Not all art is a shiny happy place.
Entertainment has to be, well, entertaining but it doesn’t always cover content that makes us happy or feel good for watching it. Sometimes it goes into places we don’t talk about very much and forces us to ask some difficult questions. This kind of media is usually called “dark,” where the subject matter is serious and the visuals often disturbing. This doesn’t necessarily mean horror but, rest assured, horror and dark do walk hand in hand.
Since anime is one of the more artistic mediums out there, it naturally has its fair share of dark shows. Since I am eager for Halloween and other such spooky materials, I decided it would be fun to recount a few shows that did an excellent job of taking us to those unmentionable places. These are the top five dark anime because Halloween cannot get here fast enough.
Honorable Mention: Berserk
I can already hear the cries of “heresy!” from the original anime’s fan base. Rest assured, this is not a slight against the grandfather of all dark, gory anime. This is a recognition of the show’s importance and an admission that I haven’t watched it. I likely never will, meaning I won’t ever have a fully formed opinion on the matter. But just because I don’t have the guts (heh) to finish it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t at least be brought up.
From what I have seen of Berserk – the original anime that is – the show is unapologetic in its dark subject matter. Violence, gore, rape, and abuse are all on the table and none of it gets censored. But, and this is the key, it also boasts well-written characters and a good tragic plotline. So, while I may think it’s an endless void of suffering, someone else will enjoy the rawness of it. It’s not my taste, but I do applaud it.
5. D-Gray Man
Losing a loved one is never easy. The sorrow that comes can be so overpowering that you’d do anything to bring them back. Well, there’s a being out there who would gladly prey on that weakness with a solution that’s too good to be true. The Millennium Earl will promise the return of your beloved, but at the cost of your life and that loved one’s soul. These poor spirits are turned into Akuma, mindless machine demons who help the Earl conquer humanity. It’s up to priest-like fighters called Exorcists to stop him, using an ancient substance called Innocence to fight and cleanse these poor tortured souls.
Some may consider D Gray Man’s plucky story and tendency towards comedy as de-qualifiers for this list. But make no mistake; this anime has moments of pure evil about it. From one of the generals being tortured to the point of insanity to watching an Akuma slip on the skin of someone who used to be their loved one, this story knows how to turn up the freakishly horrible when it wants to. That being said, most of the action is pretty standard shounen, so it gets the highest spot on the list.
4. Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan)
Number four is another one that I have yet to complete. However, having seen a significant chunk of this unfinished marvel, I have a much better grip on it than I do Berserk. Besides, watching just a small section of season one will give you more than enough hints to just how dark this pit of despair can go.
Imagine the world where humanity has been driven to hide like cattle behind thick stone walls. And then, to their horror, those walls are knocked down like sandcastles by the very creatures they were hiding from: Titans. They are disturbing, monstrous creatures that are driven to mindlessly devour humans and are near impossible to kill. But it’s up to the army to rise up and protect what’s left of humanity from the rising Titan menace, even when it seems like there isn’t a way to stop them.
I know it seems a bit overdone to mention the show here, but you cannot deny that even an early view of AOT showcases a shocking amount of deep story and psychological trauma. The show relies heavily on the Uncanny Valley but also on some pretty animalistic wills to live by the characters themselves. Eren is the embodiment of humanity’s will to fight and shows the rest of his crew that survival is possible, but only if you refuse to lay down and die. Plenty of characters are not gonna make it but that doesn’t mean we, the audience, should give up.
3. Pet Shop of Horrors
I want you all to remember this old show from way back in the day: the famous serial called The Twilight Zone. The show usually centered around a self-contained narrative that takes a strange and unusual turn towards the end, usually to pass on some kind of moral. Imagine that, twisted, and exposing some of the nastier, selfish aspects of being a human.
My friends, that is Pet Shop Of Horrors in a nutshell. The enigmatic figure known as Count D has a quaint little pet shop set up in Little China, a cute place with exoitic animals, exotic food, and an air of danger. He sells pets and all manner of hopes and dreams, but there is almost always a catch. Follow the rules of the contract and you’ll be happy in your purchase. But humans break those rules – it’s only natural – and the horror that follows only goes to show the petty, ugly truths that those people worked so hard to keep hidden.
Even though this series only lasted a few episodes, I was so thrilled with what I did see. The show displayed the themes and beauty of the manga near perfectly, encapsulating the gritty horror aspects as well. Very bloody and disturbing, give all four episodes a go before you try the manga; because it holds back even less.
2. The Gregory Horror Show
What’s this, 3D and a distinctly un-anime look? How dare you put this cult-classic on your list, Helain, shame on you!
That’s what I thought, originally. But – surprise, surprise – The Gregory Horror Show is indeed a CGI anime, or at least it’s defined as such. Originally produced in Japan, the show centered around an unfortunate Japanese Businessman who finds himself at a strange hotel in the middle of nowhere, run by a wrinkled, wart-covered mouse by the name of Gregory. Something is off about Gregory from the get-go, who somehow sees everything and knows far more about you than he should. His guests aren’t much better, stalking you and screaming at you to get out while you still can. But you quickly find that there is no way out of this madhouse of the broken; even insanity won’t save you from Gregory and his prisoners.
The biggest draw to TGHS comes from its first person perspective. We are thrust into the role of this poor salesman, trapped in a prison-like hotel ready to drive him up the wall. Along the way, we’ll not only meet a variety interesting characters but explore some inconvenient truths about our dear protagonist. Extra points if you guess the big twist at the end.
1. Death Note
This one is, and I admit it, predictable and overplayed – but so, so very true. Death Note, both in anime and manga, is the ultimate morality play on justice and crime, and an impressive character study.
Have you ever wished you could do something about the rampant crime in the world? Have you ever just been beyond bored with the ugly world and wished you could make a real difference? That was the biggest wish of Boy Genius Light Yagami, a pampered perfect student who discovers a notebook that can kill anyone with the stroke of a pen. So, he decides he’s going to kill all the world’s horrible criminals and be the new ruler of a perfect world. But not everyone sees his work as heroic; in fact, enigmatic private detective “L” denounces him a murderer, and dedicates himself to tracking Light down.
The show sets up two very distinct sides and takes great pride in showing them clash. Furthermore, as the show explores the real morality behind killing the accused (and I must stress, it is the accused and not the sentenced), it also lets us watch a boy of decent morals slowly spiral down into sociopathy thanks to the immense power he’s gained. You might need a flow-chart to keep up with the plot, but anyone watching this show will eat up the hard questions it asks, all while basking in the dark and gloomy atmosphere all around it.
In short, Death Note is the standard for dark anime. It isn’t really gory or all that scary, but it explores some uncomfortable places of the human mind with a story that is gripping and entertaining. And at the end of the day, that’s really all you can ask from any dark anime.
What’s your list for for dark anime? Feel free to share it below and don’t forget to like and follow for more content just like this.