Psychological anime might be one of the best and most interesting genres of the entire medium. This is because these stories often capture the most disturbing and corrupt parts of the human psyche, offering characters that are a dark reflection of everything that is wrong with people and doing so in the most gruesome manner.
While psychological anime is often associated with stories that could take place in everyday life, there are some series and franchises that tackle issues of this ilk, even in the realms of fantasy and sci-fi. Here we take a look at 10 such titles.
Disclaimer: This list is subjective, contains spoilers for all the titles mentioned, and is not ranked in any particular order.
Monster, Death Note, and more: Here are 10 psychological anime so real that they are disturbing
1. Perfect Blue
Granted, Perfect Blue is a film, not a series, but it is still psychological anime, nonetheless, and one of the finest out there.
As it happens with a lot of stories in this genre, the plot and premise are quite simple but the selling point is how much they stick to it: Mima Kirigoe is a super pop star but she decides to make the switch to acting, which upsets her fans and results in her having a creepy stalker who eventually proves to be a lot more than that.
Perfect Blue deals with the consequences of stardom, the dangers of having a stalker, and many other elements that make it a very realistic and disturbing psychological anime that deserves to be watched at least once.
2. Serial Experiments Lain
In a world that is becoming more and more dependent on the internet, Serial Experiments Lain can be a very current psychological anime as it deals with topics such as the risks of being online, identity, and also how to deal with the immense amount of information that the internet as a whole has.
The story begins when Lain, the titular character, receives an email from a classmate who took his own life. The email leads her to getting consumed by a global network called the Wired. As the story progresses, Lain discovers all the disturbing truths that lie beneath the darkness of the Wired.
Berserk is a dark fantasy epic but is also rooted in deep, profound topics, making its connection to psychological anime all the more poignant and significant. And while the whole manga has never been properly adapted to its full potential, the most popular arc, The Golden Age, was adapted into a 1997 anime series to great success and reception.
Even if main character Guts is fighting demons or dealing with supernatural and magical shenanigans, many of his struggles come from a childhood of neglect, abuse, and betrayal for the very few he has cherished in his life. Berserk succeeds not because of the fantasy and the battles (although those are great too), but because the trauma faced by Guts is very real and human.
While is very likely that Berserk is never going to get an adaptation that does justice to the entire story, the 1997 anime is as good as it gets.
4. Parasyte: The Maxim
Parasyte is a very interesting case when it comes to psychological anime because the manga started in the late '80s and ended in the mid-'90s and never got an adaptation until mid-2010. However, the work by Madhouse deserves a lot of recognition because it did justice to a phenomenal piece of storytelling.
Alien creatures known as Parasytes reach Earth and start to take control of people’s bodies and minds, but protagonist Shinichi Izumi manages to stop the creature from doing so and even takes control of it. Afterward, Izumi decides to use it to fight other Parasytes, but things get even more complicated.
This series explores a lot about what makes one a human and the dark undertones of society, often reaching very uncomfortable places while doing so.
Psychological anime come in all shapes and sizes, but Psycho-Pass has a very interesting and relevant premise: The role of the police and how law enforcement should be executed.
In the world of this series, police have the capacity to look at a person and find out how likely they are of committing a crime, which naturally starts the debate on whether they should be captured or not. Of course, this hits home in real life, with a lot of discussions about the role of the police and how it should be done. It also asks whether police should exist at all.
Akane is the protagonist of Psycho-Pass and she starts as a very idealistic person, hoping to uphold justice in the grandest of ways, but she also begins to see the darkest realms of human nature in the process and understands that justice is not that simple.
6. Code Geass
Code Geass might have a lot of mecha battles and be a bit of a sci-fi epic, but the combination of real-life trauma, xenophobia, political manipulation of the masses, and the consequences of war are all very disturbing reflections of humankind as a whole. And within that whole conflict lays the duo of Lelouch and Suzaku.
Charles is a Britannia noble who leaves the mighty empire after his mother and sister were abused and ignored by his father, starting a revolution from the shadows. Suzaku is an idealist who becomes a seasoned fighter. Both of them are friends and also enemies, with their ideologies and trauma often resulting in a lot of conflicts within the series.
There are a lot of reasons as to why Code Geass can be considered psychological anime, and any of those is a good excuse to watch this masterpiece.
7. Banana Fish
The classic shojo manga by Akimi Yoshida, which started in the mid-80s and lasted for almost an entire decade, was adapted into an anime in recent years, becoming one of the most poignant psychological anime series out there. And while it does have disturbing moments, the sadness it produces is even greater.
Ash grew up with the mafia since he was very young and has gone through a lot of abuse and tragedies in his life, mostly defined by loss and pain. However, things take a turn for the better when he meets Eiji, a Japanese photographer, with whom he starts bonding on a very significant matter.
Banana Fish is an unforgettable story, for better and for worse, and the characters are nuanced, giving the viewer a deep look at how trauma in a person’s childhood can affect him or her in adulthood.
8. Neon Genesis Evangelion
For the sake of this list, let’s ignore most of the plot of Neon Genesis Evangelion. While all of that plays a big role in the psychological anime element of this discussion, let’s focus on the character of Shinji.
Shinji is the protagonist of this series and the main example of how psychological anime can be so real that they become disturbing. He is not a hero, he is not the conventional macho man that saves the day, he is not a warrior, and he is not driven by his own selfish desires or inner darkness. He is simply a young man that is scared and nervous of the stakes and responsibilities he’s been given.
He is a character that has been criticized as whiney or weak-minded, but the truth of the matter is that Shinji represents what real people would be like in a situation as Neon Genesis Evangelion. And that alone is very disturbing.
9. Death Note
Whenever people think about psychological anime, Death Note is one of the first names to be dropped. And that is perfectly understandable: it is one of the best-written anime and manga franchises out there, and the memorable duel between Light Yagami and L is the stuff of legends these days.
Light is a Japanese student that has it all: money, looks, academics, a great family, and is poised to do great in college. However, one day he finds the Death Note, a special notebook that allows the user to write a person’s name and take his or her life. Thus, he decides to use it to cleanse society from evil and become the “God of the New World”.
Death Note has all the classic tropes of psychological anime but also adds an element of crime thriller and a bit of the supernatural to make it even more compelling. Its reputation is well-deserved and has to be watched at least once.
Imagine saving the life of a child. That sounds very simple to do, right? No one would have doubts about doing that. Well, Dr. Kenzo Tenma didn’t either, but that child grew to become a massive serial killer. And now he feels responsible and wants to take him down.
That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Monster. There is no magic, no demons, and no super-advanced technology. No. Nada. Just a boy who grew up to become a very real monster. And the fact that this story is inspired by real-life events makes it even more tragic and disturbing.
Monster is widely regarded as one of the finest pieces of entertainment that anime and manga have ever produced, cementing its place as the best psychological anime of all time.
Psychological anime offers a lot of different insights about the human psyche, what society is, and a lot of difficult questions that a lot of stories don’t dare ask. In that regard, all of these series deserve attention because they challenge conventional ways of doing things and do so in great fashion.