Everyone loves a good plot twist. Even a lousy plot twist can still stick in the memory. More than the vast majority of American cartoons, a lot of anime relies upon complex, serialized narratives. In a medium focused on storytelling, a huge surprise turn, whether executed brilliantly or horribly, can make an enormous impact. Sometimes it can propel a new series or movie to untold heights of success. Even works initially less popular, however, can still make a huge impact if their fresh spins end up appealing to the right people in the industry. Initial bombs can, over time, become cult classics with extremely wide-ranging impact on all of anime.
This isn't necessarily a list of the greatest plot twists in all of anime. A lot of super long-running series especially will feature tons of twists beloved by preexisting fans, but typically won't be particularly influential in general. Some of the included twists also weren't especially good, even if they did make a wider impact. This also isn't a list of the most influential anime of all time. While many influential series and movies do qualify for this list, many others made similar or greater impacts based mainly around style or originality rather than any major surprises in the progression of their storylines. Ultimately the 20 anime included on this list strike a balance between the greatness of the twists and the significance of their impacts. The list is in chronological order so as to provide a better sense of how the medium has progressed over the years.
As you might expect from a twist-based list, SPOILERS ahead for all examples!
While there had been some late night TV anime and manga for all audiences before it, 1967's Horus, Prince of the Sun was the first Japanese animated feature film not targeted primarily at kids. Watching it today, when family films routinely deal with heavier subject matter, it doesn't seem so radical, but it was groundbreaking, launching the legendary careers of Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki.
The movie's big "twist" is the introduction of moral ambiguity into anime movies. There was still a straightforward hero (Horus) and a villain (Grunwald), but the character of Hilda is somewhere in between. The sister of Grunwald betrays Horus while working for her evil brother, yet feels intense remorse and ultimately comes to the hero's aid.
The main innovation of the original 1979 Mobile Suit Gundam was that it was the first mecha anime to focus on human conflicts. Battling aliens with cartoonish super-robots is all good fun, but fighting against your fellow man isn't so fun (even if the robots are still super-cool).
While one side of the One Year War is decidedly more sympathetic (The Earth Alliance) than the other (The Principality of Zeon), no one comes out morally pure. Further complicating things are the reveals about Char Aznable's true motives; while he's an antagonist, it turns out he's one with some admirable ideals. He's fighting against the corruption on his own side even as he continues to battle the Earth forces.
In the 1970s, various shojo manga authors started to deal with queer romance, setting the grounds for the yaoi and yuri genres. The most successful of the proto-yuri authors was Ryoko Ikeda, whose most popular series, The Rose of Versailles, was the first to be adapted into an anime.
This historical drama, about a woman raised as a man commanding the Royal Guard for Marie Antoinette, wasn't the first anime to play around with gender roles (Osamu Tezuka's Princess Knight was a clear influence). It was among the first notable examples, however, to openly address bisexuality in its complex evolving love triangles.
Super Dimension Fortress Macross, aka "the good part of Robotech," is a classic of the mecha genre, but its secret, less discussed legacy might be in laying the groundwork for a completely different genre: the pop idol anime. Notably, the Zentradi forces aren't defeated through force alone, but through song. Idol Lynn Minmay's music ultimately spreads peaceful attitudes among the Zentradi.
The original Macross solidified the connection between idols and anime, and idol music has played a major role in subsequent Macross series. Just one year after the Macross phenomenon hit, the first anime made to promote a real-life idol singer, Creamy Mami, was released, and the genre has only grown since.
Dragon Ball Z fans all have their favorite twists throughout the show's hundreds of episodes, but the biggest twists many American fans might not even think of as twists. To be specific, the whole set-up of the Saiyaan Arc was originally meant as a surprise finale for the the original Dragon Ball manga.
If you grew up watching Z first, things like Goku having a son, an evil brother and being an alien probably just strikes you as the basic set-up, but for Dragon Ball fans in 1989, this was a major sea change. This very shake-up meant to finish the series just increased its popularity, and the Dragon Ball franchise has only kept going forever since.
Now we come to 1995's Neon Genesis Evangelion, the single most controversial anime of all time. No other show has been as praised, criticized, analyzed, overanalyzed, argued about and obsessed over in the medium's history. Even 23 years later and three years past the show's predicted 2015 apocalypse, it still provokes passion.
The first half was typical enough for a mysterious mecha anime, but the twists in the second half made it clear director Hideaki Anno was less interested in answering people's questions and more concerned with probing into the depths of psychological horror. The abstract final episodes, made after Studio Gainax ran out of money, were incredibly divisive, as was the more polished but more upsetting End of Evangelion movie.
Revolutionary Girl Utena took the sensibility of The Rose of Versailles and updated it to the post-Evangelion era. This memorably surreal shojo anime became a fan favorite for the way it twisted fairy tale tropes to make powerful statements. Everything from the video game Dangan Ronpa to the American cartoon Steven Universe has been influenced by it.
The biggest twists come in the final two arcs. Akio turns out to be the prince whom Utena so admired as a child, and he's become a complete monster. The seemingly unemotional Anthy turns out to be a victim of centuries of abuse at the hands of both her brother and those who've scapegoated her as a "witch." Ultimately, Utena inspires Anthy to break free.
In 1998, Satoshi Kon quickly established himself as one of the best filmmakers in animation with his directing debut, Perfect Blue. Maybe the flat-out scariest animated movie ever made, the film follows Mima, an idol singer aspiring to be a serious actress, dealing with the indignities of sleazy producers and creepy fans while slowly losing her grip on reality.
It's a movie which keeps raising questions, and even the big reveal (no, she didn't have a split personality, merely an obsessive copycat messing with her) doesn't fully clarify everything. Perfect Blue made an international impact, particularly influencing the works of Darren Aronofsky. It's coming back to theaters in September.
Like Dragon Ball Z, the big twist that occured in the Yu-Gi-Oh! manga might not be common knowledge among those who only grew up watching the anime series from 2000 on TV. Today Yu-Gi-Oh! is synonymous with card game anime, but that wasn't the case with the first seven volumes of the original manga and the short-lived 1998 anime.
Originally, Yugi was the general "King of Games" and the Duel Monsters card game was just one of many games the characters played. The early manga and first TV series were darker than what the series would ultimately become. The manga refocusing on Duel Monsters and the second anime following suite ended up defining a major trend.
Some anime end up ahead of the curve in terms of trends. .HACK//sign wasn't the first "trapped in a video game" story ever written (TRON says hi!), but this 2002 anime, the first part of a multimedia project, was for a long time the defining anime example of the trope.
Now with Sword Art Online, Log Horizon, No Game No Life and others turning this trope into a popular genre, .HACK//sign was definitely on to something. Unlike a lot of the more action- and fanservice-based shows of this type, though, .HACK//sign was more of a dialogue-driven character study, slowly revealing the mystery of just who the mysterious Tsukasa was over time.
Fullmetal Alchemist, both its original anime adaptation in 2003 and its more manga-faithful Brotherhood remake in 2009, is a story that owes much of its success to its constant plot twists. The twists end up differing between the two series, but in both cases, the Elric brothers' journey takes many unexpected and emotionally intense turns.
Of course, the one twist in both series everyone freaks out over is the fate of Nina Tucker. It's especially cruel in the 2003 anime, where you spend multiple episodes just hanging out with Nina, her dad and her dog. When daddy gets the bright idea to fuse doggy and daughter into one unholy abomination, everyone is horrified and heartbroken... though years later, this horror's made for bountiful meme material.
Death Note is pretty much Crazy Plot Twists: The Series. The whole appeal is the cat-and-mouse game being played between criminal mastermind Light Yagami and eccentric detective L. These two geniuses keep outsmarting each other in the wildest of ways. Naturally, the most shocking twist possible would be for one to actually defeat the other well before the series ends.
That's exactly what happens. A little over halfway through the manga and two thirds of the way through the 2006 anime, Light removes L from the playing field with his notebook. It's a truly shocking twist, and while other detectives take L's place, many feel the series is never quite the same after that moment.
Gurren Lagann set out to revitalize the mecha genre in 2007. The first seven episodes set the show up as a comedic tribute to classic super robot shows, but with the surprise fall of the hero Kamina in episode eight, it took a darker turn. The series takes another turn in episode 17 with the introduction of a more dangerous threat which can only be defeated through increasingly over-the-top powers.
Gurren ultimately didn't inspire many new mecha series, but it did establish the style of director Hiroyuki Imaishi, which would evolve into a general "house style" for his new animation studio Trigger. Trigger's shows have relied on similarly absurd escalations as Gurren, sometimes successfully (see Kill la Kill), other times less so (see Darling in the Franxx).
If you haven't seen the 2007 anime School Days, an image of a boat on the horizon may seem perfectly innocuous. If you have seen it, it might conjure up PTSD flashbacks. School Days seemed like it was just another generic romance anime until the final episode went completely off the rails with an out of nowhere bloodbath.
This twist ending was somewhat spoiled in advance, as similarities to an actual crime the same day it was scheduled to air forced the networks to delay the episode's broadcast. In place of the final episode, the networks aired 30 minutes of a boat sailing around Norway. The "nice boat" meme continues to pop up to this day.
This might be the most legendary act of trolling an anime studio has ever pulled. The second season of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was incredibly hyped in 2009. Supposedly half of the season was originally going to adapt the Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya novel, but the producers decided to save that story for a movie.
To fill that huge gap in the season, Kyoto Animation decided to reanimate the same episode eight times in a row! The "Endless Eight" story is about a time loop, so this was kind of a genius way to represent that. It was also flat-out torture to watch. The stunt killed a lot of Haruhi's momentum, though it's been paid tribute to by the likes of Pop Team Epic.
To say the 2011 anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica did for magical girls what Evangelion did for mecha isn't fully accurate; Madoka was not so much a genre deconstruction as merely a darker spin on its genre. That spin, however, was similarly successful both creatively and commercially, inspiring a new wave of (decidedly less brilliant) dark magical girl shows.
Pretty much every episode after the first two featured some sort of new mind-blowing twist. The best might be episode 10's reveal of Homura's whole motivation. It was the third episode, however, which for better or worse has defined the show's legacy. When Charlotte turned Mami's head into a tasty snack, everyone knew this wasn't Sailor Moon.
Lupin the Third's been one of the most beloved anti-heroes in anime since the '70s, but the Lupin franchise was growing stale for a while until The Woman Named Fujiko Mine hit in 2012. Directed by Sayo Yamamoto, who'd go on to make history with Yuri!!! on Ice, this spin-off/prequel series focused on the femme fatale character of Fujiko.
Throughout the series, it seemed like the show was explaining her ways through an overwrought backstory. In the end, it turns out the backstory was all implanted memories, and that Fujiko just is the way she is without needing some big tragedy in her past. This mature take reinvigorated the franchise. There have been two more traditional but still successful Lupin the Third series since.
Attack on Titan is another series which owes much of its popularity to regular dramatic twists. While the show was compelling from the start, the way episode five ended with the main character Eren being eaten was a major point in showing just how brutal this show could get. Of course Eren lived, but the way he survived, transforming into a Titan, was another big twist (more and more humans would later turn out to be Titan Shifters).
AoT was an instant mega-hit when the anime launched in 2013. Today, further developments in the manga have been more controversial. Some of the lore reveals have been problematic to say the least, not as ill-intentioned as some claim, but still baffling in execution.
Each new part of Jojo's Bizarre Adventure is wildly different from the last, but Stardust Crusaders redefined the series in the biggest way. In the first two parts, characters fought primarily using Hamon, magic harnessed from solar energy. Then in Stardust Crusaders, Hamon's scarcely even referenced. The new fighting system involves Stands, invisible creatures connected to the souls of the people (and apes, and dogs, and birds...) that control them.
This shift was influential in manga form decades before the 2014 anime brought Jojo's into mainstream Western consciousness (a couple incomplete OVA adaptations exist before then). The final time-warping battle between Jotaro and Dio in particular gets referenced constantly in numerous anime, and Stands have influenced Persona and maybe even Pokemon.
Your Name starts out as a light body swapping comedy. Taki, a boy from Tokyo, and Mitsuha, a country girl, find themselves waking up in each other's bodies. Communicating through writing, they experience each other's lives. Then comes the big blow: it turns out Mitsuha's whole town was destroyed three years in Taki's past. The two have to work across the boundaries of time to save the day, and everyone ends up an emotional wreck.
Enough people loved this sort of masterful emotional manipulation for the 2016 movie to become the highest grossing anime movie of all time worldwide. Makoto Shinkai was already a talented director, but with this film, he found the perfect twist on his usual themes to really connect with the Japanese mainstream.