Thirty Years Ago: The Best Anime of 1987

by Daryl Surat,

With the barrage of hotly anticipated anime titles eating up so much of our current attention, does it feel as though much of what you watched even three months ago is a distant memory? It's hard to keep up with what you like, let alone find time to revisit past titles. There may be hundreds of different anime titles released each year, but only a select handful of them manage to endure. That's why for the last few years now, I've been looking back to see which titles from thirty years ago managed to withstand the single hardest test there is to pass: the test of time. I just happened upon “thirty”; I also like to look back twenty years ago, and even ten!

For the generation of fans who regard the 1980s as indicative of anime's “golden age,” 1987 may just be the single most “1980s anime” year of them all. The amount of films, direct-to-video series, and television series released in this single year which remain ingrained within our otaku DNA is surprisingly high. Their legacies live on, either through the fan infrastructures they helped germinate or their inspirations on that which followed. So let's take a look at just a few such titles, bearing in mind that I count a series as “from 1987” only if it first started airing that year. As always, this list is by no means intended to be comprehensive, so if you've got your own 1987 favorite I omitted, let's hear about it in the comments! (I already know I most likely jumped the gun by listing Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N. in last year's 1986 piece instead of here, so you can omit that one.)

When it comes to having the largest influence on the biggest number of American anime fans over the longest period of time, no 1987 anime compares to the original Bubblegum Crisis OAV produced by many of the same talents who made Gall Force the year before. Its lifting wholesale of elements from then-contemporary American films like Blade Runner, The Terminator, Aliens, and yes, Streets of Fire made it intuitively accessible, while its slick action aesthetic of women wielding robotic powered armor while riding transforming motorcycle robots in order to fight bigger, nastier robots who bloodily dismember and disembowel their victims when they're not blowing up helicopters or causing orbital death laser beam bombardment created something unlike anything that fans had seen before. Coupled with its extensive musical soundtrack courtesy of Toshiba EMI, it was unlike anything fans had heard before.

Whoever would have thought its most enduring contribution to anime thirty years later would be the scenes early on in which the milquetoast guy lusts after his sister?

The professional debut of anime studio Gainax was in many ways their zenith. This dense, multi-faceted arthouse science fiction epic about a fictionalized world's foray into space travel explored the duality of mankind like few others have even attempted. The directorial debut of Hiroyuki Yamaga, it along with Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket are perhaps the only two good things he ever wrote. Royal Space Force is a complicated, highly ambitious film often discussed in conversations regarding “the greatest anime film of all time.” Few anime works warrant the level of analysis and discussion it's received. A stellar full-color “fanzine” was created for its 25th anniversary--you can still buy it via MagCloud--and despite being done on the so-called antiquated medium of print, the quality of its content has yet to be surpassed by any podcast, live presentation, or recorded video ever made. And I say that as someone who creates such things. Gauntlets were thrown with Royal Space Force and that zine alike, and nobody's quite been able to pick them up since.

Yet there is no denying history. For there's only one thing about Royal Space Force which anyone cares to talk about anymore, such that if there's anything anybody knows about this movie at all it's that it contains an attempted sexual assault. That it does, and so whatever status it may have once held among the hackneyed “the Citizen Kane of anime” crowd is gone. Hmm, what's the 2017 equivalent of that statement, anyway? That the difficulty of completing and unraveling Royal Space Force makes it “the Dark Souls of anime”? One thing remains constant: the proposed “sequel” Blue Uru still isn't out.

Personally, I say that if you're going to reduce a 1987 anime down to just being “the rape cartoon,” you might as well do so for the single most [in]famous one of all time: Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend or, as I call it, The Melancholy of Yoshinobu “The Nish” Nishizaki. The stereotype of the anime medium as being “those gory Japanese cartoons laden with hentai tentacle demons” was more or less founded by this adaptation of Toshio Maeda's manga, consumed by a generation of people who inevitably found themselves taking crash courses on some age-old painting with an octopus and post-World War 2 censorship workarounds. Strategic use of publicity generated from negative reviews decrying how offensive and horrible it was only made it more sought after, just like nowadays. Overfiend's surprisingly complicated storyline about demon resurrections and pan-dimensional apocalypse mixed with ultraviolent action and ultraviolent erm, “action” made it suitable for a multitude of edited versions and compilations. Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z have since dominated the general perception of what “anime” is in the West, but even thirty years later, chances are high that if you find a “mainstream” work of Western entertainment doing an anime “parody” (quotation marks necessary because “parody” and “satire” are long dead), tentacles will invariably be involved despite the fact that hardly anything like Overfiend has been made in decades. I designate this “most likely for Samuel L. Jackson to have seen.”

Anime anthologies are a key interest of mine, and one of my all-time favorites came out in 1987. Robot Carnival is the sort of thing that rarely gets made anymore: a high-budget arthouse style exhibition in which eight then-rookie animators were given free rein to make an animated short about whatever they wanted to, as long as it had something to do with robots. The results were as visually and tonally varied as can be: action, comedy, horror, romance, and so on. Extravagant risk-taking is not the order of the day nowadays, but it paid off: thirty years later, virtually everyone involved is regarded as a major talent within the anime industry. The spirit of Robot Carnival lives on through the simulcasted Japan Animator Expo shorts, though quite a few of those are by already-established veterans and there's no connecting theme across all of them. While “Star Light Angel” is my personal favorite, I think it's clear that thirty years later the one with the most lasting contribution to anime is “Presence.” That's the one where the otaku guy ditches love for his no-good flesh-and-blood family in favor of constructing his own robot girlfriend, except he freaks out about it...then spends the remaining decades of his life pining for the lost glory days of when he had built himself a robot girlfriend.

Manie Manie: Labyrinth Tales was renamed Neo-Tokyo upon its later US release in an attempt to cash in on the success of Akira; a motive that was behind a great many decisions in international anime publishing. Clocking in at about 50 minutes total, it consists of three shorts, each by someone now held in high regard: Rintaro, Katsuhiro Otomo (there he is again!), and Yoshiaki Kawajiri. When it comes to Rintaro, you may as well flip a coin because half of his work is fantastic and half of his work is terrible...and nobody agrees on which of his works fall into which half! The man just can't be ordinary, and his “Labyrinth Labyrinthos” is yet another example of this phenomenon as I personally think it's the weakest of the set. Still, look at that cat! Otomo's “Construction Cancellation Order” is the most relevant-feeling of the trio when viewed today, as it's about a hapless nerd trying to use common sense logic in the face of a horde of myopic automatons determined to follow their programmed agenda regardless of the obviously catastrophic effects. But the bleak futuristic racing themed “The Running Man” is the standout, as it was aired in segments on MTV as part of their Liquid Television program dedicated to short animation, which also was the birthplace of Beavis and Butthead as well as Aeon Flux. The success of it led to Kawajiri being tasked with his first feature-length work, which he completed that same year...

The John Carpenter-influenced Yoshiaki Kawajiri was and remains one of the all-time greatest anime action directors, and it started here with Wicked City, an adaptation of a story by novelist Hideyuki Kikuchi, best known for Vampire Hunter D. It's somewhat of a challenge to separate the stylistic tics and tendencies of the two, as Kawajiri became the go-to guy for adaptations of Kikuchi's work as a result of this film: capable and cool adult heroes, grotesque monsters, slick battles, and lest we forget, sex and violence galore! Man, talk about a one-two punch with Urotsukidoji as far as the “anime is all misogynist cartoon snuff” camp goes! This movie is like 80 minutes long and there are what, 7 instances of demonic sexual assault? I always lose count, much like I always lose count of the amount of times I've bought this movie. Luckily, the latest release from Discotek Media is the best edition to have. I could go on forever about the virtues of punching though somebody's head before firing a gun whose recoil sends you through a wall, but there are other demonic anime creations from 1987 to discuss...

BOO YAH! The missing link between the classic “love triangle” and the modern “harem” sub-genres of shonen romance is Izumi Matsumoto's most famous work of all: Kimagure Orange Road. Indecisive, wishy-washy Kyousuke Kasuga along with his family have psychic powers, as was the style back then (no onions tied to the belt though). By virtue of existing he finds himself romantically endeared to the original “tsundere” character archetype: Madoka Ayukawa, a queen “B” delinquent if you get my drift who is perfect at pretty much everything. (And before you start in the comments, I'll have you know that Lum as originally conceived was all “tsun” and no “dere”!) But Madoka's younger, hyperactive, hyper-pitched friend Hikaru Hiyama is also into Kyousuke, lets everybody know it, and Kyosuke can't quite figure out a way to break it to Hikaru that he actually loves Madoka in such a way that it won't result in him losing both of them. The result is years of mishaps, misunderstandings, false starts, false finishes, and wacky hijinks induced by psychic powers gone awry.

Thirty years ago, KOR along with the previous year's Maison Ikkoku were unlike any animation anybody had ever thought possible. Once upon a time it was among the most beloved anime titles in America, to the point where many considered the theatrical film in which our hero finally says “actually Hikaru, I liked Madoka this whole time” a work of emotional devastation on par with Grave of the Fireflies. Today, it's long out of print and primarily of sole interest to those who saw it decades ago, rendered effectively obsolete by the fact that there are plenty of brand-new series with similar premises that still use many of the exact same jokes minus all the underage drinking. Whoever would have suspected that anime thirty years later would latch on so hard to the scenes later on in which the milquetoast guy is lusted after by his cousin? And yet, the beauty of its illustrations, credits sequences, and soundtrack cannot be denied. So, if you don't mind, I'll just dance in the sweet memories because every time I think of Kimagure Orange Road, I'm missing the days.

As times change, so too do morals and values, and nothing better exemplifies this than the animated adaptation of Tsukasa Hojo's signature work, City Hunter. Originally a flagship Shonen Jump title, the episodic adventures of expert marksman, wheelman, and ladies man Ryo Saeba proved such a hit among female readers at the time that the anime adaptation was slightly retooled from the manga in order to appeal more to that demographic. How was this achieved? More emphasis on Ryo being a total pervert around all the pretty women that he inevitably crosses path with, resulting in his getting clobbered with oversized cartoon mallets conjured from thin air by his mercurial partner, Kaori! And it worked; the City Hunter anime ran for over 100 episodes, along with theatrical films and direct-to-video installments. But now, thirty years later, Ryo Saeba P.I.P.I. (Politically Incorrect Private Investigator) might just embody the polar opposite of what audiences want in their heroes, both in visual aesthetic and demeanor. I'd love to see an animated revival in which the concept and characterizations were retooled for more contemporary standards, provided it didn't look ultra-cheap like the anime for the retroactively “my bad, it's not really a sequel, this is alternate universe what-if” follow-up Angel Heart turned out. After all, live-action re-imaginings of City Hunter made in Hong Kong in the 1990s, Korea in the 2010s, and (upcoming) China deviated substantially from the source material, and each is highly memorable in their own way. Maybe Ryo Saeba and company need to take a page from another iconic anime ensemble:

Over the decades, the world's greatest thief and his cohorts have been retooled in a myriad of ways to better suit then-contemporary audiences. It hasn't always been successful, but 1987's The Fuma Conspiracy is a standout. Goemon the swordsman is about to get married, but the ceremony is disrupted by ninja on jetpacks. For all the so-called reality television shows about weddings, why isn't this a more common occurrence? Subterranean treasure hunts, sword fights, and car chases comedically defiant of physical likelihood ensue. For fans who wish more Lupin anime resembled The Castle of Cagliostro, this is your closest bet as it features much of the same animation staff as that film. Of course, in order for an OAV to be of comparable animation quality to a theatrical film, something had to give. In this case it was the audio. Fuma Conspiracy infamously recast all of the voice actors than the crew who'd been at it for decades, and while the result is by no means bad--the replacements are most of my favorite anime voice actors!--it was a one-off occurrence.

Every single title from 1987 which I've elected to highlight as particularly noteworthy was eventually licensed and released in the US...except for this one. Which is too bad, because it birthed a sub-genre unto its own: cooking battles! Stop me if you heard this one: a young boy who works at a family restaurant catches the attention of an elite organization of culinary masters, whose membership challenge him to demonstrate his cooking superiority via a series of flamboyant competitive showdowns. Director Yasuhiro Imagawa, who would later go on to perfect anime as we perceive it by way of creating Giant Robo and Mobile Fighter G Gundam, was faced with a challenge: how do you visually convey to people that something tastes good? The answer he came up with was wildly exaggerated, borderline psychedelic reactions, and so it has remained for thirty years since. Whether it's Iron Chef, Cooking Master Boy, Yakitate! Japan or the current hotness that is Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma, they all follow the playbook that Mister Ajikko established (with the added innovations of clothing loss).

There are many great titles from 1987 which are fondly remembered that I've elected to not discuss, but there's no chance I could avoid this one. For 1987's Crystal Triangle is absolutely unforgettable. In another time, another place, it may have been called “terrible,” “Buried Garbage,” or mentioned in the running for “the worst anime ever made.” Don't be fooled by the false plot summary that has resided on Wikipedia for years, for what actually happens is FAR more insane. Koichiro Kamishiro is an Indiana Jones knockoff whose cavalier attitude towards destruction of historical sites makes him THE WORST ARCHEOLOGIST EVER...with the possible exception of his self-declared archeologist rival who wields a rocket launcher and is also the grandson of Grigori Rasputin because this is the sort of anime where such things are normal. With a plot laden with multiple unified conspiracy theories and a finale that not only introduces the question “why does...God...NEED a spaceship?” years before Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, but pre-emptively one-ups it by the addition of a fighter jet versus helicopter battle between the KGB and CIA, there is nothing anybody can “riff” about Crystal Triangle which is more entertaining than the film itself.

The pedigree behind it is stellar considering how bizarre it is. The intriguingly ugly character designs are by the late Toyoo Ashida of Vampire Hunter D and Fist of the North Star fame. Character designer and animation director Kazuko Tadano and her husband Hiromi Matsushita got married and had their honeymoon during the production; without Crystal Triangle the 1990s Sailor Moon anime would never have been the same! Working right alongside them was future Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water director Hideaki Anno, who I guess made some other things too about Godzilla or Ultraman or something. Clearly Crystal Triangle needs to be rediscovered and re-released on DVD, nay, in high-definition! Perhaps that's the real change from thirty years ago to now: that things like Crystal Triangle were allowed to even be MADE, and that what I once would have dismissed as “terrible” anime is now “anime I legitimately want more things to be like.” What noteworthy title from 1987 do you think I should've discussed instead of Mister Ajikko and Crystal Triangle? Let me have it in the comments! Just picture me as Kamishiro by the end of Crystal Triangle:

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