Outlaw Star is what cemented him as an anime fan. Recently he has been writing and podcasts for his site All Geeks Considered. You can occasionally see him doing panels at conventions in the north eastern United States. You can also see what's on his mind through his Twitter account, @VinnieAveAGC.)
TV anime has always been known for its long-running shows, and this time period is no exception, as shows like Dragon Ball Z, Yawara: The Fashionable Judo Girl, Ranma 1/2, and City Hunter 3 had premiered the previous year and ran into (and often through) 1990. Even with these pillars of anime covered in other articles and getting ignored here, there is still a nice list of things that make 1990 a year with at least a few good and memorable shows.
The first of these (and the elephant in the room for this year) is the first TV show Studio Gainax produced, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. Yes, Gainax made movies and OVAs before this, but this was their first foray into a full-length series. Originally based on a concept that Hayao Miyazaki worked on in the 1970s, Nadia, at this point, still had its rights owned by Toho, which hired Gainax to make this a 26-episode series(even though elements of the show went on to become Miyazaki's Laputa). At the helm of crew was the already-popular Hideaki Anno (see: Gunbuster), with Yoshiyuki Sadamoto joining him again for the character designs, so yes, this show looks a hell of a lot like some other shows that they did.
The basic premise of Nadia is that there is an ancient civilization, Atlantis, which no longer exists. Our heroine Nadia has a large blue gem that she wears around her neck, the MacGuffin for the first part of the series. Hunting this down are Grandis Gravia and her two henchmen, Hanson (the brawn) and Sanson (the brains), hiding the actual antagonist of the series, Neo-Atlantis, led by Gargoyle. I say "actual antagonist", because after the first encounter with Neo-Atlantis, Nadia and the Grandis Gang are saved by Captain Nemo and the Nautilus. (Oh, did I forget to mention that this is based on Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?)
What everyone in the comments section is waiting for are the so-called Island and Africa episodes of Nadia. Gainax was contracted for 26 episodes, only for 39 episodes to be produced. Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water was hugely popular at the time and has maintained popularity, as there were reports that I cannot find anymore that it had an HD rebroadcast last year. (According to translator William Flanagan, Nadia DID have an HD rebroadcast, as well as a Blu-Ray release in November 2011. - Ed.) Those additional 13 episodes, which ran from around episode 22 to episode 36, were not as well scripted, and the animation quality drops several rungs on the ladder. If the show had maintained the 26 episode run time, there would have been no problem, but the show goes almost entirely off the rails, mostly due to Anno handing over the reins to fellow Gainax director Shinji Higuchi. However, they manage to pull it together so show ends well; it is incredibly easy to just skip these episodes and have a great experience (preventing a dangerous example of the "Gainax ending").
World Masterpiece Theater. Our main character, Judy Abbott, lives in an orphanage, and is the out-going and friendly type but also tends to be the one who causes trouble for Mrs. Lippett, the head of the orphanage. The show starts with us finding out that one of the older children will be given a scholarship to go to high school (the original novel sends her to college, but this is anime--the time of your life that matters is high school, or in this case a boarding school).
At her arrival at Lincoln Memorial School, she meets her two roommates, and drama ensues when they meet her. What makes this show worth watching is the class distinctions that exists between the other girls and Judy. One of the girls, Julia Pendleton, is incredibly rich (which fits most of the other characters, as this is a boarding school), and because she is super-rich, she is also a snob. This leads to some conflicts between the two when Julia doesn't understand why Judy is doing things. What makes this show interesting is the interaction between the poor and the wealthy classes and how someone who has nothing acts when she is suddenly in a new situation where she now has (what she considers) to be vast resources.
Let's move on to comedy, and the anime that is probably the most successful (or at least the longest-running) of the all the shows that started this year, Chibi Maruko-chan. The story of loveable Momoko "Maruko" Sakura clocks in at over 900 episodes between the two series combined (there was a short break for a few years in the middle), making this one of those shows that almost no one in America has seen and many (possibly most) have never heard of. "Maruko-chan" lives with her family in a very Sazae-san setting (living with her mother, father, grandma, grandpa, and her older sister) and spends time at school with her friends and in class.
What makes this show fun to watch is that Maruko is lazy and often absentmindedly thinks about weird and random things, not quite unlike Osaka from Azumanga Daioh. However, what really won me over when I watched this was that, while this show has the traditional family structure and school elements, there are subtle (and often funny) elements of subversion. My favorite example of this is a scene where all the students in class are telling their dreams of what they want to be. The class president (usually a respected main character) here tells his dream of becoming a salaryman, only for the class to give the most awkward clap, something that would be expected in real life when someone says they want to work in an office building. (Even the teacher gives the class president an awkward look.) As a fan of subversive comedy, this did not disappoint.
Next up on our hit-parade is one that caused "Moomin Mania", as 1990 saw the release of the third Moomin TV anime (among other TV shows of its sort around the world) based on the Finnish book series by Tove Jannson. The 1990 series ended up running for a respectable 104 episodes and could be the most successful anime series of everything released this year. It saw wide international release and was mostly episodic, but there are occasional times when characters have a story that runs through 2 or 3 episodes. What makes this show notable is that while Moomin was popular in its homeland of Finland and surrounding region, this anime helped launch Moomin to major international popularity. This eventually led to a theme-park based around the Moomins. Yes, this matches the popularity of things like Disney and Lego.
There is one final series that I would be failing in my duty to not mention, Raven Tengu Kabuto. Our story follows a current member of the Raven Tengu bloodline, a clan who must fight evil because they have to, who in the first episode gets a talking sword. Seriously. This show is full of crazy stuff like this and shows clear influence from OVAs. Considering the series was developed by Buichi Terasawa (Space Adventure Cobra, Goku Midnight Eye) Raven Tengu Kabuto has its fair share of crazy--don't get me wrong--but at the end of the day the easiest and most effective way of doing that is watching the opening.
So that is 1990 as far as TV anime goes. To me this year wasn't the year that changed anime, but it is part of the larger flow of change that ran through the 1980s with the development of the OVA and the move away from television. By and large, this wasn't where we saw the big ideas (with some notable exceptions like Nadia). However, while this year was filled with shows that, by and large, were for kids (even Terasawa's Raven Tengu Kabuto wasn't particularly offensive or graphic), the shows were still creative and interesting enough to watch, even if some were just glorified toy commercials like Brave Exkaiser, Magical Angel Sweet Mint, or NG Knight Lamune & 40. Even theatrical anime wasn't much better; this year was most notable for having two Dragon Ball Z movies and a Doraemon movie. Anime hadn't made the move back to TV, but shows like Nadia were definitely the sign that TV could still be used as a strong medium and would eventually make a return to dominance over the OVA market.
Next time: 1991. The Japanese economic bubble bursts...and gets all over the anime industry's hair.