Galaxy Express 999 movie and The Castle of Cagliostro starring Lupin the Third. It was also the year of Mobile Suit Gundam and The Rose of Versailles, two shows on opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of genre and setting.
One way of breaking down the year would be to divide it into two major components: historical dramas that looked to the past for tales of adventure and romance; and in contrast, war stories challenging the future of planet Earth and the vast reaches of space. A majority of the shôjo (and even a bit of the shônen) shows in 1979 used historical Western settings. At the same time, almost any show not set in the past was set in a future where soldiers fought against impossible odds as the last hope for peace. Mobile Suit Gundam and The Rose of Versailles exemplify these two major movements.
The War of The Rose of Versailles
It is hard to think of a more iconic historical anime than the lush and melodramatic epic The Rose of Versailles. Oscar François de Jarjayes, the cross-dressing protector of Marie Antoinette in pre-revolutionary France, was a complex woman with a powerful presence who still shapes characters today. Oscar was a symbol for women, for she was noble and beautiful, passionate and courageous, able to best every man she came in contact with. Her struggle with identity turns tragic as she realizes you can’t have everything—each choice can alter life inexplicably. Oscar may have been from an era long past, but she was (and still is) completely relevant to modern women.
Riyoko Ikeda’s Oscar built on Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight and went on to influence creators and characters for generations. The influence of the enigmatic Oscar was probably most strongly felt in the unparalleled anime Revolutionary Girl Utena, which too took cues from Princess Knight.
Perhaps even more than the character Oscar, it was the setting of The Rose of Versailles that changed Japan by beginning its unending romance with France. France has become such a transcendent nation in the Japanese consciousness that dozens of Japanese tourists a year have been known to come down with “Paris Syndrome," a shock that occurs when the city does not live up to the fantastic promise of their dreams. (As a side note, the Duke of Orléans would forever be portrayed as one of the most dastardly villains in all the world, at least according to Japanese media, past this point in time thanks to his portrayal in The Rose of Versailles.)
Back to the Future Past
Anne of Green Gables, a World Masterpiece Theater classic and staple of children’s literature around the world, was set in Nova Scotia. Notably, it was worked on by the now-legendary duo Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. So fondly remembered was Anne of Green Gables that it received a prequel 30 years later.
In the Western novel vein, Sasurai no Shôjo Nell was an adaptation of a Dickens work, The Old Curiosity Shop, set in London with orphan Nell. We then had a small town in Pennsylvania during the early-1800s represented in Kinpatsu no Jeanie (which received a remake in the 1990s). While Hana no Ko LunLun was not based on a novel, its setting and style firmly put it in the movement with the others. LunLun was a magical girl show but it had many of the same themes and flourishes as its more realistic counterparts.
However, fiction steeped in the past wasn’t just the realm of heroines, as 1979 saw the likes of King Arthur, as well as Jean Valjean, animated. Maybe the Les Miserables anime also contributed to the growing French mania in Japan; after all, Jean Valjean was sort of crazy bad-ass in it.
In contrast, when looking at the current anime landscape, nearly all historical series are set within Japan.
Freedom Fighter Gunboy
The birth of a franchise is no small feat and ’79 saw the beginning of a juggernaut—Gundam. Mobile Suit Gundam was Yoshiyuki Tomino’s classic tale of the teenager Amuro Ray who was pulled into a long and difficult war spanning Earth and space.
Gundam would go on to redefine giant robots and bring to life the “real robot” genre in anime. Though such genre lines have since blurred, Gundam has endured as an unstoppable franchise. The whole robot model kit business can thank Gundam, too. After its initial TV run, model kits (known as Gunpla) took the toy world by storm shifting the focus from traditional pre-built robot toys which relied more on gimmicks and accessories.
Gundam spawned countless archetypes and iconic moments, from the rivalry of Amuro and Char to the look of many military mecha. Now, a story featuring "Earth vs. Space Colonies" is a common trope, and even minor events like the Black Tri-Stars have become immortal moments to be referenced and called upon countless times.
Char “The Red Comet” Aznable himself is a beloved character to this very day and while he didn’t usher in the near-ridiculous need for a masked antagonist in every robot series, he sure did make it look cool. Char is the most well-known piece of the entire franchise outside of the Gundam robot itself; the thousands of products, including a forklift modeled after his signature robot, prove it.
Previous mecha series dipped their toes in the pool of realism, but Gundam went a step further in embracing it, bringing the harsh cost of war to the forefront. Gundam ushered in a new zeitgeist for mecha anime that would not really be challenged until Neon Genesis Evangelion in 1995.
It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
While Gundam would go on to spawn dozen of sequels and spin-offs, it was hardly the only anime tapping into the science-fiction craze. Already a popular genre, it was given an extra boost once Star Wars hit Japanese shores.
Mirai Robo Daltanious also took place on a post-apocalyptic Earth, although this time the hero had to use a giant lion-chest robot to defend the Earth instead of a Matryoshka doll mecha. It is worth mentioning that Daltanious was originally supposed to be the first part of Voltron: The Defender of the Universe before Toei mistakenly sent Go Lion to World Events Productions.
Though not as large a genre as it once was, science-fiction is still considered an iconic part of anime.
When Women Were Real Men and Men Were Amuro Ray
One final thing to take away from 1979 is how the two shining stars of TV anime that year, Oscar the hot-blooded heroine and Amuro the reluctant hero, went against established gender roles.
Oscar embodied all the classic traits of a male hero who just happened to have been born biologically female. Tomboy leads have always been staples of shôjo, but Oscar pushed the boundaries to the extreme. Amuro, on the other hand, was passive and overly emotional to the point of exemplifying a stereotypical female character. This was certainly a contrast to the brash and aggressive mecha pilots that were so well-known and even represented in the other robot shows of 1979. Both Oscar and Amuro would be imitated, parodied, homaged, countered, and built upon for years after they debuted and both are still important icons.
While Mobile Suit Gundam struggled, finding its audience too late (the TV series was cut short), everyone seemed to be watching The Rose of Versailles. Ironically, Gundam would go on to spawn an entire franchise whereas The Rose of Versailles would only receive an additional collection of side-stories and a sequel of sorts in Eikou no Napoleon – Eroica, but is the number of later iterations really any indication of one show being superior to another? Both series left lasting legacies that would extend far beyond the year or even the decade they were made.