Where Have All The Space Operas Gone?

by Justin Sevakis,

Piotr asked:

I am a big fan of space opera. And for years I've been wondering why this genre seems not to be animated much anymore? It seems it had its 'golden age' of popularity around the turn of the century. Last year saw a revive of sorts of space opera on Western TV (Star Trek, Orville, etc.). Can we expect something new on the anime front? Is the current Japanese generation not that much into space?

I would argue that peak Space Opera happened in the mid-80s. There was a time when it seemed like half the anime on television was a space opera of some sort.

Space operas basically took over the anime scene in the late 70s and early 80s, helped in no small measure by the international success of Star Wars, which took Japan by storm as well as the West. From Leiji Matsumoto's Galaxy Express 999 and Captain Harlock universe (the "Leijiverse") to Space Adventure Cobra to Gundam to Macross to all of the myriad space mecha shows of the era, that boom of space-oriented sci-fi can pretty clearly be traced back to the firestorm that was the original Star Wars trilogy.

It was, as they say, part of the zeitgeist of the time. The American and Russian space programs had already passed a huge number of milestones, and with new discoveries being made all the time, it seemed like exploring and colonizing distant planets could, in fact, be something just around the corner. And toy manufacturers, who controlled most anime production at that time, were happy to capitalize on that excitement.

Anime was so effective at sci-fi storytelling (space ships and explosions are expensive to do in live action, but costs the same as a sitcom in animation) that sci-fi anime pretty much became its own genre for a good 15 years or so. It eventually morphed into space comedies (Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Tenchi Muyo!, etc.), space politics (Legend of Galactic Heroes, Crest of the Stars, etc.), and plenty of mecha shows.

By the time the turn of the century came, the space shuttle program was nearing its end (with no obvious replacement in sight), and people just weren't thinking about space exploration as much. Getting to Mars has become a distant goalpost that politicians point towards when trying to inspire. It's not that people aren't potentially interested in space, it's just not currently something we're thinking much about.

There's still quite a few space anime being made. The last few years has given us Aldnoah.Zero, Terra Formars, ēlDLIVE, Space Brothers, Total Eclipse, and quite a few others, in addition to plenty of new Gundam. There's still lots of Sci-fi, but most of it isn't sticking so close to space opera formula anymore. It may not seem like much, but remember that there's an insane amount of anime being made these days compared to decades past.

So, with space exploration not making much headline-grabbing progress in recent years, we're just not thinking about it as much. I'm sure next time something big happens and the space program gets moving again, we'll see another boom in sci-fi of all sorts. Anime, live action... you name it.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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