After reading this news blurb on SciFi about a proposed live action Ghost In The Shell movie (which I thought was called The Matrix), I thought I’d list my personal favorite top 10 science fiction themed anime shows/movies (which you should watch before watching a remake…). Some notes before hand. First, if you’re into anime, you’ll noticed that one, maybe two popular anime series aren’t on the list. I’ll explain afterwards why. Second, this list is heavily weighted toward TV series, and newer series at that. Those are the ones I typically get from Netflix. If there are movies I’ve missed, then please enlighten me. I haven’t been keeping up with the anime scene recently as I used to, I have too many other things to occupy my time. Third, if you don’t see your favorites here, remember this is my list. Feel free to comment on what you like. Flames will be ruthlessly ridiculed. And last, I’ve rated them pretty much on the “Would I watch them again if I saw them on TV?” criteria. Hence the ordering.
With that out of the way, on to the list!
- Neon Genesis Evangelion – One of the most popular anime series, ever. Its got aliens, mechs, angst, interesting characters and a complex,some would say incomprehensible, plot. The Earth is being attacked, at regular intervals, by unknown alien entities. The Evangelion units, basically biological mech units, are sent out to fight the aliens and, hopefully, defeat them. Each Eva is piloted by a teenager who has his or her own personal problems to deal with. This leads to the angst. But of course, there is also a lot of action. As the series progresses, the plot becomes deeper and more complex, almost requiring multiple viewings. I placed Evangelion 10th almost exclusively because of the plot, which became a chore to try and figure out, and the way the creators handled the ending of the series (two nonsequiter episodes and two movies). Evangelion is basically filled with a mishmash of psuedo-Christian trappings mixed with the usual ‘hubris of mankind’ morality play. Still, it belongs on any Top 10 list, especially considering how it affected the anime watching public.
- Akira – Akira is probably the one anime movie that introduced many American fans to anime in the late 1980’s. I know it did for me. In the annals of anime, it is considered a classic. From its story to its striking, for the time, visuals, Akira is a standout movie. I haven’t watched it recently, but I do remember re-watching it and thinking it didn’t hold up so well the second time around, with the story being complicated to follow, whether this is due to translation issues or the writing I have no idea, and the visuals being inferior to much of what is out now. Still, for the time, it was an influential movie and is one I still like.
- Full Metal Alchemist – OK, so FMA is pushing the bounds of SF, being basically fantasy, but there are quite a bit of SF ideas here, and its mix of fantasy and tech certainly fits. When I first started watching, there were a couple of early episodes that were decent, but it felt like the show was just wandering. Then, with about episode 20, things got kicked into high gear and the show rocked its way to its ending after 52 episodes. Surprisingly violent and gory, FMA is also filled with lots of humor, sibling rivalry and unexpected warmth, especially between brothers Alphonse and Edward. I wasn’t expecting an action/adventure story to focus on the characters so much, but I am happy they did. The human elements add a deeper meaning to the actions that occur, and really ratchet up the suspense during the final episodes. I can’t recommend this one enough.
- Serial Experiments Lain – (SF Signal review) – SEL is a surreal, complex show, most closely resembling Ghost In The Shell or The Matrix. SEL forgoes the action in those two movies and instead focuses on the philosophical underpinnings of humanity, reality and living in a connected world. The visual serve this idea well, being sufficiently strange and using the power of animation to show us things that would be hard to do in a live-action show. While SEL is a slow moving anime, it is only 13 episodes long. But they pack quite a lot of interesting stuff into 13 episodes. And being a sucker for tech-centered, philosophical shows, SEL is placed at #7.
- Scrapped Princess – (SF Signal review) – Yes, Scrapped Princess is SF, for reasons I can’t really go into without major spoilage. Suffice it it say, Scrapped Princess relies heavily on its characters and their interactions to carry the story, and they do it well. I was pleasantly surprised at how the story progressed, as I was expecting a basic fantasy-themed show. I got something more. The visuals are clean and interesting, and the music, especially the opening and closing themes, are great. I’d definitely watch this one again if it were to ever make to American TV.
- Castle In The Sky – Castle is another masterpiece from the Japanese animation guru, Hayao Miyazaki, best known for his films Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Castle In The Sky is basically the tale of the long lost heir to a powerful empire discovering her identity and destiny. In other hands, this would be a cliche-ridden film (think Titan A.E.), but Miyazaki brings his talents for story and character to the table and produces a wonderful and fun movie anyone can enjoy. Full of interesting ideas and characters, Castle moves from scene to scene, to its ultimate, bittersweet ending. The one thing that pulled me out was that Mark Hamill’s voicing of General Muska kept making me think he was the Joker, from the later Batman animated shows.
- Last Exile – (SF Signal review) Everything about this anime is top notch: characters, worldbuilding, visuals, and story. It has a very steampunkish feel, but there is a heavy SF element lurking underneath everything. Again, this was another anime I wasn’t sure about that sucked me in and made me want to watch all of the episodes right now. Definitely one anime fans shouldn’t miss.
- Cowboy Bebop – (SF Signal mini-review) Cowboy Bebop is an exceptional anime. Starting with its setting: a future, widely colonized Solar System. We see a colonized Mars and a ton of orbitals and space stations. But, at the same time, there is a tired, run-down feeling present. This is echoed in the main characters, Spike and Jet, down-on-their-luck bounty hunters just trying to get by till the next big mark. Bebop doesn’t have a big, overarching plot, but there is a small one the runs throughout. Instead, it relies on each episode to extend our understanding of the characters. The visuals are very nice and the music works extremely well with the story. The one sticking point for American audiences may be the ending, which is very Japanese. Otherwise, an outstanding show.
- Planetes – (SF Signal review) Planetes almost made it to #1. This fantastic anime show is a hard SF look at a near future Earth and is very character-centric. The creators have gone to great pains to show realism in their vision of the future, with no sound during space shots, rotating habitats for gravity, less gravity on the moon, and even to the chosen occupation of the main characters: earth orbit trashmen. Yes, they pick up trash in Earth orbit that may, or is, a danger to ships. And while an episode or two may be a bit slow, the characters are interesting to carry the show and it doesn’t end up where you’d expect. I’d say anyone interested in SF in general should watch this show.
- Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Season 1 – A long title for a very impressive anime show that’s can go toe to toe with any anime out there. Not a remake of Ghost In The Shell, rather SAC is a re-imaging. It contains the same two major characters as the movie (Kusunagi and Bato), but in a more character focused format. Think of it as a police procedural drama, focusing on a special forces like group and tinged with the same themes of humanity, reality, AI and such as the movie. Everything here is a standout. The storyline, while a bit tough to follow, is very interesting, and seems to follow from the high level of integration between humanity and technology depicted. The characters also get more screen time and, as such, are much more interesting than in the movies. Plus there is more screen time for the minor characters. All this adds up to a cool SF anime every SF fan should watch.
Now, I know there are several anime fans out there screaming, “What?! Ghost In The Shell or Ghost In The Shell: Innocence isn’t here??”. Well, no. I remember GitS being somewhat of a letdown and Innocence, while visually amazing, wasn’t anything we haven’t seen story-wise before. That’s not to say they aren’t good, just not good enough to make my top 10. I’d probably put them at 11 and 12. As for the ordering here, I’d say that 5 – 10 are pretty close to each other, and I could have re-swizzled them and been happy. This is based on my recollection of how I felt after viewing them. So that means, that yes, in my opinion, 1 – 4 are that good, I’d say that anyone SF fan would enjoy watching them. The others would be more hit or miss depending on taste. Now I’m off to add the second season of Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex to my Netflix queue!