The shows & films that made Britain fall in love with anime

From Marine Boy and Thundercats to Cities Of Gold and Akira, we look at the TV shows and movies that introduced the UK to Japanese anime

One evening in 1994, the BBC screened a documentary simply called Manga. Presented by Jonathan Ross, it showcased the rising popularity of Japanese animation, largely focusing on the output of Manga Entertainment, whose dubbed VHS releases had made a huge impact on anime fans and caused a certain amount of consternation among the mainstream press.

For British viewers, the anime boom took a long time to arrive. In America, Japanese shows like Kimba The White Lion, Gigantor and Astro Boy were a common sight on television in the 1960s, yet it took until the late 70s and 80s, and a string of European-Japanese co-productions, before anime finally began to find a hold on UK television.

As a youngster at the time, I didn’t necessarily know that the handful of shows I was addicted to were all from the same country, but I was keenly aware that they looked and sounded unlike any of the animated stuff from Europe or America. Those 80s TV shows provided a primer for the spectacular anime that was hidden, in those pre-internet days, from easy view. When anime finally appeared to a ready UK audience in the 90s, we have the following shows, and others like them, to thank.

Marine Boy

Airing in 1969, this charming anime show was the first of its kind to appear on UK screens. Like many later Japanese shows, it was marked out by its distinctive style, which favoured colour and design over smooth movement, a hummable title song and a fun set of characters. Its star is an athletic teenager who, with his sidekicks Splasher the dolphin and Neptina the mermaid, heads off on a string of breezy undersea adventures.

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While America enjoyed a whole range of Japanese TV shows, Marine Boy appeared to be the only one that made it to the UK until the 1970s – things like Astro Boy and Star Blazers, all much-loved by kids in the US, didn’t make it to Britain. But then Battle Of The Planets came along, and things began to change…

Battle Of The Planets

If anime made it to the UK at all before the 90s, it was often in heavily edited form. An early example of this is Battle Of The Planets, a series which originally aired as Space Science Team Gatchaman in early-70s Japan. Picked up by Sandy Frank Entertainment towards the end of that decade, Gatchaman became Battle Of The Planets – a name chosen, in all likelihood, to remind kids of the then-massive Star Wars.

The only problem was, the original Gatchaman was quite a violent show, at least compared to the kind of stuff we were used to in the west at the time. As a result, the sharper edges were smoothed off, and to fill in the gaps, a comedy robot named 7-Zark-7 was ushered in to bring the episodes back up to the requisite length.

Even in its edited form, the dynamism of Tastsunoko’s original anime series remained just about intact. Its range of unspeakably cool space ships and characters weren’t quite like anything that had been seen on western television at the time, and Battle Of The Planets remains a fondly-remembered cult item.

Star Fleet

It’s not anime, admittedly, but this Japanese puppet series was created by Go Nagai, the mind behind such hits as Devilman and Mazinger Z. Airing in Japan under the title X-Bomber, Star Fleet also contained just about everything you’d expect from a 70s or 80s sci-fi anime: an odd-ball cast of heroes, a batch of vehicles which can connect together to create a huge robot, and some laser-blown space battles.

Taking its cue from Gerry Anderson’s TV series like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, Star Fleet nevertheless felt entirely distinct from those shows: for one thing, it told a single, coherent saga about Earth’s fight with an alien threat called the Imperial Alliance, and that story was invested with quite a few effective twists and turns. I can still remember an episode where a major character was suddenly killed by a robot assassin, and I was left saucer-eyed with shock; so far as I can recall, this was the first time I’d ever seen a likeable hero die in a Saturday morning TV show. Scooby Doo this was not.

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Star Fleet wasn’t a particularly big hit in Japan, but it seemed to find a ready audience in the UK. Shops sold Star Fleet annuals one Christmas, while the series even managed to find a fan in Queen guitarist Brian May – he liked the English version’s theme tune so much, he recorded a cover of it with Eddie Van Halen and the drummer out of REO Speedwagon. You don’t see Ben 10 getting attention like that from the rock gods of today.

Ulysses 31

Ulysses 31 was one of several Japanese-European co-productions to appear on UK TV in the 1980s, and for this writer, it’s the very best. A sci-fi reworking of Greek myths, it sees the enviably hairy protagonist Ulysses stuck in unknown space with a bunch of kids (his son Telemachus, an alien girl named Yumi and an infuriating robot sidekick called Nono) and tasked with finding a route back to Earth. Each episode sees Ulysses flying from planet to planet in his eye-like ship, the Odyssey, and encountering all kinds of ancient gods and eccentric mortals – most of whom are up to no good.

The robot and the kids are annoying, admittedly, but there’s also a spooky, icy atmosphere in Ulysses 31. An episode which retells the story of Sisyphus is startlingly downbeat, and there’s something oddly frightening about the god Zeus and his sadistic punishment of poor old Ulysses. Moments of comic relief try to keep things light, but the series successfully gets across the sensation of drifting in a cosmic void; even the final episode is packed full of luckless souls and nightmare imagery.

Created by France’s Jean Chalopin and Nina Wolmark, Ulysses 31 was animated by Tokyo Movie Shinsha, and had a number of famous names working on it. Shingo Araki and Michi Himeno (who later worked on the Saint Seya anime) were responsible for its superb design, while Toyoo Ashida also appears on the credits. Ashida went on to direct, among other things, the Fist Of The North Star movie and the 1986 cult favourite Vampire Hunter D – both released on VHS by Manga Entertainment in the 90s.

Thunderbirds 2086

As the name suggests, Thunderbirds 2086 is an animated reworking of Gerry Anderson’s beloved Supermarionation series. It was screened for a few weeks on Saturday morning TV, and later released on video, but Thunderbirds 2086 isn’t talked about that much these days. But once again, it provided a showcase for anime; even if you didn’t consciously realise that it was from Japan, you immediately noticed the quality of design and sheer depth of detail in the costume and mecha designs – things that were, generally speaking, absent in western animated TV fodder of the period.

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The Mysterious Cities Of Gold

For some readers, this French-Japanese co-production will have provided the soundtrack to their childhoods. About a group of kids looking for the Seven Cities of Gold in the 16th century, The Mysterious Cities Of Gold tied with Ulysses 31 when it came to catchy theme tunes.

Created by Jean Chalopin (who co-created Ulysses 31), The Mysterious Cities Of Gold was animated by Studio Pierrot, famous these days for things like Naruto and Bleach. The pairing was a fruitful one; Chalopin’s story rattled along like a classic matinee serial, while Pierrot’s animators brought the tale’s characters and ships to life in eye-popping fashion. Cities Of Gold imagines South America as a hotbed of mysterious people and ancient technology; one unforgettably eerie episode depicted the Olmecs as a race of subterranean ghouls in thrall to a massive crystal.

Where most western shows told detachable, simplistic stories, Cities Of Gold related a detailed yarn with a rich sense of history. The comedy characters (including the bumbling, gold-obsessed sailors Sancho and Pedro) and fantastical elements made Cities Of Gold palatable for a weekday afternoon audience, it was also (whisper it) quite educational; without Cities Of Gold, would a generation of kids have even heard of the Nazca lines or the Mayans?

Cities Of Gold‘s impact was such that, nearly 30 years after it originally aired, a new series was finally created – and it remains surprisingly faithful to the show’s 80s roots, both visually and in terms of its sprawling adventure.

Thundercats

Humanoid cats-in-spandex adventure show Thundercats didn’t necessarily look like anime at first glance, but it was, in fact, animated by Japanese animation studio Topcraft.  For TV at the time, the quality of the animation was extremely good – the highlight, in technical terms, is its opening credits sequence you can see above. Echoing the athletic nature of its feline characters, it’s a constant dervish of movement and colour, and an effective showcase for what the studio could do with 2D cel animation on a relatively tight budget.

Topcraft may not sound like a familiar name to you, but its output in the 70s and 80s was quite remarkable. Not only did it co-produce films like Lensman and Macross: Do You Remember Love, but it also provided animation for Gatchaman, and worked on a number of western animated films on behalf of Rankin/Bass Productions – The Hobbit and The Last Unicorn to name but two.

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The studio also had some legendary staff working for it – among them Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata. As producer Ethan Spaulding later revealed, Thundercats had a spectacular hidden pedigree: “A lot of the artists went on to be in Studio Ghibli,” he told MTV, “and worked on Hayao Miyazaki’s first film”. That film, funnily enough, is the subject of our next entry.

On a side note, Japanese animators had a particular way of depicting lens flares and explosions in their work. You can see it at play in Thundercats‘ title sequence, and while the show isn’t commonly thought of as anime, it captures much of the same dynamism of Japan’s finest animated output.

Warriors Of The Wind

In 1984, director Hayao Miyazaki made his feature debut with Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind, an expansive, beautiful-looking adaptation of his own 1982 manga. The film was a hit in Japan, and paved the way for the founding of Studio Ghibli – an animation house formed from the ashes of Topcraft, where Nausicaa was produced. In 1985, Nausicaa made it to the west as Warriors Of The Wind, a bowdlerised, heavily-edited version released by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures.

The film often appeared in UK video shops, and like me, you may have rented it in the assumption that it was some sort of Star Wars-type action adventure. Even in its butchered form (which, in retrospect, really was borderline criminal), Warriors Of The Wind soared thanks to Miyazaki’s animation and world-building. For many, this would have been an early, unexpected introduction to one of the medium’s undisputed masters.

Miyazaki was understandably appalled by New World’s treatment of his work, and he became much more wary about the way his subsequent films were packaged and localised outside Japan. He even managed to win a battle of wills with Harvey “scissorhands” Weinstein; when Weinstein said he wanted to edit Princess Mononoke for its American release in 1997, Miyazaki famously sent the producer a samurai sword and an accompanying note, stating “No cuts.”

I’m not sure whether the sword was meant to be a heartfelt plea or a thinly-veiled threat, but it worked: Princess Mononoke was released in its unexpurgated, uncompromising glory.

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The Transformers and Transformers: The Movie

Japanese shape-changing robots went global with The Transformers, a tie up between US toy company Hasbro and Japanese outfit Takara. A disparate set of toys, all united by their ability to be manipulated from robots into cars and household objects and back again, became a multimedia phenomenon which is still going strong 30 years later. The TV series, which first aired in the mid-1980s, was handled by Toei Animation, one of the largest and longest-standing anime companies in Japan. The show’s robots may have been voiced by the likes of Peter Cullen, Frank Welker and Casey Kasem, but the fingerprints of its Japanese animators were all over the finished product: they had a particular way of bringing hunks of metal into kinetic, thrilling life.

With 1986’s Transformers: The Movie, Toei got to throw off the shackles of the TV format and really push the quality of the animation: made on a princely budget of $6m, it looked great for the time. It was also unexpectedly violent, with beloved robots being casually killed off left and right – Hasbro had a new toyline it wanted to push, so the old faces had to go. That corporate cynicism was entirely lost on me, age nine – all I cared about was that Optimus Prime was suddenly lying dead after a fight with Megatron. Along with the small-screen death in Star Fleet mentioned earlier, the loss of Prime was another mildly traumatic childhood moment.

Jayce And The Wheeled Warriors

This action series, produced by He-Man’s J Michael Straczynski, largely passed me by when it first aired, but it’s worth including because it’s another French-Japanese co-production headed up by the prolific Jean Chalopin. About human fighters warring against a race of villains called the Monster Minds, Jayce is largely memorable for the great concept of its plant-like baddies’ ability to shift from organic form to battle machines. Jayce failed to find the popularity of shows like He-Man or Thundercats, and when its related toyline faltered, the plans for a spin-off movie were set aside. Some of Jayce‘s animation was quite cool, though – a fair portion of it was handled by Sunrise, who went on to animate Cowboy Bebop – and, as ever, its rock theme tune was a catchy one.

Dogtanian And The Three Muskehounds

In the mid-70s, the Japanese success of Heidi, Girl Of The Alps ushered in a number of other anime adaptations of European stories. Many of these, such as Alice In Wonderland, Dog Of Flanders and Anne Of Green Gables, didn’t air in the UK. But two European-Japanese co-productions did make it to our windswept isles – one being Dogtanian And The Three Muskehounds. A retelling of the Alexandre Dumas story with cute puppies and a catchy yap-yap theme tune, Dogtanian stood in stark contrast to the forbidding, doomy Ulysses 31 or the epic adventures of Cities Of Gold.

Around The World With Willy Fog

Like Dogtanian, Around The World With Willy Fog was a co-production between Spain’s BRB International and Studio Nippon and an adaptation of a classic French novel – this one, of course, by Jules Verne. Also like Dogtanian, Willy Fog is populated by cute animals, but it’s otherwise a surprisingly respectful adaptation of Verne’s globe-trotting adventure story. Willy Fog (now a lion) is an urbane Victorian gentleman who tries to make a complete trip around the world in 80 days, while a case of mistaken identity sees him pursued from country to country by Scotland Yard detective Inspector Dix, who thinks Fog robbed the bank of England.

Kids in the UK didn’t know it at the time, but they were being given an early glimpse into the sheer breadth of anime being produced in Japan. Over there, you were as likely to see gentle literary adaptations, comedies and dramas as you were giant-robot-based action shows and fantasy adventures. Told with a lightness of touch, Willy Fog was a modest delight from an animation studio who’d previously played host to the early TV work of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. And, yet again, Willy Fog had an unforgettably catchy title tune courtesy of Guido and Mairizio De Angelis.

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Robotech

For many years, this sci-fi series divided opinion among anime fans; on one hand, there were those that argued that Robotech helped introduced a generation of kids to Japanese animation, while on the other, there’s the argument that writer-producer Carl Macek held little respect for the shows he’d acquired. While it’s true that Robotech awkwardly throws together three largely unrelated anime: Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada, I fall into the former camp: a straight translation of all three shows would have been preferable, but Robotech still managed to bring a style of animation to an audience that might otherwise have missed it.

Robotech’s best-known story is its first: the Macross Saga. In the far future, Earth has managed to reverse-engineer some advanced alien technology, and our finest pilots now fly around in transforming planes (designed, in spectacular fashion, by Shoji Kawamori). But then an alien race of giants called the Zentraedi decide to invade, and only the crew of the SDF-1 space battle cruiser can save humanity from destruction. Oh, and the singing abilities of an idol singer named Lynn Minmay may also prove helpful.

Frustratingly, Robotech didn’t air on terrestrial UK television,  but a company called Screen Gems released the first two episodes on VHS in the mid-to-late 80s. Around the same time, the Carl Macek-produced Robotech: The Movie also appeared on tape. Once again, it was entirely unrelated to the stories cobbled together in the series; the film was largely derived from Megazone 23, a fantastic anime from director Macross director Noboru Ishiguro. For many viewers in the UK – your humble writer included – Robotech provided an early exposure to the awesome mecha that kids took for granted in Japan. Macek may have been a controversial figure for some, but his work on Robotech arguably paved the way for the anime and manga explosion which began in the late 80s and early 90s.

Akira

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7G5zQW4TinQ

Here it is: director Katsuhiro Otomo’s sci-fi masterpiece that brought anime to the attention of a whole new audience. A hit in Japan, Akira was, like many other Japanese animated features, largely shown in arthouse cinemas in the US. But when Carl Macek’s company Streamline Pictures put Akira out on video, and largely born by word of mouth, Akira grew into a cult phenomenon.

By 1991, the Streamline dub of Akira had appeared in UK shops, courtesy of Island World Communications. Its impact, on this writer at least, was seismic: its animation was of a calibre unlike any I’d ever seen; it was deliriously violent, intelligent, bewilderingly plotted and unspeakably cool.

The film is now rightly regarded as a classic, and its success in the UK prompted Island World to change its name to Manga Entertainment, and it began to release a string of anime on videotape, including Golgo 13, Fist Of The Northstar, the knock-about Project A-Ko and the sublime Ghost In The Shell.

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Suddenly, the UK had a window into the anime realm, and things would never be quite the same again.

Honourable mention: Krypton Force videos

This is where things get a bit weird. If you lived in the UK and wanted to get hold of Japanese shows like UFO Robot Grendizer or Leiji Matsumoto’s Starzinger in the 80s, the best place to start was the bargain bin at your local video shop. Back then, tiny companies like Krypton Force were punting these shows out on tape. The boxes were clad in shoddy, homemade looking artwork, and it sometimes felt as though you were watching a bootleg rather than a legitimate release – the picture quality was hideous, the sound warbled, the introductory graphics looked as though they’d been knocked up on a Commodore 64, and the stories had been badly edited to oblivion.

Nevertheless, if you wanted at least a glimpse of great, obscure anime – often going under anonymous titles like The Protectors or Sci-Bots – these poverty-row videos were pretty much your only option. You kids with your internet and a ready supply of manga and anime on tap – you really don’t know how lucky you are.