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A look at "The Four Revolutions of Anime"

By: Lawrence Eng (10/20/04)
[thanks to Eddie Chen and James Kao for their comments and proofreading]

The Four Revolutions of Anime

Anime has been around for a long time. The first full-length anime film, Momotaro, The Holy Soldier of the Sea, debuted in 1945. The first television anime series (with an ongoing story) was Tetsuwan Atom, debuting in 1963. There have been countless titles released since then, and many fans these days barely have enough time to follow anything but the most recent and popular shows. For the otaku interested in the history of anime, however, he or she will inevitably ask "What are the most important anime of all time?"

That question has been tackled before. According to the Chronological list of Television Anime1, anime critics declared that the following titles constituted the "The Four Revolutions of Anime": Space Battleship Yamato, Mobile Suit Gundam, The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, and Neon Genesis Evangelion.

These are interesting choices, and whether or not they are good choices makes for great dinnertime debate (amongst anime otaku, anyway).

Except for anime director and president of Artland, Noburo Ishiguro, I don't know who the critics were who decided which titles should be considered "The Four Revolutions of Anime". Furthermore, I don't know when and where Ishiguro chimed in on the matter (if you know, please let me know). Nonetheless, knowing only the critics' basic criteria, I agree with their choices. In the following article, I will explain why. For some readers, this may also serve as a useful introduction to the history of anime.


According to the site mentioned above, "These four titles were pioneers in their genres and influenced the conception of anime till nowadays. And besides their originality and artistic merit, these series also had a great commercial success"2. Therefore, we can boil down the criteria into: innovation, inspiration, and success.

Shows can be innovative without inspiring other artists or earning much money.
Shows can be artistically inspiring without being very successful monetarily.
And certainly, shows can be monetarily successful without being innovative or artistically inspiring.

Shows that are all three--innovative, inspirational, and successful--are not common. Most anime fans, however, can easily choose more than four titles that meet all three criteria, but if the choice is limited to four, then the task becomes much more difficult. While the critics' choice of "The Four Revolutions of Anime" is certainly subjective, I feel that their picks (following the three criteria) are reasonable and fairly well-justified for the reasons I will discuss below.

Since these anime are already so well-known, I won't be summarizing their plots. Instead, taking an historical perspective, I will focus on the aspects of each show that make them worthy of being called "revolutionary".


1. Space Battleship Yamato
Yamato on Animage cover

Like another famous 1977 movie set in space, the Yamato movie was hugely popular in a way that was never seen before. The unprecedented depth of Yamato's universe, its mature storytelling, its emotionally dynamic characters, and its science fiction appeal captured the imagination of older fans, and it is these fans who constituted the first organized anime fandom. Yamato debuted on Japanese television in 1974, but most of the stories about its importance that I've read point to the 1977 movie release. The movie, which was a heavily condensed compilation of the TV episodes, introduced many new fans to Yamato, and was so unexpectedly and wildy popular, that fans organized in a push to convince the makers of the film to create a sequel. Observers claim that this was the true beginning of the anime fan youth subculture (consisting mostly of late teens). It's no coincidence that the first issue of Animage magazine debuted in July of 1978 with the Yamato on its cover (the second Yamato movie was indeed made, and debuted in 1978).

In 1978, there was a new audience for anime and anime commentary/news, a new community with a collective voice and collective buying power. With Yamato, the gap between anime and science fiction in Japan narrowed significantly. The success of Yamato paved the way for other serious anime shows (often set in space, following Yamato's example), the most obvious example being Mobile Suit Gundam.

2. Mobile Suit Gundam

Mobile Suit Gundam, debuting in 1979, is perhaps the most celebrated franchise in the history of Japanese animation. 25 years on, it has spawned numerous TV series, OAVs, movies, video games, etc. The latest Gundam TV series, Gundam Seed, is not only a hit amongst Japanese youth, but American youth as well, ever since it debuted on Cartoon Network. The fact that Gundam is still going strong could be enough to warrant its inclusion on the list, but it's important for us not to gloss over what made the original Gundam series so special.

Giant robot shows were certainly not rare on late 70's Japanese television, but giant robot realism was. The popular robots at the time were almost magical in their abilities. Gundam, on the other hand, sought to be science fiction more than fantasy. The Gundam robots obeyed the everyday laws of physics (with some sci-fi extrapolation, of course) and were definitely mechanical (as opposed to magical) in nature. They were powered by nuclear reactors, could be damaged, needed maintenance, etc. Unrealistic transformation sequences were mostly avoided; only a few marginalized Gundam series featured transforming robots. Gundam heralded the age of realistic "mecha". Science fiction fans will undoubtedly notice the influence of Robert Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" and/or E.E. Doc Smith's "Lensman" series on the Gundam mecha concept. Furthermore, the space colony concept explored in Gundam comes directly from the ideas of scientist Gerard O'Neill and his book "The High Frontier" (1976). These concepts were combined with a serious science fiction story, and the anime subculture (newly baptized by Yamato and eager for sophistication in their anime) ate it up. Initial television ratings were poor, but Gundam was immensely popular in syndication.

Gundam model

Part of Gundam's success can be attributed directly to the popularity of its merchandise, most notably, the plastic models of the various mecha. Unlike the die-cast toys for kids which only vaguely looked like the mecha, the plastic models were accurately detailed scale representations of the mecha as they appeared in the anime. Assembling and painting the models so that they looked decent took considerable time and skill, and anime model makers would form their own subculture within the larger subculture of anime fandom. Needless to say, the success and popularity of the models only increased the success of the Gundam franchise as a whole.

Gundam was also a major influence on young animators-to-be. The generation of anime fans who watched Yamato and Gundam on TV as teenagers has been called the Otaku Generation by people such as Toshio Okada (an anime scholar, otaku expert, and the first president of Gainax). Some members of the Otaku Generation would eventually create their own famous animation works, inspired by the titles of their youth. Hideaki Anno, the director of Evangelion, was strongly influenced by Yamato, which he watched when he was 14 years old. In a lecture at Fanime Con 2000, Hiroyuki Yamaga, director of The Royal Space Force - Wings of Honneamise and the current president of Gainax, explained how Gundam was deeply influential on him and others in his generation of anime creators. Yamaga said that the directorial work of Yoshiyuki Tomino on Gundam opened their eyes to the myriad possibilities of storytelling in the medium of television anime.

3. The Super Dimension Fortress Macross

The 70's came to a close and the 80's began. Japanese audiences would not have to wait long before the Otaku Generation produced its first major hit. Debuting in 1982, The Super Dimension Fortress Macross was that anime. While there were a number of industry veterans on the Macross production staff, it was the younger staff members who were the creative geniuses behind the show. Shouji Kawamori, the show's creator, was first inspired to become an animator after seeing the first Yamato movie. After contacting the design company, Kawamori was offered a designing job on the second Yamato movie. He was only a freshman at Keio University at the time, studying engineering (his goal was to get into aeronautical engineering). By the time Kawamori was a sophomore in college, he had already worked on several anime projects before Studio Nue finally approved his Macross idea. Kawamori worked on Macross all throughout college before he eventually dropped out to work on anime full-time. Kawamori recruited Haruhiko Mikimoto, a long-time school friend who was also a student at Keio, to provide the character designs for Macross. Mikimoto's characters were pleasing to the eye and had an iconic quality to them, none moreso than Lynn Minmay, the pop-singing sensation whose songs and personality took the Macross universe (and anime fans) by storm.

Macross was quite easily the defining television anime of the early 80's, and its 1984 theatrical version was a phenomenon in its own right. Several features of the show are worth mentioning. First off, even though it came on the tails of Gundam and featured a science fiction war story, Macross was never intended be a serious war drama. It was different in a lot of ways. For example, the main character was not the best pilot; his subordinate was, and he (the subordinate) ended up marrying the best pilot on the alien side. The aliens were vastly more powerful than the humans, except that they couldn't stand to see males and females in close contact, and were utterly paralyzed by the power of Minmay's singing. The war story often took a backseat to the equally dramatic (and often humorous) love triangle the main characters were embroiled in. At times, Macross could be incredibly moving, and at other times it was distinctly wacky. It turned out to be a winning combination, and like Gundam, Macross is a franchise that continues to endure (even though Macross anime are fewer in number overall).


In addition to providing most of the show's basic concepts, Kawamori is most famous for the mechanical designs he contributed to Macross, especially the legendary Valkyrie mecha. Undoubtedly drawing from his engineering expertise, the Valkyrie was a masterpiece. Its exquisite transformation was novel in its realism. The Valkyrie was a sleek fighter plane that transformed into a robot, but also a fighter plane/robot hybid called the GERWALK (Ground Effective Reinforcement of Winged Armament with Locomotive Knee-joint). The Valkyrie toy transformed like it did in the anime, without any strange disconnected elements flying around, or other blatant impossibilities. Realistic mecha transformation became all the rage, and the Valkyrie is one of the most recognizable and popular mecha ever.

Macross would serve as the professional training ground for other young animators as well, including Hiroyuki Yamaga and Hideaki Anno--two of the founding members of Gainax. Kawamori himself has remained an active member of the anime industry. In addition to Macross, he helped create two of the most successful anime of the late 90's: The Vision of Escaflowne and Cowboy Bebop.

With Macross, new young talent began making their mark on the anime industry. This was the first generation of anime creators who grew up watching anime, and that led to a certain sophistication and self-referential glee that is evident in many 80's titles. After Macross, the stage was set for further experimentation, as well as artistic and commercial success.

4. Neon Genesis Evangelion

Of the four titles discussed here, Evangelion is probably the most difficult one for me to write about, since so much has been written about it already. After countless reviews, interpretations, ramblings, essays, and even academic analyses, what more can be said? I guess I'll find out. In this article, I will explain why I think Eva was so popular.

What do we mean when we say it was "popular"? Simply put, Evangelion was an international sensation. In a time when the anime industry was said to be in a slump (especially when it came to TV anime), Eva caught the attention of the public eye in a way that, arguably, no TV anime ever had before. Evangelion became a household word in Japan. In a mainstream Japanese culture that views anime as mostly lowbrow entertainment primarily intended for children, Evangelion transcended preconceptions and stereotypes and drew in viewers who normally wouldn't watch anime on television. And if they didn't watch it, most people at least heard of it. According to author Carl Horn, 10 million people in Japan tuned in for Eva's final episode, and the theatrical movies made $28 million, and then there's the insane amount of merchandise made for the show3. Evangelion has been incredibly popular stateside, as well. It would be the defining anime for a whole new generation of fans.

Eva is a product of the creative mind of Hideaki Anno. Ever since his youth, Anno was an otaku as much as anyone could be, deeply immersed in the worlds of science fiction, anime, and special effects. It should come as no surprise that, in college, Anno would associate with others who shared his interests. Anno and his friends would eventually found Gainax in late 1984.

Nobody exemplified the Otaku Generation better than Gainax. After all, the 1991 anime Otaku no Video, Gainax's thinly-disguised comedic portrayal of its own origins, was subtitled "Graffiti of Otaku Generation". From the beginning, Gainax was no ordinary studio. They started as college students making amateur anime videos and crude science fiction films. Some of them had a little experience working in the anime industry part-time. Even though they were amateurs, their passion and talent was impressive enough that Bandai gave them the money to create The Royal Space Force - Wings of Honneamise, which in 1987 was the most expensive anime film ever made. Although Honneamise did not fare well at the box-office, critics internationally have called it a true masterpiece, expanding the boundaries of what animation as a medium is capable of. The members of Gainax hadn't planned to make anime after Honneamise, but they eventualy did so for a number of reasons (paying off debts incurred from the making of Honneamise being one of them). Their follow-up works were both financially successful and fan favorites. Aim for the Top! Gunbuster was one of the top selling OAVs of all time, and Nadia of the Mysterious Seas was a very popular television series. Gainax's defining moment, however, came with the 1995 release of Neon Genesis Evangelion.


Even though Anno directed both Gunbuster and Nadia, those two stories were not originally his own. Evangelion, however, was very much Anno's personal story. Evangelion was a unified vision of a man who had a wealth of otaku information to draw from. As such, the anime resonated with fans in an unprecedented manner. While watching Eva, the fans saw elements of themselves (their hopes, fears, dreams, and fantasies) portrayed so honestly, and that was made possible because Anno was so much like them in so many ways. Gainax has long had an attitude of "If I were a 14 year old boy, what would I want to see in my anime?" Anno answered that question perfectly, and Evangelion contained the usual combination of giant robots, science fiction, action, teenage protagonists, a cute mascot, a catchy logo/slogan, and a healthy dose of sex appeal. The teaser at the end of each episode promised more fan "service" to the viewers, stuff that Anno knew viewers wanted to see--such as epic robot/monster action and its sexy main characters in revealing clothes/poses. But these are all fairly standard ingredients for your run-of-the-mill giant robot anime. What made Evangelion different and compelling? The simple answer is that it was just done so well. What that actually means, however, is a different story.

If there is such a thing as a postmodern aesthetic, one that is characterized by pastiche (cut and paste sampling of disparate elements) and self-aware irony, Anno mastered its use in Evangelion. Fans had come to expect a certain mix of elements in their anime, and Anno delivered, even more than anyone could have expected. In addition to putting familiar elements together in a way that fans (himself included) subconciously wanted and identified with, Anno went out of the box and brought in things you almost never see in mecha anime. Perhaps it's not so surprising that Anno drew inspriation from the worlds of non-anime science fiction and special effects shows (such as Ultraman), but fewer people know that Anno is also a big fan of American Westerns and Tex Avery cartoons4. More directly shocking, however, was Anno's (oft-commented-upon) use of religious imagery, and how the second half of Evangelion became increasingly dark, violent, and introspective--a psychological baring-of-the-soul drama as weighty as anything that's been seen in anime. Combined with an incredibly detailed, multi-layered plot as intricate as the most convoluted conspiracy novel, Evangelion provided a lot for otaku--trained to uncover, process, and decipher meaning out of information that would seem random to non-otaku observers--to sink their teeth into. It was all topped off with strong eschatological themes, eminently appropriate for a late 90's anime [Anno acknowleges Yoshiyuki Tomino's Ideon, another eschatological anime, as being a major influence on Evangelion]. Anno, a genius animator who has always sought to develop new expessive techniques, put it all together with brilliant direction characterized by a sublime sparseness and use of rhythm that will keep otaku (and film students) talking for many years to come.


Ironically, the most popular anime of the 90's would stir up the most controversy as well. The final two episodes, especially, proved to be unpalatable to many fans. Not only was it visually bizarre and jarring, it offered no clear answers to the show's innumerable mysteries, no clear conclusion to the storyline that had been set up, and no sense of closure for most of the characters. If there was any closure at all, it belonged to Shinji, and therefore Anno--since Anno himself was such a big part of Shinji. For many loyal fans of Evangelion, this was a betrayal on Anno's part. As the series progressed, the depression that Anno had been dealing with since completing Nadia became more and more an integral part of the story. Some claim he was even suicidal by the time the series had ended5. What began as fan service turned into a deeply personal look at the director's wounded psyche, and perhaps a bitter message to anime fans and the anime industry that they needed to shake things up and find their way out of the shallow and artificial worlds they were so invested in. Whether or not viewers agreed with the content of Anno's message, many fans were angry about its placement. When Anno's emotional introspections finally overshadowed the rest of Evangelion's narrative, they could no longer be so easily tolerated by the fans.

For the most part, Anno remained defiantly unrepentant. In a conciliatory gesture, perhaps, Anno and his associates created the Evangelion movies as an alternate ending to the series, showing what happened to the characters. These movies, however, might be viewed as Anno's final revenge, since he violently killed off almost every character and included hightly surreal scenes that left viewers more confused than ever. Most anime fans, however, were able to forgive Anno's eccentricities, separating in their own minds what they loved about the show and the parts that they hated. Some fans even welcomed Anno's approach, reveling in his refusal to cater to the lowest common denominator, taking pleasure in the show's inability to be easily digested. Despite the controversy, and/or because of it, Evangelion is still popular, as evidenced by all the Eva-related merchandise still being produced and sold.

Evangelion's impact on the anime industry cannot be overstated. The success of Evangelion convinced anime producers that there was a market for intellectually-challenging, darker, and more adult-themed anime (especially on television). Late night television anime such as Cowboy Bebop (1998) and serial experiments lain (1998) are two notable examples that proved to be highly successful. But beyond the increase in more mature anime, the years following Eva were an anime boom in general, with the anime industry catering to all the new fans that Eva brought into the fold.

Gainax has continued to produce popular anime, such as His and Her Circumstances (1998), FLCL (2000), and Mahoromatic (2001). Hideaki Anno, in addition to directing much of His and Her Circumstances and being the planner for Modern Love's Silliness (1999), went on to create the live-action movies Love and Pop (1998), Shiki-Jitsu (2000), and Cutie Honey (2004). In 2004, he returned to anime with Gainax's Re: Cutie Honey.


Readers have probably noticed that the descriptions for each anime got longer and longer. That is not just because I know more about the later titles (even though that is true). The more important reason, I suspect, has to do with anime's progress as an artform--each title building and seeking to improve upon what has come before. Of course, some titles are less "revolutionary" and maybe even backwards moving in terms of their artistic contribution, but the best examples of the medium have fully utilized the benefits of having a rich history behind them. The fountain of knowledge from which anime creators drink grows larger and larger. As we move into the future, we can be sure we'll have even more to say about the next great revolutionary anime.

Further Discussion Regarding Titles Not Included on the List

Some readers may be wondering why science fiction anime dominate the list. Other readers may be wondering why anime movies (not based on TV shows) are absent, as well. I will address those concerns here.

While anime of all genres have been very popular, science fiction anime in particular have a special place in the history of the medium. The link between science fiction and anime is particulary important to the history of anime fandom. Science fiction fandoms, in both Japan and the United States, have always been bigger and more organized than fandoms of other genres, such as romantic comedies or horror. Before anime fandom emerged in Japan after the release of the first Yamato movie, there was already an established infrastructure of science fiction fans. With Yamato's release, anime fandom instantly became a part of the much larger science fiction fandom, and over time, anime fandom would eventually become its own independent subculture, encompassing multiple genres. Given this historical detail, we can speculate that most of the Otaku Generation (who were teenagers in the 70's) were science fiction fans, and they were the ones who (with their dedication and buying power) elevated Yamato, Gundam, and Macross to incredible heights in the late 70's and early 80's. Of course, by 1995, anime fandom had expanded well beyond its science fiction origins, so perhaps a non-science fiction anime could have made the list, but the overwhelming success of Evangelion makes it a moot point.

To explain the lack of theatrical films on the list, I would suggest that most commercially successful anime films do not easily satisfy the criteria of being innovative and inspirational/influential. With regards to innovation, Japan's contribution to the artform of animation can most readily be seen in television anime. The style of animation for Japanese television--characterized by the economical use of cels and motion--was initially pioneered by Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Productions, which released Tetsuwan Atom in 1963. Tezuka, considered the "God of Manga", applied the lessons learned in manga creation to the art of animation, making television anime a truly unique artform. Even with the addition of new techniques over time, Tezuka's style (or philosophy) of animation is still the dominant paradigm in the world of television anime production.

Mainstream anime films, on the other hand, can be traced back to a tradition started by Toei Douga, a Japanese film company whose goal was to emulate the style and success of the early Disney animated films, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Because of Toei Douga's intent, it becomes problematic to say that the early anime films and their descendants were truly innovative. Their approach to animation, like the Disney feature films, eschewed the expressionistic shortcuts used so liberally in television anime, and favored a more literal visual style, featuring lavish backgrounds and fluid movement. Hayao Miyazaki (of much acclaimed Studio Ghibli) came from the Toei Douga tradition, and one could argue that his popular films are stylistically more related to Disney animated films than, say, the television anime created by Gainax. Disney, after all, has acquired the international distribution rights to most of Miyazaki's films, but they've stayed away from television anime. Ironically, Miyazaki has never been shy about his dislike of Disney, but the influence of that company's work on his career cannot be denied.

To be fair, it should be noted that Tezuka, too, was influenced and inspired by the early Disney cartoons, as well as the work of the Fleischer brothers. The look of Tezuka's cute animal characters are said to have been inspired by the pre-war Disney cartoon shorts, and Tezuka's big-eyed human characters resemble those drawn by the Fleischer studio (which created such characters as Popeye and Betty Boop). Even though some of Tezuka's character designs were inspired by the work of American artists, Tezuka's animation style is uniquely his own. It was a style born of the constraints of television, utilizing manga-inspired techniques to show as much information as possible using a very limited number of cels. Tezuka's Mushi Productions would go on to produce some anime films, as well, and Toei Douga would eventually produce TV anime in addition to films, but it seems fair to say that Mushi set the basic standard for TV anime, and Toei set the basic standard for mainstream anime films.

Hiroyuki Yamaga at Fanime Con 2000 explained the longstanding rivalry between the Toei Douga and Mushi traditions, which abated somewhat with the rise of the Otaku Generation (since they grew up watching anime from both traditions). Miyazaki, however, has always pitted himself against the Mushi tradition, criticizing television anime and Tezuka for having created bad shows and ruining the anime industry6. Miyazaki does not even consider himself an anime creator, but prefers to be known as a filmmaker. Despite Miyazaki's commercial success and the sheer wonder of all his films, I hesitate to say that his works have introduced significant innovations to either Japanese animation or animation in general. Is Mononoke Hime really more significant than Nausicaa? Is Spirited Away any more of a masterpiece than Totoro? Were Miyazaki's early films a huge departure from other Toei-style works? To answer these questions, I would compliment Miyazaki by saying that he is consistently great (in the established tradition of family-oriented animated films) moreso than innovative.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to say that there are no innovative anime films, even if most of them are in the Toei Douga tradition. The reason they didn't make the list is because they were either not that widely influential or were not great commercial successes. Some examples might include: Horus: Prince of the Sun, Wings of Honneamise, Angel's Egg, and other anime "art films".

The films of Isao Takahata, Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli partner, are more difficult to analyze. They include: Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, and My Neighbors the Yamadas. These films were modestly successful and quite innovative in both their storytelling approach and intent, but perhaps they weren't highly influential. Even when Ghibli films do something new, it's hard for those techniques to make their way into the rest of the anime industry. Studio Ghibli is very much like the Disney of Japan. Like Disney, few companies have the resources to pull off what Ghibli can.

It is worth mentioning that Hideaki Anno has called Hayao Miyazaki one of his teachers in animation and filmmaking. A 20-something Anno worked for Miyazaki as a key animator on the production of Nausicaa. Interestingly, even though Anno cites Miyazaki as a major influence, he is simultaneously critical of his films7. It seems that Anno was influenced more by Miyazaki's craftsmanship and work ethic than his style and story content.

On a final note: If I could include a single anime film on the list, I would probably choose Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo. Even though it was widely criticized for its confusing story, Akira was innovative in a number of ways, was a commercial success internationally, and quite possibly inspired directors to create serious adult-themed anime films in the 90's and beyond. Satoshi Kon, who created Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress, and Tokyo Godfathers, is one such anime creator directly inspired by Otomo. His films have been commercially and critically successful, but they are too new to be considered widely influential.


1. http://espanol.geocities.com/gapc/animetv-jp/index_e.html
2. http://espanol.geocities.com/gapc/animetv-jp/about.html
3. Horn, Carl Gustav. 1999. "As you are, as you were, as I want you to be" in japan edge: The Insider's Guide to Japanese Pop Subculture. Canada: Cadence Books.
4. According to a 1991 Animage interview, Anno's 9th favorite show is Tom and Jerry: http://home.comcast.net/~hasshin/shimamoto.html
5. http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/4081/file425.html#3
6. http://www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/miyazaki/101.html#influence
7. http://keyframe.cjas.org/~mneideng/trans/misc/annoghib.txt. The other teacher that Anno mentions is Ichirou Itano, who worked on Macross. The animation style of the swarming missiles in Macross is his trademark, which is why it's called "Itano Circus".

Last updated on December 8th, 2004
Lawrence Eng