But before we get to the meat of this article, there are the also-rans worth enumerating. Of course, the second half of Evanglion in early '96, with its psychological complexity, artistic abstraction, and culturally relevant topics, so precisely struck a nerve with an entire generation of viewers that clones and variations would be seen for years to come. Slayers Next, the second of a series of seemingly arbitrarily titled seasons, continued the distinctly 90's-flavored high-fantasy gag-comedy action-adventure franchise. Kosuke Fujishima's You're Under Arrest found a home on TV after its '95 OVA, but instead of fluid car-chase animation, it found pleasant success in low-budget traffic police sitcom fare, spawning three seasons in total through the 90's and 2000's.
Gundam continued to roll out sequels and spinoffs, with After War Gundam X, an alternate universe TV series in a post-apocalyptic scenario with maximum colony dropping absurdity, and the 08th MS Team, an OVA returning to the "One Year War" from the perspective of grunts embroiled in the jungles of Southeast Asia, which earned points with fans for its gritty Vietnam-like take in the favored continuity. And the big traditional shoujo series from the year, Kodomo no Omocha (a.k.a. Kodocha), was the most off-the-wall, dizzyingly hyperactive melodramatic romantic comedy about child actors you'll probably ever see. (And this is just the opening theme! - Ed.)
While numerous titles deserve their due, a few series are so distinguished for finding trend-setting, audience-broadening combinations of diverse genre elements and their enduring popularity that they justify greater elaboration of critical merit.
The trick to Detective Conan's broad appeal among both mainstream Japanese and Western animephiles is combining two genres traditionally aimed at different audiences in accessible ways. The child protagonist Conan with his toy-like devices and mystery-solving adventures with elementary school friends is standard young boy's stuff, but unlike similar youth mystery series, the drama and danger are often amped up and involve grisly murders with outrageous twists Agatha Christie would be proud of. Detective Conan isn't afraid to borrow hard-boiled elements from the noir-detective stories, and the main character's assumed name, Conan Edogawa, references to classic detective literature figures in Arthur Conan Doyle and Edogawa Rampo, adds interest for older audiences. The episodes are structurally predictable and self-contained, where the culprit is dramatically revealed and confronted at the end. Its serial nature also allows viewers to jump in at nearly any point in the series, making Detective Conan both easily compelling and accessible entertainment. With three live-action dramas, numerous video games, and annual animated feature films (not to mention 16 years of uninterrupted weekly episodes), Detective Conan is a long-time staple of the Japanese pop-culture landscape.
All this resulted in great popularity, with a cool 55 million total volumes sold to date, joining rare company in the Shonen Jump pantheon. Unfortunately for the anime, its popularity outpaced the manga, resulting in its infamous season of terrible filler episodes, like a looney Kaoru obsessing over an "engagement" ring from Kenshin, the gang spoiling train robbers in a wild west-style heist, and the whole travesty of the Feng Shui arc. Concluding on these episodes unfortunately meant that the last and greatest Kenshin story arc never made it to television, only inadequately adapted in a short OVA later. However, almost 15 years since the manga's conclusion, Kenshin continues to see life, most recently as last year with an OVA remake of the Kyoto arc, a reissue of the manga, and a live action film adaptation, speaking to its enduring popularity across genders and generations.
Vision of Escaflowne
On the topic of female-friendly attitudes in traditionally male-dominated genres, there's no better series to exemplify this transformation than The Vision of Escaflowne. While Gundam has always had a number of bad boy bishies, and Magic Knight Rayearth featured girls summoning mecha-like familiars in a fantasy setting, what makes Escaflowne unique is how it was originally designed as another show for the boys but turned into a very girl oriented one. Conceived by Shoji Kawamori (of Macross and Aquarion fame) and supposed to be helmed by super robot maestro Yasuhiro Imagawa before he went to instead direct G Gundam, replacement director Kazuki Akane ran with the themes of love, war, and mysticism and redesigned the whole project with more shojo appeal. Leading lady Hitomi was changed from curvy babe to tomboyish everygirl who was magically whisked to a parallel world embroiled in war where knights in giant mobile armors fight for love and honor. Her use of tarot cards was a popular schoolgirl pastime, and the love triangle developing between her and the two leading men was as important a focus as the continent-spanning war and powers of destiny.
With all this talk of girl this and boy that, let's not forget Escaflowne is a plain good show. In the same way 90's-era Final Fantasy packaged familiar high fantasy and steampunk tropes into an attractive collage of adventure, romance, and supernatural-influenced drama, Escaflowne so too utilizes a nearly identical formula into a compelling, high-paced narrative. Its musical score was the TV anime debut of celebrated composer Yoko Kanno (you may have heard of her), and it was the breakout role for fan favorite voice actress/singer Maaya Sakamoto (most recently in Rebuild of Evangelion as Mari). The all-around high quality of production made Escaflowne stand out as a unique and long-held favorite anime of fans from that age.
Martian Successor Nadesico
While Escaflowne captured the age's zeitgeist of broadening appeal, romance, and high fantasy in the form of mecha, no other show as deftly summarizes the history and modes of the mecha genre as Martian Successor Nadesico. Following the exploits of the independent-minded crew of the most advanced space battleship, Nadesico, amidst humanity's war against aggressive Jovian lizards, the series reflects on three eras of giant robot anime in a quasi-dramatic, subversively tongue-in-cheek, commercially otaku-friendly series.
On its face, this anime is structured like the traditional "real robot" space operas in the vein of Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam, a form enumerated and refined throughout the 80's. Officers of a lone ship discuss tactics and convey orders on a large bridge while a squadron of mecha pilots sorties against endless enemy swarms, but a major plot-relevant point is that the cast of Nadesico are various levels of anime and gunpla otaku. The big in-universe robot anime, Gekiganger 3, is a parody of 70's-era super robot anime with hot-blooded grandstanding and outrageous robot designs and attacks (particularly referencing Getter Robo with its three different pilots). Many of the characters look to it for inspiration and wisdom, and they even hold a Gekiganger convention on board.
In an interesting twist of history, Nadesico, the once hip fusion of old and new mecha, has been itself copied by 2011's Mobile Suit Gundam AGE concerning major plot elements. And so anime continues to repeat and reference itself.
Damn you, Yamato Takeru no Mikoto! (Garzey’s Wing)
(For my final trick, I have no clever transitions to tie highly regarded and historically relevant anime with the pits of the medium, but bear with me.)
Justin Sevakis sums up Terribad nicely; "it must be poorly made, it must be CRAZY, and above all, it must NOT be boring." Garzey's Wing was part of Yoshiyuki Tomino's effort to creatively branch out from the monolithic Gundam franchise he directed for so long, but he probably didn't want to be remembered for this effort. Aided by one of the worst English dubs of all time, this convulsing, absurd, ponderous heap of magic geese, parallel dimensions, mutant dinosaurs, garbled terminology, and nonsense one-liners ("Damn you, Yamato Takeru no Mikoto!") is the stuff legends.
Garzey's Wing headlined a year of OVAs filled with the likes of M.D. Geist 2, Apocalypse Zero, X 1999, and Panzer Dragoon, all colossal audiovisual storytelling disasters by any meaningful critical metric. Yet these bottom-of-the-barrel screw ups are remarkable because they go so far beyond garden variety bad that people like me affectionately call it "Terribad", something "so bad it's good". This too, is an important part of the landscape of anime, which I would be remiss not to mention.
Next time: 1997. All good things that must come to an end and have something capable of replacing it.