Most anime's aimed at a younger audience -- pre-teens and teens. But it also sports a wide roster of titles aimed at more mature viewers, and that's been a big source of its appeal outside of Japan. Many anime go where most Western animation doesn't, and not just in terms of breaking boundaries but providing food for thought or creating an experience that's on a par with the best of live-action entertainment.
Here's our list of recommended anime for mature audiences, both films and TV shows. Note that while this list does contain titles not intended for children, it does not contain hentai (pornographic) titles.
It's "Romeo and Juliet in the samurai era," with the star-crossed lovers being the young scions of two mutually antagonistic ninja clans ... who have just been sentenced to fight each other to the death. Each side is outfitted with a mind-boggling array of otherworldly powers, but it's their emotions that will prove to be hardest for them to defend against.
For mature audiences because: Extreme violence and grotesquerie galore, but also political machinations and a tragic lost-love story that spans multiple generations.
2. Black Lagoon
So what would you do if you were a hapless office worker who found himself stranded in some scummy harbor city in Thailand, held hostage by pirates pointing guns up your nose? And what if your company decided to write you off as an acceptable loss and throw you to the wolves? That's right -- you'd run with the wolves yourself and join up with the very crew that was ransoming you. Such is the premise of this show, which is like every Hollywood and Hong Kong action movie distilled down to its purest acts of excess and blended into one.
For mature audiences because: Violence galore, bad language galore, and bad attitudes galore. It says something that the foulest-mouthed character in the show is a woman -- and that the most dangerous character in the show is also a woman. (See it for yourself and decide if I'm talking about the same person.)
In a land wracked by war, Guts, a swordsman for hire, allies himself with the mercenary group known as the Band of the Hawks, and comes under the spell of both one of their fellow soldiers (the lovely Casca) and the Hawks's own leader (the charismatic Griffith). All three will have their loyalties tested -- and soon find themselves catapulted headlong into what might well be a battle at the end of the world.
For mature audiences because: Violence of just about every description, including a supernatural sexual assault that is (mercifully) one of the very last scenes in the whole show. But also for its superb depiction of medieval politics and a three-way love triangle that's among the most compelling in anime to date.
4. Cat Soup
This surreal mindbender is a great example of anime as an art form, and not just a storytelling method. A boy and girl cat go on an odyssey to reclaim their souls from the land of the dead -- but that's a little like saying Moby Dick is about this guy hunting down a big fish. Out of print, and for that reason all the more worth the effort to track down.
For mature audiences because: Surreal, sexual, vulgar and suggestive imagery abound, and the movie also deals in concepts like death and resurrection in a heady way that might go right over younger viewers' heads.
A young Japanese man wakes up outside the White House with a gun in one hand, a cellphone in the other, no memories, and not a stitch of clothing on his back. The phone connects him to an operator who can get him, it seems, literally anything he asks for. From there on out it's a mix of The Bourne Identity and The Social Network, as our hero tries to unravel the mysteries he embodies and the strange game he's been selected to play.
For mature audiences because: Political machinations galore, and also treatments of modern-day social issues like generational alienation.
This offbeat Japanese/Russian coproduction (Japan for the animation, Russia for the storyline) tells a secret history of WWII, where the Russian army had support from a secret cadre of young psychics. Their mutual enemy: a Nazi brigade whose dabbling in the dark arts might turn the tide of war in their favor.
For mature audiences because: Violence, alternate history (some of it pretty nuts-and-bolts stuff about Russia's involvement in WWII), and some surreal netherworldly spelunking.
The members of the elite "Section 9" protect a near-future Japan from cyber-criminals of all stripes, harnessing not only cutting-edge technology but their own native wits and skills. Their greatest enemies, however, may be from within their own government ...
Widely lauded as one of anime's brightest stars, it's not hard to see why: it's excellently produced, and sports a storyline smart enough to give most top-end live-action TV a run for its money.
For mature audiences because: Violence and sexual innuendoes, but also deeply complicated political machinations and some heady thoughts about social organization, artificial intelligence, and the difficult nature of state and corporate secrets in an all-digital, all-information era. Whew. But trust us, it's more than worth the effort.
The standalone (pun intended) feature films, Ghost in the Shell and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence also deserve a look for many of the same reasons, but the TV series is the most accessible and rewarding of the bunch.
A not-very-confident samurai, desperate for work, takes a job as a bodyguard with a mysterious man who turns out to be one of a cadre of criminals who kidnap (and ransom) for profit. Unable to leave since he's already implicated himself with them, the samurai instead digs deeper into the workings of this cadre that call themselves "The Five Leaves," and discovers a great deal about them -- and himself -- in the process.
For mature audiences because: Not because of violence or sexual content -- a rarity for a samurai-themed anime aimed at a mature audience! -- but because of the slow, involved, character-centric and, well, mature storytelling. This isn't a show where everything is resolved with a swordfight, and if it was it wouldn't be half the show it is.
In an alternate-history version of Japan, an authoritarian central government ruthlessly suppresses dissent courtesy of their elite squad of heavily-armored police. One of their number comes to question his loyalty when a dissident woman finds a way to his heart -- but love rarely conquers all in real life. This grim but meticulously-observed drama has the same cynicism about mankind as a political animal as one of Graham Greene's novels.
For mature audiences because: Violence, politics, and an aura of relentless cynicism. Not for those who prefer happy endings.
Satoshi Kon's homage to Japan's filmmaking industry as a dream factory is, well, rather dreamy -- just what to expect from a director who made the (blurry) dividing line between illusion and reality his favorite subject. The actress in question was a woman of great talent who vanished just at the peak of her creative power, and the film takes us back through her own cinematic history as well as Japan's.
For mature audiences because: The way the film explores reality vs. fantasy vs. imagination should appeal to adults as much as it might to younger audiences -- perhaps even more so.