What Anime Defined Each Decade?

The anime medium has a long and complex history. Like any artistic medium, it is constantly growing and evolving, with creators building on what came before them and harnessing new technologies to push the medium in brave new directions. While hundreds of thousands of different shows and movies have been released over the years, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, in each decade, a handful of works stand out as the ones that defined that moment in time.



Sometimes, this is because they innovate the medium or create a new model that all future anime series follow. Other times, it is because of how they are received, capturing the public zeitgeist and becoming deeply entwined in the era’s pop culture.

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10 1950s: Hakujaden Turned Anime Into A Feature

Released

1958

Length

78 minutes

The late 1940s saw several large animation studios form in Japan. One such studio was Japan Animated Films, which was formed in 1948. However, in 1956, the Toei company purchased the studio and renamed it Toei Animation. The animators at this studio, inspired by the success of Disney’s 1937 hit Snow White, tried to make a feature-length anime film.

The result was 1958’s Hakujaden, directed by Taiji Yabushita. The first feature-length anime film to be made in color, the film retells the classic Chinese folk tale Legend of the White Snake. The film would also be one of the first Japanese films to be shown in America, being dubbed and released as Panda and the Magic Serpent in 1961. This means that Hakujaden was a crucial step towards the modern anime industry.

9 1960s: Astro Boy Defined Anime As A Style

Astro Boy

Aired

1963-1966

Episodes

193

While Astro Boy wasn’t the first anime to ever exist, it was the one that cemented the anime style that fans know and love today. Based on the manga written and illustrated by Osamu Tezuka, this series was a big hit in Japan. It was also shown in America, with an English dubbed version starting to air on NBC in 1963, making it the first anime many Americans were exposed to.

Tezuka’s unique visual style, heavily influenced by American cartoons, quickly became known globally as the “anime” style. In fact, Tezuka’s use of large-eyed characters became so synonymous with anime that many modern parodies of the genre still use it today, despite the visual hallmark being much less common in recent series. Because of this, the enduring influence of Astro Boy can’t be understated.

8 1970s: Tomorrow’s Joe Caught The Political Zeitgeist

Aired

1970-1971

Episodes

79

While lesser known in America, Tomorrow’s Joe is one of the biggest franchises in Japanese history. The 1968 manga written by Asao Takamori and illustrated by Tetsuya Chiba has been adapted into anime several times. But the most famous animated take on the story is Mushi Production’s version from 1970.

The story follows Joe Yabuki, a disenfranchised man who gets released from prison and becomes a boxer. But as he rises up the ranks, he has to overcome many hardships and a system that hates him. The series was so popular that Joe became a working-class hero, with many members of Japan’s New Left movement taking him as an unofficial mascot. A few days before the anime started, members of the Red Army Faction shouted they were “Tomorrow’s Joe” during the 1970 Yodogo Hijacking Incident. Once the anime aired, the character’s popularity grew as more people fell in love with Joe’s struggle, further cementing him as a legend. Even today, Joe Yabuki remains one of the most beloved anime characters ever.

7 1970s: Space Battleship Yamato Made Anime Into A Word

Space Battleship Yamato

Aired

1974-1975

Episodes

26

Written by Yoshinobu Nishizaki and directed by manga legend Leiji Matsumoto, Space Battleship Yamato transformed the anime industry in both Japan and America. Despite receiving low ratings during its initial broadcast, the show gained a cult following. This following dramatically grew when a compilation movie arrived in theaters in 1977. At the time, many people praised the show’s complex story and serious themes, which included war, racism, and environmentalism. It also helped create the term anime, as at the time, television animation was called Terebi Manga (TV Manga) because nearly every animated series was a manga adaptation. However, Yamato‘s success as a TV original show led to the term starting to shift, and the medium would soon be dubbed anime, a name it has retained to this day.

The series would also be influential in America, as, between 1979 and 1984, an edited adaption would broadcast on American television under the title Star Blazers. Much like Yamato, Star Blazers was praised for being the first anime localization to be plot-driven and for featuring more complex themes than other animated shows of the time. Because of its success, networks would start experimenting with localizing other story-driven anime, so without Star Blazers, many beloved anime would never have come to America.

6 1980s: Akira Was An Instant Classic

Akira

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Akira, a movie based on Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1982 manga of the same name, is one of the most recognizable anime films of all time, with artists referencing and paying homage to it even today. A big reason for this is the visuals. The film’s cyberpunk dystopia solidified many of the tropes that would become synonymous with the cyberpunk genre and 1980s anime in general, to the point that even today, most anime parodies imitate Akira’s visual style.

This is doubly true for American audiences, as the film did receive a dubbed theatrical release in 1989. While these releases were limited, they were enough for the movie to generate a lot of word-of-mouth hype. When the film arrived on VHS in 1991, its popularity grew even further, selling exceptionally well for an imported film and quickly cementing itself as a cult classic, with every home release leading to more and more people discovering the sci-fi epic. Because of this, if you ask most Americans to characterize the appearance of 1980s anime, they’ll likely describe Akira.

5 1990s: Cowboy Bebop Made Anime Cool

Cowboy Bebop (1998)

Released

1998

Episodes

26

In the eyes of many fans and critics, Cowboy Bebop is the best anime to ever arrive on screens, a claim that is hard to deny due to how popular the anime remains to this day. Written by Keiko Nobumoto and directed by Shinichirō Watanabe, the series received critical praise for its deep storytelling, fascinating world, and stunning fusion of genres. It inspired many creators, and its influence can be seen in a whole raft of later shows.

The show would air on Adult Swim in 2001, introducing a whole new audience to the show. Bebop’s emotional rawness and complex morality resonated with American viewers. The show quickly became a success and created a whole new generation of anime fans, further convincing American audiences that animation could be used to tell darker, more mature stories, while still being infinitely re-watchable.

4 2000s: Spirited Away Redefined Animation

Spirited Away

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 2001’s Spirited Away has become such a widely beloved classic that its trailblazing nature and impact on the medium has been forgotten. When it was released in Japan, the film quickly became the highest-grossing film in Japanese history up to that point, inspiring millions of creatives as it did.

This is doubly true in America. The film winning Best Animated Feature at the Oscars led to a paradigm shift that transformed the industry. It helped transform animation from something just for children to a vibrant medium that could tell an infinite number of emotionally resonant stories. It also led to American audiences becoming more comfortable with imported films, teaching audiences that they were big mainstream blockbusters that were just as fun and accessible as home-grown films. Without Spirited Away, many Japanese movies that would later become big hits in America would never have gotten a chance to shine.

3 2000s: Death Note Came At The Perfect Time

Death Note

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Aired

2006-2007

Episodes

37

Death Note was a series that perfectly fit the late 2000s. Its dark and moody atmosphere perfectly fit the growing teenage nihilism of the era, and its visual style matched the then-contemporary Emo and goth revival scenes that were rapidly entering the American mainstream, leading to it becoming a massive hit.

But what defines the anime is the controversies surrounding it, especially in America. Several schools made headlines when they expelled students for making replicas of the titular book. Some places even tried to ban the manga because of this controversy, with Albuquerque Public Schools district even voting on a ban. These controversies perfectly capture a moment in time. One where the anime medium was breaking into the mainstream. But, while the idea of animation being only for children was weakening, many in power saw it as the truth, leading to confusion and controversy as groups tried to make sense of this new phenomenon.

2 2010s: Kill la Kill Opened An Era Of Deconstructions

Aired

2013-2014

Episodes

25

The 2010s were the decade of deconstruction, with a new wave of anime creators taking anime’s established rules genres and turning them on their heads, creating a new standard that influenced all anime that came after them. Kill la Kill was the figurehead of this movement.

Trigger took magical girl, battle, and fan service tropes and blended and twisted them into Kill la Kill. Thanks to these deconstructions, as well as its arresting visual styling and twist-filled plot, the show felt like nothing that had come before it, leading to one of the most memorable anime to ever hit television screens, getting many newcomers to dip their toes into anime and making them life-long fans. Plus, the fact that Kill la Kill is still hotly discussed today, despite not receiving a sequel, is a testament to how ground-breaking and memorable it was.

1 2020s: Demon Slayer Showed That Anime Was Mainstream

Aired

2019-Present

Episodes

55

Based on Koyoharu Gotouge’s popular manga, Demon Slayer has quickly developed a large and vocal fanbase. While the anime series began in 2019, the show hit its most significant milestone in 2020, when the film Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train came out.

The film did amazingly well in Japan, unseating Spirited Away and becoming Japan’s highest-grossing film ever. It also became the first Japanese film to gross ¥40 billion and the first to top the annual worldwide box office charts. When it landed in America, its success continued, quickly earning the title of the biggest opening for a foreign-language film, drawing in massive crowds and getting plenty of praise from critics. This opening proved that anime is going through a global renaissance and is now officially mainstream in America.

Demon Slayer Anime Poster

Demon Slayer

When Tanjiro Kamado returns home to find his family was attacked and killed by demons, he discovers his younger sister Nezuko was the only survivor. As Nezuko slowly becomes a demon, Tanjiro sets out to find a cure for her and become a demon slayer so he can avenge his family.

Release Date
January 21, 2021

Cast
Natsuki Hanae , Zach Aguilar , Abby Trott , Yoshitsugu Matsuoka

Genres
Anime , Action , Adventure

Rating
TV-MA

Seasons
3

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