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Best Sci-Fi Anime Films

Graphic violence and intense story lines are signature features of the best sci-fi anime films.

Sci-fi anime films take you into a world unlike any other. The extreme graphic nature of many films on the list is what makes some of them the best sci-fi anime films. Blood flows freely and bodies snap seamlessly in half in the world of anime leading, in many cases, to some of the goriest anime deaths. Animation is a great format for creating expansive worlds and complex narratives that collide in a crescendo of action. From robotics to cyborgs and gangsters to crime fighters, sci-fi anime films are a unique genre with some of the most talented creatives working today. The list of films include extreme imagery for the film fanatics and cerebral warnings for futurists and the scientifically curious. 

Metropolis

In the the futuristic city of Metropolis, robots are discriminated against, segregated to the city's lowest levels, and blamed for stealing jobs. Duke Red, the unofficial ruler of Metropolis, hires a mad scientist to construct an advanced robot in the image of his daughter, Tima. He intends to use her as a central control unit for a powerful weapon being built in a ziggurat at the center of Metropolis. Kenichi and his uncle, a private detective, become entangled in the plot and fight to save Tima from becoming a weapon. Metropolis draws aspects of its storyline from the 1927 film of the same name.

Central to the plot of Metropolis is robot labor and the replacement of humans with machines. Robotic automation threatens the modern workforce, replacing simple jobs with algorithms more efficient than people. Metropolis explores the creation of artificial intelligence and the blurring boundary between machine and conscious life. Whether or not machines can possess consciousness is a question philosophers, and science fiction, continue to debate.

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade takes place in an alternate Japanese universe in which Germany conquers Japan. The story focuses on Kazuki Fuse, member of an elite antiterror unit called the Kerberos Panzer Cops. He is commanded to execute a young female terrorist who commits suicide in front of Kazuki by detonating an improvised explosive. The incident disgraces the Panzer Cops and causes Kazuki to question his life. While visiting the grave of the terrorist, Kazuki meets her sister and the two develop a peculiar relationship.

The universe of Jin-Roh is eerily similar to our own: one where government is constantly under threat by terrorist attacks. The film delves into the psyche of soldiers forced to face horrifying events, and the trauma they carry with them. It is a look into the cruel extent of human nature, when oppressive leaders throw aside their humanity in the name of security. Rather than focusing on action, gore, and blood, Jin-Roh centers on characters' emotions, and how interactions between characters shape persona. Jin-Roh presents a grim atmosphere where people struggle to be human in an inhuman world. Rarely does film capture human struggles as well as Jin-Roh.

Memories

Memories is a 1995 sci-fi anime film composed of three episodes, each with their own characters and unique visual style. "Magnetic Rose," based on a manga short by Katsuhiro Otomo, follows two space travelers chasing a distress signal. They become drawn into a surreal world created by one woman's memories. In "Stink Bomb," a young chemist accidentally transforms himself into an unstoppable biological weapon on a direct course for Tokyo. "Cannon Fodder" depicts a day in the life of a city whose entire purpose is the firing of cannons at an unknown enemy.

"Magnetic Rose" is an exploration of the human psyche and the memories people cherish and hold on to, even after death. The characters must, reluctantly, weigh their emotions against reason to survive. "Stink Bomb" is a comedy, a story revolving around the accidental creation of a human stinking bomb who threatens all of Japan. The implications are light-hearted and not to be taken seriously. It is offered as a break from the serious nature of the first and last episode. "Cannon Fodder" is a metaphorical world where a country is at war against an unknown enemy. The cannons are not only weapons, but the essence of culture, economic, and social classes of the surreal, totalitarian nation.

Patlabor 2

In Patlabor 2, a Japanese police unit, who uses giant anthropomorphic robots (called Labors), is caught up in a political struggle. Civilian authorities and the military clash when a terrorist act is blamed on an Air Force jet. Most of the attacks are false flags, but they're enough to create panic and to cause the established sense of security to crumble.With the aid of a government agent, the unit becomes close to a terrorist leader to stop him and the nation from spiraling out of control.

Just war theory and unjust peace are at the center of Patlabor 2. The sci-fi anime film questions the nature of peace, and how one can determine when a nation is truly in a time of "peace." If one can determine what "peace" is then what counts as "war?" The film presents thought-provoking questions discussed in ethics councils around the world. What kind of actions are acceptable in the face of terrorism? What actions qualify as "terrorism?" Patlabor 2 shows determining the rules of war and when they are necessary is an arduous process with no clear answers.

Rebuild of Evangelion

The Evangelion films are set in a futuristic Tokyo, fifteen years after a worldwide cataclysm. The main story centers around Shinji, a teenage boy who is recruited by the shadowy organization NERV to pilot a giant bio-machine called Evangelion. His mission is to combat monstrous beings known as Angels. The movies follow the experiences and emotions of the Evangelion pilots, and members of NERV, as they fight the Angels to prevent another apocalypse, and contains some of the most memorable sci-fi anime robots.

The creator of Evangelion, Hideaki Anno, had an excited interest in psychoanalysis and philosophical dilemmas. The connection between the EVA's and their pilots, as well as the ultimate goal of the Human Instrumentality Project, bear a strong resemblance to Freud's theories on internal conflict and interpersonal communication. The hedgehog's dilemma is a concept described by philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and a regular theme throughout the films. Besides the references to Freudian Psychoanalysis there are also some minor references to the theories behind Gestalt therapy, a form of psychotherapy influenced by both psychoanalytic ideas as well as philosophical notions of a holistic self, personal responsibilities, and the consciousness.

Animatrix

The Animatrix is a series of nine films set in The Matrix universe, including four short films written by the Wachowskis. The first story, "The Second Renaissance," details the backstory of the Matrix universe, the original war between man and machines which preceded the creation of the Matrix. Humans built artificially intelligent machines, treated them as second-class citizens, leading to war and the enslavement of the human race. Other films follow characters trapped in the Matrix, or soldiers who have escaped the Matrix fighting against the machines.

As in The Matrix, the Animatrix focuses heavily on the notion of simulated reality, the hypothesis that reality may be generated by computers and that we might actually live in a simulation. In one story, school children discover a glitch in the Matrix, where the laws of physics are not obeyed. Some scientists believe reality is a hologram, and the modern world is being studied by future generations of humans. Perhaps supernatural events in the world are the result of bugs in the program of our own reality. If reality is a computer simulation, it might also help explain the Fermi Paradox; explaining why the universe seems so lonely.

Paprika

Paprika is a surreal psychological thriller created by notable director Satoshi Kon. A new form of psychotherapy is developed utilizing dream analysis to treat mentally ill patients; a device called the "DC Mini" allows doctors to view people's dreams. One of the prototypes is stolen, and the thief uses it to enter peoples dreams and annihilate their personality. Doctor Atsuko Chiba uses the device under her alter ego, "Paprika," in an attempt to uncover the perpetrator.

Paprika walks the line between dreams and reality, much like many of the best Philip K. Dick books. Christopher Nolan stated Paprika was one of his principal influences when creating Inception. Paprika grapples with the concept of dreams and how they might be utilized to better understand the human subconscious for psychological therapy. The realistic and modern city setting contrasts greatly with the psychedelic dream world that is presented, solidifying the need to separate dreams and reality.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

A thousand years have passed since the apocalyptic war, which destroyed human civilization and created toxic jungles inhabited by mutated insects, in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Humans live in scattered settlements across the world. The titular character, Nausicaä, lives in the Valley of the Wind, where she dares to explore the toxic jungles and befriends the giant armored insects called Ohm. A foreign kingdom plans to eradicate the mutant jungles using ancient technology, but Nausicaä fights to stop them and save the Ohm from extinction.

Hayao Miyazaki was influenced by a number of famous works in writing Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, including Isaac Asimov's Nightfall. The Ohmu are also a syllabic rendition of the word "worm," an ode to the sandworms of Dune. The work centralizes on anti-war and environmental themes. Nausicaä values all life, regardless of its form, and opposes war of all kind. There is no evil menace in the film; but the Buddhist roots of evil, greed, ill will, and delusion drive the antagonist's actions. Nausicaä leads people around her to understand and respect the environment, and teaches a spiritual approach to nature, living in harmony with it, peacefully.

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell takes place in the not so distant future, when machines and man have merged into cyborgs. The world is interconnected by a vast electronic network. People are part of the network by implanting their brains in cybernetic bodies, or "shells," which allow people to modify themselves, giving them superhuman abilities. The interconnected network makes people vulnerable to hackers, who hijack their bodies for their own amusement. An elusive hacker known as the Puppet Master "ghost-hacks" shells for his own ends. Section 9, an elite assault investigation team, chases after the puppet master.

The 1995 film touches on philosophical issues which remain central to modern philosophy. The "hard problem of consciousness" continues to elude the world's forerunner philosophers. The workings of the mind are difficult to understand, what makes something conscious is even harder. Ghost in the Shell touches on artificial intelligence and suggests A.I. may ultimately become self-aware. Cyborgs suggest the writers believe consciousness is solely stored in the mind, and can be transferred to other "shells," or bodies.

Akira

Akira is regarded by many critics as a landmark sci-fi anime film, one that influenced much of the art in the anime world that followed its release. The film follows a biker gang in a dystopian Tokyo, following World War III; they become mixed up in a government project researching latent psychic abilities. After a bike accident, Tetuso develops psychic powers but quickly loses control, as the military tries to control him. Kaneda, leader of the biker gang, chases Tetsuo, trying to save him; but the two become enemies as Tetsuo's jealousy of Kaneda fuels his rage and leads him to destroy neo-Tokyo with his newfound abilities.

Robot Carnival

The animated shorts that make up Robot Carnival range from the dramatic to the comedic in this anthology film centered around robots and other mechanical contraptions. While not directly linked into an overarching narrative, the unique style of each short ensures that the audience is never bored as a new take on technology and its potential impacts on human life is examined. As nine animators contributed to the project, each segment also offers its own unique animation and narrative style. This artsy sci-fi anime film represents some of the very best that the 1980s had to offer and provides an excellent introduction to some of the genre’s most prolific animators.

Summer Wars

In Summer Wars, high school student Kenji Koiso finds his life turned upside down after a malevolent artificial intelligence known as Love Machine uses his avatar to hack the virtual reality program OZ. Love Machine uses the ensuing chaos to cause everything from traffic jams to the disabling of electronic devices, all of which are controlled through OZ. It is up to Kenji and his allies to find a way to defeat Love Machine and prevent a total worldwide disaster. This fast-paced and techno-savvy anime earned director Mamoru Hosoda many comparisons to anime legend Hayao Miyazaki, and the contrasting animation styles between the real world and the virtual program OZ keep the film visually engaging throughout.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

After narrowly avoiding a fatal railroad accident, Makoto Konno discovers that she has the ability to literally leap through time. While Makoto initially uses these powers to improve her grades, relive good experiences, and avoid undesirable situations, she quickly learns that her time leaps can hold negative consequences for others — including some of her closest friends. And with only a limited number of time leaps available to her, making things right won’t be easy. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time offers a fantastic mix of comedy and drama that combines a coming-of-age romance with the ethical complications that can be offered by time travel.

Vexille

In the year 2067, Japan cuts itself off from the world following an international ban on cybernetics research. 10 years later, Vexille and her special warfare unit SWORD make a startling discovery while trying to trap a Japanese informant: technology that has blended robotics with human flesh has been created. Tasked to infiltrate the country and investigate what has been happening in the island nation, Vexille and her companions soon find themselves engaged in a battle between resistance fighters and an evil corporation that has turned Japan into a wasteland. The unique cel-shaded CGI animation style lends extra flair to the film’s intense action scenes.

Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato

The second film based on the Space Battleship Yamato TV series, Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato finds the crew of the titular ship defending the Earth from the White Comet Empire, a war-hungry group that harnesses the power of a comet to destroy those it deems too inferior to live. Although its ending made it controversial at the time of its release, Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato is considered a classic of sci-fi anime films, and features plenty of exciting space action to fill its epic 2-and-a-half hour length. The Space Battleship Yamato franchise is considered one of the most influential anime series of all time, having marked a turn to more complex and serious storylines in anime.

Appleseed

After the end of the brutal Global War, Deunan Knute finds herself held captive in the Utopian city Olympus. However, Deunan soon begins to discover that things are far from perfect in the city, where the disparate factions that control the population seek to pit humans against a population of sterile clones known as Bioroids. It is up to Deunan, along with her cyborg allies, to stop a plan that would ultimately destroy any hope humanity has for the future. This visually impressive CG film uses cel-shaded design to imitate the look of traditional anime in an adaptation that will surely please fans of the original manga.

Psycho-Pass: The Movie

In the future, the Sibyl System, which scans human brains to measure the possibility that an individual will commit a crime, has become a vital part of law enforcement in Japan. But after the system is integrated with the state of SEAUn, terrorists from the region begin attacking Japan — despite the peace promised by Sibyl. And for Inspector Akane Tsunemori, the attacks become even more mysterious after evidence connects the unrest to her former colleague Shinya Kogami. Exciting fight scenes and quality production design make this action-packed mystery film a great addition for fans of the sci-fi anime TV show Psycho-Pass.

Steamboy

After receiving a mysterious package from his grandfather, young inventor Ray Steam finds himself pursued by mysterious agents seeking to steal his grandfather’s invention for sinister purposes. Caught in a dangerous fight over advances in steam power, Ray must choose whether to follow his idealistic grandfather or his cynical father in the battle against the corrupt O’Hara Foundation. Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo (the director of the legendary Akira), Steamboy offers plenty of steampunk eye candy in this rollicking adventure set in an alternate 19th-century Europe. Exciting and thought-provoking, the film also serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of war and scientific advancement run amuck.

Resident Evil: Degeneration

Set in the same universe as the extremely popular video games, Resident Evil: Degeneration follows some of the franchise’s most popular characters, Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield, as they confront a zombie infestation at the Harvardville Airport. But zombies aren’t their only problem: they must face a monster mutated by the G-virus, as well as stop corrupt agents from WilPharma who are seeking to sell the T-virus as a bioweapon. This CG animation provides a solid alternative to the live-action Resident Evil films, and offers plenty of Easter Eggs for long-time fans of the video game series.

Redline

Produced by Madhouse and released in Japan in 2010, Redline is an auto racing sci-fi anime film. As the directorial debut feature of Takeshi Koike, it features the voices of Takuya Kimura, Tadanobu Asano, and Yū Aoi, as well as an original story by Katsuhito Ishii. The film is set in the distant future, where a man by the name of JP JP takes on great risks for the chance of winning the underground race, Redline.

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