Psychological anime have a beguiling aspect to them that is easy to recognise and incredibly effective in hooking a viewer when done well. With characters that are moulded and developed mentally through whatever means the plot throws at them, psychological anime gives us the kind of edgy and thrilling experience that we crave, other times giving us something (a lot) to think about. Sometimes, they’re just a whole lot of fun – whatever the case may be, the versatility of the genre can’t be disputed and the creativity used to give rise to conflict in psychological anime is nothing to scoff at either. Enough talk, top 10 psychological anime is arena we’re dabbling in today – just remember that this is an updated list and the older one can be found below!
10. Kakegurui: Compulsive Gambler
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: July 2017 – September 2017
Hyakkou Private Academy is a prestigious school with an impeccable reputation which seems normal enough on the surface, but in reality, it is a school leading a double life. With the children of some of the richest people in the world in attendance, the school doubles as a gambling den, teaching the students in the art of manipulation and also how to handle money. Those who have more money stand at the top and transfer student Jabami Yumeko is about to get a true taste of the school’s reality; however, she’s the kind of gambler the school has never quite dealt with before, choosing rather to play for the thrill of it rather than the gains.
Kakegurui is very quick to show the corruptive nature of money on any system of people and the instantaneous hierarchy the value of money elicits. However, the focus on gambling creates an intensity that even the audience feels at times while watching this and the impeccable art that goes with the high-stakes plot seems to augment it. Kakegurui is short and quite a lot of fun, but the length makes it impossible to do any real growing of characters or following any individual path in depth the way it does that of Jabami Yumeko. That being said, it isn’t a bad thing at all as it is the nature of the gambles themselves and their effect on the characters that makes Kakegurui an enjoyable psychological show.
9. Death Parade
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 2015 – March 2015
The afterlife as it turns out, is neither heaven nor hell, but a bar which is the nexus point between reincarnation and oblivion. The bar attendant takes in pairs of the deceased and challenges them to random games the results of which determine who gets to live again and who falls into the void forever. With the very premise of another chance at life at stake, the true nature of people subjected to these games leaps out as the barkeeper, Decim, decides who plays what in the purgatory-like bar known as Quindecim.
With the appearance of a certain black-haired guest to assist Decim with his judgments, Death Parade begins to visit the various considerations that come with being the arbiter of the afterlife. With each game, we are presented a different set of human circumstances that build into psychological explorations of people’s actions when under that kind of pressure. Naturally, we get to see the dichotomy between the positive side of humanity and the negatives.
8. Subete ga F ni Naru (The Perfect Insider)
- Episodes: 11
- Aired: October 2015 – December 2015
Magata Shiki is a genius programmer who has lived on a hidden research facility on a remote island, away from most other people for years. She hardly ever sees guests, at least not until associate professor Saikawa Souhei and student Nishinosono Moe seek an audience with her. Unfortunately, their meeting is cut short when they are embroiled in a locked-room murder mystery. With everything happening in isolation, Saikawa and Moe must delve into Magata Shiki’s past and solve the crime themselves.
The locked-room mystery is a trope that has been used in mystery for a very long time and in various different circumstances. In The Perfect Insider, the trope is used to create tension in a dire, isolated situation in which the characters must dig deep not only to solve the murder, but also to come to grips with the dark realities of their associates. With the trope setting so much into motion, The Perfect Insider’s dialogue-driven approach gives the plot the ability to rule the characters from behind while the characters themselves add to the tension through their development.
7. Re:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu (Re:Zero – Starting Life in Another World)
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: April 2016 – September 2016
Natsuki Subaru is a high schooler who heads out to buy a few things at a nearby convenience store. Upon stepping out again, he finds himself in the centre of a marketplace in another world! Unfortunately for Subaru, it isn’t long until he is attacked by bandits and armed with nothing but groceries and a now-useless cellphone, Subaru is overcome and beaten. Luckily, a white-haired beauty called Satella bursts onto the scene and drives them away. She’s in pursuit of a thief who stole her family insignia and Subaru, feeling rather grateful decides to assist her in her search. Upon finding the criminal, things take a dark turn as both Subaru and Satella are brutally murdered. After this incident, Subaru finds himself back in the same marketplace, running into the same bandits and running into the same white-haired beauty as history inexplicably repeats itself.
Popular in the year it came out, Re:Zero did a whole lot to torture Subaru as a protagonist, but it also highlighted many of his flaws. What started out much like any gamer’s dream ended up becoming a harrowing ordeal in which Subaru is not only away from home, but also forced to navigate a violent space where magic exists and various individuals with agendas of their own add to a slew of consistently worsening circumstances.
6. Steins;Gate: 0
- Episodes: 23
- Aired: April 2018 - ???
After failing to rescue Makise Kurisu, Okabe Rintarou struggles to recover mentally from his ordeal, and abandons his Hououin Kyouma persona in order to forget about the past. However, despite his efforts to escape his past, an acquaintance of Kurisu appears and tells him that she and her associates have begun testing a device capable of storing human memories and creating a simulation of them. Their subject? Makise Kurisu herself and, as Okabe begins testing, he is overcome by the same grief he has been trying to escape.
Set in a timeline where Kurisu is no more, the series begins its psychological onslaught on both Okabe and the viewers by bringing her back in the form of an AI, among other developments. In familiar Stein’s;Gate fashion, everything is not what it seems and we’re introduced to new characters who give a different dimension and experience of the deceased which can play with you emotionally if you’re a fan of the series. However, it isn’t all doom and gloom as it maintains its characteristic edge in certain areas and you soon come to realise the true ominous meaning of a timeline where Makise Kurisu is dead.
5. Devilman: Crybaby
- Episodes: 10
- Aired: January 2018
Devils are immensely powerful beings that are hindered by one fact: they cannot take form without a living host. However, if the will of the host is strong enough, they can overcome the possession and become a powerful being known as a Devilman. Fudou Akira is an intensely empathetic high school student who decides to help his childhood friend Asuka Ryou in his quest to uncover some devils. When they arrive at the scene of Sabbath, a party characterised by high levels of degeneracy, they witness demons turning people into monsters and spilling the blood of innumerable people. In an attempt to save Ryou from one such monster, Akira unwittingly merges with a devil known as Amon and becomes a Devilman. The new power changes Akira physically but with the same empathy he has always had. Akira must navigate his newfound strength and use it to protect the people he loves.
Using the contrast between the lives led by demons and the lives led by human beings, the Devilmen of the series are walking a tightrope between their humanity and the urges of the monsters they are hosting. Devilman: Crybaby uses Nagai Go’s story as a framework to ask the age-old question: can a monster feel the way a human does? Such questions are visited readily throughout and the action of it all does grip one tightly. Or should we rather say it… “possesses”?
4. Boku Dake ga Inai Machi (ERASED)
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 2016 – March 2016
Seconds before tragedy strikes, 29-year-old Fujinuma Satoru is sent back minutes before disaster by means of a strange phenomenon he calls “Revival”. Using it to his advantage, he is able to save many lives but when he is framed for the murder of someone close to him, Satoru’s ability sends him back 18 years into the past, to the year 1988. He realises that the murder may be connected to the abduction and killing of a classmate named Hinazuki Kayo back when he was an elementary schooler. With this strange set of circumstances, Satoru is given the chance to set right a tragedy 18 years in the making.
Jarring from the first episode, ERASED does something rather untoward by making its main cast children for most of it; however, that feeds into the sheer sense of terror that some parts of the series elicit. The mystery behind both killings remains hidden and Satoru’s efforts to uncover it aren’t always the most successful. For the most part, we see much of Satoru’s torturing as a protagonist in the first episode – the episode where he effectively loses everything.
3. Psycho Pass
- Episodes: 22
- Aired: October 2012 – March 2013
The 22nd century in Japan sees the enforcement of the Sibyl System, an objective means to examine every citizen’s mental state in order to determine the level of threat they pose to society. This is known as the Psycho Pass and anyone harbouring ill-will will have that reflected on their Psycho Pass. Inspectors who protect the law do so by subjugating such people alongside Enforcers, former Inspectors turned criminal. Tsunemori Akane is a young woman who wishes to protect and uphold justice; however, her values are shaken when she realises that Sibyl isn’t quite the perfect system it is made out to be. Alongside her Enforcer, Kougami Shinya, Akane must navigate treacherous territory in her own mind in order to be able to truly mete out justice.
Other than the fact that Psycho Pass has the “psychological” aspect of its experienced outwardly stated in its name, the series does a lot of work in presenting the fallacies of a “completely objective” system of justice. Naturally, the psychological turmoil of the protagonist isn’t merely at being unable to find a satisfying definition of justice which will tick all the boxes and set her conscience at ease. There is also the aspect of the work of the Inspectors themselves not being wholly different from the police we have today – the harrowing traumatic experiences of being on the force never truly went away for Inspectors. Justice isn’t all they battle with.
2. Zankyou no Terror (Terror in Resonance)
- Episodes: 11
- Aired: July 2014 – September 2014
A terrorist attack on a Japanese nuclear facilities leaves no clues as to who did it except for the word “VON” spray-painted in red. Unable to find the perpetrators, the authorities find themselves unable to act, at least until the emergence of a strange video on the internet featuring two masked teenagers known as “Sphinx”. Sphinx directly challenges the police, threatening to cause widespread destruction in Tokyo. Racing against time with no leads whatsoever, the police must find a way to calm the panic spreading throughout the town while finding out who is behind the masks. Nine and Twelve are the boys behind Sphinx who hope to bury the truth of their pasts with their acts of terrorism.
Terror in Resonance is an interesting tale which mixed in quite a lot of mythological allegory into its story which is more than just about two characters causing damage in the city of Tokyo. Nine and Twelve are tragic characters who have experienced lives that they would rather not mention, lives which gave rise to the phenomenon known as Sphinx. With no real names of their own but the ones they received in their dark past, Nine and Twelve use their spectre-like existence to challenge the authorities in many a psychological game – hence the name: Sphinx.
1. Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei (Tatami Galaxy)
- Episodes: 11
- Aired: April 2010 – July 2010
A third-year college student runs into a strange man with an eggplant-shaped head claiming to be a god of matrimony. The meeting causes the student to look back on his past two years at college spent trying to break up couples on campus alongside Ozu, his only friend, a person hell-bent on causing misery through his mischief. Vowing to make the most of the time he has left in college, the student tries to ask out Akashi, an unsociable underclassman of his who also has a kind-heart. He fails to follow through and this drives him into a regretful mental space, but he is soon after sent through time and space to the beginning of his college career to have a second chance at his life.
Tatami Galaxy is a surreal, dialogue-driven anime which forces anyone who watches it to ponder the concept of regret and living life to the proverbial “fullest”. Nostalgia and regret seem to go hand-in-hand in this psychological onslaught not only on the protagonist, but on you as the viewer as well. However, while we might focus on the main character setting out to do things right a second time, there is still much to consider in the light of the mystery behind his rehashing of college life, but also the concepts of romance and friendship and their influence on what people consider a fulfilling life in any space.
As we’ve seen, psychological anime span a myriad of different topics and settings which make them quite accessible to many people craving different things from their anime experience. We can have gory and thrilling, or surreal and exciting – whatever it may be, the genre produces many titles that many would consider “must-watch” titles. Versatility of the genre aside, sometimes it takes a good psychological anime to have you thinking about something in a different light to what you’re used to and in any artistic medium, the value of that cannot be stressed enough. Are there psychological anime that you reckon should be on here? Drop a comment below and tell us about them – we’d love to hear what you think!
Psychological can be defined as substance “of, pertaining to, dealing with, or affecting the mind, especially as a function of awareness, feeling, or motivation. That’s a pretty wide premise. However, it also captures the essence of how the substance not only presents heavy subject matter, but presents it in a way that forces our minds into a statement of awareness. It’s this requirement, the ability to force analytical action from the audience towards the show as much as themselves, that defines this list. Without further ado, let us take a trip down some rather perilous, almost psychedelic, anime.
10. Death Note
- Episodes: 37
- Aired: Oct. 2006 – Jun. 2007
As most of us probably know, Death Note follows Light Yagami, a young idealist, as he attempts to create a utopia through the power of the Death Note, which kills whomever is written in its pages.
Now, there’s going to be some hate for Death Note not being near the top of this list, but this list is focused on a show’s ability to warp the audience’s mind. Death Note is great at capturing the reader’s imagination, but it touts its ideologies as straight forwardly as possible, as do most investigative thrillers such as Terror in Resonance, Monster, and Psycho-Pass (all of which are great, just not for this list). Nonetheless, these shows do give the audience quite a bit to ponder (what is justice, harmony, utopia?) as well as consistently intense mental games.
9. Aku no Hana
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: Apr. 2013 – Jun. 2013
Ever wonder what would happen if you got caught stealing someone’s laundry? Aku no Hana does exactly that as Kasuga Takao is spotted by another student as he steals his crush’s gym clothes.
Despite its rather simple premise, this anime’s episodes are filled with cryptic requests, gestures, and moments for us to unravel. There aren’t any long soliloquies of what’s right and wrong, so it’s our job to figure out the motives and question the internal dialogues. More importantly, the artwork of this show forces introspection. Its blurry, impressionistic animation diminishes the feel of a medium between us and the characters, putting us in their shoes.
8. Serial Experiments Lain
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: Jul. 1998 – Sep. 1998
This classic unleashes a world of cyberpunk mystery upon its audience the moment Lain Iwakura receives a disturbing email from a classmate who committed suicide. Without batting an eye, Triangle Staff’s psychological thriller toys with Lain’s perception of reality as she traverses the contents of the real world and the world of the Wired (aka the Internet).
Each choice made in this anime has resounding consequences that keep the audience on its feet. More importantly, this anime deftly handles issues of identity and consciousness with the advancement of technology. It’s asking what happens when we interact intimately and consistently with an impossible store of knowledge. Obviously, things begin to blur and unhinge themselves, and yet there’s power as well. In the end, it forces you to consider your interactions with technology and the countless possibilities that are at your fingers.
7. Ergo Proxy
- Episodes: 23
- Aired: Feb. 2006 – Aug. 2006
Mankind has been forced to live in isolated establishments scattered across the world. It is in one such colony, a metal metropolis, that we meet the triad of heroes who will begin to unravel the complicated and unmarked territories of this world. There’s Inpsector Re-I Mayer, Proxy Vincent Law, and the child-AutoReiv Pino who make up a rather diverse group of individuals who struggle as much to figure out their own desires as to understand one another.
Ergo Proxy is easily the most confusing of all the series on here, and can easily derail a lot of viewers. This is not, however, because the narrative is told sloppily or incoherently but rather through an intricate mix of references and symbolism. From Greek mythology to the ideas of multiple philosophers, this anime winds together an epic of self-discovery that few shows can compare to. Bending your mind each step of the way, Ergo Proxy forces you into settlements and landscapes that defy genre by exposing the inner turmoil of separate mental hives and ideologies.
6. Mousou Dairinin (Paranoia Agent)
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: Feb. 2004 – May 2004
Mousou Dairinin is one of those shows you don’t want to watch with the lights off. It purses the case of apprehending the infamous Shounen Bat (Lil’ Slugger) who has been flying across Musashino City on rollerblades an pummeling people with his golden baseball bat. The detectives Keiichi Ikari and Mitsuhiro Maniwa are on the case, however, with each passing day, paranoia is spreading and the Shounen Bat’s terror is spreading.
Mousou Dairinin incredibly handles the infectious nature of paranoia and anxiety. Within its narrative there’s an active discourse on panic and the erosion of one’s mind to fear as rumors seize the entire community about who the culprit is. In doing so, it also successfully toys around with your expectations to an incredible degree. Furthermore, its representations of characters heavily toys with certain notions of perception. Is it the character that views himself/herself, society, or simply the artist’s desire to meet the audience’s expectation?
5. Kuuchuu Buranko (Welcome to Irabu's Office)
- Episodes: 11
- Aired: Oct. 2009 – Dec. 2009
Kuuchuu Buranko is all about chasing the rabbit down its hole as we get a firsthand look at the quirky practices of one Dr. Ichiro Irabu. It’s one trippy ride as patients file in, looking for him to help solve their problems.
Visually, the show is a psychedelic madhouse of environments and colors that will both assault and mesmerize your eyes. Its vivid animation acts as a perfect backdrop to symbolize the unconscious, its wild power, and how little we truly understand of ourselves.
Plot-wise, this anime tackles mental issues unlike anything else. A lot of the time, the treatment methods seem rash or bizarre, escaping even the understanding of the patient. Yet, that’s one of the beautiful points. Mental health problems, issues of fear and anxiety, don’t have a plain and simple treatment.
4. Death Parade
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Jan. 2015 – Mar. 2015
How weird would it be to die and then find yourself in a bar where you must play a simple game against another to determine your fate? That’s the premise of Death Parade as the bar’s master Decim, observes each game to determine who will be reincarnated and those will not.
Death Parade demands your attention from start to finish as it presents an almost too simplistic environment. Indeed, its rather plain setting forces our attention on the characters and every little action they make. It wants us to analyze them and make judgments of our own as even the most minor of games becomes a battlefield for psychological and emotional warfare. Wrapping this show’s open discourse up quite nicely is the realization that Decim might not know what he’s doing. Suddenly, death is once more realized as another factor of life. It is uncertain and never clear cut.
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: Nov. 2006
Paprika throws viewers into a world where it’s possible to enter into the subconscious of another person through the use of a DC Mini. Captaining the rise and use of this technology is Dr. Atsuko Chiba, whose alternate identity of Paprika, when entering another person’s mind, can benefit society to great lengths by analyzing and resolving deep-rooted issues in people. However, the first of this technology, a prototype DC Mini, has been stolen and someone is using the machine to instigate psychological warfare against society. Inception anyone?
Traversing dream state backdrops of different minds while chasing down the person who stole the DC Mini sets up the plot for Paprika. Abstract and beautiful, you will find yourself in settings that both confuse and draw you in. Ripe with questions of identity, and what defines reality Paprika will keep you glued to the screen the whole time.
However, rather than simply interweaving the lines of reality and fiction to create tension, Paprika suggests that there is really only a thin veil between the two. Sight is a medium, memories are a medium, everything is subjection to refractions of light streaming through faulty lenses. Thus, everything, including the wildest scenarios of our dreams, are open to us. Is there still drama, of course, but there’s a sense of delight too, that comes from the belief that we can break past our own concepts.
2. Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei (The Tatami Galaxy)
- Episodes: 11
- Aired: Apr. 2010 – Jul. 2010
If Kuuchuu Buranko is chasing the rabbit, then Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei is tailing the groundhog. Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei focuses on a nameless protagonist, who, in his endeavors to make the most of his college life, consistently repeats his first two years. In a revolving door of life’s joys and disappointments, our main man sets out to conceive his ideal self.
Director Masaaki Yuasa does not waste any time blasting the audience with psychological warfare. Immediately, were are introduced to a world of folklore sand oddities as our hero unleashes an almost rabid chorus of mental ingenuity while sitting down at a ramen stand that possibly serves cat soup, we are introduced into a world of crazy folklore and oddities.
The animation is one of temporal space with everything shifting, constantly moving about us with very little to root us besides the repetition of a few familiar faces. It’s easy to get lost, and depicts well our struggles with stepping past our self-imposed boundaries of routine and habit. Topping off the incredible narrative is the sense of connection we feel with our protagonist, whose namelessness helps make such a bond all the more poignant. In many ways, he is the voiced manifestation or our anxiety and concern that we’re missing one thing or another in our lives.
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: Feb 28, 1998
Perfect Blue revolves around the life of Mima Kirigne as she decides to leave her pop idol group and become an actress. Not only is one of her more ‘intense’ fans extremely upset about this, but, upon starting her acting career, crazy things begin to happen to people involved with the film she’s starring in. Thus, begins the mental breakdown of both Mimi and ourselves.
This movie is one of the earlier and most renowned works of Satoshi Kon, who was also at the helm of both Paranoia Agent and Paprika. Clearly, the man had mastered his trade. With each passing moment in Perfect Blue, the lines between nightmares, dreams, and realities become more and more interwoven. Deciphering the labyrinth of Mima’s mental state is a task of the upmost perception, and yet, the things you’re bound to pick up are just as likely to bait you into a misconception.
This is not one of the shows with a lighter side to it as it drags us down into a blood-curdling anxiety that has you gripping the edge of your seat. You will keep hoping for freedom, for the cycle to break as you yourself get lost in Mima’s spiraling madness. Throw in some extremely gory moments, and Perfect Blue is a psychological thriller that pushes our comfort levels to their limits.
Psychological shows just offer a plethora of worlds both mental and physical to explore, and if you haven’t jumped into the genre before, then use this list as your guide. With all that said and done, a little shout out needs to be given to Mayioga, which is currently showing potential to screw with your mind on multiple levels. Were there any mind blowing shows that you think deserve a shout out?