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.
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.
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…