Psychological Anime Subgenre
When characters are at war with their own thoughts, thrown into a world where they are no longer certain what’s right or even real, or pitted against a manipulating schemer, you know you’re watching a psychological anime. The complete opposite of action anime, psychological anime is all about what happens in the mind. Unstable emotional states, questioning of perception, and irrational behavior signify that what you’re about to watch will play mind games with its characters and perhaps use that to present questions to its audience.
The subgenre often falls on two sides: psychological horror or psychological thriller. Both rely on introspection, irregularities with thought and a strong focus on atmosphere. Psychological thrillers will use this to give drama or mystery series an edge; psychological horror anime will use this to scare you. While not by definition “anime that makes you think”, psychological series will often present moral dilemmas to consider.
Mind games and introspection. If a series is 20% mind games and 80% introspection, chances are 100% that it’s a psychological anime. More seriously, high devotion to exploring a character’s thought process and some devotion to messing with a character’s thoughts is a staple of the subgenre.
Tension. Psychological anime’s love of atmosphere means its dedication to tension really shines through. Whether it’s the setting, the circumstance or the addition of a certain character, suspense through ambiguity and second-guessing creates a strong feel throughout the series.
Opposing forces. Characters may be unstable to begin with, but more often than not, an opposing character challenges the protagonist to a battle of wits. This can eventually form a kind of right/wrong dynamic, though things are never that simple.
Shock twists. Part of messing with characters’ heads is messing with your head. Just as characters discover something that could change them forever, many psychological series will play a game with you, revealing shocking twists that only the truly astute will see coming.
Drama. Psychological anime is serious business, and if it isn’t outright horror, chances are its main genre is drama. Human relationships and human conflict are key for the drama genre, joining with psychological anime’s love of introspection to create strongly character-focused series that rely on emotional development.
Mystery. Psychological anime’s strong focus on atmosphere, and a tension-filled one at that, lends perfectly to mystery series. Often the mystery will be key to why the protagonist or lead characters are languishing over something, with the solving of the mystery making them or breaking them.
Horror. Besides mystery, psychological anime’s love of atmosphere lends itself very well to horror. The scariest things are what you can’t see, making mind games, slow descents into madness and your imagination the scariest things ever.
Seinen. Psychological anime are decidedly for older audiences, and the often gritty themes lean more to older men. Stories and themes are more often than not child unfriendly, though are perfectly at home in the blurred lines between serious shounen series and thoughtful seinen anime.
Here's our top 10 'Best Psychological Anime Recommendations'
1. Higurashi: When They Cry – The quiet town of Hinamizawa isn’t as quiet as Keiichi hopes, especially since he moves there to start fresh. Just as he begins to make friends and fit in, Keiichi learns of the town’s mysterious past which leads into a very disturbing present. A psychological horror anime with disturbing twists.
2. Serial Experiments Lain – Lain Iwakura is a socially awkward girl who doesn’t get along with her class, but when she and several other classmates receive a message from a girl who committed suicide, things begin to change. Intrigued by the message, detailing that the dead classmate is simply now part of the internet, Lain plunges into the world known as the Wired and gets caught up in questions of reality and consciousness. An odd psychological anime that is recommended by those thoroughly familiar with the subgenre.
3. Monster – Dr Kenzo Tenma could not have a better place in life. His work, love life and heath are all at their best, but his moral decision to save the life of a young boy over a local politician throws him into the deep end. For the boy he saved could very well be a monster. A psychological thriller with its fair share of mystery.
4. Ergo Proxy – Future humanity has taken to living in domes where society is strictly controlled and robots are commonplace. As investigator Re-l Mayer follows the case of rogue robots infected with a virus, she encounters a monster. Simultaneously, Vincent Law is exiled to the outside world for supposed involvement with the virus. As these two paths converge, both find the answer to their mysteries can only be found in the far-off dome city Mosk. A psychological mystery series that asks moral questions.
5. Welcome to the NHK – When Tatsuhiro Satou approaches four years since the start of his go-nowhere life, he comes up with the idea that a secret organisation is holding him back – the NHK. When he manages to meet the young Misaki Nakahara, he’s somehow brought into a project to make him a functional human being again. An odd psychological anime that examines Japan’s NEET population.
6. Death Note – It’s by pure chance that cynical teen genius Light Yagami comes across a notebook that could change the world. When death god Ryuk decides to drop the Death Note into the human world for fun, the notebook’s powers and murdering potential cause Light to start his plans of world betterment, but while he plots murders of everyone bad, a detective chases his trail, intent on stopping him. A psychological cat-and-mouse game with supernatural themes.
7. Psycho-Pass – In the future, Japan has progressed far enough to control its criminal population via computer. Scanners across the country monitor the population’s aptitude for crime, and when numbers show signs of danger, the police take the potential criminals down. This is how Inspector Akane Tsunemori starts the chase for a wanted criminal who manages to evade the law at every turn. A sci-fi action series that develops into a psychological thriller.
8. Neon Genesis Evangelion – The world is clinging to life, even on the verge of a second apocalypse. Because they finally have something to give them just a bit of hope: giant humanoid robots designed to take down alien invaders bent on destroying humanity. As three 14-year-old pilots take the world’s burdens on their shoulders, pilot Shinji struggles the most with this newly foisted responsibility. A mecha meets psychological anime that is both the first point of entry for many fans and the series fans are the most confused about.
9. Ghost in the Shell – Technology has always had its weaknesses, but despite its terrible flaws, it offers enough to humanity that the future is filled with all sorts of cybernetic enhancements. When these enhancements are preyed upon by a mysterious hacker, the police’s specialist Section 9 group goes after the culprit. A psychological thriller with elements of sci-fi and mecha.
10. Paranoia Agent – Society’s worries and stress are on full display in Paranoia Agent, where a mysterious young boy armed with a bat is responsible for killing all manners of odd characters. As each character’s fears culminate in a sound metal thwack, investigators try to track down this almost supernatural phenomenon. A psychological thriller with strong mystery elements and plot twists.