Westworld: the HBO series about cowboys and robots is the biggest thing among TV geeks since, well, HBO’s last geek-centric series, Game of Thrones. And just like that series, the break between seasons already feels interminable.
Enter our handy solution: a rundown of anime that, in some way, shape or form, might help to scratch that Westworld itch. Read on for our picks.
One of the difficulties to this list is while plenty of anime either overlap with Westworld’s setting, the wild west, or its deeper themes, human-created beings who slowly begin to question their identity, there’s not a ton of stuff that combines the two. To that end, we’ve broken the piece into two sections.
Battle Angel Dolores
Anime, especially that of the cyberpunk-heavy 1990s, is bulging at the seams with series and films about robots who have existential questions about what it all means, man.
The obvious entry point here is Ghost in the Shell, which started life as a manga by Masamune Shirow before being adapted into multiple films, television series and home video releases. Our pick for the most Westworldian of the GitS franchise are the two films by philosopher king Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Innocence (2004). In Oshii’s films, cyborg Makoto Kusanagi and partner Batou spend their days contemplating, among other things, what it means to live in bodies they don’t actually own which were created by a powerful corporation.
Of course, unlike the hosts of Westworld, the Major is well aware of her own identity from the outset. That’s not the case for some of Ghost in the Shell’s cyberpunk contemporaries. Alita, the protagonist of Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita, or Gunnm, is a cyborg who’s lost all her memories. Rescued and rebuilt by a cybernetics doctor, she works as a bounty hunter while exploring a world split into two distinct halves (not unlike a certain HBO series). The manga was adapted into a original video animation in the 90s, and a live-action remake is currently in pre-production. Mardock Scramble, written by Tow Ubukata, is a more modern take on a very similar theme.
Like Westworld, the world of anime is full of humanoid robots made to order. Old-school anime fans will remember the short “Presence” from Robot Carnival, recently given a long-overdue rerelease by Discotek. The short, directed by Yasuomi Umetsu of Kite fame, centers around a genius roboticist and his creation, a female companion who ends up exhibiting far more free will than he thought possible. Sound familiar?
“Thirds,” robots superficially identical to humans hidden among the population, are the subject of Armitage III, another 90s OVA in the style of Ghost in the Shell and Battle Angel Alita featuring many of the same staples – a kickass female robot with identity issues, androids created for the pleasure of humans – with the added bonus of the only anime dub role ever taken by 24/Metal Gear Solid 5’s own Kiefer Sutherland.
Notable made-to-order robot shows of a less philosophical nature (the list is practically endless) include Mahoromatic, Chobits, Hand Maid May and Steel Angel Kurumi, while anime about women who, while not necessary robots, definitely have cause to question the nature of their realities, include the Satoshi Kon classics Perfect Blue and Paprika and the cyberpunk series Serial Experiments Lain.
Wild Wild West
Of all the anime set in some form of the wild west, Cowboy Bebop is far and away the most beloved. The series, which we recently paid tribute to, not only has a western setting (well, some of the episodes, at least), but it’s also sci-fi and even a woman unsure about her identity, bringing it perhaps closest to Westworld as anything else on the list in terms of story and setting, if not tone.
Trigun, which, like Bebop, was introduced to the western world via Adult Swim, is a close second in terms of popular sci-fi wild west anime. Based on the manga by Yasuhiro Nightow, Trigun takes place on planet Gunsmoke, a planet with a desolate desert environment inspired by cowboy films.
Rounding out the trio of late-90s space westerns that (fittingly, we suppose) captivated western, if not Japanese, audiences is Outlaw Star. Also airing on Toonami and Adult Swim, Outlaw Star stars Gene Starwind and Jim Hawking, jack-of-all-trades business partners who brave their way through a western-inspired science fiction setting.
While those three series are the undisputed kings of the space western in the States, they’re far from the only ones out there. Gun Frontier, created by Leiji Matsumoto, is essentially Captain Harlock in the wild west; Desert Punk is a post-apocalyptic series set in a future Japan turned into, well, desert (as is the classic Fist of the North Star, for that matter); Vampire Hunter D and its sequel, Bloodlust, feature some sci-fi western elements, including robotic horses like the ones seen in Westworld.
Let’s wrap up with both the oldest and most recent anime on this list. Bismarck, which aired from 1984 to 1985, was a robot series with a western theme, including another set of those robotic horses and a cowboy hat-wearing, sharpshooting American named Bill Willcox (Bismarck is pretty even opportunity with its blatant stereotypes: Scottish sidekick Richard Lancelot is a proficient bagpipist). Bismarck’s cowboys-and-Indians appeal was punched up further when it was released in the States as Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs, which transformed Bill into traveling rodeo star Colt.
Jump forward 30-odd years to “Robot on the Road,” one of the newest shorts from the Hideaki Anno’s Animator Expo project, which stars a cowboy hat-wearing robot who likes to hitch rides with cute ladies. Directed (and, we assume, largely animated) by master of masters Hiroyuki Okiura, “Robot on the Road” is pure minutes of sakuga goodness.
The resemblance to Westworld for these last two is pretty superficial, we admit, but considering the second season isn’t due until 2018, we’re going to need all the robots wearing cowboy hats we can get.
What’d we miss? Any other anime give you that Westworld feel? Leave us a comment.
Matt Schley is OUSA’s man in Japan. He really likes Ed Harris.