Anime History: Mighty Atom to Akira

In the early 1960’s, anime started to make its mark on Japanese television, with Otogi Manga Calendar becoming the first television anime in 1962. This was a black and white anime that was about historical events as seen through the eyes of a character who was not aware of “what happened on this day in history.”

However, the first successful television anime was Osamu Tezuka’s Mighty Atom, which began airing in 1963. Not only was Mighty Atom the first successful television anime, but it was also the first anime series to feature regular characters in an ongoing plot. In 1964, Mighty Atom was brought to American television as Astro Boy, and the American company that brought the property to the United States adapted and re-wrote the series for an American audience.

In Japan, Mighty Atom opened the doors for other television anime titles, such as Tetsujin 28-go (released in the United States as Gigantor), Jungle Emperor (released in the United States as Kimba the White Lion), and Mach Go Go Go (better known to American audiences as Speed Racer).

The Japanese film market began to shrink in the 1970’s, due to increased competition from television. This change in the anime market forced Toei Animation to reduce the company’s staff. Many of the former Toei animators went to work for studios such as A Pro and Telecom Animation. A Pro is best known for producing the first Lupin III series. Telecom Animation is an affiliated company of Tokyo Movie, now known as TMS Entertainment. Telecom Animation was founded in 1975 to produce full-length animated theatrical films.

Meanwhile, Mushi Productions went bankrupt. However, the company was revived four years later, and is still in existence today. Some of Mushi Productions’ former employees went on to found Madhouse Productions and Sunrise. Madhouse Productions is known for such titles as Chobits, Death Note, and Trigun. Sunrise has produced such titles as Mobile Suit Gundam, Inuyasha, Cowboy Bebop, and Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion. Suddenly, many young animators found themselves being thrust into directorial positions, and this sudden influx of young talent helped bring about a wide variety of experimentation.

Nippon Animation evolved from Zuiyo Enterprises, an animation studio that produced popular children’s anime in the early and mid-1970’s. One of their best-known works is Heidi, Girl of the Alps, which was directed by Isao Takahata. The success of Heidi allowed Hayao Miyazaki and Takahata to start World Masterpiece Theater, a series that included stories based on famous works of literature. Miyazaki and Takahata left Nippon Animation in 1979 in the middle of the production of Anne of Green Gables in order to make Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro.

The 1970’s also marked the beginning of the “mecha” genre. Some of the early shows for this genre include Mazinger Z, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (known as Battle of the Planets or G-Force or G-Force: Guardians of Space in the United States), Space Battleship Yamato (known to American audiences as Star Blazers), and Mobile Suit Gundam.

With the success of Star Wars in the late 1970’s, the anime industry started shifting toward space operas. One of the most notable effects of this shift was the revival of Space Battleship Yamato in a theatrical version. The revival of Space Battleship Yamato, along with the theatrical release of Mobile Suit Gundam, is seen by many as the beginning of Japan’s anime boom of the 1980’s. That decade is also generally regarded in Japan as the “golden age of anime.” This era also saw the rise of a subculture that developed around anime magazines, which started in response to the massive fandom that developed around Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam. The people who became big fans of anime through such fan groups acquired the nickname of “otaku.”

In the United States, there was a similar, although smaller, effect on the development of anime in the wake of Star Wars. The 1980’s saw several space opera shows being brought over and adapted for American audiences. Space Battleship Yamato was re-worked into Star Blazers. King of Beasts GoLion and Kikou Kantai Dairugger XV were brought over and re-worked into Voltron. Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada were re-worked and put together into one show called Robotech.

The 1980’s brought about Originial Video Animation (OVA) to the Japanese home video market. An OVA is an anime made specifically for direct-to-video release. 1983 saw the release of the first OVA in Japan (Mamoru Oshii’s Moon Base Dallos); however, this OVA release was a failure. 1985’s Megazone 23 ended up becoming the first successful OVA release. The first part of Megazone 23 was re-worked to be a theatrical film for Robotech, but the film was shelved after a very limited run in theaters. Some anime series (such as Patlabor) had their beginnings in the OVA market, and this proved to be a successful way to test some less marketable animation with Japanese audiences. The OVA also helped the adult industry; the first hentai OVA was Wonder Kids Lolita Anime, which was released in 1984.

An amateur production group called Daicon Films began by making films for the Daicon science fiction conventions. Daicon Films later changed their name to Gainax. The company was so popular among the otaku community, that Gainax was given the chance to direct Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise, which was the biggest budgeted anime film at that point in time.

In Japan, Rumiko Takahashi became a household name after Mamoru Oshii adapted her Urusei Yatsura manga into an anime. Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was released in 1984 and has become one of the most influential anime of all time. In 1985, Miyazaki and his partners founded Studio Ghibli.

After the success of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, theatrical anime releases became more ambitious, and the studios kept trying to outclass and outspend the others. This period of lavish spending and experimentation reached its peak with Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise and Akira.

Neither of those films were box office successes in Japan, and many of the other films made during that period didn’t make back their production costs. As a result, a large number of anime studios closed down, and “tried and true” formulas were preferred over experimental pieces. Studio Ghibli was one of the few studios to survive the aftermath of the unsuccessful experimental films. Gainax also survived, but had to expand into other avenues, such as OVAs, garagekits (figurines that usually depict characters) and adult video games in order to keep the company going.

The domestic failure of Akira, along with the bursting of the bubble economy and the death of Osamu Tezuka in 1989, brought the 1980’s era of anime to a close in Japan. However, no one in Japan would have guessed the impact Akira would have in international markets during the next decade.

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