In the 1980s, American and Japanese animation were both going through a lot of changes. While both genres were becoming more mature, they were also becoming more distinctly different from one another, with the Japanese industry developing faster, embracing new technologies and pushing for more realism.
By comparison, American animation was stuck in its old ways for a while longer, with the focus being on cheap TV shows made fast and cheap to sell toys. It wasn’t until the late 80s when the animation industry in America finally started to pick up again. This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the anime that came out in the 1980s, but here are some of the most influential ones.
Akira is a cyberpunk movie following a group of youths who accidentally release a dangerous psychic power that threatens to destroy Tokyo. Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira is one of the most influential anime movies ever made, influencing countless sci-fi and cyberpunk stories since its release. It’s also one of the most expensive anime movies ever made, with a budget of 3.8 million USD and an estimated 5.4 million USD when adjusted for inflation.
Akira has had a lasting influence on the entire animation industry. It was the first anime to be widely released in America, and its success here opened up the market for more anime to be imported from Japan. It also led to animated TV shows in America like The Simpsons, The Critic, and many others (the movie was even used as inspiration for one episode of Futurama).
Akira was the first anime to be targeted at adults and kids alike, combining violent sci-fi with more mature themes like sex and drugs. Naturally, it’s one of the most popular anime movies of all time too, though it’s also one of the most divisive; many viewers consider it overrated while others consider it a classic that changed their lives.
Castle in the Sky (1986)
This one’s a bit of a cheat, as Castle in the Sky is an adaptation of a movie that came out in 1954. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is one of the most influential anime movies ever made. It was directed by Hayao Miyazaki, who would go on to direct many beloved titles in his career including My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.
This movie is also one of Miyazaki’s earlier works; it was released before Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), which means it was part of his transition between making darker, more serious stories to focusing more on lighter, whimsical tales.
Like many Studio Ghibli films, Castle in the Sky has a strong environmental message; it follows Sheeta and Pazu as they search for Laputa, an ancient flying city that holds secrets that could save their world from destruction. Both Sheeta and Pazu are kindhearted protagonists who are not only motivated by self-interest but also by their desire to do good for others. This makes them much easier heroes to get behind than many other characters from this era. The movie has some beautiful animation, a fun story, and a great soundtrack to boot.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
My Neighbor Totoro is one of the most beloved anime movies of all time. Like Castle in the Sky, it was directed by Hayao Miyazaki, but it was also produced by Studio Ghibli. It tells the story of two girls who move into a rural country home with their father while their mother recovers from an illness in a nearby hospital.
While exploring the house and its surroundings, they discover that there are many otherworldly creatures living in the woods and meadows. But these creatures aren’t out to hurt anyone; they just want to befriend the girls and become their friends.
My Neighbor Totoro is a lot lighter than many other Studio Ghibli movies, which is why so many people tend to enjoy it more. It’s aimed at younger audiences but even older viewers tend to find it cute without being too saccharine sweet (at least for Studio Ghibli standards). There are still some darker elements here though.
The movie deals with illness and death when Satsuki’s mother passes away near the end of the film, but it does so sensitively and in a way that doesn’t cheapen or trivialize those themes. The animation is beautiful and the story is touching and memorable. It’s the kind of movie that you can watch over and over again, and it’s also one of the most influential anime movies of all time.
Appleseed is a cyberpunk movie that’s set in a dystopian future ruled by an oppressive government. It follows Deunan Knute, a highly trained soldier who’s part of an elite police force called Section 9. She has many super abilities thanks to her cyborg body, which she uses to help bring down criminals and terrorists who threaten the stability of her society. The movie was directed by Shinji Aramaki and produced by Masamune Shirow, both of whom would go on to become big names in the animation industry.
The movie was later adapted into an anime series that debuted in 2006. The show only lasted for 13 episodes before it was canceled because of low ratings, but the show has since gained a dedicated fan following that still hopes it will be revived one day.
The movie itself is just as popular as its TV series counterpart; Appleseed is one of those movies that people tend to either love or hate, with most people falling into the former category. Like Akira, this is another cyberpunk film that borrows from Blade Runner (1982), but with more focus on action and less on character development.