I’ve been watching anime since the late 70s. It’s a guilty pleasure of mine. I’ve seen a lot of “top five” and “top ten” lists around and wanted to put together my own. This is specifically for sci-fi anime because I watch a disproportional amount of that genre compared to others.
This list is not a ranking but a list of eleven sci-anime titles (series and movies) that I would recommend to someone who wanted to investigate the genre. Some of these were ground-breaking and others are just fun.
Why eleven? Because I couldn’t get my list down to ten and I didn’t want to have an “honorable mention”.
For the most part, this is not a list for kids. Perhaps I’ll put one together that I could recommend to parents but most of what’s on this list should be kept from little eyes. I’ve included links to IMDB’s Parents Guide when there is information available.
From about 1998 to 2002 I didn’t watch very much anime. It was a sort of “dark ages” for me. I’d watch a title here and there but the market had become flooded with bouncy boobs and silly comedies. Planetes is what made me start watching anime again.
This is a hard sci-fi series set in the near future that is plausible and focuses on character and plot. No alien invasions or interplanetary wars in this title but there are plenty of tense and exciting moments throughout the series.
Planetes changed my opinion of modern anime and I think it will make you want to explore the genre too. And who knows, maybe in the future there will be a need for orbital garbage collectors.
Plot Summary (Anime News Network): In the year 2075, mankind has reached a point where journeying between Earth, the moon and the space stations is part of daily life. However, the progression of technology in space has also resulted in the problem of the space debris, which can cause excessive and even catastrophic damage to spacecrafts and equipment. This is the story of Technora’s Debris Collecting section, its EVA worker, Hachirota “Hachimaki” Hoshino, and the newcomer to the group, Ai Tanabe.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
I saw Ghost in the Shell in a small theater in Austin, TX when it was first released—twice. I had already read the manga and when I found out there was a movie I proceeded to the theater as soon as I could.
I’ve seen it subtitled and dubbed. Both versions are well-voiced. Each scene is packed with exquisite detail and the theme of “what make us human” is perfectly executed.
Ghost in the Shell is a classic not only among anime fans but sci-fi geeks too. It’s one you shouldn’t skip. You could spend months analyzing this film.
Plot Summary (Amazon): The film is set in the not-too-distant future, when an unnamed government uses lifelike cyborgs or “enhanced” humans for undercover work. One of the key cyborgs is The Major, Motoko Kusanagi, who resembles a cross between The Terminator and a Playboy centerfold. She finds herself caught up in a tangled web of espionage and counterespionage as she searches for the mysterious super-hacker known as “The Puppet Master.”
Rating: NA (Suggested R)
Knights of Sidonia (2014)
Last year Knights of Sidonia burst onto Netflix in the middle of Attack on Titan and didn’t get the attention it deserved. It eventually garnered high praise from anime and sci-fi critics after they gorged themselves on all the episodes.
Set in the far-future this series grapples with societal issues like food shortages, the definition of humanity, and class divisions. It’s gritty, realistic, and unapologetic in the portrayal of long-term space travel and habitation.
Knights of Sidonia is one of the rare gems released in the last 5 years. Do not skip this one. But be warned: you may find yourself binge-watching this on Netflix.
Plot Summary (Netflix): Nagate [is] a low-born youth in a society of genetically engineered humans, refugees that escaped the destruction of Earth one thousand years earlier and now occupy the massive ship Sidonia. When Nagate’s talent as a pilot is revealed he becomes one of Sidonia’s elite defenders against the Gauna, shapeshifting aliens bent on eliminating humans from existence. Based on the popular Japanese manga comic.
Of all the shows listed here, Steins;Gate will be the most controversial. It’s a sci-fi show that doesn’t take itself seriously and it’s a little weird. I didn’t like it at first but it grew on me.
At it’s core, Steins;Gate is a cleverly disguised harem series but it doesn’t involve a lot of the overly-sexualized situations you’d see in normal harem anime. I tend to avoid the harem genre because of the sexual content but this is one that doesn’t take things too far.
The sci-fi element will trick you into thinking you’re not watching a harem anime but some viewers will probably want to avoid this one. Steins;Gate isn’t for everyone but it makes my list.
Plot Summary (Anime News Network): Rintaro Okabe is a self-proclaimed “mad scientist” who believes that an international organization is conspiring to reshape the world according to its own interests. He and his friend Itaru Hashida inadvertently create a gadget able to send messages to the past. The discovery and experimentation of this instrument become the catalyst of fundamental alterations to the present. Oblivious of the consequences of their actions, Rintaro and his friends end up creating modifications of grievous proportions. He must then try to find a way to return as close as possible to the original timeline in order to save his precious lab members.
What is there to say about Akira that hasn’t already been said? It is the anime that people point to from the 80s that encompasses what made fans of many Westerners.
This beautifully animated and groundbreaking movie showed me that anime was more than something fun to watch in the evening or on weekends. After Akira was made the mold was broken.
No top ten list about anime is complete without mentioning Akira. OK, maybe I’m stretching it a bit but you still should see it if you haven’t already.
Plot Summary (Google): In 1988 the Japanese government drops an atomic bomb on Tokyo after ESP experiments on children go awry. In 2019, 31 years after nuking the city, Kaneda, a bike gang leader, tries to save his friend Tetsuo from a secret government project. He battles against anti-government activists, greedy politicians, irresponsible scientists and a powerful military leader until Tetsuo’s supernatural power suddenly manifest. A final battle is fought in Tokyo Olympiad exposing the experiment’s secrets.
Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise (1987)
Honestly, I don’t have very strong memories of Wings of Honneamise because I’ve seen 3 different versions: an edited and dubbed version, a subtitled version, and a fan-subbed version. They all kind of mix together.
The lasting impression I have from this film is the spectacular animation and details coupled with great character development and a rich world. A lot of work went into this one film.
Wings of Honneamise should be on every anime fan’s must-see list. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch it for free on Hulu.
Plot summary (IMDB): On a far-off planet, a Kingdom tries to launch the planet’s first manned spacecraft. This ten year old project not only faces funding and technical problem, but also is subject to political conspiracy and the neighboring Republic’s aggression. It’s all up to Shilo, the first spaceman to be, his friends and their faith to make the space program a success.
Rating: Suggested PG13
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)
When Neon Genesis Evangelion (Eva) hit the U.S. market in 1996 it blew away everyone’s expectations. Some hard-core anime fans had already seen it through fan-subs that were being traded and copied via BBS boards and early web sites. I recall seeing it for the first time at an anime club.
Eva was released at the height of the 90’s anime boom in America. About five years after its release anime in the U.S. went into a sort of recession. Copy-cat companies were popping up and releasing terrible titles directly to the U.S. market and many distributors took a bath because with high speed Internet widely available people could get fansubs online.
Neon Genesis Evangelion marked a turning point in anime. The high-action and psychological aspects of the series resonated with an American audience and made people realize anime wasn’t just for kids or perverts.
Plot Summary (Anime News Network): At the age of 14 Shinji Ikari is summoned by his father to the city of Neo Tokyo-3 after several years of separation. There he unwillingly accepts the task of becoming the pilot of a giant robot by the name EVA01 and protect the world from the enigmatic invaders known as “angels.” Even though he repeatedly questions why he has accepted this mission from his estranged and cold father, his doing so helps him to gradually accept himself. However, why exactly are the angels attacking and what are his father’s true intentions are yet to be unraveled.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
This Miazaki classic has been reedited and redubbed so many times I don’t know where to start. I’ve seen multiple versions of this film. The only one I haven’t seen is the Disney version.
I first watched this as a kid and saw the dubbed, edited-for-tv version. It was one of the first titles I remember seeing (Besides Battle of the Planets, Robotech, and Speed Racer). Despite the fact that it was butchered to appeal to an American audience, it still holds a special place in my heart.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a title that you should not skip. I recommend the subtitle original but I hear the newer version is pretty good too.
Plot Summary (IMDB): In the far future, man has destroyed the Earth in the “Seven Days of Fire”. Now, there are small pockets of humanity that survive. One pocket is the Valley of Wind where a princess named Nausicaä tries to understand, rather than destroy the Toxic Jungle. Note that the old US release titled Warriors of the Wind is an entirely kiddiefied version which edits the original movie heavily, thus creating an entirely different story.
Macross Plus (1994)
There are two versions of this title. Both are good but I prefer the OVA series over the OAV movie. The story is more complex and the character development is much stronger.
Macross Plus is the first sequel to the Macross series (Macross II was ret-conned out of the original timeline) and was Manga Entertainment’s first video release in the U.S. I bought the VHS tapes every month when they were released. It was the first series I purchased as it was released rather than waiting for a boxed set.
At the time, Macross Plus was ground-breaking in the way it combined cel animation with CGI. It’s certainly a must-see.
Plot Summary (IMDB): 2040 AD. Humankind’s first colonized planet, Eden. Master pilot Isamu Dyson is assigned to New Edwards Flight Center as the test pilot for the prototype variable fighter, the YF-19. YF-21 pilot Guld Goa Bowmann is also there. Once friends and now rivals, the two compete in prototype trials. Meanwhile, virtual singer Sharon Apple has come to Eden to hold a concert. Her producer, Myung Fan Long, was a former friend of the two pilots. The three will fulfill a fated reunion.
Bubblegum Crisis (1987)
I’ll be honest, this a is a guilty pleasure addition to the list. Bubblegum Crisis was the first VHS boxed set I purchased and the the first series that was cancelled while I was watching it.
Originally slated for 13 episodes, the series only got 8 episodes. I often wonder what additional stories could have been told about The Knight Sabers. The series had a lot of potential and was cut short due to issues between the two studios that were producing the show.
In my mind, Bubblegum Crisis is what all other powered-suit titles try to emulate. It set the stage for the much-loved genre.
Plot Summary (Anime News Network): In the near future, Tokyo was left flattened as a result from a great earthquake. A new city, MegaTokyo, was then recreated due in no small part from the aid of a multi-million dollar company, Genom Corp. Genom created and mass-produced biomechanical creatures called Boomers to aid in the restoration of MegaTokyo. When the Boomers began to run out of control, the ADPolice at first tried to stop them, but they proved to be far more difficult to deal with than was first imagined. Under the ever looming Boomer threat, a group of four girls from varying degrees of society banded together. Calling themselves The Knight Sabers, they were the only ones with enough firepower and resourcefullness to defend the fledgling MegaTokyo from Genom and its berserk Boomers.
Rating: TV-14 (Suggested)
Attack on Titan (2013)
Having been recently released, this title probably shouldn’t be on the list yet but I was so enamored and captivated by Attack on Titan I couldn’t leave it off the list.
Most of my list consists of titles released before the year 2000. I’m not really a big fan of most of the new anime being released these days. It’s formulaic and many of the characters look like they were drawn from a “How to Draw Anime” book.
Attack on Titan broke the mold and really demonstrated that there are a few people left out there who are interested in make good art with compelling stories and characters.
Plot Summary (IMDB): 2000 years from now, humans are nearly exterminated by titans. Titans are typically several stories tall, seem to have no intelligence, devour human beings and, worst of all, seem to do it for the pleasure rather than as a food source. A small percentage of humanity survived by walling themselves in a city protected by extremely high walls, even taller than the biggest of titans. Flash forward to the present and the city has not seen a titan in over 100 years. Teenage boy Eren and his foster sister Mikasa witness something horrific as the city walls are destroyed by a colossal titan that appears out of thin air. As the smaller titans flood the city, the two kids watch in horror as their mother is eaten alive. Eren vows that he will murder every single titan and take revenge for all of mankind.
There you have it. My top recommendations for sci-fi anime. Are there any titles you would add to the list? Leave a comment below.