Continuing from where we left off last week, I take a step over to Japan’s animation industry for anime sci-fi films that are every bit as amazing as the best live action has to offer. Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Gundam–these are classics, but here I want to share some more recent films that aren’t as ubiquitous. With that in mind, I’ve gathered 4 SF anime films that are totally worth a watch, even to those who aren’t usually into anime.
FYI, this is one of those lists where order doesn’t really matter.
4. Summer Wars
Summer Wars hardly looks like sci-fi at first; it’s largely set in pastoral Japan, but beneath that it’s surprisingly cyberpunk. In this world, the Internet has become Oz, the kind of VR-style world that you can roam around in just as easily as the real one. When poor high schooler Kenji is sent a series of numbers right before going on vacation, he solves the problem over night, assuming it’s some difficult math problem. Instead, it gets him blamed for releasing a crazed AI called Love Machine and putting the whole world (or, actually, both worlds) at risk. Of course, he doesn’t even find out about all this until he’s already out in the country with his friend Natsuki’s entire family of eccentric weirdos. He’s going to need everyone’s help to clear his name and stop Love Machine’s plot before it’s too late.
A lot of the movie has to do with the family dynamics and it’s heavily character based as a result, but it’s all told through the lens of this AI-prompted potential apocalypse, which anchors it well into sci-fi territory. It has some interesting spins on a lot of the seemingly obvious tropes at work in that simple introduction above. Summer Wars was hotly anticipated when it was first announced, and it enjoyed a good bit of popularity as a result. You may even have seen it on Adult Swim in the past.
Moving from “mildly sci-fi” to hardcore, Appleseed is a movie set in the post-apocalyptic wastelands where a pseudo-utopian city called Olympus has been founded, allowing the surviving humans and their artificially created Bioroids to peacefully coexist (in theory, anyway). Bioroids have limited lifespans, however, and after their life extension machines are destroyed, their only hope is to recover the “Appleseed” data from which it was originally created to rebuild the systems. Into this, female soldier Deunan is brought to the city, where she finds her estranged, now-cyborg former lover Briareos. She ends up joining E.S.W.A.T. (exactly what it sounds like) along side him and the pair are ultimately the ones to decide the fate of both humans and bioroids.
Appleseed uses an interesting, cel-shaded CGI art style, which makes for pretty unique visuals. Based (loosely) on a manga by Ghost in the Shell creator Shirow Masamune, there are some indications that it might share a universe with that series as well, due to the existence of bioroids and certain political organizations (particularly the division of the US) in both. It had a sequel, Appleseed Ex Machina, which used the same art style but was less popular. You can watch it on Hulu here, but you’ll need an account to get past the age gate.
Okay, so, you know how anime sometimes has a reputation for being batshit insane Japanese stuff to outside observers? Paprika is that kind of anime. To give you an idea, it’s been frequently compared to Inception. In particular, the film deals with a recently created device called the “DC,” which allows people to enter and record the dreams of others. Dream therapist Chiba’s “dream avatar” is called Paprika, hence the title, and she quickly takes to using the device, illegally, to help solve people’s psychological issues. Since the DCs are so new, they don’t really have any safety protocols, and when the bad guys get their hands on it, there’s a huge risk posed to experienced users like Chiba and, well, anyone else they might choose to use it on. And then things start getting really weird…
As you can imagine, a huge chunk of the film takes place in dreams, which justifies, to some extent, the insane animation. The movie’s full of some heavy themes but still manages to be surprisingly light for the majority. The scenes that are disturbing can be REALLY disturbing, however. The director, Satoshi Kon, kind of had a thing for blending dream-like imaginary ideas and reality, which also shows up in his series Paranoia Agent, but you might recognize him better for making Perfect Blue.
Drawing from Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi film and Astro-Boy creator Osamu Tezuka’s manga inspired by the same, Metropolis is a movie that takes the themes of the former and adds another layer of science fiction on top of it. Instead of poor human workers in the under city, it’s all robots, and taking the place of the robo-Maria is Tima, another android girl created by a mad scientist at the behest of the wealthy leader of the city (although this time intended to be his revived daughter, rather than his wife). The film mostly follows private detective Shunsaku Ban and his assistant Kenichi as they accidentally stumble on Tima and end up in a conflict over bringing down the plutocratic, unfair system that’s been set in place by aforementioned wealthy leader Duke Red and his ilk. The resistance is made up of humans put out of work by the robots, so they’re not exactly the friendliest bunch, either.
The dystopian themes of class struggles and labor replaced with automation are quite resonant today, and the world possesses quite a lot of cyberpunk elements to it as well (funny how all these movies ended up being vaguely cyberpunk). It’s also a great looking film, with a mix of CGI backgrounds and traditional animation.
Have you seen any of these anime films, or plan to watch them now? Are there any you think I should’ve included? Let me know in the comments or on twitter @RetroPhaseShift. Maybe we can do anime series some time in the near future.