The earliest anime series debuted in the 1960s, and, like any medium, each successive work influenced the next in a number of interesting and important ways. Where do the tropes emblematic of slice-of-life rom-com series come from? What did shounen anime look like in the ’80s? Where did some of the most influential creators in today’s anime industry find their start?
Even for those who aren’t interested in the history of anime as an industry, these are great shows in their own right. Anime may have experienced a major boom in the ’90s in Western countries, but there’s a ton of excellent material for those willing to dig just a little bit deeper into the past.
Updated on January 26th, 2022 by Tanner Fox: The best old anime can not only provide viewers with a lot of context for the traditions of today but they’re also filled with designs that are still striking and inspiring after several decades. As time marches on, shows that were once considered modern classics have turned into old school anime icons, becoming cemented as much-watches for people seeking to encompass the entire medium.
Space Battleship Yamato (1974 – 1975)
The original 1974 Space Battleship Yamato is without a doubt anime’s most seminal space opera. Devasted by unrelenting attacks from an alien adversary, humanity sends its last hope into space—that being the battleship Yamato and her crew, who are tasked with securing a device that might yet be able to reverse the devastation on Earth.
The brainchild of Leiji Matsumoto; Space Battleship Yamato is a space opera in the truest sense of the term. This is at its core a nautical adventure with a transplanted setting featuring acts of great heroism and self-sacrifice, honor, and the inherent nobility of a lone ship tasked with saving humanity against impossible odds.
Yu Yu Hakusho (1992 – 1994)
When street thug Yusuke Urameshi dives in front of an oncoming car to save a child’s life, he’s killed and revived as a ghost in order to see firsthand the surprising effects his death imparts on those he knew. He is then returned to his body to serve as an envoy of the underworld.
Yu Yu Hakusho helped to establish now-staple shonen tropes, but it also proved that the genre could be more than collections of highly-dramatized fight scenes. The series persists in some form to this day, but it’s best remembered as one of the most important series to debut in the early ’90s.
Top Wo Nerae!! Gunbuster (1988 – 1989)
If there were ever to be a competition to identify the most iconic ’80s anime ever made, it’s probable that Gunbuster would emerge victoriously. Robots, training montages, and badass sunglasses—this one has it all. The ’80s camp can be deceiving; although it might appear to be little more than Top Gun with robots, the story ventures to some dark places later on.
It’s also worth mentioning that Gunbuster is the directorial debut of Hideaki Anno of Evangelion fame. Fans of his work will definitely want to check this one out, but its appeal for general audiences shouldn’t be understated as well. Finally, this anime series only six episodes long, meaning that there simply isn’t a good reason not to give it a look.
Fist Of The North Star (1984 – 1987)
Everyone who’s ever made an “omae wa mou shindeiru” joke is actually contractually obligated to watch Fist of the North Star. This post-apocalyptic ’80s classic absolutely embodies the zeitgeist in shounen manga at the time, that being huge dudes in a Mad Max-style wasteland beat each other up in gory kung-fu battles, and it really doesn’t get any better than that.
Fist of the North Star is structurally simple. The protagonist, Kenshiro, is the inheritor of a secret style of deadly martial arts. He takes it upon himself to cleanse the wasteland of evil by way of blowing bad guys’ heads up using a special technique. Villains and allies join the fray along the ride, making this a shounen action classic that isn’t to be missed.
Speed Racer (1967 – 1968)
Often compared to Jonny Quest, one of the most influential pieces of 1960s children’s media, Speed Racer was among the first anime series to receive localization for Western audiences. Starring the Racer family, the series was known for its instances of slapstick comedy and for its breakneck narrative pace.
As silly as it is today, there’s something remarkably endearing about the original run of Speed Racer. It comes across as terribly dated, but anime fans may well enjoy experiencing such a seminal part of the genre’s history. It also received a notable live-action movie adaptation helmed by the Wachowski sisters in 2008.
Legend Of Galactic Heroes (1988 – 1997)
Debuting in 1988, Legend of Galactic Heroes is a sprawling space epic, and the use of the term “epic” is deliberate here., as LoGH spans 110 episodes, as well as a handful of movies and side-stories. It’s a War and Peace-esque story full of shifting loyalties, complex interstellar politics, and engaging tactical fleet battles.
Those looking to sink their teeth into a massive story with loads of characters and factions can end their search here. Don’t expect that the weight of interstellar war comes at the expense of the characters, though; LoGH features an extremely memorable cast of well-developed characters.
Urusei Yatsura (1981 – 1986)
One of Japan’s preeminent manga artists, Rumiko Takahashi, can be credited for essentially inventing the rom-com as we currently know it in the worlds of anime and manga. Her works, like Ranma 1/2 and Inuyasha, have been wildly successful in their own right, but the earlier anime adaptations of her manga deserve attention as well.
Of particular interest is the lighthearted romantic comedy Urusei Yatsura, which features a no-good guy who unexpectedly finds himself at the center of extraterrestrial female attention. Hijinks ensue. In many ways, Urusei Yatsura is the prototypical anime rom-com, and many of the tropes that pervade the genre today can be traced back to this common ancestor.
Astro Boy (1963 – 1966)
Considered by some to be the first-ever anime series, Astro Boy began life as a moderately-successful manga series before making the jump to television in 1963. A hero story that combined a fairytale-like mythos with influence from the atomic age, Astro Boy was as influential to the world of anime as it was to the rapidly-expanding genre of science fiction.
Without Astro Boy, anime, as it’s known now, may not exist. From mecha classics like Mobile Suit Gundam to modern-day shonen staples like My Hero Academia, many of the medium’s all-time greatest hits owe something to this ’60s classic.
Aim For The Ace! (1973 – 1974)
Aim For The Ace! is one of anime’s quintessential sports stories; it’s a classic tale of an untalented tennis player who’s able to rise through the ranks by the power of hard work and perseverance. Along for the ride are an intense coach, aloof role models, and a gaggle of jealous rivals who conspire to bring about the protagonist’s downfall.
Despite the straightforward premise and themes, Aim For The Ace! manages to be thoroughly endearing on account of how earnest it is. This is a show about how perseverance works out in the end, and, as the audience watches Hiromi struggle to improve, they’ll come to trust the process, as well.
Future Boy Conan (1978)
1978’s Future Boy Conan chronicles the adventures of a titular protagonist in a post-apocalyptic future in which war and climate change have obliterated most of humanity. Conan believes he and his grandfather to be the last humans alive, but this preconception is shattered when a mysterious girl washes ashore on their island refuge.
It’s impossible to mention Future Boy Conan without stressing that this is the first anime project that the now-legendary Hayao Miyazaki is credited as the lead director on. Despite being an early work for him, the characteristic imagination and sense of setting that his Ghibli films are beloved for shine through. Anybody interested in Miyazaki’s work—or in Ghibli movies in general—should definitely check this one out.
Super Dimensional Fortress Macross (1982 – 1983)
When an alien ship crashlands on Earth, humanity enters a new age of technological achievement. But, when an alien species attempts to invade years later, the citizens of the Macross are teleported lightyears away and must fight to return home.
One part epic mech anime and one part tense romance, Super Dimensional Fortress Macross is responsible in part for popularizing multiple aspects of the shonen genre. Both an otherworldly space opera and a very human tale of struggle, this series helped to lay the groundwork upon which series like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Code Geass would build.
Mobile Suit Gundam (1979 – 1980)
Although Mobile Suit Gundam doesn’t hold the title of “first mecha anime,” it does deserve a lot of credit for revolutionizing the way that audiences going forward would view the subgenre. The 1979 series was groundbreaking for using its science-fiction setting populated with a healthy dose of giant robots to tell a remarkably grounded war story, full of tragedy, action, and space politics.
The show was inhibited by its modest budget, though, and a variety of mishaps during production resulted in some occasionally janky animation. Yet, the excellent storyboarding and character designs make it a worthwhile watch decades later.
Ashita No Joe (1970 – 1971)
Ashita no Joe is indisputably one of the most important and influential anime ever produced. Adapted from the manga of the same name, the 1970 television anime tells the story of a boxer named Joe rising to fame from nothing, struggling not only against his opponents but against society and the system itself to eke out his own niche.
It’s a gritty story of one man’s struggle to stake out his place in the world, and it resonated with the Japanese audiences of the ’60s and ’70s as their country weathered a period of economic and political transition. Young Japanese viewers at the time may have seen a bit of themselves in Joe, a character who, despite his chaotic surroundings, is able to forge ahead on his own path.
Lupin the 3rd Part I (1972 – 1973)
An amalgamation of popular French and Japanese crime novels from the early twentieth century, Lupin the 3rd sees the titular character, a master thief, band together with a group of friends in pursuit of treasure, adventure, and intrigue. All the while, they are pursued by a detective hellbent on putting a stop to their antics.
Incredibly well-animated for the time, Lupin the 3rd set a new standard for anime. It also helped to establish anime culture and influenced hugely popular anime series like Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy.
Rose Of Versailles (1979 – 1980)
Considered by many to be legendary director Osamu Dezaki’s masterwork; Rose of Versailles is an operatic tale of love, war, drama, and intrigue. The story follows a cast of characters from different walks of life in the build-up to the French revolution, and the anime leverages this setting marvelously. The audience can feel the mounting dread in the air as Paris creeps closer and closer to its descent into chaos, and the story’s characters must adapt.
Exceptional pacing, well-constructed characters, and passionate melodrama have made Versailles a classic for the ages. It’s also one of the most enormously influential works in the world of shoujo anime, being credited as a primary influence for creators like Kunihiko Ikuhara in his work on Revolutionary Girl Utena.
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