First things first: depending on how you look at it, it’s not really the 50th anniversary of Japanese animation. The first instances of animation extend far back in time, predating the likes of Tetsuwan Atom and Kimba the White Lion. Early forms of the medium existed before the rise of television including Princess Iron Fan and Divine Sea Warriors. Overseas, Disney and Co. had already been pioneering early animation techniques during the 30s with Bambi and Snow White.
What I’m talking about, however, is the modern form of “anime” as it is recognized today by fans all across the world. This form is widely considered to have started in 1961 and 1963 with Manga Calendar and Tetsuwan Atom respectively. From this perspective, it is safe to say that “anime” is at least close to being 50 years old. It has come a long way over half a century’s worth of time and it wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the visionaries that helped shape the art form every step of the way. In celebration of this momentous milestone, I somehow decided it be a good idea to compile a list of my personal favorite people who I feel were the most influential and deserving of the most recognition. I guess, this is my roundabout way of saying thank you to those who gave us art form we know and love.
A fair warning: this is a fan made list and as such it will often walk the fine line separating objectivity and subjectivity. The people mentioned here are not limited to directors. Since a good anime requires several elements working in conjunction (direction, story, script, art, animation, music, etc), this list is basically open to anyone who contributed to the art form. This list IS however limited to specifically the Japanese animation industry. Yes, Walt Disney established many animation techniques that were borrowed by early Japanese animators. Yes, without Carl Macek, anime fandom in the United States would cease to exist. Yes, if it weren’t for the guys over at Darkhorse Comics golfing with Kazuo Koike, we would probably never see Gekiga translated in English. While all these people played a huge role in shaping the industry, unfortunately they will not be included on this list.
One last thing, since this post is celebrating 50 years of “modern” anime, I’ve chosen not to include figures from before World War II. Thus, the likes of Kenzo Masaoka, Yasuji Murata, and Noburo Ofuji will not be appearing unfortunately. This was a decision I made for the sake of simplicity and also because I’m just not familiar with their works as much as I should be. But enough of that. 50 years, 50 people. Let’s do this.
- Director: Lensmen (1984), Neo Tokyo (1987), Wicked City (1987), Demon City Shinjuku (1988), Goku Midnight Eye (1989), Cyber City Oedo 808 (1990), Ninja Scroll (1993), Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000)
Yoshiaki Kawajiri began his directing career in the midst of the 80s golden age and OVA boom. His first work was 1984’s Lensman, based on the novel series of the same name. While Lensman was a failure on the surface, it showed that Kawajiri was not afraid to take risks. He would team up with Katsuhiro Otomo in the 1987 three-part OVA anthology Neo Tokyo. During that time, he would go on to direct a string of cult classics including Wicked City, Demon City Shinjuku, and Goku Midnight Eye. He opened up the 90s by heading the 2-part OVA project titled Cyber City Oedo, one of the last true experimental OVAs before the market collapsed. His later works include Ninja Scroll in 1993 and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust in 2000.
Personal Favorite: Cyber City Oedo 808
Cyber City Oedo is definitely not Kawajiri’s most popular work and it may not have been his best either. However, it’s still a personal favorite of mine. It’s a 3-part OVA chronicling the lives of several of several criminals-turned-Cyber-Police fighting in the hopes of shaving time off their prison sentence. It takes place in the distant future, 2808 to be exact. You’d think all the space opera’s would have taken place by now: Yamato, Harlock, Bebop, hell even Star Trek and its warp 9 technology takes place about a good half a millennium before Cyber City Oedo. Yet in actuality, Cyber City retains that cyberpunk feel reminiscent of Akira and Appleseed the manga.
The OVA features no shortage of Kawajiri style action, however, the thing that I love most about Cyber City is the mindset. This was a show that came out during the turn of the decade, the closing of the 80s, and subsequently the death of the golden age and OVA market. Throughout the 00s, and even as early as the 90s, the industry was slowly beginning to show signs of its hardening. No longer were creators willing to take as many risks as they could in the past. I like Cyber City because it’s one of the last true OVAs which got make solely because the creator had an idea and decided to run with it. In retrospect, it might not have been a bad way to close off the 80s.
Kawajiri is unique in that he is more well-known amongst American fans than the Japanese, or so it seems. While many of his popular movies, namely Ninja Scroll and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust aren’t as good as Miyazaki’s Mononoke-hime or Spirited Away, they still serve as integral parts of the bridge connecting the general American fandom to the foreign works of Japanese anime. In fact, Kawajiri and Miyazaki are perhaps the two main harbingers (Otomo notwithstanding) of Japanese animation to the general American public during the 80s and 90s (the non-general public, aka the nerds, had Starblazers and Robotech). It just so happens that Hayao Miyazaki’s works are cheerful and family-friendly and are therefore celebrated, while Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s works are dark and misogynistic and are therefore shunned (or celebrated depending on who you talk to). When all is said and done, Kawajiri played an instrumental part in establishing the American anime scene. One can at least appreciate this man for the things he did for the industry, not necessarily for the movies he created.
- Director: Metal Fighter Miku (1994), Devil Hunter Yohko 6 (1995), Starship Girl Yamamoto Yohko (1996), Le Portrait de Petit Cossette (2004), Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (2004), Pani Poni Dash! (2005), Negima!? (2006), Hidamari Sketch (2007), Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (2007), Bakemonogatari (2009), Arakawa Under the Bridge (2010), Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011)
- Supervisor: ef – A Tale of Memories (2007), ef – A Tale of Melodies (2008)
After graduating from Tokyo Design Institute, Shinbo began working as an animator for several projects. He collaborated briefly with Mamoru Oshii on the Urusei Yatsura TV series animating parts of episodes and doing storyboards. His first directorial work was actually a J.C. Staff production, Metal Fighter Miku. Throughout the 90s, he directed many similar style OVAs and one-shots for various companies. Then came the SHAFT years. Throughout the 00s, Shinbo would prove himself as one of SHAFT’s premiere directors, working on a plethora of projects, some good (Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, Arakawa Under the Bridge, Puella Magi Madoka Magica) and some not-so-good (Moonphase, Negima).
Personal Favorite: Arakawa Under the Bridge
Arakawa Under the Bridge is a gag show and one of my favorites to boot. It was co-directed by Yukihiro Miyamoto and Akiyuki Shinbo and based off the original work by Hikaru Nakamura. 2010 saw two seasons of Arakawa Under the Bridge. The first season in the winter, the second one during the fall. Riding the wave of revenue thanks to the studio-saving BD sales from Bakemongatari, SHAFT goes and makes what is one of my favorite comedies in recent years. Arakawa Under the Bridge is something that grows on you the more you watch it. The wide cast of quirky characters need a bit of time to become developed and fleshed, but once they do, the show becomes so much more enjoyable.
Akiyuki Shinbo is a prophet to some people, and the object of much hate for others. To me, he is a hit-or-miss type of guy. One can argue that he caters to the niche demographic. Or that every BD sale for SHAFT is only plunging anime deeper into the hole of moe and otaku centric shows. However, the argument is only valid if the shows are actually bad (which is only half the time). The truth is, as much bad that has come from Shinbo, there’s also a certain degree of good. His unique style of surreal imagery and reference cuts has grown on me over the years. I list him on this 50 people who shape anime list because that’s literally what he does. Right now, he is VERY capable of shaping anime in the coming years. His fan base is huge already and will only continue to grow following the success of Madoka Magica. This man is on to something here. Let’s hope its something good.
- Original Story: Touch, Slowstep, H2, Rough, Miyuki, Cross Game
- Character Designs: Nozomi Witches (1992)
Mitsuteru Adachi made his manga debut with 1970’s Kieta Bakuon. He would continue to publish various shorts and one-shots until 1978’s Nine, which was serialized in Weekly Shonen Sunday. Then came Touch, which he published from 1981 to 1986. The 80s was Adachi’s time to shine. Not only did both Touch and Miyuki land him the Shogakukan Manga Award, his works were finally becoming recognizable enough to land anime adaptations. Miyuki and Nine would both get anime and live action adaptations in 1984. Touch soon followed suit in 1985. The Touch TV series was particularly notable as it broke previous Fuji TV ratings records during its two-year run. Touch would have a great influence on much of Adachi’s later works, including Cross Game, which won him yet another Shogakukan Award in 2009.
Personal Favorite: Cross Game
Why Cross Game? Well sadly, it’s the only Adachi work I’ve seen. In fact, sports anime in general has always been a minor blip on my radar. It’s unfortunate too since there are so many good sports series out there, as Cross Game can attest. What I thought really carried the show was the great writing and a healthy mix of several elements, not just sports. If anything, the show is really a drama that uses baseball as a plot device (not to say there’s any lacking in baseball action). It’s an all-around great comedy, romance, drama, and sports show that’s pretty accessible to all fans. I’ll have to make it my goal one of these days to watch more sports anime.
Mitsuteru Adachi remains one of Japan’s most successful manga-ka and his stories were hugely influential in anime, especially the sports sub-genre. In a similar fashion to how Toei’s Romantic Trilogy fused drama with the old school mecha genre, Adachi sort of did started the same thing for sports manga and anime. He is known for integrating elements of romantic comedy with baseball as a backdrop, taking traditional shonen sports tropes (such as those seen in Star of the Giants) and fusing them with shojo elements for what many have described as an “all encompassing,” “purer,” and more “delightful” story. Adachi’s works have sold over 200 million copies throughout his career.
- Original Story: Kara no Kyoukai, Tsukihime, Fate/Stay Night
Kinoko Nasu, along with artist Takechi Takeuchi, formed a little doujin group in 2000 named Type-Moon. Nasu had already been a writer beforehand, with the Kara no Kyoukai novel series being released in 1998. Type-Moon’s first production was the visual novel Tsukihime, released the same year. Tsukihime quickly became a hit amongst the visual novel fandom and it was soon made into an anime TV series by J.C. Staff. Their next big release was Fate/Stay Night, which to this day, remains one of the most popular visual novels in history. Again, it was brought to anime form, this time by Studio DEEN. Starting in 2007, ufotable began adapting Nasu’s Kara no Kyoukai novels into a movie series, eventually ending its run in 2009.
Personal Favorite: Kara no Kyoukai – Garden of Sinners
As far as anime adaptations of Type-Moon visual novels go, one of them was absolute crap, one of them was infuriating, and one of them was actually pretty decent. I’m not going to lie. Tsukihime was mediocre at best, and that’s not coming from someone who played the VN and thought it was bad, it was just straight up bad. Fate/Stay Night was also bad but in a different way. To me, it just felt like 24 episodes of infuriating fan fiction. I will never forgive whoever it was over at Type-Moon who thought it’d be a good idea to emasculate King Arthur and turn him into a girl. On the other hand, Kara no Kyoukai is a huge improvement anime wise. It is by no means a masterpiece, but it was still rather well-animated entertaining when it needed to be. I can appreciate Nasu as an actual novelist, just not a visual novelist. I guess that’s part of the reason why I liked Kara no Kyoukai as it was Nasu’s first novel series. The anime is actually structured with a complete story rather than a fragmented attempt at adapting a game.
Nasu is someone who would not be on this list if it weren’t for how big visual novels have grown in the past several years. While the blending of the VN industry and anime industry can’t be attributed to just one person or company, I think it’s safe to say that Nasu and Type-Moon had a pretty big hand in it. For better or for worse, visual novels are a staple of Japanese gaming and anime fandom, consisting of 70% of all games released. Recently, many VN companies such as KEY and Type-Moon are quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the anime industry. It’s a trend that honestly needs to stop. Of every ONE remotely good adaptation, say for example Clannad (and even that’s stretching it), there’s a myriad of shitty ones. But nevertheless, this post is about people who shaped anime, regardless of direction. I think most people will agree that Nasu’s works have indeed shaped much of anime and fandom throughout the 00s. Fate/Stay Night in particular still has a devoted following, taking place in the ever-popular “Nasuverse.” It also gave us the term “GAR,” which nowadays, is used by just about everyone and their grandmother.
- Director: Moomin (1969, episode director) Fang of the Sun Dougram (1981), Armored Trooper VOTOMS (1983), Panzer World Galient (1984), Gasaraki (1998), Phoenix (2004), Flag (2006)
- Producer: King of Braves GaoGaiGar (1997), Area 88 (2004)
Ryosuke Takahashi is a long time director and one of Studio Sunrise’s best veterans. He spent most of his early career serving as producer and episode director for various shows. He was an episode director for Mushi production’s Moomin way back in 1969. Takahashi later joined Studio Sunrise where he worked on a several popular mecha series, including those of the real robot genre (Armored Trooper VOTOMS in 1983 and Flag in 2006) as well as the super robot genre (King of Braves GaoGaiGar in 1997). In between, he also directed several works that blend the two genres including 1984’s Panzer World Galient, a show mixing giant robots with a medieval style backdrop.
Personal Favorite: King of Braves GaoGaiGar
King of Braves GaoGaiGar can be described as one huge homage and genre throwback to the old super robot shows from the 60s and 70s, namely Getter Robo and Mazinger Z. Everything about this show is mind numbing, crazy, and awesome at the exact same time. All the classic super robot tropes are present; the combining mechs, the hot-blooded pilots, the super powered attacks with no explanation whatsoever and the GLORIOUS theme song. And lets not forget GaoGaiGar Final, because honestly, GaoGaiGar isn’t GaoGaiGar without the glorious finale. Yes it’s been said before, but for newer fans whose attentions were piqued by Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, GaoGaiGar is definitely worthy of checking out.
I’m going straight from GaoGaiGar to VOTOMS here. While not as early as 1979’s Mobile Suit Gundam and certainly not as popular as Gundam or Macross, Armored Trooper VOTOMS will always be remembered as that “third” series which really defined the 80s in terms of the shift from super robots to real robots. Ryosuke Takahashi’s work on the show would spawn a sub-culture itself, eventually leading to several OVA sequels and prequels. Even today, more OVAs are still being produced. And by the way, Code Geass did not invent roller skating robots. It was actually the Scopedog from VOTOMS, which probably and sadly got the idea from Getter 3 or that one robot from Mobile Suit Gundam. I’m being slightly sarcastic but not really. The point is, VOTOMS is awesome.