The Short History of Anime – Where It All Began and Where It’s Heading


If you click on a link and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission. As an Amazon affiliate partner, I may earn from qualifying purchases.
Read our disclosure.

In this article, we dive deep into the history of anime, where it all began, and what’s in store for use in the future. The article covers the significant milestones of anime production, showcasing how the anime industry evolved over many decades.

Key Takeaways

  • The word “anime” refers to a form of animation that originated in Japan.
  • The term “anime” is an abbreviation of the Japanese word “animeeshon” (アニメーション), which is derived from the English word “animation.”
  • The first Japanese animated film is said to be published in either 1907 or 1917.
  • The first use of celluloid in animation production was in 1935.
  • Toei animation was founded in 1948.
  • Osamu Tezuka created Astro Boy anime in the 1960s and became a domestic success, eventually landing in the U.S.
  • The 1970s saw the birth of Mobile Suit Gundam and Madhouse animation studio.
  • The 1980s was a huge decade for the anime industry as some of the biggest brands in anime, like Dragon Ball and AKIRA, were created in that era.
  • As we advance in the current decade, we expect to see short-form anime series, which will be expanded only if there’s demand.
  • It is seen that the anime industry will grow in popularity in the future.
  • The five anime demographic categories are shōnen, shōjo, seinen, josei, and kodomo-muke.

The Fathers of Anime: Where It All Began in the 1910s

Tracing back the roots of anime requires us to mention the first group of animators who birthed the earliest production of this industry. Ōten Shimokawa, Jun’ichi Kōuchi, and Seitaro Kitayama are considered the fathers of anime who worked together to produce an estimated 20 short animated films around 1917

Anime during this era is nothing like what we now enjoy. They’re short (about 5 minutes each), narrated live by a storyteller, and are presented by manually drawing the visuals on a chalkboard. There’s no concrete evidence whether Genkanban no maki 芋川椋三 玄関番の巻 (Imokawa Mukuzō – The Janitor) was the first Japanese animation or was it Shimokawa’s Dekobō shingachō – Meian no shippai for Tenkatsu.

New research shows that Matsumoto Natsuki found 50-frame film hand-drawn in two colors, red and black, directly onto the celluloid in 1907. There’s no information about the creator of the film and how the creator had access to celluloid sheets.

Voiceovers and Cel Animation: Revolutionary Technologies in the 1930s

Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka (Within the World of Power and Women)

The first-ever anime that showcased a voiceover feature came out in April 1933. Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka (Within the World of Power and Women) became the first anime film to use the ‘talkie’ technology from the U.S.

1935 was a revolutionary moment for anime as it saw its first full, cel-animated (not to be confused with cel shading) short in the production of Chagama Ondo (The Dance of the Chagamas). It ran for only 11 minutes but is already a significant upgrade from the early ’90s chalkboard and papercut animation.

War Propaganda: Anime and Politics in the 1930s-40s

As cel animation’s use progressed, so did the need for bigger funding. Animation studios during the late 1930s struggled to sustain the production of short animated films, much more full-length anime, with their current financial resource. 

This is where government propaganda came in handy. The government started promoting its agenda through paid promotional videos as Japan geared up for war. 

Animators who saw the funding opportunity accommodated such projects and released short anime films like Momotaro no Umiwashi (Momotaro’s Sea Eagles) in 1943, which featured cute, heroic characters engaged in comical battle scenes. 

The success of this anime in promoting Japanese wartime ideologies was likely the reason behind the production of its sequel that aired in 1945 – Momotaro: Umi no Shinpei (Momotaro: Sacred Sailors). 

Birth of Toei Animation: New Franchises and Rocketing Success in the 1940s-50s

Hakujaden-The Tale of the White Serpent-image
Hakujaden (The Tale of the White Serpent)

Anime history won’t be complete without mentioning Toei animation. It’s the oldest animation studio in Japan, founded in 1948. More importantly, it gave birth to some household anime franchises that saw huge, global success, like Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, and One Piece.

Before producing these prominent series, however, Toei started by producing Japan’s first full-length, colored anime film, Hakujaden (The Tale of the White Serpent), in 1958. This 78-minute film became a domestic success and was among the first three shows to be released in America. 

Around this year, Toei started working with prominent names in the manga industry, like Osamu Tezuka, who eventually founded his animation studio. 

Television Airing: Anime Invades Screens in the 1960s

Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka

1960 saw the first signs of anime’s potential to appeal to domestic TV viewers. Channels like NHK started airing three-minute-long animated anthologies. It then progressed to a regular airtime show with anime like Otogi Manga Calendar in 1961. 

Still, the duration of these shows was limited to three-minute tops, different from what you’d expect from the typical entertainment value we get from today’s anime shows. 

It wasn’t until January of 1963 that Fuji TV started regularly airing Astro Boy every Tuesday. The anime series ran for 193 episodes, ending on New Year’s Eve of 1966. 

Astro Boy became a massive domestic success and eventually invaded U.S. television. Its popularity continued, paving the way for future remakes around the 1980s and 2003. Other studios started creating their series from here, like Sally the Witch of Toei, which aired in 1966.

Rise of More Animation Studios: Anime Becomes Japanese Culture in the 1970s

Space Battleship Yamato

The 1970s saw the birth of some prominent studios, now home to all-time hit anime series. They include Tezuka Productions, Madhouse, and Sunrise. 

This is also the era where anime started to hone its unique identity through mecha genres, science fiction, and literary-based adaptations. Popular series like Lupin III, Mobile Suit Gundam, Space Battleship Yamato, and Heidi, Girl of the Alps are a few of the most notable shows that dominated Japanese TV during the decade. 

At the end of the 1970s, anime became part of Japan’s pop culture

The Golden Era of Anime: Anime Becomes a Phenomenon in the 1980s

Dragon Ball Z 1989

By the 1980s, anime had officially become mainstream in Japan. Series like Dragon Ball, Macross, and the Gundam franchise soared in popularity. 

New genres like sports anime also started making noise at the release of Captain Tsubasa in 1983. This series showcased common themes we now see in modern-day sports anime, like cool characters with equally cool, fictional techniques. 

1984 witnessed the release of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which eventually received the Kinema Junpo Award and Reader’s Choice Awards for Best film by 1985. 

Toei debuted Akira Toriyamas’ Dragon Ball in 1986, which was a massive success and solidified Toei Animation’s name as a leading studio in the industry.

Katsuhiro Otomo’s AKIRA also made waves in the anime industry with its brilliant use of cel shading technique to bring the film alive in a completely new way.

Around 1987, Kaze to Ki no Uta (The Poem of Wind and Trees) was released as an hour-long film and became the first showcase of the yaoi (Boy’s love) genre, primarily targeted at female viewers. 

Technological advancements also complemented anime distribution in the 1980s with the availability of VHS. This allowed viewers to watch their favorite anime series and film from home at their preferred time. The use of CGI in anime also started to emerge, which will continue to progress in the coming years. 

Experimental Themes and the Internet: The Fall and Rise of Anime in the 1990s

The anime industry during the 1990s was struggling. The economy was crashing, and the budget needed to catch up to the required production cost. Still, there were studios and ongoing anime series that flourished despite the economic downturn.

Studio Ghibli and Toei Animation led the pack with successful releases like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Sailor Moon. 

Neon Genesis Evangelion also left a mark with its unique take on the mecha genre coupled with dark, psychological themes featuring teenage lead characters. The 1990s was a decade when writers and creators experimented with themes that weren’t mainstream. 

Neon Genesis Evangelion

One of the most notable shows during this time was the neo-noir sci-fi anime series Cowboy Bebop. While it gained solid traction from international fans over time, it had its fair share of domestic controversy, given its psychosexual theme and criminal environment.  

What likely helped in salvaging the eventual decline of the industry at that time was the internet and the emergence of the DVD format. With the web, anime gets the international exposure it needs to keep the audience engaged and informed. 

DVD had been accessible in the U.S. too, which allowed fans to watch their favorite series in full, along with the option to get the English-dubbed or subbed version. 

So while Japan’s dwindling economic status affected anime production, it didn’t totally destroy the industry. 

Digitalization and the Big Three: The Global Financial Crisis Affects the Industry in the 2000s

The early 2000s saw a trend where anime studios, such as Toei Animation, shifted from cel animation to digital methods. This allowed companies to save time and labor costs from having to ask more people to do things manually.

The anime industry was once again flourishing, headed by what the industry then considered the Big Three anime shows – One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach. 

Apart from their global popularity and length, these shows also helped facilitate the rise of cross-platform content like games, movies, and official merchandise. 

But as the past decade has shown, there’s a limit to how much an industry can grow, and by the late 2000s, anime has once again experienced a dip in production, despite the stable interest of global viewers.

This could’ve been attributed to the global crisis in the U.S. in 2008. As a result, studios exercised caution in producing full-length series with minimal potential for success. In the past, having a full 52-episode series was the norm. Now, we’re seeing a 13-episode season as the new normal. 

The different decades showing the evolution of anime

The Future of Anime – 10 Trends Now and Beyond

It’s tricky to declare what anime will look like in the next few decades, primarily due to its encompassing effects across other industries. 

However, emerging market trends help define the trajectory many domestic animation studios may adopt in the coming years. These trends don’t only affect anime’s distribution methods but also predict global viewers’ reception of this media content.

Adoption of AI (Artificial Intelligence)

If you’ve been staying current with the hot topic of AI in recent weeks, you must’ve come across the AI art controversy, where three AI programs created a seven-minute animation video using a combination of images from noise and greenscreen techniques. 

While the result was far from perfect compared to standard anime output, it’s nevertheless impressive and leaves a lot of opportunities to explore. 

Merchandising Domination

In a 2022 statistics report, the merchandising segment in the anime market produced the highest share at 31%. This is attributed to the younger generation’s increased consumption of anime merchandise products like figurines, posters, t-shirts, and more

Coupled with the rise of online shopping since the COVID-19 pandemic, global distribution of these items has spiked, with no signs of slowing down for the next few years. If any, this high global demand will continue to impact anime production, as fans will keep collecting items of their favorite characters. 

Continued Rise of Internet Distribution

This includes online streaming across platforms like Netflix and Nippon TV. As global media licenses more titles for airing, international fans find it easier to consume new shows in real-time

The same goes for mobile app games associated with an anime franchise. Developers and production companies will continue to work hand in hand to produce entertaining games while keeping the character authenticity that fans love on their favorite shows. 

The Proliferation of Short-Form Anime Series

Most of the new shows we’ve seen in the past years focused on releasing 13 episodes per season on average. We seldom see anime series that reach 50 episodes, like how it was during the early 2000s. 

Viewers’ attention span is becoming shorter. With the influx of new anime released per season, creators battle to produce captivating shows that deliver optimum entertainment value and impact the audience fast. The success of a short-running season then becomes a determining factor in whether or not an anime deserves a second run (could be witnessed with the Record of Ragnarok on Netflix). 

This trend comes with a few exceptions, of course. The most obvious is One Piece (more than 1050 episodes already), whose cult-following grows even stronger as the show continues. 

Opportunities for Global Workforce

Anime will always be associated with Japan, but it’s also a fact that domestic studios can’t keep up with the industry’s high demand. Some studios outsource their most labor-intensive work to other countries like China and the Philippines.  

The projected high demand for anime opens opportunities for international artists to enter the market by becoming independent contractors. With the rise of remote work’s popularity, working as a freelancer or commissioned animator is becoming more feasible than ever. 

Rise of Start-up Ecosystem

Start-up companies are prevalent in many industries like tech and eCommerce, but they’re not yet mainstream in anime. This is bound to change with digitalization and technological advancements used in anime production. 

Start-ups like Otakukart from India and Magnopus from the U.S. offer top-of-the-line content dissemination and storytelling services. While they’re both not directly involved in anime production, their ability to keep people engaged and informed using technological innovation can benefit the anime industry, which opens opportunities for partnerships.

Dominance of All-Time Favorite Genres

The Anime genre has branched out into multiple sub-genres over the years, but solid demographic categories (shounen, shojo, seinen) remain that always win the viewers’ hearts. The top five genres seen to dominate the coming years include:

  • Adventure
  • Action 
  • Comedy
  • Slice of Life
  • Drama 

Other season-favorite genres include fantasy, romance, psychological, sci-fi, and magic. The mecha genre has also seen a spike in viewership and global success, such as Sunrise’s 2022 series, Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury, streaming on Netflix. 

Remakes, Reboots, and Sequels of Popular Anime Classics

The debate about the necessity of reboots remains a hot topic in some forums, but there’s a solid reason why they’re worth it and why fans will likely see more of them in the coming years.

First, these established anime series already have a fanbase from their original run. An example is Nippon Animation’s Hunter x Hunter, which aired from 1999 to 2001. It ran for 62 episodes, though with the manga’s hiatus at that time, the anime was never completed. 

Its 2011 remake was a success, with improved animation quality and more story material that wasn’t available from its predecessor. Its 148 episodes were a massive hit for the OG fans and the new viewers who didn’t watch the previous version. 

Second, older anime has some of the most exciting and classic feel storylines that have declined in recent years. The most anticipated classics slated for remakes in 2023 are Rurouni Kenshin and Trigun Stampede. 

Third, fans are waiting for their favorite anime’s comeback. An example is Bleach’s 2022 much-anticipated Thousand-Year Blood War arc anime sequel. Its source material ended in 2016, but it wasn’t until late 2021 that Studio Pierrot announced its official comeback the following year.

Continued Battle Against Digitally-Powered Piracy

There’s yet to be a foolproof method for eliminating piracy for good. As storage and bandwidth becomes cheaper, bootlegging anime content to DVDs has become prevalent, allowing illegal mass distribution of content without the licensing body’s approval. 

It doesn’t help that many viewers are okay with watching anime content from unauthorized sources. The ongoing mentality is if they’re not held liable, and others are okay with it, too, it should be fine.

Booming Anime Industry With Dissatisfied Workforce

People don’t talk about this often. While Japan’s anime industry savored massive successes in business, the same can’t be said for its animators, who reportedly still struggle with issues like brutal working hours with low pay. 

While outsourcing has helped in labor delegation, it isn’t a solution to Japan’s work culture, which is notorious for long hours and minimal breaks or days off. In contrast to the love and flare the market is showing to anime shows, animators don’t get much of its benefit. 

As with any industry, this is a dark trend that has existed for years but has been taken for granted. We can only hope to raise awareness enough to move key people to finally see the value of our dear creatives who’ve worked so hard to bring our favorite anime to life.

Feature image credits.



Digital Artist

I’m a digital artist who is passionate about anime and manga art. My true artist journey pretty much started with CTRL+Z. When I experienced that and the limitless color choices and the number of tools I could use with art software, I was sold. Drawing digital anime art is the thing that makes me happy among eating cheeseburgers in between veggie meals.

More Posts

Thank You!

Thank you for visiting the page! If you want to build your next creative product business, I suggest you check out Kittl!