Not all anime is about giant robots and pure escapism. Sometimes a show with a fantastic premise can be used to examine a real-world issue or subject. And sometimes anime comes all the way down to earth, the better to explore things that are often the domain of a live-action production -- but which gain an extra visual twist through animation.
Here's a list of some notable anime titles that explore major real-world topics, from juvenile delinquency to global financial crisis, each in their own inimitable way. All titles are listed in alphabetical order.
Issue: Economic meltdowns, unregulated financial speculation.
Kimimaro's struggling through college, half-broke, when a charismatic stranger offers him a pass to an alternate dimension called "The Financial District," where one can gamble with one's own future. Winners get a jackpot of cash they can use in the real world. Losers ... well, there's a chance Kimimaro's own now-deceased father was one of the losers. And when all that alien money comes flooding into an economically crippled Japan, something has got to give.
The English-language release of [C] - Control in 2012 couldn't have been more timely, what with the Eurozone imploding and the world still reeling from assorted financial meltdowns. The show itself touches on those concepts, but delivers them in the form of a fast-paced action/fighting show, one which puts the lie to the idea that economics is a boring subject.
Issues: Living in a "wired society."
A young man with no memory and no clothes wakes up on the lawn of the White House, with only a gun and a peculiar cellphone that contains billions of yen in digital money. The phone is like a magic wand: all he has to do is place a call and anything can be his ... except his identity. Soon he's intertwined with another Japanese, a girl named Saki, who will be his cohort as he unravels the mystery of both the phone and himself.
In the past few years we've come to take our digital interconnectedness for granted -- who reading this doesn't have a cellphone, a Twitter account, and all the rest? What's harder to anticipate is what the long-term impact of all that connectivity will be -- and whether or not it'll do anything about the larger, more long-term issues that plague our world. The show explores those ideas in the form of a mystery / thriller / drama, half Jason Bourne and half The Social Network, and the results are fascinating and compelling.
Issues: Crossdressing and gender perceptions
Shuichi, a boy, and Yoshino, a girl, are preteens who share the same problem: each wants to identify as the opposite sex. There's nothing perverse about their intentions -- they're simply more comfortable with themselves that way, although the adult world has many more problems with it than they do. The series follows them over a period of time as they grapple with these feelings, with the confused reactions of the world around them, and ultimately with each other.
Two miracles are manifest in this series, adapted from Takako Shimura's manga. The first is how it deals with its subject in an unassuming and wholly unexploitive way, especially after so many other anime that use crossdressing and gender dysphoria as a source for moronic humor. The second is the look and feel of the show itself, which resembles a European-style watercolor storybook -- an artistic accomplishment, and a great visual complement to the story's emotional tenderness.
Issues: Space colonization and its side effects.
Hachirota is a janitor -- of space. He works in Earth's orbit, collecting debris let behind by former space missions so that they don't damage other satellites or spacecraft. His job is lowly, thankless, difficult and exhausting, and Hachirota's hotheadedness doesn't help others sympathize all that readily with him or his work. If low gravity, radiation, or decompression doesn't kill you, the contempt of your co-workers might. But there's a big universe out there waiting for all of them to inhabit, if they can just learn how to reach for it.
The colonization of space isn't science fiction anymore; it's slowly become a reality, what with unmanned missions to Mars paving the way towards the real thing, and people living for months at a time in high orbit. Planetes explores the concept and its implications seriously, and at every step of the way reminds us that the ultimate toll for all human progress is the lives of those who work to make it happen. We may well inherit the stars one day, but we should never kid ourselves about how easy it'll be.
Issues: Social and gender roles.
Timid would-be illustrator Tsukimi (who's obsessed with drawing jellyfish, a holdover from childhood) tried to make it in Tokyo on her own, but ended up sharing a rooming-house with a cadre of fellow female socially-maladaptive geeks. On blundering into Kuranosuke -- the freewheeling, fashionable, cross-dressing son of a major local politician -- her entire life is turned upside down and had its pockets forcibly emptied. And soon both of them are forced to make major choices about their futures, where they have to break out of their respective comfort zones.
You would scarcely expect a story this rollicking and funny to be also so tender and moving, or so knowing about human behavior. But in addition to the laughs, Princess Jellyfish has some remarkably smart insights about the strait-jackets people squeeze themselves into to fit in -- or to break out -- of different parts of society.
Issue: Juvenile delinquency and penal reform.
In 1950s Japan, six young men are sentenced to do time in a reform school in Shōnan. Their experiences in stir shape -- one might say scar -- them for life, and have a lasting effect on them even after they leave and attempt to resume their adult lives. The show is unflinching about the abusive and regressive atmosphere inside Japan's prison system (the live-action movies The Eel and Doing Time were similarly blunt), but it's doubly painful for these young men, who learn to stick up for themselves when no one else will. Sometimes things veer that much more towards the sentimental and operatic, but all for a good reason.
Issue: Global warming.
Adapted from Eiichi Ikegami's light novel, this 2009 anime is set in a future where global warming has made carbon trading a form of world currency, and Tokyo's become overrun with vegetation as a way to capture carbon. There, boomerang-wielding Kuniko Hojo becomes the leader of "Metal Age," a revolutionary group resisting a government-sponsored plan to rebuild Tokyo into a giant arcology named Project Atlas.
Sadly, these intriguing ideas sit side-by-side with major plot holes, lapses of logic, and some supernatural/mystical elements to the story that really don't jibe with the rest of what goes on. But the overheated future depicted in the story is intriguing, and a whole major subplot of the story involves how CO2 trading becomes a black market unto itself via a kind of clandestine boiler-room operation.
Issues: Childrearing and delinquent parenting.
Daikichi is in his thirties and already settled in his unmarried ways when his grandfather dies and leaves behind, of all things, an illegitimate granddaughter, Rin. The rest of his family barely acknowledges Rin's existence, but her presence triggers some nascent protective instinct in him, and so he takes her in and tries to navigate through the maze of single parenthood in modern life. Things grow all the more complex when he grows close to the mother of one of Rin's nursery-school classmates.
Adapted from Yumi Unita's manga (released in English), this tenderly-observed and intelligently-written story avoids all the saccharine or contrived ways this story could have been explored. It's a joy to watch everyone in the story -- Daikichi included -- mature and grow over the months and years, as they deal with the inevitable changes that come from sharing a life with someone else.
Issues: "Hikikomori" / social anxiety.
College student Tatsuhiro hasn't gone to class in years -- in fact, he barely ventures out of his apartment. He's a hikikomori, one of a whole generation of Japanese youngsters who turns inwards and lives as a social isolate. It's not his fault, either, he tells himself: he's the victim of a conspiracy designed to turn fine, upstanding young people like him into emotional cripples. Then two chance encounters shake up his life: one with a neighbor who turns out to be a former classmate and who has bizarre plans to create a hit video game, and the other a girl who forms a kind of contract with Tatsuhiro to bring him out of his shell. But are they really trying to help, or are they just Out To Get Him as well?
The reasons for the hikikomori problem in Japan have been hotly debated, from inept parenting to an increasingly wired-up society. NHK doesn't offer explanations, but instead a case study: here's this kid, here's his problems, and here's how he tries to deal with them -- with a little badly-needed help from his friends.