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.