It's truly amazing how many people into Anime today seem to think that it all started about a year before they got involved in the hobby. Many will, however, tell almost identical stories about dim childhood memories of (depending on how old they are) Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Marine Boy, Gigantor, Robotech, or Star Blazers. Others wandered into a comic shop and discovered to their utter amazement that there was an Akira MOVIE to go along with their comics. Still others fell in love with Ken Ichi Sonoda's manga (Japanese for comics) style, and had their eyes pulled out of their sockets by the animated Bubblegum Crisis. There are even people now who discovered the medium when someone they knew told them about the Ranma f dubs, or accidentally tuned in the Science Fiction Channel one Saturday morning ... something that was unthinkable only a few years ago.
The real history of the medium is frequently chaotic and bizarre (as is the medium itself), and to cover it in depth would take hundreds of pages (I've been threatening for years to write such a book), but that's not the function of this primer. My goal is merely to give you, the reader, an idea of what happened and when. Significant events have been left out of this (I'm not even going to think about documenting the politics of early US fandom or the recent Evangelion debacle), and portions of the text presented here are based on rumor and conjecture. The event sequence is bunched up around the middle, and there are times when so many things are happening at once that it became difficult to limit the narrative to a half dozen threads or so. I feel that this does, however, give a reasonable account of the tumultuous history of this medium.
The Very Beginning (Osamu Tezuka)
The world has changed a lot in the last 33 years. When Osamu Tezuka was stunning Japan with his Tetsuwan Atomu in 1963, Japan was generally considered a place that copied American goods and produced cheap toys. The economic miracle still hadn't taken hold. On the whole, the country had not forgiven itself for events of the 1930's and 1940's. The destruction caused by the Second World War was not far removed from everyday life, and the atomic destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were very fresh memories indeed. It was therefore a bold move as Tezuka, an established manga artist, told a story of the little robot boy with an atomic heart. This robot, disowned by his creator for the unpardonable sin of being a failure (he never grew), is rescued by people who care. Nurturing and accepting him, this "heartless" creature becomes the staunch advocate of the very race who shunned him and all his kind. Robots are second class citizens in the 21st century ... useful at times, but not imbibed with the same rights as people. In their gradual acceptance of Mighty Atom, perhaps, they all become a bit more human. This show did something else pretty amazing too: Producer Fred Ladd took a look at it and decided that it might actually sell over in America ... but the Japanese would have to make it look a little better.
Cels were added as American money entered the project, and Astro Boy was born. NBC had the rights, yet they themselves never aired it. With national syndication, Astro Boy became a hit, and inspired many of the First Wave anime fans (like your author). Then, as now, the US broadcasters complained (quietly at first) about the violence in the shows, and that characters might actually die during the course of a story. This, as Uncle Walt had taught us, was a medium for children, and children could not be trusted with an advanced concept such as death. That the Japanese were exposed to these stories and more was not relevant, and American audiences never saw the last episode.
Perhaps most surprising to many American fans, Tetsuwan Atomu is not considered to be Tezuka's greatest work ... that singular honor goes not even to Jungle Emperor (more on that in a moment), but on his "lifework" Hi No Tori (Bird of Fire). This huge story (12 collected manga volumes at last count) runs from the distant past to the distant future, and sadly was not completed before his untimely death (There was, however, a theatrical version). You can get a suggestion of how good this story sequence was in video only with the Phoenix 2772: Love's Cosmo Zone movie and the Japanese (not yet available in the US) series Hi No Tori 1-3 (there was also a Japanese only 1979 feature called Hi No Tori, which featured some live-action sequences).
While 2772's story does not take place in the manga series per se, there are segments which touch on many of the same elements. Even so, Dr. Tezuka is best remembered for his little robot boy and his sister (interestingly, Atomu and Uran ... atom and uranium), some of his more experimental films like Jumping, Broken Down Film, Legend of the Forest, and his epic series about a little white lion with black ears ... a series which shares many elements with a Disney film from a few years ago. The lion in the US version of the series was called Kimba ... although his original name was Simba. We'll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but Disney steadfastly denies that anyone based their story on the Tezuka classic. Some in the industry find this not to be a defensible position.
Shortly after the firestorm descended on Disney, the company took the position that it was largely unaware of Japanese Animation in general, and Tezuka in particular. Their animators, it was categorically stated, were not influenced at all during the production of their own King-of-the-Jungle lion film. That entire scenes were lifted from Tezuka "splash" panels were merely coincidence. It was therefore a bit of a reversal when shortly afterward Disney and Studio Ghibli announced that Miyazaki's back catalog of films would be distributed by Disney ... a company that was officially "unaware" of the medium. Strange, to say the least, eh?
The First Shows Hit US TV
Even before Osamu Tezuka died, other powerful influences were making their marks with manga and television series. Eight Man (TOBOR, the Eighth Man), Kaitei Shonen Marin (Marine Boy), and Tetsujin 28 (Gigantor) all found their way to American TV in the 1960's and very early 1970's. Filling Tezuka's shoes was probably impossible, but the Starving Seven (an artist hothouse project started by Tezuka) were each destined to make their own way in this fledgling industry. Members of this core group are still active today, but one of the first to break out and take the world by the horns was Liegi Matsumoto. His Space Cruiser Yamato (Star Blazers) triggered the Second Wave of fandom almost by itself in the US, and many of us think that it's only a matter of time before his presence is felt again in the animation industry. "The Cockpit" (not currently available in the US) gives very interesting insight about just how cool this guy's stuff can be ... and we're all just waiting for an announcement about some of his older stuff being revived as everything old is new again.
Other Early Shows
Also a significant force in early Anime was Ippei Kurei. Many animation fans don't know that name, but almost all of the older ones (and many becoming fans right now thanks to the Cartoon Channel) would be able to finish the line "Here he comes, here comes ..." (after all, he IS a demon on wheels, and he's often flying as he guns his car around the track). There is now such an intense interest in this 1967 television show that a recent Volkswagen TV commercial features Speed (Racer, that is), Trixie and the rest of the gang along with a Golf GTI. After this success, he went on to create what Tatsunoko Studio is perhaps best known for: Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (responsible for the rest of the Second Wave fans). This property had three different television series over the years, and more recently, an OVA series (if you don't know what that is, read on) of its own.
Although it was butchered when it was adapted for the US market, enough of the original strength of this show comes through even now. Sadly, the US audiences have only seen the first series (and not very much of that ... there is a significant and protracted death as the show winds itself up) as of this writing ... but that's about to change. Word has it that the second series (the Gelsadora series) is coming this fall under the name "Eagle Rider". At any rate, most fans of Ranma 1/2 feel that Ranma is the first character to change from male to female ... forgetting that Berg Katse (Zoltar) did the same thing during the first season of Gatchaman (not mentioned in the US adaptations, but it does explain the lipstick, eh? ) ... and wasn't too happy about it either. It didn't happen with a bucket of water, but over time, and it was as inexorable as the tides. Destined to be born twins, Sosai X (the thing in the flames ... actually, the bird image is only what it wants to look like) fused them into a single being with a superhuman intelligence and a schizoid personality. While you won't see a changing chest, if you watch the series for any time, you'll see the he sometimes develops ... hips.
Androgynous characters are hardly unique to Berg Katse, although the bulk of them are confined to Shojo (girl's) shows. Only over the last two years or so have many of these other shows made it to America (Tezuka's "Princess Knight", of course, being the early notable exception), and many feel that the jury is still out on whether the US audiences are accepting them.
Perhaps 15% of the Japanese market are shows aimed squarely at little girls and the one that most domestic fans will know today is Sailor Moon. Yes: Sailor Moon is aimed at little girls. Don't get too weirded out about it though: in Japan between Dirty Pair's Kei and Yuri, Yuri is the popular one. Several of the US companies are experimenting with this genre (including The Right Stuf International) for several reasons (more on this later), but we feel that there will be at least some more of this type of programming as the year wears on.