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Anime

Page was last updated on July 10, 2011

A Capsule History of Anime

by Fred Patten and Jonathan Clements

The first Japanese animated film, MUKUZO IMOKAWA THE DOORMAN (1917), was a five-minute short by Oten Shimokawa, a 26-year-old animation hobbyist who had formerly been an editorial assistant on Tokyo Puck magazine. By the 1920s, cartoons in Japan were still largely a cottage industry. Most pioneers worked small home studios, though they came to be financed by Japanese theatrical companies, which provided production money in exchange for distribution rights. Notable silent-era animators include Junichi Kouchi (THE SWORD OF HANAWAHEKONAI, 1917), Seitaro Kitayama (THE MONKEY & THE CRAB, 1917) and Sanae Yamamoto (whose 1924 THE MOUNTAIN WHERE OLD WOMEN ARE ABANDONED is the earliest anime extant).

 

During the 1930s, folk tales and fables gave way to Western-style humor, charged with the growing influence of Japanese militarism. In Yasuji Murata's AERIAL MOMOTARO (1931), a Japanese folk-hero defends the monkeys of a South Sea island from invading penguins and albatrosses. In RESISTING SLAVERY (1931), Western powers are depicted as capitalist pigs oppressing the Chinese, while BLACK CAT BANZAI (1933) has a peaceful parade of toys disrupted by a masked rat, clearly modeled on Mickey Mouse. Disney's famous creation leads a squadron of giant bats in a bombing raid on a peaceful island, devastating the beach with machine-gun snakes and kidnapping a local doll, only to be thwarted by Japanese heroes. Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek were lampooned in NIPPON BANZAI (1943), but it was Momotaro's SEA EAGLES (1943) that pushed the boundaries, with an unprecedented running time of 37 minutes. With animation cells in short supply (cellulose was a crucial ingredient in gunpowder), Mitsuyo Seo's animators were forced to wash and re-use their cells for this re-telling of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in fairytale form. The Japanese Navy authorized Seo to make an even longer sequel: anime's first full-length feature was MOMOTARO'S DIVINE SEA WARRIORS (1945), in which the Imperial Japanese Army (cartoon animal soldiers) liberates the East Indies from an incompetent British Empire army (humans with Devil horns).

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Desolation and lack of funds in the post-war period left Japanese animation unable to compete with foreign cartoons. The first full-color anime was the 25-minute PIGGYBACK GHOST (1955), but Japan did not see a homemade color feature until PANDA & THE MAGIC SERPENT (1958). The Production Company, Toei Animation, followed with several more features, each following the Disney formula with once-yearly adaptations of popular Oriental folktales featuring humans with cute animal companions. Sources ranged from myths of ninjas with superhuman skills such as MAGIC BOY (1959); highbrow novels such as Ogai Mori's SANSHO THE BAILIFF, adapted as THE LITTLEST WARRIOR (1961); and Japanese myths, such as THE LITTLE PRINCE & THE EIGHT-HEADED DRAGON (1963). However, it was Japanese comics (manga) that provided the first major hit. ALKAZAM THE GREAT (1960) was based on the Chinese folktale of the MONKEY KING, filtered through a comic adaptation by Osamu Tezuka serialized throughout the 1950's.

 

Tezuka is universally acknowledged as the father of the Japanese comic industry. Publishing his first strip at only 17 in 1945, he pioneered techniques in print that he had learned from watching American cartoons. The cuts, zooms and pans of animation added a kinetic quality to his work, but also made it ideally suitable as ready-made storyboards. Since ALAKAZAM THE GREAT used his plot and art-style, he was consulted on its adaptation and involved with its promotion; the experience caused Tezuka to switch his attention from comics to animation. Impressed by the appearance in Japan of the first Hanna-Barbera TV cartoons of the late 1950s, he felt that he could produce limited animation for the new TV market. More importantly, he realized from the popularity of his comic books -- especially the futuristic titles such as Astro Boy -- that there was a strong demand for futuristic fantasy which the establishment, with its concentration on old-fashioned fairy tales, was completely ignoring.

 

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Tezuka organized Japan's first TV animation studio, Mushi Productions. Not counting an experimental art film, STORIES ON A STREET CORNER (1962), its first release was a weekly TV cartoon series based upon Tezuka's Astro Boy, which began on New Year's Day 1963. It was such an instant success that by the end of 1963 there were three more TV animation studios in production and Toei Animation had opened a TV division. By the end of the 1960s, the popularity of TV SF action-adventure was so overwhelming that Toei began to alternate it with fairy-tale fare for its theatrical features.

 

Tezuka had drawn for just about every print medium available, including infants' picture-books, romantic soap operas for women, risqué humor for men, and newspaper political cartoons. He established the attitude that cartooning was an acceptable form of storytelling for any age group. Tezuka himself brought tasteful adult animation to theaters with 1001 NIGHTS (1969) which retained the eroticism of the original Arabian Nights, and CLEOPATRA (1970), a risqué time-travel farce in which scholars from the future travel to Egypt at the time of the Roman conquest to learn the truth about history's sexiest woman, in a plot rife with exaggerated anachronisms. (Julius Caesar travels not in a chariot but a horse-drawn Edsel automobile.) Animation on TV, however, remained predominantly a children's medium.

 

By the 1970s, TV animation studios were churning out sitcoms, mystery dramas, sports soap operas, and Western favorites such as Heidi (1974) and Little House on the Prairie (1975). The market began to drive the industry; there was a flood of toy-promotional fantasies, especially action-heroes for boys. Among the most influential was Toei's adaptation of Go Nagai's Mazinger Z comic, the first of many sagas about a gigantic flying mechanical warrior flown by a teenage pilot to save Earth from invading space monsters. This combined the dramatic aspects of knights in armor battling dragons, with fighter pilots in aerial combat. Mazinger Z (1972) and its sequels ran for 222 weekly episodes. By the mid-1980s there had been over 40 different TV giant-robot anime series, covering virtually every channel and every animation studio in Japan. The phenomenon reached its apotheosis with Mobile Suit Gundam (1979), the first of an ongoing succession of inter-linked serials, detailing a future war between Earth and orbital colonies.

 

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World War II was far enough in the past for animators to deal with it again, moving the action into fantastic realms where the parallels were less obvious. Space Battleship Yamato (1974) was a wish-fulfillment replay of World War II with the united Earth armies (Japan) fighting the conquering Gamilon invaders in their Western-styled battleships. Yamato was fortunately timed for the explosive popularity of space opera following STAR WARS; Yamato TV-series and theatrical-feature sequels followed. During the late 1970s, the hottest cartoonist in anime was Yamato's creator Leiji Matsumoto, with TV cartoon series and theatrical features based upon his other space-adventure manga such as Space Pirate Captain Harlock (1978), Galaxy Express 999 (1978), and The Queen of 1,000 Years (1982).

 

In 1984, the video recorder created a whole new format. Animation studios began to make shows straight to video for smaller niche markets (giving rise to the acronym "OAV," for "original animation video"). Pornography thrived in this more private medium, as did science fiction for an older audience weaned on the TV robot shows. These titles are the main source for the anime released abroad today, since their licenses are more affordable than those of expensive theatrical features or long-running TV series. Hideaki Anno's Gunbuster (1988) retold the Pacific War as a galactic conflict in which humanity (i.e. Japan) is fighting on the wrong side, mixing powerful drama with arch in-jokes about previous shows. Bubblegum Crisis (1987) mixed anxieties about the fragile "bubble" economy with fast-paced action, as female vigilantes in mechanical "hard-suits" fight robot crime in a sprawling super-city extrapolated from modem Tokyo combined with BLADE RUNNER. The series was an immense success, but fell apart amid studio disputes; less popular sequels were salvaged from the remains. Yoshiaki Kawajiri's WICKED CITY (1987) was designed for a publicly limited release as a theatrical fine-art adult fantasy thriller, which would actually make its money as a kinky erotic fantasy on the video market. (It worked.)

 

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The video market became a testing ground for new ideas; the most notable success-story being MOBILE POLICE PATLABOR (1988) which graduated from video to TV series and eventually two theatrical features - a third is currently in production. It also became a way to keep old favorites alive. Urusei Yatsura (1981), Rumiko Takahashi's hit TV comedy about a high-school boy forced to live with an electrifyingly jealous alien fiancée, went off the air in 1986, but survived another four years in straight-to-video specials. A similar resurrection awaited RANMA 1/2 (1989), a farce about a martial artist who changes sex when wet. Viewer appreciation, of course, is not the only consideration in such sequels; since many such shows are based on long-running comic series, the video outings help keep the back issues in the public eye. Some video anime, like Compiler (1994), were created solely to tempt readers back to the original comics, and can seem incoherent without prior knowledge of the original.

 

Though much of the anime available outside Japan were originally made for video, cinema features fueled the 1990s boom in anime. Katsuhiro Otomo's cyberpunk thriller AKIRA (1988), whose high budget made it frankly unrepresentative of the everyday anime business, gained high praise, but also created high expectations. In its wake, English-speaking companies began to fight over the "newly-discovered" anime business, grabbing SF and fantasy titles like GENOCYBER (1993), but ignoring many genres, especially romance and children's shows. Satoshi Kon's PERFECT BLUE was directed (and publicized) as though it was a Hitchcockian live-action suspense feature. Deliberately released to court controversy, the infamous sex-horror UROTSUKIDOJI: LEGEND OF THE OVERFIEND (1987) was followed by a flood of lesser erotica; although anime is often regarded by the media as violent pornography, many of these titles sell better abroad than they ever did in Japan. As rights became more expensive, foreign companies began to take an active interest in anime production. PATLABOR director Mamoru Oshii's adaptation of Masamune Shirow's cyberpunk manga GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995) was touted as "the next AKIRA," chiefly by foreign investors who sincerely hoped it would be.

 

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Throughout this whole period, the output of one studio remained criminally under-represented abroad. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, respected animators from the features of the 1960s and TV dramas of the 1970s, changed the business forever in the wake of the adaptation of Miyazaki's SF comic NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984). NAUSICAA'S success led the comic's publishers Tokuma to subsidize a new animation studio, Studio Ghibli, for the personal theatrical features of Miyazaki and Takahata. Studio Ghibli has released an average of a feature a year since then: Miyazaki's LAPUTA: THE CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986), MY NEIGHBOR T0T0R0 (1988), KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989), PORCO ROSSO (1992), PRINCESS M0N0N0KE (1997), and SPIRITED AWAY (2001); and Takahata's GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988), ONLY YESTERDAY (1991), POMPOKO (1994), and MY NEIGHBORS, THE YAMADAS (1999). Miyazaki and Takahata also trained a protege to become a third partner, but Yoshifumi Kondo tragically died just after completing his first feature, WHISPER OF THE HEART (1995). Many of these have become Japan's top-grossing features, beating live-action contenders.

 

Miyazaki's films are deliberately written in opposition to the formulaic, marketing-led shows that characterize most children's TV all over the world. In Japan, the same formula was brilliantly, if cynically manipulated with Sailor Moon (1992), an anime that was deliberately concocted as part of a multimedia offensive, with ready-made merchandise and spin-offs. With schoolgirl superheroes saving the Earth from an evil extra-dimensional queen, it was much imitated, with varying degrees of success.

 

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The 1990s also saw a boom in "retro anime" as producers realized that the Astro Boy generation would now have children of their own. Capitalizing on nostalgia, anime were made with a deliberately old-fashioned feel, including adaptations of Osamu Tezuka's BLACK JACK (1993) and METROPOLIS (2001), directed by Rintaro to combine a 1940s art style with the scope of 2001 computer graphics) and Mitsuteru Yokoyama's GIANT ROBO (1992). The pre-war period became a popular subject; KISHIN CORPS (1993) retold Japan's invasion of Manchuria as a noble effort to save the country from aliens, while SUPER ATRAGON (1996) accused the Americans who bombed Hiroshima of stealing technology that the Japanese themselves had put to peaceful uses.

 

In a creatively barren environment, Hideaki Anno's TV series Evangelion (1995) created huge waves. Replaying the themes of his earlier Gunbuster, but loaded with psychological drama, Evangelion drew back many disenchanted fans and made TV, not video, the new animation medium of choice. The late l990s were characterized by two trends: short-lived TV serials rushed out to cash in on the Evangelion mystique; and adolescent women's romance in dramatic fantasy settings, of which only Fushigi Yugi (1995), Escaflowne (1996), and Utena (1997) achieved any real popularity. Starved for talent in an era that valued marketing over creativity, studios cloned old video shows like BUBBLEGUM CRISIS, or adapted proven franchises in a proliferation of game tie-ins like "Street Fighter V" (1995) and Pokemon (1997).

 

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While theatrical animation was supported financially by churning out feature-length versions of popular TV series, manga and novels (a "Pokemon" movie a year since 1998), most creative features centered around technological advances. BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE (2000) brought Japanese animation to new levels of digital imaging. FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN (2001) did the same with CGI, creating characters that were (theoretically) almost too lifelike to be distinguished from live actors.

 

FINAL FANTASY was based upon the popular video game series. Games themselves remain a strong growth area for production, attracting money and talent from the anime business. Production I.G, which also produced game versions of GHOST IN THE SHELL and BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE, recently completed SCANDAL (2000), an interactive adventure which featured over three hours of animation and used 30,000 animation cells. It is only the latest example of an "invisible" medium for anime, whose products are often longer than video serials and of better animation quality than many TV shows.

 

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Japanese animation has come a long way since 1917. Only ten years ago, it was a tiny niche market in video stores; now it is a TV phenomenon with global audiences. It is also much imitated in Western animation, from films such as TITAN A.E. and ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE to TV series like the Powerpuff Girls adopting an "anime" look. After years in which tapes were made in thousands and AKIRA's five-figure sales were the peak, Pokemon videos leave stores by the millions. Budgets and expectations now make it difficult for cinema anime to make its money back without foreign sales. X: THE MOVIE (1996) and JIN-R0H (2000) are too inwardly-focussed to find true success abroad. The future, on the big and small screen, lies in works such as BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE (2000) or SOL BIANCA: THE LEGACY (1999) that take the non-Japanese audience into account. In that regard, anime's very success outside Japan could destroy much of what makes it unique.

 

Revised and updated from "Anime for Beginners: Tezuka's Children;" the Introduction (pages 6-11) of "Atomic Sushi: A Bite of Japanese Animation;" the illustrated catalogue of the Atomic Sushi animation art exhibition at the Sificon Pulp Animation Gallery, Stanmore (Sydney), Australia, 11 August - 14 October 2000. Jonathan Clements is the co-author (with Helen McCarthy) of "The Anime Encyclopedia" published by Stonebridge Press.

 

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