Japanese animation can be a tough sell for some people. Big eyed waifs with improbable hair, a strange mix of comedy and drama, and even the idea of taking a cartoon seriously (Hi mom!) can be a barrier to some folks, which is a shame. There is some absolutely fantastic science fiction to be found in anime.
If you’re in the market for some good scifi, I now present a non-exclusive list of fantastic scifi presented in no particular order, all of them available in the US:
Rebuild of Evangelion
Perhaps one of the most popular anime series of all time, Neon Genesis Evangelion came about in the mid-1990s and took one of Japan’s most familiar tropes– teenagers piloting giant robots into battle– and asked why, exactly, you’d hand over that kind of power to someone as emotionally unstable as a teenager. The show follows three teenaged pilots as they struggle to fight off invasion by a powerful and increasingly obscure force with humanoid weapons systems that are more than they seem, all while an international cabal pushes its own mysterious agenda.
The original series is both thoughtful and grim, and unfortunately dives into abstract territory that are not entirely to my tastes. A notoriously unlikable protagonist further complicates matters. But fear not! One good point of the reboot-craze is that sometimes, we get to see a flawed work that actually needed a second pass get that second pass. The Rebuild of Evangelion film series is less abstract, and potentially less grim (we’re still waiting on the final installment, due in the next year or so) than its television predecessor, and the protagonist has been tweaked subtly but effectively. Where Shinji was once abhorrently whiny, he now feels like he has legitimate abandonment issues. An examination of alienation and broken relationships has always been central to Evangelion, and, like most everything else, it works better in Rebuild of Evangelion than it does in the TV show.
RahXephon feels, in a lot of ways, like Evangelion‘s brother. Once again, a highschooler finds himself tied to a mysterious giant robot that he never asked for; once again, an unknown force is attacking the world while an ancient agenda is unfolding. RahXephon, however, trades the Judeo-Christian and Cabbalistic imagery for musical symbolism and Mayan imagery. Where Evangelion‘s mysterious can be frustrating, RahXephon‘s are more approachable, if just as mysterious.
Again, like Evangelion, RahXephon puts a premium on its characters and its relationships. Where Evangelion‘s characters are often fairly (and intentionally) abrasive, RahXephon‘s are more nuanced. Brokenness is less a theme and more of an opportunity for growth in the characters.
It’s also a subtle show. If Gene Wolfe were to sit down and write a giant robot show, he’d write RahXephon. It’s not a show to watch with half your brain; its one to sit down and pay attention to. You’ll be rewarded for your efforts. (As a plus, it’s available on Hulu for free.)
There’s an interesting vignette that I remember reading about Gasaraki. When the creator was pitching the show, he told the studio that there would only be two types of robots in it.This caused a mild panic attack on the studio’s marketing, who anxiously wanted to know how they’d sell models with only two types of mecha.
If RahXephon is Gene Wolfe’s theoretical entry into giant robot shows, Gasaraki is Tom Clancy’s. There aren’t a lot of flashy robots, and the drama is heavily political. But it’s an interesting look at a more realistic portrayal of what mechs might be to our military. As with the previous two shows, though, there’s an ancient conspiracy unfolding in the background. Giant robots, after all, are never exactly what they appear to be.
Also available for free at Hulu.
Ahh, the big one. The finest anime ever made in a lot of people’s eyes. Mysteriously free of giant robots, Cowboy Bebop feels like a Japanese Firefly, although it preceded Firefly by a few years. Nevertheless, you have a quirky crew of likeable ne’er-do-wells just trying to make a living– although, in this case, if they ever crossed paths with Mal and his crew, they’d be hunting them. Spike and company are “Cowboys” (bounty hunters) hunting down criminals at the edges of the solar system.
The show features an excellent soundtrack from famed composer Yoko Kanno, and masterful direction by Shinchirou Watanabe. It also features a genetically engineered hyper-intelligent Corgi, who, although lacking a voice or thumbs, is clearly one of the most intelligent members of the crew, even if most of them have no idea.
Available at Hulu.
Cowboy Bebop wasn’t Watanabe and Kanno’s first collaboration. Back in 1994, they collaborated on the first official sequel to one of my favorite space operas, Super Dimensional Fortress Macross. Macross in the US has a long and contentious history (The legal battle is so bad that none of the trailers for Macross Plus on Youtube have sound– at least, that’s what I assume is going on.), due to the fact that it forms the first generation of the show Robotech, and Macross Plus is one of the few shows set in the Macross universe to make it here. Fortunately, it’s one of the best.
Macross Plus is another show with a focus on its characters. 30 years after a catastrophic war with the alien Zentraedi, Isamu Dyson is a hotshot fighter pilot reassigned to test pilot duty after one too many gloryhound stunts in combat. The UN Spacy is developing new variable fighters (Giant robots that are also fighter planes!) to replace their current aging planes, and Isamu is reassigned to his home colony world to fly one of the candidate fighters in the trials. The problem? The competing fighter is piloted by an old friend that he hasn’t spoken to since he left planet Eden– and the girl that came between them has just returned to Eden as well.
It’s over on Hulu!
In lieu of a trailer, here’s the first minute or so of the first episode:
Trigun is a bit of an odd duck. It’s highly comedic. It’s cyberpunk. It’s a western. It starts off following a pair of insurance agents trying to find the legendary Vash the Stampede, the planet Gunsmoke’s most wanted gunslinger. To say too much about what it’s about would be to ruin it, but suffice it to say: Vash is a gunslinger who holds life to be the most important thing in the universe, and the show’s plot stems from the collision between Vash’s morals and a universe that doesn’t respect them.
Hulu has it here.