The Beginner's Guide to Anime - Science Fiction - Featured

Hello and welcome to The Beginner's Guide to Anime! In this SideReel series, anime guru Dominic Nguyen explains the ins and outs of Japanese animation, and points out a few shows that you can enjoy without having to learn a whole new culture or language! Today's topic is one of the cornerstones of the genre: science fiction anime, which run the gamut from giant robot fantasies to gritty war stories and space Westerns.

Anime and science fiction are inextricably linked to each other, from the iconic Astro Boy to other old classics like Starblazers (Space Battleship Yamato) and Robotech (which was an amazingly successful stitch job of three separate anime, including Superdimensional Fortress Macross). It's not all space operas and giant robots, though. Many science fiction anime take advantage of the inexpensive nature of animation to produce grand masterpieces which would cost hundreds of millions if they were made into live action features and stretch the boundaries of what is possible. This article recommends five of them for the anime newcomer.

Two Japanese franchises that are just as synonymous with science fiction as Star Trek and Star Wars are the "mecha" stalwarts Macross and Gundam, both very old and very influential war stories that focus on human drama as much as they focus on giant robot battles. Gundam has been around almost as long as Star Wars and in many ways has been just as successful, with dozens of anime TV series and movies made in the last thirty years.

Macross doesn't take itself as seriously as its Gundam cousin, and tends to be more fun to watch than Gundam is. The series features fighter planes called Valkyries (or Veritechs, for the Robotech-minded) that transform into humanoid robots, and espouses the philosophy that the power of music is greater than war. Its latest series, 2007-2008's Macross Frontier, was a technical masterpiece with a big budget. It had insanely gorgeous animation that would take hundreds of millions of dollars to replicate in live action, and topped it off with a transcendent soundtrack. The story, about humanity's first contact with an alien race and the unscrupulous people willing to turn it into an outright war, dragged at the end. However, if you want to see how good anime can look and sound, you don't need to go anywhere further than Macross Frontier.

Another example of a great science fiction show made on the (relative) cheap is the popular Cowboy Bebop. The show is about a ragtag group of bounty hunters and troubleshooters who take on odd jobs around the solar system while dodging their troubled pasts, much like Joss Whedon's science fiction Western, Firefly. It was a pillar of Cartoon Network's anime programming for years, forming a legion of fans with its inspired mix of Jazz Age aesthetics, gangland storylines, and gritty Wild West themes that make it very accessible for American audiences. I highly recommend Cowboy Bebop to anyone who will listen, not just to anime fans. Between the high production values, the world-class soundtrack, the strong ensemble cast, the sharp humor, and the tightly-directed action, there is nothing that Cowboy Bebop doesn't do right.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Masamune Shirow's story of a group of counter-terrorists in a cybernetic future where the line between man and machine is blurred, is another show that combines critical acclaim with accessibility. The series often switches gears between being a police story and a philosophical exploration of the nature of humanity, but it does both styles well, with a great soundtrack penned by the same woman who did the music for Cowboy Bebop and Macross Frontier, Yoko Kanno. The tone of the show is mostly serious, so it resembles Blade Runner more than Firefly.

This list wouldn't be complete with a brainlessly over-the-top giant robot series, and for those of you who don't want the moralistic or philosophical undertones of the previous series, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann dedicates itself to being pure, testosterone-fueled fun. The whole series was designed with a childlike "Robots are awesome!" mindset, and as long as you can suspend your disbelief, it"s an adrenaline-pumping thrill ride the whole way through. Each episode of the show tries to outdo the last by getting constantly bigger and crazier, to the point where giant robots start piloting even bigger robots in order to save the universe from life-ending evil. By the end of the series, the robots are half the size of the universe, throwing galaxies and nebulae at each other like Frisbees; it's stupid and silly, but it's so fun that you just won't care.

The last show on the list, Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, is something of a unique creature in Japanese anime - the art direction and character designs are based on the oil paintings of Gustav Klimt, while the story is a science fiction adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' immortal tale of revenge and redemption. The artistic vision of director Mahiro Maeda is sheer genius, and he does well in mixing the original aristocratic French setting with a futuristic interplanetary society. This pick may be too artsy for some, but there's no denying the resonance of the story.



Default avatar cat
Jan 15, 2010 9:59PM EST

My all time favorite animes are the Dragon Ball series, Yu Yu Hakusho, and the Naruto series. The Dragon Ball series and Yu Yu Hakusho have both ended. Dragon Ball was all about action, but Yu Yu Hakusho had action and a moral lesson behind it. The ongoing Naruto series is philosophical and action packed. It features beautiful artwork and an incredible storyline. Simply put, Naruto is amazing!!

Default avatar cat
Jan 16, 2010 6:06AM EST

What about the wholly respectable and currently being re-adapted as 4 movies - (which had 2 previous movies that rewrote the original tv ending ((A constant flux of canonical material))) :
Evangelion.(any fans of the original series should take a gander at the re-imaging, in the same way that Battlestar Galactica was far superior to the original so too does it appear (from the manner the second movie's direction) that it will reward long term and new fans alike.
alternative nearly Science Fiction shows that are great include:
Martian Successor Nadesco (especially for the way the Movie's finale wrapped it up)
Gundam (in a good many of its incarnations and absolutely HUGE series that actually follows some sensible historical process).

Default avatar cat
Jan 18, 2010 12:22AM EST

One of the best anime series I have watched is Code Geass. It has a great mix of action, intense story telling and as in all anime - deep emotion. It was the most riveting series I have ever watched. I was stuck onto it until the last episode was over. I highly recommend downloading and watching it:)

Jan 18, 2010 2:15PM EST

Derquasy, Evangelion is a great suggestion but I left it off of the list due to space and because it's a much more confusing series than the five I mentioned - it's often cryptic, it spends a lot of time rewriting itself, and it's a bit more accessible if you already know what the giant robot formula entails.
Nadesico is also built too much on parody of the giant robot genre to be a beginner's show, it's for more experienced viewers. Trigun unfortunately got the axe because Cowboy Bebop does the Space Western a lot better, and Gundam can be intimidating for the new viewer compared to Macross Frontier and its "Hey, I remember Robotech!" factor.
Thanks for the feedback! Dragon Ball and Yu Yu Hakusho will be coming up in a separate category since they don't really fit with the Science Fiction genre.

Default avatar cat
Jan 19, 2010 6:17PM EST

I like to point to the first PatLabor movie as a good drama with stunning graphics. It's like GitS:SAC and Gundam, in that it's has giant-robots, but is really an investigative drama talking about the human condition.

Default avatar cat
Feb 21, 2010 3:08PM EST

(This is a bit old now but oh well)
I recommend Monster, a very gripping thriller series.
And Samurai Champloo, from the same makers as Cowboy Bebop - it's about the samurai, and the soundtrack is hip hop. Completely amazing.

Default avatar cat
Apr 4, 2010 12:02PM EDT

Huh. I guess I've always kept such a solid mental divide between Asian shows and Western shows that I never made that Cowboy Bebop - Firefly connection. Thanks for opening my eyes to that.
In keeping with the other-people-making-their-own-recommendations theme, I'll throw in one for this sci-fi section: Karas. ...But maybe watch it muted/unsubbed; that story was so confusing, it almost detracted from the pretty. Almost.
Curious to see what other shows for genres make the beginner's guide, assuming this will be continued.

Default avatar cat
Apr 6, 2010 1:05PM EDT

how has no one mentioned Deathnote? by far the most well written/thought out story ever conceived.

Default avatar cat
May 11, 2010 6:45PM EDT

I guess they left out Deathnote coz it's not exactly a "sci-fi" anime...
I do suggest Ergo Proxy.. though I can't say it's one of the greats.. esp. with the ending yeesh.. but nontheless, I loved the art direction and some of the storylines.. there was no real depth in characters, but again, i enjoyed them anyway.

Default avatar cat
Jun 26, 2010 10:07PM EDT

Honestly, why is Gungrave not on this list?Though, it might not be as popular as Cowboy Bebop, it is certainly one of the best sci-fi animes ever.

Default avatar cat
Jun 28, 2010 4:13PM EDT

Cowboy Bebop is good and so is Ghost in the Shell: SAC (though I don't agree that it would be good for beginners). My choices would be Darker than Black, Eureka Seven, Last Exile, Samurai 7 and Trinity Blood. When I recommend anime to someone who is just starting to watch it I recommend newer titles because they don't seem as into the older stuff, you generally seem to gain an appreciation for those titles over time.

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