The world of Japanese animation (anime) is a versatile domain. There are a lot of different stories and genres, most of which usually represent Japan’s unique worldview at some level. And while anime – as well as manga – usually have a different system of categorization than Western standards, including some specific genres, there are a lot of genres present in both the world of anime and the West. In this article, we are not really going to dig into a specific genre, but rather a subject of an anime series, as we are going to talk about spiritual anime that are thought-provoking and philosophically intriguing.
In this article, we are going to give you a list of the 20 best spiritual anime series and movies of all time. The list is going to include various titles that combine complex philosophy with spiritual topics, i.e., that try to uncover and explain the mysteries of life through spiritual depth. Enjoy!
1. Spirited Away
Original Release: July 20, 2001
Running Time: 125 minutes
What it’s about: Chihiro and her parents are forced to move to another city. During the move, his father decides to take a shortcut to save time; however, they get lost and arrive at a building with a strange tunnel in the center. Even though Chihiro refuses to enter, his parents insist on following the tunnel. On the other side, they discover an apparently abandoned village; the family chooses to explore the place and ends up finding a restaurant where they decide to stop and eat. Chihiro leaves them to continue investigating. As night falls, a mysterious young man named Haku appears and orders Chihiro to leave the place before it completely gets dark.
Why you should watch it: Spirited Away‘s title gives it away and we simply had to start our list with this classic Ghibli title. Miyazaki has outdone himself in this Academy Award-winning anime film that takes us on a magical adventure in a fantasy world, as well as on a spiritual journey we will never forget.
Original run: October 16, 2000 – September 13, 2004 / October 3, 2009 – March 29, 2010
Number of episodes: 167 + 26
What it’s about: InuYasha is set in Japan, at the time of countries at war, and was known as Sengoku (before 1600). In these times, humans live alongside “Youkai” or “Mononoke” (also called “demons” “monsters” or “spirits”). These have different powers and appearances and are very varied; however, most share the same thing in common: the envy of human flesh.
This is why they regularly attack the villages and why the humans are all afraid that one of them will attack theirs. Inu-Yasha is a hanyō, that is to say, a being half-demon, half-human.
One day, he attacks the village protecting the pearl of Shikon, then steals it and runs away. The Pearl of Shikon (her real name is Shikon No Tama) would possess unimaginable powers, including greatly increasing the powers of the demon who possesses it. Inu-Yasha, meanwhile, wants to use this power to transform into a full-fledged demon.
Why you should watch it: Well, InuYasha is definitely a well-known classic and a title you will definitely enjoy. It is filled with references to Japanese folklore and mythology and is in many ways a very specific interpretation of Japanese spiritualism and the philosophical beliefs that helped shape Japanese society.
Original run: October 5, 2004 – March 27, 2012
Number of episodes: 366
What it’s about: BLEACH follows Ichigo Kurosaki. He is a young man gifted with the ability to see spirits. His life undergoes a drastic change when a Shinigami named Rukia Kuchiki crosses his path in search of a Hollow. During the battle with the spirit, Rukia is seriously injured and is forced to transfer part of her powers to Ichigo, who accepts the Shinigami’s proposal in an attempt to protect her family.
However, during the transfer process, something goes wrong and Ichigo absorbs all of Rukia’s powers, becoming a full-fledged shinigami. Having lost her powers, Rukia gets stuck in the world of the living until she regains her strength. Meanwhile, Ichigo replaces Rukia in her duties as Shinigami, battling the Hollows and leading the souls to the realm of the afterlife, known as the Soul Society.
Why you should watch it: The whole concept of Bleach is based on Japanese folklore and mythology surrounding the moral and philosophical implications of death. It is a very dark and sometimes even grim world that is lighter only because it is a shonen title, but nevertheless, Bleach offers a lot of philosophical insights and debates that you will definitely enjoy.
4. Death Note
Original Run: October 3, 2006 – June 26, 2007
Number of Episodes: 37
What it’s about: The anime follows Light Yagami he is a model student, bored with his lifestyle and tired of being surrounded by a society filled with crime and corruption. His life takes a decisive turn when one day he finds on the ground a mysterious black notebook, entitled “Death Note”, which bears the following instruction: “The human whose name will be written in this notebook will die”. Initially skeptical of his authenticity, Light changes his mind when he successfully tried the notebook out on two criminals and meets the real owner of the Death Note, a shinigami named Ryuk; he then decides to use this new power to kill all criminals, eradicate evil and become the “God of the new world”.
Why you should watch it: Death Note combines a lot of genres and topics, but the question of death remains the most important one. Through a provocative plot and with exceptionally challenging characters, Death Note will question your moral values in the best and most intriguing way possible, so be sure not to miss it.
5. Demon Slayer
Original Release: April 6, 2019 – present
Number of Episodes: 34
What it’s about: In Taishō era Japan, Tanjirō is the eldest son of a family of coal merchants whose father has passed away. To meet his needs, he left to sell charcoal in town. Despite the difficulties of life, they manage to find little happiness in their daily life. One day, due to rumors circulating about a man-eating demon hanging around after dark, he is unable to return home and ends up spending the night with a Good Samaritan in the city. Only, everything changes on his return when he finds his family massacred by a demon. Nezuko, one of his younger sisters, is the only survivor but she has been transformed into a demon.
Why you should watch it: Demon Slayer is a typical shonen anime filled with action and similar shonen tropes, but the issue of good and evil has a very spiritual meaning here, as the characters ponder a lot of complex philosophical and moral issues on the very essence of what it means to be human and what it means to be evil (or good).
6. Neon Genesis Evangelion
Original Release: October 4, 1995 – March 27, 1996
Number of Episodes: 26 (plus numerous films)
What it’s about: Neon Genesis Evangelion is set in 2000, a gigantic explosion occurred in Antarctica. This cataclysm, officially caused by the fall of an asteroid, causes the waters to rise several tens of meters and devastates a large part of the planet, causing the death of two billion people as well as a new world war. Fifteen years later, mankind has overcome this dramatic event referred to as the “Second Impact” but mysterious giant creatures, the Angels, appear and attempt to destroy Tokyo-3, the new capital fortress of Japan.
To combat them, the secret organization NERV has developed the “Evangelion” (or “EVA”), humanoid giants of mechanical appearance. Shinji Ikari, a 14-year-old boy, goes to Tokyo-3 at the invitation of his father, the director of NERV, whom he has not seen for ten years. Little did he know that he was called to pilot an EVA and take part in the fight against the “Third Angel”.
Why you should watch it: Neon Genesis Evangelion might seem like the odd one out on this list, mainly because it is a science fiction mecha title, but Neon Genesis Evangelion is actually a very philosophical anime and a somewhat different brand of spiritualism that you might need some time to get accustomed to, but it is nevertheless a title that perfectly fits our list.
7. Blue Exorcist
Original Run: April 17, 2011 – March 25, 2017
Number of Episodes: 37 (+ 2 OVA)
What it’s about: Two opposing realms make up the world of the Blue Exorcist anime, mirroring each other like two faces of a mirror. Assiah, the first is the world in which people reside. The other is Gehenna, the home of the devils. Traveling or simply having any kind of touch between the two is normally not possible. Demons, on the other hand, have the ability to enter our realm and take possession of everything in it.
Why you should watch it: Blue Exorcist might seem like an odd pick for this list, but the whole anime is actually based on the fight between good and evil, both of which actually stem from the spiritual and the otherworldly. The anime raises a lot of moral and philosophical issues about the nature and meaning of human existence, which is why it is a good pick.
Original Run: April 4, 2007 – September 26, 2007
Number of Episodes: 26
What it’s about: It revolves around Claymores. They are half-human, half-demon warriors called upon by villagers to protect themselves from monsters such as demons. Feared and dreaded, they are distinguished by their silver eyes and the gigantic sword they carry on their backs, hence their names by humans of “silver-eyed witches” or “Claymore” (the name of the type of sword they use). Claire is one of them.
Called to a village to eliminate the demons that attack and devour the population, she kills the penultimate member, who has become a monster, of an already decimated family. The last survivor, Raki, finding himself alone, then decides to follow her in her bloodthirsty adventures, as a cook. He will gradually discover the secrets and the tragic destiny of these singular women.
Why you should watch it: Claymore is a must-see and we are still quite sad that the anime never managed to complete the manga. This title is like a medieval crusade that focuses on the otherworldly in the context of the eternal fight against the righteous good and the demonic evil. On top of that, it is a truly great anime in itself.
9. serial experiments lain
Release: July 6, 1998 – September 28, 1998
Number of Episodes: 13
What it’s about: After the suicide of the young Chisa Yomoda, some girls receive e-mails from the girl. The suspicion is that this is a bad joke, but one of them, Lain Iwakura is particularly intrigued. After asking her father for a new NAVI (Navigator, the evolution of the PC), she starts surfing the Wired (a computer network similar to the Internet) in search of answers.
From here on, a series of inexplicable events disrupt her life. She learns that another Lain, quite similar to her physically but temperamentally opposite, has made her an appearance of her both in the Wired and in the real world and that the Knights (knights – a group of hackers) are particularly interested in her.
Why you should watch it: It might be strange for you to see a cyberpunk title like the serial experiments lain, a cult classic anime and one of the best anime series in history, on this list, but you have to be open-minded about this. Lain is a true philosophical masterpiece, and despite its cyberpunk setting, it is actually a very complex philosophical title about the very nature of our existence, which is why we decided to put it on the list.
Original Run: July 12, 2007 – September 27, 2007
Number of Episodes: 12
What it’s about: Mononoke focuses on the character of the apothecary from the third narrative arc of Ayakashi: a traveling apothecary stingy with words, so his name is not even known. He travels accompanied by his medicine cabinet and a box containing a spiritual sword whose pommel is adorned with a monkey’s head.
Why you should watch it: Aside from the fact that it’s inherent oddness definitely embodies Japanese culture, this series actually focuses on the otherworldly and is, thus, a perfect fit for this list. On top of that, what you will get is some excellent animation that will make you fall in love with its specific and innovative style.
13. Ghost Stories
Original Run: October 22, 2000 – March 25, 2001
Number of Episodes: 20
What it’s about: When Satsuki’s mother dies, she, her father, and her little brother, move to the city where her mother grew up. There Satsuki begins to study at the same school that her mother attended in the past (the new school, because her mother went to the old school). What Satsuki doesn’t know is that her maternal family has a special ability to stop evil ghosts, an ability that she inherited.
Why you should watch it: Well, it is about ghosts, isn’t it? Ghost Stories is definitely an intriguing title and although it combines spiritualist horror with traditional shonen elements, it can still be enjoyed by all, especially if you like a few otherworldly scares. Definitely, a recommendation that you won’t miss.
12. Natsume’s Book of Friends
Original Run: July 7, 2008 – June 21, 2017
Number of Episodes: 74
What it’s about: Natsume is able to see youkai and ayakashi (Japanese supernatural spirits), while those around him do not perceive them. When he was little, he didn’t particularly like them because the apparitions tended to put him in embarrassing, even dangerous, situations and led him to behaviors that normal humans could not understand.
Categorized as “weird,” the orphan is lonely, rejected by other children, and goes from foster family to foster family. After yet another move, many youkai start chasing him without his understanding why. While trying to flee an attack, he one day enters a sacred place and inadvertently releases Madara, a “cat” who had been trapped there.
Why you should watch it: This is a very different take on the topic, but its inherent weirdness, which effectively combines everyday issues with spiritual ones, is why Natsume’s Book of Friends is such an intriguing title and why we’re still talking about it. Trust us, you won’t miss this title, which we are sure of.
13. Hell Girl
Original Run: October 4, 2005 – September 29, 2017
Number of Episodes: 90
What it’s about: When a person feels a grudge, Jigoku Shōjo (Hell Girl) appears and sends the person causing that hatred to Hell. However, the user must seal a contract with her before executing the revenge, and the price to pay is always that the person who accepts the contract must also go to Hell when he dies.
The series is basically a collection of independent stories, each of which tells the story of the suffering of a different person at the hands of one or more subjects, the contract with Enma Ai, and the punishment to which the aggressor is subjected by her. During each story, the dramas are recounted in detail from the beginning of his harassment, and progressively increasing the anguish suffered by the protagonist until he feels unable to bear his torment any longer, to the point of requiring the help of the girl from the hell.
Why you should watch it: Darker than a lot of the titles on this list, Hell Girl tackles the spiritual in a somewhat different way. This anime will definitely scare you, that much we can guarantee, but behind that horror facade is a very intriguing set of philosophical issues that you will definitely want to see answered if you let yourself be immersed in this experience.
Original Run: January 10, 2012 – March 27, 2012
Number of Episodes: 12 (+ OVA)
What it’s about: In Another, in 1972, a popular and charismatic student named Misaki Yomiyama from Class 3-3 of North Yomiyama School suddenly died in the middle of the school year. Devastated by the loss, his classmates and teacher acted as if Misaki was still alive and even reserved a spot for him at the graduation ceremony.
What was even more suspicious was that Misaki appeared in the graduation photograph. In the spring of 1998, ninth-year student Kōichi Sakakibara moves from Tokyo to Yomiyama, the hometown of his late mother, because his father has gone to work on research in India. His transfer was to North Yomiyama School, to class 3-3.
Why you should watch it: Another is a very disturbing story about loss and death. It has a lot of mystery in it and if you like your spiritual journey filled with mysteries at every corner, there’s no doubt that Another will be the perfect fit for you. It’s a bit on the darker side in comparison to other titles, but it’s still amazing.
15. Hotarubi no Mori e
Original Release: September 17, 2011
Running Time: 44 minutes
What it’s about: Hotarubi no Mori e is about six-year-old Hotaru who goes to her uncle’s every summer. She gets lost in the nearby forest. She encounters the ghostly Gin, wearing a fox mask, who helps her out of her predicament. She learns that Gin will disappear if touched by a human. A deep friendship slowly develops between the two and Hotaru visits him every summer.
Time flies until she is in high school. Both go to a festival of forest spirits together and have a great evening. Hotaru explains to Gin that when she gets older, she will look for a job near the forest so she can see him more often. Gin puts his mask on her and kisses her without touching her skin.
Why you should watch it: Hotarubi no Mori e is definitely a magical piece you’ll thoroughly enjoy. It is a short movie or a long(er) episode, however, you want to perceive it, and it is a truly intriguing piece that will lead you on a spiritual journey involving a silver-haired deity and a little girl who finds him by accident.
Original Run: October 23, 2005 – December 21, 2014
Number of Episodes: 46 (+ 2 specials and a movie)
What it’s about: In a world somewhat similar to Japan at the beginning of the 20th century, beings of neither animal nor vegetable nature exist. The living beings that are said to have a great connection to nature are called Mushi. The coexistence of people and mushi often turns out to be problematic.
The mushi are invisible to most people, few people who can see them often travel the world as mushishi trying to help the people who have problems caused by mushi. The white-haired Ginko, who lost an eye through a mushi in his childhood, works as a mushi master (mushishi) and meets different people and mushis on his travels. When he encounters people harmed by mushi, he first carefully investigates the cause and type of the mushi before attempting to drive it away without killing it.
Why you should watch it: Mushishi is a truly enlightening spiritual journey that focuses on man’s relationship with nature, but from a very specific perspective. It has a very interesting storyline, the main character is quite intriguing and there is absolutely no doubt that Mushishi is going to satisfy your desires.
Original Release: July 3, 2009 – June 25, 2010
Number of Episodes: 15
What it’s about: The Monogatari series centers on the story of Koyomi Araragi, a senior high school student who was attacked by a vampire (and then turned back almost fully human) shortly before the story begins. He meets other characters suffering from various paranormal illnesses and comes to their aid. Bakemonogatari is the first series in the franchise.
Why you should watch it: Bakemonogatari is probably the best-known installment of the Monogatari series and probably the best one, objectively. The plot is intriguing, the characters are great, and there is a distinct spiritual element to it that you’ll certainly enjoy. It’s definitely a title we recommend for you.
Original Release: April 6, 2006 – June 26, 2008
Number of Episodes: 37 + 4 OVA
What it’s about: High schooler Kimihiro Watanuki has always had the ability to see ghosts. Constantly trampled, jostled, and harassed by the ectoplasms he seems to attract, he wants more than anything to get rid of this annoying gift. It is by entering this singular shop one day that he meets Yūko Ichihara, a witch who turns out to be able to free him from this gift he hates so much.
Why you should watch it: We have to say that this anime is basically an embodiment of our list, as it focuses on a boy that is able to see ghosts. But, ×××HOLiC is not just your regular ghost/horror anime, but rather a story that will challenge your mind and provoke it by leading you on a unique spiritual journey.
19. Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day
Original Run: April 14, 2011 – June 23, 2011
Number of Episodes: 11
What it’s about: Six childhood friends broke up after Meiko “Menma” Honma was killed in an accident. Jinta Yadomi, the group’s leader, withdraws from society and lives alone ten years after this disaster.
One summer day, however, Menma appears to Jinta, looking older, asking him for help in fulfilling her wish. She believes she needs to accomplish it to fulfill her destiny. But Menma doesn’t remember what her wish was, causing Jinta to reunite with her childhood friends again, as she believes they are the key to solving this problem.
However, the hidden feelings, internal conflicts, and persistent feelings of sadness by Menma’s parents result in complications for the group as they struggle not only to help Menma but themselves.
Why you should watch it: The story of Ahohana is a majestic one, very mysterious and quite intriguing. A lot of secrets are revealed during the plot of Anohana and you’ll definitely enjoy it. There is a spiritual enigma present in this story that will make you watch the 11 episodes in one go and you’ll definitely remember it.
20. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Original Run: April 5, 2009 – July 4, 2010
Number of Episodes: 64 (+ 4 OVA)
What it’s about: The plot of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood happens in the country of Amestris, a country where alchemy is elevated to the rank of universal science, two brothers, (Fullmetal Alchemist) Edward and Alphonse Elric, travel the country in search of the legendary philosopher’s stone. Their father left them and their mother, Trisha Elric, died a few years later of an illness, leaving her two young children behind.
Sometime later, the two brothers try to bring her back thanks to alchemy, defying the law which formally prohibits human transmutation. They will pay a heavy price. Edward, the eldest, will lose his left leg, his little brother his whole body. Ed will sacrifice his right arm by sealing the soul of his little brother Alphonse in armor.
Edward decides to enlist in the army at the age of 12 as a State Alchemist, passes the exam with flying colors, and obtains his alchemist name: Fullmetal. Helped by Edward’s state alchemist status, the two brothers will seek, at the risk of their lives, the stone that will give them back what they have lost, but the secret of the philosopher’s stone is well kept.
Why you should watch it: Fullmetal Alchemist might not be the most spiritual title on this list, but the combination of alchemy (a science) and the spiritual ideas behind it make it a good show for those who like shonen that digs a bit deeper under the surface and poses some interesting moral issues and questions.