The anime industry reached its artistic high point in the 1980’s, but the good times wouldn’t last. The Japanese stock market crashed in 1991, thanks to (what else?) corporate corruption and an incompetent banking system. Millions of people lost everything, and businesses were forced to close or restructure to survive. In this “Lost Decade”, people looked to art to come to terms with what they were going through, and entertainment to distract them from the malaise. This is when we got some of the biggest and best series in all of anime, and when the medium truly became a global phenomenon. (It’s also the time when I personally got into anime as a kid, so forgive me for waxing nostalgic on all the shows I grew up with.)
Crash and Revival
The economic crash sent shockwaves throughout the anime industry. Studios were forced to shut down, and big budget, experimental films like Akira were no longer profitable. Luckily, some studios were able to adapt to the changing times, most notably our old friends at Toei Animation. They knocked it out of the park once again with 1992’s classic, Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon.
Created by Naoko Takeuchi, Sailor Moon reinvigorated the magical girl genre after going through a lull in the 80’s. It’s blend of cute and charming characters with Super Sentai-inspired action appealed to both boys and girls. It was one of the first anime to get prime time viewership in the West. It broke new ground by featuring openly LGBTQ characters in the main cast (even if censorship made them cousins in the original dub…) And it was the first ever magical girl series to be written by a woman! (Wait, seriously?!) Sailor Moon gave the anime industry its game back, and I think a lot of the best anime of the decade owes some debt to its success.
Evangelion Changes Everything
Hideaki Anno was an incredibly bright animator and director for Studio Gainax, but after a string of flops in the early 90’s, he went into a deep depression and became a recluse for four years. Gainax gave him a time slot to create “something, anything” in 1993, and that “something” became a dark, deconstructive take on the super robot genre, inspired by Gnostic symbolism, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Anno’s struggles in his own life. Neon Genesis Evangelion dropped in 1995, and nothing in anime has been quite the same since then.
It would take way too long to list all the things that made Eva such a game-changer, but I think it boils down to its characters and themes. It was the first mecha anime to focus on the pilots’ inner struggles more than the robot action, with flawed yet relatable heroes. The female Eva pilots, Rei and Asuka, popularized the “kuudere” and “tsundere” character archetypes, but they have much more depth than those labels imply. And the show talked openly about depression and mental health issues, which many shows still struggle with today. The show ran out of funds halfway through airing and had to scrap their action-packed finale for a more minimalistic and psychological ending – but two years later, Gainax released the alternate ending as a feature film, End of Evangelion. The series became a landmark sci-fi series in Japan, comparable to Star Wars in the West, and it’s one of the best ways to experience all the screwed-up brilliance anime has to offer.
Anime Gets Darker and Edgier…
The success of Evangelion opened the floodgates for dark and edgy seinen anime in the mid-to-late 90’s. Ghost in the Shell was a landmark film in the cyberpunk genre, using groundbreaking computer animation and incorporating heady themes of identity that would be hugely influential on later flicks like The Matrix. 1998’s Serial Experiments Lain is even creepier, with a mind screw plot and psychological thriller elements. Even the magical girl genre got deconstructed with Revolutionary Girl Utena, a tragic tale of two young female lovers trying desperately to escape their fate.
One of the biggest anime to come out of this bunch (at least in the West) was Cowboy Bebop. It’s director, Shinichiro Watanabe, was a huge fan of American action films, and wanted to make a space opera with western and film noir influences. Although the show was nearly canceled in its initial run in Japan, it became a cult classic internationally thanks to its stylish action, bopping jazz OST, and incredible English dub. Bebop showed skeptical Western audiences that anime was not just for kids, and was a gateway for many into the wacky world of otakudom.
…And Lighter and Fluffier
While the “mature” anime of the 90’s broke new ground artistically, it was the lighter-kid friendly stuff that got the most sales. Cardcaptor Sakura is an adorable magical girl romp, created by the all-female artist collective CLAMP. Dragon Ball Z became a worldwide phenomenon, gaining a huge fan base in Latin America and Europe even before it broke through in the U.S.
But the biggest anime of the 90’s needs no introduction. With over 150 collectible critters ranging from adorable to awesome, Pokémon became a smash hit with boys and girls all over the planet. It eventually became the most successful media franchise ever, and tons of monster shows like Digimon and Yu-Gi-Oh tried to ride its coattails. Pokémon was the gateway anime for an entire generation of 90’s kids, and honestly, I don’t think it gets enough credit for that.
Cable TV Brings Anime To Primetime
Before the 90’s, anime was really hard to watch outside of Japan. The few shows we got stateside, like Astro Boy and Speed Racer, had almost all references to Japanese culture wiped from the localization. But in 1997, two guys named Sean Akins and Jason DeMarco were given a weekday afternoon block on Cartoon Network and the freedom to do whatever they wanted with it (provided it didn’t stretch their wire-thin budget). They created Toonami, the best programming block in all of television (fight me) and one of the catalysts for anime’s explosion of popularity in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
What made Toonami special was how much respect and passion it’s showrunners had for both anime and it’s audience. No longer were kids forced to watch edited versions of Sailor Moon and DBZ on Saturday mornings: now they could watch them, along with tons of other anime, on primetime every weekday! Toonami had all the good shit: Gundam Wing, YuYu Hakusho, even game reviews and music video premieres, all curated by the lovable robot TOM. Edgier shows like Cowboy Bebop or FLCL found a home on Toonami’s late-night sister Adult Swim. Toonami got millions of American kids into anime, particularly black Americans who have had a long and synergistic history with East Asian media.
Despite a rocky start, the 90’s were a truly special time for anime. So much of the style, the culture, and the way we talk about the medium today, is thanks to the pioneering artists of this decade. Next time, anime enters the digital age, both in terms of production and distribution. There’s a lot more to talk about from here on out, but I hope you’ll stay with me till the end!