When the wave of Japanese animation first hit American shores, it started in small ways.

It wasn’t shown in movie theatres. Friends gave tapes and laser disks to their other friends. Neighborhood Blockbusters quietly built new, narrow shelves, conspicuous against the endless, over-polished stream of new releases. Those shelves bore a tiny nameplate, with a single new word.


The vivid art on the covers of the VHS cassettes of the early 1990s captured American attention, even though there were few to choose from. The anime titles available to stateside consumers at video stores had dark themes: “Akira,” featured a cyberpunk/sci-fi flavored plot about a biker gang that discovers a secret that led to the destruction of Tokyo. “Vampire Hunter D,” combines several pulp genres to tell the tale of a vampire hunter who is half vampire himself. “Battle Angel,” followed a female cyborg that falls in love with a human boy who has a burning desire to reach a paradise in the sky.

These films were not new in their native country of Japan – some dated back from the mid-nineteen eighties. But as American viewers consumed this media, a community of Japanophiles began to take shape.

Drawn to stories that had the courage to touch darker themes that American cartoons had rarely crossed the boundaries of, fans all over the world started to notice that something was coming out of Japan that was unlike anything else they’d ever seen. And they wanted more.

Bound by their shared love of Japanese cartoons, anime fans grouped together, happy to obsess over every detail of their favorite shows. They went to fan conventions to watch anime they couldn’t buy or rent. Later, they would watch and analyze anime on the internet.

“Online, you had the option of pirating shows through torrent sites, a problem that plagues the industry even today when legal streaming anime is easy to find,” Lauren Orsini, writer and founder of Otaku Journalist said. “Pirating is an especially difficult problem to fix because some anime fans see grassroots distribution of anime as an act of fandom. Though illegal, fansubs, fandubs and scanlations are a community activity in [anime] fandom.”

“Today, anime imagery is everywhere. Kids carry ‘Dragon Ball Z’ school supplies, adults wear manga inspired T-shirts, and even my mainstream fashion magazine tells me how to use makeup to get “those big anime eyes.” Anime has gone global and future [anime fans] can find out about it simply by word of mouth,” Orsini said.

It was 1952 when manga artist Osamu Tezuka created the signature oversized “anime eyes” look, writing landmark anime titles such as “Astro Boy.” Some would argue anime had been around even before that, since the earliest Japanese animation dates back to 1917 and depicts a samurai silently testing a new sword on his target.

By the 1970s, anime had moved on to bigger subjects, quite literally.

“Super robots”, an anime movement spearheaded by Go Nagai’s “Mazinger-Z” featured a powerful giant robot as a central character, constructed by humans to help fight the forces of evil. The show was conceived during a time period when hope for a technology-rich future was no longer looking like an elaborate fantasy, thanks to the excitement generated by the Apollo moon landing in 1969.

This genre hit a new height in popularity with the premiere of “Mobile Suit Gundam” in 1979. The cartoon spawned dozens of related shows and inspired a new level of fan obsession in Japanese and American followers alike.

“In the late seventies, later-generation super robot shows tried to restore some of the moral complexity promised by earlier shows,” says Mark Simmons, writer and Gundam consultant for Bandai. “The upstart studio Nippon Sunrise (now Sunrise) produced a series of darker super robot series aimed at slightly older viewers, which addressed formerly taboo subjects like civilian casualties, and the psychological toll their job took on the heroes.”

The eighties heralded the evolution of the Otaku subculture. Anime fans named themselves after the term “Otaku,” which was coined by humorist Akio Nakamori in 1983 to mean “people with obsessive interests,” but especially interest in anime, manga, video games and other “nerdy” pursuits. The word was a double edged sword, taking on a derogatory tone in Japan, but interpreted as a cool niche in America, like a secret “inner circle.”

“The popularity of Otaku culture arrived at a time when mainstream programming and advertising were increasingly removed from reality,” Orsini said. “It’s near impossible to conform to what we see on the screen, so it’s no wonder more and more viewers are feeling like the odd one out, the “geek” or “nerd” of the bunch. Otaku culture lets us forget about those pressures. It gives us a place to be our weird, imperfect selves.”

America may have just been on the cusp of embracing anime, but in reality the industry was struggling for survival in Japan due to low sales. As the success of shows such as “Pokemon”, “DragonBall Z” and “Sailor Moon” blossomed here in the states during the 1990s, they also acted as the saving throw that revitalized the industry, creating a new source of revenue.

However, the stress of the near nosedive struck an emotional chord with many animators in this time period. Most memorably, Hideaki Anno channeled his personal depression into the direction of “Neon Genesis Evangelion.”

The epic action series deconstructed the giant robot genre by portraying the protagonist as a vulnerable, self-conscious child thrust into unwanted responsibility largely by a broken relationship with his father, instead of the typically heroic, morally-upright youth. “Evangelion” communicated Japan’s tenacity in the face of fear and chaos. The show flirted with biblical themes and addressed questions about the meaning of life, which effectively ranked it as one of anime’s most powerful franchises.

Also in the nineties, anime developed the “Magical girl” trend. These shows depicted a team of young girls with alter egos that give them magical abilities, and who fight evil to protect earth. Although “Magical girl” anime has been around since as early as 1966, the show that made the genre a household name was “Sailor Moon”, which debuted in 1992. Much like the “Super robot” shows depicted a fantasy of victorious masculinity, “Magical girl” shows presented women with similarly empowering themes of taking charge.

That same decade, Cartoon Network (which, like CNN is owned by parent company Time Warner) played an instrumental role in growing the American anime fanbase with “Toonami.” An action-oriented animation channel, “Toonami” launched in 1997 and featured an anime programming block in 1999, called “Midnight Run.” “Toonami” brought shows such as “DragonBall Z”, “Naruto”, “One Piece”, “Sailor Moon” and “Cowboy Bebop” to an American audience, attracting both young and mature viewers.

Many of these anime series were long running, like the mangas (Japanese comic books) several of them were adopted from. This resulted in a long-term viewer commitment in order for fans to keep up with the storylines, and millions of people happily obliged.

In the early 2000s, a new trend began to take hold in the anime world: “slice of life anime”, in which characters didn’t really do anything, but spent a lot of time talking about nonsensical subjects and looking pretty. “Moe” characters – young, adorable girls on the cusp between puberty and adulthood – were a pervasive signature of these anime shows.

“Slice of life anime” marked a stark shift between darker themes and comedic themes, affecting the climate of anime on a major level.

“There may be a correlation between the up-tick in social regression – such as “hikkikomori” (a term used for the relatively new social phenomenon of Japanese youth who shut themselves away in their homes in response to the stresses of urban life) – and the increase in slice-of-life anime, most of which are light comedies,” says Gia Manry, Associate Editor at Anime News Network.

“Maybe shows like that, which revolve around groups of friends, are particularly attractive as sort of a stand-in for real-life friends. They’re also the subject matter that fuels relationships online, so maybe they also serve as a “mutual friend” in that respect,” she said.

And now in 2011, the anime landscape is far more complicated and discernibly different from both the simple illustrations of “Astro Boy” and the scary visions of “Akira’s” apocalyptic future.

So what’s changed? Japan has. As Japanese culture evolves, so has the tone of Japanese media. The evolution towards anime with lighter subject matter seems to indicate that Japan needed to laugh more and worry less.

Around the time that “slice of life” shows started to explode in Japanese popularity, it became obvious to the dedicated Otaku viewer that the heart of anime was changing. For example, the average length of a show has changed from 26 episodes to 13, giving directors a little over half the time to build a story and allow characters to develop fan followings. Production focuses on quantity over quality, with twenty or more shows airing every season.

This lighter approach has not taken the reins of the anime industry completely: There are deeper stories to be found in its animated films, such as “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” and series such as “Eden of the East”, which explored topics such as technology, terrorism and political uprising.

To some, it may appear as if Japan has traded a willing exploration into the darkness for escapism in the form of silliness, but the rising popularity of comedies shows that Japanese audiences are enjoying them tremendously. Especially after the Tokoku earthquake earlier this year, the country needs more reason than ever to stay positive and lighthearted, and perhaps shows such as this help to fuel them.

The question now is, how will the rest of the world view the latest iteration of the Japanese export which spawned an entire nerd subculture? Which type of anime do you like best, and why?