As far as I’m concerned, there are pretty much two main kinds of sci-fi: space adventures and cyberpunk. Cyberpunk never had a big presence on TV, and I’ve covered most of the attempts at it by this point. They’ve ranged from very successful, like Max Headroom, to far less so (TekWar) in terms of bringing it to life, but none of them have found much of an audience in the Western world. It’s rather bizarre, if you ask me; cyberpunk IS the fiction of the present, for all intents and purposes. But there is one place where cyberpunk thrived, a place intimately tied to the genre from its very origins–Japan. You can’t throw a rock in a cyberpunk dystopia without bouncing off a Neo Tokyo here or there. And a lot of classics of the genre come in the form of cyberpunk anime, so here are a few series that I feel are must-see.
4. Serial Experiments Lain
Serial Experiments Lain is a psychological anime that follows a young girl, Lain, and her exposure to the Wired, an Internet-like network that reaches everything. The Wired doesn’t interest Lain until her classmate suddenly commits suicide… and an email arrives, allegedly written by her, a week after her death. From there the story dives into philosophy, conspiracies, and some very cyberpunk themes concerning the line between the “real world” and the digital one we’ve created.
Fair warning–Lain is an extremely dense show, and it’s not for everyone. This isn’t a show where you can just sit back and have something else going on; it demands your full attention. But it’s excellent at crafting a mood, and you’ll be thinking about the strange ideas it poses for a while afterward. If you want to give it a try, Funimation has both the dub (first episode only) and sub (whole series) on Youtube (although I bet it’s region-locked). It’s been extremely influential, including our next entry…
.Hack// (pronounced Dot Hack) doesn’t look the way you probably think cyberpunk anime should–but that’s because it’s almost entirely set in a fantasy MMORPG. The plot, however, is as cyberpunk as it gets. After a computer virus destroys much of the Internet, a company called CC Corp begins rebuilding it from the ground up, off of their OS, Altimit. CC Corp develops the kind of monopoly 90’s Microsoft could only dream of, and they’re doing awesome until the creation of their MMORPG, The World. The man who programmed the game died before it was completed, and it’s pretty much a black box as far as CC Corp is concerned; they don’t understand it, but it works, so they start marketing it anyway. Everything’s fine until one day, a boy named Tsukasa finds he can’t log out of the World…
.Hack// is a multimedia franchise, as I’ve discussed before. The story kind of works like a baton race, with each segment passing the torch once the characters have done all they can. The anime series .Hack//Sign is the ideal place to start, and like Lain it’s a relatively slow moving and cerebral show, with lots of dialog and mysteries but not much action. If you enjoy Sign, the next place to go is the PS2 games (or Let’s Plays on YouTube of them, at least) and finally the Legend of the Twilight Bracelet manga. Prequel light novel AI Buster is also definitely worth checking out. With corrupt megacorps, a vast and all encompassing computer network, emergent AI and hackers running around, few other stories hit as many of the cyberpunk checkboxes with as unique an approach as this.
2. Psycho Pass
Psycho Pass is the newest cyberpunk anime on the list; some call it “post-cyberpunk” because the protagonists are working for the dubiously moral government system. That system is the Sibyl System, a computer that runs the entire society of Psycho Pass‘s Japan in what’s supposed to be the best way for everyone. Part of how this is accomplished is by the measurement of the eponymous “psycho pass,” a score assembled by the computer’s readings that can render someone’s mental and emotional state in numerical form with an associated color. The Public Safety Bureau, made up of Inspectors, are tasked with confronting threats to the peace by any means necessary. Of course, this is a pretty dangerous job, since killing criminals (and occasionally victims who’ve been too traumatized by their ordeal) can really screw with one’s emotional state… and that’s why Inspectors are given Enforcers under their command, criminals whose psycho passes have reached an unrecoverable status. The only way this society can deal with a criminal is by forcing other criminals to do it.
There’s still a ton of standard cyberpunk issues and ideas being investigated here, like exposing the flaws in this peaceful society as rookie Inspector Akane starts on the job and sees it for herself firsthand. And of course, there’s far more going on behind the scenes than it initially appears. The first season is currently on Netflix, which is as much as I’ve watched, but there’s also been a second season and a movie. Do be aware that the first episode features some really intense scenes of violence and rape, but that’s the worst as far as I’ve seen. Most episodes just feature the absolutely ludicrous amount of gore that comes with blasting someone with the PSB’s weapon of choice, the Dominator.
1. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Ghost in the Shell‘s film version is a classic of the genre and one of the most influential animated films ever (and let’s hope it stays animated), but the series is just as amazing, if not more so. Stand Alone Complex follows Motoko Kusanagi and her team under Public Security Section 9 who deal with cybersecurity threats, which are way more serious in a world where almost every has some degree of cyborgization done to them. The episodes are split into two types in the first season: “Stand Alone” episodes, which are one-off character pieces, and “Complex” stories, which follow the ongoing story arc of the Laughing Man, a mysterious hacker who once kidnapped a major CEO before vanishing entirely. The second season is similarly divided in its story arc regarding a group called the Individual Eleven.
Stand Alone Complex does an amazing job portraying its future, a world where everyone has access to the internet at all times, and showing just how complicated conversations might get when both people are effectively instant experts on any topic. As a result, the dialog tends to be very dense, each conversation packed with information. But SAC doesn’t skimp on the action either, with some really awesome fight scenes of just about every kind you can imagine. The characters are very real and likable, and conflicts are very gray, with no simple answers. Also, it has one of the greatest voice casts of any dub ever, and the SAC dub is generally regarded as superior to the Japanese original. Just don’t mix it up with the latest OVA series, Arise. It’s… not as good.
Stand Alone Complex has most of its first season officially on Youtube by Manga Entertainment, although the first few episodes are missing for some reason. You can find those easily enough on your own, though.
That’s all for this week. Any other cyberpunk anime series you think belong on this list? I stuck with things I’d seen, but I know there are others out there (like Bubblegum Crisis) that probably deserve a spot, too. You can let me know your suggestions in the comments, or on Twitter @RetroPhaseShift. If you liked the article, share it!