Regardless of what some folks may want to believe, anime on Saturday mornings on broadcast TV channels, as well as cable, has been pretty much the standard since the days of ASTROBOY, SPEED RACER, and KIMBA THE WHITE LION in the 60s. The 70s brought us titles intended for an older audience, as STARBLAZERS hit the small screen, but shows such as BATTLE OF THE PLANETS appealed to both the young and the old.
The 80s brought us the saga of ROBOTECH, with its unique mecha designs and space opera plot, where music can save the world, and VOLTRON: DEFENDER OF THE UNIVERSE, a direct descendent of BATTLE OF THE PLANETS, with its sentai team in mecha vehicles. As well as re-running successful anime shows of the past, many more mainstream cartoon shows were clearly influenced by anime. TRANSFORMERS is self-explanatory, with sentient mecha who transform into everyday vehicles and objects. GI JOE presented a rather complex metaplot for American children’s cartoons, where characters changed throughout the series. Both cartoons also followed in the grand anime tradition of product placement, mastered in the 90s and 00s with POKEMON and YU-GI-OH!. THUNDERCATS, another cartoon with an intricate storyline, was animated by Topcraft, which would become better known as Studio Ghibli.
Many people have hypothesized that the “big eyes, small mouth / big head, small body / long hair” design of many 80s childhood icons, such as My Little Pony, The Care Bears, Cabbage Patch Kids, Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite. While I can see the connection, I think this is more of a coincidence that the manga chibi style does aim for maximal cuteness, and this was also the time of strange hair colors appear on MTV. We need to remember that this is before the heyday of girl-oriented anime on TV.
The late 80s and early 90s gave us video game-based cartoons, such as CAPTAIN N: THE GAME MASTER, SUPER MARIO BROTHERS and THE LEGEND OF ZELDA. While not anime, these cartoons were based upon Japanese games and the manga-style character artwork found in instruction booklets and official production artwork.
The next major anime invasion would be in 1995 and 1996, when SAILOR MOON and DRAGONBALL Z would be broadcasted on Cartoon Network. Aiming it at school-aged and teenage children, in a timeslot perfectly set for this age group (as opposed to the late night/early morning slots of late 80s and early 90s anime, seemingly aimed at older viewers looking for something other than infomercials), these two shows were an overwhelming success. This would lead to the creation of the Toonami programming block in 1997, which combined older cartoons and anime with new content, such as the now-cancelled IGPX. While Toonami switched its focus to an older demographic in 2004 by airing on Saturday nights, it has still been at the forefront of the current fascination of anime in the US.
FOX’s 4Kids TV (once FoxBox) also played a pivotal role during the 90s and 00s.
With shows aimed at tweens and teens, such as ONE PIECE, SHAMAN KING and MEW MEW POWER (as well as episodes of YU-GI-OH!, DIGIMON and POKEMON), this is for many young viewers their first taste of anime, or for purists, a watered-down, censored-to-death version of anime.
FOX isn’t just for the kids though. They also broadcasted a dubbed and edited version of VISION OF ESCAFLOWNE briefly during the early 00s, but the network kept changing its slot due to conflicts with football games.
WB’s Toon Zone/WB’s Kids! currently hosts YU-GI-OH! and POKEMON, and was home to CARDCAPTORS, which was for many their first show besides SAILOR MOON to be catered to girls.
Many otaku are dismissive of these kid’s shows, that they are not “real” anime. Yet these are often the same folks who will proudly say that ASTROBOY or VOLTRON were their first anime, although they weren’t aware of it at the time. So why are we so eager to trample down these excellent TV shows that spark so much love and interest from children, which will probably be looked upon by them in future years with nostalgia? Perhaps this comes from the stigma of anime as “just cartoons,” of otaku as adults who need to grow up. As a community, we need to grow beyond these social fears, and admit that anime shows aimed at children are one of the subtle methods of increasing fandom. I wonder, how many young POKEMON fans/gamers grew up to become mecha geeks and yaoi fangirls? By passing down our love for anime, our hobby grows its roots, deeper and deeper into the rich soil of American society.