Anime Archetypes - Genres - Science Fiction and SubGenres
Can't stop thinking scifi?
A glimmering metropolis filled with humans and robotic entities coexisting whirs with the sound of devices keeping everyone functional and at peace until rebels dressed in a cyberpunk fashion taunt the government with political rallies and idealist messages crafted by graffiti art. The media exposes controversial stories about international trade, new world order, and the rights of self-aware machines. The protagonist of this world will guide you through the possibilities that may or may not be humanity’s present one day.
Science fiction is full of “what if” scenarios that strive to push the boundaries of human capability and discovery. It’s a tough genre to conquer without surrendering to the opportunities science can bring through theories that overlap the humanities. Although science fiction can be wondrous and thrilling, it can also be dark and unsettling. It all depends on the underlying themes, atmosphere, and perspectives presented. Happy endings are never guaranteed, the end of the world can have a glimmer of hope, and the curiosity of the treasures of the universe may never be satisfied. Science fiction has little to no limitations, which is why it branches off into various subgenres that make audiences wonder in entertaining ways.
After a brief history of science fiction anime and manga, descriptions of subgenres will be presented along with its themes and purposes. Examples of popular anime and manga recommendations will reinforce each subgenre.
10 Must Watch Sci-Fi Anime
Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy
Mobile Suit Gundam
The first science fiction manga was Astro Boy, also known as Mighty Atom, created in 1952 by Osamu Tezuka. It was adapted into an anime in 1963 as one of the most popular science fiction anime worldwide. The Japanese made an even bigger breakthrough in science fiction with the mecha or “super robot” subgenre. The pioneer for mecha was Mitsuteru Yokoyama, the creator of Tetsujin-28-go (Iron Man 28 go) in 1956. It was adapted in 1963 as the first anime to feature a giant robot and in America it’s known as Gigantor. The anime industry expanded their science fiction pursuits in the 1970s with more mecha, post-apocalyptic settings, and space operas like Mobile Suit Gundam, Future Boy Conan, and Space Battleship Yamato.
In the 1980s, more subgenres came into existence. Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise (1987) experimented with the idea of an alternate earth and complex drama while Mobile Suit Gundam continued with Char’s Counterattack (1988) making military science fiction more prominent. Dragon Ball (1989) revealed a combination of science fiction and fantasy to create the subgenre science fantasy, but that subgenre wasn’t prominent until the 2000s. Akira (1988) brought dystopia and cyberpunk to light and became one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. Additionally, Akira being considered a failure in Japan, but a major success internationally spurred a cult following that reinforced dystopia and cyberpunk in the 1990s.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) by Hideaki Anno put mecha back in the spotlight by overlapping it with symbolic drama and graphic content. Evangelion forged an opening for more experimental anime to debut. Many of them had a foundation of science fiction, but used the atmosphere of other subgenres to create more of an avant-garde tone, such as Serial Experiments Lain (1998). Cyberpunk made a strong comeback with the Ghost in the Shell film (1995) and lasted as a series beyond the 2000s. Cowboy Bebop (1997) started as a manga that is considered a space western with neo noir elements then became an anime one year later, which was another international success.
From the 2000s to the present, science fiction manga and anime still thrive on mecha, dystopia, apocalyptic settings, military influence, and cyberpunk themes, but the boundaries continue to be pushed by animators and manga-ka. Fullmetal Alchemist, Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, Hellsing, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica were good examples of science fantasy. Steamboy (2004) made an impression with steampunk, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) and Summer Wars (2010) beautifully forged science fiction with drama and romance, and shows like Sword Art Online (2009), Log Horizon (2011), and .hack (2002) made gaming a new and trendy subgenre.
As for the future, more subgenres are surely on their way. Hopefully as you look at the qualities and format each subgenre has to offer, it will inspire you to construct a reality that goes beyond anyone’s imagination.
Mobile Suit Gundam
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
This subgenre is Japan’s memorable mark upon the world of science fiction. Mecha is a manga or anime subgenre that focuses on gigantic robots. Usually, those robots are controlled by other people, but they can also be sentient, which then they are considered biomorphic or humanoid. Mecha is often overlapped with militaristic or fantasy stories that take place far into the future. The advancement of technology and antagonists that are strong enough to oppose this technology is the fulcrum of the story. The size of these robots has consistently continued to expand (and I mean robots that are the size of galaxies). The elements needed for an awesome Mecha story are:
- Machines With Design And Purpose: Although giant robots are amazing, there needs to be a reason they exist. What are they defending and why? Are they truly necessary? Who thinks so? Who doesn’t think so? Additionally, robots in this genre have a specific design. You should know what a Gundam, an Eva, or Gurren Lagann look like just from hearing their name. The same concept must apply to any robot you design.
- Cultural Adaptation: Most mecha stories prelude with a major event that caused a country or even the world to adapt. Events such as these can be war (human versus human; human versus alien; alien versus alien; robot versus robot/alien/human;), the appearance of a new being, a sporting event, a political event, etc. Whatever this event is, it caused a drastic change that led to drastic measures, ergo building giant robots.
- Significant Theme: Mecha stories can have an impactful theme that makes the battles worth watching. Commonly, there are survivalist/ “never give up” themes, especially for anime and manga targeted toward shounen (young male) audiences. Whatever the theme, the goal should be to keep your audiences emotionally invested. After all, you can stare at pretty robots for only so long.
Keep in mind: Bring the robot fights to your audience with extravagance, but make sure the characters telling your story are put in a setting that makes their will to fight worthwhile whether their lives end in heroism or tragedy (or maybe both).
Ghost In The Shell
Cyberpunk and Biopunk (and Transhumanism)
Mecha comes pretty close to making human and machine into one entity, but cyberpunk and biopunk bring it to a whole new level. This subgenre does a wonderful job of creating existential crises for the human, robotic, and those in between. These stories can have dystopian settings with new world orders and expanded philosophies. Cyberpunk and Biopunk stories need certain characteristics to fit the mold.
- Technology Is A Necessity In Daily Living - In 2016, our smartphones are used on a daily basis and it’s already been discussed that using them is so habitual, it seems impossible to live without it. When inventors, computer engineers, and scientists take the use of technology a step further, what do you imagine will be the next “daily use” technology? Since cyberpunk and biopunk take place in futuristic settings, the use of technology should be abundant regardless of economic class. It shouldn’t seem invasive, but rather cooperative with humanity. However, it is also very common for some members of humanity to be against the prominence of technology.
- A Fine Line Between Living And Engineering - Should artificial intelligence be treated as human? Should a human be forced to bond with the mechanical? Social, economic, political, and philosophical boundaries are often pushed in cyberpunk, biopunk, and transhumanism stories. Those boundaries not only sculpt the setting of your story, but it’s also an opportunity to develop an evident power struggle between different characters or groups.
- Potential Threats Versus Trustworthy Protection - Whether the setting is dystopian, futuristic, utopian, or totalitarian, there is always an imminent threat and a need for protection. Remember, in cyberpunk and biopunk worlds, the internet and technology allow practically every being, sentient or not, to be connected. When one being gets attacked, how does that affect everyone else? Who or what will keep their security? Does this form of protection make society comfortable or uneasy? Our “punk” universes can trigger revolutionary views that create a powerful shift in perspective. Essentially, this is what you want your audience to “feel” in your story: The need to always be looking over their shoulder.
Keep in mind: The “punk” world is not always a pretty sight. So many of us are so amazed by technology that we’re drawn to it blindly. So, keep your tech driven revolution in mind and hold true to the types of messages you want to deliver to your audience.
Most of us can’t help but be curious about how criminal activity will evolve in the future. Hackers getting into personal accounts, the government passing invasion of privacy as law, media piracy becoming a worldwide phenomenon; the list goes on. Cyberpunk and Biopunk address these sort of themes most of the time, but highlighting criminal activity or the opposition of it through futuristic law enforcement has become a subgenre in itself. Here’s what you need to for crime/detective sci-fi stories:
- A Battle Of Strategic Minds - If you’re a fan of criminal investigation shows or stories, you may notice that whoever is trying to solve the crime pushes themselves to be steps ahead of the criminal and vice versa. Characters in crime sci-fi usually have a method to their madness and most likely find their calm within the storm. Either they’re fighting themselves to not become as twisted as their counterpart or accept the dark side and roll with the punches. These stories stay engaging because they’re practically a never ending game of “Clue” with many non-linear subplots. When you write in this subgenre, you have to keep your eyes on the chessboard. (I recommend Death Note as an example).
- The Unexpected Is Expected - The advancement in technology that science fiction often presents can make criminal investigation easier for law enforcement, but it can also do the opposite. Bending and breaking the law is something the antagonist and the protagonist can do. Obtaining justice, surviving what seems inevitably deadly, or finding the truth behind a hidden lie can lead characters down a dark and twisted path. If you want to keep up the suspense, make sure your characters don’t see those twists coming so your audiences won’t either.
- Blurred Moralities - Similar to the “punk” mentality, different types of beliefs can be challenged in crime science fiction. Right and wrong are never black and white when criminals and law enforcement butt heads. Even detectives and their partners can experience internal and external struggles due to the actions of others, leading to a variety of anxiety induced thoughts. Those who are criminal may not seem so immoral when an investigator walks a mile in their shoes, which makes their job a little harder. When you begin to forge the beliefs and standards of your characters, their view of things can make them feel like it’s them against the world.
Keep in mind: Crime or Detective science fiction harnesses the power of internal struggles and forces it to clash with external struggles. The science fiction setting should exist as a realm where your characters have to learn to adapt and accept.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Science Fantasy (Speculative Fiction)
This subgenre expands speculative fiction. Science fantasy takes qualities from science fiction and fantasy then mixes them to make what was once just imaginative into practically possible. With this subgenre, you can take supernatural events and analyze it with a scientific mind or explain their effects in a scientific way. Perhaps you combine cyberpunk features and merge them with medieval folklore. There are a plethora of options, just remember to balance the chaos with order. Science fantasy isn’t meant to clash, but rather meld. Here are some elements to keep in mind when writing science fantasy:
- Blending Innovation With Imagination - If science fiction approaches its narrative with an innovative concept of the future and fantasy takes unnatural events that surpass human understanding, you have to find the middle ground where they can create their own type of world or alternate universe. It seems like a yin/yang situation, but in science fantasy, they rely on one another. In Fullmetal Alchemist, alchemy became more than mixing elements together; in Code Geass, power and influence were distributed in a way that didn’t involve a monarchy. How will you make the improbable a possibility?
- The World Revolves Around The Improbable - When you blend your science fiction and fantasy elements, the next step is making it an immersive experience. Your characters’ lives should be directly impacted by the fantasy elements as the science works to explain it or help to make it adaptable. The world you’ve created must drive your characters in some way to explore its expansions.
- Don’t Expect To Perfectly Balance Science and Fantasy - In fact, you don’t have to try and perfectly balance it. Some stories will have more science than fantasy and vice versa, but the subtle mix of them give birth to new and alternate wonders. That’s the charm of this genre you don’t want to lose.
Keep in mind: The meld of science fiction and fantasy isn’t meant to limit you, but rather inspire you. It’s an intimidating combination of some of the most powerful, world-building features, but when you find your perfect mix, you’ll be able to work with it.
Space Battleship Yamato
Captain Harlock (Uchuu Kaizoku)
This subgenre takes the features of a greco-roman epic and throws them in space. Space operas are filled with adventure, romance, a surmountable variety of complex characters, and political conflicts. When someone watches a space opera anime, they are led by a group of people that are caught up in something so big, it causes them to traverse multiple galaxies, explore various planets, and meet different types of beings. What makes space opera an adventure is its vastness. We all know the universe is constantly expanding, so if you choose to take on this genre, keep in mind that the possibilities are endless and your audience will love it as long as everything ties together in the end. Criteria of a space opera are:
- Alliances Are Thicker Than Blood - Every one of your characters should have specific roles, alignments, alliances, and vendettas. The importance of this is allowing your audience to see how your characters enhance the environment around them. You can build the most amazing worlds and stunning atmospheres, but it won’t be significant if your characters aren’t tied to them in some way. The alliances your characters have with their environment and with each other is what creates the “drama”.
- The Technology Is Beyond Wonder - It seems like plenty of modern space operas, like Star Wars, have set the standard for how amazing futuristic technology can be, but don’t let that discourage you. Mobile Suit Gundam brought big robots into the mix of space opera anime and now it can be taken further along with any other technology that may influence you. That’s the key: Take what influences you, what creates those worlds slowly forming in your head, and go crazy. You’ll balance your eccentric inventions with the cultures and political affiliations you create subsequently.
- Summon Internal Conflict With External Conflict - The reason why so many of us love the epic space battles, other than it being awesome, is its representation. When you create characters with those significant bonds to others and the environment then create mesmerizing worlds with a spectrum of ideologies, you finally get to ask the big question: What is everyone fighting for? Honor? Bravery? Love? Vengeance? The battles you see in your mind must be fueled by a character’s desire, most likely the protagonist, the antagonist, or a main organization/empire. When your external conflict is tied with someone’s internal conflict, the intergalactic fights are more than just “awesome”.
Keep in mind: Space operas are meant to be complex, melodramatic, and compelling. However you plan your story, make sure you have all of your plot points in the order you feel will beckon your audience to be immersed in your many worlds until the end.
FLCL (Fooly Cooly)
Comedy (and Fanservice)
Comic science fiction takes everything you love about sci-fi, but keeps you laughing. Many titles that fall under this subgenre are parodies or ecchi; however, some can be completely original. This genre consistently has a good amount of fanservice, which is not to be mixed with the elegance and fairness of a female in a space opera (they have more purpose than jiggling body parts). Those glimpses of bouncy skin, the teases, and bleeding noses are a big part of the act. Comedy in anime is often displayed through exaggerated motion and emotion. To make a comic science fiction engaging, you’ll need to think beyond wiggly things and good punchlines. Here are three key features of comic science fiction and fanservice:
- Know Yourself and Know Your Audience - Exploring different senses of humor is an adventure. Surely, you know your own, but when you’re thinking about what type of audience you want and what kind of material will hit their funny bone, you need to take the time to know your audience. Applying fan service is the same. Shoujo stories have “too-good-to-be-true” princes (also known as bishounen), shounen have “too-sexy-to-be-true” gals (aka bishoujo), robot stories have epic fights, and gore enthusiasts get gallons of spraying blood. Who are you writing for and what do you want? If you don’t have an answer, you won’t have an audience; every comedian needs an audience to survive.
- Don’t Pile On Nonsense; Have Direction - Even if you like the type of humor that is absolute nonsense, you should watch your favorite comedy anime and realize that there is a plot amongst the chaos. Fooly Cooly and Space Dandy are popular choices of nonsensical anime with crazy themes, but they both have a plot and character development (moderately). It’s necessary to have these narrative elements because it “hooks” your audience. They attach to a character or an event happening in your story; once you have that, your audience will go along for the ride. Aim for a solid foundation instead of forcing in humor in random places even if your goal is to be random. Elements of surprise are often well-planned.
- Stay Grounded, But Don’t Be Afraid To Fly - Yes, you need structure, direction, and you need to know your audience, but most importantly, you need to be brave. Science fiction comedy should have certain features that yell, “Hey, this is a science fiction story!” but whispers, “But it’s not a normal science fiction story.” Stick to your sci-fi roots, and then strategically place your comedic and fan service easter eggs throughout the story.
Keep in mind: Being funny isn’t about forcing people to laugh, but encouraging people to get in touch with their humor. Science fiction alone is driven towards making audiences ask “What if?”; your job is to make your story ask audiences “Wouldn’t it be funny if…?”
Patema Inverted (Sakasama no Patema)
Full Metal Panic!
Utopian/Dystopian, Apocalyptic, Post-Apocalyptic, and Alternate History
Have you ever wanted to take on the challenge of creating a world everyone may or may not accept? Quite a few anime and manga have played around with the concept of time travel, new world order, and creating a major change at a historical time that could completely alter the present or the future. Most think science fiction only takes place in the future, but tampering with timelines creates a “What if?” scenario in the most shocking ways. Utopian and dystopian stories challenge ethical concepts; apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories explore catastrophes that alter everyone’s way of living, usually taking place on earth; alternate history stories take historical events and recreate them in a way that differed from reality. When anime and manga take on these genres, there is often suffering, adaptability, a “survival of the fittest” theme, or an increase in chaos. Here’s what you need to make sure those features drive your story:
- Decide If You Want Doom or Paradise: Utopian stories and dystopian stories aren’t always complete opposites. The key to setting the correct tone for your story is to pinpoint your theme and create a world that is consumed by that theme. How would you make a world “perfectly” safe, fair, and civilized? Does everyone truly benefit from this system? What about a world of extreme unfairness? Does everyone adapt to the rules set by those with the most power? The narratives of utopian or dystopian fiction are often extreme, but that is exactly what you need in these types of genres: extremes. The ambiance of these types of stories confirms that no one can be provided “everything” and be satisfied with life or lose everything and accept it for what it is.
- Apply Your Current Environment With Your Written One: To hook your audience into your altered world, you need to implement certain cultural characteristics that signify the time of your story and to push your audience to comprehend something from their time contributing to or preventing the desolation. For example, the 2000s have become increasingly dependent on technology. How would we react if that all went away? What do you feel when we imagine being instantly cut off from the internet or other technological privileges? Seeing worn down buildings or famous landmarks become a pile of debris or transformed by a new world order causes your audiences to put themselves in your characters' shoes. Look into current affairs in politics, economics, technology, cultural arts, etc. and reflect on how you feel about certain issues and conflicts. Let whatever emotion is driving you to express yourself through your characters and your plot. This feature is particularly important for altered history stories.
- - Be Raw and Be Detailed: Science fiction requires a lot of world building for the “What if…?” to really take place. So, make sure you get into the details of now just the atmosphere of your new world, but also the culture, the leaders, the followers, the philosophies, and ideologies; everything you need for your world to be vivid and complex is in the imagery of your environment and those associated with it. Combined with your foundational theme and current trends, the world you’ve created should bring an outstanding first impression.
Keep in mind: Writing in this subgenre isn’t meant to be a rant about how the world could be better or worse if certain things come to pass. It’s taking an imaginative extreme and allowing your characters to express your perspective on the world for you.
No Game No LIfe
Gaming and Virtual Reality
Taking pleasure in a virtual reality definitely has its pros and cons. Anime titles like dot.Hack and Sword Art Online have shown the beautiful and dark sides of being too immersed in a game. However, these types of stories challenge audiences to question how they perceive reality. The subgenre of gaming/virtual reality brings the “What if…?” to a person’s psyche and perceptions: How does an artificial world gain so much influence on reality. Cyberpunk touches on that with the merge of technology and humanity, but gaming and virtual reality allow a complete, mental submission to technology. Here are the features you need to create a story within this subgenre:
- An Easy-To-Understand Gaming Concept - Some games are complicated, others are casual. RPGs (roleplay games) are the most common type of games that anime and manga adapt from because it’s easy enough to show a protagonist taking the role of an avatar and controlling them throughout the game. Making the game into an MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role play game) creates community since other players/characters can socialize with one another. Community builds a culture and even though the culture is virtual, it parallels reality, thus making it more real for the player. The anime No Game, No Life took a different method by merging gaming with a community by forcing two protagonists to survive in an unfamiliar world by playing games to survive. The rules of each game and the situation they’re in are clearly explained and their skills progress the plot. In other words, once the gaming concept is established, then the plot can progress.
- A Situation That Binds The Characters To The Virtual Reality - Quite a few anime have tackled the “if you die in the game, you die in real life” theme. It may seem cliché to some, but mangaka and anime writers attempt this concept for one reason: death. Death is an inevitable event in reality. Witnessing how an artificial version of that death affects a player in real life is intriguing because it shatters the boundaries between the virtual and the realistic. However, if you feel like doing something different, consider other concepts that directly link a player to a virtual and real event simultaneously. Some of those concepts could be: fear, love, losing touch of reality, paranoia, pain, loss, self-discovery, redemption and/or revenge. Contemplate how a virtual experience brings a real change for your characters.
- Compare The Real And The Artificial - If a player goes through extreme immersion with a video game or entering a virtual reality, it takes time for them to adjust back to reality. Studies have looked into internet addiction, muscle memory, and other symptoms that have affected the mental, physical, and emotional state of a player. Your job as the writer is to show how much of an impact the virtual world has put on your character. You get to decide how extreme the symptoms will be, but observing how your characters comprehend what is or isn’t real will hook your audience in: “He’s been locked in the game for 4 weeks! How is he going to handle real life?”
Keep in mind: Anime and manga about gaming are often fun, imaginative, and give other gamers the hope that the advancement of technology will allow them to be just as immersed as the characters they’re witnessing. Your job is to identify the internal and external conflicts that come with being so immersed.
Thanks For Reading!
I hope you’ll be able to use this as a reference for any sci-fi stories you have for the future whether it’s writing or manga. Please leave a comment if you found this helpful or not. You may also suggest other genres or archetypes for me to analyze. Be sure to check out the Shoujo and Subgenres article.
If you have a Genre or Anime Archetype that you'd like me to analyze for you, go to my Anime Archetypes page and send your request!