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Thirty Years Ago: The Best Anime of 1986

by Daryl Surat,

The amount of new anime released every year is staggering. It's now the norm in the 2010s that every few months there are at least thirty new series starting, but ask yourselves: on average, how many do you consider re-watching once the next season starts? How about two seasons later, or even a year? The odds are quite high that you likely haven't got time to re-watch very much with so much new anime to follow, but I'll take it a few steps further. For the last few years, I've been looking back on what works of Japanese animation came out THIRTY years previously. As we're in 2016 now, this brings me to 1986; a year often singled out as particularly noteworthy among anime fans who refer to the 1980s as a “golden age” due to Japan's prosperous economy at the time. Could this by chance mean that 1986 is the greatest year for anime EVER? I won't make such claims myself, but here are but a few of the interesting titles released that year:

One look at that period-authentic fashion, technology, and unauthorized use of real-life brands is all it takes to see that Megazone 23 Part II (pronounced “two-three part two”) is probably the single most “1986” anime ever made, which is fitting because the preceding year's Megazone 23 Part I is the single most “1985” anime ever made. Released on May 30th and directed by Ichiro Itano—the phrase “directed by Ichiro Itano” always results in an unforgettable experience—this sex and violence-laden story of biker youth sticking it to The Man while space battles rage and motorcycles transform into giant robots caught the attention of skaters, punk fans, and otaku in the US alike. Before Hatsune Miku or Sharon Apple, EVE was the original virtual idol! This was a sharp departure from other animation at the time, but if you look closely you might notice something:

Yep, there are little Easter Eggs for the original Thundercats in this (as well as Silverhawks in a separate scene), because there's a staff overlap. See, back in those days, various Japanese studios were handling the animation duties for many of the most beloved and remembered American animated series the way Korean studios do today. In fact, almost all of the 80s American cartoons that people wax nostalgic for featured varying levels of Japanese talent involvement, such as The Real Ghostbusters or Transformers: The Movie, which also came out in 1986. Toei Animation worked on parts of the latter, as they did for the other Marvel/Sunbow series, which is quite the feat since in 1986 they were also kicking into shonen action overdrive.

Technically, “anime in 1986” literally starts with Saint Seiya, since it began airing on January 1st! It remains relatively unknown to North American anime fans who either don't speak Spanish or aren't part of BL fandom, but now that the entire Sanctuary arc (aka “the non-filler”) is all available streaming right alongside all the simulcasts, perhaps some may take the plunge into Masami Kuromada's “pretty boys in armor” magnum opus. In terms of shonen series by Toei Animation, English-speaking anime fans are far more familiar with the series that pioneered musclebound grapplers yelling and flying through the air as their projected battle auras destroy the surrounding landscape and cause their hair to turn a different color:

Silly billies, the March 8th release of the Fist of the North Star movie preceded those developments in Dragon Ball by years! The haphazard localization and presentation that maligned it for decades is now a thing of the past, as the movie can now be viewed in its original format with ease. In 1986, the original Dragon Ball anime saga had only just begun as child Goku met up with Bulma for the first time starting on February 26th, an encounter retold in the summary film Curse of the Blood Rubies on December 20th in which Bulma's reaction was to shoot Goku in the head repeatedly using a gun that fired bullets, whereupon Goku commented on her undeveloped chest! THAT is what makes for powerful shonen spirits which persevere to this day. Dragon Ball would eventually be edited for US TV, which is more than can be said for Silver Fang: The Shooting Star Gin which started April 7th. European fans may fondly remember the heartwarming tale of um, uniting all of the dogs of Japan together into an army in order to fight evil cyber/alien-looking bears, but if you sanitized all that “dog being mauled” action you'd have no cartoon left!

1986 was also when Manie-Manie Labyrinth Tales, released in the US under the name Neo-Tokyo to capitalize on the popularity of Akira, was made. This three-part anthology from September 25th is best remembered for its segment “The Running Man” directed by the great Yoshiaki Kawajiri, as it aired on MTV's Liquid Television; it's arguably the most remembered thing shown on the program along with Aeon Flux.

1986 was undeniably the creative zenith for Koichi Mashimo. July 26th saw the release of Ai City, a wild movie featuring bunny girls, hard drinking detectives, cats wearing sunglasses, psychics whose power levels display on their foreheads in convenient digital readouts, and English language songs whose lyrics describe what you're seeing at that moment (“He's got super psychic power! Clobbering evil in the name of goodness…”). But the November 28th release of Dirty Pair: Project EDEN is what's remembered. I previously discussed the Dirty Pair in my classic anime streaming guide, but if I had to pick a single best installment this would be it. You can argue over whether the 1980s was truly the “golden age” of SF anime, but it's certainly true that this once-common tone and aesthetic are sadly long past. Current pop culture is experiencing an 80s resurgence, but whatever led to the lightsaber-wielding space butlers, mad scientists with their own synthesizer theme song, and casual planetary murder-catastrophe isn't there now. (This means that something was NOT “drugs, money, and irony”!)

Look no further than ZZ Gundam, which started airing March 1st,as proof. (That's “Double Zeta” not the sound of people snoring!) For decades this follow-up to Zeta Gundam has been maligned as “the Scooby Doo of Gundam” due to its perceived lightheartedness, but now that we can finally see the entire series on home video you can judge for yourselves. I think you'll find it's one third Scooby Doo, one third harem anime hijinks, and one third precursor to 1988's Char's Counterattack. The opening theme song may facetiously declare that it isn't anime, but it might just be the MOST “anime”!

Several of the decade's best feature-length anime—both theatrical as well as direct-to-video—saw release in 1986…as well as Arion on March 15th! I kid, but it's yet another beautiful-looking work by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko of Gundam fame where the plot and characterization may be just a tad overstuffed. Rather than being about futuristic robots it focuses on warfare among the gods of Greek mythology, but due to shared authorship, much of the cast bears strong resemblance to all your favorite Gundam cast members! To this day, nobody's ever released it in the US. Perhaps once upon a time would-be licensors were thrown off by the incest angle, but nowadays that's an otaku selling point! Another selling point: its soundtrack by the great Joe Hisaishi, who is best known for his work on Hayao Miyazaki's films…

…such as July 23rd's Laputa: Castle in the Sky! This one practically needs no introduction on my part, as its status as a strong candidate for being the best pure action/adventure film by Hayao Miyazaki makes it the anime title from 1986 most likely to have been seen by fans today. Amazing to think the entire movie, which is just over 2 hours long, was made start to finish in just over a year. It's also amazing that there was room back then for other feature-length anime to come out opposite Laputa and thrive. Gall Force: Eternal Story, released on July 26th, kicked off the long-running saga of cute girls waging galactic warfare against space aliens...AND GETTING KILLED. The staff of Gall Force would later go on to make something much more widely remembered among older American anime fans, but that's for Anime in 1987!

Windaria is one of the best anime films of the 1980s. Released on July 9th of 1986, you don't hear much about it for a few reasons. For one, it's rather depressing; a doomed romance (or two) among star-crossed lovers set amidst a fantasy landscape at war. The American version cut out several minutes—including the scene pictured above—re-titled it “Once Upon a Time,” and rewrote much of the dialogue in the hopes of marketing it as a kid-friendly children's movie. It's still a cartoon, after all! Shockingly, it didn't fare well. To this day no uncut version exists stateside, which is another big reason you don't hear much about it. Track it down, start talking about it, then let me know that you did so because you read this so I can convince myself I have influence!

Toki no Tabibito: Time Stranger from December 20th is another fascinating work that deserves more attention. Easily and very commonly confused with 1985's Goshogun: The Time Stranger, this Rintaro-produced movie by Masaki Mori isn't as harrowing as his prior work on Barefoot Gen, but does involve time traveling back to events such as the fire bombings of World War 2. You need not ask whether our Japanese time-travelers go back even further than that to meet up with Oda Nobunaga, because that's THE RULE. It features stellar animation and design work by talents such as Koji Morimoto and Yoshiaki Kawajiri, plus character designs by Moto Hagio, one of the great shojo pioneers whose manga works we've only recently started getting in English. But if we're going to talk about noteworthy Moto Hagio works released in 1986…

…it would be They Were Eleven, released November 1st of that year. This anime adaptation of a tale Moto Hagio originally wrote in 1975—Viz included it as part of Four Shojo Stories 20 years ago­, and Central Park Media released it here on home video—isn't strictly “school romance” like how we tend to equate “shojo” with nowadays. Rather, it's a science fiction mystery. Ten students from different worlds aspiring to be accepted into Cosmo Academy are put on a remote spacecraft as a test to see how long they can survive without aid, but upon arrival they discover 11 persons in all, which means somebody's a spy! Within these speculative fictional suspense trappings Hagio also introduced what was at the time an idea not nearly as accepted as it is in 2016: the concept of gender fluidity. The manner in which this are expressed may not quite hold up to the rigors of modern discourse, but to have this idea presented in the realm of children's animation from 30 years ago is groundbreaking and should be acknowledged as such. Imagine if such a thing were brought up in Finding Dory!

Thanks to several manga publishers, the “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka is more famous among American fans today than when he was alive. His “life work,” the anthology series Phoenix whose stories span from the dawn of man to the end of time, is easily available in digital manga form, but the 1980s anime adaptations have never seen the light of day in the US. This is unfortunate, since on December 20th 1986 the anime adaptation of what is frequently considered the best single installment of Phoenix was released: “Karma.” Each installment of Phoenix is heavy and cathartic, and this tale of a woodcarver and a murderous bandit in 8th-century feudal Japan is no exception as it dwells deeply upon the nature of morality and the meaning of life itself. While I greatly admire the 2004 television series (which adapts different stories), this film directed by no less than the legendary Rintaro himself is the best of them all.

1986 was a banner year for Rumiko Takahashi, even though the juggernaut that was Urusei Yatsura probably started slowing with the release of the fourth film, Lum the Forever, on February 22nd. It's the most surreal and lyrical of the UY movies, and even though everything is eventually explained through dialogue it's still the most drastic departure from the wacky screwball comedy antics that made the series famous. I like it but it's no secret why most don't. The March 26th release of Takahashi's shonen romance Maison Ikkoku is what's most remembered. It remains one of her most beloved series, thanks in part to the fact that it, y'know, features grown-ups who don't have to attend Anime Middle/High School and the story CONCLUDES. Anime for older audiences that was neither action nor sci-fi remains relatively common even now, and with any luck the upcoming HD remaster will make it a candidate for license rescue in the near future! Rumiko Takahashi actually had a THIRD anime adaptation of her work made in 1986, though: the one-shot OAV Maris the Chojo. Originally released in the US as “The Supergal” before DC Comics expressed their objections—Maris is, after all, a survivor from a doomed planet who now has superhuman strength—this lighthearted goofy tale of a money-obsessed former female pro wrestler turned space bounty hunter with a nine-tailed fox sidekick is easy viewing. I particularly like the Urusei Yatsura character cameos, as well as the end credits that are done in the “outtakes” style of old Jackie Chan movies.

One of the high watermarks of 1980s anime, the likes of which we'll never see again, came out on June 21st of 1986. Nowadays, it's nothing special to make anime with references to other anime, but Project A-ko had such incredible action and animation that it rocks even if you don't know there are references. Which, as a teenager seeing it for the first time on the former “Sci-Fi” Channel, I didn't! Pretty impressive stuff for something that was initially meant to be porno until they realized “wait, this idea is actually really cool.” Fun fact: Samantha Newark, who contributed lead as well as backup vocals to the soundtrack and is best known as the speaking voice of Jerrica “Jem” Benton from the original Jem and the Holograms cartoon, did not normally wear such truly outrageous 1980s attire when recording in the studio. The producers just had her dress up that way for the making-of behind the scenes video footage she didn't realize they were filming!

1986 was an incredible year overall for the anime medium. In fact, I've barely scratched the surface, so if you have a title that first came out in 1986, let's hear about it in the comments! Note that for length purposes, this was only a fraction of the titles I highlighted at my convention panels on this very same topic, so please keep that in mind before you lament that I didn't mention classics like Prefectural Earth Defense Force, Urban Square, or The Guyver…or “classics” like MD Geist, Roots Search, California Crisis, The Humanoid, and Del Power X! Rest assured I didn't “forget”: that's what my Anime World Order podcast is for! And, just in case you think I picked “30 years ago” as an excuse to write about Japanese cartoons from the 1980s, know that next on my to-do list is to evaluate what titles from 20 years ago, in 1996, are also worth remembering these days!

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