Thirty Years Ago: The Best Anime of 1988

by Daryl Surat,

Every so often, I get questions regarding what the value is in observing what works of popular culture remain worth watching, decades after their creation. But nearly three months into 2018, interest has surged in Go Nagai's back catalog thanks to DEVILMAN Crybaby while Pop Team Epic has a generation of kids watching old Earth, Wind, & Fire music videos on YouTube. The enduring legacy of the past can influence our present-day favorites, and so gaining a greater understanding of one can help us better appreciate the other. Say, did you know that EWF's founder, the late Maurice White, actually did the music for an anime? It's true!

But will we remember which response to BEEF OR CHICKEN will spare our lives one year from now, in 2019? What about thirty years from now, in 2048? The future is uncertain, but it's quite the feat to stand such a test of time. So, let's take a look at a few titles from 1988 that have managed to do just that, since it was a year of highly memorable anime releases. Before we get started, I'll note that for the sake of brevity, I consider something “from 1988” if it started that year and that this is neither a complete nor an ordered list, so if you've got your own choice 1988 picks that I left out (and I left out many!), be sure to mention them in the comments. When doing so, make sure to specify WHY you believe so strongly in the “Evil Town” episode of Violence Jack!

THE “1988 anime” was Akira. Katsuhiro Otomo's magnum opus for which he will never surpass (try as he may) was one of the earliest anime released in the US for which no attempt was made to hide the fact that it was a Japanese cartoon. A lavishly animated tale of biker punks, social upheaval, political rebellion, powerful ESPers, and everything else in Neo-Tokyo about to E·X·P·L·O·D·E, for years Akira was the very embodiment of “Japanimation” to the general public; the term used before the word “anime” entered our general lexicon. Yet despite repeated attempts, there never was anything else ever quite like Akira; it remains a landmark achievement. Nevertheless, companies set on selling audiences “the next Akira” elected to emphasize the blood, nudity, and bad language aspects of the film: good for health, bad for education! Thus, Japanese animation became synonymous with sex and violence in the eyes of non-otaku until Pokémon evolved the stereotype to include “and will cause seizures” (the untruth of which was only proven several years later).

The enduring appeal and legacy of Akira is undeniable. Thirty years later, you can still find it in brick and mortar stores, advertised in their weekly ads. It's on an oddly short list of theatrical anime films available to watch streaming, courtesy of the general geek media platform VRV. Crunchyroll is the domain of hardcore anime otaku, you see. A premium edition of Otomo's original Akira manga was released a few months ago, and a reprinting is underway because it's currently sold out. If you've never seen Akira, I recommend viewing it in the original Japanese. The original English dub localization, iconic though it may be, takes such liberties with the script to the point that much of the “anime looks cool, but doesn't make much sense!” stereotype is owed to it. 1988 was an era before “in Japanese with English subtitles” was a standard option.

The very first Gundam anime that I ever saw was intended to be the very last. Yes, it may seem unbelievable, but after this lavishly animated movie which heralded the conclusion of the battle between Amuro Ray of the Earth Federation and Neo-Zeon's Char Aznable, Yoshiyuki Tomino and anime studio Sunrise would never create another Gundam series EVER AGAIN. What more would there be to tell, after all? The charismatic antagonist yet fan favorite Char would be unleashing his final solution to the human question by way of crashing a giant asteroid into Earth, forcing any survivors to flee into the colonized areas of outer space so that they too may evolve into Newtypes. The Nazi parallels are as obvious as can be, only thirty years ago we agreed this was BAD. In true Tomino fashion, no context or exposition is provided, characters behave erratic and irrationally (”must be because they're Newtypes and can instantly read the minds of others, unless us viewers” was what we told ourselves in our naivety) the ending is slightly vague, and quite a few people lose their lives.

For years, Char's Counterattack was a REALLY BIG DEAL among anime fans, but thirty years later we now know this wasn't the end of Gundam by a longshot. It wasn't even the end of the original “Universal Century” timeline this takes place in, and for my money's worth, a better emotional wrap-up to all things UC is the Gundam Unicorn OAVs recently released on Blu-Ray in a complete set (so skip that haphazardly chopped up TV series). The prestige and novelty of Char's Counterattack are greatly diminished now as a result, but our mecha hearts will forever belong to the Sazabi and Nu Gundam. It's not just for show, you know (except for the 1/100 Master Grade kits and frequent videogame appearances)! Still, one thing that has remained unchanged about Char's Counterattack after three decades is that Quess Paraya remains the worst character in the history of all anime ever, even when alternate universe Gundam shows throw in their own Quess-like character. MORE LIKE QUESS “PARIAH.” (Warning: persons defending Quess Paraya in the comments may be Quess Paraya themselves.)

Studio Ghibli is among the most critically acclaimed, fan beloved, and financially successful anime studios of all time, to the point that they try to claim they don't make “anime.” I wouldn't go so far as that last one, but 1988's My Neighbor Totoro is their flagship work, having since become the company mascot and logo. The tale of young Mei and Satsuki WHO ARE DEFINITELY ALIVE YOU CONTRARIAN FAN “THEORY” CLICKBAIT IDIOTS exploring their new countryside surroundings and befriending the kindhearted spirits of the forest, such as a bus that is also a cat, remains high on most fan considerations for Hayao Miyazaki's best film, and you can find it wherever anime is sold...and indeed, where most other anime is NOT sold! That's something that hasn't changed in 30 years: the fact that My Neighbor Totoro is on the video shelves right alongside Akira! The only difference is that now, you don't get carded for trying to watch Totoro, and it no longer has a big warning sticker on it to protect us from the threat of group family bathing. For the record, this can't possibly be Hayao Miyazaki's best film because Princess Mononoke has more beheadings. One major difference about 2018 is that I can joke that Totoro's smile isn't that far removed from Psycho Jenny's, and people will understand what that means without even needing to show a picture first BUT NO SERIOUSLY HERE'S PICTURES

Totoro himself is beloved around the world, much like Winnie the Pooh, and like Pooh he is also a license to print money by way of merchandising! That came as something of a surprise for Ghibli, since My Neighbor Totoro was double-featured with what they were certain would be a bigger, more surefire hit:

Thirty years later, and it NEVER GETS OLD that one of the most conflict-free, gentle, and happy family films ever made was shown back-to-back with THIS: Grave of the Fireflies, a film often described as one of the saddest anime ever created. The rationale, as we now understand, was to ensure schools would book field trips for group viewings on account of this being adapted from a well-known short story originally written in the 1960s. Isao Takahata made several masterpieces over his long career, but Grave of the Fireflies remains his best known among American fans since unlike most of his body of work, we've had access to this one for decades now.

The tale of two young siblings slowly starving to death in the final days of the Second World War, as a result of not only the Kobe fire bombings but destructive pride, is partially based on real-life events (obviously the original author Akiyuki Nosaka didn't actually starve to death himself) and so, regardless of Takahata's intentions, gained global renown for its depictions of the true human cost of warfare on innocent lives; what our modern news today now handwaves as “collateral damage.” Decades ago, back when few mainstream critics gave anime any serious consideration, the late Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Grave of the Fireflies “when anime fans say how good the film is, nobody takes them seriously… Yes, it's a cartoon, and the kids have eyes like saucers, but it belongs on any list of the greatest war films ever made.” Unsurprisingly, this wasn't quite the merchandising juggernaut that Totoro ended up being! Yet the fact that they elected to sell THE FRUIT DROP TIN CANISTER just feeds the raw “wacky Japan” narrative that permeates within the reptile portions of my brain.

Thirty years ago, anime wasn't merely thriving theatrically. The longest, most ambitious direct-to-video anime of all got its start then. The multi-year spanning, hard sci-fi tale of the battle between the autocratic yet corrupt Galactic Empire and the democratic yet corrupt Free Planets Alliance is heavy on dialogue dealing with complex subjects pertaining to military strategy and tactics, political discourse, philosophical issues, historical analysis and analogy, and making sure that your Dalmatian you didn't bother to actually name is only fed boiled chicken. With a speaking cast of literally hundreds (nearly entirely male), Legend of the Galactic Heroes was of such limited interest throughout the time of its creation that its fans—assumed to exclusively be fans of the source novels who already knew the story—had to pay for the episodes to be produced via mail order. But now, thirty years later, practically all of the traits of LoGH that were seen as strong negatives are now catnip to a sizable portion of otaku. Interest among English speaking fans is higher than ever; English translations of the original novels are ongoing, and only now in 2018 is the entire core series—all 110 episodes—legally available to view in English courtesy of the streaming service HiDive. A home video release is almost assuredly on the horizon, though much of the original materials were discarded or poorly maintained such that large portions of the series had to be re-animated just so DVDs could be authored. The new digitally animated footage doesn't match the animation or designs of the old laserdisc era very well, but hey, the show is mostly characters talking while stationary anyway. A brand new, fully modernized, substantially shorter reboot (for all the pros and cons that entails) is scheduled to begin airing in just a few months.

If only series director Noboru Ishiguro had lived to see all this happen. Despite being a staple of Anime Expo, the one time I ever saw him was at an East Coast anime convention where his panel that would have featured Legend of the Galactic Heroes more was forced to end after just a few minutes to make room for the cosplay contest. He's gone now. Well, at least we talked for a while.

Along with Legend of the Galactic Heroes, 1988's Aim for the Top!: Gunbuster is frequently named as a candidate for greatest direct-to-video anime series of all time. That is of course incorrect, as that distinction belongs to Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still, but nevertheless this is the quintessential “Gainax anime” in my mind, back when that studio name still meant something. The six-episode directorial debut of Hideaki Anno starts off as a sports shojo, Aim for the Ace-inspired light comedy with spaceships and super robots before taking hard, then-unexpected turns for the dramatic, with a conclusion that's both grand-scale and gut-punching. Never would have guessed this guy would later do Neon Genesis Evangelion, huh? Popular sci-fi—that's my code phrase for “not books”—dealing with the effects of time dilation are few and far between; it would be decades later before Makoto Shinkai and Christopher Nolan would tackle the concept, but it hits me every time.

Gunbuster was where so many of the “Gainax tropes” either started or became popularized, such as jiggling breasts, naked breasts, “freeze-frame through this part because for just an instant you can see breasts” breasts, and—oh yeah—hardcore otaku-level attention to detail across the board, even in creating hilariously inaccurate science fiction explanations for how this stuff works. Check out that one guy in the background analyzing computer data from reading PUNCH CARDS. Thirty years later, Hideaki Anno may now be one of Japan's most famous directors, but Gunbuster is just as it was: a crystallized embodiment of every trendy thing in anime at the time. Its spiritual successor Diebuster turned out to be the same thing, decades later, which is an easier thing to accept if I don't think of it as “Gunbuster 2” as it was branded here. Despite multiple past releases, Gunbuster remains out of print thirty years later. I WANT MY US BLU-RAYS AND MY TWO EXTRA SCIENCE EPISODES. WITHOUT THE MUSIC CHANGE IN EPISODE 1. AND A PONY. I ALSO WANT A PONY. Those compilation movies aren't cutting it.

I'm not much of a horror fan, yet the original 4-part OAV adaptation of Vampire Princess Miyu from 1988 remains a favorite of mine. There are no jump scares and extremely little blood or even on-screen violence. The “rules” of horror aren't in effect here; Miyu herself is not even vulnerable to sunlight, crosses, holy water, or other “established” vampire weaknesses. This series focuses on the not-so-chance encounters between a modern-day spiritualist woman in Kyoto named Himiko and the eternally adolescent Miyu, who is tasked with banishing demons known as Shinma back to whence they came with the help of her tall, dark, and handsome mute familiar known as Larva. Miyu's effectiveness lies in its ability to set a mood through the use of sound, visuals, framing, and dialogue that's just a bit more formal than how regular people talk; one episode is even structured like a Noh play. Thirty years later, the series has aged remarkably well and remains available on DVD courtesy of Animeigo. About a decade later a more traditional style television series, Vampire Miyu, was made, but it was less lavishly animated and scored while being structured more like a monster-of-the-week formula magical girl series like what I consider Hell Girl or Witch Hunter Robin to be. Portions of the original manga were released in English, but its minimalist art style is a drastic departure from this OAV's detailed and textured world. One thing remains constant between now and then: horror anime is uncommon, and shojo horror is even more rare. Musician Kenji Kawai is highly prolific to say the least, but his score here is one of the best he's ever done. Of course, his signature 1988 work is this next one:

Gundam and Gunbuster aside, 1988 was certainly a banner year for the giant robots, what with Hades Project Zeorymer, various Armored Trooper VOTOMS spinoffs and side stories, Hyper Combat Unit Dangaioh!, Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01, Mashin Hero Wataru (aka “Keith Courage” for you TurboGrafx-16 aficionados out there, it's soon to be featured in the upcoming Super Robot Wars X!), and more. But Mobile Police Patlabor stands apart from them all, since for the first time, a Japanese cartoon with robots was NOT primarily about warfare. Set “ten years from now,” the world of Patlabor was one in which giant robots have been developed primarily for use in construction labor. Thus, robots are called “Labors,” and since Labors are easily repurposed for criminal endeavors, the police need Patrol Labors, or “Patlabors” to keep the peace. Despite its initial installments being released direct-to-video, Patlabor did not feature bloody violence, nudity, or sex. Its appeal was in its characters and their interplay, such that the series could change genre and tone from episode to episode and pull it off every time.

Thirty years later, it's painfully obvious that the “ten years from now” future as envisioned in 1988 was well, more off the mark than expected, since this advanced future world has no Internet or mobile phones. On the other hand, they did successfully predict that a perpetually angry and dimwitted cop whose first response to EVERYTHING is to draw his gun and begin blasting away indiscriminately will somehow keep his job and avoid real punishment. Back then, Ota embodied an outlandish joke rather than “our everyday reality,” you see. The entire series remains available on Blu-Ray and DVD in the US, and is also streaming on HiDive. Plus, there is a strong likelihood that a modernized reimagining, Mobile Police Patlabor Reboot, will become a full-length series thanks to strong reception to a revival short made for the Japan Animator Expo in 2016. We just might have to wait for all of the Space Battleship Yamato 2202 films to finish first...and maybe also Evangelion 4.0: You Can (Not) Live Up to the Hype or whatever that'll be called. Until then, Patlabor manages to remain relatively unique such that the only series quite like it is the 2003 anime adaptation of Planetes. And, like Planetes, fans of Patlabor in the US remain few but dedicated. Though I suppose there is one other title from 1988 which Patlabor took a fair bit of “inspiration” from:

1988 saw two OAV adaptations of manga by Masamune Shirow of Ghost in the Shell fame. The first was Appleseed, which was rather forgettable aside from the totally 80s fashion sense of Briareos, which still continues to this day thanks to a variety of CGI anime installments of debatable merit. The other was Dominion: Tank Police. Like with Patlabor, it too is set in a future Japan where a ragtag bunch of police officers solve crimes using armored mecha, and lead characters Leona and Al are very similar in appearance and demeanor to Patlabor's Noa and Asuma. (For the record, Dominion was first.) But nobody really thinks about Dominion wondering just how similar its gun-loving Brenten is to Patlabor's Ota, or how forward-thinking it was to try to play off outright torture as “interrogation” …again, back then that was a JOKE rather than our reality. Because this is Masamune Shirow we're talking about, Dominion: Tank Police is forever remembered as being about SEXY IDENTICAL TWIN CATGIRLS WHO DO STRIPTEASES AND FIRE GUNS AND SWIM NAKED IN THE END CREDITS (and are also robots).

That the ultimate anti-tank weaponry comes in the form of pressure-activated gigantic inflatable phalluses says it all, really. A heavily sanitized version of Tank Police that featured completely different music from the original Japanese edition was a Sci-Fi Channel staple throughout the 1990s, but these days it's long out of print and relegated to “hey, anyone remember that?” status. If you do, it remains just as enjoyable as your nostalgia suggests.

By contrast—a blue contrast, to be precise—this Sci-Fi Channel “Saturday Anime” staple is still readily available! Demon City Shinjuku is my favorite anime ever made about a man cleaving up giant monsters with the power of channeling spiritual energy into a wooden stick and occasional assistance by a little person riding rocket-propelled roller skates. Swords that fire laser beams, knife licking goons, an English dub containing the WORST SOUTHERN ACCENTS OF ALL TIME, a Final Fight / Streets of Rage approach to plot progression, and Hirohiko Araki-style murder of cats and dogs keep Demon City Shinjuku's popcorn entertainment sensibilities as enjoyable now as it was then. Note: unlike with the upcoming anime adaptation of Gurazeni, any resemblance observed between the hero's father Genichirou to current FAKKU Vice President Ed Chavez is purely coincidental. Another Yoshiaki Kawajiri-directed adaptation of a Hideyuki Kikuchi novel, I prefer Demon City Shinjuku over the prior year's Wicked City because the chances of someone you know walking in on you and spotting a naked woman monster are significantly less…albeit not zero!

Then again, I suppose sexy snake girls are all the rage nowadays. Look, you either want to watch anime where the death of a freaky monster involves being cut in half, THEN being electrocuted, THEN having a grenade be thrown into their open screaming mouth or you don't. Man. Why couldn't they have double-featured THIS with My Neighbor Totoro?!

If Demon City Shinjuku is simply too dignified for your liking, fear not because 1988 bestowed upon us the animated adaptation of one of manga author Kazuo Koike and artist Ryoichi Ikegami's crowning achievements: Crying Freeman. All the violence, sex, nudity, gore, and gory nude sex violence you could ever ask for is contained within this lurid tale about Yo Himamura, a pottery maker turned brainwashed tattooed super assassin, The Freeman. Freeman is the greatest of anime sex-doers aside from The Man With the Custom M-16, but deep down his innate pure heartedness remains, which is why for every life Freeman takes he sheds wide-eyed tears. So THAT's where DEVILMAN Crybaby got the idea! Despite containing almost every “problem” in “problematic media” you can think of, Crying Freeman is somehow not even the most salacious work penned by Koike and Ikegami, but thirty years later it remains the only one to get a not-terrible anime adaptation, so let it stand as testament to all of the excesses of the 1980s that are unacceptable and sternly condemned by the entertainment standards of our modern era. Garnering at least three live-action adaptations, the anime alone had three separate US releases on home video, all of which are out of print. The easiest way to experience Crying Freeman in 2018 is by way of the original manga, available both in print as well as digitally. And that manga is even MORE outrageous than this anime! Still, it is undeniably “adult” (“mature” is debatable!), and in 1988 that was novel. That you could have a guy who has a giant full-body tattoo of a dragon that has a knife in its mouth (and is also holding a GUN) karate punch out people's eyeballs in a cartoon was as mind-blowing as the bullets fired out of the Freeman's revolver. After all, American animation then was offering us Denver, the Last Dinosaur, A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, and The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley!


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