A History of Anime: The Super Abbreviated Version – part 3 of 4 (1990-1999)

hideaki anno ultraman
Where we last left off in the previous exciting episode of this (mini)series, the anime industry was actually dying (as opposed to, you know, whatever people are saying about anime now), and Japan as a whole sure wasn’t look too healthy either. Anime needed a hero. A hero fresh from the fight…

The biggest problem facing the industry was that while creativity might have been high in the 80s, money was now a serious problem. By the time the 90s rolled around, the anime industry was faced with some major stagnation, and although animation technology had advanced tremendously over the previous several years, much of the anime being produced for television was (at least in comparison to some of the unique and impressively executed anime of the 70s and 80s) disappointingly mediocre. One studio to break this trend was Gainax.

In 1990, a groundbreaking new show called Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water was introduced to the screen. Like the pioneering Mighty Atom before it, the story behind Nadia was daring given the times; the show, which had an extremely strong environmental message, was released while the Japanese government was resisting international agreements concerning newly emerging global environmental problems. Although past films by Miyazaki had explored similar themes, these had never before been translated into a whole 39-episode show – and this was Gainax’s very first TV series.

Unsurprisingly, the studio at first had trouble getting others to take the project seriously. Cap in hand, it was forced to turn to the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) for help. Lucky they did, because while the series was only originally scheduled to run for only 26 episodes, the show’s popularity actually prompted the network to request more material, and the series was even more popular when it debuted in the US the following year.

Moreover, director Anno Hideaki was soon to become a household name. Anno had already become a recognised talent with the release of his work on Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and then as animation director for Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise. However, following Nadia, Anno fell into a four-year depression, and nobody would have predicted that the release of Neon Genesis Evangelion in 1995, a controversial masterpiece both written and directed by Anno, would leave such a huge mark. Indeed, Evangelion was about to change the world of anime forever.

In fact, Evangelion was already attracting record amounts of speculation long before the series went to air. Gainax had announced that it was working on something new but gave no details whatsoever about the project – yet the 26-episode series still exceeded any expectations, at least in part because nobody at that point had ever seen anything quite like it: an apocalyptic mecha anime that looked to be a typical shounen piece on the surface but in reality was much more interested in exploring heavy psychological themes. It’s cast, a group of teenagers all struggling with past traumatic events, current inner demons, and highly dysfunctional relationships, did not exhibit any sort of conventional heroism or bravery expected by mainstream audiences at this time, but instead were characterised by their severe emotional impairments. The title was neither optimistic nor uplifting as people had come to expect from their shounen shows, but rather depressing and deeply disturbing.

evangelion tv series shinji

Such a show might not seem out of the ordinary today, but at the time it was revolutionary. It also helped set the stage for a slew of ‘post-Evangelion’ titles, most of which likewise involved complex plots featuring giant robots or other science-fiction elements along with high-quality animation, dark themes, and an artistic or abstract feel – titles like Gasaraki, Serial Experiments Lain, Boogiepop Phantom, RahXephon, and Texhnolyze. Late-night Japanese television became a forum for experimental anime, in large part due to Evangelion’s critically acclaimed success.

Of course, the 1990s saw more than the success of just this one show. Despite Japan’s domestic troubles, the decade also gave rise to what are now some of the most popular and recognisable anime in the world. Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon, the magical-girl anime that almost single-handedly modernised the genre and set another trend (quickly followed as it was by other popular and long-running magical-girl shows like Cardcaptor Sakura, Magic Knight Rayearth, Kamikaze Kaito Jeanne and Full Moon wo Sagashite), began its original run in 1992 and didn’t finish until five years later. The English adaptation, produced in an attempt to capitalize on the success of the American live-action series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, defined an entire generation of anime fans.

In 1997, the Pokémon series was first released in Japan and then in America the following year. It became famous not only because the video game on which it’s based has become the second most successful and lucrative video game-based media franchise in the world (second only to Nintendo’s Mario series), but also because it left such a huge mark on pop culture as a whole. It literally took only weeks before Pokémon fever hit North America, and Pikachu is today considered the Japanese answer to Mickey Mouse – one of the main faces of Japan’s ‘cute capitalism’ movement. The Digimon series which first aired in 1999, while not as popular as Pokémon, was nonetheless highly regarded and still garnered millions of viewers, becoming one of the largest anime to be exported out of Japan along with Sailor Moon, Pokémon and of course Dragon Ball Z – the last of which likewise gained overwhelming popularity, and in some respects might be regarded as the male equivalent to Sailor Moon.


This video isn’t strictly relevant. It is, however, probably by far the cutest thing you will see today.

Other anime titles also hit the screen and enjoyed large commercial success in both the Japanese and international markets during the late 90s. This included Cowboy Bebop, a more adult-orientated series which became the first anime title to be shown as part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block in America. It was also unique and successful enough to be broadcast repeatedly there for four years, ranking second only to Evangelion in the 2004 Newtype USA reader-selected poll for the Top 25 Anime Titles of All Time.

cowboy bebop cast

By the end of the decade, anime awareness within America, as well as much of Europe, was at a level that would have been unthinkable during the 1970s, 80s or even early 90s. The anime fandom had grown exponentially, and syndication which took place throughout the 90s meant it was now possible for old anime shows such as the original Speed Racer and Battle of the Planets to make a comeback. If the 1980s was the Golden Age of anime, then the 1990s might be thought of as the New Age. While the anime industry as a whole was far less financially stable and perhaps less grand than it had once been, it was also becoming far more visible to a mainstream audience.

Word count so far: 3422. To be continued in part 4…

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24 thoughts on “A History of Anime: The Super Abbreviated Version – part 3 of 4 (1990-1999)

    • Feel feel to pout – it’s not prohibited on this blog. :p

      To be fair, there were a lot of titles I didn’t mention. Some because although popular or unique, they didn’t drastically alter the historical or cultural landscape of anime either in Japan or overseas, some because I just didn’t have the wordcount necessary to go into them. (Incidentally, Escaflowne was one of those weird titles that wasn’t that popular in its home country but gained a huge amount of popularity by comparison in some other locations. That’s not why I left it out of this particular article, I just thought that was interesting.)

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  1. Ahh, the 90s, the time when Gainax was the bastion of quality. I wonder if Gainax really saved anime. Their time saw anime continuously pushed toward late night, and with it the modern form of anime otaku was created.

    I also noticed the similarity between the change in anime industry and the change in Sci fi literature from Golden Age to New Wave. Golden Age sci-fi tried to be “hard”, creating a believable universe and focusing on big ideas. 80s anime was the same, with Gundam being the most obvious example. After that, both New Wave Sci fi and 90s anime tried to make the story more personal. Evangelion borrowed a lot of ideas from Gundam and other Tomino anime, but completely discard the proper world-building and conventional narrative of those shows. Anno used those elements only to tell an emotional story. Even the more conventional 90s anime like Cowboy Bebop or Trigun’s central plot isn’t that strong. Those mid to late 90s anime are well received, but they lacked the universe expansion power of Gundam or Ghost in the shell, due to the focus on characters journey.

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    • I don’t think any one specific anime company or title alone can be credited for ‘saving anime’ per se, but Gainax certainly made a significant (and I believe largely positive) impact on the industry at a time. Regardless of whether people like or dislike Evangelion, I think everyone can at least agree that it has a lot of historical value.

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  2. On a more substantive note, the 90s was also the golden age of the OAV market, particularly in the early stages of LDs, and most of the commentary thus far has focussed on TV series when a lot of the more interesting titles were happening as OAVs (Key the Metal Idol, Lodoss Wars, etc).

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    • Yeah, there are a ton of stuff I didn’t mention here, including OVAs – I talked a bit about them in part two, but you’re right that I’ve been focusing much more on TV shows and films in comparison.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Always have a lot of fondness for this period. It’s the Golden Age of anime penetration in my country, completely dominating the TV slots those days. Pretty fascinating to compare w/ the contemporary development in the Western shores! Eva and Bebop never really get big here because they’re not on telly, thus I tend to remember 1990 for being the decade that produced perhaps the highest amount of top-notch (relatively) kid-friendly anime shows. Pokemon, Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, Digimon, and Sakura were genuine cultural phenomenon for kids, and I think that kind of thing is very unlikely to happen again in the near future. There are Precure and Youkai Watch I guess, but they don’t have the global/regional impact of those shows.

    I didn’t discover ‘adult anime’ until well into the aughts, with the advent of VCD distribution. I remember being terribly confused by SE Lain, haha, should really re-visit it sometime. The discovery of this type of anime kind of blew my mind at that time; you’re allowed to kill people in cartoons?? (*well, Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball do kill off its characters, but the Good Ones always come back to life…)

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    • Yeah, I didn’t discover most of my adult anime until the 00s either, but boy did the 90s have some awesome kid shows. Of course, a lot of that content was severely altered for non-Japanese screens – what they considered okay for children and what a lot of others did were two very different things – but we got them nonetheless.

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  4. Interesting you mention creativity, as there are some anime producers/directors who bemoan the LACK of it in making original storylines in today’s industry. They complain about essentially having to make the same ecchi-fanservice LN/manga adaptation because those titles sell well with the otaku, they’re willing to pay, and the studio needs the money. (An anime studio member admitted they use Bluray sales to gauge a series’ success and making a potential 2nd season.) What’s your opinion on this?

    PS. Have do the new Evangelion movies compare storywise to the TV version, if you have watched them both?

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    • There are always going to be people, whether its anime fans or workers directly involved within the industry, who bemoan the lack of creativity. I’d certainly call anime a business first and foremost, so I’m not surprised that the same kind of ecchi-fanservice LN/manga adaptations appear again and again and again in order to make money (and I’ll be talking about that in more depth in my final article next week), but I don’t think that means that there are no unique, innovative, and artistic works being made. It’s just that we need to look for them a little harder.

      In answer to your Evangelion question: I adore the original TV series, and I very much enjoyed the first Evangelion film. The second one was also pretty good I think, albeit not quite so much as the first. I flat-out hated the third one, which I reviewed some time ago in full if you’re interested: https://otakulounge.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/evangelion-3-0-what-the-actual-fuck/

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      • I wonder what Anno was thinking when he made those changes for Movie 3. He may have been trying to be creative and cover new ground, but it certainly was a VERY big risk.
        Has there been any news on when Anno wants to do Movie 4? Last I heard most of his screw scattered to do other things, and he himself’s involved in some Godzilla movie or other.

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        • It was originally supposed to be released last year, but obviously that didn’t happen and as far as I know, there’s been no announcement of a new release date. If I had to guess, I’d say we’re now looking at a release of sometime in 2017.

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  5. “An anime studio member admitted they use Bluray sales to gauge a series’ success and making a potential 2nd season.”

    Practically all studios do that, it is common industry practice. Only series not interested in disc sales are those who get their money from merchandising (=typically long-running shōnen- and shōjo-series).

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  6. It’s interesting to see how the representative titles for each decade tackle different genre and how these titles are increasingly made for general public consumption as opposed to being a form of art expression. But without big names such as Pokemon and Sailor Moon, what do you think of anime’s exposure to audience outside Japan?

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  7. Evangelion reignited my spark for anime, so I can only image the impact it would’ve had back in the day!
    Lovely history series, by the way. I think this is my first comment, but I do appreciate the compiled research!

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    • It was the very first anime I watched as a teen, knowing what anime was. So even though I caught it on TV completely by accident, I can say that it had a huge impact on me as well. As you say though, the impact it had in Japan when it was released, not just on fans but also the industry as a whole, was incredibly significant.

      Thank you for saying so! I’m really glad you’re enjoying the series, and I’m looking forward to posting the fourth and final article in a few hours.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: A History of Anime: The Super Abbreviated Version – part 4 (2000s-todayish) | OTAKU LOUNGE

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