Ask a fan of science fiction (as defined as someone who reads science fiction) what they would like to see more of in the genre and one popular answer might be more quality SF on television. There is a limit to how often a person can rewatch the same few shows like Firefly, Stargate, and Twilight Zone to satisfy the urge to watch something SF. And heaven forbid if an American SF fan wanted to see realistic cutting edge technology like Augmented Reality or a show that remembered that space is a vacuum.
When I became an anime fan I wasn’t expecting to find shows that where both good anime and good SF but I’ve come across a number of shows that do both. So in the interest of helping non-anime science fiction fans, I thought I’d point out some of the best titles. For each listing I’ll list what type of SF it is, a fairly spoiler free synopsis of the show, and the show’s availability in America.
A final word before moving onto the list. One of the big differences between anime and most American shows – if you’re not familiar with anime – is that in anime, just because the characters are school age, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the show is any less complex then if it had only adults. Granted, in many instances anime can be juvenile but that’s the same as with science fiction – not all of it’s mature but some of it is.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Type of science fiction – Time travel
Available on DVD – English dub and subtitles
This movie is about a normal high school girl when she suddenly gains the power to travel to the recent past but this isn’t a story about how she saves the world. Instead, this is a story about how she uses this power to improve her life and the consequences of her actions. It starts off good; she uses the power to eat the pudding cup that her sister stole, she goes back to ace a recent quiz and she switches what food she makes during cooking class to name just a few. As time moves forward, though, she sees what the unintended consequences are to her actions and must try to fix what she’s done.
This type of story is by no means unique but what sets this movie apart is the characters are given abundant depth so you sympathize and like them immensely. Also to the movie’s credit, it never gets that contrived and arbitrary feeling many time travel stories get. It somewhat reminds me of a Connie Willis time travel story in that the focus is on the characters and the time travel is just a means to the end.
Television Series, 26 Episodes
Type of science fiction – Augmented Reality
Unlicensed * – English subtitles only
Earlier this year I wrote of this show, “Imagine a show that deals of the same cutting edge technology that’s found in works by Charles Stross and Vernor Vinge. Imagine this show centers around characters still in elementary school. Finally, imagine this show running on the Japanese equivalent of America’s PBS station. If you could imagine a show like this then you’ve probably already watched Dennou Coil.” It was hard to imagine that a show with this type of background would ever see the light of day but it did and it was a winner.
The show knows how to balance the light-hearted antics of the kids with the more serious story of one tranfer student’s effort to figure out what happened to her older brother who disappeared while using his AR glasses. This show also did a good job in imagining how AR operate and what new problems would need to be addressed. One of my favorite touches was the mobile anti-virus program that went around the city searching for irregularities in the system and fixing them. Since all the kids hacked their AR glasses to do more, they had to keep away from these programs or else their glasses would get fried and they’d have to get a new pair of glasses.
Television Series, 12 Episodes
Type of science fiction – Total mind and selective memory uploading and transference
Unlicensed * – English subtitles only
Kaiba wakes up at the beginning of episode 1 without any memories. A scan of his mind reveals that his mind literally contains no memories. So he does the logical thing and goes on a quest to figure out who or what he is. Along the way he loses his original body, gains two new ones, sees first hand how mind uploading and transference has altered society and finds out that he’s lost someone that’s important to him.
For all it’s focus on the technology that’s made this society possible, it doesn’t forget that to make a good show one needs characters and a story to tell. It was advertised as a SF/Love story and succeeds on both fronts. So don’t let the odd animation style stop you from watching this exceptional SF show.
Television Series, 26 episodes
Type of science fiction – nuclear fusion, moon colonies and mining
Available on DVD – English dub and subtitles
The year is 2075 and space has become dangerously full of space junk. To contend with this problem, governments offer bounties to companies for the removal of debris that would threaten the human activities in space. As you might guess, even governmental bounties do not make this profitable for companies so these companies run their Debris Sections on a shoe-string and duck tape budget. Planetes focuses on one company’s Debris Section and their adventures.
A series about space garbagemen might not sound interesting but it turns out that this series is anything but boring. Some episodes focus on what happens when the space junk turns out to not be junk; for example, in one episode it’s a secret military satellite and in another, it’s the coffin of someone buried in space. Other episodes take place on the moon bases and we get the chance to meet one of the first persons to be born on the moon and see how that affects her outlook on life. Other episodes deal with a terrorist group from the have-not nations that can’t take advantage of nuclear fusion because they can’t afford to mine the moon for fuel like the rich countries and how the paths of our Debris Section and them cross.
And if you still need a reason to watch this show, then let me say that this show remembers that space is a vacuum and sound doesn’t carry.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Television Series, 52 episodes
Type of science fiction – A.I., prosthetic bodies, mind uploading
Available on DVD – English dub and subtitles
Don’t confuse the television series with the pair of movies – they’re the same franchise but unconnected to each other. I listed the series over the movies because the series has more action, lacks much of snobby philosophizing of the movie, and has the time to better explore it’s futuristic world and the ramifications of it’s advanced technology.
GitS:SAC, as it’s abbreviated, takes place in the near future where mind uploading and entire prosthetic bodies are a reality and almost commonplace. To further blur the line between man and machine, A.I. development has come a long way in creating A.I. that is very humanlike. In this hyperconnected, digital future society it becomes imperative for a government to have crack professionals that can keep it’s citizens safe from the profuse types of cybercrimes of the future. This is where Section 9 – a mix of ex-mercenaries, hackers, and intelligent cops – of the Japanese government comes in.
One of my favorite episodes involves the uploaded brain of a film maker. In physical life, he found it nearly impossible to find the funding to make his movies. To remedy this, he uploaded his mind into a digital braincase where he could create the movie and people could jack in and watch his movies in a virtual movie theater. The problem for Section 9 is that his movies where so good that almost no one wanted to leave – even if that meant their physical bodies died.
So, if you’re looking for a show that is one of best examples of how SF can be entertaining, action-packed, and still intelligent – check out Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.
OVA Series, 7 episodes
Type of science fiction – moon civilization, massive environment cataclysm on Earth
Available on DVD, Blu-Ray – English dub and subtitles
It’s the dawn of the 23rd century and it’s been a hundred years since a human-triggered environmental cataclysm has supposedly rendered Earth uninhabitable. This has left the couple million inhabitants of the Moon City Eden as the last outpost for humanity. A strictly controlled society is necessary for Eden to survive but the teens of Eden don’t like it and this causes them to frequently get punished. It happens that while inspecting conduits outside as punishment, one of these teens, Takeru, witnesses an object crashing into the Moon’s surface. He rushes over to examine the crash site and his life will be altered forever after he discovers what this object’s cargo was.
This was a fun title to watch and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. One caveat with this title is that originally this was only 6 episodes long and when you watch it, you’ll see how the ending of episode 6 was a natural ending point. Episode 7 was added later on and while it was good to see what happens next, they tried to cover to much in one episode so it felt very rushed. Just a heads-up, this is still a very good show to watch – especially if you like the type of SF where humans overcome adversity in the face of danger.
The next two anime shows might not be science fiction per say but are definitely SF-related and almost guaranteed to be liked by a SF fan.
TV Series, 13 episodes + 2 Stand-alone short movies
TV Series is available on DVD with English dub and subtitles but the short movies remain unlicensed
Kino is a traveler. Travelers spend their life traveling to the many different small city-states that dot the landscape of this earthlike world. For the most part these city-states leave each other alone which has allowed many different types of cities to develop. Some are high-tech, some are decidedly low-tech, and most fall somewhere in the middle. Kino spends only 3 days in any one city, just long enough to get a taste of what makes the city tick but not long enough to want to stay.
This type of set up allows Kino to be presented with many different scenarios that are designed to make the viewer think. For example, in one episode she visits a city that had been locked in a century long war with a neighboring city but fifteen years ago peace was achieved. The citizens are very proud at being able to finally end this war so Kino checks out the History museum. The curator of the museum, a mother who lost her husband and sons to the war, was instrumental – along with a mother on the other side – in ending the war. Their solution involves a yearly contest between the two sides, with a set number of combatants and automatic rifles, in how many people they can kill in a nearby underdeveloped city. The side that kills the most, is that year’s winner. Sounds horrible but as the curator points out, overall the number of people dieing is less and the standard of living in both cities have increased immensely now that the expensive weapons of war no longer have to be made.
Not every episode has a scenario this extreme or depressing but the series will make you think, much like good science fiction. I highly recommend this title.
Available on DVD – English subtitles only
Millenium Actress is one of those titles that are hard to adequately explain. The frame of the movie follows a documentary maker as he interviews an aging film actress about her life. We discover, from the moment she bumps into a fleeing artist/anti-government protestor in the early 1930’s and falls in love with him, that her life has echoed many parts that she played in the movies. This fact might help to explain how during the course of the interview, her recollections seem to bleed into real-life and the documentarian and cameraman find themselves physically watching parts of her life and finding themselves in the movies that she was in.
This might sound a little odd but it makes for a very riveting movie. In fact, as I was writing this I got the urge to watch it again and did so. The reason for it’s inclusion on this list comes from the actress being in SF movies and the use of one of these movies as a metaphor for something I won’t spoil here.
That’s it for the list now. I plan on adding onto this list in the future as I watch other worthy titles so I’ll be giving this post it’s own easily findable page up above.
*It’s relatively easy to find and download unlicensed anime on the internet, subtitled in whatever language you want. I don’t have the space here or desire to argue about fansubs so I will leave it at this. If the show is unlicensed, the only way to get it licensed is if American companies think they can sell enough DVDs so the more people that have seen these unlicensed shows and are talking about them – the greater chance that it’ll get licensed. And if the show is available on DVD and you liked it – buy it so more shows of this type are made. And if you’re unsure about a show and don’t want to spend money on a DVD you won’t like, remember that it’s rentable through a service like Netflix.