Monday, April 29, 2013

1992: Anime Goes Over the Moon

In the late 1990s, Brian Ruh became seduced by the dark side of anime–the academic side. After reading the chapter “Vampires, Psychic Girls, Flying Women and Sailor Scouts” by Susan J. Napier, Brian decided that he wanted to become an anime scholar too. After all, what else was he going to do with a philosophy degree? He went on to get an M.A. in Asian Cultures and Languages from the University of Texas at Austin and then a Ph.D. in Communication and Culture from Indiana University. Along the way, he's written articles, book chapters, reviews, and a column for ANN. He also wrote the book Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii, and is currently at work on a second edition to be released in 2014. He can be found on Twitter at @animeresearch, where he opines about anime and tells terrible puns.

Until I began investigating all of the shows that came out in 1992, I didn't really have any idea of the embarrassment of riches this year provided. I had originally decided to write about 1992 because it was around this time that I began re-discovering anime. I was born a couple of months after Star Wars first came out in the theaters–this created a wave of SF entertainment, particularly cartoons, throughout my formative years. My afternoons were filled with watching the likes of Battle of the Planets, Voltron, Starblazers, Robotech, and Tranzor Z, although I didn't know it as anime at the time. In late elementary and junior high school, I grew more towards Star Trek and the like, but early in high school I found myself back in the anime groove, thanks to a friend with a couple tapes of Robotech and Gunbuster.

Although I had my own subjective experiences of anime in 1992, at first I wasn't sure how to get a handle on what the year looked like for the Japanese industry. I figured that if I wanted to hit some of the highlights, it couldn't hurt to check out the covers of the major Japanese anime magazines–Newtype and Animage. Of course, I knew this wouldn’t be the whole story, but it would point us in the right direction of what was popular (or at least what the magazine editorial teams thought would sell) that year.

So how did things pan out? The winners, with three covers apiece were Porco Rosso (Animage) and Gundam 0083 (Newtype). Unfortunately, that doesn't get us very far with respect to the Golden-Ani project, since we're really here to focus on TV anime. So what else do we have? Future GPX Cyber Formula got two and a half covers in Animage (I say half a cover, since it shared the May issue with Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water; the two shows came in first and second, respectively, in Animage's "Anime Grand Prix" that year). Unfortunately, Cyber Formula was a 1991 show, although its popularity obviously carried over into the next year. (This was true with Nadia as well, which had been off the air for over a year by the time its May 1992 Animage cover came out.) There was, however, just one anime television show which graced the covers of both Newtype and Animage that year–Space Knight Tekkaman Blade.

Tekkaman Blade was a reboot of a 1975 Tatsunoko anime series called Space Knight Tekkaman. I guess in the 1990s they thought that adding the word "blade" to the end of the reboot would give the show the edge they were looking for. They needed to because, as Mike Toole points out in his Golden-Ani column on 1975, the original Tekkaman didn’t fare too well. Tekkaman Blade, on the other hand, ran for nearly a year and almost doubled the number of episodes of the first Tekkaman series. A couple of years later, Tekkaman Blade would find its way onto TV screens in English as Teknoman, where it would find a small but devoted audience (although it was eventually cancelled).

I don’t know if we didn't have a UPN station at the time, but for some reason Teknoman blew right by me when I was in high school, so I never got a chance to watch it as it aired. It's a shame, too, because as a Robotech fan I know I would have been captivated by the character designs of Tomonori Kogawa, who had also provided the characters for Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, which became the "Southern Cross" arc of Robotech. Although you can get both Tekkaman Blade and Teknoman on DVD these days, the Teknoman that's available for purchase is the international version, which has a different dub and different edits from the version that originally aired on US TV. (You’ll have to resort to YouTube if you want to see that one.)

Now that we've gotten our science fiction fix out of the way, let's focus a bit on a series that was on the cover of Animage twice in 1992 and set the stage for a veritable revolution of anime. The show is, of course, Sailor Moon. Adapted from Naoko Takeuchi’s manga that began a year before, Sailor Moon came on the scene at just the right time. Magical girl manga and anime were nothing new–the genre had been active since the 1960s with titles like Himitsu no Akko-chan and Sally the Witch–but something about Sailor Moon clicked with audiences both in Japan and around the world. Part of the show's charm is its utterly unremarkable protagonist. From the very first episode, we see the faults of fourteen-year-old Usagi Tsukino–she's kind of lazy, clumsy, a crybaby, and doesn't get good grades. She can be rather boy-crazy and is easily distracted by shiny objects (like jewelry). However, these are the exact traits that endear her to the audience. Usagi is far from the superhero at the beginning, but she is a good person with a kind heart.

Of course, Usagi (and the rest of the Sailor Senshi/Scouts who eventually join the team) are nothing if not stylish. This resulted in Sailor Moon becoming not only a popular manga and anime series, but a veritable merchandising bonanza. Sailor Moon was used to sell clothes, makeup, and accessories to countless girls and young women throughout Japan (and, of course, to plenty of older men as well). The long legs and trim forms of the Sailor Scouts made Sailor Moon something of a sexual icon in certain circles. It's hard to say if the approach was intentional, but with Sailor Moon Japanese companies learned the value in having a property that could appeal to both a purported "target" demographic as well as an "underground" demographic.

Due to its success, the Sailor Moon anime would go on for many more seasons, a total of five series until its end in 1997. Before its end, Sailor Moon would also grow to become a hit around the world. In North America, this began in August 1995, when the Canadian station YTV began airing dubbed episodes. (As was the case with a lot of anime at the time, episodes were cut, edited, and not shown in chronological order.) Sailor Moon's popularity attracted both popular and academic interest–everyone seemed to want to know about the show featuring fighters who were both girlish and glamorous. This made Sailor Moon a phenomenon in its own right, but the series later became known as the proving ground for director Kunihiko Ikuhara, whose Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997) and Mawaru Penguindrum (2011) can be seen as having their roots in the Sailor Moon aesthetic.

1992 wasn't just about shojo anime. That year also saw a strong shonen contender in the form of YuYu Hakusho, an adaption from Yoshihiro Togashi's Shonen Jump manga. (Togashi just so happens to be married to Sailor Moon creator Naoko Takeuchi. -Ed.) YuYu Hakusho tells the story of Yusuke Urameshi, a young delinquent who saves a child from an oncoming car and is killed in the very first scene of the anime. Yusuke becomes a ghost, but he doesn't fit into the afterlife any more than he fit into the human world–since the gods did not expect him to die (Yusuke discovers that the kid would have been fine even if he had done nothing), they have no place for him. He meets Koenma, the son of the ruler of the underworld, who assigns Yusuke a succession of challenges to complete to regain his life.

Although YuYu Hakusho had a unique premise, at its heart it is a typical Shonen Jump series, which means that the show often consists of a succession of fights through its 100+ episodes. That is not to say it's not a good show. In fact, YuYu Hakusho was the second-place winner of Animage's "Anime Grand Prix" rankings in 1993 (right behind Sailor Moon) and took the top spot in 1994 and 1995 (with the successive Sailor Moon series coming in second those two years as well).

Based on a manga by Yoshito Usui, Crayon Shin-chan was another popular anime that made its debut in 1992. Still going strong after more than twenty years with twenty-one films under its belt so far, Crayon Shin-chan is one of the longest-running TV anime series. (Of course, nothing even comes close to the legendary Sazae-san, which has been on the air since 1969 and has nearly 7000 episodes and counting.) The series, like the manga, follows the adventures of Shinnosuke Nohara ("Shin-chan" for short), a disrespectful, romantically precocious five-year-old, and his family and friends. Crayon Shin-chan has often been compared to a Japanese version of the US cartoon The Simpsons; even though the two shows are far from parallel, they both take the basic premise of the family/school/work comedy and spin it out to sometimes ridiculous extremes.

The series was initially directed by Mitsuru Hongo, who also directed the Spirit of Wonder: The Melancholy of China-san OVA that came out in 1992 and would go on to be chief director for 2005's Cartoon Network/Production I.G collaboration IGPX. Crayon Shin-chan is also notable for playing host to the talents of a number of fantastic animators, the most well-known of which was probably Masaaki Yuasa (Tatami Galaxy). Other animators, such as Masami Otsuka and Shizuka Hayashi, aren't quite so familiar, although their work on the show is still worth checking out. (Those last two links go to Ben Ettinger's Anipages, which is one of the best pages out there for in-depth discussion on the actual animation of anime.)

There were plenty of other anime to come out in 1992 as well. Legendary Brave Da Garn, the third television series in the "Brave" lineage of collaboration between toymaker Takara and anime producer Sunrise (of which the later GaoGaiGar was a part) began airing in February. Another Sunrise mecha show airing this year was Genki Bakuhatsu Ganbaruger. Similar to Da Garn, Ganbaruger was a collaboration between an anime company and a toy company, only this time it was Tomy's "Eldoran" line of robots. (You can really see Sunrise playing both sides here. Hey, anime is a notoriously poor business, so who can blame them?) Cooking Papa, a culinary anime based on one of the longest running manga serials, got its start in April. Of course there was sports anime as well with the soccer series Ashita e Free Kick. (Like many soccer anime, this one was seen all around the world and dubbed into a plethora of languages except English.)

I’d be remiss if I didn't briefly discuss the many films and OVA series that came out this year. The most notable of these is probably Hayao Miyazaki's Porco Rosso, his follow-up to 1989's Kiki's Delivery Service. As mentioned above, this film bagged a quarter of Animage's covers in 1992. Miyazaki had a long-running relationship with Animage as well, since this is where his Nausicaa manga was serialized from 1982 through 1994. On a related note, Mamoru Nagano's Five Star Stories was on the cover of Newtype twice in 1992 (in which it was serialized), so it certainly seems like relationships between authors and publishers can have an impact on who gets to be on the magazine covers. (Just in case you were still under the impression that the cover stories were somehow objective indicators of popularity.)

Science fiction anime in 1992 also saw the beginning of the Macross II OVA series. (This is the one that has been effectively "disowned" from the official Macross timeline due to the non-involvement of Shoji Kawamori and Studio Nue.) Another OVA series to begin this year was Yasuhiro Imagawa's Giant Robo. Now considered a popular favorite, problems with low sales and production issues stretched this 7-episode series over six years, finally concluding in 1998. The Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory OVA series fared a bit better, with its thirteen episode run concluding in 1992 and having its compilation film Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: The Last Blitz of Zeon coming out this year as well. Another perennial OVA contender released in 1992 was Tenchi Muyo, which would go on to blur the lines between OVA and TV animation when it aired (in an edited version, natch) on Toonami in the early 2000s. According to Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements in The Anime Encyclopedia, the idea for Tenchi Muyo originally began as a "spoof vacation episode" for the Bubblegum Crisis OVA series, which had concluded a year earlier.

This summary really just scratches the surface of anime in 1992, but I wanted to conclude by bringing things around full circle and mention what was happening to anime in North America that year. This year is notable for being the fifteenth anniversary of "official" anime fandom if you calculate it back to 1977 with the founding of the Cartoon / Fantasy Organization as Fred Patten does in his essay "Fifteen Years of Japanese Animation Fandom, 1977-92" (found in his remarkable book Watching Anime, Reading Manga). According to Patten, other notable American anime developments that year included the release of Matthew Sweet's video for "I've Been Waiting" (composed primarily of footage from Urusei Yatsura, following up from his Space Adventure Cobra-filled "Girlfriend" video a year earlier), the first US anime laserdisc (Twilight of the Cockroaches from Streamline Pictures) and the US release of Devil Hunter Yohko from a fledgling outfit known as A.D. Vision.

As we can see, 1992 was chock full of titles that would go on to be perennial favorites both in Japan and overseas. The anime industry in Japan was gathering strength, and fans in North America were just beginning to see domestic home video releases. Japan's economic bubble had burst only a few years prior, but at least as far as anime was concerned, the 1990s were shaping up to be a pretty good decade.

Next Time: The year 1993! Three decades down and two to go!

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