Made popular through iconic franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek, anime in turn expanded the domestic and international appeal of the space opera genre through its numerous groundbreaking contributions. Like many Western sci-fi hits, many titles in context to space opera in anime established its fame in Japan and worldwide in the 1970s and 1980. Just like many old novels that paved way for the genre as far back as the 1930s, space opera in anime tells intergalactic stories of war and rebellion, adventures to the unknown, the struggle home, and romance.
Many serve as a strong analysis into the contemporary human condition and the co-evolution of technology. Can outer space unite mankind against an intergalactic threat? Or will humans still be at war with each other even if we move beyond Earth? Is the science portrayed in the anime at all believably possible just like how Jules Vernes’ From the Earth to the Moon was nearly 100 years before the moon landing? Maybe we can answer some of those questions here, with our Top 10 Space Opera Anime article.
10. Crest of the Stars (Seikai no Monsho)
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: January 1999 – March 1999
Based on the novel series by Morioka Hiroyuki, Crest of the Stars was initially released during a time when science fiction was in a slump and helped bring it back. In a distant time in space where regions are controlled by ruling clans and societies who have more influence and power, rebellion and war are a natural reaction. Our two main characters caught in this conflict are Jinto Lynn and Abh Princess Lafiel. Lynn is the son of a rather low-level puppet/aristocrat and Lafiel is a humble princess who could care less about her title. Their relationship is pretty much the driving force of this anime along with the conflicts dividing the universe.
Crest of the Stars is one of those titles that explore the relationship between humans and alien races as the catch. One distinct quality of this series is that it uses a distinct language. Granted Macross Do You Remember Love introduced this concept first, but Crest of the Stars brings a different kind of emphasis on culture in terms of class systems and how outer space could be governed. Is an old European monarch system a way to unite the universe? Is true love transcending beyond class and race possible in the stars? Watch the anime and find out! In the future, if mankind can have its intergalactic encounters, these are the possibilities we face and there are prejudices we must overcome whether it would be within our borders or beyond our atmosphere.
9. Voices of a Distant Star (Hoshi no Koe)
- Episodes: 1 (OVA)
- Aired: February 2002
Before becoming more solidly famous through 5 Centimeters Per Second, Shinkai Makoto established his reputation through Hoshi no Koe, or Voices of a Distant Star. In the year 2047, mankind is at war with an unknown alien race called the Tarsians. The main character is Makiko Nagamine, a not-so-ordinary school girl turned ace pilot and our last hope for the human race.
Beyond the typical war in outer space backdrop, Shinaki-sensei’s uses the physics of space of space travel to strongly emphasize the theme of this anime is communication due to distances both physically and emotionally. Granted social critics these days say people are too glued to their cell phones or other forms of technology, or that Internet connection speed is a first world problem, this anime tends to portray that may not be the case (though this anime did come out during a time when the mainstreaming of cellular phone use was on its rise, and shortly before the rise of wifi, smartphones and tablets).
Due to the distance between various quadrants of space, it is conceivable that sending and receiving e-mails could take years to reach. The great thing about this series is that it teaches audiences to not fear technology and to value the tools we have for communication in a time where we may have to be distant from one another, whether it be for work, school, war or any other reason.
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: Oct 2003 – Apr 2004
If you could put the lyrics of the mid-1990s song “Bad Days” by The Flaming Lips, into a story of working out in outer space, this is the anime for you. This series tells a story about the crew of the Toy Box, a group of outer space debris/garbage collectors who may be stuck at their dead-in jobs, but begin to realize and seek their self-worth and potential.
Thanks to the cooperation of JAXA, Japan’s equivalent to NASA, one of the main appeals of this series is its approach to realism. Some examples demonstrating the realism are the physics of space travel and its physical and mental consequences. The anime not only takes a majority of its science seriously, it also explores the economical, philosophical, and political themes in excellent detail, showing that such a future is a concerning possibility. This anime teaches its audience that despite what society tries to tell people, the only ones capable of deciding what our limits is just ourselves, and that the vastness of space is a great metaphor of unlimited and unknown potential.
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: Oct 2008 – Mar 2009
Based on the novel series by Tanaka Yoshiki, we next have Tytania. To put this series in a nutshell, try to imagine the basis of A Song of Ice and Fire (which some of you may know as the novel series that serves as the inspiration for Game of Thrones) and the circumstances that set forward World War I in an outer space setting, and that's what you get. It is a story of not just intergalactic warfare and rebellion, but a story of inter-family conflicts and betrayal as well.
Like Tanaka-sensei’s other space opera classic, Legend of Galactic Heroes, it takes a lot of inspiration from old European imperial culture and puts it in a futuristic context, but tells a story still distinct from it. It is a story of unique turns you do and do not see coming. How people try to form alliances and outmaneuver one another in a struggle for intergalactic power keeps the story moving and as mind captivating as playing Clue.
6. Toward the Terra (Chikyuu He)
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: Apr 2007 – Sep 2007
Based on the groundbreaking late-1970s manga by legendary female manga-ka, Takemiya Keiko, Toward the Terra can be seen as the intergalactic version of Brave New World. Taking place in the thirty-first century, life on Earth is now uninhabitable due to pollution, and an intergalactic society is governed by supercomputers. Humans are engineered to take certain tasks. However, a more highly evolved psychic humans known as, the Mu, are a rising threat to the machines and want them exterminated, while the Mu only wish to return to Earth.
So for those of you who love either Alex Haley, Ray Bradbury or George Orwell, this is the anime for you. It excellently expands the themes of the novels of those respective authors in a whole new universe which beautifully analyzes humankind’s relationship with space, technology, and the planet. Maybe someday mankind will go into space, but what happens to the human condition? How will we evolve? If we lost Earth to such disasters, can it be recoverable? Would it unite humanity? Who will govern us? This is what this anime explores.
5. Outlaw Star
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: Jan 1998 – Jun 1998
Made famous during the prime of Toonami, and arguably considered as the influence of the cult series Firefly, Outlaw Star follows the hijinks of Gene Starwind and his band of misfits. Some can argue that this anime could possibly be one of the original space operas that was influenced by hard westerns. The series tells a distinct story that space operas do not always have to be about intergalactic war and/or revolve around teenage soldiers. In this series, the main cast is just a small crew of blue-collar workers just trying to get by to make some sort of living and at the same time, avoid corrupt government officials and unlock the mysteries of the universe.
Despite its popularity during its US broadcast, it did not achieve much reception in Japan. Though the manga has been popular over there, the people at Sunrise have occasionally brought up their desires to make a direct sequel, as does Ito Takehiko, the original manga author. But if there is one thing this anime teaches the audience, it is to always overcome not just your hardships, but the fears and trauma that comes with experiencing tragedy and learning to rely on those who support you. However, when push comes to shove, you have to man up and face the final frontier.
4. Knights of Sidonia (Sidonia no Kishi)
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Apr 2014 – Jun 2014
Based on the award winning manga by Nihei Tsutomu, the anime would later be one of the first titles that would be exclusively available through the Netflix streaming service. Taking place in the year 3394, Earth has been gone for a thousand years due to the invasion of the Gauna alien race as the war continues on. The human race manages to survive by constructing special space carriers with the old remains of the planet. One such ship is the titled Sidonia. Can Neil de Grasse Tyson explain the geophysics of the Sidonia in realistic terms? Heck, I'd love to see his take. Due to evolution and reverse and genetic engineering, humans are cloned and can survive off photosynthesis. Can evolutionist Richard Dawkins explain the plausibility of that?
What makes this series great is that it explores what could happen to the human race if we at all lost Earth under such tragedies. It shows that maybe we can survive, but ultimately demonstrates that further sacrifices must be made despite the circumstances that led to their situation. The series also explores caste systems and how the reduction of population and apocalyptic events can reshape how humans are grouped and live. Also, the series does subliminally show it is conceivable that a certain majority could influence the foundational culture, such as the Sidonia being influenced by Japan. Could this be possible as well? Maybe we will know in a thousand years.
3. Super Dimensional Fortress Macross (Choujikuu Yousai Macross)
- Episodes: 36
- Aired: Oct 1982 – Jun 1983
In third place, we have Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, made by Kawamori Shouji (also famous for Escaflowne). Sharing numerous qualities with Yamato and Gundam, a good portion of the appeal to this series is the intense battles. But what made this series a winner is how it explores its themes of love, friendship, and overcoming our differences by learning everybody is more alike than we like to believe. However, like Yamato/StarBlazers, as Robotech, it won international audiences with not only its unique art and Top Gun like battle scenes, but for its complex story telling. It also happened to be one of the first animated programs ever that touched interracial relationships through Roy and Claudia (just like how Kirk and Uruha had the first interracial kiss on TV, but that was mind control).
The anime also introduced unique forms of space travel known as “space folding,” and re-engineering fighter jets for space, which continues to be a staple for the franchise. The series presents its physics in a way that was easy to follow. However, for the realities of such concepts, we can hopefully once again refer to Neil de Grasse Tyson on that one. What also makes Macross great are its themes of putting aside our differences and coming together as one, as we are all under one universe.
2. Space Battleship Yamato (Uchuu Senkan Yamato)
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: Oct 1974 – Mar 1975
In a close second, we have Matsumoto Leiji’s and Nishizaki Yoshinobu’s Space Battleship Yamato, or famously known as StarBlazers in some countries in the west. This is undeniably the first space opera anime to have achieved international fame. Taking place in the twenty-second century, an evil alien race known as the Gamilas, bombard Earth with radioactive meteorites making Earth uninhabitable for life as we know it. So to combat this threat and to save the race, Earth salvages the Yamato, a World War II battleship for space travel.
The series introduced the post-World War II generations of Western audiences to the concept of serialized storytelling, which would not be adopted in any Western media until twenty years later through Fox’s hit show 24 (though there used to be weekly theatrical serials of westerns at nickel theaters before the war). As StarBlazers, the series hooked audiences with its intricate stories, plot twists, and the exploration of the characters’ relationship. The story told a distinct outer space war story and unlike Star Trek, it had much darker material and used the deaths of its crewmembers to teach audiences about bravery and sacrifice, and what it is like to be in war.
Deslar, the first main antagonist comes to see the error of his ways and finds redemption. Even Captain Okita’s deteriorating health was a very appealing point. For its domestic audience, it paved way for the likes of Macross, and its main weapon, the Hadouho, was the influence of the Hadouken in Capcom’s Street Fighter series.
1. Legend of Galactic Heroes (Ginga Eiyuu Densetsu)
- Episodes: 110
- Aired: Jan 1998 – Mar 1997
If one anime can be considered number one, not only on Honey’s list but for any list in relation to space opera anime, it has to be the iconic Legend of Galactic Heroes, based on the novel series by Tanaka Yoshiki, who also happens to be the author of the original Heroic Legend of Arslan novel series. To put this anime in a nutshell, imagine something along the lines of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace but in space. A lot of the political themes of this anime share a lot with that respective novel, and the cultures are a great representation of the old European empires. It shows that even when humans have migrated to space, we still cannot fight our nature to battle one another in a struggle for power.
Despite the long war between the Galactic Empire and the Free Planets Alliance, the anime excellently presents what is going on isn’t at all black and white. The series shows that on both sides of the war, there are people that are pure in heart with their intentions, and others that are corrupt fascists that are willing to slaughter each other (even in their own governments) for power. Another theme of this series is that wars can sometimes be between one good against another good. This is demonstrated through the rivalry between Yang Wen Li and Reinhard Von Musel. Despite being respected commanders of their respective armies and feared by their enemies as vicious monsters, the series does a great job of also humanizing them and why they choose to fight. The sad reality is, despite their rivalry, the series does a great job of indicating under circumstances, they could have been the best of friends.
Compiling this list was a very difficult task and we wish to address these things that might come up in the comments. Naturally, are you wondering where is Gundam? Cowboy Bebop? Space Dandy? Martian Successor Nadesico? Those were put under consideration, but felt other emphatic qualities of those titles kept it away from qualifying as a space opera. In the case of Martian Successor Nadesico and Space Dandy, they are more like tributes/spoofs of the genre and are more emphatically presented as a comedy series despite its space setting.
As for the Gundam franchise, a majority of its appeal is the mechs and a majority of its stories also take place on Earth. Cowboy Bebop, despite taking place in space, is more presented as cyberpunk meets old school Hong Kong cinema. As for honorable mentions, we have Ideon, Gall Force, Top wo Nerae, Galaxy Express 999, and Captain Harlock.
Anyway, will these anime pave way for the future? Can the scientific mechanics of these respective series happen in the future? Will hologram Tupac give concerts and put out albums in space colonies or space stations five centuries from now? Or will that be Hatsune Miku? Will anime still be around? Time can only tell.