The history of anime begins in the early 1900s when Japanese filmmakers experimented with animation techniques that were emerging in the West.
The oldest known anime was a three-second clip of a sailor boy made in 1917 by Shimokawa Oten. In the 1920s and 30s, animators like Kenzo Masaoka and Sanae Yamamoto produced the first anime shorts, heavily influenced by Disney cartoons like Mickey Mouse.
However, anime truly began to take shape as an artistic and storytelling medium after World War II. Osamu Tezuka, often considered the “Godfather of Anime,” produced the first animated feature film in Japan. Called Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei (Momotarō: Sacred Sailors) (1945), the movie used animation to tell a complex war story. Tezuka went on to create iconic series like Astro Boy (1963-1966), which set the standard for future anime with serialized stories and in-depth characters.
The Golden Age of Anime
The 1960s and 70s are considered the golden age of anime. During this period, anime production grew rapidly as television allowed animators to reach wider audiences. Anime luminaries like Tezuka pioneered limited animation techniques that allowed production costs to be lower without sacrificing storytelling quality.
Mazinger Z, created by Go Nagai in 1972, popularized the “mecha” genre featuring giant robots and launched the Super Robot era. Mecha anime remains hugely popular today in series like Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Other important works from this golden age include Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Space Battleship Yamato (1974-1975).
Outside of Japan, anime gained attention through films like Panda and the Magic Serpent (1958), the first full-color anime feature film, and Hols: Prince of the Sun (1968) by Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. These works demonstrated that anime could tell sophisticated stories alongside stylish action and adventure.
Diversifying Stories and Styles
By the 1980s and 90s, anime spread globally, diversifying into numerous genres for different audiences. While action, adventure, and sci-fi remained popular, anime tackled complex themes like philosophy, sexuality, psychology, and environmentalism.
The shojo (girls) genre delved into romantic high school dramas through influential series like Rose of Versailles (1979-1980). Cyberpunk anime like Akira (1988) envisioned apocalyptic futures of tech run amok. And Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli produced acclaimed films like My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Princess Mononoke (1997) with morally complex storylines about nature and industrialization.
In 1997, Pokemon took the world by storm, ushering in a new era of children’s anime focused on branding and merchandising. But original, thought-provoking series continued to thrive. Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996) subverted mecha anime tropes to examine the human psyche and society. Cowboy Bebop (1998) uniquely blended sci-fi, western, film noir, and jazz influences. And Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) (2001) encapsulated Miyazaki’s mythic animation style.
The Rise of Modern Anime
Anime has become a mainstream global phenomenon, with popular modern series like Naruto (2002-2007), Bleach (2004-2012), and Attack on Titan (2013-present) airing on North American and European TV. The influence of anime can be seen from The Matrix to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Anime has proved that animation isn’t just for children, using imaginative styles to tell incredible stories.
New distribution models like online streaming now bring anime to huge audiences. Anime has also redefined social media, with memes and fandoms spreading on sites like Reddit and Tumblr. Fan conventions attract millions of attendees globally each year.
Anime now looks very different from its black-and-white roots over a century ago. But it retains its ability to capture the imagination with visuals and narratives that transcend genres and cultures. The history of anime shows an artistic medium that keeps adapting, growing, and inspiring new generations around the world.
Early Masters Lay the Foundation (1917-1945)
In the early 20th century, Japanese animators like Oten Shimokawa, Jun’ichi Kouchi, and Seitaro Kitayama began experimenting with short animations, inspired by animated works from America and Europe. Although rudimentary, these shorts planted the seeds for anime’s origins and paved the way for early pioneers.
After the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, censorship boards emerged that placed restrictions on live-action filmmaking. This pushed more creative efforts toward animation. Soon kits manga, or comic films, gained popularity as humorous entertainment.
In the 1930s, the release of the first Japanese talkie film sparked increased production of anime shorts. Notable animators from this period include Noburō Ōfuji, Yasuji Murata, and Kenzō Masaoka. Their artistic and technical contributions influenced anime for decades to come.
Astro Boy Kickstarts Anime Industry (1963-1979)
The 1960s were a pivotal era when anime evolved into a mass entertainment industry. Leading the way was Osamu Tezuka, the influential artist whose cinematic animation style pushed the medium in more emotionally complex directions.
Tezuka’s manga series Tetsuwan Atomu, or Astro Boy, was adapted into Japan’s first popular animated television series in 1963. Astro Boy was highly cinematic and became a worldwide phenomenon, establishing the aesthetic foundations and storytelling potential of anime.
The success of Astro Boy opened the floodgates for TV anime production in Japan. Mushi Production, founded by Tezuka, was an animation studio that churned out many iconic series that decade. Other studios like Toei Animation also released popular series to an increasingly receptive audience.
Star of the Giants, released by Mushi in 1968, further demonstrated anime’s dramatic storytelling strengths. The sports melodrama is considered Japan’s first anime TV series targeted toward adults.
Anime Finds Global Audience (1980s and 90s)
In the 1980s, groundbreaking films like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell brought anime to global audiences with their stunning visuals, futuristic settings, and compelling philosophies. The medium’s stories became increasingly complex to match its aesthetics.
In 1988, Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro enchanted viewers of all ages with its endearing fantasy world. Miyazaki went on to release acclaimed films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away through Studio Ghibli, which grew into one of the most influential animation studios worldwide.
In 1995, Evangelion revolutionized mecha and science fiction anime, using giant robots to examine the human condition. Evangelion demonstrated that anime was a medium without limits, one flexible enough to probe philosophical and existential questions through its imaginative worlds.
Anime Goes Mainstream (2000s)
By the early 2000s, anime had exploded into the global mainstream. Series like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! became international megahits that were gateways to the medium for many. Anime developed into a multibillion-dollar industry, with global powerhouses like Studio Ghibli and productions targeted at diverse demographics.
Beyond children’s anime, works like Attack on Titan became pop culture sensations that gave anime wider legitimacy in the West. Anime aesthetics and tropes increasingly influenced media like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Pacific Rim, reflecting anime’s blended into global entertainment.
Online streaming allowed anime to be accessed by broader audiences than ever. Anime also changed how fans interacted, with social media sites becoming hubs for anime culture. Anime had transformed from a niche interest to a fundamental part of the worldwide zeitgeist.
Over a century, anime has evolved from early experimentation to a diverse, dynamic artistic medium embraced around the world.
Through pioneering masters, beloved franchises, and ongoing innovation, anime has mesmerized generations with its unique visuals and storytelling. And its future looks brighter than ever, with endless possibilities yet to be imagined.
The history of anime is still being written every day.
FAQs – A Deep Dive into the History of Anime and Manga
What are anime and manga?
Anime refers to the style of animation that originated in Japan and is characterized by its colorful artwork and vibrant characters. Manga, on the other hand, refers to Japanese comics or graphic novels.
Who are considered the fathers of anime?
Osamu Tezuka, often referred to as the “god of manga,” is considered one of the fathers of anime and manga. His creations, such as “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion,” played a crucial role in shaping the anime industry. Other influential figures include Hayao Miyazaki, the mastermind behind films like “Spirited Away” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”
How did anime and manga become popular outside of Japan?
Anime and manga gained popularity outside of Japan through the release of dubbed and subtitled versions of Japanese animated films and TV series. The success of franchises like “Dragon Ball” and “Sailor Moon” helped introduce international audiences to the world of anime.
What are some classic anime series?
Some classic anime series include “Attack on Titan,” “Naruto,” “One Piece,” “Pokemon,” and “Dragon Ball Z.” These series have had a significant impact on the anime industry and have garnered a massive fan following.
How have anime and manga-influenced Japanese culture?
Anime and manga have had a profound influence on Japanese culture, with many aspects of Japanese society being intertwined with anime and manga themes. Cosplay, the art of dressing up as anime or manga characters, has become a popular activity in Japan and around the world.
How are anime and manga made?
Anime is typically made using traditional hand-drawn animation techniques or computer-generated animation. Manga is created by manga artists who draw the illustrations and write the stories, which are then published in manga magazines or compiled into tankobon volumes.
What are some must-watch anime movies?
Some must-watch anime movies include “Akira,” “Ghost in the Shell,” “Spirited Away,” “Your Name,” and “Princess Mononoke.” These films showcase the creativity and storytelling prowess of anime artists.
How has anime evolved over the years?
Anime has evolved from its early days of simple drawings and limited animation to sophisticated and visually stunning creations. Today’s anime encompasses a wide range of genres and storytelling techniques, appealing to audiences of all ages.