Tuesday, May 7, 2013

1993: Everybody Wants To Rule Za Waarudo

[1993 was the year that Geoffrey Tebbetts (@GeoffTebbetts) learned that "anime" was a "thing". After watching Locke the Superman and Akira in his first year of college, he joined Atlanta's Anime X and helped co-found Georgia Tech's first anime club in 1996. Geoff wrote for Animerica Magazine as a reviewer and columnist from 1996 to 2004, and he has been covering anime through his own blog AniMaybe since 2010. He's also the editor of this very blog, the Golden Ani-Versary of Anime.]

After years of riding a monster wave of success, economically speaking, Japan in 1993 had found itself treading water. The Nikkei stock market had managed to reverse its course after losing over half its value, but its GDP hadn't changed in three years, and the yen itself was falling against the dollar, the stable platform since 1987 taken out from under the currency until it bottomed out in 1995. The unemployment rate, traditionally a comfortable rate between 2 and 3%, had started to creep upwards until it peaked in 2002 (although some will argue that the rate had been notoriously underestimated for years). While the industries were boosting production, bankruptcies had tripled since 1990, and business confidence was at an all-time low.

That's not to say that Japan's anime industry was suffering from its own lack of confidence. Perennial all-stars such as Sazae-san, Doraemon, and Chibi Maruko-chan (which unfortunately ended in 1992 during the height of its popularity, but returned in 1995 to stay) were consistently gathering weekly television ratings that rivaled numbers set by Tetsuwan Atomu in the 1960s, while Yuu Yuu Hakusho discovered its own ratings bonanza alongside its Shonen Jump brother, Dragonball Z. (Of course, ratings can only say so much about success. If you were to look at the numbers, Sailor Moon's first-season ratings in 1992 were comparable to those of the short-lived nonsense anime Obotchama-kun that ran in the time slot thirty minutes afterwards.)

You could arguably state that televised anime's rivalry with the direct-to-video OVA market was keeping both afloat during these times. Trounced suddenly in the late 1980s by the deluge of OVA titles, television was making its comeback, but not without stiff competition. The Tenchi Muyo! juggernaut launched in 1992 with the Ryo-Ohki OVA series, which quickly became the biggest OVA success story since Patlabor, while critical acclaim would be passed to the slow-and-steady Giant Robo over time. (Seriously, Brian. Just one small mention?)

Based on the confidence in older shows and the industry's creativity in 1993, if you were to look at anime's activity and claim there was economic turbulence in Japan, you'd be hard-pressed to view it from its outward appearance (partly due to the lag between brainstorm and video release). However, that was two decades ago, and time has been a judge that has been harsher on some shows over others. What shows could we consider to be the bedrock on which many of today's anime skyscrapers have been built?

Shonen Jump Flexes Its Muscle

Twenty years ago, Shonen Jump still commanded much of the popularity amongst weekly manga anthologies. While Shonen Sunday had some command with Yaiba (Gosho Aoyama's pre-Detective Conan series) and Ghost Sweeper Mikami, Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma 1/2 had ended the year before, leaving the playing field open for Shonen Jump. Having already infiltrated the OVA market with Video Girl Ai and Bastard!!, Shuiesha added a third show that would corner television along with Dragonball Z and Yuu Yuu Hakusho: the basketball anime, Slam Dunk.

When it came to sports, anime had a lot more focus on individual sports such as martial arts and boxing, while readers and viewers only cared about team sports that involved professional teams (Captain Tsubasa, Star of the Giants). Basketball itself hadn't been much of a subject in anime before 1993, the only anime of significance being the gag show Dash Kappei, which aired in the early 80's. While there had been some penetration in manga form with the semi-romance Dear Boys in Shonen Sunday, there seemed to be a dynamic missing.

Enter the bad-boy persona of Japan's adolescent youth, the "classic yankii". Gangster in attitude with slicked-back pompadours and black gakuran uniforms, they were the image of toughness amongst the youth of Japan. At times snot-nosed in shows like Kyou Kara Ore Wa!, at times as macho as Shonan Junai Gumi (the precursor to GTO), the yankii had found a home in Shonen Jump; Yuusuke and Kuwabara from Yuu Yuu Hakusho were yankii prototypes, while Rokudenashi BLUES showed the toughness of the yankii in the boxing ring. Even Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, which debuted as its own OVA in 1993, skipped the introduction of the series and introduced us to the sole yankii of the entire Joestar bloodline, Jotaro Kujo.

Slam Dunk, the brainchild of Takehiko Inoue, tells the story of one of these daft punks, Hanamichi Sakuragi. Always the fighter, never the lover, Hanamichi wants more than anything to discover his youth by getting a girlfriend, but his bad nature and brash personality always gets in the way. Finally able to brag about his athleticism to young Haruko, a basketball fan, Hanamichi promises to become a member of the school team, but his bravado disguises the fact he knows only how to jump high enough for a slam dunk. Never one to back away from a challenge, Hanamichi finds a rival in Kaede Rukawa, the coolly-quiet freshman ace of Shohoku High School (who isn't bright enough to tell that Haruko is all gaga over him).

The hundred-plus episodes would, in theory, cover the incredible meteoric rise of Hanamichi into an all-rounded player, but realistically his acumen is in defense and power. It's the coverage of the rest of his team that makes Slam Dunk a full story. While Hanamichi cycles between goofiness and machismo, eventually dropping his red pompadour for a buzz cut, the camaraderie with his mates, both in sport and in gang-related fighting, dominates the story. While Star of the Giants could be considered the first big sports hit of anime, Slam Dunk ended up destroying the mold to produce a stronger genre, the team now the major focus in titles to come.

There's no denying Slam Dunk's popularity. The manga has sold over 100 million volumes (not too uncommon for Shonen Jump title), while the anime itself is considered one of the Top 10 in Japan. Inoue himself wrote two more basketball-related manga titles (Buzzer Beater, Real), but the competitive dynamic between rivals also lurks in other current Shonen Jump titles. (It's hard to deny seeing the roles of Hanamichi and Rukawa reflected in the clumsy and cool personas of Naruto and Sasuke in Masashi Kishimoto's Naruto).

Basketball itself is still a niche market amongst sporting fans in Japan, but the long-lasting effects of Slam Dunk could be felt for years. The NBA began to pay attention to Asia around this time; two games had been played in Japan before Slam Dunk's airing. Heck, an ex-UCLA college basketball player was so influenced by the show that he changed his last name to Sakuragi when he became a naturalized Japanese citizen. Imitation is the grandest form of flattery, after all.

(Slam Dunk can be watched in its entirety for free through Crunchyroll.)

The Anatomy of the Modern Harem Anime

In terms of how modern anime is currently digested, one could say that a good amount, if not a majority, of what is presented on television in 2013 starts as an intersection of two particulars in the giant Venn diagram that is anime. In one mammoth circle, we have the concept of the "harem anime", in which one male character (occasionally with little redeeming value in talent, other than the fact he is male) is the central hub for the attentions of more than two females, turning a love triangle into a spoked wheel or, at times, a complicated love polygon. In the modern sense of the subject, the harem anime often involves sexual innuendos between the token male and the competition for his love, and in certain cases, this may involve a household where the male ends up living with one or more of the female characters.

(That's not to say that the opposite, the "reverse harem" anime with a female lead and multiple male interests, does not exist, but the genre is predominantly higher in the female-to-male ratio. You likely already know this much.)

As far as the origin of the harem anime is concerned, some point to the likes of Urusei Yatsura and Video Girl Ai in terms of the physical movement of female leads into the male's domicile, while the more likely target would be the Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-ohki OVAs, which finished up in 1993. Others might suggest the Ranma 1/2 franchise for all of the characters that seemed to be engaged to the central male. However, the one show that may have arguably dominated talk in terms of popularity would be Oh My Goddess!, the 1993 OVA series from the popular manga from Kosuke Fujishima.

This five-episode series involves Keiichi Morisato, a hard-luck pipsqueak of a technical college sophomore, who can't even get takeout right, accidentally misdialing the "Goddess Relief Agency" one night. He is instantly visited by Belldandy, "Goddess, First Class" and granter of wishes for those dialing their helpline. Keiichi mistakes this as a prank by his upperclassmen and wishes that Belldandy be by his side forever. Fate then plays its cards as the wish is granted, and the relationship between Belldandy and Keiichi begins (with an unceremonious speed-bump, as Keiichi is then kicked out of the dorm for having a girl in his room). The "harem" part is fulfilled in future episodes, as Belldandy and Keiichi are soon joined by Belldandy's older bombshell sister Urd and her technowiz little sister Skuld (as well as Keiichi's own imouto thorn, Megumi).

There have been some arguments that Oh My Goddess! doesn't quite fit the "harem anime" genre, but there's no denying that it hit instant popularity amongst the older anime fandom in Japan and those who had been looking for a true romantic comedy. While the show itself wouldn't see another iteration until 1999, Belldandy enjoyed a meteoric rise to the tops of Newtype and Animage character popularity charts for years to come (contested mostly by Kurama from Yuu Yuu Hakusho and Sailor Mercury). In the process, Belldandy's voice actress Kikuko Inoue fortified her following as the "Onee-chan" of the seiyuu world.

In another equally-large circle that nowadays could almost be interchangeable with the "harem anime", we have the concept of the "light novel" anime, where stories are written with accompanying illustrations, a pairing of author with cartoonist. The initial connection between light novel and TV anime can be traced back to the mid-80's when Haruka Takachiho's Dirty Pair made their first appearance, but the next time a light novel hit the airwaves was when Hitoshi Yoshioka's "The Most Irresponsible Man in Space" debuted in its more familiar form, Irresponsible Captain Tylor.

Inspired by the comedy of Hitoshi Ueki, Irresponsible Captain Tylor tells the story of Justy Ueki Tylor, a talentless everyman who comically goofs his way into the United Planets Space Force, a federation established to take down the alien forces of the Holy Raalgon Empire. Tylor, a symbol of how promotion sometimes comes through accidents in Japan's salaryman society, manages to sweet-talk hiring agencies, testing computers, and even terrorists until he is instantly given position as the commander of an actual space destroyer, the Soyokaze. The rest of the series involves Tylor's stumbles through success, the accidental love-interests that spawn from his ability to sway others, and the bewildering instructions to his crew, especially his straight-laced co-commanders, all while both displaying a parody and homage to space operas of the past.

While Irresponsible Captain Tylor wasn't even close to other monsters of the television in terms of ratings, it did mark a miniature milestone for a new sort of slapstick anime genre. Light novels in the mid-90's suddenly became fuel for comedy shows, particularly in 1995 when Hajime Kanzaki's The Slayers aired. Director Koichi Mashimo would go on to direct The Sorceror Hunters in 1996 before settling down to direct dramas such as Noir and .hack//Sign and starting the animation studio Bee Train.

(Irresponsible Captain Tylor's first two dubbed episodes can still be seen on Nozomi Entertainment's YouTube station.)

The Legends Still Live...In A Way

1993 was an interesting year for Studio Ghibli, one wedged between record performances in domestic box offices by Porco Rosso (1992) and Pom Poko (1994), but one where the studio didn't have a submission for movie theaters. Instead, the studio opted to venture into a production that was two-fold in experimentation. Not only was Umi ga Kikoeru (translated as "I Can Hear the Ocean", but subtitled as "Ocean Waves") Studio Ghibli's first movie that wasn't featured in movie theaters, but it was the first movie from the studio that was neither directed or scriptwritten by someone names Miyazaki or Takahata. Instead, Studio Ghibli's younger staff were allowed creative control, with direction helmed by Tomomi Mochizuki (Dirty Pair Flash, Princess Nine).

Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, Umi ga Kikoeru never really lived up to the notoriety of its elders. A story based on a (light?) novel written by Saeko Homuro, the 70-minute movie covers a series of flashbacks that chronicle the friendship between two junior-high classmates and the transfer student that comes between them in high school. Devoid of the fictional fantasy that Ghibli had been known for, Umi ga Kikoeru still had high marks for its portrayal of a mature anime without ending in heart-wrenching tragedy (Grave of the Fireflies). However, the movie itself had failed its dictated goals; originally a 50-minute movie, Umi ga Kikoeru was stretched out to 72 minutes and ended up going over schedule and over budget.

Not all legends took a break this year, as there was a certain push to honor the "God of Manga" Osamu Tezuka posthumously. In 1993, fans finally got to see two shows that had not been animated during Tezuka's time. The lesser-known show, Ambassador Magma, a show about a giant golden golem created to protect the Earth from the alien forces of Goa, actually beat Ultraman to the punch as the first colorized tokusatsu show on Japanese airwaves in 1966, but it wasn't for another 27 years that an animated series came to light.

The other Tezuka OVA series that debuted in 1993 was the medical marvel Black Jack, the story of a rogue surgeon scarred by his own tragic past both physically and mentally. Retreating to the darker recesses of medicine, Black Jack operates in a clandestine manner, traveling the world to save even the lowest of the low for the right reason and price. While much of Tezuka's past cartoonish characters were reflected in Black Jack's tiny assistant Pinako, the series itself was a dramatic turn that displayed Tezuka's ability to mull over the ethics of the medical industry and its effect on a global scale.

Considering Tezuka's original degree was in medicine and that he had wanted to become a doctor when he was a child, Black Jack often had the most detail of all of Tezuka's stories, both in drama and in anatomy. The stories featured in the 1993 releases alone covered dramatic subjects such as drug abuse, second-world epidemics, and revolutionary wars in South America, each of them given still-life artistic touches from director Osamu Dezaki, who got his first job as an animator by working for Tezuka's production studio when Tetsuwan Atomu was released.

While all thirteen of the Ambassador Magma episodes were released in the span of one year, the original Black Jack OVA series would span 8 years and cover ten feature-length episodes, eight of them straight from the pages of Tezuka himself. Both Ambassador Magma and Black Jack can be watched on Viki's YouTube station devoted to all things Tezuka.

One Last Thing

The duel between television and original video animation finally saw the balance tip gradually towards television after 1993, the number of new shows almost equal to the number of new OVA shows in 1994. Fed by a new supply of comic talent, the momentum from Shonen Jump blockbusters, and the magical adventures of Sailor Moon, televised anime would coast for the next few years and indirectly start to power overseas industries as more countries imported their shows. The OVA market still had pull for the next few years, only to dissolve into a support crutch by turn of the millennium.

That's not to say that the OVA market didn't have any good titles left to rattle off, but perhaps the short half-life of the straight-to-video phenomenon could be ultimately summed up by the show Dragon Half, an OVA comedy series in 1993 about a half-human, half-dragon girl named Mink and her bubbly obsession over a hunky dragon slayer who must slay the "red dragon". Despite all the in-jokes and its shonen fighting tournament parody, the series died an abrupt end after two episodes due to a lack of popularity, but not before unleashing one of the more bizarre ending themes on us: "My Omelette", sung over Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major by Kotono Mitsuishi (Usagi from Sailor Moon).

With all of the creativity on display, it's hard to deny that 1993 wasn't a fascinating year in anime. The balance that had once been disturbed in favor of videotapes and laserdiscs had re-established itself, favoring television and their own releases on plastic media over the next few years. Fan circles were abuzz about future episodes of Sailor Moon and Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, light-novel comedy and harem shows were developing massive fanbases, and Shonen Jump was dominating both manga and anime with martial arts adventures and dazzling displays of basketball skills.

Wait. Did I just write about 1993 or 2013?

Next time: Here comes the first wave of Sailor Moon's magical-girl competition! It's 1994!

1 comment:

  1. There was one other notable show that you (understandably) missed - Nintama Rantaro.

    1500+ episodes, still on the air, and has barely made a ripple in Anglophone anime coverage. The 2011 Takeshi Miike live action film has probably had more English language attention than the anime or manga.

    But yes, apart from that, Slam Dunk and Tylor, not much going on in the way of new TV animation.