things get bizarre right from Kouichi’s first day at school. He meets a strange classmate named Mei, an introverted girl with an eye-patch. Soon, Kouichi learns about the horrific curse that has followed their class for years.
Another takes time to establish its characters and settings. But right from the moment the first death occurs, we’re engulfed by the compelling mystery. The deaths are gruesome and very inventive — something you wouldn’t expect from an anime set in a school. Nevertheless, the resolution to the mystery was a little unsatisfying.
14. Higurashi: When They Cry (2006)
The horror anime Higurashi: When They Cry is set in the summer of 1983 in a small, peaceful village called Hinamizawa. The village school consists of one classroom with children of all ages learning together. Keiichi Maebara is a rare transfer student who has moved to the quaint village. He quickly makes a circle of friends, including Mion, Rena, Satoko, and Rika. Every small community withholds some dark secret. However, the dark history of Hinamizawa is something that truly shocks and surprises Keiichi.
The 26-episode anime was based on a doujin (an amateur, self-published work) and the series was created by Toshifumi Kawase and Ryukishi07. When They Cry does suffer from pacing issues and facile character sketches. Yet, its narrative structure is fascinating, including the occasional Rashomon-esque change in perspectives. Moreover, the horror quotient and graphic violence add much tension to the proceedings. Eventually, it’s an innovative mix of shonen genre – a genre of anime aimed at a young male audience – and psychological horror.
13. Texhnolyze (2003)
Texhnolyze is a moody, weird, and thought-provoking cyberpunk anime which was made by the same team that made Serial Experiments Lain. This includes Yoshitoshi ABe who did the character design and writer Chiaki Konaka. The 22-episode series is set in a dystopian future, where a community of people live below the surface. Though life is hard for people in the underground city, technology makes their lives a little easier. One such technology that’s under experiment is Texhnolyze – the latest, state-of-the-art prosthetic technology. Ichise, an orphan pit fighter, is our protagonist. When ruthless gangsters cut off Ichise’s arm and leg, he became the guinea pig in the experiment of Texhnolization.
There’s a darkness to both the anime’s characters and its milieu. The dialogues are concise and relatively restrained. Chiaki Konaka does take his time in setting up the strange, conflict-ridden underground world. But he brilliantly follows it up with unpredictable narrative arcs and bloody good action.
12. Ergo Proxy (2006)
Screenwriter and musician Dai Satō created this 23-episode cyberpunk anime. It’s set in the post-apocalyptic, dystopian future inside the domed-city Romdeau. The widespread ecological disaster is said to have made it impossible for humans to live outside Romdeau. In the city, humans are accompanied by their androids, known as ‘AutoReivs’. However, the androids are infected by a virus, which gives them free will and a desire to flee the city.
The series largely revolves around Re-I-Mayer, a young skilled investigator. While investigating a series of murders in the dark corners of the city, she comes across a strange humanoid entity, known as ‘Proxies’. Subsequently, she embarks on a long, dark quest to unveil the secret behind the Proxies. Ergo Proxy has an eerie and expansive post-apocalyptic setting. Although, some of the plot points are disorienting to follow. At the same time, the beautiful animation art and nuanced female lead character make this a distinct entry in the sci-fi anime genre.
11. Samurai Champloo (2004-2005)
Samurai Champloo is an invigorating action/adventure anime which effortlessly blends different genres. The series was the brainchild of Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe. While Spaghetti westerns were a huge influence in Cowboy Bebop alongside noir and sci-fi, Samurai Champloo mixes classic samurai tropes with the Western genre and elements of outrageous comedy. The 26-episode series largely follows the adventures of three Edo period characters named Fuu, Mugen, and Jin. Each of the three have different personalities, and they’re all on the road together for unclear reasons.
The best thing about Watanabe’s creations is his ability to utilise anachronistic elements and somehow synchronise them within the confines of the premise. One important example of that is the use of hip-hop in a historical setting. There are also far-fetched episodes including meteor and mushrooms. The character arcs are pretty well designed, and our emotional engagement with Fuu, Jin, and Mugen gets stronger once their pasts are revealed.
10. The Promised Neverland (2019-2021)
Based on the manga by Kaiu Shirai, The Promised Neverland is a sci-fi mystery anime with certain elements of horror. It is set in an orphanage called Grace Field House. Presided over by the kind lady the kids call as ‘Mom’, the orphanage shelters 38 children, from toddlers to 11-year olds. Most of the kids are supposedly adopted by the age of 12. Though the kids seem to live a happy life filled with food, laughter, and love, there are few unsettling oddities. The three oldest children of the house – Emma, Norman, and Ray – one day venture past the orphanage’s grounds and discover the harrowing truth behind their isolated existence.
The Promised Neverland is full of great character sketches and suspenseful moments. The animation is crisp and perfectly portrays each character’s innermost feelings. At the same time, there aren’t over-the-top, flashy action sequences. The writers simply build up on the tension through extremely dark revelations.
9. Berserk (1997)
Berserk is the brainchild of renowned manga artist Kentaro Miura. It is a dark fantasy anime set in the pseudo-medieval kingdom of Midland. The kingdom is under the control of a new king who rose to power through violence and treachery. The story mainly revolves around Guts, a young man who carries a humongous sword and challenges any swordsman for a duel. In his journey, Guts meets a group of mercenaries known as Band of the Hawk. The group is led by Griffith, a battle-weary soldier who is on a quest to attain a kingdom of his own.
The 25-part animated series is riddled with brutal violence and enjoyable battle scenes. However, the best thing about Berserk is how it handles the character’s complex personal conflicts. We sympathise with Guts and Griffith. At the same time, they are also deeply troubled characters who don’t shy away from committing gruesome acts. In fact, they don’t fit the definition of noble heroes.
8. Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)
Hideaki Anno’s 26-episode Neon Genesis Evangelion first aired on TV in Japan between October 1995 and March 1996. In the subsequent years and decades, it became one of the most artistically influential anime. Evangelion popularised the ‘mecha’ genre of anime – giant, fighting robots. Japanese anime fans are familiar with ‘mecha’ right from Mobile Suit Gundam, which was released in 1979. However, Anno deals with darker existential themes while shaping the conflict between Eva pilots and the monstrous alien race.
The protagonist of the story is Shinji Ikari, a teenager recruited to pilot an Eva, a huge battle-ready robot. The series follows the various trials and tribulations in Ikari’s life. Neon Genesis Evangelion boasts amazing animation style and action set-pieces. But the best thing about the anime is its thematic complexities. We witness various moral quandaries and traumatic events. In fact, Ikari’s gradual psychological breakdown leaves us with a bitter aftertaste.
7. Vinland Saga (2019- )
The violent historical-drama anime is based on the highly-acclaimed manga series of the same name by Makoto Yukimura. The story revolves around Thorfinn, son of the legendary Viking warrior Thors. The narrative opens with Thors, disillusioned with his life as a skilled mercenary, choosing to live a simple, peaceful life. However, he is ambushed and killed by an assassin. This pushes young Thorfinn to embark on a quest of revenge and justice. He hones his combat skills for years before challenging the man who killed his father.
Vinland Saga sounds like a simple revenge story but it’s richly-layered and offers much more than the journey of Thorfinn. It features a complex antagonist who is an endlessly engaging character than the protagonist. Yukimura uses the revenge plot to comment on the violence and tragedies in human society. The character and background design are stunning. And the action sequences are directed by Shubei Yabuta, the man behind Attack on Titan’s action set-pieces.
6. Serial Experiments Lain (1998)
Serial Experiments Lain is a groundbreaking, avant-garde anime that introduced graphic artist Yoshitoshi ABe to anime fans. The 13-episode series is slow-paced and demands our complete attention. Yet, even the confounding aspects of the storyline offer a hypnotic, eerie and visual experience. Serial Experiments Lain revolves around an introverted 14-year old, Lain Iwakura. She and her classmates receive a cryptic e-mail from a classmate who has recently committed suicide.
Intrigued by the girl’s message about an internet community, Lain asks her computer designer father for a new computer. Subsequently, Lain’s personality changes when she embarks into the digital world of ‘Wired’. The series is a speculative sci-fi about near-future internet technologies (although the devices the characters use look quite dated). However, the anime’s core message about digital communication and sense of identity within cyberspace still remains strong and relevant. Overall, Serial Experiments Lain is one of the perfect examples of how mature, cerebral, and dark an anime can get.
5. Made in Abyss (2017- )
Made in Abyss is a dark fantasy anime adventure series based on Akihito Tsukushi’s manga series. It has a simple, minimalist, and yet a very intriguing premise. Set in an alternate world, a bottomless pit becomes a source of mystery and host of strange creatures. Naturally, people are drawn to the abyss and embark on a quest to solve the mystery. However, those who descend are either killed by the hostile creatures within the abyss or emerge with strange afflictions. The narrative revolves around an orphan girl named Riko. Her mother who’s ventured into the abyss is long absent, and she hopes to find an answer to the mystery.
Accompanying her in the quest is a humanoid robot friend named Reg. The duo encounters terror and wonder as they spiral downward into the pit. Made in Abyss must be watched for its visual execution and world-building wonders. The robust storytelling methods efficiently juggle between shocking tragedies and beautiful discoveries. If you’ve never seen a dark fantasy anime, this could be a fine introductory point into the genre.
4. Psycho-Pass (2012- )
Psycho-Pass is set in a futuristic version of Japan, where human emotions itself are rendered into a data stream that’s being monitored by the government. The anime series follows the lives of officers working in the Public Safety Bureau’s Criminal Investigation Division. They keenly follow the all-powerful Sibyl system, which governs and dictates every facet of a citizen’s life. The investigation unit also employs latent criminals in order to track down some of the bad guys. These people are called ‘Enforcers’. Written by Gen Urobuchi, Psycho-Pass examines a futuristic society that’s on the brink of a collapse, and focuses on the gruesome aspects of human behaviour.
In terms of character development, world-building, and entertainment quotient, the series remains one of the best in recent years. So far, there are three seasons of Psycho-Pass and three movies. The movies develop the world of Psycho-Pass further, and subtly connect themselves with the series’ story-line and vice-versa.
3. Attack on Titan (2013- )
Attack on Titan is a popular dark fantasy anime set in a post-apocalyptic world which is populated with giant, humanoid entities known as the ‘Titans’. The remains of humanity are forced to build and stay behind 50-feet walls to protect themselves. The series follows the gruesome episodes and adventures in the life of Eren Jaeger, a young boy whose hometown is destroyed by a group of Titans. Few years later, he joins the elite Survey Corps and vows to take down every last Titan.
Attack on Titan is based on a manga series of the same name by Hajime Isayama. Atmospheric backdrops and tense action sequences are some of the stunning aspects of the series. It does initially suffer a bit with character development. Besides, some of its subplots aren’t very strong. Yet the energy and innovation with which this bleak story is told possess the power to even entertain non-anime fans. The series also gets better with each season as it deals with complex political and social issues.
2. Death Note (2006-2007)
The darkly fascinating Death Note is one of the greatest of all time anime shows. It is based on a popular manga series of the same name, written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. The 37-episode anime quickly turned into one of the satisfying journeys into the murkier side of human nature. The series fascinatingly bespeaks the old adage – absolute power corrupts absolutely. An intelligent and socially awkward teenager named Light Yagami discovers a strange book on the school campus. It comes with instructions on how to wish death upon a person.
Light doesn’t think much about the book, until his wish comes true. The book also binds Light to the intimidating spectral entity known as Shinigami, who only Light can see and hear. Though Light initially takes an idealistic stance by deciding to purge the society of all evil, the supreme power gradually changes him. Death Note is a perfect introductory point for those who haven’t acquainted themselves with the anime art form.
1. Monster (2004-2005)
The 74-episode Monster is one of the most gritty and fantastic crime genre anime series. It is based on Naoki Urasawa’s manga series. The story revolves around a skilled neurosurgeon named Kenzo Tenma. Dr. Tenma practices in a prestigious German hospital in the mid-1980s. He is engaged to the daughter of the hospital’s director, Eve Heinemann. One day at the operating table, Tenma saves a young boy named Johan Liebert. Soon, the doctor encounters a few bizarre events in his life. Few years later, Tenma realises the mayhem he has brought upon himself by saving Johan.
Monster is an extraordinary anime that largely focuses on the mind games between Dr. Tenma and Johan. It’s also reminiscent of Death Note. However, Monster doesn’t have any fantastical elements, and the character exploration here is far deeper than what we regularly see in anime. The number of episodes might sound intimidating, but the creepy mysteries in each episode will keep you hooked.
There you go! These are some of the darkest anime series. Since the growing pool of anime fans are adults, the demand for gritty and bleak anime series is definitely on the rise. Of course, a list of 15 isn’t enough to acknowledge all the fascinating dark anime series that are available out there. If you have already seen the above anime series, check out Blue Literature, Parasyte, Fate/Zero, Shiki, Elfen Lied, Hellsing, Hell Girl, Future Diary, Witch Hunter Robin and Banana Fish.
Over to you now! What are your favourite dark anime series? What else did we miss? Let’s talk in the comments below.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’