To start looking at a year in anime history, why not start with what the primary audience thought of it?
Neon Genesis Evangelion, winner of the "Best Anime of 1995" award in Animage as well as three entries (#1, #3 and #9) on "Best Female Character", #2 on "Best Male Character" and winner of "Best Song" for its opening "Zankoku na Tenshi no Teeze" ("A Cruel Angel's Thesis"), is a fair candidate for the defining anime of the year. A series that, despite having a fraction of the number of episodes or series of any long-running big-name shonen show, or mecha juggernaut Gundam, has in its own way become a cornerstone of how anime is perceived both in Japan and overseas. Its enduring popularity is as much a result of the controversies and mysteries surrounding it–the prevalent symbolism and imagery are said to be meaningless, while the apparent non-ending of the TV series is resolved much later in End of Evangelion–as its specific merits as a super-robot anime.
Yet whether the Judeo-Christian imagery is specifically-chosen symbolism or simply picked for aesthetic reasons, Evangelion does have a recognisable visual language which has informed and influenced subsequent anime shows. Its characters are both products of past shows and archetypal prototypes for the classic defining features of super robot and comedy anime–the arrogant tsundere, the reluctant protagonist-pilot, the taciturn and mysterious girl–yet it is Evangelion's versions of them in Asuka Langley Soryu, Shinji Ikari, and Rei Ayanami, respectively, which have stuck in the pop culture consciousness. Perhaps this is a triumph of marketing and capitalising on the series's divisive reputation, but regardless, it is impossible to mention anime to many fans nowadays without Evangelion cropping up. Indeed, it was (and still is, to a great extent) Rei, thanks to Hayashibara's performance of her, who is the "image" of the series perhaps more than its iconic mecha designs, which usually come to define a super robot anime's legacy. This truly shows how much of an impact the series had on the genre–and perhaps the medium–as a whole.
Similarly, to overseas audiences it has an iconic status; the English-language release had an enduring popular dub audio track and was certainly among my–and likely many others'–first exposure to anime. Thus, Evangelion, considered both in the context of how it compared to the rest of 1995's anime shows and in light of its future continued success, was a truly significant series to air. Not only was it specifically the redefinition of the mecha genre that it has come to be held as by fans with the hindsight and capacity to see trends in fiction over a wider scale, but it represented a single series, and indeed a single character, in Rei, who became a pop-culture icon. The volume of Evangelion paraphernalia still produced, from the expected figurines and model kits to more esoteric items with less traditional target markets such as branded razors and more, almost counteracts the controversial audience responses to its multiple endings and repeated retelling; even if no single Evangelion show or movie is held to be universally liked, the whole Evangelion entity, so to speak, has that popularity.
The first series of The Slayers stands out within its franchise as quite clearly an opening entry in a series that would develop; the show covers less of the cross-genre silliness, such as the tennis episode featured in its 1996 sequel Slayers Next, and many more episodes telling a more traditional fantasy story. In itself, this is interesting; a series like Dirty Pair focused almost entirely on serial-style disparate adventures with the unifying thread being its memorable characters. The Slayers develops this to tell a single story while finding time for individual escapades as a part of it.
Continuing down Animage's Top 20, we arrive at New Mobile Report Gundam Wing. The mid-1990s were a time when there was a true glut of Gundam series; prior to Wing was the unique G Gundam, and it was followed in short order in 1996 by Gundam X. This period was actually a time of quite significant experimentation for the franchise; three consecutive shows throwing the "Universal Century" storyline that had kicked it all off out of the window and exploring the same ideas from very different angles. G Gundam had been an attempt to marry the environmentalist, pro-peace themes of late "Universal Century" Gundam with martial arts adventures. Gundam X would be an attempt to tell a story of the failure of the Gundam ideal leaving a post-apocalyptic world of Newtypes and Mobile Suits.
Yet Gundam Wing was something else; it is wholly maligned by some fans of the franchise as a move too far into overblown melodrama and ridiculous contrivance, and indeed it is quite confused in a narrative sense. However, it is ultimately the total, ad extremum, extension of the tropes to the Gundam franchise; a blind obsession with pacifism, a kind of cynical distrust of military authority, and the capacity for man to rule himself and the idea that would become increasingly popular in series like Turn-A Gundam and Gundam SEED that man can have a weapon of peace. These early Gundam alternate universes are thus best considered as a kind of trilogy, coming as they did after the "Universal Century" had been well and truly shut down with Char's Counterattack, the success of the franchise, and the demand for Gundam high, it was now time to explore the ideas from different angles and determine what made it successful.
What proved to be popular were the characters, the aesthetic and the general tone of Gundam Wing. Its characters took positions #1, #3, #7, and #9 in the "Best Male Characters" poll from Animage, while its opening theme ("Just Communication" by Two-Mix) was #2 in the "Best Song" poll. That it proved so popular while also, although perhaps only with the benefit of hindsight, alienating core fans of the franchise and mecha anime more generally, is perhaps the mark of a successful alternate universe; it introduced to Gundam a new generation of fans from different demographics.
A comment often directed at Gundam Wing is that it was an effort to open the franchise up to a female audience and part of a wider movement to add more shojo-esque elements to the traditionally male-dominated mecha genre. 1995's #3 series according to Animage, Magic Knight Rayearth, was a combination of the more combat-oriented magical-girl genre (as arguably begun in 1993 with Sailor Moon) with elements of the mecha and fantasy genres. Created by renowned shojo manga creators CLAMP, it well-epitomises anime of its time as an attempt to merge successful single genres in new ways in order to broaden their appeal, while, in cases such as Gundam Wing and #5 series Macross 7, staying true to their source franchises. Macross 7, which began airing in October 1994 but mostly aired during 1995, was as divisive a franchise entry in its attempts to redefine what makes a Macross series as its Gundam counterparts in G and Wing.
Thus, the most popular mecha anime shows of 1995–entries from Gundam, Macross, original entries Evangelion and Rayearth, and the "Yuusha" franchise entry Goldran–arguably represent a move away from the traditions of mecha anime towards newer audiences. Goldran was a very light-hearted series which anthropomorphised its mecha far more than most of the others (arguably a continuation of a pattern begun with 1994's J-Decker). Similarly, Macross 7, while being a canonical sequel to the original Macross and OVA Macross Plus (notably released in movie form in the same year), took its story in a different, far more comic direction structured more as an episodic romantic comedy or traditional monster-of-the-week series.
While the overly nostalgic anime viewer might see the mid-1990s as a time when there was less "inventiveness" in anime, and the outsider might point to something like Slayers or Tenchi Muyo as a prime example of cliched saucer-eyes, exaggerated actions and cute girls, a look at the response from the primary audience–and the shows which followed–suggests that it was a time when the industry was developing.
The OVA boom, with its almost limitless potential for experimentation, was arguably over.
However, what was emerging was a sound knowledge of what worked leading to both continuations of franchises (lower down in Animage's poll is Sailor Moon SuperS, the fourth series of the franchise) and more inventive series like Evangelion. Anime was ultimately well-established as an ubiquitous form of entertainment and, in order to cement this status and freshen genres that had existed for over 20 years in some cases, the traditional target demographics were being blurred. On top of all this, it was the year when Megumi Hayashibara in essence entered the public eye; between her roles as Rei Ayanami and Lina Inverse, and her work on the songs for Slayers, she emerged as a truly iconic voice actress and much the embodiment of Evangelion's legacy.
Next time: The passage of Evangelion dropped a bombshell on how fandom viewed anime. We open the bomb shelter in 1996 to see how the world had changed.