Otaku USA Magazine
2011 is 1981: The year in TV anime

Those obnoxious aliens! The cast of Urusei Yatsura

Don’t act surprised. You knew it in your heart of hearts it would happen. The calendar on the wall may claim that the year is 2011, but the truth is much, much stranger.

Arale-chan from Dr. Slump.
Can we blame moe on this, too?

It’s actually 1981. But don’t panic! Otaku USA will spend the next 12 months investigating this temporal time-slip by taking a look back at the anime, manga, and pop culture that was then—and even now—setting Japan (and Japanese fanatics) aflame.

But first, we need a starting point; a map of where to go. And luckily, I have such a thing in the form of a book called “The Art of Japanese Animation I: 25 Years of Television Cartoons”. Published by Animage magazine, this here book presents detailed information on some 668 anime shows that graced the airwaves from 1963 to 1988, which is when this helpful tome originally came out. 

Every single TV anime is presented with information on original airdates, network info, a brief plot description, and full cast and crew info. Although time has since marched on and any number of databases can be found on-line, this book (along with its sister publication on theatrical films) remains a staple of the Otaku USA anime archives and is crucial in navigating the road from “then” to “now”.

So what can we glean from the book’s chapter on 1981? Well, it was still the salad days of the anime boom of the eighties, which was only growing in size. 1980 saw 40 new anime series and specials debuting on television. 1981 beat it with 44. 

Do we even have to tell you
this is Golion, AKA Voltron?

Major innovations arrived in the form of two SF-comedy shows, still fondly remembered and influential today: Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura and Akira Toriyama’s Dr. Slump. These two manga adaptations proved successful with mainstream audiences and catered to burgeoning otaku tastes with cute girls and lots of geeky in-jokes. Although debuting three decades ago, the characters from these shows, such as Urusei’s bikini-clad Lum and Slum’s robot girl Arale-chan, have proven remarkably durable.

Meanwhile, another mechanical character would also debut in 1981, one who was destined to make a bigger splash outside of Japan than in his home country. March saw the Japanese TV debut of Beast King GoLion, better known to millions simply as Voltron. A few months later in July, another neo-super robot show GoShogun would air, fated to come to the USA as Macron 1

Meanwhile, the “real robot” genre, where super powers and “robeast of the week” yarns took a back seat to realism and complicated storylines, was still developing. Mobile Suit Gundam, which kicked off this revolution within anime circles, was off the air and about to graduate to feature films.

The Fang of the Sun Dougram crew
wants to sell you some merchandise.

Sunrise Animation gathered together some ex-Gundam staff members, including mecha designer Kunio Okawara, and sallied forth with Fangs of the Sun Dougram. Although not the success it was meant to be, Dougram would become a cult favorite of sorts, largely on the basis of the “real robot” toys and model kits sold alongside it. 

Although anime has only existed as a genre on TV for a little less than 20 years, a wave of remakes and sequels had already set in by ‘81. Tatsunoko’s Time Bokan comedy series got a new entry with the now-forgotten Yattodetaman. Tiger Mask the Second revived the popular ‘60s pro-wrestler. And Manga Mito-komon brought the well-known live-action period drama into the realm of animated tie-ups.

There was also a handful of oddball TV specials and short-lived series that really don’t fit into any category, such as Toei’s Frankenstein anime, inspired by the ‘70s Marvel Comic and created as a follow-up to the now-legendary, laughable Dracula, Sovereign of the Damned. Years before Sherlock Hound, Nippon TV played their hand with an all-dog adaptation of The Three Musketeers. And there was We Are Manga Artists: The Tokiwa Apartment Story, an animated version of Shotaro Ishinomori’s memories of living and learning the ropes of the biz alongside Osamu Tezuka and Fujio-Fujiko.

Every kid needs a friend, even if it’s
only a cigarette lighter ala Gold Lightan.

But the sweepstakes for the wackiest, mind-bending TV anime of ’81 must end in a tie. On one hand, you have the debut of Tatsunoko Pro’s Animated Parent and Child Theatre AKA Superbook; a series of time-traveling bible stories featuring a robot whose Sodom and Gomorrah episode was actually titled “Hot Dog” when aired in the USA. And then there was Golden Warrior Gold Lightan, the heartwarming tale of a boy and his mechanical buddy who transformed into a cigarette lighter, complete with toys and model kits thereof! How do you think such a crackerjack idea would go over today?

Oh, and Leiji Matsumoto’s Queen of a Thousand Years also debuted on TV in 1981. But more about that later…

Patrick Macias is the editor in chief of Otaku USA magazine. His blog can be found online at   www.patrickmacias.blogs.com