Robots, spaceships, aliens, other planets, other stars, other universes—there's many an anime series that sport these elements. But among the great many anime that just have SF elements floating around in them, there's a select few which work that much harder to deserve the label—where the "science fiction" is just as important, if not more so, than the "anime" side of the equation. Here's a select list of the very best of those anime, with an eye turned as much towards lesser-known titles and all-but-forgotten gems as well as the big-name classics. All titles are presented in alphabetical order.
It’s hard to make a list of significant anime without Akira showing up somewhere, and if it belongs in any category it belongs here. Akira contains multiple SF conceits: a cautionary tale of technology and human ignorance in an implacable universe; a crumbling mega-city; psionic powers and trans-human evolution; and a climax that plays like 2001 as filmed by David Cronenberg. See it as much for the sheer visual overload as for the dense, politically-tinged plot, and the titanic score by experimental music troupe Geinoh Yamashirogumi.
2. Armitage III
Cyberpunk anime done right. On a heavily terraformed Mars, policeman Ross Syllabus is paired with the female android Naomi Armitage to solve a series of murders—except that the murder victims are robots who have been passing undetected as humans for a long time. It’s not hard to see how much of Armitage was inspired by Blade Runner, but over time it grows wings of its own and becomes deeply compelling on its own terms. Note that the OAV version is longer than the feature film edition (180 minutes vs. 90 minutes) and has a more involved story. A sequel, Armitage III: Dual-Matrix, continues where the first one left off but isn’t nearly as interesting; it’s a by-the-numbers follow-up with some token emotional involvement that never clicks.
When the head of Gally, a robot girl with no memory, turns up in a garbage dump that's the size of a city, a local hardware hacker revives her and gives her a new body. She finds work as a bounty hunter, but soon becomes emotionally involved with a street urchin who's determined to reach the floating city above that rains trash down on all of them below. This is an all-too-short adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's much longer and far more ambitious manga, loaded with stylized violence and bleak, decaying landscapes. But it's also amazingly heartfelt and memorable, one worth going back to and savoring. Small wonder James Cameron himself has repeatedly announced a live-action adaptation of the story.
Another show that takes inspiration from a lot of cyberpunk SF, including Blade Runner, but is never less than its own animal and is great fun all the way through. When a batch of bio-engineered beasts called “Boomers” run wild and start tearing apart Tokyo, four girls don specially-designed power armor to go after the Boomers and keep the city safe when the police can’t. Like Evangelion, it’s been hugely influential and has spawned spinoffs and (mostly unrelated) sequels. Kenichi Sonoda of Gunsmith Cats fame did the character designs. Be warned the conclusion is, sadly, rather abrupt due to behind-the-scenes feuding by the production company.
5. Cowboy Bebop
7. Ergo Proxy
In a domed city, built to house humanity after Earth’s ecology collapsed, humans and their robot servants—“AutoReivs”—live and work together under a central computer that manages every aspect of their lives. Then a computer virus named “Cogito” starts causing AutoReivs to run wild, and it’s up to female detective Re-l Mayer to find out how to stop it. Written by Dai Sato (of the aforementioned Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), it’s a fascinating mixture of mystery, thriller, dystopian / cyberpunk elements and even heavy philosophy a la Evangelion. Another show that takes cues from Blade Runner without imitating it, and goes in plenty of its own original directions. One to watch, and rewatch.
This ambitious feature film bore only the most passing connection to the rest of the Final Fantasy franchise: it mostly used the name and a couple of key concepts from the series (e.g., life as a form of energy) as ingredients in a story about a team of scientists and soldiers strugging to bring a barren Earth back to life. An all-CGI animated production, it paired its dazzling, near-photorealistic imagery with a thoughful (if sometimes contrived) story. The film bankrupted SquareSoft's movie division and fizzled at the box office, but has since gone on to become a steady seller in Sony's home video catalog, and raised the bar that much more for how computer graphics could be used to render true-to-life actors.
After the Earth was left uninhabitable, mankind colonized the moon, and now lives there in the isolated “Republic of Eden.” A kid named Takeru gets into trouble after crashing his custom moon buggy, and discovers Eden’s leaders have been systematically suppressing the truth about what really happened to Earth. Originally created as an extended marketing tie-in for Nissin Cup Noodles’s 35th anniversary (no, really!), it sports character designs by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and a curious-looking but also striking hybrid of hand-drawn and CGI animation. Co-written by Dai Sato (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex).
A group of people are snatched up at the exact second they die and teleported into a room where they are given armor, weapons, instructions to kill various “aliens” … and a deadly time limit. It’s a game which they have been condemned to play over and over again, like a kind of horrible techno-Purgatory, and from which they will either learn to trust each other or be destroyed by their own worst, most brutal instincts. This show stakes out a position as close to psychological horror and thriller territory as it does science fiction. It’s notoriously hard to watch—so many of the characters are just plain nasty—but it’s hard to take your eyes from it. Adapted from Hiroya Oku’s manga, which is apparently even more outrageous.