A Brief History of Anime

by: Michael O'Connell

Early Days

At the beginning of the 20th century, Japanese graphic artists began to feel the influence of two very powerful Western inventions: the newspaper comic strip and the motion picture. With its word balloons and linear story-line, the comic strip provided Japanese story-tellers with a structure that was readily accessible to the masses. Soon, popular cartoonists like Rakiten Kitazawa and Ippei Okamoto were producing their own serialized newspaper prints. These would eventually contribute to the development of the modern Japanese comic book or "manga" In 1914, cartoonists were among the first Japanese artists to experiment with animated motion pictures. Japan's first world-wide success was Kitayama Seitaro's short film Momotaro(1918). Although the Japanese animation industry continued to grow slowly, its one, last pre-war milestone was Chikara To Onna No Yononaka. Appearing in 1932, the short film was the first animated "talkie" in Japanese. Elswhere in the world, the animation industry was not only thriving but breaking new ground. The undisputed leaders in the field were Walt Disney and the Fleisher Brothers. People now forgot what a shock it was for Disney to even consider producing a full-length animated feature. But, when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs appeared in 1937 to overwhelming popular acclaim, Disney demonstrated that animation could be just as expressive and viable a medium as live-action film. The popularity and influence of Disney and the Fleishers' animated films were not limited to the United States. Before World War II, much of their work was seen by receptive audiences in Europe and Asia. These works also inspired the dreams of a young man who would go on to alter the direction of Japanese graphic story-telling forever.

The God

As unbelievable as it may seem, the success of both the anime and manga industries in Japan rests firmly on the shoulders of one man: Osamu Tezuka Originally an aspiring animator, Tezuka became a cartoonist after World War II. He was only 20 years old whne his first significant work, the novel-length Shintakarajima or "New Treasure Island", appeared in 1947. In just a few years, he became Japan's most popular manga artist, eventually earning the title "God of Manga." Tezuka's approach was completely different from anything that had come before. Whereas, most contemporary manga stories were told in a straightforward, stage -like fashion, Tezuka's illustrations exploded with action and emotion. Borrowing techniques from French and German cinema, he stretched his stories out for hundreds of pages. To lend poignancy to a single emotional moment, a scene might unfold slowly over several pages. What Tezuka was doing was telling stories in the manner of a filmmaker. In the process, he was also teaching an entire generation of artists how to visualize and compose a story kinetically. For manga and anime fans, Tezuka's most obvious contribution came in the design of his characters. The artist needed a vast emotional template to tell his often complex stories. Seeking inspiration, he returned to the pre-war Disney cartoons that he loved as a child. Just like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Tezuka's animal and humans characters sported round heads with huge, expressive eyes. Although these features appeared simple and cartoonish, they actually allowed a character to express a wide range of emotions, from adulation to seething hatred. Successive generations of manga and anime artists discovered the flexibility of Tezuka's character designs and adapted them into their own diverse works. This, in turn, led to today's "manga-style" character with his or her simplified facial features and Frisbee-sized eyeballs. Sailor Moon, Speed Racer, and even Ash Ketchum can all thank Tezuka for their dashing good looks. Eventually, Tezuka's great success as a manga artist led to a more direct impact on the post-war animation industry.

From Film to TV

In the mid-1950's, Hiroshi Okawa was the president of the Japanese film company Toei. Okawa's dream was to create and Asian film studio that would produce animated features similar to those put out by Walt Disney Studios in America. In 1956, Toei Animation was founded and, two years later, the company released its first full-length feature The Tale of the White Serpent. Based on a Chinese legend, The Tale of the White Serpent was considerably darker in tone than your typical Disney feature. It and Toei's follow-up films The Mischievous Prince Slays the Gian Serpent (1963); The Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun (1966); and Puss in Boots (1967) paved the way for a more serious and adult approach to animation than had previously been seen. These latter three films were the world if influential direction Yasuji Mari. They also featured some of the earliest work of two later giants in the anime filed: Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. Tezuka, the undisputed giant of manga, formally entered the anime filed in 1958 when he started working on the storyboards, screenplay, and chracter designs for a Toei feature based on Wu Cheng-en's the Pilgrimage to the West. [For those not familiar with the source material, this is the Monkey King legend which would later serve as the inspiration for Dragon Ball) Around the time that the film premiered in 1961 as Alakazam the Great, Tezuka founded the Osamu Tezuka Production Animation Department or, as it was eventually called, Mushi Productions. His goal was to produce animated theatrical features as well as episodic series for the fledgling Japanese television industry. Mushi Production's premiere series, Tetsuwan Atom (U.S.:Astro Boy) missed out on being the first domestically-produced animated televisions show by only a few months. That honor fell to Otagi Manga Calendar or "Manga Stories Calendar," which featured short, historical cartoons. But, in all its black-and-white glory, Tetsuwan Atom was the first regular animated program to containa recurring cast performing in fictionalized stories. Based on Tezuka's manga series of the same name, Tetsuwan Atom followed the amazing adventures of a robot boy as he fights crime and protects his friends. The show became so popular that it was even distributed worldwide. With the success of Mushi Productions' first series assured, Tezuka quickly adapted another of his popular mang works into an animated program. Jungle Taitei (U.S.:Kimba the While Lion) was hte first Japanese animated program to appear in color and the first to have an American co-producer. NBC Television helped to finance the series as well as distribute it stateside. Unfortunately, the network also exercised a degree of creative control on the series which limited the scope of Tezuka's adaptation. The original story saw the main character Kimba grow to adulthood, but the television series kept him as an adolescent. Late, Tezuka was able to redress this affront in the animated sequel Jungle Taitei Susume Leo! (U.S.:Leo the Lion.) Mushi continued to create new programs and even the occasional animated feature film like 1969's Senya Ichiya Monogatori. Eventually, though, the production compnay would go bankrupt. Tezuka didn't just "go back to drawing comics" becasue he had never really stopped. Throughout his animation career, he continued to feed the ever growing demand for his manga stories with new and exciting titles. He now left the wolk of animating his manga, such as Black Jack and Ambassador Mamga, to other artists

The Sophisticated '70s

As new and exciting as Japanese animated television series seemeed in the 1960's, you could not escape the fact that most series were created strictly for childern. Notable exceptions did exist. Jungle Taitei frequently ventured into complex, multi-part story-lines. Another early show, 8-Man (U.S.: 8th Man) featured a main character who was murdered by criminals and resurrected as a robot. Mach Go Go Go (U.S.:Speed Racer) could be downright moody, at times, even with its goofy monkey sidekick. By and large, though, animated television programs followed the tried and true good guy vs. bad guy formula. This all changed in the 1970's, as a new, more sophisticated approach began to emerge in televised anime. Nowhere could this better be seen than in a program created by the oddly named manga artist Monkey Punch. Lupin Sansei featured a main character who was a master thief. Inspired by 1920's satyrical mysteries of French writer Maurice Leblanc, the show was part comedy and part jet-setting adventure. Packed with adult humor and slapstick violence, Lupin Sansei was aimed squarely at an older audience. The program's infectious insanity went on to spawn two sequel TV series and several feature films. It was in the science fiction genre where televised animation started to make incredible leaps forward. Although programs like Kagaku Ninja-Tai Gatchaman (U.S.: Battle of the Planets & G-Force), Great Mazinger, and Uchu no Kishi Tekkaman (U.S.: Tekkaman) thrilled audiences with their stylish robot and spaceship designs, it was Uchu Senkan Yamato (U.S.: Star Blazers) that really captured thhe imagination of Japanese television viewers. The series followed the crew of the Space Battleship Yamato as they tried to save humanity from destruction while fighting off an alien invasion. Often violent and gritty, Yamato showed that there was an audience for sprawling space operas. The series proved so popular that it spawned several theatrical features. Artist Leiji Matsumoto, a contemporary of Tezuka's, provided Yamato's dynamic character and mecha (i.e. mechanical) designs. he also contributed the story -line which teemed with complex human emotions. Matsumoto would later lend his talents to another influential science fiction TV show, Uchu Kaizoku Captain Harlock, and the 1979 film Galaxy Express 999. The "giant robot" show had been a mainstay of Japanese animation ever since Shotaro Kaneda first called on Tetsujin 28 in 1966. This science fiction sub -genre got a significant reinterpretation when Mobile Suit Gundam premiered in 1979. Combining the epic story elements of Yamato with the oversized, humanoid mecha of Tetsujin 28-go (U.S.: Gigantor), MS Gundam was an intelligent and exciting space opera. The sprawling story-line detailed a future space war in which the opposing forced duked it out with mechanized battlesuits. Human pilots actually "wore" the giant robots as a protective shell. Initially a modest hit, Mobile Suit Gundam quickly became a nation-wide obsession when the series was re-run and later compiled into three theatrical films. Feeding the furor was an extensive line of plastic model kits based on the series' mecha. Soon, new Gundam films, videos, and television sequels started to appear. Within a few years a slew of new space operas emerged to take on the Gundam franchise. The two most notable were the gritty Sokokihei Votoms (U.S.: Armored Trooper Votoms) and the compelling Chojiju Yasai Macross (U.S.: First 1/3 of Robotech). Both garnered huge followings and continued to reappear in various animated permutations.


As the 1980's began, television and film producers scrambled to keep up with the increasing demand for more sophisticated and exciting animated programming. The situaiton became even more frantic as the home video market exploded onto the scene a few year later. Now Japanese fans could actually buy copies of their favorite animated TV shows and movies. Production companies even started to bypass the traditional entertainment media and release original animated features straight to video. To keep up with the ever-expanding market-place, anime producers turned more and more to the burgeoning manga field for mateiral to adapt. One of the first artists to benefit was Akira Toriyama whose quirky comedy series Dr. Slump became an instant hit. In 1986, an adaptation of his fantasy series Dragon Ball went on to become Japan's most popular animated TV show. Employing as deft a hand at light comedy and fantasy as Toriyama, Rumiko Takahashi dominated television and video throughout the '80's and '90's. First with the insane alien comedy Urusei Yatsura and later with the gender-bending of Ranma 1/2, she enchanted audiences of all ages. her other important series, Maison Ikkoku, playfully toyed with the conventions of the romantic comedy genre. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Takahashi was Go Nagain, an artist witha reputation for creating "naughty" manga. Anime adaptations of his work actually began in 1972 with the Devilman TV series. Now that the direct-to-vidoe market had been established, anime created strictly for adults could bypass the usual restrictions imposed by TV and film sensors. Strange and sexy programs like Nagai's Kekko Kamen, which featured a naked super-heroine, could now be produced for home video release. It was during the 1980's that mainstream science fiction literature received a powerful jolt of technological reality. Borne in the novels of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson, cyberpunk literature explored dark dystopiaswhere renegade hackers traversed the virtual universe of cyberspace. In 1982, Ridley Scott's breathtaking science fiction film Blade Runner redefined how poeple visualized the future. Japanese manga and anime artists were among the first to really grab this new lexicon of imagery and run with it. The first and best was artist/director Katsuhiro Otamo. Not only was his groundbreaking 1988 anime film Akira a huge international hit, it ushered in an entirely new style of anime. Popular titles like Bubble Gum Crisis and A.D. Police were cut from the same fast-paced and dangerous mold as Akira. In 1987, Otomo contributed two short segments to the Neo-Tokyo and Robot Carnival animated anthologies. The two films helped to introduce the "new anime" to a larger audience while showcasing the talents of emerging artists like Otomo, Rin Taro, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Atsuko Fukushima, Hiroyuki Kitazume, Mao Lamdo, Hidetoshi Omari, Kaji Morimato, Yasomi Umetsu, Hiroyuki Kitakubo and Takashi Nakamura. Equally as influential was the work of artist Masamune Shirow. Through the adaptation of his original manga Appleseed and his own direction of Black Magic M-66, he presented a future where the lines between technology and humanity began to blur. Although Shirow's energetic video series Dominion Tank Police can best be described as a police-mecha-comedy, his recent masterpiece, the 1995 film Kokaku Kidoutai (U.S.: Ghost in the Shell), once again took on the man versus machine interface Not all new anime was as outlandish as Shirow's or Otomo's. In fact, some of it was quite serious. Keiji Nakazawa wrote of his experiences as a Hiroshima survivor in the heartrending manga saga Barefoot Gen. With director Masaki Mari, Nakazawa adapted his novels into a frank and powerful 1983 film. Exploring similar territory, Hotaru No Haka (U.S.: Grave of the Fireflies) followed the struggle of two orphans who survived the fire-bombing of Tokyo. Few live action films have ever come as close to capturing the true horrors of war as this animated film did. Audiences were now becoming more receptive to animation that wasn't strictly action or comedy oriented. In responce, anime producers turned to Japanese literature for inspiration. Based on the classic novel by Murasaki Shikibu, Genji Monogatari (U.S.: The Tale of Genji) was a fascinating study in palace intrigue. A novel by 20th century philosopher and children's writer Kenjii Miyazawa inspired the delightful Ginga Tetsudo no Yoru (U.S.: Night on the Galactic Railroad). The success of such films showed that anime had finally broken free from the restraints of its earlier "kids-only" label to enter the realm of high-brow acceptance.

The New Studios

Out of the '80's anime explosion, two production companies emerged that would lead the industry into the 21st Century: Gainax and Studio Ghibli. Founded by Toshio Okada, Gainax brought together a group of creators who were part of the first generation raised on Japanese animation. Drien by their shared enthusiasm for the medium, Gainax produced some of the most significant and popular works of the '80's and 90's. The company's first video Otaku no Video held a mirror up to the bizarre world of anime fandom. This lighthearted, semi -autobiographical romp didn't even hint at the greatness that would suddenly appear in the company's next release, the science ficiton masterpiece Oneamitsu No Tsubasa Oritsu Uchu Gun(U.S.: The Wings of Honneamise). The video series Top O Nerae! Gunbuster (U.S.: Gunbuster) and TV show No Umi No Nadia (U.S.: Nadia the Secret of Blue Water) verified the company's skill at presenting exciting adventures, both futuristic and historical. Finally, Gainax established itself as the current leader of episodic science-fiction by producing the beautifully -rendered TV show Shin Seiki Evangelion (U.S.: Neon Genesis Evangelion) Studio Ghibli grew out of the association of two long-time anime creators, Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. Both worked on various Toei TV and film projects during the 1960's. In 1971, the two men served as directors on the original Lupin Sansei TV show and later collaborated on the children's adventure series Mirai no Shonen Conan (Eng. Trans.: Future Boy Conan). Miyazaki's first significant directing job came with the 1978 theatrical release Cagliostro No Shiro (U.S.: Castle of Cagliostro). Once again delightfully portraying the antics of the Lupin character, this successful feature was followed by a strip of landmark films: Kaze no Tani No Nausicaa (Eng. Trans.: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind), Tenku No Shiro Rapyuta (Eng. Trans.: Laputa: Castle in the Sky), Tonari No Totoro (U.S.: My Neighbor Totoro), Majo No Takkyubin (U.S.: Kiki's Delivery Service), Kurenai No Tuta/Porco Rosso (Eng. Trans.: Crimson Pig), Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko (Eng. Trans.: Present-Day Great Raccoon War Ponpoko), and Mononoke Hime (U.S.: Princess Mononoke). Although Takahata filled various behind-the-scenes roles in Miyazaki's projects, from producer to musical director, he also displayed a considerable gift for direction and screenwriting in his own right. As already mentioned, he was the creative genius behind the gripping Hotaru no Haka. His moving animated film Omoide Poro Poro (Eng. Trans.: Only Yesterday) was the simple story of a woman coming to grips with the memories of her youth. This ability to tell the small, human story against the backdrop of greater events was a hallmark of Takahata and Miyazaki's considerable talents. Coupled with flawless hand-drawn animation, it was a formula that placed Studio Ghibli firmly at the top of the Japanese film industry.


As the '90's wind down, optimist comes easily to the anime fan. In Japan, Gundam celebrates its 20th anniversary with a whole new TV show, while Akira Toriyama's wacky Dr. Slump retursn to the small screen with a new series of his own. Osamu Tezuka's influence is still being felt as two recent films based on his earlier manga works, Black Jack and Jungle Taitei demonstrate. Meanwhile, older audiences have been treated to the imaginative X:The Motion Picture and Katsuhiro Otomo's anthology film Memories International audiences are also enjoying a growing influx of popular anime. Pokemon, Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball hae delighted children wherever they've been shown. Most significant is the deal that Disney Studios and Studio Ghibli inked to bring all of Miyazaki's filmed masterpieces to American audiences. Entertainment Weekly picked the first release under this agreement, Kiki's Delivery Service, as its 1998 Video of the Year. Later this year, look for Mononoke Hime to appear in theaters across the country. Anime's success can be credited to the unswerving dedication of many Japanese artists to fully exploit the possibilities of animation as a creative medium. These gifted artists understood that they could do more with moving pictures than just entertain children. They could explore the boundaries of space and examine the complexities of the human condition. It's this willingness to experiment that has made anime so dynamic and appealing. This same quality promises to keep anime a vital artistic option for filmmakers in the 21st Century.

Author's Notes and Bibliography

Because of the constraints of time and page space, this is only a "brief" history of anime. Unfortunately, I was forced to omit many worthy artists and their works becasue there just wasn't enough room. The hardest part of writing this history was deciding who should be be included. I tried to weigh which artists and works had the greatest influence on anime as a whole. Some titles are included because they best represent a certain anime genre, although, in the grander scheme of things, they have very little overall influence. I apologize if your favorite TV show or director is not mentioned - many of mine aren't. Some day, someone will write a comprehensive history of the field. In the meantime, I've listed several books which I found invaluable in researching this history. I would also recommend searching back issues of Animerica for interviews with Japanese anime and manga crators as well as general information about the recent history of anime. Purists often trash this magazine, but I found that it contained some of the most comprehensive information available in English. Anime! A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Animation by Helen McCarthy, Titan Books, 1993 The Anime Movie Guide by Helen McCarthy, The Overlook Press, 1997 The Complete Anime Guide by Trish Ledoux and Doug Ranney, Tiger Mountain Press, 1995 Dreamland Japan by Frederick L. Schodt, Stone Bridge Press, 1996 Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics by Frederick L. Schodt, Kodansha International, 1983