The History of Anime: Part 2 – Enter the Space Race

Japanese animation made some major milestones in its early years, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s and 70’s that it developed its own identity. This is when the distinctive anime art style emerged, when mecha and magical girl anime first took over the airwaves, and when anime first became exported around the world. The world was engulfed in the Cold War and the Space Race, so artists looked to the great beyond to give people hope for the future. So let’s turn on, tune in, and drop some knowledge on retro anime!

Tezuka’s Success Continues

After the massive success of Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka and Mushi Productions were riding high. They proved, for the first time, that Japanese TV animation could do well around the world. Mushi Pro did a ton of work in the 60’s, including the dark samurai epic Dororo, and, um, the first X-rated anime. But their most popular show after Astro Boy was the first anime TV series in color, 1965’s Kimba the White Lion.

Dororo, 1969

A wholesome story about a lion cub bridging the cultural divide between animals and humans, Kimba is beloved by both kids and adults to this day. The style was still similar to Disney films of the time, which gave it a following outside Japan. Disney later, erm, “borrowed” from Kimba for a little film called The Lion King, which just goes to show how important the original story was.

Kimba the White Lion, 1965

Decline and Growth

Osamu Tezuka and Mushi Pro were on top of the world (or at least Japan) in the 60’s, but it wouldn’t last. He left his own company in 1968 to form another studio, and by 1973 both them and their old rivals Toei Animation had gone bankrupt. Many of the animators formed their own studios after the fallout, including Sunrise, Pierrot, Madhouse, and Kyoto Animation. (All of them will become a big deal later.) The economic downturn of the early 70’s provided another big hit to the anime industry, but a growing market of new sci-fi and action anime helped the medium really come into its own.

Speed Racer, 1968

One of the first anime to hit big in the west was 1968’s Speed Racer, a campy yet fun action series with slick car chases and James Bond-inspired gadgets. (This is the oldest anime I actually remember watching as a kid.) But by 1974 we got stuff like Space Battleship Yamato, a full-fledged space opera that made a huge impact on a young Hideaki Anno. Then there were shows like Lupin the Third, an action-comedy series that started in 1967 and just kept going, with new versions even coming out in the present day. Anime was blowing up in the 1970’s, although it was still a niche interest outside its country of origin.

Space Battleship Yamato, 1974

Magical Girls First Cast Their Spell

You might have noticed a common thread in the anime discussed so far: they all have male protagonists! It wasn’t until 1966 that we got our first Shoujo anime, Sally the Witch, by our old friends at Toei animation. Loosely inspired by the American show Bewitched, this was a slice-of-life series about a witch princess trying to live in the human world. Sally was the first magical girl, or majokko, anime, setting the foundation for five and a half decades of sparkly transforming schoolgirls to follow.

Sally the Witch, 1966, inventing the “smug anime girl” face

Toei Animation dominated the magical girl genre in the 60’s and 70’s, and established many of the genre conventions we know and love today. 1974’s Majokko Megu-chan was the first series to focus on a team of magical girls, a clear influence on later shows like Sailor Moon. On the Shonen side, 1972’s Cutie Honey was the first action magical girl anime, focusing on sci-fi more than fantasy. But it was best known for its elaborate transformation sequences, which featured lots of gratuitous nudity. (What did you expect?) There were also shoujo anime for older girls, like the historical drama Rose of Versailles. These shows may not be as well known as the anime that they influenced, but they set the standards for all the tropes, all the girl power, and all the sweet, sweet merchandising opportunities to follow.

Go Nagai, creator of Cutie Honey, Mazinger Z, and Devilman

Mecha Anime Takes Over

But the biggest advancement in the evolution of anime at this time was the mecha genre. Inspired by early shows like Astro Boy and the general post-war anxiety in Japan, these series put young people inside giant humanoid robots to fight for humanity. The first mecha series was 1963’s Tetsujin 28-gō (known in the West as Gigantor), but the genre didn’t really kick off until Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z in 1972. This was the first super robot anime, where the robots have larger-than-life designs and often have a mystical or almost superhero-like quality to them. It was a brave and stylish vision of the future, setting up the dominance of mecha anime for the next two decades to come.

Mazinger Z, 1972

As always, studios were quick to cash in, and by the late 70’s, the super robot genre had become stagnant. Studios were more focused on selling toys than telling a good story. That created a perfect opportunity for 1979’s Mobile Suit Gundam, a mecha space opera by Studio Sunrise. Gundam was the first of the “real robot” genre, which used more realistic mech designs and told darker stories about war and political intrigue. Although the show was nearly cancelled due to poor performance initially, it gained enough of a cult following to launch it, and the rest of the mecha genre, to new heights in the 80’s. But that’s another story, for another decade.

Mobile Suit Gundam, 1979

The 60’s and 70’s were huge leaps forward in the evolution of anime. Artists pushed the envelope with more detailed art and animation. Entirely new genres were created. Stories became more ambitious and epic. Just from comparing Astro Boy to Mobile Suit Gundam, you can see how much anime had improved in style, scope, and art direction over just 15 years. Next time, we enter the Golden Age of anime. The mechs get bigger and better, studios get more ambitious and experimental, and some upstart named Hayao Miyazaki changes the world of animation forever. Hope to see you then!

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