I suppose I should start out by defining what I mean by dystopia.
“A dystopia (from Ancient Greek δυσ- “bad, hard” and τόπος “place”; alternatively cacotopia or simply anti-utopia) is a speculated community or society that is undesirable or frightening.“
– Dystopia – Wikipedia
Or according to the Oxford Dictionary:
“An imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.“
Every hate-based dystopia needs a villain to stir the rabble up against. It acquires a religious fervor. Those who do not hate enough become suspect.
Dystopia is a genre of literature in which a dark future is portrayed based on the themes of control and oppression. Typically it is not pure fantasy but rather a realistic depiction of what life could be like if humanity took a dark turn. Usually, it is set in the future but is grounded enough not to be complete science fiction. One might say, “Yep. That could really happen.”
Dystopian fiction is not about adventure or a revolution against tyranny. It is about life under the tyranny itself. If there is a revolution involved, it probably started with good intentions but became a tyranny as a result of human imperfection. (Animal Farm, Orwell’s parable on the Bolshevik revolution, is an example of this.)
The conflict in a dystopic story is the individual against the state but not in a heroic sense. There is no clear enemy to go to battle against. It is the system and the worldview of its supporters that our protagonist just can’t seem to coexist with – and that protagonist doesn’t often come out on top.
There have been – and are – plenty of real-life dystopias to write about, so a fictional dystopia has to be unique in some way to be interesting. Perhaps an ideological or religious movement seizes control. Some type of technological advance may be proposed by which humanity is oppressed. It could be a post-apocalyptic scenario but the actual apocalypse isn’t what we are viewing. It is the “new normal” into which humanity settles, one that is not a free and prosperous society.
Dystopias come into being because of human laziness. We cannot be bothered to think for ourselves and accept the “easy out” of turning over the job of thinking to political leaders. They may be lying bastards to begin with or they may be idealists seduced by power. They may be people of good intent who lose their humanity when they began to take Machiavelli to extremes. (Picture poor Niccolò rolling in his grave and silently shouting, “That’s NOT what I meant!“)
Literature is replete with classic depictions of dystopia. Such works are, by their nature, cautionary tales. Each one brings with it a warning of things to come if we forfeit our freedom of thought to an angry demagogue or a speaker of kind words offering us safety in exchange for our liberty or security in exchange for growth. Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), The Giver (Lois Lowry), A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess), and, The Iron Heel (Jack London), plus the linked images above are all fine examples of the genre.
But… few people can be bothered to read anymore. (That could be the beginning element of a dystopia right there.) However, today we are inundated with dystopic movies. The first was probably Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It has become fashionable to put dystopic elements in most speculative movies today. We don’t have a very positive vision of our future. Dark, gritty dystopic movies are our way of dealing with it.
There is a difference between techno noir and dystopia but the boundary is fuzzy.
A large proportion of anime has dystopic elements. Very often the hero doing battle against these elements is the primary conflict of the show. What separates these from what I consider true dystopias is that in a true dystopia, the conditions are pervasive and accepted as the normal way of life. The character accepts that this is how it is.
They may evolve into opposition to the way things are but they start out as part of the system. If they do go into opposition it is not your typical heroic struggle. It is full of doubt. They are surrounded by people who accept the system and may even believe that it is good. The characters Winston Smith in 1984, Bernard Marx in Brave New World, and Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451 all fit this mold. The system is never defeated but the protagonist usually is.
“A Model Citizen,” a short animated film.
In anime, “hard” dystopia is not common. Dystopia is depressing because there is no escape. Anime almost always has to have a hero who changes everything. Someone to cheer for, who gets the girl, and to share the victory with. Not a lot of market for depressing anime. Anime is, after all, mostly escapist entertainment for a teenage crowd.
In the dystopic genre, the hero rarely accomplishes anything important. At best the protagonist gets exiled to a community of nonbelievers but the system stays intact. At worst, the protagonist is broken and disappeared.
Sky Crawler is a true dystopia. It is set in a world that has ended war only to discover that humans need war to appreciate peace. We need to see the tragedy of death and destruction or we become complacent about war. To this end, artificial wars are created and then fought by special genetically engineered people. This fake war must never be won because that would create real peace which would inevitably lead to real war.
Perpetual war to keep the people frightened and busy is a common theme. In 1984 the threat of foreign enemies is used to keep the populace distracted from the evils at home.
Shin Sekai Yori… Oooh, this is such a delicious dystopia to bite into! It appears to be a utopia at first. Happy children looking forward to their future in a peaceful land, right? A long life of love, friendship, honest sexuality, health, and material security, right? Well, maybe not everyone. If you don’t perform adequately or if you don’t have a good attitude, you get disappeared and the memory of you is erased from your compatriots. The truth of how this society came about is out there. Along with mutated intelligent rats who were created as slaves. And beware lest you turn into a karmic demon!
Plus, the music is fabulous!
The Promised Neverland is a heroic story with dystopic elements. Our protagonists are really heroes, not victims. Through courage and intelligence, they resist and overcome and manage to completely change the world they were trapped in. The stubborn hope they cling to and their ultimate victory disqualify it from being a true dystopia and make it a heroic fantasy. (Never mind the horrid 2nd season.)
Darling in the FranXX started out as a great dystopia but fell apart along the way. The people have surrendered their humanity in exchange for peace and security. They live forever as essentially neutered bots, lacking any passion. They fit into the slots they are assigned and are content. They live in great mobile cities of high technology that are dependent on stealing the resources of a native subterranean species. When that species objects, the answer is genocidal war. (Sound familiar?)
There are a few exceptions. The great mechas that defend the cities can only be powered by human sexual desire. Nobody has more raw sexual desire than teenagers. So they are born in a lab, raised in a creche, and placed in pairs in mechas in obviously sexual positions to go forth and fight the Klaxxon. At the same time actual sexual activity is prohibited, probably to keep the frustration level high. But some of them aren’t quite like the others and this leads to conflict with the system.
And then the whole thing falls apart and goes to hell thematically. Pretty soon it is a trainwreck and not a particularly interesting one. I was hoping it would evolve into a Logan’s Run ending or maybe a Brave New World type exile. But at least we got one of the greatest skinny-dipping scenes in all of anime.
Ghost in the Shell is often referred to as a dystopian thriller. While the world they live in definitely has dystopic elements, our hero is the top field officer in a police unit whose job is to protect the public and defend the law. The government is full of corruption but not universally bad. There are many very poor people who could be considered oppressed and a few very rich ones who often lack any sense of morality. It lacks the pervading sense of oppression and social control a pure dystopia would have. I’d call it more steampunk techno noir.
But it gave us “Rise” and “Inner Universe,” so it could be about a slow-motion video of a turtle on a slippery floor and it would still be a classic. I even liked the live-action movie.
Do a Google on dystopian anime and you get a LOT of results that are really just heroic adventure in an unpleasant world. Or better described as variations of noir. Again, I believe this is because a dystopic anime is usually intended to provoke deep thought. Its purpose is to cause one to ponder about the nature of humanity, freedom, and oppression in the world. It isn’t entertainment in the traditional sense.
Kino’s Journeys isn’t just about a dystopia. It describes a whole bunch of them. Kino spends her days on a journey through her world visiting various city-states. Some of them are true dystopias.
In “The Land of Visible Pain,” technology has enabled us to hear each others’ thoughts – with disastrous results. In “Land of Adults,” children are forced to undergo brain surgery to make them perfect workers. In “A Peaceful Land,” she visits a land where war has been abolished in favor of a competition between the formerly warring states over who can kill the most members of an indigenous people. Except for the two-episode story, “Colosseum,” she never intervenes to overthrow these dystopias. (In that episode she was forced to do so to survive.) More often she is a pure observer, occasionally a participant in events, and eventually she always just passes through. In her own words:
“The world is not beautiful, and that in many ways lends it a sort of beauty.”
I suppose I have missed out on someone else’s favorite dystopia. Yeah, there are some good ones. I’d probably include Ergo Proxy and Psycho Pass. Cowboy Bebop is certainly set in a dystopia but I didn’t include it because the dystopic features were just background. I’d call it good-natured noir. Black Lagoon is in a dystopia too. But most of the participants are there by choice, so I didn’t include it. I’d call it hard-core noir. Attack on Titan is another dystopic anime I could have included but I felt more like it was an adventure set against a dystopic background. Humanity Has Declined is about the most cheerful dystopia I’ve seen.
And I want to keep the time I spend on these posts down, I feel like I’m in serious burnout right now. So here is a link to probably the best animated dystopia ever made.