The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

The History of Anime

The History of Anime

Today anime is a well-accepted form of animation made in Japan. The word anime (ah-nee-may) actually comes from the American word “animation”. In America, anime is bought by large companies from the original Japanese companies, translated, packaged and sold to the American public via DVD or VHS. But where did this great form of animation start? Where did it all begin? Obviously, it began in Japan, but how and by whom? Two many questions have been floating around, so I decided to crack this incredible mystery wide open and discover it for myself.

The Origin of Anime

Individual film hobbyists who were inspired by American and European animators originally made the first of ‘Japanese animation’. The first couple Japanese animation titles were one-reelers, about one to five minutes in length, made in 1917. Starting in the 1920s, these short films ran anywhere from one to three “reels”. Most of the animations were recreations of Oriental folk tales made in traditional Japanese art styles. However, a few were just mere imitations of foreign cartoons.

The most notable silent-era animators included Oten Shimokawa, Junichi Kouchi, Seitaro Kitayama, Sanae Yamamoto (whose 1924 The Mountain Where Old Women Are Abandoned seems to be the earliest anime title still extant), Yasuji Murata, and the master silhouette animator, Noboru Ofuji, most of whom worked in small home studios. Eventually they came to be financed by Japanese theatrical companies that provided money for production in exchange for distribution rights.

During the 30s, a major change occurred. Folk tales began to be overcome by Western-style fast-paced humor. These eventually reflected the increasing influence of Japanese militarism, such as Mituyo Seo’s 1934 11-minute cartoon Private 2nd-Class Norakuro, an adaptation of Suihou Tagawa’s popular newspaper comic strip about an unlucky dog soldier in a funny-animal army. After going to war with China in 1937, the animator’s needs to get productions approved by Japanese government censors resulted in a constant stream of militaristic propaganda cartoons. In 1943, Japan started production on its first animated feature. Yes, decided upon by the Imperial military government, Mituyo Seo was authorized to assemble a team of animators for the task. Their 74-minute film, Momotaro’s Gods-Blessed Sea Warriors was a juvenile adventure portraying the Imperial Navy as brave animal sailors purposefully liberating Indonesia and Malaysia from the “foreign devil”, its Allied occupiers. However, the movie was barely released before April 1945, the end of World War II. Japanese animation returned to its normal status after WWII. The individual filmmakers once again had the right to create. However, they were hindered by the struggling economy of post-war Japan. And after American Occupation forces flowed into Japan, they had to compete with their more sophisticated cartoons. In fact, the first Japanese full-color animation did not appear until 1955. It became abundantly clear that the future of Japanese animation lay in adopting the Western studio system.

Western Influences

Animators tried tirelessly to set up American style studios right after the war ended, but to no avail. That is to say until Toei Animation Co. was organized in 1956. Yasuji Mori was Toei’s earliest leading animator. He directed its first noteworthy cartoon, Doodling Kitty, in May 1957. But to the general public, Japan’s entry into professional animation came with the company’s first theatrical feature, Panda and the Magic Serpent, released in October of ‘58.

Toei’s first few animations followed Disney’s methods quite closely. Each produced about a year apart, they were based on popular folk tales, and the protagonist often had a few humorous animal friends. The first couple was distributed in America a few years after they were shown in Japan. They included: (with their American titles but Japanese release years) Magic Boy (1959), Alakazam the Great (1960), The Littlest Warrior (1961), The Adventures of Sinbad (1962, all five directed by Taiji Yabushita), and The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (1963, directed by Yugo Serikawa with an avant-garde stylized design by Yasuji Mori). Unfortunately, sales in the United Sates were dismal and their success the same. As a result Japanese animation disappeared from America for the next twenty years.

Osamu Tezuka

Alakazam the Great, however, led to something that was quite unexpected. Although Yabushita directed it, it was actually based on a popular 1950s comic by none other than Osamu Tezuka. The comic revolved around the ancient Chinese Monkey King Legend. Tezuka was Japan’s most popular comic book artist at the time; he was the foundation for Japan’s modern manga industry. Since the movie utilized his plot and art style, he was consulted on the animated adaptation and became involved with its production. This inevitably caused Tezuka to switch his focus from comics to animation.

Tezuka was widely influenced by the appearance of the first Hanna Barbera television cartoons of the 1950s in Japan. This soon led him to conclude that he could produce limited animation for the television market. Moreover, he recognized the popularity of his comic books, especially futuristic titles such as Astro Boy, and the amazing demand for new quick-paced fantasy settings. Earlier animation studios, however, were ignoring these demands.

Because of this, Tezuka teamed up with Toei Douga and started Japan’s first animation studio: Toei Productions. He later left Toei to start his own animation studio Mushi Productions. Not including the experimental art film, Stories on a Street Corner (1962), its initial release was a weekly series based upon Tezuka’s popular comic, Astro Boy, which debuted on New Year’s Day of 1963. It was an instant classic. By the end of 1963, there were three more television animation studios in the making and Toei Animation opened a television division. By the end of the 60s, the popularity of televised science fiction/action-adventure anime were so overpowering that Toei began to alternate them with their usual fairy-tale fare for its movie productions.

Television animation became wildly popular in Japan, even more so than it was in America. And this was largely due to Tezuka’s work. He gave a shot at about every medium possible. Everything from children’s books to risqué humor for men and political cartoons for newspapers, Tezuka seemed to have a hand in it. He established the mentality that cartoons were acceptable for all ages, not just children. This was a sharp contrast to the usual mindset of ‘cartoons and comics are for children and only children.’ Tezuka brought classy adult humor into animation with the theatrical release of the 1969 art feature A Thousand and One Nights and the 1970 Cleopatra. By the early 70s, television studios such as TCJ (Television Corporation of Japan), Tatsunoko Production Co., Tokyo Movie Shinsha, and Nippon Animation, (note: naming just the most influential and notable ones) began producing more mature animation, most of which were mystery dramas geared towards older teens. These included Western literary classics such as Heidi, Girl of the Alps (directed by Isao Takahata) and The Diary of Anne Frank.

Giant Robots

The 70s also brought an excess of toy-promotional fantasies, featuring action-orientated heroes for boys and magical little girls who transform into older teen superheroes for girls. Among the most important was Toei’s adaptation of comic book artist Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z, the first of many stories about gigantic flying mechanical warriors (later referred to as mecha) controlled by a human pilot to save the earth from an invading force of some source. This genre combined the drama of armored knights fighting dragons with the technologically advanced action of fighter pilots in aerial combat against enemy armies. Mazinger Z and Nagai’s direct sequels Great Mazinger and UFO Robot Grandizer ran for 222 weekly episodes from 1972 through 1977. By the mid-1980s there had been over 40 different giant robot anime series (including Mobile Suit Gundam and Macross), smothering nearly every channel and taking over every animation studio in Japan. It was these shows that were subtitled on Japanese community TV channels in America, which started a cult following of American fans in the late 1970s.

Closely related to these giant robot anime were the futuristic outer-space adventures, which started with the 1974 release of Space Battleship Yamato. Yamato was released just in time for the amazing rise of popularity in space operas, which had followed the importation of Star Wars from the United Sates. During the late 70s and early 80s, the hottest cartoonist in anime was Yamato’s creator Leiji Matsumoto. There were a handful of television cartoon series and movies based on his many space opera manga, such as Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999 and The Queen of 1,000 Years.

Miyazaki, Takahata, and Ghibli

By the mid-1980s, anime had been dominated by TV production for nearly two decades. Two developments changed this. One was the return to prominence of theatrical feature animation, through the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. The two were friends who had both worked together at various anime studios in Tokyo since the 1960s.
In the early 1980s, Miyazaki began a science-fiction comic-book adventure, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, for Animage, a magazine series from one of Japan’s largest publishers, Tokuma. This led to a Tokuma-financed feature film, which Miyazaki directed. The 1984 Nausicaä was a smash success, resulting in Tokuma subsidizing a new animation studio, Studio Ghibli, for the personal theatrical features of Miyazaki and his friend Takahata. Studio Ghibli has released an average of a feature film a year since then, alternating between the productions of Miyazaki and Takahata: Miyazaki’s Laputa: the Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and The Crimson Pig (1992); and Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Only Yesterday (1991) and Pom Poko (1994). Many of these have become Japan’s top-grossing theatrical films, live-action or animated. Takahata’s Pom Poko was also submitted as Japan’s candidate as an Academy Awards nominee for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

The Revolution

During the amazing boom for the anime industry between the late 1980s and early 90s; two milestones in the history of anime were created that set the standard for the rest. The first was Akira, which was released in 1988 to worldwide acclaim. The amazing appeal of Akira was its eye-popping animation. Akira also introduced a new technique of recording the voices first and then drawing the artwork to match it. The Quick Action Recorder played a big role in this feat by synchronizing the animated mouth movements with the audio of spoken words. With its new age voice recording techniques and amazing attention to detail, Akira became one of the most expensive animated feature films ever.

The second of these milestones came in 1995 in the form of Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell. Ghost in the Shell not only became an international hit, but also changed the anime industry forever. Most anime of the time used hand drawn cels to do the bulk of their animation; however, Ghost in the Shell was the first anime ever to invest the bulk of its budget into computer-generated animation. The animation in GitS was of even higher quality than Akira. Because of this, animation production companies took quick notice of this and changed all their animation departments. Today, nearly all animation titles have incorporated some, if not tremendous, use of computer generated imagery.

Evangelion and Beyond

Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) was a wild success when originally released and gained fame worldwide almost instantly. However, Evangelion is also the most controversial anime ever. On screen it is debated whether or not Eva deserves its enormous fan base worldwide, but behind the scenes director Anno Hideaki was having a nervous breakdown. Hideaki’s problems just seem to mount up higher and higher. Half way through the show his budget was cut, TV Tokyo threatened to take it off the air for questionable content, and when it was all said and done, Hideaki received death threats as a result of the disappointing ending. Either way you look at it, anime fans around the world will remember Neon Genesis Evangelion for a very long time. This is because Eva marked a change in the flow of anime. Anime started to develop more introverted themes. As a whole they started focusing on the human psyche. Anime had become less commercial and more of an art form. Although Evangelion was the last major anime of note, this does not mean the future doesn’t hold something great for all of anime’s fans. Spirited Away (2001) broke all box office records and became the first anime ever to win an Academy Award. And then in 2003 The Animatrix became the first public collaboration of Japanese and American producers. With new anime titles coming out everyday in Japan, the possibilities are endless and anime’s prosperity is assured. So what does the future have in store for anime exactly? Well, only time will tell.

Written by: DarkKanti

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