A Brief History of Anime

A Brief History of Anime

Yes, this article is about anime, which might look a little out of place on a blog about beauty products. But us writers for Keshoume aren’t just J-beauty fans—we’re also way into everything about Japanese culture and want to write all about it. And if there’s one thing Japan is world-famous for, it’s anime. The average westerner might not know much about anime besides robot battles, cat people and memes about Naruto running, let alone anything about the medium’s rich history. Anime isn’t just cartoons, but a uniquely Japanese phenomenon that’s over a century old and is a fascinating window into Japanese culture, economics, and world politics. 

The Early Days

It might be hard to believe, but anime as we know it today got its start just over a century ago, around 1917. They came in the form of short reel silent films designed to be played in theaters, exactly like the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons. These films didn’t remotely resemble modern anime, though—technological capabilities at the time limited them mainly to short retellings of Japanese folktales in traditional art styles. The very earliest films involved a process of drawing one frame in chalk on a slate, photographing it, drawing the next, and so on. This tedious practice was overtaken by the same cel animation—that is, frames painted on layered sheets of transparent celluloid—that had become popular in the U.S.

Cel animation was pricey, though, and by the time Japan became entangled in World War II, studios began making war propaganda films in exchange for government funding. Momotaro: Umi no Shinpei (Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors), the first full-length animated film made in Japan, was commissioned by the Japanese navy in 1945.
While Japan was recovering from the war, one Okawa Hiroshi found himself inspired by Walt Disney’s first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Enamored with the beauty of quality animation, he formed what would later be named Tōei Animation, with the intent of creating “The Disney of the East.” As jobs were scarce in postwar Japan, the studio amassed an impressive team of creators. In the coming decades, industry giants like Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata would begin their careers at Tōei. 

The 60’s and Television

With the booming popularity of television, anime was no longer confined to the big screen, and Japanese TV networks began broadcasting anime series. In 1963, Fuji Television began airing Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy), a show based on Osamu Tezuka’s most popular manga at the time. Tezuka had been nicknamed “the god of manga,” and the involvement of such a high-profile creator really boosted the popularity of anime in general. Tezuka would go on to create his own animation studio, Mushi Pro.

It was at this point that anime as we know it today was born. Astro Boy introduced the serialized anime story featuring shimmery-eyed characters with physically impossible hairstyles who fight robots and aliens in 20-minute weekly time slots. Other tropes were born in this era as well, namely with Mahoutsukai Sally (Sally the Witch) in 1966, which would come to be known as both the first “magical girl” anime and the first shoujo anime, a.ka. an anime aimed at young girls. Other notable anime studios would come to be in the 60s, including Eiken, Tokyo-Movie Shinsha (TMS) and Shin-Ei Animation. 

The 70’s: Growing and Growing

Osamu Tezuka’s original studio, Mushi Pro, would close in 1973 but former animators with Mushi Pro went on to form their own studios, including Madhouse, Sunrise, and Group TAC. The Japanese economy struggled through the oil crisis of 1973, and Tōei Animation revamped its creative process to stay out of the red and continue producing quality content.

Anime as a whole started really coming into its own through the 70s, and sci-fi was by far the most popular genre. In 1974, Group TAC aired Uchu Senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato), which appealed to viewers in the U.S. as a more sophisticated and mature alternative to children’s cartoons. By this point, anime hobbyists in the English-speaking world were becoming more and more common, and the infamous term “otaku” was coined in Japan to describe especially passionate anime devotees (side note: in Japan, otaku has some negative connotations, like social awkwardness, and many Japanese people find it odd when English-speaking anime fans happily call themselves otaku).

The sci-fi craze continued through the 70s, and out of it rose a title that even a casual anime fan today will recognize: Mobile Suit Gundam, created by Sunrise in 1979. Gundam marked the beginning of a love affair between anime and toy companies, as Bandai partnered with them to create millions of toys based on the anime that sold worldwide and sealed the popularity of the “mecha” genre. 

The 80’s: The Anime Boom

Anime hit it big in the 80s, due mainly to one thing: the rise of the VHS, which made at-home viewing easy for fans in Japan and around the world. This new and easy availability boosted sales and made the anime industry boom in a way it never had before.

In 1981, Studio Pierrot (formed, of course, by former animators from Mushi Pro) adapted Rumiko Takahashi’s comedy/sci-fi manga Urusei Yatsura into an anime, which became a massive hit, and paved the way for Takahashi’s later success with Inu-Yasha and Ranma ½.

Feature films had by no means been forgotten, either, and in 1984, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata created Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the first film by what would become Studio Ghibli, perhaps the most famous and beloved anime studio of all time.

Tōei Animation rallied from its previous financial woes and created Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball in 1986, which became an international sensation. Shounen (boy’s) anime to this day takes many cues from Dragon Ball. The financial success of the anime industry showed in adult-oriented films such as Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira in 1988, which used a record-breaking 24 frames per second, to stunning visual effect. Akira boasted a record-breaking budget as well—1.1 billion yen, or about 9 million US dollars. 

The 90’s: Highs and Lows

All good things must come to an end, and to some extent, they came to an end for the anime industry in 1991 when the Japanese economy crashed. Studio budgets were slashed, many studios shuttered and animators struggled to find work. But, out of the financial woes came one of the most iconic eras of anime. Some of the most enduring and influential anime to date were produced in this decade.

Tōei Animation held fast through the recession and created none other than Sailor Moon in 1992, which became the definitive magical girl anime for a whole generation of girls and young women worldwide.

Gainax, which formed under the name Daicon Studios in 1984 but had since rebranded, released Neon Genesis Evangelion in 1995. Evangelion (or “Eva” for short) broke major ground in anime by subverting popular tropes of the mecha genre and exploring dark, existential themes not often probed by popular media. Eva is considered by some to be the first “postmodern” anime.

As studios looked for any way to make money, they experimented, and some of the riskier projects ended up being the most rewarding, namely the haunting 1998 psychological drama Serial Experiments Lain and the iconic, jazz-infused space adventure Cowboy Bebop. The 90s weren’t all serious business, though—1997 brought the video game Pokémon to life as a children’s anime and birthed a global sensation of films, extended anime series and literal billions of cute toys. 

The 00s and Beyond: Bright Futures

By the early 00s, the anime industry was producing hit after hit, and had become nearly mainstream in the English-speaking world. Anime like Naruto in 2002 and Bleach in 2004 had been adapted to air on TV stations across America and their merch flew off the shelves. The general public was starting to see anime as a medium for real artistic merit, too—Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away took home the 2002 Oscar for Best Animated Picture.

By 2006, though, anime consumers were suffering from choice paralysis. The market was saturated, and new anime struggled to stand out from the crowd. Studios became more cautious with picking up projects, remakes abounded, season lengths shortened, and animators were run into the ground by work. Finally, in 2007, Japan’s first animator’s union was formed, taking some of the pressure off workers and ensuring the quality of their work. All this paved the way for anime to become the phenomenon it is today.

By the 2010s, anime was basically entirely mainstream to Western culture. If you liked The Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Teen Titans, or Steven Universe, you’ve been exposed to anime influences. Anime conventions regularly draw tens of thousands of visitors. Popular stores like Hot Topic sell anime merch and cosplay materials. You’ve probably scrolled past dozens of anime profile pictures today.

As with everything else in the 2010s, the internet has seeped into the anime industry. Webcomics became a promising source for anime adaptations, namely the hugely popular One-Punch Man and the offbeat Pop Team Epic. Streaming platforms have made anime just as accessible as any Western cartoon, and sites like Crunchyroll and Hulu have hundreds of anime titles available to watch on-demand.

It’s anyone’s guess where the anime industry will go from here. It’s certain, though, that new creators will learn from the old and continue to make shows and films that we remember for generations. We in the West will definitely be watching eagerly to see what comes next. 

Rowan Thompson - June 15, 2020

Cooper, Lisa Marie. “The History of Anime.” Right Stuf Anime, 2018, www.rightstufanime.com/anime-resources-global-history-of-anime.

Fard, Cyrus. “On Evas and Angels: Postmodern Fantasy Devotion to Neon Genesis Evangelion.” PopMatters, PopMatters, 17 July 2019, www.popmatters.com/71108-on-evas-and-angels-postmodern-fantasy-devotion-to-neon-genesis-evange-2496051663.html.

Osmond, Andrew. “Akira: The Story Behind The Film.” Empire, Empire, 21 June 2011, www.empireonline.com/movies/features/story-behind-film-akira/.

Yamaguchi, Yasuo. “The Evolution of the Japanese Anime Industry.” Nippon.com, 6 Mar. 2019, www.nippon.com/en/features/h00043/the-evolution-of-the-japanese-anime-industry.html.


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