I’ve been watching anime for the better part of 15 years and I’ve seen it all. The trashy, the classics, the sexy, and the bombastic, and if there’s one thing I’ve grown to appreciate, it’s aesthetics. I absolutely love watching anime because of how awesome and stylish it can look, and there’s no anime genre as distinctly stylish as cyberpunk.
Sometimes we’re looking for something less bubbly and more grounded, but we don’t want to cry a lot (only a little). Cyberpunk is by far the most grounded and relatable genre in anime. Not all of us had a high school crush or trained really hard to beat a bully, but we’re all human.
Cyberpunk is a genre that focuses on worlds full of lawlessness, government oppression, and rampant computer technology. Neon lights glint off of cybernetic enhancements and the line between human and machine blurs to the point that you must question what makes a man?
Anime is the go-to place to find accessible media set in cyberpunk worlds, heck, a lot of the most renowned cyberpunk IS anime (and of course novels, but whatever). Many people recently cut their teeth on a certain controversial game release and find themselves hungry for more dystopian cyber goodness. Well, I’ve got you covered. Here is my list of 10 cyberpunk anime to immerse yourself in and scratch that itch.
Now, this is a very unique case. It’s inspired by the 1927 classic film as well as a manga by the legend Tezuka Osamu, but it is a brand new story. It tackles some pretty heavy themes like its predecessors, but it’s easy to follow a joy to watch slowly unfold.
That’s all well and good, but I’m more interested in Tima, the gynoid (yes there is a female term for android) made to rule the world. She’s supposed to be the ultimate being made to rule humans and robots. While the character herself is not as interesting as what she represents, by the end she was by far one of the most interesting android characters I’ve seen.
And because I love it when the animation goes “brr” we’ve got to talk about the art. Most cyberpunk is dark and dirty but this one flips that on its head. Everything is bright, sunny, and colorful. That works because it’s a thin veneer that hides the deep-rooted problems of the futuristic city under a nice coat of paint.
Then there’s the actual animation part. Holy cow, this film looks amazing! The character designs are straight out of Tezuka’s classic manga, only slightly tweeted to work 50 years later. Every movement is given such love and fluidity that it reminded me of a Satoshi Kon pic. The detail and motion are top-notch, especially in the finale. See for yourself.
The way Metropolis is framed, how it moves and breaths with vibrance and detail, is very reminiscent of the late Satoshi Kon’s movies.
It’s easier to see when they’re moving, but Metropolis and the films of Satoshi Kon share a certain beauty in their locomotive style.
You can watch Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis in HD on Blu-ray. Believe me, with a movie this high fidelity it makes all the difference.
2. Ghost in the Shell
You will never find an anime that so heavily influenced the aesthetics of the cyberpunk genre as this 1995 classic. Moody skyscrapers dripping with rust and water, cramped canals overladen by neon signs, and nearly human-looking cybernetic enhancements create a particular aesthetic feeling you can only find in cyberpunk.
The story is a fairly straightforward noir that carries a lot of deeper themes and questions just below the surface. What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of the soul? What makes you, you? The film asks a lot of important questions that only become more relevant with time. Besides robotic action and killer set pieces, I think this one of the main draws of the genre.
I went into the movie blind. I’d seen the Hollywood adaptation (which, as expected, falls flat), but other than that had no experience with the story. Considering how inexpressive the protagonist Motoko is, I did not expect to be so drawn into her character. How she feels about her place in the world is fascinating to learn. It’s really impressive what they were able to do with a stand-alone film (pun intended.) If the Scarlet Johansson film made you even a little curious about the source material, here is your push. Watch it.
Check out the original Ghost in the Shell manga
And if a tv series is more your thing “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” also makes for a good point of entry into the series.
Speaking of which…
3. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Second verse, same as the first. Same characters you know and love from the movie but this time with a new story not connected to the original. We get to see Section 9 in more of a day-to-day capacity.
Where the movie focused on one all-important case, SAC takes time to breathe and really explore this world. I mean, how can you not when you live in a world where a guy can put his brain into an armored tank?
Time is what makes the series great. We only got to really understand Major in the movie. Now Batou, Togusa, Aramaki, and even the A.I. spider-tanks get time to strut their stuff. Yes, you heard me. The tanks are characters too (and they’re super cute).
I’ve never seen a film that felt so distinctly Japanese. Taking place forty years after World War 3 has turned Tokyo to rubble, we see a city rebuilt, but a society still picking up the pieces. Biker gangs rule the streets with impunity and protests rage everywhere in the neon-soaked shell of Neo Tokyo.
The film comments on destruction, political corruption, civil unrest, war, and the normal people who have to live with all of it. All shown through the eyes of two teenagers who have had to grow up in a world that has already been destroyed. Like Godzilla, Akira is a movie about destruction that could only be made by those who saw the devastation of a mushroom cloud.
It’s hard to understate the cultural significance of Akira. It created the first big anime movement in the west. Imagine only seeing Disney animations and children’s cartoons, then going to the theater and seeing this.
Needless to say, this sparked some interest. Now animation could be for adults too and it has never been the same since. While I didn’t see the movie until its 25th anniversary, even now I can see why it hit people so hard. Even now, more than 30 years after release, it is one of the most original and painstakingly beautiful films I’ve ever seen.
The story and themes have a timeless quality to them and so does the animation. Everything moves in Akira. I’m sure it won’t look like almost any anime you’ve seen because it isn’t. Lips move properly, characters glide beautifully in the full swing of their emotions, and even the backgrounds are hand-animated with a level of detail and love that few have ever even attempted. Seriously, who animates the backgrounds!?!?
5. Battle Angel Alita (Gunnm)
Okay, I have a soft spot for this one. When the Hollywood adaptation was announced I read the manga to get a feel for the series. Now it’s probably my favorite cyberpunk story to date.
While savaging for parts the cybernetic doctor Ido finds a destroyed cyborg in the trash whom he repairs and takes in as his own. With no memories of her previous life, Alita must find her own identity in the cut-throat trash heap she calls home.
This 50ish minute OVA is a great introduction to the story. It covers the first conflict and introduces the setting of a scrapyard city full of miscreants and brain juice junkies (yes, literally, there is a guy who dopes on brains).
Where the story really shines is Alita. Her fierce independence, genuine empathy, and indomitable sense of identity set her apart as one of my favorite main characters in fiction. I can’t name another character who shows such love and mercy to every enemy she kills.
Watching Alita go from a naive little girl to an unstoppable force of nature is why this story is one of my favorites. It’s not because she’s a badass, but because, in spite of literally her whole body being robotic, she is the most human character I know.
They say that anime is an advertisement for manga and honestly this is the case here. There is mystery, action, a killer premise and so much character here, but the OVA can only show you the gate, the journey is in the manga.
That’s not to say the OVA can’t stand on its own two feet. It’s still a very competent, if brief, story with that great 90’s look to it. It makes a great introduction to the story and should answer whether you’re curious enough to read it.
I recommend the Battle Angel Alita manga hardcover for the best reading experience.
Most cyberpunk focus on the personal and physical questions of a cyber-enhanced life. Psycho-Pass asks about the social aspects. Their world is one where mental states are given an overly simplistic number and assumed to accurately relay if someone is prone to turn violent/criminal.
Basically, if you are deemed mentally unfit, then you get forcibly removed from society. Mandatory therapy, jail, or step above a slave. So yeah, not a lot of options if you happen to have a really bad day. And any camera or cop in the city can evaluate you whenever they want.
It’s probably one of the best detective anime around because of how well it handles the messed-up reality of their situation. We get to see that system from all angles, its strengths, and weaknesses through the eyes of a rookie cop.
And I think this anime talks about the social “what-if” better than any other cyberpunk. It explores the ramifications of their social system in the same piecemeal style as Isaac Asimov did in “I, Robot”.
It’s scary to me because the idea of social currency is such a slippery slope that modern life is actually standing on. The internet immortalizes certain mistakes that can come back to bite you years later. Not the same thing, but only a step behind.
Then there’s the moral question of detaining someone because they MIGHT become a criminal. How far is too far to protect society? Scary stuff.
7. The Animatrix
The Animatrix is a collection of nine short stories set in the world of The Matrix. That said, you don’t need to have seen any Matrix movies to understand the anime. It wasn’t until several years after watching this that I finally saw The Matrix and that detracted nothing from the experience.
Each story is a short vignette from the perspective of different people in or around the Matrix. Each one is completely unique and covers everything from children playing with a glitch in reality to samurai showdowns in virtual training rooms, to the fall of mankind.
It’s a fun time that expands on what it was like to interact with the Matrix. It adds a lot of well-appreciated lore to the series while being able to stand on its own as an anthology.
I was particularly interested in the prequel episode where they tell the story of the machine uprising. It’s gritty, dark, violent, and deeply interesting to think about. It also adds another layer of character to the machines that simply aren’t there in the movies.
Of course, the stunning visuals are also a lot of fun. Each episode is done in a different style by a different team, so there’s something there for everyone.
The Animatrix DVD is available on Amazon
8. Serial Experiments Lain
With new emerging technology two of the biggest reactions are fear and moral panic. Electricity, video games, cloning, new medicine, A.I., all were feared before they were understood. This was also the case with the internet.
Triangle Staff made Serial Experiments Lain when the internet was still new and scary and so were able to discuss these fears with a what-if. What if the boundary between virtual and physical was thinner than we thought?
It’s a show about identity and conscience that uses the medium of animation to the fullest in an exploration of the fear and panic of the time. This is a really interesting show because it predates the modern internet, but perfectly predicts some of the real effects it has had on people’s lives. Think of it as cyberpunk with an internet twist.
Honestly, I struggle a bit with this one. I’ve never been very good with the more artistic and provocative anime. It’s really good, but it’s a dense show that resists you at first. At least, I felt like it resisted me.
Because of that, I would recommend viewing it with a bit more artistic license. It tries new things that may be unfamiliar, but there is a piece of unique and timeless storytelling lurking below.
The Serial Experiments Lain Blu-Ray is available now.
I’ll be frank, the start is a bit of a slog. I mean, the “main character” doesn’t say more than a few words in the first six episodes. I say that in quotes because the story is always switching between five or six different perspectives.
Similar to Serial Experiments Lain, the show takes a more slow and meditative approach to storytelling. Of course, it’s got all the hallmarks of cyberpunk. It’s dark, gritty, full of corruption and intrigue, and a down-right shocking number of amputees.
I guess people don’t mind losing a limb when replacements are so viable. Or like in this show where they chop people up while holding a monopoly on the prosthetics as a form of control.
It’s a story about freedom and about power. Three gangs control the whole city in the show, but what really chains people down in the city itself. Like a black hole, no one can escape its gravity.
It’s quite different from most anime I’ve seen and that isn’t a bad thing. Do I recommend it? Yes, but only if you’re the patient sort because it will probably not pass the three-episode test. It’s good in the same way 2001: A Space Odyssey is good. With patience.
You can grab the first volume of the Texhnolyze manga on Amazon
Humans are on the brink of extinction, constantly being hunted by nightmare fuel robots called Safeguard. Giant machines are constantly expanding the labyrinthian mega-structure knowns simply as “The City”. The wondering cyborg Killy searches for the key to bringing the city back under their control.
The mysterious Killy has roamed The City for decades, surviving by his wits, strength, and super-death-laser gun. You know, Bear Grylls style. Although he wears a stoic demeanor face his actions reveal his unending struggle with loneliness and death.
I always love stories set after the end of the world. It reminded me of “The Matrix” and “Nine” with their cyber-genocide motifs, but it doesn’t feel like it borrows so much as builds on those ideas.
Netflix knocked it out of the park with this adaptation. From what I understand the original manga is an episodic story following Killy as he goes from place to place. This movie is just one stop he makes on his quest to save what little humanity remains.
Because it’s a Netflix original it should be available basically everywhere.
Now, it is CGI in a similar vein to the Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters anime. I’ll be the first to say I hate CGI anime. However, in this movie, it did not detract from the experience and after a while, I stopped noticing it altogether.
If you want to see the rest of Killy’s story check out the BLAME! manga.
11. Mardock Scramble: The First Compression
What do you get when you cross a serial killer who turns his victims into synthetic diamonds, a hyper-intelligent shapeshifting mouse, and cybernetic superpowers called “Snark”? You get a story about dealing with trauma that never fails to utilize its absurdity.
In order to help capture her would-be assassin, Rune Balot is brought back from the brink, being made a cyborg in the process.
This is a heavy one. Like, actually heavy. the story deals in traumas that are directly applicable to the real world. That includes the victim-blaming and other hardships that come with it.
But Rune ain’t no pushover. Mama didn’t raise no quitter! She seizes life with her own two hands and refuses to be a victim again. Like Battle Angel Alita I feel the true appeal of the series is watching the person Rune becomes. The action is also great.
This is a three-part movie series that comes out to the same length as a 12 episode anime, but with higher production quality. I recommend the first movie. You’ll know if it’s your cup of tea or not from that. If you’re like me you’ll rush to the next movie to see what happens right away.
You can pick up the first Mardock Scramble movie and its two sequels on Amazon.
Imagine a world where memories are stored in chips that can be moved from body to body without consequence. You would be functionally immortal right? Even if you die you can eventually be put in a new body free of the bad memories.
Keep the good, delete the bad, live forever. Sounds great right? The main character himself, Kaiba, hops into a new body several times over the show. In episode one, he even trades his body for passage on a starliner and spends the next few episodes in an animatronic hippo.
Alternatively, in episode one, flying drones steal the bodies and chips of a bunch of poor people. They get them back, but the community decides to give the bodies to other people whom they feel are more deserving.
Kaiba’s world may be made of bright light and soft shapes, but it doesn’t take long to see the dark mania behind the vibrant colors.
I was watching the first episode thinking, “Huh. Why is there a wall climbing cyclops ostrich in a space helmet?” I think that basically sums up the experience.
Then I looked again and said, “Did that just happen? Is that what I think it is? WHAT?!?” One moment you’re confused about the artistic choices and the next you’re having an emotional crisis over the implications of a scene.
Kaiba is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s dark, but not violent. Horrifying, but not scary. Whimsical, but existential. I can’t praise it enough for nailing the jarring dichotomy. Every episode tells a story so strange and heartbreaking that you can’t believe it looks like a children’s book. Props to MADHOUSE.
This wacky Dr. Seuss-esque world is the most visually and narratively unique anime you’ll ever see (unless you’ve seen Belladonna of Sadness). I doubt you’ll find another anime so mind-bogglingly original on all fronts.
I hope I was able to show you that cyberpunk is a unique and varied subgenre of anime that deserves more love. There aren’t a lot of dedicated cyberpunk shows out there, but the ones we have are some of the most interesting pieces of anime on the market.
They explore our place in the world, our relationship with technology, and the meaning of existence in a way no other genre can.
I hope you check out a few of these shows and form your own opinions on them. I can’t guarantee you’ll like all of them as much as I did, but I can guarantee they are worth trying. Follow the 3 episode rule. If it doesn’t interest you after three episodes, leave it. Tastes and interests are different.
Cyberpunk can be pretty bleak, so if you’re feeling too serious after all the gloom check out some isekai anime. I’m sure they’ll put you right as rain.
P.S. Read Battle Angel Alita (Jedi hand wave)