Science-fiction is one of my favourite genres across all forms of entertainment that I enjoy. My two favourite mediums for it, however, would have to be books and anime/manga. Contribute it to my love for details and imagination, or just my passion for those two forms of media specifically. Whatever the case may be, I feel that books and anime/manga have some of the best written stories of the genre to date.
Anime pulls off the sci-fi genre brilliantly, when written well, due to the different creative tools that the artists (everyone involved in creating an anime) have at their disposal. You have hand-drawn masterpieces, such as Akira, and others that are fully computer-generated, like Knights of Sidonia, to name a couple of styles and examples. Each of these serials is crafted to engage the audience in the environment and settings as equally as it’s meant to captivate with the narratives that they are telling.
Today I want to share with you my favourite science-fiction stories from the anime medium, specifically ones that focus on either futuristic or dystopian settings. Most of these are rather well-known and will come as no shock, but there are one or two that may catch you by surprise as they are far lesser-known than their counterparts.
5. Rideback (Winter 2009)
Originally produced by studio Madhouse with direction from Atsushi Takahashi, this futuristic, 12-episode series is an adaptation of the manga written by Tetsurō Kasahara. It is set in Japan in 2020 and follows a young college student named Rin Ogata. Once a ballet prodigy, Rin was forced to retire when a sudden injury disenabled her from continuing with the art. On a beautiful Spring morning while walking around campus, reminiscing of things she had lost, Rin comes across a garage where she finds a two-wheeled automobile robot called a Rideback. Shanghaied into a couple of engineering kids’ project, Rin takes the Rideback for a spin and it completely revolutionises her life.
My favourite part about this anime is its simplicity. We do see some technological advancements in the world, but for the most part, the setting is serene and natural, quite akin to our present times. When you take this and the ingenuity of the Rideback vehicles, as well as how it helps Rin process very difficult parts of her existence, you get something that is a beautiful balance of imagination and insight into a genuine and likely future. Science-fiction doesn’t always have to be extravagant and over-the-top with digital advancements to tell an excellent story, and this anime is the perfect example of how elementary shifts of a perceived future can still work as a powerful narrative.
4. Wolf’s Rain (Winter 2003)
An original anime series produced by studio BONES with direction from Tensai Okamura, Wolf’s Rain was one of my first encounters with the dystopian subgenre of sci-fi across all mediums. The 30-episode series follows a small pack of four wolves that embark on a grand journey while following the scent of lunar flowers, hoping to be led to a place called Paradise, which is essentially a sort of Heaven on Earth. Their journey takes them from one corner of the world to another, which is either ravaged by poverty (most of the world) or oppressed by nobles and their interpersonal conflicts for power.
I love this anime because it is the quintessential dystopian series: it shows us what the world can look like when it has been abused and squeezed of all of its natural resources. The wolves trek through cities that have tunnels filled with radiation poisoning from years and years of nuclear, industrial, and technological pollution. The city is in shambles as its people do back-breaking, corrupt work for half a loaf of bread. Then you have another city that is literally a crumbled wasteland due to technology outgrowing humanity. Mechanised robots completely decimated the city, leaving nothing behind but rocks and bones. Lastly, you have a city that is one of the few that seems to be thriving upon the surface, but when you strip everything away, it’s a false-Utopia with appalling subjugation that’s regulated to fit the agenda of a noble lord. All of these things, particularly the aftermath of callous technological advancement, are an extremely likely future if we maintain the path we are on. It is raw and doesn’t shy away from showing us the much uglier—not fetishized—sides of dystopia.
3. Psycho-Pass (Fall 2012)
Another original series, Psycho-Pass was produced by studio Production I.G. with chief direction from Koji Yamamoto and falls under the cyberpunk subgenre specifically. The 33-episode series follows a group of police inspectors tasked with solving special crimes in a futuristic Japan that is dominated by a technologically advanced fascist system of government.
This series is brilliant for the same reasons that Wolf’s Rain is but illustrating the effects of the opposite scenario. With the world’s current obsession of perfection—in terms of beauty, crime rates, mental health—and desire to be make life as technologically convenient as possible, living a life dominated by an artificially intelligent government may not be too far of a stretch. The series is impeccable at highlighting the strength of such a world, but it also critiques and emphasises why it would be dooming humans as an intelligent and free-thinking community. More and more we are limited by what we can say and how we can say it, what we should or should not think and believe, and this is how prescripts of what is acceptable or not are created, leading to what we hope will be harmony of peace and cooperation. Yet, it never works that way. You cannot have a perfect nation, nor a perfect government. Corruption will always follow power, even if the intentions of that corruption are well-meant (i.e.: to eliminate crime, to completely eradicate depressive moods and tendencies, etc.).
2. Cowboy Bebop (Summer 1998)
This neo-noir, space western was originally a manga by Cain Kuga. It was adapted into a 26-episode anime series by studio Sunrise and directed by Shinichirō Watanabe. Taking place in 2071, about 50 years after an accident with a hyperspace gateway that made Earth nearly uninhabitable, humanity has colonised most of the rocky planets and moons of the solar system. Amid the rising crime rate, the Inter Solar System Police have created a legalised method for apprehending criminals. Contracts between the police and registered bounty hunters (cowboys), where the cowboys chase and capture the criminals, were established. The serial is about a specific motley crew of four cowboys aboard the spaceship, Bebop.
What makes this series so brilliant—naming a few from the vast list of awesomeness that is Cowboy Bebop—is that it encapsulates both futuristic science-fiction, with spaceships and cool gadgets and gismos, as well as post-apocalyptic, with how fucked-up most of the planets and moons are. There are very few cities where you will find them to be bustling with wealth and success. Most of them are disasters, crumbling away from exploitation and a natural indifference to the shit that life has tossed its people. People are poor and struggling just to make a buck. In the foray of all this bleakness, you do have elements of galactic sci-fi that attract people like me to the subgenre to begin with: space battles. When they do happen, they are fast-paced and adrenaline-pumping, not to mention humorous and entertaining as all hell. You also have characters with some messed-up backgrounds that are equal parts surreal (Faye), authentically relatable (Jet), amusingly eccentric (Ed), and dangerously covetable (Spike) that are uniquely tied to specific elements of the world (or universe) building in one form or another.
1. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Fall 2002)
My number one favourite futuristic/dystopian science-fiction anime of all-time is Ghost in the Shell: SAC. Originally a manga by Shirow Masamune, it was turned into a 52-episode anime by Production I.G. with direction from Kenji Kamiyama. It takes place in the year 2030 and centres on an elite law enforcement unit known as Public Security Section 9 as they investigate crimes relating to cybercrimes and terrorism.
This show is the epitome of an existentialist crisis, when coupled with some of the best and most intellectual writing in the medium, excellent execution of virtual cinematography, and compelling, intelligent characters, makes it a masterpiece. I love the universe of GS: SAC. This notion that people can download their consciousness into humanoid robots and literally hook themselves up to the digital world is mind-blowing and utterly contemplative. You can replace parts of your body with robotic limbs, or your whole body. Yet, the one thing that a human, fleshy vessel contains that cannot be transferred is the soul, or is the soul tied uniquely to your consciousness? These are some of the questions that are posed and explored during the series. As innovators in the modern world work to achieve such an accomplishment as exhibited in GS: SAC, I feel it is wholly natural to be concerned, or at the very least to discuss, such lines of thinking. At which point do you go from being human to being another AI product on the surveyor belt?
Existentialism aside, in relation to world-building, I love the technology used. The parts used to replace lost limbs, or compensate for physical disabilities, are ingenious yet practical. Tachikoma are cute and sentient artificial mechanised robots used in hunting down criminals. Each one has a distinct persona, which I felt was really intriguing, and it showed an element of attention to detail that is reflected in just about every other corner of the serial. The show also has the first variation of a stealth-suit that is quite plausible for the real world, making the rest of the advancements in the show seem all the more acquirable in our future. It’s science-fiction in the most pragmatic sense of the term and an absolute must-watch for fans of hard cyberpunk sci-fi.
Science-fiction is a genre that will always be ever evolving as we grow and evolve as individuals. It is wonderfully remarkable to read and watch certain narratives to see how authors of the past viewed or predicted our current era to turn out. Some of them are right on the money, William Gibson’s Idoru comes to mind, while others were far more hopeful of our potential as an intelligent race, as shown via Ghost in the Shell. Yes, it can be a complex and dense genre to dive into, but it is one that we live and breathe every single day, most of us without even realising it.