Sci-fi used to be the cornerstone of anime for decades before a lot of us were even born. From Astro Boy‘s ascendance into the world followed by the likes of Mobile Suit Gundam, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Outlaw Star, Steins;Gate and so much more, sci-fi was undoubtedly the prime genre for anime over the course of 30 years. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s when that dynasty of space adventure storytelling started to dwindle to make room for shonen action, romantic comedies, and the isekai branch of the fantasy genre. While the aforementioned genres have been around practically as long as sci-fi has, it wasn’t until recently the three overthrew sci-fi’s throne together.
However, over the past few years, the genre has quietly been making a comeback and it has been easy to miss. In my article, “The Orbital Children Revives a Lost Love For Space Anime“, I talked about how isekai specifically is becoming its own genre at this point and dominating seasonal anime. So it’s safe to say audiences nowadays are more drawn to an overpowered main character in another world than they are to an intergalactic outlaw…right?
The Quiet Resurgence of Sci-Fi Anime
An Intro to the Data Collected
When I observed the data, sci-fi had a more condensed higher quality of anime in the past four years while, say, isekai-fantasy and romantic comedies have an undoubtedly larger number in quantity giving each a more stable average in terms of rating. However, every series is subjective to a fan’s taste. Yet, looking at the numbers proves that sci-fi is on the rise once again. Not necessarily to the extent of its Golden Age in the 1980s and 1990s, but in a way that gives new anime fans more diversity of things to watch that didn’t come out over two decades ago.
The turn of the decade has proven to be a good time for the sci-fi genre. Since 2020, we have received over 150 sci-fi anime projects. It may not sound like a lot and the simple truth is that it isn’t. But when we look at who’s behind this quiet resurgence, more like spearheading it, the quality isn’t surprising. Rather, it’s something the genre desperately needed in a time where we may not even get a single sci-fi series at all for a season or even two out of an entire year.
In this article, I cross-referenced data from MyAnimeList and Anilist along with Anime Corner poll data to determine the popularity and ranks of sci-fi series dating back to the Winter 2016 season. The margin of error lies with statistics in genre mix-ups. For example, Fire Force is classified as sci-fi on both sites when it shouldn’t be. So series as such are left out that would favor the genre’s numbers while mecha are included. Others such as Kingdoms of Ruin, Good Night World, Made in Abyss and Edens Zero, which incorporate fantasy elements in a sci-fi setting are also part of the data collected. However, series such as Date a Live or The Promised Neverland that have sci-fi elements in a fantasy setting are left out of the final numbers in regards to sci-fi.
Surprisingly enough, the two ranking systems are very close to each other with many series. As expected, there were also heavy counterarguments that go against a resurgence of sci-fi anime. When recent sci-fi anime is good, it’s great. When it’s bad, it’s terrible. But what do recent numbers and accolades say?
Positives – Numbers, Polls, and Ratings
To continue off of the good-great argument, there have been at least two sci-fi anime rated in the top five for both MyAnimeList and Anilist in six of the past 16 seasons. This comes out to around 38% of the time since Winter 2020 that at least two sci-fi anime rank extremely high. In the same amount of seasons, there are also at least two sci-fi anime in the top 10 most popular, even if they don’t necessarily correlate with what was necessarily the highest rated.
For comparative reasons, in the previous four years between 2016 and 2019, only 10 sci-fi anime ranked in the top five for both MyAnimeList and Anilist, four of those were Gintama-related. So only around 8% of sci-fi anime were highly ranked in comparison to the past four years where it’s up by 30%. To add on, sci-fi projects are slightly up in terms of production as well. Between 2016 and 2019 there were around 120 anime projects while in the past four years, there have been more than 140. I said it was a quiet resurgence for a reason.
But the argument could go, “Well, more anime are being made today than ever before so there’s a greater chance of more sci-fi anime being produced and more high-quality ones as well.” That’s not entirely true. It’s not so much different between 2016 and 2023. For example, in the Winter 2016 season, there were over 290 anime projects produced while during the Winter 2023 season there were just over 250 anime projects. But if you want the full sample size, then between 2016 and 2019 there were upwards of 4,800 anime projects (excluding adult series). This includes TV anime series, movies, ONAs, OVAs, specials, etc. Meanwhile, in the past four years dating back to the start of 2020, that number is around 4,060 anime projects. Both 2022 and 2023 ended up tying for the least amount of anime projects (985) since 2012, which had 970 anime projects. So not only is sci-fi anime seeing a surge, but it’s happening in a less crowded field as well. In other words, it’s beginning to stand out.
In three of the four past seasons alone, there’s been at least one sci-fi anime rated in the top five for both MyAnimeList and Anilist. In the Summer of 2022, sci-fi claimed the crown for both the first and second-highest-rated anime of the season in Cyberpunk: Edgerunners and Made in Abyss: The Golden City of the Scorching Sun. But it’s not just ratings, it’s polls and awards that are showing out as well.
In 2021, Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song made Anime Corner poll history by having the biggest leap to the #1 spot in the weekly polls, jumping 15 spots — a record that has yet to be broken to this day. The series would go on to win Best New Anime of the Year and Best Original Anime, paving the way for Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, which also claimed the same titles a year later. Sci-fi would’ve hit a trifecta with the “Best New Anime of the Year” category had Akudama Drive won it in 2020, but the series came in 3rd.
Fast forward to 2022 where four of the top 10 rated projects on Anilist were sci-fi series when we look at tied percentages (Cyberpunk, Made in Abyss, Dr. Stone, Lycoris Recoil). And between 2020-2022, every Anime of the Year poll conducted at Anime Corner had at least one sci-fi series in its top-5 anime of the season (2023 pending). That’s not all — it was also a good year for sci-fi movies.
Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time won Animation of the Year at the 2021 Tokyo Anime Award Festival in the movie category. Gintama The Final was the highest-rated anime project entirely (series, ONA, movies, etc) for both MyAnimeList and Anilist while Thrice Upon a Time was right behind it, which ranked 3rd in ratings for Anilist. To take it a step further, Gintama The Final is now the highest-rated anime movie of all time, coming at #1 on both anime fan sites. On Anilist, the movie is the highest-rated anime project — EVER!
In 2021, 86 Eighty-Six became one of A-1 Pictures’ most popular and highest-rated IPs in the studio’s history. Shortly later during the Winter 2022 anime season, 86 Eighty-Six was the only series to dethrone Attack on Titan of its #1 spot in Anime Corner weekly polls that it held all season long, even over Demon Slayer. What’s even better is they did it in back-to-back weeks with the first season’s final two episodes after a long hiatus. 86 Eighty-Six ended up coming just short of Attack on Titan, however, at the 2022 Crunchyroll Awards for Anime of the Year. Just a year later, Lycoris Recoil went on to win Best Original Anime at the 2023 Crunchyroll Awards, with The Orbital Children and Yurei Deco also being two other sci-fi candidates for the award, more nominees than any other genre, while Cyberpunk: Edgerunners took the Anime of the Year crown.
Negatives – Lack of Quantity, Lesser Genre, and the Worst Anime Ever Made
Of course, this isn’t the Golden Age anymore. So sci-fi is close to the bottom of the barrel in terms of popular genres nowadays. Legendary animator Mitsuo Iso said, “Nobody was making [a space anime], so I made one” in regards to his recent movie The Orbital Children, which was released in episode format on Netflix. Sadly, this is true and could describe the current state of sci-fi. Fantasy, action, and romance grossly outrank the once-dominant genre nowadays in terms of quantity. Sci-fi failed to deliver a series that could see itself in the top five ranking for the seasons of Spring 2020, Summer 2021, and Fall 2022. In fact, during Summer 2021 and Spring 2022, not a single sci-fi series ever ranked in the top 10 for Anime Corner Polls nor came close to winning any seasonal awards.
In (also) six of the past 16 seasons, there’s only been 1 or fewer sci-fi anime ranked in the top 5 for both Anilist and MyAnimeList in terms of rating and also the top 10 in terms of popularity, four of those seasons had zero altogether. The genre only dished out two anime (A Certain Scientific Railgun and ID: Invaded) on Anilist in 2020 that were in the top 10 for their scores, which were tied with multiple others. Meanwhile, that number on MyAnimeList for 2020 is a big fat zero.
The current Fall 2023 season is seeing no spike in sci-fi itself. Dr. Stone: New World Part 2 is the only sci-fi anime to place in the top 10 of weekly polls for Anime Corner. Luckily, it’s done so every week it’s eligible. While there are others such as Good Night World, Pluto, etc., none of them ever come close to ranking high in polls which is a reflection of their popularity on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, though, the hits keep coming. There are only eight sci-fi anime airing this fall season while there are currently, for example. over 20 fantasy anime, which is more than the past 3 seasons alone for sci-fi anime entirely.
Over the past three years, there have only been 20 sci-fi anime with a rating higher than 8.0 (80%) on both MyAnimeList and Anilist, less than that if you don’t consider series with split cours. And there are over 100+ sci-fi anime projects from the past three years below that rating. So only around 14% of sci-fi anime in the past three years are considered great by a wider audience while the remaining 86% are considered less than favorable, despite some even winning awards such as Akudama Drive and Godzilla Singular Point. And, of course, sci-fi gave us what is considered the worst anime in the medium’s history back in 2021 — Ex-Arm. A series so bad even the official X (formerly Twitter) account is now deleted.
The Continued Resurgence in 2024 – What’s To Come
It’s not all bad and there’s no need to feel discouraged. Next year is looking bright for sci-fi anime. There have already been over 40 anime projects next year, which is more than the previous four years each individually, and it comes with a good mix of new, popular titles such as Kaiju No. 8 and DanDaDan. Some highly regarded sequels will be making their returns as well such as Made in Abyss: The Golden City of the Scorching Sun Pt.2 and Sabikui Bisco Season 2. Other sci-fi sequels on the way include big-name titles such as NieR Automata Part 2, Urusei Yatsura (2022) Season 2, and a sequel project for Trigun Stampede.
Then we have some new anime projects that will grow in popularity the closer it gets to their release including Yor Forma, Go! Go! Loser Ranger, Dead Dead Demons Dededede Destruction, and even some original anime series such as Metallic Rogue by studio BONES and Lazarus by studio MAPPA, the latest series from Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe, whose trailer you can watch below.
Fans will also see some more potentially great sci-fi works such as the revival of First of the North Star and WIT Studio’s long-time-coming anime series Moonrise, which has been in the work for years now. Many series I’ve named off have yet to announce a specific release date but all of this doesn’t even include more series that could potentially be announced for 2024 as well. Fans can also watch the first official teaser trailer for Moonrise below.
Give Credit Where It’s Due
Some may say that the Golden Age of the 80s and 90s that were dominated by sci-fi was, in fact, originally inspired by a fantasy anime movie called Magic Boy (1959), which was a direct inspiration for Astro Boy — a series that would open the sci-fi flood gates. So it’s without argument that the fantasy genre itself was the spark that ignited the boom in sci-fi starting in the 1970s. However, with a blatant oversaturation of the isekai theme among fantasy anime today, many people seem to be more tuned into what sci-fi has to offer.
Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch From Mercury was a series that introduced many people to the Gundam universe (even though it’s a standalone series) who weren’t previously interested in it before. It went on to be one of the most popular series of the Summer 2022 season which was heavily carried by big names such as Bleach, Spy x Family, Mob Psycho 100, Blue Lock, and Chainsaw Man, despite also being an anime original series. Witch From Mercury even won “Best Screenplay” and “Best Character Designs” at the 2022-2023 Newtype Awards.
While the isekai trend doesn’t seem to be fading off any time soon, the need for something a little more different is starting to emerge and sci-fi is starting to take the mantle. While the genre hasn’t put out something as iconic a series as Cowboy Bebop or Neon Genesis Evangelion over the past 30 years, it’s unfair to hold new series to such a standard in the first place. Pluto, 86 Eighty-Six, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, and Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song are some of the highest-rated anime ever, not just in sci-fi, and they all came out within the past two years. Even Trigun Stampede has now become the standard for not just CGI anime, but CGI in anime in general thanks to the amazing team at Studio Orange.
Conclusion – Sci-Fi Anime’s Quiet Resurgence
So while sci-fi anime has begun to turn heads in recent years, it has a long way to go before it’s caught up to its glory days. In a day and age when more people are becoming fans of anime than ever before, sci-fi striking hot in this era couldn’t have been better timing. While it still remains a lesser genre these days to the point that it won’t even receive its own category for big-time award ceremonies, there’s no denying anymore that sci-fi is officially making a quiet resurgence in the world of anime.
It’s now at a point where it can be said that there’s a sci-fi anime for any new fan of the medium. The problem used to be recommendations within the genre were older or even outdated to a degree. Now, with this quiet resurgence, a new generation of fans could be put on to what could become a revitalized cornerstone of anime.
Featured image: ©2020 Asato Asato/KADOKAWA/Project-86