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Sci Fi Anime: Dark Visions of an Ambiguous Future
Owen Nicholas   Apr 23, 2012   Ethical Technology  

From the neon saturated wrecks of post-industrial cities, to isolated colony ships on the edge of human space, Japanese Anime has never shied away from imagining worlds radically altered and eras of rapid cultural change. While it is hard to pigeonhole and generalise Anime, which is less a genre than it is an artistic medium, it is in the realm of science fiction that it truly stands out as a unique platform for exploration.

Rather than simply recycling age old tropes of heroism and villainy or the depoliticised struggle of ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’, anime seeks to question some of humanity’s deepest assumptions and beliefs through the use of symbolism and the trials of personal discovery. Often dark, philosophically profound, satirical, blackly humorous, surreal at times or downright bizarre, anime enjoys presenting visions of the future with as few easy answers as the present and defies simplifying conventions which demand happy endings or decisive conclusions. 

When the trailblazing feature of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira was released in 1988 it quickly acquired cult status as one of the greatest animated films of all time and is widely recognised as the forerunner of the anime revival which swept the world in the 1990’s. As a cinematic experience Akira remains breathtaking with its story of juvenile biker delinquents running riot in a sprawling, ghettoised neo-Tokyo, whilst a corrupt government and clandestine military run research programs on child psychics, all enacted under the backdrop of a disintegrating society where generational and religious conflict have paralysed the future in a kind of postmodern hell. From within this chaotic intensity emerge themes of social revolution, the alienation of the youth, the workings of the military-industrial complex, morality and justice, the evolution of humanity and the meaning of the universe itself. Also running throughout the film is the uniquely Japanese discomfort and anxiety regarding nuclear power, with the metaphor of the strange, messianic, psychic Akira acting as the ultimate gatekeeper of biological and spiritual energy, which if uncontrolled can result in terrible mass destruction. 
                                                                                                                                                                                            Drawing from stylistic influences such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Akira demonstrates classic SF motifs of individual frustration and isolation in the face of a suffocating society where technological developments have merely entrenched social divisions and reinforced the existing power structures. The sophistication of the story stands in sharp contrast to the vulgar brutality of the main characters, who exist entirely in the context of their surrounding environment, fighting, cruising for sex, and otherwise seeking cheap thrills until events take a darker turn. Yet despite this the characters, far from being flat archetypes, are presented as complex individuals with sometimes conflicting motivations, and who often seek legitimate reasons for their actions just as in real life. Known in the west for its frenetic pace, almost hallucinogenic art style, graphic violence, sexual innuendo and nudity, it is perhaps easy to understand why some Anglo viewers were overcome by the epic spectacle rather than it’s more cerebral ruminations. However, at a time when western animation was, and largely still is, mired in the childish, Akira issued a clarion call for animators to aim higher and showed how truly visionary the medium could be.

Another seminal work to appear in the 90’s was of course Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, probably one of the most iconic of cyberpunk films, acclaimed by directors from Spielberg to James Cameron and the inspiration behind the Matrix franchise. It is hard to do the film justice in a few paragraphs or to overstate how pivotal it has been to the development of science fiction films ever since. Interestingly the standard cyberpunk narrative of a forgotten underclass has been abandoned in favour of more ambiguous character loyalties. The films main characters are not marginalised dissidents seeking to overturn the system but members of cyber law enforcement trying to protect the public in an era when private corporations and government intelligence services operate with impunity.

Ostensibly about cyber terrorism, political intrigue and the socio-cultural response to future-shock, Ghost is a philosophical tour-de-force that explores the relationship between humanity and the machine, and the ontological implications of artificial intelligence, with all the complicated ethical considerations it entails. Comparisons to William Gibson’s ground breaking novel Neuromancer are unavoidable and both are largely set in metropolitan Asian settings, though where Neuromancer remains overtly western in outlook, Ghost takes the cyberpunk genre and makes it its own, creating a distinctly Japanese perspective. As a director Oshii acknowledges the reality of our ever evolving technological landscape by posing questions on the blurring of the artificial and the biological; what does it mean to exist as a human in a world of increasing modification and interconnectivity? Where will these trends lead our species? What happens when such technology falls into the wrong hands? How can we effectively utilise such possibilities for the betterment of humankind?

In a future where human augmentation is widespread, artificial bodies are manufactured, cybernetic implants commonplace, brain hacking a tangible threat, and memories are easily constructed, the seemingly inviolable boundary of individual autonomy is made redundant. Indeed one of the central themes of the story is the existential quest for personal identity. The search for selfhood is given a unique outlook in the film as such behaviour is examined from the point of view of a cyborg rather than a human. This approach allows for the exploration and juxtaposition of the human and AI in a way which ultimately leads to a debate about the emancipation of the ‘ghost’, or consciousness, from the restrictive shell of embodiment. The transcendence of both robotic and biological forms to a higher free state is seen as being accomplished through the boundless expansion of the web and the virtual sea of information. This discussion of self-awareness, artificial life and consciousness is directly related to the philosophical dilemma of what constitutes personhood at a time when all clear distinctions have either been eroded away or are no longer workable in the context of the world of Ghost.

Never one to pander to the sensibilities of the audience, Oshii shows us a vision of a world which is at once bleakly alienating yet intriguing, contemplative and darkly beautiful. The haunting musical score and general atmosphere of the scenes imparts a profound sense of wonder and uncertainty which leaves the viewer questioning their own place in an ever evolving meta-system. Human civilisation in this sense is seen as being a force in its own right, an almost uncontrolled emergent form of organisation which develops according to its own internal logic, heading towards destinations unknown. By considering the collective state of humanity should we succeed at creating artificial minds with rival states of being, the film forces us to face difficult questions for which there are no easy answers. Furthermore it does it by being greatly entertaining and appeals to popular viewing whilst remaining philosophically relevant. Something which, it would not be unfair to say, few SF Hollywood blockbusters can match. A sequel was made in 2004 Ghost in the shell: Innocence, which follows similar themes and is equally well directed though with greatly revamped visuals.

SF Anime, like all anime contains many subgenres which are as variable thematically as they are visually. Hayao Miyazaki, of Ghibli fame, and his tales of far future worlds struggling to come to terms with the collapse of advanced technological society and the ravages of environmental pollution or doomsday weapons, as in Nausicaa & Laputa, is a far cry from the Mecha saga’s of Neon Genesis Evangelion or Macross Plus and the effort to save the planet from hostile alien incursions using sophisticated robotic armour. Yet despite these often vast differences SF anime carries underlying commonalities which recur no matter what the main narrative or focus. They all tend to examine the collective human psyche to some degree or other, and they all have a particular position to argue on the connection between the human condition, its cultural manifestations and expanding technology.

In Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, a revolutionary new psychotherapy explores the often overlooked association between our subconscious desires and the wish fulfilling technologies we devise to satisfy them. Heavily influencing Christopher Nolan’s Inception film, Paprika opens an engaging dialogue about the dreamlike quality of the internet, which characters enter physically, and its capacity to represent the very best and worst of human nature. With its mind distorting jaunts and sudden abstract conversations, Paprika unreels like a surreal Jungian thriller that demonstrates one of the most characteristic of anime features, the bravery to risk confusing your audience. While some critics will cry loudly for linear plotlines and endless, browbeating explanations of the simplest concepts, there comes a time when adults have to turn around and say; ‘stop whining and work it out for yourself.’ 

This fearless attitude is even more the case in SF anime series which can draw out and dissect ideas over longer periods of time, again usually through the guise of complex character development. A case in point is the oft cited Serial Experiments Lain, an alternative anime series which delves into the despairing depths of existential inquiry via the loneliness of the young protagonist. Issues of dissociative identity disorder, communication, computer science, technology and the way they reshape our concepts of the world and self, are addressed in an eerie subjective perspective which unmoors the viewer from the usual third person comfort zone. To the main character, the unpredictable and unknown nature of reality causes her to verge on the edge of solipsism, where themes like mind from matter or vice versa become increasingly pertinent.

This ambivalence towards technology is a common one in anime. Characters often live with and make use of radical technologies, which are on their own usually value neutral. It is only in the realm of human action and behaviour that such tools take up the essence of their masters. In the series Texhnolyze, the human race becomes subsumed and replaced with bio-machine constructs leaving a barren, desolate world shadowed by virtual beings and sleeping cyber brains. Yet it is never in doubt that this was intended by characters who desired such an outcome, leaving the ending ambiguous with the basic and somewhat melancholic question of what constitutes worthwhile existence.     

The examples which I have given here have been but a tiny subset of SF anime works and represent only a small portion of the wide ranging subject matter which anime has strived to make popular. The reasons for such variation in anime filmmaking boils down to one of the key differences between the medium and its western counterparts, that of public perception. While the Anglo-Saxon world by and large has always tended to see animated mediums as being the purview of children and adolescents, an attitude which is responsible for much of the marketing in this area, no such stigma exists in Japan where its position as a cross-generational medium has never been challenged. This has allowed in particular SF anime to cultivate a depth and vision which remains lacking elsewhere.

Recently such attitudes have however begun to shift. Most obviously in music videos where in the last 10 to 15 years, homage’s to anime and Japanese culture have become commonplace. Amongst western youth, anime has become increasingly popular as the availability of such material, online and in other media has skyrocketed. This has in turn lead to artists, animators, directors and musicians acquiring anime tropes in order to break into this important demographic. Changing perceptions are resulting in an interesting mix of influences on the medium, resulting in a rapidly escalating number of spin offs and sub genres that simply did not have the fan base 20 years ago.

Finally, there is perhaps one other attribute that distinguishes SF anime, and sets it apart from its counterparts. Most importantly there is a courage displayed in anime when conceiving the future that much of Hollywood, restricted by old profit-maximising models and tunnel vision remains incapable of reproducing. It is the multidimensional nature of anime that gives it near limitless scope in approaching futuristic themes, without excessively dumbing-down or pruning ideas to make them more palatable or accessible to a public which is assumed would not understand them. The only way to influence the cultural zeitgeist and begin qualitative change in popular entertainment is to challenge it without fear, but with the determination and belief in the power of art.  This is a lesson which would be SF film makers would be wise to take onboard.







Owen Nicholas is a recent graduate from Nottingham University where he majored in History and Political Science; he is involved in numerous charities aiding the elderly and ethnic minorities and teaches English to foreign students.


Good article. As an old ‘hard’ scifi fan who grew up with Asimov & Heinlein & now likes Morgan & Bagigalupi, I came to Anime via Ghost in the Shell only 15 years ago & I love Anime science fiction, it draws on the great graphic traditions of Japan, from Hokusai to Masaaki Yuasa & also the extraordinary Japanese visual imagination.

I’d like to add:

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. (the great progenitor).
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise. (a classic).
Legend of Galactic Heroes (wonderful massive series).

Appleseed the original. (the manga was better though).
Banner of the Stars.
Kurau Phantom Memory.

These are some of my personal favourites, I’d consider the first three as great original classics.

A good list is here:

Keep up the good work,
Nico M

I just rented “Nasusicaa: Valley of the Wind” myself and I love it.
I am going to watch all the anime that Owen recommended, and then some more.


I have personally seen every sci-fi anime you stated, and all the anime of Nico. I often try to draw connections between anime, transhumanism, Eastern spirituality, the counterculture of American West Coast. So I’m really glad to see another young comrade connecting the dots.


I recommend you to read Nausicaa: the valley of wind, manga edition, now that you have seen the featured film. The philosophical complexity and implications far surpass the anime, or any graphic novel I have personally read(yes, including the Watchmen). The manga is in 7 volumes—with deep exploration into transhumanism, environmentalism, nihilism, Buddhism, religious studies, atheism, genetic engineering, android philosophy—it’s absurd to think that this graphic novel is in the Children/teenage section of the library.

I’ll add a few others:
1)all the anime by Hayao Miyazaki—Porco Rosso, Laputa, Spirited Away, etc. But Miyazaki’s manga is far deeper and more complex than any of them in my humble opinion.

2)Ghost in the Shell-Innocence, and most importantly—The Two seasons of the TV series. God do I wish for a 3rd season. The sheer length and complexity of Stand-alone complex—making this Tv anime series the most discussed anime in American Academia. The TV series, due its awesome length, is able to dive down much deeper into cyber-cultural studies, postmodernism, nature of global brain, collective consciousness, the idea of “vanishing mediator,” how an android deals with shifting identity, the notion of bioroid vs. android, snippets about downloading “Enlightenment,” how an android sees death and god—The TV series just beyond wild. A sci-fi lover and philosopher’s dream come true.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is one of the true progenitor of post-cyberpunk genre.

3)The above 2 media I recommended are bound to satisfy an audience as sophisticated as that of IEET.
There are couple of other sci-fi animes that do not explore as wide-ranging themes as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone comnplex or Nausicaa the manga, but some sci-fi lovers, and younger anime-lovers here may still find them interesting. Their futuristic visuals still charm me—

planetes (I echo Nico, planetes portrays realistically how humans might first go about in space. It’s about space-debris cleaners. The story’s stone is very realistic in the dry and detailed sense, not in the violent sense. Good for adults )

Code Geass (immortality, giant mechas, plot twists, and idea how to build a peaceful world)

Last Exile (steam punkish, I need to finish this series myself)

Cowboy Bebop (an American favorite—jazz music, nonchalant space dramas, oh the 80s)

Legend of Galactic Heroes(if you don’t mind the old visuals, quite complex plot I heard)

The following I recommend for younger adults only:

Guilty Crown( when I first watched the first few episodes I linked this anime to the idea of technological Singularity and nanotech, but the ending is tad bit rushed. The visuals are very nice—cybernetic interfaces that remind me of what near futre UI might be like. Older generations on IEET might not be able to identify with the school dramas, but I put it here just for heck. )

Evangelion (a classic, but the visuals are a little old. Lots of biblical references. )

Ergo proxy

Macross Frontier (space opera with pop. operas and mecha fights)

Summer Wars (single episode film,  fight on the virtual world)

Steins gate( time travel)


ps to Hank,  I applied to be an intern for IEET a month ago. Can I at least have a rejection letter in the email so I know what to work on? Thanks, keep up the good work on the site.


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