Tales of King Arthur and Arabian Nights might be staples when it comes to stories of magic and wonder, but today, some of the most fantastic stories can be found just as easily lurking in a Tokyo alleyway, wizards exchanging their staffs for cellphones and monsters roaming the streets as gang bosses or hired assassins. These urban fantasies have ballooned in popularity over the past few decades all over the world, from literature to movies to our very favorite anime, such as Jujutsu Kaisen and the much anticipated Chainsaw Man.
These works are defined by taking traditional fantasy elements and staging them in contemporary urban settings, with great variability in the amount of the fantastic. Sometimes there are whole worlds of magic that ordinary citizens remain unaware of, and sometimes it’s a child-eating clown in a sewer. To find the magic bursting from the mundane, look no further than these five anime.
Bungou Stray Dogs
Among one of the most well-known anime on this list, Bungou Stray Dogs is a perfect example of modern urban fantasy, combining superpowers, international crime coalitions and famous authors all in one go. Nakajima Atsushi has just been kicked out of the orphanage he’s only ever had for a home and is desperate for a place to hide from a monster tiger he believes is stalking him. Exhausted and starving, everything changes for Atsushi when he meets Dazai Osamu, a mysteriously bandaged man who represents the Armed Detective Agency in Yokohama and offers Atsushi a place to stay.
at its core, Bungou Stray Dogs is an anime about superpowers, with most members of the Armed Detective Agency and their enemies possessing some sort of special talent. The characters are named after famous authors and poets from all over the world and their abilities are reflections of particular works from that artist.
However, Bungou Stray Dogs never into superhero territory, balancing the special abilities of the cast with plenty of political intrigue and backstory that holds interest while still maintaining a basic lightheartedness in the characters to alleviate the serious plot. With three seasons out and a fourth on the way, Bungou Stray Dogs is an excellent introduction to anime urban fantasy.
College student Kaneki Ken wants nothing more than a simple life, and to go on a carefree, normal date with a nice girl that he likes. However, said ‘nice girl’ has a catch –Kamishiro Rize reveals that she’s a flesh eating ghoul and attempts to make Ken her next meal. Whether the accident that occurs next is a blessing or a curse is up for interpretation — Rize and Ken are both trapped and injured by falling construction materials and Rize’s ghoul organs are transplanted into Ken, effectively turning him into a half ghoul.
Being both a part and apart from both human and ghoul worlds makes Ken an instant target as he discovers the secrets of ghouls that have been hidden beneath his nose for his entire life. The balance between races is growing shakier by the day, with ghoul factions clashing and the Japanese government itching to step in. Eerie and complex and perfect for fans of Jujutsu Kaisen, Tokyo Ghouli is a visual — and visceral — treat to behold.
Competing gangs and mastermind information brokers, bodyguards with superhuman strength and a headless motorcyclist — there’s nothing that can’t happen in the Ikebukuro district of Tokyo. None of the rumors of the ‘Black Rider’ can keep Ryuugamine Mikado away, though, when he’s invited by his childhood friend to join him there for high school.
When Mikado arrives in Ikebukuro, however, things begin to get even stranger, and those who don’t always have the good of the masses at heart as much as their own entertainment are beginning to move in the shadows. Momentum threatens to carry the district into all-out war if something isn’t done to stop it, but unfortunately there are many who want nothing more.
Durarara!! is quirky and unique, with an eccentric cast of characters that drive the core narrative of the series. Each of the outlandish characters make this low-fantasy version of Ikebukuro come to life, dragging the audience deep into the mysteries lurking in each back alley.
Just when time travel seemed to be getting old, Link Click comes along to prove that sentiment wrong. This donghua, or Chinese animation, features a trio of young entrepreneurs who have taken an astounding ability and found a way to make a profit, as well as generally stir up trouble, even if that last part is unintentional. Lu Guang is far more conscientious about the possible ramifications of time travel via the old photographs their clients bring them.
His partner, Cheng Xiaoshi, however, is the one to actually jumps back in time to the point the photograph was taken and possess the body of the subject for a short time. Though he’s meant to only be an observer, his more opinionated stance on their responsibility to the client is a continuous threat not only to the business, but to time itself and their lives.
Link Click maintans a special balance between high-stakes episodes and more slice-of-life adventures that focus on the importance of things that may seem small, but end up meaning everything to the client, all the while setting up a villain to take on the trio of the Time Photo Studio. Whether it’s tracking down a lost recipe between estranged friends, or jumping back to try to determine the location of an abducted child, Link Click makes each case important, whether through it is lessons the trio learn or because it truly is high stakes.
Darker Than Black
Darker Than Black, a series from Studio BONES, plays with altering the cityscape in which it is set, featuring a world in which a ‘Heaven’s Gate’ opened in South America and a ‘Hell’s Gate’ opened in Tokyo not long after, changing the sky and land , and allowing Contractors to appear. These individuals possess special powers, kept secret from the public as they are used by countries around the world to murder in cold blood.
After a destructive war wrought by these Contractors, the United States is taken over by a group called the Syndicate. Darker Than Black follows a Contractor post-war named Hei as he works for the Syndicate, performing jobs in Tokyo while under the alias of Chinese college student Li Shenshun.
Hei’s interactions with his own team and clashes with the Japanese Public Security Bureau keep him busy while he searches for his lost sister, Bai. Between his sister, the Public Safety Bureau and other groups who seek to control or destroy Heaven’s and Hell’s Gates, it’s a wonder Hei has any time for his weekly assignments from the Syndicate. Rest assured, with so many moving parts and a world altered so much by the appearance of the gates and resulting war, Darker Than Black is worth digging up out of the archives.
While a great way to start out, these five shows are by no means an exhaustive list of urban fantasy anime. as mentioned, Chainsaw Man is currently in production and set to begin airing in October 2022 with high expectations, and the anime community is eagerly awaiting the second season of Jujutsu Kaisen. Other urban fantasy anime include hamatora and Blood Blockade Battlefrontboth of which feature characters with special powers, as well as Noragami and Fate/Zero.
Urban fantasy is perfect for those who crave something a little out of the ordinary but don’t feel like breaking out Tolkien, perhaps a little urban fantasy can fill that niche instead.