Sci-fi and fantasy anime like Fullmetal Alchemist and Ghost in the Shell are well known, but there are many smaller, lesser-known series to talk about as well. Some of these series haven’t even received dubs, but they’re still worth a watch and interesting in their own right. So if you’re looking for some sci-fi and fantasy anime to get into, this list might be a good start! This is by no means a complete catalogue, so feel free to leave your own suggestions in the comments and maybe we can make a whole new list!
Dennou Coil is 26 episode anime produced in 2007. The series takes place in the near future of 2026 where virtual glasses are incredibly popular with young people- these glasses allow access to a virtual world that overlays with the real world, allowing access to virtual pets, virtual superpowers and so-on. But the virtual world is plagued by “illegals”- mysterious black blob like computer viruses that infect anything virtual. They come from mysterious voids called “obsolete space” and it’s unsure where these voids lead, but this space is referred to as the “other side”. A robot runs around town deleting these viruses, but also often harasses the children using the glasses and tries to delete virtual pets.
The protagonist of the series is a young girl called Yuko, who goes by the nickname “Yasako”. She gets involved with a cyber-investigation agency and soon finds herself confronted with a mysterious conspiracy- there are rumors that kids who look too hard into the nature of “the illegals” are being killed- and their spirits might be trapped in the mysterious digital void of “the other side”. Yasako meets a girl who seems to know something about this conspiracy and who is pursuing the illegals with all her might.
Dennou Coil is an overlooked gem of a series- part coming-of-age story, part mystery and part sci-fi thriller that looks into the tenuous nature of virtual reality. The animation is lovely and has an endearing Studio Ghibli-esque quality to it, and the story is emotional and heartfelt, even though it’s not afraid to delve into the unsettling and tragic.
It touches on issues of trauma, grief, death and explotation, but also focuses on the healing power of human relationships. What starts out as a seemingly simple adventure story turns into something very moving both children and adults can enjoy.
An imported version of Dennou Coil can be purchased on Amazon.Advertisement
The Twelve Kingdoms
The Twelve Kingdoms is a 45 episode anime produced in 2002. It tells the story of a high school girl named Youko Nakajima, a meek girl who tries her best to please others. One day, a strange man approaches her, swears fealty to her and tells her she is in danger. Before she knows it, a demon is pursuing her, she’s got a sword and she’s been infused with a spirit that gives her fighting skills. She is taken to the strange, magical world of the Twelve Kingdoms by the man, only to be separated from him before she can receive an explanation. Now she has to fend for herself in a hostile world full of demons and people who believe her arrival is a bad omen- can she find the strength to survive?
The Twelve Kingdoms is one of my favorite stories of all time. It’s a great example of thoughtful character development and world-building. Youko’s journey of growth is messy and complicated, but she changes so much throughout the series. The complex politics and mythology of this Chinese-inspired fantasy world are well constructed and the story explores a lot of important themes like prejudice, classism and oppression very well.
The Twelve Kingdoms can be purchased on Amazon.
Xam'd: Lost Memories
Xam’d: Lost Memories is a 26 episode anime produced in 2002. Akiyuki is a normal high school student, but when his island is wracked with explosions, he is exposed to a strange light and transforms into a strange creature called Xam’d to fight off the monstrous invaders. A girl called Nakiami finds and tells him she can teach him to control his powers and if he doesn’t come with her he’ll turn to stone. So he boards her airship to learn more.
Xam’d’s plot is a little all over the place, but it’s characters are interesting and endearing for the most part and the animation is excellent- the aesthetics of the show definitely take a lot of inspiration from Hayao Miyazaki (Nakiami is pretty similar to Nausicaa) so it’s a lot of fun to watch. The relationship between the lead and his parents is especially well-done.
Xam’d can be purchased on Amazon.
Beast Player Erin
Beast Player Erin is a 50 episode series produced in 2009. It follows a girl called Erin as she grows up. Erin wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become and “Beast Tamer” and care for animals like the dragon-like Touda and the Griffin-like Ohju. However, she comes face to face with the cruelty of her kingdom that uses the Tohda for war and is forced to question the ethics of keeping these animals at all.
Erin is a slow-paced, subdued series, which might turn off some. However, when it wants to, it gets incredibly intense, especially near the end of the story. Overall, Erin is a beautiful coming of age story with amazingly solid word-building that really explores both the consequences and ethical pitfalls of working with wild animals and addresses both the danger and potential of exploitation in the profession.
The series is available on Crunchyroll.Advertisement
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (also known as Seirei no Moribito) is a 26-wepisode series produced in 2007. The story follows a bodyguard named Balsa. She has vowed to save eight lives to atone for eight people whose lives she has cost. Her final life to save is that of Prince Chagum, a young boy said to be possessed by an evil spirit. His own father is trying to assassinate him.
Moribito was created by the same woman who created Beast Player Erin and is similarly slow-paced. But it’s also a beautifully animated series with some truly awesome fight scenes and lots of mystical intrigue. Balsa is an easy character to like, she’s incredibly tough but also very compassionate and it’s interesting to see the relationship between her and her charge grow. The series is definitely worth a look.
Moribito is streamed on Hulu.
Moretsu Pirates (also known as Bodacious Space Pirates) is a 26 episode series produced in 2012. The series is about a high school girl named Marika. When her father dies, Marika inherits his space ship and crew. Therefore, Marika decides to follow in her father and mother’s footsteps and become a space pirate!
The series is as silly and fun as it sounds. It’s a totally ridiculous romp through space that just enjoys itself. It’s a bunch of girls and a silly pirate crew flying through space and kicking butt (mostly intellectually, there aren’t a ton of action scenes). It also has a positive representation of a lesbian couple, which is always great. If you like having fun with sci-fi, you’ll like this series.
The anime is available on Crunchyroll.
Simoun is a 26 episode anime produced in 2006. Simoun takes place in a fantasy world where everyone is born with breasts and a vagina. In the country of Simalucrum, everyone is identified as female until the day they turn 17 and can go to a magical spring to choose their permanent sex. (The neighboring country has to use surgery to change sex).
But only those who have yet to got to the spring are able to fly fantastic air crafts called “Simoun”. The ships are meant to be used for religious rituals, but when a neighboring country attacks, the country decides to use the ships for war instead, going against their sacred nature.
Obviously this sort of concept should lead to a lot of exploration of the social construction of gender, and the series certainly doesn’t shy away from that. Many of the characters in the series are unsure of what sex they will choose and feel a lot of confusion with their gender identity and this is explored in depth. The experiences of the characters in the series have a lot parallels to the experiences of both transgender and non-binary people- when the characters go to the spring, they don’t change immediately, but rather slowly over time, which can be paralleled to the process of taking hormones.
In addition to gender issues, the series deals with the conflict between war and religion and other issues. There’s definitely a lot of meaty stuff to hold your interest, though the series can be pretty slow sometimes.
The series is yuri (romance between girls) and has a lot of fanservice typical to the genre (though unlike a lot of yuri, the original manga was aimed at lesbians, not straight men). There’s a scene of attempted sexual assault and also a (very angsty) implied incestuous relationship.
The series can be purchased on Amazon.
Wolf’s Rain is a 26-episode anime proucded in 2003. It takes place in a world where wolves are magical creatures that have been hunted to near extinction. However, some still survive by masquerading as humans. Legend has it that wolves are the only creatures who know how to find Paradise, which is supposed to appear at the end of the world. A wolf named Kiba is determined to find Paradise and meets up with some other wolves on his journey. Meanwhile, a sherriff who has devoted his life to obsessively hunting down wolves pursues them.
Wolf’s Rain is a beautifully animated, somewhat surreal, deeply tragic story with great music. The characters involved are all pretty interesting and bounce off each other well. The series goes some bizarre directions and a lot of bits are satisfactorily resolved, but it’s honestly just cool to watch, especially if you have a soft spot for wolves. Warning: if you’re sensitive, be prepared to cry a lot.
You can buy the series on Amazon.
Kurau Phantom Memory
Kurau Phantom Memory is a 24 episode series produced in 2003. A young girl named Kurau visits her father’s lab and in an accident, is possessed by two mysterious beings called Rynax. One Rynax is weak and has yet to awaken, but the other one takes over Kurau’s body. However, Kurau’s memories start to blur together with the Rynax’s and before long the Rynax and Kurau are basically the same person. Kurau grows up hiding her powers until one day when her fellow Rynax, her “pair”, appears as a little girl. They happily live together at first, but then end up on the run from an organization that wants to experiment on them and harvest their energy.
Kurau is a little melodramatic and confusing at times, but it’s a solid story and the sibling-like relationship between Kurau and her fellow Rynax (who she names Christmas) is quite sweet. Kurau kicks a lot of ass with powers and take great joy in them, so it’s always fun to watch her when she tangles with her opponents.
The series is streaming on Funimation's Youtube channel and Hulu.
Tweeny Witches, known by the somewhat less embarrassing name Magical Girl Squad Arus in Japan is a 40 episode series produced in 2007. Though it’s 40 episodes, the episodes are only 10 minutes long, half the length of a normal anime episode. The series follows a 12 year old girl named Arus who sincerely believes in magic. Which is good, since she’s transported to a magical world populated by witches. However, she is horrified to find that the witches capture and imprison fairies to fuel their magic. Believing firmly that magic should never be used to harm anyone, Arus frees the fairies. But her newly-met witch companions, Sheila and Eva, cursed with eternal youth by the elder witches as punishment for failing to stop her. Now Arus has to decide whether she should stay in this world and try to change it.
If you really like stories about witches, this series is definitely worth a look. There are a lot of cool concepts in it and the visual design of the world and characters is incredible. (It should be noted that it’s very clear the animators were on a limited budget, meaning we get some truly bizarre angles, wide shots and other animation shortcuts to balance out the nice detailed visuals). The ending is pretty rushed, but it’s a fun little story to follow along.
You can buy Tweeny Witches on Amazon.