A common mistake, this side of the Pacific, is to oversimplify Japanese anime as a genre. The majority of the western public tends to think of anime as silly Japanese cartoons with robots, over-sized eyes, and too many curves on depictions of teenage girls. All accurate observations, albeit for a small niche of a wide-spanning medium. The hand-drawn and (increasingly) computer generated graphics are a vehicle for stories ranging from kids cartoons to grown-up motifs. And yes, even porn. Once you’re able to look past the style, there is something for everyone.
Only recently have production methods adequately caught up with human imagination. Even George Lucas waited some twenty years for advances in film-making in order to proceed with the Star Wars prequels. Twenty years for the right amount of flop on Jar Jar Binks’ ears. Worth the wait.
Due to this “technological lag”, Science Fiction stories found their place in anime very early on. Scenes, settings and ideas that once could only be conveyed through descriptive sentences could now be painstakingly drawn, at some twenty four images per second, to portray spaceships in orbit around a distant planet, devastated city blocks of Tokyo, and tentacle porn. So much tentacle porn.
What follows is a list of five anime series that any fan of science fiction should watch. It is especially useful if you haven’t yet approached anime as a viable source of entertainment. There’s no definitive ranking, but if I had to pick a #1, it would be…
If an anime series makes it onto [adult swim] programming, there’s a good chance it’s great. And if you spent many late nights high or drunk (or both) in your dorm room, watching [adult swim] programming in the early 2000’s, there’s a good chance Cowboy Bebop became your gateway drug to anime. Director Shinichirō Watanabe delivers a stunning visual product, but it’s the screenplay by Keiko Nobumoto that really makes the series a winner with complex characters, terrific dialogue, and existential concepts. The two would go on to collaborate on another great series in Samurai Champloo.
Another [adult swim] catalog addition, GitS: SAC and Cowboy Bebop both have music director Yoko Kanno in common, someone that is rightly praised for her work. While the series lacks the character and philosophical depth of Bebop, it makes up for it in imagery and the innovative technology displayed. It depicts a world more and more reliant on cybernetic advances and tech-augmentation, and the problems that arise therein. Plus there’s some good firefight scenes!
Planetes is a recommended watch because of its realistic approach to the aspects of the future of our politics, environmentalism, and societal structures. Something that all good science fiction should strive for. Great care was given to the physics of space exploration and environment, as the story follows a group of space debris collectors. This will be a hard series to get through, because of its dramatic approach, focusing on dialogue and setting and lacking the action scenes common among the first two anime presented on this list. It’s probably the least popular (by sales) series on this list, but you’ll be a better person for absorbing it.
A good portion of what qualifies as science fiction does not have to be set in space. Just a foreign environment with weird technology will do. Trigun could have easily been put in this spot, similarly set in a giant desert following a main character with questionable intentions and past.
Desert Punk is just a lot of fun to watch. A common trope within anime is to have a light-hearted first half set up of characters, plot-lines, and settings, followed by a more serious and engrossing second half. No one does this better, and with more variety in mood between the two halves, than Desert Punk.
This one has EVERYTHING. Everything space. Pirates. Chicks. Money. Power. Sex. Make sure to catch the unedited original version, as the stateside broadcast version was heavily edited to cover up all the good parts. The writing does begin to fade towards the latter half, but the animation is strong throughout. And the design of the characters, as well as the settings, will keep you watching even if the dialogue and story-line beg for more at times.