With series like Chainsaw Man and Mob Psycho 100 coming this fall to pad out the already dense year 2022 has been for anime, there is still a massive catalog of shows that span countless subgenres. And for fans of darker material, there are several noir anime series more than worth checking out.
Many of these range from more grounded crime noir to more inventive neo-noir TV shows. Cowboy Bebop will likely be the first to come to the minds of longtime anime fans, but gripping crime sagas like Monster are also worthwhile time investments.
Following the lives of Brandon Heat and Harry MacDowell, Gungrave tells the story of the two carefree street kids living in a gritty world who rise through the ranks of the Millennion crime organization to achieve fame, wealth, and power. However, after all that power goes to their heads and corrupts them, betrayal leads them to clash.
Taking place over several years, Gungrave strings together a classic gangster-style story of drama, stylized anime action, and the ramifications of greed that fans of crime noir should feel at home with.
9/10 91 Days
The underrated 91 Days is a great example of an anime that borrows from the best elements of the film noir genre. It’s also one of the most grounded crime-noir anime that fans will find, as the series is set against the backdrop of 1930s America during the days of Prohibition.
Young Angelo Lagusa sees his family murdered in the middle of a Mafia dispute, and he grows up to try and realize a vengeful plan against the Zenetti Family. That premise alone is enough to tantalize audiences looking for a flavor of The Godfather in their anime, as well as a period piece. Its 12-episode run also makes it an easily digestible watch in terms of time.
8/10 Ergo Proxy
While Ghost in the Shell established itself as the face of the cyberpunk/neo-noir subgenre in anime, Ergo Proxy proved to be an admirable modern take on it. In a sci-fi future, humans and androids once coexisted normally until a virus granted the AutoReiv machines self-awareness and go on a killing spree.
This prompts special investigators, including the protagonist Re-L, to uncover the reason behind this spiking uprising. And as one might expect from that premise, a darker and more complex mystery lies at the heart of Ergo Proxy‘s plot, which has been cited as the series’ strongest narrative point. The revelations that come spark questions and themes of autonomy.
Science fiction is a popular complementary genre to noir anime, and Psycho-Pass is arguably one of the better-known modern series. The show combines a cyberpunk premise with a psychological-thriller story, taking place in a bleak future dystopia where the Japanese government enforces the law — often lethally — by forcefully scanning citizens’ states of mind for even an inkling of maliciousness. Psycho-Pass focuses its plot on the Enforces; investigators who’ve grown cynical and are given freedom so long as they uphold this tyrannical law.
Unfortunately, the series dips in quality to a degree in its later two seasons, but season 1 was praised as an excellent seinen/mature anime for how it handled its interesting character dynamics, as well as its thoughtful themes of morality and privacy in an aggressively digital environment.
6/10 Darker Than Black
As the name would suggest, Darker than Black is an atmospheric noir anime series that mixes science fiction with the supernatural as well. The premise revolves around two spatial phenomena that have appeared suddenly in the world — the “Heaven’s Gate” over South America and the “Hell’s Gate” above Tokyo specifically — and how the one in Japan is altering the sky and ravaging the land below it.
From there, the series follows a group of Contractors, people with supernatural abilities who are hired to investigate Hell’s Gate. Darker than Black has been well-received thanks to the fascinating mystery at the core of its story, as well as its sleek animation and unique cast of characters.
5/10 Black Lagoon
Though insanely over-the-top and brutal in its depiction of violence, Black Lagoon is a strong contender for fans of crime series. The anime starts with a 25-year-old Japanese salaryman who finds himself turned into human collateral in what’s revealed to be a nuclear weapons trade.
Rokuro Okajima then throws his life in Japan away to stay with the titular mercenary team after finding how little his life means in a world dominated by corporate evil. However, Black Lagoon — in between the explosive action and raunchy humor — gets impressively introspective in its (admittedly bleak) commentary on moral ambiguity and humanity’s place under the shadowy machinations of world governments.
It may not have the same tone as some might expect on the surface of a noir series, but Baccano! is a clever crime story that takes some creative inspiration from the genre in terms of narrative structure. Set in 1030s Chicago during the Prohibition era similar to 91 Days, Baccano! takes a more stylish approach aesthetically and in its use of the supernatural.
Like film noir, this anime takes several characters in their respective storylines that are all indirectly connected, involving alchemists, thieves, and warring Mafiosi. Baccano! has been praised for its engaging pacing, the culmination of character arcs, and bombastic action.
3/10 Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex
The original 1995 Ghost in the Shell movie helped compel the global audience to pay attention to the anime genre. It was an enticing sci-fi neo-noir world that seemed to pay homage to other cyberpunk-themed works like Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner. The Ghost in the Shell movie paved the way for a franchise, with arguably the best to come from it being the Stand Alone Complex series.
In a world where the Japanese government creates the Section 9 organization to compensate for new high-tech crimes, protagonist Mokoto Kusanagi and the rest of her team hunt down a dangerous hacker dubbed “The Laughing Man.” Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex retains the fascinating nuance of the original movie, raising questions about the human condition in an increasingly technological world and maintaining a sense of identity.
For an HBO-level of tense crime drama in anime form, fans would be hard-pressed to find much better outside of Monster. This sprawling 74-episode thriller follows protagonist Kenzo Tenma, a Japanese former doctor living in Germany who sees his life fall apart when he refuses to operate on a politician in favor of saving the life of a brutally injured boy.
Years later, that boy grows up to haunt Tenma as an elusive serial killer, leading the former surgeon to put an end to his madness. Monster is an engrossingly cerebral experience, honing on crime noir from a psychological perspective. Thought-provoking philosophical themes and revelations are explored as the plot unravels, and it cements itself as one of the best seinen anime to date.
1/10 Cowboy Bebop
In addition to being one of the greatest showcases of neo-noir in this genre, Cowboy Bebop is a triumphant milestone for anime as a whole. It’s a masterful blend of science fiction, western, and crime noir all in one to make for a compelling 26-episode series.
Set in a dystopian sci-fi future where humanity expanded to space after corporate greed rendered Earth nearly inhospitable for life, Spike, Jet, and co. serve as bounty hunters simply trying to make ends meet in an equally oppressing society. Cowboy Bebop is structured in a mostly anthology-style format punctuated by an overarching narrative, but the increasingly deeper dives into these characters’ mindsets prove to be a moodily stylish and intimate exploration of existentialism.