Anime has been around for a long time, but it wasn’t until the early ’80s that it began building a following in the West. For years, anime was beloved by only a niche group of enthusiasts, many of whom enjoyed the dynamic art style, engaging music, and no-holds-barred storytelling largely devoid in American animation. One of the earliest genres of anime that gained Western audiences’ attention was cyberpunk, which dominated the 1980s and ’90s.
Cyberpunk wasn’t new to the West when it started popping up in anime; it had been a major player in the media for years. Thanks to the works of Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, and many other notable writers, cyberpunk has been around since the 1960s. Western comics and animation took their time catching up, and anime worked perfectly to fill the gap. The first cyberpunk manga hit store shelves in 1982, and before long, the decade was flush with excellent anime series and feature films celebrating the subgenre.
While the 1980s had its fair share of cyberpunk anime, it continued to develop long after its introduction. You can find elements of the subgenre in movies released to this very day, and as a result, there are hundreds of outstanding examples. These are the best cyberpunk anime feature films that have ever been released. If you’re looking for recommendations for the very best anime, you’ve come to the right place.
“Metropolis” is a somewhat unusual film in that it is loosely based on Osamu Tezuka’s novel of the same name, which was loosely inspired by the 1927 Fritz Lang film of the same name. Tezuka’s manga is technically not based on the source material, and he only used a still photo from the movie to create the character, Mitchy (Tima in the anime). The 2001 film is based more on Lang’s classic than the manga, so its creation was a convoluted process. Regardless, “Metropolis” depicts a dystopian society peopled with humans and robots, with the latter representing the lower class of society.
The film centers on private detective Shunsaku Ban’s investigation of a dangerous scientist, Dr. Laughton. Through his investigation of Laughton, Shunsaku learns that he’s employed by Duke Red, the eponymous city’s leader. Things take a turn when Duke Red kills the doctor, leaving Shunsaku to recover his notebook. After Laughton’s death, Shunsaku’s assistant, Kenichi Shikishima, is separated from him with a young girl, Tima, who is an android, though nobody knows this (including Tima). Eventually, Duke Red’s nefarious plot comes to light, leading to a confrontation that shakes Metropolis to its core.
“Metropolis” is visually stunning and takes inspiration from Tezuka’s beautiful artwork. Like Lang’s film, the movie delves into the different class struggles found in most societies, and “Metropolis” handles the social commentary perfectly. “Metropolis” may be an underrated anime movie, but it’s a must-see for science fiction and cyberpunk fans.
“Neo Tokyo” is an anthology film consisting of three parts. The stories are connected via the first part, “Labyrinth Labyrinthos,” which centers around Sachi, a young girl who finds a doorway to a labyrinthian world filled with fantastical supernatural characters. Eventually, she finds a circus with a movie screen and watches “Neo Tokyo’s” remaining segments. The first is “Running Man,” which follows a reporter working to uncover the truth about the champion of a high-speed hover circuit’s 10-year winning streak. Imagine a standard Formula One race filled with sci-fi, telekinesis, and a lot of death and destruction, and that’s what’s happening in “Running Man.”
The second segment, “Construction Cancellation Order,” centers around the construction of Facility 444. The previous administration commissioned the building, but the new government wants it shut down, tasking Tsutomo Sugioka to close out the project. He immediately runs into a problem: a robot designated 444-1. Robots handle all construction, and 444-1 is a foreman in charge of keeping it all going. When Tsutomu attempts to shut things down, 444-1 tries to kill him but fails.
Eventually, Tsutomu comes up with a solution, but his actions go against the politics of what’s happening outside of Facility 444. Each of the three segments in “Neo Tokyo” was written and directed by different people, and the film scored a lot of talent. The segments were headed by Rintaro, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and Katsuhiro Ōtomo, respectively. “Neo Tokyo” is a favorite of anime fans, and in 2021, Paste named it the 10th greatest anime film of all time.
“Megazone 23” is a four-part original video animation (OVA) that is not based on an anime. Instead, the film is an original work of Noboru Ishiguro. The film is set within Megazone 23, a massive colony ship housing the descendants of the evacuees from Tokyo, Japan, 500 years after humanity fled Earth. The city is so vast its denizens no longer know they are aboard a spacecraft.
The story centers around Yahagi Shōgo, a young motorcycle enthusiast who gets his hands on a prototype bike owned by the government. He uses his new wheels to reveal the truth about the city and finds himself caught in the middle of a plot to save humanity amidst numerous obstacles. The second and third parts are set hundreds of years later and focus on a hacker named Elji Takanaka and his adventure to the lowest level of Megazone 23, where he uncovers a long-dormant AI.
The film delves into various aspects of artificial intelligence and cyberspace, which was relatively new in 1985. The use of a simulated reality within “Megazone 23” inspired the likes of “The Matrix” and other notable live-action examples from the genre. It also has elements found in shows like “Black Mirror,” so it has a long legacy of inspiring the genre across multiple media platforms.
“Blame!” is based on the Tsutomu Nihei manga of the same name, which ran from 1997 to 2003. A CGI animated film was in the works for a decade before Netflix gave it a home. “Blame!” is faithful to the manga and is set in the distant future where humans are an endangered species. Long ago, civilization was destroyed when AI replicated itself across the planet. Humans are like rats, hounded by robots set to terminate them whenever they appear. Despite the genocide against humanity, small pockets of people persist, though survival is difficult.
The film centers around a young girl named Zuru, who is saved from Safeguard, the AI defense system, by Killy the Wanderer, a stranger (and deus ex machina) on a mission. Killy is searching for someone with the Net Terminal Gene, which may be the key to saving humanity. Whoever has the gene also has the ability to control the city, Safeguard, and all of its machines. Killy and Zuru travel with others to recover rations from a factory, but this opens the door for Safeguard to infiltrate the group of villagers.
Ultimately, the village is destroyed, but Killy helps ensure the survivors’ safety, becoming something of a legendary figure in their society. The “Blame!” film was a long time coming, and fans of the manga were happy with the result. According to Anime News Network, “Blame!” won the grand prize for animated theatrical film at the 2018 VFX-Japan Awards show.
“Cyber City Oedo 808” is a three-part OVA set in the year 2808, when cybercrime is running rampant. The story revolves around the ancient Japanese practice of hōmen, which involves taking criminals with technological prowess and using them to fight crime. The film centers around three criminals employed by the Cyber Police of Oedo: Sengoku, Gogul, and Benten. They are offered reduced sentences for their participation in the program. Still, the authorities aren’t entirely reckless — they fit them with explosive collars, similar to those used in “Running Man” and “Battle Royale.”
Each mission they’re given is allotted a specific amount of time, and failing to complete it before it runs out triggers the collar. The same will happen if they stray from their mission, and it goes as well as you might imagine. The first segment focuses on Sengoku, tasked with saving 50,000 people from a murderous AI. The second involves Gogul and a military cyborg who stands in the way of his murder investigation. The final OVA deals with Benten as he investigates a triple homicide that leads him to a vampire.
“Cyber City Oedo 808” was popular upon release and has since become a cult classic. As a cyberpunk film, it elevated the genre through gripping storytelling and exceptionally well-written characters. It also features an incredible soundtrack by Rory McFarlane, but only if you watch the U.K. release. The film is somewhat prescient, as it predicted many types of cybercrime that have since become a reality.
“Psycho-Pass: The Movie” is the first feature film from the “Psycho-Pass” franchise and serves as a sequel to the show’s second season. In the movie, inspector Akane Tsunemori travels to the Southeast Asia Union while investigating a group of terrorists known as the Sibyl System. Akane is also looking for an old friend and ally, Shinya Kogami, who left the Public Safety Bureau’s Criminal Investigative Division three years earlier. As her investigation ramps up, Akane uncovers a conspiracy that thrusts her into a massive conflict.
“Psycho-Pass” is an extremely popular manga and anime series from 2012, which has amassed a large following. Fortunately, the franchise didn’t end with the first series, and fans have enjoyed two sequel series, two manga, and three feature films. The first, “Psycho-Pass: The Movie,” fits snugly within the canon of the first two series and expands the franchise with exceptional world-building and character development.
Visually, “Psycho-Pass: The Movie” is absolutely stunning; the fight scenes alone are reason enough to love this film, and the way the story brings everything together from the series helped keep the franchise going. The film was a hit with fans, winning two 2015 Newtype Anime Awards. The success of this film earned the franchise two sequels, with a third in development.
“Paprika” is based on the Yasutaka Tsutsui novel of the same name and is faithful to the source material. The film revolves around technology to enter people’s dreams. The device, a DC Mini, makes this possible and is used exclusively by therapists as a means of treatment. Despite the tight regulations, the team’s leader, Doctor Atsuko Chiba, uses the device to help people outside the facility. Each time she uses the DC Mini, she enters the dream world as Paprika, her alter-ego she manifests to interact with dreamers.
Illegally using the DC Mini comes with consequences, and all hell breaks loose when a nefarious third party steals one. Paprika launches an investigation to find the culprit, and she’s quickly ensconced in a wild array of varying dreamscapes. She interacts with nightmares and ultimately discovers the person responsible, but doing so opens up a massive can of worms that threatens to merge the dream world with reality. “Paprika” is beautifully animated, but beyond that, it is engrossing for its depiction of literally anything imaginable.
The animators took the concept of bringing dreams and nightmares to life and just ran with it. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable film that explores the theme of fiction and reality, operating side-by-side. “Paprika” has been highly influential, with sites like WhatCulture suggesting it helped Christopher Nolan develop “Inception,” which arguably shares many similarities with this exceptional anime.
“Trigun: Badlands Rumble” is the only feature film to come out of the “Trigun” franchise, which consists of multiple manga and anime series. The film follows the adventures of Vash the Stampede, a gunman of significant renown who has his fair share of run-ins with bounty hunters who are out to collect the monumental bounty on his head. Vash has traveled to Macca City, which is chock-full of bounty hunters hoping to collect the reward for the criminal known as Gasback.
Vash has a history with Gasback and is somewhat responsible for his criminal actions over the past two decades, having spared his life during an earlier encounter. While the film is part of the “Trigun” franchise, it isn’t based on the anime or manga. It is an entirely original story set within the same universe and canonically takes place sometime between the 10th and 12th episodes of the 1998 anime. This ensures continuity in the franchise while giving the filmmakers the freedom to tell a new story.
In an unusual turn of events, “Trigun: Badlands Rumble” didn’t premiere in Japan despite being produced by Madhouse, a Japanese animation studio. According to Anime News Network, it was first seen by attendees at Sakura-Con 2010 in Seattle, Washington, making it a rare example of a Japanese anime film to premiere in the United States.
“Battle Angel” is a two-part OVA based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga, “Battle Angel Alita.” The film follows the first two volumes of the manga fairly faithfully, with only some minor deviations. As a result, it’s a perfect primer for the franchise and a great way to explore the world of “Battle Angel Alita.” The film begins at a massive dump beneath the floating city of Zalem. Daisuke Ido is hunting for spare parts when he finds a broken, young female cyborg and takes her home to his shop.
He restores her and builds a new body, calling her Gally, though she has no memories of her former life. Eventually, she learns of Ido’s nighttime activities working as a bounty hunter, and she shows a great deal of skill in his profession. He trains her to do the same, and Gally learns the trade while exploring her humanity alongside Yugo, a young boy who desperately wishes to find a way to Zalem. Many share his pipe dream, and he’s willing to do anything to make it happen. Fortunately, he has Gally at his side, but the way is fraught with peril.
If any of that seems familiar, you likely watched Robert Rodriguez’s “Alita: Battle Angel,” which tells the same story with some minor changes. The OVA was popular, but it was never Yukito’s primary goal. He was more interested in the manga and managed to develop it considerably.
“Cowboy Bebop: The Movie” is based on the anime series of the same name, and the events of the film are set between the 22nd and 23rd episodes of the series. This allows for an original plot that slips right into the “Cowboy Bebop” continuity. The film and anime align, but its story is told in such a way as to make it accessible to people unfamiliar with the anime. This made it possible for the film to bring in larger audiences than might otherwise have been impossible, and it has become a successful and beloved film.
The cyberpunk movie is centered around the bounty hunter crew of the spaceship Bebop: Spike Spiegel, Faye Valentine, Edward “Ed” Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV, Ein, and Jet Black. When Mars’ capital city is targeted in a terrorist attack, the crew of the Bounty is called in to find those responsible. The Martian government has placed a 300 million woolong bounty on whoever is responsible, and the team is ready for action as they hunt the perpetrator.
“Cowboy Bebop: The Movie” has long been considered a cult classic and has done well with critics and fans alike. Its dynamic animation, expressive dialogue, engrossing story, and score by Yoko Kanno have been praised since its release. This film is a must-see for fans of the franchise, but it’s also a great movie to expose new fans to “Cowboy Bebop” as well as anime in general.
“Ghost in the Shell” is adapted from the Masamune Shirow manga of the same name and is widely considered one of the best cyberpunk anime films of all time. The film is set in 2029, when cyborgs are fully integrated into society. It’s centered around Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg officer for Public Security Station 9, investigating a hacker known as the Puppet Master. He’s accused of hacking into other cyborgs’ minds and using them for his nefarious purposes.
Through her investigation, Kusanagi begins to wonder about her own humanity. What might she be like if she had more human traits? She begins to explore what makes her human. This affects the case, as she learns the truth of who and what the Puppet Master truly is. After uncovering a massive government conspiracy, Kusanagi does something unexpected, and her world completely changes as a result.
“Ghost in the Shell” was a financial flop when it was released, but it found new life in the home video market (per The Numbers). It quickly became a cult classic, and as new eyes saw it, it rose in prominence. The film has been influential for numerous filmmakers, including James Cameron. He called it “the first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence” (via Cryptic Rock).
“Akira” is the quintessential cyberpunk anime, and it’s also one of the first. The film is based on Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1982 manga of the same name. The manga is considered to be the first entry in the cyberpunk genre, making “Akira” a distinctive example. The film is centered around a group of high school kids and their biker gang with two primary protagonists: Tetsuo Shima and Shōtarō Kaneda, the latter of whom is the gang’s leader. When Tetsuo is injured in a fight with a rival gang, he’s scooped up by the government and taken away.
His accident exposed him to an esper, a child with extrasensory perception, and it had an impact. Before long, Tetsuo begins showing signs of telekinetic abilities, and as his powers grow, he becomes a significant threat to everyone in Neo Tokyo. Despite this, Kaneda works with a group of freedom fighters to try and rescue Tetsuo, but in the end, the two childhood friends find themselves on opposite sides of a supernatural battle as Tetsuo seeks the enigmatic Akira.
The film generated a massive international cult following shortly after release, and it’s often considered to be one of the best anime films ever made. It was highly influential for the anime that followed and is regarded as a pivotal film in the creation of Japanese cyberpunk. Despite the excellent company listed above, there’s no other film that could possibly top a list of the best cyberpunk anime films of all time, ensuring “Akira” is No. 1.