A short history of small-screen anime

TV anime may not command the artistic kudos of the best big-screen features, but it’s the wellspring of the industry, where creators toil to feed their fans. Helen McCarthy offers a whistle-stop tour of the greatest anime series, from magic girls to space robots and beyond.

15 June 2020

By Helen McCarthy

Sazae-San (1969–), the world’s longest-running cartoon
Sight and Sound

 In partnership with JNTO

The earliest surviving Japanese animation is 50 frames stencilled on celluloid some time before 1912 by unknown artisans producing films for imported magic lanterns, the 19th-century’s home projectors. Its discovery in 2004 by researcher Matsumoto Natsuki changed historical perceptions that the first anime was made for public screening. Anime didn’t get into cinemas until 1917; it began as software for home entertainment systems.

Simply being on air doesn’t make money. Anime series are priced absurdly low. Hits are monetised through spinoffs, often after the show ends. Every anime series is an advertisement. It can also be art, but that isn’t the point. TV is the seedbed for high-earning franchises. The cinema, despite its trash-to-treasure ratio, is often considered auteur-driven, artistic. TV is commerce, a toy factory that sometimes produces a masterpiece. Artisans outnumber auteurs.

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The truth is the ‘low culture’ of the TV series franchise enables the ‘high art’ of the acclaimed film by keeping the industry afloat, pushing directors, writers and technicians through cycles of grinding, low-paid work, winnowing out all but the toughest talents. Without TV there’s no Ghibli. The most rarefied flower needs well-manured dirt.

The creator of Astro Boy (1963-66), Tezuka Osamu, who cursed TV anime with low prices, based his merchandising systems on the Disney model. Successful anime still follows his pattern, marketing across the widest possible range, tracking the ageing fanbase. Most fans abandon anime as they grow up, but a small group stay in the market – a significant factor in the income potential of anime robots and doe-eye heroines. Following the money, anime recycles old trends to buy survival. Sometimes art happens too.

This whistle-stop tour – six decades of TV anime – mentions shows that were more than ad framing devices, too many to list here. They tie in to comics, movies, novels, opening paths to other media, the rabbit hole drawing you in.

The 1960s

The TV anime boom began in 1963, as Japan’s post-war economic boom translated into TV sets in more households. Astro Boy aired on 1 January; by December Gigantor (Tetsujin 28), 8 Man and Wolf Boy Ken had joined him.

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Anime also went beyond children’s hour, with a late-night adult series based on saucy comic strip Sennin Buraku (Hermit Village). In 1969 Sazae-San, Japan’s longest-running anime soap opera, appeared; it’s still the most watched anime on TV.

But children were the money-spinners, so robots and adventure led, often with serious stories. Astro Boy’s robot-enslavement subtext and quest to define himself is powerful and disturbing. Gigantor addresses dark themes of corruption in post-war Japan. 8 Man, the original Robocop, looks at technology and bodily transformation, a cogent theme in a nation coming to terms with the legacy of the atom.

By 1970, almost 50 domestic TV series had been broadcast. Astro Boy, Gigantor and Kimba the White Lion aired in America. The first US-Japanese cartoon co-production, The King Kong Show, expanded the trickle of overseas income from movie sales.

The 1970s

As the economy grew, seminal series exploited the girls’ market. Sally the Witch was the first show to feature a ‘magical girl’. Akko-chan’s Secret offered a spin on that character type, with a heroine who is an everydaygirl who is given a special magical kit. Princess Knight was the first cross-dressing swordswoman show, Little Akane (Akane-chan) the first girls’ school misfit show. The themes TV anime would explore for decades were all in place.

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The 1970s saw almost three times as many new anime shows, with second and even third series for some. The decade is notable for the rise of the home-video cassette player – first marketed in Japan in 1965, but slow to sell until the price dropped and movies became available on video in 1972. Video recorder sales started to pick up in Japan from the mid-70s, opening the floodgates for tape-sharing and collecting.

In thematic terms, giant robots, school stories and magical girls were still popular, but the first wave of teenage fans now wanted anime to reflect them, not their kid brothers. Science Ninja Team Gatchaman took the team-show concept already popularised in Western import Thunderbirds, adding teenage angst, alien invasion and a bi-gender antagonist. Star Blazers, another show about teenagers saving humanity, was saved from cancellation by fan activism, like Star Trek in the US. In 1979 it became anime’s gateway drug for American teens.

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The TV anime of Monkey Punch’s manga Lupin III crossed into grown-up territory, popular with parents as well as older teens. Its spoofs, goofball dialogue, saucy episodes, slapstick and action ensured its survival on Japanese TV over five decades. Mobile Suit Gundam, with its dense political subtexts and boys struggling to manhood in troubled times, spawned a franchise that bred plastic robot toys faster than Japan bred citizens. The French Revolution inspired The Rose of Versailles, a homage to Princess Knight combining young women’s aspirations for autonomy with action, romance and glamour. A generation looking for its identity found role models in 70s anime, and could rewatch them on tape.

Children still had magical girls, robots, school stories, funny animals and the kind of educational TV that parents approved of. The hope that reading classics improved young minds was extended to watching them on screen. In 1974, Takahata Isao’s enormously popular Heidi, Girl of the Alps was part of World Masterpiece Theater, a series of classic retellings that ran from 1969 until 2009 and included Anne of Green Gables (1979 – also directed by Takahata), The Swiss Family Robinson (1981) and Little Women (1987).

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The 1980s

The 1980s was a decade of major sports shows, largely ignored by the West. Sports anime were often based around the high school team structure, but increasing emphasis on the individual made solo sports popular. Shows like Aim for the Ace! (tennis) and Star of the Giants (baseball) were already popular with teenagers, encapsulating the same themes of teen struggle in a chaotic world as the decade’s SF series.

Boxing saga Tomorrow’s Joe was a TV hit in 1970 and reprised its success on large and small screens in the 80s. Joe’s heartrending struggles resonated with many young Japanese who felt left behind by the economic boom. Martial arts quest series Dragon Ball became a phenomenal success, maturing into a major global franchise despite the restrictive fight-of-the-week concept. Teen romance Yawara! brought judo and the 1992 Olympics to anime. The industry followed the money, chasing cut-price publicity.

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Robot and SF themes thrived. In 1983 made-for-video anime emerged, but TV held the advantage: it was free to watch. The 1982 hit Super Dimension Fortress Macross crashed pop-rock idols into robot fighters to create a teen romance scenario with a subtext of women’s struggle for professional and personal fulfilment. It was merged with other shows into US franchise Robotech, feeding the American demand created by Star Blazers fandom.

Transforming robot shows were edited into Vehicle Team Voltron, America’s marketing vehicle for imported robot toys. This concept was adapted for US franchise Transformers, then exported back to Japan. Later, the Japanese live-action team show would engender US franchise Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which premiered in 1993. The American market provided an increasingly consistent income stream, providing shows were re-edited or dubbed to remove elements US audiences found disturbing – foreign heroes, drinking and smoking.

Older viewers were catered for by shows such as City Hunter, a gun for hire on the streets of contemporary Tokyo, twisting Sennin Buraku’s sex-comedy vibe with the goofiness of Lupin III, contrasting Japan’s bubble economy with backstreet life. The Lupin/City Hunter style of wisecracking girl-crazy hero had wide influence.

The 1990s and beyond

Social consciousness was a theme that developed further in the 90s. A second series of 80s hit Osaka backstreet comedy Chie the Brat (a spin-off of Takahata’s 1981 feature of the same name) sat alongside live-action adult soaps. Magical girl shows remained popular, Sailor Moon the most influential with its huge success in America and enduring worldwide fanbase. Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water twisted the magical girl concept with a black teenager rediscovering her heritage as an Atlantean princess. Neon Genesis Evangelion, considered the apotheosis of the giant robot genre, aired in 1995.

Technologically, the 90s brought the domestic DVD player, first playback-only, then recordable. The Blu-ray player, commercially available in Japan from 2006, extended the technical possibilities of sound and picture quality, but the major change post-2000 was the shift to handheld personal platforms, accelerated by wider broadband availability. Broadband extended anime’s global reach, enabling franchises to move from the living room into the pocket and the world. In 1997 Nintendo’s Pokémon game was animated; by 2018 Pokémon was the highest-grossing worldwide media franchise.

In terms of content, the new millennium pursued that elusive next Pokémon along strings of imitators. Established genres endured, foregrounding characters transferable across platforms and merchandise. In 2002 the first Ghost in the Shell TV series, Stand Alone Complex, extended the franchise. The 1993 movie Ninja Scroll was retrofitted for TV in 2003. Gundam and Gigantor had new series. Pirate comedy One Piece surpassed its inspiration, Dragon Ball, in the Japanese market, but still trails Pokémon as a global franchise.

How TV anime will continue to evolve from here might be impossible to predict, but one thing at least is clear – the talented writers and directors of these works, with their brilliantly executed formulae, will continue to perform dazzling new tricks on very old ropes: acknowledge an audience’s predictable tastes, follow trends closely, stay afloat. Survival is the aim. Excellence is a bonus.

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About Japan National Tourism Organization

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Five contemporary Japanese films to watch on BFI Player

BFI Player has teamed up with the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) to bring you some of the best of Japanese cinema, and a serious dose of wanderlust. These five gems offer viewers a tour of the finest contemporary Japanese films and a chance to sample the country’s breathtaking landscapes.


Kitano Takeshi, 1993

Location: Okinawa

Sonatine (1993)

A masterful gangster film about a yakuza sent to the beautiful beaches of Okinawa where he has time to ruminate on his fate.

Nobody Knows

Koreeda Hirokazu, 2003

Location: Tokyo

Nobody Knows (2003)

A heartbreaking study of neglect about four children left to fend for themselves.

The Mourning Forest

Naomi Kawase, 2007

Location: Nara

The Mourning Forest (Mogari No Mori, 2007)

A haunting tale about an elderly widower and his young nurse who get lost in a forest.

The Woodsman and the Rain

Okita Shûichi, 2011

Location: Nagano

The Woodsman and the Rain (2011)

A lumberjack in the Kiso mountains is roped into the shooting of a zombie film.

Journey to the Shore

Kurosawa Kiyoshi, 2015

Location: Kanagawa

Journey to the Shore (2015)

The living and the dead coexist in this beautiful meditation on love and loss.

Further reading

The seeds of anime: how Japanese animation arose

By Jonathan Clements

The seeds of anime: how Japanese animation arose

Tick tick... boom: anime goes global

By Alex Dudok de Wit

Tick tick... boom: anime goes global

Women make anime

By Ren Scateni

Women make anime

Beyond anime: a short history of independent Japanese animation

By Jasper Sharp

Beyond anime: a short history of independent Japanese animation

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