Existential and/or thought-proking anime?
August 29, 2013 8:11 PM   Subscribe

I am out of the loop with anime, and itching to watch something new and exciting. I am specifically looking for anime recommendations of the existential and/or thought-provoking variety...

Here's a list of what I have already watched and enjoyed, and am looking for more of:

Boogiepop Phantom
Paranoia Agent
Tatami Galaxy
Grave of the Fireflies
Serial Experiments Lain
Mind Game
Cowboy Bebop
Kino no Tabi
Cat Soup
Everything Miyazaki

I'd love to hear what others would recommend along these lines.
posted by tybeet to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
For thought-provoking, Puella Magi Madoka Magica might be the legally mandated answer. It's a deconstruction of the magical girl genre, and has been raved about on the blue previously. It's crazy great.
posted by soma lkzx at 8:21 PM on August 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

Neon Genesis Evangellion, while dated, probably counts.
Full Metal Alchemist gets pretty deep at times.
Voices From a Distant Star

Planetes, though I haven't seen it.

Steins Gate might work.

Revolutionary Girl Utena might be stretching, might not.
posted by Jacen at 8:52 PM on August 29, 2013

I really enjoyed Mushishi so much.
posted by smoke at 8:53 PM on August 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

I personally loved Fullmetal Alchemist, though it doesn't really get thought-provoking until about a third of the way in.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 8:53 PM on August 29, 2013

I haven’t watched much anime at all but am enjoying the heck out of Attack on Titan.
posted by M Edward at 8:55 PM on August 29, 2013

I think you might enjoy Uchoten Kozoku, which is being translated as, I believe, The Eccentric Family.
posted by Mizu at 8:55 PM on August 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is nonlinear, filled with both high school silliness and extraterrestrial visitors, and very reflective and thought-provoking (and wacky).
posted by wintersonata9 at 8:58 PM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Mushishi.

I also liked Twelve Kingdoms, which delves into character evolution better than a lot of series, IMO. The art, unfortunately, is inconsistent since it looks like they used different studios concurrently. (As for FMA, the manga is much better.)
posted by Ky at 9:17 PM on August 29, 2013

Oh, Escaflowne is a classic as well.
posted by Ky at 9:18 PM on August 29, 2013

Deathnote was very thoughtprovoking to me.Wonder if people agree.
posted by rhythm_queen at 9:25 PM on August 29, 2013

I found the manga to be a much stronger work, but House of Five Leaves may be of interest. It's a quiet and reflective series about identity and kinship.
posted by northernish at 9:29 PM on August 29, 2013

I third Mushishi. It pays with rewatching as well.

Haibane Renmei I haven't seen in years, but was a bit deeper than your average. Bit broody but if you liked Lain you should be ok.

Last Exile is awesome and has awesome art as well. I found it a little slow to get into, but is well worth persisting with. Definitely some existentialism in there.

RahXephon is still one of my all-time favourites, and has beautiful music and art as well. At first it seems like a standard alien/military invasion thingy but quickly becomes more complicated and gets quite deep. Echoes of Evangelion but much, much better IMHO.

Movies rather than series: Perfect Blue, Paprika (the former quite creepy, the latter very trippy); The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is just... *sigh* really good. I've also heard good things about Children Who Chase Lost Voices but haven't tracked it down yet. Same director as Voices of a Different Star mentioned above.

Oh, and not particularly existential but very good fun: Summer Wars. Koi-koi!
posted by Athanassiel at 10:05 PM on August 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Time of Eve, definitely thought-provoking. The premise is: if androids have feelings, are those feelings real? There's only 6 episodes, fifteen minutes each. The first episode is free at crunchyroll.
posted by Xere at 10:09 PM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

My favorite anime is Scrapped Princess, which deals with the question of "If one baby girl is foretold to destroy the world when she turns 16, should we kill her now, or save her life and uh...see what happens at 16, then?" And eventually that REALLY takes a turn....
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:18 PM on August 29, 2013

Mawaru Penguindrum. Same (famed) director as previously mentioned Revolutionary Girl Utena, and falls into the same recommendation category as Serial Experiments Lain.
posted by SollosQ at 10:20 PM on August 29, 2013

The problem with "Twelve Kingdoms" is that the story isn't complete. The author of the book series it's based on stopped writing, leaving a bunch of plot arcs dangling in mid-air.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:22 PM on August 29, 2013

Fullmetal Alchemist.
Death Note.

Both are amazing and very thought-provoking, philosophical.
posted by DeltaForce at 11:45 PM on August 29, 2013

posted by eviemath at 12:31 AM on August 30, 2013

Seconding Attack on Titan.
posted by spec80 at 1:52 AM on August 30, 2013

Seconding Haibane Renmei. It has a strong melancholy feel to it that I really dug. There's depth and mystery but it all goes toward establishing the mood. The guy who did the character designs for Lain did them for HR as well as came up with the story idea so there's some similarities. If you like Lain then HR should work pretty well even though there are differences.
posted by bfootdav at 1:59 AM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

While he's not always to my taste, you should try the works of Mamoru Oshii. His Patlabor films are great, but it does help to already have some familiarity with the characters. (The TV series and OVAs are also fantastic, but they're much much lower on the thought-provoking spectrum compared to the movies).

I would also call attention to his early film Angel's Egg which is strange and beautiful and haunting.

You can't get much more existential than Ghost in the Shell and Innocence.

Also I'll +1 Mushishi, RahXephon, and the Satoshi Kon movies already mentioned (Paprika, Perfect Blue, etc)
posted by Aznable at 3:07 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Of your list, I've seen Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Lain, and all of Miyazaki, and I also enjoyed them. Probably my fave Miyazaki film is Howl's, but they're all good.

So as that as a reference, I recommend:

- Infinite Ryvius -- I really really recommend this. It's pretty amazing and thought provoking, very dark at times. It's basically Lord of the Flies in Space, and, by the end, every character is changed, the arc is that dramatic. It's a gem, and rarely anyone knows about it, so there's that.

- Heat Guy J - Super underrated. It's not awesomely thought provoking, but it's a lot deeper than it appears, and it has a really interesting storyline. Don't let the simple premise fool you.

- The Girl Who Leapt Through Time - Really great. Appears frivolous at first, but decidedly isn't. Has a really thought provoking end

- Ghost In The Shell (Movie) and The Stand Alone Complex TV series. I preferred the TV series on the whole, and both seasons are good.

- Black Lagoon - I highly recommend this, but there are some parts that are really dark. But it's as dark as parts of Full Metal Alchemist, really. (Which I actually didn't like all that much.) I feel that parts of it are very Bebop-y at times.

- Gundam 00 - It's actually a lot deeper than one would think. There is a lot of war/peace talk, like in all the Gundams. There are some really intense parts. Both seasons are good. It can be very political at times, but all Gundams tend to be.

- Darker Than Black - Again, like most of the stuff I mention, this can get really dark. I really only enjoyed the first season, but the second season is okay also.

- Patlabor the Movie 1 and The Movie 2 - I love the second movie especially, because it's intriguing. I was a fan of the show, but you don't need to know anything about Patlabor to enjoy these, because really the only thing in common with the original show is the world and characters. Both movies stand alone really well.

Honorable Mentions:

Gundam SEED - Like Gundam 00 it's a lot darker and more dramatic than one would think a Gundam show would be. And a lot of things happen in it. It has a sequel (Destiny) which gets even darker. Both are good, but if I recall correctly, the sequel doesn't really wrap up. (I think they were planning a 3rd sequel, not sure).

Escaflowne - It's a little 'adventure-y' but it's really good. I don't feel it's super thought-provoking or dramatic, except in parts. It gets so more towards the end. But like Heat Guy J, it's a really solid show, and has everything.

Evangelion - I recommend it because it's very thought provoking, but the last two episodes are as terrible as they all say. However the movies (kind of) make up for it. There's also a reboot of it, which I've enjoyed but I feel it makes... maybe too much sense.

Armitage III - Again, it's sci-fi and it's pretty dramatic and dark. It's an oldie but it's very intriguing.

Last Exile - Personally, I started off really enjoying it, but then felt it started to drag. However, it's a very well crafted show, and based on your preferences, I think you'll really like it.

Eureka Seven - Not gunna lie, it's a strange show. It's one of the ones I had issues understanding, and it kinda makes Evangelion seem like a cakewalk with the weirdness. But it's good, and I would call it thought-provoking at least.
posted by Dimes at 3:33 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another very strong vote for Haibane Renmei. It is SO good, so quiet and elegant.

Also, The Place Promised In Our Early Days, and Voices of a Distant Star.
posted by jbickers at 5:48 AM on August 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

From the New World/Shin Sekai Yori was the most affecting (and chilling) thing I watched this year. Great protagonist, and the big existential issue that it explores is what might happen to society where telekinetic powers were the norm. It's available on Crunchyroll.
posted by Kosh at 8:38 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

This series is rather old, but I loved the anime "Ceres, Celestial Legend". I stumbled upon it on youtube, and stayed up most of the night watching it. Based on the manga.

Not a series, but "Memories" consists of 3 stories -- "Magnetic Rose" is the best of the 3 by far.
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 10:18 AM on August 30, 2013

The author of Tatami Galaxy also wrote a currently airing show called Uchouten Kazoku. It's about a family of tanuki who are in this love-hate relationship with adversarial tengu and humans. The themes are sophisticated for anime.

Hyouge Mono is a long treatise on aesthetics. It's set in Sengoku era Japan and is about a samurai-cum-tea-master. Greatest facial expressions in anime.

Mushishi and Kino no Tabi have both been mentioned.

Berserk and Shigurui are brutal depictions of fantasy/feudal Japan. They are existential in the sense that there is little rhyme or reason for much of the violence depicted, yet the characters nevertheless struggle to find meaning.

Kuchuu Buranko is about psychology.

Baccano is just rollicking good fun.

And I want to give a shout out to Turning Girls, which is an animated comedy shorts you can find on Youtube about a group of single women approaching their 30s who work together and are forced to socialize together. A lot of funny commentary about what young single women there have to go through.
posted by rq at 11:46 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

If we're nominating Satoshi Kon movies, Millennium Actress is my favorite.
The destruction of a movie studio prompts an interviewer to track down its reclusive retired star for an interview. As she tells the story of her life, it mixes with the roles that she has played, and the interviewer and cameraman insert themselves into the flashbacks.

My favorite underrated series is Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi.
Two pre-teen friends find themselves jumping from one alternate universe to another, trying to find their way home (as in Sliders, except using magic). Each universe is a parody of a different genre of movies or video games. But why is it happening? (Stay away from the Wikipedia page, which spoils revelations from more than halfway through the series under the deceptive heading "Background".)
posted by Tool of the Conspiracy at 1:33 PM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Samurai Champloo.

Also seconding Hibane Renmei, Voices from a Distant Star and Place Promised In Our Early Days.

Maybe also Planetes. I haven't seen it yet.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:07 PM on August 30, 2013

Planetes was really good, forgot to add that on my list though others have mentioned it. It has a refreshingly adult cast (though some are more adult than others). I obviously am fond of anime about teenagers, but sometimes it's nice to have stories that make you feel like your life is not over after 21 or so.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:05 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also liked Eureka 7, and didn't find it all that confusing.

What IS confusing, but fits the 'existential' label fairly well, is FLCL.

There's also Ergo Proxy. Described by writer Dai Sato (a veteran of Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, Eureka Seven, Samurai Champloo and Wolf's Rain):

It is set in the future. A group of robots become infected with something called the Kojiro [sic] virus, and become aware of their own existence. So these robots, which had been tools of humans, decide to go on an adventure to search for themselves. They have to decide whether the virus that infected them created their identity, or whether they gained their identity through their travels. This question is meant to represent our own debate over whether we become who we are because of our environment, or because of things that are inherent in us. The robots are all named after philosophers: Derrida and Lacan and Husserl.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:21 AM on August 31, 2013

I'd recommend glomming onto particular directors, writers and animators--Oshii, for instance, is probably my favorite living director period. Not all of his films are animated, but he has produced some of the best animated films, er, anywhere, to date (IMO). The Sky Crawlers is possibly my favorite, and fits the existential bill pretty well--the premise sets it in a shaky alternate history where a perpetual war between two major European corporations is fought by teenagers across rural Britain and continental Europe in faux WWII style aircraft. The plot follows a pilot who's just transferred into a new base and his attempts to uncover what happened to the pilot he's replacing, and grow closer to his emotionally unstable commanding officer. It's a very subtle film; you should constantly be asking, "How does this character know anything about that?" There's a scene in which a newscaster is giving updates on the war that's an especially good example of that: why would a public news station be detailing a martial operation's strategy before it's even happened? Why do the (exclusively Japanese? why?) pilots all speak English when in a combat theater? You have to do this with a lot of Oshii films, and that's one of the biggest reasons I adore them.

Yoshitoshi ABe is another name to follow. I see Lain and Haibane Renmei getting their dues, but Texhnolyze is an equally intelligent, moody series. It's a bit like a cyberpunk Game of Thrones: a character drama set in the last industrial city on earth, following disparate characters of varying backgrounds and social classes, detailing a civil war between various "lords" vying for the "throne" while anti-human forces are massing just outside the borders. It's something you need to watch only at night; the atmosphere is very dark and dreamy, and the pacing can be slow. The first four episodes are especially slow and abstract, but it's worth sticking with. It doesn't follow the typical plot structure you ordinarily see in anime--it's more about the characters, their relationships, the changes they go through. Most of the cast are very complicated people who are doing what they're doing for idiosyncratic reasons that make sense, but often reach too far into tragedy. A comment in the Cyberpunk Review describes it as, "a tragic love story. A bit like Dostyevsky and Shakespeare," and I think that's about right.

One more name to look for is Takashi Nakamura--Tree of Palme and Fantastic Children are both thought provoking, hugely imaginative and deal with issues of identity, trust versus isolation, growth versus stagnation, mortality, memory, etc. Palme is the more difficult film, and it's okay not to like it, but the imagery alone is extraordinary (that trailer gives you no idea). It's surprisingly dark and long and it teeters somewhere between the apocalyptic neuroses of Evangelion and the feel-good-find-yourself of pop existentialism. That feels truer to life for me, but it can be a rattling viewing experience. The final scene is one of the most emotionally satisfying and perfectly beautiful in any film. As a surreal reinterpretation of Pinocchio, it works only because of the ending and the underlying theme there: you can become beautiful only when you stop trying to become "real."
posted by byanyothername at 10:44 AM on August 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

Does Neo Tokyo count? I still think the Running Man short may have been the best single piece of anime I have ever seen.
posted by apathy at 8:05 PM on September 1, 2013

Actually, now that apathy mentions something similar, the Matrix collection of animated shorts is all good
posted by Jacen at 8:16 AM on September 2, 2013

Dead Leaves.

Because Dead Leaves.
posted by ostranenie at 1:54 PM on September 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hmm, let me check my list.

Un-go: It had a few mixed reviews but I thought it raised some pretty interesting questions for a short series about government influence and censorship of its citizens.

Shigofumi : If you liked KnT the same artist did the character designs and with similiar themes with life and death.

Mononoke: Amazing and unique animation. It features a series of short stories that reminds me of Aesop Fables with many characters.

Dennou Coil : Set in the future with a interesting relationship between technology and the possibilities/consequences on daily life.

Death Billiards: Short movie about two different people their fates when they enter a mysterious room.

Psycho-Pass: Depending on who you ask it may look overhyped but I did find the setting to stand out enough from the usual anime fare during the season.
posted by chrono_rabbit at 8:09 PM on September 6, 2013

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