Science-fiction “space operas” have been popular for a long time. Both Star Trek and Star Wars have influenced international pop culture, including anime and manga.
Anime creators have produced a lot of space-based anime shows during the past 40 years. Here are some of the better ones, from the oldest to the newest.
Space Battleship Yamato
In 1974, legendary manga artist Leiji Matsumoto directed this epic tale of space war and interstellar voyages. Star Battleship Yamato is worth watching just for the titular spaceship, which was built from the World War II battleship Yamato.
In the original story, the crew must somehow reach planet Iscandar while fighting off alien attacks. They must also deal with conflict onboard the spaceship as well as homesickness and bad news from home.
The series was followed by several sequels, including a remake — Yamato 2199 in 2012 — and its sequel, Yamato 2202 in 2017. The original series was also heavily edited into Star Blazers in the United States.
Depending upon where you live, the franchise can be surprisingly difficult to find. Funimation has Star Blazers: Space Battleship Yamato 2199, but not the older versions.
Galaxy Express 999
Matsumoto created the Galaxy Express 999 manga in 1977, and it became an anime series the next year.
Like Space Battleship Yamato, the series features a classic, historic vehicle which doesn’t make sense in outer space — in this case, a spaceship modeled after a steam locomotive-powered train. But it’s a cool, dreamlike concept, so it doesn’t really matter.
The series features Tetsuro, a poor boy who agrees to travel with the mysterious woman Maetel. During his journey, Tetsuro has adventures on many strange planets. He also slowly learns the truth about Maetel.
Like Yamato, the franchise is considered to be part of an interconnected “Leijiverse,” which includes Space Pirate Captain Harlock, The Galaxy Railways, and Queen Emeraldas.
Crunchyroll has the original series.
Mobile Suit Gundam
The first Mobile Suit Gundam anime series came out in 1979. This giant mecha series would spawn a huge Gundam franchise featuring dozens of television sequels, movies, spin-offs, OVAs, and so on.
The original series takes place during the devastating One Year War between the Earth Federation and the Principality of Zeon. Zeon initially sought independence from Earth, and now the Federation hopes to fight back with the help of the RX-78-2 Gundam. The Gundam franchise contains plenty of historical allusions. Zeon ace pilot Char Aznable, aka “the Red Comet,” is likely a reference to the Red Baron. While Amuro Ray is clearly the hero, Char remains a popular and likeable villain.
Mobile Suit Gundam is available at Crunchyroll, and Funimation.
This 1998 series gave us a very different vision of the future than most science-fiction anime. The “cowboys” of Cowboy Bebop were bounty hunters.
We got brief glimpses of the more civilized side of space colonization. But generally speaking, Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed, and Ein stuck to the seedy underside.
All of the main protagonists have mysterious and tragic backstories that they are trying to escape — yes, even goofy, lovable hacker “Radical” Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV. As the first show on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block, the series was an introduction to anime for many Americans. With its mixture of humor, and serious film noir-esque attitude, it remains a favorite of many.
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
Gurren Lagann was one of the better anime series that Gainax ever put out. The 2007 show was an adrenaline-fueled robot punch, with a lot of awesome, hammy dialogue, and memorable characters. It was also surprisingly philosophical.
The series was a tribute/ parody to older space and giant robot franchises, with references to Gundam, Yamato, and many others. It really only becomes a space series in the second half, when the heroes fight the anti-spirals. But in hindsight, the space element was always there — how else is your drill going to pierce the heavens? You can find it at Crunchyroll, Hulu, or Amazon Prime.
Two brothers chase their astronaut dreams in the 2012 anime series, Space Brothers. Unlike a lot of space anime shows, this one takes place only a decade into the future (at the time that it was released). As a result, it reflects the contemporary aspirations of NASA and Japan’s JAXA space agency.
The younger brother, Hibito, makes it to the space program first. But older brother Mutta struggles to catch up. Mutta undergoes astronaut training with the odds seemingly against him. While Hibito makes it to the Moon, Mutta impresses observers as a candidate for a future mission.
Bodacious Space Pirates
This lighthearted 2012 series combines a couple of popular anime tropes — cute schoolgirls and space pirates. In this case, the schoolgirls are space pirates, complete with an outlandish pirate captain outfit.
Although largely comedic and running heavily on Rule of Cool, the series does take a somewhat practical approach to space piracy. The girls are technically licensed privateers, with government-issued letters of marque. Since there is little need for actual pirates, they end up as cruise ship entertainers. Eventually, the series does lead up to some space battles, as the pirates/ privateers must defend themselves against an imperial pirate captain.
The Irresponsible Captain Tylor (1993) — Space anime comedy featuring a lucky/ lazy genius novice captain and his ragtag crew
Martian Successor Nadesico (1996) — Space war robot parody with romantic comedy harem elements
Outlaw Star (1998) — A space western featuring adventurers searching for treasure and fighting outlaws in the final frontier
Space Patrol Luluco (2016) — Weird and cute comedy about a schoolgirl who joins the space patrol, and explores various Studio Trigger-themed planets