1. Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan)
Premise: Earth has been under attack by huge humanoid monsters called Titans, who mindlessly eat humans. A special military force attempts to protect the remaining humans that have been forced behind giant walls.
The Underlying Themes: Duty and Allegiance
Often the series deals with whether the best of the trainees should join the much safer royal corps, or go out and kill titans in the other orders, and who ultimately they are fighting to protect. Should they use their skills for all of humanity and risk being killed, or protect the King and live easily and far from battle? This anime really digs deep into the horrors of war and about the blurred lines of allegiance between what’s best for humanity and best for those you love.
2. Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Premise: A mysterious animal offers teenage girls their deepest desire in exchange for them to become magical girls and defeat monsters call Witches.
The Underlying Themes: The Nature of Self-Sacrifice
Often shows like this focus on the “be careful what you wish for” aspect, but this show focuses on the personal sacrifices more. What these girls do may be selfless, putting their own lives in danger to save others, but can also be self-destructive, and lead to their own demise. Not to mention this show manages to subvert the classic magical-girl subgenre nicely.
3. FLCL (Fooly Cooly)
Premise: Naota lives in a small, boring town, when suddenly a pink haired girl on a vespa crashes into his life (literally) and brings extreme complications to his relatively simple life.
The Underlying Themes: Coming of Age and Masculinity
At the beginning of the series, Naota’s brother has left to play baseball in America. Throughout the series he tries to step up and fill his shoes, but in the end he realizes doesn’t have to be his brother and that being an adult is different than he perceived. Other important themes in the work are moving on, normalcy, and the importance of childhood.
4. Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon
Premise: Five young women reawaken powers from another life to keep the Earth safe from various evil threats.
The Underlying Themes: The Power of Friendship and Femininity
To some, this might seem like a stretch because, come on, it’s Sailor Moon – how serious can it be? Any girl growing up in the 90s can tell you that what this show taught us is that girls can be cutesy and like pink while still kicking butt. It taught girls that friendships are the ties that bind us stronger than romance, and that embracing femininity is a sign of strength, not of weakness.
Premise: 15 children are transported to a beach to pilot a giant robot in order to save the world, but at a high cost.
The Underlying Themes: Facing Death, the Significance/Insignificance of Life, and the Subversion of Innocence
This show is essentially Grave of the Fireflies with robots. You will be crying over every new chapter as each child steps into the robot to fight, putting all their fears and hopes on the line. This show’s main theme is the discussion over whether life is or is not important, but also how people deal with imminent death. Prepare the tissues on this one.
6. Serial Experiments Lain
Premise: Lain, a young teenage girl, begins to explore the Wired, a futuristic version of the Internet. As she becomes more and more embroiled in the world of the Wired, she finds out that she plays a bigger role in its events than she believes.
The Underlying Themes: Reality, Identity, and Technology
Often described as one of the weirdest anime due to its twisting of reality and strange imagery, this show is often viewed as a commentary on technology and humanity’s place in a world more and more dependent on wired connections. Reality in this show is totally flexible, and Lain’s identity is more of a mystery to herself than anyone else. After all, where does one individual fit in the grand scheme of an entire global network?
7. Deadman Wonderland
Premise: Young Ganta is thrown in prison on a death sentence, meaning he must fight in extreme battles, or the poison pumped into his veins will kill him.
The Underlying Themes: Morality and Injustice
When you’ve got poison constantly pumping through you, is it right to kill someone else to save yourself? Once you have suffered injustice at the hands of a corrupt system, should you fight back from the inside? This show is layered with questions about what is ultimately right in a lose-lose scenario, which brings this show up from regular prison show to a thought-provoking one.
8. Kuragehime (Princess Jellyfish)
Premise: Five female otakus live in a boarding house together in relative harmony. Their world suddenly turns upside-down at the presence of a cross-dressing man who forces them out of their shells, especially jellyfish fanatic Tsukimi.
The Underlying Themes: Self-identity, Ostracism, and Social Anxiety
There are plenty of shows that characterize otakus with both sincerity and humor, but this one takes the cake for making them well-rounded characters and neither completely transforming them or keeping them in their place. They grow, and better discover who they are even though interacting with the real world is foreign and scary. It doesn’t treat them like weirdos who have to change who they are, just that they have learn to work with the world around them.
Premise: Tsukasa is trapped in The World, an online MMORPG, without the means of logging out. With the help of other players, and a mysterious dormant AI, there might be a way out of this pixelated universe.
The Underlying Themes: Abuse, Loneliness, and Purpose
This series relies a lot on mystery so we don’t get a lot of what’s really going on until the middle but once we find out more about our players, these themes emerge full force. The reasons why our players enter the online world include child abuse, lack of physical mobility, escapism, and loneliness, all playing off the idea of living a life in another world where they both have purpose and are wanted. For a show about a computer game, it really tugs on your heart strings.
10. Revolutionary Girl Utena
Premise: Utena, a young woman who has decided to become a prince in spite of the rules of her school, enters a duel and wins the Rose Bride, entering to a world of duels and betrayals that may decide the fate of the world.
The Underlying Themes: Abusive Relationships, Adulthood, and Flexible Gender Roles
This show has some intense symbolism, but central to the plot is the theme of abusive relationships and why they are perpetuated (though divulging anymore on it would be spoiling major plot points). Utena refuses to conform to the role of princess due to her sex, but will not give up her femininity in order to become a traditional prince, choosing to combine the two to be herself rather than being forced into either definition. The theme of adulthood is more tricky to communicate – many of characters come to terms with their issues by the end of show, knowing that they must mature and grow up in order to truly live, and whether that’s actually desirable or not. These are just three of the many, many themes in the subtext of this show – so much so that someone should probably write a book about it.
11. Neon Genesis Evangelion
Premise: The world is plagued by the presence of giant monsters called Angels, and three teenagers in giant robots must defeat them in an attempt to prevent the an apocalyptic event.
The Underlying Themes: That’s a good question…
The actual meaning behind the show is highly debatable and everyone has a different take on it. My take is that it’s about the pressures and horrors about growing up and being teenager. Others believe the show is about self-identity, human worth, or depression. Some think that the show is about nothing at all and merely attempts to be deep. The show is unique in that it means different things to different people, with all theories and beliefs about the show being technically correct. If anything, give it a watch and decide for yourself.