Anime is an incredible medium which is capable of bringing together elements from so many different sources to create gripping, cohesive stories that we can enjoy on a level far beyond that of casual fandom. Symbolism is one of the devices used by a variety of different artistic media in order to convey entire concepts in a form of visual shorthand. Symbols are widely used in our day-to-day lives and have a plethora of different functions and meanings depending on the context. Sometimes, symbolism shows itself through function – the role played by particular elements in a story juxtaposed with each other creates underlying effects and affects how the story itself is told. Without further ado, we’d like to drop our top 10 anime with the most symbolism.
10. Wolf’s Rain
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: January 2003 – July 2003
In a dystopian setting, a legend exists which speaks of the gateway to paradise being opened when the world ends, a paradise which will be the only safe haven for the surviving few. However, according to legend, only wolves can find their way into paradise. Long thought to be extinct, there are wolves living amongst humans, relying on illusions to blend in and avoid being hunted by human beings. A lone wolf named Kiba finds himself drawn to Freeze City by an interesting scent. The town is ruled by one Lord Orkham, an unpleasant figure who has allowed poverty to grip the very foundations of the town. Kiba soon learns that other wolves have been drawn to the city; drawn to the fragrance of the “Lunar Flowers”, the fabled keys to paradise. In pursuit of their ideal world, the wolves travel across crumbling cities and wastelands; however, they soon realise that they aren’t the only ones searching…
Wolf’s Rain uses the Lunar Flowers as a beacon of hope for the wolves; however, its alluring scent is placed with the dark and desolate backdrops which make up a large part of the show. This effect can be taken as a statement – could the flowers be symbolic of the fleeting conception that is utopia? Perhaps paradise can only ever be like the flowers’ scent: promising and alluring but leading nowhere.
9. Mawaru Penguindrum
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: July 2011 – December 2011
The Takakura siblings live a fairly difficult life after the death of their parents. Twin brothers Kanba and Shouma must take care of their younger sister, Himari, who is constantly in ill health. One day, Himari is given temporary permission to leave the hospital and her brothers take her to the aquarium but unfortunately, she collapses. Strangely enough, Himari is revived by a penguin hat the trio had bought from the aquarium’s gift shop. With her inexplicable recovery comes the strange terrain of having to navigate a whole new entity being in their sister’s body. The entity’s only condition for keeping Himari alive is that Kanba and Shouma find the mysterious “Penguindrum”, going on the wildest goose chase of their lives.
The penguin in Mawaru Penguindrum is a symbol which permeates the entire series from the beginning. The absurdity of the show manifests itself in the appearance of three live servant penguins in the Takakura’s mail. The penguin itself can also be symbolic of royalty, which explains the regal personality of the Princess of the Crystal who possesses Himari’s body at particular junctures in the show.
8. Eureka Seven
- Episodes: 50
- Aired: April 2005 – April 2006
14-year-old Renton Thurston is tired of his boring life living with his mechanic grandfather in his small backwater town of Belforest. Craving some sort of reprieve from his boredom, Renton spends his days riding the trapar waves in the atmosphere in a manner akin to surfing, much like the members of the Gekkostate mercenary group he greatly idolises. His boring life changes forever when one night, a giant mecha or “Light-Finding Operation” crash lands into Renton’s garage. The LFOs are capable of riding the trapar waves in the air. The LFO in question is the legendary Nirvash TypeZERO, piloted by a beautiful blue-haired girl named Eureka, who happens to be a member of Gekkostate. She requests a tune-up for the Nirvash, an interaction which kicks off Renton’s involvement with Gekkostate as he ends up being co-pilot of the Nirvash.
Eureka Seven has several motifs which run throughout the show, such as the spontaneous appearance of the show’s in-universe animal, the sky fish. These fish are capable of riding the trapar waves and first appeared en masse when a daring Renton exclaimed “I CAN FLY!” before riding the trapars on his board in a way he’d never done before. Perhaps they are symbolic of his freedom from the Belforest cage, his literal burst onto the scene.
7. Elfen Lied
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: July 2004 – October 2004
Lucy is a “Diclonius”, a special breed of human being born with a short pair of horns and invisible telekinetic hands. As a result, she is subject to years of torture and experimentation by the government, at least until she escapes, tearing apart anyone who stands in her way. However, during her breakout, she sustains a heavy head injury which leaves her with a split personality: a harmless, childlike side with limited communicative abilities, and her true self. During her period of vulnerability, Lucy is found by two college students, Kouta and his cousin Yuka, who then take her into their care. However, they remain blissfully unaware of the true nature of the stray cat they have decided to let in.
Memory is a recurring theme in Elfen Lied and in extended flashbacks in the show, we are exposed to the harsh realities of Lucy’s childhood, one of which being the brutal bludgeoning of a puppy she once had. This memory haunts Lucy as it is both a heavy expression of human cruelty. Later in the series, she is shown to be incapable of harming dogs, a possible reference to her childhood experiences. Dogs are often symbols of loyalty, which resonates with Elfen Lied and the memory which haunts the show, representing Lucy’s own attachments.
6. Chikyuu Shoujo Arjuna (Earth Girl Arjuna)
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: January 2001 – March 2001
One hot summer day, 16-year-old Ariyoshi Juna met her end when a motorcycle joyride with her boyfriend went awry. Her ordinary high school life ended when, in the strange limbo between life and death, she saw vivid visions of the Earth’s desolate future. In death, she meets a strange boy named Chris who offers her an ultimatum: die, as she had been; or gain a second chance at life by assuming the role of the Avatar of Time, the being who is to protect the planet from its unsightly future and guide it towards a better fate.
Earth Girl Arjuna is littered with symbolism and imagery inspired by Hindu mythology and various forms of spiritual thinking. This is evident in the form of the Drop of Time placed squarely on Juna’s forehead – a magatama bead as her literal third eye, as well as numerous other elements hinting at inspiration from Hindu cosmogony. The word “Arjuna” in the title is symbolic of the nature of the story – an epic; as well as indicative of Juna’s role in the series: the bow-wielding protagonist. This is a clear nod towards Arjuna, the protagonist of the Indian Mahabharata epic. This is taken as far as making Juna an archer, who wields “Gandiva”, Arjuna’s bow in the mythos. Juna’s mechanical guardian, Ashura, is named after the Ashura, powerful power-seeking deities in the collection of Sanskrit hymns known as the Rigveda.
- Episodes: 15
- Aired: July 2009 – June 2010
Third-year high school student Araragi Koyomi narrowly survives a vampire attack. With the help of Oshino Meme, an eccentric living in an abandoned building, Koyomi is able to overcome his vampirism; however, the lingering effects of having once been undead still remain. Irrespective of his colourful past, Koyomi attempts to live life as a regular high schooler, but when fellow classmate Senjougahara Hitagi falls down the stairs, he rushes to catch her. Having caught the falling girl, he realises that Senjougahara is unnaturally weightless. Knowing just who can help, Koyomi insists that Senjougahara trust him, and trust Oshino Meme, an expert in things of this… order. Through his interactions with several characters, Bakemonogatari follows Koyomi as he helps several characters deal with supernatural afflictions.
Much of the animation in the Monogatari Series is notorious for instantaneous flashes of text which appear on screen, often contextualising the conversation at hand. Being the dialogue-driven show that it is, Bakemonogatari finds itself in a place where symbolism and meta-references are always on the cards, such as the imagery of Hachikuji Mayoi being a lost snail and her supernatural affliction being the lost snail. Also, her name “Mayoi” literally translates to “lost”, showing a mere glimpse into the type of anime Bakemonogatari can be – a layered experience.
4. Black★Rock Shooter
- Episodes: 8
- Aired: February 2012 – March 2012
Kuroi Mato’s first day of junior high has her running into Takanashi Yomi, a shy girl in whom Mato takes an interest. At first, Mato’s attempts at forming a genuine bond are avoided until Yomi sees Mato’s blue bird phone decoration, a reference to a book titled “Li’l Birds At Play”. With this common interest, friendship finally blossoms; however, as above, so below. Their actions and the happenings around them affect their interactions in a parallel universe, where Mato is a being known as “Black★Rock Shooter” and Yomi is “Dead Master”. Despite this, the girls remain in the dark with regards to the fate they now share.
The symbol of the bird appears in Black★Rock Shooter very often, embedding itself even into the very names of the characters. The blue bird decoration on Mato’s phone being the catalyst for her friendship with Yomi is further indication of this anime’s intent to use the bird motif. In the first episode, the mechanics of Takanashi’s name are discussed, with it being explained that it is written “kotori asobi” – where little birds play, but pronounced “Takanashi” – no eagles, because it logically follows that “Li’l birds” can only be “At Play” where there are no eagles, a Japanese equivalent of the saying “When the cat’s away, the mice will play”. Birds are generally seen as symbols of freedom so you can only imagine how far this has gone.
3. Made in Abyss
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: July 2017 – September 2017
The Abyss is a large chasm which stretches down to the very pits of the Earth, harbouring all sorts of ancient creatures. People known as Divers risk their lives to enter the deep dark unknown in order to learn more about it. The best divers, known as the White Whistles, are lauded by people who remain on the world above. Riko is the daughter of a White Whistle who went missing and aspires to be like her; to be like Lyza the Annihilator. At her current state, she is a mere novice confined to the uppermost layer of the abyss. One day, Riko has a chance encounter with a robot named Reg, who can’t remember anything before being found. Reasoning that technology this advanced could only come from the abyss, Riko and Reg head down into the deep in order to retrieve Reg’s memories, and learn more about the gaping rift in their world.
The giant gaping chasm around which the events of the series occur is a recurring theme used in the anime and the word “abyss” itself ties to it negative connotations. The title, “Made in Abyss”, is a clear nod towards the character Reg, but also perhaps to other discoveries which remain inexplicable to the people on the surface. The word “abyss” also always seems to remind human beings of an interesting Friedrich Nietzsche quote which is often delivered as “And if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you.”
2. Neon Genesis Evangelion
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: October 1995 – March 1996
The year is 2015 and the world stands on the brink of ruin due to the appearance of giant alien lifeforms known as the Angels. The only hope of humanity lies in the hands of NERV, a special agency operating under the United Nations who possess giant machines capable of defeating the angels. 14-year-old Ikari Shinji’s life has to change as his father, Ikari Gendou summons him to pilot one of these giant machines, Evangelion Unit-01. Can Shinji overcome fear and bear the weight of the fate of the very world on his shoulders?
While generally on a very surface level, Neon Genesis Evangelion throws many different religious subjects into the fray. From the main antagonists of the series being called Angels, to the naming of significant Angels after Adam and Lilith respectively, Evangelion enters the territory of themes inspired by Abrahamic faiths and their lore. The final set of confusing episodes also draws from the primordial soup concept to explore characters’ psyches in… rather memorable ways.
1. Tokyo Ghoul
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: July 2014 – September 2014
Tokyo is a city of intense violence due to the existence of humanity’s only natural predator: the Ghoul. Ghouls are bloodthirsty beings which feed on human flesh to survive, using their human-like appearance to blend in with human society. 18-year-old Kaneki Ken’s date with the beautiful Kamishiro Rize goes horribly wrong when the fellow bookworm turns out to be a Ghoul herself. With Kaneki coming extremely close to death, a freak accident causes Rize to lose her life, but the meeting sets into motion Kaneki’s dark descent into the violent world of the Ghouls where the only philosophy is canis canem edit.
Tokyo Ghoul is dripping in symbolism and meta-references which truly elevate the experience of watching (or reading) the series once you become aware of it all. The main device is of course the colouration of Kaneki Ken’s hair throughout the series. His jet-black hair is replaced by a snow white, possibly due to the effects of Marie Antoinette syndrome, after his torture at the hands of Jason. This is symbolic of his complete acceptance of his Ghoul side. Throughout the series, there has been heavy emphasis on masks and aliases, which further sends home the idea that Ghouls often have their very individuality as Ghouls come second to their Ghoul status.
Overall, anime brings with it a truckload of information about the characters, plot and setting which often goes unnoticed and unappreciated. Symbolism is a way in which media can connect to audiences using methods which layer concepts on top of each other in interesting and brilliant ways. However, anime is extensive, and brings with it so much that people notice while others do not. It is for this reason that we have fandoms that we discuss and enjoy these shows together. With that same energy, we’d like you to tell us about your favourite symbolism-rich title, so drop a comment below and get discussing!