US History Of Anime: A Right Stuf Perspective (2023)

On the left is Heidi Girl of the Alps, and on the right is legendary artist Hayao Miyazaki.

Despite Heidi’s success, Zuiyo Eizo was in debt the next year and split into two companies. Company one, Zuiyo, got the debt, and company two, Nippon Animation, got the animation staff. Building on Heidi and other Zuiyo Eizo-produced works, Nippon Animation created World Masterpiece Theater, a long-running series adapting classic literature from around the world such as Dog of Flanders and Anne of Green Gables. Conveniently, these stories were also easy to export around the world, bringing in more money for Nippon Animation.

Anime continued to grow and define itself through the ‘70s, especially in regards to science fiction,. The first space-opera series, Uchu Senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato), debuted in 1974 from Group TAC, (yet) another studio formed by former Mushi Pro staffers. It told a serious and complex story and would be a huge influence on later Japanese sci-fi. In 1979, it was released in America as Star Blazers and sparked interest in American fans who liked this cartoon with more mature themes and over-arching plot than their Saturday morning cartoon offerings.

By the end of the ‘70s, anime was fully cemented as part of Japanese popular culture. Animage, a magazine devoted to anime and manga, debuted in July 1978, giving fans a place for the latest news and articles about their hobby. Soon, the term “otaku” would be coined to describe those who were especially “intense” about their hobby.

Two Japanese cultural institutions made their appearance in 1979. Sunrise released Mobile Suit Gundam, in which giant robots were given a take grounded in science and politics. The show wasn’t actually too popular – until Bandai bought the merchandise rights and started releasing Gundam model kits. Since then, over 70 Gundam series, specials, and movies have been made and hundreds of millions of model kits sold.

On the left is a Gundam robot, and on the right is Uchu Senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato).

Meanwhile, Shin-Ei Animation (a TMS subsidiary) decided to bring back Doraemon, a comedy series based on a manga about a time-traveling cat-robot that had previously been adapted to the small screen in 1973. That version lasted 26 episodes, but Shin-Ei’s Doraemon would carry on for an astounding 1,787. It “ended” in 2005 only to be immediately replaced a month later with a new Doraemon featuring updated designs and voice actors, still produced by Shin-Ei and still going.

The 1980s: The Golden Age

The 1980s are considered the “golden age” of anime and saw a huge explosion of genres and interest. Many factors contributed to this, including the introduction of VHS and children who were inspired by Tetsuwan Atom twenty years ago, growing up and becoming nostalgic for their favorite shows.

Mamoru Oshii directed Urusei Yatsura in 1981 for Studio Pierrot, founded just two years later by former animators of Tatsunoko Pro and (you guessed it) Mushi Pro. The series based on Rumiko Takahashi’s manga about a lecherous human, the playful alien he accidentally becomes engaged to, and their friends became a huge hit and introduced the now practically required practice of promoting pop songs via the show’s opening and ending sequences.

The sports anime formula was codified in 1983 with Captain Tsubasa by Tsuchida Pro, a show about soccer (or football for non-American audiences), teamwork, and friendship. It inspired a generation of soccer players and manga writers and set the standard for anime sports moves of ever-increasing coolness and improbability.

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VHS and other home recording/playing devices were coming onto the market in the early ‘80s and anime was at the forefront. Urusei Yatsura was available on VHS in late 1983, and the OAV (original video animation, Japan’s version of a straight-to-DVD movie) was invented in the same year. No one was much interested in the first OAV, Oshii’s Moon Base Dallos, but it wouldn’t take long before more popular titles began driving the market upwards.Another technological first in 1983 was CGI (computer generated imagery). TMS’sGolgo 13 used CGI in several scenes, most notably to show helicopters circling a skyscraper. It was the first significant use of CGI in an animated film not just in Japan, but anywhere.

On the left is a Urusei from Urusei Yatsura, and on the right is the cover for Captain Tsubasa.

The biggest news of 1984 was Kaze no Tani no Nausicaä (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind). Produced by Isao Takahata and directed and written by Hayao Miyazaki (those talented guys who worked on Heidi), it was the first film of what would become the prestigious Studio Ghibli. That same year, Daicon Films was founded in 1984 by a group of university students. Never heard of Daicon? That’s because they changed their name the next year to Gainax.

But if auteur-driven OAVs and hugely influential movies and studios aren’t quite your thing, 1984 saw another first. Now that people could buy anime and watch it in their own homes, circumventing the censors and public attention of TV and theaters, you can probably guess what industry was quick to step up. The first “hentai” (pornographic) release was Lolita Anime, though Cream Lemon from the same year is better known. More titles followed quickly and profitably.

In 1986, Toei animated Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball. The show proved incredibly popular, to put it lightly. If there’s a “shonen” (targeted at boys around ages 6 to 15) series you’ve enjoyed in the last 30 years featuring drawn-out battles and ever-increasing hero power-ups, its author probably watched Dragon Ball or its successor Dragon Ball Z as a kid.

On the left is Dragon Ball, and on the right is Kaze no Tani no Nausicaä (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind).

Anime sources were expanding. Manga, novels, and original stories continued to be as popular choices as ever, but video games (1986, Super Mario Brothers) and light novels (1988, Legend of the Galactic Heroes) would soon prove fruitful ground as well. The types of stories being adapted also expanded. The first BL (“boy’s love,” also known as "yaoi" or “Yuri” and featuring gay relationships targeted at women) anime was an OAV called Kaze to Ki no Uta (The Poem of Wind and Trees). It was animated by small studio Office Next-One in 1987.

On the left is Kaze to Ki no Uta, and on the right is Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

Thanks to the money from home releases, licensing abroad, and the economic bubble Japan was in, budgets were increasing. Nowhere was this more evident than with Akira in 1988. Akira was lavished with money, and it showed on the screen in fluid animation. Where Tetsuwan Atom got by with 8 or less frames of animation per second, Akira used 24. It was the first anime to use pre-recorded dialog, where the dialog is recorded and then the animators match the mouth movements to the sound instead of the (much cheaper) other way around. For years after, it was the anime of choice to show friends how amazing this medium you loved could look.

The 1990s: Crash

Budgets never go up indefinitely, of course. Japan’s economy crashed in 1991, and budgets were cut back and many anime film and OAV studios closed. Even in a recession, however, entertainment is always popular. Studio Ghibli weathered the storm on the strength of their latest hit, (Kiki’s Delivery Service), and TV continued to be fertile ground for funding. Toei released Sailor Moon in 1992, for example, to huge commercial success.

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On the left is Kiki’s Delivery Service, and on the right is Sailor Moon.

In 1995, Gainax released Neon Genesis Evangelion, a deconstruction of the giant-robot genre full of intriguing iconography, dark themes, and broken but likable characters. It immediately caught the attention of the anime world, and would have an influence on robot shows going forward that cannot be overstated.

In addition to its takes on robot technology and the psychology of using teenagers as pilots, Evangelion’s two main heroines left huge marks on the anime world. Asuka and Rei respectively characterized what would be come to known as the popular “tsundere” and “moe” personality types. (Tsundere refers to a character who initially acts cold but warms up later, while moe is approximately a cute character you feel intense protective feelings for.) Asuka and Rei weren’t the first written in this mold (Urusei Yatsura probably holds that distinction), but the amount of merchandise sold featuring the girls was and is a juggernaut that still rakes in the yen today.

The first anime based on a video game was Super Mario Brothers: Peach-hime Kyuushutsu Daisakusen (Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach) in 1986, but the genre came into its own spectacularly and profitably with Pokemon in 1997. It’s still on the air and studios are still trying to replicate its international success. Video games, of course, aren’t just demographically targeted at kids, and adult-oriented visual novel games (particularly, yes, the erotic ones) began to be mined for source material as well. The first of these was Sentimental Journey in 1998, and the genre boomed in the 2000s.

Anime was continuing to grow up and diversify. OAVs could be as gory, experimental, or esoterically random and comedic as writers could dream up. Late-night anime like Serial Experiments Lain in 1998 delved into serious philosophical themes with stylish and sophisticated animation. Speaking of style, Studio Bones was founded in 1998 by Sunrise staffers, and their first project was a collaboration with Sunrise to make the jazzy space romp Cowboy Bebop: Tengoku no Tobira (Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door).

On the left is a promotional graphic for Neon Genesis Evangelion, and on the right is a promotional graphic for Cowboy Bebop.

The 2000s: Computers and a Bubble

Since the mid-1930s, anime had been almost exclusively animated on cels. During the ‘90s, CGI became increasingly commonplace as a supplemental technique. The ease with which computers could manipulate images even won over traditional-animation purist Miyazaki, who used CGI on 1997’s Mononoke-Hime (Princess Mononoke) to animate demonic tendrils and a few other effects after his staff demonstrated how seamlessly they could blend the animation in.

The first completely computer animated anime, A.LI.CE., arrived in 1999. Being still relatively early CGI, it didn’t look like “anime,” and by this point in time the anime look we associate with the genre was very clearly defined. As more and more studios began making use of the new digital technology, most of them chose methods that blended well with hand-drawn cels. As computer processing capacity increased and prices went down, studios replaced cels altogether with digital ink and paint. In this method, after each frame is drawn it is scanned into a computer, then colored and composited digitally instead of being transferred to a cel and colored and composited by hand.

Being able to use a computer to quickly handle tedious work was, unsurprisingly, popular, and most studios had made the switch as soon as 2005. The last hold-out was Eiken with Sazae-san, the longest-running animated show in the world. If it ain’t broke (and your graphics haven’t evolved too much from your 1969 origins), why fix it? But even Sazae-san eventually bowed to modern convenience and made the digital switch in 2013.

On the left is a scene from Spirited Away, and on the right is a scene from Princess Mononoke, both are critically acclaimed Studio Ghibli films.

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In the early 2000s, anime was once again flourishing. A series of hits buoyed the market both at home and abroad. These included long-runners like One Piece (1999), Naruto (2002), and Bleach (2004) that cross-promoted manga sales, movies, video games, and merchandise with no end to their runs in sight. Overseas licensing boomed, and Studio Ghibli’s Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) took the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2002.

On the left is a promotional image for Naruto, and on the right is a promotional image for Bleach.

The internet was facilitating global conversations between fans, who eagerly discussed their favorite (and not-so-favorite) shows in minute detail with each other. The increasing ease of sharing anime for free through the internet was a source of contention for producers worried about revenue, but like VHS before it studios began experimenting with ways to monetize this new distribution channel.

The first ONA (original net anime) came out in 2000. Produced by J.C. Staff, it was just four minutes long and adapted a short story from the four-panel manga Azumanga Daioh. The plan was to see if there was enough interest to create a series of episodes for the internet, but there was so much interest they made a traditional (or as traditional as comedy Azumanga got) anime TV series instead.

Short internet series came soon after, and the first full-length (22-episode) ONA anime series, Maho Yugi (Magical Play), debuted in 2002. It also made the jump to TV based on its success. Going in the other direction, however, of TV to online streaming would prove a little longer in coming due to concerns about licensing, revenue, and piracy.

In 2006, the market was oversaturated with choice. Just like the end of the 1980s, anime was in a bubble, and just like the end of the 1980s, the economy was about to crash. This time, it was America’s market and then economy that went down first and hardest, but Japan was already in a long recession. Those ever-increasing foreign licensing fees had been forming no small part of many of the more esoteric and adult-targeted anime budgets. Series with alternate revenue streams like merchandise sales carried on just fine, but shows relying on DVD sales and commercial sponsors faced a problem.

The number of new series created each year dipped from a high point of 159 titles in 2006 to 118 in 2010. Just like the ‘90s, the surviving studios came up with new avenues to carry on. A popular solution was to cater to increasingly niche demographics, relying on the sale of very expensive DVDs and, later, Blu-rays to hardcore fans. Moe titles, which encourages viewers to want to protect (and obsess) over characters, proved effective at moving merchandise and inspiring fan devotion. Light novels (Japanese cheap pulp fiction) became especially popular for source material in 2006 after the enormous success of Kyoto Animation’s Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya), and the trend hasn’t stopped yet.

Another funding option was to find demographics that previously hadn’t been targeted much and start offering them what they wanted, such as women who enjoy BL titles. 2007 would see a high point for the genre with five OAVs and a TV series released. A television timeblock targeted at adult women who usually didn’t watch anime at all called Noitamina (“animation” backwards) had started before the crash in 2005 and continued afterwards to be a reliable source of good titles with solid ratings. And if you don’t have a big new hit on your hands and don’t want to risk experimenting, why not remake what worked in the past? 2009 saw popular remakes in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and Hunter X Hunter, and Dragon Ball Z: Kai got a successful revival in 2011.

On the left is a promotional graphic for Azumanga Daioh, and on the right is a scene from Hunter X Hunter.

Studios became extra-cautious with non-proven proprieties. Where once a picked-up show might get an order for 26 or 52 episodes (two seasons or a full year), now 13 episodes (one season) is far more common. If the series sells well enough on DVD or moves enough licensed merchandise, another 13 episodes can be ordered later, and so on until sales dwindle. While convenient for producers, it can be difficult for the staff, who don’t know if they’ll be continuing production after their current season. If a long amount of time passes between seasons, new staff may be needed who have to pick up where someone else left off years ago.

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Studios are not homogenous monoliths, and friction has existed for a long time between those in charge and the staffers doing the grunt drawing work. Remember, Tezuka wanted unionization back at Toei in 1958. The 2000s crash put additional downward pressure on animators’ salaries, which weren’t high to begin with thanks to low budgets and foreign competition. While Japanese companies frequently animated American cartoons in the ‘80s, today Japan often outsources animation itself to countries such as India, China, and South Korea.

The work of decades finally paid off in 2007 and the very first union for Japanese animators was established: The Japan Animation Creators Association. Membership included animators new and old alike, with the first president being Toyo Ashida, who got his start all the way back in the early days of 1965 with Eiken. Along with better communication between colleagues in the field and support in bringing attention to low salaries and poor working conditions, the biggest benefit for members was access at long last to group healthcare.

In 2008, studio GONZO was suffering from financial issues and decided to aggressively begin courting the Western market. To this end, they partnered with Japanese digital entertainment company BOST and American website Crunchyroll to launch the very first anime “simulcasts.” A simulcast streams episodes around the world (or at least to whichever regions the licensors have agreed to) on the same day they’re broadcast in their home country. The first two titles distributed this way were GONZO’s Druaga no To ~the Aegis of URUK~ (Tower of Druaga) and Blassreiter.

There were a couple restrictions - the simulcasts only had English subtitles and couldn’t be watched from within Japan - but the response from Western fans was immediate and positive. The next year in 2009, Japanese television station and anime distributer TV Tokyo struck a deal with Crunchyroll to legally stream one of the most popular anime in the world, Naruto: Shippuden. Simulcasts and streaming are now ubiquitous to the point where it’s surprising if an anime doesn’t have an online option.

A promotional image for Blassreiteris on the left, and a scene from Tower of Druaga is on the right.

The 2010s: Today

Between increased global communication and Blu-ray regions putting Japan in the same region as North and South America, studios slowly have begun to tackle international releases themselves instead of relying on outside intermediaries. This has included creating their own online streaming sites, such as in 2013, and releasing Blu-rays simultaneously in Japan and North America, unfathomable just a decade ago.

Anime is recognized around the world as a reliable source of entertainment and art. Where early Japanese animators were inspired by the works of Disney, now Western shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Samurai Jack are taking their cues from Japan.

Studios continue to adapt to advances in the way stories are told. One of the most popular shows on the air right now is One Punch Man. Two different short anime series have been made for the express purpose of viewing on mobile phones. The barriers to animation are being lowered by programs like Flash and Maya, and amateur animators can put their work directly on the internet for fans without needing a TV deal or a distributor.

So much has happened in last century. It’s impossible to know where we’ll be in another century, but by looking at the past we can make some pretty educated guesses. Studios will rise and fall, budgets will expand and contract, Sazae-san will keep running, and animators will innovate with the latest technology to tell timeless stories – or whatever their sponsors will pay for in the meantime. And because those stories will be rooted in the rich history of anime, using techniques of Japanese storytelling and animation passed from animator to animator, they will continue to win fans the world over.

On the left is a cover for one of the Avatar mangas, and on the right is a promotional image for One Punch Man.

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-Lisa Marie Cooper


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