Anime is often misconceived as a medium for children and young teenagers, which isn’t too hard to understand why since the people doing so probably recognise shows like Dragonball Z or Naruto to be all that anime has to offer. The more observative consumer and the cynical parents may realise that some anime are definitely not for kids, whether be it the intense adult content (read: nudity and violence) or the complex themes that might just go right over the younger viewers heads.
This list is an attempt to consolidate anime that hit it off well with the working adult, the main entry criteria being that the shows or films in question are centered around a meaningful, worthy theme that is better understood by an older audience. Some entries have unique story elements to express themes that are better appreciated by viewers with more experiences in life. Others approach ideas that are often overlooked or fetishised in other anime, but do so in a sensible and intelligent manner. Connecting every entry is the notion that anime can be a way to capture aspects of human life that even if we all haven’t experienced, we can still acknowledge to be ways for us to define ourselves.
If you want to impress your adult friends that anime can be as fulfilling as a copy of Pride and Prejudice or The Great Gatsby, this list is definitely for you.
10. Clannad After Story
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: October 2008 to March 2009
Clannad After Story is one of those shows that pretends to follow an already established storytelling formula, but then ends up going way beyond the viewer’s expectations. Tomoya and Nagisa’s love story came to a rather satisfying checkpoint by the end of the first season, where Tomoya confesses his feelings for Nagisa in an adorable manner, and we may as well have reached their happily ever after.
Except they didn’t, because that’s not how life works. Real life doesn’t just end with confession scenes.
The plot of Clannad continues on with less attention on the romantic feelings of its characters (not that they were ever that important), but rather on their struggles as the world throws them into bouts of hardship and suffering. In between Tomoya proving his dependence and Nagisa dealing with her weakening body, the couple demonstrates that even after going through the most severe of emotional turmoil and the greatest losses in life, a family can still come together.
What Clannad ends up being not so good at is representing the physical aspects of Tomoya and Nagisa’s love, which ends up feeling rather sterile considering the progression of their relationship. Fret not though, as the rest of this list is in no shortage of sensually challenging material.
9. Perfect Blue
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: February 1998
Satoshi Kon’s first feature film as a director is mind-blowing. Not only is Perfect Blue a compelling mystery story with a plotline that takes full advantage of Kon’s eccentric but undoubtedly effective directorial style, his unsettling presentation is certain to make the film an uncomfortable and utterly engaging watch.
Adapting a novel of the same name, Perfect Blue begins with Mima Kirigoe trying to make a career change from being a relatively successful idol into an actress. In a twist of fate, she is casted into a role of that has her be brutally raped on camera, abruptly ending the public’s perception of her as a pure and innocent figure. Her decision also triggers a violent killing spree of various key staff members in the film’s production, the primary suspect being a devoted fan of Mima who have become disillusioned.
In addition to being one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences in anime, Kon showcases his talent by attacking the viewer’s sense of security, making it difficult to detect whether what we see is part of reality or is just a figment of Mima’s paranoia-driven imagination. It is telling that nearly 20 years after its release, no animated work from Japan approached the level of realism achieved in Perfect Blue when it comes to expressing the utter terror people feel when constantly under a pervasive yet invisible threat to their life.
8. Mind Game
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: August 2004
Mind Game is probably the most unique anime experience that exists, and probably will continuing being so in the foreseeable future. It’s also a film that is not afraid of making the more sensible viewers blush by a ridiculously crude plot and a visual style that is truly unique among its peers.
Nishi grew up harboring a crush on his childhood friend, Myon, but never managed to express his feelings and ends up living an aimless adult life. His reunion with her is heartbreaking; Myon will soon be marrying her fiance, and Nishi’s feelings will remain unnoticed and unreturned. This is the part where everything gets a bit crazy as the pair are abruptly confronted by some gang members, Nishi gets killed by a shot to his behind, and is promptly given a chance at redoing his life. The journey that Nishi drags Myon into after is the real meat of the film.
What makes Mind Game suitable for a mature audience is the same as what differentiates it from typical anime: an inspired visual style and a story that resonates with people who have faced the ugly side of reality. Even though the film does drag out some of the filthiest parts of being human, just like how Kon is not afraid to make use of characters that are in the dregs of their society, the message in Mind Game is definitely laced in optimism.
As Mind Game makes prominent use of sexuality, violence and crude language, it is best to view it with an open mind. However, if you’re looking for a source of positive inspiration in a crazy artistic package, Mind Game might be the kind of experience you need.
7. Junketsu no Maria (Maria the Virgin Witch)
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 2015 to March 2015
One common theme in anime often criticised as severely mishandled, is sexuality. Fanservice in anime is a dime for a dozen and production companies have long since learned to ignore the sexuality stigma to better appeal to dedicated anime fans, even at the cost of some shows’ storytelling qualities. It’s therefore a pleasant surprise that one of the most notable anime in 2015 approaches sexuality seriously and makes it central in the show’s reinterpretation of one of the bloodiest periods in European history.
Maria is a witch living in the outskirts of a village which is familiar with her presence. Although she is not well-regarded by the villagers or any of the religious or political figures, she takes on the self-important role of stopping any instances of war if at all possible. Considering Maria’s overwhelming magical powers and the lack of any opposition from fellow witches, her job ends up being fairly simple.
When Maria is suddenly intervened by the divine beings, not only is she kept on a strict watch so that she can no longer act as freely, she is also judged so that if she ever loses her virginity, she also loses her powers as a witch. As Maria had just began enjoying her budding feelings for the common human Joseph, thus begins a struggle for Maria between her bodily instincts and anti-war efforts.
Maria is easily one of the most dynamic and well-defined female protagonists in recent anime history, matched by the likes of Akane Tsunemori from Psycho Pass and Yona from Akatsuki no Yona. However, she is perhaps the only one among them whose involvement in the plot is heavily linked with the predicaments of being a woman. Almost nowhere else in TV anime has a protagonist be compromised by the threat of being raped been used so effectively as a source of tension, and in such a relevant manner to the rest of the plot.
While Junketsu no Maria is for the most part a whimsical anime that most will watch for the well-executed lewd jokes and pleasing aesthetics, it is not afraid to shift its tone at certain moments to better convey its story and touch on issues that most other anime simply haven’t attempted to harness.
6. Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Kenkaku Romantan - Tsuiokuhen (Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal)
- Episodes: 4
- Aired: February 1999 to September 1999
The prequel of the popular 90s shounen anime Rurouni Kenshin is so different that it deserves to be considered as an entirely separate work. With some of the bloodiest and impressively animated sword-fighting scenes in all of anime, it is also Studio Deen’s best produced work by a significant margin.
Although Kenshin Himura is the essential peace-loving swordsman, wielding a blunted katana and swearing off murder, he was once a deadly killer employed for many political assassinations during the Meiji Revolution. Trust and Betrayal captures a lull in Kenshin’s life, where he has grown numb to the violence he played a part in causing and is gradually losing his hold on humanity. Shortly after a particular killing, where he receives a horizontal cut to his cheek due to uncharacteristic carelessness, a fateful meeting with the stunning Konoe changes him forever.
While Rurouni Kenshin is probably best described as the journey of Kenshin’s atonement, Trust and Betrayal is the insight into his life for us to understand the tragedy that put him on his course. In his time together with Tomoe, we see Kenshin learn about the gentler parts of life which he abandoned in favour of joining of the revolution. To see Kenshin struggle with retaining his humanity, realising the nature of his love and the nature of his loved one and to return straight back to his personal hell is heartbreaking, resonating with the experiences of joy and loss shared by any viewer.
Trust and Betrayal is definitely an aged anime, but it is a masterpiece that will survive the years by the sheer power of its emotional story.
5. Mugen no Ryvius (Infinite Ryvius)
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: October 1999 to March 2000
Infinite Ryvius is a mecha show telling the story of a bunch of teenagers keeping themselves alive as they are stranded in space. Where are the adult? Well, they were all killed off early in one fell swoop so that the kids can survive.
Infinite Ryvius is most intriguing as an examination of raw human nature through its realistic portrayal of personalities and Goro Taniguchi’s masterful manipulation of character dynamics, the center of which is Kouji Aiba and his brother Yuuki. Kouji’s struggle with trying to keep the peace inside the mysterious Ryvius spaceship is only one microscopic part to the storytelling paradigm Taniguchi constructs so that we see a bit of every character’s life, and find our own bit to care and sympathise with.
Unfortunately for its characters, Infinite Ryvius plunges everyone into a downward spiral as the extended period of being under life-threatening danger with only other teenage kids to rely on take its toll. Just because the no one in the cast is a legal adult doesn’t stop murder, class struggle, sexual assault and other taboo subjects from worming its way into the story, often making a meaningful impact on how the characters choose to act.
As such, Infinite Ryvius is ideal for mecha anime fans who pay close attention to the characters and want for the uglier parts of human nature to be visible. While the watch may reach soul-crushing levels of depressing, Infinite Ryvius makes every single bit of screen-time worthwhile with good pacing and appropriate moments of catharsis.
4. Ookami Kodomo Ame to Yuki (Wolf Children)
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: July 2012
Anime often doesn’t do a good job of portraying parents. In fact, a significant portion of anime find it more convenient to simply avoid showing the main characters’ parents, often sending them on extended overseas travels just to get away from the trouble.
When Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children was announce, few probably expected it to be the celebration of the wonders and struggles of parenthood that it ended up being. It is simple to tell, as the most important character arc of the film is Hana turning from being a bright, caring student into a tired, but still just as caring mother for two troublesome children. Wolf Children beautifully captures the never-say-die attitude and the backbreaking effort Hana invests into protecting her children, even when reality pulls no punches in bringing her tragedy.
The film’s focus on parenthood doesn’t draw any intrigue from the nature of the two children, whose struggle, although emphasised, reflects the distress children may face when growing up. Hosoda manages to create characters in Wolf Children that are not just subjects to the film’s themes, but are interesting individuals whose personal problems are engaging on their own terms.
Wolf Children is the kind of family film that any parent would want to show their children, even if only to give them a broader outlook on life. For everyone else, the film is as inspiring as it is delightful.
3. Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises)
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: July 2013
Ending his career with a bang before his sixth retirement, Miyazaki released possibly his most controversial film yet. While still in touch with Miyazaki’s fairy tale-esque aesthetic, The Wind Rises reinterprets the identity and personality of Jiro Horikoshi, one of the major contributory engineers of the famous Zero-sen fighter plane, and gives a decidedly positive outlook on his life.
The film is framed around two main aspects of Jiro’s life: his passion for aeroplanes and his relationship with Naoko, the person who becomes his wife, throughout different points in his life. Although the film makes reference to the various significant events that take place during the early-20th century, from the Great Kanto Earthquake to the emergence of Nazism in Germany to the conclusion of the Second World War, there’s never any indication that any of them have any significance to what the story is really about. In all likelihood, Miyazaki conveys that some personal stories have value even in spite of the historical context behind the person and the consequences of his achievements.
As a romance story, The Wind Rises pushes the norms of Ghibli film by revolving every other aspect of the film around it, rather than making it incidental or leaving it to the fans’ imagination. Much care is put into showing how the relationship progresses throughout the years and how the presence of their significant other affects the pair’s individual decision. It is also in the points of inevitable loss and suffering that the film comes most to life, engaging the viewer with the feelings of either character as they resolve to do their very best with their limited means, always thinking of the person who means the most to themselves.
The Wind Rises is an introspective look of a controversial historical figure and challenges the viewer as to how a person, including our own selves, can be judged for our decisions. It is certainly a film that is capable of making you reflect on your own decisions and discover a new meaning to them.
2. Ima, Soko ni Iru Boku (Now and Then, Here and There)
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: October 1999 to January 2000
Now and Then, Here and There sees Japanese schoolboy, Shu, finding his way to an alternative universe in search of the enigmatic Lala-Ru, who he decided without hesitation to protect when she was kidnapped soon after their first meeting. Sounds innocent enough, right?
Well, then you factor in the intense physical beatings, convincing portrayal of child soldiers and a very pragmatic approach to the subject of rape that the true nature of this show becomes clear. Now and Then, Here and There is not interested in portraying war and conflict through straw men and ideals; people who are affected by war, which is essentially everyone in this show, are crippled or made indecent by their traumas. Any shred of hope that makes its way onto the screen is more than matched by the cynicism of the writers.
Even then, violence and a soul-crushing plot development alone do not make a meaningful show. Now and Then, Here and There is at its most engaging when showing how each character handle themselves every time reality have them be kicked, beaten and robbed of all dignity. Shu’s undying optimism, which may be the real gem to the harsh world of this anime, becomes the most intriguing wild card in a situation where nothing will ever be alright again.
In this anime is a frank imagery of a world beyond repair, where only the most brutal and horrifying shreds of humanity remain. As such, the experience will be near unbearable for some viewers but hopefully, some may recognise the value in what many of us take for granted today.
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: October 2014 to March 2015
Strangely, even though the entries for 2nd to 5th took quite a bit of deliberation to sort out, there was no doubt that Shirobako was clear and above all other anime that were considered. Without delving too deep into the strengths of Shirobako that make it a brilliant anime in general, it is its ability to create deeply meaningful stories for a cast of nuanced, multi-dimensional characters that makes it Honey’s Anime’s choice for the mature viewer’s must-see anime.
Aoi Miyamori and her high school friends had only their dreams of working together to produce anime as professional, driving each of them towards their respective career paths. They quickly realise that the obligations and troubles they signed themselves into makes life far more complicated than they expected, and thus the unlikeliness of their dream comes to mind as each of them are weighed down by their daily occupational problems.
So then, when it comes to reality weighing people down, what does Shirobako have to say?
This is where the meticulously thought out character dynamics come into play, as each character is not only a bundle of interesting traits but are also individuals who have become the product of their decisions in life. Each give their own answer, although shaky and not entirely fulfilling, to Aoi’s never-ending questions to why she is doing what she does, and what she should do next. Shirobako is just as interested in giving a why to each character’s actions as showing how they affect our main characters, who gradually gain their own answers of why they continue to struggle inside the stressful environment of the anime industry and why their efforts might not end up in vain when the dust settles.
In the end, the tipping point that makes Shirobako weigh for more than any of its peers, is its acknowledgement through an undying spirit that sometimes the world really does suck with one’s goals being nothing but a pipe dream in the end, but at the same time showing that they, just like the other little things in life, contribute in forming awe-inspiring miracles. The wonders of the world are kept to its truest forms: thingies that just happen without rhyme or reason but utterly changing our lives for good or worse. Shirobako really gets people; it really gets us.
And so, for the viewer who wants an anime about people going through the ups and downs of life, Shirobako is the exemplary choice.
Just like any other medium out there, anime should be thought of as a frame in which many different kinds of stories and ideas can fit into. While the annoying cliches in most anime do get in the way, the medium is definitely capable of telling stories that are interesting even for the matured viewers.
Even beyond this list, there are many shows and films that tackle interesting themes in meaningful and creative ways. The key is to keep an open mind and to get into the mind of the creators when trying something new.
Did we miss an anime for this list? Should a mature anime be about something else? Let us know in the comment below.