As it turns out, anime and sci-fi go together as well as Netflix and bingefests. The medium of animation allows creators to bring their wildest visions of the future to life without having to make physical props or objects. This means that sci-fi anime can touch on every topic imaginable and cover just as many subgenres.
In fact, the genre as it currently stands covers everything from political pieces about the dangers of technological advancement and surreal meditations on A.I. to silly space operas packed with action and hijinks and meditations on what it is to be human.
If you’re interested in exploring the landscape of sci-fi anime but are unsure of where to start, here are the 10 best that you should start with.
2011’s Steins;Gate is based on the visual novel of the same name. Set in 2010, the series follows Rintaro Okabe, a self-proclaimed mad scientist whose ego is much bigger than his achievements and his budget. He runs the Future Gadget Laboratory out of his apartment, which he shares with Mayuri Shiina and Itaru Hashida.
Rintaro’s fortunes change when he makes a cell phone-operated microwave that can send text messages back in time ⏤ effectively allowing him to change the present ⏤ but this device soon causes problems, and Rintaro and his friends are forced to deal with the fallout of what they have created. One of the most well-done time-travel storylines ever written, Steins;Gate is a one-of-a-kind series that presents a very human take on a classic sci-fi narrative.
Written by Gen Urobuchi, Psycho-Pass quickly cemented itself as a cyberpunk classic when it hit screens in 2012. In the future, Japan gets governed by a computer network called the Sibyl System. This system constantly tracks and monitors the population using a unique scanning device, which becomes known as the Psycho-Pass. This system can predict if a person will commit a crime before it happens, and when it decides that someone is a risk, members of the Crime Investigation Department are sent to arrest them.
When rookie agent Akane Tsunemori gets involved in a case involving a criminal mastermind, she soon finds herself involved in something much bigger. An extremely memorable series, Psycho-Pass presents viewers with a unique dystopian cyberpunk world that feels strange yet understandable and pairs it with an exciting plot.
8. Space Pirate Captain Harlock
Based on the legendary manga series written and illustrated by Leiji Matsumoto, 1978’s Space Pirate Captain Harlock quickly cemented itself as a classic anime. Set in 2977 A.D., the series follows Harlock and his crew of outlaws as they travel aboard Arcadia, Harlock’s ship. The group embarks on many adventures, mostly aiming to strike back against those who try to oppress Earth and its inhabitants. This often leads to them clashing with the Mazone, a range of plant-like aliens trying to reclaim the Earth and make it their own. A legendary anime that has inspired countless other shows, Space Pirate Captain Harlock still lives up to the hype even after all these years.
7. Dirty Pair
Based on the series of light novels written by Haruka Takachiho and illustrated by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, Dirty Pair is set in 2138. In this world, humanity has colonized massive chunks of the galaxy. The World Welfare Works Association helps planets in distress by sending “trouble consultants” to help fix whatever issues arise.
The series follows two of these trouble consultants, Kei and Yuri. Kei and Yuri are nicknamed the “dirty pair” due to the massive amounts of destruction they leave in their wake. The series is a chaotic romp that has spawned several spin-offs and sequels as well as a feature-length anime film. A fun space-opera take on sci-fi, Dirty Pair is an enjoyable show that delivers plenty of laughs, action, and memorable characters.
6. Ghost in the Shell
Based on the manga of the same name, 1995’s Ghost in the Shell spawned a massive franchise that is still going strong to this day. Set in a near-future world where cybernetic human augmentation has become commonplace, it follows Motoko Kusanagi, a member of Public Security Section 9, who is sent to assassinate a diplomat. She soon finds herself in the middle of a strange case when several people find themselves hacked by a mysterious puppet master, one who is seemingly working to implement some unknown plan. Due to this, Motoko is forced to confront what it means to be human and the issues in the society she polices.
A trailblazing series, Ghost in the Shell defined a whole era of cyberpunk fiction and inspired countless later shows. Because of this, it’s a must-watch for fans of the genre.
5. Neon Genesis Evangelion
Neon Genesis Evangelion is considered a rite of passage for anime fans, and it’s easy to see why. Released in 1995 and directed by Hideaki Anno, the series takes mecha and sci-fi anime tropes and turns them on their heads, creating a surreal and introspective series.
15 years after a massive global event called Second Impact, a young man named Shinji Ikari is summoned to Tokyo-3 by his father. Shinji’s father isn’t doing this out of love, however; he runs NERV, a paramilitary force that battles strange creatures called Angels using giant, heavily-armed mechs. Shinji’s father wants him to pilot one of these mechs, warning Shinji that if the Angels are not contained, an event called Third Impact will destroy the world. As Shinji learns more, he soon finds out everything is not as it seems.
4. Cowboy Bebop
Cowboy Bebop needs no introduction, being one of the most widely-known anime series ever released. Created by legendary studio Sunrise and written by Keiko Nobumoto, the series follows Spike Spiegel and the other crew members aboard the Bebop ⏤ bounty hunters doing odd jobs to make ends meet all while running from their pasts. While doing this, they encounter many different people and get tied up in a variety of different situations, all while growing closer together and debating if they can ever truly escape their pasts.
Mixing a gripping plot with fantastic animation and topping it off with a legendary soundtrack, it’s easy to see why Cowboy Bebop remains one of the best anime series ever released.
3. Serial Experiments Lain
Widely considered one of the most existential and strange anime series ever created, Serial Experiments Lain was released in 1998. Created by Chiaki J. Konaka, it follows high schooler Lain Iwakura, whose world is turned upside down when Chisa Yomoda, a student Lain thought was dead, sends her an email. In the message, Chisa says she has given up her physical form and become one with the Wired, the internet-like global network that enables mass communication.
From there, Lain finds herself thrown into many strange situations as she tries to solve the mystery of Chisa and learn more about the Wired. The deeper she dives, the stranger things get. Lain is ultimately a show that will stick with you long after you’ve finished it.
Released in 1995, Memories is an anthology consisting of three short films. All three shorts are based on manga stories written by Katsuhiro Otomo and all three are brilliant in their own ways. Cannon Fodder is set in a war-torn world where people living in a walled city work tirelessly to maintain a series of cannons, presuming that these weapons are their only chance at survival. Stink Bomb follows a lab technician who develops a deadly body odor after taking an experimental drug, leading to mass panic and chaos as several organizations try to undo the drug’s effects.
The final and most memorable short is Magnetic Rose. The crew of a deep space salvage freighter receives a distress signal and goes to investigate only to find themselves at a space station surrounded by hundreds of dead ships. The crew soon finds themselves under attack by strange forces in this magnificent blend of science fiction and supernatural horror. Beautifully animated, gripping, and thought-provoking, Memories is a unique experience that shows how powerful animation is as a medium.
1988’s Akira is considered a classic movie and has inspired countless other pieces of media. Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo and written by Otomo and Izo Hashimoto, the film was based on the manga of the same name.
Set in the aftermath of a third World War triggered by the destruction of Tokyo, it follows Shōtarō Kaneda, a young man who runs a biker gang. When Kaneda’s friend Tetsuo Shima develops psychic powers, Kaneda finds himself thrown into the middle of a massive government and military conspiracy and also finds out just how weird this new Tokyo is and how desperate people are to hold the weakened nation together.
A visually stunning spectacle with a great soundtrack, Akira is a movie everyone should watch at least once. There’s a reason it has cemented itself as a stone-cold classic.