Production I G
Production I G

A Brief History of Anime and Manga: From Zen Cartoons to Sailor Moon

As caveat, we will be exploring anime and manga from a Western perspective and this small summary is by no means a complete history of either medium.

Early History: Woodblock Prints and The Japan Punch

As a traditionally pictorial-centric country, as evidenced by the use of images in early Edo period (1600-1868) scrolls and Zen cartoons from the 10th Century, Japan has a culture that was/is very receptive to manga and anime.

Manga is often attributed to early art by monk Kakuyu (1053-1140) depicting frolicking animals. It continues in the ukiyo-e tradition of Edo period of Japan (1600-1867), and is seen most in the giga (character) woodblock prints of the 18th Century, in particular the print work of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Hokusai, while best known for his work the Great Wave, also created a 15 volume manual for his students that showed how to create giga and this was the first text to use the word manga.

Next in the development of manga were yellow-backed books or kibyoshi. Although these books were originally printed for children, the content soon encompassed more adult themes and were often used for political satire. As Japan opened its borders to Western influences in the late 1880’s, the first Japanese magazine published in English was The Japan Punch. Mirroring the political satire of its UK namesake, this magazine introduced a western art style, in particular the use of speech bubbles, to a Japanese audience. The Japan Punch also cemented the commercial viability of this medium for Japanese publishers. The success of The Japan Punch and magazine Tokyo Puck pushed publishers to serialize comics. The first serialized comic was Tagosaku to Mokube no Tokyo Kembutsu (Tagosaku and Mokube Sightseeing in Tokyo) serialized in Tokyo Puck by Rakuten Kitazawa.

A strong push towards nationalization and the subsequent entry into World War II, stagnated the then flourishing growth of manga. Although many artists were forced to create propaganda, or were only allowed to create light children’s comics, many fought the new restrictions. Some were even jailed for political and social criticism through the artform. The turbulent political environment, along with the lack of resources due to wartime rationing pushed manga underground for the 1930’s and early 40’s.

Post World War II: Revival and the God of Manga

Following the war in the late 1940’s, “red-book” comics began to flourish. These comics explored a wide range of themes. Manga as a medium exploded once formerly restrictive bans for publishing were lifted. This manga explosion was led in large part by Osamu Tezuka who is known the God of Manga in Japan. His cinematic style and frame-by-frame action created a sense of drama not present in earlier 4 panel manga. By bringing his readers into the action, Tezuka’s work changed the way audiences connected to manga and created a visual story-telling art form the effects of which can still be seen today. Tezuka’s most well-known works for Western audiences are Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, and Black Jack.

This history of pictorial-centricity in Japan, the rise of manga, and the cinematographic work of Osama Tezuka are also critical for the development of anime in Japan.

In the 1940’s and early 50’s Japan saw a huge growth in their film industry. It was this growth combined with increased exposure to foreign films that influenced Tezuka’s early manga. However, with this increased globalization, in the 1950’s and 60’s Japan saw its once thriving live-action film industry decline in the face of large budget Western films. This Hollywood invasion coupled with a growing television audience made people less committed to films.

Animated films appeared in Japan in the early 1900’s from both Western and Japanese sources. Despite several animated shorts and films during the pre-war and WWII eras, modern anime is generally linked to the founding of Toei Animation in 1948 and their first feature film Tales of the White Serpent (Hakujaden) in October 1958.

Despite originally working with Toei, after his contract expired Osama Tezuka went on to produce the first commercial juggernaut of serialized animation in his own studio, Mushi Production. Tezuka’s first series, based on his groundbreaking manga, was Astro Boy and first shown in 1963 in black and white. Astro Boy became a global sensation with commercial success in both the US and Europe. It was the first anime to be widely shown to Western audiences. Tezuka followed up his success with Astro Boy with another commercial success in the all color version of Kimba the White Lion.

The Space Race and Dystopia: Commercial Success

As anime took off in the 1960’s and 1970’s studios continued to see commercial success. The OVA’s based on popular T.V. shows became an important revenue stream both domestically in Japan and abroad for increasingly interested Western audiences. As the film studios responsible for live action films all but closed, many of their young talented animators and artists went on to found familiar studios Madhouse and Sunrise. By the 1980’s and 1990’s anime began to deal with much more complex and nuanced stories meant for adults. Riding off of the commercial success of Star Wars anime started a revival of the space opera genre and made way for the familiar mecha animes of a revived Space Battleship Yamato, and new titles of Gundam, Macross, and Star Blazers. This period even saw the involvement of Japanese animators in creation of Western series such as Transformers.

In the 1980’s Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) was produced and met with critical and commercial success which paved the way for founding Studio Ghibli. The experimental and operatic style of the 1980’s culminated in the film Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo. While not a commercial success in Japan, 1988’s Akira exposed Western fans to the complexity possible in anime as an art form.

The Future: the 90’s, 2000’s, and Today

In the 1990’s Neon Genesis Evangelion and Princess Mononoke continued to explore complex concepts about the self, nature, and one’s place in the world. The 1990’s and early 2000’s also saw the creation of Western fan favorites Dragonball Z, Cowboy Bebop, Revolutionary Girl Utena, and Sailor Moon.

Today anime is used in everything from music videos, advertisements, and clothing. The style of artwork, rules of expression, cinematic angles, and the complex storylines inform current Western animation and continue to challenge creators and critics alike to seriously consider these art forms.    


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Napier, S. J. (2005). Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (2 edition). New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.