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Twenty Years Ago: The Best Anime of 1996 (And Some Others Too)

by Daryl Surat,

I've long been of the opinion that the number of great works in anime is a relatively constant thing from year to year. But as I noted in my previous feature, Thirty Years Ago: The Best Anime of 1986, the amount of new anime titles produced is now at so high a point that its sustainability is in question. When there's something like 70 titles airing this season alone—before you leave a comment noting the amount of titles covered in the Preview Guide is about half that please note that I'm accounting for continuing series, shorts, and the like—it'll be interesting to see what from 2016 is still remembered by the middle of the century…or come next year, for that matter!

The thing about discussing anime of the 1980s is that, relatively speaking, only a small contingent of fans from that era are still active online in anime fan circles to weigh in. By contrast, the 1990s coincide with the childhoods of many Internet-savvy geeks out there, but remember: many current anime fans weren't even alive back then! So let's now look back to some of the noteworthy anime titles released 20 years ago, in 1996. Once again, this isn't meant to be anything close to a comprehensive listing, and much as I would personally be more than happy to only focus on works of highly dubious merit such as MD Geist II: Death Force, Apocalypse Zero, Bounty Hunter: The Hard, Battle Arena Toshinden, Panzer Dragoon, Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer, and those crazy Ninja Turtles OAVs where they get Saint Seiya armor…truth be told, that stuff has been thoroughly mined by online video critics.

One of the most enduring anime titles of 1996 started right near the beginning of it, on January 10th. Rurouni Kenshin was the hot title in Japan's top-selling manga anthology publication, Weekly Shonen Jump, during the era where its circulation was at its all-time highest point. The Meiji-era tale of a former assassin looking to atone for his violent past was a sensation both in Japan and America, with deliberate efforts made towards crafting its aesthetics and story to appeal to both male as well as female audiences; an approach which Jump has continued to refine to this day. A vital success for then-fledgling Sony Pictures Entertainment Visual Works Inc. (known nowadays as Aniplex Inc.), Kenshin was also used to promote Sony musical acts such as the debuting TM Revolution, who continues to be heard in anime theme songs to this day. The television series may have ultimately succumbed to the “terrible filler arc” syndrome that so many of these shows fall victim to, but in 1996 Kenshin was the undisputed king of the shonen action hill. I hope that doesn't earn me the ire of any Dragon Ball GT or Bakuso Kyodai Let's & Go! fans, since those also started in 1996!

The Vision of Escaflowne was another major hit from 1996, the enduring fan nostalgia for which helped pave the way for that fancy new crowdfunded Blu-Ray set from FUNimation. Released on April 2nd, the secret of Escaflowne's success was that it offered “something for everybody,” combining elements of classic shojo, shonen, fantasy, and science fiction with top-notch visuals and a soundtrack by Yoko Kanno that helped establish the phrase “soundtrack by Yoko Kanno” as a key selling point. The practice of ticking off as many otaku checkboxes as possible to maximize the fan base is an approach that Sunrise and its offshoots like BONES have since kept to over the years, with varying degrees of success. Robots, sorcery, swords, demi-humans, romantic love triangles, dudes with wings—hey, WAIT A SECOND, this is just Shoji Kawamori's version of Yoshiyuki Tomino's Byston Well saga! Come to think of it, Garzey's Wing ALSO came out in 1996, didn't it? Nobody besides Tomino seems interested in pursuing stories set in the fantasy / mecha hybrid landscape of Byston Well, but the same can't be said of his most enduring creation...

Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team is still held up to this day as an ideal for Gundam fans who want robot battles without all that “angsty teenage heroes” and “space psychics behaving incomprehensibly” stuff. (And yes, I know; the opening credits DO say “1995” but it got delayed to a 1996 debut, then suffered a lengthy hiatus when the director of the first few episodes passed away.) As a sort of “Vietnam War, with robots” side story to Gundam proper, it doesn't require background knowledge of decades worth of “Universal Century” lore to comprehend. The literally more grounded approach to its frequent action scenes, high-quality animation, character designs which don't look exceedingly dated, and short NoitaminA-esque running time have proven 08th MS Team a solid first outing for fans curious about this whole Gundam thing that are understandably hesitant at the prospect of being told to watch such lengthy older programs. The ending theme song, which pontificates on where we'll be and what we'll think of things looking back “ten years after,” is something that frequently buzzes through my head whenever I write articles such as this one. 1996's After War Gundam X, set ina standalone alternate universe, was far less well-received despite some striking visual designs and is best left for completionists.

I've been talking about “major hits” but all pale in comparison to what first began on January 8th, 1996: Detective Conan,otherwise known as Case Closed. The adventures of the not-technically-a-kid detective and his fanciful gadgets that he uses to investigate crimes too exceedingly violent for American children's television broadcast standards are far more popular in Japan than well, just about any other anime ever aside from Sazae-san and Chibi Maruko-chan. Yet one truth prevails: it's just too exceedingly simplistic for most American grown-up/adolescent anime fans to get into. Not that it matters: as of this writing, Conan is just a few months away from its 850th episode on top of over 20 theatrical films and then some, though producer Michihiro Suwa insists that in all that time only a few months of time have elapsed in story from episode 1 to this point. Otherwise, by all rights he should have grown up to be an adult again by now! This does of course mean that the violent crime rate of Conan’s Japan is several times higher than New York City or Chicago and Detective Mori DEFINITELY has chronic traumatic encephalopathy, given how many times he's been knocked out cold in such a short span of time so that Conan can impersonate his voice! The great boy detective Conan has even had multiple crossovers with the world's greatest thief, Lupin the Third, who himself had a memorable outing in 1996 with the theatrical installment, Dead or Alive. Disclaimer: throwing a knife at a bullet to fire it in a straight line only works when you're Lupin the Third. There was also a Lupin the Third television special that year, but the most memorable thing about The Secret of Twilight Gemini was that Lupin actually slept with Fujiko and you got to see naked breasts; both relative rarities for the post-Castle of Cagliostro incarnations of Lupin. No wonder FUNimation released that one in America first!

So far, everything I've mentioned is either being remade, re-released, or continues on in some manner today. But Kodomo no Omocha, released in the US under the name Kodocha because “Child's Toy” might give the wrong idea, is an exception. The hyper-kinetic shojo comedy that started on April 5th of 1996 let loose the floodgates for frenetically paced wacky hijinks for years to come, though it'd be a little while longer before choreographed group dance credit sequences would catch on. What started off as the turbulent intersections between middle-school child actress Sana and her unruly classmate Akito the not-exactly-exiled eventually fell into a more traditional shojo romance pattern. Come to think of it, a lot of shojo romance back then featured handsome male love interests who were downright abusive bullies. Why, that one sentence just summarized Boys Over Flowers, also from 1996! Despite both the Kodocha anime and manga being quite popular in the US once upon a time, you can no longer easily get either. The manga is out of print, and the Kodocha anime featured a theme song as well as cameo appearances by TOKIO, a band under the thumb of the talent agency Johnny's whose sole purpose is apparently to ensure that nobody outside of Japan is allowed to easily see or hear anything that features their talent…which is seemingly half of all Japanese pop entertainment. I guess some things never change even after 20 years!

City Hunter was another one which just never fully caught on in the US due to its disparate tonal shifts between the juvenile and serious, much like Detective Conan. I suppose it's fitting that the two series share studios, producers, directors, and so on! Ryo Saeba, expert gunman and seemingly suave debonair ladies’ man is routinely undone by his raging libido that turns him into a Jerry Lewis-style lecher who is only subdued when his partner, Kaori, strikes him about the head with a large heavy object, typically a giant mallet that she produces from thin air. The art style and opening credits sequences always gives the impression that City Hunter is “cool,” and while hot babes, car chases, and exploding helicopters do abound the series is largely slapstick 1980s-style Asian comedy that is often completely unacceptable by modern sensibilities. After having been off the air for several years, Ryo and the gang returned in 1996 with City Hunter: The Secret Service. Generally panned by US fans for being overly formulaic and “too 1980s style,” the made-for-TV movie was nonetheless well-received enough in Japan to warrant additional installments in later years which were superior. I think of The Secret Service as akin to that new Star Wars movie; sure, it was by-the-numbers to what came before but it was proof to audiences that “don't worry, we still know how to do this after all this time away.” City Hunter was groundbreaking for its time, particularly among the ladies, and could easily be that again; with so many revivals I say it's due for an anime comeback. For now, we'll have to settle for the upcoming live-action Chinese film, which will likely have no relation to the highly-rated Korean live-action TV drama from about five years ago that itself had practically zero plot similarities at all to the anime.

No anime voice actor embodies “the 90s” greater than Megumi Hayashibara, and the fantasy comedy series Slayers was the Megumi Hayashibara-est! If I had to pick just one single great year for Slayers anime, 1996 is it. That's when we got the best television series, Slayers Next, as well as my favorite of the feature films, Slayers Return, along with the start of the direct-to-video installments. I always lost interest in Slayers TV once the convoluted lore kicked in. Next as directed by Seiji Mizushima has the least amount of that, balancing action and comedy with its endearing cast. It was good practice for his future work directing Fullmetal Alchemist! But much as I like the dimwitted yet gentlemanly swordsman Gourry, Amelia (aka “anime's version of The Tick”), and the rest of the TV gang it's the films and OAVs where Slayers is at its best, since they were too short to ever bother being anything but pure 100% Grade-A action-comedy. Sure, it's one-note comedy--supreme wizard Lina Inverse is as short, anger-prone, and flat-chested as mildly-less-supreme wizard Naga the Serpent is tall, apt to burst into “ojou-sama” laughter, and hilariously bosomed--but they know how to hit their marks in under an hour and end on a high note (translation: “they blow up whichever town they traveled to after having eaten all the food and get ran off by an angry mob”). Theatrical movies with a running time of one hour or less are still fairly common in anime, as they usually double-feature with something else. Usually the two films are thematically similar, but Slayers Return ran in a double feature with...oh dear:

Not since Grave of the Fireflies double-featured with My Neighbor Totoro has there been a more head-scratching anime double feature than Slayers Return with X/1999. There's not much intentional comedy to be found in this gruesome battle between two psychic factions in the apocalyptic end year of 1999, but perhaps the laughs came unintentionally because of how nigh-incomprehensible it is when taken solely on its own. (That, and this ridiculous box cover and equally ridiculous pull quotes.) A cadre of producers and directors couldn't QUITE assemble a fully coherent narrative from CLAMP's then-unfinished manga, which twenty years later is STILL unfinished, but it's certainly an absolutely gorgeous-looking film with some high-caliber action scenes and musical accompaniment to match. The credited director is the legendary yet polarizing Rintaro, who had prior experience directing visually resplendent yet narratively overstuffed apocalyptic esper battle films with 1983's Harmagedon. Delightfully insane though it may be to end a movie crying while hugging a severed head, I usually just recommend people watch the later X television series or the music video X2 from—you guessed it—stalwart J-rock band X Japan instead of watching this film from start to finish, but your mileage will undeniably vary as Rintaro's gift/curse is that half of what he makes is incredible and half of what he makes is terrible…and NOBODY agrees on which of ANY of his works falls into which category!

When Sailor Moon began in the 1990s, it marked a departure point for the “magical girl” subgenre of shojo, as it incorporated genre conventions of tokusatsu into the mix so successfully that its approach became the new template. Why, few anime fans alive today have even watched a magical girl series where they DIDN'T have to use their abilities to fight monsters. (Don't you jump in the comments to Cutey Honey me, buster, because that was initially targeted for boys!) The final season from 1996, Sailor Moon Sailor Stars, was never nearly as popular as its predecessors in America. The main reason is simple: most of the Sailor Moon generation who became fans due to the television broadcasts never SAW it. It was several years before Sailor Moon S and Sailor Moon Super S made it on US TV in notoriously edited form to downplay the homosexuality aspects, but there was simply no easy way to edit around the fact that the anime incarnations of the newly introduced Sailor Starlights were men who transformed into women; a departure from the source material in which they were women disguised as men. And so Sailor Stars was never made available to American fans back then…or even right now, twenty years later, since as of this writing the uncut re-releases are only just now getting around to Sailor Moon S! Personally, the reason I was never much into Sailor Stars is that I…didn't make it far, having been burned out by Super S which had entirely too much Chibi-usa and not nearly enough Sailor Pluto or Mercury…or Mars, or…you get the idea.

Tenchi Muyo! was one of the anime juggernauts of the 1990s, and the mania peaked in 1996 with the April release of the theatrical film Tenchi Muyo in Love. The time-traveling tale answered some lingering questions and provided dramatic closure for long-time fans while simultaneously being accessible to brand-new viewers. In an era before simulcasts were even considered possible, Pioneer saw to it that both the dub and sub premiered at Anime Expo within months of the film's Japanese theatrical release, and it was airing on the Sci-Fi Channel (as it was known then...) shortly thereafter. Tenchi, after all, was their otaku flagship for selling high-end home video formats! Perhaps you yourself own a copy of this film on the then-emerging “DVD” format, as packaged in a CD jewel case. All the later spinoffs, needless sequels that can all be summarized by the phrase “Tenchi meets another girl” and American comic-book like multiple continuities may have turned fans away back then, but in hindsight the 1996 television series Magical Project S—which reimagined the cast in a comedic yet traditional magical girl setting—is arguably the one piece of the Tenchi Muyo! empire which holds up the best, twenty years later, now that wacky fantasy harem anime are a dime a dozen. Come to think of it, it's strange how Hiroshi Negishi—oh no, I've…I've done it. By saying his name, I've resurrected memories of THE TRUE 1990s, the Satoru Akahori / Hiroshi Negishi vortex that churned out so much once-popular anime which we as a collective online whole have decided to simply NEVER SPEAK OF AGAIN. Why, in 1996 alone they unleashed those borderline-porn Sorcerer Hunters OAV sequels, the underrated NG Vs Knight Lamune & 40 Fire TV series (which also got borderline-porn OAV sequels), Master of Mosquiton, and Saber Marionette J... which is about to be remade, since its premise is more relevant to society and otaku tastes than ever before...I'm afraid this article must end NOW, lest we all be consumed!

So much came out in 1996, there's a near 100% chance that I left off one of your favorites. So let's hear about it in the comments, even if it IS Those Who Hunt Elves, the late-night success of which opened the floodgates to the state of TV anime as we know it! I didn't even get to mention Black Jack: The Movie, Shinesman, the original Birdy the Mighty, Spring and Chaos, that weird and unnecessary Kimagure Orange Road sequel movie, You're Under Arrest, Gekiganger 3 (the true show; Martian Successor Nadesico was the fake parody, I tell you!)and on and on.

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