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30 Years Ago: The Best Anime of 1989

by Daryl Surat,

It keeps getting easier for audiences outside of Japan to see Japanese animation and read Japanese comics, with increasingly shortened delays. The largest entertainment companies in the world such as Sony and AT&T now have financial investments in anime, resulting in ever-increasing advertising, media coverage, and distribution. Simultaneously, it's becoming harder for new anime to leave a lasting impression. More titles than ever are produced, and as it gradually becomes more common for companies to release 13 episodes all at once rather than over the course of 13 weeks, some “hot” titles may now only retain that status for one month rather than three.

Between current events and my declining ability to perceive temporal reality, it's getting harder to remember what came out even one or two years ago; titles I think of as “recent” like Shirobako are in fact from half a decade ago! The test of time is becoming harder and harder to pass, not just for current titles but all which came before. With that in mind, I've turned my attention back to thirty years ago, in 1989, to see which Japanese cartoons continue to linger within the otaku consciousness. As always, this is neither a complete nor a ranked list of noteworthy titles from 1989, and I'm only counting something as “from 1989” if it first started airing then.

It wasn't the first shonen battle series, but when it comes to legacies that have endured for over thirty years, none is stronger than Dragon Ball Z. The original Dragon Ball had started as a tale inspired by the Chinese classical novel Journey to the West, the fanbase of which must have inspired our modern visual novel fandom as far as “you must read it in the original language to appreciate its greatness and nuance, for no localization can convey that!” is concerned. Now a more cross-culturally accessible tale of musclebound aliens ki-blasting one another across Earth, space/time, other dimensions, the afterlife, homes for infinite losers, and driving schools, Dragon Ball Z became so popular for so long throughout the entire world that many who grew up on it now have kids of their own who are fanatical over it. It was and remains the foundation of FUNimation's catalog, and this of course is what's buried underneath that foundation:

Thirty years later, Dragon Ball Z is still going strong. The recently released fighting game Dragon Ball FighterZ has rivaled mainstay franchises such as Street Fighter and Tekken in popularity, and that's not even the most recent videogame to feature DBZ characters! The animated and comics sequels (the ones that do not feature Vegeta with a mustache, anyway) have proven massively popular; the most recent theatrical film just made over $100 million, two thirds of which came from outside of Japan. Heck, thanks to the mega-conglomerates with near total control over all we see and hear, Goku has just become a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving parade!

But DBZ wasn't an instant success in the United States. It took roughly a full decade to really, truly catch on here. In the interim, American otaku were far more invested with this title from 1989…

Ranma ½ defined a generation of American anime fans. While many were ultimately just Ranma fans, it was nevertheless a major “gateway anime,” and the first to be that without the aid of a television broadcast. Rumiko Takahashi's martial arts romantic comedy about Ranma, a boy martial artist who turns into a girl when splashed with cold water who finds himself reluctantly engaged to tomboy martial artist Akane, was unlike anything seen or even considered possibly before in American animation, laying the foundation upon which Viz Media is built upon if you pretend using VHS tapes containing two episodes each in lieu of bricks is architecturally sound. Spanning over 150 episodes, with multiple theatrical films as well as direct to video installments, what began as a parody of shonen battle series (a formula that, at the time, had not been widely seen in the US) eventually just sort of became one outright, albeit with added sitcom hijinks and nobody ever canonically pairing off already.

These days, Ranma is most fondly remembered among those who were there for it and virtually unknown among anyone who came along since, on account of Takahashi's later work Inuyasha becoming a fandom generational defining marker itself. The entire series—well, aside from the live-action TV movie from the early 2010s!—remains available both via streaming and on Blu-Ray, though I confess that I mostly stick to the first season as well as the movies/OVAs. With so much of the humor consisting of running gags, slapstick violence, boob grabs/facefaults resulting in slapstick violence, caricaturizing the non-Japanese, and boys/girls hitting on Ranma not knowing of the character's body-changing nature, modern-era fans are likely to find this sort of content either played out beyond belief or an affront to good taste. But it was Ranma 1/2 that cracked open the door as far as American fans accepting the idea of cartoons being able to even approach this stuff in the first place. Then again, it also taught American fans the Japanese word “baka” on a wide scale, so perhaps any accolades must be disregarded.

Truth be told, as popular as it was, Ranma ½ was considered the sister series to something even more popular, which aired in the same timeslot:

Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl marked the writing debut of Naoki Urasawa, who these days is best known worldwide as a master of suspense due to titles such as Monster, Pluto, and 20th Century Boys. But before all that, he hit it big with this lighthearted coming-of-age comedy about Yawara Inokuma, a teenage “miracle girl” fixated on clothes, boys, and perfecting her beef stroganoff recipe. Oh yeah, and she happens to also be the greatest judo practitioner this generation has ever seen thanks to her irritating supreme master of a grandfather. No wonder this outperformed Ranma ½; Jigoro is far less annoying and creepy than Happosai! Each episode would end with a countdown for how many days remained until the Olympics, an anime-only flourish done on a lark on account of the Olympics being years away. Little did they realize the series would endure for so long that they'd run up against the timer…twice!

Thirty years later, despite being a 1980s anime icon, the appeal of Yawara! sadly never quite carried over to America. As a sports series, it stumbles since none of Yawara's would-be rivals ever actually defeat her. As a romance series it's too slow and too platonic for contemporary “shippers” to latch onto; if you thought Ranma and Akane took their sweet time, the title of Yawara! episode 98 is “First Kiss” and we only legally got the first 40 episodes here! But in Japan, the legacy is clear. Yawara herself has since inspired numerous fighting game characters, and while most of the obvious judo-themed characters are from defunct franchises, the ninja girl Ibuki in the Street Fighter series has a similar background and disposition to Yawara, while rich girl Karin Kanzuki is very much like the haughty Hon'ami Sayaka here. Beyond otaku circles, Japan's judo representative for the Olympics at the time of Yawara!'s airing was 16-year-old Ryoko Tamura, whose resemblance in both looks and prowess to the character earned her the nickname “Yawara-chan.” Ryoko is now considered one of the greatest judoka of all time, with multiple Olympic gold medals and a fearsome winning streak of her own (including being elected to the Japanese Diet!). She may now be Ryoko Tani, but the Yawara! connection endures.

The highest grossing film in Japan of 1989 was Studio Ghibli's highly-acclaimed Kiki's Delivery Service, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. To complete her training, young witch Kiki heads off to a quaint, cozy, European-style town by the sea with her talking cat Jiji to make it on her own. And what better way for a witch to do so than by using her powers of flight to operate as a small business package courier? I suppose it's more enchanting a notion when it's a wholesome kid and cute kitty on a flying broomstick doing it as opposed to a remote-controlled drone operated by a mega-corporation.

The legacy of Kiki's isn't simply limited to the film remaining globally popular. Having been produced by the late Isao Takahata, a strong advocate for location scouting and detailed research even when creating idealized fantasy locations, the experience proved influential on then-assistant director Sunao Katabuchi, who would go on to direct Black Lagoon and In This Corner of the World, both of which showed off significant research detail. Katabuchi was originally supposed to direct Kiki's, but this is Studio Ghibli we're talking about and since what was envisioned did not align 100% to what Miyazaki would've done, Katabuchi got relegated to the sidelines. Thus, establishing a Studio Ghibli tradition!

To be honest, when it comes to 1989 anime about expert couriers for hire, I don't think about Kiki. I think about:

Riding Bean is precisely the sort of thing the direct-to-video OAV format was made for. A one-shot 45-minute tale about Bean Bandit, ultra-buff criminal wheelman extraordinaire who wears special bulletproof clothes and tears up the streets of Chicago in his special bulletproof car known as the Roadbuster. Accompanied by lady sharpshooter Rally Vincent who wakes up his fool sleepyhead self by resting a hot frying pan on his eye (look, the stun gun didn't work, okay?), Bean gets caught up in a child kidnapping scheme which results in Blues Brothers' style cop car pileups, bloody violence, and him throwing a knife so hard it takes off a car door. With its American setting and inspirations lifted from our action cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, plus an English vocal soundtrack courtesy of a pre-Goof Troop Phil Perry, Riding Bean required no Japanese cultural knowledge to be understood and was the perfect thing to just lend out to other kids in 6th grade geometry class, especially once you mention that it also has naked women and people being bloodily killed!

The adventures of Bean Bandit and Rally Vincent carried on in the years since by way of a reboot called Gunsmith Cats, and thirty years later, thanks to the success of Kickstarter efforts to bring Riding Bean and Gunsmith Cats out on Blu-Ray, Kenichi Sonoda stands ready to create an all-new crowdfunded Bean Bandit animated short which with any luck will debut at Chicago's own Anime Central later this year.

Yeah, Riding Bean is pretty macho stuff, but there's something else from 1989 that has it beat on that front:

1989 didn't just have ONE sharply divergent interpretation of Son Goku kicking butt. Goku: Midnight Eye faithfully adapted the first few chapters of the manga from Buichi Terasawa of Space Adventure Cobra infamy. This version of Goku still has an extendable pole (that can extend the heights of skyscrapers), but this time it also fires lasers since he's a hard-boiled detective in the cyberpunk future year of 2014. After being forced to stab out his eye to resist the hypnotic allure of a naked woman with peacock feathers grafted onto her—as the kids today say, “it be like that sometimes”—Goku receives a mechanical eye that is connected to every database in the world which also allows him to hijack and control technology, which is an incredibly broken power to have in a world where even the strippers who have motorcycle handles grafted onto their backs can fire laser beams from their mouths. Remember, this story was created before the advent of cellular Internet and search engines! Once you're enough of a badass you can dress however you damn well please, so Goku's default wardrobe is that he wears a vest, blazer and tie with no shirt underneath.

A stylish affair laden with gore, sex, nudity, glorified consumption of alcohol and tobacco, robot dinosaurs, missiles that warp space, and naked women being assailed by the hidden breath-seeking poison insects kept stored in a flunky's otherwise vacant skull—and to think, this anime just covered the first two chapters of the manga!—it's only fitting that action master (and person recently described by Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima as “my favorite”) Yoshiaki Kawajiri be the one to handle the anime incarnation. Goku remains in print thirty years later thanks to Discotek Media, and yes that's a pre-Spike Spiegel Steve Blum as the voice of Goku in the US English dub (there is also a UK English dub)…though for union-related reasons, this claim can't be proven!

I'm sort of bending my own rules here that permit me to skip over discussing new 1989 installments of say, Aim for the Ace or The Guyver, because Lupin the Third: Bye Bye Lady Liberty marked a start in its own right. Following the mixed reception to 1985's highly divisive “pink jacket” Lupin the Third Part III and the theatrical film Legend of the Gold of Babylon—basically the Lupin equivalent to Joel Schumacher's Batman—the series vanished for a few years before it was decided to bring back the gang by way of a feature-length TV special directed and storyboarded by the late Osamu Dezaki, albeit without his longtime animation director and character designer Akio Sugino. The goal was to just prove to audiences that yes, it was still possible to make something that was recognizably “a Lupin the Third story.” That goal was met; Lupin comes out of retirement to steal a colossal diamond located within the Statue of Liberty—solution: airlift the entire statue!—but he and the gang must also contend with a state-of-the-art 1989 supercomputer, a child genius, and of course the Freemasons.

Thirty years later, Lupin is still going strong. Bye Bye Lady Liberty did well enough that Lupin the Third TV specials became an annual tradition ever since, until this decade when instead we got THREE television series. With the excellent Part V having concluded last year, it looks like Lupin TV specials are making a comeback; the 26th one, Goodbye Partner, just aired in Japan mere weeks prior to my writing this. Discotek Media has been steadily releasing Lupin in the US, and so for the first time ever US fans can now own this film on Blu-Ray.

Yoshikazu Yasuhiko sure was busy in 1989, seeing fit to (once again) direct a theatrical anime adaptation of one of his still-ongoing manga, The Venus Wars. Hey, it worked for Akira, right? The tale of rebellious battlebiker teens from a long-colonized Venus—see, we started doing that in the far future year of 2018, known thereafter as the start of a new calendar era, Venus Year 01—getting caught up in a military scuffle certainly has a similar framework to Akira minus the psychics in favor of a boisterous Earth reporter named Susan Somers (no Thighmaster product placement), but its stock characters and muddled narrative pacing to match its color palette prevented it from being quite as successful. Ever the perfectionist, Yasuhiko was ultimately dissatisfied with his work here and elected to walk away from directing anime altogether to focus on manga instead…that is, until the 2015 anime adaptation of his Gundam: The Origin manga.

Thirty years later, The Venus Wars is remembered more for its outstanding technical merits than anything else. Indeed, the mechanical designs, backgrounds, animation, and soundtrack are top-notch efforts from now-legendary talents, which is probably why I own multiple copies of it between DVD and Blu-Ray despite never bothering to remember the story on account that it's the sort of thing where the hero's name is “Hiro.” (For the record, Snow Crash came out years later!) Of all the 1989 anime I've elected to highlight here, The Venus Wars just might be the 1989-iest.

The only 1989 title I've selected which never saw official release in the United States, and is most likely to be a thing Western fans have never heard of, is Gosenzo-sama Banbanzai! (which means something akin to “Glory to the Ancestors!”). This 6-part OAV series written and directed by Mamoru Oshii, featuring his Urusei Yatsura voice actors and production staff partners-in-crime (as if they weren't already also busy with the first Patlabor movie!) might be the “Mamoru Oshii-est” anime ever made. Each episode aside from the finale begins with a faux documentary about a specific type of bird before launching into an increasingly surreal tale of a family thrown into chaos by the sudden arrival of a girl claiming to be their descendant from the future having time-traveled to the past by way of a Kodak blimp. These proceedings are staged, structured, and filmed as though it were a soliloquy-heavy live-action theatrical play.

Thirty years later, this head-scratching curiosity might just be one of the most influential titles of the bunch. Key animation (“sakuga”) fans in particular consider Gosenzo-sama a revolutionary milestone with regards to depiction of natural human movement in anime, as the character animation (and designs!) resemble that of wooden reference marionettes. Longtime anime composer Kenji Kawai (currently responsible for the music of Mob Psycho 100) included the theme song for his first concert, and Revolutionary Girl Utena director Kunihiko Ikuhara has called this his favorite Mamoru Oshii work. Like so much of Oshii's filmography, it's aggressively non-commercial in appeal.

Before Hirohiko Araki hit it big with Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, he helped establish his unique brand of ultraviolence towards dogs and improbably-posed humanoids by way of the short-lived 1984 manga Baoh: The Visitor, the relative entirety of which got adapted into one 1989 OAV. The result is a definitely straightforward and logic-driven tale of a teenage kid hosting a genetically engineered parasite which turns him into the ultimate biological weapon, forcing him into conflict with cyborg sharpshooters, Native American telekinetics, and scientists predisposed to narrating everything they see with absolute bewilderment. Baoh himself looks somewhat similar to Star Platinum, though I liken him more to the title character of the similarly premised yet far longer-running Guyver: Bio-Booster Armor (just so we're clear, Baoh was first even though Guyver made it to anime before it). The dastardly Dr. Kasuminome's inclination towards narrating precisely what he's seeing in front of him (“Baoh has a LASER CANNON!”), while a shonen battle manga tradition, was also transferred directly over to Speedwagon.

Thirty years later, Baoh has become something of a meme among modern fans due to its lurid content, questionably acted English dub, and aforementioned preliminary concepts for future Jojo's Bizarre Adventure characters. Baoh himself was even included as a DLC character in the Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: All-Star Battle fighting game for Playstation 3 from about half a decade ago, and true to form there's a narrator voiceover there to call out all your special move spam! Alas, former US licensor Animeigo remains highly skeptical of its modern marketability, and so a reprint/license rescue seems unlikely. And here I was, hoping we would someday get it on Blu-Ray so I could appreciate all that spilled blood which has the thickness of Heinz ketchup.

Be sure to mention in the comments any noteworthy titles from 1989 you'd like others to know about. Rest assured, at no point did I decide to mention the beautiful looking but ultimately forgettable debacle of a coproduction that is Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, and that I initially had this entire writeup be about the enduring legacies of Cybernetics Guardian and Dog Soldier: Shadows of the Past.

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