Over the years, anime has tackled some pretty heavy subjects: death, war, complicated interpersonal relationships, the value of life.. and even though Japanese culture heavily stigmatizes it, some series even dare to talk about mental health. Since it’s Mental Health Awareness Month, we thought we’d highlight how anime tends to approach this issue and recommend some of our favorite newer series that really dig deep into their characters’ mental struggles. Let’s get started!
Mental Health in Japan
Before we jump into how individual anime portray mental health, here’s a bit of background on how Japan handles it as a society. Japanese people are encouraged to take care of their own problems to avoid disrupting others, so the idea of seeking therapy and medication is almost an admission of failure. Even if someone does decide to get professional help, therapists are few and far between and most drugs used for treating mental disorders in Western countries are highly controlled substances. With so many cultural and infrastructural roadblocks in the way, Japanese people are pretty much just expected to repress their problems. The situation has improved somewhat in recent years, but there’s still a long way to go.
This naturally leads to many unhealthy coping mechanisms like self-isolation, as well as exploitative work environments, and an alarmingly high suicide rate. Anime that address mental health tend to focus on these particular issues, sometimes adding in commentary on the flaws of a society that allows people to suffer in silence. More recent anime can also touch on cyberbullying, mob mentalities formed by the internet, and the struggles of LGBT youth—all of which are intensified by the “don’t bother others with your problems” philosophy.
Influential Mental Health Anime
One of the most recognizable and influential anime about mental health is Neon Genesis Evangelion: a deconstruction of the then-ubiquitous mecha genre that explores the anguish its teenage characters go through on their mission to save the world (some of which is lifted from director Hideaki Anno’s own depressive episode that happened close to the anime’s production). It inspired later deconstructions like Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Re:ZERO, which tackled issues like suicide and grief through the lenses of popular genres from their own times.
Other anime decide to go for the throat with direct depictions of mental instability in Japanese society. Director Satoshi Kon is particularly well-known for this—his film Perfect Blue lays bare the inhumane nature of the idol industry, and his series Paranoia Agent shows what happens when too many people blame others for their own problems. Modern anime like Psycho-Pass and Devilman Crybaby are technologically updated continuations of this idea, and more lighthearted shows like WataMote and Hitoribocchi take a comedic stance on Japanese mental health issues. There may not be many anime that tackle this subject, but at least there’s plenty of variety amongst the ones that we do have!
5 Recent Anime About Mental Health
Now that we’ve seen how anime, in general, tends to depict this subject, here are some of our favorite recent series that focus on mental health!
5. Fruits Basket
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: April 2019 - September 2019
The 2001 anime didn’t get the opportunity to fully explore how monumentally messed up the Souma family truly is, but the new remake wastes no time establishing that the Zodiac curse is much more than just an excuse for ‘90s shoujo antics. All 13 members are forced to love their “god” Akito, trapping them in what is essentially a supernaturally enforced abusive relationship. Anyone who falls out of line is subjected to physical violence and/or gaslighting by Akito, leaving them even more emotionally unstable than they already were. Fruits Basket portrays the myriad mental issues of the Souma family with nuance and care, making it a must-watch for any anime fan interested in mental health.
4. Hataraku Saibou Black (Cells at Work! CODE BLACK!)
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: January 2021 - March 2021
This edutainment anime about the inner workings of a poorly maintained body is actually much more about mental health than physical health. Both the owner of the body and our Red Blood Cell main character suffer from burnout due to overworking and neglect their own well-being because of it. It’s particularly sad to see the cheery Red Blood Cell slowly lose his zest for life and fall into a deep depression when he realizes that his work may as well be for nothing. We just want to give him a big hug!
3. Wonder Egg Priority
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 2021 - March 2021
Wonder Egg Priority is a 2021 magical girl series that zeroes in specifically on issues that cause young women to commit suicide. Depression, bullying, sexual exploitation by adult men... every girl the main characters save has a specific reason for taking her own life. The plot is a bit all-over-the-place and some girls’ stories are more realistic than others, but the abstract personifications of mental demons are striking in their intensity. If you’re looking for a companion piece to Puella Magi Madoka Magica, this is a great choice.
2. Death Parade
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 2015 - March 2015
Even though most characters in this anime are only present for one episode—the time it takes for their souls to be judged by the arbiter Decim—you’ll likely be in tears when you see them leave at the end. These recently deceased people who bargain for their lives in deadly parlor games have all sorts of mental troubles (narcissism, crippling self-doubt, unhealthy hero worship, etc.), but the two episodes focused on suicide are some of the most realistically gut-wrenching depictions of the subject we’ve ever seen in media. Though not for the faint of heart, Death Parade is spot-on with its portrayal of mental health issues.
1. Seishun Buta Yarou wa Bunny Girl Senpai no Yume wo Minai (Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai)
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: October 2018 - December 2018
Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai takes teenage mental struggles and injects a bit of magical realism to show how deeply these “invisible issues” can affect them. One girl who worries that others will forget her suddenly becomes invisible to everyone else, another who is insecure about her growing body splits into two versions of herself (one who craves attention and one who hides away), another who just wants to fit in experiences embarrassing events over and over in a time loop, etc. The writing here is truly exceptional, bringing these characters and their struggles to life with just the right amount of supernatural pizazz added to really drive the point home. Don’t miss this one!
March Comes in Like a Lion, The Day I Became a God, School-Live, and Jujutsu Kaisen also do a great job of tackling mental health issues in their own unique ways. But can you think of any more? Why do you like or dislike the way they handle this complicated subject? Let us know in the comments, and thanks so much for reading!