Gone are the days when shonen anime were all about protagonists who overate and kept yelling about the power of friendship in nearly every episode. It turns out a lot of kids also like to brood in advanced edge these days, so while shonen typically means ‘young male audience,’ some dark shonen anime managed to get past the filters.
Well, the manga filters, anyway. An anime will usually only be labeled shonen if it was licensed in a shonen manga magazine. Either way, you’ll find that certain dark shonen anime have unapologetically pushed boundaries. You might even think they belonged in the seinen demographics instead (adult male audience), but the following dark shonen anime give seinen a run for its money.
The latest craze from Mappa Studios this year, Chainsaw Man took the anime industry by storm with its oddball protagonists and penchant for ultraviolence. Surprisingly, nudity and suggestive themes are also quite bold here. Then you realize it was a shonen anime all along, making it an even more insane series.
Chainsaw Man doesn’t shy away from blood, graphic dismemberments, and some rather disturbing stuff in hindsight like non-consensual kissing and adults pursuing sexual relationships with minors.
It’s only about to get more absurd come the second season, especially if you’re familiar with the manga.
Before Chainsaw Man pushed the boundaries even further for shonen, Death Note already experimented with the notion back in 2006. If you’ve been living under a rock (like most of us do) and missed Death Note’s legacy and contribution to the anime industry, its story and premise were its most controversial aspect.
A bored student with a superiority and god complex happens upon a Death Note one day. It’s a notebook belonging to death gods, which allowed them to kill any human just by writing their name on it. So being the egomaniac that he is, Light Yagami set out to create a world where criminals don’t exist because he kept killing them all.
The creators of Death Note seem intent on challenging risky premises. They made another attempt named Platinum End which is similar to Death Note and popular enough for an anime adaptation.
This time around, Platinum End is about suicidal individuals who were invited by angels for a chance at godhood. Except, they have to kill the other candidates in order to win. Needless to say, it was a wild idea for a battle royale anime.
Platinum End, like its spiritual predecessor, Death Note, was no stranger to controversy. It even allegedly inspired a fan of the series to ‘off’ himself after watching the show.
The Promised Neverland
If you can ignore how the showrunners butchered the second season, then you’ll come to realize that The Promised Neverland is a disturbing show made for a young audience. It paints a world controlled by demons who keep humans on a farm to be raised like livestock the same way humans also treat livestock animals.
Except, the demons prefer children’s meat as it gives better health benefits. Just like humans sometimes eat suckling pigs instead of roasted hogs.
In fact, The Promised Neverland was even once hailed as the darkest shonen manga back when it didn’t have an adaptation yet. Speaking of which, if you want solid fan advice, just skip season 2 and finish the manga instead.
Unlike a lot of other battle shonen anime like Bleach or Naruto, Tokyo Ghoul makes its protagonist more tortured. It literally turned him into a monster that craves human flesh—a ghoul.
Except, Kaneki, the protagonist in question, plays off the good old reluctant vampire conundrum where he refuses to feed on humans while every other ghoul around him treats the whole world as a $10-buffet.
Deadman Wonderland is mostly a prison battle royale show where a boy named Ganta Igarashi is wrongfully accused of mass murdering his entire classroom and thrown in with the criminally insane. Except he was also given superpowers where he could weaponize his blood.
The premise alone is enough to raise some eyebrows. The titular prison is not for the faint of heart and due to the nature of the lore, the series often resorts to plenty of bloody encounters which would have been enough to get the show banned based on certain media censorship parameters.
Future Diary is one of the results of Death Note’s popularity. It even featured a story that’s similar enough except the protagonist is not as competent as Death Note’s Light Yagami. Instead, the series puts emphasis on Gasai Yuno, an obsessed and possessive girl who wanted the boy MC all for herself.
She’s the poster girl for the yandere characterization and she even popularized that character stereotype. What’s disturbing about the anime is how it openly deals with Yuno’s origins and how she became a psychotic manic pixie dream girl. Of course, a show that deals with overtly toxic relationships is also a little too bold for shonen.
Attack on Titan
At its core, Attack on Titan is really just a more gruesome and fleshy mecha anime. And like most mecha anime, Attack on Titan is a war epic that shoves children at the frontlines– though they don’t exactly have a choice in this matter.
The whole anime is no stranger to portraying war shock, and wanton destruction associated with war– except it offers a more intimate view since giants are practically squishing humans like bugs in this anime. By the end of the series, the show had fully matured to the point of sparking a debate about genocide and mass murder.
Most Mobile Suit Gundam Series
Speaking of mecha anime, a lot of Mobile Suit Gundam series seem to be marketed toward younger audiences in order to sell those Gunpla figures but some of the latest titles in the franchise are essentially PTSD dramas in disguise.
That’s what happens when you put teenagers in charge of billion-dollar war machines and tell them to go kill other teenagers. Needless to say, a typical Mobile Suit Gundam title doesn’t even look like it was meant for children– most of them are too serious and too dark.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Neon Genesis Evangelion is a classic bait-and-switch. You thought you were merely getting a mecha epic with children performing stressful adult stuff. Instead, you get a one-way ticket to a psychological evaluation by the end of the anime. Because this whole thing is a Freudian fever dream with no shortage of desanctified Christian iconography.
It’s unlike any other anime. And while some have come to mimic this beautiful nightmare (like Darling in the Franxx) they don’t even come close to rendering their viewers psychologically scarred, perplexed, and somehow aroused all at the same time while watching the second half of the show.
Who approved this as a shonen anyway? I blame them for my tarnished childhood; though no regrets watching it.