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A History of Anime, Part 2

By Janet Houck     September 20, 2006


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© Animage
Last week, we ended with the start of the 80s, as US audiences were beginning to see anime beyond the children's programming block on TV. It is no coincidence that the majority of the popular shows in the US and Japan during the late 70s and early 80s were sci-fi. Besides the fact that animation easily lends itself to sci-fi and fantasy, the commercial success of STAR WARS guaranteed that these types of stories would have an audience. They were so popular that magazines began to spring up in Japan with names like ANIMAGE and NEWTYPE, giving the subculture that followed the space operas anime of the 70s (the future otaku subculture) a place to call their own.

The 80s were the golden days of animation in Japan, as studios pumped more money into productions and overall viewership grew. This decade introduced Rumiko Takahashi to the world. Her first manga adapted for the tube was URUSEI YATSURA (1981-86), a romantic sci-fi comedy involving an extremely lecherous and unlucky teenage boy who accidentally proposes to an alien princess who wears a bikini. Immediately following URUSEI YATSURA (literally; it took over the timeslot once the series finished), MAISON IKKOKU (1986-88) is the story of a boarding house in 80s Tokyo. Although the story involves all of the house's inhabitants, it centers around the relationship between Kyoko, the young widow who is the manager of the house, and Yusaku, a young student staying at the house. The plot runs like a TV soap opera, in that you need to watch all of the episodes, and the romantic relationship only resolves itself late in the series' 96 episode run.

The final Takahashi series I'll discuss in this section is RANMA 1/2 (1989-92), the best known title among these three to US audiences. The plot is quite simple: boy studies martial arts in China, boy falls into cursed pool of water, boy becomes girl when splashed by cold water. Comedy ensues, heightened by the addition of a harem comedy situation of Ranma being engaged to one of a group of three sisters, of whom the youngest hates boys with a passion. (It also helps that Ranma's father turns into a giant panda under the same water conditions.) This series was extremely popular among US otaku during the early to mid 90s, and a common first anime series for many fans. It is also popular due to the obscene amount of fanfiction and crossover fanfiction, often with SAILOR MOON and MUYO TENCHI!. We're talking Harry Potter levels here when the series was at its height, with fanon (fan-created canon).

You can't talk about the 80s in US fandom without mentioning ROBOTECH (1985). Comprising of three unrelated mecha anime series (THE SUPER DIMENSION FORTRESS MACROSS (1982-83), SUPER DIMENSION CALVALRY SOUTHERN CROSS (1984), and GENESIS CLIMBER MOSPEADA (1983-84)), ROBOTECH managed to keep the complex drama of the original series, spanning three generations of characters over 85 episodes. The reason for the compilation was simply that American syndicated TV required 65 episodes (13 weeks, five episodes per week), and none of these series had anywhere near that episode count at that time, as Japanese TV broadcasted at the rate of one episode per week. Although all three shows had their merits, the true star of the show was MACROSS, which brought the character and mech designs of MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM up a notch in quality and aesthetics, as well as including pop music as a weapon of reconciliation between the humans and aliens at war. Amazingly successful in Japan, the series developed a small, yet vocal fandom in the US, creating the stateside otaku community. The long-time North American anime fan magazine PROTOCULTURE ADDICTS takes it name from MACROSS. Fan clubs, such as the Books Nippon Japanese Animation Fan Club, gave US fans information about shows and space to share their hobby in the 70s and 80s, and bootleg 'copy of a copy' tapes and original imported tapes were available at sci-fi conventions, but that was the extent of the fandom scene. In 1987, the MACROSS PERFECT MEMORY reference book, a postcard was included from a company that offered to translate the book into English -- for free. Another company, AnimEigo announced that they were going to distribute anime in the US on VHS tapes, with accurate translations, subtitles, and a lower price than Japanese imports.

Back over in Japan, the anime industry was heading to hit a bump. Along with these popular sci-fi TV series, feature-length anime films were also experiencing the joy of larger budgets, resulting in masterpieces such as Miyazuki's NAUSICAń OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984) and LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986), and the first two two URUSEI YATSURA movies (ONLY YOU (1983) and BEAUTIFUL DREAMER (1984)). However, these films were losing money, and people in suits were beginning to question the cost of animation. Happily, the VCR saved the day by creating the direct-to-video market. OVAs (original video animations) were only a fraction of the cost of creating a feature film, but they made the same amount of profit. Episodes could range from 40 to 90 minutes, production quality was higher than TV quality, and they could set the tapes at a high price, and still count on people buying it. People were very fond of being able to re-watch their favorite shows over and over again, as well as seeing new shows that would never air on broadcast TV. It may be hard for us to understand this feeling in an age where TiVos are on the TV, DVDs on the shelf and bittorrents on the Web, but at the time, this was a technological breakthrough.

BUBBLEGUM CRISIS (1987) was an OVA series of eight episodes of a cyberpunk world of mecha action and chicks with big hair. A fan favorite in the US, it did not do as well in Japan and was never finished, hence the odd episode count. Additionally, the market became saturated with OVAs in the mid to late 80s, and the Japanese economy had taken a turn for the worse. Many companies switched from anime to computer games, but obviously, the anime industry kept chugging along, Miyazuki's Studio Ghibli being one of the studios actually making profits at the time. The late 80s marks the release of two of the studio's best-loved films: MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988) and KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989), which was the top grossing film of the year in Japan with $40 million. (No wonder Disney snagged a contact with Studio Ghibli for US distribution rights for their films.)

Alongside TOTORO was the most expensive anime film at that time -- AKIRA (1988). With detailed animation, lip-synch dialogue recorded before the animation (a first in anime) and fluid movements, AKIRA pushed the industry forward and was an ambitious project from the start. It saw a theatrical release in the US in 1999 and 2000, and was the first US theatrical release of an anime film. Based on the popular manga series of the same name, the film was not as popular in Japan (an understatement; it was a box office flop) as it was in the US, where it became a cult hit among the indie and alternative film scene and another introductory anime checkpoint for otaku. (In fact, it was one of my first anime titles on VCR.)

After the boom and bust of the sci-fi and fantasy filled 80s, a creative breath of fresh air would be needed to these genres and to anime as a whole.

Enter Gainax, and a new type of mecha show.

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