The western world has welcomed Japanese anime with open arms, yet we may not realize how much it has changed.
For many English speaking fans, the word “anime” became a household term during the 90s. Sailor Moon was released in the west in 1995, and Dragon Ball Z followed suit in 1996. Cartoon Network would introduce the Toonami evening block a mere two years later, which showcased anime such as Robotech and G Gundam during primetime hours. Combined with the global popularity of Pokemon in 1998, anime went from a niche to a phenomenon in less than a decade. Whereas shows like Speed Racer were called “Japanimation” in the 60s, terms like “manga” and “otaku” entered the English vernacular and generated fresh interest in Japanese culture.
Yet even with the rapid growth of anime throughout the 90s, the industry has shown no sign of slowing down since then.
Though 1960s shows like Gigantor and Astro Boy were among the earliest examples of anime in the west, the medium dates as far back as 1917 in Japan. Early Japanese animators worked to compete with international animation studios, including but not limited to Walt Disney after 1923. It wasn’t until 1958 that the first feature-length anime film, The Tale of the White Serpent, was released by Toei Animation. Modern anime fans may recognize Toei Animation as the studio behind Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, as well as an enormous number of other shows and movies throughout the years. Though the international success of anime could still be considered recent history, its century-old roots show just how long Japanese animation has been evolving and redefining itself.
Having said that, the way anime has targeted demographics has changed considerably since the 90s. For many years, animation studios produced shows targeting girls or boys in specific age groups, which was only balanced by the abundance of shows produced in this manner. Sailor Moon is a perfect example of this: the show not only targeted younger girls, but it popularized the “magical girl” genre that was commonly used to appeal to particular demographics. Nowadays, while some anime is still produced for specific age groups, many shows have become huge successes without appealing to a set gender. 2010’s Puella Magi Madoka Magica is one such anime: despite being a magical girl anime like Sailor Moon, its dark storyline and impeccable writing garnered universal acclaim for innovating within the genre.
We’ve also seen mature anime enter the international pop culture space since the days of Dragon Ball Z. While anime has had no shortage of adult-oriented material throughout the years, fans began to gravitate towards complex shows with nuanced writing all throughout the 2000s. 2006’s psychological thriller Death Note is one such anime, which remains internationally popular with numerous live-action adaptations produced to this day. The rise of mature shows coincides with the prominence of anime adaptations of manga and visual novels, which is surely no coincidence. Not only do these shows build upon preexisting storylines, the hype from their existing fanbase creates buzz that draws in new fans as well.
Yet perhaps the most obvious change to anime throughout the years has been the art style itself. Though every show’s artists bring a unique twist to the medium, anime art has by and large shifted from utilizing defined lines in favor of softer edges. A viral image demonstrating these changes was translated and published by Kotaku, with many readers following suit by comparing anime art from the 90s to the style of modern anime. One of the most divisive trends among anime fans on this topic has been the growing popularity of “moe” art, a slang term for wide-eyed characters designed to be overwhelmingly cute or otherwise idealizations of youth. While many adore this art style and are drawn to shows that utilize it, others consider it a significant step backwards from animation that was prominent throughout the 90s.
Either way, whether you like modern anime or prefer to stick to the classics, it’s impossible to deny how much has changed since the early 90s. However, with Sailor Moon Crystal premiering in 2014 and Dragon Ball Super being the first new TV anime based on the franchise in 18 years, it’s clear that the industry is working to revitalize fanbases that may have gone ignored in recent history. Perhaps anime will never go back to the way it was, but if this brief history has taught us anything, it’s that the possibilities are endless for the foreseeable future.
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