Peering Into the Future with Anime

Diane M. Sattler, Ph.D.
29 Jun 2015

A favorite topic of conversation during a campfire confab or liquor-lubed late night philosophical dreaming is: "What will the future bring? There are a gazillion ways that conversation could go, depending on your soul mates' imagination and creativity, and maybe precognition. (Was that the classic "Twilight Zone" theme in the background?) Japanese anime may give us an opportunity to peer into Earth's future. Don't forget that science fiction writers and other dreamers have been idea sparkers and predictors of space travel, big brother surveillance, robots, test-tube babies, and much more. So, taking a closer look at anime set in the future may reveal some possible scenarios, patterns and themes for the future of our Earth. I certainly hope that most of them are wrong, though, even if many of us won't be around to verify or debunk their concepts.

War: After WW III or human extinction and mecha

Just thinking about another world war is frightening. Anime takes a look at what life could be like after WW III in the future, which may not provide much comfort to the worried but may serve as a warning.

  • "Akira" is set during the year 2020 in Tokyo after WW III. This anime's take on the familiar destruction by war and subsequent rise from the ashes (this time of society) is as ancient as the Egyptian phoenix myth of the sun bird that dies and regenerates out of the ashes. However, this storyline has another twist. After Tokyo rises again and prepares to host the Olympics, the construction site becomes a perfect cover for building a military underground, so the cycle of war continues. In reality, Tokyo is a contender for the 2020 Olympics.
  • "Infinite: Phoenix" obviously is connected with the phoenix myth, as reflected in its title. In this anime set further into the future, life on Earth no longer exists, but rises again from the ashes.
  • "Ghost in the Shell" also is set after WW III in 2020. This time we find ourselves in the western hemisphere. Three southern U.S. states secede from the union, invade Latin America and become the American Empire. The northern states join with Russia to form the American Soviet Union. Old animosities are again explored, this time in a futuristic setting.
  • "Space Battleship Yamato," set in 2199, finds that Earth is being viciously bombarded by an alien race until it is uninhabitable. As the battle rages, Earthlings are overwhelmed by superior war technology. Then another civilization makes an offer that can't be refused. They offer to give humans the technology that can neutralize the radioactive contamination, but there's a catch. Humanity has a nearly impossible task to accomplish and this anime series builds tension and excitement as humans rush to accomplish the assigned task that could avoid the total destruction of humanity.
  • "Megazone 23" takes place in 2500 after Earth is destroyed by war. Super computers create and maintain a fake Earth of the 1980s. This anime touches on a virtual reality that is reminiscent of the movie, "The Truman Show," where humans are blissfully unaware (for a while) of the fact that they are living in a virtual reality world.
  • "Battler Angel Alita," puts us in the year 2447, when solar system battles are decided with tournaments pitting cyborgs and Godzilla monsters against each other. Who hasn't thought and perhaps wished for a game-style conflict resolution that could substitute for war? Many would find that a very acceptable solution, unless, or course, they stopped to think of the Roman coliseum and the battle between humans and animals that offered more entertainment than solution.
  • "Mobile Suit Gundam," based in 2307, finds life on Earth advanced to the point where power is supplied solely by the sun. Despite having conquered the search for clean and renewable energy, there are other challenges facing humanity. Namely, a group of young Gundam declare war. Gundam are mecha who wear mobile suits labeled, "Gundam," so once again we encounter mecha, and this time, they're not on our side.
  • Space bugs

    Closely related to the ominous dimensions of war-related theme, is that a variety of creatures threaten life as we know it in some futuristic animes. Quite a few animes feature giant bugs that threaten or inhabit our planet. Bugs are familiar, but not usually beloved, and when exaggerated they take on ominous dimensions.

  • "Gunbuster" is set on Earth in 2015. Humans still exist, and our future selves are frantically scrambling to build monstrous-sized mecha that are designed to battle the wicked space bugs that are terrorizing our planet.
  • "Blue Gender" is about the same theme as "Gunbuster." Set in the year 2031, humans once again experience the scourge of giant insects, but this time, they have taken over our planet. Once again, mecha are used to do battle for us frail humans.
  • "2059: Macross Frontier" follows space fighters to the center of the galaxy. They're threatened by—wait for it—space bugs. Space fighters turn into humanoid mecha. Little surprise in this anime, which closely follows a theme of bugs vs. mecha.
  • Space colonies, time travel and virtual reality

  • "Cowboy Bebop," set in 2020, takes place when Earth has to be abandoned. This time, rather than being threatened by space bugs, Earth faces destruction from shards that are splitting off its own moon. They threaten to bombard this virtuous planet—or, is it so virtuous? Actually, in this anime, our own impending doom is a problem solely of our own making, because we built a lunar gate that exploded and obliterated our moon. Now it's raining debris on us. But that would never happen, would it? No, probably not. Realistically, long before we have the technology to build a lunar gate, the Earth could face frying from the hot rays of the sun through the lost ozone layer, but that's way too prosaic for an anime theme.
  • "U.C. Gundam," finds us in a space colony in the year 2045, but all is not well. Terrorists manage to blow up the prime minister, as the battle against terrorism is carried into this futuristic setting in a colony far from Earth. Discouragingly, apparently some seers into our future find that some things never really change.
  • "Doraemon," explores time travel in the year 2112. Always an intriguing concept and topic, time travel is used to try to improve the financial standing of descendants (themselves, of course!) Who among us hasn't wished for advanced knowledge, for instance, about which stocks will make meteoric increases in the future ,or exactly which numbers will come up in the multimillion dollar lottery drawing?
  • "Sword Art Online," set in 2022, which is not all that long from now, has what may be a prescient view of virtual reality. Humans are drawn into amazingly realistic virtual reality games that turn out to be much more sinister. Too late, participants realize after they are involved that people who die as part of this virtual reality game actually do die. The players in this seductive game have a nearly impossible time telling virtual reality apart from the real thing. Anyone who has had an extremely realistic dream can relate to this intriguing anime.
  • A quick final look at anime themes

    Peering into the future with anime reveals some recurring themes that cross genres where scifi, mecha, fantasy and even parody can intersect. One theme that shows up in many futuristic animes is that technology is a double-edged sword that can be a cure—or a curse. The idea that war is destructive, even to the point of being totally destructive, is a frightening but perhaps realistic look at humanity's future as well as its past. Arguably, two central themes are: good generally triumphs over evil and humans cannot be kept down. We will overcome and rise again, and that is what gives us hope for the future.

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