Can We Stop Overusing the Word “Dark” to Describe Anime Series?

The anime blogger and critic community have always had a soft spot for buzzwords. However, this post will be focusing on a very specific word that I consider to be overused to the point of basically being meaningless. I’m talking about the word, “dark.”

Now if you’re describing a series as “dark” but following up with what makes you consider said series to fit such a specification, then I would say you’re basically in the clear. Taking the time to explain your statements is key in any sort of analytical writing, after all. Be that as it may, I have a suggestion for you nonetheless. More on that later.

But if you’re saying a series is “dark” and then moving on as if that statement holds any sort of weight and is some sort of satisfying conclusion, then I’m going to have to stop you right there.

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This series, by the way, is nowhere close to being “dark.” I just thought the scene was funny.

We’ve seen it happen for Puella Magi Madoka Magica back in 2011, it reared its head for Made in Abyss in the previous during the previous season, and now it’s back again for this season’s Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou. Just observing that the shows are “dark,” or that the characters in each series are in a “dark” setting – none of that is good enough.

Anyone with a working pair of eyes can see that. So go beyond just stating the obvious.

Talk about the visual dissonance viewers experience when the characters who explore mature themes and who are placed in grim, ruthless situations are mere children. Describe how you feel about these kids learning what it means to deal with psychological problems and coming to terms with what it means to love someone. Discuss your feelings about the aforementioned shows portray how kids realize that humans are insatiably curious despite being fragile and prone to self-destruction, how children accept that humans will wage war despite the horrible consequences associated with such an action and will point guns at each other over food.

Evaluate how characters are constructed, how ideas are conveyed, whether a series is successful at provoking an emotional response, etc.

Because if you don’t and if you reach for the low-hanging fruit, then you’re left with vague statements like “the child characters are placed in a dark setting. Check out this series if you like dark stuff.” Such a reductionist approach is what allow people to inaccurately claim that Yuuki Yuuna wa Yuusha de Aru is a knock-off of Puella Magi Madoka Magica when both series explore different themes and only have superficial similarities. Yet the aforementioned common point, that both series are considered “dark,” is there, hazy, undefined, and surprisingly unquestioned.

There lies the problem. What does “dark” even mean? Many people seem to just nod upon seeing the word as if it means anything and accept the term like it belongs there. But does it?

Because I’ve seen the word be used to describe bloody, gory series, such as Berserk. Shows where characters deal with sexual, taboo themes get pinged, too. Some examples of that include Netsuzou TRap and Kuzu no Honkai. Meanwhile, some would say series that try to be “edgy” can be labeled as “dark,” too. I’m looking at you, Fate / ______________.

In other words, the definition of the word is so variable between individuals that just using the term gives nothing for the reader (or listener) to work with.

As for those of you who use the word yet explain what pushed you to describe a series as such, you’re doing great. I just find myself wondering if the word is needed in the first place since it means so little that you have to elaborate upon what you mean so viewers understand your thought process. Why not cut out the middleman and streamline your content?

Anyways, this is just food for thought. Just think about it. If you consider it to be junk food and cast it aside, then that’s okay, too.

That’s all, folks.

(This post was inspired by an ancient topic I wrote almost four years ago where I asked for recommendations of “dark” anime for a friend on a dead forum. Well, it’s still alive, but it’s dead to me. No one seemed able to make up their mind about what it meant to be “dark” and that really left an impact on me)

(However, this post reminded me that I’ve yet to talk about this, so I’ve been mulling this over in my head for weeks until I just decided to go for it today. Thanks, Team Prattle!)

24 thoughts on “Can We Stop Overusing the Word “Dark” to Describe Anime Series?

  1. I feel like the word “dark” is abused. If you’re going to use that word, then please explain why a show or movie is that way. I also think it’s a buzzword to think that something is dark equals good. It’s not always the case if people just look at the right signs. Sure, I like some stuff that is the farthest thing from happy happy joy joy territory (yes, I just used a Ren and Stimpy reference), but there needs to be a point to everything. Maybe it’s this obsession for liking edgy things, wanting to be taken seriously or watching way too many episodes of Game of Thrones, but this is getting out of hand.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, and that is so true. Even I have to watch out for that when I do reviews. I’m glad you also know that just because something is dark, it doesn’t mean it’s good. Part of me doesn’t get why people are obsessed with the more morbid things out there.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. To me dark can mean various things depending upon the person. Some use it as a jab and others use as a means of saying something is “unique” to the masses. Yet often if you are reading a post without the knowledge of the writer’s intent it is merely just a word. I agree with you completely that one needs to explain a bit more than calling something dark. Explaining the trauma or the depressing themes adds more than saying “that show was dark”. Dark to me is a matter of lighting, whether or not a scene is visible or not. Buzzwords may be effective, but they do little to contribute to a lasting impression. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. fair point. i agree that seeing “dark” as a matter-of-fact description for a show doesnt really say much, and i try to be specific when i use these kinds of words. i think “storytelling” is the word that tends to bother me the most.

    i think broader words like “dark” (and genres in general) tend to be better for recommendations over review or criticism. if i say i prefer “darker” series, it narrows the range of potential show recommendations without forcing shows that i may have seen already. just a thought.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I think “dark” is a sterilized term for anything that essentially not considered “mainstream”, and in the context of anime, usually refers to topics and or visual depictions that offer a sort of “dissonance” (as you mentioned) from the expected norm. Of course, this is just me trying to analyze the intention behind the rhetoric, because as some people have mentioned already (or at the very least, implied), it’s a term that’s tossed around as a sort of “license to critique”.

    Although I agree it’s important for clarity when describing things in such a way, I wouldn’t fault anyone if their intention is clearly not to sound pretentious. Like you once admitted to using the terminology before, you experience as a writer has made you notice the nuances between the themes, and the sort of implications this has on constructing a critique for or against the supposed “dark themes” utilized in anime.

    Sharp observations, nevertheless. My usual recourse to people who use high-faluting language in an attempt to sound critical is to simply ask them to explain further what they mean; otherwise, we’ll simply remain in the dark. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I had similar thoughts about what people usually mean by using the term to describe anime, but I figured it was better to leave the post open-ended for others to weigh in. Good to know.

      Mmm clarity is what’s really important here. If people can opt to explain what they mean by the word, then I’m satisfied.
      I can’t be all that confident in my observation of themes, frankly, but I am a bit overly sensitive when it comes to language so there’s that.

      Good plan. And nice play on words!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Good article! Saying a show is “dark” is in the same vein to me as saying a show has “pacing” problems – nebulous terms that sound like a plausible critique but are so broad that they’re almost meaningless. If you can’t elaborate on why the show feels dark, or why you thought the pacing was bad, then it’s not useful information for the person reading the review.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you!

      Mmm I’m inclined to agree with you about the use of the term, “pacing.” I do find myself using the term a lot, however, if I am frustrated over how a series might spend too much time over something that is ultimately trivial or how a series might rush through key events. Then again, the implications behind the term are subjective considering how some people may disagree with my views regarding screentime and so on.

      Still, the bottom line is that just throwing out said terms with no explanation is pointless and I completely agree with you there.


  6. Dark at some point probably meant something as a describer for stories, much like edgy actually used to mean something but now is a generic catch all term. Still, I’d rather know the reason why a reviewer found something dark rather than just know it was ‘dark’ anyway. It kind of helps decide if that is going to appeal to me. Nice post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The meaning of word in relation to describing anime and other types of entertainment has probably evolved, I agree. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s simply not good enough to stand alone. Like you said, why a reviewer found something dark is more important.

      Thank you.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Ah yes, the ol’ buzzwords, used by wannabe critics to make themselves sound like they know what they’re talking about since the dawn of time. It’s a particular issue among the more navel-gazing segments of the commercial games press right now, especially since it became fashionable to be super-feminist, ally to the oppressed and all that sort of stuff.

    More often than not said arguments can be dismantled without too much effort by actually having some familiarity with the works these people are trying to brand as “troubling” or “problematic” or whatever. “Problematic” is probably my least favourite buzzword ever, because it means precisely nothing and is typically used much like you how you describe the word “dark” being used — without explanation or justification. Something is just “problematic”, and that is a universal truth, no argument permitted!

    Liked by 2 people

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