Few entertainment media have held as much intrigue as anime has over the last 80-some-odd years. From its early stages as a very obscure, very Japanese offshoot of manga to its present-day status of legitimate global phenomenon, anime has traversed the road least traveled on its path to success. As we reflect on anime’s storied history, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention those milestones that helped shaped it. And while they may not be the best that anime has to offer, something about them triggered an evolution… and even the occasional revolution.
Astro Boy (1963 to 1966)
Though often mistaken for the first ever anime series, Astro Boy nevertheless became the first important one. As the brainchild of manga-ka Tezuka Osamu, the character of Atom, with the power of a thousand men and a heart of gold, now stands on the same iconic level as one Mickey Mouse. So popular is this anime worldwide (Astro Boy was among the first anime to be given serious air time internationally) that Atom’s fictional birthday of April 7th, 2003 was the cause for a large celebration in Japan. Astro Boy‘s original, serialized adventures have since paved the way not just for numerous sequels, but also for anime as a popular form of entertainment.
The Adventures of Hols, Prince of the Sun (1968)
Despite accolades from critics, this film’s lack of financial success (especially in the light of production delays and budget issues) prompted Toei to permanently strip Takahata of his director title, which is akin to taking away Leonardo da Vinci’s paintbrush. As a work of art, The Adventures of Hols offered viewers the beginnings of things to come from this dynamic duo. But more importantly, Takahata’s outrage over being pinned the scapegoat prompted him to leave Toei and eventually form Studio Ghibli, a place where he could make movies on his terms.This little-known Toei movie, directed by a young Takahata Isao and animated by an even younger Miyazaki Hayao, was an idealistic attempt at injecting mature themes such as mortality and vengeance into a genre at the time aimed strictly at children.
For those who have seen it, The Adventures of Hols is considered among the greatest anime movies of all time. . . but due to Toei’s poor marketing strategy, it was never given a chance.
Macross (1982 to 1983)
Everyone knows at least one person who has benefited from being at the right place at the right time, be it from purchasing a winning lottery ticket or catching a pennant-clinching home run ball. Macross is that one person. While few would argue against this anime’s qualifications as fine entertainment, it is equally hard to argue against the fact that Macross rode the proverbial coattails of Gundam and Matsumoto Leiji’s Yamato‘s burgeoning popularity. Thanks to iconic works like the first Star Wars trilogy, the space opera genre was at an all-time high not just in America, but especially in Japan… so much so that Macross‘ mix of epic battles and adult relationships made it one of Japan’s beloved anime of the 1980s.
As it turns out, Japan was too small a country to contain Macross, so American entrepreneur Carl Macek helped to bring it stateside. Splicing and dicing the storyline with two unrelated anime series, Southern Cross and Mospeada, to form Robotech, Macek invited anime into the homes of America, where before it hid in seclusion on college campuses. And thus the floodgates of anime fandom outside of Japan were opened that much wider.
Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind (1984)
Sure, there are plenty of anime out there that can boast box office success or shiny award statuettes, but few can claim that they helped form an entire company… and none can say it as proudly as Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind. Directed by Miyazaki Hayao, produced by Takahata Isao and based on Miyazaki’s enormous manga that took nearly 12 years to create, the critical acclaim and financial success of Nausicaä (a combination Takahata never experienced at Toei) encouraged the pair to create and lead the beloved anime arthouse Studio Ghibli.
Ironically, as the character of Nausicaä became a martyr in the film, so would the very movie that bears her name, years later. Retitled Warriors of the Wind for Western audiences, this exported cacophony of poor voice dubbing, ill-advised editing and a blasphemous video cover that included artwork of characters not even in the movie, appalled Studio Ghibli so much that not only did “big brother” closely supervise Carl Macek’s handling of 3 of their anime, but it also gave birth to a legend: rumor has it that Miyazaki sent a sword to Disney executives with an attached note that simply read, “no cuts,” a gesture of disquieting menace to reinforce the clause in the Disney/Tokuma Shoten deal that not a single frame be altered.
Years before Pokémon invaded the minds (and some say, the souls) of children everywhere and made anime a household word, there were many misconceptions about anime outside of Japan. Most people simply did not know what it was or where it came from, but they did know one anime by name, and they knew it well: Akira.
In many ways, Akira blazed new trails for a medium that was then undergoing a metamorphosis. Aside from being among the most expensive anime movies ever produced, this film also pioneered the process of recording the voices first and then drawing the artwork to match with the aid of device called the Quick Action Recorder that helped synchronize mouth movements with spoken words. But what was even more amazing to viewers was the remarkable level of detail in the animation, gratuitous violence, and mature themes set in a post-apocalyptic world. These aspects were simply unheard of from the likes of Disney and Hanna-Barbera, and those who before wrote off anime as just another form of children’s entertainment finally took notice. Suddenly it was okay to be an adult and watch animation, which was key for the industry from an economic standpoint because of the sudden influx of fans with disposable income.
Dragonball Z/Sailor Moon (1989 to 1996, 1992 to 1997)
While these shows are as different as two series can be, they share a common bond, and not just because they were produced almost simultaneously. Though each one catered to a distinct audience, they both welcomed a new generation of anime fan, those were either too young or unaware of Macross and Akira. And for this reason these two shows became known as the “gateway anime” of the modern age, Dragonball Z for the boys and Sailor Moon for the girls.
Both anime were first enormously popular in Japan, spawning numerous spin-offs that
included theatrical releases, video games, soundtracks and even live-action musicals. Their onslaught on anime fandom knew no bounds outside of Japan, either, giving notice to anime production companies that North America was not only an untapped market, but a viable and exponentially increasing one, as well. The rise of cable and satellite television also let American studios take a chance on anime because of the clamoring for more Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon, when network stations previously would not.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
The biggest impact to the anime industry from a production standpoint was the advent of computer graphics. For decades, animators labored away endlessly hand-drawing objects cel frame by cel frame. Shortcuts were taken to meet deadlines, often at the expense of visual quality. Ghost in the Shell changed all that by becoming the first anime to invest a large portion of its considerable budget to digitally-produced visuals; the end result a fluidity of motion and crispness of lines never before seen in anime. Other production companies soon took notice and quickly took similar measures to streamline their animation departments. In a matter of just a few years, hand-drawn and painted cels suddenly became an antiquated technique as companies scrambled to meet the demands of a new fan base overseas. To this day, nearly every commercial anime has, to varying extents, either been touched up or completely rendered by computers.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 to 1996)
No anime has incited as much controversy and discussion as Neon Genesis Evangelion,
Anno Hideaki’s irreverent tribute to genre-less anime. Combining philosophies and imagery extending from Christianity to patricide to sexuality to both intra and interpersonal relationships, is there any doubt that this show would become the amateur philosopher’s anime of choice?
But even more important than the final product were the events taking place behind the scenes. Director Anno Hideaki was in the midst of a nervous breakdown and the target of death threats from fans angered over how the series ended. Network TV Tokyo threatened to yank the show from its lineup over questionable content. The budget was severely cut midway through, and dissension grew among the staff. Fans became just as fascinated with the drama both on screen and off.
Gigantor (1964 – 1966) The original giant robot, who introduced anime to much of the English-speaking world.
Mazinger Z (1972 to 1974)
Pioneered mecha anime through the 1970s.
Wings of Honneamise (1987)
Gainax was created to produce this movie.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Important period piece that gave anime artistic credibility and became required viewing for students.
Idol Defense Force Hummingbird (1993)
Revitalized the careers of voice actors… as idol pop singers.
Pokémon (1997 to 2002)
Commercial juggernaut that took children’s television by storm, much to the chagrin of parents.
Spirited Away (2001)
Broke all box office records in Japan and became anime’s first Academy Award winner.
The Animatrix (2003)
Became the first public collaboration of Japanese and American producers.