Great Science Fiction Anime

From far-future space sagas to cyberpunk action.

Robots, spaceships, aliens, other planets, other stars, other universes—there's many an anime series that sport these elements. But among the great many anime that just have SF elements floating around in them, there's a select few which work that much harder to deserve the label—where the "science fiction" is just as important, if not more so, than the "anime" side of the equation. Here's a select list of the very best of those anime, with an eye turned as much towards lesser-known titles and all-but-forgotten gems as well as the big-name classics. All titles are presented in alphabetical order.

It’s hard to make a list of significant anime without Akira showing up somewhere, and if it belongs in any category it belongs here. Akira contains multiple SF conceits: a cautionary tale of technology and human ignorance in an implacable universe; a crumbling mega-city; psionic powers and trans-human evolution; and a climax that plays like 2001 as filmed by David Cronenberg. See it as much for the sheer visual overload as for the dense, politically-tinged plot, and the titanic score by experimental music troupe Geinoh Yamashirogumi.

Cyberpunk anime done right. On a heavily terraformed Mars, policeman Ross Syllabus is paired with the female android Naomi Armitage to solve a series of murders—except that the murder victims are robots who have been passing undetected as humans for a long time. It’s not hard to see how much of Armitage was inspired by Blade Runner, but over time it grows wings of its own and becomes deeply compelling on its own terms. Note that the OAV version is longer than the feature film edition (180 minutes vs. 90 minutes) and has a more involved story. A sequel, Armitage III: Dual-Matrix, continues where the first one left off but isn’t nearly as interesting; it’s a by-the-numbers follow-up with some token emotional involvement that never clicks.

When the head of Gally, a robot girl with no memory, turns up in a garbage dump that's the size of a city, a local hardware hacker revives her and gives her a new body. She finds work as a bounty hunter, but soon becomes emotionally involved with a street urchin who's determined to reach the floating city above that rains trash down on all of them below. This is an all-too-short adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's much longer and far more ambitious manga, loaded with stylized violence and bleak, decaying landscapes. But it's also amazingly heartfelt and memorable, one worth going back to and savoring. Small wonder James Cameron himself has repeatedly announced a live-action adaptation of the story.

Another show that takes inspiration from a lot of cyberpunk SF, including Blade Runner, but is never less than its own animal and is great fun all the way through. When a batch of bio-engineered beasts called “Boomers” run wild and start tearing apart Tokyo, four girls don specially-designed power armor to go after the Boomers and keep the city safe when the police can’t. Like Evangelion, it’s been hugely influential and has spawned spinoffs and (mostly unrelated) sequels. Kenichi Sonoda of Gunsmith Cats fame did the character designs. Be warned the conclusion is, sadly, rather abrupt due to behind-the-scenes feuding by the production company.

A staple anime show for any audience, but especially SF fans. Spacefaring bounty hunters Spike Spiegel and Jet Black tool around the solar system, getting into and out of endless amounts of trouble and accruing all manner of oddball hangers-on—the girl-child hacker Ed, the con-woman Faye Valentine, some weirdos, some heroes, and some thoroughly bad guys. The SF elements are used as much for laughs as they are for setting or inspiration: one episode features the space shuttle making a surprise cameo. The show as a whole, too, is great fun, with characters that have become anime icons. Plus, the deeper meanings of all that’s been going on sneak up on you when you least expect it, and the ending has real heft and depth.
Girls with guns meets sci-fi slapstick. Kei and Yuri, agents for the Worlds Welfare Works Association, are allegedly interplanetary troubleshooters, but they inevitably end up creating at least as big a mess as they were called in to clean up. There’s no deep meaning here, just one great set-up and payoff after another as the two “Lovely Angels” (“Dirty Pair” to everyone else!) run up a massive damage bill and incur the wrath of just about everyone in the universe. Keep your finger on the freeze-frame button; there’s tons of background in-jokes by the animators.

In a domed city, built to house humanity after Earth’s ecology collapsed, humans and their robot servants—“AutoReivs”—live and work together under a central computer that manages every aspect of their lives. Then a computer virus named “Cogito” starts causing AutoReivs to run wild, and it’s up to female detective Re-l Mayer to find out how to stop it. Written by Dai Sato (of the aforementioned Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), it’s a fascinating mixture of mystery, thriller, dystopian / cyberpunk elements and even heavy philosophy a la Evangelion. Another show that takes cues from Blade Runner without imitating it, and goes in plenty of its own original directions. One to watch, and rewatch.

This ambitious feature film bore only the most passing connection to the rest of the Final Fantasy franchise: it mostly used the name and a couple of key concepts from the series (e.g., life as a form of energy) as ingredients in a story about a team of scientists and soldiers strugging to bring a barren Earth back to life. An all-CGI animated production, it paired its dazzling, near-photorealistic imagery with a thoughful (if sometimes contrived) story. The film bankrupted SquareSoft's movie division and fizzled at the box office, but has since gone on to become a steady seller in Sony's home video catalog, and raised the bar that much more for how computer graphics could be used to render true-to-life actors.

After the Earth was left uninhabitable, mankind colonized the moon, and now lives there in the isolated “Republic of Eden.” A kid named Takeru gets into trouble after crashing his custom moon buggy, and discovers Eden’s leaders have been systematically suppressing the truth about what really happened to Earth. Originally created as an extended marketing tie-in for Nissin Cup Noodles’s 35th anniversary (no, really!), it sports character designs by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and a curious-looking but also striking hybrid of hand-drawn and CGI animation. Co-written by Dai Sato (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex).

A group of people are snatched up at the exact second they die and teleported into a room where they are given armor, weapons, instructions to kill various “aliens” … and a deadly time limit. It’s a game which they have been condemned to play over and over again, like a kind of horrible techno-Purgatory, and from which they will either learn to trust each other or be destroyed by their own worst, most brutal instincts. This show stakes out a position as close to psychological horror and thriller territory as it does science fiction. It’s notoriously hard to watch—so many of the characters are just plain nasty—but it’s hard to take your eyes from it. Adapted from Hiroya Oku’s manga, which is apparently even more outrageous.

In the far future, genetic engineering has shaped the evolution of the human race. When the spaceship Bilkis and its crew encounter alien technology amongst Jupiter’s moons which threatens to wipe out mankind, they also discover hints that their evolutionary perfection has come at a great cost. If the show sounds like it has echoes of 2001, you’re not far off; the climax also hearkens back to the ending of the film Total Recall, and the series as a whole has the same flavor as many of Larry Niven’s far-future novels. Fans of any of the above works will want to check this out. It almost belongs into the mecha category due to the nature of the ship, but has just enough focus on the hard-SF elements of the story to fall down on that side.

“People love machines in 2029 A.D.,” read the ad copy for Mamoru Oshii’s film adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga. The differences—and similarities—between men and machines are explored in this dreamlike meditation of a movie, which is more about ideas than plot, character or story. But that doesn’t make it any less gorgeous to watch, and it has a timeless quality that makes it still worth revisiting. The “2.0” version of the film adds some unnecessary digital effects; the original was visionary enough. A sequel of sorts, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, is even more abstract, gorgeous and meditative; if you liked the first one, you’ll probably like the follow-up too.

A completely different take on characters and situations inspired by Shirow’s manga, this TV series may be among the best anime has yet produced in any genre. Major Motoko Kusanagi and her comrades in the covert Section 9 go after cyber-criminals in a future not all that different from our present, and square off against adversaries of uncommon brains and ambition. Intelligently written, great to look at, populated with a great range of fascinating characters—the Major, in particular, is a perennial anime heroine par excellence—it’s what adult science fiction, anime, and TV in general can be at its best. Two TV series and an OAV—Solid State Society—have been released, with a possible third season of the series on the way.

Michel Volban and his People's Army stage an insurrection against the newly self-appointed leader of the galaxy, the cruel and manipulative Vetti Sforza. The revolution seems all but lost when space pirate Cleo enters the picture—piloting a legendary glass battleship that hasn't been seen for centuries. A space opera with an emphasis on the opera: just about every plot element is made into fodder for grand melodramatic gestures. It's also utterly heedless of the physics of space travel—and physics in general, come to think of it—so those who like their SF "hard" and realistic, steer clear. But it's also great fun, very much in the vein of the live-action Flash Gordon film. The only thing missing is the Queen score.

A bit closer to fantasy than SF, this film with character designs by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) was adapted from one installment in a series of novels not yet published in English. A Transylvanian princess with psionic gifts encounters an alien warrior from another world, who has come to Earth to fight off a malevolent entity named Genma who is destroying the whole universe. They gather together several other psionically-gifted humans to make a last stand against Genma in a battle that makes Akira itself look almost tame. The movie thrashes back and forth between being visionary and goofy, sometimes in the same scene (Keith Emerson’s dated progressive-rock score doesn’t help), but it’s a one-of-a-kind project and is worth at least a look.

Female bounty hunter Iria runs into far more trouble than she bargained for when a hijacked spaceship she's been sent out to retrieve has an unexpected passenger: an alien named Zeiram that is unbelievably difficult to kill. The further she delves into the mystery of the beast—and how it got there in the first place—the more trouble she gets into. A good companion series to Armitage, not least of all because of its strong, intelligent heroine.

Not all great SF has to be serious (see: The Dirty Pair), and this show is a laugh riot. Tylor is essentially The Good Soldier Švejk in space, about a blissful nitwit who enlists in the space navy because he thinks it's an easy meal ticket and ends up flunking his way to the top of the chain of command. Is he really that dim a bulb, or is he more of a holy fool? You'll be asking yourself the same question in between bouts of falling out of your chair.

After the murder of their parents, Twins Thor and Rai are abandoned on the prison planet Chimaera where they must fight to survive in a violent society that rewards only the strong. Based on a manga series, this show hearkens back to the SF of the Fifties. The structure of the society Thor and his brother find themselves in, and the Darwinian trials they face, are reminiscent of some of Robert A. Heinlein's works in the same vein. The ending is something of a deus ex machina—rather literally, since it involves a computer system that controls the fate of the planet—but the vast majority of the story before then is quite engaging.

A slightly (very slightly) more serious take on some of the same territory trod by Dirty Pair. A pair of female space agents, Lumière and Éclair, zip around the galaxy righting wrongs with their remarkable powers. For the first half or so of its episode count, the show’s a lighthearted adventure romp. Then it becomes far darker as the characters’ backstories come into play, and they have to run from the very agency that employed and gave them shelter for so long. It’s easy to be fooled into a false sense of security by the flip tone of the first few episodes, but stick with it and you’ll see a very different story before long.

Middle-aged office-worker Oji Tanaka ("Oji" is a homonym for "old guy") used to be the blazing lead guitarist for the band Black Heaven, but now he's got a family and a correspondingly less complicated life. Then a mysterious woman compels him to pick up the guitar again, as a weapon against an alien invasion. An underappreciated little gem of a series, one which almost never gets attention from SF fans because it's labeled, too exclusively, as a comedy or a midlife crisis story. The fact that each episode is named after a different classic rock track ("Sweet Emotion," "Stairway to Heaven," etc.) only adds to the fun.

“Controversial” doesn’t begin to describe the reactions that have swirled around Evangelion since it first appeared in 1995. After Earth has been nearly devastated by an apparent meteor strike at the South Pole, young Shinji Ikari learns his father has been part of a project to create a counterstrike force of giant robot vehicles—which can only be piloted by youngsters like Shinji himself. A great many SF themes figure into the story, but religion, psychology, philosophy and a good deal of extended symbolism are all also woven in. An ongoing remake, Rebuild of Evangelion, condenses the story to good effect and may in fact be the better place to start right now.

A close cousin to Cowboy Bebop, and not just because the same production company (Sunrise) was behind it, either. Tinkerer Gene Starwind and his kid sidekick Jim Hawking come into possession of a prototype experimental spaceship, the Outlaw Star of the title—along with a female android who’s the only one who can fly it. Needless to say, they end up in gallons of hot water, and are chased (or themselves chase) from one end of the galaxy to the other. It’s a lot wackier and more light-hearted than Bebop—just plain fun from beginning to end, with a great cast of characters and some strongly Asian-inspired technological designs for the starships.

In the future, someone’s still going to have to collect the garbage. That’s what the crew of the DS-12 Space Debris Station does—they clean up trash that’s stuck in orbit and which poses a hazard to other spacecraft or satellites. It’s a great premise, and Planetes is resolutely accurate in its technical details, down to how zero-g works and how genuinely dangerous space is for those who choose to go there. What’s even better is how the show keeps focused on the characters and their interactions, not hardware and machinery, and for that reason deserves a broader audience.

Starship Amaterasu is on its way home from its maiden training voyage, when the crew learn their home planet’s been seized by a neighboring empire. The crew then hit on a brilliant way to keep the fight going on their end: they declare themselves a sovereign nation, and sell the rights to their voyages to the top galactic broadcast network as a reality TV show. It’s a brilliant premise, and the show follows through on it with great intelligence and wit. Don’t expect Gundam or Macross-style space battles, though; its approach is much more restrained. And like Planetes, much attention is paid to how difficult it really is to do things in space, like finding a ship by tracing its gravitational signature (!).

A Moto Hagio story adapted for animation, this one plays like an SF version of an Agatha Christie murder mystery where all the suspects are locked in the same rambling mansion and one of them is a killer. In this case, it’s a spaceship, the suspects are ten space cadets undergoing a graduation test, and the one extra crewmember who doesn’t belong there (hence the title) may be responsible for the death of the whole crew. The animation’s dated a bit—it’s from 1986—but the story holds up a lot better than many of its contemporaries. A prime example of strongly character-oriented SF.

Adapted from Keiko Takemiya’s groundbreaking science-fiction manga story (released in English by Vertical), this cosmic epic—there’s no better word for it—deals with a young man coming of age in a rigorously-controlled utopian society. When he discovers he has psionic powers, he’s contacted by a splinter group of humanity, the Mu, which believes he is destined to be their leader. In time he accepts his position as their messiah, but that has cataclysmic effects on both humanity and Mu alike. The feature-film version, made in 1980, was issued on DVD with English subtitles, and is well worth it. But the 26-epsiode TV version, created in 2007, is in many ways even better as it expands on much of the material only glossed over in the film.