A recent trend amongst anime and other media is to start deceptively simple or cutesy and reveal the dark nature later. The true nature is usually far deeper and darker than initial appearances would ever suggest. From Kill la Kill to Made in Abyss, these anime will have viewers watching even well past the twists.
Note: These are only the author's opinions. Special precautions have been taken to avoid spoilers, and all of this should be watched, even if it's just for the twist.
Kill la kill, Madoka, and eight other deceptively dark anime
1) Kill la Kill
Upon first glance, one may be mistaken that Studio Trigger's Kill la Kill could ever be dark or depressing considering the over-the-top hyjinks, music, and action.
Sure, the main protagonist Ryuko Matoi gets brutally defeated by the boxing club champ in the first episode and then back-to-back in episodes five and six by Athletic Director Uzu Sanageyama and Nudist Beach mercenary Tsumugu Kinagase.
But she bounces back, and it's all in hot-blooded fun. Plus, Mako Mankanshoku is usually there to air the tension out.
Then episode 11 and 12 happen. What starts as a hot-blooded rebel against the system plot becomes a much darker and sinister story about alien invasions, the nature of fascism, the duality of approaches to fighting the system, and healing old wounds.
Content warning for sexual assault later in the anime and the violence gets more brutal than initially presented.
While tensions may have been boiling below the surface, Volumes 1 and 2 of RWBY suggested that things were ultimately okay in the city and kingdom of Vale.
Our heroines struggled to survive school and each other, but ultimately things went smoothly. There may have been a few speedbumps like losing sleep over human criminals and the terroristic White Fang coalition. There was a dance, an epic food fight, plenty of fun and whacky hijinks, and things seemed to be coming up roses!
Then Volume 3 was dropped. RWBY blossomed into a story of betrayal, found family, and where trauma and strength do not equate to victory. In the words of Lord Elrond from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, "You will unite, or you will fall."
3) OUSAMA RANKING/Ranking of Kings
As with many on this list, appearances deceive. Ranking of Kings starts as a story of a frail and deaf boy named Bojji, the son of a mighty king. Everyone expects him to fade into the background and uphold his brother Daida as the natural replacement. After making friends with a living shadow named Kage, they set out to prove that Bojji can become king.
If readers remember Watership Down and how deceptive that book was. The same story here. The children's fantasy book artstyle is the deceptive part here. Nothing is as it appears.
4) Sailor Moon
Sailor Moon is the story of the seemingly normal girl Usagi Tsukino whose life is turned upside down when she saves a cat from some bullies and becomes a superhero.
It seems like a prototypical magical girl anime on the surface - sparkly attacks, magical transformations, power of love and hope, etc. Then the first season ends.
What starts as a magical girl series gives way to darker themes of child abuse, neglect, isolation, and a lot of psychological dealings with the classic superhero dilemma of normal life vs. superheroing. The villains are not to be underestimated either.
It was Hideaki Anno's first outing as a director, and of course, it belongs on this list. Gunbusters start with the idea of stopping an invasion fleet from destroying the Earth and continue to build upon that premise with pilot Noriko Takaya in the protagonist role.
There may be giant robots and aliens to battle, but there's plenty of mind screwing to be seen along the way.
6) Puella Magi Madoka Magica
A rather famous magical girl anime that's the opposite of many magical girl anime. A girl named Madoka Kaname is suddenly and inexplicably pulled into a world of witches, magic, and demons trying to invade Earth when she befriends an enigmatic new girl named Homura Akemi. It starts as a straightforward magical girl series but goes to other places quickly.
Sailor Moon, but darker, is often used to describe this anime. This is an accurate description given the events that transpire after episode 3. It's well worth checking out if you like deconstruction.
7) Happy Sugar Life
Tired of her life of partying and getting on with multiple boys, Satou Matsuzaka finds herself smitten with a lost child named Shio Kobe. Satou rescues Shio and thinks her smitten feelings must be actual love since she dotes on her and makes Shio happy. To that end, she'll hold Shio close and never let her go no matter what.
If you haven't gotten a hint from the trailer yet, this isn't a positive love story. Toxic relationships await, among other dark and twisted romances.
But surely, what could be wrong with the story of a school club that isn't Doki Doki Literature Club? This deceptively cute story follows Yuki Takeya, an ordinary girl trying to live on the school grounds with her clubmates and teacher for as long as possible. Just mooch off to school and everything should be fine.
Just ignore the fact that they cannot leave the club room. Ignore the groans, shambling footsteps, and the scraping at the door. After all, isn't it better to stay in blissful ignorance than ever face the dark truth?
9) Alien 9
A note for this anime is a four-episode OVA that encourages, nay demands, that viewers read the manga to get the whole story. A trio of 6th-grade rollerblading girls have been chosen to fight aliens. How could this be dark with helmet-like beings called Borgs, some cool tech, and Pokemon-style designs and artwork?
Consider that it inspired such titles as Elfen Lied, Gunslinger Girl, or Madoka up above. Let's say you won't look at drills the same way again unless you use Gurren Lagann as a palette cleanser afterward.
10) Made in Abyss
The Adventure Fantasy Series showcases the efforts of aspiring cave raider Riko and her robotic friend Reg to solve the mystery of the deep and dark Abyss cave system. While it may seem like Cave Story or Minecraft upon first impressions, like the Abyss itself, there's so much more beyond the cutesy and straightforward art style would suggest.
If you're squeamish about realistic body horror, perhaps it would be best to avoid this series. Those who feel they can handle that and more join Riko and Reg as they dive deeper and deeper into the darkness.