Science Fiction Anime

You can always fit a mecha in any anime

There are a lot of anime with a sci-fi backdrop. And I mean a lot. Some are silly little things like Aria and Manabi Straight. Some are long and grand like Legend of Galatic Heroes and all those Gundam shows. Some are sort of pandering like Vandread or Gravion. Every once a blue moon we get a mind twister like Serial Experiments Lain or Megazone 23. But more interestingly, we’ve got everything in between as well, as anime in a science fiction setting.

Trying to pin it all down is sort of hard, at first glance, but somehow it feels like they fall into three, non-exclusive, all-encompassing categories:

1. Drama-oriented. I’d squarely put shows like Manabi Straight and Gundam in here. Often times the plot revolves around some sci-fi/fantasy device based on the setting (eg. hijacking a school-wide video podcast or fighting some never-ending war between Earth and the Colonies), but for the most part the viewer can give a damn about them. In other words, these are the same old stuff, but lightly flavored to give us something special and neat. Some other examples would include Utawarerumono or Eva; LoGH is totally a space opera show, for obvious reasons. Tenchi Muyo is a franchise that, for practical purposes, is a Star Wars rip off…and no one cares. We just care who gets to sleep with the guy.

2. Setting-oriented. To be fair, setting here includes also the subject matter for discussion. Feeding the gnome-sized Tom Clancy fan in me, GITS:SAC is a whole lot of fun because of that elaborate geopolitic backdrop in a what-if future that’s all too humorous. It’s what makes Starship Operators so awesome, partly because of the politics but also of its focus on low-tech space warfare. Everyone’s favorite PLANETES does this very well. Last Exile has cute characters and developing personalities, but the steamy setting takes your breath away. Early and late episodes of Evangelion really hones in on this as well.

3. Idea-oriented. Here I’d categorize any show that harps on the idea over the substance of its setting, and the expression of the central idea(s) shadows the character drama. GITS is a bit in this realm, especially if you’re talking about the theatratical films. Serial Experiments Lain seems apt. Bubble Gum Crisis, maybe; but it really relies on the setting as well. Maybe the Eva movies.

Some anime are really strong in all three departments, but I think all sci-fi shows fall into at least one category. Just to practice on a few, something like Haruhi Suzumiya would be sort of setting and drama oriented, even at heart the show revolves around one idea. The plot as a juvenile sci-fi mystery focuses on “what happens” but the viewers are also concerned about “who and who’s” relationship. Eva is in all three categories, but it really focuses on the drama to get its basic ideas across. When it does, the show goes postal. A show like Scrapped Princess is also very similar, structure-wise. It has a simple theme so it didn’t have to beat you over the head. The elaborate setting, like Eva, is to just reel you in. Ergo Proxy, Solty Rei and Kurau all have that fantastic setting to get you started but those shows are just character drama with a sci-fi mystery plot as hook.

I guess I’m just trying to say that all these three things are while present in the genre categorically, they serve very different purposes. Asking for one is not likely to help you satisfy the want of another.


16 Responses to “Science Fiction Anime”

  • Futaba-chan

    So which would you characterize Simoun as?

  • Pete Zaitcev

    I suppose you can play with broadly scoped taxonomies and cut the field up in varying ways but the result does not tell us much. Anime is too diverse for analisys of this nature, IMHO.

  • omo

    Pete: You’re right, it’s not particularly helpful. The reason why I went down this road it’s not because of some normative reason, but because it’s practical. Sci-fi is a staple genre in any medium, but it’s sort of meaningless in anime because we have sci-fi elements left and right as they’re re-interpreted as anime genres.

    Some guy would say, for example, that he enjoys sci-fi anime. What the hell does that mean? What “sci-fi” elements do one enjoy from sci-fi anime? This is sort of a way to sort your oranges into baskets.

    For that matter, Simoun would be in the same category as Aquarion. :)

  • dm

    I’d argue that it is, in fact, helpful, if for no other reason than it gives you a framework which makes you ask questions about a series. And “diversity” is a reason to think about taxonomies, not a reason to avoid them.

    On the other hand, why even talk about Manabi Straight as science fiction at all? That almost seems misleading. So what if it is set 28 years into the future, and there’s an undeveloped footnote about the population declining (though it does mean that schools are closing, which drives the plot, in part).

    Being set in the future does not science-fiction make.

    Where the taxonomy is useful is in wondering about questions like “Where would I put Simoun?” (I’d put it over in the Joanna Russ section). Or where would I put Read or Die? The OAV had some steam-punk trappings (e.g., a lot of the technology employed by the British Library, and Otto Lilienthal’s jet-powered ultralight ornithopter), it was really akin to a Bond film — the technical gimcrackery just made convenient tools to use to crowbar the plot along. The TV series was maybe more SF with its notion of people and the world being rewritten from time to time (I wish they’d done more with that).

    I think GitS really straddles the idea-and-setting categories. On the other hand, the setting category is maybe divided between the Last Exile/Scrapped Princess sorts (let’s spend some time watching these characters explore this world we know nothing about) and a second category, where the setting exists because some technology/science is a part of everyday life. GitS is real good for that. It takes some changeless notions (bureaucracy and turf-wars) and wonders what happens when the turf partly exists in the virtual world. That is, part of the setting is the result of this new technology existing as part of people’s everyday life.

  • omo

    I think the sci-fi elements of Manabi Straight is very important because they are significant plot devices. Sure, it’s not hard to rewrite the same story and scale it 30 years back tech-wise, but I don’t think you can achieve telling the same idea with the same means in the 1800s.

    More importantly, one of the most important backdrop to Manabi Straight is the relationship of school and teenagers in a changing, modern society. It’s in that context (30 years in the future, given current trends in Japan) that Manabi Straight explains itself and tells us its story about how some girls like to make school fun. The sci-fi nature of it is as important to Manabi Straight as it would be to, say, Jin-Roh.

  • Pete Zaitcev

    I disagree with the sci-fi classification. Manabi Straight runs in futuristic setting, but it’s not sci-fi. They don’t turn anything upon the ubiqutous school-issued organizers, for example. The demographic trends sci-fi not make.

  • omo

    There are no schools out there that broadcast CG music videos to promote their school songs. Let alone one that a student can hijack in mid broadcast to play her homebrew caps, accumulated over time using very portable devices (some are photos take from Momo’s PDA).

    There are no schools out there that have collaborative web content that manages their school fair, their new uniforms, and things like that.

    It takes place in a futuristic society. It deals with issues rising from that society (ie. the changing meaning of school). It’s a work of fiction revolving futuristic changes created by scientific progress (social sciences is a science too, right? And that’s not all).

    I think from this discussion alone shows why some kind of taxonomy is helpful. When you say sci-fi you mean something a lot more specific than when I say it.

  • dm

    Replace the web-site with a newsletter, the CG music video with a musical play, and you could have set the series any time in the post-war period. Momo’s PDA could easily have been Momo’s Nikon. Momo’s pirate broadcast just required the keys to the PA booth — the pirate broadcast may not have been as multi-media and visual, but you could have done it, or done something like it (I’d go with the newsletter approach again, I imagine, with candid photos and Momo’s memories written out).

    I really don’t think the technology changed the things they did, so, like Peter, I’m in the “not SF” camp.

  • dm

    (Really, it’s just that every post has to have a mention of Manabi Straight now, right?

  • omo

    If you insist.

    I think a show like Starship Operators can easily be done as a 18th century drama in the high seas. Switch out space ships with real ships, add in some historical fiction, voila. Planetes is a little harder but it’s equally doable. In fact, vast majority of sci-fi books on your local bookstores are just repackaged stories from other genres.

    I get the feeling you guys are thinking Manabi Straight as sci-fi because of which category it fits in, it’s that simple.

  • mochi

    My definition of science fiction is probably narrower than most…though not as bad as some of my
    colleagues who say that science fiction is an oxymoron. At its strictest, I would say that the plot of
    a science fiction story has to use a scientific principle (like thermodynamics or chaos theory). However,
    in anime, I have seen very few which attempt this. Most deal with the “offspring” or application of
    science…most often in the form of technology. I have loosened my definition to include stories which
    deal with the impact of the application of science on society. In either case, the story has to follow
    the known “laws of science”. This still does not include many anime…Planetes, Ghost in the Shell,
    and (maybe) Blue Submarine No. 6 come to mind, though there are more. The rest I lump into the
    broad category of “speculative fiction”. For example, Gundam Seed has many hi-tech devices (like
    quantum computers and particle beam weapons) and it does deal with their impact on society.
    However, it also is rather sloppy with following scientific laws…sound in space, dodging photonic
    and particle beam weapons,etc.

    Here is a link to a page where I posted a more in depth explanation of my view on the subject…look at
    the second to the last comment (April 12, 2007 at 1:14pm):

    http://theanimeblog.com/2007/03/09/the-anime-blog-poll-which-genre-of-anime-do-you-prefer/

  • omo

    I think your definitions are ludicrous because they deal with technical deals versus presentation rather than anything substantive. To some extent that’s like saying (for example) in the future everyone looks like Hollywood actors and actresses as advancement of technology helps with people with how they look, but in reality that’s just an artifact of the medium.

    Yes, it’s ok to have sound in space. When you remove it, it’s done for a reason, hopefully, beyond the fact that you can’t really hear the same way you do on earth.

    But when you write a story around an idea, for example, the impact to society (specifically high school students) in a world where entrance exams are no longer the thing they live for because of advancement of technology and social structure/economic flexibility that makes freeters a viable (if desirable) livelihood, you need to write around the idea, and not just the world where the idea comes about. That’s the real essence between a science fiction story versus a science fiction setting.

  • mochi

    I don’t disagree with you entirely. My point is that if something is called science fiction, it should follow
    scientific laws…otherwise you are picking and choosing what laws to follow and what to ignore, then
    why bother calling it “science” fiction. I don’t think stories which ignore some scientific laws are bad,
    it’s just that I don’t believe they are science fiction. As I mentioned earlier, these types of stories I call
    speculative fiction. To me the ideal science fiction would be for a story to present or use a scientific
    principle as its basis…or it can show the problems some scientific concepts presents to society (an
    example would be the current creationism vs evolution debate). Note that the latter deals with ideas
    and not technology…also note that the setting can be historical as well as futuristic. I realize it is
    challenging for the mangaka and animators to work in this area, especially if they do not have a
    background in science.

    As for sound in space…it is true there is a very tenuous medium to conduct sound, however, you would
    need an eardrum the diameter of the solar system to hear anything. See the following:

    http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/mystery_monday_030922.html

    My point here is that from a human perspective, you would not be able to hear, say an explosion. Note:
    it is not a foreign concept to anime…look at Planetes…in US TV, look at the first season of Star Trek
    (original series, not counting the open)…in movies, look at 2001: A Space Odyssey. It can be done.

    Writing about the impact to society is great…but, to me (again, my opinion and not an all-encompassing
    truth), it loses some of its impact when some scientific laws are ignored. For me, this says that, at
    best, the laws are ignored for artistic license and at worst for ignorance. You mentioned:
    “…you need to write around the idea, and not just the world where the idea comes about.”
    While I agree, I also think it is important to get the foundation (in this case, the science) correct,
    otherwise you run the risk of weakening the story.

    As I mentioned, I think Planetes and Ghost in the Shell are good examples of science fiction. Neither
    really delves into the science, but they do deal with the secondary impact of science (the ideas) and
    the tertiary impact of science (its offspring, like technology) while not violating basic scientific laws
    and prinicples.

    I am not trying to dis your views. I respect them. I realize that I am in the minority…I just wanted to
    express my views on the subject since the setting seemed to be proper.

  • omo

    OK I get what you mean now.

    To me that’s a very tenuous definition, at best. Generally it’s just not workable in order to produce a piece of novel/tv show/anime/whatever without violating something somewhere. Star Trek TOS first season is full of these kinds of holes, same with 2001: ASO and PLANETES. Don’t get me wrong, they all do a good job of suspending your beliefs, and I think that’s what you’re getting at rather than what is “science fiction.”

  • mochi

    Just a clarification on my use of Star Trek and 2001…I was using them as examples for the sound in space
    argument. I agree that Star Trek (in all versions) has issues with scientific accuracy and I do not consider
    it to be science fiction…in fact, Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to NBC as “a space-age Captain
    Horatio Hornblower” series. 2001 has other issues, though, by and large it tries to portray science
    accurately…Stanley Kubrick was a stickler for this and as the following article shows, the aerospace
    community thought highly of the film:

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2000/12/31/PK28953.DTL

    As for Planetes, the main issue seemed to be one of economics rather than science. The US DVD had
    as an extra an interview with a pair of NASA scientists and they said the method of matching orbits with
    debris, while accurate, would use too much energy (fuel) to be cost effective. Like Kubrick, the Planetes
    production staff did a fair amount of research about the space environment…JAXA (Japan’s equivalent to
    NASA) was a technical consultant to the series. One note…had the producers checked with NASA, they
    could have found a different propulsion system that would be more economical than using propellants.
    It is called an electrodynamic tether and uses the earth’s magnetic field and a conductive tether to
    convert electrical energy to kinetic energy. In fact, a story could have been developed using the
    mission of STS-75 (Space Shuttle) as a basis. In 1996, an experiment with an electrodynamic tether
    was attempted. It failed due to a manufacturing defect with the tether and the electrical current
    induced (3500 volts at 1 amp). A description may be found here:

    http://www-istp.gsfc.nasa.gov/Education/wtether.html

    An excerpt from the article states:

    “The deployment was almost complete when the unexpected happened: the tether suddenly broke and its end whipped away into space in great wavy wiggles.”

    One could see a story showing the benefit of the tether (economical propulsion) and the dangers (a
    discharging, whipping cable would be a danger to space walkers and space vessels alike), as well as
    the issues surrounding the manufacture of a defective tether (was it done to save money…who gets the blame and pays the price) especially if someone is injured or killed.

    On a different note…you may be interested in reading this book once it is released later this year:
    “Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime”
    I’ll probably check it out once the library gets a copy. Here is a brief description:

    http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/B/bolton_robot.html

  • omo

    Mm. book. thanks for the link.

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