Not every year gave the viewer a brand new anime TV series that achieved greatness, longevity, or popularity. 1994 was one of those years.
So what new shows were trying to get their voice heard this year?
Me-Too Magical Girls
Three of the more popular series of the time can be argued to represent the influence of Sailor Moon, which was still going strong in 1994 with its third series, Sailor Moon S, starting in March. One of these series was built from scratch as an all-out multimedia assault, another was a radical revision of a manga to "Moon it up" for television, and the third was a parody of the genre.
Akitaro Daichi (Fruits Basket, Poyopoyo) made his start directing on this show as an episode director and would work with much of the crew from ChaCha on his first series director job the following year, Nurse Angel Ririka SOS. This would include frequent collaborator, character designer Hajime Watanabe. Other notable names directing multiple episodes of ChaCha included Tatsuo Sato (Martian Successor Nadesico, Bodacious Space Pirates) and Hiroaki Sakurai (Cromartie High School).
The show ran for 74 episodes and had a three-episode OAV spin-off after it finished. At its best it was a funny fairy-tale parody, but historically it's more notable as an illustration of the popularity of Sailor Moon. One of the top new shows for the year, it peaked with a 15.8% rating and also made it to number 3 in the Animage Grand Prix, behind the incumbents Yu Yu Hakusho and Sailor Moon.
Three handily colour-coded schoolgirls, Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu are summoned from Tokyo to the fantasy world of Cephiro, where they are sent on a quest to rescue Princess Emeraude. This is achieved by transforming into armoured magical girls (thus drawing the Saint Seiya parallel in 90's magical girls more clearly) and eventually summoning giant robots. You've got magical girls, Earth people as heroes on a fantasy world, RPG parody/homage, Super Sentai colour coding, Saint Seiya references, bursts of super deformity, and postmodern super robots. It's a veritable checklist of 90's anime storytelling elements.
The show ran for 20 episodes, before taking a month break in 1995 and returning for second series of 29 episodes. There was an alternate take on the story in the form of a three-part OAV series in 1997.
If there was any doubt that superhero shows like Kamen Rider and the Super Sentai shows were at this point firmly wrapped up in the DNA of magical-girl shows, then Super Pig (Tonde Buurin) this parody of magical girls and superheroes in general should put them to rest.
In terms of ratings, this was one of the top three shows starting in 1994, with a rating peak of 16.4%, but unlike the other magical-girl shows mentioned, it barely registered on Animage's polls, suggesting little crossover appeal with otaku.
Two big franchises returned this year to limited returns. (Well, technically three franchises returned when you count Captain Tsubasa J, but as its 1994 episodes recapped previous Captain Tsubasa episodes, it's more of a 1995 show.)
Airing at 11am on Sunday morning it didn't do the massive ratings that the long-running shows mentioned earlier did. It didn't even get the ratings that some now obscure shows from the year did. That did not really matter though, as it sold CD after CD of music from the show. It also had enough of a following to warrant a film, Macross 7 The Movie: The Galaxy is Calling Me! in 1995 (which played alongside the film version of Macross Plus) and an OAV series Macross 7 Dynamite in 1997.
The show catches up with mankind and the Zentradi's colonisation of deep space 35 years after the original series, focusing on 37th colonial space fleet led by the spaceship Macross 7. This is captained by Maximillian Jenius (a character from the original series), and his daughter Mylene is part of a band, Fire Bomber. When the fleet is attacked by an unidentified vampiric enemy, the lead singer of the band, Basara Nekki flies out in his custom Valkyrie (the iconic transforming space jet fighters of the franchise) and plays music at them. Basara seems to the sticking point for a lot of viewers of Macross 7. Some find him difficult to relate to or the very idea of a man playing a guitar at spaceships in the middle of a dogfight just plain silly. Certainly, the consensus opinion in UK fandom in the 90's seemed to be that its sister release, Macross Plus, was a classic and this wasn't.
When you now look at the work of Macross 7 creator Shoji Kawamori that followed this, then the ways in which Basara Nekki's alienating idealism and pacifism manifest begin to make a lot more sense. You can still argue that they don't work for the audience, as a lot Kawamori's later work has had its critics. In fact you may be reminded of those critics in the way other characters in the show react to Basara's behaviour. Regardless of its storytelling pros and cons, it does now feels more like story with a personal point of view than Macross Plus.
Instead of being set in the "Universal Century" timeline as previous Gundam TV series had been, G Gundam gave the viewers a whole new world built from scratch. Rather being weapons of war, the titular Gundam robots are now used in tournaments between space colonies to determine the right to rule. All these space colonies are futuristic, exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek versions of Earth countries with "Neo" stuck in front the countries name to indicate their futureness. Their Gundams are also exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek national stereotypes.
It is at this point that it is worth pointing out that as well as 1994 being the 15th anniversary of Gundam, it also saw the release of the animated Street Fighter movie. And the live action Street Fighter movie. The Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game RPG. The Super Street Fighter II Turbo arcade machine. Super Street Fighter II on the SNES and Megadrive. So if there was ever a year to make a Gundam show about a fighting tournament, 1994 was that year.
There are plenty of interviews with director Yasuhiro Imagawa about the development and reaction to the series, including on the US DVD releases. Personally, entering anime fandom shortly after this aired, you could sense a degree of negativity among some fans towards it for being a Gundam themed fighting show. That seems to have been drowned over the years by general positivity towards the show.
Popular in the 90's
That leaves us with a handful of shows that were popular, either with human beings or otaku (as seen by ratings, Animage polls, licensing), but haven't held their popularity over the years. By rights, Tottemo Luckyman should be in this list, but it is one of those shows that got reasonable ratings in Japan (averaging 9-10%), but never made it to Anglophone fandom (beyond the acknowledgement of Yoshinori Kanada’s work on it).
Somewhere in between all that Blue Seed aired on Japanese TV and got a US video release a couple of years later in 1996. It's a meat-and-potatoes monster fighting anime about an average school girl destined to protect Japan from plant monsters. At the time it had the big advantage of having Megumi Hayashibara cast as the lead Momiji, and therefore had the bigger advantage of Megumi Hayashibara singing the closing themes.
The music that gets remembered years later though tends to be Kenji Kawai's composition "Carnival Babel" by Takada Band that plays as the opening theme. This is due to the memorable opening lines in English - "MYSTERIOUS TOKYO / TAKE IT EASY DANGEROUS NIGHT / MYSTERIOUS TOKYO / PICK ME UP FOXY NIGHT GAME". The TV series was followed by a three-part OAV in 1996.
This is one of those series, like Captain Tsubasa, that has an initially jarring aesthetic where the characters heads seem too small for their bodies. The budget frequently feels minuscule, but it knows what to do with the tools it's got. The editing, voice acting and particularly Keiichi Ota's soundtrack carry the story past whatever visual shortcomings it may have. The TV version ran for 76 episodes with a half hour prequel movie in 1995. Games for the SNES and Gameboy were released in 1995, and a live action TV adaptation was made in Taiwan in 2001. A sequel to the manga began last month in Cocohana magazine.
The series would return to anime in 1996 as a 30 minute theatrical film (in a triple bill with Dragon Quest Saga: Emblem of Roto and Violinist of Hamelin) and again on television in 2000. Eto's connections to video games run deep, having got his start on official Dragon Quest gag manga and his brother composed the music for many video games. He recently returned to the Guru Guru universe starting a new series for Gangan Online, published by SquareEnix.
Tico and Friends is unusual in that it's the only completely original story in a series that usually adapted literary classics. "Completely original" may be giving it too much credit, given that it involves the friendship between a child and an orca. Free Willy also came out in Japan in 1994, having been released in the US in the summer of 1993, and what is basically the popular movie shark icon "Jaws" shows up in the opening arc.
The series did the best ratings of any of the new shows launched in 1994, averaging a rating around 13% and reaching a high of 17.3%. However, its competition when finding its place in history isn't the other shows airing in 1994, but the other shows that went out under the "World Masterpiece Theatre" brand. Compared to immortal serials like Heidi, Dog of Flanders, and Anne of Green Gables, Tico is left as the answer to a trivia question.
Before we finish, let's talk about a couple of foreign imports airing on TV Tokyo in 1994.
This was the US cartoon that started in 1992, with the Japanese opening getting some traction on the Internet a few years back. Moreover, it's a good illustration of how important a time slot is for anime. X-Men originally aired in the Thursday 6:30 PM time slot and got around the same ratings (7.0-9.0) that its predecessor in the slot, Tanoshii Willow Town (a Wind In The Willows adaptation). Later it was moved to Monday at 7:00 PM, opposite of Crayon Shin-Chan, and its ratings halved.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
This was the popular 1987 Fred Wolf series that fueled the second wave of Turtle-mania. Technically TMNT started airing in Japan in 1993, but it is worth mentioning here for a specific reason. No, it's not because of the Japan-only OAVs (which DO exist - Ed.), but the fact that it occupied the same time slot (and got the pretty much the same ratings) as the show that would replace it in 1995. A show that would change the landscape of television anime.
But that's for the next entry to explain...
Next time: ...and that entry is 1995, when elder statesmen ran into soon-to-be unstoppable forces.