Animation is a natural medium to portray unrealistic situations–say, science fiction scenes–because the only limit to what you can depict is what you can draw. Japan, post-World War II, is one of the most scientifically and technologically advanced societies on the planet. Put the two together, and you have a climate for some truly great sci-fi stories portrayed through Japan’s native film art form, anime.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Idealistic shows about naïve kids kicking ass in their giant robot suits are one of the most venerable anime subgenres. Then along came Studio Gainax’s classic series Neon Genesis Evangelion to spawn a sub-subgenre of dark, psychologically intense shows that turned the whole robot-superheroism thing on its head. Even the most casual anime fans can quote chapter and verse from this show’s plot: The “hero” is depressed, ineffectual, cowardly, and thoroughly unlikeable, his handsome and brilliant father also happens to be aloof, abusive, obsessed with his dead wife, and not above using children as tools of war, the two attractive female supporting protagonists are respectively a violent rage-head and an emotionless shell, and the robots are entirely the opposite of fun to pilot. Throw in fake religious symbolism, actually significant religious symbolism, a tragic final-episode gay love affair, and no fewer than two alternate endings that people are still angry about today, and you have one of the most controversial and successful anime series of all time.
One thing every show on this list has in common is a post-apocalyptic theme, either implied or overt–given Japan’s traumatic experiences as the only country ever to have atomic bombs used against it, it’s not surprising that so much Japanese media would refer to that trope. But in few anime is it more apparent than in Desert Punk. In the blackly comedic future of this show, the entire world’s been turned to, well, desert after global nuclear war. Our protagonist of dubious morals is lecherous 17-year-old assassin Kanta “Desert Punk” Mizuno, who’s renowned for his efficiency despite his many carnal vices. The story is something of a picaresque, at first, following Kanta’s aimless searches for pleasure, but slowly begins to explore much more serious themes of the inhumanity of people in desperate situations.
The best way to describe this spacefaring romp is “the Firefly of anime”–both in terms of its content, and how short its run was, though in this case the length was intentional and the show was brought to a true conclusion. The premise is remarkably similar: After the ruin of Earth, humanity is scattered to distant planets, and a gang of broke criminals–Captain Jet Black, his shady, sarcastic right hand man Spike Speigel, Spike’s sometime love interest and sharpshooting mercenary Faye Valentine, and eccentric computer genius Ed–are wandering aboard the good ship Bebop. They bicker and struggle to make ends meet as bounty hunters in the lawless “Wild West of Space.” Themes include the inability to escape one’s past, and classic American and British music; famed composer Yoko Kanno wrote the jazz-influenced and much-praised score, the episodes have titles like “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Toys in the Attic,” and the movie that fills in the gap between two parts of the series’ continuity is naturally called “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann
Another Gainax offering, a decade and a half after Evangelion, Gurren-Lagann was explicitly stated to be the mirror-universe version of that series. In this case the young hero is brave and resourceful, his father figure (actually his surrogate older brother) is a caring, courageous, if over-enthusiastic inspiration to his younger sibling, and the robots are actually a blast to pilot. After the apocalypse, humanity’s been literally forced underground by bestial mutant humanoids, but when a boy named Simon (improbably pronounced like “She-Mon”) discovers a pendant shaped like a drill, he finds it’s the ignition key for a small but powerful robot. Simon and his “brother” Kamina meet a red-haired young woman with a sniper rifle when they’re attacked by the beast race’s robots, and events quickly spiral out of control from there. In fact, the plot and aesthetic of the entire series is based around spirals and exponential growth. In this love letter to the giant robot genre, you can always count on your friends to have your back in a fight, your bitterest enemies can be redeemed, and with enough determination and sufficiently advanced technology, the laws of physics start to sound like mere suggestions (by the end of the show, mentally constructing a galaxy-sized weapon is considered a smallish party trick).
*Main Image: Desert_Punk by deltagamer