In part boosted by several great decades of popular Japanese anime, East Asian entertainment may now be reaching a larger global prominence than ever before, from 2019 Korean film Parasite winning the Academy Award for Best Picture to Chinese anime-inspired mobile game Genshin Impact becoming The Next Big Thing™️.
And, if you’ve been paying recent attention, Netflix’s recent launch of the high-stakes death game Korean drama Squid Game. The series sparked unexpected popularity and was the first K-drama to rank in Netflix’s top 10 most-watched TV shows around the world—including in the United States and the United Kingdom.
If you’re an anime fan, the idea of a TV show about a high-stakes death game probably doesn’t sound that outrageous—isekai fantasy may be the new hotness, but high-stakes game anime is a shockingly prevalent, hyper-specific anime subgenre.
Even shows that may not seem to scream “violent death game” totally are. Sword Art Online? If you die in the game, you die in real life. Fate/stay night? It’s a battle royale for the last Servant standing, and people die when they are killed.
If you’ve recently enjoyed the thrills of Squid Game—or you have a friend who can’t stop talking about it but may not have really watched much anime—here are our picks of anime to watch next!
The range of death game or high-stakes game anime is so wide that just listing shows out is probably beyond the scope of a single article, so we’ve broken these down by themes present in Squid Game, so you can especially look for anime that match specific aspects of the series that spoke to you most. Green light!
Exploring the multifaceted nature of humanity: Death Parade
Just as some of the most interesting horror anime are ones where human nature is the monster, the real appeal of death or high-stakes game anime isn’t just watching blood and guts and despair, but in seeing how human beings reveal their true natures in impossibly difficult situations.
The theory is that the mask we all wear in everyday life drops when we’re put through hell, and it’s only when faced with the prospect of death that we become who we really were all along. MADHOUSE’s Death Parade is all about this.
In each arc, different “players” find themselves in Quindecim, a classy bar whose bartender Decim invites them to play a game: darts, bowling, even video games and Twister. The players are often led to believe that the person who loses the game will die, but in truth both players are being judged, and their actions—whether they act compassionately and selfishlessly or cruelly and selfishly—determine whether their souls will be re-entered into the cycle of reincarnation.
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Although watching the game itself is fun, the big draw of this series is seeing how different people from very different circumstances take different approaches to the games. The series is pretty varied in its depiction of human nature, rather than making sweeping generalizations about human nature being inherently good or bad.
Watch Death Parade on Funimation!
Commentary on capitalism’s grip on the underprivileged: Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor
If you’re reading this article because you wanted to check if we included a certain show in this list, there’s a high chance the show you were thinking of is Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor, an anime based on a manga by Nobuyuki Fukumoto, who is known for his high-stakes game anime and depictions of characters at the depth of despair.
The basic setup is almost exactly the same as Squid Game, but without so much gore; titular character Kaiji finds himself in an immense amount of debt after agreeing to be guarantor on his friend’s loan, and the only way to avoid being sold into modern-day slavery is for him to join a special game where contestants have the chance to win back all that they owe, but at the risk of falling even deeper into soul-crushing debt.
Like Squid Game, some of the games seem silly. The first and most famous is a game of restricted Rock-Paper-Scissors, where contestants play against each other with a limited number of rock, paper and scissors cards, betting star chips on the outcome. However, the games end up being pretty strategic, and some are extremely dangerous. One game, where contestants have to cross thin steel beams suspended far into the air above ground while opponents sabotage them, seems similar to another precarious game in Squid Game where contestants cross a bridge made of various strengths of glass panels.
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Although the games have some similarity, the big overarching theme in Kaiji is commentary on capitalism and classism, and how having nothing forces people into desperate situations. Entering the games is completely optional, but these contestants feel that they have no other choice. Certainly there’s some parallel between the audience and the other characters in each title that observe the player characters who are hitting rock bottom for our own entertainment, but if you’re looking for an interesting exploration on this topic, definitely check Kaiji out.
Other titles: Liar Game, a live-action TV drama based on a manga of the same name, which also follows characters joining a game to try to get out of debt. Squid Game director Hwang Dong-hyuk actually cited Liar Game and Kaiji as influences for this series.
Violence with a bloody splash of fun: As the Gods Will
OK, this one might seem like a cheat on this list because it’s technically a live-action film, but As the Gods Will, directed by Takashi Miike of Ichi the Killer and 13 Assassins (and more recently, the live-action JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure!) fame, is based on a popular manga, so we’re going to let it count.
As the Gods Will even starts out with almost the exact same game as Squid Game: a bloody take on the local Japanese or Korean version of Red Light, Green Light, where contestants are prompted to run and stop—and where not stopping in time has deadly consequences.
Even aside from this first game, most of the games in each are childish kids’ games, emphasizing the “play” aspect of death games. There is a sort of morbid gleefulness in watching these play out, in the same way that innocuous children’s dolls or clowns just get warped into something really creepy in certain horror films.
Depending on who you are, the juxtaposition of silliness and gore can either lighten the tone and make you laugh or disturb you more with the high contrast, but in either case, this approach certainly has impact.
Watch As the Gods Will on Funimation!
Other titles: If you’re the type of person who thinks that juxtaposition is interesting, Danganronpa: The Animation is another strong bet—the cutesy aesthetic of cuddly teddy bear game master Monokuma, the sprays of stylish pink blood and the humorously cruel ways that characters are punished really send the message that life is too short—sometimes way too short—to take death so seriously.
The WTF Factor: GANTZ
Look, we can talk about things like “death games as a commentary on capitalism or human nature” or whatnot, but at the end of the game, these anime are fun to watch because of the crazy plot twists that leave you hanging (or bingeing).
Who’s going to betray who next?! What character that we’ve become attached to is suddenly going to die?! This really is the meat and potatoes of this genre.
GANTZ, whose author Hiroya Oku later created Inuyashiki, is maybe only barely a death game anime; the characters, all humans who have died but find themselves strangely resurrected, are certainly put in deadly situations, and they’re given missions where they can score points like a video game by defeating aliens, but most missions don’t have much emphasis on “gameplay.” However, there are plot twists and betrayals galore.
Players that are supposed to help take the aliens down backstab their allies for chances at reincarnation while others sacrifice themselves for those they love. The mystery of the world of GANTZ itself gets crazier and crazier with some real mind-bending reveals (especially in the manga). All we can say without spoiling is that the series you think you’re enjoying at the beginning of the series is a very different beast by the end.
It’s also very bloody if you like that kind of thing, but if you love the feeling of screaming WTF at your screen or page, this is a great way to get that adrenaline pumping after it’s died down from the finale of Squid Game.
Watch GANTZ on Funimation!
Solving the mystery: The Future Diary
Death games are all fun and games, or something, but at the end of the day, the setups are usually so absurd that you just have to wonder how we got here. In Squid Game, the finale reveals something rather unexpected about the true nature of the game (no spoilers; we’re not monsters) and a death game anime that can bring closure to the initial insanity is definitely very satisfying.
In The Future Diary, a dozen contestants find that the diaries they kept now tell them information about the future, and they’re thrust into a deadly competition against each other where the last person standing will become the next God. Feeble, frightened protagonist Yukki feels completely out of his element, but he is approached and aided by his classmate, a cute girl named Yuno who turns out to be a total stalker yandere and who’s been keeping a diary all about him.
Together they team up to defeat enemies, but it turns out that the setup of the game and the events that led up to it are far beyond Yukki’s imagination. Again, no spoilers, but this is definitely a series where finding out the why is just as important as finding out how Yukki and Yuno defeat their enemies.
Watch The Future Diary on Funimation!
Still don’t have enough death game anime to keep you occupied?
As we mentioned, there are so many out there—and even more in manga—that you probably won’t run out any time soon.
Let us know what other death game anime or manga you love, and in the meantime, check out some of the other options here on Funimation to get your post-Squid Game fix.
Fate/stay night [Unlimited Blade Works]