A Brief History of Anime, part 5: The Golden Age, 1988 to 1998
Part 1 here: https://plus.google.com/+BrentNewhall/posts/TWansNoeNFG
Part 2 here: https://plus.google.com/+BrentNewhall/posts/e4jWTVwsX8b
Part 3 here: https://plus.google.com/+BrentNewhall/posts/TtEA79wHCH1
Part 4 here: https://plus.google.com/+BrentNewhall/posts/3u8KT2gFWrJ
While there was plenty of anime aimed at an older teen market in the early to mid 1980’s, that trend exploded in the summer release of Akira
, which adapted the first of 8 manga volumes to the big screen. It was big-budget, it was aimed squarely at late teenagers and young adults, it was violent, it was in-your-face, and it made tons
This was important because of the message it sent to the people who finance
anime: you can put a lot of money into a high-budget work of anime aimed at an older audience, and you can make big bucks. So they did.
As a result, the flood gates opened. The late 1980’s and early 1990’s saw the foundation of many major anime franchises that are still beloved by otaku today: Dragon Ball Z
, Sailor Moon
, Tenchi Muyo!
, Ranma 1/2
, and in the mid 1990’s, Neon Genesis Evangelion
I must pause here to place Evangelion
properly. You might hear a lot of hyperbole about Evangelion
; some fans talk about it as though no anime had been made before it. Evangelion
was actually a reaction to ongoing trends in anime and otakudom. Its staff attempted to both deconstruct tropes in mecha (and anime broadly) and
produce a powerful mecha series at the same time. This is one of the reasons that the show’s presentation can seem schizophrenic.
It was also hugely trendy. It became fashionable for teenagers who weren’t even otaku to show off an Evangelion
charm or bookmark. The vast majority didn’t stick around to watch more anime, but its success made Evangelion
a household name to a degree that’s still exceedingly rare for anime.
didn’t really change the direction of the anime industry as a whole, except in one respect. There’s a scene in Evangelion
in which it’s clear that two characters are having sex, though it’s not shown on-screen. Thanks to Evangelion
’s 7:30pm time slot, plenty of families saw this scene, and parents called in to complain. Until this point, censors didn’t quite realize how mature anime was getting, so anime aired at any old time slot. The ruckus over Evangelion
caused TV stations to push anime series with mature content into late-night time slots, a trend that’s continued to today.
In any event, the anime industry as a whole meanwhile was dealt a serious blow: the burst of the Japanese bubble economy, which popped around 1991. Thanks to the gangbuster success of Akira
and anime like it, there was still plenty of money in the anime industry for a few years. But by the late 1990’s, budgets began to drain fast
. That led a lot of anime professionals to jump ship to other industries, particularly the booming video game industry. This created a worrying brain drain.
Two anime series released in 1998 are excellent examples of the anime industry’s response to plummeting budgets.
The first, serial experiments lain
, can best be explained by the second word of its title. It’s a weird, heavily stylized, dramatic technological thriller, and very much experimental. It embraced digital animation production at a time when most studios were still hand-painting cels. It set its story in a near future of a ubiquitous internet, asking tough questions about how humans should relate to each other in a world of instant messaging (hint: it’s not black-and-white).
In other words, some studios experimented
with unusual subject matter and story-telling techniques that can only be accomplished in animation.
The other anime series symbolic of these changes was Cowboy Bebop
. While not a big success in Japan, Bebop
sold like gangbusters in America. In fact, its American sales were so strong that when its staff investigated the possibility of making a Bebop
movie, they discovered that it would lose money in Japan, but make a profit in America.
American anime fans were buying so many VHS tapes and DVDs by this point that they were partially financing the Japanese anime industry. In fact, American licensors would partially finance the production of some anime, like the first Ghost in the Shell
movie and Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040
. American fandom made up the shortfall from the shrinking Japanese economy.
Unfortunately, many new technological trends then combined to create an entirely unexpected danger. But that’s for part 6.