Modern anime series owe a debt of gratitude to the postwar anime shows which came before them.
Indeed, many popular anime TV shows which have come out in recent years are reboots, remakes, or continuations of shows which originated in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. In other words, they were born in the post-World War II years, or if you prefer to use Japanese Imperial naming terminology, they would be considered late-Showa.
Osomatsu-san, GeGeGe no Kitaro, and Lupin III are examples of recent shows with Showa roots — indeed, Osomatsu is dripping with Showa nostalgia and throwback humor. Even the original 1986 Dragon Ball came out at the tail end of this time period.
Many other recent shows which are not directly based on Showa Era-anime series have nonetheless been greatly influenced by their predecessors from this period in Japanese history. There would be no Initial D without Speed Racer; no Gundam without Tetsujin 28.
It would be easy but foolish to dismiss this as nothing more than a direct result of the Showa anime shows coming out first. But the Showa period was significant and important for Japan.
Let’s take a look at this era, what it meant for Japan, and what it means for anime.
Which Era Are We Talking About?
The Showa Era actually began in 1926, with the ascent of Hirohito (a.k.a. Emperor Showa) to the throne. Early examples of Japanese animation are known to have existed even before that — but it was crude and certainly wouldn’t fit a traditional definition of “anime.”
From a fan perspective, anime as we understand it didn’t really begin until after Japan started to recover from World War II. That’s usually the period that people are thinking of when they talk about “Showa Era” anime. The Showa Era continued until 1989, when the Heisei Era began.
Immediately after World War II, Japan was a mess. The only people doing well were the yakuza — they knew ways to get things done, even if it wasn’t strictly legal. However, despite this social and economic catastrophe, Japan was already planning ahead for the future.
Sony was founded in 1946, Honda started in 1948, and Toei Animation began in 1948. During the years that would follow, Japan underwent a period of rapid upward economic growth and transformation so extreme that many called it a miracle.
The Japanese economic miracle turned Japan into a superpower. Japanese government economic policy pushed heavy industrialization, which required a lot of new engineers. For example, it took a lot of engineering to build the high-speed Shinkansen (“bullet train”).
The bullet train opened just in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which was a huge PR opportunity for the nation to re-introduce itself to the world. Japan’s leaders wanted to show that the new, futuristic and pacifist Japan was definitely better than the old, wartime imperialist one.
Japan was growing, and that growth brought about many changes. It was also during this period that Japan’s stereotypical hard-working salaryman image emerged.
The first Honda Civic came out in 1972. Sony invented the Walkman in 1979, which revolutionized how we listen to music. By the 1980s, Japan was on top of the world economically.
And throughout it all, anime and manga writers and animators responded to these historic changes.
How Did This Affect Anime?
We are all products of the times we live in. And, entertainment reflects the time in which it was made as well.
So, postwar Japan was a place which was largely optimistic about the future, with new technology, new electronics and automobiles seen as keys to the economy of the future. We can see some of this high-tech optimism — and even some traces of high-tech anxiety — in giant robot and science-fiction shows.
It was also a nation which valued youth, education and learning (and to a large degree, it still does). So, they produced a lot of anime shows featuring schoolkids, or high school events, or young people. If kids are the future, then it makes sense that young people would be the heroes of many series.
The most symbolically Showa anime TV show of all time would probably be Doraemon. It first appeared in 1973, and several sequels were made. (A strong challenger for this title would be Sazae-san, which will be examined later.)
The protagonist of Doraemon is Nobita, a schoolboy who is failing to learn anything at school. As we already mentioned, Showa Japanese society valued learning, education and studying, so this is a pretty big problem for Nobita’s family. He gets help from the future — Doraemon, a robot cat who can pull just about any gadget from his pocket. These gadgets are technological wonders and they can seemingly do just about anything.
By the late 1970s and early ’80s, Japanese engineers were starting to make tiny radios, video games, computers and so on. Fast trains went everywhere. Magical gadgets must have seemed not very far off to the creators of Doraemon.
Of course, it would be a boring show if every invention worked exactly perfectly, so quite a few of these gadgets malfunction — or else they work too well, causing an opposite, but equally bad problem from the original one. Nobita learns a lot about the perils and pitfalls of technology — and hopefully, so does the audience.
The series also dealt with social issues in its own unique way. For example, Japan’s rapid development resulted in a lot of new construction. This was good for the economy, but bad for the chirping crickets which needed green space. It also eliminated open lots where children could play. Several Doraemon stories dealt with the environmental and social downside of change.
Robots and New Technology
Of course, Doraemon was pretty unusual as robot-themed anime shows go. Much more common was the heroic, futuristic robot fighting to save the day. All around the world, the postwar years were also the “Atomic Age” and the “Space Age,” and robot stories fit the global mood.
In 1963, anime versions of Astro Boy and Tetsujin-28-go (“Gigantor”) came out. Astro Boy was a robotic boy superhero; Tetsujin would pave the way for other Japanese giant robots. For example, these shows were followed shortly by Cyborg 009 in 1968. Mazinger Z came out in 1972.
The list of Japanese giant robots could go on forever. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (2007) may be a Heisei Era (1989-2019) anime series, but it pays tribute to the robot heroes of the past. From Transformers to Voltron, all Japanese robot shows flow from the idea that technology can solve our problems.
On Speed Racer (1967), high-tech engineering was used to win races, not save the world from aliens. However, the Mach 5 was more than just a fast racecar. It was filled with gadgets to help Speed win races and defend against crooked opponents.
The Mach 5 was portrayed as a marvel of modern engineering, but the series also reflected what was happening with real-life Japanese automakers. An American driving the Honda R272 had just won the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix. The sleek and swift Toyota 2000GT sports car came out in 1967; the iconic Nissan Fairlady (Datsun 240Z) would be introduced a couple of years later.
High-tech wizardry was also on display in Gatchaman (1972), an ancestor of the Super Sentai/ Power Rangers franchise. The five teen heroes were a “Science Ninja Team” — the name sounds a bit odd, but it invokes the power of science, and all that it entails. The ninja part seems to refer to their martial arts fighting skills.
The science part probably included their special, transforming vehicles. These combined to form the God Phoenix, a big supersonic plane which could fire missiles and high-tech energy beams. Several episodes also indicated that they were fighting to save the environment, a fairly new idea in 1972.
So far, we’ve mostly talked about shonen series — shows with mainly male heroes, who use robots and modern technology to fight crime, battle aliens, and save the day.
But, we must not forget that there was a pretty, pink shojo side of the Showa anime equation. If the modern and futuristic postwar world provided Japanese boys with robots, fast cars and spaceships, what did it provide for the girls?
Japan has long had a reputation of being very traditional when it came to gender roles — in medieval culture, the ideal man was a samurai and the ideal woman was a geisha, and unfortunately, very paternalistic attitudes continue even today.
To a certain extent, modern feminist viewpoints have started to break down those old-fashioned, male-dominated cultural values — the current governor of Tokyo is a woman, Yuriko Koike. But there has never been a Japanese Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren.
Still, some postwar Showa anime and manga creators did start to chip away at those gender barriers. One way that they did so was by inventing mahou shojo manga — or the magical girl series.
The First Magical Girls
In 1953, Osamu Tezuka created Princess Knight, which is sort of a prototypical, pre-magical girl manga series. The story is more of a romantic fairy tale than a true magical girl series, but it would blaze a trail for others to follow.
The series has been described as feminist, but it’s a flawed sort of feminism. The heroine, Princess Sapphire, has to pretend to be a boy in order to be heroic, and it’s heavily implied that it’s her male heart which gives her the ability to fight. Still, the series was very progressive and modern for its time.
The first true magical girl series wouldn’t come around until Sally the Witch and Himitsu no Akko-chan during the 1960s. These two series would feature several magical girl concepts — a magical kingdom, transformation sequences, using magic to solve problems, and keeping secret identities or abilities hidden from others. And unlike Princess Saphhire, these girls are strong, clever and smart enough on their own without a “male heart.”
The 1973 Go Nagai series Cutie Honey took the next obvious step with a magical superheroine who transforms to battle the bad guys.
However, Honey Kisaragi is a troublesome example of a magical girl. She’s a robot, so perhaps she belongs in that category, alongside Astro Boy and Tetsujin. Her superheroine outfit also seems designed for male gaze fanservice, not empowering women. The franchise is typically categorized as shonen, not shojo.
Still, Cutie Honey undeniably influenced later magical girl series, including Sailor Moon. (Sailor Moon’s first appearance was a couple of years into the Heisei Era.)
Note, by the way, that Princess Knight was an Osamu Tezuka manga; Sally the Witch was by Mitsuteru Yokoyama (Tetsujin 28); Himitsu no Akko-chan was by Fujio Akatsuka (Osomatsu); and Cutie Honey was a Go Nagai creation — female characters written by male creators.
Luckily, there were also female manga artists such as Rumiko Takahashi out there smashing Showa Japanese gender barriers. Of these, Takahashi deserves special mention. By all accounts, she is the best-selling female comic artist ever.
Takahashi’s first major hit was Urusei Yatsura (manga started in 1978; anime in 1981), a romantic comedy with a science-fiction twist.
Lum is extremely sexy with her tiger-pattern bikini, and she can sometimes come across as something of a ditz. But she can also be strong-willed, more clever than she looks, and short-tempered.
She shares a lot of “mostly sweet tsundere” traits with other Takahashi heroines. In fact, Takahashi used this romantic couple comedy routine so often that TV Tropes named its Belligerent Sexual Tension page after her.
Takahashi’s career spans both Showa and Heisei periods, with Ranma ½ balancing between the two, and Inuyasha landing solidly in the post-1989 era. Her stories were part of a wave of anime which helped the genre expand outside Japan.
Slice of Life
Unlike the works of Takahashi, Machiko Hasegawa’s Sazae-san is not well-known outside of Japan. This is surprising when you consider how long Sazae-san has been around.
The manga started out in 1946 and ran until 1974. The anime started in 1969, and was still going when it was rudely interrupted by COVID-19. It is in the Guiness Book of World Records for the longest-running animated show. More than 2500 episodes have aired, and those episodes are made up of more than 7,500 individual segments.
So why is this series not more famous worldwide? Possibly because it is almost too Japanese. Sazae-san is a slice-of-life comedy about a Japanese housewife and her family. Just about every joke, every gag, and every story is distinctly Japanese flavored. (Also, for some reason, Hasegawa also never wanted the series to go to video release.)
If you can find a translation of the manga, it’s pretty good, although it is more witty and humorous than laugh-out-loud funny. Some of it is standard-issue family stuff which would be funny in any era — the children are clever but mischievous, husbands get in trouble with their wives, dad plays golf, junior gets bad grades, etc.
What makes Sazae-san culturally interesting is the time-capsule glimpse into the past that it provides. We see Japan’s old-fashioned, traditional cultural perceptions; plus the way that people acted, dressed, etc.
If you want to know more about how anime got the way it is, any of these anime shows would be a good starting point.