12 Game-Changing Anime: Celebrating 100 Years of Japanese Animation

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of Japanese animation! Many young adults nostalgically recall the cartoons of their childhoods, which may include titles such as “Pokémon” and “Dragon Ball Z,” but these series are just a few works in a long tradition of excellence and creativity in Japanese animation. From the animated propaganda shorts of wartime Japan all the way up to Makoto Shinkai’s highest-grossing animated film of all time, “Your Name,” a hundred years’ worth of anime produces quite a few standouts, but here are just a handful of anime’s biggest game-changers:


Astro Boy (1952)

Osamu Tezuka first created Atom, the titular “Astro Boy,” in 1951 in a manga about a mad scientist who builds a little boy robot to stand in for a dearly departed son. Atom fights villains and monsters, protecting humans from evil and fighting for peace and harmony. What started out as a cute story about a little boy robot, however, turned into a national and then global phenomenon that helped pave the way for other anime and manga to achieve similar levels of exposure and fame.

Ashita no Joe (1968)

The story of Joe Yabuki, who begins life in the margins and rises out of obscurity to achieve boxing fame, touched the hearts of Japanese audiences in the 1960s, who saw in the young hero a reflection of post-war Japan’s dreams of overcoming defeat and rise to success again. “Ashita no Joe” quickly became a cult favorite and remains one of the most celebrated anime works ever.

Mobile Suit Gundam (1979)

Everything Guillermo Del Toro loved about Japanese mecha anime and giant monster shows might not exist if it weren’t for Yoshiyuki Tomino’s “Mobile Suit Gundam,” a series about humans piloting giant combat robots. The series defined the mecha genre during its original 1979 run and inaugurated the world-famous “Gundam” franchise.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Hayao Miyazaki is a household name when it comes to anime game-changers, but it was this film that helped the master storyteller get there: A story about a bold young princess who fights to protect a forest of giant insects from destruction. With a strong female protagonist and environmentalist themes, “Nausicaä” didn’t just introduce us to one of anime’s biggest game-changers — it set the tone for what audiences could expect from Miyazaki’s future works. After the commercial success of “Nausicaä,” Miyazaki went on to found his own studio, Studio Ghibli.

Akira (1988)

The dystopian, cyberpunk world of Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira” is set in an imagined 2019 and tells the story of Kaneda, the leader of a biker gang in the fictional Neo-Tokyo, and his friend Tetsuo, whose terrible psychic powers are beginning to awaken and threaten to destroy the city. Critics of the time praised the film’s energy and dynamism while several anime creators and general filmmakers in years to follow have often cited the film as a major influence.

Dragon Ball / Dragon Ball Z (1989)

If you watched TV at all in the ’90s and early ’00s, this series hardly needs introduction. Akira Toriyama’s “Dragon Ball” and its sequel series “Dragon Ball Z” is an epic saga chronicling the life and times of Goku and his sons Gohan and Goten as they defend Earth from a slew of intergalactic super villains. The series was a huge success in Japan upon its release, and helped introduce anime to Western audiences as it made its way over in the ’90s and ’00s.

Sailor Moon (1992)

One of the most recognized representatives of the magical girl genre, “Sailor Moon” had its first run on Japanese TV in 1992. Despite originally attempting to appeal to teenage girls, its popularity grew due to the series’ ability to draw in wider audiences. The series’ longevity and popularity is further evidenced by Toei Animation’s decision to produce the more recent “Sailor Moon Crystal,” intended to be a more faithful anime adaptation of Naoko Takeuchi’s manga.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Audiences were awed by Mamoru Oshii’s animated adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga “Ghost in the Shell.” Following the protagonist Motoko Kusanagi’s hunt for a mysterious Puppet Master, the film makes audiences consider the concept of identity in an increasingly technologically dependent world. Praised for its stunning visuals, music and storytelling, “Ghost in the Shell” is considered by many as one of the greatest anime films ever.

Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)

If “Mobile Suit Gundam” gets credit for being one of the first to pilot the mecha genre, then “Neon Genesis Evangelion” should get credit for reinvigorating it. Sometimes referred to as simply “Evangelion,” this 1995 series tells the story of teenager Shinji, an Evangelion pilot for a fictional organization called Nerv, and the other Nerv pilots tasked with protecting the world from beings called “Angels.”


Pokémon (1997)

Here’s another series that hardly needs an introduction. Featuring cute fictional creatures known as Pokémon, the original 1997 series centered on the adventures of a boy named Ash Ketchum and his friend, Pikachu, as he travels the world trying to “catch ‘em all.” Like “Dragon Ball Z,” “Pokémon” played a large part in introducing anime and Japanese pop culture to Western audiences. The series and its legacy has carved itself into the heart of Japanese pop culture and has enjoyed several reincarnations throughout the years.

Cowboy Bebop (1998)

This space-noir saga about bounty hunter Spike Spiegel and his rag-tag gang of friends is one of the most beloved anime series of all time. “Cowboy Bebop” won two first-place prizes at the 1998 Anime Grand Prix Awards, and is often the topic of several scholarly articles and dissertations, especially by authors interested in the series’ mixing of genres.

Spirited Away (2001)

Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” was the film that earned him international fame. This charming story of a little girl forced to work in a bathhouse servicing various spirits took home the Academy Award for Best Animated Film at the 75th Academy Awards, becoming the first and only hand-drawn Japanese animated film to win in the category.

Some honorable mentions include “Fist of the North Star” (1984), “Lupin the III” (1971), “Macross” (1982) and “Revolutionary Girl Utena” (1997).

Anime has now been around for 100 years, but studios and creators show no signs of slowing down. In fact, technological advances and the coming-of-age of several new writers and creators means that the industry is ready to tackle the next 100 years and release even more game-changing films and series.

Your current favorite could be one of the next anime legends!