[Editorial Tuesday] Science in Anime (a History of Science Depiction and Ethics in Anime)

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If the first thing you think about when you hear the word “science” is a blackboard full of complicated formulas and equations, you have to read this article. We have all been there: a classroom with a talkative professor, a very thick book, and a lot of information that is too boring to grab our attention. In contrast, what happens when our favorite anime is on? We enjoy the action, admire the characters, scream and laugh with them… but wait a minute. Some of those characters are in labcoats. Or perhaps they have a secret laboratory. Or they know a lot about how things work. They can make accurate predictions based on observations, or prove a theory. Maybe they discovered something, or built something that didn’t exist before them.

That, my dear otakus, is science. Anime has employed it into its plots to make the stories much more interesting. But, as science has advanced, what we see in anime has also changed. We can also learn in a painless way how science impacts the world and the ones who work with it, both in good and bad ways. This is called the ethics of science, a topic that has grown in importance in recent years. So, let’s all grab our lab coats and safety glasses. We are going to make a tour to the depictions of science in anime!

Warning: there are some spoilers ahead. Read with caution.

The first science related animes.

The sixties and seventies were when anime was born. This was the era of science fiction by excellency. Perhaps the first anime that had a cyborg as protagonist was 8 Man, released in 1963 and created originally by Kazumasa Hirai and Jiro Kuwata. 8 Man would be followed by many animes with cyborg protagonists, including Cutey Honey (1973). But we also had different types of robots, like Mazinger Z (1972) and Doraemon (1973), the cat robot.

We can see a pattern already. The first animes with scientists and their creations were fantasy based. Rather than explaining true science, they used the “pretext” of science to give superpowers to the characters. In the case of some of them (like Cutey Honey), we even find magic involved. Such characters are often located in imagined futuristic environments that have similarities with American cartoons like The Jetsons; they are utopias where humanity is enjoying a world rich in technology. The stories tend to be simplistic and many of them are humor driven.

Nevertheless, we also have the dark side of science lurking in some anime. Let’s go back to Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Battleship Yamato (1974), which was a milestone in the anime world. We get space science, aliens, and the blueprints of alien technology. Humans build a battleship to find the planet Iscandar, where the promised scientific cure for the radiation that is killing the Earth might be found. We should remember that such radiation was caused by other race of aliens, so we can see here that humans are depicted as dependent on superior scientific powers to survive. A slightly but equally apocalyptic depiction of the destiny of planet Earth is found in Osamu Tezuka’s movie Phoenix 2772 (1980). The protagonist is the apprentice of a scientist who has to age and wisen enough to revive life on Earth. With such serious stories and several complex characters interplaying, Matsumoto and Tezuka opened a new era for science in anime.

Science in anime gets organic.

ghost in the shell Koukaku Kidoutai Capture

The next decades would be ripe with story and character driven anime who also happen to get involved with some science. Who does not remember Nausicaa from the Studio Ghibli’s film Nausicaa of the Valley of the wind (1984)? Besides being a kickass warrior and a compassionate leader, this girl is also a scientist who single handedly discovered how the mysterious forest of spores works. Here we can see that the subject of the science in anime is diversifying towards chemistry and ecology. That is why we also have Please save my Earth (1993), which depicts a group of seven alien scientists from diverse backgrounds studying the Earth from their Moon base.

But what happened with the good, old mecha and science anime? Well, Studio Gainax was born on these decades. Their first experiments with The Wings of Honneamise (1987) and Gunbuster (1988), eventually led the director Hideaki Anno towards the creation of Shin Seiki Evangelion (1995). Here we not only have a superb character development, but also more organic grounded science, genetics and even psychology. The design for the mecas would change from the squared cartoony look of the former decades, to a more human and natural look.

Not only the subjects of science in anime changed, but also the protagonists. In sharp contrast with the cyborg Honey, we have Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell (1995). There is no magic but a lot of the ancient science and communication technology involved in this movie. We also have Serial Experiments Lain (1998), which predicted accurately what would later become our everyday internet based life. Both protagonists (Motoko and Lain) are a result of advanced experimentations or fusions, and both wonder about the meaning of their own existences in a world that becomes more and more complex. Their travel to self discovery opens more questions about what really means to be human on an era of advanced science.

With this, we are ready to go to the most recent depictions of science in anime...

Science gets their own shows


From this point on, we will see an explosion of science in anime. Some shows took real sciences as the main plot device, like Arjuna (2001) and Planetes (2003). These two anime are also in the environmental side, showing the current concerns at a global level in a more comprehensive way. They are not only carefully crafted and interesting stories, but also high quality animations.

We have another category with anime depicting science as an exciting discovery. Steamboy (2004), Paprika (2006) and Element hunters (2009) portray engineering, physics, psychology and chemistry. These anime are full fleshed adventures with various grades of accuracy. They don’t fail to amaze and excite with their fast pace and charismatic characters.

Finally, we also have some animes that seek to be closer to the average student. Moyashimon (2007) and Moyashimon returns (2012) are setted in an agriculture school where different microorganisms are studied. Such little guys are helpful in the everyday lives of the students, helping with the elaboration of beer and yoghurt, for example. We also have Robotics notes (2012), which centers in a Robotics club in a high school which will disappear soon unless its two members do something meaningful. So, the protagonist Akiho will have the challenge of reigniting the enthusiasm for Robotics around her.

The impact of good and bad science in anime

Shou Tucker Fullmetal Alchemist Capture

So we have a lot of science-oriented anime to choose from. That’s great, but although anime is mainly for entertainment, there have been occasions when it obliges us to pause and reflect. Maybe a particular scene was shocking. Or maybe something a character said was strange.

It wasn’t always like this, though. The first science oriented animes did not intend to be accurate when portraying science, so they did not take themselves very seriously. That is why we have the android protagonist from 8 Man smoking “energy” cigarettes. We also have Astroboy sacrificing himself and/or being destroyed in the first versions of his adventures without fans batting an eyelash. Nobody was considering the robot as “a sentient being who deserves to live” or something. Perhaps the idea that robots or androids could have real feelings seemed too distant in those days.

Nevertheless, as years went by, anime started to become existentialist and to pose harder questions related to science to the viewer. In Please save my Earth, the leader scientist Hiiragi chooses to let everyone in the Moon base die from a virus instead of having the risk of such virus contaminate the Earth if they descended to it. In Shin Seiki Evangelion, Rei is a cloned form of life based on the late wife of the Nerv base Commander and Lilith, the mother of humankind. Dr. Ritsuko destroys all the Rei clones in a moment of bitterness. In both cases, it is hard to say if such actions were right or wrong. Were the scientists in the Moon base right in setting a mission to explore Earth to begin with? Was it ok to take DNA from Lilith and a human to create another form of life? Were Hiiragi and Ritsuko acting on good faith or seeking their own interests? And most importantly, were the consequences of such actions good or bad in the end? The answers can be very complex.

Such is the realm of science ethics. Nowadays, scientists have more global level agreements on how to treat their experimental subjects (animals and people), the data obtained from them, their colleagues and other related issues. We would not like nightmares such as what happened in several animes. Just to mention some examples, do you remember Nina and Alexander from Fullmetal Alchemist (2003)? They were the objects of an experimental fusion by none other than Nina’s father (Shou Tucker) just because the guy was going to lose his practitioner’s licence. This episode echoes reality, where there is a saying: “publish or perish”. That is why some scientists have fabricated findings in the real life. Not like Nina and Alexander but, still…

We also have the disturbing social experiment in Kinderheim, as shown in Monster (2004), which was inspired by real experiments under the Nazi regime (shudders). That is why, now more than ever, scientists reach agreements on what is right and wrong in the scientific practice. There is also a redeeming side. Anime like Dimension W (2016) teach us that being against all science is not a good idea. The protagonist, Kyouma Mabuchi, eventually learns to accept his android team mate Mira, who holds the remnants of his deceased girlfriend.

Final thoughts

As real science advances, the science depicted in anime will also change and evolve. I would expect even more types of science-oriented anime in the future. But do tell us, which is your favorite sciencey anime and why? Don’t forget that we are open to all your comments. See you soon!



Author: Sakura_Moonprincess

Writing about anime by Moonlight. Swift as a coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon, with all the strength of a raging fire, mysterious as the dark side of the Moon.

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