The subject of mental health is not easy to talk about. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either a modern global epidemic or an inconvenience to hardworking cultures. Collectivist societies like Japan have a tough time coping with mental disorders, but this doesn’t mean that they never broach the subject.
In fact, anime has portrayed plenty of stories that imply issues such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the like. Some stories also educate viewers on important psychology terms through surreal and comedic imagery. We’ve picked out several shows that touch on the subject of mental health problems in its various forms.
Though many of these cases are only subtly hinted at, we based our decisions on how closely these issues worked in tandem with the core story.
School-Live! (Gakkou Gurashi)
On its surface, School-Live carries itself as a moe-infused, happy-go-lucky tale about four cute girls living in school together.
But the show is quick to throw us a twist: the world has in truth been consumed by a zombie apocalypse and the girls are simply doing whatever they can to survive at their abandoned school. The protagonist Yuki is an odd one among the bunch, as she seems to believe that the world is normal and that her beloved teacher is still alive.
School-Live doesn’t tell us what affliction Yuki is facing, but her delusions do become coping mechanisms to protect herself from the horrors of the apocalypse, which often leads to her friends being the ones to protect her.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
The world of Neon Genesis Evangelion is filled with a young teenager’s anxiety over being forced to shoulder responsibilities way bigger than them.
The main protagonist, Shinji Ikari, pilots a giant robot called EVA Unit 01 to fend off monstrous entities called Angels in order to save the world. Sound cool on paper? It would be if not for the fact that Shinji has no self-worth to speak off. He struggles to even “get in the damn robot” much to the chagrin of his cold and distant father.
Shinji’s irrational behaviour and inability to connect with others becomes the wheels of his depression: a very real portrayal shaped by director Hideaki Anno’s own experiences with the illness in the past.
You can certainly watch Neon Genesis Evangelion (on Netflix) for its tense and gritty action. However, it’s also an interesting insight into the human psyche when it’s faced with a ton of unresolved issues that only ever seem to stack up as time passes.
The Pet Girl of Sakurasou
Mashiro Shiina has trouble understanding how society works and struggles to perform the necessary daily routines required of her. Besides nonchalantly letting others see her naked, she speaks in a soft monotone and often chooses not to engage in activities she has no interest in, such as studying or getting dressed.
But Mashiro has an incredible photographic memory and could probably pass tests with flying colours if she wanted to. She also draws beautiful landscape paintings, though fails to create inspiring manga due to her struggles with expression.
In The Pet Girl of Sakurasou, Mashiro very well appears like someone who is on the autism spectrum. This is, of course, never mentioned explicitly and is as always up for interpretation. The show is a romantic comedy, so some situations could very be the way they are for dramatic effect.
But the difficulties she faces with handling even everyday tasks is undeniably the focus of the narrative as the protagonist Sorata becomes her dedicated caretaker, an act that eventually stokes feelings of love between them.
The Garden of Sinners (Kara no Kyoukai)
During the end of the 20th century in Japan, a young teenage girl named Shiki Ryougi works to kill demons, coming from a long bloodline of hunters.
As part of her profession and family tradition in Kara no Kyoukai, she plays host to two personalities: a masculine and feminine one, both named SHIKI and Shiki respectively. Unlike your usual case of dissociative identity disorder (DID) though, things get more interesting after she faces a near-death experience, after which her male self seemingly dies in the process.
The ensuing detachment creates unease in her as she is unwittingly forced into a third identity in the process. And so, after recovering from her injuries and obtaining a new power that allows her to perceive death, Shiki then tries to act similarly to her male counterpart as repentance. It’s a slightly unique take on a split personality disorder since Shiki ends up never going through periods of amnesia in between personalities and instead remains completely aware.
When Shiki isn’t struggling between her multiple personalities, you’ll find plenty of paranormal action to behold, as well as an engrossing story penned by the same author as Fate/stay night, Kinoko Nasu.
A girl named Rakka one day awakens in a strange world, stuck in a sheltered town occupied only by people called Haibane. These “Haibane” strangely resemble angels, sporting glowing halos around their heads and white wings on their backs.
Having no recollection of her previous life, Rakka is invited to begin a new one in this new town, surrounded by new friends that are just like her.
Haibane Renmei starts off as a pretty happy-go-lucky slice-of-life. You’ll watch Rakka adapt to her new life pretty well and learn the faces of her acquaintances, but she eventually questions as to whether she is deserving of the happiness handed to her on a regular basis.
Her hesitance acts as a springboard into a deeper case of depression as she finds herself bound by the sins of her vague past. It’s a story about redemption in which characters aren’t just seeking forgiveness from others, but also from themselves.
Comical Psychosomatic Medicine (Anime de Wakaru Shinryounaika)
Are you ready to learn more about the weird and wonderful complexities of the human brain?
Comical Psychosomatic Medicine has one goal in mind: to educate you on mental health and make sure you have so much fun doing so. You’ll see this play out in nurse Asuna and the psychologist Ryou. She’ll ask all the questions while he’ll do his best to answer them.
But between Asuna’s own quirky attitudes and the meddling of her two sisters, Ryou has his work cut out for him if he wants to maintain the show’s educational goals. You’ll find plenty of gags to complement the doses of info on topics such as panic attacks, erectile dysfunction, or even the gists behind medicine such as antidepressants.
It’s a great show that prides itself on being well-researched and is written by an actual psychiatrist no less. The gags are a romp and alway play into whatever new topic is at hand. Considering that mental health isn’t often discussed and that laughter is considered the best medicine, this show is surely a must-watch.
Soldiers coming back from war are rarely ever whole again. Dancing with death over and over, only to then be expected to reintegrate into society again as if nothing ever happened. Violet Evergarden is a portrayal of that struggle.
When Violet returns from the war, she has lost both her arms and Major Gilbert she so deeply loves. Having grown up all her life as a child soldier, she has no understanding of the world and is unable to find purpose in a peaceful society.
Violet is seen as lacking in emotion for much of the early story, but this isn’t without reason. For a time, she seems intent at maintaining the status quo of her previous life as a soldier but is unable to maintain it. The facade eventually falls apart as she must cope with all she has lost in the war, as well as the guilt of blood on her hands.
But above all, Violet Evergarden is a story about her as a ghostwriter. Through meeting many unique people and helping them connect to others through letters, she learns to cherish life and perhaps find her own redemption in the process.
March Comes in Like a Lion
Rei Kiriyama is a shogi genius who lost his family to a traffic accident. Faced with loss as well as the demands of his professional shogi career, he struggles to manage his life in a way that feels fulfilling. However, he acquaints himself with three sisters, Hinata, Akari, and Momo, whose cheerful attitudes help him through this difficult phase in life.
Rei’s inner thoughts play a big part in March Comes in Like a Lion. We get an understanding of his fears and worries, which manifest from his dark past. He instinctively pushes people away, deeming himself to be worthless.
But his self-reflection is a process, and what this story ultimately does is take us on his journey through the good and bad. Like in many coming-of-age stories, the future is often scary and uncertain. And for a young boy like Rei, there’s a lot he has to unpack in order to better understand himself.
The Tatami Galaxy
Life is a never-ending series of choices. And it is in The Tatami Galaxy that nagging feelings of regret are given form.
The story follows an unhappy college student, whose self-conscious life pushes him away from experiencing good things. He cannot make new friends and fails to even confess to the person he likes.
He shuts himself in his room in sadness and regret. But things change when he realizes that even his own room won’t let him out now.
Having transformed into a strange universe of 4.5 tatami rooms, his dorm room becomes a gateway for him to explore all the different lives he could have had, where he slowly learns that life is simply just greener on the other side.
The Tatami Galaxy is a surreal acknowledgement of the depression and the feelings it entails. But it’s also an uplifting lesson about the importance of living in the moment rather than in the past or future. After all, it’s our active participation in the now that ultimately defines the course we set in life.