The 25 Best Sci-Fi Anime of All Time
To talk about Sci-Fi anime, I first had to think about what NOT to include. Science Fiction is a huge category in anime, because most of the shows are set 20 minutes into the future, mixing some currently non-existent technology with a story that mostly exists in a separate genre. I wanted to make sure that the story could not be told the same way without the science fiction elements in it, that is, that it did not belong more to another genre than to the Sci-Fi genre.
Also, with anime, I decided to cut out things that involved giant mechs (like the Gundam franchise, Voltron, Zoids, Neon Genesis Evangelion). I think the giant mech genre should be treated as a separate thing, a combination of Sci-Fi and martial arts. While they're all technically Sci-Fi, since there are so many mech shows and such a variety of mech stories, I thought it best to reserve mech series for their own article, so they will not be included here. I did allow fro various kinds of human-sized robotics and power armor to exist, using the following criteria for a show to not be included on grounds of being a "mech show":
- Mechs over 30 feet.
- The central focus of the plot is the mech battles.
- The theme being consistent that the mech must be spiritually bonded to its pilot.
So if I found those things, I called them a "mech show" and cut them out. But those shows will be in a future "Best of the Genre" list, I just don't know when.
I also cut out films, sticking only to anime series. There are a lot of great classic Sci-Fi anime films, but it's easier to deal with them separately and individually. It's also hard, when I was doing comparisons and deciding what to cut and what to keep on my final list, to compare a film adequately against a series, because different formats have different budgets and demands.
So what makes a Sci-Fi anime series great? I like the following characteristics of the Sci-Fi genre:
- Maturity, depth, and philosophical interest. Science fiction is about exploring future possibilities in technology, space exploration, and/or time travel. Good science fiction is often intellectually stimulating. I like it because it's often more serious and mature than other types of anime.
- Innovation and creativity, I did not include shows if I thought they were merely another anime plot type recycled in space, or if they were too unoriginal in their character and world creations. Science fiction is a difficult genre to write because it is all about innovation, but when this is done well it makes a truly spectacular series.
- While it could be mature, I chose to cut out shows I felt were just a constant onslaught of gore or nudity for the sake of shocking the viewer. This is often a cheap way out when a writer isn't sure what they're doing. Not all gore or fanservice is bad, but in some anime series, it can begin to feel a bit like the creator's one-trick pony.
- Likeable characters, interesting story, and an emotional impact on the viewer. I had to care about what I was watching, it had to make me feel something, basically.
Now, there are plenty of perfectly enjoyable series that didn't make this list. I was very tough in trying to narrow it down to a list of the 25 best. These are also not really exactly in order from best to worst. I mean, kind of, but many of these could have been moved higher or lower and it wouldn't really matter. I'm not concerned about the order so much. But, all of the ones who made my list did so by directly competing with other anime series that were up for the spot. I actually watched contenders side by side, using tiled tabs. So, if a Sci-Fi show you like isn't on here it's probably either that:
- I don't consider it Sci-Fi, but belonging more to another genre (For example: I cut out Elfen Lied, considering it more belonging to the horror category, even though I'm aware that it's also Sci-Fi.). Or:
- It was up for consideration, but lost out in my "dueling series" method of judgment against a slightly better series. Sometimes, these decisions were made just by a hair, and I might add some honorable mentions later, at the end.
Anyway, without further ado, here are my picks for the top 25 Sci-Fi anime series of all time:
(Note: Order does NOT matter. This was made using three separate lists. 1-6 were from a list of anime series I already knew I should include, no further investigation or competition being used. 7-18 were shows from a larger list I found in the vast recesses of the internet and put through a crucible of intense competition. 19-25 come from a list similarly sorted through competition, but these were all just shows from Funimation's website specifically. Therefore, while each and every show definitely earned its spot on here, the number a show is has no bearing on either how much I like it, how good I think it is, or whatever. Because honestly, I didn't see a clear way to do that, and consider most of these shows more or less equally great. They just offer different things, so whatever you're looking for and... ok I'm rambling, sorry. TL;DR: Order doesn't matter at all here.)
In the future, Japan has become a literal jungle, except for a tower occupied by the very rich. "Monetized carbon" is the buzzword of the day, as carbon taxes and drastic measures to reduce carbon emissions have drastically reshaped modern society. The government's policies have created a large inequality gap, basically, because only those with extraordinary means can pay the carbon taxes, and environmental changes have made life harder on those without means at the same time. (Damned if you do, damned if you don't? Or are the efforts simply too little, too late? Or, is the government pocketing all the money and not giving a damn about helping the poor?) The main character, an energetic, pink-haired girl wielding a steel boomerang, isn't afraid to speak truth to power. She's part of an underground resistance movement known as Metal Age. This show has a lot of interesting and fun characters and just looks amazing. It also delves into some uncomfortable truths about modern society.
In this show, the war between the sexes has become quite literal; men and women live on different planets and consider each other almost to be a separate species, and are at war with one another. I definitely gave this one points for creativity. It has a lot going on in it, lots of characters, and it's all plenty interesting.
A young woman's child is being taken away from her by state authorities because of her inability to find work to support the child. When weird stuff shows up and attacks the mom though, she finds that she has a mysterious power she wasn't aware of, that lets her transform into a crazy sort of kick-ass demon-like monster. What I like is that this anime could have been another sleazy show about gore and tits and little else, it really added a dimension of human tenderness and feeling by including the child character and getting the audience to become so emotionally invested through her struggle with the government. That's what makes this show different in my opinion from other, similar stories.
22. Steins; Gate
Basically, the main character is a know-it-all who isn't afraid to challenge his teacher in class. The subject? Time travel. Then, he finds a girl who claims to have met him 15 minutes ago, though he's never seen her before. Later, he finds her dead in a pool of blood. What is going on? Time travel is just nothing you want to mess with, son. This is the kind of science fiction I like, because it explores a mystery surrounding a theoretical new technology and its possible practical implications. The pulse-pounding action of this show will have you on the edge of your seat, but it also makes you think.
21. Guilty Crown
Shu Ouma is a boy who discovers a strange, wounded girl with pink hair who seems to have a carefree and child-like mind, as she's bleeding everywhere while singing a childish tune. In trying to save her, he gets caught up in a fight involving mysterious new kinds of weapons. This show seems like a kind of new version of the old "rescue the damsel" type of story. But, it uses cool-looking fighting sequences and just has all-around phenomenal visual effects that make it worth watching. I also felt really compelled by the pink-haired girl, Inori. She's mysterious and kind of reminded me of Rei Ayanami from Evangelion. Definitely got the feeling that there was more to her than the surface appearance.
20. Armitage III
In a city where there is a lot of prejudice against androids, a fiery young female android cop goes after their murderers. She seems to prefer working alone, but a male, human cop seems to be developing compassion for androids, and so he also wants to help her investigate these grisly murders. I like it because the main characters are so bad-ass, but I also like the show being about how ugly prejudice is when it is allowed to go unstopped.
19. UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie
Though serious shows like Armitage III were more what I had in mind when I started this list, UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie makes up for being goofy and frivolous by being enjoyable entertainment. It's about various cute alien princess girls, led by Valkyrie, who is on Earth because she's engaged to a human male. She normally takes the form of a little girl, but when she kisses her fiance, she turns into an adult... because... Japan? Anyway, the show is cute, humorous, and lots of fun to watch. Not everything has to be super serious. It's fanservice-y, but not in an annoyingly graphic way, it's more like casual flirting than like the obvious pseudo-porn you find in some more recent animes. I guess the cute, not taking itself too seriously, innocent attitude was what I liked about this show.
18. Space Dandy
Another show that gets to be frivolous and goofy on this list, Space Dandy is, as it says, about a dandy in space. This guy is as clueless and silly as Johnny Bravo, and he travels around in a spaceship with a fastidious robot and sentient ferret-like alien for companions. Like in Cowboy Bebop, these characters just kind of bum around space, getting caught up in various adventures, trying to make a buck here and there. It's a funny show, even if some of the running gags get a little stale over time.
17. Jyu Oh Sei
Twins Thor and Rai end up on a harsh jungle planet where the vegetation and the people are equally determined to kill them just for existing. It's a tale of survival, adaptation, and growing up despite harsh adversity. I liked this show for its innovative world creation; it's a planet completely unlike Earth, and yet one is able to live on it if they know the secrets of it. Survival means fitting in though, and society's rules on this planet are not only hard to live under, but hard to understand at times. But this toughness of the conditions just makes their struggle all the more compelling to watch.
16. Dirty Pair
This tomboy and girly-grl duo may bicker like an old married couple, but when they put their differences aside, they really can kick some criminal ass. They call themselves the "Lovely Angels", but on the street, people gave them the disparaging nickname the "Dirty Pair". Ugh! Anyway, while I sometimes thought there was too much whining and bickering amongst these two, the plot, the villains, and the action more than make up for it. It's a compelling enough show, kind of James Bond style action, and just perfect for those who want a little girl power in their Sci-Fi.
15. Serial Experiments Lain
Schoolgirl Lain starts getting involved in the computer system known as "The Wired" when she starts getting emails from beyond the grave from a girl in her class who supposedly killed herself. When "The Wired" starts looking like its responsible for mysterious deaths, as some children are becoming unable to tell it apart from reality, Lain freaks out while investigating all this. But, her friends just want her to chill out and act like a normal girl. Will she keep up her sanity and facade of normality? Or will she slip and end up like those other children, a victim of the evil side of technology? While sometimes slow-moving and dull, I liked this show's melancholy feel and subdued tone. It's about exploring the deeper mysteries surrounding man's relationship with technology, which is what the Sci-Fi genre is all about.
14. Gunslinger Girl
Another show with a sometimes dull, melancholy feel it it. Gunslinger Girl is about an organization that uses little orphan girls as spare body parts to make into cyborg assassins. Each one is given a new name by their trainer. They are trained to kill mercilessly, but some of the trainers take pity on them and also try to give them some experiences that make them feel more like normal little girls, such as going fishing or receiving presents as rewards for their work. Each trainer is male and each assassin is female, though not by any real necessity, giving the show a kind of perverted feel at times, although nothing happens explicitly between any of the girls and their trainers. This isn't just about the horrors of children being forced to become soldiers, it also shows how this organization thoroughly has made these girls into objects and tools, even taking away their memories or altering their brains if they don't perform the way the leaders think they should. It's tragic what these little girls go through, reminding us not to become desensitized to violence.
13. Persona Trinity Soul
Persona Trinity Soul is based on the video game Persona 3 for the PlayStation 2, taking place ten years after that game's events. While a lot of the stuff that happens might be easier to understand for fans of the original video games, I hadn't played them and I still found this series to have engaging action and interesting mysteries in it.
12. Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040
In the future in Tokyo, a team of elite fighting girls in power armor suits take down criminals. Priss, their star veteran, mistrusts this young woman Lina, who wants to join their group, called the Knight Sabers. In this future, manual labor is done by robots called Boomers. But some shady organization or other seems to be responsible for an epidemic of "mad Boomers", something causing these normally subservient robots to transform, become more self-aware, and attack people. The Knight Sabers' main mission is stopping these "mad Boomers" from attacking civilians, using their power suits and impossibly cool motorcycles. Awesome action ensues, as this team of kick-ass girls tries to get to the bottom of who is causing these "mad Boomer" incidents and why. All the while, they have their own secrets to guard as well.
11. Ai no Kusabi
This little-known, short-lived OVA is an intriguing peek at a future of shocking levels of economic disparity. The main character is a young man who has been used as a sex slave, or Pet, by his wealthy owner for years, before finally escaping. But outside the glamorous surroundings life as a Pet offered him, he now is relegated to the slums from which he came originally. This is a tale about the struggles of poor people being treated like the property and playthings of the elite, and as such was very moving. It didn't get very many episodes, but I would have enjoyed more. Definitely a show that could use more love.
10. Level E
Level E is a zany show about aliens behaving badly. Basically, some alien prince (the blonde guy in the picture) shows up and decides he's crashing at some random dude's apartment on a permanent basis. Things basically just get crazier from there. Other aliens show up, the prince starts messing with children's minds, and basically the show is just about aliens being annoying to humans in every way possible. It kind of reminds me of FLCL would be the closest thing I could think of, because Haruka in FLCL had this similar attitude as this alien dude. But basically, you could call this show "Trolls From Outer Space". It's wacky entertainment, kind of similarly to UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie.
9. Ergo Proxy
Like Serial Experiments Lain, this is about a young girl's quest to make sense of events that just don't add up, and like Lain, this also takes place in a messed-up future. But whereas Lain's world is much like modern-day Japan, the world of Ergo Proxy is much stranger, even though many aspects of it clearly have historical roots in contemporary Japan, it still feels futuristic enough to be eerily foreign. The city in this world has a dim, gritty feel to it. There are layers upon layers of underground chambers, where buried secrets are locked. There are nasty slums on the outer edges filled with polluted air and sewage. The government seems to be able to manipulate people by changing their actual memories, making them doubt their versions of events. Yes, it seems on the surface to be kind of like The Hunger Games or the Divergent series, where a teenage girl single-handedly is unrealistically capable of taking down The Establishment. But this girl isn't really leading a revolution, so much as she's just trying to figure out what's real in her world and what isn't and why. Mainly, I disliked it for being a little too slow in some scenes in some episodes, but the mysteries being investigated by different characters are interesting, and so is the world they inhabit.
While it can sometimes seem like yet another anime about teens/young adults with superpowers, something we've all seen a million times, Zetman was a show I liked for the true human touch of the story, like with Witchblade. It's also got interesting moral complexity. The protagonist's powers turn him into the demon-looking creature seen on the right, while the government gets a heroic-looking power suit and thinks itself heroic and just. The show isn't clear about who is right and wrong, at least, it makes it seem that you will have to watch more of it to find out. But the action is exciting and the mystery of this Zetman thing is interesting. Where did this power come from? Who made it and why? What does it mean? These and other questions keep you guessing while the show provides excellent entertainment.
This show was really special for me because I watch sooooo much anime that it can be hard for a show to really captivate me or make me really feel something on a visceral level. It takes a lot also to disgust or shock me, but this show is just sick enough to have done just that. In Gantz, a bunch of young people who were about to die, usually violently, "die" but also wake up in some apartment. A disembodied voice-person gives them these black suits with vaguely explained powers and a mission: kill this alien before the time runs out. Ok? They're given very little in terms of direction or supervision, so of course, chaos and panic ensue. But, a few of them manage to not kill each other or get killed by the alien, and end up defeating it. Then, those people are allowed to just go home? Say what? But you know that the powers that be aren't done messing with them yet. Gantz is a show that's raw, compelling, and that doesn't hold back in terms of being gruesome. But it's not just a gore-spree; I think that it's really just using the graphic imagery to make a point about the dark side of human nature. Not for the faint-hearted!
6. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
I honestly kind of hate this show but also kind of like it. Let me explain, I hate Haruhi herself. She reminds me too much of arrogant, obnoxious, bullying girls I knew in junior high who thought that the sun shone out their assholes. And yet lucky for Haruhi here, it basically does. I could not really sympathize with Haruhi's "problem", which is basically "the real world is too mundane for me". It's just whining, and failing to appreciate the good things in life.
But, then again, this show isn't just about Haruhi. In fact, most of the cool things that happen in the show happen without her knowledge, because basically, Haruhi is a goddess and controls the universe, but the main characters are warned not to let her know that. So when she wishes to see aliens, ESPers (people with psychic powers) and time travelers, they appear in the world. The frustrating thing is that she cannot know about them. But, this gives Haruhi the joy of discovery. It's kind of like many various Star Trek episodes where the main cast has to "play along" with the whims of a powerful alien or intelligent computer with a child-like mind. No doubt in my mind that Haruhi is a terrible, unlikeable, stuck-up, whining bitch, and that she mistreats and abuses every other character in the show just for sport and because she can get away with basically anything.
But when the show moves out of the mundane and extraordinary stuff starts happening because of her, that makes this a compelling and fun series, even with such an unlikeable protagonist. Things I did like about it were basically the other characters, Kyon, Yuki, and boobies er, Mikuru. I also like the cuteness of the character designs and the creativity of the show overall.
5. Cowboy Bebop
A true anime classic, Cowboy Bebop combines the zaniness of a show like Space Dandy or FLCL with an amazing tear-jerker dramatic side added as well. It's not often that a show can be good at action, romance, sci-fi, adventure, crime drama, and comedy all at once, but this show is a are gem for doing just that. It's not as mopey as Ghost in the Shell, but through the character of Faye Valentine, covers similar topics and themes. It's not all silly or all serious, but it can pull off basically any mood well. I think it shows hints here and there of inspiration from the coolest things in Hollywood's glamorous past, but it's also quite contemporary. It has characters that are likeable and memorable. Cowboy Bebop is just pure enjoyment, and I can't say quite enough about how I think people should watch it.
4. Ghost in the Shell (both Stand Alone Complex and Arise)
Ghost in the Shell is a story that explores what it means to be human in a world of ever-increasing human-machine hybridization. In this future, people have all sorts of cybernetic enhancements and implants and mechanical parts, with only a few people remaining fully natural. This calls into question whether self-aware computer programs and human-looking and human-thinking robots should be given the same legal rights as natural-born humans. Main characters are thrust into constant self-doubt over whether they themselves deserve human rights when they're not really very human anymore. Criminals try to exploit this self-doubt and confusion caused by the technologies to their own advantage. Overall, I like Ghost in the Shell for being a bit more focused on philosophy than other anime series. Sometimes, the philosophizing slows the plot down, but most of the time, the show is still pure action, and the philosophical debates are often settled by the often amazing courses of the show's events. It's important, I think, to watch this show, because as a society we're putting so much value on, and faith in, new technology, without fully considering the philosophical implications that might arise.
3. Outlaw Star
Like Cowboy Bebop, this is a space opera/space Western that has a good blend of comedy and drama. Its placement this high on the list is not intentional; the order of the list was close to random. It's been a long time since I watched this show and I don't remember much about it. I do remember enjoying it, liking the characters, and feeling positive about it, but little else. Basically, I'd consider it to be good to check out for fans of Space Dandy, Trigun, or Cowboy Bebop. I think this show probably could use more attention.
Though this was another show I haven't watched in a while, I remember a bit more about this rather strange show. It's unique in its concepts and design style, making it hard to forget. In this show, people get mechanical bodies traded right and left, with poor people on the surface getting hand-me-down scrap bodies from rich people living in the sky. This show was really weird, really, really, really, weird, taking place in a future that is quite distant and alien from our own. Even though the story is simple, it's mostly just about one person's struggle to make sense of things that happened to them, it's intensely compelling. The mysteries of life in the world of Kaiba are fascinating to no end.
While other shows' order doesn't matter, I did put Trigun first because of how much I love this show. I like the philosophy, how it explores the ethics of nonviolence and shows how hard it is to practice radical, but compassionate, ethics in a violent world. I like the way the characters go from having goofy, petty quarrels with each other to maturing tremendously throughout the course of the show, becoming better people. I like the way the main character, though being a hated outlaw, is able to transform lives for the better in each episode. I like how this shows such intricate complexities in the villains, and goes pretty far to explain the reasons for what they do. I like how Vash doesn't try to force his beliefs on anyone, since simply leading people by example is all he truly wants to do. It's a show about healing the world, one broken heart at a time.
Anime offers a truly great smorgasbord of science fiction series, whether you want to chow down on something philosophically complex, or some mindless, boobie-filed action and comedy, or something in between. I like this genre for its speculative nature. It asks questions about theoretical new technologies; how would they work, who would use them, why, and is it possible for criminals to use them for nefarious purposes? It also asks questions about the direction society is going to move towards in the future. Will we be more or less free? Will technology enslave us or be our salvation? What kinds of political, social, and economic systems will we have, and how will they be different? How will humanity change and stay the same? Science fiction attempts to answer these and other questions people might have about the future. We may never know for sure what will happen tomorrow, but it is fun to speculate.