Three Things You Must Know About the History of Anime

  • April 24, 2017 / Lily Cernak

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Anime has existed in various forms since the beginning of the 20th century. But it was only in the latter half of that century that it became a widespread form of entertainment.

It is not known when anime exactly started in Japan. One of the oldest surviving pieces of Japanese animation may be a nameless, dateless, approximately 3-second film known as Katsudo Shashin (literally “Action Photo“). It simply features a boy writing the words 活動写真 katsudo shashin and then doffing his cap.

More certain and concretely date-able are several films from 1917-1918, made (separately) by Oten Shimokawa, Junichi Kouchi, and Seitaro Kitayama.

Developments continued over the following decades, but during the period of the Second World War much of the animation produced in Japan had a propagandizing nature. This includes “Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors,” which came out in 1945 and was the country’s first feature length anime film.

Between 1933 and 1938, “Norakuro” was a notable animated film series to come out of the war years. It told the story of a hardworking Japanese soldier characterized as a black and white dog. The other Japanese soldiers in the story were also dogs, while soldiers from other nations were pigs.

Norakuro” became de-politicized after the war, and in the 90s it became a mascot for the Physical Training School of Japan’s present-day military equivalent, the Japan Self Defense Force.

The propagandizing nature of anime dissipated after Japan’s 1945 surrender. In the 1960s, production of the first anime titles started which later would become known in the West.

It was also a landmark decade for two other reasons:

  1. It featured the birth of the televised anime series (such as “Otogi Manga Calendar,” which also included some non-animated portions, and “Astro Boy“).

     2. It also saw the creation of the first anime of the magical girl genre (a series called “Sally the Witch“).

Beginning in the 1960s, the history of anime becomes much more dense; and so only a few highlights of many are included here.


Highlights of the history of anime

1. The works of Osamu Tezuka

Osamu Tezuka was a manga artist, but he also founded one of the early modern animation studios, Mushi Production. Many of the animated films or television series by Mushi Production came from many of his own comics. 

He was extremely prolific and continued to draw stories until his dying day. As a matter of fact, his last words were reportedly a complaint when a nurse attempted to get him to stop working. Outside of Japan Tezuka is more popularly known as the creator of “Astro Boy,” but within Japan many of his other works are also very famous.

His story “Black Jack,” which is about a rogue doctor, has been turned into several animated series and was used in Japan as a means to advertise the American live-action drama series “House.”

Tezuka‘s “Jungle Emperor” was the first television anime series to be in color, and later was a topic of controversy among some who felt that it was clearly part of the inspiration for Disney’s “The Lion King” (Disney denied this).

2. The works of Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki began to work in the animation industry in the 1970s. In the late 1980s he co-founded Studio Ghibli after the success of his film “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.”

Studio Ghibli, over the next decades, produced some of the most successful (and most expensive) anime films. These include “Laputa: Castle in the Sky,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” and many others. Miyazaki directed some, but not all, of these.

Miyazaki claimed that he would be retiring after the 2013 Studio Ghibli animated film “The Wind Rises;” but there has been some evidence that this is not the case. Apparently he is working on a new film called “Boro the Caterpillar.

3. Genre advents

Many genres of anime that are now well-established parts of the industry began relatively recently, in the 1970s and 80s.

The mecha (giant robot) genre got its start with stories such as “Mazinger Z” in 1972 and “Mobile Suit Gundam” in 1979. Sports anime became popularized in 1983 due to the release of the anime adaptation of “Captain Tsubasa” (although other sports stories, such as the controversial boxing manga/anime “Ashita no Joe,” had existed before this point).

Another major genre, BL (boy’s love) joined the anime scene in the 1980s as well. Landmark releases include adaptations of the manga “Kaze to Ki no Uta” (one of the first official BL manga) and others.

Why Anime is so Popular in Japan

  1. There is a huge variety of anime, created with seemingly every possible audience in mind.

There are anime for small children, anime for teenagers, and anime for adults. There are anime for people who like cooking, people who like football, people who like rom-coms, people who like action and adventure…if you can think of a topic, there is probably an anime about that.

Much like other types of film and television, some anime is very serious in tone, and some is essentially nonsense.

     2. Another reason for anime’s comparatively widespread popularity in Japan versus, for instance, America is that manga (comics) are much more of a mainstream media in Japan.

Manga is available everywhere one goes in Japan. They are not relegated to specialized comic-book stores or read primarily by members of comic book subcultures.

It is difficult to enter a bookstore (or even a convenience store) without coming across a full selection of manga books and magazines for sale. The merchandise and advertising is everywhere. For example, there is association between a surprisingly large number of pachinko parlors and the classic mecha anime “Neon Genesis Evangelion;” with “Evangelion” characters displayed on their signs and interior decorations.

With manga so ubiquitous and so many manga series adapted into anime films or series, one can see how anime would be a consistent and major part of popular culture.

The Most Popular Anime in Japan (Past and Present)

The anime adaptation of the manga “Sazae-san” first aired in 1969. Believe it or not, its still being broadcast today!

It currently has more than 7,400 episodes — far more than any other anime series. Other highly long-running anime series include “Doraemon,” which began in 1973 and continues up to the present. “Nintama Rantaro” began in 1993 and is also still on the air. Both of these latter series have fewer than 3,000 episodes each.

Currently, the pirate fantasy-adventure anime “One Piece” holds a huge place in Japanese popular culture. Ask just about any Japanese person (whether a child or adult) what anime they have seen or what manga they have read — they will probably answer “One Piece;” even if they are not particularly interested in anime or manga in general.

Other currently popular anime series include “Yokai Watch,” “Pretty Cure,” and “My Hero Academia.”

How it Influences Young People

For many young people in America and other countries, anime is a first introduction to Japanese culture and history. In this way, anime serves as a valuable form of cultural exchange and education.

For a fair number of non-Japanese who end up living, working, and/or going to school in Japan, anime has served as the catalyst to their academic or professional journeys abroad.

At a time when many young people often still know very little of life in other countries, anime is a vital vehicle for young people.  It can help them gain of knowledge, curiosity, and acceptance about other cultures.

How it Relates to Tokyo 2020

Japan is aware, to some degree, of how anime has permeated into nations around the world. In fact the Japanese Olympic Committee and Japanese Paralympic Committee chose a group of anime characters to be “ambassadors of Japanese culture” (in the words of Anime News Network) .

Few people outside Japan would perhaps know other types of Japanese cultural icons, but Astro Boy, Goku, and Sailor Moon are international stars.

Anime is a relatively new media — only about 100 years old. But has become an indelible part of both Japanese and global popular culture.

It will be fascinating to see how this media will expand, change, and develop in the decades to come.


When did you hear the term “anime” for the first time? Did you watch a lot of anime as a child?

Leave us a comment and tell us about popular animations made in your country!


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