Watching an episode of the original Star Trek comes with certain expectations.
If you give the show an hour of your time, the show will give you an intriguing premise, like an entirely new world to explore or a new alien race to meet or a new conflict to solve. Often, the show gives all three. Star Trek also promises to have whatever problems in the first act wrapped up neatly once that hour is over. Yes, there are some all-encompassing conflicts, like the tensions between the Federation and the Romulans, or the mysterious Klingons, but mostly the original series makes good on Gene Roddenberry’s initial pitch of “Wagon Train to the stars.” A small group of intrepid space explorers travels the galaxy in search of the unknown.
But Star Trek’s reach goes far beyond American pop culture, and just as it captured the American imagination, its influence can also be felt around the world. Its simple but powerful formula gave rise to some of the best and most enduring science fiction anime series from Japan. It’s no surprise that most of the titles on this list are considered seminal and universally beloved by anime fans.
Star Blazers / Space Battleship Yamato / Yamato 2199
Perhaps the best-known gateway anime to many Western viewers is a little show called Star Blazers. Beginning in 1974, the show, known as Space Battleship Yamato in Japan, ushered in a new era of more serious sci-fi storytelling. While most anime series of the time were dominated by cute Disney-esque designs, Yamato’s characters, concocted by the legendary Leiji Matsumoto, were long-limbed and more realistic looking, epitomizing a desperate humanity from an Earth on the very brink of extinction.
The plucky crew. The snarky doctor. The clever captain. All are tropes familiar to Star Trek fans, and yet there’s an underlying despair which never permeated through the original Star Trek’s five-year mission. Instead of wrapping up a story in a single episode, Yamato’s story is serialized, bringing a sense of urgency to the spaceship’s interstellar travels. The Earth has been rendered nearly unlivable thanks to the constant bombardment of planet-killing bombs from a malevolent alien race. The Gamilas Empire wish to take the Earth for their own. Humans receive a mysterious message from the other side of the galaxy. A far-away planet, also a victim of the Gamilas, claims to have the technology to reverse the ecological damage of the planet bombs, but the humans must traverse the galaxy and fetch it themselves. Humanity chooses the Japanese WWII battleship the Yamato as Earth’s first starship. The ship is made space-worthy and sent off to outer space on a mission to save the entirety of humanity.
Although the original ‘70s series is one of the most popular anime shows of all time, it’s a little surprising that the series hasn’t been rebooted until fairly recently. A 2012 remake, titled Space Battleship Yamato 2199, is much more accessible to modern audiences. Along with the updated, cleaner animation, the story is now much more streamlined and contains more female characters. One of the more frustrating aspects of the original ‘70s series is the single female crew member aboard the Yamato, and she’s only there as a nurse. Even Star Trek had more than one female crew member. So there is one aspect where Star Trek’s diversity beats out Yamato. Luckily, the 2012 remake corrects this, with many more female crew members to populate the ship.
If there’s any sci-fi anime that’s just as enduring as Star Trek, then it’s Mobile Suit Gundam. Gundam solidified the popularity of giant robots (or mecha) as an anime trope for even non-anime watchers. Although the first Gundam series premiered in 1979, the franchise is so popular that it’s still churning out new shows today. There are so many different incarnations of the show that it can be difficult to make sense of them all. Not all of them are set in the same universe or follow established storylines. There are many off-shoots which take the premise of giant robots into completely bizarre directions. There’s even a popular series of shows which focus on regular humans who enjoy building toy models based on the robot designs because Gundam model kits are incredibly popular and have consistently sold billions of yen worth of merchandise every year.
Yes, Gundam is a pretty big deal in Japan.
Gundam, at its heart, is almost always a story of a galactic civil war. A single country with advanced technology rebels against an increasingly tyrannical Earth-based government. Space colonies, gigantic space stations which are situated at gravity-stable Lagrange points throughout the solar system, are caught in the middle of the conflict, and giant robots are the weapons of choice. Of course, the spectacle of gigantic robots fighting each other in outer space isn’t nearly enough to sustain a storied franchise, so Gundam is also well-known for its nuanced characters. Although characters can be a part of the Earth’s military, they might not always be the good guys. And the rebels who seek freedom aren’t painted as just mustache-twirling villains. There is a grudging respect on both sides which is somewhat akin to the stalemate between the Federation and the Klingons before the Khitomer Accords. Gundam is just as much about diplomacy and about finding commonality as it is about giant robots, which is why people still gravitate towards the franchise even after nearly 40 years.
Super Dimensional Fortress Macross / Robotech
The ‘80s gave rise to another show which is instrumental in the introduction of anime to Western audiences. Macross aired in the US as the first installment of the Robotech franchise, and tells the story of humanity’s first contact with aliens, though it doesn’t go quite as smoothly as Zefram Cochrane’s meeting with the Vulcans. In the year 1999 (just so you know that it’s happening in the future) humanity is at war with each other and the Earth is on the brink of mutually assured destruction. A mysterious alien craft crash lands on a tiny island in the Pacific, and the shock and realization that we are definitely not alone spur the countries of the world to end the wars and repair the spaceship so that humanity can reach the stars. On the very day that the spacecraft, now dubbed the SDF-1, is meant to make its maiden voyage, the Earth is attacked by a race of gigantic space aliens (it’s always space aliens at this point) who want the SDF-1 back. In the chaos, the SDF-1 attempts a space-fold, teleporting itself into the moon’s orbit and out of the aliens’ crosshairs. Alien technology being what it is, the SDF-1 ends up closer to Pluto than the moon, and the ship has transported the bulk of the inhabited island surrounding it onto deep space.
What sets Macross apart from other “spaceship with a crew” shows is the simple fact that they have civilians on board. Similar to the Enterprise-D, the bridge crew of the SDF-1 must deal with keeping these non-combatants safe as well as continuing on their initial mission. The SDF-1 is continually hounded by the alien Zentradi as the ship makes its slow way back to Earth. Another thing that sets Macross apart from other shows: music and pop culture play a huge role plot-wise. The civilian populace, wishing to keep life as normal as possible while being stuck in the belly of a gigantic spaceship, continually entertain themselves with television programs. The Zentradi intercept these transmissions, and they are literally unable to process them. The Zentradi civilization has no use for art and culture, and doing something that doesn’t involve war or preparing for war confuses them to no end. A climactic battle between the main Zentradi forces and the SDF-1 is won because of pop music.
Yes, that’s right. Pop music. Imagine broadcasting Taylor Swift as a form of propaganda. It’s ridiculous, but Earth is unique in the universe, as one of the only planets which places so much importance on creativity and entertainment. Naturally, it turns out to be a weapon. So keep blasting that Katy Perry album and who knows what aliens might show up to complain?
Galaxy Express 999 / Galaxy Railways
Another series from Leiji Matsumoto, Galaxy Express 999 is about a literal wagon train to the stars. It’s set in a far off future where humanity can achieve immortality by transferring their consciousnesses into android bodies. A woman and her son, named Tetsuro, wish to travel to the one place in the universe where such procedures would be done for free. The only way to get there is by traveling on the Galaxy Express 999, a unique space train which only makes the trip once a year. Conflict arises, as it so often does, and Tetsuro loses his mother. Still, he’s determined to fulfill her dying wish and get an android body for himself. Accompanying him on this arduous journey is the mysterious Maetel, who rescues Tetsuro during a harsh snowstorm and offers to escort him to the end of the train line.
Yep, it’s a space train. Yep, it’s pretty ridiculous, but this sci-fi show also focuses on nostalgia. The train still has what sounds like a steam engine. It still chugs along on tracks. It still has a shrill whistle to announce its arrival and departure. But there’s a stark juxtaposition of characters sitting in wooden train cars while robotic conductors collect paper tickets. The show never loses sight of its humanity, despite the strangeness of the surroundings. The train arrives at different stations on many different planets, and Tetsuro encounters all sorts of people. Galaxy Express is basically a long, slow meditation on what it means to be human. As Tetsuro gets closer and closer to his fate, will his humanity slip further and further away? Some of the best episodes of Star Trek focused on what makes us human, and Galaxy Express is a show where that question lies at its heart.
There is also a spinoff series called Galaxy Railways which focuses more on the intrepid crews that work the trains which traverse the galaxy. It’s well worth a watch if you’re already intrigued by the premise of Galaxy Express 999 and wish to immerse yourself into that environment while exploring it from a different point of view.
Crest of the Stars / Banner of the Stars
A lesser known title than the others on this list, Crest of the Stars and its sequel Banner of the Stars still deserve a place on it. Humanity has spread throughout the galaxy and has joined with an intergalactic federation, and conflicts arise between the humans and an elf-like alien race known as the Abh. It is, at its heart, a love story set upon a backdrop of interplanetary war. Young human Jinto has been groomed from a young age to represent his people among the Abh, and when he meets the Abh princess Lafiel, sparks immediately fly.
Very very few anime with alien races bother with giving the race its own language, but Crest of the Stars doesn’t shy away from that. Like many alien races in Star Trek, the Abh have their own language, known as Baronh, and the show takes great pains to utilize the language whenever possible. It results in a highly immersive environment and a constant reminder that, yes these are actual aliens who speak this weird language that you can’t understand and they don’t all speak English (or Japanese). Since it is difficult to concoct a conlang for an entirely different species, it’s understandable why most anime don’t bother with it. But in a story about wars between planets, little details like language are definitely appreciated. They lend the story a little more realism, particularly when there’s no Universal Translator available to facilitate easy interaction between planets.
Martian Successor Nadesico
Anime loves the spaceship crew trope, and it also loves to parody it. Martian Successor Nadesico is among one of the best parodies since it also works as an homage to the space opera genre. The Jovian Lizards are feared throughout the solar system and are blamed for a devastating attack on Earth’s Martian colony which wiped out the entire Earth Defense space fleet. In a plot point that mirrors both Yamato and Macross, Earth creates a new battleship capable of confronting the alien threat, but the twist comes when the only people available to crew the ship are fanboys and fangirls.
Nadesico takes all the beloved tropes of the plucky spaceship crew and twisted them around. The overly-skilled, overconfident captain is a young woman who’s underestimated because her father is the admiral. The communications officer is a well-known anime voice actress who is recruited right out of her recording studio. The ace pilot has PTSD and he’d rather be the ship’s cook instead of piloting the giant robot that only he alone can control. A Gundam-like anime exists in this universe and much of the ship’s crew are obsessed with it. The chief engineer creates elaborate dioramas of these Gundam-esque toy models, even when he has a chance to work on giant robots in real life. Nadesico could just work as a parody of every space anime ever, but the high-stakes conflict between Earth and the mysterious alien Jovians develops into an intriguing story as well. One can’t help but root for the Nadesico crew. After all, they’re just like us.
Star Trek: The Animated Series
And lest we forget, Star Trek itself had a cartoon series of its own back in the ‘70s. It came with limited animation and a limited budget, similar to many anime shows of the same period. However, since most of the original series cast returned to lend their voices to the show and since Gene Roddenberry returned as executive producer, Star Trek: The Animated Series is well worth checking out as a possible 4th season of the original series. The episodes may be fairly simplistic in terms of plot, but remember that this show was meant as Saturday morning fare. Even if the show has stuff like gigantic pink Tribbles, it still represents the spirit of original Trek pretty well.