I’m a sucker for movies and TV series that make me think—not in the philosophical, navel-gazing, look-how-learned-I-am sort of way, but the kind where you’re challenged to outthink the characters in the narrative. A lot of these stories come in the form of mysteries, but the best ones dive much deeper than simply taking you through a mysterious plot.
And anime is really good at this. Whether it’s a reflection of a thinky Japanese psyche or that Hollywood executives just don’t see value in greenlighting thinky American projects, I don’t know. But if you want a cerebral series to sink your teeth into, don’t overlook anime.
Anime isn’t just for kids, and these challengingly complex series will push your brain to its limits—all while keeping your heart pounding, your soul riveted, and your butt on the edge of your seat.
1. Ergo Proxy
In a post-apocalyptic future where humans and robots co-exist in domed cities, an inspector investigates the source of a cyber-virus that causes the robots to murder humans and in the process uncovers a conspiracy.
As many cyberpunk stories tend to do, Ergy Proxy freely explores themes of dystopia, government secrecy, the role of technology, the will to survive, and more. But Ergy Proxy distinguishes itself by kicking things up a notch, drawing on numerous philosophical concepts to paint a truly bleak picture of despair and to deepen its mythology—and the mythology that’s revealed over the course of Ergo Proxy’s 23 episodes is just so intriguing.
2. Death Note
A genius high-school student stumbles across the Death Note, a supernatural book that can kill anyone whose name is written within. But as he wields its power as a vigilante, a genius detective steps up to solve the source of all the mysterious deaths, leading to a cat-and-mouse game for the ages.
Death Note has one of the smartest, most intricately woven plots in all of anime, deftly pitting two intelligent characters head-to-head who attempt to out-maneuver the other and vie for victory. As they’re pushed into corners by the other, you’ll wonder how they get out—and watch in amazement as they do get out. Gripping, thrilling, and violent to the very end.
A gambling addict in perpetual poverty is offered the chance to clear all his debt: spend one night on a gambling ship and win enough to offset his balance. However, it turns out to be a hellish cruise where he must risk everything, even his life, to make it through the night.
Kaiji is set up as a series of games, where each game seems totally up to chance and impossible to win, but with clever loopholes that allow clever players to win their way through. This games-based narrative is mentally engaging, while the characters and stakes ratchet up the tension and result in a story that’s emotionally engaging.
A middle-school student is caught up in a dimensional war between two timespaces that represent potential futures of the present world.
It’s hard to write an adequate plot summary for an anime series as ambitious as Noein, which only spans 24 episodes but is densely packed with plot twists, character growth, and resonant themes that’ll really get you thinking about time and dimensions in a new way. But all that aside, it’s a fun ride through and through with a satisfying ending to cap it off.
In a dystopian future, all citizens have a Crime Coefficient calculated by the Sybil System that predicts how likely they are to commit a crime, and pre-emptively apprehended if it crosses a threshold. However, one criminal has figured out how to evade the system, and threatens everything it stands for.
Psycho-Pass is a bit of a slow burn, but if you can get through the first few episodes, you’ll be in for a treat. It’s basically Minority Report on steroids, diving deeper into the ramifications of society protected by pre-crime agents and focusing more on mystery/suspense than action. And there’s a definitely Blade Runner feel to the whole thing, what with its grungy aesthetic and oppressive atmosphere.
Looking for more mature anime series? Check out the most brutal anime series of all time.