Arts & Culture

A Brief History of Anime

By Rebecca Dow

Nowadays, anime permeates deep into Western and Japanese pop culture, showing its face in merchandise, entertainment, literature, et cetera. Within the sea of people who enjoy Japanese animation, there are many niche fanbases, cult followings and fan-artists. One does not need to know the history surrounding anime’s development to appreciate its unique style and varied content. By digging into the past, however, one can uncover a broader perspective on what anime really is as an art form, and how it has changed over time. Regardless of one’s positive or negative feelings for the medium, anime is undeniably something creatively driven, that has evolved eclectically over time.


A screenshot from Katsudō Shashin. Creator: Unknown.

During the birth of animation, Japan fell behind in the industry compared to, say, Americans, due to the fact that they were using cut out animation techniques as opposed to cell animation, which was the standard for the time. Anime, in some form, has been around since the early 19th century. The oldest known footage categorized as anime was titled “Katsudō Shashin,” created in 1907 by an unknown animator. This short, three-second depiction of a boy writing on a chalkboard was Japan’s first step towards a massively successful international industry.

While animators in America were using cel animation, Japan was still using cut-out techniques. This slowed their progress early on. Records of early animations are hard to come by as most were destroyed in 1923’s Great Kanto Earthquake.. By 1933 though, they too began using cel animation, greatly improving the quality of their products. During World War II, most Japanese animation was created as propaganda, disallowing the freedom for creativity regarding plotline and style. Nevertheless, the techniques and technology perfected over that era helped further improve the quality of anime, and in 1948 “Hakujaden” was released; this was Japan’s first feature-length color film.

It was around the same time that anime really began capturing the attention of the public, with studios like Toei Animation acting as prominent leaders in the production of new content. The 1960s saw feature-length films such as “Astro Boy” (1963), which set the standard for future Japanese animations, and “Kimba The White Lion” (1965) which was Japan’s first color anime TV show. New genres began dominating the market, like “mecha” anime — centering around epic battles between giant robots either automated or manually controlled.

The 1970s saw a massive mecha boom, in fact; after toys began hitting the market, viewership exploded as a result and studios had that much more money in their budgets to go towards bigger and more experimental productions. A fitting example of a successful anime in the mecha genre would be “Mobile Suit Gundam” (1979). At its start it was so unpopular that it almost stopped airing. Once toys were produced, viewership went through the roof, and overall, anime became more of a worldwide market. Side note: let’s not forget “Heidi Girl of the Alps” (1974); this was famed animator Hayao Miyazaki’s first successful film. Even back then, one could clearly see his distinct animation style through character design and his detailed nature shots.

The 1980s gave us space operas, sports anime, and the martial-arts genre. The latter of the three paved the way for many modern shows such as “Naruto Shippuden” (2007-2017) and “Bleach” (2004-2012). Some anime, like “Dragon Ball Z” (1989), focused more on profit, marketing and merchandise rather than on creating a gripping plot.

A&F - Studio Ghibli

Logo of famed studio, Studio Ghibli – founded by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Toshio Suzuki, and Yasuyoshi Tokuma.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that content went from lacking to rich in depth with mature themes. Films like “Perfect Blue” (1995) and “Neon Genesis Evangelion” (1995-1996) led anime to experience an experimental and artistic shift in tone and style. The latter of the aforementioned anime helped revive the industry and spark interest within more diverse demographics of people. “Sailor Moon” aired weekly for five years, beginning in 1996, even though it was only given six months – aiding in the development of the magical girl genre. Studio Ghibli (arguably the most well-known and successful studio I can think of) released Princess Mononoke in 1999; it did very well financially. By the early ‘00s, Adult Swim began airing anime on their channel, such as “Cowboy Bebop” (1998-1999) on Toonami — a late-night program dedicated to airing Japanese and American animation, and an important program that allowed more anime to be spread to Western viewers.

By the time we reach the 2000s and 2010s, anime had turned into a leviathan of many different genres, many of which owned a certain aesthetic “look” to the characters, which became a relatively standard style for a number of popular shows continuing on to the present day. There was no longer a set formula for creating anime series and films, so there was at this point no shortage of creativity. Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” (2001) is the second most successful Japanese film to date, with Makoto Shinkai’s film, “Your Name” breaking its record in 2016. “Spirited Away” has been interpreted over the years to be an allegory for greed, child trafficking, the search for one’s identity, as well as a number of other meanings. It’s nice when a film can elicit such depth of thought from the public, regardless of the creator’s original expressive intent.

Today, anime exists as a beautiful hodgepodge of genre diversity and pop-culture fandoms that are rich with the acquired artistic techniques gained over the years by experimentation, boundary pushing, and niche interest that grew into something recognized internationally as a popular and relevant facet of modern cinema.

AnimeEveryday’s “History of Anime” playlist on Youtube; Wikipedia.

Categories: Arts & Culture

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