By Jessie Krahn
Audiences around the world may watch anime for entertainment and escape, but there are many series and films that reflect real world political struggles in fun and thought-provoking ways. That’s life-giving at times like these, when news of climate catastrophe, widening wealth gaps, and the increasing unaffordability of daily necessities can make the future seem bleak, gray, and devoid of possibilities. Stories of people resisting and persisting in political contexts that threaten to crush them are vital for keeping hopeful.
So, for readers who need a story to remind them they are not living in the first generation to experience hard times or who just want to get into anime, here is a list of anime with characters who resist power, fight injustices, and disrupt hierarchies.
The film’s outlook might seem bleak, but when the dust settles, the film leaves the audience to imagine outliving a corrupt system and what might be built on its ruins.
Akira is a supercharged feat of filmic fire. A classic in cyberpunk cinema, the film is a dizzying ride with a hypnotic soundscape and luminous, liquidy visuals. Akira opens with a literal bang — a devastatingly destructive explosion that levels Tokyo in 1988. Thirty years later (in the then-distant future of 2019), Neo-Tokyo, is a dystopian, squalid, neon-soaked megalopolis, constructed on Tokyo’s ashes.
A gang of teenage bikers, led by the tenacious Kaneda, roam the city — until one among them, Tetsuo, crashes into a psychic child. When this encounter causes Tetsuo to gain telekinetic powers of his own, the military abducts him and, in the process, reveals their human experiments caused the explosion thirty years prior. What follows is a high-octane, calamitous conflict between the military, Tetsuo in his accelerating violence, and Kaneda, as he attempts to stop Tetsuo from destroying Neo-Tokyo in his psychic fury.
Even though Akira is forward-looking in its setting, the film is fundamentally a metaphor for its historical context. The explosions in the film literally resemble the distinctive mushroom cloud of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. during World War II. On a metaphoric level though, the explosions represent the economic bubble Japan was experiencing at the time of the film’s release — and the effects of that bubble bursting.
In the late ’80s, Japan was experiencing a so-called economic miracle, a period of peak economic growth. Commercial development was encroaching on poor and rural communities more and more, in a process that dated back to the postwar economic boom in the ’50s. Leftist protestors rallied together and resisted the construction of U.S. military bases, airports, and urban developments that would dispossess people. One 1985 uprising in Narita ended with protestors defeating riot police. By 1991, Japan’s bubble burst and its economy had collapsed.
In Akira, protestors clash with police, young people clash with the military, and ultimately no one is able to stop the psychic bomb from detonating. The explosions and the perpetual conflict recall the fallout of any economic bubble bursting and the consequences of prioritizing economic growth over people’s well-being. The film’s outlook might seem bleak, but when the dust settles, the film leaves the audience to imagine outliving a corrupt system and what might be built on its ruins.
Pom Poko (1994)
Studio Ghibli’s films receive international acclaim for their whimsical sincerity, but fans of Ghibli sometimes gravitate towards director Hayao Miyazaki’s films (Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, etc) to the exclusion of some of the studio’s other works. Pom Poko was directed by one of Ghibli’s other frontrunner directors, the late Isao Takahata. His film is an uplifting chaser after the awesome force of a film like Akira. What is more, the majority of Pom Poko’s story takes place in the early ’90s, just after Japan’s economic downturn begins.
Pom Poko first opens in the 1960s. Suburban developments creeping outside of Tokyo destroy the habitats of communities of tanuki, Japanese racoons. Flashing forward to the early ’90s, two families of anthropomorphic tanuki fight over resources rendered scarce by humans’ continuous encroachment on their territory. The tanuki band together in the hopes of scaring the humans away and halting the destruction of their habitats once and for all. However, their strongest resistance amounts to little more than a mildly amusing lightshow for the human residents of the new development. Unable to stop the destruction of their home, the animals are forced to transition into life in the suburbs, picking over humans’ trash for subsistence.
If that sounds dark, it’s only half-true. Pom Poko is heartbreaking and silly, bubbly and grave. While its subjects are animals, their story is a deeply human and sympathetic one. The film echoes the struggles of the farmers whose land protestors fought to defend in Japan’s economic booms, and it shows the impact of urbanization and unrestrained growth on less profitable communities. Pom Poko provokes questions about where prosperity comes from and who pays the price for city-dwellers’ creature comforts.
Irresponsible Captain Tylor (1993)
Where Pom Poko is a meditation on urban erosion of working-class country life, Irresponsible Captain Tylor is a cult classic exercise in completely upending bleak prospects. Set in a far-off future, Tylor is a series about young people living in a society with no economic safety net, who keep hope alive with the power of raw silliness.
Justy Ueki Tylor, aged 20 years old, just wants a roof over his head and a meal in his belly. He decides to join the military after seeing an advertisement saying food and accommodations are free for anyone who enlists. Tylor is the most chaotically goofy human in the galaxy, though. When he decides to enlist, he accidentally breaks the military’s screening system, making the military think it has been sabotaged by spies. A higher-ranking officer mistakes Tylor for a soldier as he stumbles out of the burning screening center, and Tylor is accidentally granted a job in the military.
The series follows Tylor as he fails upward, tripping into becoming captain of a ship and leading the charge in an intergalactic war. Everything always seems to go right for Tylor. He pulls his crew through deadly encounters without ever having to even engage the ship in combat and forms crucial relationships with important political figures in the enemy empire. The pre-eminent puzzle throughout the series is whether or not Tylor is a tactical genius or the luckiest clown to ever live, an incompetent goon or a borderline magical military maestro.
Tylor’s talents shine through in his kindness, empathy, and track record of defusing military operations with pacifistic solutions. The same goes for the crew on his ship. Each character is flawed, but they are given space to show their unlikely strengths. No one is truly incompetent — the military system is just not programmed to recognize anything more than rigid machismo.
Irresponsible Captain Tylor is a series that celebrates the aimless, the uneducated, the untrained, and the unprofessional. It rewards silliness and revels in optimism. Although war threatens to drag millions of people to their doom, military operations are thwarted — not by overwhelming strength or intelligent strategization, but by Tylor’s disruptively ridiculous choices. Tylor models resistance to corrupt institutions by relentlessly staying true to himself. He breaks the system not by abstaining from it, but by entering into it and playing by his own rules.
Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997)
Much like Tylor, Revolutionary Girl Utena is a cult classic that depicts individuals resisting the status quo from within the institutions they are trapped within. Rather than enlisting its protagonist in the military, though, Utena takes place in a palatial middle school with strict gender roles.
The titular hero Utena is a menace to her teachers because she insists on violating the school’s dress code and only wearing boys’ uniforms. Although Utena is the object of admiration for boys and girls in the school, she has her heart set on finding her “prince,” a young man who rescued her from a faint when she was a little girl. When Utena witnesses a boy from the school’s student council brutalizing a girl named Anthy, she challenges him to a fencing match. Utena is thrust into the position of Anthy’s protector, unwittingly getting sucked into a struggle for power with a secret cabal formed within the school’s student council. Whoever wins Anthy — who the student council calls the Rose Bride — becomes formidably powerful.
The show is part psychological drama and part fairy tale. Utena surmounts increasingly difficult challenges, sword fighting with dozens of middle schoolers who hope possessing Anthy will give them power in their relationships and personal struggles. All the while, Utena and Anthy become ever more intimate, and the truth about Utena’s prince becomes more complicated than she initially believed.
Utena is a classic feminist anime. The series plays with gender roles and stereotypes about human sexuality. It depicts compulsory straightness as a rule enforced through rigid, violent rituals, usually sword fights. The school stands in for a homophobic, patriarchal society with limited horizons, one which Utena and her peers must ultimately reckon with or bow down to.
The challenge for people surviving in a burning world is maintaining morale in the face of political systems that don’t seem to be leading to a better future. Stories like these anime can help ground politically-minded and critical viewers in the knowledge that they are not the first to face an uphill battle. After all, things that people deal with now are in these stories — like people being pushed out of their homes by economic forces, militarized policing, homophobia, and bleak futures. These anime then imagine this status quo being disrupted by the oppressed. While this does not necessarily lead to neat and tidy solutions to these problems, these works are deeply engaging, imaginative in their depiction of resistance, and offer the feeling of being less alone in these struggles.