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The Essential Anime Guide is the guide every fan needs to the classic, must-see anime series and films that transformed both Japanese and Western pop culture. Organized by release date and with entries by experts in the anime field, this guide provides a comprehensive, behind-the-scenes look into the history and impact of these classic anime. Both casual fans and serious otaku alike will discover a fun and surprisingly touching portrait of the true impact of anime on pop culture.
Ranging from classic series to modern films, this official guide will explore iconic and must-see:
- Feature films: Akira (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997), Millennium Actress (2001), Metropolis (2001),Tekkonkinkreet (2006), Sword of the Stranger (2007), Summer Wars (2009), and Your Name (2016)
- Series: Astro Boy (1968), Lupin the 3rd (1967), Macross (1982), Ranma 1/2 (1989), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), Dragon Ball Z (1989), Sailor Moon (1992), Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997), Pokémon (1997), One Piece (1999), Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), K-On! (2007), Sword Art Online (2012), Yuri!! On Ice (2016), and My Hero Academia (2018)
- And many more!
Welcome to the world of anime!
Whether you are a new fan or someone who has been part of the community for a while, this book is for you. Now, more than ever, anime feels like an important cornerstone in modern entertainment and pop culture, so we wrote this book as a guide to help answer questions like: how did anime get started?, how did it become popular in the US?, and as someone who’s curious, what should I watch first?
As you’ll soon discover, anime is more than just fictional characters and beautiful animation, it is often personal and has a rich history that pulls inspiration from countless places—including itself. Plus, anime is a medium that is continuously growing every day, which made creating this book a unique challenge. So, we thought the best way to start would be to sit down and ask, “why anime?” Here, we discuss our personal journeys into the medium, its global appeal, and break down how we went about writing this book and what it means to create an essential list of one of the most important and exciting mediums in history.
HOW DID YOU FIRST BECOME AN ANIME FAN?
SAMUEL SATTIN: In the early nineties, after I turned twelve, I began renting videotapes at the grocery store. They never checked IDs there so I would rent super bloody action flicks like American Ninja and Bloodsport. Back then, American cartoons were universally angled toward kids, which was great until I got curious about more mature subject matter. Enter the Fist of the North Star movie. I watched it at a friend’s house in 1995 and was entranced. Adult narratives, but animated? Whatever this stuff was, it was as if it was tailored just for me.
I didn’t know it at the time but, looking back, I think anime appealed to a lot of kids because it didn’t talk down to them. Anime gave me exactly what I needed at that age: complexity. I quickly got hooked, next with Akira, and after that, Ranma ½, which I became obsessed with.
PATRICK MACIAS: One of the first movies I ever saw was Gisaburō Sugii’s Jack and the Beanstalk. It was weird and scary and made a big impression on me as a three-year-old. A few years later, I caught Speed Racer and Battle of the Planets (aka Science Ninja Team Gatchaman) on TV. I could tell that these were not American cartoons… they looked and felt very different… they were way more dramatic than, say, Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. Plus, they had Japanese names in the production credits!
But, I guess it was really Star Blazers in 1980 that really put me on the path to becoming a hardcore anime fan. I would visit Japantown in San Francisco to look for anything related to Space Battleship Yamato (the original Japanese version of Star Blazers) and I’d see all these anime books and magazines for sale. It was clear that there was some kind of incredible animation boom happening in Japan and I wanted to know more. I soon discovered some Japanese video stores in my hometown of Sacramento that were renting out raw, un-subtitled anime tapes and I began watching as much as I could.
The thing about anime back then was that it seemed like it just kept getting better and better. The quality of the animation and storytelling, along with the sheer amount of titles being released, just keep increasing every year. Anime was expanding in so many different directions at once. There was this linear progression from Speed Racer to Akira happening in real time, and it seemed like the most exciting thing going in pop culture. I couldn’t stop watching and became totally hooked.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE APPEAL OF ANIME?
SAMUEL: Anime has historically continued to push narrative boundaries, taking what we might consider to be traditional, marketable stories and wringing out their possibilities. Even if things fall apart, which they sometimes do, the ambition alone is remarkable, and I respect that so much. The first time I saw Neon Genesis Evangelion, I’d never seen a story that had been told like that. Here we had a sci-fi giant monster story pushed into the realm of psychodrama and intense metaphysics. I still think that if anyone had tried to create something like it in the United States, it would probably have been deemed too bizarre. But as anime, it worked, and not only did it work, it became a staple of modern fandom. The willingness to push the envelope on a popular level really stands in opposition to Western—particularly American—animation’s history of pulling back, and in the worst cases, dumbing down.
PATRICK: I think anime shows us that you don’t always have to stay inside the usual genre boundaries. At its best, anime mixes up a bit of everything to create something new. Often, there’s a more complex, nuanced approach to good and evil, morality, even gender and sexuality, than you find in animation from other countries. Also—and this is a big point—there’s something for everyone. If you like science fiction, romance, sports, superheroes, slice of life, and so on, there’s likely to be something in anime for you to engage with.
WHAT CAN ANIME DO THAT OTHER KINDS OF ENTERTAINMENT CAN’T?
SAMUEL: In animation you can exaggerate and transform bodies and faces and emotions in radical ways that are impossible in live action—which can be jarring sometimes, especially when it comes to sex or violence. I still recall the first time I saw the opening scene in Akira when a character is shot by military personnel, turning his body into tattered ruins. That image really stunned me. I think in animation, your imagination is just willing to take more leaps.
PATRICK: Anime has such incredible flexibility in terms of style. A show can flip from serious drama to comedy with real ease. The characters can sometimes even change appearance to match their emotions in the blink of an eye. Also, the emotions in anime can get incredibly big and dramatic. A series like Attack on Titan can wind up being gripping and intense in a way that live-action simply isn’t. For instance, when they made a live-action Attack on Titan movie in Japan, the result just couldn’t compare to what the original anime or manga was able to accomplish.
SO, WHAT IS “ESSENTIAL ANIME”… AND WHAT ISN’T?
PATRICK: In writing this book, we had to think about, “what is the story of anime?” and within that larger historical narrative, from say, Astro Boy in 1963 to Demon Slayer in the present, what are some of the titles someone needs to know about to get an understanding of anime? We tried to get a good balance of old-school classics and newer titles. After all, you can’t really talk about anime without spending some time discussing innovative early works like Speed Racer or Mobile Suit Gundam. Then, in the contemporary anime landscape, a show like Sword Art Online is important in terms of the influence it has had, even if it’s not necessarily a great work of art. But recent anime is filled with isekai (“another world”) shows, which Sword Art Online helped popularize, so we’d be at fault if we didn’t discuss it at length. So “essential” to us means the story of anime would have been different without a particular title.
In some cases, it also came down to personal choice. For instance, many of Satoshi Kon’s works count as strong contenders for any list of essential anime, but we felt we needed just one representative work from him—in this case Millennium Actress, and sometimes we had a personal connection to an anime that tipped the scales and made it “essential.”
SAMUEL: Exactly. Whether or not we personally love everything we picked wasn’t as important as choosing what we thought was relevant to where anime has arrived globally at this point in time. Take Pokémon the Series for instance. It’s not something I especially enjoy, but it’s impossible to envision the anime industry being where it is today without it acting as a major player, particularly as it pertains to the business models that linked it to the video and card games. Then, as Patrick points out, there are some choices on the list that might be influenced by personal taste. For instance, when it comes to Miyazaki, many may choose Spirited Away as his most consequential film, but we chose Princess Mononoke, mainly because of a link I discovered between how the film brought Studio Ghibli to the global stage and how it resonated for me on a personal level. In short, then, I’d say that we didn’t choose any titles just because we enjoy them personally, but some of our personal opinions may have tipped the scales in one direction or another.
PATRICK: We’re not saying, “there are only fifty anime that are essential!” Please think of this book as just one version of the story of anime informed by our perspective as fans.
WHO ARE THE OTHER CONTRIBUTORS?
PATRICK: We wanted to have other voices in this book besides just ourselves, so I asked some friends who I worked with at Crunchyroll News and Otaku USA to contribute. I wanted them to write about anime that they were passionate about. For instance, Joseph Luster is really into shōnen anime like Dragon Ball Z and Naruto, so I wanted that passion in this book. The same with Matt Schley and Redline, Michelle Liu and Yuri!!! on Ice, and Kara Dennison with her chapters on The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and K-On!
SAMUEL: Yes, we wanted to gather a list of people who could not only give us a diverse set of opinions on anime but who could explain some things better than we could. For example, one of the writers, Ivy Noelle Weir, is a Sailor Moon fanatic, and while I know a little about Sailor Moon, I would not be able to write about it in the way that she could. The same is true with Briana Lawrence, who writes about anime for The Mary Sue, and wrote a couple of amazing pieces about Madoka Magica and Utena. We also got Deb Aoki, who does a lot of manga journalism, to write something on In This Corner of the World. Deb talked about what the film meant to her personally since some of her family has a personal connection to World War II, and she was able to write about it in a way that other people, myself included, wouldn’t have been able to. So I think there’s something really important about being able to get different voices in to speak to things that they really know about.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN WHILE MAKING THIS BOOK?
SAMUEL: Firstly, there are a couple of anime like Fist of the North Star and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure that I loved before, but, after deep dive research, now just completely adore. I also learned a lot about the anime industry itself, and its evolution over time. For example, when I was researching Memories and watching all the interviews with Katsuhiro Otomo, Koji Morimoto, Tensai Okamura, and others about working on the film, it was amazing to see how people transition from acting as animators to animation directors. It was also interesting to see how technology has evolved and how certain projects pioneer new methods of animation that, to viewers, often go unnoticed.
PATRICK: I think for me it was really seeing how newer anime compares with older classic titles. Recent hits like Devilman Crybaby, Demon Slayer, and Mob Psycho 100 are just terrific entertainment. I may not have a deep personal connection to these titles that I do with older anime, but writing this book really reaffirmed for me that anime is in a good place right now. I hope this book can help bridge the gap between older fans who may have missed some of the newer titles and younger fans who are curious about anime history.
We hope this interview helped shed a little light on how and why we selected the fifty animated series and films that you are about to encounter. We know that some might feel that we forgot some truly fantastic anime and, who knows, maybe we’ll get to do another book and add those in (and more!). That said, we tried to ensure that The Essential Anime Guide pays tribute to the iconic and beloved anime titles that show the history and evolution of the medium and that have inspired not only us but also countless fans around the world. So, with that in mind, please enjoy The Essential Anime Guide!
After being built and discarded by a morally dubious scientist, an android boy with human emotions finds his place in society as a hero for humanity and robotkind.
WHY IT’S ESSENTIAL: Astro Boy created the anime medium as we know it today, in terms of both style and industry practices.
When we think of the originators of animation in the United States and, to an extent, the world over, we think of Walt Disney. Though animated works had been produced before it in various capacities, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) is considered the first fully hand-drawn feature film not lost to obscurity. From there Disney rose to become an all-powerful animation monolith that dominated the globe—and continues to do so to this day. With their distinctly American origins, animated Disney films have always presented a sanitized vision of the much grittier fairy tales and stories from which they derive. Never mind the curious, often violent origins of these fables; Disney has reduced morally complex, sometimes brutal tales—from Snow White and Cinderella to Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid—to a more digestible paste in the interest of “living happily ever after.”
One thing we can gather from watching anime, however, is that the producers of these stories, even the ones geared toward younger audiences, are far less squeamish about depicting the less savory aspects of human behavior—for good and for bad. Though the reasons for this are largely cultural, there’s truly one person in the world who can be credited for such an approach as well as for the rise of the medium this entire book revolves around: Osamu Tezuka.
So, where to begin with Osamu Tezuka? We can talk about his origins: a descendant of a prominent samurai family, born in Osaka in 1928, the eldest of three children. We can talk about how he was first exposed to Walt Disney films—Bambi (1942), most notably—as a child, and began creating publishable manga in elementary school. We can talk about how, although he wasn’t the first manga artist (Japanese comics can be traced back to the twelfth century), he did become known as the first modern mangaka (manga artist), creating over seven hundred volumes, a seemingly impossible number of comics, comprising more than 150,000 pages. We can talk about how, without Tezuka, the anime industry would simply not exist. A pioneer, an impassioned cross-genre storyteller who started out in lighter kids’ entertainment and then veered into darker territory, an environmentalist and, albeit imperfectly, socially aware and eco-conscious man whose work ethic would serve as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale.
Tezuka’s influence isn’t just felt on all of manga and anime, he is considered the mind behind its establishment. And not without consequence. Tezuka’s last words, spoken to a nurse on his relatively early deathbed at age sixty, were, reportedly, “I’m begging you, let me work!” And it is precisely that tortured insistence to constantly continue creating, without rest, that paints a picture of Tezuka as not just an analogue of Walt Disney in Japan but as an ardent creative with an activist edge. He was the creator of heroes who could be as imperfect, imperiled, and corrupt as his villains, and he was a brilliant businessman whose desire was to make manga and anime cultural mainstays in Japan and then turn them into global phenomenons.
A testament to his creative skills, Tezuka’s work ran the emotional and tonal gamut during his career. Many of his most famous creations in Japan—like Black Jack, a series about a larger-than-life super surgeon who uses unconventional and often supernatural techniques to cure patients—are rarely embraced in the West. Tezuka is also the mind behind seminal works like Buddha (1972–1983), Phoenix (1954–1988), Dororo (1967–1969), Princess Knight (1953–1956), and the Kimba the White Lion series (1950–1954)—the latter of which had its plot, characters, and even some specific scenes later copied by Disney’s The Lion King. However, internationally, the creation that stands above all the rest is his epic tale of a bizarro robot Pinocchio, known in the US as Astro Boy.
TEZUKA’S MANGA LEGACY
It cannot be understated just how much mastery of the comics medium in particular Tezuka wielded. In the thousands upon thousands of pages he created, you can see a dizzying exploration of technique on display. It might sound like an exaggeration to say that Tezuka plumbed every last nook and cranny of the comics medium from a visual perspective, but I have found that most every innovation held up as new today can already be found in one of his over 150,000 pages. “Comics are an international language,” Tezuka famously once said. “They can cross boundaries and generations. Comics are a bridge between all cultures.” Truly, through trial and error, Tezuka crossed every bridge he could, always with an eye toward the next one residing in the distant unknown. With this in mind, that Tezuka was able to translate his near endless curiosity and innovation into animation is understandable. He was an ambitious and prolific storyteller, but above all, he was a bottler of lightning, a standard-bearer whose legacy is impossible to ignore, even for those who find his work outdated.
Titled Tetsuwan Atom (Mighty Atom) in Japan, Astro Boy is an essential anime for a number of reasons, the principal of these being that it pretty much built the foundation of the medium as we know it. There were animated films produced in Japan before Astro Boy took the stage, but the techniques, aesthetics, and production methods laid out by Tezuka would found the industry and establish its standards from that point forward. The idea of creating quality half-hour television slots seemed impossible at the time, due to the amount of detail and effort involved in bringing animation to the screen on a weekly schedule. However, Tezuka brought his visual aesthetic to the table, which he had laid out over thousands of pages of manga, and used techniques he would refer to as “limited animation” to make the improbable a reality.
These techniques included having characters open their mouths rapidly without timing the action with the dialogue, which eliminated the expensive problem of making characters visually sound out every word. He also reduced the number of frames used overall, reused cells, used his original manga pages as storyboards, and more, all in the interest of keeping the budget wieldy and meeting the demands of the schedule. One might think the result of all this corner cutting would be an inferior product, but after seeing his work, more serious animators found themselves begrudgingly admitting that Tezuka’s methodology could lead to the creation of polished, fast-paced serial works. Works that would soon turn heads the world over.
Even in modern anime, with its large-eyed characters and striking depictions of motion and action, we see Tezuka’s legacy on full display. And the artist wasn’t shy about revealing where he found inspiration early in his career. The large, expressive eyes, in particular, he borrowed from Walt Disney (specifically from Bambi, with which he was obsessed), mixed with a bit of Betty Boop for good measure. Of Disney’s influence, Tezuka was once quoted as saying, “Around 1945, daily life might have been hard, but the reputation of Disney was at its highest. The voices of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck had stabilized, Snow White and Bambi were huge hits and had received a number of international prizes. It really was like the brightness of a rising sun. And then Japanese children after the war had no choice but to face the flood of Disney comics that accompanied the brainwashing of ‘American democracy.’ That was their merit as propaganda against the Japanese.” It is thus possible to infer that Tezuka’s appreciation of Disney was combined with an understandable desire to break away from its imperialist reach and create something Japan could call its own.
It is with this idea of creating an alternative to the emergent Western entertainment empire that one can see, for instance, how he borrowed the idea of creating an iconic character silhouette from Disney, with the goal of making an ambassador for his forthcoming comics and animation empire. As with Mickey Mouse’s ears, Astro Boy’s hair never changes shape, no matter the angle, leading to easy recognition of the character. Intelligent decisions like this made it so that Astro Boy’s design would strive for global popularity while still being distinctly Japanese in terms of storytelling and command of visual language, which seems like the goal Tezuka was trying to achieve. Visual language in particular was Tezuka’s strongest point and an area in which he was an innovator of uncanny pedigree, leading directly to everything we know about manga and anime today.
Originally published in manga format in 1952, Astro Boy would have multiple adventures spanning numerous plot arcs, many of which made their way into the animated series. The universe Tezuka created for Astro Boy was—unlike those depicted in a lot of dystopian science fiction, particularly when it comes to robotics—an aspirational utopia. Tezuka positioned robots not as dangerous inventions that would come to claim their creators’ heads, but as steadfast constructs worthy of respect, whose role in society is to help humanity. If anything, the villains in the Astro Boy universe are human beings. Scientists, mobsters, corrupt politicians—anyone with an eye toward exploitation. In fact, Astro Boy’s most famed antagonist, Pluto, is built by a power-mad ruler with the express intention of creating the world’s strongest robot.
The fact that Pluto is designed to fight is an affront to the purpose of robotkind and ultimately leads to Astro Boy modifying his own body in a Faustian bargain with his original creator, Dr. Tenma, in order to set things right. As the arc comes to a close, Astro Boy and Pluto end up becoming allies, and the sad reality of Pluto’s combat-purposed design leads to him dying a martyr. This is all to say that in Tezuka’s Astro Boy universe, it is humans who are dangerous, while robots are miracles of science and creativity whose place in society must be valued.
- On Sale
- Oct 3, 2023
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Running Press