Anime: A Brief Guide

Anime: A Brief Guide by Jerry Whitworth

A year ago, Netflix released a documentary entitled Enter the Anime (2019) which purported to define anime and its origins. However, in practice, it was a glorified advertisement for the streaming service’s available Japanese animated series. Recently reminded of the film and the frustration from its lack of educational content, inspiration arose to try and, albeit briefly, discuss anime’s origins and history. Japan’s line from its remarkable and prolific breadth of animation is drawn primarily from one source before blooming into a vast forest (the current landscape dominated by the genre of isekai). Referred to as the God of Anime, Osamu Tezuka was born in Osaka Prefecture in 1928, mere years before Japan’s invasion of the Asian mainland that lead to its alliance with Germany and Italy as part of the Axis faction during World War II. Born into an affluent, educated, liberal family, Tezuka became enamored at a young age with French cinema and American animation, characters like Mickey Mouse, Popeye, Betty Boop, and Felix the Cat a great influence on him. Whereas manga had existed for years prior to Tezuka’s life (the Toba scrolls dating back to the 12th century), the creator blended cinematic impressionism with the expressive nature of American animation to produce a new form of art that became the standard for both manga and anime.

Gaining critical and commercial success at age eighteen with the 1947 manga Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island), Osamu Tezuka went on to create perhaps his best known work Tetsuwan Atomu/Mighty Atom (Astro Boy) five years later whose animated adaptation in 1963 was one of Japan’s earliest animated television series. Prior to this, Tezuka had worked with fledgling Studio Toei (a company that’s been referred to as Japan’s Walt Disney Productions) before leading a team of Toei animators to found Mushi Production with Tetsuwan Atomu its first product. Having been drafted to work at a factory to support the war effort during high school, the creator wanted to offer hope to the Japanese people (a desire compounded later by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) resulting in his first animated series. Therein, in the distant future, scientist Dr. Tenma lost his son Tobio in a car accident. In his grief, Tenma constructed an android in Tobio’s image called Astro but soon came to resent his creation as a reminder of his pain. Through a series of events, Astro became a superhero protecting people from all manner of threats like rogue robots and alien invaders.

The success of Tetsuwan Atomu saw an explosion in televised animation in Japan with a strong emphasis on science fiction. Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Tetsujin 28-go/Iron Man No. 28 (Gigantor) and Kazumasa Hirai and Jiro Kuwata’s 8 Man (8th Man) from TCJ and Mach GoGoGo (Speed Racer) from Tatsunoko Production (considered something of Japan’s Hanna-Barbera Productions) were some of the earliest mega hits to come after Osamu Tezuka’s popular series. Tezuka continued to produce more enduring brands in Janguru Taitei/Jungle Emperor (Kimba the White Lion) which arguably inspired Disney’s The Lion King (1994), Ribon no Kishi (Princess Knight) that is regarded as the prototype for the magical girl genre, and Dororo through Mushi Production in the 1960s. Tezuka left Mushi to found Tezuka Productions in 1968 as Mushi collapsed soon after leading its members to found animation juggernaut Sunrise. In addition to the explosion in televised animation, live action TV shows of the tokusatsu genre gained new popularity. Tezuka’s Maguma Taishi/Ambassador Magma (Space Giants) from P Productions was the first color tokusatsu television series which was followed by Ultraman by Eiji Tsuburaya (co-creator of Gojira/Godzilla) through his Tsuburaya Productions and Giant Robo (Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot) by Mitsuteru Yokoyama from Toei. This is an important note for anime because of the influence of Shotaro Ishinomori.

In 1956, eighteen year old mangaka (comic book creator) Shotaro Ishinomori moved to Tokyo to become Osamu Tezuka’s assistant after the God of Anime saw a submission from the youth to Gakudosha’s magazine Manga Shonen. Working on Tetsuwan Atomu and Toei’s 1960 animated film Saiyuki/Journey to the West (Alakazam the Great) based on the famous Chinese novel by Wu Cheng’en of the same name (while Tezuka was named the director of the film, the creator only posed for publicity photos for the picture having his assistant instead help plan and produce the project), Ishinomori became a superstar in the comic book world in his own right with 1963’s Cyborg 009 and 1970’s Skull Man. Ishinomori developed a strong relationship with Toei, the studio adapting the creator’s Cyborg 009 for animated films and an animated television series. Given Toei’s long history of tokusatsu television series largely originating from Kohan Kawauchi’s Gekko Kamen/Moonlight Mask in 1958 (inspired by the popularity of Disney’s Zorro TV show), Ishinomori was invited to contribute his own concept. Producing Skull Man as a result of this collaboration, the comic became a template for the tokusatsu series Kamen Rider/Masked Rider (a grasshopper theme replacing the skull motif in line with a decidedly lighter tone). Telling the story of Takeshi Hongo, a young man kidnapped by the organization Shocker and transformed into a cyborg toward their plans for world domination but escaped before he could be brainwashed, Kamen Rider gave rise the henshin genre of transforming heroes and was a massive hit.

The success of Kamen Rider made Shotaro Ishinomori into Toei’s Midas. Pumping out concept after concept from Kikaider to Inazuman to Kaiketsu Zubat and more, Ishinomori was a machine. However, his collaboration with Toei wouldn’t see a similar hit to Kamen Rider until production of Himitsu Sentai Gorenger in 1975. Survivors of a terrorist attack by the Black Cross Army, five operatives from the organization EAGLE are provided colorful battle suits to become the Gorangers. Some have come to refer to the concept as a team of Kamen Riders. Others have drawn comparisons to 1972’s Kagaku Ninja Tai Gatchaman/Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (Battle of the Planets/G-Force: Guardians of Space/Eagle Riders) from Tatsuo Yoshida and his Tatsunoko Production.

Noted earlier, Tatsunoko Production has been viewed as something of an eastern Hanna-Barbera. While 1960s America saw Jonny Quest, Space Ghost and Dino Boy in the Lost Valley, Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, and The Herculoids, 1970s Japan cranked out Tatsuo Yoshida’s Shinzo Ningen Kyashan/Neo Human Casshan (which is said to have been an inspiration for video game icon Rockman/Mega Man), Uchu no Kishi Tekkaman/Space Knight Tekkaman, Time Bokan, and Yatterman through Tatsunoko with Gatchaman arguably their biggest hit of the decade. Featuring a team of five ninja superhero agents of the International Science Organization who combat the terrorist organization Galactor, it’s not difficult to see how Gatchaman compares to Gorenger. Of course, comparisons could also be made with Shotaro Ishinomori’s own Cyborg 009. Irregardless, Gorenger became the first entry in the sentai series which was followed by super sentai that saw adaptation in the United States as Power Rangers. Sadly, the second entry in the sentai series with J.A.K.Q. Dengekitai saw a rift between Toei and Ishinomori form that split the two parties. Often, Osamu Tezuka has been called Japan’s Walt Disney while Ishinomori as its Stan Lee. Interestingly enough, Ishinomori’s slate of Japanese heroes were followed at Toei with Marvel heroes beginning with Stan Lee co-creation Spider-Man. The line dating back from Tezuka through Ishinomori continued with Go Nagai.

In much the same way Shotaro Ishinomori’s work came before the eyes of Osamu Tezuka through Gakudosha, publisher Shogakukan passed along a submission to its magazine Shonen Sunday from a young Go Nagai to Ishinomori. Seeing promise in the young man, the twenty year old Nagai became Ishinomori’s assistant. Within three years under his elder’s mentorship, Nagai produced his first hit comic in Harenchi Gakuen/Shameless School for Shueisha’s burgeoning magazine Shonen Jump. An erotic comedy set in a school, Harenchi Gakuen is credited with the creation of the ecchi genre and changed the landscape of Japanese entertainment by pushing the boundaries of depictions of eroticism. Nagai built a career on pushing boundaries, using his Shonen Jump platform selling millions of copies of his series as it expanded into live action film and television. Founding Dynamic Productions in 1969, Nagai and his brothers cranked out more projects in the Abashiri Ikka/Abashiri Family, Mao Dante/Demon Lord Dante, Devilman, Violence Jack, Dororon Enma-kun, Cutey Honey (a prominent entry in the magical girl genre), Kekko Kamen, and Shutendoji. While each seminal works in their own right, the next massive impact Nagai made on anime came in 1972’s Mazinger Z (Tranzor Z).

Growing up a fan of Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atomu and Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Tetsujin 28-go, Go Nagai wanted to offer his own take on giant robots. For Mazinger Z, Kouji Kabuto was gifted a giant robot named Mazinger Z by his grandfather Professor Juzo Kabuto when the scientist’s former colleague Dr. Hell unleashed giant monstrosities upon the world. Best known for renovating the concept of giant robots by having Kouji pilot the machine from inside (rather than remotely), the creator continued to push boundaries by never shying away from the collateral damage caused by giants tearing through a densely populated city. The popularity of Nagai’s series caused an explosion in the giant robot genre, primarily due to the merchandising aspect especially regarding the creation of toys. Mazinger Z became an enduring brand as Nagai produced more giant robot properties (several with his former assistant turned best friend Ken Ishikawa or Dynamic employee Tatsuya Yasuda) in Getter Robo, Great Mazinger, Getter Robo G (Starvengers), UFO Robot Grendizer (Grandizer), Daiku Maryu Gaikingu/Divine Demon-Dragon Gaiking, and Kotetsu Jeeg/Steel Jeeg (giving rise to the Takara Magne-Robo trilogy followed by Magne Robo Gakeen and Chojin Sentai Balatack) through Toei. Three of these series were adapted for American audiences in Jim Terry’s Force Five in 1980 along with Leiji Matsumoto and Dan Kobayashi’s Wakusei Robo Danguard Ace/Planetary Robot Danguard Ace and Leiji Matsumoto’s Esu Efu Saiyuki Sutajinga/Sci-Fi West Saga Starzinger (Spaceketeers) through Toei. It should be noted, Shotaro Ishinomori and Go Nagai were hardly the only prominent creators of the 1970s.

While many creators helped produce content for the anime of the 1970s, five names that can not be overlooked are Asao Takamori, Monkey Punch, Leiji Matsumoto, Riyoko Ikeda, and Rumiko Takahashi. For the former, Asao Takamori popularized sports manga with a notable example being Ashita no Joe/Tomorrow’s Joe with Tetsuya Chiba. Therein, street urchin Joe Yabuki traded the gutter for the ring when he became a boxing star. Highly influential in both narrative and action, many sports and action series in Japan to come after borrowed elements of the work in their execution. Mushi Production brought Joe to Japanese airwaves in 1970. Takamori also produced such hits as the pro wrestling manga Tiger Mask with Naoki Tsuji and baseball manga Kyojin no Hoshi/Star of the Giants with Noboru Kawasaki. Monkey Punch created the enduring character of Lupin III, a thief based in the world of Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin novel series. Lupin III became the basis of a massive multimedia franchise including a series of animated series by Tokyo Movie (Tokyo Movie Shinsha/TMS Entertainment) which featured work from future Studio Ghibli founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Mentioned earlier, Leiji Matsumoto worked for Toei but initially made a name for himself for his work on Space Battleship Yamato (Star Blazers).

Created by Yoshinobu Nishizaki and directed by Leiji Matsumoto for Group TAC, Space Battleship Yamato featured humanity’s last ditch effort to save itself from an alien invasion by the Gamilas by journeying into space on the newly constructed space vessel Yamato. One of the most defining series in the history of anime, Yamato was a turning point toward serious storytelling with complex characters. The work that likely defined Matsumoto’s career, however, was Captain Harlock. The quintessential romantic roguish anti-hero, Harlock is the star of the Uchu Kaizoku Kyaputen Harokku/Space Pirate Captain Harlock franchise. A pirate who combats authoritarian regimes, the character proved to be wildly popular and gave rise to many brands within the same universe including Galaxy Express 999, Queen Emeraldas, and Queen Millennia (Harmony Gold USA mashed together Harlock and Millennia to produce the largely forgotten Captain Harlock and the Queen of a Thousand Years for American audiences). Riyoko Ikeda is best known for the seminal work Berusaiyu no Bara/The Rose of Versailles which adapted the life of Marie Antoinette. Credited with defining the shojo (young girl) genre, the work created the art style traditionally associated with bishojo (pretty girl) and bishonen (pretty boy). TMS brought her comic to life on television in 1979. Rounding out the ’70s heavyweights is Rumiko Takahashi.

While manga and anime are generally enjoyed equally in Japan by male and female audiences, creators are disproportionately male. Such was especially true in the early days of anime but what was even more rare was a female that produced content that typically would be consumed by a male audience. Rumiko Takahashi has had a career spanning decades that bucked trends. Having attended a manga school called Gekiga Sonjuku founded by Kazuo Koike of Lone Wolf and Cub fame, Takahashi found fame in 1978 at age twenty with her comic Urusei Yatsura (Lum). Telling the unlikely love story of lecherous high school student Ataru Moroboshi and alien Princess Lum, Urusei Yatsura was an incredibly popular comedy series that became a successful multimedia franchise. What’s remarkable about Takahashi is the volume of highly successful brands she produced over a four decade plus career. Urusei Yatsura was followed with such hits as Maison Ikkoku, Ranma ½, and Inuyasha with numerous other notable projects in between. Before leaving the 1970s, we have to talk about Doraemon and Gundam.

Created in 1969 by the duo of Hiroshi Fujimoto and Motoo Abiko (known collectively by the pen name Fujiko Fujio) inspired by the works of Osamu Tezuka and Hanna-Barbera, Doraemon featured a turquoise-colored, ear-less robot cat from the 22nd century as the titular character sent back in time to improve the life of a little boy named Nobita Nobi by the child’s descendant. The series was an instant hit becoming a cultural phenomenon for children. Briefly animated in 1973, TV Asahi’s Shin-Ei Animation produced an ongoing series beginning in 1979 whose popularity saw the program continue for over a quarter of a century, finally ending in 2005 to make way for a reboot that continues to this day. The character of Doraemon transcended comics and animation to become a Japanese cultural icon. Not unlike Sanrio’s Hello Kitty brand, the depiction of Doraemon is instantly recognizable internationally as a representation of Japan that in 2008 saw the character officially named his country’s anime ambassador by Japan’s Foreign Ministry. Remarkably, an icon almost as recognizable as a product of Japan came to the country’s televisions as well in 1979.

When Go Nagai changed the landscape of giant robot anime, most series that emerged in the genre were fairly formulaic: giant monster attacks, giant robot fights it. In a post-Space Battleship Yamato world, however, the stage was set for a more mature take on the genre. Noted earlier, when Mushi Production folded, its members founded a new studio in Sunrise. The company was a prominent adopter of the giant robot fad, producing series such as Yusha Raidin/Brave Raideen, Chodenji Robo Combattler V/Super Electromagnetic Robot Com-Battler V, Chodenji Machine Voltes V/Super Electromagnetic Machine Voltes V, Muteki Chojin Zanbotto Suri/Invincible Super Man Zambot 3, Tosho Daimos/Fighting General Daimos, and Muteki Kojin Daitan 3/Invincible Steel Man Daitarn 3. But they would change the giant robot game with Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Kido Senshi Gandamu/Mobile Suit Gundam. Therein, a war erupted in a future where Earth has expanded to colonies throughout space as the Principality of Zeon faction had developed giant robot mobile suits providing them combat dominance. The Earth Federation produced a prototype mobile suit known as the RX-78 Gundam that ended up in the hands of a civilian youth named Amuro Ray who used the weapon to turn the tide of the war. Initially, the series didn’t fair well. However, models based on the show sold extremely well which brought attention to the program turning it into a phenomenon. Gundam gave rise to the real robot genre and a massive franchise that has become synonymous with the word ‘anime.’ Moving into the 1980s, the Japanese animation industry suddenly saw a significant influx of income from the United States.

As animation became more commonly seen on American television in the 1960s, the popularity of the content grew exponentially. Rankin/Bass Productions, famously known for its Christmas specials, used MOM Productions in Japan to film its unique stop motion animatronic content (called “Animagic”). However, for its traditional animation, they employed a myriad of Japanese studios to animate their work. By the late 1970s, television animation heavyweight Hanna-Barbera started outsourcing overseas to Taiwan and the Philippines. But by the 1980s, with the action figure market exploding in the wake of Star Wars, cartoons likewise exploded to become thirty minute advertisements for toys and Japan and Korea were outsourced for much of the animation duties. Simply put, Japan produced fast, cheap, and beautiful work as Korean studios were typically employed for pick-up work when Japanese studios couldn’t prove to be fast enough.

Noted earlier, Marvel formed an arrangement in the 1970s with Toei that saw Marvel properties adapted for Japanese audiences. As Marvel Productions emerged in 1981, Toei (and Korean studios such as MiHahn, Dong-Seo, Daewon, Sei Young, and AKOM) became their go-to source for their cartoon needs. Spider-Man, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Incredible Hulk, Dungeons & Dragons, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies, Transformers, Jem and the Holograms, Inhumanoids, My Little Pony ‘n Friends, Defenders of the Earth, and X-Men: Pryde of the X-Men are some of the more notable series to come through Toei and its Korean collaborators. Marvel wasn’t Toei’s only American contractor either as the studio produced the television special Voltron: Fleet of Doom (Toei series Hyaku Juo Goraion/Beast King GoLion and Kiko Kantai Dairaga XV/Armored Fleet Dairugger XV having been the brand’s source material) and the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated mini-series. Other Japanese studios also animated American cartoons with Ulysses 31, Inspector Gadget, The Littles, Rainbow Brite, Mighty Orbots, Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers, Bionic Six, Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, and Cybersix from TMS, The Mysterious Cities of Gold from Studio Pierrot, Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors and The Centurions from Sunrise, ThunderCats, SilverHawks, and TigerSharks from Pacific Animation Corporation (a studio of former Topcraft employees that didn’t transition to Studio Ghibli), and Ultraman: The Adventure Begins, Mega Man, and Skysurfer Strike Force from Ashi Productions (Real Ghostbusters had almost a dozen Japanese and Korean studios produce content for its run).

Tetsuo Katayama and Shigeru Akagawa left TMS in 1983 to found K.K. C&D with DiC founder Jean Chalopin to produce series such as Starcom: The U.S. Space Force, C.O.P.S., The New Adventures of He-Man, The Power Team, King Arthur and the Knights of Justice, Conan: The Adventurer, and The Bots Master. Former TMS producer Motoyoshi Tokunaga founded Walt Disney Animation Japan in 1988 after Disney acquired Pacific Animation Corporation to animate many of the series that made up the Disney Afternoon programming block (replacing TMS on these series). That same year, Tokunaga expanded the operation with a separate, non-Disney affiliated entity in Spectrum Animation which worked on Captain N: The Game Master, Defenders of Dynatron City, and Batman: The Animated Series. Tatsunoko Productions initiated work on a series adapted from some of its properties in America that met an unexpected and unfortunate end. That project was Robotech II: The Sentinels.

Founded in 1972 as Crystal Art Studio, Studio Nue offered mechanical design for various animation studios across Japan. Notably, artist Shoji Kawamori started his career as an intern at Nue before working his way up to assistant artist and animator. Inspired by the success of Gundam, Nue wanted to create its own original project. Over a span of two years (and multiple financial backers), the studio developed the series Chojiku Yosai Makurosu/Super Dimension Fortress Macross. Using Gundam‘s real robot model combining a war drama with science fiction, Macross injected romance as a prominent presence in the work along with music (featuring a pop idol as a central character). Forced to make an alliance with Tatsunoko Productions to complete financial backing for the work and parse animation duties to various studios including Artland and smaller studios employed by Tatsunoko for pick-up work, Macross hit Japanese airwaves in 1982 as a massive surprise hit. Wanting to capitalize on the success, the 27 episode series was extended to 36. However, time and money was consistently working against Nue (as only three episodes were completed at the time the show debuted) leaving the work plagued by shortcuts. Big West, who financed Macross over the finish line, was quick to greenlight spiritual successors (related in name and style but not story) in Chojiku Seiki Ogasu/Super Dimension Century Orguss and Chojiku Kidan Sazan Kurosu/Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross while Tatsunoko produced its own capitalization in Kiko Soseiki Mosupida/Genesis Climber MOSPEADA with design studio Artmic. Following the success of Voltron in America, Harmony Gold USA mashed together Macross, Southern Cross, and MOSPEADA to create the highly successful Robotech franchise. Harmony Gold tried to produce a follow-up to Robotech with Robotech II: The Sentinels from Tatsunoko but a warehouse fire destroyed the footage and it became too costly to begin anew. The while, Studio Nue moved forward with the Macross brand in Japan which has thrived for decades. Where Macross took a look to future wrought with technology, another brand emerged to a futuristic wasteland.

When the film Mad Max debuted in 1979, it gave rise to a dystopian brand that continues today. Featuring a man driven by vengeance against a biker gang in a world ravaged by climate change, the picture influenced mangaka Tetsuo Hara who was struggling with his first published work Tetsu no Don Quixote (Iron Don Quixote) for Shonen Jump. At the suggestion of his editor Nobuhiko Horie to produce a series about a martial artist who destroys people by striking their pressure points, Hara mashed up aspects of Mad Max with Bruce Lee to produce the one shot Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star). Featuring a teenage Kenshiro Kasumi, inheritor of the martial art Hokuto Shin Ken that cripples or kills its opponents, and his war against the organization Taizanji Kenpo, the story proved interesting enough to become a series. Partnered with writer Buronson, the concept was rebooted and fleshed out giving rise to one of the most successful brands in Japanese history. Animated for television by Toei in 1984, Hokuto no Ken has persisted in one form or another (but predominantly in comics and animation) ever since. Drawing comparisons to Go Nagai’s Violence Jack, works like Hokuto no Ken and Nagai’s shonen work depicting gore and extreme violence represented some of the last gasps of a line that was being drawn between what was appropriate for children and what should be for seinen (young adult men). Around the time Toei’s Hokuto no Ken was airing on Japanese television, a massive sports anime franchise was just blooming.

Watching the 1978 FIFA World Cup, seventeen year old cartoonist Yoichi Takahashi fell in love with the sport of football (soccer in the United States). At this time, the sport was not popular in Japan so he was inspired to make a comic about the game and spread awareness of it. However, because of its lack of popularity, it took nearly three years before Takahashi could find a publisher willing to distribute his work. Eventually, Shonen Jump brought the mangaka’s Captain Tsubasa to print in 1981. Telling the story of elementary school student Tsubasa Oozora who sought to become a football star (one day participating in the FIFA World Cup), what drove the story was his friends and rivals made during his journey. The focus on the cast and their interactions with each other was massively influential for manga and anime as a whole where the industry today has emulated the concept of foes becoming allies through competition and determination. Tsubasa itself became a massive franchise, both local and abroad (especially in South America and much of Europe where football is the most popular sport played). Tsuchida Production brought the series initially to television in 1983 but Tsubasa has crossed virtually all forms of media in the ensuing decades with a 2020 video game from Tamsoft and Bandai Namco called Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions the most recent offering. As Captain Tsubasa found life as a cartoon on Japanese television sets, a pair of former Toei creatives changed the world of animated film.

Noted earlier, prior to Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atomu, anime existed in Japan primarily as a product for cinema. Toei was very much a pioneer in this regard producing 1958’s Hakujaden/Panda and the Magic Serpent (The Tale of the White Serpent), 1959’s Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke (Magic Boy), and the aforementioned Saiyuki in 1960. The first film, Hakujaden, was an inspiration to a young Hayao Miyazaki. An admirer of Tezuka, Miyazaki emulated his art style, trying to perfectly encapsulate his idol. However, the boy came to view this as a form of theft and destroyed all of his sketches, embarking on a journey to find his own style. It was Hakujaden that made Miyazaki realize what it is he wanted to do with his life and he joined Toei as an in-between artist in 1963 at the age of 22. However, not long after coming to work for the company, Miyazaki was appalled at the work conditions and overall environment of the studio. Leading a labor dispute, the creator discovered a kindred spirit in director Isao Takahata who joined with Miyazaki to establish the company’s first union. The two men became the best of friends and confidants, where as Miyazaki’s star rose in the company, Takahata stood beside him as the future of animation. Likely the best known work that Miyazaki contributed toward during his time in the company was 1969’s Nagagutsu o Haita Neko/The Cat Who Wore Boots (The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots). Adapting Charles Perrault’s Puss in Boots, the film’s star Pero became Toei’s mascot as the picture itself gave free rein to what may have been the best line-up of key animators in the company’s history producing animation sequences that remain influential today. Miyazaki produced a promotional comic for the picture in the pages of Sunday Chunichi Shimbun. By 1971, Miyazaki and Takahata grew weary of Toei and embarked out on their own.

Noted earlier, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata found work at Tokyo Movie where they helped produce the animated adaptation of Monkey Punch’s Lupin III. Bouncing between several different animated series over the years, Miyazaki gained critical acclaim for his directorial debut in the 1979 film Lupin III: Kariosutoro no Shiro/Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro from Tokyo Movie Shinsha. Featuring Lupin III, the picture used revolutionary animated sequences along with a story that is considered more mature than past Lupin III stories. While not initially a financial success, it has since been considered one of the best animated films ever made. Miyazaki and Takahata continued to work as relative animation vagabonds, nearly helming the aforementioned Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland film, when their lives changed with Miyazaki’s Kaze no Tani no Naushika/Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. A manga produced for Tokuma Shoten’s magazine Animage in 1982, Miyazaki agreed to have the work adapted for film so long as Takahata would produce it. Animated at Topcraft (who had produced over a dozen Rankin/Bass productions including 1977’s The Hobbit, 1980’s The Return of the King, 1982’s The Last Unicorn, and the first season of ThunderCats), Nausicaä was released in 1984 and featured a dystopian future devastated by climate change with the titular character a young girl trying to survive in the wasteland who uncovered the means to restore the natural world. The picture was both critically and financially successful, viewed as another one of the greatest animated films ever made. For Topcraft, the success came too late as the studio went bankrupt. However, the confluence of events changed the history of animation.

With the bankruptcy of Topcraft and success of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Toshio Suzuki of Tokuma Shoten offered Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata the opportunity to make their own movies their own way. Entering into a partnership, the men bought Topcraft, laid off most of its staff (most of which went on to form Pacific Animation Corporation) and rebranded the company Studio Ghibli. The word ‘Ghibli’ described to mean a ‘hot wind,’ its founders planned to be a wind that would blow away the animation world. Despite some stumbling blocks and growing pains in the beginning with works like Tenku no Shiro Rapyuta/Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), Hotaru no Haka/Grave of the Fireflies (1988), and Tonari no Totoro/My Neighbor Totoro (1988), the latter’s titular character Totoro proved popular with children and merchandise depicting him sustained the company (as he became the studio’s mascot). Ghibli finally produced a work both critically acclaimed and financially successful in 1989’s Majo no Takkyubin/Witch’s Delivery Service (Kiki’s Delivery Service). Adapting Eiko Kadono and Akiko Hayashi’s storybook of the same name, it proved to be the highest grossing film in Japan of the year. Ghibli became a juggernaut in the animation world, producing blockbusters such as Mononoke-hime/Princess Mononoke (1997), Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi/Sen and Chihiro’s Spiriting Away (2001), Hauru no Ugoku Shiro/Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Gake no Ue no Ponyo/Ponyo on the Cliff (2008), Kari-gurashi no Arietti/Arrietty the Borrower (2010), and Kaze Tachinu/The Wind Rises (2013). As Ghibli changed the world of animated cinema, Akira Toriyama opened up pathways for television animation the world over.

Finding joy in drawing at an early age, Akira Toriyama worked in advertising until one day deciding to quit and dedicate himself to manga. Submitting work to Shueisha’s Jump brand, Toriyama was eventually brought on to produce work for the company before finding success in 1980 at age 24 with Dr. Slump. A comedy series, Dr. Slump was serialized in Shonen Jump and featured a playful, mischievous android named Arale. However, the success of that series couldn’t begin to compare to that of 1984’s Dragon Ball. Loosely adapting Wu Cheng’en’s classic novel Saiyuki but with a twist that the journey was to summon a wish granting dragon, Dragon Ball started out as a comedy in the vein of Dr. Slump that over time gravitated more and more toward action. Becoming one of the best selling manga of all time and one of the most influential works of manga, Toei adapted the comic for animation in 1986 where its popularity and influence only grew that much more. In 1989, Toei created a sequel series in Dragon Ball Z representing a time jump in the base material as the series’ origins were re-imagined to be more sci-fi in nature, borrowing elements from DC Comics’ Superman. By 1996, Toriyama sought to retire from Dragon Ball but due its popularity, an arrangement emerged where Toei would produce a third series in Dragon Ball GT with limited involvement from the original creator. The while, the popularity of Power Rangers in America created a greater interest in anime in the country with Dragon Ball Z producing a massive global shift in interest in Japanese animation. Dragon Ball became the template in many ways for shonen and its global distribution, series (many from Shueisha and it’s Shonen Jump) like Hirohiko Araki’s JoJo no Kimyo na Boken/JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Yoshihiro Togashi’s Yu Yu Hakusho and Hunter × Hunter, Nobuhiro Watsuki’s Rurouni Kenshin (Samurai X), Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece, Hiroyuki Takei’s Shaman King, Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto, Hiro Mashima’s Rave Master and Fairy Tail, Makoto Raiku’s Konjiki no Gasshu!!/Golden Gash! (Zatch Bell!), Hiromu Arakawa’s Hagane no Renkinjutsushi (Fullmetal Alchemist), Tite Kubo’s Bleach, Hideaki Sorachi’s Gin Tama, Akira Amano’s Katekyo Hitman Reborn!, Atsushi Okubo’s Soul Eater and Fire Force, Katsura Hoshino’s D.Gray-man, ONE’s One-Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100, Kazue Kato’s Ao no Ekusoshisuto/Blue Exorcist, Shinobu Ohtaka’s Magi, Sui Ishida’s Tokyo Ghoul, Nakaba Suzuki’s Nanatsu no Taizai (Seven Deadly Sins), Kohei Horikoshi’s Boku no Hiro Akademia (My Hero Academia), Yuki Tabata’s Black Clover, and Koyoharu Gotoge’s Kimetsu no Yaiba (Demon Slayer) owe the work a great debt. Eventually, Toriyama returned to Dragon Ball in 2015 with Dragon Ball Super which followed the events of his original comic. The same year Toei adapted Toriyama’s work to great success, an adaptation of Masami Kurumada by the studio gave rise to another massive international hit.

Masami Kurumada grew up a fan of manga at a young age. While still in high school, Kurumada submitted work for inclusion to Shonen Jump but was rejected. However, showing talent, he was hired as an assistant to artist Ko Inoue of Samurai Giants fame. By twenty years of age, Kurumada saw his work published in the magazine as series like Ring ni Kakero/Put It All in the Ring and Fuma no Kojiro/Kojiro of the Fuma Clan found success at the publication. But the series that made his career was Saint Seiya (Knights of the Zodiac) in 1986. Featuring men empowered by the gods to battle on their behalf, orphan Seiya acquired the power of the Pegasus to fight for the goddess Athena. Aligning with four other Bronze Saints, Saint Seiya was reminiscent in a manner of super sentai but was unique in that it featured bishonen. As such, the series came to be viewed instead as a variation of the magical girl genre called magical boy and which appealed to both little boys and girls. Saint Seiya proved to be such a hit that Toei adapted it for animation the same year it debuted as a comic and it became an international phenomenon (with a virtual religious-like following in Latin America as Seiya El Santo/Los caballeros del Zodiaco). Toei not only would help change the magical girl game with Saint Seiya but gave the world arguably the greatest magical girl series in Sailor Moon.

At age nineteen, Naoko Takeuchi turned from a career as a pharmacist to mangaka when she won an award for a story she submitted to publisher Kodansha. Within five years, she produced a one-shot for Kodansha called Codename: Sailor V that proved so popular, it became serialized and she was approached by Toei to turn the work into an animated series. A magical girl series, Takeuchi wanted to expand the cast to become a team of magical girls in a similar vein to super sentai for Toei (whom, as noted, produced super sentai) and generated a sequel work called Bishojo Senshi Sera Mun/Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon that became the animation’s basis for adaptation. Therein, high school student Usagi Tsukino was tasked with becoming Sailor Moon in order to combat Queen Beryl and the Dark Kingdom. Joined by the other sailor senshi (later including the aforementioned Sailor V, Minako Aino), the series was a hit that appealed both to girls and boys with a mountain of merchandise. Intended for a single season, the success of the show saw its run extended to five seasons as Takeuchi saw her comic published and transitioned to animation within months of each other over that period. Kunihiko Ikuhara served as director for much of the adaptation where he made a name for himself in the industry, going on to produce Shojo Kakumei Utena/Revolutionary Girl Utena (through his artist collective Be-Papas) and Mawaru Penguindrum afterward. Sailor Moon would be resurrected time and again (including as a tokusatsu under Toei) and spawn a sub-genre of magical girl giving rise to series such as Izumi Todo’s Pretty Cure, Seven Arcs’ Maho Shojo Ririkaru Nanoha/Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, Magica Quartet’s Maho Shojo Madoka Magika/Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and Yoh Yoshinari’s Little Witch Academia (not to mention foreign productions like Elisabetta Gnone, Alessandro Barbucci, and Barbara Canepa’s W.I.T.C.H., Iginio Straffi’s Winx Club, Daron Nefcy’s Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and Thomas Astruc and Jeremy Zag’s Miraculous, les aventures de Ladybug et Chat Noir/Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir). Not long after the success of Sailor Moon, another team of magical girls took a closer step to super sentai with the addition of giant mecha.

The group CLAMP began its life as a team of twelve creators (primarily female) producing dojinshi (self-published comics, often of someone else’s characters) before their first original work RG Veda was picked up by publisher Shinshokan. Going on to produce other works such as Tokyo Babylon and X (which ended prematurely when editors became concerned with its degree of violence), the group hemorrhaged members until only Nanase Ohkawa, Mokona, Tsubaki Nekoi, and Satsuki Igarashi remained. By 1993, CLAMP produced Magic Knight Rayearth for Kodansha’s magazine Nakayoshi combining together elements of magical girls, giant robots, fantasy, and isekai (being transported to an alien world). While all of the noted works were popular and brought attention to CLAMP, Rayearth represented a notable degree of success for what became the long term roster of the group. By the following year, Tokyo Movie Shinsha adapted the series for television animation while SEGA produced merchandise including toys and video games. Just as the group ended with Rayearth, they followed it with Cardcaptor Sakura, a more traditional magical girl series that happened to coincide with the cultural phenomenon Pokémon (where, in an episode of the animated adaptation of the game, two characters from Sakura including the titular character made a cameo) which only boosted its popularity (Sakura adapted for animation a year after the Pokémon anime debuted). CLAMP’s run of successful series only continued from there with Angelic Layer, Chobits, and xxxHolic largely culminating in 2003’s Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle crossing over variations of several of their popular original characters. The group also contributed character designs for Sunrise’s Code Geass franchise in 2006. Another giant robot franchise emerged in 1995 that helped redefine the genre as a definitive work of art.

Animator Hideaki Anno developed quite an impressive career in a short period of time working on Super Dimension Fortress Macross and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), the latter of which he drew some of the film’s key sequences. Around the time Nausicaä premiered in theaters, an animation studio Anno co-founded with fellow university students changed its name to Gainax and went to work on an ambitious animated film called Oritsu Uchugun: Oneamisu no Tsubasa/Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise. Hitting theaters in 1987, the picture was critically acclaimed and collected numerous accolades but was nonetheless a commercial failure. Their next project, Toppu o Nerae!/Aim for the Top! (Gunbuster) emerged direct-to-video (an OVA, original video animation) the following year to significantly better results but Anno and Gainax really made a name for itself with Fushigi no Umi no Nadia/Nadia of the Mysterious Seas (Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water). Developed by Hayao Miyazaki for Toho and paying homage to Jules Verne’s Vingt mille lieues sous les mers/Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869) and Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours/Around the World in Eighty Days (1872), Nadia sat on a shelf for over a decade until a confluence of issues led to Gainax producing the series for NHK. A massive hit, production of the project nearly broke Gainax financially (and emotionally) which was only partly offset by a popular video game based on the series the animation studio developed. Completion of Nadia left Anno in a four-year depression that went on to fuel arguably the most lauded giant robot series (if not anime in general) ever produced: Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Telling the story of Shinji Ikari, a teenager wrought by a short life filled with trauma and forced to participate in a conflict for the fate of his world by piloting a giant bio-machine called an Evangelion, Shinseiki Evangerion/New Century Gospel (Neon Genesis Evangelion) became a means for director Hideaki Anno to confront his deep rooted depression. Crafting a cast of characters representing aspects of his mental struggles as well as his desire to not run away from his responsibilities and passion, Anno made Evangelion as a culmination of everything he had learned during his remarkable first decade as an animator and director. Both acclaimed and controversial for its artistic approach, Evangelion is a work of expression discussed to this day that demonstrated new ways to use animation as a form of storytelling. Anno’s protege Kazuya Tsurumaki, who acted as assistant director of Evangelion, explored non-traditional storytelling in his acclaimed work FLCL for Gainax in 2000 making a name for himself in his own right. There is also Gainax’s Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, but more on that later. The year after Evangelion first reached Japanese televisions, a cultural icon emerged adorned by millions.

Knowing he wanted to be a mangaka since a young child, Gosho Aoyama worked as a manga background artist when he graduated from college before winning Shonen Sunday‘s Newcomer Award for his work Chotto Mattete/Wait a Minute in 1987. Producing series like Magic Kaito and Yaiba, Aoyama found a massive hit in 1994 with Meitantei Konan/Detective Conan (Case Closed). Following the adventures of Shinichi Kudo, a high school student detective turned into a child by the Black Organization whom assumed the pseudonym Conan Edogawa, Conan was a surprise hit to Aoyama whose editors suggested he try his hand at a mystery series that he thought would only last a few months. One of the best selling manga of all time, Conan was turned into an animated series in 1996 by TMS but has transitioned to multiple forms of media over the years. That animated series continues today and is one of the most watched anime in Japan. Aoyama’s hometown of Hokuei has been dubbed Conan Town with a museum, statues, and theme locations associated with his most famous creation (with the American television series Conan prominently featuring the town across several episodes culminating with a visit by host Conan O’Brien). Mentioned earlier, 1997 saw the arrival of an animated juggernaut that, surprisingly, came from video games rather than comics.

Inspired by the popularity of insect collecting, video game developer Satoshi Tajiri conceived of a game series where players would capture and train creatures to compete against each other. Resulting in 1996 in Pocket Monsters, better known around the world by its abbreviation Pokémon, the series became a global phenomenon. Within a year, a loose adaptation of the game was animated by OLM but rather than featuring one of the game’s three starter monsters, the yellow electrical rodent Pikachu was selected due to its popularity with fans only further ramping up interest in the brand. As Pokémon spread around the world, Pikachu became most closely associated with the franchise making it one of the most recognizable characters to come out of Japan. The series was adapted across multiple platforms including as a collectible card game. Its animated series continues to this day. The success of the brand paved the way for others such as the aforementioned CLAMP’s Cardcaptor Sakura anime from Madhouse as well as Kazuki Takahashi’s Yu-Gi-Oh!/King of Games (Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters), Rin Horuma’s Medabots, Tecmo’s Monster Rancher, Akiyoshi Hongo’s Digimon Adventure (Digimon: Digital Monsters) from Toei, Takara’s Beyblade, Sega and Spin Master’s Bakugan, and Level-5’s Yo-kai Watch. A year after Pokémon was adapted for television, Sunrise offered one of its most enduring brands that had nothing to do with giant robots.

Noted earlier, Sunrise largely built its brand on giant robots. Gundam, Dougram, Votoms, Vifam, L-Gaim, and the Brave series, the company had a niche that saw it gobbled up by Bandai in 1993 to become a veritable idea factory for collectible toys and models. However, Sunrise was not a one trick pony. Producing adaptations of Haruka Takachiho’s Crusher Joe (with Takachiho’s Studio Nue) and Dirty Pair (with Yoshikazu Yasuhiko), Tsukasa Hojo’s City Hunter, Hajime Yatate’s Yoroiden Samurai Troopers/Legendary Armor Samurai Troopers (Ronin Warriors), and Takehiko Ito’s Seiho Bukyo Outlaw Star/Starward Warrior Knight Outlaw Star, the studio demonstrated it could produce popular series that defied its cornerstone. However, Bandai had an insatiable hunger for giant mecha. In this, it tasked director Shinichiro Watanabe, who had worked on Macross and Gundam, to make a series featuring spacecrafts it could turn into toys. Watanabe, however, was instead inspired to make what he referred to as “space jazz,” a cooler, more modern interpretation of the space opera featuring morally ambiguous characters in the near future who crossed intergalactic borders as bounty hunters. Developing first the character of Spike Spiegel, a cool mirror of everything Watanabe wished he could be, the series’ cast unfolded including Spike’s rival Vicious early on. Bandai, however, axed the concept as it felt it couldn’t make toys off of its mecha designs. Fortunately, Bandai’s sister company Bandai Visual saw promise in the concept and Cowboy Bebop debuted in the fall of 1997 as one of the studio’s hottest properties in its history. Watanabe moved on to develop Samurai Champloo for Manglobe intermingling samurai with hip hop, gaining similar critical and commercial acclaim to his previous work. Moving into the 2000s, a largely forgotten category of anime gained notable attention.

Pornography is hardly a recent development. In fact, Japan’s well known obsession with inappropriate tentacles dates back to at least 1814 in the woodblock print Tako to Ama/Octopus and the Shell Diver (The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife) by Hokusai. In regards to animation, such series as A.P.P.P. and Fairy Dust’s Cream Lemon (leading to Katsuhiko Nishijima’s Project A-ko), LEED Publishing’s Cool Devices (featuring the work of Hiroyuki Utatane and Yasuomi Umetsu), and Digital Works’ Vanilla (including Masami Obari’s Angel Blade) helped pave the way for what has become known in the United States as hentai, the Japanese word for ‘pervert.’ But, historically, the quality of pornographic animation has been poor often times making the work ultimately forgettable. Something special, however, seemed to emerge with the OVA Bible Black: La Noche de Walpurgis. An eroge (erotic game) published by ActiveSoft in 2000 and based on the work of Sei Shoujo, Bible Black was adapted for animation the following year by Milky Animation. Therein, school nurse Reika Kitami manipulated students at her high school to form a witchcraft club for the purpose of outwitting a deal she had made with the devil years earlier. Featuring gorgeous character designs and crisp animation reminiscent of the clean art of the game, Bible Black has endured through the years as a guilty pleasure to many. The series continued in its animated form for three sequels as Shoujo moved on to works such as Discipline, Cleavage, and Starless which were also adapted as OVAs. The success of Bible Black paved the way for the likes of ELF Corporation’s Ai Shimai from Pink Pineapple, Milky’s Saishuu Chikan Densha and Enbo, Pink Pineapple’s Shinsou no Reijoutachi, Codepink’s Sexfriend from Green Bunny, Himajin Planning’s Ikusa Otome Valkyrie from Rune, Arms and Muse’s Itazura, and Crossnet-Pie’s Boin from Milky. In 2004, the work of an innovative film director found its way to Japanese television.

Deciding to become an animator while in high school, Satoshi Kon graduated from Musashino Art University in 1987 for graphic design and became a manga artist. Publishing his first work while matriculating at age twenty with Toriko/Prisoner in Kodansha’s Young Magazine, Kon moved on to become an animator and scriptwriter. In 1997, Kon made his directorial debut for Madhouse adapting Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s novel Perfect Blue for film. Blurring the lines of fantasy and reality, the motion picture became a calling card for much of Kon’s subsequent work with Madhouse including later films Sennen Joyu/Millennium Actress (2001) and Yasutaka Tsutsui’s Paprika (2006). Such was the case for his experimental animated series Moso Dairinin/Paranoia Agent produced by Madhouse in 2004. Following the exploits of Shonen Bat, a seeming youth on golden skates wielding a bent golden baseball bat, the series’ saw its main character evolve from assaulting people to becoming an engine of death and destruction fueled by the growing fear of the citizens of Musashino. Something of a continuation of exploring psychology through art like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Paranoia Agent in some ways set the stage for themes explored in the explosion of popularity of isekai, notably the animated adaptation of the .hack multimedia franchise in 2002 and Sword Art Online in 2012, but more on that later. Speaking of multimedia franchises, the television adaptation of a visual novel helped jump start another massive brand.

Founded by Kinoko Nasu and Takashi Takeuchi, Type-Moon is a game company best known for its visual novels. Having early success with Tsukihime in 2000, the company uncovered a remarkable hit four years later with Fate/stay night (set in the same universe as Tsukihime). Therein, a tournament is held between magic users and their servants that are epic heroes from across history where the winners are granted a wish. Adapted for animated television by Studio Deen in 2006, Fate evolved into another massive multimedia hit crossing multiple platforms. In America, the popularity of the character Archer gave rise to an internet slang word in ‘gar’ when a 4chan user wrote “I am gar for Archer.” Having misspelled ‘gay’ as ‘gar,’ gar came to refer to a deep affection for overly masculine characters with Archer, Guts from Kentaro Miura’s Berserk, and Kamina from Gainax’s Gurren Lagann becoming poster boys for the concept. The same year Fate found its way onto TV, a Shonen Jump property of a different variety became the publication’s latest hit.

With the success of series such as Dragon Ball, Saint Seiya, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Riku Sanjo and Koji Inada’s Doragon Kuesuto: Dai no Daiboken/Dragon Quest: The Great Adventure of Dai, One Piece, Hunter × Hunter, Naruto, and Bleach, Shonen Jump had developed a reputation for its hit action series. Alternatively, sports series like Captain Tsubasa, Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk, and Takeshi Konomi’s Tenisu no Ojisama/Prince of Tennis featured prominently in the publication. Writer Tsugumi Ohba, however, wanted to create a suspense series but wasn’t confident they could create one without featuring physical combat that would appeal to the company. Still, they submitted a proposal to the magazine and was surprised to have the pitch be accepted with artist Takeshi Obata attached to illustrate the series. In 2003, Death Note began publication in Shonen Jump featuring Light Yagami, a brilliant high school student stumbling upon a Death Note. A tome used by shinigami (god of death) to slay mortals by placing their name in the book with certain conditions, Yagami was inspired to employ the Death Note to become the serial killer Kira (Japanese pronunciation of the English word “killer”) and turn the world into a veritable utopia using fear. Adapted for animation by Madhouse in 2006, the series became a massive hit crossing over various media. The following year, Gainax produced another innovative giant robot series far removed from the aforementioned Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Working as an animator on Neon Genesis Evangelion and Toppu o Nerae Tsu!/Aim for the Top 2! (Diebuster), Hiroyuki Imaishi wanted to produce his own original work in the giant robot genre. After working with writer Kazuki Nakashima, Imaishi found his partner and the pair went about development of what became Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Therein, humanity had been forced to live underground by the Beastmen, a race of feral humanoids that pilot giant robots called gunmen. However, an under-dweller named Simon uncovered a gunmen and journeyed to the surface, battling the Beastmen and leading a revolution. The series combined together the tropes of the giant robot genre with aspects of action manga/anime where a character’s determination increased their strength. Decidedly absurd in execution, Gurren Lagann was a massive success and began a trend toward the bizarre that fans came to attribute with Gainax. Imaishi and Masahiko Otsuka left Gainax in the wake of Gurren Lagann‘s popularity to found Studio Trigger. Imaishi and Nakashima again teamed to produce such hits as Kill la Kill and Promare (2019) while Trigger also garnered interest and acclaim for Little Witch Academia and Darling in the Franxx. 2012 brought about a series that has largely defined Japanese animation for the ensuing decade.

Isekai, the Japanese word for “different world,” refers to a story where a character is transported to an unfamiliar place. The genre is nothing new, western audiences familiar with stories involving Wonderland, Oz, Neverland, Slumberland, Barsoom, and Narnia while anime such as Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Seisenshi Danbain/Holy Warrior Dunbine (Aura Battler Dunbine), Super Dimension Century Orguss, Yuu Watase’s Fushigi Yugi, Magic Knight Rayearth, Ryoe Tsukimura’s Shinpi no Sekai Eru Hazado/The Magnificent World of El-Hazard, Shoji Kawamori’s Tenku no Esukafurone/Escaflowne of the Heavens (Vision of Escaflowne), InuYasha, .hack//Sign, and Nobuyuki Anzai’s Märchen Awakens Romance/MÄR being well known examples. However, the popularity of Reki Kawahara’s Sword Art Online outpaced them all. Therein, Kazuto “Kirito” Kirigaya, a teenage gamer, became trapped in a virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game called Sword Art Online where death in the game meant death in the real world. SAO was animated in 2012 by A-1 Pictures and became a massive international success. Producing numerous sequels and spin-offs, the popularity saw an explosion of similar series like Mamare Touno and Kazuhiro Hara’s Log Horizon, Yu Kamiya’s No Game No Life, Kugane Maruyama and so-bin’s Overlord, Natsume Akatsuki’s Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku o!/A Blessing to This Wonderful World! (KonoSuba: God’s Blessing on this Wonderful World!), Tappei Nagatsuki and Shin’ichiro Otsuka’s Ri:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu/Re:Starting Life From Zero in a Different World (Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World), Yukiya Murasaki and Takahiro Tsurusaki’s Isekai Mao to Shokan Shojo no Dorei Majutsu/The Other World Demon Lord and the Summoning Girl’s Slave Magic (How Not to Summon a Demon Lord), Fuse and Mitz Vah’s Tensei Shitara Suraimu Datta Ken/That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime (TenSura), and Aneko Yusagi’s Tate no Yusha no Nariagari/The Rising of the Shield Hero emerge. SAO also created a renewed interest in sword-and-sorcery fantasy series giving rise to Fujino Omori and Suzuhito Yasuda’s Danjon ni Deai o Motomeru no wa Machigatteiru Daro ka/Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? and Kumo Kagyu and Noboru Kannatsuki’s Goblin Slayer. A year after SAO debuted on television, another hit anime series emerged.

Submitting manga in contests since high school, Hajime Isayama saw his first serial work Shingeki no Kyojin/The Advancing Giants (Attack on Titan) published at age 23 by Kodansha. Featuring a world in its industrial age, humanity hides behind massive walls to protect them from giant humanoids who seek to devour them. However, where the giants are an ever present danger waiting to be sprung on the series’ characters, the greater threat hails from the humans both behind and beyond the walls. When the anime transitioned off the printed page in 2013, it brought with it a dynamic depiction of action the innovation of which had scarcely been seen since Hayao Miyazaki’s early successes. Seamlessly blending CGI and hand drawn animation, the flow of movement gave a roller coaster sense said to have been inspired by the Spider-Man films. SnK became a massive international hit, crossing various media and even saw a printed crossover produced with the Avengers in 2014. In 2016, a Japanese animated film emerged that eclipsed all others and gave rise to someone referred to as, “The New Miyazaki.”

A childhood fan of the works of Hayao Miyazaki, Makoto Shinkai attended Chuo University for Japanese Literature and found work at video game company Falcom after graduation. Producing an animated short in his spare time called Kanojo to Kanojo no Neko/She and Her Cat (1999) that won multiple awards, Shinkai was contacted by Manga Zoo to produce an OVA resulting in 2002’s Hoshi no Koe/Voices of a Star. Garnering more praise and awards, Shinkai was given the opportunity in his next work to make a full scale, high end animated film with Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho/Beyond the Clouds, the Promised Place (The Place Promised in Our Early Days) in 2004. Again, the work was acclaimed critically and acquired multiple awards. But, it would be in 2016 when Shinkai rocked the animated world with the debut of Kimi no Na wa/Your Name. Therein, two youths intermittently switch bodies across time and the love affair between them that ensues. The film not only brought with it acclaim and accolades as the creator’s past works, it also proved so commercially successful that it unseated Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) as the highest grossing Japanese animated film of all time. Shinkai followed that success in 2019 with Tenki no Ko/Child of Weather (Weathering with You), the fifth highest grossing anime film where the top five films are today occupied solely by the works of Shinkai and Ghibli. Mentioned earlier, the comparisons between Shinkai and Miyazaki were inevitable with the former viewed as the modern day version of the latter. As we march toward 2021, the future of the anime industry is difficult to predict.

As streaming services gain more dominance in the arena of media, more series are being gobbled up exclusively for these brands. At the same time, the global pandemic crisis has changed how the industry is run as work at virtually every level has been moved out of the office to at home where the prevalence of hikikomori (Japanese for “pulling inward”) or “shut in” culture is already an ongoing crisis. Noted earlier, the hunger for isekai shows no signs of slowing down as shonen action series continue to fuel international consumption. The lines between projects that are distinctly belonging to one culture also appear to be thinning as the United States, France, Korea, and Japan only strengthen symbiotic productions. This, however, will undoubtedly be fought against fervently as an undercurrent of imperialistic leanings within Japan form and grow to produce work that is uniquely Japanese for Japanese. It should also be mentioned that just as with western productions, computer generated animation continues to grow in popularity over traditional hand drawn art. This comes as many view video games as the next frontier of telling the kind of stories once relegated solely to animation. Only time will tell what this will all mean. Anime will evolve and grow in ways we couldn’t even comprehend, just as it did six decades ago so shall it today.

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