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A History of Anime, Part 1

By Janet Houck     September 13, 2006

Astro Boy
© N/A
Quick Disclaimer: I'm looking at anime history in the US within this series of articles. There are plenty of books (I recommend The Anime Encyclopedia) and websites dedicated to mapping the growth of anime. Check them out to find out more about anime's roots.

There's only one place, one title that you must begin with in any discussion of anime's roots, in Japan or on US shores. As it happened, one little android boy heralded the invasion in the coming decades. TETSUWAN ATOMU, Osamu Tezuka's renown creation of a futuristic world where the power of the atom was harnessed and used in a positive way for society, was picked up and adapted for US audiences by NBC in 1964, with a little help from Fred Ladd, who saw the potential of a cartoon with an overarching plot that required viewers to tune in every week. Almost matching its popularity in Japan, ASTROBOY was a staple of morning television for children, until pressure from groups objecting to humanizing cartoon characters and the dramatic ending of the series in Japan sealed the show's fate on US broadcast TV.

All was not lost. Seizing on the popularity of ASTROBOY, several anime shows began broadcasting on network TV, albeit in edited and adapted versions, such as TETSUJIN 28 (GIGANTOR), TOBOR (THE EIGHTH MAN), Tezuka's JANGURU TAITEI (KIMBA THE WHITE LION), and MACH GO GO GO (SPEED RACER). Of these titles, KIMBA appealed the most to the girls with its character depth and emotional slow-paced plot, while the action-packed adventures of Speed Racer and the Mach 5 on and off of the track drew in boys playing with their Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars on the other side of the TV screen. Parents also liked these cartoons with an on-going story and strong positive messages, as well as colorful characters and exciting adventure. It was a win-win situation.

This period, the mid to late 60s, is considered the first wave of anime in the US, and many of these shows continued to be broadcasted into the 80s. Full of nostalgia for older fans, many of these shows have undergone updates in recent years, such as THE NEW ADVENTURES OF KIMBA THE WHITE LION in 1989, SPEED RACER 2000 in 2002, and the TETSUJIN 28th TV series in 2004.

The 70s marked a radical change in Japanese animation, as younger and more experimental animators were placed in directorial positions for TV shows, just as the industry was moving away from costly films to TV shows, where the money was and the competition high. This was the era of the Leiji Matsumoto shows of space opera, drawn in Matsumoto's unique characteristic style: SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO in 1974, and CAPTAIN HARLOCK and GALAXY EXPRESS 999 in 1977. STAR BLAZERS, as YAMATO was known in the US, gained a following quickly in 1979 due to the success of STAR WARS, which opened space opera anime to America. Surprisingly, STAR BLAZERS was fairly accurate in its English adaptation in both dialogue and plot, although names were Westernized, sake drinking by the crew and "bad" language was toned down for a younger audience, the suicide mission nature of the plot minimized, and scenes involving World War II and fan service were removed. Regardless of these changes, STAR BLAZERS was still the most "adult" cartoon on TV, as the tragic visuals of the costs of war and the emotional story were largely left intact.

This was also the decade where mecha came into its own as a genre, with GATCHAMAN (BATTLE OF THE PLANETS) broadcasting in 1979. BotP was horribly spliced together from the first two GATCHAMAN series, making the plot nearly impossible to understand, but the show was hugely popular. Blending henshin action with robots (as well as being the first sentai series), GATCHAMAN was the story of five teenaged ninja superheroes fighting a group of villians out to steal and use Earth's natural resources. By using special weapons and mecha vehicles controlled by wristbands, the team defeats the villain's mecha monster of the week. Superheroes were very familiar to American audiences, as the Superman movie had just come out in 1978, so no plot was really necessary, aside from the week-to-week action. The GATCHAMAN franchise is still popular, with comics, manga and the release of the original series on DVD in recent years.

The 70s mecha movement took a turn in 1979 with MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM, a robot show like GIGANTOR, only it had character development. It had a story on the scale of space opera, with battles being fought in humanoid mobile suits and characters with powerful hates and loves. Much like STAR TREK, the original series was not popular at first, and was cancelled early. However, when Bandai acquired the license to the show's mecha and made a successful line of models, the popularity of MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM rose, and it has never ceased since then, spawning countless TV shows, movies, models, videogames, and other merchandise. MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM is something of an invisible presence in US, as it received no official US TV airing until 2001 on Cartoon Network's Toonami, only to be cancelled after the September 11th attacks, along with other war-themed and violent shows. This is not to say that MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM wasn't known to Western audiences beforehand; for many older otaku, MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM was their gateway anime, being one of the first fansubbed series on multi-generational VCR tapes, passed on among fans at Sci-Fi conventions and re-recorded for personal collections. You see, as the networks had been broadcasting "cartoons" for a younger audience, older viewers had become interested in Japanimation beyond what was being spoonfed on the TV. They wanted more, and they would get it.

This is where this chapter ends, as the golden days of the 80s shine in the distance, with production values up and the advent of VCR tapes. Join us next week, as I enter into the decade of decadence and changing media mediums.


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snallygaster 9/13/2006 3:24:08 PM
I wouldn't be surprised if the B&W aspect of Astroboy is what killed it in US syndication. I'm old enough to recall most of the early syndicated anime, but Astroboy was not among them in the late 60s/early 70s, at least not on my local stations. By that point, all the cartoons they aired were in color, and I'm guessing the station execs who made those decisions probably nixed any B&W cartoons. By the same token, they didn't air the B&W Gigantor either (and I'm currently having a blast discovering Gigantor in the wee hours of Adult Swim). Does anybody else remember "Marine Boy" about the boy hero who chewed "oxygum" so he could breathe underwater? I recall a mermaid in that series as well. It was aired with the other early anime series, but I seem to be the only one who remembers that show. There seems to be very little about it on the web for that matter (brief entries in wikipedia and IMDB). I'm surprised to see that Starblazers was originally aired in Japan in 1974. While it's obvious it was aired in the US after the success of Star Wars, I had always figured that it wasn't even produced until Star Wars (like so many other space operas that were greenlit in its wake).
segascream 9/13/2006 7:48:29 PM
Great column, and vital information...it's nice to finally have someone giving some history on the culture, especially for those of us who had to bring ourselves up (e.g. my first experiences were Voltron and Robotech, and I got into Speed Racer at the time most Otaku get into Dragonball). Something I would like to see, though, is a column or two exploring various aspects of the culture that maybe aren't apparent to (what my friend once termed) "Fat-aku" (the stereotypical geekdom who honestly believe that procuring a projector and showing their 35mm print of 'Akira' is their greatest hope for finding life-long love); for instance, why dubbing (even professional) is looked down upon by those obsess over subs; what is the "proper" title for an anime - the original Japanese, the direct English translation, or (where applicable) the English title provided by the original studio (i.e. Evangelion); what is the history of fan service, and more to the point, why is a nose-bleed anime shorthand for arousal?


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