Brief History of Anime

Astro Boy Volume 1

 Photo from Amazon

Anime dates back to the birth of Japan’s film industry in the early 1900s and has emerged as one of Japan’s major cultural forces over the past century.

Much of the work done in these early years was not the cel animation technique that would come to be the dominant production technique, but a host of other methods: chalkboard drawings, painting directly on the film, paper cut-outs, and so on.

One by one, many of the technologies used today were added to Japanese animated productions—sound (and eventually color); the multiplane camera system; and cel animation. But due to the rise of Japanese nationalism and the start of WWII, most of the animated productions created from the 1930s on were not popular entertainments, but instead were either commercially-oriented or government propaganda of one type or another.

Post-War and the Rise of TV

It wasn’t until after WWII—in 1948, to be precise—that the first modern Japanese animation production company, one devoted to entertainment, came into being: Toei. Their first theatrical features were explicitly in the vein of Walt Disney’s films (as popular in Japan as they were everywhere else). One key example was the ninja-and-sorcery mini-epic Shōnen Sarutobi Sasuke (1959), the first anime to be released theatrically in the United States (by MGM, in 1961). But it didn’t make anywhere near the splash of, say, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashōmon, which brought Japan’s movie industry to the attention of the rest of the world.

What really pushed animation to the fore in Japan was the shift to TV in the Sixties. The first of Toei’s major animated shows for TV during this time were adaptations of popular manga: Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Sally the Witch and the “kid with his giant robot” story Tetsujin 28-go was adapted for TV by Toei and TCJ/Eiken, respectively. Ditto Shotaro Ishinomori’s hugely-influential Cyborg 009, which was adapted into another major Toei animated franchise.

First Exports

Up until this point, Japanese animated productions had been made by and for Japan. But gradually they began to show up in English-speaking territories, although without much in the way to link them back to Japan.

1963 heralded Japan’s first major animated export to the U.S.: Tetsuwan Atomu—more commonly known as Astro Boy. Adapted from Osamu Tezuka’s manga about a robot boy with superpowers, it aired on NBC thanks to the efforts of Fred Ladd (who later also brought over Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion). It became a nostalgia touchstone for several generations to come, although its creator—a cultural legend in his own country—would remain largely anonymous elsewhere.

In 1968, animation studio Tatsunoko followed the same pattern—they adapted a domestic manga title and ended up creating an overseas hit. In this case, the hit was Speed Racer (aka Mach GoGoGo). The man responsible for bringing Speed to the U.S. would be none other than Peter Fernandez, a hugely important figure in anime’s spread beyond Japan. Later, Carl Macek and Sandy Frank would do the same for other shows, setting a pattern where a few insightful impresarios helped bring key anime titles to English-speaking audiences.

At the time these shows were released, few viewers realized they had been heavily reworked for non-Japanese audiences. Aside from beginning redubbed in English, they were also sometimes edited to remove things not acceptable to network censors. It would be a long time before an audience arose that demanded the originals as a matter of principle.


In the 1970s, the rising popularity of TV put a major dent in the Japanese film industry—both live-action and animation. Many of the animators who had worked exclusively in film gravitated back to TV to fill its expanding talent pool. The end result was a period of aggressive experimentation and stylistic expansion, and a time where many of the common tropes found in anime to this day were coined.

Among the most important genres that arose during this time: mecha, or anime dealing with giant robots or vehicles. Tetsujin 28-go had been the first: the story of a boy and his remote-controlled giant robot. Now came Gō Nagai’s outlandish battling-robots epic Mazinger Z, and the massively influential Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam (which spawned a franchise that continues unabated to this day).

More shows were showing up in other countries, too. Yamato and Gatchaman also found success in the U.S. in their re-edited and re-worked counterparts Star Blazers and Battle of the Planets. Another major hit, Macross (which arrived in 1982), was transformed along with two other shows into Robotech, the first anime series to make major inroads on home video in America. Mazinger Z showed up in many Spanish-speaking countries, the Philippines, and Arabic-speaking nations. And the earlier series Heidi, Girl of the Alps had found great popularity across Europe, Latin America, and even Turkey.

The Eighties also saw the emergence of several major animation studios that became groundbreakers and trendsetters. Former Toei animator Hayao Miyazaki and his colleague Isao Takahata set up Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away) in the wake of the success of their theatrical film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. GAINAX, later the creators of Evangelion, formed during this time too; they started as a group of fans making animated shorts for conventions and grew from there into a professional production group.

Some of the most ambitious productions from this period weren’t always financially successful. Gainax’s own and Katsuhiro Otomo’s AKIRA (adapted from his own manga) did poorly in theaters. But another major innovation that came along during the Eighties made it possible for those films—and just about all of anime—to find new audience long after their release: home video.

The Video Revolution

Home video transformed the anime industry in the Eighties even more radically than TV had. It allowed casual re-watching of a show apart from the rerun schedules of broadcasters, which made it that much easier for die-hard fans—otaku, as they were now starting to be known in Japan—to congregate and share their enthusiasm. It also created a new submarket of animated product, the OAV (Original Animated Video), a shorter work created directly for video and not for TV broadcast, which often featured more ambitious animation and sometimes more experimental storytelling as well. And it also spawned an adults-only niche—hentaiwhich acquired its own fandom despite censorship both domestically and abroad.

LaserDisc (LD), a playback-only format that boasted top-notch picture and sound quality, emerged from Japan in the early Eighties to become a format of choice amongst both mainstream videophiles and otaku. Despite its technological advantages, LD never achieved the market share of VHS and was eventually eclipsed completely by DVD and Blu-ray Disc. But by the beginning of the Nineties owning an LD player and a library of discs to go with it (as few places in the U.S. rented LDs) was a hallmark of one’s seriousness as an anime fan both in the U.S. and Japan. One major benefit of LD: multiple audio tracks, which made it at least partly feasible for LDs to feature both the dubbed and subtitled version of a show.

Even after home video technology became widely available, few dedicated channels for anime distribution existed outside of Japan. Many fans imported discs or tapes, added their own subtitles electronically, and formed unofficial tape-trading clubs whose memberships were small but intensely devoted. Then the first domestic licensors began to appear: AnimEigo (1988); Streamline Pictures (1989); Central Park Media (1990); which also distributed manga; A.D. Vision (1992). Pioneer (later Geneon), the developers of the LaserDisc format and a major video distributor in Japan, set up shop in the U.S. and imported shows from their own roster (Tenchi Muyo) as well.

Evangelion, “Late-Night Anime” and the Internet

In 1995, GAINAX director Hideaki Anno created Neon Genesis Evangelion, a landmark show which not only galvanized existing anime fans but broke through to mainstream audiences as well. Its adult themes, provocative cultural criticism and confounding ending (eventually revisited in a pair of theatrical films) inspired many other shows to take risks, to use existing anime tropes, such as giant robots or space-opera plotlines, in challenging ways. Such shows earned a place for themselves on both home video and late-night TV, where programs aimed at mature audiences could find a time slot.

Two other major forces arose towards the end of the Nineties that helped anime find broader audiences. The first was the Internet—which, even in its early dial-up days, meant that one didn’t have to go digging through back issues of newsletters or hard-to-find books to glean solid information about anime titles. Mailing lists, websites, and wikis made learning about a given series or personality as easy as typing a name into a search engine. People on opposite sides of the world could share their insights without having to ever meet in person.

The second force was the newly-emergent DVD format, which brought high-quality home video into the home at affordable prices—and gave licensors an excuse to find and issue tons of new product to fill store shelves. It also provided fans with the best available way to see their favorite shows in their original, uncut forms: one could buy a single disc with both English-dubbed and -subtitled editions, and not have to choose one or the other.

DVDs in Japan were and still are expensive (they’re priced to rent, not sell), but in the U.S. they ended up as commodities. Soon a broad range of product from multiple licensors appeared on retail and rental shelves. That plus the start of widespread TV syndication of many more popular anime titles in English dubs—Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Pokémon—made anime that much more readily accessible to fans and visible to everyone else. A rise in the amount of English-dubbed product, both for broadcast TV and home video, produced that many more casual fans. Major video retailers like Suncoast created entire sections of their floor space devoted to anime.

The Trouble New Millenium

At the same time, anime was expanding far beyond Japan’s borders, one major upheaval after another through the 2000s threatened its growth and led many to speculate if it even had a future.

The first was the implosion of Japan’s “bubble economy” in the Nineties, which had injured the industry during that time but continued to affect things into the new millennium. Contracting budgets and declining industry revenues meant a turn towards things that were guaranteed to sell; edgy and experimental work took a backseat. Titles based on existing manga and light novel properties that were guaranteed hits (One Piece, NarutoBleach) came all the more to the fore. Shows that tapped into the lightweight moé aesthetic (Clannad, Kanon, ) became dependable if also disposable money-makers. Attention shifted from OAVs to TV productions which stood far more of a chance of recouping costs. Conditions in the animation industry itself, never good to begin with, worsened: more than 90% of the animators who enter the field now leave after less than three years of working brutal hours for meager pay.

Another problem was the rise of digitally-powered piracy. The Internet’s early dial-up days didn’t lend itself to copying gigabytes of video, but as bandwidth and storage grew exponentially cheaper, it became that much easier to bootleg a whole season’s worth of episodes onto a DVD for the cost of the blank media. While much of this revolved around fan distributions of shows not likely to be licensed for the U.S., too much of it was the copying of shows already licensed and readily available on video.

Another shock was the worldwide economic crunch at the end of the 2000s, which caused many more companies to either cut back or go under completely. ADV Films and Geneon were major casualties, with a large chunk of their titles moving to rival company FUNimation. The latter had become, by any measure, the single largest English-language anime licensor thanks to its distribution of the massively profitable Dragon Ball franchise. Brick-and-mortar retailers cut back floorspace devoted to anime, in part because of the market’s shrinkage but also because of the prevalence of online retailers like Amazon.

Surviving and Enduring

And yet despite all this, anime survives. Convention attendances continue to climb. A dozen or more anime titles (full series, not simply single discs) hit the shelves in any given month. The very digital networks that made piracy possible are now also being used aggressively by the distributors themselves to put high-quality, legit copies of their shows into the hands of fans. The overall presentation of anime for non-Japanese fans—the quality of English dubs, the bonus features created specifically for overseas audiences—is vastly better than it was ten or even five years ago. And more experimental work began to find an audience, thanks to outlets like the Noitamina programming block.

Most importantly, new shows continue to emerge, among them some of the best yet made: Death NoteFullmetal Alchemist. The anime we get in the future may bear that much less a resemblance to what’s come before, but only because of anime lives and evolves along with the society that produced it and the world that savors it.