The List
7 Eras of Japanese History via Anime

by Lynzee Loveridge,

The history of Japanese civilization is expansive, predating the Common Era by 10,000 years (the Jomon period). There's much more ground to cover compared to what kids get in U.S. history classes in high school, which rarely cover anything before the Boston Tea Party. Anime certainly has its favorite period to work in whenever a show goes for a historical setting. The Sengoku period is filled with battles and characters that are continually genderbent or placed in video games.

Other periods in Japan's history haven't gotten the same level of focus, but for fans looking to experience more than Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa, and Date Masamune, here are some others to check out.

7. Heian period, 794 to 1185 (Otogi Zoshi) The Heian era marked the height of Japan's imperial aristocracy with a focus on the arts and setting the stage for the samurai. Despite it's peaceful namesake, there was plenty of behind-the-scenes power grabs between the country's most influential families. This conflict is reinterpreted in Otogi Zoshi. The anime's setting and characters is mix of the medieval short stories that it takes its name from; chronicling an adventure to retrieve the magatama that has parallels to the quest for the Holy Grail and real Heian period samurai folk heroes.

See also: Shonen Onmyouji for more supernatural flare taken from the period's strong focus on Buddhism, Taoism, and China.

6. Sengoku period, 1467–1603 (Hyouge Mono) If you can dream it up, there's a Sengoku version of it. All the generals are girls? Beautiful bishonen? Oda Nobunaga is a gun? A robot? That exists. What's harder to find is a series with less gimmick and more accuracy. Hyouge Mono does that by presenting the period through Furuta Sasuke, a trusted vassal of Nobunaga. The series focuses on the legendary general and his affections for Western aesthetic. Hyouge Mono also goes over many of the major assassinations, deals, and conflicts that plagued the time period but the show is a "thinking man's" series over action. Conversations on Wabi-sabi and other schools of thought are all a part of the political landscape.

5. Edo period, 1603–1868 (House of Five Leaves) Following the rise of the Tokugawa government, a strict social hierarchy was established with samurai above the majority working class. The era would come to the end with the fall of Tokugawa around the same time that Commodore Matthew Perry fired on the isolated country to force open trade. The strict social castes led to miserable, segregated existences for anyone not lucky enough to be born into the right social class. The House of Five Leaves Masanosuke Akitsu suffers a similar fate as a ronin, a masterless samurai. Despite his once lofty status, Akitsu would be expected to kill himself after the loss of his master and in not doing so, is considered shameful. The story follows him when he begins to work as a bodyguard for burakumin, who undertake shady dealings in Edo.

See also: Intrigue in the Bakumatsu - Irohanihoheto, The Dagger of Kamui, Oh! Edo Rocket

4. Meiji period, 1868–1912 (Rurouni Kenshin) As the West pushed into Japan, the Imperial Court began to deconstruct the caste system of its predecessor for a more Western approach, marking the final days of the honorable samurai and their many perks. There is probably no better known series taking place in the Meiji era than Rurouni Kenshin. Seemingly affable, Kenshin wanders through Japan's changing landscape looking to atone for his murders during the Bakumatsu years. He clashes with Shishio Makoto, a man looking to overthrow Meiji government that betrayed him and develop Japan into country focused on "survival of the fittest."

See also: Peace Maker, Laughing Under the Clouds

3. Taisho period, 1912-1926 (Otome Yōkai Zakuro) The Taisho era marks further Western influences in Japan from clothing to democracy. Still, the country makes a push in China, taking both island territories and areas into the North. There aren't a lot of anime set in the relatively short Taisho-era, but military motifs are almost always present. Otome Yōkai Zakuro is one series, although it adds an "alternate timeline" element to excuse the use of spirits. The main character is a half-spirit girl named Zakuro who feels opposed to the new government agency overseeing spirits and the Westernization of Japan (she refers to it a "Jesuit"). The agency pairs members of the Imperial Army with spirits, so each type of characters represent the ongoing conflict of the time period and the attempt to marry traditional Japanese ideas with Western government.

See also: Night Raid 1931, which takes place in China but has the Japanese invasion as a prominent backdrop

2. Showa period, 1926–1989 (Showa Monogatari) Both the Sengoku and the Showa period are popular time periods to set a story in anime, the latter for the inherit drama surrounding World War II. Thanks to a huge focus in public school history classes, most Americans are familiar with World War II and there are a number of anime and manga that examine the repercussions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki available. That said, the decades after 1945 are usually overlooked. Showa Monogatari is set in 1964, the same year as the Tokyo Olympics (also the backdrop of From Up On Poppy Hill). The story follows one normal Japanese family in a time where a country is looking to make its come back on a global scale. The patriarch, Yūzō is a former military veteran working in a factory and often finds himself at odds with his college-age son. He works as a stand-in for the older generation raised during an Imperial-focused Japan and the new generation (his kids).

See also: Rainbow - Nisha Rokubō no Shichinin, Zipang, Grave of the Fireflies, Kids on the Slope

1. Heisei period, 1989 to current (Penguindrum) It probably seems weird to recommend a show with a magic penguin hat, ghostly pink-haired man, and penguins as a series to define "now." At it's core, Penguindrum is a show about the lost decade within the Heisei period, the children born after Japan's economic bubble burst, and a generation attempting to break away from the mistakes of their parents. Even when your parents committed domestic terrorism. If there is a cultural characterization for the ongoing Hesei period to be found in anime, it's the loss of identity in an increasingly connected world (Serial Experiments Lain), frustration with mediocrity (chunbiyo), and the rejection of cultural exceptions for self (NEETs, hikikomori). These increasingly common character traits and themes, although usually treated as an interesting or humorous character quirk, in anime from the last five years, could be considered the result of the particular era Penguindrum focuses on over 26 episodes.

See also: Paranoia Agent

The new poll: Which in-series anime band's concert would you attend?

The old poll: Which Pokémon movie was your favorite? Did they all go down hill after Mewtwo or do the newer ones stand well on their own? Looks like nostalgia wins the game!

  1. Pokémon: The First Movie 33.1%
  2. Pokémon 2000 - The Movie 20.5%
  3. Pokémon 3 - The Movie 10.2%
  4. Pokémon: Lucario and the Mystery of Mew 7.2%
  5. Pokémon Heroes - Latias & Latios 6.7%
  6. Pokémon 4Ever 3.5%
  7. Pokémon: The Rise of Darkrai 3.2%
  8. Pokémon Ranger and the Temple of the Sea 2.2%
  9. Pokémon: Destiny Deoxys 2.0%
  10. Pokémon Zoroark: Master of Illusions 1.3%
  11. Pokémon: Jirachi Wish Maker 1.2%
  12. Pokémon: Giratina & The Sky Warrior 1.1%
  13. Pokémon: Arceus and the Jewel of Life 1.0%

When she isn't compiling lists of tropes, topics, and characters, Lynzee works as the Interest Editor for Anime News Network and posts pictures of her son on Twitter @ANN_Lynzee.

discuss this in the forum (77 posts) |
bookmark/share with: short url

this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history

The List homepage / archives