The Home Video Revolution
In the late 70's and early 1980's, you either had TV shows, TV Movies, or Theatrical Movies. Sony, however was to change all of that. The first home video cassette recorders were large, heavy, expensive, and generally pretty clunky machines. The blank tape was expensive. The machines were not simple to set up or operate, and if something in them broke, you were in for no end of trouble. Still, here was something that you could have in your house and ... now, get this ... RECORD something and PLAY IT BACK LATER ... AGAIN AND AGAIN! Even better, if you didn't mind the loss, you could call one of your rich friends and MAKE A COPY of the tape! This was a revolution when the machines first showed up, and by the time people were questioning the money being spent on new shows, these machines were heavily entrenched ... even LaserVision machines were no longer an oddity (although there was quite a bit of doubt over whether LaserVision or the RCA CED disc would be the one to survive. Funny now, eh? ).
With a budget that was still pretty significant, and a running time that was consistent with films of the day, Megazone 23 was released direct to videotape (for a trivia question, name the first OVA ... it's not Megazone 23, but a little known series called Dallos). Called an "OVA": Original Video Animation (or an OAV: Original Animation Video ... depends on which you prefer), Artmic's decision was justified and the film went on to spawn (really three) sequels. This was big news in the industry: for a fraction of the money it took to create a feature length film, they could create a direct to tape release and make about the same amount of money. Megazone 23 didn't stay the big OVA for very long: it was followed up by the first Bubblegum Crisis and the first Iczer 1 very quickly. Both of these had a running time closer to 40 minutes as opposed to Megazone 23's 90. The public, however, didn't care (due more to the work of Hirano Toshihiro and Ken Ichi Sonoda than anything else), eagerly buying up the tapes. The studios were saved and all was right with the world.
The End of the Golden Years
As you might expect, this period of prosperity wasn't going to last forever. In fact, Sonoda didn't even finish his own Bubblegum Crisis series (rumor has it that his Artland contract was a real killer, and he wasn't interested in working for the company once that contract was up). Nevertheless, no one knew that at the time, and new OVA startup companies were literally everywhere. For a while, it looked like the CD-Rom companies in the US do now: you couldn't swing your arms without hitting at least a few of them. For a while (a long while, actually), most of them did fairly well in the marketplace, but for many the writing was on the wall. The market was becoming saturated, and the Japanese economy (in decline for some time) was getting worse.. Company after company switched from the anime market into producing computer games. This isn't to say that there weren't any big movies being made at the time. Miyazaki scored twice with Totoro of the Neighborhood and then Kiki's Delivery Service. At last, however, there was about to be a huge movie influence that had nothing to do with Miyazaki.
The Release of Akira
Katsuhiro Otomo was already quite famous by the time the money came in to produce a movie from his most famous manga creation. His segment (An Order to Cease Construction) in 1987's Meikyo Monogatari (aka Neo Tokyo) boded quite well for a full length film version of his work. There was huge anticipation as each new manga volume arrived on the shelves in Japan. When the movie was announced, the market shuddered a bit in anticipation of what was coming, but many had been disappointed by huge buildups before. The film that emerged was anything but a disappointment. It was Akira.
The Disputed Last Gasp for Anime
There are those who argue that 1988 was the last real gasp for anime movies ... it's the year that both Akira and Totoro hit the screens to tumultuous responses. It didn't disguise the fact, though, that the entire market was showing signs of collapse. The OVA tapes that once wouldn't stay on the shelves were now doing so with annoying frequency, and suddenly everyone knew the party was over. When the biggest thing on television is Saint Seiya (an utterly forgettable quasi-shojo series with some interesting character design and a better than average color design), it becomes apparent that things are not good. Clearly it would take something quite extreme for the television industry at least to turn around. Fortunately, there was a company who could, and would, do just that.
Gainax - A Different Approach to Production and Marketing
Gainax had long been treated by the Japanese anime industry at large with a bit of contempt ... popular opinion held that they were a bunch of bohemian artists who had no business sense. Interestingly, this opinion is not far off: Gainax has succeeded the old fashioned way (no John Houseman, please): they created some of the most memorable shows ever made with frequently staggering technical skill. Rumor has it, though, that they made only a fraction of what they should have with the final products. Their "Gunbuster" is a parody of the Giant Robot genre, wonderfully paced and featuring a genuinely satisfying ending (It also features "Smith Toren" ... Dark Horse's Toren Smith, anyone? ). Their semi-autobiographical "Otaku no Video" (which has an almost invisible cameo of Lea Hernandez in it ... more or less) stands as a film that probably could not be made in today's bottom-line marketplace as it is almost decidedly anti-commercial, but is so entertaining that it's probably illegal in several small Southern regions. Their "Wings of Honneamis" is a colossal film ... one of the single greatest ever made, period. What do these guys do? They go to where the budgets are small, the work is hard, and the deadlines are impossible. They turn back to television. In the summer of 1990, as the Fourth Wave American fans were discovering anime through comic books and pirate (and even a few legitimate) videotapes, the Japanese market was being told a story about the late 1800's. This new show would change everything. This new show was called Nadia.