I listened in to a recent episode of Retronauts, excellent retro gaming podcast if you are interested, and I’ve been thinking a bit about how I became such big fan of Japan. I mean, it’s quite a strange phenomenon really. Before the long reach of the Internet, how could a small kid from New England have stumbled across enough pop-culture from a country on the other side of the planet to make him into the nerd he is today?
For those who need a little history, Japan was an economic powerhouse back in the 1980s when I was born. The booming economy meant the country was flush with money, and corporations could buy American baseball teams and put iconic American car companies out of business!
Naturally, Americans reacted harshly and suspiciously towards this, much as they do towards China these days. You know, because that’s just how we roll.
That didn’t mean that capitalists in America were about to ignore the pop-culture boom that accompanied this trend. A line of business suits and money counters were poised and ready to pounce on anything Japanese that seemed like it could boom across the globe. Nintendo is the most obvious of examples. Right at the peak of Japan’s economic bubble, the NES erupted into America, dooming a generation of American youths into embracing its culture like it was its own.
Nintendo games weren’t overly Japanese though. Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Contra and Mega Man were my favorites back then, and the most animé inspired of the bunch, Mega Man, didn’t especially play up its country’s roots. I didn’t recognize them as Japanese, and I can’t really see how they would inspire a love of animé or Japanese style besides the simple knowledge of knowing that’s where they came from.
I distinctly remember the day it dawned on me that Nintendo and all of my favorite games came from Japan too. I don’t have a perfect memory, but I have a strong enough one to pick out many moments from my early childhood. I was having a conversation with my mother about wanting to make Mega Man games when I grew up.
She said I would have to move to Japan since that’s where all of the video games come from.
Hey Mom! Followed your advice!
However, that was at the age of seven. I remember the date because Mega Man 5 had just come out, and I was holding the NES manual during this conversation. That was 1992, the same year Japanese figure skater Midori Ito won the silver medal for figure skating in the Winter Olympics, and I remember falling in love with her.
Seven is still young, but the day this realization came to me, it all made sense. Of course! Japan! I watched those cartoons. Wait, what cartoons? I know about “Japanimation,” but had I seen any before? There must have been something else there before …
Fast-forward a few more years to about 1998 and a cartoon called Dragon Ball Z had just hit the American airwaves on a new action block called Toonami. I turned it on coincidentally the first day it aired on Cartoon Network, and I was immediately hooked. This led to Sailor Moon, Voltron (which I think I already liked from The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest days, but didn’t make the connection), Battle of the Planets, and eventually Outlaw Star … you know the list if you are my age.
I’m still not a Gundam fan, though.
Dragon Ball Z was a watershed moment of my childhood, but I remember how easy it was to just fall in line and accept it. Accept the storytelling. Accept the character designs. Accept the facial expressions, character movements, and attention to detail in the scenery. It felt so natural to me, which was weird because this was my first mature experience with a Japanese cartoon.
Or was it? There must have been a seed planted in my imagination long before in my earliest of childhood memories.
I think I have found that antecedent perpetrator … Nick Jr. I’m blaming you for this!
For those who don’t know, Nick Jr, it used to be a block of children’s programming on Nickelodeon early in the morning before the older kid cartoons like Rugrats and Ren & Stimpy came on. Some of the more memorable shows like Eureka’s Castle, The Elephant Show, and the eternally epic The World of David the Gnome were Western made. However, if you take a solid look back at the list of cartoons that aired during that late 80s time frame, when I was just four of five years old, you’ll realize … there is a whole lot of animé here.
Let’s take a quick look at these shows, shall we?
Maya the Bee
I first suspected that it was Nick Jr. because I have fully-realized, conscious memories of just one of these shows. Maya the Bee (Mitsubachi Māya no Bōken) from Nippon Animation, was the story of an adventurous honey bee named Maya and her friends: a whiny bee named Willy and her top-hat wearing grasshopper friend, Flip. It first aired in 1990 meaning I was four or five years old and at the exact right age to appreciate it. Not too young, not too old.
Every episode was about Maya getting into trouble, going on an adventure, or stumbling across a cranky person, and her charm would have to persevere to save the day. Bees were terrified of humans, mirroring the fear that human kids feel towards bees, but Maya believed that everyone could be friends.
This is purely from the memory of a four-year-old, but I recall one episode featured a sand castle building competition held by the humans. Flip fell asleep in one of the castles, and he was washed out to sea when the tide came in.
Another episode starred both Maya and Willy, and the pair find delicious, blooming flowers with the best pollen they had ever eaten. However, a greedy bee staunchly defended his flowers from outsiders and refused to share with them. It took Maya’s reasoning to convince him that spreading pollen helped plants reproduce and the flowers would die if he refused to share.
A final memory I have, besides the theme song, was an episode of Flip getting stuck in a venus flytrap and him having to hold the blades from closing on him until help came. Quite traumatizing.
I loved this show, and I can quite confidently say that this was my “first” animé. As a kid, I could tell the animation was different from what the other cartoons looked like, and it just stuck with me for maybe the same reasons animé sticks with kids so easily in Japan.
Also, putting it side by side with some of the more playful early episodes of Dragon Ball Z, like when Gohan is training, makes a pretty clear line of evolution of how a kid could go from liking one show as a kid in the late 80s to a teenager liking the other in the late 90s. The scenery looks the same, the character’s reactions and facial expressions don’t look all that different.
It’s quite shocking to go back to this show and really look at how it influenced my taste in animé as I grew older. I’ve grown to like more carefree adventures with a focus on beautiful nature, innocence, and discovery. Yotsuba & is the only manga I really read anymore, and its spirit perfectly matches what Maya the Bee taught me as a kid.
Nick Jr. Japanimation
Besides Maya the Bee, the one I remember the most is The Little Bits (Mori no Yōki na Kobitotachi: Berufi to Rirubitto). To further speak about the quality of the show, it was produced by the legendary Tatsunoko Productions, one of Japan’s most iconic studios.
This was a very fun fantasy tale about a group of kid dwarves living in the forest. I can’t remember any specific storylines from the episodes, but I definitely remember Snuffly the flying squirrel and remember thinking as a kid that squirrels don’t fly.
Flying squirrels were always something I associated with Japanese cartoons as well since one popped up in Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.
If we dig a bit deeper, I think this was the show where I noticed how the faces, more specifically the eyes and teeth, were animated differently. Maya the Bee stands out because of its natural scenery, but The Little Bits was all about the characters and their faces. The animals too. There is very little deviation or original style to them, just pure, classic animé eyes from a children’s show.
The theme song was also very catchy, and it took two seconds of the YouTube video for it to all come crashing back on me like a tidal wave. Again, this first aired in 1989 and shared similar timing with Maya the Bee. This is probably why I remember it better.
I can also barely remember Adventures of the Little Koala (Koara Bōi Kokki) from Topcraft and Tohokushinsha Film. No specifics episodes or characters, just the feeling of definitely having watched this.
The exact same goes for this show as it does for Maya the Bee. Japan has always been superb at depicting the magic of fun in the countryside. Good friends, wholesome adventures, good times. Just look at that opening frame with the water falling off of the leaf. That would not exist in an American cartoon at the time. Very clean, very beautiful.
Adventures of the Little Koala was dubbed by a company called Cinar, unlike most of these other shows that were handled by the same company.
If you haven’t noticed yet, each of these shows share a lot of voice actors and sport the same font during the credit rolls. That’s because Nick Jr. cut a deal with an American-Israeli company called Saban Entertainment who handled distribution of a lot of animé during the 80s and 90s. Samurai Pizza Cats (Kyattō Ninden Teyandē) was another show it is pretty famous for.
Kid shows weren’t all it specialized in either because it was the first company to bring Dragon Ball Z to the States. The dub it used came from Ocean Group, and this why the show’s dub infamously changed halfway through the Frieza Saga back during it initial run. “Rock the Dragon” became a thing in the Staes thanks to Saban until Funimation snagged the license up from it.
Saban Entertainment also remixed a number of tokusatsu shows for American audiences, most famously Power Ranger and VR Troopers, and helped distribute American cartoons as well with the most notable being the X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons from the early 90s. Its style became horribly dated by the end of the decade, and few attempts at feature length movies failed miserably.
Saban went under in 2002 with a mixed legacy of quality, but without Saban, “Japanimation” might have taken much longer to be a legitimate movement in America.
Another cartoon I remember with the aid of YouTube was called Noozles (Fushigina Koara Burinkī) from Nippon Animation, and it also coincidentally stars a koala. I remember Noozles’ and the girl’s noses touching 10 seconds into that intro video and the koala mask that she wears at the 42 second mark.
I also remember not liking this show so much, often reaching for the remote control when this came on. I didn’t have nearly as much admiration for Noozles and his inter-dimensional journeys as I did for Maya the Bee.
Sadly, I don’t remember any of the other shows Saban threw onto Nick Jr. Maybe I watched them, maybe I didn’t, but they aired the same time I watched the above shows. The most interesting looking is Belle & Sebastian, not the Scottish indie pop band but the dubbed version of the animé Meiken Jorī from Toho. It’s more of a show that I can appreciate retrospectively now that I have a bit better understanding of entertainment history than I did when I was five.
Far and away one of the most influential animes of the 1970s was Heidi, Girl of the Alps (Arupusu no Shōjo Haiji) created by Studio Ghibli directors Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. The show took off in a big way Japan, capturing the hearts of both boys and girls and becoming a sentimental favorite to this very day. A result of this success was the Japanese animation industry putting a lot of stock into the French and Swiss Alps as venerable settings for their shows, and Meiken Jorī was a by-product of that boom.
Again, I knew nothing about this in 1991, which is why this one is better appreciated retrospectively. I don’t think this one shaped my tastes very much, but mountains are another symbol of both Japan and animé that I am a fan of. Japanese mountains look very different from the Alps though.
Two more Nick Jr. animé that I can’t remember for the life of me are The Adventures of the Little Prince (Hoshi no Ōjisama Puchi Puransu) from Knack Productions, and Maple Town (Meipuru Taun Monogatari) by Toei Animaion. The Adventures of the Little Prince stars a boy who takes off into outer-space. This one is a bit interesting because it has a classic Tezuka Osamu or Cyborg 009 look to its facial style, but not nearly as refined or attractive.
Maple Town on the other hand is an anthropomorphic cartoon obviously more inspired by Western cartoons than Japan’s own catalog. No better way to describe this than to call it Toei’s unsuccessful knockoff of Sylvanian Families, released one year earlier in Japan, and the studio desperately tried to syndicate it somewhere. I’d categorized this one more as creepy rather than fun like Adventures of the Little Koala.
The shooting star in its intro video though rings a few bells, but not so many memories of this one exist in my noggin. Maybe I’m all the better for that.
The last of the bunch is Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics (Gurimu Meisaku Gekijō) from Nippon Animation, animé retellings of older fairy and folk tales. Unlike the previous two, I really dig the intro video for this one, and I maybe even remember seeing that girl soaring through the air. The show first aired on Nick Jr. in 1992, meaning I was six or seven at the time and maybe breaking from my shell to move beyond Nick Jr.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men, and Bucky O’Hare had entered my life at this point, replacing children’s shows as my main source of television entertainment. More importantly, Japan would further stealthily sabotage my healthy American upbringing a year later when Saban released Power Rangers in 1993.
Nick Jr. would eventually move away from animé into original programming like the detestable Gullah Gullah Island, but without question, most of the block’s early magic and attractiveness were products of Japan. At the time, they were just cartoons to me, and I was ignorant to the whole Japanese side of things. Retrospectively though, this was me and millions of kids across America witnessing localization and distribution companies spread the good word a full ten years before animé went mainstream on Best Buy shelves.
I hadn’t mentioned it up until this point yet, but do you notice how few Japanese names are turning up in these credits? Yeah, not so many. American entertainment companies did a good job covering up the origins of these cartoons from our parents.
Little did they know we would learn the truth within five years.
Can I remember any other specific early animé memories from before the age of five? Maya the Bee is far and away the defining animé of my childhood, but there is one more that scarred me quite a bit as well beyond the Nick Jr. time slots.
I do remember making the animé connection between Maya the Bee and The Little Mermaid (Anderusen Dōwa Ningyo Hime) from Toei Animation, released as a VHS in the wake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid in America. This was a kind of early predecessor to The Asylum, except whatever company distributed this turned to animé instead of crappy blockbuster rip-offs. Not a bad trade off.
It was for my sister, but it turned out to be me who watched this a lot. The studio who animated this is the same that did Sailor Moon if you can’t tell.
This version of The Little Mermaid follows more closely along the lines of the original Hans Christian Anderson book. The mermaid, named Marina in the dub, is a little creepy due to her excessive blonde hair, intense blue eyes, and the fact that she never wears a top. Magic must be the reason her hair always covers everything. However, it was her dolphin friend Fritz and the evil witch which were, to me, the most obvious examples of “Japanimation.”
When I mean this sticks closely to the original Hans Christian Anderson story, I mean it does so to the very bitter end when the mermaid dies! The prince marries another girl, her sisters and best friend convince her to murder him so she can become a mermaid again, she can’t do it, and she dies, becoming sea foam in the process!
What a heartbreak for a five-year-old kid! Just the first of many examples of how Hans Christian Anderson traumatized my childhood.
One more brief mention of Japan coming into my life far earlier that I consciously recall. Not an animé but still relevant. I found out many years after the fact that a childhood favorite of mine called Milo & Otis was actually a Japanese film called Koneko Monogatari, directed by world-renowned zoologist Masanori Hata. My mind was blown at this fact, and to further give you an idea of how ridiculous this is, the pug my family adopted because this movie already had a Japanese name when we picked her up … Yoshi.
I mean … come on, coincidence! Really?
So in conclusion, Nick Jr. It was all Nick Jr. While I might not be in love with animé anymore, Nintendo was not alone in setting me on this Japanese path I have chosen for myself. Syndication from a children’s television network that was desperate for content chucked whatever cheap animé it could get its hands on and plunged into my developing imagination.
Because of that, a bumble bee and Hans Christian Anderson helped turn me into a nerd. The perfect timing, the perfect seed. How about yourself? Any pre-“turn of the century animé boom” memories from your childhood that I might have missed? Did you watch Ninja Scroll at a sleepover like me and be traumatized for life?