With NASA's Mars InSight probe successfully landing on the Red Planet, let's focus on one of the things that sci-fi anime does best: depicting how humanity will terraform and colonize Mars.
Because, let's be real, what's left for us on Earth anyway?
Most personally appealing version of terraformed Mars: Mars Daybreak
Why? One word: Pirates.
Mars Daybreak depicts Mars as an ocean planet, its population exporting fresh water as a valuable natural resource throughout the rest of the solar system. With such precious cargo roaming the vast Martian seas, piracy is inevitable. Enter the Ship of Aurora, a legendary submarine with a rag-tag crew of misfits who Robin Hood their way into the hearts of Mars' less-fortunate inhabitants. The pirates of the Aurora steal food shipments on the regular and "redistribute" them, making enemies of the authoritarian Earth government in the process. To combat their military foes, the pirates have specialized underwater mecha called Round Bucklers. Yep, this anime has pirates AND giant robots.
To be perfectly frank, Mars Daybreak is a fairly average anime show. The main character, Gram River, is your typical shonen-type hero who lives an absolutely normal, unassuming life until he Encounters His Destiny, Discovers a Giant Robot That Only He Can Pilot, Defeats the Bad Guys, and Gets the Girl. What makes this show stand out to me is its depiction of Mars as a place of new beginnings, where anyone can become anything. And I do mean anyone. The Ship of Aurora has two non-humans on its crew: Clara, a sentient, talking cat and the ship's strategist, and Poipoider, a beluga whale (!) who uses an exo-suit (!!) to live and interact with humans (!!!).
This Mars harbors a talking cat and a talking whale. They're pirates, and they should become my best friends.
Most dismal version of terraformed Mars: Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans
Iron-Blooded Orphans depicts the personal lives of a group of teenaged soldiers as they eke out a desperate life as mercenaries on a terraformed Mars. While most of the humans on Mars live on farms or in the burgeoning cities, the kids of Tekkadan exist on a base in the middle of the still-arid Martian desert. They don't know much outside their battle-heavy lives, but they do understand betrayal. When their benefactors abandon them to the winds after a sneak attack on their base, the kids decide to strike out on their own, without much adult supervision.
The Mars population in Iron-Blooded Orphans is struggling for independence from the Earth government, and the Tekkadan boys take up the fight for their home because fighting is the only thing they know how to do well. They're technically cyborgs, receiving spinal implants at young ages in order to better pilot their giant robots. The implants shorten their lifespans, but none of them expect to live very long anyway. The anime doesn't shy away from depicting the horrors of war, and not all of the main characters make it out alive by the end. This Mars, like its namesake god, is perpetually at war.
Most dismal version of terraformed Mars, racist edition: Terra Formars
Humanity attempts to colonize Mars by first seeding the surface with algae, readying the atmosphere for human existence, and cockroaches, which would feed on the algae and eventually die off. The algae would, in turn, feed off the dead cockroaches. Centuries later, the cockroaches have evolved into gigantic humanoid beasts who don't take very kindly to teensy two-legged beings who keep trying to take over "their" planet. The conflict goes on for centuries, as humanity begins to selectively breed soldiers to fight against the monstrous Terraformars.
So much to unpack here. Let's take a look at the Terraformars themselves. Remember, these are descendants of cockroaches, mutated by the Martian environment. So why do they appear like racist caricatures of black men?
Another questionable detail in this anime is the positive view of eugenics in the personal history of one of the main characters, Joseph Gustav Newton. Joseph is the result of centuries of selective breeding because humans needed to become stronger in order to battle the mutated cockroaches. This new generation of humans are hybrids, homo sapiens mixed with the DNA of other animal species. Joseph is blond-haired and blue-eyed since his family placed physical appearance with as much importance as mental prowess when creating an offspring. He's meant to be the pinnacle of humanity. The perfect soldier. The bane of the Terraformars. Does he have to be white?
This has very little to do with Mars but the notion that the poor planet had ANYTHING to do with making humans believe that eugenics is a fantastic idea makes me seethe with white-hot rage.
Most realistic version of terraformed Mars: Cowboy Bebop
Cowboy Bebop, beloved by anime fans the world over for its relatable depiction of a rag-tag bunch of misfits who become a crew in order to earn some cash, makes the list for its satisfyingly grounded version of a terraformed Mars. With the near-destruction of Earth, humanity spread to the rest of the solar system, with Mars being the go-to destination for what's left of humanity. The Martian surface is pock-marked with colonies built into vast craters, and tunnels allow for easy travel between the cities. Mars, in this case, has become a substitute Earth, the de facto human planet and the port where we can journey to the rest of the solar system.
Cowboy Bebop also depicts Mars as being the home to an abandoned theme park, which only proves how fully embedded humanity has become on the Red Planet. Not only is there a theme park, but that theme park is already deserted and desolate.
Most self-referential version of terraformed Mars: Martian Successor Nadesico
Nadesico is a sci-fi anime series filled with winking homages to other sci-fi anime series. The story picks and chooses from the most beloved anime of all time and concocts a show with characters who are painfully aware that they're in a real-life version of an anime show. One bridge crew member even made a living as a voice actress before joining the space force. A handful of main characters slowly grow obsessed with a cheesy mecha anime from the 1970s, which actually becomes a major plot point later in the show.
Nadesico's version of Mars is rougher than any of the previous anime series listed here. This is a Mars caught in the middle of its metamorphosis into a habitable planet. An accident caused the terraforming process to grind to a halt, and naturally, alien technology is involved, along with some timey-wimey shenanigans which, again, honors the stories of sci-fi past.
Most tourist-friendly version of terraformed Mars: Aria
Do you know what Mars needs to become a tourist attraction? Rebranding. In Aria, Mars has been terraformed and (like in Mars Daybreak) covered in a vast ocean. Unlike Mars Daybreak, where pirates roam the seas seeking ships to exploit, Aria depicts Mars as a sort of resort planet. Mars isn't even called Mars anymore. Its official designation is Aqua, no longer the Red Planet but a bright blue marble. Aria tells the story of Akari Mizunashi, a young woman with dreams of becoming a gondolier. Yes, in tribute to Mars' fabled canals, the planet Aqua becomes home to Neo-Venezia, where women are hired to row gondolas and ferry tourists around a city surrounded by water.
The surprising thing about the Mars depicted in Aria is how tranquil the planet is. Mars has completely transformed, with no trace of whatever hardships the first colonists had to overcome in order to make the planet sustain life. Now, the planet is simply a beautiful backdrop for a young woman and her friends, who all share a lifelong dream of gently rowing their gondolas across the vast waters of a planet formerly known as Mars. Aria is, unsurprisingly, also the most relaxing anime series on this list, with Akari's adventures no more taxing than dealing with rival gondolier companies.
Which Mars is best Mars? It really depends on what you're in the mood for, and maybe you've found a version on this list that you'd someday want to visit.
Pssst... It's the one with the beluga whale in the mech suit.