A Love Letter To The Mature Psychological Anime of the 1990s/2000s

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I recently started watching 2004’s Monster after seeing it listed on “Best Anime” lists for years. It’s been on my to-watch list forever, and I had been putting it off simply because it’s 74 episodes and I figured that was too big of a commitment. I mean, I hesitate to watch stuff that’s 26 episodes long. I like the feeling of finishing a show and moving quickly on to the next one, you know? It clunks up my completionist goals if I have to commit to an anime for more than, like, ten hours.

I’m about twenty episodes into Monster (my attention span is doing good this time, guys!) and I love it. It’s an atmospheric, perfectly paced psychological horror with some dashes of historical fiction and medical drama thrown into the mix. Maybe a bit of magical realism, too. Oh, AND it’s a mystery. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted. The only thing that could make it better would be having some lesbians in there. Which, who knows, there’s still a chance – I have 54 episodes left, after all!

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You know what else is non-existent? Legal streaming of Monster. I’m watching that shit on YouTube in the worst quality…tragic.

Not to sound like a cranky old get-off-my-lawn anime fan (again), but I can’t help but watch this and think, “damn, they don’t make them like they used to.” I generally keep up on seasonals, and I really can’t remember the last time I saw anything with a creepy atmosphere or drawn-out pacing quite like that of Monster’s, or like any of my other favorites from this late 90’s/early 2000’s era, for that matter. I’m talking about eerie, semi-experimental shit like Serial Experiments Lain, Ghost Hound, Ergo Proxy, Paranoia Agent, and others of its kind. Where have all the good psychological horrors gone? Where are all the mature, existentialist seinen series that I love so much?

I guess I should start by defining what it is about these series that I love so much. 

For starters, these shows generally had more mature stories. Even the ones set in high school, like Serial Experiments Lain, had a distinctly adult feel to it. They were directed towards adults and didn’t try to pander to its audience. Series like Paranoia Agent and Boogiepop Phantom knew that they were hard to follow, but they trusted the audience to figure everything out themselves instead of giving any explanations that would ruin the mysterious tone. It was so much fun to try and piece everything together, and they made you feel all kinds of smart and pretentious while you were watching. Like, I love watching and pretending to understand Serial Experiments Lain! It gives me the illusion of having a Galaxy Brain!

These days, for better or for worse, the anime series I see being released are a lot more straight-forward. Studios don’t seem as willing to risk telling an open-ended story, or a story that you really need to devote your full attention to. Ergo Proxy, for one, had a rather dense plot and didn’t always tell its story in a linear way. It had unreliable narrators and sometimes, I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. It has a lot of layers to it, and even when I rewatch episodes, I discover new bits of the story and along with them, new questions.

For me, I don’t need to be able to put all the pieces together. I like the experience and the atmosphere. I know I keep using this one as an example, but Serial Experiments Lain feels more like something that’s meant to be experienced and felt than it is to be understood. I would rather be thrown into a world full-force and figure it out along the way than be force-fed a bunch of expository dialogue that over-explains everything, ESPECIALLY when it comes to the Spooky Stuff.

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Speaking of shows that don’t always make sense…

These series often told self-contained stories that focused on side characters and had larger casts. Monster is definitely one of those series, having a ton of side characters that are all woven into the story of Yohanne (supposedly the titular monster). Paranoia Agent was like this, too – it delved into the minds of multiple characters that didn’t always seem related, but everything ties together in the end. And then of course, there’s Kino’s Journey, which was an anthology like collection of short stories similiar to The Twilight Zone. I’m a huge fan of series like these that have a mix of self-contained stories that contribute to a larger theme, and I haven’t found many recent series that operate this way. 

I also loved the muted color palettes of these older series. I don’t need none of that flashy, brightly colored nonsense. Give me that Boogiepop Phantom haze of sepia throughout the whole show. Give me that Kino’s Journey glaze of static and green. Speaking of, Kino’s Journey was recently remade, and the Look of the show just didn’t have that same eerie feel. I mean, a remake should try to be its own thing and have its own look, but the 2017 iteration just didn’t hit the marks of the original AT ALL. Boogiepop Phantom is getting a re-make, and it looks great, and I have a little more faith that it’ll stay true to the original. It won’t look like it was animated through a layer of mud like the original, sure, but it’ll have those murky colors that my eyes CRAVE.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get that animation and technology evolves and that that’s a good thing and that it’s just nostalgia making me think that shitty animation and colors are better and blah blah blah. But I think that, in a way, those technological restrictions forced studios to rely more on crafting an unsettling narrative through pacing and sound design as opposed to relying heavily on visuals. And, since flashy action scenes or CG monsters weren’t always an option, much more effort was put into more subtle visual effects like, for example, those muted color palettes.

Oh, and the sound design. These shows had some really fantastic soundtracks. Monster has one of my favorite anime openings of all time, and I loved all those English-language rock openings that were used for all the cyberpunk shows like Serial Experiments LainErgo Proxy, and Texhnolyze. Ghost Hound utilized a lot of strange percussion, and always had an eerie host of buzzes and otherworldly hums that set the mood perfectly.

It’s not like these psychological shows don’t exist anymore. There was 2010’s Shiki, 2012’s Another, a recent Hell Girl reboot…but they don’t share those same elements that I mentioned. But I promise, I’m not trying to sweep all of the newer shows under the rug or saying that Good Anime Is Dead. I recognize that there have been some truly amazing seinen and psychological series that have come out in the past decade. 

The show that probably comes closest to emulating this Psychological Perfection I seek would be 2011’s Madoka Magica. It was experimental and never felt like it pandered – it kept viewers in the dark just enough, and had a sketchy, imperfect art style that was actually perfect for the series’ mood. The recent Girls’ Last Tour hit a lot of these treasured notes for me, too – with its self-contained stories of the girls and other characters they met along their travels, it was considered a better Kino’s Journey than the actual 2017 Kino’s JourneyShin Sekai Yori nailed a lot of these story-rich elements, as well, and had the slow-burn feeling I love so much. 

Of course, it’s natural that a genre would evolve. Part of it is just the natural shift of the market. These days, there is so much anime getting produced and aired all at once that there likely aren’t as many networks willing to set aside time for a multiple cour slow-burn series. Not that all of those anime I mentioned before were all as long as Monster – but there definitely isn’t much space for a 74 episode thriller these days. 

And, of course, a lot of these feelings I have about the supposed lack of good psychological anime today is going to be steeped in personal biases. My standards for psychological anime are likely what they are because of my Nostalgia Glasses. It also makes sense that I would use the stylings of the first few anime of the genre I saw as the standard for all the series I see. Most people use their early experiences as the barometer for future experiences, and I’m no exception.

Meh. Maybe I am just being a cranky elitist. I just miss those rich worlds and the way they pulled me in and made my skin crawl. I miss when Silent Hill games were actually good. …I miss when Silent Hill games were being made at all, for that matter. I yearn for that good, low-fi, spooky content again.

Well. At least I have 54 episodes left of Monster in the meantime!

25 thoughts on “A Love Letter To The Mature Psychological Anime of the 1990s/2000s

  1. I love all of the shows you mentioned. They have such powerful themes that just draw the watcher in if they want to spend the time to watch them. Definitely makes the experience more meaningful.

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  2. The main reason I haven’t watched monster yet is exactly as you described. I think you’re right. You’d be hard-pressed to find a series like that that spans so many episodes nowadays. Well, for anime at least.

    Live action still seems to be getting several seasons out these types of shows. Hell, Netflix found a way to milk Bates Motel for 4-5 seasons. I wonder why anime producers haven’t followed suit.

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    1. Yeah, I think that after I finish Monster, I’m going to be floundering to find a series that can grab me in the same way…

      I wonder if Netflix anime originals will end up having longer runs? B: The Beginning is getting a second season, not that that’s on the level of Monster by any stretch…

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  3. I really like that era/ style of anime. It’s something that’s unfortunately more or less died, in recent years, but the atmosphere and style of storytelling was something that made those shows really appeal to me.

    And switching over to the subject of Boogiepop, the new series isn’t actually a remake of Phantom. Phantom was a weird side story/spin of the Boogiepop series of light novels, that takes place in between the first 2 but really has nothing to do with anything. The Boogiepop in that series isn’t even the same one from the light novels. The new series on the other hand is an adaptation of the first novel. Being a big Boogiepop fan, I’m really quite excited. And now I’m rambling. Whoops.

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    1. Oh yeah! I should have been more specific that it wasn’t exactly a remake, because I knew it was going to be a different story than the anime. I didn’t realize that the original anime series was floating between two of the books, though! I actually own the first light novel now but haven’t read it, so I really need to get on that now…

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  4. I 100% agree if only having read Monster, and seen Lain (and a few others that would fit in here). I think especially in relation to actual use of color and plot that no new series wants to come off as ‘ugly’. I can’t think of a series that really has used browns, muted greens, grey, etc the way Lain did and the reference images you show have.

    Megalo Box did in a sense, but it wasn’t at all in relation to being psychological or ‘mature’. It was more homage, and a way to contrast the social divide. Which is cool in it’s own way but not in the way we’re talking about. I feel a lot of studios won’t try to risk doing something that would get lost in the sea of over saturated color. Having something with a non-standard color palette could easily be associated with being ‘ugly’ and therefore for some fans, not watchable. I get it from a creative perspective and money making one, but thanks to you pointing it out I’m going to look for more of these rare ‘muted palette’ series. (Or maybe take a crack on Monster, who knows!)

    Moving aside from that, for sure linear story telling structures have usurped the days of a somewhat muddled plot. I love being thrust into a new world with no exposition as well, but I don’t mind being beaten over the head with certain details depening on story and plot. Admittedly, there’s too many series that beat you over the head and then insert a re-cap on top of it. There’s a fine line to a recap and a feel that more mature or plot heavy stories would benefit more from a good recap idea then more recent anime.

    Idk if my thoughts even make sense. I really should learn to think through my comments but here we go anyway. Again, another great think piece that the anime industry should be taking a good look at.

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    1. Oh, Megalo Box is a good example. I loved the colors in that show. I wonder if other studios will see that that show did well/looked great and be willing to try out those kinds of color palettes again? I feel like I’m always watching a mix of 90s shows alongside any seasonals I watch, so the differences stick out to me a little more since I’m seeing them both back to back!

      And yeah, I love just being left to figure things out on my own, I don’t like feeling talked down to by a story’s exposition, if that makes sense? I’m a fan of the show, don’t tell style. But of course it’s not a bad thing if I get some setting info, haha. Generally though, if a show starts with a map explaining what’s been happening the past hundred years or explaining how the world works beforehand, I instantly glaze over. not a fan of the info dumb, lol. But also only certain shows/stories can really get away with withholding all that information without making it seem half-baked. So I agree, it is a fine line. Your thoughts made sense to me, haha! And thank you 😀

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      1. I think Megalo Box was still in that ‘safe experiment’ since it was more or less the homage to Ashita no Joe. However, it seemed (at least to my knowledge) to have done well abroad and in Japan so there’s hope yet?!

        Same, I’m exactly the same. I need context or context clues but the ‘a hundred years ago’ and I’m already counting the seconds/minutes until it’s over lmao.

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  5. Thank you for mentioning a ton of shows I like. Hahaha!

    Seriously, the late 90s to about the mid-00s was a great time period for experimental anime, seinen stuff, and for psychological drama. Monster is seriously a great series that gets slept on by so many anime fans who are into the trendier stuff. People can have their usual action and comedies, but people can give me Monster, Kino’s Journey (the original!), Yugo the Negotiator, or anything Satoshi Kon or Yoshitoshi ABe were in involved in. Wow, I sounded elitist and old-school for an anime fan. 😛

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    1. it really was a great time…it’s honestly my favorite genre of series, so I really want to see that sort of thing come back. I have high hopes for the upcoming Boogiepop… but that’s EXACTLY how I feel, especially with Satoshi Kon and Yoshitoshi ABe. Even just looking at Haibane Renmei art gets me going, it’s so beautiful…I guess I’m old now because I’m starting to sound that way too! lmao

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      1. Of course. I do like a lot of the psychological thriller series or the more experimental titles available. That does need a comeback. It’s cool how you like Kon and ABe. Those anime auteurs don’t get enough attention from most otaku. Aw, you just had to mention Haibane Renmei which is one of my all-time favorite series. Hahahaha! Seriously, the art, storylines, characterization, and the music are so freaking good. You’re not the only one who feels that way of sounding old when it comes to talking about anime.

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  6. this was a very young era for anime. I like to call it the Chiaki Kon era, lol. But yeah, back then only a handful of anime are released, and only a small group of studios doing them. You ask why these kinds of shows aren’t around anymore, simply put, other stuff makes more money. A slice of life anime about cute girls has a bigger return than Kino’s Journey, which was mildly received at its release. I do know a lot of studios clamor to make artistic shows like before, but the saturated industry isn’t kind to big risk approaches, not unless you’re a big enough studio that can take the loss. I love them old school shows though. Every era has its good and bad sides, for sure.

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  7. I will admit that this is a side of anime that even I still haven’t been fully introduced to. The closest title I have finished that can be considered dark and psychological would be Haibane Renmei, created by the same person who made Serial Experiments Lain. It’s certainly nowhere near as haunting as stuff like Monster, but it had its moments. Even then, I was gripped thanks it’s limited but important slice-of-life elements, which helped with introducing the setting and characters. I do want to see more of these cryptic titles, but I’ll concede when I say that I still haven’t broken out of my slice-of-life bubble yet…

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    1. You know, Haibane Renmei would have been a good one for me to mention. I thought about it initially when I sat down to write this, but I guess it just didn’t make it in. It totally had that eerie feeling throughout that I like. If you liked Haibane Renmei, you’d probably like Kino’s Journey! It’s more on the quieter, gentler side of the type of anime I’m talking about.

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  8. Monster was the first Anime I ever watched and to this day its still one of my all time favourites. Actually let me be honest and say it is my favourite. Ergo proxy is another. Anyways, its because they don’t make them like that anymore that I’ve basically stopped watching anime. every now and again I’ll try to watch something new but never find something that grips me as anime from that era did. Now I’ll try to watch some of the recent ones you mention. Even if by “recent” we are actually talking 2010 and 2012….

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    1. Those are good choices for favorites. I only watched Ergo Proxy once, but it really stuck with me. Like, I still think about that series all the time…I should really give it a rewatch! I get what you mean about new anime, though. There are other genres that I enjoy watching recent entries for ( I like anime comedies from this decade better than most 90s stuff!), but nothing clicks in quite the same with the psychological aspects…even though I can appreciate some newer stuff, stuff like Monster will always hold a bigger place in my heart

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    1. Oh wow. That’s a tough question because it’s honestly hard to think of anything on par with Monster…hmmmmm, maybe Hinamatsuri? It’s got sci-fi stuff going on and lots of characters and kind of a surreal bend??? …actually it doesn’t really relate to Monster at all, it’s just really good lmao

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