History of Anime
In the West, Japanese animation, anime, has become increasingly popular, often to the bewilderment of the Japanese themselves. It has become popular with "nerds" as well as what most would consider the mainstream.
Historically, the first Japanese animation was created before World War II. It, however, has its roots in the earlier traditions of Japanese comics, or manga. Unlike in the U.S., Japanese comics do not solely consist of super hero fare, an important fact to remember when dealing with anime, as the two mediums are deeply intertwined. Many of the early animation titles included Chinese myths, including "The Journey West", which would see life several times in the history of anime. In retrospect, most of these early cartoons would seem crude, but they were important first steps in the medium.
As the World War approached, many propaganda cartoons were created. Most featured the benevolence of Japanese rule for the "lower class" Asians and the barbarism of the Western world. As more and more resources were poured into the war effort, there was little time or capital to create animation outside of propaganda. Of course, Japan lost World War II and Douglas McArthur and the U.S. military set about changing Japan; this change pervaded Japanese culture and anime was no exception.
These American influences had a profound effect on the anime and the Japanese. The cartoons of Disney quickly became popular (Emperor Hirohito wore a Mickey Mouse watch to his grave and named one of his horses "White Snow" after Snow White). Osamu Tezuka was no exception. Widely considered the father of modern anime (and his Tetsuwan Atomu or Astroy Boy in the U.S. is often incorrectly considered the first anime), Tezuka was an early fanatic of Disney, which can be seen in his comics and anime; the story telling is grand in scope, while the characters have wide emotive eyes. This is one conceit often imitated in anime and one that Westerners pick up on nearly immediately. Outside of tradition or the Japanese style, this is done in many anime to give a character a wider range of visual emotional cues than would be possible with smaller eyes; it's an idea that comes from manga and it's need to convey ideas more succinctly.
Tezuka's canon is a list of memorable titles. These include Tetsuwan Atomu, Astro Boy, and Jungle Taitei, known as Kimba the White Lion. In the ultimate irony, many have accused Disney of ripping off Tezuka's work with the Lion King. These works are often highly philosophical, exploring and questioning Buddhist ideals and Japanese philosophy. Tezuka created many other titles, including A Thousand and One Nights, unflinchingly based upon the original work, erotica and all.
Also influenced by Disney, production company Toei began imitating Disney release schedules, with releases every one or two years, with Oriental myths. Notables include The Adventures of Sinbad, The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon. The fortunes of Toei and Tezuka crossed when Toei released Alakazam the Great, a film based on Tezuka's adaptation of The Journey West myth.
Thanks to Toei's work and Tezuka's popularity, television anime, like Tetsuwan Atomu, became an important part of Japanese television. The 1970s saw a rise in many types of animation: giant battling robots, magical girls, and space operas. With the popularity of Star Wars, sci-fi anime became increasingly popular. Space Battleship Yamato, a Japanese version of World War II set in space became extremely well known and its creator, Leiji Matsumoto, became popular enough to create anime from his other manga, including Captain Harlock, Macross, and Galaxy Express 999, all of which reached new plateaus of popularity. All three series are known for their drama, action, and distinctly Japanese perspective.
Battling robots, a genre often considered synonymous with anime, also saw a boom during the 1970s. The invasion of the mega robots was led by the classic Mazinger Z and Japanese mosnters films, like Godzilla and Ultraman , but exploded with the Mobile Suit Gundam series. Gundam, a disappointment in its initial television run (it was canceled during its run and the creators had to scramble to finish the series) became such a popular series that it singly handedly created the glut of giant robots in the late 70s, 80s, and 90s, including at least eleven spin-off series. Japan's premier anime magazine, took its name from a word in Mobile Suit Gundam; Newtype. The series involved the "Earth Federation" battling the rebel space colony of the Zeon. Past the exciting battles, the series became famous for its Matsumoto style drama and character development. Of the many anime released in the U.S., Gundam is the epitome of the complexity of anime characters - the Zeon are the bad guys, but bad guys with feelings, dreams, emotions, and motives. The good guys are childish, selfish, limited, in a human sense. This did (and continues to) contrast with the black and white world of American children's cartoons.
During the late 70s, anime was dominated by television series; Doreamon featuring a blue robotic cat from the future became a classic; he and his friends continue to be Japan's most popular cartoons. Master thief Lupin, created by Monkey Punch, began thieving during the 70s as well. Based on the 17th century fictional French thief, the Japanese Lupin III was touted as the descendant of the French thief.
Ironically, Japanese anime was making a move back towards theatrical presentations, thanks in part to Hayao Miyazaki and one of the most popular television characters, Lupin. Considered the Japanese Walt Disney, Miyazaki started his career at Toei. He worked on many early Toei films, including Panda Go Panda. After his work at there, Miyazaki worked on several television series, including World Masterpiece Theatres. In 1979, Miyazaki move to Tokyo Movie Shinsha to direct his first film, Lupin III: Castle of Caglisotro. Widely considered the best Lupin movie, Caglisotro (Steven Spielberg has commented that Caglisotro is among the greatest action movies ever made) put movies back in the anime focus.
The Golden Era
The 1980s are often considered the golden period of anime; a dizzying amount of new (and more importantly, original) series graced Japanese TVs and cinemas. In 1982, Urusei Yatusra debuted. Marking a new era of romantic comedies in anime, Rumiko Takahashi's series about a young Japanese boy and his unwanted alien fiancé quickly became one of the most popular anime in Japan. When Yatsura ended, it was by replaced (the very next week, in the very same time slot), by another romatic comedu, Maison Ikkoku. Ranma ½, Takashi's next series, took the romantic comedy of formula of both series, combining the slapstick of Yatsura and story progression of Maison Ikkoku and became a smash success in its own right.
The smash hit Dragon Ball also began its run in the 80s. Author Akira Toriyama based his quirky manga on the Chinese "Journey West" myth, with Goku playing the monkey in action filled adventures. Reasonably popular in their original series, Goku and company reached major success with the martial arts oriented Dragon Ball Z sequel series. Despite its status as childish and as a "gateway drug" (and thus attracting the worst fans), Dragon Ball Z is still often considered one of the most important series in America for the anime invasion.
Theatrically, Miyazaki released Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind An epic tale of a girl in a post apocalyptic future, the film was replete with ecological themes that Miyazaki's films would become known for. Nausicaä did so well, Miyazaki was able to found Studio Ghibli with Isao Takahata, Ghibli has become well known for a string of artistically and financially successful movies, including, Laputa: the Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) and The Crimson Pig (1992); and Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Only Yesterday (1991) and Pom Poko (1994).
1988 saw the release of Akira. Set in post apocalyptic Tokyo, Akira follows a biker gang mixed up in a bizarre government project. The sci-fi story is one often considered the epitome of Japanese anime; many American fans have gotten into anime through Akira; whether it be copies from showings in local anime clubs or late night broadcasts on the American TBS or Sci-Fi Channel television stations.
Many TV series saw theatrical releases as well, including Urusei Yatusra's lyrical second movie Beautiful Dreamer. Super Dimensional Fortress Macross another mecha series, well known for its mechanical design, saw the release of its popular Do You Remember Love film.
The 80s also marked the beginning of one of the most integral parts of anime fandom, the OAV or Original Anime Video. OAVs are direct to video releases, often featuring high production values. However, OAVs were much cheaper to create than movies, so they quickly gained popularity among production companies. OAVs are known for series that would not appeal to the mainstream, including pornographic titles.
As bubble popped on the Japanese economy, the anime business was hit hard. The runaway success were stopped dead in their heels. While Totoro and Akira ended the decade well, consumers became choosy with the glut of OAV series.
As the traditional companies and studios began to falter with the Japanese economy (Ghibli aside), a spot opened up for new companies. This niche was filled by Gainax. Considered more artists than businessmen, Gainax was made up mostly of young people who had grown up on the earlier anime. As fans of the medium, they released series and OAVs for fans. This included Gunbuster a giant mech parody and Otaku no Video, a frightening and delicious look at Japanese anime fans. Gainax also created, a very Miyazaki-esque series, Nadia. Ecologically themed, the series ended up on NHK (as Miyazaki's Future Boy Conan did).
The 90s also saw the rise of anime in America. A few (by no means many) of the titles seeing release in the U.S. were pornographic OAVs. Fox News and the L.A. Times went after the industry in the early 90s, after Central Park Media released the softcore I Give it My All.
During the early 90s, the anime industry in Japan was lambasted for a lack of creativity. Despite the successes of a few series, like Giant Robo, most anime was a rehash, either unofficially, or officially, like the Dragonball/Z sequel, Dragonball GT.
Gainax jump started anime in Japan once again with Neon Genesis Evangelion. On the surface, Evangelion is another giant robot series, with roots as far back as Ultraman. However, with a cynical new attitude, Evangelion was able to attract fans back to anime. The series featured intense sexual and violent content (that nearly got it knocked off TV twice). Often cited as one of the most artistic anime ever produced, it has become a fan favorite in the West as well.
Since then, however, anime has been in the doldrums. For the most part, since the mid 90s, anime has been stuck in a pit of blandness, with most series again going back to older series. However, this has been changing since the end of the 90s: exciting new ideas have sprung up. Stylistically, anime has matured - as can be viewed in the jazz influenced, Lupin III inspired Cowboy Bebop or the Internet themed Serial Experiments Lain.
Is all anime pornographic?
Though, looking at much of the anime released in the States, especially during the early 90s, it might seem as if 90% of anime is pornographic, it is quite the opposite. Japanese anime as a whole is intended for a wide audience. These include anime for children, teens, men, women, and yes, pornography.
Japan does have a less Puritanical attitude towards nudity, however, and many series intended for children do feature some nudity. This is largely harmless, as in Dragon Ball when the rustic Goku goes swimming naked.
Anime does feature intense violence too, though, for the most part, it pales in comparison to a typical R-rated movie.
One the one hand are films like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, the Rurouni Kenshin OAV, and The Castle Cagilostro On the other end of the spectrum are productions like La Blue Girl; ninety five percent of anime falls in between, not art, but not pornography either.
Why do anime characters have big eyes/weird hair?
Anime eyes, while not in every series, are often used. The eyes come from Disney cartoons, through Osamu Tezuka's manga and are used to quickly give emotional cues to the audience.
Anime hair helps to differentiate characters; the girls in Tenchi Muyo might be harder to tell apart without their wild, colored hair. Additionally hair says something about the character; Kasumi (or Misty, in America) from Pocket Monsters has red hair, cueing in the audience to her quick tempered personality.
What are fansubs?
Since anime is released first in Japan, many Western fans (especially as anime began invading America in the early 90s) became impatient with local release schedules. These fans procured copied of the Japanese anime (sometimes from Japan, sometimes from Chinese/Asian pirates/fans) and provided them with English subtitles. These vary wildly in quality (both visually and with the translation). This was seen as a way to introduce anime that would never see a release in the U.S. Before the Internet was popular, fansubs were usually put on blank VHS tapes and usually traded or bought for a small price (enough to cover expenses). Now many digital fansubbers create fansubs on their computer and distribute them via IRC, the web, and file sharing services.
This is a small "getting started" list. This is not a list of all the best anime, but what I consider a good introduction to the medium and why.
My Neighbor Totoro, Laputa Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away
All films by Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, each films captures a sense of wonderment (the first three a childish wonderment, but childish in the best sense of the word). All films would appeal to the art house crowd, the latter two especially. Spirited Away, set to be released by Disney in America later this year, contains some bizarre imagery, while Mononoke contains some violent content.
The first OAV is a good introduction to anime, sad and powerful, well made, with an incredible score. It was released as Samurai X: Betrayal and Trust in the U.S. There is also second OAV series (that takes place chronologically after the first OAV and TV series) and a humorous television series. For the art house crowd, the first OAV is a treat. The first OAV is extremely violent (but with a purpose).
A charming little series, created in by the all-female artists group CLAMP. Descended from Sailor Moon and Pocket Monsters, it features the fourth grader Sakura attempting to catch magical cards that have escaped their guise. The series is surprisingly realistic, when it comes to Sakura's school life.
Record of Lodoss War OAV
One for the Dungeons and Dragons set, Lodoss was based on an actual game of D&D. Despite that, fans of fantasy will find an interesting, three dimensional tale.
One of three "space cowboy" series, Cowboy Bebop takes the Lupin formula of adventure and close calls, puts it in space with a jazz influenced feel and soundtrack. An absolute pleasure, but contains some mildly violent content.
Serial Experiments Lain
Lain is a very interesting series, centered on how a girl gets lost in the Internet, in technology. Very intersting (even with a "recap" episode that shows things that never happened in the series).
Capsulated History of Anime
Right Stuf: History of Anime
The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917