There is nothing more fun than watching an action packed anime that pops with explosions, and is peppered with daring fights. It’s not surprising that shonen and seinen style anime have been the most widely watched genre in recent years, they have the most action! Much like blockbuster Hollywood movies, these anime are big on spectacular special effects, daring feats, and dramatic monologues.
But anime isn’t only about pyrotechnics and chase scenes, there are plenty of anime that trade in the flash and bang of the big screen for diving deep, experiencing difficult even painful emotions, and asking the hard questions. These anime won’t get the viewer’s hearts pounding with excitement, but maybe they can help anime fans develop their hearts in a different way.
On the surface the anime Haibane Renmei is a cute series about winged children and teens living a happy carefree life in a group home just outside of a rural village. They get their names from the dreams they have before they hatch from eggs, and their halos are formed with doughnut molds! Below the sweet and fluffy surface, the story is much more melancholic and alludes to many hard truths about mortality.
The proverb “You can’t take it with you” or “Gold is worthless to the dead” is subtly played out in the way that the Haibane are expected to pursue a career, though they are not allowed to actually earn money or use money to pay for anything. Furthermore, though the villagers appear to like the Haibane, the winged youth don’t seem to be allowed to live in the village itself and instead must stay in the settlement outside of the village up on a hill, a traditional location for cemeteries in many cultures. The Haibane live in a kind of duality with the nearby villagers, much like loved ones that have passed away, the villagers look fondly on the youth, but don’t want them too close to their homes.
The climax of the series is much less subtle, when Kuu disappears after her “day of flight” an event when a Haibane leaves and never returns. The main character Rakka is reassured by many that Kuu has simply graduated to where she was supposed to go. Rakka is still filled with grief at the loss of her friend and as she is overwhelmed with dark thoughts her feathers develop dark splotches. This fairly clearly mimics reality, where nearly every culture or spiritual system has some form of reassurance that loved ones go on to a “better place” when they pass away, though humans still naturally feel grief and depression when a loved one dies.
Though Kino’s Journey (2003) could be described as an anime about a cute girl and a talking motorcycle going on a cross country road trip adventure. It doesn’t take too much effort to see there is so much more to this series. Existentialism is the philosophy of what it is to be human, and that is also a great description of Kino’s Journey. Much like how the philosophy is multifaceted and complex, so is the anime. Each new episode is a new country, and presents a different aspect of the human existence. Though many episodes are serious and look at topics like the morality of the death sentence, the nature of generosity, the pointlessness of a never ending task, and even the automation of humans out of relevancy, but just like humans themselves, it’s not all seriousness. There are actually plenty of silly episodes, like one in which a country was attempting to forget their past so they were trying out “new” traditions and letting travelers vote on the best one. Much like how many middle schoolers try to forget their childish ways of elementary school and create a background story for themselves that is more interesting.
The anime Ergo Proxy is a post apocalyptic futuristic sci-fi series about robots running a muck, monsters attacking half dressed maidens, and perfect little kingdom like dome cities. Yet to say that is all there is to Ergo Proxy is to miss nearly all of the story. At the core of it, the series is about identity. It’s about the main character Vincent slowly learning who he is and learning to accept it. In the beginning of the series, Vincent’s eyes are animated as thin lines, as if his eyes are perpetually closed.
Walking around with closed eyes is also how Vincent lives his life. Though he is convinced that if he just tries to be a good citizen he will eventually be accepted and treated kindly in the dome city of Romdeau (Romdo) he experiences the corruption, apathy, and cruelty of the city officials again and again. Finally, as Vincent is forced to flee the city due to persecution, he’s eyes begin to open. Being forced to stop being selectively blind to the hard realities around him is just the beginning of Vincent’s development. As the series progresses, Vincent goes on a literal journey of self discovery, traveling across a destroyed landscape to find answers about who he is and who he was.