Really that is what drew me to 1986, a year that had quite a contrast. On television growing franchises like Gundam were continuing to gain a foothold while new kings of the industry like Dragon Ball had their television debut. Meanwhile on home video, shows like MD Geist just didn't seem to care what expectations were and just wanted to have fun. Interestingly enough, these titles that were so significant in Japan also ended up being very important internationally.
It was also the year that Transformers: The Movie hit theaters.
Transformers is a strange franchise as it is managed by two separate companies, Hasbro and Takara. For some reason, the decision was made not to release the film domestically in Japan in 1986. This is an interesting twist for the franchise, mainly because 1986 was when the continuity split between the US and Japanese cartoons got started. Comics were released to cover the hole between the two, but following the third season of the show, new seasons were produced in Japan that completely split the stories up. Honestly it is one of my personal favorite movies, so I would be remiss to not bring it up before diving into what made 1986 really special for anime.
The New Shonen Heroes
Two new heroes of the shonen fighting world made their broadcast debuts in 1986. In one, Goku begin his adventure to collect the Dragon Balls, while Seiya began to burn his Cosmo in the other. With that we enter into two titles that played a very big role in establishing new ground for anime in both Japan and abroad.
There isn't a ton that hasn't already been said about Dragon Ball in the past, but some things remain to be said. The popular shonen adventure developed by creator Akira Toriyama hit the ground running right when it started. Dragon Ball focused on a powerful, mysterious monkey-tailed boy named Goku who ends up on a crazy adventure around the world to find the magic Dragon Balls with his friends. Of course, every lunatic they ran into had some sort of wish they wanted to fulfill using the Dragon Balls, and it was up to Goku and gang to stop them.
In many ways Dragon Ball can be seen as the successor to Fist of the North Star, staking its claim as the next stage of the shonen action hero. The evidence really became solidified later in the show's run with its sequel, Dragon Ball Z, as the early stages of the series was just as focused on being a goofy comedy as it was in being about tough fighting. Instead of the fairly bleak and serious adventure experienced in Fist of the North Star, viewers now got to watch a fun-loving adventure in Dragon Ball. Even when it was time to get serious, the series never forgot to have that goofy edge to it--you can see those influences in current Shonen Jump shows like One Piece or Naruto that still love to be both serious and jocular. (Of course, it took 15 years and a successful Dragon Ball Z run before we saw a decent original Dragon Ball series on American TV. - Ed.)
Saint Seiya, which chronicled the adventures of Seiya and his teammates as they work together to protect the goddess Athena, also debuted in 1986. Saint Seiya's heroes all used powered up armor called Cloths to help them in their fight. However, while Dragon Ball ended up being the natural successor to Fist of the North Star, Saint Seiya forged its own path and started another trend in shonen action. Before Saint Seiya, most traditional shonen series featured very rough and hyper-masculine heroes, but Saint Seiya instead it went for a pretty-boy aesthetic with the main male characters appearing much more feminine than might have been previously seen. This began a trend of actively courting a female audience along with the traditional male audience that you normally saw following shonen series, a trend that continued with shows like Rurouni Kenshin following in its footsteps. That isn't to say that Saint Seiya didn't still feature action, but it made a decision to go with a different look than might have been previously expected.
Interestingly enough, while these two ended up being big hits in Japan that sparked some interesting changes in the genre they also ended up being very significant titles overseas as well. Not many titles have had great staying power outside of Japan, but both Dragon Ball and Saint Seiya have had that ability. Dragon Ball hit television in the US in the '90s and ended up being an enormous hit with staying power that really has only been bested by Pokemon. Even though it took a few years, it ended up being one of the most significant titles for an entire generation of anime fans in the US and other countries.
Saint Seiya on the other hand didn't get its hooks in quite as well in the US. It did get a chance to air on Cartoon Network as Knights of the Zodiac in 2003. Unfortunately, it didn’t catch on and was off the air very quickly. The series did end up being quite a hit in other parts of the world, taking a foothold in South America. There, the title ended up being one of the biggest anime titles to hit the airwaves and has remained in the consciousness of an entire generation of fans there. (Also the Spanish version of "Pegasus Fantasy" is damn great.)
Twice The Zeta
Zeta Gundam as a series tended to play things very seriously. It didn't offer much in lighthearted moments, but really ended up being a story where things just kept getting worse and worse for those involved. Coming hot off the heels of an ending that didn’t offer much closure Double Zeta had a lot to live up to. What it ended up doing is going its own route to tell its story. While Zeta was fairly serious and didn’t like to let up, Double Zeta started in a much more lighthearted fashion, introducing a new cast of young characters, including new teenage Gundam pilot Judau Ashta, to the Argama brought a new life and style to the show. The angst had been relaxed, and instead we were given goofy stories about space Mayans and kids trying to steal Gundams. This was all accompanied by a much goofier opening theme, "Anime Ja Nai" ("It's Not An Anime!").
Despite all this ridiculousness, it can't be said that Double Zeta didn't have serious moments. It actually turned the intensity up quite a bit later on in the series and served to set up later Gundam shows like Char's Counterattack. Oddly enough the events of Double Zeta didn't get much direct reference in the Gundam animation for a long time after the series ended. That changed in the recent OVA series Gundam Unicorn that used much of what happened in Double Zeta to establish its story and revive interest in the show within Gundam's fandom.
Zeta and Double Zeta have traded places in fan favor many times over the years. The thing is they both have good reasons to be popular. While Zeta gave us that serious business show that people were looking for as a follow-up to Mobile Suit Gundam, Double Zeta served to remind us that you could still have some fun in your robot shows.
It's Blockbuster or Bust
The OVA boom in the 1980s brought in new talents and gave them a chance to go all out on new animation ideas without having the stress of television deadlines. This new boom let creative staffs really experiment, leading to pieces of work that are still looked at today with reverence. It was a time that brought about some of the most memorable animated spectacles we remember fondly here in the US as well. A whole generation of anime fans became fans thanks to rental outlets like Blockbuster with video tapes of OVAs and movies from this era.
Interestingly enough, 1986 featured some of the most notable of those Blockbuster classic releases. OVAs were really hitting their stride at this time, following big hits like Megazone 23. Action was even more important to these new titles as well. That allowed for the animators to really strut their stuff and show just what they were capable of. Creative minds were allowed to just let ideas flow and work with whatever came out whether it was a crazy parody or incomprehensible action movie. That isn't to say that OVAs were the only place that you saw this kind of creativity, but they were a significant driving force behind them. There were a ton of great titles that hit the scene over the course of the year, but there were only two titles that I feel encapsulate the time's unique creative energy: Project A-Ko and MD Geist. (Editor's note: Project A-Ko was a movie first, but the later installments were OVAs.)
Project A-Ko hit the scene in June 1986 and really showed what happens when a group of imaginative people are allowed to run wild. The cult hit actually started out as part of the hentai franchise Cream Lemon, but it was then spun off into a more mainstream title. The result was a movie that told the story of a super-powered girl named A-ko, who was constantly fighting with another girl (B-Ko) over their bubbly friend (C-Ko), only to have the two of them come together when C-Ko gets kidnapped. The movie's story was paper thin from the beginning, but fans were more drawn in to enjoy a movie filled with beautifully-done animation and loaded references from both Western movies (Star Wars) and recent Japanese hits (a girl that looks and fights exactly line Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star). At the end of the day, Project A-Ko may not have been the most coherent product, but it succeeded at one simple thing that seems to be forgotten; it was just plain fun to watch.
It is hard to describe just what it was that made MD Geist so special, but it really came down to its insane nature. MD Geist is about a guy named Geist, who is wandering on a post-apocalyptic Earth. He confronts soldiers trying to stop a computer program at a fortress known as "Brain Palace" from starting up the "Death Force", robots bent on destroying what is left of humanity. Geist ends up joining this group of soldiers, but they were decidedly nervous about letting him join when they realized he was an "M.D.S." (Most Dangerous Soldier). We then get to see Geist doing what he does best--wrecking everything for everybody. Just trying to sum up the story shows you how special MD Geist was in its insanity.
Interestingly enough both MD Geist and Project A-Ko were early releases by the classic anime distributor Central Park Media. They both arrived in video stores early on and exposed a whole generation of American kids to new and bizarre styles of animation that they might not have gotten a chance to see otherwise. CPM ended up producing a cleaned-up directors cut of MD Geist in the early '90s and pushed the title with all their strength. It's amazing to see a title that might have been forgotten still revered and largely that is in thanks to the people at CPM giving it their all.
The '80s were an interesting time for anime, and 1986 could be the perfect example of the era. You still had your mainstay titles broadcast on television like Gundam, Dragon Ball, and Saint Seiya, but while these titles helped move genres forward, the underlying OVA movement gave creative minds a shot. While Dragon Ball was the innocent franchise, MD Geist was in the corner releasing its Death Force. New ideas flourished and gave use a glimpse of what unfettered creativity could be.
Next time: If the gauntlet was thrown in 1986, then the kitchen sink comes later in 1987!