One thing that’s fairly rare in anime is “science fiction” in some of the stricter senses of the term. What is and is not science fiction is a serious ontological debate that I’m not interested in getting into here, but what is clear is that while anime often includes SF settings and tropes (robots, mecha, spaceships, aliens) it’s much rarer for plausibility to be a major concern. More importantly, in my view, the traditional SF role of examining life and society under potential future conditions is often discarded in favor of setting up mecha battles, sexy aliens, and robot philosophers.
There are shows that examine these ideas, though, so let’s look at a pair that talk about the (for lack of a better term) “cyberpunk” future: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Dennou Coil.
Like many anime fans, my first introduction to Ghost in the Shell (hereinafter GitS because typing it is getting annoying) was Mamoru Oshii’s famous 1995 movie. This is one of those things I saw as a teen and remember being totally mind-blowing, but my experience watching it later was less positive. Oshii’s visual direction is fantastic, and it looks amazing, but it’s low on action and the plot borders on incomprehensible. While it’s a famously philosophical piece, it’s full of what I think of as the bad kind of anime philosophizing, where a character pontificates at length about something rather than expressing it through their actions. Thus I approached Stand Alone Complex, the 2003 TV show, with a bit of trepidation.
GitS: SAC may lack the visual brilliance Oshii is justly praised for (as well as the massive movie budget, though advances in technology help make up for that a bit) but it more than makes up for it in other areas. The larger space of a 26-episode series leaves more room for character, and in it Kusanagi (often just “the Major” to her men) becomes one of the great badass heroines of anime. The longer format also helps the plotting, which is still on the convoluted side but is given more time to emerge and is thus less overwhelming.
More importantly, science fiction-wise, SAC loses much of the speechifying of the movie and puts its philosophy into plot and action instead. The episodes, particularly the early ones before the overarching plot takes hold, play out like SF short stories, introducing and exploring the ramification of some idea. There’s plenty to work with — the society of GitS has brain transplants and cyborg bodies, omnipresent networks, AI, and nanotechnology to work with, as well as the insectoid robot tanks that are Masamune Shirow’s (the original manga author) trademark. We get stories that demonstrate how these things impact the lives of people, both ordinary citizens and the criminals, terrorists, and law enforcement types the heroes deal with; we’re shown these things instead of being told them, and that makes all the difference.
SAC rounds things out by having great voice-acting, excellent production values and action, some wonderful bits of humor, and good, if sometimes complex, overall plotting. It may not be the visual breakthrough the movie was, but for my money it’s the superior experience, and the second season is nearly as strong as the first. Not every episode is a winner — some characters are stronger than others, and some of the SF conceits get a little silly or cliche — but overall it easily makes it on to my all-time best shows list.
Dennou Coil (roughly, “Cyber Coil”) is obviously a very different show — but not, as one might expect from the look of it, a completely different show. It’s something I find very interesting — essentially, a recreation of the “light-hearted school-friends hijinks” show, but set in a science fictional future. By showing us slightly twisted SF versions of standard school tropes, it does a very effective job of painting how the changes in technology have affected everyday life.
The premise of the show is augmented reality glasses have become a completely ubiquitous accessory over the past decade or so, and that a literal shared cyberspace now overlays regular space. The adults in the show use these things on and off, as tools, but the kids who have grown up with them spend their whole lives wearing these glasses, and inhabit the virtually world as naturally as the real one. (One bit that rings painfully true is the kids’ misery when their worried parents demand they take their glasses off for a while and give them an “In my day…” speech.) Real-world spaces are overlaid with tags, monsters, pets, and so on, and kids can buy programs that let them shoot at each other with virtual lasers and missiles.
Like SAC, the main concern of Dennou Coil is portraying the world in which these characters live, and in particular how rapid changes in technology have shifted the fabric of everyday life, for better and for worse. Unlike the Major, the kids don’t have gunfights with terrorists or killer robots, and there’s less focus on intricate plotting and politics. But the underlying thread is the same — there’s an ambivalence about the new technology, a feeling that the characters would simultaneously acknowledge it has problems but refuse to give it up if you asked them to, which to me feels very accurate to the way people adapt to technology in their real lives.
Dennou Coil‘s overarching story does get a little vague and mystical at times, and the characters are well-drawn but ultimately standard-issue school-age protagonists. But it’s a solid, often funny show on its own terms, and it uses its SF conceit thoughtfully and without battering the viewer over the head for the most part. If you’re in the mood for genuinely pondering the future, rather than robot laser battles, consider giving it a shot.
Django Wexler is the author of fantasies The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not watching anime, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.