What it’s about: For ten years, Humanity has been at war with an alien menace, a space-borne race with innumerable ships and whose only aim is the consumption of stars and the destruction of mankind. Noriko’s father was killed in one of the first fleet actions of the war, and now she trains in the hope of fighting back from the cockpit of a combat mech.
Why you should watch it: Gunbuster’s main claim to fame is being the directorial debut of Hideki Anno (creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion). This sells it a bit short, though – the show stands on its own two legs as a great example of 80s “giant robot” battlers. Noriko’s journey from her time as a trainee to her final battle is well mapped-out, and the audience gets to see her struggle and overcome her fears, feelings, and failings, as well as the various perils of space combat. One particularly impressive element is the show’s use of realistic time-dilation as a plot point. On top of the dangers they face in the fight itself, they know that every battle drags them farther away from home.
Caveats: The first episode is a deliberate parody of the tennis show Aim for the Ace!. If you haven’t seen it before going in, this is the reason for the absurd mecha gymnastics and sports-show storyline. Things do pick up in later episodes, but it exacerbates the problems of a short run-time – the emotional impact that events have on Noriko doesn’t match up with the audience’s experience because we’re not given enough time for things to soak in. Finally, Gunbuster is very much a product of its time; the soundtrack and the visual aesthetics are pure 1980s. Be prepared for cheese. And random nudity.
Themes: Mortality and the transience of life. Even in a worthwhile cause, time is spent faster than you might think. But the relationships people forge are truly eternal.
Similar works:* The follow-up Diebuster is a good place to start. Otherwise, Knights of Sidonia for another standard mecha vs alien show, or Neon Genesis Evangelion for more of Anno’s vision of how the genre should work. Outside of anime, Ender’s Game bears a lot of similarities.
What it’s about: The year is 2700, and the majority of humanity has escaped the increasingly hostile environment of Earth by uploading their minds to the digital playground of Deva. Indeed, most have never set foot in the physical world. Which is why it’s all the more concerning when a hacker from the outside breaks through Deva’s security to broadcast a message to its inhabitants, offering ludicrous sentiments about exploring the galaxy. A team of security personnel is assigned to track down and eliminate the hacker in the real world. Among them is Angela Balzac, a young woman desperate to prove her worth to her superiors.
Why you should watch it: It’s an interesting sci-fi detective story with a flair for adventure. The two mismatched personalities of Angela and her native Earth guide Dingo make for a fun dynamic and the dialogue between them is engaging and funny. There’s a solid sense of adventure woven through the plot as Angela explores the real world for the first time while Dingo does much of the actual case work. The action-packed finale is fantastically animated and choreographed, scratching the mecha-fighting itch that was promised in a lot of the promotional material. In all, it’s a good popcorn flick.
Caveats: Angela herself is almost painfully cliche as an anime character, right down to the suspiciously teenage body and brash attitude. While solidly written, the story doesn’t really offer much new – none of the themes are addressed in all that much depth, though it does at least touch on some interesting stuff here and there. Finally, it’s worth mentioning the graphics. It’s 3D-rendered with a sort of cel-animation aesthetic. If you’ve seen RWBY, it’s a lot like that.
Themes: Transhumanism, the ethics of meritocracies. Tradition vs modernity.
What it’s about: Shinji Ikari did not set out to be a hero. In truth, he’s not qualified for the role, and he knows it. But when the alien “Angels” responsible for devastating Earth 15 years ago reappear and begin to lay waste to Japan once again, he’s told that only he is capable of piloting the Evangelion weapon system developed to defend humanity. Reluctantly, Shinji steps up. But there are good reasons not to place the weight of the world on the shoulders of a fourteen-year-old boy.
Why you should watch it: It’s not hyperbole to say that Neon Genesis Evangelion has a claim to being the greatest anime series ever produced. Others might have a more general appeal, or spin out a more epic tale, or have slicker production, but the impact that NGE has had on the medium since its first broadcast cannot be overstated. It would be worth a watch just to be able to pick out all of the references and allusions to it in your other favourite series, but on top of that it’s actually a good story. Binging through the whole show is far too easy. The characters are believable in their actions and motivations in a way that’s quite rare, there’s enough action going on to satisfy any mecha fan, and there’s enough depth to keep the attention of a more cerebrally-minded audience. The direction is supremely self-confident, and the writing doesn’t beat you over the head with its intent. It’s a show that has a lot to offer, and thoroughly deserves its reputation.
Caveats: To get it out of the way, this is quite an old series and it shows in the artstyle and animation. It actually holds up a lot better than its contemporaries, but for a viewer accustomed to modern anime aesthetics, it’s going to take a little getting used to. Secondly, the watch order: watch the original series all the way through, then watch the movie End of Evangelion. Give it a while to percolate before trying out the Rebuild movies.
Themes: Um, well. There have been entire theses written on this show and the different meanings and interpretations that can be pulled out of it, so I’m not even going to attempt a full summary. It’s safe to say that there’s a lot of Freudian subtext going on throughout, and the idea of the “hedgehog’s dilemma”, the yearning for close relationships coupled with an inability to commit or engage on that level without hurting one another, is a pretty central theme. Facing up to one’s responsibilities and the personal struggle with both depression and self-loathing is another.
Similar works:Madoka Magica is often brought up in the same breath as NGE for being another show that reflects and reinterprets the assumptions of its own genre. To see where Anno started off, try his directorial debut Gunbuster. It’s a little rough around the edges, and is a much more traditional mecha action show than Evangelion, but the connections between the works are there to see if you want them.
What it’s about: The year is 2029 and the world has been fundamentally changed by the ongoing digital revolution. Cybernetics and mind uploading has become common-place, and those with the ability to hack into such systems are regarded as national assets. The story follows a group of police officers trying to track down one such hacker, a person known only as “The Puppetmaster”.
Why you should watch it: Ghost in the Shell is one of the true classics of the entire medium. It’s a must-see if you want to understand how anime got to the way it is today. The animation stands up surprisingly well for a series that’s almost twenty years old, and the plot masterfully combines action and philosophy without a single stumble. The soundtrack, aesthetic, and plot ideas have inspired dozens if not hundreds of copycat attempts.
Caveats: The animation does hold up well, but it’s nonetheless obvious that this is an older work, particularly with regards to sound design.
Themes: Mind/Body duality. The nature of consciousness and the soul
Similar works:Akira, Psycho-Pass, Bubblegum Crisis. Outside of anime, Blade Runner and Neuromancer.
What it’s about: The Robotics Club of Tanegashima High School has seen better days. Reduced to just two students – the ever-enthusiastic Akiho and the cynical Kaito – it’s time for a revival. The club enrols in a fighting-robot tournament in an attempt to gather enough funds to pursue Akiho’s true dream – building a giant “mecha” robot to impress her sister. Along the way, Kaito stumbles into a conspiracy that holds the fate of the world in balance.
Why you should watch it: It’s a light-hearted comedy-drama romp, complete with a diverse cast of characters each with their own motivations and quirks. It captures a lot (though not all) of the charm of its highly-acclaimed predecessor, Steins;Gate, but forges its own path. The series will never hit anyone’s “Best of all time” list, but it’s a solid all-rounder that definitely deserves more attention than it’s received.
Caveats: While there are similarities, this is not Steins;Gate. Don’t go into it expecting it to match the second-most-popular anime series of all time. While the central plot is solid, Robotics;Notes throws out a lot of plot threads and doesn’t really fully exploit a lot of them. The series takes a long time to truly hit its stride.
Themes: Defining one’s own goals, and meeting them. Self acceptance. Nothing very deep here, as it’s a bit chaotically thrown together.
Similar works:Steins;Gate and Chaos;Head are the obvious choices, and while everyone should see Steins;Gate, I’m slightly hesitant to recommend the latter (maybe go for the Visual Novel instead). The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzimiya is very similar to Robotics;Notes both in its premise (weird high-school club with sinister goings-on) and in its cast of characters and brand of humour.
What it’s about: Humanity is engaged in a total war with the alien Hideuze, with all aspects of society geared towards a victory that looks increasingly unlikely. During an engagement, one soldier is separated from his allies and crash-lands on a strange, water-covered planet. With technology unlike anything the natives have ever seen, he slowly adapts to their relatively carefree lifestyle.
Why you should watch it: It’s a fun “coming of age” sci-fi story, harking back to the old Heinlein classic Stranger in a Strange Land.The animation and soundtrack are both top-rate, and there’s a decent mix of humour, action, and character development moving the plot along.
Caveats: The first ten minutes are (deliberately) hectic and confusing, and ultimately have very little impact on the rest of the story. This is ostensibly a Gen Urobuchi work, but he was fairly hands-off on its development, so don’t go in expecting grimdark philosophising.
Themes: Re-adapting to civilian life. Integration, identity and society. Xenophobia. societal order, war, adulthood, and human nature, coherently working as a statement on the human cost of utilitarianism, a reflection on how the individual relates to their society, or even a positive message about the trials of entering the working world. It’s a pretty, smart, engaging little adventure, and perhaps the most overtly optimistic of all of Urobuchi’s works.
What it’s about: A single lucky picture was enough to catapult Saeko to the heights of photo-journalistic fame. The image she captured of a flag being raised after a victory in the war-torn country of Uddiyana has become a symbol for peace. Now that symbol has gone missing – the flag has been stolen, and Saeko is sent back embedded with the team sent to retrieve it.
Why you should watch it: Flag is utterly unique in the world of anime in being shot completely in a “documentary” style – every single shot is through the lens of one camera or another. But this isn’t just a gimmick – it adds an immediacy and a level of realism to the story that isn’t often matched in the medium. It’s just plain interesting to watch the story unfold. Characters are explored and developed through interviews as well as in media res, and the voice acting is top-notch – it’s one of the few shows that actually bothers to really portray people as different ethnicities and nationalities, with a variety of languages and accents showing up as the series goes on.
Caveats: At times it’s a little self-indulgent when it comes to creating a sense of drama, particularly with regards to the musical score. A mecha also features in the fighting, so if you’re utterly turned off by stories with that aspect, well, ok then.
Themes: One question that’s posed to the audience throughout the work is “who put this together, and why?” Even in the first episode, we’re shown propaganda/marketing videos of the HAVWC juxtaposed with remembered images of real battles, and then the raw footage of it in action later. The whole “camera as eye” question is heavily played up. Aside from that, you also have commentary on the bureaucratic and political side of warfare in the modern world; the power of images to sway public opinion.
Similar works: Nothing in anime really tries to do what Flag has done. In terms of setting, Canaan is closest, with Zipang and Black Lagoon to a lesser degree.
What it’s about: Mikako and Noburo both apply to join Earth’s defence force after a discovery on Mars reveals that humanity is not alone in the universe. Only Mikako passes the test and goes on to leave Earth behind. The story is fundamentally about separation. As Mikako’s duty takes her farther and farther from home and the time dilation of lightspeed travel keep her young, Noburo is left behind, torn between moving on with his life and waiting for the next message from the stars.
Why you should watch it: This is a classic Makoto Shinkai work, and develops along much the same thematic and narrative lines of his other films. It’s a pure and simple story told at a slow, meditative pace, and it amply fills out the short time it’s allotted. The dub is pretty decent, as they go. It’s interesting to see “auteur” works in anime – shows or films that were created almost entirely by one person – simply because they’re so rare.
Caveats: The animation is a little dated. And while it’s told well, at its heart, the story is quite simple.
Themes: Distance and long distance relationships. Growing up, growing apart.
What it’s about: Some years ago, a hypergate was discovered that made it possible to colonise Mars, where settlers uncovered a hoard of alien artefacts. A cultural and technological schism developed between Earth and Mars and, after one abortive war ended with the destruction of most of the Moon and devastation to “Terran” populations, an uneasy truce was established. A truce that is now in danger, after a visiting Martian dignitary is apparently assassinated by terrorists while visiting Earth.
Why you should watch it: The crew behind the show is almost unbelievable. The director of Fate/Zero, the writer of Madoka Magica, the composer behind Attack on Titan, etc, etc. And they all bring their A-game to Aldnoah. In short, it’s the summer blockbuster of 2014; a mecha-based action show with enough intelligence to keep you engaged with the story and enough giant robots to keep the blood pumping. The soundtrack is already shaping up to be a massive hit, with stirring titles from Kalafina and Hiroyuki Sawano.
Caveats: The show gets a little “mecha of the week” in the middle of its run – while it’s good that it plays to its strengths (giant robot fights), it starts to do it to the exclusion of anything else for a while. The CGI, while competently done, is very noticeable.
Themes: Classism, xenophobia, and the cycle of violence begotten by envy.
Similar works:Code Geass for several reasons, though it’s a lot more over-the-top in execution than the relatively realistic Aldnoah. Attack on Titan has a similar dynamic of defending against an overwhelming force.
What it’s about: Humanity is on the run. Over a century ago, civilisation was destroyed by a species of Lovecraftian abominations known as the Gauna. The only survivors are crowded onto a single colony ship travelling through the void. Short on resources, they’ve nevertheless survived in isolation for over a hundred years, mining asteroids and maintaining constant combat readiness, just in case. Many sacrifices and adaptations have had to be made, but the people are safe and secure. Until, one day, the Gauna return.
Why you should watch it: It’s a great mecha show, and does a good job of balancing exposition and world building against more conventional action scenes. The show manages to maintain a high state of narrative tension without dragging things out; overall a fantastic translation of the original manga. It helps that it has an excellent soundtrack and sound design behind all of the action taking place on screen.
Caveats: The animation is largely computer generated. For the backdrops and action set-pieces it works really well, but the characters’ faces end up looking alien and mask-like. It gets better as the series goes on, but it’s pretty jarring at the start
Similar works: The show is essentially a blending of Attack on Titan and Battlestar Galactica, with mecha space-battles thrown for good measure.