Of Swords and Sailors: The History of Anime


The anime industry is an art behemoth. From giving breakout roles to many an aspiring professional voice actor and young artist, to becoming a household classics and creating pop culture icons, the mark that this genre of media has left an indelible mark on the world of entertainment. The current anime industry is worth over 20 billion dollars, and although its largest industry is in the Asia-Pacific region, the fact of the matter is that the industry is growing quickly and has managed to find its way to audiences all over the world.

Although many are now familiar with the seemingly endless stream of flashy sword fights, giant robot transformations, and stunning visuals that have managed to make their way out of animation studios in the past few decades, how many of us can actually claim to know the origins of this medium?

 Humble Beginnings

Japanese style animation (shortened down to the modern term anime) as we know it today largely became popular around the 1960s with the establishment of Mushi Productions, run by Osamu Tezuka. Naturally anime has existed for much longer, however. Prior to the end of World War 2, most Japanese animated productions were aimed for commercial or propaganda purposes. The first few theatrical releases of Japanese animated films were made in the vein of Disney movies (which were also popular in Japan). These films were made with children as their target audience and were meant for a Japanese audience. As such, the films often contained many references to Japanese culture and often featured fantastical adventures. 

Another factor in the 60s which further pushed anime to the forefront as a medium of entertainment in Japan was the popularization of television entertainment. Anime studios began producing serialized content that would be released in a weekly format. Many of these shows such as Sally the Witch (story by Mitsuteru Yokoyama) and Cyborg-009 (story by Shotaro Ishinomori) were adapted from manga (Japanese style comic books) which were popular at the time. These animated productions by Toei were a hit with Japanese audiences and helped to encourage more studios to take on the production of this medium. 

The Overseas Market

Astroboy was arguably one of the first major animated exports from Japan to the U.S. It first touched down on American soil in 1963, and with the efforts of Fred Ladd, it was aired on NBC. The show became a cultural touchstone for many generations down the line, but at the time its creator (Osamu Tezuka) remained largely unknown to its overseas audience. 

Another major landmark in the spread of anime outside of Japan was in 1968. Animation studio Tatsunoko created Speed Racer (also known as Mach GoGoGo), which became a hit with its Japanese audience and then was brought over to the U.S. by Peter Fernandez. Other influential figures who made efforts to adapt anime for a Western audience included Carl Macek and Sandy Frank. 

However, these early releases were heavily adapted to suit Western audiences. Not only did the Japanese of the original productions have to be dubbed over in English, but the scripts were also heavily edited, and parts of the shows were also censored in order to follow the guidelines set by the networks. While this produced many hilariously poorly edited scenes that have become iconic memes in their own right, it also took a rather long time for audiences to begin demanding the original versions, if nothing else than simply as a matter of principle.

The Trials and Successes

Despite the economic turbulence that Japan experienced in the 90s (due to the bubble economy) and again in the 2000s (the world wide economic crunch), the anime industry has managed to endure and even flourish. That is not to say that it was all smooth sailing. Both economic crises led to many studio budget cuts and also caused many talented animators to have to leave the industry due to the lack of profitability. In addition, the rise of the internet also allowed for the rise in online piracy and distribution, which led to a further decline in the industry’s profit margins. 

Nonetheless, many anime series and films have also found widespread success that allowed the industry to survive. Series such as “Dragon Ball,” “Sailor Moon,” and “Bleach” found audiences and ardent fans all over the world, and have gone on to influence many more anime series. Not to mention the critical acclaim of certain animated films such as Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, which won itself the Academy Award For Best Animated Feature Film in 2003, Japanese Academy Prize for Picture of The Year in 2002, and Hong Kong Film Award for Best Asian Film in 2002. The success of early anime was doubtlessly the gateway that allowed the industry to flourish in the way that it has now. 

Anime has been a valuable medium for creators in Japan to express themselves and find a voice even on an international stage. The anime industry is continuing to succeed on a global stage and shows no sign of slowing down. As Japanese society and animation technology develops, we can only wait with bated breath to see what this industry will continue to surprise us with. 

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