The highest grossing Japanese movie of 1991 is Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday (Omoide Poro Poro, or more literally "Memories With Tears."), and it serves as a good summation of the year itself. Many know Only Yesterday to be one of Ghibli's best, yet it is one of the only remaining Ghibli titles not to have any American release from Disney. It's a quiet, subtle film that would not be able to attract the large audiences Miyazaki's more family friendly, and less culturally specific works.
The cyberpunk opus of 1991 was instead Roujin Z, written by Akira's Otomo, but directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo. Unlike the brutal phantasmagoria of Akira, Roujin Z was a social satire about the care of the elderly. Roger Ebert gave the film three stars, and spoke of the potential of anime by saying "I cannot imagine this story being told in a conventional movie. Not only would the machine be impossibly expensive and complex to create with special effects, but the social criticism would be immediately blue-penciled by Hollywood executives." The title is currently unlicensed in America.
The economic downturn also hit the OAV market. 1991 is riddled with unfinished one and two-volume manga adaptations that never secured funding for additional episodes. Many weren't even touched by US licensors. Remember Handsome Girlfriend, an adaptation of a popular Ribon manga from Ayumi Hoshizumi? How about Border, a 45-minute OAV about two con artists who meet in the Middle East, where they create fake documentaries for money? What about Gainax's Burning Exchange Student, a boxing anime with designs from Yuji Moriyama?
Anime companies tried a magazine-style video compilation called "Rentaman" where shorts of various series were combined on a single tape. Long forgotten titles like Go Nagai's Abashiri Families and Akai Hayate were first released this way before the experiment failed and was never repeated. When these titles were licensed for US release, the episodes were constructed from the shorts released on the few attempted Rentaman "issues".
In reaction to the moral panic, however, Gainax released Otaku no Video, an attempt to confront the negative stereotypes and reclaim the term as one of pride. With character designs by Kenichi Sonoda and scriptwriting by Gainax's "Otaking" himself, Toshio Okada, Otaku no Video combined a semi-autobiographical history of Gainax with live action "documentary" footage of "real" otaku. Otaku no Video isn't 1991's only acclaimed OAV, though; Masami Obari released his three-part robot epic Detonator Orgun, Rintaro adapted popular horror novel "Capitol City Story" into Doomed Megalopolis, and the first episode Heroic Legend of Arslan, based on a novel by the author of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Yoshiki Tanaka, premiered in theaters. Personal favorites of mine are Here is Greenwood, a story about a high school dorm filled with freaks and lunatics directed by Ranma 1/2's Tomomi Mochizuki, 3x3 Eyes, a supernatural horror comedy from the manga by Yuzo Takada, and poor forgotten Luna Varga, the story of a princess with Godzilla growing out of her rear end (or perhaps it could be considered a story of a giant lizard with a princess growing out of its head). In times of peace, the lizard shrinks down to a tail, but when trouble arises, Luna Varga to the rescue!
Self-identified otaku at the time were excited about Kia Asamiya's now-forgotten Silent Moebius, about hot ladies fighting Lovecraftian nightmares called Lucifer Hawks, and the Gundam F-91 movie. F-91 was originally envisioned by Tomino to spearhead a new Gundam saga, but staff disputes caused the project to be converted from a television series to a movie. Unfortunately, these cuts removed much of the story, and F-91 became known as something as a disappointment for Gundam fans. Fortunately, the OVA series released to tie up the continuity between Double Zeta and F-91, Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, is well regarded by Gundam fans. The 13-episode OVA featured character designs by Cowboy Bebop's Toshihiro Kawamoto and Macross' Shoji Kawamori, in a neat convergence of Japan's famous mecha franchises.
The combination of the poor economy, self-censorship, and otaku standbys underperforming left the center stage of 1991 for the unsung heroes: kids' TV shows, and 1991 had an interesting crop of kids series that tangle with the harsh events of the adult world in some very interesting ways. Below are six of the most important.
Oniisama e ("Dear Brother")
Dear Brother follows young high school freshman Nanako in her life at the prestigious Seiran Academy, and uses the letters she writes to an older male acquaintance as a storytelling mechanism. Shojo business at Seiran Academy is serious business, as the school has an American-style sorority headed by ice queen Lady Miya, and most of the girls would do anything to get in. However, when plain, normal Nanako finds herself a candidate for the sorority, her life gets turned upside down in an epic story of bullying, betrayal, family secrets, forbidden love, and tragedies large and small. The same energy Dezaki brought to Golgo 13's assassinations and Versailles' storming of the Bastille seems out of place at first and almost laughably ridiculous. Stick with it, and you'll find yourself hooked. Now that the series is free streaming on Viki, no shojo fan has any excuse not to check out this classic.
The biggest breakout shojo hit of the 1990s is undoubtedly Sailor Moon, which would not premiere until 1992, but Goldfish Warning gives us an early peak at greatness, as much of Sailor Moon's creative team, including series director Junichi Sato, music director Takanori Arisawa, and episode director Kunihiko Ikuhara, first worked on the 1991 series. Based on a Nakayoshi manga by Neko Nekobe, Goldfish Warning tells the story of Chitose Fujinomiya, a snooty ojousama who is left penniless after the death of her father. After she's kicked out of her snooty school for being too poor, she finds herself at Inakano Academy with her only remaining possession, a goldfish named Gyopi. It's a fish-out-of-water comedy in more ways than one, with Chitose finding it hard to cope with the unrefined rural folk due to her cultured upbringing, and Gyopi turning out to be a valuable flying fish worth millions. The true star of the show, actually, is Wapiko, a pink-haired feral child who loves to eat, nap, and talk with her animal friends. Ikuhara was reportedly not a fan of its simple, aimless story, but it's hard not see his style in the episodes he directed, with their outrageous sibling rivalry, forbidden love, and surreal animal comedy.
A Sunrise mecha saga with young kids as its target market, Raijin Oh might now be more famous these days for inspiring the dark Bokurano and its tale of child pilots fighting aliens, but Raijin Oh has little else in common with the later series. Its heroism is bright and uncomplicated, like the merchandise it undoubtedly sold by the cartload. When an alien pilot, Eldran, is wounded in a battle with evil alien overlords, it crash-lands onto a Japanese elementary school. Too weak to carry on, the alien gives each of the 18 students a coin-like medallion and asks them to defend the earth in his stead. By inserting these coins into slots which have mysteriously appeared around the classroom, the kids soon find their classroom can transform into a high tech command center, and three of the boys are able to pilot mechs that combine to form the mighty Raijin Oh. Sure, it's shameless pandering to sell toys, but it's hard not to feel the magic when the school starts its transformations into the Earth Defense Group headquarters.
Dai's Big Adventure
Dragon Quest, or Dragon Warrior, was never that big of a hit in America in either anime or video game form. While the US did see a few episodes of the first Dragon Warrior series hit syndication, the second series Dai's Big Adventure never saw release here. Like the Dragon Quest game and first series, Dai's Big Adventure featured character designs from Akira Toriyama, world famous for a certain other "Dragon" series. This time, however, instead of 16-year-old warrior Abel as the star, we're introduced to 14-year-old boy named Dai, who after a shipwreck finds himself living on an island full of monsters. It's hard not to see a little of Son Goku in the wild Dai, and his adventures with his monster friends proved to be much more popular than the original series, running for a total of 40 episodes.
Minky Momo originally came out in 1982, but 1991's Minky Momo is no mere sequel. It's far more interesting, and far more disturbing than that. The first Momo revolved around a fantastic sky kingdom, and is known as "Sora Momo", while 1991's Momo features a kingdom under the sea, so it's known as "Umi Momo." However, "Umi Momo" is not a reboot, and the two Minky Momo characters actually meet each other and interact. Momo is a girl from the land of dreams at the bottom of the sea, and like her namesake Momotaro, has three animal companions, a dog, a monkey, and a bird. When people's dreams have trouble coming true, Minky Momo uses her magical powers to transform into an adult in any number of disguises. But in these cynical times, Momo has trouble making dreams come true. In the second half of the series, she even tries to take on social issues to turn the tide, but the 1990s seem a much bleaker time than the 1980s. At the end of the series, because people no longer believe, the fairy people decide to leave the earth, leaving Momo behind. Twenty years before Madoka Magica, a magical girl loses. Heavy.
Perhaps that's too heavy, and perhaps 1991 wasn't a blockbuster year for televised anime, but that doesn't mean anime couldn't be fun and optimistic. Because you might need some cheering up, let's end on Janken Man ("Rock-Paper-Scissors Man") to help save your day with the power of Rocks, Paper, and Scissors.
1991 was marked by several unfortunate trends for the anime industry. The ending of the Japanese economic bubble limited the scope of what animated projects could cost, and the failure of models like Rentaman refocused the industry on the importance of television. Media sensationalism and a climate of self-censorship caused a change in focus from the ultra-violent extravagance of the late 1980s, and disappointing results from otaku standbys like Gundam and Bubblegum Crash underscored the importance of experimentation. If 1991 reminded anime about the importance of creativity and marketability in TV anime, 1992 would take those lessons to heart and introduce some properties that remain relevant to this day.
Anime Encyclopedia: Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy. Stone Bridge Press, 2001.
The Complete Anime Guide: 2nd Edition. Trish Ledoux and Doug Ranney. Tiger Mountain Press, 1997.
Reviews of Dear Brother by Noel Kirkpatrick at http://thiswastv.com/2012/06/19/oniisama-e-the-magnificent-ones/
Next time: Anime emerges from the collapsed bubble in 1992 with an unexpected savior.