All the classics.
Animation and science fiction are wildly popular film genres, attracting millions of fans the world over. Anime has its roots at the beginning of the 20th century and has developed over time to become a medium in which fantasy can be explored limitlessly and artfully. Science fiction explores humanity’s desire for innovation and the creation of new technologies, new societies or new frontiers on Earth, or beyond.
Both sci-fi and animation are able to depict fantastical scenarios and futuristic lands beyond our wildest imagination. When these genres are combined the potential visual and thematic possibilities are almost limitless. Recent times have seen the creation of very specific sub genres of sci-fi anime spanning across all forms of media; these include such themes as cyberpunk, brain-computer interfacing and cloning, mecca, galactic empires and post-apocalyptic narratives.
The sci-fi anime films on this list all artfully explore existential questions of the nature of reality and what it means to be human. Many films also tackle pertinent social and political issues of our current hi-tech age, including the threat of biological and chemical welfare as well as the potential dangers and destruction of all forms of technological advancement when placed in the wrong hands. We can view these films as exciting forays into the limitless possibilities of things to come or disturbing cautionary tales of man’s role in techno-saturated futures.
Akira (1988) | dir. Katsuhiro Otomo
Akira is often regarded as a landmark anime film, being one of the earliest examples of the sci-fi anime genre. The film is set in the future, in a dystopian and apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo in the aftermath of WWIII. It follows disenchanted youths and friends Tetsuo and Kaneda who are in a motorcycle gang. After Tetsuo is involved in a serious motorcycle accident, he is forced into a secret government/military project known as ‘Akira’. There, he is subjected to a series of painful experiments which lead him to develop superhuman powers and psychic abilities. Despite Kaneda’s enlistment of anti-government activists to save his friend from the stranglehold of these destructive powers and in turn the corruptive efforts of the government, these new found powers soon grow out of Tetsuo’s control. Tetsuo escapes the medical facility and begins to threaten everyone around him – leading to bloodshed and destruction.
The animation of Akira has a distinct cyber-punk style which suits the dystopian and gloomy backdrop of Neo-Tokyo. The characters themselves are a hybrid of traditional manga and more comic-book inspired art. Despite being set in the future, Akira raises many issues about Japan’s own questionable militaristic past. With allusions to Japan being a global nuclear superpower and threat, the power the military and the government have over its citizens is a cautionary tale of what can happen when trusted societal institutions abuse their power.
Paprika (2006) | dir. Satoshi Kon
Paprika (based on Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1993 novel of the same name), is a psychological sci-fi mind trip which explores the psychological complexities of the human mind and subconscious.
In the not-too-distant future a revolutionary new form of psychotherapy is developed which allows doctors to see into patients’ dreams and treat them accordingly, with a device called the ‘DC Mini’. All hell breaks loose however when this device is stolen and used for unsavoury purposes. To catch the culprit, the device’s creators (illegally) harness the power of a beautiful, sentient persona, ‘Paprika’ to infiltrate the dream worlds of others lead them to their perpetrator.
Paprika has a highly original concept as well as beautiful, colourful surrealistic imagery of fantastical dreamscapes and fantasy worlds. The film asks many complex metaphysical questions about the interweaving of dreams and reality and the concept of mind control. It also warns of the untold dangers of scientific and medical advancements, particularly when they fall into the wrong hands.
Summer Wars (2009) | dir. Mamoru Hosoda
This is an unexpectedly heartwarming sci-fi anime which explores the struggle between man and machine. The story follows love-sick teenager and math-genius Kenji as he is invited by his crush Natsuki to spend a few days with her and her family to celebrate her grandmothers 90th birthday. All seems well until Kenji inadvertently manages to solve an intricate math equation. This unleashes ‘Love Machine’ – an artificial intelligence program and super-virus – into the virtual online community of ‘Oz’ which is a complex omnipresent virtual network in which real-world citizens conduct their daily tasks, jobs and communication through avatars. As Love Machine destroys Oz it grows stronger and soon takes over the world’s computer systems, threatening not only the cyber community, but the real world, affecting global transport systems, military operations and even satellite trajectories. It is up to Kenji, Natsuki and the rest of her family to band together and fight this seemingly unstoppable cyber-power before it destroys the world.
Summer Wars’ animation is fun, bright and colourful, depicting a dream-like virtual cyberspace bursting with strange cute and even sometimes nightmarish avatars. With Oz being a clear allegory to the real ‘world wide web’, the film raises the important question of whether human beings should put so much faith in technology. In a world where technology and computerization is consuming us all, traditional family values and togetherness are precious gifts. Summer Wars asks: Is technology helping us or hindering our social and evolutionary development?
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001) | dir. Shinichirō Watanabe
This film is a feature-length accompaniment to the popular sci-fi anime television series, Cowboy Bebop which follows the adventures and misadventures of the bounty-hunting crew of the interstellar craft ‘Bebop’. Set on a heavily populated Mars in the not-too-distant future, familiar characters Spike, Faye, Jet Black, and Ed must find and capture a maniacal bio-terrorist who is threatening to destroy the planets’ human population using a deadly microscopic robotic pathogen which spreads rapidly and without cure.
As in the series Cowboy Bebop, the characters are all intriguing, likeable and well rounded. The setting in a bustling highly populated Mars in a not-too-distant future filled with the same commercialism as we see in major cities today is also an interesting comparison to our current consumerist lifestyles. With an amazing soundtrack featuring jazzy and modern scores and a plot that is fairly simplistic, but not patronizing, The Cowboy Bebop Movie is a great watch for already established fans of the series, or a great place to start for newcomers to this imaginative franchise.
The Animatrix (2003) | dir. Mahiro Maeda, Takeshi Koike, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Peter Chung, Koji Morimoto, Shinichirō Watanabe, Andrew R. Jones
The Animatrix is a collection of nine animated short films, all dealing with the concept of computer simulated reality and man vs. machine – the original ideas which formed the 1999 film, ‘The Matrix’. The nine films are entitled Final Flight of Osiris, The Second Renaissance: Parts I and II, Kid’s Story, Program, World Record, Beyond, A Detective Story and Matriculated.
These stories range from being drawn in traditional 2D Japanese animation (in both colour and black and white), to innovative computerized CGI and rotoscoping techniques using psychedelic colours and mind-blowing action sequences. Settings include everything from the real world in the present day, to fantastical cyber-worlds set many years in the future. The overarching theme of this anthology is the threat that the ever-increasing advancements of technology pose to humankind and the dangers of trusting our lives to the electronic and cyber-world.
Roujin Z (1991) | dir. Hiroyuki Kitakubo
Roujin Z is a comedic animated sci-fi film which addresses such real-life concerns as the ageing population of Japan and its ailing healthcare system, and our blasé attitude towards advancements in medical technology. Set in the 21st century, a group of scientists from the Ministry of Public Welfare have designed a revolutionary machine designed to help ease the burden of health care workers in a city where the geriatric population is putting strain on the healthcare system. This robotic hospital bed called the Z-001 is promised to provide better health care than any human counterpart: dispensing food, removing waste, providing exercise, monitoring vital signs and even providing limitless mental stimulation and entertainment for the patient. Elderly widow, Kiyuro Takazawa, is unwillingly chosen to be the first experimental patient. All seems to be going well at first when the machine starts developing its own intelligence and begins taking over the conscience of Mr. Takazawa melding his thoughts and desires with the machines’. The Z-001, which is revealed is powered by nuclear power cells and is actually a secret military weapon, quickly transforms itself into an unstoppable robot, destroying everything in its path.
Roujin Z’s zany animation, wacky characters and bawdy humour coupled with its satirical approach to the more serious issues in 21st century Japan makes it a standalone sci-fi in this list. Not only does it take jabs at the efficiency of the Japanese health care system but it also comments on the relationship between the US and Japanese militaries.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) | dir. Mamoru Oshii
Continuing on from the original themes of Ghost in the Shell (1995) which asks many questions about what it means to be human, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence explores in greater depth the approach to cyborg/human relationships, the inner working of the human mind and consciousness and what it is to be human. After a series of ‘gynoids’ – lifelike sex robots – are reported to be malfunctioning and murdering their owners, Special Forces policemen Batou and Togusa are sent to investigate possible terrorist, Yakusa or political motives behind these deaths. Their journey to catch the mastermind creator of these robots takes them on a dangerous voyage where they must not only question their own reality and sanity but face the darkest depths of their own psyches.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence contains stunning visuals both in traditional animation and CGI to construct amazingly rich futuristic worlds that is beautiful to watch. Containing an eerie soundtrack, the film is philosophical but also has very dark and violent undertones, as it asks us to question just how much control we have over our own bodies and minds and whether we really are the supreme race.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (1997) | dir. Hideaki Anno
The End of Evangelion is a companion film to the original television series Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996). This film was released as an alternate ending to the television series, to appease fans disappointed by the original series’ conclusion. That being said, any viewers who do not have at least some familiarity with the series, characters or story will find this film rather perplexing. In short, The End of Evangelion occurs at the dawn of the new millennium, where the Earth is at war with a group of supernatural and malevolent all-powerful angels. Human-kind’s only salvation lies in a race of highly specialized bio-engineered robot-crafts called EVAS (or Evangelions) built by the NERV Corporation. Piloting these EVAS are a group of specially chosen youths; naïve yet reluctant Shinji Ikari, timid but stoic Rei Ayanami and brash and boorish Asuka Soryu. It is up to these brave youngsters to save the world from total annihilation and bring peace to the Earth once more.
Both the Evangelion series and End of Evangelion explore very complex themes such as Judeo-Christian Religion, Freudian psychoanalysis, the concept of reality and one’s own mind, man vs machine, the question of humanity, philosophy and the meaning of life and death. With amazing psychedelic animation sequences, a haunting musical score, and a good hearty dose of ‘cosmic mind-fuckery’ this film is an extraordinary achievement on all levels.
Metropolis (2001) | dir. Shigeyuki Hayashi
Metropolis was adapted from a classic manga by Tezuka Osamu, which was itself visually inspired by Fritz Lang’s original 1927 classic, of the same name. In the futuristic city of Metropolis humans and robots co-exist, yet are in a state of political and financial turmoil. The class divide is steep where the wealthy hold all the power and robots are treated as second-class citizens, undertaking menial jobs in the city’s lower levels. The city’s dictatorial ruler Duke Red who sees robotic salve labor as the key to his communist utopia, secretly commissions a beautiful yet super-powerful android named Tima. She is the key to a powerful secret weapon which will allow him to take over the world. His plans for word domination seem quashed when a fire destroys the laboratory and Tima goes missing. Detective Shunsaku and his young nephew Kenichi are put on the case to find her. As Kenichi and Tima befriend one another, they both come to learn the importance of friendship that transcends all social boundaries.
The film’s characterizations and style are an interesting mixture of traditional Japanese manga (drawn by Astroboy creator Osamau Tezuka) and classic western comics such as Tintin. Along with 2D animation, there is also spectacular use of CGI to create the lavish futuristic city of Metropolis. The soundtrack is peppered with early New Orleans jazz beats and Dixieland music, in contrast to the ultramodern scenery.
Redline (2009) | dir. Takeshi Koike
Set in a futuristic apocalyptic galaxy, contestants compete to qualify for the most prestigious and deadly race in the universe – ‘Redline’. Held every five years, the race pits the crème de la crème of racers against one another. Fame and the glory of winning is the only thing on their minds. This year, the race is being held on the distant planet of Roboworld – a place populated by militant cyborgs and a tyrannical power-hungry President. With race-fixing, illegal quantum vehicle modifications and a group of fame-hungry racers who will do anything to win, Redline is an action-packed thrill ride from beginning to end.
Like a game of Mariokart on acid, Redline has frenetic animation sequences, trippy and colourful hand drawn animation and no shortage of bizarre characters including aliens, robots and anthropomorphic creatures. Although the storyline in not as complex as many other films on this list, it has some amazing visual designs.