If you've seen a few of the animated Japanese movies and TV shows available in the US, you might easily assume they're all science fiction or fantasy. This isn't true. However, most of the anime translated into English is SF or fantasy. Interestingly, the SF translations embrace more subgenres than American live-action SF. Watch SF anime and you'll see alternate histories; giant robots; Martian colonies; extraterrestrial invaders; superheroines; star-faring galleons; space-time cops battling dimension-hopping demons; Shinto priestess exorcists; schoolchildren with recurring dreams of their past lives....
Wait a minute, you're probably saying. You started with science fiction, but now you're listing fantasy.
Except I'm not. At least, not by the Japanese standards for science fiction. If you require anime to fit Western definitions of SF, you'll be left with little beyond Wings of Honneamise. If you want only pure-D "hard SF," you're out of luck. (Of course, if you apply hard-SF strictures to Hollywood's entire SF output, animated and live-action, about all you're left with is 2001: A Space Odyssey .)
In its entry for "Japan" (it has no entry for "anime"), The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes: "The term 'sf' is in Japanese rather inclusive, embracing much that an occidental sf purist would reject." Like Japan's SF authors, creators of SF anime and manga (Japanese comics) ignore the genre definitions that have fueled decades of flame wars in fanzine letter-columns, Usenet groups, and Internet chatrooms. Probably few anime/manga creators have ever heard an American definition of SF or fantasy. They likely wouldn't care if they did. And if they cared, they still wouldn't succeed in satisfying many American genre-purists.
Cultural differences determine definitions, and the US and Japan have significant differences. In the West, for example, myth, legend, and folklore exert far more influence over fantasy than SF; however, these influences appear regularly in SF anime. Some differences sink deep into bedrock beliefs about the nature of reality. Westerners, steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, believe "you only live once," while the Buddhist Japanese believe you live many lives. In Japan, characters returning in successive lives aren't fantastic; they're realistic. Naturally, reincarnation plays a role in some SF anime. In Sailor Moon (1992), for example, Serena becomes a superheroine because she's the reincarnation of Moon Princess Serenity. In Please Save My Earth (1993), schoolchildren sharing dreams of long-dead alien scientists are remembering past lives—and a tragedy that can conclude only in modern-day Tokyo.
Recognizably SF by Western standards, Tetsuwan Atomu (1963) wasn't Japan's first animated TV show, as sometimes claimed. It is, however, the first example of modern anime, and the first anime to be broadcast outside Japan. It debuted on American TV, in edited form, under the lawsuit-driven new title Astro Boy. Its creator, the Disney-inspired Dr. Osamu Tezuka, had a Disney-sized influence on anime. Astro Boy's impact has remained so strong, he's returning in the 2000s in a third animated series.
Astro Boy and his comrades are robots on a human scale. The TV show Gigantor (1963) introduced the super-sized battle robot to American audiences. With or without transformer abilities or human pilots, the giant robot doth bestride anime like a colossus in more than one sense. Some American viewers erroneously believe this subgenre is the only kind of SF anime (or the only kind of anime) in existence. And if your only exposure to giant robots is Transformers (1985), a Japan-US coproduction, you may believe giant robot "cartoons" exist only to advertise toys. However, the better titles focus on human universals, like love and hate, life and death, war and peace, and duty and desire. Notable examples of the subgenre include the first pilot-controlled giant robot, Mazinger Z/TranZor Z (1972); the first transformer, Starvengers/Getter Robo (1974); the epic franchise Gundam (1979); the U.S.-only anime Robotech (1985); the parody Project A-Ko (1986); the near-future cop show Patlabor (1989); the first retro anime, Giant Robo (1992); the alternate-Earth transformer-dragon fantasy, Escaflowne (1996); the controversial Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995); and the almost indescribably weird FLCL (2000).
Some Western anime fans apply the term mecha exclusively to giant robots, but actually the term (derived from the English word "mechanical") refers to any futuristic mechanical device. Astro Boy is a mecha, as is the fully human-looking and -seeming android in Armitage III (1994). Mecha describes the high-heeled powersuits of Bubblegum Crisis (1987); the alternate-history aircraft of The Last Exile (2003); the spaceships of Cowboy Bebop (1998); the space station in Blue Gender (1999); the motorcycle-weapon of Megazone 23 (1985); the artificial limbs of Texhnolyze (2003); the cybernetic bodies in Ghost in the Shell (1995); and the high-tech bed run amok in Roujin Z (1991).
A striking example of mecha is the Japanese World War II battleship retrofitted for space flight in Uchu Senkan Yamato (1974). Released in the US as Star Blazers (1979), the show demonstrated that a complex, intelligent SF anime could attract adult viewers. Star Blazers introduced Americans to the ambitious, tangled future history of anime giant Reiji Matsumoto, who has also launched galleons and a locomotive into interstellar space. Matsumoto's uneven but profoundly influential films and TV series feature some of anime's most prominent "samurai from outer space" (SF anime characters embodying the code of bushido, the way of the warrior). A few of his many interconnected sagas are Captain Harlock (1978), Galaxy Express 999 (TV 1978, movie 1979), Arcadia of my Youth (1982), and Space Pirate Captain Herlock: The Endless Odyssey: Outside Legend (2002).
Another anime giant, and arguably the greatest animator of all time, is Hayao Miyazaki. As well-known and well-regarded outside the US as Walt Disney, Miyazaki deserves Disney-scale success in the US. Few of his movies qualify as SF even by Japanese standards, but three of his movies and one of his TV shows belong in any discussion of SF anime. Predating the movies, his typically eco-conscious TV show Future Boy Conan (1978) is set twenty years after a devastating nuclear war; it was reedited into a movie in 1979. Also set in a post-apocalyptic future, Miyazaki's tremendous Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (1984) has never had an intact English-language release (it was butchered into a shorter, dubbed movie titled Warriors of the Wind ). The only other Miyazaki movie that can be considered SF is the wonderful Castle in the Sky (1986), set on an alternate Earth of steampunk aircraft, flying pirates, and the sky island from Jonathan Swift's novel Gulliver's Travels (1726).
The First Lady of Anime, Rumiko Takahashi, has created more fantasy than SF, but her Urusei Yatsura (1981) turned SF into a romantic situation comedy and created an international sensation.
Urusei Yatsura points the way to a quite different SF comedy anime, Sailor Moon (1992). Some Americans may conclude neither title is SF because of fantasy elements; others may conclude they're not SF because they belong to, or cross over to, a subgenre that doesn't exist in America (at least, not in the SF section of bookstores): shojo SF.
Shonen (boy) anime and manga are written for boys and men, and focus on traditionally "male" interests like action and weapons; shojo (girl) anime/manga focus on traditionally "female" interests like relationships and emotions. Traditional shonen SF fits many of the Western descriptions of "hard SF" (and also, not coincidentally, descriptions of the stereotypical "real man"): rigorous, rational, unemotional. Traditional shojo SF fits the Western descriptions of romance fiction (and of women): intuitive, relational, emotional. In America, SF that focuses more on emotional than scientific content is shelved (and sometimes despised) as romance, and is almost never read by guys. In Japan, the men watch women's anime and the women watch men's anime, and many talents have deliberately or unintentionally created hybrids that are enormous hits with both male and female audiences. The numerous hybrids include some of the most popular and acclaimed SF/F anime in both East and West, among them Escaflowne, The Last Exile, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and every Hayao Miyazaki movie.
For more information on anime, I recommend a pair of excellent guides, Antonia Levi's Samurai from Outer Space: Understanding Japanese Animation (1996) and Patrick Drazen's Anime Explosion! The What? Why? and Wow! of Japanese Animation (2003), along with the invaluable reference book The Anime Movie Guide (1996) by Helen McCarthy. Online, there is also the Japanese Animation Movie List: Sci-Fi Anime Movie Data Bank.
Whenever possible, the following recommendations include both the American and Japanese titles. Sometimes the American title is a translation; sometimes it's new. A title change may or may not mean the translation has been edited or rewritten for the American market. Sometimes, an anime has been released in Japan or the US under more than one title. Almost inevitably, an anime exists as a TV series or several; a movie or several; an original animation video (OAV) or several; a video game or several; and a manga. Also, as Harlock/Herlock demonstrates, transliteration from Japanese to the Western alphabet adds further complications. Though I've presented the best-known titles and translations, it's possible I've listed one of your favorites under a title you've never heard.
Essential Movies and OAV Features
- Akira (1988)
- After World War III, a secret government program replicates the human bioweapon that destroyed Tokyo.
- The Animatrix (2003)
- Larry and Andy Wachowski, the American writer-directors of The Matrix, collaborate with several prominent Japanese animation creators on this DVD anthology of nine animated shorts, set in the world of the Matrix trilogy.
- Castle in the Sky/Tenku no Shiro Laputa (Laputa: The Castle in the Sky, 1986):
- On this steampunk alternate Earth, two orphans flee sky pirates and rediscover a famous flying island.
- Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' on Heaven's Door (2001)
- Terrorists unleash a bioweapon on colonial Mars. This movie takes place between episodes 22 and 23 of the TV series.
- End of Evangelion/Shinseiki Evangelion (New Century Evangelion, 1997)
- From the dominant Gainax studio comes the shocking, apocalyptic conclusion of the Neon Genesis Evangelion saga.
- Escaflowne (2000)
- An ordinary high school girl finds herself inside a dragon transformer-robot on an alternate Earth where she is hailed as a goddess.
- Final Yamato/Uchu Senkan Yamato: Kanketsu (1983)
- Aquatic aliens threaten the galaxy in this continuation of the Star Blazers saga.
- Ghost in the Shell (1995)
- A sentient computer virus wreaks havoc in its attempts to gain a physical body.
- Goshogun: Time Stranger/Time Etranger (1985)
- Trapped on a hostile world, old enemies unite to survive. If the ending doesn't make sense, watch the first scene again. This OAV feature is the giant robot-free sequel to the inferior giant-robot TV series, Goshogun/Sengoku Majin Goshogun (Civil War Devil-God Goshogun, 1981), which was combined with the unrelated anime series Srungle/Aku Dai Sakusen Srungle (Great Subspace War Srungle, 1983) and rewritten, Robotech-fashion, to create a new US TV series, Macron One (1985).
- Megazone 23 (1985)
- A motorcyclist learns everyone in Tokyo is living in a computer simulation on a spaceship carrying eco-catastrophe survivors, and the ship has been discovered by hostile aliens.
- Memories (1995)
- Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo and Perfect Blue writer-director Satoshi Kon are among the creators of this anthology of three SF shorts.
- Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack/Kido Senshi Gundam: Char no Gyakushu (1989)
- Earth and its space colonies continue their war in the movie sequel to the franchise's third TV series, Double Zeta Gundam.
- My Youth in Arcadia/Arcadia of my Youth/Waga Seishun no Arukadia (1982)
- Captain Harlock fights the Machine People for human liberty. Originally released in the US as Vengeance of the Space Pirates; now available as Arcadia of my Youth.
- Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind/Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa (1984)
- A thousand years after war nearly destroyed Earth, a princess may finish off the planet by awakening an ancient superweapon. Not available intact in English.
- Perfect Blue (1999)
- In this surreal psychological thriller, a pop singer finds her every move detailed on a web diary she didn't write.
- Project A-Ko (1986)
- As aliens invade, two schoolgirls fight over the affections of a third, in a mayhem-packed parody whose targets range from Akira to Superman and Wonder Woman. Best appreciated by viewers already familiar with anime.
- Robot Carnival (1987)
- Before The Animatrix, before Memories, before Neo Tokyo, there was Robot Carnival, a theme anthology of nine shorts from several of the top anime talents of the 1980s.
- Sailor Moon SS (1995)
- A contemporary pied piper lures the children to a spaceship.
- Urusei Yatsura: Remember My Love (Those Obnoxious Aliens/Noisy People, 1985)
- The third UY movie, a wild transdimensional adventure, is the most SFnal of the franchise's films, but all are essential.
- Windaria/Windaria Senki Densetsu (Legend of Windaria Chronicle, 1986)
- On a quasi-medieval alternate Earth, war dooms a pair of lovers who are heirs to rival kingdoms.
- Wings of Honneamise/Oneamisu no Tsubasa (production title, Royal Space Force, 1987)
- A slacker in an alternate Earth's disrespected Royal Space Force becomes the first man in space. Gainax was founded in 1984 to make this movie.
Essential TV and OAV Series
- Astro Boy/Tetsuwan Atomu (Mighty Atom, 1963)
- The title character fights for equal rights for robots in the first modern anime.
- Battle of the Planets/G-Force/Kagaku Ninjatai Gatchaman (Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, (1972)
- A five-member team opposes the aliens attacking Earth and the Federation of Planets. As Battle of the Planets (1978), edited for American TV. As G-Force (1986), redubbed in a more faithful adaptation.
- Cowboy Bebop (1998)
- Bounty hunters pursue criminals across a multicultural, multiplanetary future.
- Escaflowne/Tenku no Escaflowne (The Vision of Escaflowne, 1996)
- An ordinary high school girl is the key to victory on a fantastic alternate Earth.
- FLCL/Fooly Cooly/Furi Kuri (2000)
- In this surreal Gainax OAV about alien invasion, an extraterrestrial woman's guitar-blows cause giant robots to sprout from a schoolboy's head.
- Gigantor/Tetsujin 28-go (Ironman Number 28, 1963)
- The first giant robot on American TV fights "for right against wrong."
- Gundam/Kido Senshi Gundam (Mobile Suit Gundam, 1979)
- A new breed of psionically gifted humans emerges in an interplanetary war. Still active two decades after its premiere, MSG is one of SF anime's most important franchises.
- Haibane-Renmei (Charcoal Feathers/Gray Wings, 2003)
- Though they look human, the Haibane have wings and must live apart from humans, in a closed city on an alternate world.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion/Shinseiki Evangelion (New Century Evangelion, 1995)
- Mysterious aliens invade a drowning Earth with bioengineered mecha, and Earth's only hope is experimental giant robots.
- Robotech (1985)
- Existing only in the U.S., Robotech splices three unrelated Japanese TV series (Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross/Chojiku Yosai Macross , Super-Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross/Chojiku Yosai Southern Cross , and Genesis Climber Mospeada/Kiko Soseiki Mospeada ), to create a new story about an alien invasion of Earth.
- Sailor Moon/Bishojo Senshi Sailor Moon (Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon, 1992)
- A clumsy crybaby becomes a superheroine and saves the world. SM was heavily edited for US broadcast, but the DVDs restore the original stories and genders.
- Serial Experiments Lain (1998)
- A suicide's ghost may be haunting a virtual-reality Internet.
- Star Blazers/Uchu Senkan Yamato (Space Cruiser Yamato/Space Battleship Yamato, 1974)
- A World War II battleship is retrofitted for space flight as Earth's last defense against invading aliens.
- Trigun (1998)
- Bounty hunters pursue a far-future gunman across a distant desert planet on which terraforming has stalled.
- Urusei Yatsura (Those Obnoxious Aliens/Noisy People, 1981)
- A beautiful alien princess falls in love with a horny, hapless high-schooler.
Other Recommended Works (TV, movie, and OAV)
- All-Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku (Snuggly Wuggly)/Banno Bunka Neko Musume Nuku Nuku (1992)
- Adieu, Galaxy Express 999 (1981)
- Appleseed (1988)
- Armitage III/Armitage the 3rd (1994; not a sequel; released in substantially different form in the US as Armitage III: Polymatrix, 1997)
- Assemble Insert (1989)
- Aura Battler Dunbine/Seisenshi Dunbine (1983)
- Battle Angel/Gunmu (Battle Angel Alita/Gun-Dream, 1993)
- Battle Royale High School/Shinmajinden (Legend of the True Devils, 1987)
- The Big O (1999)
- Blue Gender (1999)
- Blue Submarine No. 6/Aono Rokugo (Blue Six, 1998)
- Bubblegum Crisis (1987), Bubblegum Crash (1989), Bubblegum Crisis 2040 (1998)
- Captain Harlock/Uchu Kaizoku Kyaputen Harroku (Space Pirate Captain Harlock, 1978; combined with Reiji Matsumoto's TV series Queen of a Thousand Years/Shin Taketori Monogatari Sennen Jo-o  for US broadcast as Captain Harlock and the Queen of a Thousand Years ; broadcast in Canada in a "fairly accurate" French translation under the title Albator)
- Crusher Joe (1983)
- Cutey Honey (1973)
- Cyborg 009 (1966)
- Dirty Pair Flash (1994)
- Dr. Slump (1981; not available in English)
- Doraemon (1973)
- Fist of the North Star/Hokuto no Ken (1984)
- Future Boy Conan/Mirai Shonen Conan (1978; movie, 1979; neither available in English)
- Gad Guard (2003)
- Galaxy Express 999/Ginga Tetsudo 999 (1978; movie 1979)
- Gall Force (1986), Rhea Gall Force (1989)
- Gene Shaft (2001)
- Giant Robo (1992)
- Grey: Digital Target (1986)
- Gunbuster (1988)
- Harmagedon/Genma Taisen (Great War with Genma, 1983)
- Heat Guy J (2003)
- Iczer-One (1985)
- Infinite Ryvius/Mugen Ryvius (1999; the first anime available for free download on the Internet)
- Iria: Zeiram the Animation (1994)
- Irresponsible Captain Tylor/Musukenin Kancho Tyler (1992)
- Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999)
- Key the Metal Idol (1994)
- The Last Exile (2003)
- Lensman (1984)
- Mazinger Z/TranZor Z (1972)
- MD Geist/Sokihei MD Geist (Armored Devil-Soldier MD Geist, 1986)
- Metropolis (2001; a posthumous Osamu Tezuka movie)
- Nadesico/Kido Senkan Nadesico (Robot Warship Pink/Martian Successor Nadesico, 1996)
- Neo Tokyo/Manie Manie Meikyu Monogatari (Labyrinth Tales, 1987)
- NieA Under Seven/NieA_7 (2000)
- Night on the Galactic Railroad/Ginga Tetsudo no Yori (Night on the Milky Way Railroad, 1985)
- Original Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia (1985)
- Original Dirty Pair: Project Eden (1987)
- Outlanders (1986)
- Outlaw Star/Seiho Bukyo Outlaw Star (Stellar Chivalry Outlaw Star, 1998)
- Patlabor/Kido Keisatsu Patlabor (Mobile Police Patlabor, 1989)
- Please Save My Earth/Boku no Chikyu o Mamotte (1993)
- Pokemon/Pocket Monsters (1997)
- Prefectural Earth Defense Force (1986; not available in English)
- RahXephon (2001)
- Read or Die/R.O.D. (2000)
- Roujin-Z/Old Man Z (1991)
- Sakura Wars/Sakura Taisen (1997)
- Silent Moebius (1991)
- Spriggan (1998)
- Starvengers/Getter Robo (1974)
- Space Adventure Cobra (1982; TV series title, Space Cobra)
- Space Pirate Captain Herlock: The Endless Odyssey: Outside Legend (2002; Harlock's re-transliterated name should serve as a warning to continuity freaks, who will be driven mad by not only Reiji Matsumoto's anime, but by Escaflowne, Gundam, and innumerable other anime and manga that routinely change or eliminate major characters, relationships, etc).
- Stand Alone Complex: Ghost in the Shell (2002; TV series, sequel to movie; forthcoming in English)
- Tenchi Muyo in Love (movie, 1996)
- Tenchi Muyo/No-Good Tenchi (TV, 1992)
- Texhnolyze (2003)
- Transformers/Tatakae Cho Robot Seimetal Transformers (Fight Super Living Robot Transformers, 1985)
- The Venus Wars (1989)
- Voice of a Distant Star (2003)
- Voltron, Defender of the Universe/Hyakujuo Go-Lion (Lion Force Voltron/Go Lion/Five Lions, 1981)
- X/X: 1999 (1999)