Anime covers a wide variety of genres and anime that focuses on the mindbending psychology of its characters is perhaps the most interesting. These are the anime that delve into the surreal, that feature tons of symbolism and also a lot of philosophy. These are the anime that are the definition of “mind screw”. So if you’re not afraid of some something a little weird, prepare to have your mind blown by some of the best psychological anime out there. Feel free to reccomend your own in the comments!
Revolutionary Girl Utena
Revolutionary Girl Utena is one of my favorite animes of all time. This 1997 series directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara tells the story of Utena Tenjou, a girl who after being comforted by a prince as a child, vowed to become a prince herself. She ends up at the mysterious Ohtori Academy, where she finds a group of students are dueling for the right to “possess” a girl named Anthy Himemiya. Those who “win” her are said to get the power to bring revolution to the world. Utena gets unwittingly involved in the whole thing, but she has no idea how deep this rabbit hole goes….
Utena focuses on a cast of troubled teenagers and explores gender roles, misogyny, oppression, sexuality, homophobia, loss of childhood innocence and the cycle of abuse in a highly surreal, but still affecting way. The anime viciously deconstructs fairy tale archetypes and typical romance tropes. The characters in the series are complex and heavily flawed, and we see them struggle through the horrors of adolescence. There’s tons of plot twists and turns along the way.
The constant duels are perhaps the focal point of most of the symbolism of the series- they seem to often function as a metaphor for the folly of using sex as a tool for domination. The duels are fought with phallic swords and the goal is to strike a flower from the opponents’ chest (“deflower” them) all so they can gain the ability to “possess” another person. Many of the duelists are trying to prove themselves to be “adults” through their duels, much like children often equate adulthood with sexuality.
But while the series certainly contains many dark themes (This anime contains (non-graphic and in my opinon, tastefully treated) rape, abuse, incest, suicide and depression) it’s not afraid to make fun of itself either and use it’s surrealism for humor. This is perhaps best exemplified by an entire episode about a character turning into a cow.
So if you’re up for a really weird anime that focuses on complex (and often romantic) relationships between women and the need to dismantle systems of oppression with a side of hilarious animal attacks, Utena is the show for you! The anime is 39 episodes and is available. There’s also a movie that is essentially a alternate retelling of the show (or is it a sequel? You never know with Utena) with a whole lot weirdness condensed into a small space. I enjoyed it though.
The Utena series is available through Nozomi Entertainment on Youtube subbed. The movie is available too, though not fot free. It's also available dubbed and you can find it dubbed on Hulu too, but I wouldn't personally reccomend the dub- it's not great. You can buy the DVDs here.
Serial Experiments Lain
This 1998 cyberpunk anime directed by Ryutaro Nakamura follows a young girl named Lain Iwakura. She lives in the world where most people are very into an virtual reality world called “the Wired”. A rash of suicides happens among teenagers who use the Wired and one of the victim’s is Lain’s classmate. She receives an email from her dead classmate that claims she has not died, but instead gone into the Wired to be with God. Lain becomes interested in this internet-like world after this and uncovers many terrible secrets.
The anime mainly focuses on how technology and memory can blur the line between real and unreal. It questions what reality truly is. Identity, duality and isolation are major themes. Lain herself reads as a mentally ill character- she often disassociates from reality and has several different identities. This anime is both unsettling and haunting- there’s a lot of horror here, though it’s mostly not the gruesome kind. Theology is also explored a bit in this anime, as there are questions of whether a machine or person can become godlike.
There’s suicide, harm to young children, some body horror and (non-graphic) masturbation and voyeurism, but it’s mainly low key in its horror, The anime is 12 episodes, so it’s not that much of a commitment. Lain is available on Funimation’s YouTube channel and Hulu.
Haibane Renmei is a 2001 anime directed by Yoshitoshi Abe. It follows a young girl who awakens as an angel called a “haibane” with no memories of who she was before. She is named Rakka by her fellow haibane and discovers she is a walled city with no exit. The haibane all one day fly over the wall never to be seen again, unless they are “sin-bound”. These haibane have black-stained wings and cannot remember anything from before their arrival, like Rakka. If they remain sin-bound long enough, they lose their wings and halo and can never leave the city.
Haibane Renmei is both a slice-of-life and a mystery, navigating questions of spirituality and sin and life and death. The mystery of what exactly the city is and who the mysterious organization that keep the Haibane trapped are is left open to interpretation, but there are lots of clues that point to solid theories. The anime focuses on girls who are trapped mainly by their own minds- their regrets, their sense of morality and their self-loathing. The anime asks the question of whether you can truly achieve freedom from sin and whether it is possibly to truly face yourself. The result is a moving story that may touch you deeply, especially if you’ve experienced depression and all the things that tend to come with it.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Neon Genesis Evangelion is a 1995 mecha anime directed by Hideaki Anno, following a teenage boy named Shinji Ikari who reluctantly pilots a giant robot-like machine to fights mysterious beings called “angels”. His distant and cruel father is the director of the organization and Shinji has to battle his own fears and weaknesses as much as he does any enemy.
Eva is considered a huge part of anime history. This anime deconstructs the mecha genre- exploring how truly screwed up it would be for a kid to be made to engage in life-or-death battle and the emotional turmoil that would likely result. In contrast to the usual gung-ho action hero, Shinji is hesitant and scared (and most likely clinically depressed).
The director of the anime has gone on record saying that the work was a product of his interest in psychology and also a result of the depression he struggled with for four years. The series is full of many references to psychoanalysis and various theories, particularly those of Freud and Jung. It explores stuff like oedipal complexes, suicidal impulses and repressed sexuality. A big theme throughout the show is the famous “hedgehog’s dilemma”, the idea that people can’t get too close without hurting each other, yet at the same time they desire it. This is certainly reflected in the many fractured relationships between the characters.
There’s also a ton of abstraction and religious symbolism, though it’s debateable whether it all actually means anything or is simply there to look cool. The series actually runs out of budget at the end, so if you really like surrealism and psychoanalysis, congrats! You’re going to get two whole episodes of the characters sitting around and talking over their various neuroses. Then you can watch the movie, where horrific destruction ensues.
Seriously though, Eva was an incredibly influential anime and clearly resonated with a lot of people, so it’s worth a look for that. Warnings for abuse, sexual assault and victim blaming (treated very casually at one point and less casually at another), body horror, implications of incest, suicide, some gore and lots and lots of death.
Evangelion is 26 episode and is followed up by the movie called The End of Evangelion. The series is retold in a series of three movies called Rebuild of Evangelion, starting with Evangelion 1.0: You are (Not) Alone. You can find it all at Funimation.
Paprika is a 2006 film directed by Satoshi Kon. It follows Dr. Atsuko Chiba, who uses a device called the “DC Mini” to enter patients dreams and perform psychotherapy on them. However, her world is thrown into chaos when someone steals the device and uses it for ill.
Many see Paprika as a precursor to Inception, even going so far as to accuse Christopher Nolan of ripping it off. However, Paprika gets way more into the psychological and surreal while Inception is more of a heist movie that makes a foray in mental stuff. A big theme in Paprika is dual identity and how dreams can bring out the repressed self. The animation of the movie is simply beautiful and really the main draw for me. It does the colorful and weird world of dream justice, allowing the lines between dreams and reality to blur.
Paprika contains scenes of murder, attempted suicide, attempted rape and sexual assault. You can buy Paprika here.
Perfect Blue is a 1999 psychological thriller movie directed by Satoshi Kon. A former idol turned actress named Mima is troubled both by a stalker who seems to want to “become” her and how show business and reality is starting to become indistinguishable for her.
While the influence of Paprika on Inception is debateable, it is definite that Perfect Blue influences movies like Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. The movie is about psychological horror and being unable to tell fantasy from reality, but it also touches on being a critique of how show business tends to exploit and destroy its female stars.
Particulary affecting is when the main character is forced to do a “rape scene” which is acknowledged as something all actresses get asked to do at some point. The experience is completely violating and traumatizing for the actress and the voyeurism of the studio having her do it is thrown into the light. So much pressure is put on Mima that she begins to doubt her mental stability.
The film is very visceral and contains multiple rape scenes that are fairly graphic. There’s also a lot of violence. You can buy Perfect Blue here.