#1- Revolutionary Girl Utena
Revolutionary Girl Utena is one of my favorite animes of all time. This 1997 series directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara tells the story of Utena Tenjou, a girl who after being comforted by a prince as a child, vowed to become a prince herself. She ends up at the mysterious Ohtori Academy, where she finds a group of students are dueling for the right to “possess” a girl named Anthy Himemiya. Those who “win” her are said to get the power to bring revolution to the world. Utena gets unwittingly involved in the whole thing, but she has no idea how deep this rabbit hole goes….
Utena focuses on a cast of troubled teenagers and explores gender roles, misogyny, oppression, sexuality, homophobia, loss of childhood innocence and the cycle of abuse in a highly surreal, but still affecting way. The anime viciously deconstructs fairy tale archetypes and typical romance tropes. The characters in the series are complex and heavily flawed, and we see them struggle through the horrors of adolescence. There’s tons of plot twists and turns along the way.
The constant duels are perhaps the focal point of most of the symbolism of the series- they seem to often function as a metaphor for the folly of using sex as a tool for domination. The duels are fought with phallic swords and the goal is to strike a flower from the opponents’ chest (“deflower” them) all so they can gain the ability to “possess” another person. Many of the duelists are trying to prove themselves to be “adults” through their duels, much like children often equate adulthood with sexuality.
But while the series certainly contains many dark themes (This anime contains (non-graphic and in my opinon, tastefully treated) rape, abuse, incest, suicide and depression) it’s not afraid to make fun of itself either and use it’s surrealism for humor. This is perhaps best exemplified by an entire episode about a character turning into a cow.
So if you’re up for a really weird anime that focuses on complex (and often romantic) relationships between women and the need to dismantle systems of oppression with a side of hilarious animal attacks, Utena is the show for you! The anime is 39 episodes and is available. There’s also a movie that is essentially a alternate retelling of the show (or is it a sequel? You never know with Utena) with a whole lot weirdness condensed into a small space. I enjoyed it though.
#2- Serial Experiments Lain
This 1998 cyberpunk anime directed by Ryutaro Nakamura follows a young girl named Lain Iwakura. She lives in the world where most people are very into an virtual reality world called “the Wired”. A rash of suicides happens among teenagers who use the Wired and one of the victim’s is Lain’s classmate. She receives an email from her dead classmate that claims she has not died, but instead gone into the Wired to be with God. Lain becomes interested in this internet-like world after this and uncovers many terrible secrets.
The anime mainly focuses on how technology and memory can blur the line between real and unreal. It questions what reality truly is. Identity, duality and isolation are major themes. Lain herself reads as a mentally ill character- she often disassociates from reality and has several different identities. This anime is both unsettling and haunting- there’s a lot of horror here, though it’s mostly not the gruesome kind. Theology is also explored a bit in this anime, as there are questions of whether a machine or person can become godlike.
There’s suicide, harm to young children, some body horror and (non-graphic) masturbation and voyeurism, but it’s mainly low key in its horror, The anime is 12 episodes, so it’s not that much of a commitment.
#3- Haibane Renmei
Haibane Renmei is a 2001 anime directed by Yoshitoshi Abe. It follows a young girl who awakens as an angel called a “haibane” with no memories of who she was before. She is named Rakka by her fellow haibane and discovers she is a walled city with no exit. The haibane all one day fly over the wall never to be seen again, unless they are “sin-bound”. These haibane have black-stained wings and cannot remember anything from before their arrival, like Rakka. If they remain sin-bound long enough, they lose their wings and halo and can never leave the city.
Haibane Renmei is both a slice-of-life and a mystery, navigating questions of spirituality and sin and life and death. The mystery of what exactly the city is and who the mysterious organization that keep the Haibane trapped are is left open to interpretation, but there are lots of clues that point to solid theories. The anime focuses on girls who are trapped mainly by their own minds- their regrets, their sense of morality and their self-loathing. The anime asks the question of whether you can truly achieve freedom from sin and whether it is possibly to truly face yourself. The result is a moving story that may touch you deeply, especially if you’ve experienced depression and all the things that tend to come with it.