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The History of Anime and Its Arrival in America

29 June 2010

The history of anime in Japan is as long as the history of animation in the west. In fact, it grew out of the same roots: the development of cinema in the 1920s.

The Fathers of Anime

In many ways, our story begins with Walt Disney. He added sound and color to animation, and pioneered a number of other, now seldom-seen, techniques in the 1920s and 30s. For Disney, animation was a medium for family entertainment. Disney films were, aimed squarely at children, with a few jokes for grown-ups to keep parents from getting bored.


Astro Boy

copyright Tezuka Productions


Early Japanese animators, like their western counterparts, followed Disney’s lead and made their shows for kids. But then there was Osamu Tezuka, known to many as the “God of Comics” for his prolific and skilled creation of manga. Tezuka studied Disney’s productions, but he was also influenced by the French New Wave cinema of the1950s and 60s. His comics made extensive use of cinematic devices likepans, close-ups and cuts, easing his transition from comics to animation.

The First Anime Superstars

Tezuka was not only an innovator in Japanese animation, but he created Japan’s first animated star: Tetsuwan Atom, better known to westerners as Astroboy. On January 1, 1963, Tetsuwan Atom was first broadcast on Japanese TV, and soon after that Astroboy appeared on American television.

At the time, televison in the west was rapidly expanding and broadcasters were eagerly seeking content. Because the characters in anime appear western, it was easy to create American versions of Japanese-made shows simply by changing the names of the characters.



copyright Madman Entertainment


In 1965 another big Japanese series made it to North American television. It was called Gigantor in English; in Japan it was Tetsujin 28. This series introduced the “a boy and his robot” genre. Astroboy and Gigantor were followed by many others but, despite its initial popularity, anime was soon on the way out in the west, and by the late 1960s it had pretty much vanished from American television altogether.

Science Fiction and Anime


Star Blazers

copyright Madman Entertainment


In 1979 the was a surge of interest in science fiction in the US, prompted by Star Trek and Star Wars. This interest opened the way for foreign SF, including anime. In this climate, Space Battleship Yamato arrived in America as Star Blazers. Its impact was immense.

Around the same time, cable TV became increasingly common, and affordable home video players appeared on the market. Together, these events opened up room for more diverse programming, and anime became common in the west once again.


In Japan one of the most significated animated movies ever made appeared on movie screens in 1983. Barefoot Gen faced head-on the bombing of Hiroshima in World War II. In that same year, computer-generated animation was first used in a movie, but Golgo 13: The Professional was not a hit, despite being based on a respected manga series.

1983 is a significant year for a third reason: it was then the first OAV appeared (OAV = Original Animated Aideo = direct-to-video), a not-especially-memorable space opera called Dallos. Because OAVs did not have to be made under the same considerations as theatrical movies or broadcast television, many formats and topics could be explored that would be avoided in the theatre or on TV. And, because it came on videotapes intended for purchase and home viewing, it could be imported by individuals in the west, and sometimes even carried by video rental shops.



copyright Harmony Gold


Robotech was imported from Japan to the US in 1985 (it was actually an amalgamation of three separate Japanese series), and is still beloved for its innovation. Robotech was the first introduction to anime for many western fans now in their thirties.

For others, their first anime came in the form of the movie Akira, which appeared on Japanese screens in 1988, in the US in 1989 and in the UK in 1990. Of any anime, Akira probably had the most impact on viewers who until then had no idea what anime was.

Fan Power

But the real unstoppable force of anime in the west was a handful of television shows that appeared in the 1990s. In 1995 came Sailor Moon, the blueprint for the “magical girl” show. The series gained devoted fans all over the world, and those fans demostrated their power as an organized group when they sucessfully rallied to get the rest of the series dubbed into English.

Other blockbusters of the 90s include Dragonball Z (based on the manga by Akira Toriyama) and Pokemon (based on a video game). Both are prime examples of shonen, or boys’ anime.

As other kids’ shows like Digimon, Monster Rancher and girls’ anime Cardcaptors (Cardcaptor Sakura in Japan) also did well on western TV networks (not to mention on home video), broadcasters were more willing to take chances with more diverse series, including some aimed at older audiences. And, of course, the animation styles of Japanese shows began to have a considerable influence on western animation.

Eventually, this influence made collaborations between eastern and western animation studios a logical step, resulting in shows like Heroman, a TV series made by Studio Bones based on a concept by American comics icon Stan Lee. And Hollywood’s love of the remake has meant that live-action (or live action plus CG) movies based on Japanese animation are becoming more common.  The live-action Speed Racer and Transformers movies are two examples of what could be a growing trend.

Back to Disney

Though Japanese animation had seen theatrical releases in the west over the years, it didn’t necessarily reach a wide audience. When Disney signed a deal with Studio Ghibli, producers of anime movies by Hayao Miyazaki, that changed. In 1999, Disney brought Princess Mononoke to the US, and many people went to see it just because it had the Disney name on it. Soon, people were going to see the anime distributed by Disney because they were Miyazaki films, and then just because they were anime.

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