Ask John: Were the 90s the Artistic Peak of Anime?

Do you think the 1990s were the artistic peak for anime, a period where you get a lot of different genres of really good shows? I say this because I vividly remember a lot of great “landmark” series in that decade: Sailor Moon (especially the first and third seasons), Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Vision of Escaflowne, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, the Saber Marionette franchise, Slayers and Slayers NEXT, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Cardcaptor Sakura, and several others. And every one of the series I mentioned had a very distinct different style, unlike the “moé” and fanservice-laden artistic “rut” of today (in my humble opinion!). I really hope that we start to see a wider range of great anime over the next few years, especially with really good shows like Oreimo, Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Usagi Drop in the last year or so.

In the context of anime history, the 1980s are immediately and most prominently acknowledged as the pinnacle of anime history, the “golden age,” because of the birth of the OVA format and the tremendous varieity of anime produced during the golden era. The 1980s gave birth to shounen adventure anime. Today’s Naruto, Fairy Tail, and Beelzebub find their foundation in Fist of the North Star and St. Seiya. The golden age arguably began in 1979 with the debut of Mobile Suit Gundam, the anime that revolutionized the mecha anime genre. Hayao Miyazaki directed his first feature film in 1979. While Osamu Tezuka had been making experimental art anime for many years, the 80s saw the introduction of mainstream “art” anime from a variety of artists in the form of Robot Carnival & Labyrinth Tales, Angel’s Egg & Twilight Q. School-based anime existed in the 70s, but shows like Bakuhatsu Goro and Aim for the Ace were primarily sports anime. 80’s shows like Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke and The Kabocha Wine introduced the school-based romantic comedy that’s now a staple of anime. The 1980s introduced the magical girl team. Films like 1987’s Wings of Honneamise and 1989’s Five Star Stories set new standards for anime visual design detail and animation quality that are still high-water marks today.

But what the 1980s introduced, the 90s refined to previously undreamt of sophistication. In objective reflection, the 1980s were anime’s greatest period of experimentation and expansion, but it’s actually the 1990s that are anime’s period of most maturation. The 90s era kicked off in April 1990 with the premiere of Gainax’s Nadia of the Mysterious Seas, a show that set a new standard for animation quality in a weekly TV anime series. Earlier 80’s anime like Ideon, Gundam Z, Natsu e no Tobira, and even Wata no Kuni Hoshi may have focused heavily upon psychological themes, but such incisive focus was rare among 80s anime. However anime including, 1995’s Evangelion, 1996’s Escaflowne, and 1997’s Berserk turned psychological analysis and deconstruction into mainstream anime tropes. Anime series including Eat-Man (1997) and Trigun (1998) introduced the use of sombre, introspective, prophetic narration in next-episode previews. 1991’s Oniisama E… was a 70’s retro-anime that shocked viewers with its brutal honesty. 1997’s Revolutionary Girl Utena innovated on Oniisama E…, paying homage to it while making it even more eclectic, artistic, abstract, challenging, and sophisticated. CLAMP burst onto the scene in the 1990s, paying homage to shoujo art styles of the 1970s but updating those styles with a contemporary sleekness and sophistication.

The 1980s are an era of beloved characters: Lum, Nausicaa, Ryo Saeba, Kenshiro, Kei & Yuri, Seiya, Ranma Saotome, Hikaru Ichijo & Lynn Minmei, Amuro Rei & Char Aznable, Totoro, Eve Tokimatsuri, Priss Asagiri, Minky Momo, Tetsuo & Kaneda, Son Goku. However, whenever we think of these characters, we recall their appearances, their actions, and their personalities. But we never question or interpret their motivations or psychology. 90s characters including Shinji Ikari & Asuka Langley, Anthy Himemiya, Gutts & Griffith, Hitomi Kanzaki, Heero Yuy, and Vash the Stampede, to name a few, have wonderfully complex and multi-layered personalities that otaku endlessly analyze and debate because the shows these characters hailed from were exceptionally complex, multi-layered, and intellectual stimulating. It is indeed the anime of the 1990s that laid the foundation for 21st century anime including Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Moryou no Hako, Mushishi, Wolf’s Rain, and Kara no Kyoukai. The roots of these modern, provocative, deconstructive anime are definitely in 90’s anime, not 80’s anime.

The peak period of anime’s artistry and creativity is debatable because the characteristics of “artistry” and “creativity” themselves are open to interpretation. While the 1980s are widely recognized as a tremendous time of growth, experimentation, and diversity in anime production, the span of a dozen years to reflect should allow observers to now recognize that the 1990s were also a groundbreaking era of innovation and creativity. Now less than two years beyond the first decade of the 2000s, that first decade doesn’t seem especially revolutionary or groundbreaking, but hope and high expectations for the anime industry shouldn’t be dismissed quite yet. In fact, this year has already proven to be the most creative, ambitious, and challenging year of new anime production since at least 2008, and before that 2002. Already, anime from this year including Senki Zesshou Symphogear, Black Rock Shooter, and Lupin the Third: Mine Fujiko to Iu Onna have proven themselves more daring and ambitious than practically anything since 2008’s Kurenai TV series. So while much of the anime industry may be mired in safe, popular productions, this year is proving that the anime industry is still capable and eager to push the envelope and aspire to greater challenges & creativity.


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