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20 Years Ago: The Best Anime of 1999

by Daryl Surat,

Who remembers the Y2K problem? That was when a governmental institution put out a report saying “if you don't take action to fix your computer systems so that dates are stored as four digits instead of two digits, in a few years there will be catastrophic global results” and—get this—companies and governments around the world all acknowledged the reality of the findings, then took steps to successfully avert the crisis even though it meant spending hundreds of billions of dollars. It was a very different world back then, and entertainment reflected it.

1999 is no longer just a Prince song and a bizarre summer in Morioh; it's also now two full decades in the past. Geek fiction was in flux. A century's worth of stories had spoken of futures we would live to see by the year 2000: the flying cars, personal jetpacks, interstellar travel, capsule meals, extraterrestrial life, laser guns, advanced robotics and AI etc. But by 1999 it was clear none of that was going to come true, and so it's often the case that revisiting older SF media has them come off as naïve or outdated. Just imagine it: The Matrix was the coolest thing ever in 1999!

With that in mind, here's an unordered sampling of some titles from 1999 which I think have either had a lasting impact or are worth your time to watch now, in 2019. In the interest of brevity, I'm only counting a title as “from 1999” if it started in 1999, and so any discussion of Revolutionary Girl Utena will have to be confined to this unleashed-in-1999 image:

I'm not saying you have to watch that to “get” Sarazanmai, but it doesn't hurt to know where things came from as you also look to where they're going! Like this kid, for instance:

The definitive modern shonen action/adventure, One Piece, set off on its still-ongoing voyage 20 years ago. The sprawling tale of superpowered pirates who forego traditional acts of piracy in favor of righting wrongs and saving the day captivated audiences with its ability to continually present imagery and scenarios never before seen; each major story arc presenting ever-escalating dramatic stakes, comedic wackiness, bombastic action, and um, bust sizes.

Twenty years later, One Piece is going stronger than ever, with no apparent signs of stopping no matter what percentage author Eiichiro Oda estimates. It has become the single best-selling manga series OF ALL TIME by a practically insurmountable margin, and its anime adaptation remains among the most popular series airing week after week, year after year. Its theatrical films are massively successful, and it is a merchandising juggernaut. I'm not sure what rich international investors were successfully targeted by that full-page color ad they put out in the New York Times and China Daily declaring “Hey [world], this is the manga!! Are there real adventures in this country?” back in 2013, but then again I'm unable to make sense out of 75% of what happens in every chapter despite reading it every week for years.

It's show time, folks! 1999's The Big O was a creative fusion among key animation staff responsible for two of my favorite things, Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still and Batman: The Animated Series. Set in the domed Paradigm City whose residents lost all memories forty years ago, the series chronicles the adventures of the Bruce Wayne-inspired Roger Smith, a “negotiator” who solves his cases through not so careful application of a massively armored giant robot, Big O. Alongside him are a few others, but most everyone's favorite was R. Dorothy Wayneright, an android girl who gives Roger endless quantities of dry sass and blank stares as she gradually learns emotions and what it is to feel like the hu-man.

Thanks to its visual aesthetic, stellar English localization, and Cartoon Network broadcast which proved so popular that they commissioned the production of a second season, The Big O was one of the titles which introduced “anime” as a concept to a generation of fans who otherwise may have never given it a glance…and that's the problem. For it was written by Chiaki Konaka, who habitually set up promising stories that spectacularly failed to stick the landing. Don't you “but he did Serial Experiments Lain!” me, because prior to this he did Bubblegum Crisis 2040 and then Hellsing TV afterwards! Indeed, the original ending of The Big O was a cliffhanger and “To Be Continued” sign, when there were no plans to ever make more, and the actual ending made a whole ton of people feel like they'd been suckered into wasting their time.

I still love The Big O, and I'm glad that it remains readily available albeit with replaced opening credits sequences. But let's be real here: you can't promise a great mystery, then NOT pay it off and just say “who cares, this is all a show anyway!” That helped give “anime” its negative stigma among mainstream geeks from the 2000s on, which has only now started to soften.

The next massive hit shonen battle series from Yu Yu Hakusho creator Yoshihiro Togashi was Hunter x Hunter, which first arrived on television in 1999. The “x” is silent, by the way. Back then, young Gon Freecss was only just discovering his father was alive and a renowned Hunter capable of finding that which was once lost, thus prompting Gon to set out to take the Hunter's Exam, get licensed, and then use his gained ability to track down his father's whereabouts. Still, in order to do that he'll have to make friends, pass a rigorous series of tests, master control over his personal aura, contend with a baker's dozen of murder clowns, and play the videogame where IF YOU DIE IN THE GAME YOU DIE IN REAL LIFE.

Twenty years later, Hunter x Hunter has practically become a meme since the source material has yet to conclude, with the manga going on repeated extended hiatuses. Whether that's due to author health or just plain having written itself into a corner, I'll let you decide. Despite having previously been released on DVD in the US, this particular anime incarnation is now effectively “Gon” [is pelted with fruit] erm, no more. Few seem to mind, though, as a full reboot was made in 2011 which covers all the ground of this 1999 series and then some. That reboot is readily available on home video and streaming sites, while also being broadcast on Adult Swim.

Mamoru Oshii would much rather be known for his alternate history (a phrase which is typically code for “what if Germany/the South won the war?” the way it is here) Kerberos Saga rather than Ghost in the Shell. Unlikely, since to this day the undisputed finest installment remains that which he didn't direct himself. First-time director and Oshii protégé Hiroyuki Okiura hit a home run adapting Oshii's screenplay for Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, a political suspense and tragic romance film that really showcases the benefits of animation over live-action when it comes to depicting nonexistent worlds. That, and really sweet armored suits designed by Yutaka Izubuchi used to gun down hippies and cops alike courtesy of handheld MG42 machineguns. Constable Kazuki Fuse is a member of Japan's elite paramilitary special unit known as—drumroll please—the Special Unit, but when he refuses to follow what is now standard practice for police in actual not-alternate history America by NOT firing several hundred 7.62 rounds point blank into a young girl suicide bomber in the name of freedom, he's sent back to academy. Fuse then ends up developing a relationship with Kei, the dead girl's sister. It's a cat-and-mouse game between two bureaucratic agencies where everybody's lying to everybody, Rotkäppchen allusions abound, and the similarities to actual events that Mamoru Oshii lived through are striking enough that you quickly realize this whole “alternate history” thing is really just pretense to criticize the real-life Japanese and American governments while still getting a chance to draw vintage German stuff in Japan.

Jin-Roh remains just as good now as it was then, and Okiura's reward for such a job well done was …to never be permitted to direct anything ever again, not until 2011's A Letter to Momo. He's directed nothing since. Who does Production IG think they are, Studio Ghibli?!

Speaking of Studio Ghibli, 1999 saw the release of Isao Takahata's penultimate film. My Neighbors the Yamadas is probably the single most “different” title from the rest of Studio Ghibli's output. It doesn't have the realistic detail, lush backgrounds, or Kondo/Miyazaki-style character designs. It's adapted from a 4-panel manga, so there isn't even a traditional narrative; just a series of short lighthearted segments about a run-of-the-mill Japanese family experiencing life's little foibles. But while it's one of the studio's least financially successful ventures, its legacy is now clearer twenty years later.

My Neighbors the Yamadas, you see, was fully animated through digital animation that emulates the visuals of hand-drawn animation, with its digital paint meant to evoke that of a watercolor painting in motion; most of the movie is set against a white background to simulate a comic strip being brought to life before your eyes. Digital animation has since become the standard for anime production, but it was a departure from the norm back then. It would take a few years for anime productions to not only adopt the digital toolset but make it look decent, and Yamadas helped lead the way. Indeed, without this stepping stone Isao Takahata never could have made his final (and quite possibly best) film, 2013's The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which expands upon the techniques pioneered here.

Make no mistake, Takahata's achievement with those digital paint techniques was no small task, and you need only look to the myriad of titles produced by AIC in this time period as proof. It's tough to convince people in 2019 that “Hard Rock Save the Space,” as proclaims the opening to The Legend of Black Heaven, when the digital pans and lack of animation are so striking. Oji is a middle-aged salaryman who used to be a rock star, recruited by attractive young alien ladies of the type that middle-aged married salarymen would commonly have affairs with to jam once again because only his old band's music has the capability to power their alien superweapons in their intergalactic war against would-be destroyers of Earth. Yes, it's a The Last Starfighter-esque sci-fi mid-life crisis anime about the advantages and drawbacks of getting your groove back once you gave up your passions for the sake of your wife and child! Oh sure, Oji eventually works through it all, but something tells me that this is the anime 57th Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe doesn't want you to see.

The Legend of Black Heaven is mostly remembered these days for the fatal perils of giving a questionably-voiced large muscular American the finger (“say hi to the people in Jersey for me”), but perhaps it could potentially be rediscovered by a new generation far more welcoming of scruffy un-hip dads trying to be cool. Still, when your series is about playing musical instruments yet you almost never animate the playing of said instruments while also taking as many opportunities as possible to animate people delivering dialogue with their mouths not facing the camera so you don't even have to animate that, everybody notices. The story is great, the English dub is solid, but speaking as a person who regularly watches old anime that just doesn't get what people are talking about most of the time when they say they can't get into those shows for looking old: the digital pans and shortcuts combined with the standardized character design pool make 1999 AIC shows like Black Heaven and Evangelion parody Dual! Parallel Trouble Adventure look OLD. Kind of like how sprite-based NES and SNES games still look good to me while 90s polygon-based ones just don't.

The once-standard continuous 50-episode mecha series format that defined anime studio Sunrise's output for decades was gradually phasing away by 1999, but to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Mobile Suit Gundam, series creator Yoshiyuki Tomino returned to his creation for Turn A Gundam. The previous half decade of Gundam had elected to tell alternate universe stories in his absence rather than remain adhered to his “Universal Century” continuity, but since the turned A is the logical symbol denoting “for all,” it's gradually revealed that this series is named that because it suggests a grand unification of the timelines as if to say “no need to argue, for everything is valid.”

Originally met with strong reservation by fans on account of not just the drastically different mechanical designs by none other than Syd Mead (think early 1900s horse-and-buggy tech/fashion with giant robots), but also the fact that Tomino was coming off two now-legendary train wrecks (Garzey's Wing and Brain Powered), Turn A has caught on in the years since its initial airing. Indeed, it took 15 years before American fans could even watch the series legally! I still think it's Yoshiyuki Tomino's last “great” work, with his penchant for choosing relative unknowns to play his leads perhaps at its most successful here as the frequently naked, occasionally cross-dressing main character Loran Cehack was played by a voice actor previously used in a supporting capacity for Brain Powered: Romi Park! She's now one of anime's most recognizable voice actors, and as it was her first big break it's always fun to hear Romi tell stories about Tomino's instructing her on how to PROPERLY voice act the sound a boy makes upon taking a hit to the testicles. That needs to be a running gag in more robot anime. It works on so many levels!

The debut anime series of prolific shojo author Arina Tanemura remains the best Japanese story ever created about a girl who's the reincarnation of Jeanne d'Arc, for which there's now quite the list of candidates. Popular Japanese high schooler Maron Kusakabe can magically transform into blonde-haired purple-eyed Jeanne, tasked by God (it's definitely God, right?) with sealing away a collection of demons that have taken up residence within valuable items, typically works of art such as paintings. In true phantom thief fashion, Jeanne sends a calling card proclaiming what she will steal and when, but even this can't get her apprehended by the bumbling chief of police (voiced by anime's top vocal freak out expert, Shigeru Chiba). Of course, Maron's best friend Miyako is the chief's daughter and an aspiring detective also looking to apprehend Jeanne, typically using heavy weaponry such as rocket launchers and other ordinance high schoolers shouldn't be able to get their hands on. Plus, Jeanne's not the only phantom thief in town!

The anime adaptation of Phantom Thief Jeanne remains unavailable legally in the US, presumably due to its length and thematic elements such as the use of the cross as well as references to angels and demons. On the bright side, you can purchase all 5 volumes of Tanemura's manga either in print or digitally courtesy of Viz. Twenty years later, the concept of phantom thieves remains a popular one in anime and videogames, though magical girl series aimed squarely at young girls have largely faded away in favor of older otaku targeted titles and general audience fare. 1999 saw Toei Animation release both Jeanne as well as Magical DoReMi, the latter of which will be revived in 2020 with a new movie.

Tokyo Broadcasting System used to have a variety show called Wonderful which was home to a variety of outlandish short-length anime comedies, usually around 5 minutes each or so, not unlike the TV Funhouse segments of Saturday Night Live. 1999 saw release of three of my all-time favorites. Miss Critical Moment is the best of them. Each episode of Miss Critical Moment saw our Chun-Li reminiscent heroine Kunyan in some improbable, outrageous, and typically life-or-death situation that she must alleviate post-haste. The solution typically involved nudity, crass humor, bloodshed, and definitely accurate scientific principle application. That's just how it goes when you're suddenly being swallowed by a giant snake, or when you're trapped in a sauna after having dislocated both arms and both legs. Colorful is about as different as can be from the 2010 theatrical film of the same name, since rather than being a drama about suicide and reincarnation, it's a screwball comedy in which every segment is dedicated to guys catching glimpses of women's undergarments and just FREAKING THE ABSOLUTE HELL OUT. The focus is more on the reactions than on whatever fanservice, and I'm fairly certain it's director Ryutaro Nakamura's finest work since c'mon, all he mostly does is stuff like Serial Experiments Lain and Kino's Journey! And Di Gi Charat followed the non-sequitur exploits of the mascots of the Akihabara store Gamers as they work retail and deal with otaku customers, fire destructive eye beams, and get possessed by clams.

Unfortunately, twenty years later these titles are practically myths. Wonderful is no more, and Miss Critical Moment was never licensed in the US. Colorful was released by ADV Films/Section23 Films, and there are still plenty of those DVDs in stock. The fact that Sentai Filmworks/Section23 Films also released 2010's Colorful: The Motion Picture has no doubt resulted in people accidentally ordering one expecting the other, and if that's you then I want to hear your story! Di Gi Charat fared best of the bunch, receiving multiple sequels throughout the 2000s which you can still buy from Sentai Filmworks, but it's the original series from 1999 that remains the best. There's “only one number one.”

If you've got a 1999 favorite not mentioned here, and there's a darned good chance since I've left off quite a few arguable candidates for “best of 1999,” then let's hear about it the comments! Unless, of course, you're going to say the theatrical version of Gundress or Sin: The Movie, because then you'd just be trolling. Ebichu, however, is fair game.

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