Tuesday, June 11, 2013

1998: The Birth of the Cool

Evan Minto, also known as Vampt Vo, went from wide-eyed newbie anime fan to hardened cynic in just over ten years in the game. Nowadays he serves as the editor-in-chief of anime, manga, and video game blog Ani-Gamers, writes reviews for Otaku USA Magazine, and goes to a heckuva lot of conventions (he was even Con Chair for Genericon 2013). If you can handle an overdose of bad puns and nerd snark, go ahead and follow his exploits on Twitter @VamptVo.

If I may be so bold, I'd like to suggest for a moment that 1998 is the most important year in the 1990s—at least in terms of its effect on American anime fandom. Sure, 1992 introduced Sailor Moon, and 1995 brought us game-changers like Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell, but 1998 is notable for something other than just its spectacular list of memorable series (and boy oh boy, is it a spectacular list).

That's because in 1998, anime was finally cool. The only problem was that Japanese otaku didn't know it yet.

Space is the Place

If we're going to talk "Cool Japan"—the idea coined in 2002 that Japanese pop culture has an inherent "cool factor" that makes it internationally marketable—there's only one place to start. In 1998, studio Sunrise (Gundam) noticed a fan interest in "space adventure" series, specifically something we might call the "Space Western". These stories took the free-spirited lifestyle of the Wild West and shot it up into the vastness of space. After all, space is the final frontier, right?

In January 1998, Sunrise took their first big stab at the genre with a series called Outlaw Star, fondly remembered by my generation of Toonami-fed anime fans for its unique mix of sci-fi action and magic gunfighting, and dismissively referenced by older fans as "that show where the spaceship has robot arms". But despite Outlaw Star's star status (I couldn't help it) among Toonami fans, the anime was virtually forgotten in Japan, with a late-night timeslot and very modest ratings. This is in contrast to the original manga, written by Takehiko Itō, as its first print run in Japan sold out nationwide.

But Sunrise weren't the only ones looking to cash in on what they hoped would be a Space Western craze. Madhouse jumped in that April with another manga adaptation, this time of Yasuhiro Nightow's Trigun, the story of a pacifistic gunslinger who may or may not be one of the most dangerous men on the desert planet Gunsmoke. (I can't seem to find any data on Trigun's commercial reception. Sorry!)

Just two days later, Sunrise put out their follow-up to Outlaw Star. This time, though, it wasn't a manga adaptation. The studio had high hopes for their newest original creation, drawing on an all-star team of creators including director Shinichiro Watanabe, writer Keiko Nobumoto, character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto, and composer Yōko Kanno, all of whom made a name for themselves most recently on the 1994 OVA Macross Plus. This dream team put together a series that is almost universally considered to be one of the greatest anime of all time. That's right; 1998 is undoubtedly the Year of Cowboy Bebop.

Even so, Cowboy Bebop was hardly an overnight success story. Inspired by the perennial adventures of that rascally thief Lupin the 3rd, Watanabe envisioned a show about space bounty hunters that would tackle issues of crime and punishment with a mature eye, not shying away from adult subjects when they fit the story. Unfortunately for the censors at TV Tokyo, that meant that the violent, racy Cowboy Bebop, with all its drugs and other illicit activity, was just TOO HOT for its 6:00 PM prime time slot. As a result, only 13 of its 26 episodes aired on TV Tokyo, and the series had to be re-aired on satellite channel WOWOW from October 1998 to April 1999.

Cowboy Bebop has garnered worldwide acclaim for its undeniably cool atmosphere, infused with a mish-mash of American film influences, unique mechanical designs, and Kanno's brilliant original score (its bombastic instrumental opening song is perhaps the most iconic opener in anime). Thanks to these elements, as well as Nobumoto's script—equal parts forlorn cowboy drama and swashbuckling adventure—and Watanabe's surefooted directorial work, Bebop would go on to be one of the most popular series on Cartoon Network's late-night Adult Swim block and a defining series in anime history.

Close the world, Open the nExt

While Sunrise and Madhouse experimented with the Space Western genre to varying degrees of success, another team was experimenting with something a little closer to home. Home computers, that is.

Producer Yasuyuki Ueda, who would later go on to lead projects like Hellsing and RideBack, handpicked illustrator and character designer Yoshitoshi ABe to help adapt his rough script for a series about the Internet. He rounded out the team with veteran animator and sometimes director Ryutaro Nakamura and screenwriter Chiaki J. Konaka, who hadn't yet done much anime outside of Armitage III and Birdy the Mighty. You'll notice that, unlike Bebop, these creators hadn't really hit it big yet, and the anime they created, Serial Experiments Lain, reflects that scrappy attitude.

Lain is a startlingly experimental series about a middle school girl and her exploration of "The Wired," a ubiquitous fictionalized Internet that seems to be connecting the dead to the living in mysterious ways. Fans around the world recognized it as an example of the medium's capability for extremely cool imagery wrapped around extremely intelligent social commentary and philosophical musing, as the four creators deftly connected disparate visual elements (including live-action footage and elaborate CG sequences) into a disconcerting piece of experimental animation. If Cowboy Bebop was the suave ladykiller of 1998, Serial Experiments Lain was the awkward but brilliant nerd.

Magical Cards for Magical Girls

I know, I know. You're all chomping at the bit to run down to the comments and scream at me for not mentioning 1998's OTHER big show. Yes, it's that smash-hit show about cards, and no, it's not the one with the Egyptian pharaohs and trading card games to the death [see Footnote 1]. You betcha, it's Cardcaptor Sakura, the magical girl hit from shojo manga superstars CLAMP.

Here's my big anime confession; I've never seen Cardcaptor Sakura. It's not for lack of wanting to, but since I missed the boat on both the '90s anime fan zeitgeist and the American TV version, Cardcaptors (infamously redubbed to change the focus from our hero Sakura to male character Syaoran Li), I never got around to it.

Anyway, as if you don't already know, Cardcaptor Sakura revolves around a set of magical tarot cards called the "Clow Cards." When ten-year-old girl Sakura accidentally releases the cards, thereby scattering them far and wide, the guardian of the cards, an animal familiar named Cerberus, grants her magical powers to find them and fight their monstrous personifications. While Revolutionary Girl Utena a year earlier was the first major post-Sailor Moon magical girl series, Cardcaptor Sakura is notable for taking the genre back to its roots rather than following in Utena's more experimental footsteps.

This, of course, isn't all that surprising considering that Sakura started in manga form a year before Utena hit the small screen. But another important part of Cardcaptor Sakura's popularity was that it sparked a wave of male otaku fans—despite the show's target audience of girls—just as Sailor Moon had just a few years earlier. In CCS, otaku could now find an even younger, more cutesy girl to fawn over, and some people with more expertise in the magical girl genre than me have claimed that Cardcaptor Sakura marks the beginning of the end—that moment when adult male fans of the genre began to slip it out from under the feet of its young girl audience.

Beware the Creme Caramel

Since so many others before me have made a point of talking about things that English-speaking otaku don't care about, I would be remiss to leave out a show called Ojarumaru, known internationally as "Prince Mackaroo". Based on a gag manga series by Rin Inumaru that was alternatively a shojo AND shonen manga (it was originally published in Ciao then moved to Saikyo Jump), Ojarumaru is about a prince from 1,000 years ago transported to the present, where he lives with a modern-day family and apparently copes with a weakness for creme caramel (purin to all of you Japanese gourmands out there.)

Ojarumaru is notable for two things. First, it's the second-longest-running anime series on NHK, behind only Nintama Rantarō, which began its run in 1993. Second, author Rin Inamaru died in 2006 after throwing herself off of the roof of her condo. Her suicide note read "I'm not good at my job," a statement that surely paralleled the stress facing many overworked artists in the manga industry. Ojarumaru has been dubbed into Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, and Thai, but based on my YouTube searches, its most popular adaptation seems to be the Italian one, called Mack, ma che principe sei? or 'Mackaroo the Prince.'

(Editor's note: Those with a clever eye might find this looks a little familiar. Ojarumaru continues to be directed by Akitaro Daichi, who gave us Poyopoyo Kansatsu Nikki last year.)

Death of a Hero

Not to get too morbid here, but 1998 is notable for a particular death. Shotaro Ishinomori (Cyborg 009, Kikaider) the man who was actually more prolific than Osamu Tezuka (he produced more pages of manga than the God of Manga, though Tezuka had more titles) passed away at the age of 60. Others have already outlined Ishinomori's essential contributions to manga, anime, and tokusatsu, so I won't rehash them here.

Fandom Disconnect

I've talked about a few series here, and left out a lot of others (sorry Kare Kano!), but the main takeaway for 1998 is that the series that came out this year were destined for great things outside of Japan. If I can illustrate my point with a personal story...

The first anime I ever saw was Pokémon, which I saw in first grade (the Ghastly episode, I'll have you know). It was 1998, long after the show had aired in Japan, but we were just getting the series on TV. A few years later, I would fall in love with Toonami's run of Gundam Wing and Outlaw Star, which, along with Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz (the 1998 OVA follow-up to the TV series), was one of the first two anime series I ever owned. After that came Trigun and Cowboy Bebop marathons, motivated by their popular appearances on Adult Swim. Serial Experiments Lain, which I watched around the same time, is one of my favorite series of all time.

It was in 1998 that anime laid the seeds for its meteoric rise to kind-of-maybe-mainstream popularity in the early 2000's, but at the time, Japanese otaku had no idea. A glance at Animage and Newtype covers from 1998 show appearances from shows like Lost Universe (the "follow-up" to Slayers), Sorcerous Stabber Orphen, and the Nadesico movie, none of them titles that would light up American fandom. Heck, one Newtype cover features Yoshiyuki Tomino's infamous Brain Powerd (though I guess that's what you get in a magazine called "Newtype")! Sure, they got into Bebop by the time it finished in mid-1999, and they obviously ate up Cardcaptor Sakura, but Trigun, Outlaw Star, and Lain are nowhere to be found.

This is one of the fundamental problems with the "Cool Japan" idea. The domestic response often diverges wildly from the international one, making it hard to reliably sell the concept of a Japan that inherently makes "cool stuff." Hindsight being 20/20 and all, we can see in 1998 both the fuel for Cool Japan's rise and the reasons for its fall, but all that talk of its fall is, as they say, for another year.


FOOTNOTE 1: Actually, Yu-Gi-Oh! did have an early anime run in '98, though it wasn't the version with the card game that you're probably familiar with.

Next time: 1999. Shonen manga and anime puts its stamp on the 1990's before the decade turns.


  1. Every bit of evidence I've been able to gather suggests that Trigun failed to be particularly popular among Japanese fans. The original manga was canceled after a few volumes since the anthology it was serialized in went under (this does not generally happen to popular publications), and it took about a year before the author could find a place that'd run Trigun Maximum.

    The Trigun anime came and went in Japan; as best I can tell, nobody there cared. By contrast, it was immediately popular in the US via fansubs, then a new wave of popularity was reached once the DVDs were released, and then a few years later once it was broadcast on Cartoon Network and the manga was officially released it became big all over again. Those Trigun cosplayers were blocking halls with their oversized props for years and years and years.

    I can only conclude that the movie effectively got greenlit due entirely to Trigun's strong international reception, though it didn't come out until 12 years after the show. That sort of delay suggests it was a lower priority in favor of things the domestic Japanese audience was interested in. Indeed, when the movie did come out, nobody in Japan really bothered to see it. This ties directly into your argument: Japanese tastes are so unaligned with everybody else that what the rest of us find "cool" they don't care about, and with licensing/distribution deals set up such that international success amounts to very little for the Japanese studios there's little reason for them to care.

    It's been FIFTEEN years since 1998, and so much of this stuff continues to be remembered among US anime fans that famously otherwise have no interest in things older than a few years no matter how popular they once were. (On the bright side, 1998's once super-duper-mega-popular Weiss Kreuz has now been forgotten about almost entirely.) Japan was really onto something then. Pity they didn't care to notice. Otherwise they would have capitalized. They would have given the people who wrote and directed these titles more work and trained newcomers to be more like them instead of doing what they actually did.

    You know what anime the director of Serial Experiments Lain is working on now? Nothing. The writer of Cowboy Bebop? Nothing. The director of Outlaw Star? Nothing. And so on and so on. But back in 1998, when I was 18..."anime" certainly was on track to be the new "Hong Kong action cinema" as far as "cool" alternative media goes.

    1. Thanks for the detail about Trigun. I thought I had heard it wasn't very popular, but I couldn't find direct evidence. That's also a good point about what Nakamura and Watanabe are doing now. Watanabe *did* just make Kids on the Slope, but that was his first project in years and hardly an appropriate successor to Bebop or Champloo (I love KotS, but for entirely different reasons).

    2. Just for fun, I decided to see what those folks were working on.

      Ryutaro Nakamura (Serial Experiments Lain): Not working on anything right now, for the same reason Satoshi Kon hasn't finished Dreaming Machine. From 1998 to 2007 he was working on almost a title a year (which, yes, is fairly low output for an anime director).

      Keiko Nobumoto (Cowboy Bebop, Writer): Did you mean to say "director"? Anyway, Nobumoto wrote the screenplay for an obscure indie movie by some no-name director called TOKYO GODFATHERS. Oh, and she was scenario supervisor for Kingdom Hearts. THAT Kingdom Hearts. She'll also be working on Space Dandy, along with Watanabe.

      Mitsuru Hongo (Outlaw Star, director): I'm not exactly a researcher, so I'm not going to sort through his filmography to figure out what was recent and what wasn't, but he was a Unit Director on Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva. Which had a giant robot made out of an organ that doubled as a machine that raised the dead. So that's something.

      Just a quiet, smug reminder that "nothing" means something.

      You know who really IS doing nothing? Hideaki Anno. Although I imagine thinking of new merchandise to put Eva characters on is a full-time job.