sci-fi

Alien Nine

Alien Nine

aliennine

  • Trailer: English dubbed version
  • What it’s about: Alien landings are now an everyday occurrence. Rather than inspiring horror in the populace, they’re treated with a tolerant annoyance and captured for their own safety. To this end, Yuri’s elementary school class have nominated her to be on the “alien party”, responsible for tidying up after the falling spaceships. There’s only one problem: Yuri is terrified of aliens.
  • Why you should watch it: The show is quite seriously screwed up in a subtle way. On the surface it’s a setup for a quirky saccharine school comedy, complete with cutesy animation and character designs. But once you get past that, everything is just quietly *wrong*. Everyone from the teachers on down seem completely blase about the eldritch horrors that invade their planet every week, and scold Yuri for her cowardice in a genuinely terrifying situation. People disappear, or are possessed, and nobody cares. The juxtaposition of horror and brutal violence against school slice-of-life makes the show quite unique.
  • Caveats: It’s a four-part OVA that was intended from the start to act more as an advertisement for the source material than a standalone work. The protagonist is a genuinely terrified, crying child, so don’t expect much int he way of heroics.
  • Themes: The loss of innocence, and the way in which parents and teachers often force children into growing up too quickly without even realising it.
  • Similar works: I’ll say Neon Genesis Evangelion tentatively, since this is nowhere near as in-depth as that, though the protagonists are similar on a surface level. Narutaru is probably the closest.
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Legend of the Galactic Heroes

Legend of the Galactic Heroes

lotgh

  • What it’s about: Two space-faring polities – the autocratic Galactic Empire and the democratic Free Planets Alliance – have been at each other’s throats in an on-again off-again war for centuries. Neither is able to break the stalemate, and millions continue to die in the endless jostling for position and advantage through large-scale fleet actions. Amidst this ongoing tragedy, two military geniuses begin to make their names, each rising quickly through the ranks of their respective militaries to face off against one another. Yang Wenli of the Alliance wants nothing more than an equitable end to the conflict, but his superiors have other ideas –a noble crusade against the “Evil Empire”. Meanwhile, Count Reinhard seeks to topple that Empire from within and save his sister from her gilded cage as the Emperor’s mistress.
  • Why you should watch it: Calling Legend the magnum opus of Japanese animation would not be an exaggeration. An epic space opera that sprawls over a hundred episodes, it’s an in-depth examination of war in all its hideousness and glory. Political backstabbing and manoeuvring behind the scenes, tactical space battles, personal conflicts and rivalries, and the small-scale everyday tragedies faced by the civilians – the series has it all. Despite the initial assumptions that come with an “Empire vs Republic” story, neither side is entirely in the right. There are heroes and villains on both sides. Great effort was put into establishing the characters; the series holds the Guinness World Record for the highest number of voice actors, as not a single repeat performance is given despite the gigantic cast. The classical soundtrack complements the action perfectly. If you’re a fan of the medium at all, you’re going to need to explore the series at some point.
  • Caveats: There is currently no legal way to watch the show unless you find an old copy of the tapes on eBay. The whole thing is, however, available on most major streaming sites. The largest caveat to the show is the sheer time commitment that it demands. Unlike typical long-running series, though, there’s very little filler in Legend. Every episode nudges the plot forward in one direction or the other, or opens up a new exploration into the characters themselves. If you’re unsure whether or not you want to start, try watching the prequel movies My Conquest is the Sea of Stars and Overture to a New War first. They’re standalone films that also serve as a good lead-in to the series itself. If you do watch Overture, you can skip the first two episodes of the series, as it covers the same material. Finally, it must be noted that the series is from the early 90s, and it shows in the animation and sound design. This is a story where you come for the plot and characters; if you’re after whizz-bang graphics, look elsewhere.
  • Themes: I don’t even know how to sum this up here – you could write entire theses on the thematic development of the show. In short: rivalry, ambition, loyalty and betrayal. Power, the right-to-rule, legitimacy, the nature of peace, the nature of war, democracy, autocracy, bureaucracy.
  • Similar works: The closest work I can think of is David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which has the same kind of epic scope and shows protagonists on both sides of the conflict. In anime, maybe Zipangif you want more of the same kind of rivalry that you see between Wenli and Reinhard, maybe check out Death Note or Code Geass.

Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei

Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei

mahouka

  • Trailer: Aniplex Trailer
  • What it’s about: Magic is no longer a mystery, but a codified science upon which all modern militaries depend. To encourage development of the necessary skills, national academies have been set up for prospective talents to hone their skills. Tatsuya and Miyuki Shiba have just enrolled in “First High”, only to discover that prejudice and classism are rife within the student body.
  • Why you should watch it: This is an unapologetic power fantasy. It does away with the usual tropes of having the protagonist start out weak only to discover their true potential – Tatsuya starts off leagues ahead of his peers and stays that way. The magic system, politics, and general worldbuilding is intricate and detailed, and a lot of attention is lavished upon making sure the audience keeps up. The animation of the fight sequences is also pretty fantastic.
  • Caveats: The pacing is really, really weird. The complexity of the world requires a lot of exposition, which isn’t handled as adroitly as one might hope – lots of sit-down “As You Know” conversations. There is a heavy (albeit one-way) incestual romantic substory going on, so if that squicks you out, Id probably avoid the series.
  • Themes: Objectivist-leaning discussion on privilege, responsibility, and classism
  • Similar works: The world of A Certain Magical Index/A Certain Scientific Railgun is in many ways quite similar, though the story and characters are quite different.

Black Bullet

Black Bullet

blackbullet

  • Trailer: PV Trailer
  • What it’s about: The apocalypse has come and gone. A parasitic species known as the Gastrea has infected every animal and person outside of a few sanctuaries, transforming them into monsters capable of passing the infection onto others. Tokyo lies in the shadows of a protective boundary of monoliths, but some Gastrea still slip through the cracks. Government-sponsored contractors, or “civil officers”, are responsible for hunting them down. They operate in pairs: children born with a mediated form of the Gastrea infection (granting them unusual powers) with an older watchdog. The show follows one such pair, Rentarou and Enju, as they combat threats to the city.
  • Why you should watch it: It’s an adrenaline-pumping action show that switches between humour and pathos on a dime. The fight sequences are excellent, but the show also takes pains to develop the characters of the protagonists and their allies. The show throws a lot of stuff at the wall in a very short space of time, so if you don’t find the first episode to your taste, give it another one or two to make sure.
  • Caveats: The humour is quite lowbrow – mostly innuendo and slapstick. The show tries to pack way too much into the early episodes, making it feel a little rushed. And at its heart it’s a show about ass-kicking little girls and giant monsters. If that doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, it’s probably not worth your time.
  • Themes: Discrimination, humans as weapons. At what point is it no longer worth defending an oppressive citizenry?
  • Similar works: Unbreakable Machine Doll. Attack on Titan.

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell

gits

  • Trailer: DVD trailer
  • 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.

Robotics;Notes

Robotics;Notes

roboticsnotes

  • Trailer: FUNimation trailer
  • 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.

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo

gankutsuou

  • Trailer: DVD trailer (poor quality)
  • What it’s about: An anime re-telling of the Andre Dumas “blockbuster” The Count of Monte Cristo, with a few twists. Most prominently, the setting has been changed from Enlightenment-era Europe to a space-faring sci-fi civilisation. Secondly, the point of view character is no longer the Count himself but Albert Morcerf, the young man embroiled in the Count’s schemes for revenge. The shift in perspective and “in media res” setup makes the Count appear far more sinister and otherworldly than the original tale.
  •  Why you should watch it: The Count of Monte Cristo is a classic, classic tale of revenge. Gankutsuou reworks it slightly, but the core of the story remains – a brilliant, scheming mastermind who is all too happy to manipulate pawns and characters to achieve his ends. It weaves mystery and action into its plot from start to finish, and it’s never boring to watch.
  • Caveats: The artstyle. It’s weird, there’s no other word for it. But it was a deliberate choice by the creators, and it does grow on you after a few episodes. Here are some screencaps as a demonstration of what to expect: [1] [2].
  • Themes: Revenge, ennui.
  • Similar works: Code Geass, Monster. Outside of anime, the original Count of Monte Cristo is an obvious choice, along with other modern derivatives such as V for Vendetta or The Stars’ Tennis Balls.

Suisei no Gargantia

Suisei no Gargantia

gargantia

  • Trailer: PV Trailer
  • 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.
  • Similar works: The aforementioned Stranger in a Strange LandExpelled From Paradise. In terms of a “mecha anime that’s not really about the mecha”, Robotics;Notes

A Certain Scientific Railgun

A Certain Scientific Railgun

railgun

  • Trailer: English dubbed version
  • What it’s about: Academy City is home to the world’s foremost scientists, particularly when it comes to the development and exploitation of mysterious “esper” powers, for which it has a number of dedicated schools.  The protagonist, Misaka, is a rare “Level 5” esper with the power to generate electric fields, earning her the nickname “Railgun”. The story follows her and her friends as they stumble into a series of adventures and mishaps around town.
  • Why you should watch it: Railgun is a side-story to A Certain Magical Index, but it stands perfectly well on its own. In many ways, it’s a more approachable work. It’s an easy watch that doesn’t require you to pay a great deal of attention, but will draw your eye back to the fantastically animated action scenes. The characters are fairly fleshed out (though several of them fall into the standard tropes) and the comedy is well-timed, but really it’s the *world* that acts as the series’ main draw.
  • Caveats: The second season spends half its run on an arc that’s covered in three episodes in Index. It does a much better job of it, but if you watch Index first, you’ll be pretty spoiled going into it. The question of which to watch first is a tricky one, though Railgun is the more polished work.
  • Themes: Class conflict – Academy City is essentially an aristocracy based on the strength of your in-born gifts, and any attempt to upset the natural order (as, for example, by artificially boosting your power) is treated as a bad thing by every character in the place and punished via plot. The emphasis is instead on how best to use what talents you are given.
  • Similar works: A Certain Magical Index is the obvious choice. Otherwise, maybe Problem Children…

Brynhildr in the Darkness

Brynhildr in the Darkness

brynhildr

  • Trailer/Intro
  • What it’s about: After his childhood friend was killed in a tragic accident, Murakami takes up her dream in her stead, seeking out alien life through the telescope of the astronomy club. Years later, a girl appears at his school, identical to the friend he’d lost, but who claims to have no memory of him. She warns him that unless he listens to her advice, he will die in a matter of hours. From there, Murakami is dragged into a world of blood, horror, and mysterious powers as it becomes increasingly clear that the girl is at the centre of something beyond his understanding.
  • Why you should watch it: It’s a fairly clever show and the stakes are always high. The writer does an excellent job of maintaining tension, and even the lighthearted scenes have an element of desperation to them. It’s also nice to see a male protagonist who isn’t simply hopeless when surrounded by a largely female cast, even in an action-heavy series like this.
  • Caveats: This is written by the same guy behind Elfen Lied, and there are more than surface-level similarities between them. Tonal shifts are common and quite abrupt, and not always pulled off as adroitly as might be hoped for. The general tone of hopelessness and futility can be draining at times. Finally, the ending is quite rushed – it tries to shove over forty chapters of the manga into three(!) episodes.
  • Themes: Prejudice, abuse, desire for normality.
  • Similar works: Brynhildr is something of a blend between Elfen Lied and Another. Either would be good places to go if you like this.