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
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
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
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.)
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.