The Rise of Anime in the West: It Began Before Dragon Ball!

Name the oldest anime that comes to your mind! If you are from a Western country like the US or mainland Europe, you might say the earliest anime would be Dragon Ball or something similar. That is wrong, however. Anime hit the west a whole decade before the Dragon Ball TV series even started. I’m going to lead you through some of anime’s history, so without further ado, let’s start.

Anime in Japan: The Beginnings

Japanese animation began in the early 1900s. A claim is made that the first-ever clip was made back in 1907, though that cannot be confirmed. Known is that 1917 marks the year of the earliest animated movie made in Japan that survived to this day. Named Namakura Gatana or The Dull Sword, this 4-minute video only resurfaced in 2008 and thus became the oldest known piece of Japanese animation.

Unfortunately, many works and movies from these days’ works have been lost to natural causes. In 1923, the Great Kantō earthquake destroyed many of the film strips.

By the 1930s, animation had become an alternative to live-action movies in Japan. Though, during this time, Disney had already become a stark competition. While the first feature-length anime film came out in 1945, Disney alone had already released 9 full-length movies. To be fair, much of Japan had been focussing on the efforts of the 2nd World War at the time, so many animators didn’t have the chance to follow their dreams.

Over the next 20 years, Japanese animators had the opportunity to improve their skills. It took until 1960 for western animation ways to find its way to Japan. Among the first adopters was Osamu Tezuka, who used the western techniques to optimise his studio’s own processes. Conversely, he also produced one of the first animes that found popularity in the west.

Anime in the West: The First Tries

In the west, the first animes finding success did so in the 1960s. Astro Boy (1963-1965) and Speed Racer (1967-1968) were the 2 first Japanese animations making it to the US. That success meant that other Japanese studios, namely Zuiyo and then Nippon Animation began developing animes for another western market: European children. The European 70s became anime central.

Even today, especially in the German-speaking countries of Germany and Austria, many TV Series from the times are being regularly broadcast. Amongst which are:

  • Vicky the Viking
  • Maya the Honey Bee
  • Heidi, Girl of the Alps
  • Barbapapa
  • Arabian Nights: Sinbad’s Adventures

During this time of Japan-frenzy in Europe, the largest studio working for this western market was Nippon Animation. At the time, a young animator by the name of Hayao Miyazaki worked at the studio.

However, it would take another 20 years for anime to become mainstream in the west.

The Height of Hype

Dragon Ball in 1986 became the start of the height of anime in the west. At the same time other media started conquering a western market. It was not series, however, but movies. Studio Ghibli, founded by, amongst others, Hayao Miyazaki, who already knew anime could reach worldwide audiences, created one masterpiece after another. Starting out with the classics Castle in the Sky (1986) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Studio Ghibli’s works soon became household names.

While in the meanwhile, animes like Sailor Moon found their footing, it wouldn’t be until close to the turn of the millennium for the preliminary highest point to be reached. Queue 3 of the biggest franchises in the world:

  • Pokémon (1997-)
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! (1999-)
  • One Piece (1999-)

And if that were not enough, in 2001, Studio Ghibli would bring one of the highest-grossing animation movies ever to the world: Spirited Away.

Truly, this time was a golden age of anime. In fact, the main reason why millennials came to appreciate anime is that they were just kids during this time. Growing up and being exposed to such art will leave an everlasting impression.

2002 would then see the release of Naruto, perfectly rounding out this golden age. However, this would also be the starting point of stagnation.

The Niche-ification of Anime in the West

Over the next decade-and-a-half, the famous few animes would stay hogging the limelight. Children would grow up watching Ash Ketchum thwart Team Rockets’ every pathetic try to steal his Pokémon. Teens would dream of becoming pirates or ninjas. Adults would not yet understand.

This time saw the rise of grey-zone streaming sites, bringing subbed animes to the world and introducing enthusiasts to the greatness of Japanese voice acting. Many all-time great animes saw the light of day. Death Note (2006-2007), Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009-2010) and Hunter x Hunter (2011-2014) are just some of the best-rated TV series of this time. They would only stay famous in Japan and within enthusiast circles, however. Mainstream TV services had their hands full broadcasting different shows.

It would take until a wholly new medium to challenge the dominance of TV for Anime to once again rise to a somewhat mainstream position in a flood of entertainment.

2nd Rise of Anime in the West with Streaming

Queue Netflix, Amazon Prime and Crunchyroll. The rise of subscription-based streaming services brough many new possibilities to entertainment. While half-hearted documentaries, low-production-value drama series and many other different kinds of shows flood these services with their existence, it has also presented a whole new stage for anime, subbed and dubbed, to a worldwide audience.

This also had a hand in the newest high-grossing anime movie. Demon Slayer The Movie: Mugen Train (2020) managed to overtake Spirited Away as the highest-grossing anime movie ever while challenging many western productions for a space at the top. Not the top-top, but it’s still done respectively well with its over $500mil in revenue.

This, hopefully, has shown the Japanese studios that westerners are still interested in its products. Anime enthusiasts may still watch thousands of good shows. And maybe this is setting the stepping stone animes needed in order to advance to finally really being mainstream once again.

All that remains is to wait and see. I will be hoping for more and more mainstream integration of new anime series. Bringing this artform to the common person is all everyone deserves. But for now, let’s wait and see.

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