Star Wars fans, you are difficult to cater to, but that’s not a bad thing. Your love for Star Wars assumes that you enjoy watching certain things. You like epic battles between a scrappy rebellion and an evil empire. You like the scoundrels and rogues who live and work around the edges of an oppressive government. You like it when the couple who are destined to fall in love have an unconventional relationship. You like lightsabers. You like warriors who wield mystical abilities. And finally, you like it when ordinary people discover that they are destined for extraordinary things.
Even if not all of these titles are set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, maybe something here will satisfy your craving for the things that make Star Wars so special. George Lucas took tons of inspiration from Japanese cinema and storytelling, and “Jedi” is supposedly derived from the Japanese word for samurai period dramas, “jidaigeki.” Pop culture is reciprocal, and fans continue to reap the rewards of mutual influence.
If you loved Rey from The Force Awakens, try out Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Rey, the first true female protagonist of a Star Wars movie, quickly turned into a target of celebration and scorn. Some lauded the long-overdue inclusion of a young woman as a hero of the franchise, but closed-minded critics thought otherwise. Meanwhile, Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli has made a very lucrative living out of their slew of female protagonists. Nausicaa was released way back in 1984, and it features a young princess who leads one of the last bastions of humanity. An environmental disaster has overtaken the Earth; a toxic jungle has spread throughout the planet, which leads what’s left of the human population to huddle in pockets of land which are still considered safe. Nausicaa is forced into a conflict between two larger empires, all while trying to befriend the gigantic creatures who live in the poisonous forest and hoping to figure out a way for the Ohm and the humans to co-exist peacefully.
A tall order, but it’s nothing that Nausicaa can’t handle. She’s as resilient and as resourceful as Rey, and even if her meager skills seem outmatched by the might of two larger governments, Nausicaa’s relationship with the Ohm proves to be the downfall of those evil empires. Just like Rey, Nausicaa needs to tap into something outside the normal realms of possibility in order to win the day.
If you want to see Studio Ghibli’s take on the "rescue the princess and save the world" trope, there's Castle in the Sky
A princess holds an ancient secret, while a young kid dreams of greatness. Toss in an evil organization that’s desperate to capture the princess and steal her secret to use it for nefarious purposes, and you have most of the major plot points of A New Hope. Elements from Episode IV mesh into this fantastic tale of flying cities and lost technology. Naturally, it's another Studio Ghibli jam. Castle in the Sky was the next film released by Ghibli after Nausicaa and the pedigree shows. Female protagonist? Check. A mysterious destiny for her? Check. Great world-building? Check.
After Sheeta is kidnapped by government agent Muska (played, in the Disney dubbed version of this movie, by Mark Hamill himself), Pazu, a kid from a small mining town, seeks to rescue her with the help of a family of pirates, led by matriarch Captain Dola. Adventures ensue, an ancient city is rediscovered, and there are autonomous robot guards whose design must have influenced Brad Bird when he made The Iron Giant.
If you want an Anakin/Padme-esque story of unlikely lovers torn apart by war, watch Voices of a Distant Star
This short film was written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, a celebrated anime creator known for his heart-rending takes on human relationships. Most recently, he’s responsible for Your Name, a tremendously popular anime film which broke box office records in Japan in 2016. Way back in 2002, when Shinkai was just starting out, he concocted a story about a young female mecha pilot and the boy she loves. Mikako Nagamine is recruited to fight in a space war against alien invaders. She promises to keep in touch with her friend Noboru Terao, who has remained on Earth. Mikako and Noboru exchange texts and voicemails with each other, but as Mikako’s spaceship strays farther and farther away, the time it takes for the messages to reach their recipients begins to lengthen. By the time Mikako reaches the war zone (in a completely different solar system), her texts take eight years to reach Earth. Her simple yet desperate “I love you,” sent in the heat of battle, must travel for nearly a decade to reach Noboru, and by that time, Mikako’s not even sure if she’ll survive long enough to get Noburu’s reply.
The external conflicts of both Star Wars and Voices of a Distant Star exist to ruin anyone’s chance at happiness. In another lifetime, perhaps Mikako and Noboru might’ve shared a quiet life together on Earth. In another lifetime, perhaps Padme and Anakin might’ve been happy together. War screws everybody up, and that message is unequivocally universal.
If you like watching rogues try to eke out an existence while constantly sticking it to The Man, check out Cowboy Bebop
Ah yes, Cowboy Bebop. The pinnacle of anime storytelling and one of the most popular starter anime shows out there. Essentially, it’s a story of a crew of bounty hunters who try to earn a living out in space without getting on each other’s nerves too much, all the while trying to escape their checkered pasts.
By the way, this show predates Firefly by a few years.
There’s a reason why Cowboy Bebop is considered an anime classic. It’s damn good. It’s got flawed and relatable characters, and they’re all unique and quirky and probably would never become acquaintances in any other circumstances other than the shared pursuit of making money. The setting is incredible. It’s a future where the Earth has been eco-disastered out of livability, and so most of humanity now lives on Mars and on space colonies throughout the solar system. The noticeable lack of aliens grounds the story and gives it a "mercenaries out in the wild western frontier" feel. Call it a space noir western.
Did I mention it predates Firefly?
If you want something like Cowboy Bebop, but with aliens and a more mystical slant, there's Outlaw Star
Outlaw Star is also about a crew of bounty hunters who are trying to eke out an existence without the government (or other bounty hunting groups) getting in their way.
This series predates Firefly, but it predates Cowboy Bebop as well.
On the backwater planet Sentinel III, Gene Starwind and his business partner Jim Hawking run a freelancing business, hiring themselves out as jacks-of-all-trades. Gene’s the muscle and Jim is the mechanic. After what seems like a routine bodyguard job, Gene finds himself the sole owner of an experimental spacecraft. The spacecraft is designed for a single purpose, tracking down a legendary treasure known as the Galactic Leyline. Gene dubs the ship the "Outlaw Star," and he gathers a crew of ragtag misfits to find the treasure, make their fortunes, and get debt collectors off their backs.
Standing in their way are various criminal groups, including the Kei Pirates, who utilize Tao magic in a manner much like the Force. Gene owns a rare weapon called a Caster Gun, a pistol that can fire bullets forged from magical spells, drawing on the life force of the shooter in lieu of mana. Much like Jedi and their lightsabers, there is an innate connection between Gene and his Caster Gun. With his call to destiny and his roguish ways, Gene’s kind of a cross between Luke and Han. Hero and rogue, all in one.
If you want something like Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star, only with more laughs and less angst, watch Space Dandy
Space Dandy is sort of considered Cowboy Bebop’s spiritual successor since they share the same director (Shinichiro Watanabe). Dandy (yes, that’s his real name) is a down-on-his-luck bounty hunter who ekes out a living by tracking down aliens. The wide variety of aliens that exist in this universe means that the government can’t keep tabs on them all, so there is a lucrative business in bringing in completely new alien species for registration. As Dandy tries (and mostly fails) to make bank, he gathers a small group of misfits, in the form of a bipedal cat/ferret-looking alien (whose actual name is too hard for Dandy to pronounce so he’s nicknamed Meow) and an obsolete robot, QT, who looks like a vacuum cleaner and acts like C-3PO, except with even more long-suffering snarkiness.
Dandy also has a grand destiny that he's largely unaware of, even when the consequences of said destiny directly affect his life. Honestly, he'd prefer hanging out at Boobies (a themed restaurant that's an over the top parody of Hooters) to saving the universe, but sometimes Dandy has to play the reluctant, roguish hero.
If you dig good old fashioned anti-fascism, check out Legend of the Galactic Heroes
It’s far in the future, and humanity has developed space travel and colonized worlds throughout the galaxy. A powerplay by an ex-admiral of Earth’s space fleet results in the creation of the Galactic Empire. The regime turns despotic and begins to suppress any and all opposition to it, leaving much of the galaxy to exist in extreme poverty, serving as serfs to the central empire. Over a century after the formation of the Galactic Empire, a rebel group escapes and manages to travel to the Orion arm of the Milky Way, forming the democratic Free Planets Alliance. The dominion of Fezzan also exists as a neutral planet-state which trades with both sides and seeks to profit from the never-ending war.
Legend follows the lives of two characters, one on each side of the war. From the Galactic Empire is Reinhard von Musel, an ambitious young man who wishes vengeance on the current emperor for kidnapping his sister and making her his concubine. Reinhard also wants to reunite the galaxy by defeating the Free Planets Alliance. On the other side is Yang Wen Li, a history buff who rises quickly through the space fleet ranks because of his expertise in military strategy. The two, natch, become rivals against the backdrop of conflict. This anime is about the machinations of war and how they affect the people fighting in it, and the constant push and pull between the two sides feels as epic as the Rebel Alliance's clashes with the Empire.
If you just want the anime that's the closest thing to Star Wars, you might enjoy Tenchi Muyo
Tenchi Misaki is just your average teenager until he wanders into a place he’s not supposed to. In true Luke Skywalker fashion, he’s thrust into an interstellar conflict after uncovering his true destiny. He’s a descendant of the house of Jurai, a powerful and ancient alien family which controls a far-off galaxy.
Oh yes, there’s lightsabers.
Tenchi’s birthright is a magical sword, also named Tenchi, which exists as just a wooden hilt until held by the right Juraian. Then it sprouts up a glowing laser blade that even has the characteristic lightsaber hum. The sound effects are just different enough so that the anime production company won't get sued, but a casual listener probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Tenchi’s awakening of his innate powers definitely mirrors Luke’s training on Dagobah, but Tenchi learns much more about them on the fly, because there’s nothing like imminent death to scare you into using your Force abilities Jurai powers. There’s no evil empire in Tenchi Muyo, though there are a series of villains who wish to take over the galaxy for some reason or another, and as a Juraian, Tenchi is tasked with battling them for the good of the future.
If you want the closest thing to Star Wars, but with giant robots, try out Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet
In the distant future, humanity has traveled far from our planet and is embroiled in a war against aliens. A mecha pilot named Ledo is facing off against a new alien superweapon and is caught in a wormhole which pulls him lightyears away from his home spaceship. He ends up on a planet with a small human population who live on an island made of junk: the rusting hulks of ancient ships, the remains of buildings, and other debris. They speak in a strange language Ledo can’t understand. Once his giant robot is repaired, he’s able to pinpoint his location.
He’s on Earth.
He can’t be on Earth. Ledo’s been taught that Earth was made uninhabitable centuries ago, which is why humanity was forced to travel to space. As he makes new friends and discovers more about the mysterious and mythical planet, Ledo becomes less and less willing to return to the war that he was trained, from birth, to fight. It’s like the reverse of Luke’s story. While Luke was on the backwater planet and wanted adventure, Ledo was smack-dab in the middle of the adventure and ends up on the backwater planet. However, both young men come out the other side profoundly changed by their respective experiences.
If you want the closest steampunk thing to Star Wars, check out Last Exile
Another classic anime series, Last Exile resembles a steampunk version of Star Wars. There are two factions which are constantly at war, and ordinary people are caught in the middle of the conflict. In this instance, the unwilling adventurers are freelance courier pilot Claus Valka and his mechanic friend Lavie Head. They take on an escorting job, delivering a young girl named Alvis Hamilton to a ship called the Silvana. Lavie and Claus are suddenly stuck on the ship when they decide to protect Alvis from the dangers of incessant airship battles.
Oh, did I mention that this anime has airships?
The air combat in this series runs as zippy as any of the dogfights in Star Wars, with the added cool factor of gigantic airships shooting each other out of the sky. But as impressive as the visuals and the setting are, Last Exile really excels with its characters. They’re richly detailed, well-rounded, and though many of them don’t share the same ideals, they all still have a relatable dignity, to the point to where there’s no good or bad guys, just people with different points of view.
Except for the people who make up The Guild. Seriously, eff those guys.
If you like when Star Wars focuses on ordinary, everyday people, there's Planetes
Planetes is perhaps the most accessible of the anime on this list because it’s the closest setting to our own. In the very near future, the space junk orbiting Earth has become a serious problem. Dying satellites, debris chucked out from cargo ships, and good old fashioned trash surrounds the planet, so in comes the waste disposal squad.
It’s a future where space travel is as common as air travel is today, and donning a spacesuit isn’t as exciting as it used to be. This is work, and the ragtag bunch of misfits (a recurring theme!) is just as relatable as any workplace crew is. There is also an almost too-close-to-home conflict with a group called the Space Defense Front, a terrorist organization which constantly sabotages space transports under the agenda that the governments of the world should use the money for space travel on more immediate threats to Earth: overpopulation, environmental disasters, and famine. But Planetes mostly focuses on the folks who still need to make a living despite the strife going on all around them. Star Wars feels like a lived-in universe because of the focus on the ordinary, and Planetes is no different.
And finally, if you want to watch a plucky, all-female rebellion battle an oppressive government, watch AKB0048
It’s the far-off future (another recurring theme!), and humans have spread all across the universe. However, some of the planets are ruled by a totalitarian regime known as the Deep Galactic Trade Organization. These planets have outlawed entertainment since frivolous things like music and art distract the populace from focussing on the important things, like being a hard-working member of the proletariat. Enter a guerilla J-pop group called AKB0048, who travel to these planets despite the constant threat of the DES, the Destroy Entertainment Soldiers.
Members of this girl group can sing, dance, and wield weapons in the constant fight against oppression. Their microphones double as swords and are called "Assault Mic Sabers." Some of the girls are skilled mecha pilots as well. It’s a concept that’s beyond ridiculous and was only created to cash in on the popularity of real life J-pop group AKB48, but, dang it, the idea works. Young girls are shown idolizing the members of AKB, and the spark in their eyes is not just “I wanna sing!”; it’s also “I wanna fight!” While the process of becoming a successor (the catch-all name for members of AKB) is arduous and dangerous, the young trainees do it because they realize that AKB0048 represents hope to those who have lost it.
Rebelling with pop music. There’s nothing more heroic.
So, while there’s no anime that’s exactly like Star Wars, there are quite a few titles which have latched on to the very same things that make Star Wars so beloved among so many people. The themes of family, love, and hope echo throughout them all, along with some pretty epic battles between good and evil. Star Wars resonates because these things are universal, and these anime titles with shared themes prove that.