Here’s a look at 10 essential anime cyberpunk series to jack into.
The Best Cyberpunk Anime for Newcomers
The cyberpunk genre may mostly focus on distant futures and feature technology that could be made real one day, but seeing an anime show reach into the future and pull out a surprisingly accurate prediction of tomorrow? Now that’s a rare treat. The underrated Dennō Coil is a colourful and surprisingly detailed series with a young cast that’s thrown into a reality which has collided with the virtual world.
Hints of a more supernatural element are thrown into the mix, multiple plot threads are woven throughout the tale and it all ends on a satisfactory high note. An energetic and youthful exploration of technology that skips the bleaker outlook of many entries on this list, Dennō Coil is Stranger Things by way of Hayao Miyazaki, an overlooked gem that was simply too far ahead of the curve when it was first released in 2007.
At first glance, Akira may not seem like the typical cyberpunk adventure, but there’s no denying that it possesses all the hallmarks of the genre through its gritty dystopian future, grimy technology, and a level of mainstream success and influence that can still be felt to this day. While it has plenty of mind-bending themes, Akira’s cyberpunk impact is a more overt collision of style and substance.
Thanks to incredible animation that was years ahead of the curve and a soundtrack that pushed the envelope back when it was released in 1988, Akira nails the attitude of cyberpunk and raised the bar for anime at the time. Akira has the coolness factor of cyberpunk, distilled into one incredible feature-film package of teenage gang violence, psychic warfare and an iconic motorcycle slide that pop culture simply cannot get enough of.
Ghost in the Shell
If you’re going to dive into Cyberpunk, there’s no better starting point than one of the most influential and iconic anime films of all time. Created by manga artist Masamune Shirow and adapted by director Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell isn’t just visually stunning; beneath its chassis is an examination of what it truly means to be human in a world that has quickly begun to abandon the frail flesh of our species in favour of bleeding-edge technology.
Ghost in the Shell is a feast for the eyes and the soul that questions the core concept of identity, as protagonist Motoko Kusanagi attempts to hunt down the deadly Puppet Master before his plan throws a corrupt world into chaos. Twenty-five years after the original film first rocked cinemas across the globe, Ghost in the Shell’s influence still resonates, questioning everything from life to sexual identity in a post-human future that pursued a technological evolution without ever considering if society was ready for such an upgrade.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
If 1995’s Ghost in the Shell is regarded as the gold standard in storytelling and cyberpunk themes, how do you even begin to craft a sequel to one of the most influential films of the 1990s? Answer: You leap deeper than ever into the core themes of the source material, building on the ideas that the cyberpunk yardstick established across a lengthy sequel series.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex expands on the dark future established in the original film across 52 episodes of espionage, corruption and betrayal.
Tasked with the capture of the elusive cyber-criminal known only as The Laughing Man, Motoko Kusanagi and the rest of the Section 9 task force quickly find themselves in the middle of a dangerous game of cyber-cloak and dagger. While Stand Alone Complex still has a few philosophical aces up its sleeve, the action-packed Ghost in the Shell sequel series focuses more on a world that has evolved to become more dangerous and treacherous in the aftermath of successive world wars, treachery at the highest level, and post-human augmentation run amok.
I think, therefore I am. Almost four centuries since Rene Descartes shook philosophy with a simple statement on what it means to be alive, Ergo Proxy came along to put that idea into practice across 23 episodes filled with moody atmosphere, post-apocalyptic chaos clawing at the gates of utopia, and a search for that all important raison d’être that could give meaning to both organic and artificial life.
In an age where the last remnants of humanity hope to survive a world gone mad by huddling inside of the domed city of Romdo, only the AutoReivs can ensure that mankind survives. But when these automatons begin to show signs of independent human behaviour thanks to the Cogito Virus, a dark tale unfolds. Tasked with hunting down these renegades and the mythical Proxy that may be humanity’s salvation, investigator Re-L Mayer’s mission to preserve a fragile balance soon becomes a journey into mystery that questions the very nature of life itself.
Battle Angel Alita
To this day, it’s a shame just how little anime content there is for Battle Angel Alita. A touching examination of humanity told through the innocent eyes of an amnesiac cyborg programmed with the fighting skill of gods, Yukito Kishiro’s manga only received two original video animations in 1993 (plus the 1998 CGI short that has aged like old socks, but let’s speak of that one no more). But what was produced back then was a masterclass in not only animation but heart, spirit and a level of action that not even a decent chunk of Hollywood cash could recapture.
It may come across as an ass-kicking extravaganza wrapped up in a short and sweet OVA package, but Battle Angel Alita has so much more going for it. Beneath the cool cybernetic cells of animation, there’s a tale of heaven being built on top of hell, of the drive to follow your dreams and of the power of love that transcends mortality and technology itself. A vintage slice of excellence, Battle Angel Alita is a bucket list anime that every cyberpunk fan has to see at least once in their lifetime.
Serial Experiments Lain
Whereas most cyberpunk stories are only too happy to press fast-forward on the clock and throw viewers several decades into a mad future, Serial Experiments Lain is a more contemporary series with themes that are more relevant than ever in a world where everyone is online. What begins as the surreal adventure of a teenager by the name of Lain exploring a virtual reality world known as The Weird quickly evolves into a massive download of myriad ideas.
Everything from the fragile nature of reality to loneliness, the idea of human consciousness to the perception of reality and so much more is packed into a 13-episode run that begs to be watched multiple times so that the weight of all of its various ideas can be processed. Years ahead of the curve, Serial Experiments Lain is a tense psychological horror about the isolating effects of technology that might leave the viewer questioning their very existence by the time they’ve finished watching it.
The only thing more terrifying than technology growing out of control is when that same technology results in the core belief of human freedom and destiny being stripped away in the process. Many cyberpunk series look at how cybernetic advancements will impact the concept of the human soul, but Psycho Pass deftly side-steps that well-trodden path to instead focus on the human mind and its potential for criminal activity.
Set in a future where the very idea of crime has been reduced to a mathematical equation, Psycho Pass is the Minority Report sequel that you never knew you wanted. Unforgivingly gritty in its dark exploration of what a human could be capable of, Psycho Pass ups the ante with heroes who never know how close they are to one day being branded criminals by the very system that has been trusted with control over the fate of humanity.
What price would you pay to not only be the best, but to survive long enough to see another sunrise? Would you give an arm and a leg? For prize fighter Ichise, that’s the toll after one disastrous night, but it’s not long before he finds himself outfitted with new prosthetics and a new destiny. Texhnolyze may have a pace that many an anime fan would consider soul-crushing, but it’s a series which takes its time exploring concepts such as civilization, morality, sanity and so much more through a cyberpunk lens.
It is often an exploration into hopelessness within these themes, but those who are emotionally resilient enough to absorb everything that Texhnolyze throws at them will come out the other side of this hauntingly gorgeous series with a new appreciation for the immutable nature of human spirit.
No Guns Life
Anime isn’t just content to rev the engine of cyberpunk, it wants to pop the hood and tinker with the parts inside of the genre. From existential crises to philosophical pursuits for meaning, there’s are plenty of hard-hitting topics waiting to be explored across multiple series. And then there’s No Guns Life, which can best be summed up as a cyberpunk anime series that is as deep as it is joyfully dense.
There’s a cyborg. He is purpose and conviction, unmatched skill and pure willpower as he seeks to right the wrongs of a world that has fallen to crime. Also, he has a gigantic revolver for a head. That’s it, that’s the hook right there, a hard-boiled cyberpunk detective story starring a gumshoe thrust into several mysteries that somehow manages to be an emotional exploration of everything from climate change to poverty, corporate greed to immoral science and so much more.
No Guns Life is a mad slice of creativity from heavyweight anime studio Madhouse, but it’s also one of the most unique uses of the cyberpunk genre: wonderfully insane and surprisingly heartfelt. Plus the main character has a giant gun for a head. I cannot stress this enough.
What anime would you suggest folks should check out in preparation for Cyberpunk: Edgerunners? Let’s discuss in the comments below!