In the 1960’s and 70’s, the anime industry saw a massive amount of growth in a relatively short time. We went from barely animated black-and-white shows about tiny robots, to sweeping epic space operas about giant robots. But all that was just a prologue to the 80’s, the golden age of the medium. At a time when most Western cartoons were cheaply made toy commercials, Japanese cartoons were becoming more ambitious, more experimental, more genre defining, and more epic… toy commercials. So let’s put on some hairspray, turn up the synthesizer music, and get ready for some classic anime from history’s weirdest decade!
Home Video Changes The Game
One of the biggest innovations in anime at this time came not from the medium itself, but how it was viewed and distributed. The advent of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) in the late 70’s and early 80’s finally gave consumers the freedom to watch their favorite shows and movies, whenever they wanted, in the privacy of their own home. This created a whole world of opportunities for anime to spread further than it ever had. Studios started making more movies to capitalize on the new technology, and even started making Original Video Animations (OVAs) straight to cassette tape. This gave creators and studios the change to make more experimental projects, without worrying if they had to be approved by a TV network or film distributor.
Home video also helped anime become more popular overseas, via imported tapes. Sadly, there was a large negative stigma attached to anime in the US, and to Japanese culture in general. But as long as they had the cash to spare, otakus could buy tapes of fan-subtitled anime that localizers wouldn’t touch. Home video gave anime an even bigger following in the West, especially in regions like Latin America and Europe where anime had not been widely distributed before.
The Rise of Miyazaki
Home video technology put anime movies front and center in the 80’s, and that helped make legendary director Hayao Miyazaki a household name. Although he did a ton in the 70’s, his first big break was 1982’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Toei Animation. A somber post-apocalyptic romance, Nausicaä established many of the best elements of Miyazaki: painstakingly detailed hand-drawn animation, an inspiring female protagonist, a mix of fantastical worldbuilding and realistic character drama, and a gorgeously minimalistic OST by Joe Hisaishi. This movie was also the first big project of a young Hideaki Anno, whose notoriety in the industry would come to be rivaled only by the master himself.
Nausicaä was a huge success both critically and commercially, but Miyazaki was never content to rest on his laurels. He formed his own company, Studio Ghibli, and delivered another instant classic with Castle in the Sky in 1986. My Neighbor Totoro became Miyazaki’s first international success two years later, with one of the first English dubs that was faithful to the original Japanese. Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli helped cement anime as a legitimate art form in the eyes of many, and the 80’s were just the beginning of their historic career.
An Explosion of New Genres
Before the 1980’s, it felt like every big show was sci-fi or mecha. But thanks to a booming economy and growing consumer interest, studios started experimenting with new styles, codifying the many genres we know and love today. The earliest example of this is the 1981 romantic comedy Urusei Yatsura, which mixed goofy slapstick with clever references to Japanese culture and mythology. Captain Tsubasa, a soccer anime, kicked off the sports genre in 1983 and even inspired pro athletes in real life. We even got the first boy’s love anime, an OVA called Kaze to Kiti no Uta in 1987.
But the hottest new thing was the Shonen martial arts genre, which started with Fist of the North Star in 1982 but really blew up with Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball 4 years later. This unassuming show became the bedrock for nearly all shonen anime to come after it, and it’s sequel, 1989’s Dragon Ball Z, would make anime a worldwide phenomenon in the next decade. I was obsessed with both the original Dragon Ball and DBZ as a kid, and even though I don’t think they’ve aged well, these shows still hold a special place in my heart for getting me into anime in the first place.
Sci-Fi Keeps Evolving
Despite all this new variety, though, the sci-fi genre still reigned supreme. Mecha anime was incredibly popular: Macross in 1982 mixed real robot action with romance for the first time, while the 1987 OVA Bubblegum Crisis broke new ground with its an all-female cast. Then there’s Gunbuster, the directorial debut of one Hideaki Anno. Although it’s only 6 episodes long and relatively obscure today, this little series helped Anno and Studio Gainax make their mark on the industry, paving the way for future bangers in the decades to come.
But nothing could have prepared the industry for the game-changer that was 1988’s AKIRA. A dark, dystopian vision of Tokyo in the year, um, 2020, AKIRA tells the story of a gang of delinquents trying to survive in an unforgiving world. The animation was way ahead of its time, and the story is iconic in the cyberpunk subgenre. Although the movie flopped upon its release, it gained enough of a cult following to be retroactively seen as one of the landmark films of the 80’s. AKIRA planted the seeds for anime’s global success in the 90’s, and had a huge influence on the sci-fi genre as a whole.
In many ways, anime in the 80’s was the culmination of all the hard work and innovation of the previous three decades. People who grew up watching Astro Boy and White Serpent were now leaving their own mark on the industry. But the good times wouldn’t last forever. The industry lost its original senpai, Osamu Tezuka, in 1989 due to stomach cancer. Then, in 1991, Japan’s economy crashed, forcing many studios to close and beginning the nation’s “lost decade”. Next time, we’ll see how anime survived all of this, and became a global phenomenon for the first time in the 1990’s. This is probably my favorite period in anime history, so I hope you’ll join me then!